A new phone

After a few years with a straightforward Nokia 1661 and a PAYG Blackberry 8520, I decided to go and upgrade from the former to an HTC Wildfire S. So far, the new phone has been good to me with only a few drawbacks. Other than working out how to insert a SIM card, the phone has been easy to use with just a few nuances to learn, such as finger pinch zooming and dealing with an onscreen keyboard as opposed to a real one.

The touchscreen interface and the 3G capability are the big changes from my Blackberry and both make web browsing so much faster too, especially with the larger screen. For instance, checking RSS feeds with Google Reader and emails is so much faster on the move with the screen being very responsive most of the time that I am using it; it does get dirty like others so either a screen cover or frequent cleaning with a camera lens cloth would be no bad thing. The onscreen keyboard remains something to which I need to grow accustomed and probably is the one area where the Blackberry continues to hold sway though turning the phone sideways and tapping it on the side to change orientation helps a lot. That makes the keys larger and, while my finger are not the thickest, there are fewer cases of hitting the wrong key. Even then, you need to get used to switching between alphabet and numeric keyboards and that applies also when you need punctuation marks like commas and so on.

Otherwise, the user interface is bright and pleasing to the eye with the typical presentation of both a clock and current weather on there. Handily, the screen is locked easily too with a press of the button at the top right of the phone. That will put a stop to inadvertent phone calls, emailing, web browsing and other things so it is to be commended. To unlock the screen, all that’s needed is to swipe the lock bar to the bottom. Any alerts are viewed in a similar way with holding down your finger on the top bar presenting an extension that can be pulled all of the way down to see what’s there.

With an icon for the Android Marketplace on the main screen, I got to adding a few apps and you can set these to update automatically too but you need to watch your phone contract’s data allowance. The one for WordPress works better than it does on my Blackberry but it seems that retweeting with UberSocial is much less good on the Android platform. For one thing, feeds for all accounts are presented on the one screen and swiping left to right is needed for replying, retweeting and other operations and that’s not working out so smoothly for me yet. Maybe I’ll try an alternative. There are others that I have downloaded too and these include one from CrossCountry Trains and that seems to be a nice offering even if it failed to find trains between Macclesfield and Edale of a Sunday morning. For those omissions, I have an alternative in place and I also have the LinkedIn app too. That seems to work well too. Usefully, it is possible to move these to the phones microSD card to avoid filling up the limited space that’s on offer. However, that isn’t to say that I will be going mad on these things.

Of course, any phone should be good at making and taking phones and the Wildfire seems to be doing well on this score too. Firstly, contacts were read from the SIM but they can be transferred from an old phone using Bluetooth connections too. Sound is good and loud though you need to be on a call to adjust the speaker volume with the rocker button on the side of the phone. Otherwise, that just changes the volume of the ring tone. Without any adjustments, the phone seems to vibrate and ring at the same time though that may be something that I get to changing in time. The pings emitted when new text messages, emails or tweets fall into the same category.

If there’s any downside to this phone, it has to be battery life. Unlike others that I have had, this is a phone that needs charging every night at the very least. Maybe that’s the price of having a nice bright responsive screen but it would be no harm if it lasted longer. Others have found the same thing and reported as much on the web though some have having worse experiences than others. There are some hints regarding how to conserve battery life but they include such things as switching off 3G or data capabilities and neither appeal to me; after all, I might as well use my old Nokia if this is all that can be offered. Instead, I am wondering if acquiring a spare battery might be no bad idea because that’s what I do for my Pentax DSLR (note in passing: I haven’t got to using the phone’s own camera but recent wintry weather had me tempted by the idea, especially with the likes of Twitpic and YFrog out there.). Taking things further, others have mentioned getting a larger capacity replacement but that sounds more risky.

All in all, first impressions of the HTC Wildfire are good ones. Over time, I should find out more about the ins and outs of the gadget. After all, it is a mini-computer with its own operating system and other software. Since I continue to learn more and more about PC’s everyday, the same should be the case here too.

Battery life

In recent times, I have lugged my Toshiba Equium with me while working away from home; I needed a full screen laptop of my own for attending to various things after work hours so it needs to come with me. It’s not the most portable of things with its weight and the lack of battery life. Now that I think of it, I reckon that it’s more of a desktop PC replacement machine than a mobile workhorse. After all, it only lasts an hour on its own battery away from a power socket. Virgin Trains’ tightness with such things on their Pendolinos is another matter…

Unless my BlackBerry is discounted, battery life seems to be something with which I haven’t had much luck because my Asus Eee PC isn’t too brilliant either. Without decent power management, two hours seems to be as good as I get from its battery. However, three to four hours become possible with better power management software on board. That makes the netbook even more usable though there are others out there offering longer battery life. Still, I am not tempted by these because the gadget works well enough for me that I don’t need to wonder about how money I am spending on building a mobile computing collection.

While I am not keen on spending too much cash or having a collection of computers, the battery life situation with my Toshiba is more than giving me pause for thought. The figures quoted for MacBooks had me looking at them though they aren’t at all cheap. Curiosity about the world of the Mac may make them attractive to me but the prices forestalled that and the concept was left on the shelf.

Recently, PC Pro ran a remarkably well-timed review of laptops offering long battery life (in issue 205). The minimum lifetime in this collection was over five hours so the list of reviewed devices is an interesting one for me. In fact, it even may become a shortlist should I decide to spend money on buying a more portable laptop than the Toshiba that I already have. The seventeen hour battery life for a Sony VAIO SB series sounds intriguing even if you need to buy an accessory to gain this. That it does over seven hours without the extra battery slice makes it more than attractive anyway. The review was food for thought and should come in handy if I decide that money needs spending.

Why go elsewhere when you can get it at Argos?

It is perhaps a sign of the technological times in which we live that even mainstream stores like Argos stock computing equipment these days. For instance, last weekend, I bought a Seagate Expansion 2 GB external hard drive in there for backing up my digital photo collection and never got to a local independent computer shop like I had planned to do. Maybe, it was the convenience and lack of fuss with a catalogue shop that swung it for me but the largest size at the other place was 1 GB according to its website anyway.

Other items bought from the pervasive chain have included a BlackBerry, a Vodafone mobile broadband dongle and an Asus Eee PC. All have done what I have asked of them and without any trouble but it does make me wonder about the threat to the specialist PC stores from their more mainstream competitors and it isn’t just Argos either. Tesco also tempt folk into their stores with technological goods and I must own up to having a cheap DVD player from  there.

In former times, I might have been lured into purchasing at online stores until the reality of dealing with inflexible delivery services took away the shine after a few years. After all, I’d prefer not to burden neighbours with taking delivery of any purchases. My current job offers the possibility of some home working so that might be an option for those things that do need delivering but there remains a certain immediacy to going into a real shop for what you need and bringing it away on the day (having paid for it, of course) that is difficult to beat.

While I tend to decide what to get using my mind after doing some research, others may prefer the idea of getting some advice in a shop and that’s where the specialists score. In fact, it may be the only way that they are going to cope with the onslaught from megastores like Argos and Tesco. All this reminds me that going to a local independent shop next time is in order because they cannot be doing brilliantly in these cash-straightened times.

An avalanche of innovation?

It seems that, almost in spite of the uncertain times or maybe because of them, it feels like an era of change on the technology front. Computing is the domain of many of the postings on this blog and a hell of a lot seems to be going mobile at the moment. For a good while, I managed to stay clear of the attractions of smartphones until a change of job convinced me that having a BlackBerry was a good idea. Though the small size of the thing really places limitations on the sort of web surfing experience that you can have with it, you can keep an eye on the weather, news, traffic, bus and train times so long as the website in question is built for mobile browsing. Otherwise, it’s more of a nuisance than a patchy phone network (in the U.K., T-Mobile could do better on this score as I have discovered for myself; thankfully, a merger with the Orange network is coming next month).

Speaking of mobile websites, it almost feels as if a free for all has recurred for web designers. Just when the desktop or laptop computing situation had more or less stabilised, along come a whole pile of mobile phone platforms to make things interesting again. Familiar names like Opera, Safari, Firefox and even Internet Explorer are to be found popping up on handheld devices these days along with less familiar ones like Web ‘n’ Walk or BOLT. The operating system choices vary too with iOS, Android, Symbian, Windows and others all competing for attention. It is the sort of flowering of innovation that makes one wonder if a time will come when things begin to consolidate but it doesn’t look like that at the moment.

The transformation of mobile phones into handheld computers isn’t the only big change in computing with the traditional formats of desktop and laptop PC’s being flexed in all sorts of ways. First, there’s the appearance of netbooks and I have succumbed to the idea of owning an Asus Eee. Though you realise that these are not full size laptops, it still didn’t hit me how small these were until I owned one.  They are undeniably portable and tablets look even more interesting in the aftermath of Apple’s iPad. You may call them over-sized mobile photos but the idea of making a touchscreen do the work for you has made the concept fly for many. Even so, I cannot say that I’m overly tempted though I have said that before about other things.

Another area of interest for me is photography and it is around this time of year that all sorts of innovations are revealed to the public. It’s a long way from what we thought was the digital photography revolution when digital imaging sensors started to take the place of camera film in otherwise conventional compact and SLR cameras, making the former far more versatile than they used to be. Now, we have SLD cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony that eschew the reflex mirror and prism arrangement of an SLR using digital sensor and electronic viewfinders while offering the possibility of lens interchangeability and better quality than might be expected from such small cameras. In recent months, Sony has offered SLR-style cameras with translucent mirror technology instead of the conventional mirror that is flipped out of the way when a photographic image is captured.  Change doesn’t end there with movie making capabilities being part of the toolset of many a newly launch  compact, SLD and SLR camera. The pixel race also seems to have ended though increases still happen as with the Pentax K-5 and Canon EOS 60D (both otherwise conventional offerings that have caught my eye though so much comes on the market at this time of year that waiting is better for the bank balance).

The mention of digital photography brings to mind the subject of digital image processing and Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 is just announced after Photoshop CS5 appeared earlier this year. It almost feels as if a new version of Photoshop or its consumer cousin are released every year, causing me to skip releases when I don’t see the point. Elements 6 and 8 were such versions for me and I’ll be in no hurry to upgrade to 9 yet either though the prospect of using content aware filling to eradicate unwanted objects from images is tempting. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t stop anyone trying to exclude them in the first place. In fact, I may need to reduce the overall number of images that I collect in favour of bringing away only good ones. The outstanding question on this is can I slow down and calm my eagerness to bring at least one good image away from an outing by capturing anything that seems promising at the time. Some experimentation but being a little more choosy can  save work later on.

While back on the subject of software, I’ll voyage in to the world of the web before bringing these meanderings to a close. It almost feels as if there is web-based application following web-based application these days when Twitter and Facebook nearly have become household names and cloud computing is a phrase that turns up all over the place.  In fact, the former seems to have encouraged a whole swathe of applications all of itself. Applications written using technologies well used on the web must stuff many a mobile phone app store too and that brings me full circle for it is these that put so much functionality on our handsets with Java seemingly powering those I use on my BlackBerry. Them there’s spat between Apple and Adobe regarding the former’s support for Flash.

To close this mental amble, there may be technologies that didn’t come to mind while I was pondering this piece but they doubtless enliven the technological landscape too. However, what I have described is enough to take me back more than ten years ago when desktop computing and the world of the web were a lot more nascent than is the case today. Then, the changes that were ongoing felt a little exciting now that I look back on them and it does feel as if the same sort of thing is recurring though with things like phones creating the interest in place of new developments in desktop computing such as a new version of Window (though 7 was anticipated after Vista). Web designers may complain about a lack of standardisation and they’re not wrong but this may be an ear of technological change that in time may be remembered with its own fondness too.

Exploring the option of mobile broadband

Last week, I decided to buy and experiment with a Vodafone PAYG mobile broadband dongle (the actual device is a ZTE K3570-Z)) partly as a backup for my usual broadband (it has had its moments recently) and partly to allow me to stay more connected while on the move. Thoughts of blogging and checking up on email or the realtime web while travelling to and from different places must have swayed me.

Hearing that the use of Windows or OS X with the device had me attempting to hook up the device to Windows 7 running within a VirtualBox virtual machine on my main home computer. When that proved too big a request of the software setup, I went googling out of curiosity and found that there was a way to get the thing going with Linux. While I am not so sure that it works with Ubuntu without any further changes, my downloading of a copy of the Sakis3G script was enough to do the needful and I was online from my main OS after all. So much for what is said on the box…

More success was had with Windows 7 as loaded on my Toshiba Equum notebook with setting up and connections being as near to effortless as these things can be. Ubuntu is available on there too, courtesy of Wubi, and the Sakis3G trick didn’t fail for that either.

That’s not to say that mobile broadband doesn’t have its limitations as I found. For instance, Subversion protocols and Wubi installations aren’t supported but that may be a result of non-support of IPv6 than anything else. nevertheless, connection speeds are good as far as I can see though I yet have to test out the persistence of Vodafone’s network while constantly on the move. Having seen how flaky T-Mobile’s network can be in the U.K. as I travel around using my BlackBerry, that is something that needs doing but all seems painless enough so far. However, the fact that Vodafone uses the more usual mobile phone frequency may be a help.

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