Saturday, August 31, 2013

Moto X First Impressions

I mentioned about two weeks ago that I was considering buying a new smartphone.  Well, I went ahead and bought one the Friday a week ago.  I got the Moto X, which I mentioned as being the one I was most interested in.  The process was not entirely painless.  While the MotoMaker website was online, at that point, you couldn't just buy a phone from the website.  You first had to go to an AT&T store and purchase one of the scratch cards that gave you access to the website.  That took over an hour, since the AT&T employees didn't know how to do the order. It's not really the employees' fault, since they simply hadn't been trained on how to do it, but it was still frustrating for all involved.

But I finally got the card, and was able to get online and order the phone.  I really didn't want the customization option because I wanted a special color combination.  All I was really after was an extra 16 GB of storage, which is what I got.  As for colors, I just got a basic woven black, with metallic red trim. Then I placed my order and waited.  The website said that it would take 12 days to arrive rather than the four that Motorola has been promising in their press releases, but I guess they really meant four days, because the phone arrived on Wednesday, and I've been playing with it ever since.

What surprised me at first was how small the phone was.  I had seen the specs, so I knew its dimensions, but that's different from actually holding it in your hand.  I expected it to at least be bigger than my iPhone 4S, which is two years old, and has the dimensions of a three year old phone.  And it is bigger, but I've been carrying my iPhone in a Mophie Juice Pack Case, which makes it bigger. Big enough that the Moto X and the iPhone in its case were the exact same length and width, except that the Moto X was much thinner. In fact, it feels small and light compared to what I've been carrying around.  But it also has a 4.7" screen, as opposed to the 3.5" on the 4S.  So it's smaller in size, but has a bigger screen at the same time.

It doesn't have a longer battery life, but that's mainly because my 4S had the extra battery in its case.  I'm fairly certain that the 4S by itself doesn't last as long as the Moto X, which seems capable of running all day without recharging, from 7 am to 11 pm, although by 11 pm it's below 15% battery and on battery saver mode.   I use my phone pretty extensively during the day, though it's mostly for web browsing and checking e-mail and reading e-books, not for the real battery hogs, like video or games.

The screen's a large and beautiful AMOLED.  The difference in size is very noticeable.  I'm not so sure about the color and contrast, which are supposed to be really good on an AMOLED, but that may just be because I'm not enough of a screen connoisseur to be able to tell the difference without looking at them side by side.  Though certainly, Apple's been no slouch when it comes to high-resolution screens for their phones.  I do like that the Moto X takes advantage of the AMOLED screen to do low power, on screen notifications.  I'm getting used to just glancing at my phone and being able to tell whether there's anything I need to deal with, without having to press any buttons or unlock it.

Since this is my first Android phone, a lot of the differences I'm noticing are the differences between Android and iOS, and not specific for the Moto X.  For example, I miss having a number on the icons to tell me how many email messages or voicemail messages I've received, and having a list of all my e-mails in my notifications.  But I'm definitely enjoying the ability to control where my icons go, choosing which ones I want to be my favorites, and putting widgets on my home screens to keep me up to date without having to fire up a program.  Right now I have a widget for weather and time (which is huge, as shown in the screenshot, but I wanted to show the hourly prediction as well as the current weather), one which shows my Google Now cards (at least the first couple), and a work one to keep track of the time I spend on projects (this one is more limited than I would like, as it can stop, start, pause, and select projects, but it fires up the app whenever I stop a task to try to make me enter comments, even when I don't have any I want to record).

The Moto X comes with touchless control, which is voice control without the need to press any buttons.  I've found it pretty effective at activating when it's supposed to, but it chokes at my lock screen, and doesn't always recover after I've entered the lock--it sometimes keeps asking me to retry the voice entry, but if I press the retry button, it fails to give me enough time to do so. This would probably work better with no lock at all, or with a trusted Bluetooth device, which would cause it to unlock whenever it was paired with the trusted device.  I'd sort of like a smartwatch, but it may be another generation before they're actually useful.  $150 is kind of expensive for something that just keeps my Moto X unlocked when I'm nearby.

The phone came with a Skip, which is an NFC device that unlocks the phone.  I haven't really tried doing the voice thing with the Skip--I'm not sure whether it would work better or not, but I probably ought to give it a try.  I don't really find voice control that useful--I almost never used it on the iPhone, even though it Siri was a major selling point of the 4S.  However, I've found Google's voice recognition pretty good, especially when using it to dictate by pressing the microphone icon on the keyboard.  I'm just not sure how to use the voice control to do the things I'd really like to do with it.  Like get it to text my wife using Google Hangouts rather than Messenger, or play an audio book in Audibles.  I'm not sure whether that functionality will be built into it any time soon.

I am really enjoying the Swype keyboard (actually, I'm not sure whether it's officially Swype, the settings just call it gesture entry). If you're not familiar with it, this is an interface that lets you enter words with a gesture, sliding (or swiping) your finger along the touchscreen from letter to letter in order to complete words. This is much quicker than the hunt-and-peck typing I usually use on a cellphone screen.  I can type on a keyboard, but I really don't think about where the actual letters are located.  It's more a matter of knowing how to move my fingers for certain letter combinations (in fact, I'm not entirely certain that I type letter-by-letter so much as word-by-word, so that  I know how to move my fingers in order to get them to produce certain words). In any case, there's still a good bit of hunting to do on phone keyboard, and I have to actually seek out the letters.  The Swype interface is a lot faster though, and I occasionally find myself not recalling where a letter is in the middle of a word, since I simply don't have the same muscle memory as I do while typing.  I may develop it with practice, though, so I'm trying to do that.  The problem is that it hurts my wrist when I do it for any length of time, but hopefully that, too, will improve with practice.

So, overall, I'm enjoying both the Moto X and Android, though it's a bit difficult sometimes to tell which I'm actually enjoying.  But as long as the complete package is good, I suppose that's what I'm after.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Taste of Rue

It's no secret that Kristin and I occasionally like to cook Ancient Roman food. Well, more accurately, Kristin likes to cook it, and I like to eat it (and support her habit).  We've also complained occasionally that it's hard to get certain ingredients. But Kristin has been growing both rue and pennyroyal this year (two of the hard to get, slightly poisonous Roman herbs), and she wanted to try at least one of them out.  So she took a recipe from Apicius and made it.

When I say Apicius, I'm talking about the ancient cookbook extant in the late Imperial period of Ancient Rome--not a modern cookbook which adapts the recipe, but a straight translation.  This is the first time we've done this--we've used adaptations of ancient recipes before, like Sally Grainger's or Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa's. Since the recipes are provided sans proportions, or much in the way of cooking instructions, it takes a skilled cook to translate the vague recipes into an actual meal prepared in a modern kitchen.  This time, Kristin was the one doing the cooking, using her best estimation of the amounts.  And since one of them was mildly poisonous, she was careful not to use too much (about a teaspoon).

Kristin will probably discuss the exact recipe on her blog. It was hardly a straight rue sauce: there was cumin, fennel seed, fish sauce, lovage, etc.  I liked it--it was certainly unique.  Rue is bitter, with hidden accents, but I'm not sure how to separate out the taste of rue from that of other herbs.  I think we should definitely try that sauce again, both with rue and with a substitue (we've used dandelion leaves before), and see how much of a difference it makes.

Update (8/31/2013): Kristin has written her own post on this subject, with the actual recipe she used.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Time for a Technology Upgrade

I've reached the point where all of my electronic devices are reaching their expiration date.  My Dell Inspiron 1120 laptop's three years old, and my iPhone 4S smartphone is two years old.  Even my watch, a Timex Expedition, is beginning to show its age, and the analog watch hands keep losing time. So it's time to start upgrading my technology, which I've begun to do.

The first thing I bought was a new laptop.  My old laptop was tiny, with an 11 inch screen, and I wanted something a little bit bigger.  The problem, though, was that a "little" bigger was hard to find, as everyone seems to prefer tablets and convertibles in the 11-12" range.  I was trying not to spend too much on the laptop--less than a $1,000 if I could manage it.  One option was the Lenovo Thinkpad X230, which at 12.5" was about the right size, and the price was only around $773.  The problem was that the nearly $800 bought a highly stripped down version, without a lot of the options I would need ( camera, faster processor, more memory, Microsoft Office), not to mention a lot of the options I would want (Adobe Acrobat, Bluetooth, Solid State Drive).  By the time I had a configuration I was happy with, I was up around $1,200.  So I went to Dell, where I could get a cheaper, inexpensive laptop.  Which is what I found, for only $800.  I had to pay a little extra to get Windows 7 instead of Windows 8, which I'm avoiding like a plague, but I was able to get all the need options, and most of the want options, for two-thirds the price.  Except . . . it was much bigger.  The mid-size ones, in the 12"-14" range, either weren't available with Windows 7, didn't have all the options I wanted, or only offered those options at a considerable premium.  So I ended up buying the Inspiron 15R.  It's not a bad computer, by any means, but it's bigger than I anticipated.  I had known that it was a 15.5" screen, but it's one thing to know that, it's another to carry it around. That said, it's really not much heavier than my last computer, and while it's probably too large to use comfortably on a plane, it's fine for what I use it for--mainly work and writing.  So I'm getting used to it, though I'm thinking that I should be more willing to pay a premium for a smaller computer next time.

Now that I have a laptop, the question is what phone should I upgrade to.  I'm on AT&T, so that limits the available phones some.  As I complained the last time I blogged about phones, smartphone manufacturers seem to think that bigger is better, and all the top-tier phones seem to have 4.7-5" screens. Fortunately, this year is the year of the Mini.  HTC, Motorola, Samsung, and maybe even Apple are introducing stripped down versions of their flagship phones, with smaller screens and lower specs and a lower price.  So there's the HTC One Mini, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, the Motorola Droid Mini, and the rumored Apple iPhone 5C.  Of these, the HTC One Mini is beating the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini in reviews, while the Droid Mini and iPhone 5C aren't out yet.  And, as of now, AT&T doesn't seem to have plans to carry any of them (except perhaps the iPhone).  That's not necessarily a deal-breaker, but I would prefer to stick with the same carrier, not least because my wife doesn't like the idea of changing.

So that leaves the following possibilities:

  • Samsung Galaxy S4 - The current king-of-the-hill, with the largest screen (5" AMOLED 1920x1080), expandable memory, a great camera, and a fast quad-core Snapdragon S600 processor. But I consider the first to be a turn-off.  One of my co-workers has the phone, and though he has slightly larger hands than I do, he still finds it difficult to use it one-handed. He also finds the battery life too short.
  • HTC One - The camera's not quite as good, and the memory isn't expandable (though it comes with twice as much to start), and the 1.7 GHz quad-core processor is slightly slower than the S4's 1.9 GHz, but the HTC One's pretty much a match for the Samsung Galaxy S4.  The screen is slightly smaller at 4.7" and has the same resolution, which I consider a plus, but it's an LCD, where I prefer an AMOLED.  Besides, HTC provides the Android Home and Back buttons external to the screen, so the touch interface really isn't any smaller.  [Update (8/25/2013): I realized later that the S4 also has external capacitive buttons, so it's still the king of the oversized touch interface.] And the reviews indicate that the battery life isn't any longer.
  • Apple iPhone 5S - The most likely name for the new Apple phone, but nothing has been announced or shown yet, so all we have are rumors and leaks.  The phone's probably about the same dimensions as the iPhone 5, which means that the screen's the same 4", with an external Home button.  It should be much more manageable one handed than the others.  Not much is known about whether the resolution is improved (it was 1136x640), or whether the technology is improved.  The processor's probably better than last year's A6 (which was a 1.3 GHz dual core), and the battery life is supposed to be better (the original iPhone 5's was pretty bad).
  • Motorola Moto X - At first glance, the specs for this phone are not impressive when compared to the S4 or One.  It has a dual-core, rather than quad-core, processor, and it has non-expandable 16 GB of memory, and a 1280x720 4.7" AMOLED screen.  Yet, this is still my top choice, for a number of reasons. I don't expect the lower resolution to make much difference--I really don't need the same resolution at 5" that my 40" television has.  And I'm not sure how effectively Android uses two processors, much less four, so I don't expect the pure horsepower to make that much difference day-to-day. Plus, there are a couple of things that really stand out about the Moto X. First, it's smaller. The handset's height and width are significantly smaller than the S4 and the One, and much more comfortable to use one-handed. It's width is smaller than the two of them by about .1-.2", and it's shorter by about .3". (The overall touch interface is smaller too, since it doesn't have external buttons like the HTC One, and it has a smaller screen than the S4.)  It's still bigger than the iPhone 5, about a quarter inch in height and width, but it has a much larger screen.  It also has less bloatware than HTC One or the Galaxy S4, not having the skin that they do, so it's almost a pure Android experience. There are just a few extras, and they sound pretty good--context awareness, always-on speech activation, and taking advantage of the AMOLED to do low power notifications whenever you want them.  And, perhaps most importantly, the Moto X has better battery life than the HTC One or Galaxy S4.  It's possible that Apple will come out with something great this year, or that the HTC One Mini will become available on AT&T, but barring either of those, I'll most likely get a Moto X for both my wife and myself.
So now that I've decided on what smartphone I'll probably get, the next question is what watch to get.  I think I'd like to get a smart watch this year.  What's a smart watch?  Well, it's a watch that interfaces with your phone, sending notifications to your wrist, and depending on the watch, allowing you to view them, read your e-mail, and possibly control your phone to some extent.  I thought it sounded silly at first, until I started looking into it.  I'm not sure whether any of the current and upcoming crop of smart watches really appeals to me, but I am seriously considering them.
  • Pebble - This was one of the most successful Kickstarters ever.  The watch it produced looks pretty nice, but I don't think it's quite right for me.  It's monochrome, it has buttons rather than a touchscreen, and it's pretty limited in the type of notifications it can receive and how you can interact with them.  That said, $150 isn't that different from the price of a nice watch.
  • Sony Smartwatch 2 - Sony's on its third generation of Smartwatch.  Unfortunately, the first two generations were dismal failures, both technologically and commercially.  The new one sounds pretty good, and maybe it will be a success.  It uses a transflective LCD, like old-style digital watches, so it should be clearly readable without backlighting (even in sunlight)  which should help with battery life, and allow it to display a watchface at all times (something the last Smartwatch couldn't do).  It also has a color display (for which it probably does need backlighting), for interacting with the phone.  Overall, this probably has the best combination of features and style for me, but it remains to be seen whether the implementation will be better than Sony's last couple of tries.
  • Samsung Galaxy Gear - Right now there are only rumors about this one, but it sure looks like overkill to me.  The early rumors described a screen that wraps around your wrist, and when unwound, is basically a narrow and tall smartphone, but it looks like Samsung's not ready for that yet. It does sound like it is supposed to operate without the smartphone, on WiFi or cellphone networks. This looks more like a replacement for a phone, than a companion for one.
  • Apple iWatch - Right now, there's only rumors that this even exists.  Much less when it will come out.  But we'll see if Apple announces something new when the new iPhones and iPads come out.
So, from what I know so far, the Smartwatch 2 looks like it will probably be the best, but I'll have to wait and see what comes of it and the other possible announcements.

Update (8/19/2013): It looks like I spoke too soon. Apparently, AT&T will be carrying the HTC One Mini. With that on the table, I think I'll need to get into a store and see how each phone feels in my hand.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Humor of Calculon 2.0

When I first saw this, I thought this was the funniest thing I'd ever seen:



I literally had to pause it so I could catch my breath.  It's hard to explain why, and it's nowhere near as funny on re-watch, but some things just strike you the right way.  You should watch it before I talk about it.

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It's obvious why it's funny.  The professor's insistence that this is science while performing what is clearly a ritual of dark magic is the apotheosis of humorous juxtaposition.  But what made it so ROFLMAO funny for me probably has a lot to do with my background.  My job title is Computer Scientist (though, at the end of the day, I'm more of an Electrical Engineer).  And I know that a lot of what I do looks like a black art.  It's not always easy for me to explain how I get a computer working or a piece of code running.  From the outside, it can look like meaningless rituals that perform magic.  And in that context, this was an over-the-top, power of the robot devil version of that, and that's what made it so funny for me.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Black Gate Review of Sorrel in Scarlet

My latest review for Black Gate is now online.  This month, I review Peter Vialls's Sorrel in Scarlet. Here's a small taste:
Sorrel in Scarlet is an old-fashioned sword and sorcery tale (with just a little bit of early industrial technology), which put me in mind of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series, not least because of the abundance of red and the scantiness of clothing. But there’s also the obvious parallel of the heroes finding themselves lost in a strange land and coming to the rescue of the people there. I do think this book comes across favorably in the comparison, since the heroine, Sorrel, is less superhuman than Captain Carter, and thus her adventures are more believable.