Archive for ‘smartphones’

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.

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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.

2011-10-30

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.

2011-07-25

My view of the mobile landscape – 2011.07

I’m a systems guy at Queen’s University’s School of Computing, and a budding entrepreneur with a small web development business with an eye on mobile development.  (What better way to keep my skill set current?  Then there’s the fact that my partner in both life and business happens to be the best programmer I know.)

Given that we are clearly in a shift away from desktop computing to truly personal mobile computing, I’ve been soaking it all up and taking everything in.  As such, I have a device from each of the major platforms.  Here are the devices:

  • Android: Motorola Cliq 2 (2.2), Asus Eee Pad Transformer (3.1), Archos Internet Tablet 70 (2.2)
  • iOS: iPhone 3GS, iPad 1
  • BlackBerry: Torch 9800 (BB6), PlayBook (Tablet OS 1.0.6)
  • WebOS: Palm Pre 2 (WebOS 2.1), HP TouchPad (WebOS 3.0)

I have strong opinions on what I like and don’t like, but have no particular interest in any of these platforms.  I don’t own shares, though I own and have owned many HP and Apple products over the years.  My first cell phone was a BlackBerry Curve 8320 with Bell.  I never really warmed up to it and had a rather pessimistic view of RIM until the PlayBook.  The PlayBook lead me to picking up the Torch, which I use about as often as my beloved but frustrating Palm Pre 2.  Of the above, these are my two preferred devices and platforms.  I consider myself to be a strong supporter of Open Source software, yet despite this, I have a general disdain for Android.  I find it inexcusably rough, overly complex, buggy, and garish.

I understand Apple’s success and generally recommend an iPad for most users and iPhones when someone asks me to recommend a smartphone that they won’t mind being stuck with for three years.  However, I don’t really like use iOS and am a bit worried about Apple’s clout in the market.  With that out of the way, here is my detailed take on the view of the mobile  world.

Day-to-day use (Smartphones)

Day-to-day, I find webOS the nicest to use.  However, the Pre2 reboots randomly, and I get fairly constant Google authentication errors.  At the moment, with respect to smartphones, I split my time fairly evenly between the Pre2 and my BlackBerry Torch.  The Torch isn’t as slick to use but the hardware is much better, the battery life is fantastic, and my core day-to-day requirements are met better by the Torch than by any other smartphone.  It’s not as pleasurable to use but is functionally superior for my needs.  Plus, I love the way it pairs with the PlayBook, more below.

The Pre2, Torch, and the iPhone 3GS all have the same screen resolution.  The Pre2 is a 2.9″ screen, the Torch and iPhone are 3.2ish and are nicer to read for an extended period of time.

I find the Pre2’s calendar and email programs to be vastly superior to the other smartphone platforms.  I find the Pre2 and 3GS to have comparable cameras that are better than the Torch or Android phones.

On the topic of the Cliq2, I find the Android 2.2 device’s apps to be buggy and inferior to the other platforms, the hardware to be shoddier than the Torch, and the screen, despite a higher resolution, to be unusable in the sun, low-quality, and the wide-screen ratio to be less useful day-to-day.  On top of this, battery life is quite poor, certainly not lasting a day.

The app situation is, of course, best on the iPhone and close on Android with lower-quality and cheaper apps.  webOS (used by the Pre2) has some real gems but also has gaping holes in the store.  The lack of a Remember The Milk client in particular frustrates me.  The game situation on webOS is surprisingly good.  The numbers are lower than iOS or Android, but the quality and variety are great.  The BlackBerry Torch has very few fun apps.  The game selection in particular is abysmal.  However, it has a good Dropbox client, excellent GTalk integration, top-notch PIM apps, and a good RTM client.

Day-to-day use (Tablets)

I haven’t found many ways to integrate tablets into my daily work life.  I find 10″ tablets to be about as heavy and large as my 11″ MacBook Air, which is an absolutely fabulous productivity machine.  That said, I find myself taking the PlayBook with me rather than a laptop when I go to a client or to help someone at work in a lab.  The 7″ screen makes it about the size of a 6×9 pad of paper, so it’s easy to keep out of the way.

iPad As far as tablets go, I purchased a refurbished iPad for testing.  I rarely use it except for testing but the battery life is great.  Of course, the app selection is also second-to-none.  The screen is gorgeous, the resolution is nice.  The iPad has great media apps, including Netflix and access to the vast iTunes library.  However, the speaker is very quiet and is quite low-quality.  Perhaps this is something Apple improved with the iPad2.

The iPad is great overall, and, at this point, if someone asks me, I generally recommend an iPad, but I’m just not a fan of iOS’s multi-tasking and I really don’t like the 10″ form-factor.  It’s fine around the house but as I mention above, it makes the tablet about as bulky and large as my MacBook Air to take with me, but lacking a keyboard, it’s far less functional.  On that note, let’s turn our attention to the Asus EeePad Transformer:

Asus EeePad Transformer I love the 11″ MacBook Air, and have found 10″ tablets an awkward size without a keyboard.  Enter the 10″ EeePad Transformer.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s the Android tablet to beat.  It starts at just $399, making it much cheaper than the iPad, it has a great 1280×800 IPS screen, and up to 16 hours of battery life with the optional keyboard dock.  The dock is basically a big battery that transfers charge from the keyboard to the display.  On paper, it is a perfect combination of form, function, and price.  And yet, I find it utterly frustrating every time I try to actually use it at work or at home.  Why?  Android 3.  To sum it up, Android 3 is incredibly rough.  Where Android on a phone is unpleasant to use, I find Android 3 on a tablet to be practically unusable.  There is no global Undo, which I didn’t notice until typing and making mistakes in the bundled Mail program repeatedly, the tablet app situation on Android is pathetic, multi-tasking is bizarre, and the entire interface, while clearly designed for a larger screen, is garish and inconsistent.  Every time I try to use the Transformer, a device which I would love to love, and with great hardware, the software thwarts me.  I’m hoping that Ubuntu 11.10 will work reasonably well on the Transformer.  Until then, it mostly sits idle on my desk at work.

Overall, as far as Android tablets go, I actually prefer the older Archos 70 running Android 2.2 on a device with a 7″ screen.  Android 3 makes better use of screen real estate but phone apps don’t scale up to the 10″ screen as well as they do to a 7″ screen.  Moreover, I find the user interface in stock Android 2.2 to be more pleasing and consistent than Android 3.1 on the Asus EeePad Transformer.  This quite surprised me, as I wouldn’t say that I was a fan of Android 2.2.

HP TouchPad On a happier note, we have HP’s new TouchPad.  The TouchPad finally brings webOS to a large display.  While the device itself feels a bit cheap and the OS could use further optimization, I feel that the TouchPad is a worthwhile investment for anyone interested in an elegant OS made by someone other than Apple.  The TouchPad feels like a 10″ iPhone 3GS.  It is virtually identical in size, weight and thickness of the iPad1.  It has the same 4:3 screen and fits well in most (now discounted) iPad1 cases.  The screen, while fine indoors, doesn’t hold a candle to the PlayBook screen, especially outdoors.

The app situation is surprisingly good on the TouchPad.  It doesn’t have as many native apps as the iPad, but it has far more tablet-native apps than Android 3.  Android 3 can run 2.x’s apps but they don’t scale to the 10″ screen well, and often don’t work well in landscape mode.  I have yet to run in to a similar problem with the TouchPad.  The TouchPad’s speakers are much better than the iPad’s, though they aren’t as loud as the PlayBook.  Again, at 10″ I don’t find the TouchPad to be terribly usable day-to-day at work, but the core PIM apps scale up to the large screen beautifully, so using it is a joy.

If HP releases a 7″ 1024×600 version of the TouchPad, releases their promised OTA update to work out some of the software glitches, and releases updates to the productivity software that allow editing of common office formats,  it would be a very compelling work tablet.

BlackBerry PlayBook I’ve already written quite a bit about the PlayBook.  In short, in daily use it’s by far the best tablet I’ve used.  The more time I spend with it, the more I find ways of integrating it into daily use.  RIM bucked the trend of copying Apple with a 10″ screen.  Instead, they went with a very high-quality 1024×600 7″ IPS screen that is very bright both indoors and outside.  They then coupled the display with the best speakers I’ve heard in a tablet.  The sound is loud and clear enough for me to use in the kitchen, a computer lab, and in my office.  They aren’t as nice to listen to as a full set of speakers, but they’re close.

On release, the PlayBook took great criticism for the lack of native apps.  Reviewers, however, seemed to mostly ignore just how well the PlayBook works in tandem with a BlackBerry phone using Bridge.  I was not a BlackBerry fan but decided to pick up an inexpensive Torch just to test out Bridge.  The implementation completely convinced me that, in some situations, this is a better approach than native apps for quick on-the-go access to PIM data.

The browser that ships with the PlayBook is absolutely top-notch.  The interface allows for full-screen viewing or fluid tabs.  The browser UI is the best that I’ve seen in a tablet.  The entire OS feels and works much like webOS, though it is much faster and more fluid.  The bundled Kobo app works well for eReading, as does the size and weight of the PlayBook.

As far as apps go, the situation is pretty terrible.  Things start off well with a great browser, a decent Podcast and audio player, a way to read eBooks, Flash support, the ability to edit MS Office files, and Need For Speed to show that the hardware is there to make this a good gaming platform, but then that’s about it.  The app selection is, frankly, pathetic.  RIM gave away tablets to anyone willing to make apps.  This sounds good on paper but resulted in thousands of poorly-tested, rushed-to-market, low-quality apps that clearly took less than $500 of developer time.  The situation is slowly improving, but the TouchPad on day one had a far better app selection that the PlayBook does now, three months after release, and is still missing core-functionality such as a working IM program.  That said, it’s still by far my favourite tablet option.  The QNX OS is fantastic, Bridge works well, and the size of the device fits very well with my current needs.  With better apps, the PlayBook would be brilliant.  For now, I would only recommend the PlayBook to existing BlackBerry smartphone users, or to people who are content with the (excellent) out-of-the-box functionality.

Development and testing using an emulator

I may have one device per-platform  but have tested using emulators for most of platforms.  Here are my findings:

iPhone emulators are Mac-onlIy but work well. Before I had an iPhone 3GS, I briefly use the emulator to test websites.  It was fine.  Not pleasant, but usable.

I haven’t used RIM’s emulators.  They tend to be Windows-only.

Android emulators are, frankly, terrible.  They integrate well into Eclipse, but it is a chore to set this up.  Things get worse quickly, as trying to use the emulator is terribly slow and not at all like actually using an Android phone.  I suppose it is useful for making sure your app doesn’t crash, but I find Andorid emulators useless for web testing.

Palm’s webOS emulators, by contrast, are the best.  They use VirtualBox VMs.  webOS is a Linux-based OS, so VirtualBox was a natural.  Both the phone and tablet emulators are fast and fluid.  The command-line Palm tools work with either the emulators or the devices, if plugged in and in development mode.  Being VirtualBox-based, the VMs work on Mac, Linux, and Windows.

Development tools

I haven’t developed for all of the above platforms, unless you count mobile-optimized websites.  That said, I have played with or configured development environments for iOS, Android, and webOS.

iOS, of course, integrates brilliantly with Apple’s Xcode.  I have used it a bit and was quite impressed.  If you aren’t a Mac user, I suppose you could use Adobe Flash CS5 to create iPhone apps.  I hate Flash, so I haven’t gone down this route.  Knowing what I do about Apple’s development process and tight-control over the store and over just accessing iOS devices, I would guess that even using Flash, you would need a Mac a some point to get your code onto a device.  Certainly the emulators are Mac-only.  You’ve got to pay if you want to play.

Android integrates reasonably well into Eclipse and ships with an SDK that provides command-line tools for Mac/Linux/Windows.  I haven’t used the IDE extensively but have configured the environment for the undergrads at work.  It wasn’t super-slick but Google provides good documentation.

HP/Palm’s developer tools are great.  You install the SDK and VirtualBox, and you’re done.  They provide packages for Mac/Linux/Windows and provide excellent documentation for using their development tools and PhoneGap, a cross-platform HTML/CSS/JavaScript package for developing native webOS/iOS/Android/BlackBerry apps using web technologies.  the webOS SDK itself is largely this, as apps other than games are generally written in HTML/CSS/JavaScript using either Mojo or Enyo, HP/Palm’s developer frameworks.  You can use Eclipse to develop webOS apps, though I tend to stick to Palm’s excellent command-line tools combined with my favourite text editor.  I find this development model to by quite flexible.  I even wrote an app that I use quite often.

I haven’t used RIM’s developer tools.  They seem to largely be Windows-centric, though I gather they can be shoehorned in to working on Mac.  RIM’s WebWorks SDK is of interest to me, though I haven’t tested it.

Developer relations

Here, again, HP/Palm to me are the people to beat. HP is aggressively courting all kinds of developers.  Palm has a strong history with the Homebrew community, a group of tinkerers and hackers that extend webOS in unexpected and interesting ways.  HP appears to be actively encouraging this group, which is a great sign.

In start contrast to Apple, RIM, and even Google, there is no such thing as a locked-down webOS device.  There is no need to root or jailbreak your device.  All shipping webOS devices can easily be put into Developer mode, which encourages casual development. Despite Android being Open Source (mostly), webOS is a far more open environment to both use and develop for.

I haven’t used RIM’s development tools and haven’t tried working with them.  Certainly their devices are locked down and they don’t have a great reputation for developer relations, especially with small developers.  The PlayBook device promotion was an interesting attempt to change this, but based on the quality of available apps, I don’t think this could be called a successful experiment.

Apple allows all iOS devices to be used for development, but you have to pay to have apps signed, and iOS won’t run unsigned code.  This results in jailbreaking for those who want to Think Different and use their devices in a way that is unsanctioned by Apple.  I understand the advantages of this approack, and there is certainly no arguing with Apple’s success.  Still, I don’t have to like it, and I don’t have to participate.

Google, with Android, has quite an odd approach.  The software is Open Source, allowing for all kinds of weird and wonderful devices to float around, but how locked-down a device is depends on who makes it.  Moreover, with the rapid growth and talk of fragmentation, Google appears to be locking the development process down, favouring larger device manufacturers, and providing them with early access to new versions of Android.  Android source code may be Open Source, but the process is far from open, and Google seems to be far more concerned about market share than making sure that device owners can do what they would like with their devices.

Wrapping Up

And that’s my view of things as of July 2011.  If you’ve made it this far, please let me know what you think.  iOS is clearly the platform to beat, but things can change quickly.  Just think: Apple wasn’t in this space before 2007.  Personally, despite the allure of Open Source, I just can’t warm up to Android.  Are you a fan?  What makes it compelling to you?  Have you had a chance to use a PlayBook or TouchPad?  What do you think of them?  Am I the only one out that that thinks BlackBerry Bridge is a good idea?

Me, I find that I like a 7″ tablet but that clearly they all need more work.  If the PlayBook had the TouchPad’s app selection, or if the TouchBook was in the PlayBook’s body, that would be a compelling device.  As far as phones go, I’m more excited about what RIM has in store for BlackBerry than what the iPhone 5 might be.  Of course, I have my fingers crossed that HP’s Pre 3 will finally give webOS the hardware to match the great software.

Mostly, I find this an interesting time.  Whether it’s Apple, Google, HP, or RIM, we are clearly moving post-PC.  There are teething pains, for sure, and it will take us years before desktops and laptops are displaced. (And really, when is a technology ever truly displaced.)   I hope that all four of these platforms continue to improve and remain viable over time.  Choice is good.  The PC era began to wither when choice dwindled.  All of these competing platforms may be a pain for developers, web and otherwise, but it keeps us all thinking and allows for new ideas to bubble up to the surface.

These are exciting times to be a systems person, developer, or end-user.  It’s even better being all three.

2011-05-23

BlackBerry PlayBook with Bridge – A great approach

As a long-time fan of the QNX operating system, I jumped at the chance to pick up a BlackBerry PlayBook. You can read my review but the short version is that, despite some early and obvious flaws, there’s a lot to like about the BlackBerry PlayBook. In my initial review, I mentioned BlackBerry Bridge and suggested that if you weren’t a BlackBerry smartphone owner, you should probably wait until native PIM and email apps before buying.

BlackBerry Bridge Apps

BlackBerry Bridge Apps

Well, I purchased a used BlackBerry 8900 (Torch) last week and have been playing with Bridge over the weekend. As I speculated, it brings a whole new level of value to the BlackBerry PlayBook. In fact, I would best that if more reviewers had been BlackBerry owners, initial reviews of the PlayBook would have been far more positive.

BlackBerry Bridge, as used on a Torch over the Rogers network, makes the PlayBook a fully-functional device. Not only that, the execution of Bridge is quite an elegant alternative to built-in native PIM and mail apps. While Bridge limits access by design, it very handily sidesteps a slew of potential security concerns and truly turns the PlayBook into a dual-function work and play device.

One difficult decision that I’ve had to make with both the Archos 70 and Coby Kyros was whether or not to configure the devices as fully-connected and integrated parts of my digital life. By this, I mean whether or not to sync the calendar, contacts, and mail to my usual accounts. Doing so is handy, I can look up an address or quickly check/edit my calendar, but it also means that I’ve had alarms in the bedroom at midnight for all-day events, and that I have to take care to lock the devices behind a PIN or password.  Because of this, I have ended out removing mail and disabling my calendar and contacts accounts on the Android tablets.

With Bridge, I don’t need to make this call. If the tablet is close to my phone, I get access to PIM and mail over Bluetooth. If the phone is off or away, I don’t have to worry about the distractions of work. Honestly, now that I’ve had a chance to use Bridge, I vastly prefer it to the normal Android tablet approach. Not only that, I don’t need to worry about setting anything other than Bridge up. No per-device mail, calendar, and contact setup.

Bridge Calendar - Month view

Bridge Calendar - Month view

If I lend the PlayBook to a neighbour or friend, I don’t have to worry about wiping th device first. It’s actually quite liberating.

So, Bridge is very cool. I think it’s been a real missed-opportunity by RIM. Rather than trying to duck the missing native apps, I think they should have talked up Bridge and touted the behaviour as an advantage of the platform. Perhaps they should have even provided reviewers with BlackBerry phones with canned dummy content to show them how well it works.

Having used Bridge, I’m convinced that RIM is onto something here.  Security of these tablet devices is a big unanswered question.  They typically aren’t as close to you as cell phones, and locking them down as one might a laptop limits their usefulness.  As a result, the potential for data loss is huge.  RIM largely sidesteps these problems with Bridge.  Perhaps instead of creating native PIM and email apps for the PlayBook, RIM should focus on bringing Bridge capabilities to iOS and Android, which would solidly position the PlayBook as a compliment to a smartphone.  They could even continue to give away Bridge for BlackBerry but then sell Bridge for iOS and Android.  As with the iPod/Mac halo-effect, this may gently prod potential users to the BlackBerry family of products, while keeping the BlackBerry smartphone as the centre of the attention.

2011-03-17

Palm Pre 2 Review

Well, it’s finally here, and just in time to be replaced by the HP Pre 3 and HP Veer. The Palm Pre 2 could very well be the last Palm-branded smartphone.  In better news, Rogers has started selling the Palm Pre 2.  I’ve actually had one since December, as a part of HP/Palm’s Developer Program.  HP/Palm first shipped me an EU model but it had serious stability problems (and wouldn’t work on North American 3G GSM bands)  They have since shipped a North American model, which has pretty much sorted the random reboots, though WebOS 2.1 is still a little less stable than 1.4.5.

So, just to be totally clear, HP has given me a Palm Pre 2, unlocked, in order to help spur development.  I am working on a few apps at the moment, though I haven’t published any of them on Palm’s App Market yet.  I consider this review to be unbiased, though you can take it with a grain of salt if you so desire.

I am also writing this review as someone who has purchased and owned or owns the following smartphones:  BlackBerry Curve 8330, iPhone 3GS, Palm Pre, LG Eve (Android 1.5 and 2.2) and now a Palm Pre 2. The Pre 2 is by far my favourite device.

The Palm Pre 2

Why I Like WebOS as a Platform

The software is slick and fast like the iPhone, with true multi-tasking. The app catalog, while small by Android and iPhone standards, has everything I need: Some fantastic games (including Angry Birds, and many high-end iPhone games that have been ported), decent RSS readers, streaming CBC apps, Twitter clients, optional Facebook integration, Google Maps, and great news apps.

WebOS/Palm for Developers

The Pre’s WebOS 2.0 is the best mobile operating system I have used. Developing for it is also a breeze. Native apps are written in HTML/CSS/JavaScript. games can be written using Palm’s PDK in C++. Apparently, porting from iOS is a snap, as they’ve purposely kept the APIs similar.  If that’s not enough, WebOS also supports PhoneGap, a cross-platform JavaScript library that lets you easily write apps that work on iOS, Android, WebOS, and BlackBerry.  HP/Palm even provide tutorials that show you how to write a PhoneGap-based app and bundle it as a native app for WebOS, Android, and iOS.

If you’re a tinkerer, you’ll like to hear that there is no need to root the phone. Just enable developer mode, and you’re set. Palm even includes a Terminal program, if that’s your thing. WebOS has a very active homebrew community, which Palm and now HP have been very supportive of. WebOS is Linux underneath, though it’s more like a traditional Linux, not the very stripped-down version that Android uses.

My first WebOS app!

There is no such thing as a locked-down WebOS phone.  All of them have a “Developer Mode” app which, with a single swipe, roots your phone and allows you to install from 3rd-party sources.  While it may not be open source like Android, WebOS and HP/Palm are very developer-friendly.  I signed on as a Palm Developer because I like the platform.  In my opinion, the development model is very open, the software is fantastic, HP are moving the SDK in the right direction, and are keen to support all types of developers; from small-time hobbyists to large software houses such as EA and Gameloft.

Using the Pre 2

As an end-user, the phone just works without the fiddling associated with Android devices. No need to install Task Killers, no slow-downs over time. People coming from the original Palm Pre will feel right at home and users coming from iOS or Android should have no problems picking up WebOS.  It works very logically and is very fluid.

WebOS 2 features Just Type. Basically, you start typing anywhere and the Pre 2 instantly searches your address book, calendar, web, etc. It works very well. WebOS also has what they call Synergy. It is a layer that syncs back and forth with cloud services such as Google’s calendar and address book, or Facebook etc. It is pretty much transparent and just works.

WebOS Cards

The Pre 2 itself is almost identical to the Palm Pre. It is, however, much faster. It uses HP’s new WebOS 2 software, it has a much improved 5.0 megapixel camera, and takes great videos. The Pre 2 camera is the best phone camera I’ve used.

The keyboard is OK; I like the LG Eve keyboard better but the overall size of the Pre2 evens this out. It is a lovely, small, extremely capable device.

The web browser is easily just as good as the browser in the iPhone, which, in my opinion, means it’s much better than the current Android offering. It’s fast and fluid. The Pre2 even has beta Flash support, though I always turn Flash off, even on my computers; so I have no comment as to the quality of the Flash port.

The Pre 2 is also surprisingly suitable as a work device. The basic PDA applications are very thoughtfully laid out and are much more usable than the stock offerings for iPhone or Android. In particular, the Calendar and Task Manager “Tasks” work very well. They look nice, and are fast to use. In the Calendar, one tap adds/edits an event, then you can just start typing. The Pre2 has a great PDF viewer and can read MS Office documents as well, so attachments aren’t a problem.

WebOS 2.1 Exhibition Mode and the last Palm? (With Touchstone)

Room for improvement

It would be nice if the Pre 2 had a higher-res screen than the original Pre. 320×480 isn’t great by today’s standards. Still, it’s a nice, bright and responsive screen with intuitive touch-screen controls.  It also works great in full sunlight.  The Pre 2 has a glass cover; a vast improvement over the original plastic cover of the Pre.  Still, the glass comes at the expense of the smooth feel of the original Pre.  It looks nicer, it’s nicer to use, but doesn’t feel as nice in the hand.

The Pre 2’s biggest weak-spot is the small app catalog compared to iOS or Android.  However, what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in quality.  The stock apps are great, and there are some very high-quality apps in the catalog to fill in the few remaining gaps.  HP is also aggressively courting developers, so hopefully this will continue to improve over time.

Having used WebOS 2.0 for a while now, I mostly think it’s a big step forward.  Adding words to the spell check is very well done, as is the text replacement feature.  This was something that I sorely missed from the BlackBerry.  On the downside, 2.x is buggier than 1.4.5.  My random lockups are mostly gone but the device has still rebooted a few times in the last three weeks.  Things are better in 2.1 but the situation still leaves some room for improvement.

Finally, Palm could improve the hardware keyboard, as well as the overall quality of the device itself. My LG Eve feels like it’s better built than the Pre 2. However, overall, the Pre 2 is just lovely to use. It’s fast, it has fantastic software, it makes a great MP3 player, it’s small and unobtrusive, and has the best calendar/address book/task apps I’ve used on recent smartphones.

Wrapping Up

I’ll be completely honest:  HP/Palm have a lot of ground to make up to be competitive with current iOS and Android devices.  Still, WebOS is a very cool platform.  It feels just as polished as iOS without many of the developer constraints of iOS.  It feels almost as open as Android but without my lingering fear of Google having yet another way of reaching into my life.

The Palm Pre 2 is a fine hold0ver device for HP but they really need to push new devices to advance the platform.  They need to do this soon, too, as Android keeps picking up market and mindshare, while iOS picks up the profits.  Hopefully HP will have compelling announcements this February.  WebOS would certainly make a fine tablet or netbook OS.

I’m using my Palm Pre 2 every day.  If HP hadn’t given me one, at $99 on a three-year contract from Rogers, I still think it’s their best smartphone offering for people who just want a smartphone that works but don’t want an iPhone.  HP’s biggest problem here is a lack of marketing.  Everybody knows about the iPhone and Android.  Hardly anyone knows about WebOS or the Palm Pre 2.  In fact, even the Palm name is a double-edged sword.  Long-time users love the brand but just as many people have visions of 7 year old PDAs that crashed all the time.  The Pre 2 is good but it’s not great.  HP needs to have something new ready soon.  I hope the Pre 3, Veer, and Touchbook are actually released on time and are enough to turn the tide for WebOS.   It would be a complete shame if WebOS as a platform was never given a chance to truly shine.

2010-11-20

My first webOS app: Poker Run

I’ve finally done it: I’ve written my first decent HP webOS app. It’s called Poker Run and it’s a simple egg timer for counting blinds. It also lists the small blind values and chip distribution that I tend to play with.

Launcher icon for Poker Run

Poker Run: The Application (Click to download)

My first webOS app: Poker Run (Click to download)

That’s right, I’ve managed to replace both a post-it note and a $10 egg timer. Woohoo!

It’s a very basic webOS app written in HTML/CSS/JavaScript. I started with this and improved/fixed a few things:

  • My app allows you to resume or restart the clock
  • I stop the screen from locking or going blank.  This allows it to keep accurate time and always show you how much is left, but it also means that it’s chewing battery whenever the timer runs.

I should really use Palm’s power management for the timer but this was much simpler.

Anyway, feel free to download it if you’d like.  It’s nothing fancy but it’s a start.

2009-05-31

Bolt Browser: Finally, a decent BlackBerry web browser

Yesterday, once again frustrated by the appalling state of RIM’s browser on my BlackBerry Curve, I took a look at the alternatives.  One I’d missed until now was Bitstream’s Bolt Browser.  Well, am I ever glad I checked it out.  This is a WebKit-based browser in Java.  It’s still in beta but even so, I’ll be using it as my default browser on the Curve.  It’s much faster, renders correctly, and finally brings a decent user-experience to the BlackBerry.

I hope that RIM takes notice of this and licenses it for their next major OS release.  It’s still not much compared to Safari on the iPhone, but it is vastly superior to either RIM’s browser or Opera’s Mobile browser.

With a little more polish, it will be an excellent product that I, for one, would happily pay for.

2009-05-26

Tethering a BlackBerry Curve and Linux

As a follow-up to my instructions on how to tether my Bell CDMA BlackBerry Curve 8330 to Mac OSX 10.5, I am also posting how to do the same under Ubuntu Linux 9.04.

Ubuntu 9.04 has nice integration between NetworkManager and various broadband net services.  I had previously configured it to work with a Bell-branded Novatel U727 USB stick.  This worked well under 8.04 but was even easier to setup under 9.04.  It turns out that pairing Ubuntu 9.04 with the Curve over Bluetooth was even easier!

The only trick:  Install blueman-manager instead of bluez-gnome.

Here’s the step-by-step:

  1. Go to the Blueman PPA page
  2. Follow their instructions to add the sources.  (Basically, add the following to sources.list and then run apt-get update: deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/blueman/ppa/ubuntu jaunty main
  3. sudo apt-get install blueman  (This will uninstall bluez-gnome)
  4. run blueman-manager
  5. Right-click on the bluetooth icon in the taskbar, select Setup New Device…
  6. Find the curve, select it and then select Dial-Up Networking (DUN)
  7. Now click on the NetworkManager applet, you should see “Auto Mobile Broadband (CDMA) Connection” as an option.  Pick it, you’re done!

Assuming they dump bluez-gnome for blueman in Ubuntu 9.10, it will be even easier to setup tethering in Linux than it is in Mac OSX.  Yippee!

Oh, and of course, this post was written while tethered.