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Monday, December 27, 2010

Arkansas Christmas Miscellany

Merry Christmas to you all just a little bit late. I hope you’ll forgive my tardiness.

Darling girl and I spent Christmas in Hot Springs with my parents. It’s the second time we’ve made the trip, although it was complicated a bit this year by the awkward (for us) placement of the holidays. The trip home was done in one, long fifteen hour drive yesterday so I wouldn’t miss any work after we decided that it wouldn’t make much sense to leave late on Christmas to start the drive home. It wouldn’t have been fair to my parents since they only see me once every few years.

This is a series of notes about the trip.

Firstly, Hot Springs is a fun little town. It reminds me of Colorado’s own Manitou Springs only, perhaps, a little bit nicer.

We stayed at the Embassy Suites and it was absolutely wonderful. I used to work at an Embassy Suites and have stayed at a few here and there across the country, but this really was one of the nicest I’ve seen. The rooms were great, the setting beautiful, and the staff was uniformly warm, friendly, and helpful. I had chosen the Embassy Suites because I needed a place with a desk, enough room, and high speed Internet access so I could work for the first few days that we were in town. I wasn’t much disappointed.

Not much but just a little. See, the hotel was wonderful, the free breakfast in the morning was perfect, the bar with some of my favorite vodkas didn’t hurt matters, but I did have an issue with the “high speed Internet” service. Two issues, really. The first is that most hotels (like the Hampton hotels that I normally choose) offer free high speed Internet, but the Embassy Suites charged for daily access. At the price of the room, I’m surprised that the service isn’t included in the deal. I won’t complain too loudly on that front, though: I made the reservations knowing I had to pay extra but decided that it would probably be worth it since I was also able to make spa reservations for my wife on premises, there was more than enough space for my needs, and it the location was good for us.

But, having chosen to pay for something that I normally get for free, I was surprised at the flaky, slow connection that I got. The service was slow, when I logged in daily it offered an extra paid upgrade for faster download speeds, and it dropped connections somewhat regularly. The work that i was doing required me to be sending 70+ meg files to a printer and I ended up missing a few soft deadlines. Luckily I was working with a friend (if you ever need a printer in Denver, Bob at RM Printing is the most reliable and hardest working man that I know in the business--I can’t recommend him enough) who was more patient with me than I deserved. I did end up getting the work done, but it was much harder than it should have been.

The kicker was that the wireless connection was so bad and so inconsistent that I ended up going old-school: wired connection to a data port in the wall. While my reliability went up, the speed didn’t see much improvement.

If the network service hadn’t been so flaky, it would have been the perfect place for the first half of our stay.

Secondly, I got my mom a Kindle for Christmas. I got her one because, largely, I couldn’t afford to get her an iPad but I knew that the Kindle would be something she would really love. That meant helping her with the set-up and showing her a bit how to use the thing.

I like the Kindle. It’s responsive, it works well, and it is really nicely priced--I think that my mom will love it.

I can’t love it, though. I can like it, but not only is it too limited in comparison to my iPad, but even on its own terms it has some design compromises that really bug me. For instance, the tiny keyboard is hideous. The sub-chiclet sized keys are ridiculous and I can’t understand why they didn’t have room for not only larger buttons but more buttons. Why doesn’t it have a set of number buttons? Why do I have to use an odd, on-screen pop-up for numbers and the alt-keyboard? I also, stupidly, mistook the “back” button for the “delete” button a number of times while I was setting up her account information--my fault, certainly, but it still bugged me.

Much of what I didn’t like about it came down to unfavorable comparison to the iPad, though. While it was responsive and it had a very nice screen, while it was light and very nicely sized, it didn’t have the same mix of size, convenience, and incredible breadth of capabilities of the iPad. I know it isn’t a fair comparison (the Kindle is built for reading and nothing more), but I couldn’t stop myself from making it. The same way that I judge netbooks negatively in comparison to my MacBook Pro, I can’t help but judge the Kindle a little negatively in comparison to my iPad.

This has lead me to wonder, though, that with an iPad in my life, do I really need my iPhone? I might actually downgrade to a phone when my current contract is up.

That also brings me to my thirdly, too: the iPad played a big part in this trip, too. Instead of using my dedicated GPS, I used MotionX-GPS Drive HD. It provided a larger screen with bigger maps and instruction, a great set of extra features (a few button clicks to find a list of the nearest coffee shops), voice directions, basic iPod controls, and the option to pre-cache all of the maps that I would need for the trip. I bought a mount for it (that proved useless) and ended up with what I will term a field expedient method of mounting that involved a design feature of my 2008 Ford Taurus X and the particular case that held the iPad. It worked shockingly well.

Since it was hooked up to the car stereo, the music volume dropped every time the voice instructions came along to tell me where to turn. That was a nice change from the stand-alone GPS where the directions would sometimes get lost against the music.

There were a few negatives, though. We ended up a little confused in Hot Springs when we missed a turn and it couldn’t find a new path for us against the quick turns we made to try to get back on track, for instance, and had a few other situations where it had a hard time finding a new route when we went off script. The stand-alone unit seems to be quicker in mapping new routes when necessary. Like the stand-alone unit, though, the MotionX app found some imaginary roads near where my parents live. Apparently the maps for the roads near Hot Springs Village have a few glitches.

The biggest issue came when the app crashed, though. About eight or nine hours into the trip home, the application froze. It came some 80 miles before my next turn, so it wasn’t a big issue, but it was a surprise. A quick restart had it back directing us in just a few seconds, so there was no damage done, but it doesn’t inspire the kind of confidence that you want from a GPS system. I’ll be using it again on my trip to Vegas next month and I’ll see how well that works out.

And, still on the subject, fourthly, the iPad makes a better workmate than you’ve heard. I was thrilled that I bought the 3G version on this trip. Whenever the flaky Internet service (and access at my parents’ home was spotty, too) my cell service was fine. I answered emails, I took notes, I sent links to pdfs through the Dropbox application, I used the contact list and the task manager (I use Manage, a great .99 todo application that balances a nice interface and features with simplicity of presentation and some useful export options) to keep me in touch and on task. I won’t be making my next 36 page brochure on the thing, but it’s not just useful for entertainment.

What I found most surprising was that I was only out of cell phone contact a few times during the entire trip. Where 3G wasn’t available, it was rare that I didn’t have EDGE coverage. For all that AT&T is maligned for its network--and that isn’t entirely undeserved--the breadth of coverage for me was still impressive. And for a good chunk of my stay in Hot Springs, the 3G connection was more reliable and faster than the “high speed” Internet connection that plagued me.

It’s hard for me to spend $900 on a non-essential bit of electronic kit without feeling even a little bit of regret, but I can honestly say that I don’t regret the iPad purchase at all. It has done more than I imagined it would and it has really changed the way I view tablet-based computers. It has a few shortcomings that I would like to see addressed, but the overall device is startlingly good.

After all that chatter, here’s what I really wanted to say: it’s good to be home.

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