Mini-review of the iPad

I played with an iPad yesterday. Here’s my mini-review. The screen is bright and the touch sensitivity is fantastic. Given that it reminds me the most of an iPhone, it’s surprisingly heavy. It feels dense with potential.

On the childlike-sense-of-wonder-scale (as fake Steve Jobs would say), the iPad is better than the Macbook Air but not as stunning as the iPhone when the iPhone first came out. I played with my wife’s iPhone for just a few minutes before I knew I had to have an iPhone. But I never really cared about the Macbook Air, mainly because the screen resolution was worse than my current laptop. The iPad fits between those two products in the spectrum of desirability for me.

The form factor is… weird. You’re going to feel strange carrying one of these into the grocery store, in the same way you felt weird using your cell phone in the grocery store at first. Leave it to Apple to blaze a trail of coolness though; the iPad will make this form factor acceptable, so you won’t feel quite as strange carrying a tablet into a meeting in a few months. The form factor fundamentally is awkward though: the iPad is book-sized, but much more delicate than a book. A screen this big with no protection will get scratched or scuffed. I’d expect to see plenty of articles about dropped iPads like you did about Wiimotes getting thrown into TVs and windows.

The gadget lover in me wants one, but the part of me that cares about open source and tinkering is stronger. I’m with Cory Doctorow on this one. The iPad is gorgeous, but it’s still not worth it for me. Yesterday, I also bought two books at the bookstore to read on a trip. Walking back to my car with “paper media” felt a bit dorky–why am I buying books on paper in 2010? If I could buy a book digitally and really own it (not just obtain a license to read a book, where the license could be revoked), I’d quickly switch to buying my books digitally. But the success of the Kindle shows that a lot of people care more about the convenience than completely owning what they’re buying digitally.

I think the iPad will be a huge hit. Non-tech-savvy consumers will love it because of the user experience, the simplicity, and the lack of viruses/malware/trojans. It’s like a computer without all the hassles of a typical computer (pre-installed crapware, anti-virus software, inconvenient software upgrades). Lots of tech-savvy consumers will love the iPad for the same reasons, and especially for the polish and user experience. The current iPad lacks a few things (such as a camera), which ensures that future generations of the iPad will also be a huge hit.

But the iPad isn’t for me. I want the ability to run arbitrary programs without paying extra money or getting permission from the computer manufacturer. Almost the only thing you give up when buying an iPad is a degree of openness, and tons of people could care less about that if they get a better user experience in return. I think that the iPad is a magical device built for consumers, but less for makers or tinkerers. I think the world needs more makers, which is why I don’t intend to buy an iPad. That said, I think the typical consumer will love the iPad.

Finding the best cell phone carrier

Okay, someone tell me if this device exists (or build it!). I want a device where I can pay $10-15 to get a gadget in the mail. The gadget would sit in my pocket for a week wherever I go. The device would record cell phone signal strength for each of the four major U.S. carriers every few seconds. After a week or so, the device would deliver the verdict on which cell phone carrier would have the strongest signal for me. Then I could mail the device back so someone else could use it — sort of a Netflix-like model to temporarily borrow this device.

At any point, I could go to a web page to view a map of where I’d been. The page would show a “heat map” of signal strength for each carrier or frequency band. Maybe I could also slice/dice by time or see the total number of readings in each location. I’m pretty sure you could rig this up out of 2-3 cell phones running Android in the worst case.

So far, I’ve found:

Android

- RF Signal Tracker is a nice app to collect and map signal strength data. It looks like it can upload to OpenCellID, which is a project to create an open database of cell IDs (numbers that correspond to cells).
- Antennas is a pretty cool free app to show you nearby antennas and signal strength. It can even export some data in KML for use with Google Maps/Earth, but it doesn’t seem to make a heat map that could be easily grokked.
- Sensorly has a free Android app, but they seem to want you to pay to zoom in closer than city level. I’m willing to do that, but didn’t see the for-pay addon in the Android Market.

iPhone

- I also found an iPhone app called Signals that will continuously collect signal data and upload it.
- AT&T offers an iPhone app called Mark the Spot to report dropped calls, no coverage, etc. I have to admit that I don’t understand why this is manual though. Personally, I’d want my phone to ping my carrier with its location every time the phone dropped a call.

Web

- SignalMap is a website to (manually!) submit the number of bars for a location. It doesn’t appear to have any mobile app to back it up. Likewise, Dead Cell Zones and Got Reception? appear to rely on manual reports. I don’t think manual reports is the best way to tackle cell phone coverage maps though — you really want an app for this.
- http://www.cellreception.com/ has the standard manual reports data, but also will map the location of cell phone towers based on the location of cell phone towers registered with the FCC.
- Root Wireless powers the cell phone signal strength maps that CNET uses, but I didn’t see any apps I could download or install on a phone. I registered to be a beta tester a long time ago, but no one ever contacted me.

That’s what I could find. Do you know of any good Android (or iPhone) programs to collect, map, or upload cell phone strength measurements? If so, let me know in the comments.

30 Day checkin: book challenge

So how did I do on the “15 books in 30 days” challenge? Not too badly–I made it through 12 books. I could probably have squeezed in three more books, but I’d rather take my time and enjoy books than artificially force things for a deadline. I’ll make up those last three books later. :)

This month is really busy with some internal Google projects–don’t worry, not related to webspam–so I’m not planning to do a new 30 day challenge this month. I have kept biking in to work and I’m enjoying it more lately. I think I’ll enjoy biking even more after I bling my bike out with the full-color LED lights I bought from MonkeyLectric at Maker Faire. Here’s an image from MonkeyLectric’s gallery to show you what they look like:

MonkeyLectric LED Bike lights

I have to say, they’re a big step up from my Tireflys, which are just LEDs that stick on the stem valve of your bike tire.

Hidden Google Gem: My Tracks

I’ve really enjoyed making videos for webmasters. In the most recent recording session, we decided that it would be fun to talk about some of the “hidden gems” of Google: features, products, or tips that you might not know about, but you might like.

One of my favorite hidden Google gems is a program for Android phones called My Tracks. I like it enough that we made a short video about it. Enjoy!

As always, you can watch more videos on the official webmaster video channel on YouTube.

My review of the iPhone 3GS

Disclaimer: This post is entirely my personal opinion. I also own an HTC T-Mobile G1, which runs Google’s Android operating system.

I picked up the new iPhone 3G S this Friday and I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts:

The Good:
- The iPhone 3GS is considerably faster than the iPhone 3G. Especially in the browser, you’ll notice pages render faster. JavaScript-heavy pages (such as the mobile web version of Gmail) execute much more smoothly. The iPhone 3GS feels less like an underpowered mobile phone and more like a powerful pocket computer that can keep up with its owner.
- The built-in video camera is very cool. I expect a corresponding spike in home videos. For example, here’s my cat Ozzie playing with a toy:

More seriously, within about five years, for any group of 10 or more people, at least a few will have a video camera built into their phone. That’s a very powerful trend in a lot of ways.
- I tend to agree with Michael Arrington that no one with an iPhone 3GS needs a Flip video camera now. Cisco bought Pure Digital Technologies, the makers of the Flip, for almost $600 million dollars about three months ago. That might prove to be good timing on Pure Digital’s part.
- Lots of small changes in OS 3.0 are quite nice, such as showing outgoing vs. incoming calls in the “Recents” list.

The Bad:
- Apple’s iPhone philosophy has always seemed to me to be about simplicity. The single button forced a constrained elegance on the iPhone’s interface. In providing some newer features, the iPhone 3G S feels less like an iPhone and more like someone shoveled in a lot of features. I didn’t really need copy/paste, and it seems to pop up at random inconvenient times: double-tap a word if you’re not in the browser; in the browser, hold your finger on some text. Except the copy handles don’t seem to show up on the web pages I want, and sometimes unwanted copy handles appear when I’m just scrolling with my finger.
- The iPhone 3GS is not the huge leap that the iPhone or the iPhone->iPhone 3G was. I do think that leaves some opportunities for Android, Palm, and other competitors.
- Battery life has been worse so far for me. I’ve been using the phone more and it’s only been a few days, so I’m not going to jump to conclusions on this yet. Apple also recommends that you let the phone run down completely at least once a month, and I haven’t done that yet. I expect that battery life will be better for most people.
- Not a great name; the “GS” part makes me think of Ghostscript. A few days ago, I would have said that the “iPhone Video” is a much better name, but it’s true that the speed bump is more noticeable than the video. I still think Apple could have come up with a better name than “iPhone 3G S” though. I’m sure someone who knows about Mercedes Benz cars knows the difference between the E class, the SLK class, or the GL 420 CDI, but most normal people don’t know what a bunch of letters and numbers mean.

The Ugly:
- On my previous iPhone (the 3G), the metal band around the front matched smoothly with the black plastic back. On the new iPhone 3GS, I can feel the seam where the band meets the plastic. On the front of the phone, when I flick my finger off the glass, I can feel the seam of the metal band there too.
- In my personal opinion, someone miscalculated in charging iPhone 3G owners $200 extra to upgrade. New iPhone 3G S customers pay $199 (16GB) or $299 (32GB); many early adopters would have to pay $399 (16GB) or $499 (32GB) to upgrade. The CPU speed bump and video abilities aren’t enough to counteract what many early adopters will perceive as a bit of a slap in the face. Last year, the line for the iPhone 3G at Valley Fair stretched outside the building most of the day. When I went to get my iPhone 3G S on the release day at Valley Fair this year, there was no line at all.

And remember that early adopters often give their previous phones to family members. In my case, two other relatives are taking our older iPhone 3G phones and moving from a different carrier to AT&T. By charging early adopters more, AT&T ensures that more people will hang on to their old phones instead giving them to other people, many of whom would then become AT&T/iPhone customers. By limiting the “trickle down” effect as older iPhones go to family members, AT&T is missing a chance to gain more marketshare by acquiring additional new customers.

I’ll be interested to see how Apple and AT&T react. AT&T has already allowed some (but not all) iPhone 3G owners to upgrade without paying an “early adopter penalty.” And Apple can move quickly and decisively when needed–remember the $200 iPhone price drop in 2007 just a short time after the iPhone was released? Of course, it’s possible that penalizing early adopters is all part of some four-dimensional chess game that Apple is playing. If Apple decides to terminate its exclusive U.S. deal with AT&T in a year or so, maybe it didn’t want a bunch of people signing up for two-year contracts this time around? Right now I’m puzzled by what appears to me to be a misstep, but the folks at Apple are smart, so I’d be willing to believe that Apple has good reasons for what they’re doing.

Should you upgrade? That’s something only you can answer. If you still have a non-smartphone or an original iPhone, it’s probably worth it. If you have an iPhone 3G (especially if you’re not eligible for the discounted upgrade yet), you might try OS 3.0 and see if that’s enough. I decided to get the 3G S and I’m glad that I did. I fill all sorts of idle moments with surfing, tweeting, and checking my mail. The iPhone 3G S makes all those activities much faster and more pleasurable. Overall I’m quite happy with my iPhone 3G S.

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