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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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I’ve been almost universally disappointed in hotel “high speed” offerings.  It really infuriates me that I can get a better quality internet experience from a hippie run coffee shop for nothing more than the price of a cup of coffee but that hotels think that they can charge me a large fee for crappy service.  The only time I wasn’t disappointed in the quality of the internet in a hotel, it was a Super 8 in Utah - believe it or not - and was half the price of the supposedly higher end hotel chains.

Rather than buy a iPhone and an iPad/Kindle/Nook, I think I’m going to wait for a small tablet/phone in Android.  I am thinking that something that will serve all functions in one device better than what we see right now will be on the market in a quarter or two.

on Dec 28 2010 @ 08:59 AM

I can get a better quality internet experience from a hippie run coffee shop for nothing more than the price of a cup of coffee...

Nice.

Why don’t you look at the Galaxy Tab? Doesn’t that do telephone duty, too? I would be waiting for the next version of Android, anyway, though. From all the reviews I’ve read, it sounds like they still need to work on the interface and on native applications for the tablet-sized offerings.

I actually like having a larger device--it really is a different experience from using a phone and it’s big enough for me to plausibly do a little work. With something at about half the size, I don’t think I would like it much as a phone or as a tablet. Too big to be comfortable as a phone, too small to work as well as a tablet.

on Dec 28 2010 @ 01:50 PM

All your fanboy-ism aside, I may finally be nearing a point where an iPad would be an justifiable purchase. As I leave the old job today I say goodbye to the really awesome Sprint USB adapter that came with it. The adapter was intended to be used with my Dell at work but was always in the laptpop bag for my MacBook, with which it worked extremely well. With the new job I will no longer have a permanent desk, will regularly have to travel to Cleveland, Akron, and the environs for meetings and events, will be working with a mostly distributed team using web-based tools like Google Docs, Basecamp, GitHub, Pivotal Tracker, etc., and will (if my wife gets her way) only be taking the bus when I go to Cleveland. A device with always-on web access from which I can write real emails and use real web sites (love the smartphone but let’s not kid ourselves here) would mean actual productivity. The old job didn’t really warrant it. The new job might.

on Dec 29 2010 @ 01:15 PM

I’ll be curious to see how the iPad works for you. If I were to do a full review, I would say that there are still some problems with it if you intend to use it as a primarily work device. I was picking up a pizza some time back and a young woman who was heading off to college asked me if she should get one. My answer was that if she could afford an iPad and a laptop, then, absolutely, but if she couldn’t afford both she needed to stick with the laptop. My iPad is a great, mixed use device, but it could be described accurately as a mainly entertainment device that does a decent amount of light productivity work.

But some of the shortcomings are a big deal to me. For instance, the iPad still needs a unified file structure that is accessible to all apps. The new printing capabilities don’t work for all apps, either, and I am curious to see how long it will take to see printing spread through more applications. I have other complaints, too, and I’ll be curious to see how the second gen iPad is configured. I used the iPad to import and manage the handful of pictures that i took on the trip. It was fun and easy and with the photo apps available (all of them relatively low cost) are pretty impressive. Which you would think would be a positive, but what bugs me is that you have to buy an adapter to be able to hook your iPad to your camera--this is something it should be able to do out of the box.

We’re still looking at rolling them out for our sales staff. I think there are some great opportunities there, but I can’t say enough that I don’t believe that the iPad is a work device for many people. It is the most perfect casual computer that I have ever bought, though--great casual games, easy Internet access, a good e-reader, and far more flexible than most people expect. For what it’s worth.

on Dec 29 2010 @ 03:41 PM

The short version: I spend almost all my time in web-based tools and reading/writing email. I don’t actually need any apps to be able to do most of my work. I’ve purchased Pages/Numbers/Keynote for if I am ever offline (plus, I apparently love giving Steve Jobs money) and that’s about it, other than the obvious Evernote/Dropbox/Kindle/etc. standard package necessary for being me. I’m actually pretty excited. I can think of several times over the past couple of weeks when the iPad would have been just as good for me as my MacBook. I can think several more that will be coming up soon.

on Dec 29 2010 @ 08:31 PM

I look forward to your thoughts after a few months of ownership.

Let me know if you need a list of the apps that I find most useful and most fun. Oh, and don’t forget to download Netflix.

on Dec 29 2010 @ 10:36 PM

Great, now I’m scared to death of trying an iPad, lest I decide to keep my brainless phone instead of upgrading to iP4 as we plan next month.

Though seriously, I doubt I’d be tempted by something I couldn’t carry in a shirt pocket, since I never managed to develop the habit of carrying a briefcase.

on Dec 30 2010 @ 04:11 PM

The Galaxy Tab does look a lot like what I’m thinking of.  And its supported by my phone provider.

on Dec 31 2010 @ 12:33 PM

On hotel internet: Just got back from a trip to NM to visit relatives, caves, sand, and water birds.  (Successful on all counts; pictures to come on my Flickr photostream.) During the trip, we stayed mostly at Super 8 motels because we find the price/quality ratio to be favorable. At each, there were multiple different routers to ensure good bandwidth. At every business hotel I’ve stayed at, crappy internet is available at +/- $10/day.

The difference, so far as I can tell, is expense accounts. When the company is paying, who cares? When I’m paying, I want clean, big enough, and free internet, and I decide on that basis.

On the iPad: I’ve actually found a few things I’d like to have one for (searchable pdfs of game books for role-playing games at the gaming table, tethered photography), but the price is still high enough that I want other things more. Maybe someday the Apple price will drop far enough or the clone quality will rise far enough that I’ll get one.

on Dec 31 2010 @ 09:15 PM

I had thought that they introduced the iPad at a price that was too high and I was initially planning to wait until the prices dropped before I bought one. When it became pretty apparent that they were going to keep selling bunches of the things and the prices weren’t going down (and when AT&T set a date for closing out the unlimited 3G option), I decided to go ahead and buy the thing.

If they follow the same path that they’ve gone with the iPhones, they’ll keep the original iPad in production after version 2 is launched. The original will drop a good bit in price and the new version will slot into the same prices as the old version. So you might see a lower cost iPad coming soon, but it will be the older version.

And, of course, that’s pure speculation on my part.

You should also have a big range of Android devices to choose from by mid year. Not my personal flavor, but there are bound to be some good implementations.

on Jan 02 2011 @ 02:02 PM
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