Trying a new laptop

Finally bought a Surface Pro 3, and bought it from the Microsoft Store because it has a generous 30-day return policy. I got the 256GB/Core i7 model mostly to see if there are any downsides to going with the top-of-the-line model.

Our current laptop is getting a bit old and given that our use of the “home laptop” is mostly casual with AutoCAD being the key program that needs to run properly, I thought I’d give the new form factor a whirl before thinking about a proper Ultrabook-style laptop, or maybe even a MacBook Air. The latter is not a religious issue for me, it is just that AutoCAD does have not a subscription for their Mac version, and worse, the Mac version of the AutoCAD LT product is behind the Windows version in terms of raw features supported.

I will write up my thoughts on the device in detail soon!

Twitter history

I have been playing with Excel’s Power View, Power Query (my favorite) and Power Pivot (older but still fantastic) and a few weeks ago someone tweeted something about their twitter archive. That gave me an idea to see if there is any pattern in my tweeting.

So I went to twitter web settings and requested a fresh archive. As a side, how awesome is it that twitter lets you request an archive and that it is ready in minutes. This is a company that could not go back more than a few days in history not so long ago!

Anyway, I brought in all the data from the csv file and put a couple of simple charts together. I’d have loved to share this as an embedded Excel file but because it has all the data, the file is ~19MB and Excel Online can only handle file size of 5MB and below :-(

Anyway, it is interesting to see that my peak twitter was 2012, and for some reason, April of 2012. And as for the clients, MetroTwit, which is still one of the best twitter experiences I have had, very surprisingly dropped to negligible levels after 2012.

Anyway … as usual, there is more insight to gain from the data. I just found these to be the quick and easy ones to look at.

TheRomit tweets by month

Tweets by month

 

 

TheRomit tweets by client

Tweets by client

Strange problem with Outlook.com address book used on iPhone

I have long had my main address book in the cloud on what is now called Outlook.com’s People app. It not only is my central store of all contact information, it is also smart because it is connected to twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Google. As a result, my “master” contact card for any person is smart enough to show me not only what I have for them in my address book but also information that they have chosen to make available to me via any and all of those networks.

So, the central store and federation is a big deal. Coupled with those things, I am able to pull in this address book via Exchange Active Sync (read: 2-way, instantaneous push and sync) on all my devices: Windows Phone, Windows 8, iPhone, iPad, Android.

Needless to say, this has become indispensable for me. I love that I am able to forget about syncing and keeping a master record, and more importantly, not worry about losing that data if I lose or reset a device.

However, the downside is that when something weird happens, it instantly becomes a major cause for worry for me. Like a few weeks ago, my niece’s contact information disappeared from my iPhone. The way I realized it was through WhatsApp; her message showed up without a name and instead, just a nick and a phone number. I looked up my Contacts on the iPhone and couldn’t find her. I panicked. I had no idea what happened. Was I hacked? Was there something I did? What could delete this account? What else was deleted? All these thoughts started circling in my head. The problem of complete automation, I guess.

The good news was that the contact existed on People app on the web, and it also existed on my Windows devices. The phone number though, was missing. Bizarre. I added the number because I wanted to first get back on track and then troubleshoot. For whatever reason, I could not force a sync back to the iPhone. It is supposed to be instantaneous, but it simply did not bring that contact over to the phone! I contacted Microsoft support on twitter and posted on their forums.

Anyway, since it was so random, Microsoft support suggested I just remove and re-add the account on iPhone and see if that resolved the issue and it did. Problem solved, kinda-sorta. It was “solved” for the support team. Not for me. However, I had no idea what may be going on, and no time to investigate. So I ended the chapter there, with slight dissatisfaction of knowing I had not really solved the problem, only worked around it.

Today, I noticed that another family member’s phone number is missing from my phone’s contacts. Again, it showed up because in WhatsApp, her message showed just the nick and the number. I checked the phone, and the contact does not exist, and in this case, the contact as well as the phone number exists on the web as well as Windows devices.

Something really strange is going on with the way contacts are syncing from Outlook.com to iPhone via the “Outlook” account type (not “Exchange”). I am not sure if it is something Outlook.com needs to address or Apple, but I know that I am just not comfortable with the setup I have at the moment.

Time to create some backup plans. :-(

Gallery

Some more pictures from recent vacation

I posted a few pictures of beer from a recent trip and here are some more pictures, this time of flowers at Keukenoff Gardens.

As you know, these are all mostly from a Lumia 920, and some from an iPhone 5s.

Some samples embedded below:

 

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Shots of beer from recent vacation

I tweeted this out a few days ago, but I thought I’d put it here as well. Some shots of beer I took on a recent trip to Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. (All pics are Lumia 920 or iPhone 5s, as you may have read in my earlier post about this vacation.)

 

No cameras or computers on upcoming trip

We have an upcoming 10-day vacation to places we have never visited before and I have made the decision to not carry any cameras or computers. While this may be ok for some of you out there it is a big deal for us.

Of course, I mean “camera” and “computer” in their traditional sense of the words as in a point-and-shoot or DSLR camera or a laptop (Windows or Mac). I am going to use my Lumia 920 (and iPhone 5s to a certain extent) as my camera, and am planning to carry my iPad 2 and Dell Venue 8 Pro as my computer.

We are going with another family and they are planning to bring their DSLR, so we will see how many pictures end up having a huge difference in quality.

The surprising aspect of this is that I didn’t even think twice before making the decision about the camera. I am not 100% convinced of the PC, but I do believe it makes sense to leave it behind.

Wish me luck!

My weekend with (Samsung) Android

I have been wanting to test drive Android for some time now. I had briefly thought of buying a Nexus 7 to experience Android as an OS and the Android as an ecosystem in general. For whatever reason, the actual purchase did not happen. Earlier this week, an opportunity presented itself, where a friend was able to loan me his brand new Samsung Galaxy S4 Active device on Thursday and I could put the device through its paces over the weekend.

And I did. The experience wasn’t exactly smooth and the “getting acquainted” period ended up being longer than I expected. After much frustration, I realized Android as I experienced (via the Galaxy device and Samsung’s flavor of Android) is most definitely not for me. Some things that I liked and would love to see implemented in iOS and Windows Phone, but many things that are baffling and plain annoying in Android for me to seriously consider it as a daily driver.

What is there to like

Actionable notifications

I love that I could reply to a tweet directly from the notification center. It doesn’t compose the tweet (like maybe the Me tile lets you do in Windows Phone) but it opens the Twitter app directly in the reply window so you can reply and be done with that notification. Rumors are that such a feature is coming to Windows Phone 8.1, and I would love to see something similar in iOS.

Widgets

If you know me and/or have read some of my thoughts on mobile platforms, you know that I love Windows Phone’s live tiles. These tiles provide information at a glance for things that you only need to glance at, like top news or the next calendar appointment or the current weather. Widgets in Android do something similar and are very useful in providing snippets of information. I like that, and do miss it in my iPhone.

Screen size

After using a larger screen with Windows Phones for the past few years, I thought the iPhone’s screen size would seem small. It surprisingly has not felt like that. So, using the larger screen on the S4 felt good but only for a bit. You will see the same exact bullet point listed under what I didn’t like :-)

Choice

It is quite amazing that I can install multiple app stores on the device. I mean, it already comes with two – Google Play and Samsung App Store – but I was also able to install the Amazon Appstore and get some apps from there. There was an increasing sense as I used the phone that Android seems very much like Windows on the desktop from the previous era, and this “choice” is just another example of that. Just like screen size though, you will see Choice listed under things I didn’t like.

So much not to like

OOBE

The out of the box experience, which was mostly how I experienced Android in the past (and didn’t like at all), made me feel like I am doing something wrong for not “getting” it. I simply didn’t understand where to start in terms of using the phone. Swiping to unlock was clear, and tapping the phone icon to make a call was clear. But why are there 4 home pages where one of them is to the left of the one marked with the “home” icon? How to create a new page or modify an existing page? Maddening.

Crapware

There were so many apps that came pre-loaded with the device! The worse part is that most of these bundled apps cannot be uninstalled, they can only be disabled. And because of how the home screen works, “removing” from the home screen does nothing besides deleting *that* shortcut (more on that later) from that home screen.

User experience

Not only was it confusing out of the box, the entire user experience is full of inconsistencies and confusion. These are too numerous to list but some that I remembered:

  • You can create shortcuts to apps on home screens. That makes sense, but you can create multiple shortcuts of the same app on the same home screen, and even in the same folder on that home screen. There is no difference between an app icon and a shortcut, which means when there are multiple shortcuts to the same app on the same screen, you have no idea why.
  • For the longest time I had no idea how to disable icons that show up in the system bar at the top of the device. I did not want my email notification in the system bar but despite going into the email app (GMail app, in this case), I wasn’t able to find the setting to turn that off, nor was there anything under the main settings. Later, by accident, I realized that the first physical button triggers a menu and when I went into GMail app and triggered the menu, I was able to get to settings and uncheck the notification setting.
  • Why the heck do apps have a settings screen in-app and also trigger another set of settings via the button? The afore-mentioned GMail app is one big example of this nonsensical user experience, so we can’t even blame “Android developers” as a collective. This is Google’s own developers creating confusion within their prime app by having some settings exposed via app and some via the button.
  • I noticed that the lock screen showed a few app icons on the bottom that I could launch directly from the lock screen, but I simply couldn’t find where to change that list. Help from the web seemed to suggest it was under Lock Screen settings but I just couldn’t find it. Later, I realized I had to change the first setting (lock screen swipe) before I could edit that setting. If I had a PIN to unlock, I couldn’t even see how to edit it but it was there by default. This one took a long time to figure out and involved removing my work Exchange account because that mandated a PIN to unlock. This item really frustrated me, more because it was so hard to figure out rather than the actual utility of being able to edit the list of apps.
  • Speaking of work Exchange account, when I set it up, I was asked to enable encryption. I understand what that means and why they need it, so I went ahead and agreed to that step. I was asked to set up a password which confused me because I already have a PIN enabled for the device. Regardless, I went ahead with it because I did not have a choice. After the process completed, I realized I ended up having to enter that password upon boot, and then enter my PIN to unlock the device. Both iOS and Windows Phone encrypt the whole device by default and keep the user out of this messy issue. I understand technically what they are doing in Android (encrypting only part of the device that needs to be encrypted for Exchange use), but for a common user, this is a hot mess.

Large screen

While a large screen felt good going from the iPhone’s screen, it turns out there are more downsides to it than I had imagined. See, I got used to the one-handed use that is possible with the iPhone’s size which I simply wasn’t able to do with this device.

Choice

While it is cool (and amazing, really) that I can have multiple app stores on the device, the choice expands to all kinds of apps including keyboard replacements. But this choice is actually a huge problem for a first-time user because out of the box, there are multiple apps for Photos, Videos, Music, Messaging, etc. Samsung has duplicated most of the Google apps for these utility apps but Google itself has duplicated what comes with Android like Chrome and “Internet” browser, Hangouts and Messaging, GMail and Email, etc. I would think it would be a much, much better experience if there were a default app associated with each action at the least, but it would be even better if all add on apps are installed by user upon some sort of a prompt after the device is set up. The choice, in short, is overwhelming.

Wrapping up

The device is good but not great. I really prefer the flat edges of the iPhone vs the slightly rounded edges of this device or the even more rounded edges of my Lumia 920. The flatter edges make it much easier to hold the device. The operating system has all the power of what is expected of a modern smartphone operating system, but like Windows XP that was installed on PCs, the OS is full of stuff that a user should not be seeing and the device is loaded with crapware that is seriously unnecessary.

Of course I cannot deny the millions of devices that Samsung has sold and even more so, the billion devices that have apparently been activated with Android, but I can say one thing: Android does not seem like it is something I would enjoy using as a direct consumer of the system. If my next music player has Android built in, and that gets exposed with their iOS app, I don’t care, but I don’t think I have the tolerance or the patience to “work with” Android as it stands today. Now I can at least say this definitively, having experienced the same on (one of) the most popular Android devices.

ps: I realized after the experiment that I did not even care which version of the operating system was installed on the device