Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Gorging on Amazon's $10 Book Buffet

Amazon Unlimited - All you can eat books!
Amazon has started up their own 'all you can stand' Mexican food style buffet book service. They're calling it Kindle Unlimited. Just like a buffet, the offerings are not great, but not bad either, and the price and delicious sopapillas are the star of the show.

Being an Amazon junky I jumped on the 30-day free trial like the proverbial fat kid and his cupcake. Regular price is a reasonable US$9.99. There's plenty of gorging to be done with 60,000 books including some headliners, but it's missing chunks of top tier books from many of the bigger publishers. That particular failing has been well documented in the last few days by other sources, so I won't bother dwelling on it.

Most of the articles I've read panning the service, however, focus entirely on what's not included instead of what is included. That strikes me as odd.

We'll get to that in another post. A lovely rant and rave, if you will. For now, though, is Kindle Unlimited worth it?

I'm of two minds currently.

On the one hand, there are a lot of books in the Kindle Unlimited subscription that I'm looking forward to reading. It's been years since I read The Lord of the Rings series and it's about time to do so. Since it's included with Kindle Unlimited it's a no brainer to just do it. The SF/Fantasy selection looks quite good. If you're more into mystery/suspense or romance those appear to be well represented, as well.

It's also a bargain for people that like to research and investigate new topics. In three days I've downloaded about $100 worth of reference and nonfiction titles. These are the books I blast through in a night or two. I grabbed $50 worth of introduction to Android programing texts, for example, to determine how difficult it would be to develop an app I had an idea for.

Unfortunately, four of the five Android programming books I snagged sucked balls.  One of the books was decent enough to be useful.

I had better luck with business and marketing books, scoring three top notch titles that were well written and useful. The History and Science sections look similarly promising.

Nice, neat category listings Amazon-style.
The ability to grab multiple titles on a subject is a huge benefit of the service. In the Android programming book example, I'd have dropped $50 on books only to find one useful. Instead, I dropped $10 (free under the trial period) and was able to dig into several different titles at a significant savings.

In the business book category, I picked up several books with different techniques to the same problem, illustrating another benefit. It gives me a much broader view of the subject and multiple avenues to consider. I also get access to some rather handy and instantly available reference material.

For people like myself that prefer to read multiple titles and multiple points of view on a subject, Kindle Unlimited is huge.

On the other hand, while the fiction selection is quite good, I read maybe one or two fiction titles a month. That might save me a buck or two, but only if I avail myself of Kindle Unlimited titles.

Alas, none of the authors I read religiously are listed in the selection at all. Jim Butcher, Christopher Moore, Kim Harrison, Brent Weeks, and many others are missing. It's worth it to run your favorite authors through during the free trial period just to find out if they're present or not.

Amazon being the helpful sort it is, if you search an author that is not included in Kindle Unlimited it will automagically suggest similar authors that are!. I can see this being particularly useful for when your favorites aren't publishing and you want to try something new. Searching Christopher Moore, for example, turned up a couple of new authors that tickled my interest. (After I finish Serpent of Venice, of course.)

Personally, if I were only in it for the fiction, I'd have to pass based on the number of titles I read per month. If I read ten fiction titles a month, though, Kindle Unlimited would be a steal.

The biggest bummer is that Kindle Unlimited isn't included in Amazon Prime. Prime is an excellent deal, and they did just add a butt load of music to the service, so can't really complain (much).  Still, why not the books, too?

I've got 27 days on my Kindle Unlimited trial and I'm liking what I see so far. If you're a book junky that will read anything, it's an outstanding deal. If you're a little more selective, it might not be worth it, yet, depending on what you read. Either way, with the free trial running right now, it's worth a shot.

For an all you can eat style buffet, Kindle Unlimited is not yet great, but it's not bad either. The price is right ... and the sopapillas are delicious.


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Friday, July 11, 2014

The HTC Won

I've been using the HTC One (M8) for a wee bit over a month.

Let's start with the short version:

This phone is so full of win HTC had to wrap it in a metal case to keep it from blowing your face off with pure awesomeness.

It does all the things you would expect from a high end smartphone, of course. Gobs of memory, high speed SD card slot, 32GB memory, excellent battery life with mega-massive-power save mode, fast charging, Andriod KitKat, and near flawless connectivity. If you want the scoop you can check in at HTC's flashy website, get all the techy specs here, or read a full review on CNET.

In this post, I'm going to evangelize because 1) you should buy it, and 2) all Android smartphones should be made with this much win.

This isn't really much of a review. More like a massive geekgasm. You folks in the front row might want to scooch back a bit.

Let me start by listing all the things I do not like about the One:


Okay, now that's out of the way, let's peek at some of the things HTC got right:

The design is just delightful. A man can use the word delightful because it's allowed when you're talking about a bitching high end phone like the One. Otherwise, no.

The One has a sturdy, all metal and glass build. I chose the Harmon/Kardon Edition of the phone from Sprint with the black lightly brushed metal back and gold/bronzish top and bottom bevels on the front. Technically the color is 'champagne' but I already used 'delightful' to describe the device and I don't want to push it.

The other available color has silver bevels and a brushed silver metal back.

This phone is put together with obvious care and style. There is just a whisper of left and right bezel. The top and bottom bezels are larger to accommodate the front facing speakers. The whole device is thin, light and sleek, yet still feels solid. Kind of like a women's Olympic volleyball player.

Screen-wise, the One is gorgeous. Contrary to what you may have been told, five inches is big enough to be pleasing, but not big enough to be uncomfortable. The One's SuperLCD screen has a pixel density of 441 ppi (pixels per inch) making it one of the sharpest screens available.  For comparison, an iPhone 5s has a screen density of 326ppi.

Located on the back of the device is the primary camera and it is pure high tech wickedness. It's an unusual bit of hardware because it is rated at 4 utrapixels. Because ultra ones are way better than mega ones.

It also has a second back facing camera for depth. No, not to give your pictures more meaning or emotional fortitude. It's for focus tricks and special effects. HTC did some nifty things with the camera and its software, so we'll come back to that in a separate post.

Yes, there's a 5MP (regular puny megapixels) on the front for taking shots of your mug. Assuming you didn't get it blown off by awesomeness, of course.

Sound is where the One really shines with HTC's much vaunted audio voodoo. Say what you will about HTC's engineers (mad geniuses, crazed Korean masterminds, smartphone prodigies?) but they must love to rock out. Hard.

Combining the big, razor sharp screen with monster audio wizardry makes the One perfect for Netflix abuse and Amazon Prime movie marathons on the go. Unlike most mobiles, the front facing speakers sound good without any external boost or headphones.

Basically, when you stack it up against any other smartphone, the One takes their video lunch money and finishes them off with a firm audio wedgie.

In truth, other than mucking about with the camera, HTC didn't do anything over the top with the M8. It's the little 'why didn't everyone think of that' things like this that make the One the well polished bad ass of the smartphone world.

Like most phone manufacturers, HTC felt compelled to load the phone with their own interface modifications on top of Android KitKat (4.2.2 at the moment, 4.4 on the way shortly). The One has a sweetly subtle interface called Sense 6.0. Subtle meaning you mostly won't know it's there until you pick up another phone and try to do without it.

Sense 6.0 includes several enhancements to the launcher, for example, that make it easier to manage apps and setup screens. I haven't felt the need to load a third party launcher at all. No fancy tab-based Setup app, just a list of all the under the hood bits neatly organized. Plenty of other simple, elegant touches like long press on any screen to manage all the screens without flipping back and forth or stretch dragging to scroll an icon.

Not new things, mind you, but the sort of stuff that just makes sense.

Get it? Ha!

The gesture controls follow the same design philosophy as the rest of the phone. It's not using the Force, Obi Wan style kind of gestures. Just polished quality of life improvements that should be on every device.

The One can tell when it's in your pocket and when it's not. When it is, it rings louder. When it's not, it rings softer. If it's laying on a table and the ringer goes off, just flip it over and it will shut up automatically. Don't want it to ring at all? Put face down. Pull the phone out of your pocket, hold it vertically up to your face and press and hold one of the volume buttons to take a picture. Done. No fumbling for the power button, just double tap the screen to wake it up.

Again, nothing earth shattering, just simple things that work.

A personal favorite? No button pushing, powering on, unlocking, swiping, flapping your arms about, or any of that crap when you get a call. Think about it. If someone looks at an incoming call on their screen and then puts the phone to their ear, what would you deduce the person wants to do? Answer the call, fool!

The One knows you are looking at the screen, knows you put the phone to your ear and just does it. Clever, HTC. Creepy. But clever.

Then there's the expected value added stuff from HTC and Sprint. They didn't bother to load the One with their own version of every other app out there. (Sprint managed to bloat the phone with a few worthless things, but not quite as bad as I expected.) Just a few simple things that work the way they're suppose to work.

Like a drive mode app already loaded on the phone and tuned properly for when, you know, you're driving. Kid mode for when you hand the phone over to your six year old. No more 'Sorry honey, you can't look at Daddy's phone because Mommy is a very naughty girl and... Well... You just can't.' Full documentation apps that are actually useful. The aforementioned HTC camera app that you won't replace after two snaps.

Sense 6.0 also comes with BlinkFeed, HTC's own news feed app, baked into the interface. I turned it off. There are plenty of outstanding news feed apps out there that are certainly more complete.

Then I got to thinking about the One itself and how it's designed. BlinkFeed is designed with the same philosophy. Keep it simple and make it work properly.

After I turned it back on, I tweaked the source feeds down to only what I wanted at a glance (no social media feeds!) and I found myself using it all the time. When you look at it the right way, it's a very slick and ingenious element that compliments the One's design nicely without cluttering it up.  The swipe left for similar stories feature is particularly nice when you're in hurry up and wait mode.

With this phone, HTC just focused on the details that make using the phone more convenient. Then they made them invisible.

Three of my favorite extra touches?

First, if you bust your screen within the first year of owning the phone, HTC will replace it no questions asked. Nice to have if it's ever needed.

The second is HTC's guarantee to update Android in a timely manner. Sprint (and to be fair, every other mobile carrier) is crap about this, so having both HTC and Google in the background lighting a fire under their ass and getting it done is a nice touch.

The last touch I'll mention is a giddy geek with a new toy kind of gimmick. I'm all for that sort of thing. It's an optional case called Dot View. See the picture. Tap to display the time and notifications without opening the case. When you get a call, it displays the caller ID right on the case. Swipe up on the cover to accept, swipe down to decline. Swipe side-to-side to make a call. It's simple and retro cool.  It works.

 And when you show it off, Dot View makes people look at their phones and go 'Awww...'

HTC really went all in with the finishing touches to the One (M8) and that's where this mobile really shines for me. You can say this feature is better on this phone and that feature is better on that phone. It's the little things and the polish that add up, however, and make a smartphone a special companion you really do want to take with you everywhere.

The One nails it. Kudos HTC.

Now excuse me while I put my face back on...


Monday, July 7, 2014


Cell phone. Smart phone. Feature phone.

I have a problem with calling these things phones. It's like calling a Swiss Army knife a Swiss Army fork. Take the least used portion of the tool and call it that because that makes a lot of sense.

I was looking at my Sprint bill and it says I used 24 minutes of phone time.

24 minutes.

Considering all the things I do with this thing, using the 'phone' portion of it is dead last. By a huge margin. I suspect there's a couple other people out there that are in a similar situation. Maybe a few more than a couple. So if we don't call it a phone, what do we call it?

I use my phone to research everything. A large chunk of my time using the device, in fact.  I could call it my Research Assistant Device, or RAD.

'Used my RAD today to check into transgender sexual implications of the cheese industry ban on non-approved chemical reduction via government mandates. Interesting thing about that...'

Hmmm... don't see that one catching on.

I'd say the second thing I use it for most is getting information and recording information. A lot of that is done through Google Now these days. Personal Digital Assistant is a pretty accurate term for what the device is, but the devices of the 90s that failed miserably used up that name. So that's no good. Calling it my 'Google Now' thingie isn't right either. No one wants to Google their thingie now.

I really like apps and games. A rare few are actually fun and useful. Checking out apps is a new addiction, though, and having access to millions of apps to try is a dubious method of naming the device at best. I don't like App Box, App Computer, or Cellular Remote App Platform.

'Where's your CRAP?'
'Can I borrow your CRAP?'
'My CRAP has Bluetooth.'

Everything is better with Bluetooth.

Most people, myself included, use SMS text to communicate mostly. Which auto-corrects on my phone to S&M sex. What? Weird. Calling it a 'text machine' doesn't really have much of a ring to it. Dubbing James Brown singing 'I'm feeling like being a text machine!' would be in too many commercials.

We could take all the functions and put them together. Call it a Budi (Bundled Universal Digital Information) and we could go around humming that catchy jingle from the 80s and making everyone want to shoot each other in the face. Or, perhaps call it a Bundled Electronic Device.

'Yay, baby. I'm going to put you in my BED.'
'Hi boss! I got some great new games you need to try in your BED!'


Many people use theirs to connect to social networks. I don't see people really calling it a Cellular Social or Cellso.  That's sounds too European to me.

Then again, in Europe they just call it a 'mobile.' Which makes a hell of a lot more sense than 'phone'.

Maybe just start calling them by name, like Bob or Sally.

Considering what people search on their devices, though, that could be little too creepy. I'm sure Siri gets enough of that already.

I like pocket computer best, but that one never worked out.

'What are you doing?'
'Playing with my pocket computer.'
'Yeah, whatever buddy. This is a family restaurant.'

In the end it's probably a pointless exercise.  We haven't had to 'dial' our phones since 1963, and we still have a device with a 'dialer' in it. I suspect 'phone' isn't going anywhere anytime soon, even if the meaning has completely changed. Viva la phone!


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Electroplated Computer

A couple of months ago I broke down and bought a Chromebook. If you’re technology inclined (read, geek) you probably have an idea what that entails. If you’re not, perhaps a little explaining is in order.

One bright sunny day awhile back Google decided to do it’s own operating system. It was a brilliant idea, if somewhat random on account there are already some pretty damn good operating systems out there. This new OS would rock hard by loading super fast, run on cheap hardware, and do everything out on the magical interwebs.

They call it Chrome OS.

Chrome the operating system is a different beast than Chrome the Internet browser you might (and should) use on your PC, tablet, or mobile. Just like Windows, OSX, iOS or Android, Chrome OS runs the whole machine, accessing disk drives and memory cards, managing files, displaying the screen, and so on. The Chrome browser, on the other hand, is a program that runs on top of the OS and displays web pages. Chrome the browser won’t run without an operating system to power all that other stuff.

Here’s some quick linkage to a video that does a great job of explaining Chrome OS.

The cool thing about Chrome OS is that just about everything you do is done on the Internet through the browser. There are only a few programs stored on the computer itself. Don’t go freaking out. This is a Good Thing. This article by Dan Tynan on Yahoo! Tech news is an excellent rundown of some of the pluses and minus of a Chrome OS computer.

Point is, it’s very different than a traditional Microsoft Windows or Apple OSX laptop. Those machines are loaded up with tons of programs, drivers, interfaces, and other miscellaneous crap that slow them down and clutter them up significantly. A Chromebook, on the other hand, only grabs stuff you need when you need it. Put simply, the fucker is light, simple, and fast.

Why jump ship and go with something so radically different?

Two reasons.

First, I like new things. New techy techy things. The more different they are the more I’m drawn to them. Back in the day, I bought a TRS-80 Color Computer instead of an Apple II or Commodore 64 like everyone else. I didn’t give in and jump to the IBM PC clones for years and years, and when I did I bought a Tandy instead of a Dell or an IBM. The Tandy computer was different. When I finally did jump into PC compatibility I ran an alternate operating system called DR DOS instead of Microsoft DOS. I used Norton Commander instead of Windows 1.0. More recently, I chose the HTC One M8 as my new phone over the Galaxy S5 or iPhone 5s.

A Chromebook running Chrome OS has a lot of appeal because it does what it does very well and it’s very different from traditional laptops. I like that.

Second, price. When you’re in the market and you’re on a budget, the difference between $300 and $500 is huge. I know, I know. The technorati don’t consider that a big factor. For the rest of us in the real world, it matters. Being a tech junkie geek on a budget sucks sometimes. Chrome based computers are cheap and kickass.

A cheap, fast computer that does just about everything you want it to do? Yes, please. After using it for a couple of months, I believe Google and their hardware partners have gotten closer than anyone before them to this ‘internet computer’ thing.

What I like?

Updates and new features are easy. Google can change and update this OS endlessly and seamlessly. Updating my daughter’s Windows 8.0 machine to 8.1 has been a major issue. It still won’t update because she missed 142 previous updates. 142. I shit you not. At this point I’ve gotten it down to 80 some odd updates left after a full day of downloading and restarting, each restart taking from 15 to 45 minutes. Much cussing with gusto and vehemence ensued, I assure you.

I haven’t cussed at the Chromebook once. Well, maybe once because of the delete key, but other than that...

With Chrome OS, the update is just there. It restarted on the last update once and it took less than 15 seconds. That’s seconds. Serious. It’s fast not because it’s turbo charged with a lot of hardware but because it’s light. Quick, like the puma. No junk, just the good stuff.

Want to make it do more stuff? Go to the Google Chrome Store, find the app, click install, use the app. Total time (minus browsing and searching) about… oh… let’s say 30 seconds to be conservative. Most load up in about 10 seconds. It’s like apps on your smartphone except they live on the internet instead of in the device itself.

Google also revamps and improves the OS constantly and for free. No upgrade fees, disks, or fretting involved. Here’s a quick article on The Verge about some of the improvements Google has planned for this year including new interface changes, integration with your smartphone (notifications, calls, text message, etc. from your phone showing up on your computer automagically), and the ability to run Android apps on Chrome OS.
It’s insanely awesome.

In fact, using Google’s services, some integration is already available and I’m completely enamored with it. Google Now picks up anything I do on the Chromebook and starts showing me context cards on my phone. It works the other way, as well, with Google Now notifications showing up on the Chromebook. ‘Ok Google’ is one of my new favorite phrases and Now kicks the shit out of Siri. Seriously.

I’m also enjoying the Acer c720p Chromebook machine itself. Few Chromebooks at the moment have touch screens, although apparently Google is encouraging manufacturers to starting adding them more often. The c720p does have screen that likes to be fondled and it fondles quite well. It’s no iPad, don’t get me wrong. But for basic navigation it works great when paired with the keyboard and Chrome OS’s wide variety of handy dandy keyboard shortcuts.

The only complaint I have is I’d like a much bigger and brighter screen. The c720p comes with 11.6” screen at 1366x768 at a 16:9 aspect ratio. There also doesn’t appear to be a contrast control (just brightness). This is fine for web browsing, basic anti-productivity, and autoplay next episode marathons of death on Netflix. 13” or 14” would be better. For the price, though, it’s not a stinker.

Speaking of all nighters, the battery life is quite nice. In highly scientific test involving me and a wild ass guess I’d say the battery lasts all day under normal use. I like that Acer included a super long power cord with the machine, as well. Very kind.

There are a few quirks. No deal breakers, just quirky bits. For example, sometimes a link on a web page is too small to tap on the screen. So you either have to use the touchpad to precisely position the cursor, or pinch to zoom and then tap. If you browse on a smartphone you’re use to this problem. I’m not. I don’t like browsing web pages on a tablet or phone. It’s a bag of ass.

The instances of this happening are few and far between (and usually are the result of shite web design), and the Acer Chromebook handles it pretty well. Still, better screen with better touch controls would be divine and certainly doable.

Another one is the lack of a delete key on the keyboard. If you grew up using the backspace key you’ll be fine. If you’re of the delete key school of keyboarding, you know what I mean. See, back in the old days, some computers didn’t have a backspace key. They had a delete key. You position the cursor to the left of a word and then hit delete. The computer removes the character to the right of the cursor. With backspace you position the cursor to the right of the word and then delete to the left. The Chromebook forces you to use the backspace method and it’s madding for old geeks like me.

I’m slowly getting use to it, but sometimes I feel like going all Samuel L. Jackson. ‘I don’t remember telling you to delete a damn thing to the left, motherfucker!’

A minor quibble, perhaps.

The front facing camera is crap, too. Very grainy and jumpy. It’s not a feature I ever use (I’m not a video call kinda guy) but it’s something to consider if you’re into the selfie thing.

Expectations are important here. Again, not a laptop. Also, not a tablet. A lot of people say it’s a ‘tween device, but I don’t see it. Honestly, these devices stand on their own. Cheaper and 90% as functional as a laptop and way more useful than a tablet. As the world’s fascination with tablets continues to wane, I can see devices like the Chromebook becoming better and more prevalent.

The Chromebook is the answer to the ‘smartphone is too small but a laptop is too much’ problem. To be frank, it solves the issue much better than a tablet in most cases. With the exception of games, which are just better on PC or console, I find myself using the Chromebook considerably more often than my PC or tablet.

Take researching on the web as a big fat for instance. Open the Chromebook. It’s instant on. I mean, like, by the time you get the screen open it’s on and ready. Just like your phone. Say, ‘OK Google’ and then what you want. Done. It’s computing in easy mode.

Taping through the pages with the touchscreen makes life simple, just like using a tablet. When needed, the keyboard is there for quick text entry. Flipping between the two is surprisingly intuitive. To the point that when I’m on my desktop I sometimes unconsciously reach up to tap the screen now. Oops.

I’ll never have another machine without a touchscreen. Nope. Too much awesome in such a simple concept.

Basic productivity is all there through Google Drive and the Google suite of applications. The joy of seamlessly switching between desktop, Chromebook, phone, or tablet and back again without having to move, copy or jump through hoops on fire is a joy. You can even use Microsoft’s stuff, it you prefer.

When I write on the Chromebook the updated document is there on the phone and desktop a few seconds later. Pictures from the phone are available to the Chromebook as close to immediately as you’re likely to get. When I make a note on Evernote it’s automagically on my phone. My calendar is updated across all the devices through Google’s services and the Chromebook is an excellent and optimized portal to those services.

What I’d like next? A Chromebook with better hardware, particularly a much better screen, that doubles as a tablet. I would use Chrome OS on a tablet if they improved the touch screen and gestures available to the machine. If it runs Android apps, I don’t see why not. Port WoW to Android and fully integrate it with my phone and I’d never need another computer. Hell, yeah!

Until the next new computer comes out, of course, but until then...

The Chromebook with Chrome OS is getting close to the promise of seamless computing between devices in simple and efficient form. A lot of companies are promising it. Google is too busy delivering it. And it’s only going to get better. While you can certainly do similar things with a PC or a Mac, with the Chromebook it’s built in and available right out the box. It’s not something you make it do, or have to think about, it just does it.

I like that.

-CDE, July 2014

Your misguided thoughts, irreverent feedback, asinine commentary, and general inappropriate behavior are always welcome. Please comment below.