Just for the fun of it, and as a test for the future, I left my personal laptop at home on a recent short business trip to Portland Oregon and back. I took my Xoom and a 4gb Eye-Fi SD card to transfer images from my Nikon Coolpix P500. I thought I brought the USB cable for the camera as back up…but in several switches in luggage while packing…I found when I got there that the USB cable was still in my laptop bag: wireless all the way!
This was more of a challenge than it sounds in that I am committed to publishing a Pic 4 Today blog every day. On past trips where I left my laptop home, I have written and scheduled posts in advance, and used my iPhone and Hootsuite to put them on Twitter and Facebook at the appropriate times…primarily because I am so dependent on Windows Live Writer to produce blog entries, and Lightroom for both postprocessing and managing my Smugmug galleries. I wanted to find out if the tools on the Xoom…WordPress for Android to write the blog entries, PicSay Pro and Touch-Up (as well as an app I only discovered while on the trip: PhotoEnhance Pro HD) for postprocessing, SmugFolio and Smugmug Mobile for uploading and linking, as well as Hootsuite for Android for scheduling posts to Twitter and Facebook…would handle updating my blog from the road. The addition of Google+ to my social network only complicates the challenge!
As I have mentioned before, the big advantage of the Xoom while traveling, for me at least, is that 1) the always connected experience of solid 3g, which leads in part to 2) I will get the Xoom out in airports, etc. where getting out the laptop is just not worth the effort, and 3) it is far easier to deal with email and social networks from the Xoom than it is from my iPhone. The combination simply makes travel more enjoyable…more of a fully connected experience.
Also, from a business standpoint, I can forward business emails with attachments, or emails which require longer answers, from my Blackberry to my Xoom to deal with them on the spot, rather than waiting until I can set up my business machine. QuickOffice for Tablets opens and deals with xcel , ppt and docs well enough to manage, (though not perfectly as yet). I have even edited both ppt and docs on the Xoom in a pinch…something I simply would not attempt on my iPhone.
But how does the Xoom work for photography and blogging?
While the camera on the Xoom is not half bad, it is not all good either…especially for those of us addicted to interchangeable lenses or long zooms. However, with the growing perfection of the Eye-Fi SD card system and software, using your full featured digital with the Xoom has become quite attractive.
The Eye-Fi card has wifi built in, and with the latest firmware and software, it will pretty much automatically connect to your Xoom (or wifi-equipped laptop) and transfer the latest photos from card to computer…while the card is still in your camera. The Eye-Fi software for the Xoom (and android) has been steadily updated and works really well at this point…not perfectly of course…but well enough so you can rely in it for transfers on the road. A 12mp file from my Nikon Coolpix p500 takes about 5-7 seconds to transfer (I don’t know why the time varies but it does). There is a slight lag between consecutive files, but you can transfer a dozen images in just a few moments. If you have more than a dozen images on your card, be prepared for a long transfer session. While it might be tempting to just turn the camera and Xoom on, connect, and let the transfer run unattended, you will need to turn off the automatic sleep or stand-by mode on your camera. If the camera shuts down, the transfer will fail.
Once you have the files on your Xoom, both the native Gallery app and other gallery apps like QuickPics (my favorite), or a file manager like File Manager HD, will display them at screen resolution, and zoom to full resolution.
I tried three different postprocessing options. PicSay Pro is by the far the most capable. It has a full range of editing adjustments…exposure, contrast, brightness, saturation, color temperature, RGB, sharpness, blur, etc…plus a wide range of specialized filters and effects. There are various distortion filters like mirror, twirl, stretch, etc.; a good set of color adjustment filters; three Artistic; 11 photo effects including faux HDR (very effective), Lomo, and sepia toning; 9 filters and frames; and 5 more wild filters grouped under Misc. Each filter or effect has a slider to control the intensity of the effect (or size of the frame, etc.). All this is in addition to crop, invert, reverse, and straighten found under the Transform menu. Export allows you to save the file to internal memory in any directory you choose, or send it directly to any app on your Xoom which has the proper hooks…that includes email and most social networking apps, Hootsuite and google+ among them. It will even send the image directly to WordPress.
PicSay Pro is not Lightroom by far, but is a very capable photo editor, and I, for one, could live with it for all my quick, on the road, processing…but…it does not save full resolution files. Right now it is limited to screen resolution (under 1280 on the Xoom). The author promises an update soon to 2048×2048 resolution, which will be a definite improvement, but it will not be ideal from my standpoint until it can save at least a 4000×3000 file. On that day I will be able to travel with my camera, an Eye-Fi card and my Xoom with absolute confidence.
I check the photo app section on the Market fairly frequently, looking for an app that solves the full resolution problem. While on this trip I discovered PhotoEnhance Pro HD, which does indeed save 4000×3000 files. It can do this because it is, in effect, a one-trick-pony. It does detail enhancement and mild HDR processing through tone-mapping. On some images it can make a real difference: not as dramatic as the faux HDR in PicSay Pro, but significant. Where it falls short of faux HDR is in the highlights and deepest shadows. PicSay Pro pulls the highlights back as well as lightening the shadows more effectively, producing a much more “extended” (and pleasing) effect than PhotoEnhance. Still, PhotoEnhance saves full resolution files…which can make it the only postprocessing choice on some images and for some uses.
The following three images are the same image from the camera processed in PicSay Pro, PhotoEnhance, and Lightroom. This is not an easy image. It is, in fact, a pretty difficult exposure and processing problem. I used Active D-Lighting in the camera to extend the dynamic range before the image was saved as a jpg, and the in-camera post processing of the Coolpix (Quick Retouch) to extend range further and increase impact after the file was saved as a jpg. On the Xoom I used sharpen and faux HDR in PicSay Pro, and a variety of more sophisticaed adjustments in Lighroom, which included graduated filter effects from both the top and bottom of the image. While none of them is perfect, and the Lightroom version is clearly the best, I would be happy with either of the Xoom versions, especially for a blog post.
|PicSay Pro||PhotoEnhance Pro HD||Lightroom|
And just for fun…here is a sample of what PicSay Pro can do with some of its more drastic effects.
|Lightroom edit||Mirror, faux HDR, Lomo||Twirl, faux HDR|
All of these postprocessing apps will send a file directly to Smugmug Upload (part of Smugfolio) or Smugmug mobile for upload to your chosen Smugmug gallery. I find that it is easier and more direct to save them to the internal memory on the Xoom and use File Manager HD to select a whole group for upload. I think this can be done with Smugmug Upload, but I have not figured out how to do it. I did it easily in Smugmug mobile, simply by selecting all the images in File Manager, choosing “send to Smugmug mobile” and then choosing Upload All.
SmugFolio, once they are on Smugmug, will generate thumbs and download images in the proper resolution for screen display…images which can then be displayed even when you are offline. It uses a very efficient storage system so you can have your whole Smugmug site replicated on the the Xoom for easy display whenever and wherever. I rely on it! (The same author has similar apps for Flickr, Zenfolio, and Picasa.)
Once you have your images on the Xoom and postprocessed, sharing them on a WordPress blog is relatively easy. WordPress for Android is the best mobile blogging solution I have seen. It does an excellent job of managing multiple WordPress blogs, either WordPress.com hosted, or self hosted using the WordPress app from WordPress.org. You can manage comments, edit old posts and pages, or create new posts and pages. Editing tools include styled text, links, and both images and videos selected from your Xoom’s native Gallery app, or from an app like Quickpic if you choose. You can even, as hinted above, send an image to a WordPress blog entry directly from within a gallery app, a file manager, or an editing app. More: you can pick an image from directly your SmugFolio galleries and send it to WordPress. This ability for apps to exchange files is one of the strongest features of Android, and Honeycomb in particular. More on that in a moment.
WordPress for Android allows fairly good control over what happens to the image you include. You can determine whether the image appears before or after text, how large the thumbnail is, and how it is linked to the original file. You can also add more than one image…even if you chose your first image from within an app, as long as your second image is available to a gallery app.
Writing text within WordPress works quite well on the Xoom. I use the ThumbKey split keyboard on the Xoom and I can type about half speed compared to my laptop. Not bad for a fully connected solution. Cut and paste work well within the app, and the cursor stays in sync no matter how much text you type. All in all, about as good as can be expected on a tablet. (I could carry a bluetooth keyboard…but then I would be, for all practical purposes, back in laptop land.)
You can save drafts of posts to your internal memory to work on over time, and when you are ready publish, you just set the status to publish and upload the draft. WordPress manages media uploads flawlessly, and can display your finished post in its built in browser.
But what is more, you can choose the published post and send it, or its url at least, to any other app on the Xoom that has the hooks. For me, that means Hootsuite to share on Twitter and Facebook, and to schedule future posts during the day, and email to send the link to my list of email subscribers. The link is attractively formatted with the title of the post, followed by the URL. In Hootsuite, I use the built in link shortener to make it even more attractive (and shorter) before it goes to Twitter and Facebook.
For google+ I want the image itself to accompany the text of the blog post. To to this I copy the text within WordPress, go to Quickpic or SmugFolio to find the original image, send the image from the post directly to google+ to make a new update with the image already attached, then paste the text into the text box in google+. For a post with more than one image, I can then touch the camera button and find the second image in my Xoom’s internal memory.
All in all, WordPress for Android, the Andriod shared file system, and the google+ app make blogging, even photo blogging, from the Xoom…well…not quite easy…but certainly possible…and, really, considering the benefits, not that much trouble at all.
I can, given the current state of affairs, confidently leave my laptop at home…as long as I have my camera and my Xoom, an Eye-Fi card, and some hope of reliable access to wifi or 3g.
In a few days I am off to England for a week. That’s harder. I know there will be no 3g on the Xoom, and wifi is a challenge. I may have to build and schedule some posts before I leave…just to be safe.
If you have followed my reviews of iBird Explorer Pro for the iPhone and iPad here on Cloudy Days and Connected Nights, you will know that I consider this app family to be one of the best examples of what can be done with iOS. It is a wonderful reference app for anyone with an interest in birds and birding…a great electronic field guide which includes illustrations, range maps, recorded sounds, a wealth of photographs of each species, more information on the bird and its habits than you will find in a shelf-full of reference books…and an amazing search function with a rich set of search criteria which is, at the very least, a wonderful way to learn your birds…all wrapped up in the kind of elegant, intuitive, and accessible user interface that makes iDevices as popular as they are. You can read the various reviews here:
Each one is a good read (if you ask me but the last two are the required reading to appreciate the updates added in iBird Explorer UK for the iPhone.
The first thing you are going to notice is the quality of the illustrations…iBird UK takes takes iBird illustrations to a new level…many being true works of avian art. And by that I mean that some of these illustrations, many of these illustrations, capture the living bird in a way that makes it live in your memory as well. The best of these bolster the argument that an exceptional painting is better than any photograph when it comes to capturing the nuances of a living subject. While “photorealistic” might come to mind as descriptor for these paintings, they are, in fact, way better than most photographs. I am not competent to judge the accuracy of more than a few of the illustrations as my UK birding has been limited to a few trips in August…hardly the best time of year for birding…and I am sure that experienced UK birders will find a few illustrations to quibble with…but I am certainly impressed by the overall quality exhibited here.
In addition to the solid feature set offered by iBird Pro (really take a moment to review iBird Pro Revisited for a brief overview), iBird brings two standout new features, which we can hope will find their way to the North American version.
The first is totally unique to any bird guide yet. If you open any of the sound recordings, you will be greeted with both Spectogram and Waveform diagrams across the top of the screen. (a Spectogram is a graph of frequency vs. time as opposed to volume vs time, and, once you learn to read it, reveals the tonal range and variations of the song.) Both, if I remember correctly, have been used in references before, but iBird UK is the first to animate them. As the sound plays, a cursor moves across the diagrams, and you can see, in real time, exactly how they correspond to the singing bird. For a visual learner, who has trouble remembering songs and calls, I think these diagrams will be very useful in getting the sounds to stick in my brain…but they are also of real value in comparing similar songs to see how exactly they differ.
The range of included sounds for each species is also impressive. Most have at least a few variations of the song, selections of calls, and mixed vocalizations.
The second, which I also believe will be an excellent learning tool, is a slideshow feature, which allows you to select a family of birds, or a particular photographer’s work, and have iBird display the photographs in a slideshow, with transitions and timing of your choosing. You can also have the app play the song of each bird as it is displayed. This could be an invaluable aid to learning quick id skills, both visual and auditory. Plus, it is just a really nice way to pass some time. Are you on a 5 hour flight? Set the slideshow and be entertained all the way.
And, while talking about photographs, the selection of work represented here, drawn from some of the UK’s finest bird photographers, is of consistently high quality. In fact, iBird UK may represent what is currently the best single archive of bird photography in the British Isles. It would be hard to locate many of these images outside the program, and to have them grouped here, and so easily accessible is simply amazing. There are a few obvious photographers missing…but still…a wonderful collection.
iBird Explorer UK only demonstrates that the iBird folks are not resting on their laurels. Each version of iBird, including this one, continues to set a new standard for birding applications, and iOS applications in general.
I am really eager to hear what some real UK birders think of the program.
After five weeks of Xoom ownership and use, pretty intense use, I can still find no reason to regret my purchase. This is good! The Xoom continues to meet and exceed my expectations and my needs. It has become an essential part of my life…to the extent that I don’t know how I am going to part with it when the LTE upgrade comes around…or, in fact, if I am going to be able to do it. Do you suppose if I drove to the Motorola Service Center (wherever that is) they would do it while I wait???
Just as Honeycomb is so much a part of the Xoom experience that you can’t really review the hardware apart from it, more and more the apps I use daily have begun to define my Xoom experience. Follow me on a brief tour of my current Xoom landscape (workscape?)
First off, while I like the Honeycomb keyboard better than any previous version of a stock Android keyboard, and better, in fact, than the keyboard on my iPhone 4, there is no doubt that Thumb Keyboard has played a major roll in my Xoom satisfaction. Thumb Keyboard provides several alternative keyboard layouts, including several split keyboards designed to make thumb typing on a tablet (where all the longest-thumbed individuals have to strain for the center keys) much easier. I am not, however, generally a thumb typist. I prefer propping the Xoom up on its Portfolio Case, in Landscape mode, and using a modified touch type method on the full keyboard. I rarely use Portrait mode at all.
Thumb Keyboard provides an excellent standard width landscape keyboard with very good audio feed back, decent prediction and correction, and the ability to long press letter keys for numerals and most commonly used symbols. I find that the long press for symbols saves me significant time. But one of the best things about Thumb Keys is that you can adjust the height of the keyboard on the screen, setting it so that the keys are easy on your particular fingers and you still have the most open screen for typing. You can even make the space bar line larger or smaller to suit your style. Allied to the adjustable height keyboard is the fact that in many apps, touching a text entry box opens a full half screen entry panel where you can enter and edit text at will. Unfortunately, in apps that do not allow the half screen entry panel, the cursor sometimes gets lost in a line of text, especially when attempting to select text…not something I can’t live with…but something that needs fixing.
From the start I have wished for an easy way to switch to the split-thumb-typing layout on the fly, as on occasion I do use the Xoom in a two-handed grip, or on my lap, where thumb typing would make more sense. The only way I knew to switch was through the settings app…way too cumbersome to be practical. Imagine my surprise today when I accidently long pressed the little key that, I thought, just closed the keyboard, and up popped a menu which allows on the fly changing of the layout! Magical! Best of both worlds. Best of all possible worlds. Thumb Keys is simply great…every Xoom owner should check it out.
If you use your Xoom for photo viewing…as a digital album or portfolio…and you use SmugMug, Flickr, Picassa, or Zenfolio to showcase your images on the web…then the Folio apps (SmugFolio, FlickFolio, PicFolio, and zFolio) from Snapwood Apps are bound to be of interest. They have been updated for Honeycomb and work very well on the Xoom. Each one will allow you to browse your collections and albums on your image service of choice quickly and easily, but, even better, each app downloads your images in a compressed format scaled for your device (the Xoom in this case) and stores them locally, so you can view and show them while off-line. If you post a lot of images to any of the services, this can save you a lot of time. Before getting SmugFolio up and running on the Xoom, I would process my images in Lightroom on my laptop, post them to my SmugMug galleries using Lightroom’s built in gallery manager (worth the cost of Lightroom if your work is anything like mine), and then, I would export 1600×1200 copies of each image to a shared folder on my laptop, and, finally, suck them over to the Xoom over wifi using File Expert’s smb client, where I would view and show them in QuickPics Gallery. SmugFolio cuts out three whole steps. Once my images are uploaded to SmugMug, SmugFolio fetches them, resizes them, stores them on the Xoom, and displays them. How slick is that. SmugFolio has an adjustable slideshow (without the the Ken Burns Effects which, in my opinion, ruin the stock Gallery App’s slideshow) and it uses Honeycomb’s inter-app communication features to allow you to send any image to any app on your Xoom that accepts image transfer. You can send an image directly to email (or GMail), of course, but also to Cloud Print, Evernote, Hootsuite and Tweetcaster (for posting to social networks), Posterious and WordPress (for adding to a blog post), Picassa (for whatever reason), or PicSay Pro (for editing). And those are just the apps I have installed. SmugFolio also displays titles and captions and full exif data if your service supports the same, it will allow you to create and manage galleries, delete images, rename images, etc…and, through a separate app included in your purchase, to upload images you take with your Xoom to your SmugMug galleries. While I have not tested the other Folio apps from Snapwood, I am assuming from their descriptions that they are functionally similar to SmugFolio. For anyone who manages a lot of images on any of these services, Snapwood Apps will make your life a lot easier (and your Xoom more fun)!
In my original review of the Xoom I am pretty sure I lamented the lack of a real, tablet and Honeycomb specific, Google Reader client. Pulse is okay…but sometimes the considerable flash gets in the way of the substance. For my GReader subscriptions I just want a straightforward app that provides most, if not all, of the functionality of the web interface…and, being on the Xoom…that does it in Honeycomb fashion. I have tried several alternative readers but none were significantly better than the Google Reader App. Until this week…this week Newsr was released. It is the first true Honeycomb, tablet specific Google Reader client, and in its short life so far it has morphed (through several upgrades) from an excellent start to an essential app on my Xoom. In fact, it is good enough, in my opinion, to be used as an example of what a real Honeycomb app ought to do and how it ought to do it (or at least, one of the ways it ought to be done). Newsr uses panels somewhat like the Honeycomb GMail app…but 3 instead of two…with your feeds, organized by tags (folders) or displayed in one long list on the left, titles and and a brief intro in the center, and the selected article, with pics and video, on the right. You can navigate by touch in any of the panels, of course, or you can flick through the displayed posts using up and down arrows along the left margin of the screen. You have a Mark all read tool, Refresh, and Share (with a long list of whatever apps you have installed that accept links) arranged where they should be Honeycomb style, across the top of the screen. All in all the experience is so easy and so elegant that I am doing more subscription reading on the Xoom than I am on the web these days. (The author of the app is also super responsive to feature suggestions and bug reports, always a positive in my opinion.)
There is only one Honeycomb specific file manager to my knowledge…and that is File Station for Honeycomb. It is an excellent file manager and uses the Honeycomb interface to good advantage. It has some interesting sort features (by file type). However it is a single pane manager, without drag and drop of any kind.
Columnar is another tablet specific file manager, just out this week, and has some real potential. It is not Honeycombized, but it mimics the file tree structure of Windows and uses multiple columns of folders and files. You can easily drag and drop a file from a folder in one column to a folder in another. Slick.
ScaliCommander is not new, and not Honeycombized either, but it also has the columnar file and folder structure and also allows drag and drop.
You might see a theme emerging here…drag and drop. I see no reason why a file manager on a multitouch device should not allow drag and drop to copy and move files. I mean…come on…cut and paste is so 80s!
What File Expert has that none of the columnar file managers have so far, is an smb client. File Expert will easily connect to your shared Windows (and I assume, Mac) folders, display the contents, and allow you to copy and paste from your shared folders to folders on the Xoom. This is way slick, and practically eliminates the need to attach the Xoom to your main computer via USB at all. File Expert was just upgraded this week too, with a whole new look, that, while not Honeycomb, is pretty interesting, and functional, in itself. Until one of the drag and drop file managers gets its smb on, File Expert has a home on my Xoom.
A reliable weather app is essential to my well being. My wife asks me at least twice a day…”so, what’s the weather tomorrow.” :) I have to know. It is a male thing. I really like both WeatherBug and Accuweather for Honeycomb. Both have attractive, interesting interfaces that stretch the design limits of the tablet format. Unfortunately neither one works very well as a weather app. Info is buried many layers deep. Navigation is awkward at best. And the widgets? Total fail so far. They either do not update correctly, or they disappear off your screen completely. And they don’t stay in sync with the temperature in the notification bar. No way.
The Weather Channel App, on the other hand, is very basic…not Honeycombized at all, and not very pretty on a tablet. But it works. The widget tracks your location and displays the correct place, weather symbol, and temperature…and it stays where you put it. All the info you need is easy accessible within the app itself at a touch, and easy to read once displayed. It seems to be a work in progress. For several weeks it was gone from the Market, but it is back now, with a promise of a refined user experience in the near future. Whatever. What matters is that it tells me what I need to know about the weather quickly and easily…so I can answer my wife’s question. Go Weather Channel!
Finally, I am still using the stock Honeycomb browser. I have tried several others, and I just like stock. With the radial controls enabled it is just, for me, very slick and elegant and functional. Though many have noted frequent force closes, I have very little to no problems with it…but I do not run a lot of tabs.
I hate the Facebook App and refuse to run it. I use a link to the web interface (full desktop version) and do all my Facebook work in the browser. And I don’t like the official Twitter App much better.
I use both Hootsuite and TweetCaster for all other social network trafficking. Hootsuite is my go to app for posting to all my networks at once. TweetCaster does the day to day stuff on Twitter and posts an occasional update to FaceBook if the spirit moves me.
One of these days I will write a post on posting to your blog via Posterous and WordPress on the Xoom. It took me a few days to figure it all out, but it works well.
The Back Story: Archos 101it, do I really need a tablet?
I bought the Archos 101it Android Tablet mostly as a toy. I could afford it, I had at least one legitimate use for it (showing my recently digiscoped images and videos while traveling and working birding festivals…yup, that really is my job), I wanted to experience this thing called Android, and owning an Android device might open up some review possibilities. All good reasons, but, honestly, it was a toy. (It felt like one too, but given the price that was okay by me.) I had a lot of fun getting the Archos working (Froyo, the market, various launchers…alternate twitter, Facebook, email, gallery, file manager apps, etc. etc.)…in fact I spent most of my time with the Archos getting it working and making it work better. I enjoyed the challenge, and I enjoyed exploring the Android resources of the market and the community. Apple has fans…Android has all the real geeks. Hardcore Android folks are not afraid to get their hands dirty in the raw code of the thing (which they can actually do since it is open source)…there is always someone looking for ways to make it work better…or, as the case may be, work at all.
The Archos was fun, and it did a decent job of showing my pics and videos…but, the most significant (and, ultimately, the most costly) lesson I learned from the Archos is that I really like having a tablet. I was not at all sure about that going in. I had successfully fended off iPad envy for the better part of a year by telling myself that I did not need, and would not use, a tablet…another computing device…on top of my iPhone and netbook/laptop…no way I needed that (except for that photo sharing thing).
What I found, of course, was that I used it all the time. It completely replaced my iPhone and seriously displaced my laptop for social media and personal email. I found myself pulling it out at airports when I would never have considered getting my laptop out, and when the iPhone would have lead to eye-strain…and the tablet did, indeed, improve my airport experience (a good thing no matter how you look at it). It was the first thing up and running at every hotel (though the Archos only connected to half the hotel networks). In the office, I found it useful for multitasking…I could check and respond to email or my twitter accounts on the tablet while the laptop rendered a video, or uploaded a stack of images to SmugMug or web pages to our corporate server, or even while skyping a conference call (without video of course). Later in the evenings I multitasked twitter and email on the Archos, with the left-over parts of my mind, while watching Bones or Castle on Hulu on the laptop. The tablet might have made me marginally more productive, but it certainly made my time feel more fully used. This is a good thing (or so I think most days). Plus it was fun.
Considering the title, you have probably already guessed where this is going. Android 2.2 Froyo is an interesting OS, and works well enough on the tablet. I never felt any real lack…but the promise of Honeycomb, the first Android really made for a tablet, was enough to get me thinking about alternatives. Then too, the screen on the Archos was usable but not brilliant…and considering my primary justifiable use…that mattered quite a bit. I followed the development of the Motorola Xoom, the first tablet set to release with Honeycomb, from its first hints and leaks pre-CES, through its triumphant introduction, and its final march to market. When the price began to be batted around, I did not exactly lose interest, but I crossed it off my list of what was possible. Then, very near the launch, there was a rumor that Verizon might discount it on contract. I told myself if Verizon got the Xoom under $600 I would buy it. $599! So I bought it, from Verizon, on launch day (though, due to inattention to detail on the part of some shipping clerk at Verizon I did not actually receive my Xoom until the following Monday). I got the 1G, $20 per month contract (since experience with the Archos and the Virgin Mobile Mifi had shown that I would use that much anyway).
So, I have had the Xoom for 14 days. (In the interval, the iPad 2 was announced, was launched, and got its first glowing reviews…and I still have the Xoom despite Verizon’s return policy, so that tells you something right from the start.) Already, I’ve done one major road trip with the Xoom…7 days, to San Diego and back…and multitasked around home and in the office enough hours to run the battery down to the nubs every day. I have spent hours of leisure time pursuing the growing number of Xoom blogs and forums to see what others think of the Xoom, to track down tips and tricks, and to keep abreast of Xoom news in general (that is a bad habit I have, but I don’t seem to be able to break myself of it…it is, I guess, my inner geek expressing.) And now I am ready to speak my own Xoom piece.
Is it the Xoom or is it Honeycomb?
First of all, it is almost impossible to review the Xoom apart from Honeycomb. Certainly the physical build has its quirks (as well as its obvious strengths!) and the hardware is worthy of note (more on that later), but the primary essence of the Xoom is conditioned almost totally by the Google Experience as delivered by Honeycomb. (you will have to forgive these screenshots. Until there is a screen capture utility for Honeycomb, they will have to do)
I like Honeycomb. It is, in my opinion, fluid, intuitive, and efficient…and attractive enough to keep things interesting. I feel totally comfortable using it. It makes, again in my opinion, excellent use of the touch interface. Unlike some others around the web, I have had no issues with instability…no freezes…no crashes…no slowdowns. And, unlike Froyo on the Archos, Honeycomb on the Xoom just works…it requires no massaging, no alternative launchers or market hacks, to make it work. And the primary apps are the same: you do not have to seek out alternative email, browser, gallery, or music apps. It is, at least in that, very like iOS: a right out of the box solution…one that any user, geek or citizen, should be comfortable with in hours, if not minutes. I am not everyone of course, and I may be too conditioned by my own experience of the iPhone and a Froyo tablet, but this thing is seriously easy to use.
Honeycomb finds it primary expression in the main Google supplied apps: email, browser, music, gallery, YouTube, etc..
I use Gmail, and the Honeycomb Gmail client, so I can’t comment on the vanilla email app on the Xoom. I have not even configured it. That said, the Gmail app on the Xoom is, simply put, the best email client I have ever used. It is elegant and effective, makes great use of the tablet real-estate (two panels that shift content and size as needed), and it is fast. I love it. In fact, I have to force myself to go back to the web based interface on my laptop. I far prefer checking and responding to email on the Xoom.
Yes…even with the on-screen keyboard. If you have based your judgment of on-screen keyboards on past Android efforts, you might find the Honeycomb keyboard a surprise. I did. I used Swift Key on the Archos and liked it a lot, but the Honeycomb keyboard is faster, more responsive, and a lot easier to type on. I am not really sure why. They just seem to have gotten the key size, key spacing, key shape, and the touch sensitivity, exactly right for my fingers.
The Honeycomb browser is also excellent. I use Dolphin HD on my Archos, and like it a lot…but the Honeycomb browser has it beat in just about every way (we will see what Dolphin for Tablet has to offer when they get around to releasing it…but they will have a hard job of bettering the browser experience on the Xoom). The Honeycomb browser is fast (of course it has the dual processing power of the Xoom behind it), and I simply love the Quick Controls (enabled under the Labs tab in Settings). QC adds a flip out, radial menu to both sides of the browser window. Just drag your finger in from the edge of the tablet anywhere and the menu centers on your finger. Icons around the rim give you instant access to forward, back, refresh, new tab, menu, bookmarks, and the address bar. The only control lacking in the QC panel is HOME…and this is a general criticism of the Honeycomb browser…though you can set a homepage (both to any page you choose, and to a Chrome-like most often viewed page in the Labs tab) the only Home button is on the Bookmarks page. What’s up with that? The best feature of the QC, however, is that while using it, as long as you stick to a single tab, all pages display in full screen…with no address bar or navigation controls at the top. Very slick. If you add a tab, you get back the tab navigation bar, but you are still without an address bar…and that is a very efficient use of the available space and makes a real difference in viewing some web pages. Slick. Very slick.
Though the browser has gotten some grief from the HTML5 crowd for being less than fully compliant, it is still the best browser I have ever used on mobile…far better than Safari on the iPhone, or Perfect Browser, or any other I have tried, and easily better than previous Android browsers…including, as mentioned above, such otherwise excellent efforts as Dolphin HD. I like it a lot. In my opinion, it gives Chrome and Firefox on the laptop a run for their money. In fact, it is so good that I use the web interface on Facebook, in preference to the somewhat lame Android client.
And of course, while on the browser, we have to mention Flash. Though the Xoom shipped without Flash, Google rolled out a Honeycomb update (v 3.0.1) on March 11th to prepare for the imminent release of Flash 10.2, and, the same day, Adobe announced Flash itself would be available for download in the market on the 18th. Of course, before day was out…before, in fact, many had gotten their OTA Honeycomb update…the Flash 10.2 apk (program file), fully Xoom ready, was leaked, and now, with an easy download and sideload, we have Flash on our Xooms! (Do you suppose it is an accident that this all happened on birthday of the iPad 2…sorry, that stretches even my credulity.) The official version posted on the 18th may still be an improvement, but the leaked version works just fine, thank you. Though Hulu is still being stuffy about mobile versions of Flash, you can actually watch Amazon video on demand in your browser (if you rent the media or are an Amazon Prime member with streaming privileges, and if you have the bandwidth from your isp and your wireless router). Flash slideshows, as on the SmugMug gallery site, run fine. Animated banner ads run as well (a mixed blessing at best). If you can make YouTube open in full desktop view (tap the little index icon at the top right, scroll down, and tap Desktop), videos play in the Flash player, and play well. You will note here that I am not advising you to set the Browser user agent to desktop (google Honeycomb browser user agent for instructions) as that causes problems with Flash on other websites (SmugMug for one…among the websites I use, there are very few that open in the mobile view anyway so I have left the user agent set to Android). [update: the official beta Flash Player 10.2 for Honeycomb is now out, and it is slightly smoother and more polished than the leaked version. It still lacks true hardware acceleration but Adobe has promised that will be turned on within a few weeks. In the meantime, the Market version of Flash 10.2 makes the browsing experience even better on the Xoom!]
Both the Gallery app and the Music app have been redesigned for Honeycomb as well. The Gallery app in Froyo was, in my opinion, unusable (at least on the Archos tablet), and I quickly replaced it with QuickPic, an excellent (and elegant) little gallery with folder views, full screen image views, direct links to the video player, and all the hooks to make it work seamlessly as the default image viewer in Android, including hooks to the full range of export options. It is also one of the few image viewing apps with a slideshow with adjustable advance rate. Excellent app! However, the Gallery on Honeycomb is just as efficient and elegant, with a full range of features. It is also, perhaps thanks to the dual core processor, very fast. It’s only drawback is the forced Ken Burns style, pan and zoom effects in the slideshow. An email to Motorola confirmed what I suspected. In this version at least, there is no way to turn off the effects. I don’t know about you, but, I mean, Ken Burns is so 90s. And I want to be able to study an image without it shifting around in front of my eyes. Please.
A brief aside on the screen quality, since it is apropos to image viewing, and one of my particular needs. I find the screen on the Xoom to be excellent. Viewing angles are fine. The color and contrast are brilliant. The only downside is that the screen is highly reflective and a magnet for fingerprints. As one female commentator said on the forums, “at least when you carry the Xoom you don’t have to carry a make-up mirror”. And fingerprints! After an hour of use it looks like a kid’s finger painting in any light but head on. Ukk. However, I invested in a PosR.us anti-glare screen protector, which came yesterday along with the Honeycomb update. I did not get it on perfectly on my first try, but even-so it makes a world of difference. The glare is totally tamed. You might lose a smidgen of sharpness, but not enough to matter, given the superior anti-glare properties. And in almost 24 hours of use, it has picked up NO visible fingerprints. Impressive indeed. Highly recommended. That is the url, right there in the name. PosR.us. (I do not recommend, on the other hand, the Verizon screen protectors…they might provide scratch protection (which we might or might not need) but they do nothing for the glare or the fingerprints…in fact they may make both worse.)
Returning to the Gallery, the app also catalogs videos from your Movies folder…in fact you will not find the traditional Android (or Archos, or Samsung, or whatever) Video app anywhere on your Honeycomb tablet. It has totally disappeared into the background, to be called as needed from Gallery or other apps that play videos. This makes sense, most of the time.
Again there has been a lot of comment on the forums about the lack of codex support on the Xoom, and even speculation that no NVidia Tegra 2 machine can decode high profile HD video. I am far from certain about that…but I know that the Xoom does not play my standard 1280×720 HD files, encoded in Sony Vegas in ACC format (H.264). In order to play them I either have to encode at 1280×720 HD using the much more aggressive Media Creations encoder (files up to 10 times smaller, with a visible loss of detail) or I have to encode them ACC at 720×406. However, I should point out that the same was true of the Archos 101it, and Archos is the recognized master of media playback. There are alternative players in the market with wider codex support, but, since the 720×406 solution works well for me (I saved an encoder preset in Sony Vegas and simply make a Xoom copy when I finish each video), and I only need to view my own creations, I am okay, at this point, with the Xoom’s video capabilities. Your mileage may differ.
[Update: Tools4Movies, a supporting vendor at Xoom Forums.com, has released a version of their DVD ripper and media converter app for Windows, DVD Catalyst 4, that includes Xoom specific conversion profiles in several resolutions and several different quality levels. I have been able to easily encode full 1280×720 HD clips using their HQ1 profile that play very well on the Xoom. Worth, in my opinion the discounted $9.95 price. Get it while it lasts.]
The Music player is spruced up for Honeycomb as well. You can have a carousel effect for albums or a scrolling lists, as the mood takes you. The carousel is way smooth on the Xoom! I used an album art grabber from the Market (there are several, the one I like best is Album Art Grabber by Tim Clark) and once I cleared data in the App Manager (under Settings), I now have all my covers. In addition to the aesthetics, the Music app does its job of playing albums and playlists nicely.
Another hardware aside. The speakers on the Xoom are actually quite listenable…not at highest volumes…but for movies or casual music listening (hotel rooms, etc.) they are perfectly adequate. I am listening to Fraser and Haas, Fire and Grace, (cello and fiddle, with a bit of percussion on some tracks) on them right now as I write, and it does not sound too shabby at all.
And while on hardware, perhaps a word about storage and getting media onto the Xoom. You transfer media to your Xoom as you would to any mobile device, by connecting it with the included USB to mini USB cable, however, the Xoom uses MTP instead of USB storage. That means that it mounts on your computer as a device, not as a drive. According to a Google Developer:
MTP is a big improvement over USB mass storage — for devices with lots of internal memory, a manufacturer no longer needs to come up with some hard partition between the USB mass storage and internal storage. Instead, they are all in one partition, with MTP providing access to the directory of media files that would normally be available through USB mass storage.This means there is no longer a need for apps on SD card for such devices, because what used to be the “internal SD card” is in the same partition as where applications are stored. The storage on your device can be used for either applications or media, depending on what you want to put on it. You aren’t stuck with how much space the manufacturer decided to leave for the two areas.
Oh also this means that the media storage doesn’t need to be unmounted from Android when it is being access through the PC.
I can see at least one practical benefit besides what is mentioned there…or perhaps it is just a clearer way of saying that last bit in bold: When transferring media to your Xoom, the Xoom is still fully functional. You are not locked out, as you are when syncing an iDevice, or any other Android device, and, within reason, can continue to surf the web, view images, watch movies, answer email, etc. while media is being copied to your Xoom. When finished, you just unplug the cable. No worries about ejecting the USB device or turning off USB connect on the Xoom. It is worth emphasizing that the no partitions part up there is equally as important and valid. Under USB systems, you have only so much space set aside to store applications, and whatever is set aside, it never seems to be enough. Android has gotten around this, from Froyo on, by allowing applications to be saved to the internal storage (SD card), but that can, in my experience, cause some issues when booting. Occasionally one or more of those apps on SD will fail to be recognized during boot, and the only way to get it back is to reboot. With MTP, that is not an issue…all apps are stored on the single partition, right along with your media.
MTP storage is recognized easily in Windows: your Xoom mounts as a device and you are asked what your want to do. While mounted, you can manipulate…copy, move, rename, delete…files just as you would if the Xoom were mounted as a drive. For Mac and Linux users it is more complicated. Motorola provides a MTP client for Mac, and there are similar clients available for Linux. As a Windows user, I, of course, am quite content with MTP storage, considering what I see to be its real advantages.
Storage, by the way, comes up normally in any Android file manager (Honeycomb does not actually include one, but there are many that work…including my favorite multi panel, drag and drop, Scalicommander, and a new table specific manager called File Station, which shows potential.
And, rabbiting on from media transfer, unlike the Archos, Honeycomb on the Xoom has no native SMB client, so accessing shared folders and files from your networked laptop or desktop is a bit more of a challenge. There is a nice free file manager app that does include an SMB client on the Market: File Expert. It works flawlessly and is regularly upgraded. It also looks pretty good on the tablet screen. It allows you to copy and paste files and folders from your shared folders to the Xoom over wifi (though, as a single panel app, there is no drag and drop as there is in ScaliCommander). You can also view images from your shared folders in the Gallery app…but you can not (yet) stream video or music. (There are apps for that, but as yet I have no need for them.)
Another app that has gotten the Honeycomb treatment is YouTube: from the inside the 3d carousel home page of recommendations, to the two panel video player view, to the actual minimalist video player, it is all new. And it works well.
And, though I was an avid Jorte user, the Honeycomb calendar app has won me over as well. I like the month view a lot, and the vertical scroll…with the months arranged in infinite sequence above and below each other…while it was disconcerting at first, actually makes a lot of sense.
All the non-honeycombed apps that I relied on on the Archos work fine on the Xoom. Tweetcaster, Hootsuite, Google Reader, Evernote, Kindle, NIV Bible…all fine, and, while not tablet optimized, very workable. New apps like Pulse, CNN, Google Body, Weather Bug for Honeycomb, xWeather, etc., all serve, in their own unique ways to show the potential of the new OS, and whet our appetites for more Honeycomb specific apps.
And, with the avid development community behind Android, you can bet that more apps will be adapted or hacked to run on the Xoom over the next few weeks. Witness Google Voice. It was not more than a day after Google announced that they are working on a Honeycomb/tablet version, when one of the folks over at XDA had the the current apk hacked to run. And it works well. I have not tried a voice call…I wanted it mostly for texting…and I am happy. We will see what Google has to offer to better the hack.
So, my feelings on the Honeycomb operating system have been clear from the first paragraph of this section. I like it. I like it a lot.
Hardware Quirks and Strengths
I promised a few words on the hardware quirks and strengths. I have covered some hardware features in passing, but…
The power situation! Some have objected to the separate power supply (no USB charging for the Xoom), but I am willing to live with the charger in exchange for very fast 3.5 hour charges. And, the charger will top up the batter to about 90% in as little as an hour. On the other hand, the power port is awkwardly placed, the tiny pin on the power adapter seems way too fragile, and it is pretty loose in the socket. Worse, you can not charge the Xoom with the case closed (ah the case…more on that later), and, in fact, it is difficult to use the Xoom at all while charging. That fragile pin does not inspire confidence and, since it is right in the middle of the bottom of the Xoom you can not use the Xoom propped up most naturally in its case, either in typing or viewing position. In fact the only safe way I have found to charge the Xoom is out of the case, or with the case folded flat open. Not ideal! And an oversight that should have been caught in house at Motorola before this puppy left the den. Even if they intended it be charged in its cradle (one of its cradles, they offer two), they already have cordless phone style connectors for charging along the bottom there…the power port for the adapter could easily have been in a more accessible spot…along the side would have made more sense. I may be forced to buy the charging cradle…something I have never done for any device I have owned. This does not make me happy. And I also see no reason at all why the headphone jack has to be right in the middle of the top of the machine. I mean: Why? The cord sticks up and out like a bad afterthought.
For the same reasons as the power port, the hdmi port is poorly placed…you can not prop the Xoom up with the cable attached. And, for insult, the standard charging cradle has no hdmi output…you have to get the much more expensive Speaker Cradle for that.
Some have objected the around the back position of the power button, but I actually like it. It falls under my finger well, and it is, honestly, the only place they could have put a large enough button to make it easy for man fingers. I really dislike the tiny tiny button on the iPad.
Overall the build quality is excellent. This device feels like a serious machine, solid, heavy without being too heavy, substantial. Elegant. Understated. I like it.
And the guts? Well, lets just say that it has sufficient to get the job done and then some. The Tegra 2, while it may or may not be up to Hi Profile H.264 decoding, certainly provides a snappy smooth experience with Honeycomb and any app I have thrown at it, from Tweetcaster to Google Earth. And the 1gig of ram means that Android multitasking finally works the way it is supposed to…and works well. Switching programs is instant and I have yet to have a program close while in the background.
I am patiently waiting for Motorola/Google to get around to activating the micro SD Card slot…and…more importantly to me, the USB host function on the mini USB port. Both are said to be coming soon. We can hope. I really want to be able to import photos and videos directly into the Xoom (and Moto has a little dongle for that…it was on their website for about a day before it got pulled).
I have to admit that the logic of releasing the Xoom without the parts necessary for LTE (4G) connection on Verizon’s network was a mystery to me…until I read that Verizon is still struggling to get LTE up and running on any device. I begin to suspect that this is more a Verizon issue than a Motorola issue…though I am not looking forward to sending my Xoom back for 6 days while Moto plugs a component into the board (or throws a switch or whatever is involved) and installs a sim card. Still, 4G is nothing to sneeze at for one who travels as much as I do.
I have to say, while on the subject of Verizon, that I have been pleasantly surprised by the connection quality and speed of the Verizon 3G network. In fact, in my San Diego hotel, 3G was actually faster then the hotel wifi by quite a bit, especially on downloads.
The Motorola portfolio case has come in for a lot of harsh criticism on the forums…but I like it. It offers substantial protection, and two different ‘propped up” viewing angles. The lower angle is just about perfect or typing on the on-screen keyboard, and the steeper angle is great for viewing a slide show or video. And I, personally, like the way it looks. Again, elegant and understated, and the pebbly outer skin resists dirt and sticky stuff really well. What is not to like (okay, there is the charging issue, but that is more a factor of the generally poor placement of the charging port than it is of the case).
All in all, the Xoom, with Honeycomb, provides an excellent user experience, fresh out of the box. And, as a demonstration and promise of the power of Android, it is without peer. I expect it will only get better over the next few months as Honeycomb is tuned, as more apps come on-line, and as Moto finishes the hardware tweaks. As the official Google Experience device for the table class, I expect it will get the attention from both Google and Motorola that it needs to become everything it can be. I am happy with it now…I expect to be even happier in a few months. Will there be better Android tablets within the next year? Probably…and certainly within the next 18 months (quad core processors!)…but…you know what…I will have been browsing, and doing social media, and answering emails, and playing, and who know what else on my Xoom for many months before something better comes along…and I fully expect to still be content at the end of my 2 year Verizon contract. This is a good thing.
And why didn’t your buy an iPad 2?
I expect to have to answer this question a lot over the next few months, and so will you if you buy a Xoom, so, for what it is worth, here is my answer:
1) Cost. Surprisingly, for all the grief Motorola has gotten over the price of the Xoom, it turns out that to buy the equivalent iPad 2, with a data plan (which I need) would have cost me $130 more! Check it out. $599 plus $20 a month vs. $729 (32 gig, 3G) plus at least $20 per month.
2) Form factor. I prefer the 6×9 format to the 4×3.
3) Expandability: Micro SD card slot, USB host, hdmi port (without an adaptor).
4) 4G vs. 3G (in time, but we are talking future vs. past here).
6) Android in general and Honeycomb in particular. From a philosophical standpoint I prefer an open system to a closed one. Android is growing fast, and developing faster. Honeycomb opens a whole new arena for app development in the tablet format. I expect great things. And, just slightly, I actually prefer the way Honeycomb works to iOS. (just me I guess).
Either tablet would have worked for me. The Xoom works better.
And with that, my friends, I have spoken my piece on the Xoom and Honeycomb.
I am just back from a two week business trip and working two big shows: SHOT in Vegas (Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trades…the largest show for gunshops and outdoor retailers in the world) and the Space Coast Birding and Nature Festival in Titusville, Florida.
Of course I took my Archos along. You might remember that one of the primary reasons I bought the Archos tablet was to be able to quickly show folks images and video taken with our ZEISS products (in real life, I am the Birding and Observation Product Specialist for Carl Zeiss Sports Optics). I showed hundreds of people who were interested in photography through the spotting scopes, examples of stills and video at both shows, using Quickpic (which I highly recommend). Quickpic catalogs folders containing both stills and video. It displays thumbnails of the folders with example pics on them, and then, when you open a folder, a index of thumbnails for the contents. Touching one opens it in full screen, with tap to zoom for detailed looks. And it is fast! without the clutter (and, in my experience, instability) of the stock gallery app. It creates thumbnails for all your videos too, and, when you touch one, calls the video player to play it. All very slick. (Quickpics has had several updates, each of which has added new functionality, since I downloaded the first version…it just keeps getting better!) And the screen on the Archos is high enough resolution and of high enough quality to make an impression. I was just careful to make sure the screen was angled correctly for the audience. The Archos made demonstrating the photo capabilities of the spotting scopes both easy and fun!
The trip also gave me a chance to test the wifi capabilities of the A101it in the wild, away from my home router. It connected easily to any network I encountered, and worked amazingly well with my Virgin Mobile Mifi. The only difficulty I encountered was that, while it connected properly to the wifi routers at both hotels I stayed at, and showed a strong signal, neither Dolphin or the stock browser could resolve a url after connection. They called the authorization page, and allowed me to log in…then nothing. Strangely, while in this state, my email and twitter apps occasionally updated, and random web pages would resolve and partially load, so I know there was at least some internet access. I came to the conclusion that the name server the hotels were using was not Android friendly, and was somehow blocking or generating an error when an android device tried to access it. It is especially odd, since airport wifi, which uses a similar authorization scheme, worked just fine. [Ed Note: after another trip, it becomes ever more likely that the issue is the nameservers some hotels use. I was able to connect and browse in two different hotels in VA this past week, and had no problems with airport wifi at several different airports as well.]
I might mention that Archos released a firmware upgrade while I was traveling, and I had great adventures trying to install it over my Virgin Mobile Mifi…but eventually got it to work. Unfortunately I am among the as yet unknown minority who suffered USB host failure as a result of the upgrade. I have reinstalled the firmware, reset Android, and completely reformatted the A101 and installed firmware from scratch…but nothing has revived the USB host. I am waiting to hear from Archos as to whether they think this is a firmware issue or a hardware issue. Personally, I suspect the USB driver gets corrupted during the upgrade, and that it is not stored where a reformat wipes it (it could not be, since you need USB to reinstall your firmware after a reformat). At any rate, I am hoping Archos finds a fix for this asap…I don’t use my USB host port much, but I want it to work. [Ed Note: they issued an RMA for my A101 but I am reluctant to send it in as everything but the USB Host is working better than ever before.] Other than that the new firmware seems a genuine improvement, with the whole machine just seeming smoother and more responsive. (The upgrade broke downloads in Dolphin but Archos rushed out a new Firmware version, 2.1.04, released 1/2/2011 that fixes Dolphin and a handful of other apps that had problems under 2.1.03.)
My NewMP3Tech case with my stand modification, by the way, worked great. Of course I never dropped the Archos, but I felt safe and secure, and a touch elegant…and that’s half the battle!
After several weeks of intense use now, I am finding that I prefer to do social media stuff on the tablet over the iPhone, even when it means digging out my MiFi and booting it. TweetCaster Premium is an exceptionally fine Twitter client, and allows posting to Facebook as well, and I use the web interface in Dolphin for Facebook. And there is, of course, no comparison when browsing the web or googling essential info…with Dolphin HD as a browser, set to Desktop mode, the web becomes as accessible on the tablet as it is on my laptop…and flipping open the Archos in an airport is way easier than booting up the laptop! (And somehow more fun too.)
And yes, if I had a $ for everyone who asked if it was an iPad, I could buy another Archos 101
In my brief review of the NewMp3Tech folio case for the A101it, I mentioned that the stand, while not very functional as is, had potential for an interesting modification. Here it is.
If you bend the front cover of the case the wrong way so the short flap lays flat against the back of the case, and the long flap points down toward the table, you will see where I am going with this.
Simple as that. You can attach the Velcro strips to the patches when the case is closed for transport, along the long edge of the case, or simply tuck them somewhere safe.
In my humble opinion, this mod turns what is an okay folio case with a marginal stand implementation, into a truly functional travel companion. But that’s just me.
I am wondering if this same sea-change that is happening in my life is happening in others, or is about to?
When the first Netbooks arrived on the scene in 2007, I was an early adopter. I had an EEE PC while they were still 7 inch screens and Linux was still the only OS. The combination of affordability, portability, and functionality was irresistible for me, especially as one who spends 170 days a year on the road. I have moved to a 8.9 inch Windows XP machine with a 16G SSD (Asus EEE PC 900XP), then, when that died a catastrophic death on business trip, to an 8.9 inch Atom machine with hard drive (Acer Aspire One), then, when I felt the need for more graphics ability, to an 11.1 inch machine with a dual core Pentium chip and integrated graphics (Acer Timeline 1810TZ)…seeking, always, that happy, that perfect, balance of portability and power.
Along the way, I bought into the whole iPod Touch, and then, iPhone thing…with the iPhone 4 (my second iPhone) finally becoming what I consider the best pocket sized, always connected, cloud portal and e-social interaction device yet conceived of. Twitter and Facebook, email and text, don’t get any better than on the iPhone (imho), and it plays music and makes phone calls too (not to mention being an instant pocket reference on birds, mammals, mushrooms, holy Scripture, wildflowers, or whatever else takes your fancy…as well as my always-with-me travel guide, itinerary and calendar organizer, and GPS.)
With the Netbook to take care of my photography and video, and more heavy duty web surfing (and the occasional ppt for work), and the iPhone to take care of all social business, I was, I thought, pretty well set.
Then I got more heavily into video…HD video…capturing and editing. The Acer Timeline was supposed to handle that, and, for a year I made it work, but it was not easy. This fall I began eyeing the Core i machines, but at that level, though I could still buy the Netbook from-factor, the affordability element was gone, gone, gone. I found that for the same price as a hopped up Netbook, I could buy a 13 inch laptop with a Core i processor twice as fast, and both the integrated Intel graphics and a dedicated GPU and accelerator (and an optical drive).
At the same time, I began to look at tablets. I had had an iPad to work with for several weeks on and off, but I knew that the affordability and functionality equation was not there for me…especially as an iPhone user. I just needed a device to carry to my shows and workshops that would let me find and show my pics and videos quickly and easily, on a considerably larger screen than the iPhone, but with that same degree of ease when compared to my netbook. It had to be something I could easily hold in my hands and even put in the hands of viewers.
There are lots of Android tablets out there today (and will be lots more announced and demoed next week at CES) but they are either 1) cheap, somewhat junky, marginally functional and totally without support of any kind, or 2) just as expensive as an iPad (or mostly as expensive as an iPad). Certainly I was not willing to invest a lot (especially when looking at laptops at the same time) on a device I was not sure I really needed or could (would) use.
The one exception to the current Android Tablet equation is the new Generation 8 (gen8) Internet Tablets from Archos: Fully supported by a real company with a decent track record, fully upgradable to new versions of Android (already upgraded twice since introduction), and under $300…exactly the price point that has been most effective for Netbooks, and a price I could afford, not exactly on a whim, but certainly as a calculated risk.
If you read my review you know I took a chance on the 10.1 inch Archos, and that, so far, I am both impressed and happy. It is a lot of fun. It does what I expected it to do, a lot of things I had only hoped for, and a few things I had not even thought of. And it is the right price. There will be better tablets in a year…of course there will…but, I predict, not better values.
And, what you don’t know yet (unless you read the fine print under my photo up there in the corner of the blog) is that I bought a 13 inch Asus U30JC, with a Core i3 processor running at over 2 ghz, Intel HD graphics, and a dedicated NVidia graphics accelerator. It is a compromise on both affordability and portability, but it is everything I could have hoped for in functionality. On the affordable front, it is still well under $1000, which is a good value for a machine with this kind of power. On the portable front, while it is indeed larger and heavier than my Acer Timeline, once it is in the pack and on my back as I travel, there is not much difference at all. And you should see it whip through HD video with Sony Vegas Studio HD! On the photography front, even processor hogs like Photomatix Pro HDR run at double the speed they did on the Timeline. Overall, I like it. Overall, in fact, I love it!
The only issue I have is that I am not, after all this, a Netbook user anymore. This is, after all, Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights you are reading. The tablet, I can already see, is going to take over about 90% of the non-photo/video work (play?) that I used to do on my Netbook, and it will do it with considerably more grace and fun. There is nothing to compare to a multi-touch interface for making the most mundane tasks fun. Twitter? Facebook? A blast. I can even do emergency photo editing on it PicSayPro, and read my Kindle books. How cool is that!
And as a photo and video viewer, it is simply brilliant!
In a very real sense, with a laptop for power applications, a tablet for fun, and an iPhone for connectedness (and fun), I no longer need a Netbook. I have a little Virgin Mobile MiFi that I used with my netbook at need, so even for connected fun I am set to go with the tablet.
True, I am up one machine on my total machine count, since I used to use the Netbook for both my photo/video work and fun, but the increased functionality of the laptop, and the increased fun factor of the tablet, imho, more than make up for it.
And I have already figured out that I can slip the tablet between the zip apart halves of my TSA Friendly laptop backpack where it will be easy to deal with at security on my next trip, and it will actually add practically nothing to my road-load or fuss.
Point? I, personally, would never have gotten to the tablet without passing through the netbook and iPhone phase. I don’t see myself giving up the iPhone (or some equivalent) in the foreseeable future, but with the tablet, I can easily give up the netbook.
I have a feeling that folks just entering this wonderful world of connected, cloud-centric, mobile technology may just skip the netbook phase altogether, and never miss it.
The one critical factor in success for tablets is, as I see it, price! If tablets are going to be the new netbooks, they need to hit the same magic price-point…the value point where affordability, portability, and functionality meet in happy harmony: and that is…
No more. No less. If main-line manufactures want to create another netbook boom, only this time with tablets, they are going to have to keep them right around $300. Archos has, arguably, proved it can be done. Tablets at $400 and $500 and $600 are just not going to do it. Apple might get away with it, but Acer, Asus, HP, and Dell will not. At $400 and up, they will take a little market share from Apple. At $300 they will create a whole new industry, as netbooks did. Simple.
It is perhaps unfortunate for the tablet world that the first successful tablet out was from Apple. Apple devices always set a high performance and polish bar…and come in at a relatively high price. Once that performance level becomes the standard, and that price accepted in the market as what you pay for that performance, then it is next to impossible for other manufacturers to compete a lower price points while matching the performance, let alone the polish. Look at the iPod. Look at the iPhone.
Netbooks had the advantage of being introduced by what were, at the time, relatively unknown players in the US computer market. Oh sure, both Asus and Acer had lots of laptops out, but, honestly, they would not have been on many peoples’ short list of top laptop makers…before netbooks. Because they came from scrappy companies looking for quick market share, the EEE PC and Aspire One established both performance and price standards that were highly aggressive…and which keep the affordable in the Netbook equation even today.
Not so tablets. Apple has seen to that.
So, are Tablets the new Netbooks? Maybe. If the makers are smart enough, efficient enough, and aggressive enough. Maybe just.
What do you think: Cloudy Days and Tablet Nights? Nah. Maybe: Cloudy Days and Connected Nights!
Since I got my A101, I have had my eye out for something to carry it in. I bought a 10 inch laptop sleeve. It is about the right length but the two inches and more of extra height kind of bothers me. It is not an attractive fit. I bought the “custom” case for the Veiwsonic G Tablet (which is actually, once you open the wrapping, just a CaseLogic 10 inch laptop sleeve). I have looked at CD cases, and every laptop sleeve I can find within 20 miles of home. I check on Amazon daily. Eventually someone out there will come out with a nice folio style case, similar to the ones for the Amazon Kindles…that is what I really want.
Still, this morning, while picking up a hanger kit for my wife’s new painting (Christmas gift) at WalMart, I happened to be walking through the luggage aisle and saw this little zippered bag hanging up. It caught my eye because it was, oddly, the right proportions for the A101. A quick check of the dimensions confirmed that it was actually a close fit. The material is a woven nylon, similar to what soft-side luggage is covered with. It was only $2.97 so I picked it up. And then, as I continued to browse the aisles, I began to wonder what I could line it with for added protection. I found these Peel and Stick Foam sheets in the Crafts Section. They are designed for making puppets. $3.47 for 6 sheets. Self adhesive, about an eight of an inch of relatively firm foam in bright colors. Worth a try. So, without further ado, here is how to transform $5.50 in materials from WalMart into a somewhat functional, custom DIY Archos A101 sleeve.
And there you have it. DIY.
Lexerd Anti-Glare Screen Protector
I ordered a Lexerd True-View Anti-glare Screen Protector for my Archos 101 directly from Lexerd through Amazon.com. It is one of the more expensive screen protectors out there ($30), and I was, admittedly, hesitant to order it…but it was the only one that I could find (at the time) that claimed anti-glare properties. If you own, or have tried, an Archos 101 you know why that might be attractive.
The protector came in due course and I installed it. It was easy (especially compared to some iPhone protectors I have wrestled with). Lexerd provides two little finger tip thingies (a bit like uninflected balloons) that go over the first finger and thumb of the hand you handle the protector with, and it appears to adhere mostly by surface tension. It is slightly smaller than the screen of the 101, which actually makes it a lot easier to get on. And, since there is no adhesive, you can pick up the leading edge to work bubbles out from under until you have it just about perfect. You can even lift the whole thing off to start over if you have to.
Once installed, you will see an immediate difference. While the screen is still slightly reflective, reflections are definitely muted to the point where they are unlikely to be distracting in most lights. Once the 101 is fired up, the protector disappears, except for a noticeable increase in apparent contrast. The difference is somewhat apparent looking at the home screen, but it does wonders when viewing photos or videos. It does add some graininess to large areas of solid color, like the blue sky, and it is possible that smaller text sizes are not quite as sharp. You will have to decide if it is worth it for the overall improvement in the view.
It does not interfere with touch at all. It is silky smooth under the fingers. It still picks up its share of finger grease and smudge, but perhaps a bit less than the naked screen. It is easy to clean with a static free wipe or a lens cloth.
Since ordering the Lexerd, I have found another source of “anti-glare” protectors, at NewMp3Technology.com. NewMp3Technology seems to be an excellent early adopter source for Archos accessories. They have, as of this writing, the only custom fitted folio case for the A101it that I have been able to find. More on that below. They also list an anti-glare screen protector for about 1/3 of what the Lexerd sells for…and certainly when the Lexard wears out I may try one from NewMp3Tech.
NewMp3Technology Genuine Leather case for Archos A101it with Stand.
I have looked around for possible carrying solutions for the Archos, and even made my own little sleeve, but I am totally spoiled by the Leather Case for the Kindle. The Kindle case is both elegant and functional. I love carrying it.
The only thing remotely like it I have been able to find is the NewMp3Tech leather case. At $40, it is, as such things go, actually reasonable (same price as the Kindle case), and after much debate, with an extensive trip afield coming up fast, I went ahead and ordered one. It came in due course and I have been using it for a few days now.
It pretty much meets my expectations, though it could be improved greatly with just a bit more effort.
Plus: 1) well made, elegant looking and feeling, 2) when closed offers adequate protection for the back and screen during transport, 3) only adds reasonable bulk and substance to what is, or can be, a somewhat fragile feeling machine. This is good.
Minus: 1) stand function is lame. Wrong angle for any imaginable use and not totally secure in use. There is no way to adjust for optimum viewing angle much less for comfortable typing. 2) Little or no protection for the edges of the A101. A drop would not be recommended. When carrying outside my laptop backpack, I will still need some kind of protective case for the occasional bump…or, heaven forbid…actual drop. (Fortunately I snagged one of those $5.99 Neoprene ViewSonic G cases from Sears while they had them).
Needed improvements. 1) Simply extending the leather covers 1/4 inch on all sides (like the Kindle cover) so the leather would take the impact of a bump or drop instead of the edge of the machine, would make this a much more functional and secure case. 2) if you bend the cover the “wrong way” behind the machine, it has the makings of an excellent stand. I will work on a modification and take some pics when it is ready.
So, the NewMp3Tech case is a good enough for now solution, but I expect (hope) to see better.
USB Charging Cable (NewMp3Tech)
One of the drawbacks of the A101it (and 70it), when compared to the other gen8 models, is the need for a separate charger to provide the extra amps needed to for a reasonably quick charge of the large batteries. It is the same situation new iPad owners faced when that machine came out. Standard USB is only 1.1 amps. The A101it requires 2 amps for a decent charge (the iPad likes 2.1), and the folks at Archos must have figured, “why confuse people and have them plugging into standard USB and taking forever to charge”. Therefore the separate adapter and power port. Still, carrying an extra adapter these days, especially one with blades that do not fold or retract, is less than ideal. I already have a bag of adapters and chargers that takes up a fairly large corner of my luggage.
So, when I saw the USB Charging Cable for the A101it on the NewMp3Tech site while ordering my case, of course I had to have one. It was only $10. This little guy has a standard USB plug at one end and a plug to match the Archos power port on the other. Simple. Well…almost. Standard USB is still only 1.1 amps, and it would take a long time to fully charge the Archos while plugged into a USB port or standard wall charger. Overnight with the Archos powered down and plugged into a live USB block, the charge came up from less than 50% to more than 70%, so it is charging…just not very fast. On the other hand, several companies make USB chargers specifically designed for the higher demands of the iPad (the Griffin PowerBlock seems to be among the best).
Plug your Archos USB Charging Cable into one of those, and it should charge just as well, and just as fast, as the supplied charger. I will let you know as soon as I can locate a Griffin PowerBlock
[Ed. Note: Having found a Griffin PowerBlock at our local Best Buy last night I can now testify that it does indeed charge the A101it, but that for some reason, it does not bring the charge above 75% even on an overnight charge with the A101it powered off. I would say you could expect similar performance from any USB charger that is designed for the iPad! So, I will carrying the Archos charger for the duration and using the NewMp3Tech cable strictly for emergencies.]
Just a short to note to report on my first experiences with the Archos 101 in public, in my intended natural habitat…showing videos and pics to friends, family, and anyone else who will stand or sit still long enough. It works! I propped it up on a table and connected to an inexpensive external speaker system through Bluetooth and my in-laws got to see my daughter Kelia’s Concerto Festival submission video, and later I sat with my father-in-law and two nephews and showed recent photographs and videos from my travels. Like I said, it worked well. No one claimed they could not see the screen, and it was way easier, and more fun, than flipping through an album or hooking up to the TV. SmugFolio did an excellent job…I was able to show my work without an internet connection at all.
So, beyond the fun I am having playing with the thing, it looks like it may just fulfill its original intention! This is good.
And, for those still hung up on viewing angles of the screen, here are some unretouched, natural-light photos. 1) About 30° below perpendicular, 2) About 20° above perpendicular, and 3) about 60° to the side.
I consider these the limits of usability. Only you can say if this level of performance meets your needs.