Thursday, October 16, 2008

Death by Snoo Snoo

Fans of Futurama will be well aware what 'Snoo Snoo' is. If you don't know what it means, google it.

In the Futurama episode in question, Zif, Zap Brannigan and Fry are caught by giant Amazonian women from a planet populated by, er, giant Amazonian women. Their method of torture? Death by snoo snoo.

Witness the mixture of abject horror and abject pleasure as our animated chums contemplate their predicament.

Death by snoo snoo is what I contemplate when I think about the new Apple Macbook, launched a couple of days ago.

In one instant, you have an utterly gorgeous machine, honed from solid aluminium - an engineering and manufacturing marvel - and at the same time, a machine that - to me personally - is totally pointless.

Pointless because of that missing firewire port. You see, I have a lot invested in miniDV - two cameras and several hours worth of standard def and hi-definition footage awaiting editing. I really don't have plans to change my perfectly good Sony hi-def camcorder, for another hi-def camcorder that uses USB.

Our household has the two Macs - one G5 iMac and my old iBook. The iMac can handle the HD content no problem, but its stuck in one location and I was really keen to move that heavy lifting to a new Macbook. Alas, that plan has been scuppered by the lack of a firewire port on the Macbook. Admittedly, the vast majority of people will not miss this, but considering my old iBook was purchased partly on the basis that you could hook a miniDV camcorder to it and edit the footage via firewire (a feature promoted by Apple at the time) it seems a shame that my upgrade path be blocked by such a simple omission.

I have two choices. I buy the cheaper white Macbook with firewire, or I buy the Macbook pro (does this even have FW 400?) The utterly gorgeous metal Macbook is as useful to me as a block of cheese.

I can surf the net quite well on a sub £200 netbook. In fact, I am doing just that right now. Without that vital port, a Macbook would be serving exactly the same purpose and very little more. It hurts to say this, but why bother?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

my iTunes

At the bottom of the sidebar on this blog you'll see the 'My iTunes' gadget errr widget I've added.

Now, some people will think this is insanely great, while a great many will loathe it for everything Apple and the iTMS stands for.

I'm in both camps. I like the fact I can put this on my blog easily. I'm not convinced if advertising my esoteric taste in music is wise, nor am I thrilled at punting a blatent marketing ploy by Apple. Plus, I'm not sure I like the increase in bandwidth the already sluggish Blogger page is lumbered with. But it is cool and adds a bit of pzazz to my dull old page.

I'll leave it on for the meantime and see how we get on.

By the way - is the iTunes Genius thing not a brilliant way of making yet more money out of iTunes? I personally think the technology behind the selection process is great - so great, in fact, that it's suckered me into buying two tracks on a whim so far. You can't fault Apple on this nugget of marketing genius.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

It's back!

Yes, in my clammy hands is my K850i after a round trip to the Vodafone repair centre. I suspect it's been re-flashed, but with what?

I mean, it's working but now is exhibiting behaviour that it didn't before. For example, it's taking black photos now where the flash is required. This is a well known fault with the K850i (bad syncronicity between flash and shutter), but my phone, pre-BROD*, never suffered from this. (AFAIK)

Also, I've noticed that after the camera is activated by the dedicated button, and the camera is exited by means of the hang-up button, the shutter LED and camera shorcut buttons remain lit. Well, it never did that before. Harrumph. Even more frustrating, this fault seems to occur randomly. Ho hum.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Ok, so no sooner than I post a less than glowing piece on my mobile phone, the K850i, it gets it's revenge by going tits up on me. That's right, it's got the Blue Ring of Death.

I'm usually immune to such gadget misfortune. I type this on a 7 year old iBook. I could probably type it up on my Atari Portfolio (yes, the one from Terminator 2) if I could get stuff off it.

The point is that, if cared for, most gadgets will outlive their usefulness and continue their existence at the bottom of a box. Like my original Playstation (a mark 1 model with all the av output gubbins).

So it should come as a surprise to find a state of the art device, only a few months old, fail inexplicably overnight. I say 'should', because I was well aware of the K850i's problems, but I thought surely, surely they (Sony Ericsson) would get on top of this well known firmware issue by the time I got mine.

But no. As of today it's back with Vodafone for 'repair'. We'll see how long that repair lasts.

Monday, June 23, 2008

SE k850i - great cam, shame about the other stuff

After much hype and anticipation, the iPhone 3G has landed, and despite addressing the main failings of the original iPhone, the new model is still lacking a decent camera.

I don't know why this should be a problem for a gadgeteer like myself. Why not just carry around my regular digital camera and be done with it. Well, as I've found out as the owner of a Samsung X820, having a camera always with you is very appealing for those moments when you didn't bring along the camera. But the Sammy, bless it, sported a 2 megapixel camera and no flash whatsoever. Just like the iPhone 3G. And having a decent camera in a phone was becoming more important to me.

So, a couple of months ago, I upgraded to a Sony Ericsson K850i. It's a bit rubbish. I'll tell you why.

After the svelte form of the X820s 6.9mm lovelyness, carrying the K850i is rather like trying to shove a Portakabin in your pocket. It's a bit of a porker. Next up is the awful navigation pad. It fails for several reasons. It's painful to use - ok not painful, just uncomfortable. Sometimes you inadvertently hit one of the two numeric keys it surrounds, and, unless you have the fingers of an elf, sometimes you touch the middle touch soft-key, sending operation of the phone off at a tangent.

Ah, the touch keys. What wonder. Did you know some other phones are operated by touch? Yes indeedy. And Sony thought it was about time they too put a toe in the water with regards a touch interface. Well, that toe, I'm afraid, has just been nibbled off by the piranhas, for it seems that implementing a decent touch interface is harder than it looks. Eh Sony? Let's face it, the touch screen element on the K850i is abysmal. And for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. Pun intended.

You see, it's not that the touch interface doesn't work, it's just that it's so bleedin' inconsistent. Most of the time all that is required is the lightest gossamer like stroke and the interface snaps to attention. At other times, I'm pressing the screen so hard I fear the phone will implode in my hands. Could it be that I caught the phone napping? That it wasn't quite ready for my prodding digits? Sometimes it takes seconds to respond, my thumb going white under the pressure and my face going red in silent rage. This is not a good human/phone experience.

Naturally, instinct tells you to try prodding the touch button again because, you know, maybe the phone didn't 'feel' me the first time. Of course, now the phone instantly responds by registering two presses, and if the first press was the 'back' button, the second almost without fail activates Vodafone bleeding Live because it shares the same soft key position as the 'back' button. Cue much cursing. And every time this happens, I have to remind myself why I bother to put up with such miserable design failings. I'll tell you. 5 megapixels. Autofocus. Xenon flash.

Yes, the K850i happens to be a very good camera. A camera I can carry wherever I go. I forgive the school bus proportions. I forgive the laughable attempt at 'touch'. I forgive the awful design decisions that led to that navpad. Did I mention the stupidly small keys, too? I forgive it all, because this is a decent camera phone. And that's just as well, because I have another 16 months of contract to go before an upgrade comes along. And by then, perhaps the iPhone will have caught up in the imaging department.

Normally I'd sign off here, on a high note. But for those seeking decent video capture from the K850i will be disppointed. I know I was, as 18 months beyond the Samsung X820, I find that the K850i markedly poorer in it's ability to capture video. Where the X820 did QVGA at 15fps, the K850i does the same at 30fps. But 30fps is wasted if the compression is too extreme, which it is on this phone. Shoot anything with trees, or grass, or gravel, or, well , detail of any sort and the result is a horrible mess of compression artefacts. The Samsung had a lower framrate but the video was at least watchable. Poor show, Sony.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Watch this

I'm a bit of a watch fan. Some people get away with just one. Some don't wear them because they get lost, and some, like me, buy new watches all the time. Ok, so I've got a few and only wear one at a time naturally, what's the problem?

The latest was a long service award for staying with the company for 20 years. I'm crazy, I know. Anyhoo, in the past awards were chosen from a jewelers catalogue, but lately a gift catalogue was supplied, from which a gift to the value of the award must be chosen. Choose from a catalogue? You must be joking - I already had a firm idea what I wanted.

So, with my haggling hat on, I visited the shop and secured a limited edition Citizen Calibre 9000 minute repeater.

It's a lovely timepiece, although the large face is somewhat unusual - perhaps cluttered - and takes a bit of getting used to.

What does it do? Well, the main 'minute repeater' function is supposed to emulate actual mechanical minute repeater pocket watches of old, where the watch would chime the hour and minute at the press of a button. This it does, but with an electronic chime. What would you expect? After all, we're not quite in exclusive Swiss precision territory here - not at this price.

The minute repeater is, then, just a gimmick, but quite a sweet one. There are two alarms, and a perpetual calendar, the day of month indicated by the red hand. The smaller of the timekeeping dials is the one where alarm and minute repeater functions are referenced. The main watchface can be set to local time (if traveling abroad).

In addition to the second-hand dial, there is a little dial indicating am or pm - the watch needs to know this obviously to keep the alarm function in check.

I nearly forgot - this watch is solar powered. Using Citizen's Eco-Drive system, it's light powered, as it can charge from a lightbulb apparently. The photo-voltaic cell sits behind the scalloped part of the face, and charges an in-built battery. I'm not sure what the lifespan of the battery is, seeing as the watch itself should last for decades. And what if, decades from now, Citizen no longer support battery replacement? Yes, I'm looking at you, 1st Gen iPod.

With a croc skin strap and a deployment clasp, the watch oozes class, but feels heavy on the wrist - I suspect this is because I normally wear an aluminium cased Swatch. And that I have the wrists of an elf.

So, a suitable stop gap I think until I win the lottery and get a Rolex...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Not the Macbook Air

Or, for that matter, an Asus EE PC. I'm talking IBM Thinkpad here, specifically the 240X.

We've been using a couple of 240X's at work for some years now, sadly one took a fall from the top of a step ladder and got badly damaged, the other suffered from a dead mainboard. A short time later, I had a fully working one assembled from the parts of the two.

For a long time I've been keeping my eye out for other 'broken' 240Xs on eBay and finally secured one for a whole £25. Of course it was sans harddrive and power adaptor, and had a worryingly cracked battery, but remember - I had a drawer full of parts back in the office from which to assemble this, a working sub-notebook on which I'm typing this blog entry.

A 240X yesterday

If you don't know the 240X, let me take you on a tour.

Firstly, it's small. With a profile smaller than a sheet of A4 paper, it fits neatly into the pocket of my backpack. It's just over an inch thick, but the added height of the 'fat' battery adds to that, but lifts the back of the laptop to offer a nice typing angle.

Ah, the keyboard. This is possibly the finest laptop keyboard ever made. I'm not kidding. Smaller than usual but feeling perfect under the fingers with no funnies like shrunken enter key or misplaced backspace. It's just right and a pleasure to use. There is no trackpad - instead there is IBM's Trackpoint, your love-it-or-loath-it nipple for controlling the pointer. I quite like the trackpoint nipple.

Under the bonnet is a Pentium III clocking in at 500MHz. Equipped with the maximum 192Mb of ram and the factory fitted 12Gb HD, this little laptop makes an acceptable travelling browser, if not a multimedia powerhouse. Especially when equipped with a wireless card in the PC Card slot. The 10.1" 800x600 TFT screen can feel cramped on some websites, but the display can be configured to act as a window on a 1024x768 desktop - a distracting but useful feature.

Comparisons with the Macbook Air are obvious. This laptop has only one USB port (albeit USB 1.1), and no optical drive. With the default Windows 2000, it happily accepts USB thumb drives and mice. At the back there is a VGA port, a parallel port and a serial port - the latter of which is impossible to find on modern sub-notebooks. There is a PS/2 mouse/keyboard port to one side, an IRDa and headphone, line in and out ports on the other. And a V90 modem, too. Ethernet has to be supplied via the cardslot. There is a proprietry connector for the external floppy drive - fairly essential for booting without a working HD.

Ok, it's not quite a Macbook Air, and the Win2k install took about 2 days to get up to date what with service patches, firewall, antivirus and antispyware installation before I could surf with gay abandon.

And here is where it gets interesting.

My iBook is a similar age. It too has a 500MHz processor, albeit a G3. It has 256Mb of ram and a bigger 1024x768 screen. But the iBook is slower, both in general response and when surfing the net. This 240X is snappier on the net - I can watch Youtube and streamed iPlayer perfectly where the iBook struggles.

But. Where the Thinkpad fails is simply this: recovery from sleep. It does not work. On the iBook, you can close the lid, go do something, return, open the lid and be where you left off in about 10 seconds. It's been like this, day in, day out, for years with total reliability. On the Thinkpad, with a fresh Win2k install from the IBM factory restore CD, recovery from sleep failed the first time. I might have well just ripped the battery out for all the difference it made. However, putting Win2k into standby manually works, so it's not a total disaster.

So, for a cheap answer to ultra-portable computing, the 240X is hard to beat. If you can get your hands on a working one.

Here is a link to the ThinkWiki page for the 240X.