Thursday, 18 February 2010

Oooh, the shiny! Ooooooh, the SHINY!

This is a rambling tale of two superphones.

I'll use that term, obnoxious as I may usually find it, to highlight the fact the I am not talking about mere smartphones, with good hardware and maybe a specialisation or two, but the cream of the crop - two of the premier mobile devices on sale today.

From Finland, the N97 Mini. One of the best 5MP cameras on any mobile device, all the trimmings in the form of GPS, magnetometer, accelerometer, Bluetooth and high-speed everything, stereo FM transmitter, a big touch screen, a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and the latest iteration of one of the most flexible, evolved and powerful mobile operating systems - Symbian with the S60 user interface. Oh, and it has full, free, offline GPS navigation, something which did nasty things to Garmin's share price. The N97 mini, slightly more compact than the N97, has a more useful shape, was launched with decent firmware, and has better internal memory configuration than the infamously disappointing but slowly improving-in-firmware N97. Not the absolute flagship for Symbian - the Samsung i8910 is still a bit more impressive, even without a keyboard or Nokia's S60 tweaks - but pretty damn near.

From America, the Motorola Milestone - the non-USA version of the Droid, with different radio hardware. 5MP camera, everything else, gorgeous screen, slide-out QWERTY keyboard, and the newest and fastest-growing kid on the block, the open-source, Linux-based Android operating system from Google and, this being Google, an awful lot of functionality depending upon being online - maps, for example. The Milestone, when it was first released with Android 2.0, before Google trumped them with the HTC-built 2.1 Nexus One, was the absolute flagship of Androidness.

Problems? Well, the S60 5th Edition on the N97 Mini is a kludge, the screen is an unfashionable resistive (pressure sensitive), instead of capacitive (which uses the galvanic effect to measure the electrical conductivity of your skin), and Nokia have a not entirely proud history of using the efficiency strengths of Symbian to not entirely hide them skimping on CPU and RAM.

On the other hand, the Milestone has a suspect camera, and Android is still very much in development.

Now, I have toyed briefly with the Milestone, and find the interface to be more shiny than focused, but definitely cool and swish.

I have also handled an N97 mini, thanks to the fact that when I walked into the shop, they didn't have a fake display model.

The build quality was a sizeable step above my N95 (not really praise, that, let me start again...) The build quality was very good, with no wobbles anywhere, and the hinge on the keyboard rock-solid and snappy. The software environment is two evolutionary steps on from the ones I now know backwards, and the screen, although people complain about resistive screens being a pain to use after capacitive, seemed perfectly fine. The keyboard didn't seem too bad, needing only familiarity to be comfortable, and although I didn't agree with the default menu layout, that's nothing that a few minutes customising won't fix.

The Milestone is a very sexy black oblong indeed, from the clean and industrial school of design, well made and is of course very tightly integrated with all the Google services I already use.

Essentially, then, we have two comparable devices, with slightly different hardware philosophies, one with a software platform I know backwards and already have a solid set of tools for, and one which will be an exciting new adventure.

Symbian has a huge number of applications, some available via Nokia's stumbling Ovi Store, most straight from developer websites. Android has a rapidly growing marketplace and developer community.

Nokia consistently build the most comprehensively competent devices. Motorola put their all into the Milestone.

The N97 Mini keyboard looks a little finger-friendlier, the Milestone has a D-pad for precise cursor placement in text.

The N97 is an N-series Nokia and has an N-series camera with Carl Zeiss Optics. The Milestone doesn't.

So it's not exactly an easy choice.

And here's the three big factors:

The screen - One the one hand, the capacitive screen on the Milestone is more sensitive, and better/clearer/sharper (marginally!). On the other hand, it can't be operated in gloves, through plastic map pockets, or with fingers that are too wet/dry/cold. The N97 can be operated with anything you can push it with, including pens, glove fingers, and through water-proof covers. As I ride a bike, and may need it for GPS, or to control music, this last bit is rather important for me. Even if I get a holder, and it doesn't rain, I can't operate a capacitative screen while wearing gloves. Until someone introduces bullet-proof voice control that works with severe levels of background noise, that will continue to be a big issue for me. And no, I can't afford to buy a separate bike-specialist GPS system that acts as a control centre for phones and MP3 players, no matter how much they may impress me.

Support - Nokia have a great reputation for releasing half-finished firmwares, but a better one for steadily rolling out upgrades. Motorola still need to prove themselves, and the thriving third-party ROM scene that some devices enjoy is questionable for the Milestone.

Services back-end - I use Google, and although I don't trust them to ensure privacy, get everything right, make the best decisions or even not fuck up now and again, they know how to make services. Nokia, well... There are many reasons I don't use anything branded "Ovi" except the built-in mapping software, and the fact that I already use Google is not even very far up the list. Nokia I do not trust to build services at all. Although they have improved quite a lot lately, the web interface to Ovi Maps made me burst out laughing in incredulous disbelief last week when I had a quick look at it.

Now, for the less practical consideration: Android is more exciting. Symbian is a known quantity, very solid, with quirks and issues but something I know will give me a superbly functional device. But familiarity, unfortunately, breeds indifference. The touch aspects will be interesting, for a while, but Android is entirely new, and there will be so much to explore.

There is also the fact that Android is evolving fast, and may soon leave the Milestone behind if Motorola or the community don't keep up the firmware updates, while Symbian is rushing headlong towards Symbian^3, due out this year, which will see a progression towards a complete UI overhaul and a graphic toolkit change that will begin to introduce incompatibilities.

So there's not really much to pick between them on that front, I have to say.

Which brings me irrevocably back to the fact that picking between them is going to be a right bitch.

Price is not really an issue - the N97 Mini is $900-ish, the Milestone $700-ish (through Expansys, Motorola Australia went bankrupt), but go to eBay and you can find either device, claiming to be fully unlocked and Australian-compatible, for $600 plus extras thrown in, like car chargers and screen protectors.

It turns out that although I love having choices, I hate having to actually make one.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

How to ruin a perfectly good tool by taking it up-market

A brief diversion, if I may (I'm going to anyway, so: deal), to discuss a subject near to my cynical heart:
The prettification of tools is not inherently bad - just witness a damask steel blade, or a swept-hilt rapier. Hell, even a cavalry sabre from recent centuries is gorgeous, and no less deadly for all the decoration.
And then there are Japanese knives, possibly the greatest thing that country has ever contributed to world culture (I'm biased, I know).
However, when form gets in the way of function, we have serious problems.
Take, for example, one of the most WTF, penis-replacement, pointless aspects of modern Australian culture - the high-performance ute.
Now, the utility was famously invented by an Australian Ford dealer when a farmer's wife asked for "A car that my husband can use to take me to church on Sunday, and his produce to market on Monday."
The result, a truck tray grafted onto a sedan cabin, has now been immortalised not only in Australia, but in America too - when the dealer took his prototype to Detroit to show old Henry himself, Henry was so impressed that the "pick-up truck" (and right there, is a major difference in approach between Australia, where we do them properly, and America, where they are owned by rednecks who shouldn't be allowed to breed) has become so popular that Ford's F-series is one of the biggest-selling vehicles of all time.
Back home, the ute has been a strong seller for Ford and rival Holden ever since, with those brands the only two to hold to the original half-sedan, half-truck concept - everyone else, starting with a clean sheet of paper, has built small trucks with comfy cabins.
The utility part, however, has never been compromised - they are for tradesmen who need to cart around raw materials and tools, they are for owners of large dogs, ceaseless gardeners and people doing massive home renovations.
And they need to stay that way.
The only way, and I stress this the only way, for a ute to look like a display piece is if it's a classic, and there are some truly gorgeous old Kingswood utes, polished to within an inch of frictionless, floating around.
Anything else is a sad, pathetic attempt to look tough and working-man, while actually just being insecure and inadequate.
Take the XR6. There are several traitors to the cause being sold by the factories, but the XR6 happens to be the one I have to drive occasionally for work.
I've bitched about it here, before. About the crap gearbox and the dangerously inadequate visibility.
But now I need to add: It's useless as a ute.
For a start: It gets the leaf-spring suspension from the one-tonne ute which, apart from being a ludicrous choice for a fast vehicle, should suggest that it can take a tonne of load, right?
Just you try it, then. We grabbed the opportunity to collect a large bail of straw, while driving the ute because it overlapped with work hours, so I had to, and although the bail sat within the try, well...
Problem one was that the rear suspension squatted until the ground clearance, which was already pretty poor, started looking alarming. I promptly scrapped it merging back onto the highway from the produce store, then scraped what sounded like the muffler as I left (this is the funny part) a Queensland Transport office.
Then we needed to take it out, and here I can confidently say that it doesn't weigh a tonne, because four of us managed to slide it off the tray, then two of us managed to lift the end still on the ute and flip it over, and we were neither of us exactly burly. In fact, it only felt slightly heavier than a 150kg water tank we helped a builder neighbour of ours move, last weekend.
So: It can't take decent loads without damaging the bodywork on bumps.
Then we have the tailgate. Design fail: The latch to open it is on the inside. We had to close it hard against the hay and then, when time came to open it...
I just barely managed to wriggle my hand down far enough to find the latch, and then we needed to lean against the tailgate to take the pressure off enough for me to be able to pull it all the way across.
Useful doors can be opened from the outside. But no, that would have spoiled the styling.
Shall I mention the tray cover, again?
Yes, I think I will. It's held on with a zip-lock arrangement, all the way around. Leave one tiny bit up, which is easy to do, and tension or wind pressure can peel it off and leave it flapping around behind you. Then, if you're really lucky, it'll lift off entirely before you have a chance to pull over or, if it's very late at night and you're on alone on a motorway, even notice that it's happening.
And finally, we have the tray itself. It's plastic.
It's lined with plastic on the sides, and the base is plastic. It's clearly very tough plastic - I've had hoists and wheelchairs in and out, and it hasn't been scratched yet - but it's still plastic.
It flexes when you push against it. It has seams around the edges which are loose fitting and which seem to exist for the sole purpose of collecting rubbish and being difficult to clean.
In other words, it's less well designed, and less ultimately tough, than decent metal.
The twits.
I don't like this car for many reasons, and I just keep collecting more.
In an attempt to create a performance utility, they have created a committee-designed camel which sinks in loose sand and gets blinded by a decent wind.
Not one of their finest moments, really.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Nokia really, seriously, desperately need to work on their sense of timing, the bastards

I was walking through my local shopping centre yesterday afternoon, hunting down a dry-cleaners I knew was there but I knew not where, when I passed the Crazy Johns shop.
What to my wondering eye should appear but a hastily printed flyer stapled to the front of their catalogue, advertising the immediate availability of the Nokia N97 Mini.
Yes, those callous, casually cruel bastards from Espoo have finally condescended to launch the Mini in Australia, months (it only feels like years) after the rest of the world.
The Mini is the N97 with most of the bugs fixed. Slightly smaller, it lacks the camera shutter cover (which sounds like a step backwards, except the original N97 design scratched its own lens) and the largely superfluous (it's a touch-screen!) directional D-pad next to the keyboard. It's comparable in size to my N95 - slightly slimmer, slightly taller, massively bigger screen, proper QWERTY keypad, hardware two generations further on, software at least two generations further on.
And now it's available in Australia.
It was, in fact, so new that the latest catalogue needed an update stapled to the front. It was, in fact, so new that the bloke I spoke to left work on Friday not knowing that it would be there when he arrived on Monday. It was so new that, as I type, it doesn't even appear on their website. It was so new that when I asked them if they had a demo model, he pulled out a box and turned on a proper one, because they didn't have one of those fake models they stick to the wall with elastic for customers to hold and say "Yes, that's a phone, with buttons." Which was nice.
You see, this is why I'm mad:
I'm paying $49/month to Vodafone. Thanks to Vodafone recently rejigging their bill (long overdue, I may add, and just did), I have been able to determine that the reason I need to pay $49, for $350 worth of "value", instead of $29, for $150 worth of "value", is data charges. I am being charged more for mobile data, which I use sparingly, than I am for SMS messages and calls.
Which means, I calculated, having been prompted to do so by my nearest and dearest getting an E71 on a $29 plan (for which I may yet forgive her), that I can replace $49/month with $29/month plus a $5/month data bundle.
Which makes $34, which is $15/month less than the two-year contract I have nearly reached the end of.
This makes me slightly sore but hey, two years ago I got an N95 for nothing, so I can't complain too much (N.B.: Some people say that it is actually, long-term, a better idea to buy a phone outright and go on the best month-to-month plan/prepaid for you. Quite apart from the fact that I couldn't have afforded an N95 when I got it - not in this case, it wasn't. I got the better of this deal).
I could, at the same price, get an N97 Mini which is, let's be honest, worth at least twice as much as an N95 would be if were new, now.
Or, I could buy any phone I liked (a friend has an Android Motorola Milestone - touch-screen, sliding QWERTY, 5MP camera - which he will sell me for $600 when he gets a different model that works on Telstra's NextG HSDPA network), and pay less, per month.
You see, this is why I hate Nokia. Not because they've made such a very desirable piece of kit available cheaper than I had any right to expect, but because they've made my life difficult.
Plus, there's this:
$49/month, for 24 months, is $1176, which is not much more than the phone's worth.
$34/month, for 24 months, is $816. The difference, you will see immediately, is $360. Which is not what the Milestone would cost me, or indeed anything else capable of replacing an N95. Unless I get really lucky on eBay.
Yet, please note, I'm not sure I want another Symbian device. I may want to play with Android for a while. I may want to explore a different ecosystem that is not driven by a company I personally don't trust to build services or developer communities, no matter how competent and even brilliant they may be at designing the devices.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I have taken a deep and abiding dislike of Nokia, for this week.
Stay tuned for some musings and thoughts on the N97 Mini itself.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Dysfunctional health system: Break the law, go to hospital

I have commented before in this blog about the fact that, although I am cautiously against the death penalty, I find the way it is implemented to be balmy and generally offensive.
But there is one thing that is just ridiculous.
Item, overheard from somebody else's TV: mass murderer in Africa, HIV positive, gets full medical care and anti-retro-viral drugs while in prison. His wife and child, not in prison, get nothing and can't afford it.
Can anyone explain to me how exactly this, in any way, makes sense?
My opinions on the death penalty come down to this:
  1. Make it the penalty of last resort.
  2. Throw all your effort into ensuring that the case is water-tight, and set the standard for the death penalty high.
  3. Care for the prisoner as you would any other, until the penalty is carried out.
  4. Do it as soon after the trial, and all permissible appeals, as possible.
To this I would like to add:
Prisoners get the same medical care that is available to all members of society, no more, no less.
If you have universal health cover, such as Australia, then give them that cover. If you have a user-pays system, such as the laughably named United States of America, then put in place a health care economy inside the prison. Provide health cover as you would an employment contract, perhaps: They obey the rules, they participate in all prison tasks, they work if required to work, and they get a representative style of health cover.
If your country doesn't have any employment-related health cover either: Well, then, why is your prison system making itself such an attractive destination for the down-and-out and the sick?
That is, surely, all that you are doing. When somebody has hit rock bottom, guaranteed accommodation, food and medical care starts to look pretty good.
My views on universal, "socialised" medicine (notice which terms get used in countries where "socialism" is a dirty word?) are that it is a primary function of society to provide care for its members, and that must include medical care, which improves quality of life, productivity, and the crime rate.
So my opinion on prisoners getting free medical care in prison is the same as my opinion on your average man, woman, child or indeterminate individual on the street getting free medical care: Yes.
My opinion on a state which denies care to good, decent, well-behaved law-abiding citizens while providing it to the worst of the worst of offenders, is: What the fuck have you been smoking?

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