Categories
Apple Reviews

Nine months with an Apple Magic Trackpad

As of this week, Apple will be offering customers of new desktop Macs the choice of either a Magic Trackpad or a Magic Mouse for no extra cost. Multitouch is here to stay.

Since I first saw a multitouch device, the original iPhone, I have always wanted to see more multitouch technology find its way onto desktop computers. When Apple first released the Magic Trackpad in July 2010, I was curious to see how well it would work as a primary pointing device (read: mouse replacement). I tried one out at an Apple Store, and I read the mixed reviews on the numerous review sites. It wasn’t long before I bought one.

My Magic Trackpad, which has replaced my mouse for the last 9 months.

When I started using it, I kept my mouse close at hand. I was cautious, but I liked the Magic Trackpad straight away. I had been getting an aching arm from using my mouse, despite careful positioning of my iMac, keyboard and mouse, with attention to posture. One of the first things that I noticed was the slight change in position of my arm through using a large trackpad had made the numb ache disappear.

Within a fortnight, I had put the mouse away in a drawer. It has, for the large part, stayed there. The Magic Trackpad is just a joy to use, so much so that I find myself blogging about it. The trackpad surface is smooth, positioning accurate, and the multitouch gestures are incredibly useful. My mouse only comes out when I have any complex 3D modelling to do, but even then, only for long complex modelling sessions.

Multitouch

Aside from two-finger scrolling and panning, the gestures that I have found that I use the most are a swipe of four fingers up to reveal the desktop, and four down to activate Exposé. The least useful are pinch to zoom and the two-finger rotate – I’ve switched these off, as occasionally when clicking with my thumb with a finger still on the pad, as had unintended consequences.

I have enabled the right-click in System Preferences, and clicks register with a nice physical ‘clunk’, so despite the multitouch capability, there is still tactile feedback where it counts.

To really unlock the multitouch potential of the Magic Trackpad, or indeed, of the Magic Mouse, you will need to download the free MagicPrefs app. You can configure your own swipes and tap combinations, as well as play with the realtime multitouch visualisation. I have mine set up to use a three-finger swipe to use Spaces in OSX, a feature I hardly ever used until now.

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion

We know that Apple are taking lessons learned in iOS and bringing some of those features to the Mac. This will include many more multitouch features which will make a Magic Trackpad even more useful. The following video, of a beta of OS X 10.7, gives a good example of why multitouch is here to stay:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdkdmI9LXiM

So if you’ve been sitting on the fence wondering whether to buy a Magic Trackpad, I heartily recommend them! If you’re in the UK, it is work looking for them on Amazon as they can be much cheaper (£48 from Amazon [disclaimer: affiliate link], vs £59 from Apple).

Categories
Music

Pilgrim’s Progress – a new album by Kula Shaker

Kula Shaker have recently released their fourth studio album, Pilgrim’s Progress.

Their first two albums, ‘K’ and “Peasants Pigs and Astronauts” before their split at the eclipse in 1999 are amazing. Their 2007 comeback album “Strangefolk” is quirky, psychedelic, and wonderful. Upon hearing about the release of Pilgrim’s Progress, and after a quick first listen on Spotify, I went out and bought the physical CD. From a real shop (how retro!). Some music deserves to be bought in hard-copy, and this is one of those albums.

Rather than describe their current sound in inadequate language, watch and listen to the video below and I think that you might agree that it’s a rather wonderful track. If you like it, you’ll love the rest of Pilgrim’s Progress.

Categories
Android

Life with the HTC Desire Android smartphone

Reflected Sun Fire. A photo taken with Vignette on my HTC Desire.

It’s been well over a month since I bought my HTC Desire to replace my trustworthy Nokia E71. How am I getting on with it? Here’s my mini review of the handset and its Android operating system.

It’s all about integration

One thing that I have strived to do on the E71, and failed, was to have seamless syncing of data, and integration with the online services that I use. A combination of syncing my Apple address book with Google, and using iSync on my Mac to update the phone and vice versa didn’t always work out. It was still a manual process. I would invariably forget to do it. Things got into a bit of a mess, with plenty of duplicates. The Google sync on Android, with the HTC Sense tweaks, finally make this just work.

My contacts and calendars are in sync wherever I go, which is a revelation to me. I don’t actually have to do anything, which is how it should be. Sync is transparent. My Apple Address Book is set to sync with Google (but still backed up by Time Machine on OSX) and I’m very happy with how it all works. Of course, this is an Android OS feature and not unique to the HTC Desire, but very nice nonetheless.

The same sync happens with my Google Calendar – Apple Calendar is set to sync with Google, and the calendar on my phone is the same that I have on the web or my desktop. It’s great. And then there’s Gmail sync and Twitter…

It’s all about the battery life

So with all of this fancy syncing going on, with that lovely large high resolution AMOLED screen, how long is it before I’m searching for a USB port or a power socket? Initially, when I first got the phone, naturally I was playing with it all of the time. Downloading apps, playing with every feature to find out how it works. The phone didn’t last all day. In fact, far from it. It was just a few hours of constant use before I’d have to plug it in.

However, after maybe 4 or 5 charges, and a little less fiddling with the features, I found that the battery began to stabilise and last much longer. I set the sync frequency to be much less frequent for Twitter, removed Facebook sync, set Flickr and Exchange to be just once a day, and this has made a massive improvement. If the phone isn’t having to access the internet every 10 minutes, then you’ll notice that you can easily get through the day with it.

Other major factors that I have found are that in auto 2G/3G mode, the battery does last less than setting to be locked to either. Unfortunately I’m on the 3 network in the UK which requires me to have auto mode enabled, but when on holiday in Italy I switched data off on the phone (just using Wifi at the hotel) and locked it to 2G. The Desire’s battery lasted for a couple of days, even when using it to take around 30 photos a day. In ‘airplane mode’ the battery seemed like it could last forever (which is just as well given how long we were stuck on an aeroplane for, on the tarmac in Milan).

My HTC Desire’s battery can now comfortably last me a whole day, and often overnight as well, with a few hours the following morning before I realise I ought to plug it in.

It’s all about the screen

As I’ve mentioned, the HTC Desire has an 480 X 800 WVGA AMOLED screen. It’s beautiful. Reading text on it is so crisp, it’s no strain on the eye at all (for me, anyway). I downloaded the Aldiko ebook reader and Guardian Anywhere and reading content from both apps is simply a joy. I’ve even read a whole HG Wells book on it. I think that this is one of the best mobile screens available.

However, the screen does have a big weakness. Sunlight. I used to keep my phone on the minimum brightness level, until I found out that you can’t see anything at all on the screen bar fingerprints. You can’t see the controls to increase the brightness. Cue lots of shading the screen, or finding somewhere out of the sun to squint at the vague ghost of an Android OS so that you can crank it up to full brightness. Heavens help you if a call comes in or you need to make an urgent call with a dimly lit screen in full sunlight. I now try and put the phone onto auto brightness when I’m out and about (which isn’t always good for battery life, but at least it’s usable).

However, the beautiful fidelity of the screen, its sharpness and richness of colour more than makes up for this once you have learned how to work around the weaknesses.

So what about the Apps?

There are lots of amazing apps available for Android. Coming from an app-starved Symbian phone, it’s utter luxury. I’ve got apps for most things that I want to do with a phone, and I’ve only had to pay for one of them (the excellent Vignette for Android). It can be a bit hard to find decent apps, because the Android Market is littered with duplicate apps and those displaying photos of a dubious nature. But a bit of digging around using Google and by visiting the numerous Android blogs, it’s not hard to find out what apps are considered a must-have.

Highlights for me (in no particular order) are:

A proper Skype solution is sorely missing, sort of filled by “Skype for 3” here in the UK which is still rather crippled (and uses the cellular network to place and receive calls, and won’t accept calls from Skype online numbers). There will be an official Skype for Android to be released later in 2010, which will charge for calls placed over 3G. I don’t think I’ll touch Fring or Nimbuzz because of the way that they reset privacy settings (but I still need to check if this is still the case).

Conclusion

The HTC Desire is a great phone. The camera is fantastic, and made even better by using Vignette. The screen is pin-sharp (but not good in direct sunlight), and the battery lasts just about long enough to use it a fair bit in the day. The syncing is excellent – having Google Mail, Contacts, Calendar and Twitter always updated is amazing. The HTC Sense interface which sits atop Android is very well designed, and allows for a great deal of customisation – widgets, shortcuts to apps and websites – you can really make it your own. If you like to tinker with your phone, then it’s definitely for you.

It really does feel like a mini computer, a step towards that ubiquitous device that does it all reasonably well, and I’m really glad that I have one.

Categories
Android Mobile

Bye bye Symbian, hello Android

HTC Desire

Last week I waved goodbye to my trusty Nokia E71. After watching the iPhone and Android communities evolve over the last 18 months, Symbian (the operating system that runs on the E71) has increasingly felt rather outdated.

I am now the proud owner of an HTC Desire running on Google’s Android platform.

People who know me may be a little surprised, given my general enthusiasm for all things Apple, that I didn’t get an iPhone. One of the major deciding factors is the unavoidable practicality that I am stuck in the middle of a long contract with 3. I can’t justify the outlay on an iPhone as well as the £35/month contract that goes with it. I’ll get one someday, just not yet.

Putting all of that aside, I am an itinerant tinkerer. I like the freedom that goes with Android – you can tinker with the many options, set up homescreen widgets, and truly customise it. There are plenty of free apps out there to play with, and the Android App ecosystem seems pretty healthy, with the number of apps available in the Android Market steadily increasing (50,000 at the time of writing). Android is the underdog platform, and is something I’ve wanted to try out for a few years.

So what phone to choose? Initially, it was going to have to be the Google Nexus One. However, being based in the UK, it wasn’t available, and I didn’t want the hassle of trying to import one. Manufacturer HTC and Android review websites were making noises about a handset called the HTC Desire, which was mooted to be almost exactly the same as the Nexus One bar a secondary microphone and a different design (HTC make the Nexus One for Google anyway). This sounded ideal.

After a few weeks of reading reviews, and looking at sample video and photos taken by the device, my mind was made up. At the same time, my mobile operator, 3 UK, announced that they would be releasing the HTC Desire on their network. Due to huge interest in the handset they also announced that they would release the handset ahead of their own branding and customisation, so that the first batch of handsets sold by them would be unbranded, unlocked, and subsidised. Excellent! An unlocked unbranded handset means that I will get all of the necessary firmware / OS updates from HTC when they’re released. Branded handsets are sometimes never updated.

Thinking back to my post about Simply Drop, a way of recycling old mobile phones for cash, I totted up how much I could get for all my old mobiles, including the E71. Enough to pay for half the HTC Desire, and enough to convince me that this was a good idea.

After a little bit of fun trying to buy an HTC Desire from 3 (who didn’t seem to want to sell one on PAYG) I managed to get one at the end of last week.

So, two days in to using Android on the HTC Desire, what do I think? So far, it’s amazing. The HTC Sense interface which adds some extra functionality to the standard Android user interface (UI) is very slick and easy to navigate. The dark interface is cleanly designed and minimal, the capacitive touch screen is very sensitive, keyboard works well, and the 1Ghz SnapDragon processor means the whole experience is very quick with no detectable lag. I like it.

The social networking and Google integration is just wonderful. Gmail, contacts, calendar, Twitter, Flickr, all synchronise automatically. Without doing anything, I have the same information on my phone as I do on my Mac. It’s something I’ve quested to do on my old E71 since I got it, and never managed an eloquent solution. And now I have one.

Also – browsing the web is every bit as good as on an iPhone (I have an iPod Touch, so know it well). The inclusion of Flash in the browser is nice, but it’s not something I’m too bothered about really (favouring standards and HTML5).

The downsides so far are the battery life and screen visibility. This, like an iPhone, is a charge every day device. I understand that the battery gets a bit better after a few days, but I will be keeping a closer eye on battery levels after being used to the E71’s 3 day capacity. Screen visibility is poor in direct sunlight. It’s nowhere near as good as the E71. The AMOLED screen brightness needs to be set to full to see it in bright conditions. I recommend setting the brightness to auto rather than manual control, otherwise there are times when you can’t even see the brightness control to turn it up to full when you need it.

But otherwise, all good so far.

Expect a full review of the HTC Desire in the coming weeks.

Categories
Phones

The LG KC910 “Renoir”

Recently, my contract with 3 UK came up for renewal. Since I’m a frequent Skype user, I decided to stay with them and sign up for another 18 months. Despite loving my Nokia E71, a number of phones were offered to me free with my new contract. I plumped for the LG KC910 “Renoir” purely for its abilities as a camera – if I’m heading somewhere for the weekend, I can just take one device with me if I feel like it.

I’ve had it for a couple of weeks now, and, generally, I’m getting along with it.

The camera is just superb. The 8 megapixel camera is as good as any point and shoot, and the movie recording feature works wonderfully – my favourite setting being 640×384 widescreen – the video is crisp and colours well-defined. I’m very happy with the imaging functions, and that’s remarkable given how picky I am.

Conifer and Parasol

The video quality isn’t bad in low light either. Here’s a video taken at dusk, overlooking a river, with some bats playing over the surface of the water:

 

Bats on the River Avon from Tom Goskar on Vimeo.

The rest of the phone, well, after the E71, isn’t much to write home about. The interface is a bit clunky, the browser is passable, and the Java implementation is rubbish. But, it does the job – I can make and receive calls, and stab at the screen to send texts. I would *hate* to use it for Skype chat – the interface is just hideous – but making and receiving Skype calls works well.

I’m having trouble setting up my email too, which is annoying. It receives email fine, but sending an email with a photo attachment simply doesn’t work. This is doubly annoying, as it means that I can’t send photos to Posterous, Twitpic, Flickr, etc via email. I hope that I’ll work out how to fix it, or I’ll have to contact LG to see if they can help. 

Still, the camera came with an 8GB MicroSD card which is easily accessible via a flap on the side of the phone, so it’s easy to take it out, pop into an adaptor and transfer to my Mac. I managed to upload a photo to Flickr via the web browser, but it’s a fiddly process.

So what about build quality? It’s quite a chunky phone, made entirely from plastic, which is a stark contrast from the metal solidity of the E71. But it doesn’t creak or bend, and is nonetheless sturdy feeling for a plastic phone. The touchscreen is plastic, so prone to scratches, and is resistive rather than capacitive, so you need to press firmly (but not too hard) to register a ‘click’. You can of course see the touchscreen yield under your finger in the right light.

All round, it’s not bad. If I’m using my E71, I miss the KC910’s camera – but if I’m using the KC910, I miss the elegance of the E71, and it’s great physical keyboard. Any on-screen keyboard is a pile of rubbish compared to the iPhone’s implementation, in my humble opinion, this LG’s included.

Expect more opinions as I play more with the Renoir (especially if I fix the sending email attachments problem).

Categories
Gadgets Mobile

Nokia E71 Review: Part One

Last week I treated myself to a new Nokia E71 on the 3 network here in the UK. After suffering the crapness that is the text entry system on the 3 Skypephone, I was after something that would run Skype, but have an excellent web browser and keyboard.

I looked at many phones, but settled on an E71 for these reasons:

  • Excellent battery life
  • QWERTY keyboard
  • Decent Skype client (provided by 3)
  • 3MP autofocus camera
  • GPS
  • Symbian OS (smartphone goodness without Windows Mobile or Apple walled garden)

I won’t list all of the phones that I looked at, but suffice to say I looked at most of the advanced phones available today. I did settle on an N95, but the battery life would definitely have been an issue for me, being an itinerant fiddler when it comes to gadgets. If it has features, then I will use them. And I want to be able to use those features whenever I want, not think about what I can or can’t use because I want to make a call later. I talked to too many N95 users who too often looked depressed when I asked about battery life.

Anyway, I digress.

I will start my review with a summary, to save all but the ardent reader having to read any further. The phone is all that I hoped for given my budget. Visually, I think the E71 is a great looking device. I plumped for the white version, and with its steel chrome surround, and white LEDs, it’s very shiny. It feels solid in the hand, and there’s no creaking plastic to be found. It ticks all of the build-quality boxes that I had in the back of my mind.

Given that the phone has everything bar a coffee machine inside it, the battery life is phenomenal. As I write this, I have two bars of battery life left. Over the last three (yes, three) days since its last charge I have used just about every function for just about every purpose I could think of. And there’s still charge left. I have:

  • Taken 60 photos
  • Recorded 10 minutes of video
  • Browsed the web for about 4 hours using a mixture of 3G and Wifi
  • Twittered a lot
  • Sent some SMS messages
  • Made some calls (maybe 30 mins)
  • Used the GPS for about an hour
  • Used the streaming internet radio for about 30 minutes
  • Listened to mp3s while surfing the web (maybe about 2 hours)
  • Installed and played with 14 applications (I’ll list them in another post)
  • Played about with Qik (10 minutes)
  • Run Skype in the background for maybe 4 hours

Now, to me, that I have any charge left at all is somewhat amazing (actually, it’s just gone down to one bar as I write this). I’m fairly sure that it’ll last until I get home in a couple of hours to give it a charge. Now that’s what I call battery stamina.

I finally have a phone (well, it’s a mini computer really) that does the things what I want it to do, and has the battery life to let me do them.

I’ll be writing a series of posts about different aspects of the phone in the next few days, so stay tuned.

[Update – I took a couple of 3-4 minute calls on the way home, took a photo, and received a text on the 45 minute walk home. In the last call, the phone began to warn me about a low battery. When I got home I plugged it in to charge, and went to see if it was charged at about 8.30pm (Monday). I’d forgotten to switch on the charger! But the phone was still on, and had received a text! The thing seems to last forever. For reference, it had its last charge on Friday night.]