A Few Good Apps

mewindowsI installed Windows 10 on to my laptop a few weeks ago. I have been considering upgrading my main machine to 10 for a while, so dropping it onto the lappy seemed like a good way to take it for a test drive.

I had upgraded my ASUS Windows 8 tablet to 10 shortly after the free offer appeared. It started out great, but the lack of good apps (which I have complained about) turned it into a mini-laptop. Having a mini-laptop is cool, but I wanted to use my tablet as, well, a tablet, so the ASUS has collected dust in favor of my more app-centric iPad mini.

Back to the laptop: While waiting for app updates to download in the Store, I poked around and found the page for the Facebook app. I had used it previously and it actually wasn’t too bad until Microsoft stopped updating it.  I think somewhere down the way MS and FB had a fight, but that’s neither here nor there. As new features kept getting added to Facebook, the Windows app was stuck in time. Thinking back, its obsolescence and overall lack of apps was likely one of the things that drove me away from Windows Phone.  Old news, I know.

A sentence on the page intrigued me, though: “New for Windows 10!” Why not? I download the app and prepared to be underwhelmed. As a test, I hovered over one of the ‘Like’ links to see if the additional options would appear. Much to my surprise, they did! I did some more clicking around and was delighted to see that the app had all the features that had been missing from the previous version. It isn’t perfect, but it is much more usable than it was before.

Encouraged by that success, I decided to re-download some other apps. I was surprised to find that they too had been updated, with improved results. I then turned on ‘Tablet Mode’ (which fullscreens all programs and apps) and was astounded that I could now use my Windows 10 tablet AS A TABLET.  What a country!

All it took was a few good apps. Given my iPhone 6’s lackluster performance in buildings as of late, I might be willing to give Windows Phone another shot if Microsoft can get its apps together.

Maybe.

It’s the Apps, Stupid!

windowsAfter months of learning to live with Windows 8 on the desktop, I picked up an ASUS VivoTab 8 tablet back in early 2015.  Finally, I would get to experience Windows 8 with a touchscreen, just like God Microsoft had intended!

As much as I like to think that I ‘got’ Windows 8 before, using it with a touch screen was wonderful.  No more fumbling with sides and screen corners!  The stupid charms on the right side of the screen finally made sense and I could bring them up by swiping in from the right side instead of madly fumbling around for for the magic spot with my mouse!  Life was great!

That euphoria lasted for about five minutes until I tried to pull up the News app and it crashed.  I checked for app updates in the Store, and there were none to be had.  So much for that.

I am totally on board with the idea that there should be desktop apps Just like the ones we have on our phones and tablets.  I shouldn’t have to go back to my web browser to do things.  Indeed, I would love nothing better than pick up my Windows 8 tablet and left-swipe from app to app to get things done instead of having to go back to Ye Olde Desktop unless I want to.

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s apps suck.  Everywhere.  They sucked on Windows Phone, sucked on Windows 8 and continue to suck on Windows 10.  Until they stop sucking, I’ll find myself going back to my desktop and my browser or using my iPhone or iPad.  Don’t like it, Microsoft?  THEN MAKE YOUR APPS STOP SUCKING!

I Wish I Knew How To Quit You, Laptop!

technology2I have a trip planned for this weekend (to Furry Fiesta) and as I begin to pack, I ask myself the same question that I do every trip:

Do I bring my laptop along for the ride?

I have a smartphone and a tablet and while they both do a decent enough job at keeping me connected to my precious data out in the cloud, I always find myself going back to Ye Olde Laptop.  I always need to have it with me whether I’m going to visit my folks or I’m at a convention or yes, even camping.

The most obvious advantage to the laptop over mobile devices is the screen size.  My smartphone has a 4-inch screen and I have no desire to get a huge phone (or ‘phablet’ as self-important tech writers call them).  The iPad mini is okay at 7.9 inches, but even then, a good chuck of that gets eaten away by the on-screen keyboard, and I have no desire to upgrade to a full-sized iPad or fork out a c-note for a decent keyboard accessory.  Speaking of keyboards…

The second obvious advantage of a laptop is the presence of a full-sized keyboard.  More importantly, especially to me, as a writer, the laptop keyboard actually has all of the keys.  I’ll never forget how flabbergasted I was when I was merrily typing away on my iPad mini’s Microsoft Office program and discovered that there was NO TAB KEY.  WHAT. THE. FRAK.

Speaking of ‘having everything,’ the most important benefit of having a laptop is that it has Windows.  While iOS and Windows Phone can do lots of stuff, neither one can do everything.  Even the Microsoft Office app on Windows Phone feels kind of half-assed (no tab key there, either *sob*) so if I need to do Serious Things I need to have Windows.

Finally, for all my tech knowledge and willingness to try new technologies, I tend to stick to old habits to a certain degree.  I still use a desktop, rarely watch video on mobile devices, prefer to get media on physical discs and still have a checkbook.  Based on that, it looks as if I’m stuck lugging around my old faithful 14″ Toshiba for the near future.

Or maybe not, I see there are Windows 8.1 tablets out now.  Hmm… 😉

RANDOM REACTION: iPad mini

The hands in these ads always look fake to me

As I mentioned previously, I was intrigued by the iPad mini because of its lower price and its size. The popularity of Apple’s newest wunderkind meant that I was going to have to hunt for one, but after a few weeks of looking, I finally got my grimy paws on a 16GB white iPad mini last week.

If there is one thing I have learned from owning my Acer Iconia Tab A100, it is that tablets are fairly close to useless without data, so I purchased a model with a cellular modem. I have used my iPad mini for just over a week and I am very impressed with it so far.

I have a friend that used to work at an Apple store. In talking with him about the mini, I found it hard to describe just how different it felt to use the iPad compared to other devices. He wasn’t surprised at that and mentioned that it was fairly common for folks to have difficulty in describing the experience of using one. I took that as a challenge, thought it over and I think I may have found a phrase:

The iPad doesn’t get in the way.

I know that sounds odd, so allow me to elaborate: In using my Android tablet, and indeed, this is the case with many portable devices, the device itself will not work as well as it should. I then have to stop what I am doing to deal with its idiosyncrasies, interrupting my work. For example, while typing, every now and then the keyboard on my Iconia would barf up a bunch of letters instead of what I wanted to type. I would then have to stop and correct the mistake before continuing. In contrast, I can type away on my iPad mini with abandon, fairly confident that the software will catch the overwhelming majority of my mistakes.

Android just feels clunky and half-done to me; a hodgepodge of different bits and pieces glued together to make a Frankenstein of an OS that works…but doesn’t work well.. iOS and its apps, on the other hand, feel more like a unified system. I don’t have to go through a relearning process with each new iOS app I install, and it is very responsive.

While I have no doubt that metaphorical wrinkles and dings will soon appear on my iPad as I get to know it better, I am a very happy owner so far.

RANDOM REACTION: Windows 8 Developer Preview

Just when I was growing to love Windows 7, Microsoft has to come up with something new. Windows 8 is expected to drop in late 2012, but that’s a wild guess from people that get paid to make wild guesses.  For now, though, there is the Developer Preview, which was introduced on September 13th at Microsoft’s BUILD developer conference.  In a pretty smart move, Microsoft made it available to the public, which only makes sense because everyone was going to share it anyway, and it gave Microsoft something to brag about: 8 was download half a million times within its first 12 hours of release.

Like any good geek, I wanted to poke at the latest thingamabobber from the depths of Redmond.  I started my download, went to bed, and burned a Windows 8 install DVD before going to work the next morning.  I figured I could install it while I was at work and poke at it during the day.  I started the installer, and about an hour or so later, after using my Windows Live ID for maximum effect, I had a nice purdy Windows 8 screen thingie looking back at me.  FYI, this screenshot was taken after I’d set up the Socialite (Facebook) and Weather apps, so it isn’t quite the default:

Windows 8 Start Screen
Its Hip to be Square!

Windows 8 eschews the Start Menu (almost) completely and give you a Start Screen.  The Start Screen uses the “Metro” interface found on Windows Phone.  This is a good thing and a bad thing.  Its good because it places lots of information and apps in front of you but its bad because well, most of the information presented wasn’t too important. The Facebook tile seemed to display just random images of friends, and the Tweet@rama (Twitter) tile was set to one of Microsoft’s feeds.  While I’m sure that the UI and tiles will be more customizable the closer we get to release, right now the constant stream of data just feels like overkill on a desktop.

One thing that became rapidly apparent was that the Windows 8 user interface was clearly designed with touch screens in mind; the Start Screen’s big chunky tiles appear to be more suited for finger tapping than mouse clicking.  Since I was using a mouse, I had to make do with horizontal scroll bars that constantly appeared at the bottom of the screen which got more than a little bit annoying.

Luckily, for those of us dinosaurs that still want to work with the Desktop, clicking the “Desktop” tile pulls up a Windows 7 desktop that looks like the one we’ve grown to love over the past two years or so.  Programs can be stuck onto the taskbar just like in Windows 7 but getting to them isn’t quite as simple as it used to be:

Windows 8 Apps list
Get'cher apps and programs here!

In order to get to your list of programs and apps you have to click “Search” which pops up in a menu that appears when you move your mouse to the lower right hand corner of the screen.  You can then type in a search term or scroll through the list until you find what you want.

The Start Menu?  Gone.  Kaputski.  No Mas.  Frankly, I think that is a horrible decision on Microsoft’s part.  Here’s why:

Windows 8 Start Screen after Office install
I only needed Word, doggone it!

That is my Start Screen after installing Word in Microsoft Office 2003.  Most of the programs on the right hand side of that screen I am never, ever going to use.  Normally, they stay tucked away in the Start Menu unless, by some miracle of fate, I actually need one of them.  When I install Word, I take the Word icon and drop it onto my taskbar because that’s all I need.  Now all those extra icons are all over my Start Screen, cluttering it up unless I take the time to go in and delete each individual one.  This sucks.

Yes, it may be used less often these days, but when you aren’t using it, the Start Menu stays out of the way.  If Microsoft insists on keeping backwards-compatibility with earlier Windows versions, it needs to keep the Start Menu lest they risk pissing off their userbase, because I guarantee you that the first thing everyone is going to look for after starting up their shiny new Windows 8 machine is look for the Start Menu.

That quibble aside, Windows  8 is a pleasure to get around, the teeny-tiny Notification area that used to be on the right side of the Start Menu has been moved over to the Settings area, which is accessed using the lower-left corner menu:

Windows 8 Settings Sub-screen
Very niiiice!

As you can tell, the Settings area is easy to view and read, and is definitely an improvement.  Apps written for the Windows 8 Metro interface also have a different look to them, such as Internet Explorer which you can see below.  The screenshot shows the pop-up menus that appear when  you right-click.

Internet Explorer 9 in Windows 8
Shiny!

While older programs run within the Desktop, apps run in full-screen mode.  Right clicking the mouse brings up menus that are different from the usual “File, Edit…” ones we’ve used to using all these years.  I think this is a definite improvement and should make Windows much easier for people to use, assuming, of course, that the interfaces are done right.  That may become an issue when we’re talking about more complicated software packages like Excel and Visual Studio, but the Desktop is available as a fallback.

As far as performance goes, Windows 8 seemed to run okay on my Toshiba Satellite T115D-S1125 laptop with 4GB of RAM.  All of my hardware appeared to work and the Frowny Blue Screen of Death was nowhere to be seen.  It did chug a little bit at times, but as this is a pre-beta, so that is forgivable and it did work well enough to be usable during the time that I had it installed.  Older Windows software such as Office 2003, WinAmp 2.9 and Microsoft Money 2000 also worked just fine.

Windows 8 is looking like a pretty nice update so far.  The Metro interface is very different from the old Desktop we’ve been using all these years and should make using Windows a much easier experience for less-technically savvy people.  Unfortunately, 8 also has to work with software written for previous versions of Windows, and the lack of a Start Menu is going to make the Start Screen pretty unusable for folks that are going to be installing a bunch of legacy programs onto it.  Microsoft may have been testing the waters by leaving out the Start Menu, but it is a bad move unless they decide to rip out backwards compatibility altogether, which I severely doubt is going to happen.

My other big beef with Windows 8 is its tablet-centricness.  This is not necessarily a Bad Thing, but I felt as if I was not able to make full use of it because I was using a mouse and keyboard.  In fact, a few of the programs were all but unusable because I did not have multi-touch, so I couldn’t pinch or widen two fingers onto the screen.  I would love to see this running on a tablet, but on a desktop, it feels a bit clunky right now.

In my opinion, Windows 8 is a step in the right direction and a long-needed shift for operating systems in general.  Metro is clean, sharp and very user friendly.  I look forward to seeing 8 evolve as the devs hammer at it and hopefully take user feedback (like this!) into account.  I just hope that Microsoft does not leave us old fogey mouse-and-keyboard users out in the cold in favor of the cool kids with their tablets and touchscreens.

Why a Tablet?

I have been thinking about getting a tablet as of late, going as far as to even take one for a test drive not too long ago. Of course, the question then becomes “Why?”  Here are my reasons for wanting to “small-grade” down to a tablet:

I DON’T REALLY DO A LOT WITH MY LAPTOP

When I am on the road with my laptop, I increasingly find myself either doing stuff inside of a web browser or in Microsoft Word.  I don’t play games with it, I don’t do any programming (yet!) and except for the occasional trip to YouTube, I don’t watch very many movies or videos.  All of the “big stuff,” such as editing audio or video, I do on my desktop, which has plenty of horsepower and a nice, big 24-inch screen.

PHONE TOO SMALL, LAPTOP TOO BIG

I have owned smartphones for about four years now, with my first one being a Windows Mobile 6 phone that I had before my current Samsung Moment running Android.  They work okay, but their screens and keyboards are just too small to type on for extended periods of time.  I am due for an upgrade soon and am leaning towards a phone with a larger screen, but even then I don’t think that they will not be big enough to use for any extended length of time.  As I mentioned in my Vizio Tablet review, I tend to carry a lot of crap in my laptop bag, which even at 12-inches, makes more cumbersome to lug around than it should be.  A tablet, on the other hand, would be more usable than a phone because of its smaller screen, and more portable than a laptop.  It should be the best of both worlds.

INSTANT-ON

Ideas don’t wait, so when something pops in my head I want to be able to jot it down before it gets lost with all of the other stuff being tossed around in the clothes dryer that is my brain.  While Windows 7 is nice, it does take a while to boot up and shut down.  With a tablet, I can turn it on at the touch of a button, type down whatever Big Idea I have, put it back into sleep mode and then get back to using the crapper or whatever it was I was doing when inspiration struck.

BACK TO A DUMB PHONE

These days, Wi-Fi is widespread enough to the point where it’s available nearly everywhere you go.  For those times when WiFi isn’t available, I have a pre-paid MiFi device which works well, even in the hole in the Internet that is my hometown.  Since an Android tablet can to do everything that my phone can do, there doesn’t seem to be much point in carrying an Android phone.  Thus, I should be able to ‘downgrade’ my phone to a more basic model that does not require a data plan which should save a few bucks in the long term, especially since Sprint is bumping up the price of the their smartphone plans another 10 bucks.

So there you have it, four reasons I will be soon purchasing an Android tablet.  I’m looking forward to having the near-ultimate in portability in the palm of my hand!  Move over, laptop!

RANDOM REVIEW: Vizio VTAB1008 Tablet

Vizio Tablet 1008
My God, its full of...space

View the Vizio VTAB 1008 Product Page at Vizio.com

INTRODUCTION

As portable as my twelve inch laptop is, it’s not really that portable, partially because of all the stuff I need to carry along with it: the charger, mouse, cables, external speaker, external hard drive…okay, so I don’t help by filling my laptop bag full of crap.  Disregarding my tendency to overpack, my laptop bag does take up a decent amount of space and weight.

While my Samsung Moment smartphone can do a lot of stuff, it does have its shortcomings, not the least of which is its screen size.  Also, after nearly two years of reboots, crashes and a less than reliable GPS, I find myself wondering if all the extra stuff smartphones can do comes at the expense of the phone.  Just sayin’.

Thus, I started looking at tablets, the near-ultimate in portability and (hopefully) functionality.  The most obvious device would seem to be the iPad, but I have never been a big fan of Apple’s locked-down portable devices.  I also hate iTunes with a passion and try to avoid using it after getting frustrated with it way back when.  Those statements are odd considering that I own an iMac, but one can get around most, if not all of the iMac’s annoyances.  Heck, if worse comes to worse you can install Windows on it. -shrug- My needs are a bit above that of the average user, so a do-it-Jobs-way-or-else iPad was not going to cut it.

Android was familiar to me from having used my Moment for nearly two years and so I began looking into Android-based tablets.  After hearing all the wonderful things my friends were saying about their newer Android phones, I figured that the problems I was having with Android were due just it not having been updated.  My poor phone can’t even play Angry Birds, for crying out loud.

Thus, I found myself at Ye Olde Electronics Store poking and prodding at various tablets.  Despite the fact that I had no intention of buying one, I even checked out the iPad as well.

SIZE MATTERS

I am pretty good at typing, so I wanted to have something I could hold in my hands and type on using my thumbs like a phone.  As it turns out, all of the ten inch tablets I sampled were too wide to be used in that way, never mind my arms getting tired from holding them up for extended periods of time.

I found seven inch tablets to be much easier to use in that way, though.  I could almost bang away on their keyboards with aplomb, but soon discovered a new problem: crappy screens.  Quite a few of the smaller tablets were less expensive eReaders that happened to run Android, but their screens were not nearly as responsive as their larger, pricier brethren.  As enticing as getting a tablet for $200 or under sounded, the compromise of having to deal with a less than responsive screen quickly killed that idea.

I seemed to be stuck at this point.  I could get a quality device that would be too big for me to use the way I wanted to, or get a smaller device of dubious quality.  I just happened to find something in the middle.

ENTER THE VIZIO TABLET

Vizio, best known as a maker of low-cost TVs of average quality, recently introduced the their first tablet.  The VTAB1008 (VTAB from here on out) is an eight-inch model priced at $300.  Of course, getting the price that low means some compromises had to be made: it does not run the latest and greatest version of Android, does not have a dual-core CPU like the big boys do and has a pretty low amount of built-in memory (2 MB, which can be increased via an SDmicro chip). Vizio also puts a custom interface called “Vizio Internet Apps Plus” on top of Android that places all of the application icons on the device’s home page like the iPad.

I did some research and checked out online reviews: many of them described the VTAB as being an average device that wasn’t bad for the price.   At $100 less than a ten-inch tablet, it seemed like a good deal so I figured it was worth a shot.  I excitedly picked one up from Wal-Mart and got to tapping.

HARDWARE

The VTAB is a solid device with a little bit of weight to it, but it isn’t terribly heavy.  Like many devices these days, it sports a glossy screen that is a bit on the reflective side, but its 1027×768 resolution produces a good picture. An inwards-facing camera is at the top center of the panel and the typical Android Back, Home and Menu touch buttons are at the bottom.  Oddly enough, the only thing you can do with the camera right now is take pictures of yourself, as Skype is not available as of this writing.  A second pair of touch buttons are on the device’s left hand side are are used when holding the VTAB horizontally.  The buttons light up when available and go dark when not in use.

At the top center of the VTAB is the power button which is flanked by two speakers. In a pretty clever move, a third speaker at the bottom right corner of the device is activated when the VTAB is held sideways so that you always have stereo sound.   The bottom center has a Micro-USB charging connection, a Micro-HDMI out connection, and a Micro SD card slot on the bottom left.  Volume control buttons are on the right side and a control-free left side round out the unit.

The VTAB’s battery life is pretty good compared to other portable devices I have owned, it lasted about eight hours of on and off use with everything on.  Turning off the GPS bumped up the battery life significantly, to over ten hours.  Those numbers aren’t based on “stress tests” so don’t read too much into them, but I will say that I have had to charge it each night in the short time that I have owned it.  Its use of a Micro-USB charger instead of some crappy proprietary connector means I that can use the charger for other things, which is very convenient.

As I mentioned at the opening, Vizio makes television sets and other home theater equipment, and so the VTAB also has an infrared transmitter, so the device can be used as a giant remote control.  The remote app doesn’t quite make full use of the ability, though, important buttons can sometimes go missing.

The VTAB is a pleasure to carry around. It has a slightly rubbery finish on the back that provides some grip so I don’t have to worry too much about having it slip out of my hands.  After putting a screen protector on it, I can tap away with impunity.  Typing on this thing is AWESOME, it is as close to typing on a keyboard as I have ever gotten to on a portable device.  It’s actually better, thanks to the installed SwiftKey TabletX software which does a scary-good job of guessing what I’m about to type.  The VTAB is almost a little too wide to be used comfortably when typing using my thumbs like a phone.  I am enjoying it for now, but time will tell.

SOFTWARE

The Vizio Tablet runs the “Gingerbread” version of Android (2.3.2 to be exact) so if you have an Android phone it will feel very familiar.   This is a good thing and a bad thing.  It’s a good thing because it is easy to use, but it is a bad thing because makes the VTAB feel like, well, a giant phone.  That isn’t necessarily bad per se, but the apps and even the OS itself simply do not take full advantage of the larger screen.

A good example of this is the Widget screen, which is identical to the home screens on Android phones. It sadly limits widgets and shortcuts to a four by four grid.  While my main Widget screen is almost full, it also has way too much unused space.

Flash 10.1 is installed, but the browser loads the mobile version of websites fairly frequently.  Alternate browsers are available but seem to confuse the device.  I kept getting asked which browser I wanted to open when I tapped links, which got annoying.

I can understand why Vizio customized Android the way they did, but I think they took away some of its usefulness in doing so.  For example, the notification area at the top of the screen does not behave in the same way as in “plain vanilla” Android.  Normally, each new notification appears in the bar with its own icon, and in order to see them, you drag down the top bar and they appear in a list.  On the VTAB, all notifications are accessed by clicking on a fat asterisk sitting in the upper-right corner that never goes away.  Bleh.  Having to click an icon to get to a “widget board” is also inefficient and defeats their purpose

While the VTAB does get slow on occasion, it is fairly responsive for the most part.  Vizio is reportedly working on a Honeycomb update for it, but as this is their first true computing device,  I’m not sure I trust them to keep that promise.  I’ve been burned in the past by established manufacturers that didn’t keep their products up to date (like my Samsung Moment) so I’m a little skittish about trusing the new kid on the block to do so.  To their credit, Vizio has released two minor updates since the device’s launch, so there may be hope yet.

APPS

The VTAB is severely lacking in apps, which is a unfortunate considering that one of its selling points is access to the Android Market.  I wanted to install many of the same apps that I had on my phone and was surprised to find many of them were not available.  As of this writing, Yahoo! Mail, Netflix, Skype and even Facebook apps are nowhere to be found.  I don’t use very many apps, so not being able to get the few that I do use is a bit of a downer.

CONCLUSION

For me, the Vizio Tablet is almost a keeper.  Instead, the delight of having Android running on a bigger screen is quickly offset by the disappointment of realizing that this device just doesn’t do a whole lot with the additional real estate.  The hardware is pretty good for the cost, but the VTAB’s potential is wasted by the fact that the version of Android it runs was not written for tablets, making it a really big phone-without-the-phone.  App support is the final nail in the coffin; if I could get any app from the Android Market that I wanted, the VTAB would be a slam dunk, but  even with my limited app use, there are too many things missing.

Keep in mind, though, that my needs are not the same as the average user’s.  Most people will be content to check Facebook through the Vizio Tablet’s built-in browser.  Most people won’t care about editing Word documents and attaching them to emails.  Most people won’t care which version of Android their tablet is running under the hood.  Those people will probably be perfectly happy with a Vizio Tablet.  As for me, I’m going to give it a few more days, but it looks like it will be going back to the store while I wait for a reasonably priced 7-inch device to come along.  I may also just say to heck with it and get a cheap E-reader running Android instead.  I guess this eight, isn’t quite enough.

3 out of 5