Thursday, December 20, 2012

Kindle Fire HD 8.9 Initial Thoughts

I've had my Kindle Fire 8.9 HD for awhile now but haven't commented on it for a couple of reasons. The first is that it arrived between my Acer Chromebook and Nexus 4 and was kind of crowded out. The more important reason though is I haven't been using it much.

That situation has improved recently but I'm still more than a little ambivalent about it. Don't get me wrong, the hardware is nice for the most part with the screen being excellent. The software is an evolutionary step up from my original Kindle Fire but easy enough to navigate and well suited to Amazon's business model of making it easy to buy and consume content from the Amazon store so what's the problem?

I try to be technology agnostic but there are a some things I don't want to do without. At the top of that list is GMail with several other Google. You don't get the Google apps with the Fire even though it is running Android under the Amazon User Interface. Rooting the device is an option but based on my experience with rooting my original Kindle I'd prefer not to go down that path. Things tended to break and apps become unreliable.

Google provides apps for iOS, they need to be in the Amazon app store as well. I've debated recently which company is to blame for the absence though so I won't take any more time on that topic here. Note you will see a picture of the Play store on some of the screen shots. This is a result of a half hearted attempt to work my way around this problem. It exits immediately when launched. :-(

I also purchased the Amazon Kindle HD Case which is kind of expensive but nice. It is included on the images below.

Production values have gone up a bit as I'm now using my Nexus 4 rather than the Palm Pre+ to take pictures.

The placement of the micro USB port is sub optimal when using the optional Kindle Cover

One minor nit with the case is that the back tends to slide when it is used as a stand on smooth surfaces which causes the Fire HD to collapse slowly to the table.

The cover is sturdy and well made. This is the front

As the caption on the first picture above mentions the Kindle Fire is not without design flaws. The placement of the micro USB and HDMI ports is sub optimal when the Fire HD is used with the case. Ideally they should have been put on the opposite side from the volume and resume buttons which are on the right hand side of the picture above.

This is the back of the cover. Note the speaker grills

The case fits the Fire like a glove but is reasonably easy to attach and remove. It's available seven different shades. This is "Ink Blue".

You can see the shiny in the picture above. I only occasionally find it distracting

The screen automatically dims when the case cover is closed and battery life is very good when the Fire HD is in standby mode. Battery life in general seems good as I can go several days of casual use between charging.

Can anyone name the film?

You can pretty much use the Fire HD as a mirror in many  lighting situations. In spite of that the viewing experience is actually  good the majority of the time and when the lighting is dim it looks amazing. To be fair, as you'll see in some of the pictures below it's really no worse than the iPad 2.

Overall performance is excellent with the included apps but I have noticed some sluggishness and lag on apps I've purchased such as "Air Harp" and "Archipelago". I'm inclined to blame this on the apps themselves since most things work fine.

The discounted AT&T 4G LTE plan is a nice first year feature if you purchase the 4G version. It will be interesting to see if it is available after the initial year. It really isn't cheap on a per megabyte basis if you compare it to AT&T's larger data plans so I think there is a decent chance AT&T will extend the offer.

Fire HD Versus iPad 

The iPad is often referred to as a ten inch tablet when in reality the screen size is only 9.7 inches. The Fire HD 8.9 is exactly the same width as the iPad when in the landscape orientation with the difference in screen size between the two devices being explained by their very different aspect ratios.

The Fire HD nearly covers the iPad 2

In the picture above I've placed the Fire HD on top of my iPad 2. You can see that they are much closer in overall size than you might expect given the difference in screen sizes

Detail showing that the width of the screens is pretty much identical as are the Bezels

In fact they are identical width wise both in terms of their overall size and bezel's.

Side by side, notice the restrictiveness of the screens is very similar
The size difference is explained by the 16:9 apsect ratio of the Fire HD 16:9 which leads to a shorter screen than the iPad's which has an aspect ratio of 4:3.

The iPad's retro aspect ratio means you're basically going to have the same experience viewing most movies on either since you'll get large black bands at the top and bottom of the iPad which will not be the case for the Fire HD. The iPad 2 is much lower resolution as well. This isn't an issue with the iPad 3 or 4 as they have approximately the same screen bit density as the Fire HD.


The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is a nice but somewhat flawed experience. 

If you're only interested in consuming stuff from the Amazon ecosystem then chances are you'll be pleased. If you want a full Android tablet experience and you aren't willing to root the Fire HD than the Nexus 10 is a much better bet though you would miss out on instant streaming video if you are an Amazon Prime member.

Overall I'm OK with this purchase but a bit disappointed. I only have myself to blame though as I knew what I was getting into.

I don't mean to imply the Fire HD is bad. It really is a nice piece of hardware and you get a lot for your money. I just don't like having to live without GMail, Google+ and the rest of the Google app suite.
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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nexus 4, Worth It?

A month or so back I was reading about how great the Nexus 4 was and feeling like somebody had punched me in the stomach. I'd planned on being one of the first "in line" but got distracted at work and ended up missing out. When the second batch went on sale I was determined I would emerge victorious. Little did I know how difficult and frustrating the next several hours would be. Everything started out fine. I added one of the 16GB models to my cart and clicked the Proceed link. That is where the first part of this story should have ended. When I clicked the proceed button I was informed my cart was empty. Then I was informed Google was out of stock.

I'll cut this part of the story short and jump ahead three hours when I finally managed the nearly impossible task of getting one into my cart and convincing Google to let me give them my money. I was exhausted, pissed and relieved. After that experience I had very high expectations. 

My previous Android phone was a first generation Droid X. I remember hearing a lot of people question why anyone would want a phone that large. It turns out a lot of people did in fact want a larger phone which lead to the iPhone 5 being about the same size as the Droid X. 

The Nexus 4 is a bit longer and a bit wider than the Droid X, but still very manageable. Here's a picture of the two phones side by side for comparison.

Front: Droid X and Nexus 4

Other than the size the thing that strikes me the most about the Nexus 4 is the lack of ornamentation on the front. This simplicity is in large part due to Google's decision to not sign an exclusive selling agreement with any carrier. Maybe Google also discouraged LG from putting their logo on the front. Honestly I wouldn't have minded a little ornamentation to help visually differentiate the top from the bottom when the phone is in its case because if the notification light isn't flashing it can be difficult.

The back of the Nexus 4 is a lot more interesting with both the Nexus logo and LG making an appearance.

Back: Droid X and Nexus 4

I almost bought the even larger Galaxy Note 2 but changed my mind when Verizon's online ordering system told me I'd lose my unlimited data plan. Worse still it tried to push me towards a 2GB plan for only ten dollars a month less than I'm currently paying. This was enough for me to lose my last bit of loyalty to Verizon.

Pros and Cons

Resolution wise the state of the art in phone cameras hasn't advanced much in the past two and a half years as both the Droid X and the Nexus 4 sport 8 megapixel cameras. Picture quality on the Nexus is better in my limited testing but not profoundly so. Where the Nexus 4 really wins over the X is Video quality. 1080p versus 720p is a big jump in quality.

Comparing these two phone in any area other than camera resolution would be a bit of a joke. The X was a great phone in its day but the state of the art hardware and software wise has advanced significantly and its would be a bit like comparing a horse to a 1964 and a half Mustang. Both are elegant and functional in their own way but the Mustang will get you to your destination faster and more smoothly.

The first thing I noticed about the Nexus was how fast it is. It loads apps up almost instantly and scrolling is essentially real time all the time. I can't think of any other way to describe the experience other than to say its "Apple like". 

The screen is clear and sharp with excellent viewing from almost any angle.

Battery life is good with a single charge lasting me comfortably through a day of moderate use with plenty to spare. 

There are some things I don't particularly like but they've all been discussed at length elsewhere so I won't spend much time on them here other than to note that in a phone this inexpensive some compromises are going to be made. The one thing I will mention is the glass back. Sure, the sparkles are kind of cool but they don't justify going with a design feature makes the phone more fragile. I'll also say that the complaints about the lack of LTE don't make much sense to me. Based on the bandwidth I get at my house I could burn through my entire 5GB monthly data plan in a bit over an hour. LTE certainly has some advantages over HSPA+ but they aren't all that significant right now given the limited availability of LTE and the additional battery drain.

The biggest non phone bonus is having the freedom to pick my carrier and move at will. Right now I'm using the T-Mobile $30 plan which gives me unlimited text, 5GB of data and 100 minutes of voice. Tacking on taxes and tethering would bring the total to about $50 which is way below what Verizon and the other carriers in the US charge for similar plans.


I've had the Nexus 4 about a week and a half now and so far I'm loving it. It's not only a great value price wise it also compares well with any other phone on the market right now including Apple's latest offering. The only downside? Good luck getting one. Google is sold out again with not indication of when more units might be made available. Apparently neither LG nor Google had a clue that this thing would be such a big hit. 

My only big concern long term is hardware support. What happens if my phone has some sort of failure? When you buy and iPhone you know the answer to that question. 

To be fair the Nexus 4 is just over half the price of an equivalent unlocked iPhone 5. That kind of savings doesn't come without something being lost. I'm basically gambling I never need that platinum support that I didn't pay for.

So in summary and to answer the question posed in the title of this post the Nexus 4 is an excellent phone that would be a great deal if you could buy one and based on my early impressions it was even worth the three hours of frustration I went through to buy mine.  Fret not though if you didn't get one because the way these things work there will be a new Android phone out in the next few months that will match or surpass the Nexus 4. 
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Monday, December 10, 2012

No Amazon Phone For Me!

Amazon shipment
Amazon shipment (Photo credit: enno)
There have been rumors for awhile now that Amazon is working on a phone. It's probably safe to assume that an Amazon phone would run Android since that is the case with their tablets. Having recently acquired a Nexus 4 I'm not going to be in the market for awhile but if I were I wouldn't be interested in an Amazon phone.

Amazon is Android without Google. No native GMail app, no Google navigation app, no Google+, etc. Amazon's ecosystem makes this kind of work on tablets but that ecosystem advantage gets much smaller on a phone where people are less likely to want to watch a movie or partake of Amazon's other offerings. The use case for a phone is different than a tablet and a lot of things Google brings to the mobile experience play particularly well on phones. Not having those capabilities present on a phone would make for a less satisfying experience.

This problem would be mitigated somewhat if the browser that came with Amazon's tablets weren't so bad. In my experience it tends to be slow, prone to crashing and offers very poor support for GMail and Google+ in particular. GMail is kind of usable but Google+ is nearly useless. Its just not a good experience.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not your typical user but I think a lot of people would miss Google's navigation software and be frustrated by the lack of choice in the Amazon App store

The answer to this problem is obvious. Amazon needs to get Google to make their apps available on the Amazon App site. I suspect there are roadblocks on both sides of this equation though.

On the Amazon side is a desire to want to control the user experience. A more cynical way of putting this would be to say they want to have a clear field when it comes to monetizing their mobile devices. Bringing Google into the picture makes that impossible. Google is a profitable company for a reason. 

On the Google side there may be frustration with Amazon using Android for free and essentially giving nothing back to Google. Google can't be happy with Amazon's decision to change the default search engine on Fire tablets to Microsoft's Bing either. Google and Amazon don't compete in all the same markets but there is a growing overlap and that is likely a detriment as well.

On the other hand Google has good support for iOS and Apple is clearly a competitor as well. Google does this because it makes business sense which is why I suspect they would come to an accommodation with Amazon if an attempt were made.

Which brings me to the conclusion that the real holdup here is Amazon. 

If I'm right than Amazon has a clear path forward if they really are planning on releasing a phone. I won't say that the Google Apps being missing would kill an Amazon phone but I do believe it would have a sizable impact on sales and reduce the viability of such a product. 

A smart phone without Google apps just isn't as smart as it should be. When you're competing with Apple, Google and a bunch of other well established players its not a good idea to be running the race with your legs tied together.

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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Acer Chromebook C7 With 16GB Of Memory?

Most of my posts have both business and technical elements with a tilt towards the business side. Today I'm going to turn the dial all the way over to geek and expand a bit on my Acer C7 review while also exploring the (unofficial) memory expansion options of the C7.

First of all a word of warning. You void your warranty by opening the case of the C7. If you take a look at the bottom of the C7 you should see a sticker like the one pictured bellow. It basically tells you you're SOL if you open the case and anything bad happens later. Don't say you haven't been warned by me, and Acer if you choose to explore further. 

To Boldly Go..

Below this sticker is a single screw you'll need to unscrew in order remove the bottom plate.

When you do you'll see something similar to this.

The hard drive is on the right and the memory is in the center. The C7 comes with a 2GB SoDIMM pictured towards the top and center. If you look just below it you'll see an additional slot that is empty.

I recently decided to upgrade my main laptop/computer from 8GB to 16GB as the cost with tax and shipping from Amazon was only $70. I'd had the C7 about a week when I received the 2x8GB SoDIMM's and decided to see if the C7 would work with that much memory.

Above you'll see the C7 with the 8GB SoDIMM's installed. Below is a closeup.

You can click on these images to see a bigger version but its probably not worth it in most cases since the quality is fairly low.

The next step was to power the C7 up and see if it would work. I first tried ChrUbuntu Linux. The results were what I was hoping as if you look towards the upper left corner of the following photo you'll see a number that starts 16 and has a lot of additional digits after it...

I'd had a less than stellar experience with this distro when the C7 had only 2GB. By default it doesn't setup a swap/page file and opening Chrome with a half dozen tabs was enough to cause the OOM (Out Of Memory) killer to kick in and start freeing up memory in its usual brutal and unforgiving way. Creating a swap file solved that problem but the system was sluggish which isn't a surprise. Any time you have to start using your hard drive as additional memory performance will suffer. I could have chosen a more light weight window manager but didn't bother since I was fairly sure I'd be upgrading the memory soon.

ChrUbuntu is a 64 bit distro/kernel and it had no problem recognizing and using all 16GB. Having that much RAM in the C7 didn't magically turn it into a high powered workstation but it did improve the user experience since it no longer needed to swap to the hard drive.

Next up I toggled the C7 to boot into Chrome OS and restarted.

I'd noticed before that the mini Linux distribution at the heart of Chrome OS is 32 bit. For the non technical this means that it will normally recognize less than 1/4th of the 16GB I had installed. There is some "magic" that can be done to work around this limitation. It's called "PAE" or "Physical Address Extension" and  what it does is allow the 32 bit Linux kernel to use all of the memory that is installed. This does come at a small cost in lost performance. How much of an impact depends on a lot of different factors but about 5% is typical.

I had no clue if the Chrome OS Linux kernel had PAE enabled but once the C7 came up and I logged in I was able to confirm that it does...

The impact of the additional memory in Chrome OS was smaller since its already very light weight. Opening tabs seemed a bit quicker but that could have been my imagination.

Once I'd verified that the 16GB config worked in both ChrUbuntu Linux and Chrome OS I pulled the 8GB SoDIMM's and put them in my main laptop. That left me with 2x4GB for the Chromebook. Not surprisingly both operating systems work fine with 8GB as well.

It probably doesn't make a lot of sense to upgrade a C7 to anything more than about 8GB since the underlying hardware isn't really up to supporting applications that would need those kinds of memory resources. You can get to 8GB at the cost of your warranty and around $40.

The additional memory does seem to extend battery life a bit. I don't have any formal measurements on this though.

Additional Thoughts

The C7 is an inexpensive work horse and surprisingly customizable. Don't like the hard drive? Invest in a solid state drive and replace it. Want more than 2GB? No problem, can do. Want to run something other than Chrome OS on it? Very doable. I haven't verified Windows 8 but I'd be surprised if it can't be made to work and Ubuntu Linux is already a given.

I'd really like to see an extended life battery. Three to four hours is OK, but I've gotten used to being able to go five hours or more before I have to find a wall outlet. It's not a fatal flaw though given the very modest price of the C7

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