Getting Into It

Well, it’s been awhile. Not intentionally, mind you, but now’s not the time for excuses.

At any rate, here we are. Things have happened since we last spoke. Steve Jobs resigned, the iPhone 5 is coming soon, Amazon is most likely releasing a tablet, the TouchPad was released and immediately shanked, and lots of other things. More talk about cloud services, more talk about music services, more talk about books, more talk about movies. Netflix took one on the jaw when they lost the Starz library, and maybe they’re going to lose out to Amazon. Who knows?

Writing about all this stuff after being away for so long is surreal. I feel like there was a time in the tech world when moves like these would take place over years. Years, folks. Now…we’re talking weeks, months. This is insane. There are ideas out there, ideas that are growing quickly and gaining steam, and there’s more diversification of mobile operating systems that people are seeing and buying into, but I think it all represents, as crazy as it sounds, a type of stagnation.

Granted, things are moving quickly, they’re hot now, but I think the reason for all of this comes down to a sort of scrambling to figure out where the consumer is going, trying to predict what the market is going to decide is “the best” experience, or integrated operating system, or whatever. We’re seeing Android innovating on lots of fronts, but people are frustrated by the sloppy and inconsistent UX, we’re seeing iOS finding more stability and fleshing out features that people have been craving, adding even more value to the devices they’re already carrying around on a daily basis, but still lacking that special “kick” that really ties it all together. WebOS…well, I was hopeful for WebOS. Then it died. I had a whole article written, even, which is totally irrelevant now. Oh well.

With all this getting kicked around and changing so rapidly, I want to touch on some changes I think are coming down the pipe for iOS, and what I’m hopeful for in that space, as well. That will all come later this week. For now, enjoy the weather, throw on a scarf, and watch the last few sunsets the season has to offer.

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Laryngitis

Google is updating their search page for iOS (and presumably Android) devices.

The new iOS-optimized search page will feature tabbed browsing and large app icons to allow the user to better distinguish between search results.

That’s great! I’m glad Google is doing that. Now where the hell is their update for Google Voice for iOS? That craptastic app needs a major fix. Sad times for Google Voice, indeed.


Two for Two

Nice job, Apple.Anyone out there have an iPad 2? Anyone out there experience a failure with their SIM card? About a week ago, I started noticing my internet connection spontaneously resetting while I was using 3G data. Soon enough, the spontaneous resetting became full-blown network dropout, followed by the iPad telling me “No SIM Installed.” Funny, because there most certainly was.

Being understanding of these types of things, I tried lots of things. I put a piece of tape on the back, cut to size, in the hopes that perhaps that might make the fit a little more snug. No luck there. I did the old Nintendo blow-in-the-slot trick (no heckling, please). No dice there, either. I’d have to manually eject the SIM card tray and push it back in every single time, which became quite annoying when the thing couldn’t hold on to a signal longer than a few minutes.

Finally, I took it into an Apple store to have it looked at. A really nice guy helped me out, but seemed to think that, at least initially, the failure was caused by a faulty SIM tray, and that replacing the SIM tray would fix it right up.

For those who don’t know, the iPhone and iPad 2 (and some other phones, as well), have a SIM card tray that slides into and out of the phone instead of an integrated slot buried somewhere under the battery. This allows the entire design to be more or less seamless, while still allowing the owner to swap SIM cards in and out, if necessary. It has very little to do with the phone spontaneously being unable to recognize the presence of a SIM card. If the tray were broken or out of alignment, sure. But the idea that swapping the tray out for a new, identical one is just silly.

Needless to say, the Apple Genius realized that the swap wouldn’t work, and was advised to replace the whole shebang. I picked up the new one yesterday, synced the bad boy up, and it’s been working flawlessly. This swap also had the neat fringe benefit of getting me an iPad 2 with a much better screen that didn’t leak light. My first one did, and, although it wasn’t a big deal, when you buy an Apple product, you want it to look and work like a million bucks. They usually do, but it looks like the first iPad 2 I got wasn’t quite ready for prime time. This one, however, is fantastic.

I think the whole process went incredibly smoothly, and I’m really happy that the Genius Bar folks were able to acknowledge that there was indeed a problem that needed fixing.

My girlfriend also had a problem with her MacBook Pro, namely, her hard drive came down with a slight case of death. Anyone who’s ever had a laptop that I know of has, at some point in time, experienced a catastrophic and total hard drive failure. This is essentially a standard part of owning a laptop. She had the foresight to purchase AppleCare when she got the laptop, so the Genius Bar folks took it in, replaced the hard drive, and got it back to her the next day. If this isn’t awesome customer service, I don’t know what is. Since she also had her data backed up with the awesome BackBlaze, she didn’t skip a beat. A day of inconvenience (if you can really call it that), and she’s back in action.

Moral of the story: AppleCare is a necessary part of owning an Apple computer (sorry, it just is), and always always always back up your data. Twice, if possible.


Just like the ZaggSparq


 

AppleInsider | Apple may build its own external battery pack for recharging on the go.

I’ve been using the ZaggSparq for months and love it.  It’s a little costly, but the mobility it provides is invaluable.  One of these things basically doubles your mobility.  I can stay away from outlets all day, and recharge the ‘Sparq at night.  Highly recommended.

ZaggSparq


Use the Force, Paul, or: How I Beat the AT&T Death Star

What a great movie.In case you haven’t noticed, the 21st century is upon us. Aside from my flying car, there are a few other neat Jetson gadgets that I’m looking for that I have, in a way, already found.

One of the other things that I’m looking for is freedom from this ridiculous carrier-centric phone world. There should be no reason that an iPhone (or any other phone, for that matter) cannot be used on other networks (barring technological incompatibilities between technologies like GSM and CDMA). There should also be no reason for carriers to charge me an exorbitant amount of money for “minutes” that I do not use. Before reaching through the void into the world of sweet, sweet data, my monthly phone bill was around $175.00 for two lines, unlimited messaging, 700 voice minutes, and unlimited data. I had almost 4,000 rollover minutes accrued since I re-upped my plan last July (when I got the iPhone 4).

Four. Thousand.

Clearly, the majority of my monthly bill (about $80.00) was being put towards minutes that I was very rarely using. Some months would see both phones using less than 100 minutes combined. I was paying for more minutes than I would ever want to use, but there was no way for me to get a data-only plan on my phone unless I a) could prove that I was hearing-impaired, or b) devised some way to get a data-only SIM card and somehow provision my phone to take advantage of that.

I went with option b.

What I noticed when I first started playing with my first iPad was that the SIM card in both the iPad and iPhone 4 are of the “Micro-SIM” variety, which means they’re just a fraction of the size of a normal SIM card. Surely there had to be a way to use the iPad SIM card in the iPhone, right?

Sadly, a quick swap of the SIM cards yielded no results for the iPhone, and while the iPad could receive data, it couldn’t make any calls. Not that I’d want to hold that up to my head to talk, anyway. I gave up on the idea of a cheap pocket web portal and decided that I’d just start sterilizing my arm for removal.

Fast forward almost a year, over a thousand dollars in payments to the Empire, and I’m fed up. I don’t need this. Time to bust out my Jedi skills on this Death Star.

The key player in all of this is a powerful and evolving service that Google offers called Google Voice. For those familiar with the service, Google voice can be leveraged to free your number from your carrier and place it “in the cloud,” allowing you to open up a new line of service with any carrier, but with a little extra weight behind your bargaining because you don’t have to purchase a heavily subsidized phone. Plans can be purchased on a month-to-month basis instead of on a contractual basis. Negotiating with those carriers can be tough, though, so you’ll have to brush up on your Jedi Mind Tricks.

Porting Your Number

The first thing you’ll need to do is port your number over to Google Voice. For true freedom, this is really the only way to go. When I had separate Google Voice and AT&T phone numbers, people were simply confused when I would contact them from one or the other. They’d constantly be asking me which number was my “real” number, or why I keep changing phones. For my friends, it didn’t matter that much. For my family, it was confusing. I’ve always been on the cutting edge of technological trends, and trying to explain this cutting-edge VOIP service was difficult, especially since my parents have had the same phone plans for the better part of a decade. Porting is easy, but there are a few things you need to know. Here’s what it boils down to:

  1. Porting your number to Google Voice will cancel your current phone line with your carrier. This is effective almost immediately, despite taking a while for the transition to complete on the back end.
  2. Google charges you $20.00 for porting your number.
  3. If you are still under contract with your carrier, you are on the hook for the ETF. This is can be pretty high, depending on how much time you have left before your contract is up.
  4. Text messages will take several days to route properly. If, like me, you sometimes suffer from communication overload, this will be a blessing for you. When people ask you if you got their message, you can legitimately say, “Nope, I was porting my number over to another carrier.” Done deal.
  5. You cannot make outgoing calls using Google Voice. Technically. You can, however, use Google Voice to approximate the normal “phone” experience really well. I’ll go into that soon.
  6. Google Voice software for the iPhone leaves a lot to be desired. It works, it’ll get you where you need to go, but none of it is perfect. I’m sure Google will get around to updating its iPhone app eventually, but it needs a lot of work right now. Just a heads-up.

Setting Up Seamless Calling

This is tricky. I’m not going to lie, I was extremely frustrated with my calls until I explored my options a bit. You can benefit from my experimentation here.

Google Voice isn’t a phone. Instead, Google Voice connects phone numbers together. For the tinfoil hat crowd out there, this might be a dealbreaker. Google is going to have your voice passing through their servers, period. There’s no way to do this without having Google act as the middleman. I don’t care about this, because I figure they’ve got enough data on me already. If you’re already here, though, you probably don’t care too much about that.

Because Google Voice doesn’t actually make any calls, you have to find a reliable way to receive calls on your phone without actually paying for minutes. I found the solution in a couple places. Skype and TextFree are all services with various degrees of free and paid options that provide VOIP service. Of those two, I’d say that TextFree is definitely, unequivocally, the best option I tested. The basic process for both, however, is the same. With Skype, you’re going to need two paid plans to properly route calls. One plan to allow unlimited incoming and outgoing calls, another to give you an “online number” that people can call. The combined cost of these two services is around $60.00. Not bad, especially considering that this gives you a year of unlimited calling to US-based numbers. You then need to add your newly-purchased Skype number to your Google Voice settings. Under normal circumstances, Google Voice would then call you, ask you to enter the code it displays on the screen, and you’d be all set. This is where it starts to break down,

I will say this as plainly and clearly as I can: Skype’s app is horrible. When I say horrible, I mean absolutely awful. I don’t know if they gave the coding and design over to a bunch of blind, epileptic monkeys or if they’re really just that bad. At this point, if they told me the monkey story, I’d say it makes sense. The fact that this software got out the door under human watch, however, is not good. There are so many failings, but here’s the biggest one: the Skype app doesn’t use Apple’s standard push notifications, it uses some sort of bastardization of local notifications. The end result is that 9/10 attempts to contact you will be lost to voicemail, and 9/10 attempts to contact someone else will result in that person being greeted by dead air. I could really go on and on, but it’s best you read my review on iTunes. It’s scathing.

Assuming you can get the verification to work, you’ll be all set to make and receive calls from your new Google Voice number. Google Voice acts as the middle man – it contacts you first; when you pick up (if Skype actually notifies you there’s an incoming call, that is), Google Voice rings the other number. Skype’s call quality is high, probably the highest of the possible apps I tried, so it wins points there.

The other solution is TextFree with Voice for iPhone. TextFree, as far as I can tell, is almost flawless. TextFree allows you to receive unlimited incoming calls, which is perfect. Once again, “placing” a call through Google Voice actually tells Google Voice to ring the number you select (TextFree), which then pops up on your screen as an “incoming call.” When you answer the call in TextFree, Google Voice rings the other party. This, however, is almost flawless. TextFree with Voice uses Apple’s standard notification system, so the incoming calls pop up instantly. It’s amazing. And it’s free. No monthly or yearly costs if you don’t want to pay. I dropped $6.00 to eliminate the in-app ads, because I feel like the developers made a damn good app.

There are other VOIP solutions that you can pair with Google Voice, but these two were the best I’ve found so far (even though the Skype app is made of fail). If you have any questions about this, email me, I’m happy to help.

The final steps to making your phone work with an iPad SIM can be found here.

I’ve gone from paying $175.00 a month to $75.00 a month for two phones, unlimited texting, and all the voice I can eat. My data usage (including the occasional video chat on 3G) comes to about 2-3 GB/month, which means that I get the occasional $10.00 overage charge for an extra gig of data. No big deal. Wifi is, as always, free, so I don’t pay for data when I’m home or at a Starbucks banging out posts.

The other thing this does is changes the feel of the iPhone from a phone to a portable web portal. This actually makes a huge difference in how I interact with it. Instead of pulling it out to make calls and send texts, I use it like an iPad mini, and it makes total sense this way. All data, all the time.

Plus, I get to be a rebel. Can’t put a price on that.


Kinaesthetics

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I’ve spent the past week or so using my iPad essentially sans home button, and it’s amazing. I’m convinced that this is how the iPad was meant to work. The multitouch gestures enable me to flip between apps with my hand like shuffling books around on a desk. Sliding four fingers up on the screen is so natural, like pushing a stack of paper slightly out of the way to peek underneath it. It actually feels tactile, like I’m actually moving the screen ever so slightly. It’s really an amazing way to interact with a magic window.

Aside from that, though, it’s incredible physical. I find myself getting into my work more, making larger gestures with my arms and body as I’m interacting with my iPad. Maybe that makes me look like a crazy person, but it makes the entire iPad experience that much more engaging. How many gadgets/appliances do you actually get into like that?

And, it’s that little extra geekery that gets me through the day, natch.


The iPad 2 Launch

It was a long, interesting day. Rather than spoil it for you, take a look for yourselves. I tried to capture all the highlights.

Check out the video.

Needless to say, it was just a little disappointing. I spent the rest of the night murdering zombies and ended up ordering one online anyway, which is what I should have done in the first place. I’ve been to Apple launches before, and none have ever left me high and dry like this one. I actually felt a little hurt (cue the violins).

Looks like it’s 2-3 weeks of jealously for me.