Review: Google Nexus 7 – the tablet to rule them all

Technology-wise, yesterday was a great day. First, my Samsung Galaxy SII finally got the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade Sprint had teased for weeks. But, and possibly more importantly, my Nexus 7 arrived.

The Hardware

The Nexus 7, the latest Android tablet from Google and Asus, is a 7″ tablet with a quad-core processor, the newest Jelly Bean version of Android, and a slick design. The form factor is wonderfully solid and polished. Amazingly, there are only three buttons and one port on the device. I love the micro USB port for charging and connecting since it’s the new standard (so I have a dozen such cables). The power button and two volume control buttons are the only interruptions in the sleek exterior.
The tablet has a nice heft; it almost seems a bit heavy for its size. The textured and rubberized back and rounded edges make it easy to hold in one hand for long periods, something I’m likely to do as I plan to use this in place of my current e-readers (Nook Color and Kindle 3). However, while the left/right bezel is a great width for holding the device (without pressing the screen), the top/bottom bezels are bigger than I’d prefer. A recent teardown seems to indicate that the extra space is used to house the camera and speaker components, but I wonder if they plan to shave off some millimeters in height for the 2nd gen.

The 7″ screen is simply gorgeous, with rich colors and textures coming through on both photos and videos. The video playback improvements touted by “Project Butter” are evident in the first ten minutes of the free Transformers preloaded on the device. I’m a bit concerned that I can’t find any confirmation (or denial) that Asus used Gorilla Glass on this. I hope the answer is yes, since the only available cover (from Google) wasn’t to my liking, so my tablet is currently unprotected.
I’m still torn whether a 7″ or 10″ screen is better for productivity. The 7″ is perfect for consumption of many types of media: ebooks, videos, and web sites. I still contend that the 10″ screens are better for content creation (blogging/writing, video/photo editing) and viewing large color documents (like graphic novels). But if any device could change my mind, it’s this one.

Jelly Bean

But I practically ignored the physical aspects of the tablet once I turned it on. The speed and fluidity that I’m able to navigate the Nexus 7 is nothing less than stunning. Seriously, this thing is wicked fast.

I’m a previous owner of Google’s former “reference” tablet model, the Motorola Xoom Wi-fi (which was so heavy I hardly ever used it) and the current owner of a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (still running Honeycomb), a Nook Color (rooted and running CM7 Gingerbread). With ICS now on my phone, I’ve experienced nearly every version of Android (my previous phone came with Donut, upgraded to Eclair, then I rooted it with Froyo).

With Jelly Bean, Android has finally reached the pinnacle of user experience. Between the hardware and the OS improvements, the Nexus 7 offers an unmatched user experience.

One of my favorite features of the Nexus 7 is the fact that it’s a Nexus device, which means no waiting for a manufacturer to release OS updates. In less than a day, a system update was already pushed to my device. Having a direct connection to Google for updates is going to spoil me for all devices (mostly Samsung) I own.

Early Observations and Tips

After linking my Google account and syncing, I delved into some of the preloaded apps. Launching Gmail, I was dismayed to find that I couldn’t rotate the tablet to landscape mode. I then realized I couldn’t rotate the home screen, either. Thankfully, a quick Google search turned up the solution:

“If you notice that the device isn’t rotating, feel free to pull the notification bar down and hit the rectangular icon with the two arrows around it. Actually, if it’s not rotating, it’s probably showing up as a lock with two arrows around it. In order to get your device to rotate, it needs to have the box with arrows”

Once turned on, any app that I previously used in landscape mode worked perfectly. I think it’s a mistake that Google decided to disable that by default.

Interestingly, all Google apps (Gmail, Chrome, etc.) are “pre foldered” and the folder is located in the Favorites tray, a quick-launch bar of icons at the bottom of the screen. Placing additional app icons on the home screen is the same as in previous versions of Android, but I found that my longstanding habit of long-pressing the home screen to add a widget no longer works. Since there was no menu option or “more” button, another Google search provided the answer: turns out there’s a “widget” screen on the app drawer. I’ll get used to this – and I already prefer it – but as I now have a phone on Ice Cream Sandwich and a tablet on Honeycomb, going between UI differences will be a challenge.

Had I taken a moment to step back from my excitement, I might have even found Google’s helpful (and free) Nexus 7 User Guide in the Play store. Already, I’ve found the answers to my previous questions as well as a wealth of knowledge about the device and OS which would have required serendipitous discovery.

Essential Apps and Features

While Jelly Bean’s stock keyboard is usable (and fast on the Nexus 7!), I still prefer the alternate Swype keyboard, so I downloaded that from the site. Thankfully, it works flawlessly with the new OS.

The built-in Google voice search is, quite simply, amazing. It’s like being on Star Trek. Merely saying “Google” triggers the search to wait for your voice input.

I’ve only briefly explored new Jelly Bean features like Face Unlock and Google Now (which offers real-time information based on your geolocation), but I plan to dig into it more in the coming days.

For now, I heartily recommend this tablet to anyone looking for a small form-factor Android tablet at an amazing price point.

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Know your mobile carrier’s network upgrade plans before you get your next phone [I just Googled]

If you’ve been holding on to the same cell phone you’ve had for years, count yourself lucky in some respects. While you may be able to take advantage of innovations like geolocation tools (maps, finding restaurants, etc.), surfing the Internet wherever and whenever you’d like or watching Netflix movies at a moment’s notice, you have one less thing to worry about: Fourth generation – commonly called “4G” – mobile networks.

Why is 4G such a contentious topic in the tech sector? Partially because mobile carriers have promised far more than they have delivered. And partially because of the shifting (and confusing) technologies underlying 4G networks.

What I Googled: will +samsung +”galaxy s2″ +epic +4g +touch +work +Sprint +LTE

Why I Googled it: My wife and I recently upgraded our aging HTC Hero phones for the new Samsung Galaxy S II Epic Touch 4G, a gorgeous Android phone with a huge display, fast dual-core processor, 8 MP camera, and, best of all, designed to run on Sprint’s 4G network. Sprint’s current 4G network is referred to as “WIMAX” (more on that in a minute) and offers much faster speeds than the older 3G network. I recently learned that Sprint has stopped expanding the WIMAX network and has instead switched to deploying a LTE 4G network nationwide. Concerned that my phone would be obsolete before I broke it in, I turned to the net to learn more.

What I found out: Third generation – 3G – networks and 4G networks are very different. While 3G is much faster than its predecessor, 4G has speeds up to 10 times faster. It’s the difference between waiting 30-60 seconds for a webpage to load on 3G and waiting 2-3 seconds on 4G. Obviously, streaming video from YouTube or Netflix is enjoyable on 4G speeds while it can be infuriating on 3G.

But every carrier employs slightly different technology as the basis of its 4G network. Sprint decided to use WIMAX a few years back and began building out that network. Unfortunately, they didn’t get very far. In the Washington, DC area, 4G is fairly reliable and has fairly consistent coverage. In other markets, it’s not as dependable or not available at all. Recently, Sprint made the decision to switch to LTE instead of WIMAX due to a variety of technical reasons I won’t go into here.

From what I can tell, as Sprint turns its attention to building out its LTE network, it will divert resources from developing the WIMAX network. However, the LTE roll-out will take quite some time and has only barely begun in just a couple of markets. Meanwhile, Sprint will continue to support the WIMAX network.

So what’s the big deal? Basically, WIMAX and LTE use two different frequencies that require a compatible radio inside a mobile phone to connect to it. The Samsung Galaxy S II has the WIMAX radio, but not the LTE radio. The newly announced Galaxy Nexus on Sprint will have LTE, but not WIMAX.

The takeaway:

Without going into too many details, here’s what all of the above means:

  • Those living in an area that was promised WIMAX likely won’t get it. Better for these folks to avoid getting a WIMAX phone since they will never be able to take advantage of the 4G speeds promised by the device manufacturer.
  • Those living in an area that already has WIMAX will be safe upgrading to a WIMAX phone now (like the one I got) since Sprint will reportedly support WIMAX at least until 2015. As long as they don’t plan to move to a location that doesn’t have WIMAX, don’t travel much, or don’t care that they won’t have 4G speeds when they travel, they should be fine. These folks will be able to use their phones for the lifetime of their contract (2 years), though they’ll be forced to upgrade at the end of their contract (something many already do) to continue using a 4G network.
  • Those who are in area that is slated to get Sprint’s new LTE 4G network should wait to upgrade until that build-out is confirmed and stable.

While I’ve been a faithful Sprint customer for years, I increasingly find it difficult to recommend it to others looking to switch from AT&T or Verizon. I realize the choice to invest in a network technology cannot be easy, but I would have hoped Sprint would stand behind their commitment to WIMAX instead of confusing their customers and, for some, cheating them out of promised 4G network speeds.

I Just Googled: “Android App Builder”

I use Google. A lot. Like dozens of times a day. For lots of stuff. Random, crazy stuff. Stuff that I’m curious about. Stuff that the kids are curious about. I Google from my laptop, the desktop, the tablet, and my phone. I figured it would be an interesting experiment if, every time I Googled something that resulted in a noteworthy answer, that I’d blog about it. Heck, maybe it’ll get me back into blogging about anything. So here goes.

What I Googled: “android app builder”

Why I Googled it: This morning, a conversation between my wife and I resulted in a great idea for an Android app (not sharing the particulars in case I actually want to follow through with it). After several searches in both the Apple market and the Android app store as well as multiple Google searches on the web, I am relatively convinced such an app doesn’t exist. I’ve always been curious about what it takes to build an Android app and I thought this would be a good excuse to gain new skills in that area. While  I have some familiarity with programming languages, it’s not very deep, so programming an app from scratch isn’t really an option at this point.

What I found out: I remembered hearing awhile back about an app builder that Google itself released. So I was hoping that my search would help me find that. It did…and yet didn’t. Apparently, the Google App Inventor (as it was actually named) is no longer supported by Google, but is instead being supported by MIT. But unfortunately, they are revamping the app – still named App Inventor and haven’t yet released a public version. If you’d like to learn more about that project, read the website.

I also found other sites – free and paid – that offer similar services. The most promising of these seem to be Andromo and appsbar. That is, both websites are written in clear English and with a nice aesthetic. I have no idea if they can actually deliver on their promises. 😉 Apps Maker for Android offers some handy templates, but none fit the idea I have, so I’m not going to try that one.

The takeaway: I’m curious to see if either of the alternate services I found can actually help me create a working Android app. I’m also keeping tabs on the MIT App Inventor since I’d like to try that one, too. If you’ve had experience with these or any other app builders, please let me know in the comments. If you have suggestions for better ways of diving into Android app development, I’d like to hear that, too.

20 great iPhone apps for preschoolers [e-parenting]

I love my iPod Touch and on more than one occasion, it’s been a fantastic sanity-saver by occupying one or more of the kids. Now, I’m not advocating for “digital distractions” (well, not on a regular basis anyway), but many of the apps offer genuine educational value.

In an upcoming post, I’ll review the kid-friendly podcasts that I make sure to have loaded on my iPod for road trips and unexpected shopping wait times.

Note: Prices on Apple’s non-free apps tend to change frequently. The cost I included is as of the writing of this post.

Balloonimals

Cost: $1.99
This simple but addictive game involves selected a balloon, inflating it (with a slide on the Touch or blowing on the microphone on the iPhone), shaking it to twist it into an animal shape (you’ll really have to trust your kid not to let it go flying), then using various sliding gestures to make it do hilarious things. ALL of the kids continue to play this on a regular basis.

Checkers Free

Cost: Free

What can I say? It’s a cool, free checkers game. ‘Nuff said!

Dots Free

Cost: Free

This is a digital version of the paper-and-pencil dots game I grew up playing on restaurant placemats. This is probably better for older kids, though adults (like me) may find it nostalgic.

Fling

Cost: .99

This an addictive game that is suitable for kids and adults. My oldest (aged 6 years) started playing with the free version and got pretty good at the puzzles up to level 3 or so. That’s when I picked it up, conquered the remaining levels in the free version, and promptly downloaded the free version.

Fluid Motion Painter

Cost: .99
This finger-painting app has an almost hypnotic quality to it. While not specifically designed for kids, I regularly find them playing with this, tweaking the settings to produce “artwork” similar to digital spin art.

Four in a Row

Cost: Free

Another game that doesn’t need much explanation. Remember Connect Four? This is that game…just on a touchscreen.

Google Earth

Cost: Free

This free app is amazing. While this isn’t a game nor an app for kids specifically, it regularly comes it useful for showing the kids geography in a way they can visually understand. (Note: requires an Internet connection.)

I Hear Ewe

Cost: Free

This simple game shows two screens of cartoon animals that, when touched, tell you the sound that animal makes. Simple, but my younger ones regularly play this one.

iWriteWords

Cost: $1.99

A little critter helps the kids draw lowercase and uppercase letters as well as numbers. I was surprised the older kids liked this since they do more challenging writing assignments as part of their homeschooling. I was equally surprised that my 2-year-old could actually play the game. The free version is more limited, but is a great way to see if your kids like the game play.

Jumbline

Cost: .99

This is a word-jumble game for adults and is addictive for word-game nuts (like me and my wife)! However, I include it here because I’ve set it to 5-letter puzzles with “infinity” time limit and my oldest has fun with it, even if she can’t solve many of the puzzles.

Kids Art Puzzle – Sliding Slices

Cost: .99

What do you get when you mix classical art with a basic puzzle? This fun game that exposes the kids to several iconic pieces of art. The settings allow you to set how many slices are used.

Peekaboo Barn

Cost: .99

One of the kids’ absolute favorites. When the barn shakes, you touch it, it slides open to reveal a farm animal and the sound it makes. Repeat. Has a really cute ending, too! There is a free version, but really, just download the full version! If you really like this app, I suggest getting the sequel Peekaboo Wild, which is currently $1.99.

Preschool Animal Find

Cost: Free

Like digital flashcards, this game asks “Where is the [animal]?” and provides decent feedback when the child touches a correct or incorrect choice from the four pictures shown. While the cartoon animals aren’t very realistic, it’s still a fun game.

Preschool Music

Cost: .99

This cute app includes four music-oriented games. The kids like this a bit, though it doesn’t hold their attention for too terribly long.

Sprout Player

Cost: Free

This is a video player for PBS Sprout Kids clips. My kids always clamor to play this one, so if you, like me, limit how much TV they watch, you might not want to introduce another thing to fight over! 😉 I’m not sure how often they add new content, since the kids seem to have viewed all the clips at least once by this point. (Note: requires an Internet connection.)

TappyTunes

Cost: $1.99

Select a tune from the catalog, then either tap it out (with adorable icons bouncing out) or simply hit the play button. The free version includes a very limited catalog, but will give you a sense of the app. The full version includes a very extensive library of songs.

Tic Tac Toe Free

Cost: Free

Another “duh” app, though this one can be enjoyed by younger kids.

Toddler Jukebox

Cost: $1.99

The kids took awhile to warm up to this one, but now they all love it. Offering six full songs (Wheels on the Bus, Working on the Railroad, Head, Shoulders Knees & Toes, Row Your Boat, BINGO, and Word by Word), there are no flashy visuals, just a simple acoustic recording that the kids sing along with.

Topple

Cost: .99

Think of Tetris meets Jenga. As the squishy blocks fall, you place, twist, and rearrange them so the stack doesn’t topple! They’ve since come out with a couple of new versions, but I’m perfectly happy with the original.

Wheels on the Bus

Cost: $2.99

While this is most expensive app in this list, I’ve certainly gotten my money’s worth. Each verse in this song favorite has an interactive animated cartoon that makes singing along that much more fun!

What other apps have you found that are a must-have for kids? Let me know in the comments!

How far does $2.00 go these days? [motivation]

I realized on my commute in this morning that my perspective on $2.00 is greatly skewed. On the one hand, I spend $2.50 every day in tolls to and from work. This is simply for the convenience of avoiding the (more) overcrowded alternate highways.

On the other hand, I get choked up when I’m about to spend $1.99 on an iPod Touch application – an app, mind you, that will, in most cases, provide hours of entertainment to either me or one of my children. I know this because a few of the pay-for apps I’ve gotten have indeed provided priceless hours of distraction (please, don’t start lecturing me about being a “digital dad” – I know it, I embrace it!).

So why, with the daily expenses in tolls I incur, do I pause when I’m about to purchase digital goods? It can’t be the lack of substance,  because a toll and my commute are certainly as intangible as the bits that make up an iPhone app. Or is it the guilt of luxury of purchasing a game that will provide mindless activity?

How can we maintain productivity while increasing portability?

FastType_crop380wI was wrong.*

Just a short while ago, I wrote about how I had found the ideal netbook. After testing some of the popular models, I ended up liking the the Asus EeePC 900A with a version of Ubuntu Linux loaded on it. But after less than two months, I’ve already sold it on eBay.

Why? I’ve already written about why I abandoned Linux. But the other reason I got rid of the 900A was the hardware. I found myself defaulting back to my ThinkPad more and more because I could type faster on the full-sized keyboard. Which signaled to me that I had sacrificed productivity for portability.

Consider the following:

  • On a desktop PC using an ergonomic (“wave”) keyboard, I can type 97 words per minute (WPM) (gross – accounting for errors; as measured on typingtest.com)
  • On my 14″ Lenovo ThinkPad with a full-sized laptop keyboard, I can type 92 WPM
  • Using the same test, I could only manage 73 WPM (gross) on the 9″ 900A

Some quick math shows that the 9″ Asus only afforded me 75% of my max speed which severely hampered my productivity.

I decided that I still wanted a netbook and set out to find the best 10″ model on the market. While the increased screen size seems nominal, the wider screen means a wider overall case, which means a larger keyboard can be included. After conducting lots of research (including a fun and insightful “Netbook Madness” competition conducted by Laptop Magazine), I decided that the 1000HE was the best of breed of the low-cost 10″ netbooks.

With the 10″ 1000HE, my speed was back up to 90 WPM; not quite as fast as on a full-sized keyboard, but sufficient at almost 93% of my max.

The problem is heightened even further on pocketable devices with on-screen or “tic tac” type keyboards. In addition to the 900A, I also recently tested a Nokia N810 internet tablet device. With a slick slide-out keyboard, I thought it would prove to be a useful device. I quickly realized, however, that most of my web use involves typing – responding to Facebook posts, updating Twitter, writing blog posts, commenting on blog posts, etc. And I realized equally as fast that the keyboard was functionally no better than the tiny keys on my Samsung Ace, a Windows Mobile smartphone. In fact, because of hardware limitations, I couldn’t even take the typing test on the Nokia tablet.

For this and a variety of other reasons, I didn’t hang on to the Nokia. Instead, I decided to test out the iPod Touch and it’s infamous love/hate touchscreen keyboard. Despite its critics, I found the onscreen typing experience to exceed that of my smartphone and the Nokia. However, without Flash support, I once again was prevented from taking the typing test on the Touch. From my personal estimation, I predict that my results on both the Nokia and the Touch would be abysmal.

So how will the consumer electronics market reconcile the idea that the pocketable computer is the future de facto standard but productivity using such a device is hampered (currently) by the form factor? Will we see a move towards voice recognition (assuming, that is, that such technology improves drastically in reliability)? Or will another, as yet unknown, kind of input solution be introduced?

* With that single statement, I practically guarenteed that every woman reading this post stopped, printed off the page, and proceeded to torment a male significant other about the fact that a man can, indeed, admit when he’s wronng. To those men, I apologize. To the women, this is a very rare occurance – just ask my wife.

83 WPM (gross) @ 6:00 AM – laptop 92 WPM (gross) @ 7:00 PM – laptop 73 WPM (gross) @ 8:00 PM – netbook

OMG, ur not ROTFLOLing? [texting]

According to a recent Scientific American blog:

Some parents who RBTL are worried that text messaging is G4N and a WOTAM that has ruined their kids’ ability to engage in D&M conversations and has become a new tool for KPC. Other parents see texting as PANS and find NBIF to physicians’ and psychologists’ concerns that it may trigger “anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation,” as The New York Times reported earlier this week. …

ASAMOF more than half of 1,000 teens and tweens surveyed by LG and research firm Interpret LLC indicated that they value the privacy of the texts more than of  their e-mails and diary entries … 31 percent of the teens surveyed believe their parents check their texts. In fact, 47 percent of 1000-plus parents surveyed by LG/Interpret  said they had read their kids’ texts without their consent. The message is clear: EVRE1 text AYOR, IYKWIMAITYD.

The Times, citing a Nielsen Company survey, reports that American teenagers sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages per month in the last quarter of 2008 (almost 80 messages a day, more than double the average of a year earlier). Another report, this one by Nielsen Telecom Practice Group, indicates that  77 percent of wireless subscriber lines in the U.S. subscribe to or purchase text-message capability.

While Scientific American and Lifehacker both reported about LX’s new site DTXTR (though it wouldn’t load for me when I wrote this), I find the texting glossary provided by Netlingo to be by far the most comprehensive resource (though it would be helpful if the page was user-contributable as I’m sure new shortcuts are being invented every minute).

Let me decipher the text above by including the full phrases here (some I’ve used, others I intend to):

  • ASAMOF – As A Matter Of Fact
  • AYOR – At Your Own Risk
  • D&M – Deep & Meaningful
  • G4N – Good For Nothing
  • IYKWIMAITYD – If You Know What I Mean And I Think You Do
  • KPC – Keeping Parents Clueless
  • NBIF – No Basis In Fact
  • PANS – Pretty Awesome New Stuff
  • RBTL – Read Between The Lines
  • WOTAM – Waste Of Time And Money