Monday, 1 March 2010

In praise of sports-tourers

I have a theory.
More of a conviction, really. In scientific terms, I'll defend it as halfway between a hypothesis and a theory.
My theory is this: Sports tourers are the most useful, versatile and worthwhile species of motorbike, and more rides should be buying them.
It's not that we're talking about a particularly narrow definition, here, though. I'll get to categories in a moment.
But it does seem to me that sports tourers sit at a crossroads where they are jack of all trades, master of none but capable of performing just about any task so well that the average, need-one-bike-to-do-anything motorcyclist can't find their limits without either getting seriously arrested, or seriously dead.
If you want to race - get a race bike. Enduro, track, motard, whatever. Go for your life. Have fun.
If you can only afford one bike, or one bike is all you care to look after and use, get a sports tourer.
Commuting? Check. Thirstier than lighter, smaller, more focused bikes, but also, I suspect, needing less maintenance. Not actually that much larger, either - the widest point on most bikes in the mirrors and/or bars, not the fairing, and unless you really have to fight gridlock the biggest difference will be parking a heavier, slightly longer bike.
Twisty roads? That's what the "sports" part is for. BMWs have a reputation for being able to seriously frighten sports bikes on mountain roads, and that's what they should all be like.
Distance? That's the whole point, of course. These bikes show that "sports" doesn't mean "uncomfortable". Sure, you can tour on an MV Agust F4 - people have - but why do that to yourself unless you really, really can't go past an MV without masturbating uncontrollably?
Carrying pillions? With rare exceptions or strange oversights, most of them are designed for it.
Maintenance? Bikes designed for long distance are generally tougher than bikes designed to shave grams with more delicate tolerances, or to excel at very narrow requirements only. Particularly if you get a shaft drive.
Off the beaten track? We'll get to that.
So what are the categories?
I claim there are three, two with blurred distinctions and one which has been absorbed into the family as time has passed.
First up, there are the wanna-be racers. Bikes like the Triumph Sprint ST, current king of the category, and the Honda VFR750/800. The VFR750 was, in its earlier incarnations, winner of the inaugural World Superbike Championship. Then it got overtaken by the sharper, more focused CBR series and it became, instead, one of the most popular bikes-to-have-if-you-can-only-have-one-bike. The 800 alienated an awful lot of people by introducing VTEC, which was a complicated answer to a problem with a more obvious solution - a bigger engine - and linked brakes, which insulted the very people most likely to buy a pensioned-off superbike like the VFR.
These bikes are generally equipped with a crouched riding position, seats leaning more towards racer-firm than long-distance plush, and aggressively styled full fairings. They have chain final drives and frequently have sexy sports-style single-sided swingarms as well. At the upper end, this category goes to bikes like Honda's CBR1100XX Super Blackbird and Suzuki's GSX-R1300 Hayabusa, bikes which existed for the sole purpose of being The Fastest but, particularly in the case of the Blackbird, grew luggage because there really wasn't much point in having one, otherwise.
Most of them have four-cylinder engines unless the company, e.g. Triumph or Ducati, don't make them.
The second category is the one championed, and more or less invented, by BMW - bigger, heavier bikes that don't look sporty until you ride them, with shaft drives and generally larger fairings but still huge amounts of power and hugely capable handling. My K100RS is pretty much the archetypal example of the breed, complete with what BMW described as a "three-quarter cafe crouch". The Kawasaki GTR1000 which followed the first K bikes has a cult following who believe it's better, and a string of hugely fast GTRs and Yamaha FJRs have bolstered a category which just keeps growing. This group is more likely to have a variety of engines, with various forms of twin joining the more common fours.
The third category is of course the interloper - the Adventure Tourers, Dual-Sports, Road-Trails. The category commonly understood to have begun with BMW's R80G/S of 1980 and lead by various G/S and GS models until the new R1200GS with four-valve cylinder heads, a bike with such a solid sales performance that the R1200ST, the more traditional sports-tourer, is no more.
Adventure Tourers have been absorbed into the ST pantheon recently, helped by the fact that more and more companies are building bikes with a more and more token nod towards the dirt. On the one hand, the KTM 990 Adventure is a bigger, more powerful, faster, road-legal Dakar racer. On the other end, the Ducati Multistrada has been the epitome of the dirt-styled road-bike that combines comfort (for a Ducati), touring range and more fun than should be possible while fully dressed. These bikes come with chain or shaft final drives, all sizes, all degrees of seriousness, and all of them hugely practical and with vast potential for fun. All of them are twins save the triples from Triumph and Benelli.
If you're in the market for a bike that does everything, get a Triumph Sprint ST or a BMW K1300S, depending on budget and whether you want to waste time oiling a chain or not. If you are really in the market for a bike that does everything, get a BMW R1200GS. If you plan on trying to cross the Nullabor any time soon, get an R1200GS Adventure.
I'll see you on the road.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Android versus Symbian. Fight!

While I am struggling with the question of whether I replace my current Symbian smartphone with a resistive touch-screen Symbian phone (N97 mini) or a capacitive touch-screen Android phone (Motorola Milestone), I thought it was about bloody time I made a list of vital functions and tried to find replacement Android software, before making the jump.
This is prompted by Steve Litchfield's flawed but interesting similar comparison on All About Symbian between the N97 and the Google Nexus One (that link points to part two, which includes the link to part one).
I'm not listing "top functions" here, I'm listing functions: Everything I use my phone for. Any replacement for the N95 has to be able to do everything I use it for, otherwise: No deal. I'm skipping little things, unless there's a big problem or there's a serious reason to prefer one platform over the other.
Also, I'm only really focusing on Nokias where Symbian is concerned, for two reasons - I know the most about their options, and their history with S60 (they own the company, which helps) gives them a decided edge over the likes of Samsung and Sony-Ericsson.
Address book
Thanks to tight Google integration - advantage Android
See above - advantage Android
See above - advantage Android
Built-in. Obviously, superior on Nokias given their traditional edge and Carl Zeiss optics, but with rapid software development I'm willing to risk a Motorola Milestone.
Advantage Symbian - not only Nokia, but Samsung and Sony-Ericsson are punching hard, here. Samsung's Android phones have been sub-par in the optics department so far, but SE may pull off something great.
Finally, the first interesting comparison. Nokia has the edge here for quite some time, with their own Podcast application managing, downloading, and playing podcasts on most of their phones. The third-party Escarpod, despite the fact that its apparent rapid development has not been associated with any actual new releases, has benefited other Symbian phones.
On Android: Google Listen, obviously. There have been reports of bad instability, and poor user documentation, but there is development. Also, Beyond Pod, My Pod, Doggcatcher ...
Advantage Android, only because Listen integrates with Reader, so you can manage podcast subscriptions easily on any desktop.
Nokias are variable - the N95 was brilliant, the 5800 better, the N97 family apparently not so.
HTCs are famously shit, but the Milestone was a pleasant surprise when I heard it briefly. That long gold strip of speaker doesn't seem to be only show.
This is probably a draw.
Ebook Reader
Symbian - Mobipocket Reader, which hasn't been developed since Amazon bought the company (hmmm... I wonder why not?), and QReader, which just hasn't been developed in a couple of years, and most promisingly, the Russian ZXReader (link through Google Translate).
Android - Aldiko. FBReader (which I first used years ago on a Sharp Zaurus SL-5500). AReader. Yep, promising enough.
Audiobook Reader
More than just a music player, audiobook readers need to be able to remember exactly where they were in any given music file, and play even more formats.
Symbian - Nokia Audiobook, which is no longer developed and relies upon one specific format, with a desktop PC helper application, and PlatySoft's Scheherazade, which needs Python. Scheherazade goes one step further than just remember locations - it automatically rewinds a few seconds after every pause, helping you catch up to where you where last. Very nice, albeit with Windows 1.0-era interface non-graphics.
Android - Ambling, BookDroid. Good start!
Text editor
Symbian: DEdit is fantastic.
Android: Text Edit, apparently. Kote-Lite. And bonus points for GDocs, allowing access to Google Docs documents via a download-edit-upload system.
I'll go with draw, here.
Symbian: I bought Gravity, and it really is the premier Symbian/S60 application at the moment, also acting now as a Google Reader reader, and Facebook.
Android: Twidroid is the famous one. There are many others.
A simple numerical count would give Android the advantage here, with most of the Symbian ones crude or java or half-baked, but... damn, Gravity's good! Draw.
News - Google Reader
Symbian: See above - Gravity.
Android: Frankly, the web-based WebKit interface is great, but, yes, there are apps.
Symbian: Look, I use the web interface, I use Gravity's incomplete but largely sufficient feature. With a 5th Edition touch-screen device, there is an official app.
Android: Oh look, there's an official app.
Not important - only just started using it, not sure I will continue to do so.
Symbian: Oh look, Gravity! Unfortunately, that means firing up my Twitter and Facebook access as well. Although I would usually take the advantage to check in on those, the extra data usage does add a little bit of cost and a little bit of time. If I had a huge data plan and a huge battery, I would leave Gravity running. But I don't expect either of those things.
Android: Being an American service, there's already an official app for Android, but not Symbian.
Advantage Android, for having a specialist app.
Symbian: Nokia's latest partly-bullshit announcement of "free navigation for everyone", available on new phones, gives them a really serious advantage in off-line usage, provided you buy a new phone that isn't the original N97, which has (well, okay, mostly had) serious problems.
Android: Google Maps is free, of course, and does navigation for free, and does voice navigation in the USA and will no-doubt be expanded. But, you need a data connection, which means data costs and a signal - not always possible out in the fun bits of the world where the good biking roads are. However, there are commercial apps, and there are solutions like MapDroyd for offline map viewing.
Advantage Nokia/Symbian. You can't beat having on-device, offline maps and voice navigation from a specialist, giant GPS company which provided maps to GPS device manufacturers and was purchased by Nokia at a cost of about US$10billion.
The actual communication functions are an on-paper win for the Google integration of Android, and a couple of extra native apps.
The camera on a Nokia is a known quantity, and superior.
Everything else appears to be evenly matched, with only my own experience with Symbian giving that platform a real edge.
But hey, isn't the fun of playing around with a new device half the fun of owning it?
Balanced against this, as well, is the fact that Symbian is going through a major shift with the introduction of Symbian^3 this year and Symbian ^4 soon after bringing about a complete binary incompatibility, making life interesting for developers and their consumers.
Oh, and one more thing: Although Symbian is the most sophisticated and advanced OS under the dated S60 UI, and although that dated S60 is still an extremely efficient way of getting things done after learning it, it's beginning to seriously bore me.
Android is just a more exciting platform at the moment.

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