Archive for February, 2009

Say hello to my little friend…

At the recent men’s retreat for our church, our speaker exhorted the guys to follow some dreams.  Do something.  Get out there.  Don’t just sit around.

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I took his words to heart.  It’s easy for folks like you and me to fall into a rut and rarely (if ever) get out of it.  The challenge was inherently spiritual, though the results don’t necessarily have an overtly spiritual look to them.  In my case, the “dream” was to get better at playing the guitar.

Some background.

Having been in a band for quite some time, you might’ve thought that guitar playing just “came with the territory”.  It didn’t.  In fact, during our “band days” I only contributed a guitar part to one song that I can remember.  Try as I might, guitar-playing just never “clicked” for me over all those years.

It was some time later, though, that I was leading our youth group – which invariably includes worship time.  Thankfully we had a guy who was fairly gifted in that area, ‘cause I couldn’t do it.  I knew the songs, of course, but I couldn’t play.  I wanted to, though.  I really did.  So I prayed about it.  It went something like… “Lord, help me to learn how to play the guitar.  I don’t have to be awesome, just good enough to lead worship songs.”  Shortly thereafter – like within a month or two – I began playing guitar.  I vividly remember being out at a retreat, guitar in my hand, playing a worship song that I knew fairly well.  All of a sudden, the strum pattern *clicked* for me.  I got it.  I understood.  It was like the door had been shut for years and years, and all of a sudden it was opened for me.

Amazing.

After that day, I began playing better and better – and eventually took over with the worship for our youth group.  That was a number of years ago, and I’ve since become one of the worship leaders for our church.  The Lord has certainly been faithful.

Sad to say, I haven’t done a whole lot to “grow these gifts” over the years.  Although I’m a better guitar player than I was a year ago, for instance, I lack a lot of the basic know-how. 

Enter the “dream”, as mentioned in the beginning of this post.

The challenge from our men’s retreat struck a chord with me – no pun intended.  I want to learn to play better, to play correctly, and to fill in the many gaps in my know-how.  Part of the “dream” for me also includes the bass guitar, since I really do like it a lot.  Not that I’ve played much, mind you, but I do enjoy it.  Perhaps learning the bass guitar could help me get from here to there?  It’s possible.

IbanezJetKingBass Valentine’s Day passed just a couple of weeks ago.  Although my wife and I don’t normally go too crazy with Valentine’s stuff, my wife (bless her heart!) gave me a blank check to help “meet this dream”.  After some discussion with her, I was off and running to find a bass guitar.  It didn’t take long before I found a couple of bass models that appealed to me, but eventually I settled on the Ibanez Jet King Bass in ‘vintage sunburst’.  This isn’t a top-of-the-line model, by any stretch, but it gets the job done and it looks *very* cool, if you ask me.  I ended up getting a great deal on a floor model from our local Guitar Center.  I took it home, plugged it in to my late-70s vintage Fender Twin amp, and away I go!  Now I’m working through a “bass for beginners” book as if I’ve never played before!  It’s quite humbling, actually, but good for me to learn “why you play what you play”.  It’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure, but it’s a lot of fun. 🙂

Assuming that I don’t drive my family crazy, I’m hoping to be a better guitar player (and half-way decent bass player) later this year.

Thanks for reading.

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Very interesting reading… Win7 Team Blog

If this kinda stuff floats your boat, you might want to check out the ‘Engineering Windows 7’ blog.  Pretty interesting stuff about how and why the Windows 7 team has done things the way they’ve done them – for better or for worse

Also, it really feels like the Win7 team is listening to their users – something that some other companies out there don’t seem to do too well.  I won’t name names 🙂

Enjoyable reading, and not too technical.  Honestly.

More thoughts on the G1 phone: software

large1_b[1]I’ve been using the T-Mobile G1 phone for a couple of months now.  I had previously posted on the hardware aspects of the G1, but had never really gotten around to the software side of things.  I think that that has ended up being a good thing, because I’ve come down from out of the clouds, so to speak.  Whereas my experience with Windows 7 (beta) has only grown more positive with time, my feelings regarding Androidthe OS on the G1 phone – have become increasingly frustrated.  That’s not a good thing.  I’m not comparing the two platforms, of course, but rather the experience of using the two after an extended period.

Switching to an entirely new mobile platform has really opened my eyes.  While most folks – including myself – enjoy the “new phone experience”, things don’t necessarily improve.  My previous phone – the Windows Mobile-powered T-Mobile Dash – gets flambéed pretty regularly in the usability and stability departments.  I wasn’t a grumpy Dash user, by any means, but it seemed like it was time to move on.  Besides, here comes Google with a schwanky, new mobile OS that just has to be better than the old-school WinMo OS, right?

Yes and no.

I’ve been very, very surprised at how the most simple of operations can vary from phone to phone.  Some for the better, some for the worse.  After about a month of using the G1, it became increasingly apparent that simply placing a phone call to a “favorite” person of mine was more difficult that before.  I chalked it up to “new user” stuff initially, and figured that the added benefit of 3G network speeds, decent browser, and other improvements would eventually outweigh my frustrations.  I’m beginning to think that the opposite is true.

Before I start making “summary remarks”, however, let’s take a quick look at the software/UI of my G1 phone…

UI (User Interface)
The interface of the G1 phone is, in my opinion, initially very favorable.  Chalk this up to the “eye candy factor”, as many of us are coming from Windows Mobile phone, Nokia devices, Samsung, or what have you.  Clearly, the Android OS is doing more than the typical mobile phone device, and it appears to be impressive.

Your primary means of moving around the interface, of course, is the touch screen.  It is really fairly responsive, and in some ways very natural.  On most any screen (or any program), you can hit the MENU button just below the screen to bring up additional options, which is all fine and dandy until you are expecting to get more options by hitting the MENU button, but nothing is there.  For instance, open the DIALER page and then hit the MENU button.  Whassat?  It does nothing??  Exactly.  Consistency within the Android interface is lacking.  On that same note, there are times when using the screen to accomplish a task is nearly impossible with the touch screen, which then relegates me to the scroll ball (which I dislike strongly).  It’s aggravating and ends up feeling like a step-backward technologically, if you ask me.

Another interesting UI bit is the “long press” of a button or icon.  Pressing a contact, for instance, will automatically open the info view for that contact.  Pressing and holding the contact, however, will bring up a right-click-type menu with additional options: send SMS message, edit contact, delete contact, and more.  Sadly, many items don’t have any long press behavior, and you begin to second-guess what you can/can’t do in certain places.

DESKTOP
The desktop on the G1 can be split into 5 logical areas: the central desktop view, the left-hand desktop (off-screen), the right-hand desktop (off-screen), the top/notification bar, and finally the dragging menu. 

home-screen[1] Rather than having nearly everything crammed onto your initial home screen view (*cough* iPhone *cough*), the G1 can be very minimalistic, if you prefer.  My central desktop typically holds only 4 icons + the analog clock (which I don’t think I ever really look at).  Swiping your finger to the left or right (I like the movement of the desktop as it shifts, by the way) gives you the extended desktop views, and potentially additional areas to store easy-to-launch program icons.  My primary beef with the extended desktop views, is that you would never know that they’re there unless you were informed of their existence.  There is no “visual” indicator that anything lives to the left or right of your primary desktop screen.  Each screen can, of course, be populated as you see fit – with as many (or as few) program icons as you like.  It is possible to have literally nothing on your desktop.  It is also possible to have each screen chock full of program icons, and to have them grouped logically according to your liking.  I do like having the choice, to be honest, as many phones are pretty set in how configurable the desktop/homescreen are.

notifications[1] The top/notification bar lets you see the time, battery level, network strength, Bluetooth connectivity, wireless connectivity, and other “activity” notifiers – missed calls, voicemail, new text messages, installed programs, and so forth.  Swiping your finger from the top of the screen downward lets the notification bar fill the screen with more useful info: a small snippet of a text message, info from a missed call, a direct link to your voicemail box, etc..  There have been many instances, however, where the notification bar just doesn’t come down.  I’m swiping and swiping, but it does nothing… until, of course, it finally does.  Strange.

main-menu[1] The menu on the G1 is always present at the desktop – no matter which desktop view you’re at, or which screen mode (portrait / landscape) you’re currently on.  Swiping the tab of the menu outward allows the menu to expand fully onto the screen, thus revealing your program icons.  It’s like a Start Menu for the Android, except that it’s only on the desktop.  Programs icons are listed alphabetically, as you might expect, and you simply scroll through the icons using your finger or the scroll ball.  Strangely, you scroll from the bottom up using your finger, but roll the ball downward to crawl down the list.  My main issues with the menu are three-fold: 1) the scrolling performance of the menu is pitiful and can really dog at times, 2) the more you install, the longer the menu gets (typical), and 3) the menu is only available from the desktop views.  I can’t access it from “just anywhere”.

PERFORMANCE
Honestly, I expected better on-screen performance from the G1.  As previously mentioned, some screens can really slow down, which makes for a less-than-desirable experience.  I don’t know exactly how Android manages memory, but it appears to do so fairly poorly.  I’ve resorted to using an app called “Close Applications” to keep performance a bit snappier, but it can only do so much.  Moving within an application is usually fine (email, dialer, messaging, etc.), but moving between applications can be chunky.  It really seems as if the phone itself it slowing down, as it still feels sluggish after a shutdown/restart.  Perhaps the latest updates have introduced this?

Another thing worth mentioning is the 3G network performance on the G1.  This is really indicative of T-Mobile more than the phone or OS, but warrants a comment or two.  Having been stuck on Edge speeds for years, I was really looking forward to the increased 3G speeds.  In actuality, though, it seems that in some cases the Edge network is faster and more responsive.  I’m often in areas that have full (or nearly full) bars on the 3G network, yet sometimes the browser or email sync takes forever, often timing out.  The Edge network, however, seems more consistent.  I haven’t done any actual speed tests, so my “gut feeling” is the best I’ll give right now.

Every mobile phone user expects a certain amount of dropped-calls, but I’ve had more than my fair share with the G1.  On a heavy call-usage week, I can expect to drop a call every day.  Otherwise, I can expect to at least drop several calls per week – and somewhat inexplicably.  This might be a 3G network issue, and I suppose that I could bump myself to the Edge network (exclusively) for a time to test, but I honestly doubt that I’m going to do that 🙂

STABILITY
I can’t say a whole lot about the stability of the G1.  It’s been fine, but not perfect.  Although I’ve not had a true OS crash, per se, I’ve had a couple of situations that required shutting the phone down and restarting – in fact, one instance happened just yesterday!  Also, I’ve had a few applications crash with a fairly cryptic message, but in each case restarting them worked fine.

BASIC FUNCTIONS: DIALING
The Dialer is really comprised of four areas: the number pad “Dialer”, Call Log, Contacts, and Favorites.  Each section is as you might expect, save for the favorites, which might be new to any non-iPhone users.  Basically, you can “star” any contact you like and they will be placed on the Favorites tab.  A speed dial section, if you will.

The Dialer tab looks like a round-button keypad.  You can use your finger to hit the buttons, type out a number, and then hit the call button to dial that number.  The number pad is quite responsive, actually, and includes letters on the buttons for help when dialing 1-800-FLOWERS! :)  While in a call, the number pad (typically) hides at the bottom of the screen and can be “flicked” up, if needed.  It sometimes hides, but not always…and I’m not sure why.  Also, the phone quickly goes into “screen off” mode while in a call, so looking at your screen and/or manipulating the phone while in a call requires hitting the MENU button before you can do anything.  It’s not a big deal every now and again, but listening to a series of voicemails, for instance, requires more interaction with the phone than you would expect.  Lastly, the Dialer pad does feature additional options via the MENU button while in a call.  You can activate the speakerphone, swap calls, mute the current call, and so on.  Nice!  On the negative side, I’ve noticed that incoming calls do not show up on the screen until after the first vibrate and subsequent first ring.  Since I am always screening my calls, this is an irritation to me, and it seems to have started with the most recent Android update a week or so ago.  Thanks, fellas.

The Call Log is more-or-less what you would expect, as it just keeps a running log of calls you’ve made, received, or missed – newest at the top, naturally.  Tapping the icon for that call log entry allows you to dial them back.  What the call log lacks, however, is the ability to gather fully-useful information on the call.  I can see who the caller was, how long the call lasted, and when the call was made/received – kinda.  Save for the current day, all other calls in the log simply say “yesterday”, “3 days ago”, or something along those lines.  I cannot find the exact time of that missed called 3 days ago, if I wanted… and sometimes I do want that information.  Another example of “newer, but not necessarily better”.

The Contacts tab is simply a gathering of your phone contacts in a scrollable list.  They are (strangely) sorted by first name, and I’m not sure how to change that.  Flicking your finger upward lets you scroll down the list of names.  After that initial flick, and “tab” is revealed on the right-hand side of the display which you can grab n’ drag to move the list up or down through the list.  Nice!… except that the list really jitters as you try to hone in on a particular contact.  It feel “buggy” to me.  Clicking on a contact opens the info view for that contact, which allows you to see their phone number(s), SMS address(es), email address(es), and mailing address(es), where applicable.  You can also interact with any of those items from that view.  Hitting an SMS address, for instance, opens the Messaging app where I’m then sending a text message to that person.  Hitting the MENU button from within the contact info view allows me to edit or delete that contact.

The Favorites tab is where your “starred” and most commonly accessed contacts will automatically go.  As mentioned before, this is a speed dial view, of sorts.  My big issue with the Favorites views is the lack of time saved having a contact there.  In my opinion (and previous experience), I’m usually wanting a particular phone number in a speed dial – not just the contact.  For instance, I contact my brother quite frequently throughout the week.  Although he has a couple of phone numbers to reach him at, I’m calling his mobile phone number 99% of the time.  I would then, of course, set his mobile number as a “favorite”, right?  Uhhh, no.  Not in the Android world.  Instead, his “contact” is a favorite, which means that I either have select him once to open the contact, and then select his mobile phone *OR* I use a long press on his contact record to bring up a secondary menu which includes calling his mobile phone.  Either way, it’s a waste of time.

This brings me to a MAJOR sticking point with this phone, and many others like it: previously simple operations have become more difficult and time consuming.  Case in point (already mentioned): making a phone call to my brother’s cell phone.  On my T-Mobile Dash (as a comparison), I would hit two keys to unlock the phone, and then press-and-hold the 8 key to dial him.  Done.  On the G1, however, I hit the MENU key twice (yes, twice), then select the Dialer, then hit the Favorites tab, perform a long-press on his contact record, and finally select the “Call mobile” link.  In some cases, of course, I have to scroll before I get to their contact record, which just adds an additional step.  This extra effort become even more noticeable (and dangerous) while you’re driving – and I do use a Bluetooth headset.  These extra steps aren’t totally unique to the G1 either.  My good friend Andy, who uses an iPhone, has nearly as many steps to make a “speed dial” type phone call.  This is progress?  Knock the WinMo/Dash combo all you like… at least I can perform simple functions more quickly and easily.

(Note: After writing this, I realized that you can actually add Contacts to your desktop, which is an interesting option.  I could literally devote an entire portion of my desktop to my “favorite” contacts for faster, easier dialing.  That said, it still requires opening that contact before I can call them, so it only saves a step.)

BASIC FUNCTIONS: MESSAGING
Performing basic text messaging on the G1 is really quite simple, and you can go about it in several ways.  With the keyboard open, start typing a name.  When the name shows up, press-and-hold the contact and choose Send SMS/MMS.  A new text message opens with the recipient already filled in for you.  Type your message, hit Enter, and you’re done.  Or, if you prefer, choose the Messaging icon from the desktop view.  Select ‘New Message’ and then begin typing in the name of a recipient.  Enter your text message, hit Enter, and the message is sent.  Finally, you can also select the contact from the Contacts (or Favorites) view.  Open the contact or use a long-press, and select the Send SMS/MSS option.

The messaging is, of course, threaded like any modern mobile OS.  It’s generally easy-to-read and fairly straight-forward.  A long-press on any thread allows you to delete that thread, if needed.

BASIC FUNCTIONS: EMAIL
gmail[1] I like the email client on the G1.  It looks like nice, and managing a couple of email accounts has been very easy.  My primary Yahoo! account was sucked into the G1 with ease, and has only given me issues twice – which required removing/re-adding the account to my phone.  Viewing/replying-to a message is not at all difficult, and is really much more enjoyable than it was on my Dash.

As you may (or may not) know, the G1 does not by default support Exchange syncing, which is a bummer.  There are some 3rd party apps that can help in this regard, but they all have their issues.  True Exchange-sync capability built-in to the Android OS would be awesome, but it’s simply not a reality at this point.  In fact, the Android team claims that that functionality will be relegated to 3rd party apps long term, so I wouldn’t hold your breath for a built-in solution.  Sad, really.

BASIC FUNCTIONS: BROWSING
browser[1] The Webkit-based browser that comes with the G1 is a very capable application.  Though it does not support Flash, it does support most websites that you will come across.  Whereas I felt very land-locked with browsing on the Dash (last resort only!), the G1 feels free and capable.  Page load times are acceptable over the 3G network, though rarely impressive.  The ability to have several website tabs open concurrently is nice, though I’m rarely browsing that way on the G1.  The built-in “search” functionality is great, and I appreciate not having to go back to a Google page for each search.

Manipulating a browser session, on the other hand, is somewhat tedious.  Moving around a loaded page is easy-to-do, but zooming in/out is more difficult than it ought to be.  The pinch/expand functionality found on the iPhone really ought to be mimicked here, but probably cannot be for patent reasons.  Instead, you are presented with (+) and (-) buttons for zooming, and they’re not always as responsive as you might like.  Functional, but not great.

All in all, the browser is a nice application.

BASIC FUNCTIONS: MARKETPLACE
One of the oft-mentioned benefits of the iPhone platform is their marketplace.  The G1, of course, has their own marketplace, and the experience is fine.  You can quite easily access handy applications or exciting games, and then download them to your phone.  Most apps are “rated” by users, which allows you to see the more popular selections first, if you like.

My problem with the marketplace isn’t the ability to easily download (free or purchased) apps, but rather the intrinsic value of doing so.  It seems like a classic quandary of “accessibility vs. quality”, and quality seems to be losing the battle.  I’ve probably downloaded 15 apps since having my G1, but only about 3 of them were truly worth a darn thing.  Some are buggy, slow, and aggravating.  Others I’m downloading to make up for something that the G1 phone lacks – the “Locale” app, being a case in point.  Otherwise, I’d rather not have access to the iHurl or iFart applications out there.  It’s trash, pure and simple.  That said, I guess I don’t really have a problem with the marketplace, but I’d really like to see more quality applications and less junk.  I know that Apple is releasing a “Premium” section to their marketplace, and it may be for this very reason.

OTHER STUFF
As mentioned in the hardware review, the camera on the G1 is quite good and the interface is nice – especially compared to the Dash.  Shutter-lag is probably the biggest issue, but I don’t find myself taking a lot of action photos with my cell phone! 🙂

With the most recent Android update, the GPS (“Maps”) portion of my phone appears to work finally, although it thinks that I work in the middle of Elliott Bay, for some strange reason.  Getting driving directions from my current location to a new spot is very easy to do – including directions to the address of a Contact, or something in my “history”.  Nice!

calendar[1] The built-in calendar on the G1 is nice app, with a very similar look-n-feel to the built-in email application.  Moving from day-to-day is as easy as swiping your finger left or right.  A meeting or appointment shows up in its allotted time slot, with (usually) only the subject being visible.  It is possible to select the calendar item and gather more information via a “quick view”, though I’ve noticed that on many occasions it actually opens the calendar item instead.  Although I use a calendar quite a bit, I’m not accessing my phone calendar all that often.  The included calendar may not be sufficient for some users.

As with many phones, the G1 ships with a nice selection of ringtones and notification sounds.  I’ve selected a very run-of-the-mill “old school phone”-type ring that isn’t too grating on the ears.  That said, I still seem to miss a lot of calls and notifications, though their respective volume levels are maxed.  I honestly don’t know what the deal is there.  Either the volume level is just too quiet, the vibrate is not strong enough, or some combination therein.

I’m not sure where to place this item, so it’ll live here… and I’ll call it wacky voicemail behavior.  On several occasions, while checking voicemail, my phone has appeared to respond to some sort of voice command.  I’ll be checking my voicemail, listening to a message, and all of a sudden it acts as if I’ve pressed an option on the keypad, which I didn’t.  In one instance, I was connected via Bluetooth, listening to a voicemail, and was told “Voice message saved”, which I didn’t want to do.  I was neither touching the phone, nor the Bluetooth headset, but my youngest son (who was in the room at the time) had said something loudly.  I’ve experienced this type of issue on a half-dozen occasions, I would say.

SUMMARY
This review would have been very different had I written it a month ago.  I might have gushed about the “pretty things” in the Android OS, and some neat apps that I had downloaded.  It is much more fitting to be reviewing the G1 now, however, because the “honeymoon is over”, as they say, and you slip into normal life – complete with its ups and downs.

My honest opinion is that the G1 succeeds in many ways – a nice phone with some very compelling features – but also fails badly in many more important features.  For instance, making phone calls and checking voicemail have become more laborious to me than they have been in years.  I feel like I’ve gained dramatically in my 10% usage scenarios (browsing, installing apps, getting directions), while losing ground in my 90% usage scenarios (making phone calls, finding a contact, call history, etc.).  I’m honestly not sure that I’ve gained enough to warrant the frustrations I’ve had.

I can only review a phone as I use it, of course, and your own mileage may vary dramatically.  If you find yourself playing games, watching YouTube videos, browsing the web, and getting directions very frequently and throughout the day, then this phone may be a great fit for you.  However, if you are, like me, primarily just a ‘phone call / text message’ user, then you may be frustrated within a few weeks.  I have been.

As a matter of due diligence, I think I’m going to go back to my T-Mobile Dash for awhile – to see if I’m seeing things clearly or not.  I’ll report back what I find!

Thanks for reading.

Proof that I’m a “Microsoft fanboy”

fanBoy_proof

Try as I might, I can no longer get around the fact that I’m a “Microsoft fanboy”.  If the tag cluster (to the left) doesn’t tell the story, then you’ll just have to take my word for it.

A “fanboy” is described in Wikipedia as “any individual who is devoted to a single subject in an emotional or fanatical manner, or to a single point of view within that subject, often to the point where it is considered an obsession.

Hmmm.  Obsession.

Let’s see… I get excited about the new(est) versions of Windows, I look forward to firmware releases for my Zune (though it’s working just fine), and I may actually have lost some sleep in anticipation of the NXE

(Note: if you knew what the NXE was without looking it up, you might have a mild cause of “fanboy-ism” too.)

Yeah.  I’m pretty sad… though I hear that “admission is the first step toward getting help”.

Thanks for reading.

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Posted with Windows Live Writer on my Win7 (Beta 7000) 64-bit work box.