2012-02-26

Moving to blog.gosabe.com

Hello there!

I’m moving this blog to my company blog site, http://blog.gosabe.com.

For a start, I’ll be moving and updating my PlayBook review. I’ll likely leave everything else here but there likely won’t be anything new.

Thanks for reading!

Ben

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2011-12-22

My must-have BlackBerry apps

Having recently moved from webOS to BlackBerry OS, I’ve decided to compile a list of my must-have BlackBerry apps. Some of these are free, some are not. Most are available through the AppWorld, though I’ve installed some directly from the web.

BlackBerry Bridge

Bridge pairs a BlackBerry phone with a PlayBook. The PlayBook then essentially becomes a 7″ version of the BlackBerry phone, providing views of your calendar, browser, address book, messages, and documents. I love the approach and find it to be a better fit for my tablet use than native PIM apps. I can start a document on the phone, move to the PlayBook, and move back to the phone again. Slick.

Dropbox

Dropbox is fabulous. It gives you your folder of files on every computer and every device, all syncing in the background, silently, perfectly. Dropbox is the key to my ability to move easily between devices.

BB Podcast

RIM’s podcasting app. It works well, allowing you to search and add your own podcast feeds. There’s not much more to say about it. The app provides options for how and when to update podcasts, ensuring that users don’t run over their data allowance.

BB News RSS

Like the podcast app, this RSS reader from RIM is a capable, no-nonsense app that brings you the information you need when you need it. It isn’t fancy but works well.

QuickLaunch

This is my must-have BlackBerry app. QuickLaunch enhances the BlackBerry experience in many subtle ways. I have it assigned to my convenience key and use it constantly to run and switch my main apps. I also assign launchers for adding a task and appointment. QuickLaunch just makes using the BlackBerry much more efficient. I highly recommend it.

Globe News

As a good Canadian citizen, I count on news from trusted sources. Globe News is one of those sources. You can read majour Globe and Mail news as it hits in a convenient mobile app.

LogicMail

I know this may sound strange but one of my main beefs with the BlackBerry is how it handles email. I’m sure it’s great for low-mail-volume or BES users but I get a lot of system chatter on my work email. Because of this, I don’t use BIS to check the account. Thankfully, there’s LogicMail, a plain old IMAP/POP client. It doesn’t go through RIM servers, so it wouldn’t be subject to service outages. You can see your IMAP folders, it’s great. The downside: it isn’t well integrated into the rest of the BBOS, the interface is a little rough, and it doesn’t integrate with Bridge. Still, as a secondary mail program, it’s great.

WordPress

I’m using WordPress now to write this! It’s a great, simple WordPress client. It’s free, it’s complete, and it easily handles multiple blogs.

BBSSH

This is an open source ssh client for your BlackBerry. It’s a great safety blanket for this sysadmin. It lacks the visual flair of iSSH but handles multiple connections well and absolutely gets the job done.

SpeedLock

The only thing I don’t like hardware-wise about the Torch 9810 is the unlock mechanism. SpeedLock fixes this completely. It is $1 well spent. If you have a Torch that you ever accidentally unlock, buy it. Trust me.

Google Sync

This app from Google syncs calendar and contacts. It works very well and makes switching devices and platforms as painless as possible. It runs in the background. You almost don’t know that it’s there.

Google Talk

Another Google app. Talk works as well as BBM but means the person on the other end doesn’t have to have a BlackBerry.

Font Manager

The fonts on the BlackBerry are fine. That said, Font Manager let’s you bring in your own. My only beef: it only works with small font files, so I can’t use the Ubuntu font for everything. Pity.

That’s a wrap

That’s it. That’s what I use. There are plenty of other gems out there, but these are mine. If you’re reading this and have suggestions of your own, please let me know.

2011-12-18

BlackBerry Torch 9810 Review

When my nearly new unreleased Pre 3 gave up the ghost my grand obsession with webOS drew to a sad and unexpected close. So, where to from there? I really don’t like Android, webOS is done, at least for now, I just can’t seriously consider Windows Phone 7, a personal hang-up, and I want a keyboard and don’t like the microsim, or inability to permanently unlock iPhones. This left my favourite beleaguered Canadian tech company: Research In Motion.

At first I bought a Bold 9900. It looks great but the camera is rubbish and I found the screen too small to be enjoyable to use. Luckily, I found someone selling a 9810 and was easily able to sell the 9900 for what I had paid. I’ve had the 9810 for less than a week but I already much prefer it. With the big screen and keyboard, I find the 9810 to be the same perfect balance of fun and function that the Pre 3 was, albeit without the elegance of webOS or the decent game selection.

Hardware

The 9810 is the spitting image of the previous model, the original Torch 9800. Aside from a lack of colours on the keys and a brighter silver finish, the two are indistinguishable at a casual glance. This is good and bad. On the down side, the unchanged outward appearance has been responsible for many mediocre reviews. Many reviewers seem to value change over actual progress. On a more practical level, it means that despite significantly improved specs and software, 9800 cases, peripherals and docks all still work. It also means that users can upgrade, get a significantly better user experience, and have no real adjustment time to the new device. They keyboard is the same, button placement is the same, etc.

Beyond the superficial appearance of the new 9810, this is a significantly upgraded device. The CPU speed has been better than doubled, RAM has been upgraded, the screen has been upgraded from 480×360 to 640×480, so text is clearer. All of this has been done without sacrificing battery life, which is quite a feat.

I know it’s a minor cosmetic point, but the black back of the 9800 looked and felt fine. The silver plastic back of the 9810 is a step back. This is my biggest complaint of the new phone. (Not bad.)

Once again, the 9810 is very well built, giving the overall impression of subtle quality. The understated looks are less likely to draw attention than the new Bold 9900 but if you’re more interested in actually using the device than just looking at it, I can’t imagine being disappointed with the build quality or keyboard that the 9810 sports. Many reviewers gush over the 9900’s keyboard. I actually prefer the keyboard on the 9810.

Software

Not much has changed between BlackBerry OS6 found on the 9800 and OS7 found on the 9810. There have been minor UI refinements and the browser is more capable, with a newer version of the webkit engine underneath, but things are mostly the same. In fact, OS7 is a bit of a mixed bag, as not all apps are compatible. This is improving over time but I’m still missing key apps like QuickLaunch due to bugs found in my particular version of the OS. I am looking forward to the eventual release of OS7.1, as it finally brings wifi hotspots to the BlackBerry.

All told, the BlackBerry OS continues to offer a well-thought-out, cohesive, and consistent OS. Albeit one completely lacking the UI flourishes found in competing platforms. RIM needs to get their act together and move to QNX fast. The PlayBook OS, which will form the basis of the new phone OS, is a breath of fresh air. OS7 is adequate for the moment but RIM is kidding themselves of they think that it is keeping pace with iOS. That said, the current app ecosystem for BlackBerry OS is decent and the PlayBook app situation appears to be improving, though it still lags behind what webOS offered, and we know how that worked out for Palm.

Room to Improve

I quite like the BackBerry Torch 9810. However, there is always room to improve. Should RIM release a sequel to the 9810, I’d like to see them make the screen a bit bigger. If they dumped the black bezel surrounding the screen, they bring it up to about 3.5″ and could bump the resolution up to 800×480. If they could also slim it down a bit without sacrificing battery life, camera or build-quality, that would be a bonus too. They may as well integrate a mirror into the rear of the slide-out portion of the phone Palm-style. Why not? It’s more useful than the black metal there now.

Otherwise, the new Torch is pretty much perfect for me. It’s a high-quality pocketable computer that is fast, has a great browser, great keyboard, and pairs beautifully with the PlayBook. Having used both the 9810 and 9900 I can say without a doubt that I much prefer the 9810. It isn’t radically different from the older 9800 but the faster CPU, newer OS, and better screen are excellent upgrades. I was able to sell my 9800 and buy the 9810 for about $70 in the end. This was easily money well spent.

If you’re in the market for a new phone, don’t count the BlackBerry out. RIM has very different priorities than Apple and Google. The result is a device that is very consistent, very well-made, has great attention to detail, and great battery life. BlackBerry OS7 paired with a fast CPU means that real games are finally coming to the platform. RIM is down but they’re certainly not out.

Oh, one more thing: I typed this review on the 9810 using the excellent WordPress app. I probably could have done so a little faster on a desktop, but found the time to do it here and there with the 9810. I can’t imagine typing this much on-device with anything other than a BlackBerry.

2011-12-16

webOS out, BlackBerry in

Well, my wife and I had a fabulous time in Barbados. Unfortunately, the newish Pre 3 didn’t fare so well.

It did take brilliant photos and worked well enough until a software glitch stopped the webkit browser_server from running. This spiked the load at 40, rendered the browser and email unusable, and took out the rather useless Bing-powered Maps app that webOS is using. Then, on the second last day there, something happened to the earpiece speaker. I’ve reloaded the OS and the software is fine but with no earpiece speaker and no chance of parts, I’ve officially given up on using a Palm smartphone. Given how much I liked the Pre 3 and webOS, this was a tough decision.

So I’m back to BlackBerry for the moment. I’m typing this on a Bold 9900 that I picked up used. I like the hardware and OS 7 is nice but the small screen and lousy camera make me pine for the Pre3. Still, at least this one works. Overall, I think the 9900 looks fantastic but is less usable and fun to use than the 9800 that I had before.

For anyone out there looking to buy a BlackBerry, I heartily recommend the 9810 or 9800 over the Bold 9900. The Bold looks nicer but I miss the bigger screen, better camera, and even the keyboard of the 9800. If anyone reading the would like to trade me for a 9810, I’m interested.

Oh, I’m writing this post using WordPress for BlackBerry. Like everything BBOS, it isn’t the prettiest to use but it is very functional and seems to work very well.

2011-11-13

Finally: The end of the road for Flash!

Wow. I go off-line for a week on vacation and Adobe drops the bombshell that it’s abandoning mobile and set-top Flash in order facilitate the move to HTML 5. This is such monumental and welcome news that I had to pause my time away from the computer to comment. First, as usual, John Gruber of Daring Fireball has been covering this topic very well. It’s starting to be old news already but if you’re interested, you should check out some of what he’s linked to.

Overall, I’ve never really liked Macromedia and the Adobe Flash. Annoying video ads aside (as these can be done in HTML5 as well) Flash, while a cool technology, has always been a pain if you were interested in fiddling with funny, often Open Source, and under-developed operating systems on obscure CPU architectures. It happens that I’m in to this, so I’ve never really bought in to Flash and have been a vocal opponent of it for many years. Moreover, Flash is terrible from an accessibility perspective, as most screen readers can’t deal with it. Flash is why good web standards are so important. At it’s peak, it was installed on something like 98% of browsers. As a web developer interested in standards compliance, I’ve often had to explain to potential customers why Flash is a problem. Unfortunately, lack of screen reader support and poor accessibility in general are a harder sell than mentioning that it won’t work on iPhones and iPads.

All of this to say that I’m glad to hear that Adobe, who makes fantastic tools for creative people, is going to phase out Flash in favour of HTML5. Open technologies owned by no one, enhancing the web for everyone. Adobe has compelling tools for print and on-line media already. They recently acquired the companies behind TypeKit and PhoneGap. I can’t wait to use Adobe’s new Creative Suite that integrates these great technologies.

However, all of this great news isn’t what prompted this blog post. Rather, it was the following Economist article entitled “Flash Fried”. It is a mostly balanced, well-written article that goes off the rails in the last two sentences:

Widespread adoption of the new standard is likely to make it impossible for any one company to hold sway over online interaction. It may be too soon for Apple to gloat.

The first sentence is why the death of mobile Flash should be hastened and celebrated. The second sentence is rubbish. Apple wouldn’t gloat, though it did far more to see to the first sentence come to be true than any other company. The second sentence implies that Apple wants to be the one company to hold sway over online interaction. There is absolutely no evidence that would lead any rational, informed, person to jump to this conclusion. If anything, the supposedly “open” Android platform, very firmly controlled by one company, Google, is more likely to try to position itself to hold sway over online interactions. Even if this came to pass, it would be a better situation than what lead Microsoft to a 95% lock of the desktop market share, which then lead to stagnation of innovation on-line while the dominant browser (IE6) failed to progress for years.

In light of the realities of today, Flash is a dated and flawed technology whose time has thankfully coming to an end. It was an important intermediate step between pre-Flash-driven sites and what HTML 5 will bring. We could not have jumped straight from HTML 4 to HTML 5 without something like Flash to help show the way. For this, we should all be thankful for Macromedia, and now Adobe’s, contributions. However, Flash technology is fundamentally flawed: It is controlled by one company, it has, until Apple put it’s foot down, held too much say over online interaction, and now the security and performance problems of Flash, coupled with browser advances, have deemed it largely irrelevant. We don’t miss DOS, we don’t miss punch cards, we won’t miss Flash. Technology marches on.

2011-10-30

Great webOS apps for TouchPad and Pre alike

I’ve been using webOS since the original Palm Pre.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best mobile OS out there.  It’s true that there are far fewer webOS apps than there are Android or iOS.  That said, there are some stellar webOS apps.  Here’s a list of the ones that I use on a daily basis:

Apps for the Pre 2 & 3:

  • Tapnote – Dropbox-integrated text editor
  • Music (remix) – Wonderful music player
  • Mobile hotspot – Turn your phone in to a WiFi hotspot
  • Done! – Toodle syncing task manager
  • Feeds – Google Reader
  • Voices – Great voice recorder program
  • drPodder – Podcast program
  • Dropboxify – User-created Dropbox client

In addition to the above, the following TouchPad apps are standouts:

  • Advanced Browser – Cards are great but tabs and cards are better
  • Glimpse – A wonderful multi-purpose app that shows the flexibility of webOS
  • ToodleTasks – Task sync program that works well with Done! syncing to Toodle
  • Gemini File Manager – A reasonable file manager
  • NonNomNom – Google Reader client.  Great but slow
  • pReader – ePub reader

Great webOS games:

  • Ancient frog
  • Woodnigma
  • Dead runner
  • Angry Birds
  • Glyder 2
2011-10-30

HP Palm Pre 3 Review: The phone that never was

It appears as though my time with Palm is drawing to a close. HP has killed off the Pre 3, the Veer, the TouchPad, and has laid off the employees responsible for the hardware. They keep making vague promises with webOS the software, but things certainly don’t look good for webOS, my favourite mobile platform, or for what was Palm. The company that popularized PDAs, pioneered smartphones, and then briefly had a run with the only compelling iOS alternative I’ve seen seems to have run out of steam. Nothing stays the same. If there was no change, there would be no hope of progress. Still, as someone who has followed Palm since it was part of 3Com and US Robotics, I will miss their innovation and attention to the user experience. (UX)

All of this said, I was unable to cut my losses with the HP TouchPad. When unreleased AT&T HP Pre 3’s started showing up on eBay, I had to bite. I ended up buying a 16GB version for $241 plus $30 shipping. At less than $300, I am very pleased that I made the purchase. webOS may be a dying platform, and the Pre 3 may be a dead-end device, but it’s a hell of a dead-end device.

The HP Palm Pre 3: End of the line for Palm

The Palm Pre 3 is the pinnacle of the form-factor that Palm developed with the original Pre. It features a 3.5″ 800×480 display, a 1.4GHz CPU, a slide-out keyboard with larger keys than the Pre 2 or Pre, 512MB of RAM, and webOS 2.2.3.

If you hated the original Pre, you won’t like the Pre 3. However, if you like a reasonably sized smartphone with a hardware keyboard and you don’t need a huge number of esoteric apps, the Pre 3 may still be a good bet.

The device is fast, fast, fast. It’s still not quite up to iPhone 4S speeds, but it’s certainly faster and more consistently so than any Android device I’ve used. As always, webOS is a lovely, elegant experience. Thankfully, 2.2.3 seems to have solved the niggling Google Sync problems I’d experienced with the Pre 2. The OS isn’t significantly different from the current release of the Pre 2’s webOS 2.1. I have been happy with the app selection in webOS for some time now. The App Catalog offers a surprisingly good selection of games and productivity apps. True, it’s nowhere close to what Android or iOS offers, but other than a lack of Netflix for the TouchPad, I haven’t really found myself missing anything from webOS. The browser has always been great. In my opinion, it is equal to iOS’ offering and far better than any Android browser. Moreover, I still think that webOS has the best mobile mail, calendar, and contacts experience of any platform. The calendar on the Pre devices in particular is so much more fluid and intuitive than anything else since Palm’s original PalmOS calendar. The attention to these details, the great multi-tasking, and the easy developer mode are why I stick to webOS even now.

The software experience is great, and so is the hardware. Closed, the Pre 3 is about the same size and width as my iPhone 3GS. It’s quite thin, considering the slide-out keyboard. The display is just fantastic. It has Gorilla Glass, so is quite tough, and the pixel density rivals the iPhone 4’s Retina Display. The screen is now the perfect size, and extra size allows the keyboard to be slightly larger, making text input that much nicer. I still prefer the horizontal keyboard of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro or the BlackBerry Torch, but the Pre 3 is close behind, and webOS puts it over the edge for me.

The Pre 3 retains the rear-facing mirror when the keyboard is open. I know that some people complain of the vanity of this, but why not? It’s useless space otherwise. Why not make it a mirror. To me, it’s little touches like the mirror and how the device feels in the hand that make the Pre 3 hardware feel so compelling. I like my little Sony Mini Pro, but it is boxy and awkward. I like the shape of the iPhone 3GS but find the 4 and 4S to be too angular. The Pre 3 “river stone” feel is natural.

If you’ve used a Palm Pre or webOS and like what you find, the Pre 3 is a great device. If you’re happy with an iPhone, stick with an iPhone. If you like Android, good for you. BlackBerry fan? Great! Me, I like webOS. With the Pre 3, the hardware has finally caught up with the elegant software. Yes, there are things that I would change (like adding an FM radio and Dropbox integration) but on balance, this is the best smartphone for me. I don’t imagine that I’ll be using it in two years, but I’d bet money that I’ll be missing aspects of it at that time.

Good bye Palm, it’s been a good run. I’ll stick with the Pre 3 and TouchPad for now. I wish all of the great designers and engineers behind webOS the best of luck in the future. I hope they continue to influence BlackBerry, Android, and iOS development in the future.

2011-10-29

Back to Snow Lion: Why Lion needs some work

In hindsight, I’m not sure why, but I upgraded my fantastic 11″ MacBook Air from 10.6 to 10.7 the day that Lion was released.

At first, I liked the changes.  I still think that Mission Control is a nice improvement over Spaces and Expose, but otherwise, there aren’t many compelling new features for me in 10.7.  Still, change is inevitable, so I may as well get used to the backwards scrolling, the noticeable drop in performance, and all of the other new changes, or so I thought until I started using 10.7 day-to-day.

Since August, I have been using 10.7 on a 24″ iMac, my 11″ MacBook Air, a 24″ iMac at work, and a 15″ MacBook Pro at work.  It’s been more or less fine on all machines except the MacBook Air, which is the one I use the most.

On the Air, I’ve had spotty WiFi behaviour where it had been perfect previously, the occasional lock-up, and most alarmingly, it was through it that I learned of Preview and Finder’s new bad behaviour in 10.7.

Try this on a 10.6 machine:

  1. Make a directory
  2. Drop 20 images in
  3. Name them in order:  1.jpg, 2.jpg, 3.pdf, 4.png etc.
  4. Highlight them all
  5. Open them in preview.
You will have a single window open with files 1.jpg, 2.jog, 3.pdf, 4.png… open.  Now you can view them as a slideshow.  Perfect, simple, obvious, hurray.
Now do the same thing in 10.7.  I’ll wait.
See, what a mess?  You will get some of the 20 images opening, out of order.  Others will say “You downloaded this from the internet…”  some will just not open.
Now, try doing this with seven folders of 20 images with a room full of people wanting to see slideshows.  Even better, try it on day four of not enough sleep.  I did.  It wasn’t fun.
So, it’s back to 10.6 on the MacBook Air.  I’ve only been running this way for an hour or so but the system is humming along nicely.  It’s faster, scrolling works like it should, Preview works like it should, wifi is working perfectly.  Perfect, simple, obvious, hurray.
2011-10-29

Downgrade from Lion to Snow Leopard using Time Machine Backups

I am truly amazed by just how good Time Machine is.  I wish that an equivalent backup system existed for every other OS.  It’s that good.

With that out of the way, here is how I reverted from 10.7 (Lion) back to 10.6 (Snow Leopard) on my MacBook Air using my original Snow Leopard USB recovery drive and my Time Machine backups, which I had used both before and after upgrading to 10.7 back in August:

  1. Take a clone of the Lion drive using Carbon Copy Cloner just in case I change my mind/had problems.
  2. Once completed, go to System Preferences -> Startup Drive and select the recently cloned drive, reboot from that to verify that it worked.
  3. Shut down.
  4. Plug in the USB recovery media.
  5. Power up, holding down Option/Alt to boot from the USB key
  6. Once booted, go to Disk Utilities and wipe the 10.7 drive.  (May not be necessary)
  7. Under Utilities, choose “Restore from Time Machine Backup”
  8. Plug in my TimeMachine drive and pick the last 10.6.8 Time Machine backup
  9. Wait.  About an hour from a 5400RPM USB drive to the internal SSD
  10. Reboot.  You’re done!

I use dropbox for everything important, so my files were all synced back.  If I happened to miss anything, I have the CarbonCopyCloner copy of my Lion drive on another USB drive.  Easy.

One other thing to note is that I originally wiped and reinstalled 10.6 and then tried to recover from the Time Machine backup. This failed because I had used the Time Machine drive after upgrading to 10.7.  It was then that I rebooted to recovery media and restored using steps 7-10 instead.  So, don’t freak out, and yes you can use Time Machine drive with both 10.6 and 10.7 backups to restore.

 

2011-07-27

Living With Lucid: Updates for VirtualBox and Firefox 5

I have updated my Living With Lucid Linux Setup guide to include Firefox 5 packages and VirtualBox 4.1.