June 18, 2006

Nugget Gear

I don't often get a new cell phone; I realize that in many ways this puts me behind the curve when it comes to having the latest and greatest; on the other hand when I do buy a cell phone, I typically aim for the best intersection of "latest and greatest", "practical function", and "long service life" that I can achieve. On the gripping hand, the circumstances that drive me to get a new cell phone are frequently spectacular in nature.

For example, for a long time I had a Motorola V8160. It was essentially the successor to the StarTAC (which itself remained commonplace for quite a while), and I loved it - it was tiny, functional, and tough. I don't know how many times I dropped that phone, but it always shook off the impact and kept right on going. The one fall the V8160 couldn't shake off, alas, was an eleven-story drop down an elevator shaft at the Argent Hotel in San Francisco. To their credit, the Argent front desk dispatched an engineer to the shaft, and he actually retrieved the twisted remains of the phone — and it powered up, but was unusable.

Since I needed a new phone on an emergency basis, I went to the T-mobile store in SF and snagged a Motorola V70. It was a clever idea whose execution was flawed: the display washed out in sunlight, the keypad buttons were tiny, and to top it off, when I got home I discovered that T-mobile's coverage area at the time did not include my living room. So, regretfully, I returned the phone and went crawling back to Verizon and picked up a V60i which gave me great service for a couple of years…

…until the V3 "RAZR" phone was introduced. This phone, combined with Verizon's shrinking selection of decent phones (and the declining quality of what they did offer) motivated me to switch to GSM once and for all. I got a V3 from Cingular long before they became commonplace (and, unfortunately, while they were still pretty expensive, even if subsidized). The expense of the phone wasn't a huge issue, since I planned to keep the phone for a long time. (And as a bonus, the phone was actually unlocked, something practically unheard of at the time I got it.)

The V3 was a very nice phone, but not a great phone. I loved the compactness, the Bluetooth support was very handy (though, frankly, none of the available Bluetooth earpieces I tried held a candle to the sound quality of the wired B&O earpiece that I had used with the V60i), and the phone's UI was an improvement over the V60 and V70. On the downside, the phone had an annoying number of glitches (most of them Bluetooth-related as I think of them now), and although the UI was better than what I was used to, it was still pretty bletcherous. (My biggest complaints revolved around the address book, which required way too many keypresses, but #2 on the list was the fact that every damn day I turned on that phone, I would press the green button, wonder why the phone wouldn't turn on, and then curse and press the red button.)

But for all of that, the V3 was a good phone; like the V60i and V8160 before it, it was tough - it got dropped a bunch of times onto various surfaces, but always shook it off and got back to business.

What did the V3 in, finally, was my diligent housework: the phone was in the pocket of a pair of pants that I ran through the laundry, which I didn't realize until I was taking the load out of the washer and the battery came flying out. (For a wonder, it didn't short.) I was actually able to dry the phone out pretty effectively using a hearing aid dryer that happened to be close at hand. After drying, the phone did power up (with only a couple of small brown spots on the main display, which I could have lived with), but unfortunately the microphone didn't work. Nuts.

So, the SO and I did a little phone shopping, and she pointed out the Sony Ericsson W600i. It's a "Walkman" phone, which means that it's got an integrated music player, and frankly I could give a crap — I have an iPod that I use in the car, a Squeezebox at home, and I don't need a phone that plays music. Plus, my last close look at a Sony Ericsson phone was the T68i, and frankly I thought at the time that it was a cheap plastic toy. The T616 that followed it wasn't so bad, but I really prefer clamshell phones to candy bar phones, so I never gave it serious consideration. (I'd certainly consider a twist phone, of which the W600i is an example, or a slider phone, but the sliders I've seen are all quite expensive.) The W600i, however, looked interesting, so I resolved that I'd give it a once-over in person and if I didn't like it, get a replacement V3.

As it turns out, the W600i resolved most of my concerns about the Sony Ericsson phones. It's reasonably well made (the number pad is a bit cheesy, but will do), the UI is a leap ahead of the Motorola UI that I was used to, and it actually works better with my Motorola-branded Bluetooth accessories (car handsfree, earpiece) than the Motorola phone did. Go figure.

My only complaint about the W600i is that it's a bit on the chunky side. I'd gladly give up the camera and music playback for half the thickness. Still, it's a nice little nugget phone and I can see myself keeping it as a "bridge" phone, until the next generation comes along. And I'm prepared to wait for as long as that takes or until an unfortunate accident befalls the W600i, whichever comes first…

That brings me to the next nugget:

For my birthday, my sweetie whisked me away for an early weekend in Maine. To help me find the way there, the night before our departure she presented me with a Garmin StreetPilot i3. The i3 is a portable little nugget - about the size of a child's fist, and it has a nice color screen and a great built-in map.

The unit's UI is pretty easy to use, with just three buttons (one of which is a clickable scroll wheel), a clear color screen, and good audio. I used it in the car with the windshield sucker mount (which, oddly enough, seems to be illegal in CA and MN) on battery power so as to eliminate the trailing power cable. Battery life (two AA) seems reasonable.

Unfortunately, Garmin doesn't have Mac client software for the StreetPilot yet, so you have to do the initial map setup and any subsequent map downloads using a Windows XP machine. (I haven't yet tried using the Garmin client software for Windows on my MacBook Pro under Parallels just yet, but I intend to do so relatively soon.

If you don't have a GPS navigation system in your car, I strongly recommend that you investigate the i3. In-car-installed GPS nav systems are pretty precise because they're wired in to the car's electronics to provide a direct reading from the speedometer; using the car's power system to drive the system also relaxes a number of space constraints and lets the system designer provide a DVD-ROM system for data storage and a large screen for display and interaction. However, it's really expensive either as a factory option or an aftermarket installation; the i3 costs a fraction of what an installed system would, and it works very well — it's a great way to get started with mobile map-based GPS navigation.

May 26, 2006


A while back, Mark Frauenfelder posted a demonstration of how quick and easy it was to make a cup of coffee using his Aeropress. I'm sure it makes a great cup of coffee, but watching him prepare, measure, pour, heat, stir, press, pour, and clean up made me wonder what the real cost of a cup of Aeropress-ed coffee was, in terms of the billable time one might spend preparing a cup. Turns out, it's fairly expensive — about four minutes, assuming that you're using pre-ground coffee. If you bill your time out at $50 an hour, that works out to around $1700 a year making coffee instead of generating income.

On the other hand, if there existed a machine that automated the entire cycle from whole bean to finished cup, then you'd push a single button, write a few lines of CSS in the fifty seconds it took to make your cup, and keep going.

Here, then, is a movie of just such a beast in action: the Jura Capresso "Impressa F9". Note that the up-front capital cost is considerably higher than that of the Aeropress, and the machine can't travel with you, but the Capresso basically pays for itself in saved billable hours in the first year (and in much less time if you are able to bill at a higher rate or if you prepare more than two cups of coffee a day).

The catchy soundtrack is "Pornventory", written, composed, and performed by the Interröbang Cartel. (Some of you may be familiar with the Cartel's work from the BBEdit 8 about box.)

October 24, 2005

New Squeezebox!

I don't usually cover the gadget beat, but this one I had to mention. My friends over at Slim Devices today announced a new revision of their awesome Squeezebox music player. This is the third generation of the player to bear that name, and their fourth generation of product, with the first being the venerable SliMP3. On paper, the latest Squeezebox ("Squeezebox 3"?) looks similar to its predecessor. But in the flesh? Wow. I'm not sure who did their original industrial design, but the latest generation was Designed by a Professional Designer, and it looks gorgeous. I can't wait to get my mitts on one.

I reviewed the first-generation Squeezebox for the now-defunct Mac Developer Journal. (It was my first and so far only product review.) On re-reading, the technological details are a bit dated, but the conclusions stand: the Squeezebox is an excellent product, and definitely worth a look. I submit that a Squeezebox would be a great match with one of those little Tripath amps that everyone's been raving about lately; add an inexpensive pair of bookshelf speakers - or a pair of Minipods - and make a terrific small-room system.

(This is not a paid endorsement: my only business relationship with Slim Devices is that of a satisfied customer, although they did take me out to dinner once.)