Review: Google Nexus One phone

(one of my New Years resolutions is to write more — here’s a start! Happy New Year!)

I was lucky enough to get a pre-release Google Nexus One phone just a few weeks ago. Engadget has an extended review of the phone, so I’ll leave it to them to give you all of the raw specs and details. This is just my own experience with the phone. Note that I didn’t really spend significant time reading about how to use the phone and judged it largely on how intuitive it would be on its own. If I’m missing any simple tricks, definitely let me know.

First of all, I was excited to get the phone in the mail, but mainly looked at it as a curiosity and a toy to play with before I went back to my beloved iPhone. I decided to take the SIM card out of my iPhone for an afternoon on the day I got the phone, and that afternoon turned into a few weeks. Just now as I’m writing this, I had to turn on my iPhone to remember what apps I was missing (more on that later. . . but I guess I wasn’t missing them that much).

Here’s the breakdown:

Pros

The phone is unlocked. This is huge, and if it hadn’t been unlocked, I would have never been able to try it so easily with my AT&T SIM. Openness FTW. I didn’t really notice that I was only at EDGE speeds.

The apps are solid. I didn’t do exhaustive app research, but I very quickly installed and used these apps: AndChat (IRC), Bank of America, ConnectBot (ssh client), eBuddy (IM), Evernote, Facebook, FlightTrack, Foursquare, GPS Status, gStrings (guitar tuner), Google Maps, Flixster, NYC Bus & Subway, Pandora, Scoreboard, ShopSavvy (barcode comparison shopping), Twidroid (Twitter client), WeatherBug, and Yelp.

Google Voice. If you use Google Voice on this phone, it absolutely KILLS Visual Voicemail on the iPhone. I thought Visual Voicemail was one of the greatest features of the iPhone, so this is significant. Imagine Visual Voicemail with automated (though not 100% accurate) transcripts of the voice mails. The Google Voice experience with my iPhone was frustrating since it isn’t well-integrated into the iPhone. This is the Google phone, so as you would expect, the integration is tight.

Background apps. Anyone with an iPhone knows what it’s like to switch between apps, especially mail using IMAP. I hated waiting for my mail to come down when I switched to the mail app on the iPhone. With the Nexus One and Android, it all happens in the background while other apps are running. In this way, it feels more like a Blackberry experience. This also makes installing and updating other apps much more seamless and behind-the-scenes.

Removable battery. Not since I had my old Treo (my last pre-iPhone phone) have I had the ability to carry an extra battery. That is huge given the poor battery life of today’s power-draining phones. I don’t have the extra battery yet, but I’m sure I will get one.

Cons

Some apps are missing versus the iPhone, as you might expect. I’ve become a Dropbox devotee, and there’s no Dropbox client for Android. I didn’t miss it too much, though, and Dropbox is advertising for a developer to build the client. While I have this as a “con,” the fact that the company behind the app I’m missing most is looking for a developer bodes well for the Android ecosystem. Amazon’s Kindle app isn’t available, and I used to switch between reading books on my Kindle and iPhone readily (especially nice when stuck on the subway with limited space to read). In any case, I think I can live without these.

Something about the way the “home screen” works just doesn’t seem intuitive to me. I don’t have trouble navigating, I just have to think about it every time. Not sure how to describe this in writing!

I miss the hardware sound on/off switch on the side of the iPhone — much easier than the software menus on the Android.

Overall

Overall, I love the phone and am planning to stick with it. If you’re largely using Google applications (Gmail, Voice, Maps), the integration is seamless. Philosophically, the openness of the Android platform is appealing. In the end, the Nexus One turned me into a new Android fan.

Review: Jawbone Bluetooth headset

Recently, I went through another round of a roughly annual “find a Bluetooth headset that actually works” exercise after throwing the latest failed attempt in the electronic junk drawer beside the cracked Palm V and the old SCSI Jaz drive. First of all, let me state for the record that I don’t consider myself one of those Bluetooth headset guys and generally observe a personal “only use in the car” rule. Also, when I’m looking at Bluetooth headsets, I’m definitely not looking for something that doubles as a fashion accessory, nor am I looking for something that fits comfortably enough to wear all day. I want something that works reliably with my phone, fits reasonably well, and doesn’t degrade call quality. While I generally do my best to be in a quiet place for calls, it’s inevitable that I’m out and about sometimes and need call someone from the car, in an airport, etc. Anyone who does many business conference calls knows that the guy calling from a car or at a busy airport gate can be a distraction to everyone else. “Can you mute, please?” is a common refrain in those situations.

Until recently, I used the Jabra BT5020 with my iPhone and even though Jabra claims “wind noise reduction” as a feature, a lot of my calls began with the person on the other end asking, “where are you, in a wind tunnel?” I tried the Samsung WEP-200 on Tim Bray’s recommendation, but had trouble pairing it with my iPhone (this seems to be common), and it fell out of my ear if I moved my head even slightly. In my latest round of research, all roads pointed to the Aliph Jawbone. (Disclaimer: just as I was about to go buy it, I serendipitously got an email from the PR firm representing Aliph asking me if I wanted to review the Jawbone, so I received a complimentary review unit).

After a couple months of using the Jawbone regularly, I can attest that it works as advertised and has exceeded my expectations. The online demo of the Jawbone’s Noise Shield technology seems too good to be true, but it isn’t — what a pleasant surprise. The Noise Shield works so well that I sometimes use the Jawbone in situations where I could actually use my phone without the headset, e.g. standing outside a restaurant on a noisy San Francisco street. This breaks my “only in the car” rule, but the noise reduction is worth it. I’ve tested the Jawbone in the car with the Noise Shield off (“you sound like you’re in the car”) and with it on (“wow, you sound like you’re in a quiet office now!”) In all cases, the caller on the other end comes through loud and clear, too. The battery life for my level of usage has been excellent, too.

jawbone.jpg

I do have a few minor gripes. The unit can be a little clumsy to get on and off of your ear. The variety of included earbuds and ear clips were impressive but I couldn’t find a combination that fit my ear really well. Still, the Jawbone fits well enough and its enthusiastic users have some suggestions to create a better fit. When the Jawbone is on standby, I have to turn it off and then on to re-pair it with my iPhone, but that is only a minor annoyance.

All in all, the Jawbone is an excellent product that delivers on its promise. Since I’ve been using it, no one has asked “where are you?” or “can you mute, please?” I never thought I would say this about a Bluetooth headset, but I love it.

iPhone: resistance is futile

After days of resistance, I decided I was probably going to get an iPhone, but they were all sold out in the Bay Area, so I backed off. Then yesterday, I happened to be in Seattle with some Yahoo! Seattle geeks (did I mention we are hiring up there?) and they just happened to take me to lunch at a place that was right by the Apple Store. Then one of the guys just happened to go buy one while we ordered lunch for him. When he came back, he said they were fully stocked with the 8GB model. When I saw the pretty bag with the pretty box inside, I lost all resolve.

Originally, I told myself I was going to buy a new guitar instead — something that I could use to create rather than consume. Oh, well: consumption never felt so good!

This DST thing could get (at least a little) ugly

Some people (like Paul Kedrosky) are calling the DST time change the “real Y2K,” and thinking about the characteristics of the change, I would tend to agree. Fundamentally, computers don’t like irregularity, and this change is not algorithmically pretty. The Wikipedia page on DST explains it like this:

Starting in 2007, most of the United States and Canada observe DST from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November, shifting clocks typically at 02:00 local time. The 2007 U.S. change was part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005; previously, from 1987 through 2006, the start and end dates were the first Sunday in April and the last Sunday in October, and Congress retains the right to go back to the previous dates once an energy consumption study is done.

The interesting thing to me about this is that Y2K happened only once, yet depending on the whims of the Congress, it sounds like this could happen a few times. This sounds like a problem one would be tempted to solve with some hard-coding or at least deferring a solid solution, and that’s never good.

I’m not forecasting doomsday or anything (see my earlier post, “The Y2K that wasn’t“), but judging from all the wackiness I’ve already experienced with my Treo and my corporate mail, we could be in for a few bumps in the road. Stay tuned.

Update: 7:50pm: after upgrading my Good (mobile corporate email) software of my Treo 650 with the patch to deal with DST, it turns out that my firmware needs to be upgraded to deal with that software update. Ugh. Looks like I’m going to be doing a firmware update on the Treo — the equivalent of open-heart surgery. If I fall off the grid, you’ll know why.

Asterisk is the new LAMP

I met with a startup today that does some interesting work bridging web services APIs with telephony, and I stopped them early in their presentation to ask what their voice platform was. The discussion was purely about their service, not the backend nuts-and-bolts, but I just had to ask: “Are you using Asterisk?” They were, of course. (I became interested in Asterisk and wrote about it just over a year ago in one of my last InfoWorld columns. There’s also an O’Reilly book on Asterisk that was published last fall).

I suspect that the “yeah, we’re using Asterisk” answer will become as commonplace and unremarkable as the “yeah, we’re using the LAMP stack.” Very cool. Expect some amazing things in this space as developers dreaming of new voice applications start playing with Asterisk more broadly.

What to do when sending an SMS makes your Treo 650 reboot

Aside from a post about a certain college sports team’s legal troubles, the most popular post on this blog is consistently “Making built-in Contacts app the default on a Treo 650 with Goodlink.”

I’ve run into another semi-persistent problem that required a bit of research, so I’ll post a solution here. Every now and then, simply sending an SMS to anyone causes my Treo to reboot. It happens every time I try to send an SMS, so I’m essentially without text messaging capability until I fix this (the SMS never makes it to the recipient in this scenario).

When the Treo comes back from the reboot, I dial #*377 (or #*ERR) and it shows me an error that is something like this (the #*377 trick works for any error on the Treo):

A reset was caused on 05/18/06 at 9:31am while running "TreoSMS Stub":

../Src/MessageStore.c,
Line 1297,
MessageStoreOpenItem: item open already

The application that causes the reboot varies, but it’s always the same error related to the message store. Here’s how you fix it (and beware — this deletes all the text messages on your device!):

  1. If you don’t already have it, you need to download and install FileZ on your Treo. All this does is give you access to all the files on the Palm OS filesystem. This is a tool that must be used very carefully, since you can move, copy, and delete any files on the Treo, even ones you didn’t know were there. It’s one of the most useful Treo utilities you can have.
  2. Run FileZ on your phone and choose “View and Edit Files.” In the next screen, you should see “Internal” under Filename. It might also say “ROM.” If you have an SD Card, you should also see “External” or “SD Card.”
  3. Click on the little wedge beside “Internal” to expand the list of files on your Treo.
  4. Find Messages Database and delete it (you do this by checking it, choosing “Details,” and then clicking “Delete”)

That’s it! Your phone should be in working order again (if there’s not something else wrong with it — anyone with a Treo knows how flaky they can be).

Laptop power on planes: observations, tips, and lessons

Before I get into some recent experiences getting laptop power on planes (both failed and successful ones), I wanted to give a plug for seatguru.com. If you want to know which seats are most comfortable on a plane (with detailed commentary on specific seats), whether or not power is available at the seats, etc. go to seatguru.com. It’s an awesome (and free) service — check it out.

Recently, I decided to get the gear necessary to get power at my seat on planes. For years, I have always packed an extra battery to get me through long flights, but my recent trip to Bangalore and London (over 50 hours in planes) made me reconsider. Many domestic flights offer in-seat power, though it doesn’t seem to be well-promoted or even understood at a basic level by the flight attendants (as I learned on a recent Delta flight — see below). Here’s what I’ve learned about in-seat power on planes (British Airways has a decent primer on in-seat power in their planes that seems to be generally applicable based on my experience):

You need a device called an “inverter”. I’m not sure it was the best choice, but I picked up the XPower Pocket Inverter 100 at Radio Shack just before my trip to Bangalore. The inverter has one plug that goes into the plane power socket and then you can plug any typical two or three-prong device into the inverter using a regular power supply. The inverter simply transforms the plane power into power you can use. (If anyone has advice on the best inverter to get, please leave a comment!)

The power jack in the plane is known as an “Empower” jack. It’s not the same as a cigarette lighter adapter (it’s substantially smaller), though some inverters come with a cigarette lighter plug that you fit into the Empower interface on the inverter so you can also use the inverter in a car. I don’t think I’ve seen an Empower jack anywhere but on a plane, so the plug looks unusual. In fact, I would go as far to say that the Empower interface is poorly designed since I had some trouble with it (more below. . . the photo with this post is of an Empower plug, by the way).

Flight attendants might not know anything about the power systems on their planes. On a Delta flight last week, I had checked seatguru.com beforehand for the plane I was taking, and it showed power between every seat in economy. When I boarded, I asked the flight attendant about laptop power between the seats and she clearly had no idea what I was talking about — she said there was no power for laptops in coach. Sure enough, once I sat down, the Empower power port was easily found between the seats, and it worked (mostly anyway).

Don’t assume the power port at your seat will work. On four legs of British Airways flights, I had these experiences: 1) power worked flawlessly, 2) power didn’t work at all, 3) someone had stuffed chewing gum and paper into the power port and I wasn’t willing to dig it all out, and 4) power worked, but only if I held the Empower plug from my inverter at a certain angle with one hand (roughly the same experience you might have with cheap headphones that you have to twist to hear an iPod or other audio device). Of course, this makes it difficult to type or do anything productive.

On my Delta flight last week, the Empower port that my flight attendant didn’t know about actually worked, but I had to hold the plug in the socket to keep it connected properly, which was kind of a pain. It might be my inverter, but the Empower interface just doesn’t seem to click in tightly. It seems like a flimsy interface in general. I suspect that the tight quarters in planes encourage accidental abuse of the ports when they are being used, which makes the plugs wear out over time, leaving a looser fit for future users.

The inverter can get really hot. This could be worse with the particular inverter I got, but I suspect it’s true across the board. When you’re in a coach seat with your laptop running, there isn’t a ton of room for much else. In my case, the inverter sat on my leg and the heat was pretty uncomfortable — think “twice as hot as a laptop” and you’ll get the picture.

You might be able to use your laptop and charge your battery at the same time — or you might not. I don’t know enough about electricity to understand this, but on the British Airways flight, I could use my laptop but the battery wouldn’t charge. On the Delta flight, I used my laptop and the battery charged. On the British Airways flights, they said you could only use laptops with their power system, i.e. you couldn’t charge iPods or run portable DVD players. This doesn’t make sense to me — anyone have more details?

Overall, it’s a good idea to check seatguru.com and pack an inverter in your carry-on if you might need power on a long flight — but make sure you don’t have to do the work you’re expecting to do on the plane, because you might have problems.