Cloudy Days and Connected Nights

With tablet and iPhone in hand and head in the clouds

Archive for the ‘iPad’ Category

Changes: Are Tablets the New Netbooks?

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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…

$300.

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!

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Written by singraham

January 1, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Archos Internet Tablet 101: very interesting…

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[I am adding a note here to clarify right up front: I am not a power user. As stated below, my main purpose for this tablet is displaying images from my SmugMug galleries, showing an occasional video, playing music, working email and my twitter and facebook accounts, reading a bit, and general messing around on the internet. I do not play games. If your usage is going to be more intense than that, then your conclusions may well be different than mine. That said…]

Though, as you know if you read this blog, I am convinced iPhone user (4), I have, so far, been able to resist the iPad. I have had one to play with for several weeks on two different occasions (to facilitate app reviews) and it simply does not do enough, in my opinion, beyond the iPhone to justify a minimum investment of $500.

That does not mean, though, that I don’t suffer, in this pre-CES season of tablet fever, a certain amount of tablet envy. And there are a few specific things I could use a tablet for where neither my iPhone or my laptop will do as well.

For one, I travel to a variety of birding destinations each year, and do a lot of photography and videography. It would be excellent to have a device that could easily display what I had shot that day for folks I meet, without having to fire up the laptop. And, of course, web surfing, while possible on the iPhone (and actually quite good by any reasonable comparison) would obviously be better and easier on a larger screen. (Oh bananas, lets be honest, almost anything beyond making a phone call would be easier on a bigger screen.)

The difficulty, as you know if you have been paying attention to tablet fever this year, is that there are not many good alternatives to the iPad out there. There have a slew of Android tablet introductions and announcements over the past 6 months, but the actual products that have made it to market range from disappointing at the lower price end (most are truly cheap China iPad knock-offs)…to just as expensive as an iPad at the somewhat more satisfying end (the Samsung Galaxy Tab). CES may see some movement here, but my feeling is that devices that have anything like the performance of an iPad are going to be priced at least in the same range as the (so far disappointing) Viewsonic G…$400 plus…or at the iPad level (Galaxy Tab), and the under $300 offerings are going to continue to be poorly designed toys with marginal performance.

Which is what makes the new Generation 8 Internet Tablets from Archos stand out. The Archos 70 and the Archos 101 are particularly attractive iPad alternatives. They share the same relatively powerful ARM 8 processor running at a gigahertz, Open GL graphics acceleration, and both have been upgraded to Android 2.2 lately. With a simple hack (provided by a passionate Archos fan), you can have the full Android Market, and all the Google apps. And this from a company that has been making touch screen multimedia players for many years, and internet tablets for several…a company that has shown itself to be responsive to customer needs, and which has fan community that is just as passionate, if not as large, as the Apple folks.

It was the last two factors, actually, that convinced me to order a 101, one Saturday when they had them in stock for about 4 hours on the Archos.com web-store. Some of the China Pads look like they could be made to work, especially for my purposes, and they are considerably less expensive, but you have absolutely no assurance of on-going support. Android is a moving target, with frequent version upgrades (2.2 is just out, and already folks are readying 2.3 upgrades) and with each upgrade someone has to design custom firmware for your particular machine. I have confidence, based on history, that Archos intends to keep up. And, with the active fan community, you are not totally reliant on the company at that…a visit to the ArchosFans forums is vastly reassuring to the potential buyer…or at least is was to this potential Archos owner.

And a word about the obvious differences between Android and iOS. Android is clearly not as polished or as tablet ready as iOS, which Apple tweaked specifically with the iPad in mind. However, as mentioned above, Android is an open source operating system in rapid development, and stands to make significant tablet related gains over the next few upgrades. Then too, it is an open source, open system, vastly different than Apple’s closed system. You can customize and adapt to heart’s content. And, given the fanatical Android development community, if you can conceive of an improvement to your user experience on an Android machine, someone has probably anticipated you, and there is already an app for that. As I will detail further in, I have already replaced the stock Android keyboard, the home screen/app launcher, the stock internet browser, and the Gallery and twitter client supplied by Archos, etc. etc. It is easy, and it certainly appeals to my inner geek!

Don’t get me wrong. It is not that the out of the box Archos experience would not be satisfying to most people…I think it would be…it is just that it can easily be improved. To put it another way, those looking for a first internet tablet experience at less than the cost of an iPad are likely to be satisfied, out of the box, with the Archos gen8 machines. If your expectations have already been colored by some exposure to the iPad, and you are hoping for iPad like performance or better, then you will need to make a few changes to the basic user experience by installing the Market hack, and switching out or replacing some apps, and adding others…but, given the will, in very short order, in my opinion, you will have an internet tablet experience that rivals that of the iPad, for just over half the price.

You can have all the fun of customization, or you can be guided by my experiences…which I will detail later on.

First a few notes about the machine itself. Build quality is very good, a mixture of metal, plastic, and glass, but clearly not up the quality of the iPad. Price you pay for the lower price. It feels solid in your hands, but the plastics creak a bit when handled. The capacitive touch screen, full multi-touch, is excellent: As responsive as my iPhone 4, and certainly as responsive as the iPad. The screen is bright and sharp, with a resolution of 1024×600…fully adequate for viewing images or videos. The viewing angles have come in for some criticism on the various forums and review sites, and, while it may be more limited than the iPad, it is, imho, perfectly adequate* for almost any use. The built in kickstand is excellent for adjusting the angle of the screen for maximum quality and ease of use. (Tip…invest in an inexpensive mouse pad and put it under the 101 and kickstand while it is standing…this will make the whole thing much more stable.)  In my experience so far, it handles video up to 720p HD fairly well. The Video player becomes sluggish and unresponsive with large (10 minute) H264 HD, but it plays them fine. It is just difficult to pause or change volume. The only vids I have not been able to play smoothly are the native Motion JPG (.mov) HD files right out of my Canon cameras. The speakers are barely adequate, but actually a cut above most found on laptops.

General performance for applications is pretty snappy. The latest firmware for Android 2.2 (released on December 16th) allows you to set the processor speed and performance to three different levels, including full on 1GHz, and on that setting the 101is as responsive as the iPad or iPhone 4 on most applications.  The one exception is the stock Andriod launcher, which can develop an annoying lag when returning from an app, but that is a software issue and easily fixed by installing any number of free launcher alternatives (more on that later).

Archos is still waiting on Adobe certification of their own Flash 10.1 plugin, but the stock 10.1 from the Market will at least allow most flash based websites to display properly, and will play standard embedded YouTube video fairly well…though it struggles more with HD. (The dedicated YouTube app works fine for any YouTube video I have thrown at it so far.) I check the Archos website daily to see if Flash is ready. No joy so far.

Other really nice hardware touches are the Micro SD card slot for expanding internal storage (up to 32G), the Micro USB port for connecting to your computer and mounting both internal storage and Micro SD if you have one installed, and the standard sized USB host port, which allows you to use USB sticks, Flash Card Readers, and even external drives if they are low power or have their own power supply (I have a feeling even a low power drive would drain the 101 battery pretty fast and might give unreliable performance…but self powered drives should work fine). USB support is a bit spotty in my experience, with mount and unmount issues frequent, but I am learning to work with it for the most part. My general impression is that it is better to unmount from the Archos instead of the computer…and you need to use the Notifier Unmount for the USB host, not the one in the settings panel :).

The 101 also has HDMI out, though I have not experimented with it. Archos claims it is the only implementation that allows you to put the whole Android experience on your HD TV (while using the 101 as a control pad). I am not a gamer, so I can’t say how this works with games, but it does seem an attractive option.

Of course it has an accelerometer and position censor so everything (or most things) auto rotate from landscape to portrait and back, and you can use the devise itself to control many games.

Okay..so lets talk about the apps that transform the 101 from an satisfying Android internet tablet to a superior internet tablet experience.

The first thing to do is to make sure your firmware and version of Android is up to date. Eventually Archos will start shipping units with 2.2 installed, but if you have a unit with 2.1 it should tell you an update is available when you first boot up the machine. If not, go to Settings > About > Firmware Update and initiate the process.

Once 2.2 is installed, you should go online on your computer and find the latest version of gappsinstall.apk. Try ArchosFans.com or the Archos gen8 forum on XDA Developers or just google it. As of this writing, the current version is v5, but the author says v6 is near. Find the latest one. You should find instructions with it, but just in case, download it to your computer, mount the 101 via USB cable to your computer, drag the downloaded file into the top level of your internal storage (as in, in no folder). Unmount your 101 (press Stop USB on the Archos screen) and unplug the USB cable. Using the Files app, find the gppsinstall file, touch it and choose install. Then, find the app itself in your main apps window, and run the app. That will install the latest version of the Market app, and a few other google basics. (You will have access to the majority of apps, but some will still be hidden. There is a fix for that.  More on that later).

The first app I downloaded and installed was GMail. If you use GMail, and especially if you are already addicted to threaded conversations, Google style, there is no point in using the EMail app Archos bundles with the 101.

IMG_8323IMG_8324Since I intend to use the 101 as a photo viewer, the Gallery app got attention next. The stock app is okay, but there are better viewers out there. QuickPic is amazing, very like the photo viewer on iOS, and based on folders, which it automatically locates by contents, even if they are on your expansion Micro SD card. It does everything I need it to do and does it really fast. I like it.

If you use SmugMug for online image storage and viewing, SmugFolio does a good job of automatically downloading your galleries (unattended) and displaying the contents even when you are not on-line. Somehow it stores the images in a fraction of the space the real jpg files would take, so it is practical even if you, as I do, have thousands of images on SmugMug.

You will want the official YouTube app if you do any YouTube at all. As above, it handles any YouTube video with aplomb.

And, while on video, find Adobe Flash Viewer 10.1. it is not optimized for the Archos machines, and eventually Archos will replace it with one that is, but the one in the Market works for now, at least for viewing lower resolution embedded video and your usual flash animations.

Again, the stock Android browser is okay, but there are better browsers out. Dolphin HD is my favorite…fast, tabbed, themed, excellent all around.

It is maybe a matter of taste, but I do not like the stock Android keyboard. The offset space bar drives me crazy. I found Better Keyboard in the Market and downloaded it. It is pretty good, but…

The keyboard you really want is Swiftkey, and you have to do the Market fix mentioned above to find it. Searching for Swiftkey before the fix returns no matches. Here’s how to fix it.

  1. Settings–>Manage Applications–>All–>Market (Clear Cache then ‘Force Stop’ — DO NOT clear data)
  2. Settings–>Manage Applications–>All–>Google Services Framework (Clear data then ‘Force Stop’)
  3. Return to the Home screen.
  4. REBOOT

Once you do these steps, you will find all kinds of previously hidden apps in the Market the next time you run it. I am not sure why, but there it is.

IMG_8321Search for Swiftkey now and at least download the trial version. I ran the trial for about 10 minutes realizing I could not live without it and buying and installing the full version…despite the fact that I had already bought Better Keyboard. (Follow onscreen prompts when you first run Swiftkey to install it as your default keyboard, and download the correct language module for predictions.) Swiftkey fits the 101 screen better…is way easier to type on…has superior prediction…has a much more intelligent number and alternate keys system (you don’t have to shift to number for numbers or other symbol keys…just hold the key down just a bit longer and the secondary character will be entered (ie, hold T down and 5 is entered…hold ? down and ! is entered…it is so IMG_8322brilliant!). If you do shift to numbers, you get a new keyboard with a number pad on one side and symbols on the other…so intelligent! Going a level deeper with the symbol key gives you a full set of left/right/up/down keys to move the cursor around in your text…which is a real blessing for those of us with large finger tips). If you are like me, you will never return to stock!

And speaking of stock…the stock 2.2 launcher/home screen is kind of creaky. It has strange lags and does not always respond as expected. There are better alternatives. The two I tried are Launcher Pro and Zeam, both free apps. Launcher Pro does not quite scale to the 101 screen, probably because of Archos’ use of soft buttons on the right side of the screen. Still it only takes a slight drag to make it align itself. Launcher Pro is, all and all, an improvement over stock, but the one I settled on is Zeam. It uses picsay-1293458954less resources, is slightly faster, and scales to the 101 screen perfectly. I have mine set to a single home screen, since I don’t intend to use many apps, and since most of my common apps fit in the app tray on the right side of the screen (or bottom if you run in portrait…and you are not limited to 5 apps in the tray as you are in LP). Adding actions and widgets is dead easy…I even added the Show Notifications action to my tray, since I will be using it often to unmount USB stuff (as above).

IMG_8325What else? If you have to move large files, you will need a better file manager than the stock Files. I looked for one that had drag and drop…I mean we are a touch machine here…and found ScaliCommander. Despite some luke-warm reviews, it works well, and allows me to drag files from my camera’s SD card in a Card Reader in the USB port to internal storage. Move does not work for files and folders of any size, but Copy does, even for massive Video files. It will also allow you to view the full file system, not just the storage level as the stock app does. You can open folders in multiple panels and literally drag and drop as you do in Windows or the Mac OS. I tried others first, but Scali is the only one that let me copy large files.

Weather apps? Weather Channel, hands down. The most complete display of info by far, including hourly and 10 day forecasts, the ability to turn off GPS (necessary on the 101) and enter locations manually, and three sizes of widget…widgets that don’t hang the machine up on launch when there is not yet a wifi connection (which WeatherBug does…I even took WeatherBug off my laptops, since it gave me lots of trouble there too). Accuweather just won’t run without the GPS. So, despite the fact that Accuweather is in the unfixed market and it requires the fix to find Weather Channel, it is Weather Channel all the way.

The only Facebook app I have tried is the official free one, and it is fine, though I miss the ability to add bookmarked profiles or pages (as you can do in the iPhone version).

picsay-1293459614Archos ships the 101 with the free version of Toutier, which is not bad, except in comparison with the best of the iPhone twitter clients. I liked it well enough to buy the full version, but I soon noticed that is very slow to update the lists on launch compared to other Android clients, especially if have more than one account. I will, by the way, offer an expanded comparison of twitter clients for Android on tablets in the near future, but for now, I tried the official free Twitter inc. app (not well suited to tablet use), the free and Pro versions of Twidroyd (not bad but somehow clunky, reminiscent of the ultra powerful but interface-challenged Twittelator Pro for the iPhone), and finally settled on Tweetcaster Pro…which has, imho, the best mix of features and usability. It is, for instance, the only one to give you unread counts for tweets and replies. There is some funkiness when you first open the app as the splash screen forces portrait…but as soon as that clears the app works fine in landscape on the 101.

Of course I have Hootsuite on there for its unique ability to post, and to schedule future posts, to multiple twitter, facebook, and facebook pages accounts. (With a scroll to top feature Hootsuite could be my full time social media client.)

I downloaded and used Google Reader for a while…but like the web app on the iPhone, GR for Android is just a bit clumsy to use (well, more than a little bit). To read a post, you have to open its folder, then select the feed, or chose all, then select the title, which opens the title alone on a screen, then select the title again to open the post. Not pretty.  If you are reading a post and want to go back to the main menu to open another folder, you have backtrack through way too many screens to get there. The same thing happens when you mark a post or group of posts read…you have to back all the way out to get to another folder. Not pretty and not inspiring.

Though it is relatively expensive, the pro version of NewsRob is everything Google Reader should have been. Easy to use, displays the feeds attractively (much like they appear on the Google Reader web site on the computer), fast, and simple to navigate. NewsRob was designed by someone who must spend considerable time reading feeds, and it shows.

If you are Kindle user, the Kindle app, though it only works in portrait, will allow you to read your Kindle books on the Archos. Nook is also available. What I can see, is using the Archos for reading color books and magazines as they become available…and if you are considering the Nook Color for Christmas, you really might want to check out what $50 more gets you from Archos (though if reading were my primary purpose I would look a the Archos 7o instead of the 101.)

I have found a few more apps which I may review in more detail later on: PicSay Pro is an excellent photo editor, Tripit is its generally elegant self, there are calculators and converters for travelers, etc. etc,

I have only had the Archos 101 Internet Tablet for 4 days now, and I am still figuring the thing out. Besides being my first tablet, it is my first Android device of any kind. There are, apparently, all kinds of hidden features to Android 2.2. It took me 3 days to find the Notification panel (accessible by pulling down the Notification bar at the top of the screen), and someoneon ArchosFans forum (Brownrat, thank you) had to point out the Unmount function of Notifications for USB devices. I don’t think I would have ever have found that. Just a few moments ago I discovered that there is a menu on the main apps page that gives instant access to Manage Apps and Uninstall. I am not sure if that is a feature of Android or of Zeam but it is something I know I will use, now that I know where it is.

Then too, my other primary discovery already is how very, very small the iPhone 4 is :).

Already I can see that the Tablet is going to be an essential part of my internet and social experience. I have a little pay as you go MiFi from Virgin Mobile that should work most places I visit. Makes an ideal companion for the Archos 101.

And I have to say that all those companies who are pinning hopes on an imminent introduction of yet another Android tablet are going to have difficulty matching the functionality, the quality, and value of the Archos gen8 Tablets. Archos has pretty well hit the sweet spot with a combination of powerful hardware; a flexible, adaptable, perfectible, OS and software package; and a price that makes it an easy, almost an impulse, buy.

No wonder no one can keep them in stock.


*Screen angles: there is a lot of discussion of how bad the Archos screen is, with some people getting pretty heated about it, on the forums. The best viewing angle on my screen in landscape mode is about 15 degrees below perpendicular to the surface, which puts the tablet at just about the ideal angle (about 30° to the surface it is resting on) for typing or working with it propped up on its stand on a table. It is also the angle that tablet assumes when held naturally in my hands. Though I lose some contrast when I view from either side of screen I don’t see any significant change in brightness or contrast through an angle of about 60°, 30° on either side of straight on. If I tip the screen back so I am further below the ideal angle, I have an additional 20° before I lose significant contrast. If I tip the screen up toward me, I begin to lose brightness at the bottom edge of the screen almost immediately, but it is usable through about 10°. That amounts to a vertical viewing angle of about 30°. In Portrait mode, the angles are the same, though the ideal angle moves to straight on perpendicular to the screen. That means that I have more angle to the right than I do to the left, with the tablet held normally with the ports up, and lots of room for tipping the screen in the vertical dimension. I could, of course put the more generous angle on the other side by tipping the whole device over. For my use this is “adequate” viewing angle.

Written by singraham

December 22, 2010 at 4:46 pm

iBird Pro HD: iBird Pro for the iPad

with 4 comments

IMG_0123If you take my recent review of the latest version of iBird Pro for the iPhone and shuffle it together with my review of iBird Yard for the iPad, you would get just about a perfect review of iBird Pro HD. To put it another way, iBird Pro HD builds on the exceptional user interface of iBird Yard, one of the most effective uses of the iPad’s potential we are likely to see. It has the same amazing search engine, with instantaneous predictive search…but it includes iBird Pro for iPhone’s full 924 species, the full set of illustrations and photos, all the photos, the extensive identification and conservation notes, and and the new expanded set of sound recordings from Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It also, like iBird Pro, allows multiple sets of notes on the species, multiple “Life Lists”, and multiple “favorites lists”.

So, to simplify matters, here are pertinent portions of the previous reviews, edited for iBird Pro HD.

Like most programs I have tied on the iPad, iBird has very distinct portrait and landscape modes, Portrait mode presents the information in slightly larger format…text is bigger, images are bigger, etc., and relies on pop-overs accessed via buttons to display the index of species, while landscape uses the extra width of the screen to display more information, and especially, more options simultaneously. Compare the two screen shots below. In landscape mode you can view the species index/search panel (in numerous different formats) at the same time. This makes switching species especially fast and easy, and gives you instant access to species search within the index. The Gallery alternative index view provides what amounts to an index for the highly visual. And because of the size of the iPad screen, the illustrations in the Gallery index are large enough to make finding the right bird as easy as flicking through the index until you see something that look right. While that might not sound like much, it gives the non-linear, non-text based folks among us a way of finding the right bird that is roughly equivalent to flipping through the field guide, but a lot more efficient, elegant, and practical.

The species index is a work of programming art. It provides 4 ways to view the index: Compact (name only), Icon (illustrated), Album (like icon but with larger images of the bird, and the above mentioned Gallery view. It also provides 4 ways to sort the index: first name, last name, family and taxonomic, and 3 ways to search for specific species within the index: common name, Latin name, and band code (a system of abbreviations used by bird banders).

ipb3 ipb4

ipb5

Lets take one more look at the Overview page to demonstrate just how much information is presented in this view. Expand the annotated screen shot to full size by clicking for an easy view.

OverviewFeatures

The illustrations, as mentioned, expand to full page size by touching the Portrait control. This opens a new view with the illustration full sized and the index next to it (screen shot 1 below). Or you can just touch the illustration in the Overview view and it will open as a separate view (screen shot 2).

ipb7ipb8

And of course that is just the beginning. The Identify page presents information on Body shape, size, color, and patterns, the same for the Head, a detailed description of the flight characteristics, and a panel of Interesting Facts.

ipb6

The Photos page presents 1 to 5 images contained within the program’s data base as iPhone sized shots, and a panel which automatically searches flickr for images of the species. It can pull down hundreds of images, thousands of some species. There are, for instance, 44 panels of images of Baltimore Oriole. Touching any image in the flickr panel opens the m.flickr.com page for that image. Unfortunately that is as far as you can go. It would probably be too much to ask to be able to view the flickr images at larger sized too. :(  🙂

ipb21

While we are on internet resources, there is also a page to display the Birdipedia info on the species, which includes current conservation status (actually the Wiki page for the bird reformatted).

Where the iPad interface really shines though, is in the Search features. Search on the iPad is both easier and more intuitive than the same experience on the iPhone.

ipb15ipb16ipb17

The search view on the iPad uses pop-overs and multiple panels to good effect, and you are presented with an instantaneous and continuous view of matches that updates as you specify new criteria. Want to know what you have already set. There is a little red dot that appears on the icon for every criteria set you have already used, and, for details, you can simply touch the History button and a pop-over appears with your criteria so far. The list of possible search criteria, by the way, are already pre-qualified . Selections that would result in 0 matches are grayed out. Each criteria that would yield matches displays the number of matches under its icon, so you have some idea what you are selecting (this is such a unique feature that it is patented!). And, the color criteria allow both And and Or searches…both colors or one or the other of the colors you choose. And all of it is very graphical. Song and flight patterns have drawings to illustrate the patterns. Bill lengths have sample birds. Colors are bright swatches. All together it makes the search process, to me at least, much more intuitive and fluid: and powerful.

Nothing shows the difference between iBird Pro HD search and iBird Pro (iPhone) search better than a little demonstration. Search on the iPhone is, compared to search on the iPad, somewhat linier. Without multiple panels, you select a criteria from the master list view (say Common Location), make your selection on a separate screen (say Arizona), return to the master list, select another criteria (say Shape), make your selection on the Shape view (say Hawk-like), return to the list, select another criteria (say Size), make your selection (say Medium)…etc. The count of birds that match is only displayed after each selection in the header on the master criteria list…so you don’t know if a choice resulted in actual matches until you return there. On the master list view there is also a button to switch to a view of the matching birds. That is a lot of back and forth between screens, and your results are not visible until you make your final selection. It works, but it is not a lot of fun. See if you can follow the selection process in the screen shots below.

photo 9photo 4photo 5photo 6photo 7photo 8photo 2photo 10

On the iPad, you make your first selection in a panel that contains the criteria list. The panel next to it fills with the selections for that criteria. Below each selection is the count of matches for that selection, and selections which result in no matches are grayed out. As soon as you make your selection the third panel fills with the birds that match. You can then tap another criteria and the selection panel refills (note the little red selected indicator on the first criteria we selected), again with the number of matches for each selection displayed. At any time you can tap the History button to view all previous selections in this search or to clear your search. As soon as you make your selection the third panel again fills with the matching birds. Very easy and very intuitive. Take a look at the screen shots.

IMG_0127IMG_0128IMG_0129

In addition to the more elegant search, there is a completely new feature, not included in the iPhone version. Compare allows you to display up to four species, along with an illustrated list of the search attributes that apply to each species. This is an amazing learning tool. Comparing species, whether close in appearance or widely separated, will build a sense of what distinguishes one bird from another…of exactly what to look for in the field when you are working without your iBird handy. Using it as a study aid will, in my opinion, build your field skills faster than any method short of observing the living birds…and even with the living birds in front of you, you rarely get a chance to do such comparison, since the species only very rarely cooperate by sitting in the same binocular field. In my opinion, the Compare feature of iBird Pro HD makes it a must have for any iPad owning birder attempting to improve his or her id skills.

ipb22

And then, of course, there are the Audio features: a complete set of sound recordings for the species included: over 5 hours of reference standard sounds from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, both songs and calls, with multiple recordings for many birds.

IMG_0125

Special note should be made of the Help system, which amounts to one of the most complete instruction manual/tutorials I have yet seen for an application, let alone one on the iPad. It is worth paging through. In fact I would say that if you do not use the Help screens, you will, without doubt, miss some of the most powerful features of iBird for iPad.

I missed two. Totally. Until they were pointed out to me. Both the Notes and Favorite features, long available in the iPhone version, have been considerably augmented in the iPad version. Notes can now be synced with iTunes, edited on your computer, and synced back to the iPad. The limitation I still see in Notes is that it appears you can only have one note per species at a time. You could, of course, after syncing with iTunes, sore the existing note in a unique spot (a new folder) and rename it,  create a new one, etc…which you could then save somewhere else (another folder) on sync. That way you could have multiple note sets. It is also possible to insert multiple date stamps in the note to separate entries in one longer note.

In addition, the Favorites feature now becomes really useful for listers, as the iPad version allows you keep multiple lists of Favorites. You can even give each Favorite list a unique name. This opens the possibility of a Life List, State lists, trip lists, etc. etc. all kept within the app, and all available for syncing through iTunes to your computer. This is a considerable advance! (And is also now available in the latest version for iPhone.)

If you have studied the screen shots above, you might have noticed that there are two ways to navigate between the various views and functions. There is a sliding menu along the bottom of the screen with buttons, like an animated task bar on a computer, or you can turn that off and use the pop-over menu under the open book icon on the bottom left of the screen, as shown in the screen shot below.

ipb18

So, bottom line. iBird Pro HD for the iPad is everything iBird for iPhone is…and more. It uses the features of the new platform to present a vast amount of information about birds and birding in a totally unique way. The iPhone version is also unique, but the differences are as subtle as differences between the two devices. The iPhone version, with most of the same features and information, on a device that fits in your pocket, is what I think of as the perfect digital, multi-media field guide: the first really effective, complete, and superior alternative to the printed guide. In fact, iBird on the iPhone is the first field guide I have actually carried in the field in years.

iBird on the iPad, however, is more like an encyclopedia and bird study course rolled into one. Though the iPad can be carried in the field (it is not much more bulky than the National Geographic printed guide, and certainly less bulky than the full Sibely), personally, I would be unlikely to do so. I can tuck my iPhone in my pocket, more or less out of harms way, but, while I am sure gorilla glass is wonderful stuff, I would be paying way too much attention to keeping my $500 iPad safe to really enjoy using it in the field. Again, just me. Your take may be totally different. And, of course, this is not so much a comment on iBird as it is on the iPad itself.

Let me make it clear here, that what I am expressing is a preference for the device, the iPhone, and not for the applications. There is no doubt that iBird Pro HD on the iPad offers a better user experience, overall, than iBird Pro on the iPhone, and that the features unique to the larger platform make it, overall, the more useful app…but I still do consider any app that runs on the iPad  a field guide…in the sense that I would not carry the iPad, no matter how good the app, regularly in the field. On the other hand, if I were a birder with both an iPhone and an iPad, I would not even consider running iBird Pro on the iPad…iBird Pro HD is simply a superior program on the iPad platform.

As a home reference and learning aid, with occasional field functionality (which is, actually, exactly what I consider both the National Geographic and Sibely printed field guides), iBird for iPad is totally unlike anything we could have even imagined a few years ago. Sure, we had multi-media birding programs on DVD and multi-media birding sites on the web. But as Steve Jobs says, the iPad is magic. There is something about interacting with the information using your fingers that elevates the experience to a whole new level of satisfaction, of ease, and of fascination. Someone said iBird for the iPhone represented the first true digital book…but he had not seen iBird for the iPad. I have seen the future of information publishing. It is iBird on the iPad. Oh there are other great examples, and more coming, but someday our children will look back to 2009/10 as the year publishing went digital. They will remember the iPad as the first device to really take it there…and they just may remember iBird Pro HD for the IPad as the first truly convincing demonstration of the potential. Certainly they will if they are themselves birders…or the children of birders. I have seen the future. It is here in the iPad, and it is here in iBird Pro HD…and it is going to be good.

Written by singraham

September 25, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Posted in app, iBird, iOS, iPad, iPhone 4

The iPad IS magic: but…

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photo 2 (1)I managed to avoid iPad fever so far by just not paying that much attention to the new platform, but I currently have an iPad on loan for a few days to do some reviews.

I have to say it: Steve Jobs is right. The iPad is magic!

Interacting with information with your fingers, as any iPhone or other touch screen smartphone user knows, is magical. With an intelligently designed interface, fingers make any action, even the most complex, feel intuitive and natural. Touch, drag, pinch, pull and simply flow through the information and the tasks. Even the virtual keyboard, once you get hang of it, can be addictive. Keys, especially the undersized keys on my Blackberry, now feel totally awkward. Of course, I can still touch type on my laptop much faster than I can thumb type on the iPhone…but the iPad’s keyboard is large enough so that I am pretty sure I could get up to speed on it after a few months of constant use. And, of course, keyboarding…word processing…is not what the iPad is really about anyway. There are so many more natural ways to interact with information…and the iPad does them well.

iBooks is simply an amazing way of reading textural materials. It is the most book-like reader so far and could easily replace books, and magazines, in my life completely. Programs like FlickStacker set a standard for how to deal with image viewing, commenting, etc. And apps like iBird Yard (soon to be Yard Plus) demonstrate what a true multi-media approach to a complex and information rich subject can be. A comparison of Twittelator or Osfoora on the iPhone and iPad tells the same story. The twitter clients only have to do a limited number of tasks well and deal with certain kinds of information, but even with that limited feature set, the experience is just a lot more fluid, and a lot more fun, on the iPad than it is on the iPhone. There is a new standard of information transfer emerging…and it is so far best exemplified by apps like iBird, FlickStacker, and Osfoora on the iPad.

Many of the same apps run on both iPhone and iPad. The difference is, on the iPad, with more screen to work with, everything is simply bigger, and easier…on the eyes and on the fingers. Multiple screen panels in a single view, scrolling pop-overs with their own sets of view options, pop-over selection menus…all add up to a more relaxed and natural information and task flow. You can do the same things on an iPhone as you can on the iPad…but doing so will always involve multiple views and a lot more view switching to accomplish the same tasks.

The trade off is portability. The iPhone fits in my pocket. The iPad, actually, takes up the same space as my 11 inch thin-and-light Acer 1810, with its dual core pentium processor, and 320 gb of storage. And battery life is not much different.

And there is the rub.

As magical as the iPad is, it can not replace either my iPhone (for portability) or my net/laptop (for power, storage, and access to apps like Office and Lightroom). What I can do on the iPad, I can also do on the iPhone…maybe not quite as elegantly, but certainly a lot more portably. What I can do on my Acer, I can not do on the iPad. Period. So far.

So, being the magical creature that it is, I certainly want an iPad. However, being the practical creature that I am forced to be in this world, I can not justify owing one. An iPhone? Yes. Certainly. I just preordered my iPhone 4 yesterday within hours of preorder becoming available, braving the crashing AT&T and Apple servers to do so. The iPhone is a tool I would not willingly live without.

But I can, unfortunately, do without an iPad.

I can do so, even knowing that my net/laptop represents the past…the old way of dealing with information…and will certainly drift into extinction over the next years with the rest of its breed, at least as a portable device. I can do so, even knowing that the iPad is certainly the future…the future of information transfer, delivery, and even creation. As long as I have my iPhone, and until a tablet comes that can run Lightroom and store multiple hundreds of gigabits of image files, I will have to resist the iPad and the future.

[And don’t bring up Cloud based alternatives to Lightroom…none are touch enabled…and all run on Flash, which the iPad and iPhone don’t do. Do not do!]

This hurts me. This hurts me a lot. But I just looked at what an iPad costs, along with its data plan, and I can make no other rational decision. The magic is selling a lot of iPads, and rightly so. The people buying them have seen the future and are plunging in in droves. But sometimes reason has to trump magic. Sad as that may be.

That does not mean that I don’t really long for a touch enabled version of Lightroom that runs on iOS 4, or Android, or Google Chrome OS…or a touch enabled cloud app that runs in a fully functional touch enabled browser and duplicates the things Lightroom does so well. I can feel the Vibrance slider under my fingers right now!

Sure. I want the magic too. 

Written by singraham

June 16, 2010 at 9:31 am

iBird for the iPad

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ipb14 I have been an iBird user since all they had out was the Backyard version for the iPhone/iPod Touch, so, of course I was interested to see what they could do with the program on the larger format and higher processing power of the iPad. IBird Yard for iPad was ready on launch day and demonstrates many of the strengths of the new device, as well as many of the very real differences between the two platforms.

I should say, right up front here, that iBird for the iPad is the Backyard version. It only covers 148 of the most common species of North American Birds. I am sure there will be Plus or Pro versions with the complete species list down the road. [According to the publisher, a Yard Plus version has already been submitted to the app store, which will include 82 more species. This will be a free upgrade for current users of iBird Yard for the iPad.]

The feature set of iBird for iPad is all but identical to the iPhone versions, but the layout, the look and feel, and especially the program navigation are all tailored to the new platform. Like most programs I have tied on the iPad, iBird has very distinct portrait and landscape modes, Portrait mode presents the information in slightly larger format…text is bigger, images are bigger, etc., and relies on pop-overs accessed via buttons to display the index of species, while landscape uses the extra width of the screen to display more information, and especially, more options simultaneously. Compare the two screen shots below. In landscape mode you can view the species index/search panel (in numerous different formats) at the same time. This makes switching species especially fast and easy, and gives you instant access to species search within the index. The Gallery alternative index view provides what amounts to an index for the highly visual. And because of the size of the iPad screen, the illustrations in the Gallery index are large enough to make finding the right bird as easy as flicking through the index until you see something that look right. While that might not sound like much, it gives the non-linear, non-text based folks among us a way of finding the right bird that is roughly equivalent to flipping through the field guide, but a lot more efficient, elegant, and practical.

The species index is a work of programming art. It provides 4 ways to view the index: Compact (name only), Icon (illustrated), Album (like icon but with larger images of the bird, and the above mentioned Gallery view. It also provides 4 ways to sort the index: first name, last name, family and taxonomic, and 3 ways to search for specific species within the index: common name, Latin name, and band code (a system of abbreviations used by bird banders).

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Lets take one more look at the Overview page to demonstrate just how much information is presented in this view. Expand the annotated screen shot to full size by clicking for an easy view.

OverviewFeatures

The illustrations, as mentioned, expand to full page size by touching the Portrait control. This opens a new view with the illustration full sized and the index next to it (screen shot 1 below). Or you can just touch the illustration in the Overview view and it will open as a separate view (screen shot 2).

ipb7 ipb8

And of course that is just the beginning. The Identify page presents information on Body shape, size, color, and patterns, the same for the Head, a detailed description of the flight characteristics, and a panel of Interesting Facts.

ipb6

The Photos page presents 1 to 5 images contained within the program’s data base as iPhone sized shots, and a panel which automatically searches flickr for images of the species. It can pull down hundreds of images, thousands of some species. There are, for instance, 44 panels of images of Baltimore Oriole. Touching any image in the flickr panel opens the m.flickr.com page for that image. Unfortunately that is as far as you can go. It would probably be too much to ask to be able to view the flickr images at larger sized too. :(  🙂

ipb21 

While we are on internet resources, there is also a page to display the Birdipedia info on the species, which includes current conservation status (actually the Wiki page for the bird reformatted).

Where the iPad interface really shines though, is in the Search features.

ipb15 ipb16 ipb17

I have never really used the search feature on the iPhone version much. That perhaps says more about me than the tool itself. For me there are just too many steps required to specify search criteria to make the process attractive or fluid.  I am sure there are folks who think it is the best feature of iBird on the iPhone, and use it to great effect. I admit that I am not one of them.

However, on the iPad version, Search suddenly becomes attractive to me. The search view uses pop-overs and multiple panels to good effect, and you are presented with an instantaneous and continuous view of matches that updates as you specify new criteria. Want to know what you have already set. There is a little red dot that appears on the icon for every criteria set you have already used, and, for details, you can simply touch the History button and a pop-over appears with your criteria so far. The criteria lists, by the way, are already pre-qualified (this is such a unique feature that it is patented!). Selections that would result in 0 matches are grayed out. Each criteria that would yield matches displays the number of matches under its icon, so you have some idea what you are selecting. And, the color criteria allow both And and Or searches…both colors or one or the other of the colors you choose. And all of it is very graphical. Song and flight patterns have drawings to illustrate the patterns. Bill lengths have sample birds. Colors are bright swatches. All together it makes the search process, to me at least, much more intuitive and fluid: and powerful.

And, in addition to the more elegant search, there is a completely new feature, not included in the iPhone version. Compare allows you to display up to four species, along with an illustrated list of the search attributes that apply to each species. This is an amazing learning tool…and potentially much more useful when the full Plus or Pro versions appear with more species. Comparing species, whether close in appearance or widely separated, will build a sense of what distinguishes one bird from another…of exactly what to look for in the field when you are working without your iBird handy. Using it as a study aid will, in my opinion, build your field skills faster than any method short of observing the living birds…and even with the living birds in front of you, you rarely get a chance to do such comparison, since the species only very rarely cooperate by sitting in the same binocular field. In my opinion, the Compare feature of iBird Backyard makes it a must have for any iPad owning birder attempting to improve his or her id skills.

ipb22

And then, of course, there are the Audio features: a complete set of sound recordings for the species included.

ipb9

Special note should be made of the Help system, which amounts to one of the most complete instruction manual/tutorials I have yet seen for an application, let alone one on the iPad. It is worth paging through. In fact I would say that if you do not use the Help screens, you will, without doubt, miss some of the most powerful features of iBird for iPad.

I missed two. Totally. Until they were pointed out to me. Both the Notes and Favorite features, long available in the iPhone version, have been considerably augmented in the iPad version. Notes can now be synced with iTunes, edited on your computer, and synced back to the iPad. The limitation I still see in Notes is that it appears you can only have one note per species at a time. You could, of course, after syncing with iTunes, sore the existing note in a unique spot (a new folder) and rename it,  create a new one, etc…which you could then save somewhere else (another folder) on sync. That way you could have multiple note sets. It is also possible to insert multiple date stamps in the note to separate entries in one longer note.

In addition, the Favorites feature now becomes really useful for listers, as the iPad version allows you keep multiple lists of Favorites. You can even give each Favorite list a unique name. This opens the possibility of a Life List, State lists, trip lists, etc. etc. all kept within the app, and all available for syncing through iTunes to your computer. This is a considerable advance!

If you have studied the screen shots above, you might have noticed that there are two ways to navigate between the various views and functions. There is a sliding menu along the bottom of the screen with buttons, like an animated task bar on a computer, or you can turn that off and use the pop-over menu under the open book icon on the bottom left of the screen, as shown in the screen shot below.

ipb18

So, bottom line. iBird Backyard for the iPad is everything iBird for iPhone is…and more. It uses the features of the new platform to present a vast amount of information about birds and birding in a totally unique way. The iPhone version is also unique, but the differences are as subtle as differences between the two devices. The iPhone version, with most of the same features and information, on a device that fits in your pocket, is what I think of as the perfect digital, multi-media field guide: the first really effective, complete, and superior alternative to the printed guide. In fact, iBird on the iPhone is the first field guide I have actually carried in the field in years.

iBird on the iPad, however, is more like an encyclopedia and bird study course rolled into one. Though the iPad can be carried in the field (it is not much more bulky than the National Geographic printed guide, and certainly less bulky than the full Sibely), personally, I would be unlikely to do so. I can tuck my iPhone in my pocket, more or less out of harms way, but, while I am sure gorilla glass is wonderful stuff, I would be paying way too much attention to keeping my $500 iPad safe to really enjoy using it in the field. Again, just me. Your take may be totally different. And, of course, this is not so much a comment on iBird as it is on the iPad itself.

However, as a home reference and learning aid, with occasional field functionality (which is, actually, exactly what I consider both the National Geographic and Sibely printed field guides), iBird for iPad is totally unlike anything we could have even imagined a few years ago. Sure, we had multi-media birding programs on DVD and multi-media birding sites on the web. But as Steve Jobs says, the iPad is magic. There is something about interacting with the information using your fingers that elevates the experience to a whole new level of satisfaction, of ease, and of fascination. Someone said iBird for the iPhone represented the first true digital book…but he had not seen iBird for the iPad. I have seen the future of information publishing. It is iBird on the iPad. Oh there are other great examples, and more coming, but someday our children will look back to 2009/10 as the year publishing went digital. They will remember the iPad as the first device to really take it there…and they just may remember iBird for the IPad as the first truly convincing demonstration of the potential. Certainly they will if they are themselves birders…or the children of birders. I have seen the future. It is here in the iPad, and it is here in iBird Backyard…and it is going to be good.

Written by singraham

June 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm