Archive for December, 2010

My “Top Music of 2010” List

It seems to me that 2010 was an interesting year for music – at least as far as my (personal) musical tastes are concerned.  This year felt more “tame”, if you will, as compared to the very powerful albums that were released in 2009 – including Silversun Pickups’ “Swoon” and Neko Case’s “Middle Cyclone”.  Perhaps more interesting is the fact that several new-to-me artists are on this year’s list.

Having said that, here is my Top Music of 2010 list, in no particular order.

___________________________________

Jakob Dylan, Women + Country
I confess that I would never have grabbed this album if it hadn’t been for the mention of Neko Case as part of the project.  In fact, the earliest accounts of this album sounded like a collaboration between Jakob and Neko, but that wasn’t the case.  Instead, we have a very Jakob-focused album with Neko (and her backup band, it seems) providing most everything else.  The result, it turns out, is really quite fabulous.  With the infamous T Bone Burnett at the production helm, Jakob has released a collection of songs that is arguably the strongest we’ve seen since the first Wallflowers release – and perhaps even stronger.   The “twang factor” is very high with this album, but that’s bothering me less and less these days, it seems.  All in all, a wonderful release.

Broken Bells, Broken Bells
Evidently The Shins are on an extended hiatus since releasing their last (and very successful) album, Wincing The Night Away.  In the meantime, front man, James Mercer, has fruitfully collaborated with producer Dangermouse to release a surprisingly non-Shins and yet very entertaining album under the name Broken Bells.  Mercer’s unmistakable vocal-style mixed with the slightly hip-hop-flavored undertones of Dangermouse’s production, Broken Bells is at times sparse, electronic, spacey, and moody.  Quite honestly, I love it.

New Pornographers, Together
I’ve had very little time to enjoy this album, thanks to the lack of accessibility via the Zune Pass after the album’s initial release, but as you already know, anything involving Neko Case is probably ok with me.  I’ll confess, though, that the band name has been a turn off for me (and likely others, I would assume), but there’s no denying that this is a powerful release from a talented group of individuals. Pop-inspired folk tunes, is probably the best way to describe it.  Favorite tracks include “Crash Years” and “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”.

Starflyer 59, The Changing Of The Guard
Although I’ve listened to Starflyer 59 off and on since the mid-90s, I wouldn’t have considered myself a “fan” until recently.  In fact, it was probably their My Island album that I fully enticed me to embrace their impressive catalog of  work.  Having said that, I find that their more recent work appeals to me much more than their earlier stuff, which is likely quite opposite of the long time Starflyer fans, of which there are many.  In any event, The Changing Of The Guard is probably my favorite release from Starflyer, with the incredible track, Cry Me A River, as one of my favorite songs of theirs.  I’m sure that this album is not shoegazer-ish enough for the hardcore fans, but a release this strong may just usher in a whole new era of Starflyer fans.  If you haven’t already, give it a listen.

Interpol, Interpol
In my opinion, Interpol has been releasing stronger and stronger albums with each release – and this album is no exception.  Although I still consider this band to be an ‘acquired taste’ – primarily due to the droning vocal style – this may be their most commercially acceptable release yet.  Interpol remains, as always, moody and melancholy, but they have a very ‘indie’ feel about them that I really enjoy.  “Always Malaise” and “Memory Serves” are among my favorite tracks.

Spoon, Transference
How do you follow up an excellent previous album?  Well, if you’re Spoon, then you probably attempt to alienate a portion of your new found fan base with an album that is at times genius, eccentric, and (perhaps) entirely purposeful.  I say that because I get the feeling that Spoon intentionally held back on this album – perhaps in an attempt to not dig too deeply into the Top 40 lists – and in the process limited their commercial appeal with Transference.  Don’t’ get me wrong: there is some absolutely genius material on this album, but it never seems to reach the magnitude of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.  Maybe that’s exactly what they were hoping for…… or maybe this album just isn’t as good.  I don’t really know, but I still like it.

The National, High Violet
My good friend, Ken, recommended The National to me a couple of years ago.  Again, due to inaccessibility via the Zune Pass *and* my lack of interest from the 30 second audio clips of the album, I passed on this band time and time again.  For whatever reason, though, when I saw that High Violet was available, I snatched it up like a Christmas morning toy.  I’ve not been disappointed.  I would definitely consider The National to be an acquired taste, mainly due to the melancholy overtones and uber-low vocals, but for fans of Editors, Joy Division, or Interpol, this album is likely to hit the spot.  Bloodbuzz Ohio is definitely one of my favorite tracks.

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Strangely, previous releases from Arcade Fire did little to excite me.  I enjoyed the song Keep The Car Running just fine, but the rest of the album felt pretty lackluster to me – and certainly not worthy of the hype that it received.  Just my opinion, of course.  I wanted to like Arcade Fire, but it just didn’t do it for me.  The Suburbs, then, was met with fairly reserved expectations, but there was an undeniable sparkle to this album.  I’ve found it engrossing, artistic, and challenging.  Quite honestly, this is a very good album.  The biggest surprise to me?  The fact that this artistic, quirky band receives so much commercial success.  Most of the “good” music goes largely unnoticed by the general public.  Anyhow, this album is well-worth your time.


Over The Rhine
, The Long Surrender
As my wife recently reminded me, the very first music I ever played for her (aside from my own music, of course) was Over The Rhine’s Patience.  Needless to say, I’ve been listening to this band for a long, long time.  Not only that, but I considered their album, Ohio, as my top album of the decade for 2000 – 2009.  I like this band a lot.  I will confess, though, that as they’ve moved toward a more “jazzy” sound, I’ve probably been less enthused with their releases – the difference being “really good” vs. “incredible”, in my opinion.  We had the opportunity to download The Long Surrender as part of a pre-release purchase, which is why I’m including this album in my 2010 list, even though the general release is set for early 2011.  In any event, this album is probably closer to their last release, The Trumpet Child, than any previous release – and that’s exactly what you’d expect.  Having said that, The Long Surrender is slightly less jazzy than their last, and has all of the genius elements that you expect from Over The Rhine.  My wife and I were also fortunate to have seen them “live” very recently, which featured much of their newest album, so we feel more intimately acquainted with this release and the stories of the songs it contains.  Not my favorite OtR album, but a very good album nonetheless.

___________________________________

As always, thanks for reading.

Advertisements

T-Mobile Vibrant: basically a lousy device

Back in the early 90s, I purchased a red Yamaha 750 Special motorcycle.  You can read about my vehicular history here, if you so desire. 

Anyhow, this particular purchase is noteworthy because it’s one of the first times that I can clearly remember having strong, nagging doubts about a major purchase, but then I balked and went through with it anyhow.  Aside from the fact that the bike looked very cool, I more or less hated every moment that I had with that vehicle.  It was a “lemon”, plain and simple.  When I finally sold it off to another sucker buyer, I had that overwhelming feeling of ‘whew! I finally got rid of that piece of junk!’.

That pretty much sums up my experience with the T-Mobile Vibrant (a.k.a. Samsung Galaxy S).

It went like this: having owned the iPhone 3GS for a few months, I finally couldn’t take being “yet another iPhone owner” any longer.  The T-Mobile Vibrant had just been released, so I stopped by a store to check one out.  It was lightweight, fast, bright, and the camera was snappy.  It seemed like a good purchase at the time, and getting a (mostly) current version of Android – version 2.1, though a few phones were on 2.2 already – promised that my previous Android frustrations would likely be appeased.

Or not.

I don’t want to inter-mingle my frustrations with Android and my frustrations with the Vibrant too much, but they are entwined in a few ways that are worth mentioning.

HARDWARE

One of the notable features of Android is how “open” it is.  The OS is presented to developers and manufacturers with only a few caveats regarding minimum hardware specs, screen dimensions, etc..  Otherwise, it can be slapped on low-end phones, high-end phones, with cameras, without cameras, big, small, with physical keyboards, on-screen keyboards only, and a slew of other options.  Case in point, Verizon is currently listing ten different Android phones for sale on their website – pre-owned and tablets excluded.  The market has gone from just a few Android phones available at all, to (in my opinion) being obnoxiously over-saturated with them. I’m fine with having “choice”, of course, but a large number of the Android phones out there are flat-out awful.

verizonAndroidHandsets

Samsung made a very interesting move with their Galaxy S line of handsets: basically, design a good “core” device, and then release concurrently on every major carrier, with only mid-to-minor tweaks between them.  The Vibrant (on T-Mobile) is probably the most “stock” as far as hardware goes, and then got bundled with a bit of extra memory and the movie Avatar.  The Captivate (on AT&T) differs quite a bit on the overall look, but otherwise has little else to offer vs. the stock hardware.  Note: I personally like the looks of this phone the best.  The Fascinate (on Verizon) features a front-facing camera, but otherwise looks nearly stock.  Finally, the Epic 4G (on Sprint) is probably the best-of-breed with a front-facing camera, 4G data speeds, a slide out keyboard, and a camera flash.  Now, Google has released the Nexus S, which is basically a Fascinate running stock Android 2.3 and little else to get excited about. 

You know what else?  Samsung has sold like a bajillion-million of these phones.  Their gamble with the Galaxy S appears to have paid off in spades.

Aside from the Super Amoled screen – which, by the way, truly looks great – I can’t get very excited about this phone. 

Let me explain. 

1) It’s very light.  Probably too light, in fact, because it ends up feeling like a toy instead of a quality phone.  It seems like Samsung could’ve easily just replaced the back plastic cover with a metal version and improved the overall weight/feel tremendously.

2) The phone creaks in an unnerving way – you can hear and feel it – even when you’re just holding it up to your ear during a phone call.  It gave the impression that the phone was cheap and that it could easily shatter if you dropped it from any distance.  In fact, no one ever commented to me that it felt like a premium-quality device.

3) The volume rocker is a slow, “clicky” button that’s a hassle to use.  It just doesn’t feel right.

4) While we’re on the subject, the Vibrant earpiece was never truly loud enough for me – even at the max volume.  I don’t need ear-blisteringly loud, by any means, but it shouldn’t need to be maxed out for a ‘passable’ amount of volume. 

5) The capacitive buttons are lousy.  Not only did the Search button require a concerted effort to trigger, the capacitive buttons needed to be ‘activated’, if you will, before they could be used.  That meant double-pressing, in many cases, if the button backlight ever turned off.  Not sure if this is typical of capacitive-button phones, but I’m guessing not.  Just a feature of these fine phones.

6) The battery life was ‘ok’ at best, abysmal at other times, and not at all consistent.  Some days I could easily get through the day with 40% of my battery remaining (using the stock battery gauge, which was off by a good 10-15%), while other days I’d be tanking by the early afternoon – and this with a couple of short phone calls, light email checking, and not much else.  I just never knew what battery life I was going to get from day to day.

7) If the battery life was abysmal, the performance of the phone was, at times, maddeningly poor.  Despite the fast processor and abundance of RAM, Samsung somehow managed to cripple these devices through some poor file system choices.  You might find the phone generally speedy, and then come across an application that was almost too slow to be useful.  The mail program, for instance, could barely move from message to message in less than 3 seconds – it would just lag.  After a 3rd party hack to move part of the app storage to RAM, those programs started behaving normally.  Not exactly a fix I would suggest for your average joe user, though, and not something that anyone should HAVE to do for reasonable performance.  Otherwise, the performance of the phone was frustratingly inconsistent – much like the battery life.  At times it was snappy, and at other times laggy as all get out.  In fact, this has generally been my experience with Android phones.  Maybe I’m just uber-sensitive to phone lag or something.

Not all was completely lost, though.  As previously mentioned, the Super Amoled screen is very nice to look at – if a bit overly saturated, which didn’t really bother me at all.  The sliding cover for the USB port is nothing short of genius.  All manufactures should take note.  Finally, the right-hand side power button is, in my opinion, the most natural place for it to live.  Although I did accidentally hit it a couple of times, it’s no match for the times that I “didn’t quite hit” the top-mounted power button on most other phones.  Personal preference, I suppose, though it’s worth mentioning that most other users were quite stymied to not find the power button on the top edge.

All in all, the Galaxy S devices have a lot of work to do, in my opinion, before they can truly be considered high-end handsets.  They ooze “cheapness” and “cut corners”, which leaves the end-user feeling pretty uninspired.  Well, it did for me, at least.  It really surprised me that Google opted for the Galaxy S design for their next “Nexus-branded” handset.  Not a wise move, if you ask me (and you probably didn’t). 

SOFTWARE

Don’t be dismayed, though.  For however much the hardware lacked on the T-Mobile Vibrant, the software lacked just as much. 

Whatever advances are made via Google to the Android operating system, the manufacture can opt to replace most of those advances, if they so desire – at least the ones you can see with your eyes.  In this case, Samsung has replaced a major portion of the user experience with their own TouchWiz UI.  Essentially, they’ve gone out of their way to make this Android handset look and act as much like an iPhone as they possibly can. 

It’s as awesome as you think it’d be.  </sarcasm>

   

The third screenshot of the app drawer really shows off Samsung’s desire to make the TouchWiz interface an iPhone-clone.

Although the TouchWiz interface does offer a few enhancements that are nice to have – phone control in the drop-down shade, easily text or call a contact via a left or right swipe, decent calendar integration – the majority of it is a mish-mash of design decisions with little coherence.

The default home screen features four main applications at the bottom – a la the iPhone – that remain as-is no matter what screen you’re currently on.  Speaking of home screens, the Vibrant features a default of not 3, not 5, but 7 screens for you to swipe between – and many of them are pre-loaded with widgets that are (seemingly) designed to make your phone run as slowly as possible.  Removing extra screens is easy enough to do, if you know where to look, though I usually ended up with the wrong screen as my default.  I never could get that to work correctly.  Lastly, the dots at the top of the screen tell you which screen number you’re currently on.  Sadly, they have a jagged outlined circle around the numbers which, honestly, looks pretty poor.

Like many phones these days, the Vibrant came pre-loaded with a bunch of stuff that I didn’t ask for, didn’t want, and didn’t plan on using.  Some of them can be removed, while others require ‘rooting’ the phone to be rid of them – and those are at your own peril, since you can negatively affect the function of the phone if done improperly.  Here’s the deal: if you’re going to include extra applications with the phone, at least give us a clear-cut way to remove them, if we so desire.  The pre-loaded stuff shouldn’t feel like a punishment.

Another bit of frustration were the camera and gallery functions.  For whatever reason, the AT&T Captivate actually features a *better* camera application than the Vibrant, even though the camera hardware is the same.  Thankfully, you could browse the XDA forums and get the Captivate camera app to load onto the Vibrant, but this isn’t something that a family member is going to do (or a co-worker ,or most of my friends, to be honest).  The gallery application looked nice enough, but sorted my pictures exactly backwards so that I had to scroll through all of my photos before I could see the most recent one I’d taken.  Nice, eh?  Also, the photos remained lo-res even when you zoomed in.  I never could fix that issue either.

The one saving grace of all this?  There are easy-to-find launcher replacements for Android.  Though I personally used the excellent LauncherPro, there are others just as worthy: ADW, Helix, Zune Home, and the stock Google interface, to name a few.  Any of these is better than TouchWiz.  Trust me.

On the positive side, Samsung saw fit to include Swype, which is an incredible on-screen keyboard replacement.  Certainly the best keyboard on Android, and it might be the best virtual keyboard on any platform.

All that said, the default software experience on the T-Mobile Vibrant did very little to impress me.  In fact, I came away more frustrated than pleased.  Not exactly a glowing review.

IN CLOSING

The T-Mobile Vibrant, while initially fun and exciting, eventually became a continual source of frustration for me.  The stock experience was lacking in so many ways: camera application, gallery features, overall phone performance, home screen layout, too much bloatware, and so forth.  I eventually concluded that I couldn’t with a clear conscience recommend this phone to anyone, unless they were willing to root it, load a new home screen launcher, replace several of the default applications, use a hack to fix the file system performance, and then deal with the cheap feel of the device itself.  All of that made the phone useful, at best, but still nothing to write home about.

Bringing this full circle, owning the Vibrant was a bit like owning a boat: the happiest days were buying the phone and selling the phone.  Everything in-between was just frustrating.

Thanks for reading.

When Pigs Fly! (Day 110 – The Completion)

So, this is really a catch-up/close-out article to my When Pigs Fly! series covering my experience with switching to the iPhone.  You can check out the previous articles here: Day 44, Day 7, Day 3, and Day 1.

Just a random picture that I think is awesome

Why “close-out”, you ask?  Well, after 110 days with the iPhone, I finally sold it off via Craigslist.  To the credit of Apple (and the iPhone), it was very easy to sell, and I was able to get top dollar for it – around $300.  That money was then used to purchase a T-Mobile Vibrant (Samsung Galaxy S), but that’s for another post at a later date.

A natural question to ask, then, is “why”.  Why did I sell off the iPhone?  What, if anything, was wrong with it?  Truth be told, I’m not sure that I can fault the iPhone for a whole lot.  The 3GS was a nicely-built handset – probably the best I’d ever had – while also being very stable, generally speedy, and accomplishing most everything I’d asked of it. 

It wasn’t perfect, however.  I had a few crashes and/or times when the phone *seemed* to lock up for a few moments (they call that being “unresponsive”), although eventually it would return to normal.  Occasionally the device would lag – especially in the animations involved in returning to the home screen (which you do ALL THE TIME), but it mostly kept at a nice clip.

My biggest complaints, however, are perhaps (for many users) among the top reasons for wanting an iPhone in the first place: the Apple ecosystem, and the “yet-another-iPhone” factor.

Let’s discuss.

THE ECOSYSTEM
Basically, there is no escaping the Apple ecosystem when you begin using the iPhone.  Part of the phone activation has historically involved the iTunes software, getting apps onto your phone involves an iTunes account (the constant request for credentials when installing new apps is ridiculous), backing up your phone contents online involves the MobileMe service (from Apple, naturally), the default email signature says “sent from my iPhone” – and all of this while you’re using a phone with a bright n’ shiny silver apple on the back of it!  If you love Apple and all they stand for, then you’re probably fine with this.  If you loathe Apple (and all they stand for), then this is tantamount to unrelenting torture.  If you’re somewhere in-between, well, then you’re probably somewhere in-between.  Technological purgatory, I believe.

This isn’t just an Apple issue, though, as all of the major smartphone OSes have similar requirements.  An Android phone really isn’t being used properly if you’re not signed up with Gmail, Google Calendar, and other Google-centered services.  The Windows Phone is likewise centered around a Windows Live account.  It’s the way things are done these days, but I’m not a huge fan of it.  I use what I want to use, and I don’t appreciate being man-handled toward iTunes, Gmail, Hotmail, or what have you.  Thanks, but no thanks.

All in all, I probably suffered at my own hands in this regard.  Although I was willing to switch to using an iPhone – at least for a time – I wasn’t really willing to commit whole hog to their ecosystem, and, quite honestly, I shouldn’t have to. 

My $.02 on that matter.

YET ANOTHER IPHONE
I was at a birthday party a few weeks ago, and I noticed something sickening startling about halfway thru: at least half of everyone there was sporting an iPhone.  It may have been a higher percentage, to be honest. 

Now, imagine if every other person there had driven up in a dark blue Volkswagen Jetta (maybe a beige Toyota Camry is a more fitting choice).  What would the general reaction be?  Personally, I’d feel pretty lame for driving the same car that everyone else has. I suppose that generally sums up my feelings on the iPhone world.

This may also be best handled in its own blog post, but I’m one of these people that has grown up wanting to look different, listen to different music, act differently, and (generally) go outside the “norm”.  You’d think that Apple’s long-running  “Think Different” campaign would strike a chord with me, but I actually find it rather humorous how non-different the Apple world is.  Their phones, tablets, laptops, and accessories essentially look identical.  There’s nothing “different” about them, when you get right down to it, despite their marketing campaign to the contrary.  In fact, when I began using computers – back in the day – Microsoft Windows was “thinking different”!  Funny 🙂

Let’s get back to the point, though.

The mere fact that I was using yet another iPhone finally became very much of a sticking point for me.  Everywhere was iPhone, iPhone, iPhone, and it got tiresome.  Is that petty thinking?  Perhaps, but it’s honest.  What would I do, then, if “my favorite phone” suddenly became the overwhelming favorite amongst most people?  I probably wouldn’t care a whole lot, to be truthful, but it’s also worth mentioning that the other major platforms (Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, etc.) actually give you choice in what type of phone you’re buying.  They can look different, feel different, and often suit your personal preferences.  Call me crazy, but I like having some choice. 

Weird, I know.

LESSONS LEARNED
All in all, I’m rather thankful for my time with the iPhone.  I went through with the experiment, I did my time, and I got to see how the other half lives.  Quite frankly, though, I’m surprised at a couple of conclusions that I’ve come to. 

#1 — The iPhone handsets are far nicer devices – both in build and quality – than most of the phones out there.  Sure, they’ve had their issues, but they’ve also raised the bar for what consumers expect in a phone.  I’m amazed at how major manufacturers (I’m looking at you, Samsung!) continue to produce phones that feel like toys, creak in your hand, and cannot even seem to get basically functionality dialed-in.  At least Apple appears to really pour over their designs before releasing a new (or updated) device.  I like that.

#2 – Apple doesn’t really have it all nailed when it comes to UI design. 
My understanding (and what I believed *everyone else* believed) was that no one could hold a candle to Apple when it came down to user interface design.  After my time with the iPhone, however, I really (truly, honestly) don’t buy that at all.  They get a LOT right with the iPhone, for instance, and then throw in some very random interface decisions from time to time.  It’s not that you can’t eventually figure things out – you usually can – but it surprised me how often they would make interface decisions that appeared to follow no standards whatsoever – even their own.  Need to change some settings in the Maps app?  Just click the corner page curl, even though no other program has anything like that.  Need to delete a contact from your Favorites page?  Easy, just click on the “Edit” button, then the newly-revealed red circle (which now turns sideways), and then click the Delete button.  So random.

That said, if the iPhone UI is occasionally random, then the Android interface is extraordinarily random – much of it due to 3rd parties adding their own touches, nuances, and applications.  The most consistent UI that I’ve seen thus far (you can argue “best” or not, if you like) is actually found on the Windows Phone.  It is surprisingly simple, consistent, (at times) stark, and yet feels very current.  I’ll give a full Windows Phone write-up at a later date.

SO, WHERE TO FROM HERE?
It’s already been mentioned, but I finally switched from the iPhone 3GS to the T-Mobile Vibrant.

Yes, back to Android, and I wish I never had.  More on that later.

Between selling the Vibrant and purchasing my current phone, however, I borrowed an iPhone 3G (non-S) from my good friend who was gracious enough to loan it to me.  I can say this, though: it’s a good thing that I didn’t start off with a 3G, because that phone had some performance & stability issues.  Perhaps it was just that particular device, but  my understanding is that iOS 3.13 on the 3G handsets is generally known to be underwhelming.  I would call that “confirmed”.  The 3GS (and iPhone 4, I assume) is a much better experience.

Otherwise, that’s about all I have to say on this matter.  I would like to thank my wonderful wife for putting up with my technological fickleness, as well as my friend, Andrew, for the conversation/banter over the years.  Good times!

Thanks for reading.