Palm Pre in my hot little hand

At last I have attained my heart’s desire: to trade in my 5 year old Treo 650 for a Palm Pre. I never thought I’d be the type of person to line up for a gadget — and as it happens I didn’t have to — but it would have been so worth it. I think it’s love, I really do. I’m not saying my tastes are universal by a long shot, but I think there are enough people like me that this phone will hit a lot of sweet spots.

The evening before the June 6 launch, there were unannounced launch parties at a handful of Sprint stores nationwide — including the one on University Avenue, where the Panda and I just happened to be lurking. We waltzed right in and allowed the pumped-up sales associates to ply us with beers, light wines, and bubbly water while they bagged up our phones. Interestingly, my new Sprint plan costs slightly less than the old one. I’ve had Sprint for almost 10 years now, and never particularly saw a good reason to switch so that was a nonfactor for me.

Basically my excitement about the Pre beforehand had boiled down to two factors: 1) using a touchscreen for the things touchscreens are good for, and a thumbpad for the things a thumbpad is good for; and 2) app development using web standards. The thing I didn’t really grasp was how WEBBY and asynchronous the user experience on this thing really is. It’s so much more like having your computer hooked up to broadband than I’ve ever experienced before — in some ways perhaps even better once you get over the initial pain (which can be considerable).

One example will suffice to demonstrate the pain AND the payoff. Obviously first thing I wanted to transfer my phone numbers from the Treo to the Pre. But this involves a conceptual shift rather than just a mechanical thing — because the Treo just has local storage with optional backup to a local computer, whereas the Pre relies upon remote storage using a complicated system of its own profile and third-party web services you were already using.

So I had to dig out the Treo 650 hot-sync cable and download the old desktop client which frankly doesn’t work so well any more. Export data to a vCard file, then import that data to Mac’s Address Book app. Then plug in the USB-to-MiniUSB cable that forms part of the Touchstone charger, download and run a helper app, and… I don’t see my phone numbers, hmmm. Plus now the phone will want to permanently sync with Google Contacts — which means you’ll instantly download 500 emails and zero phone numbers, which you can only reduce by cleaning out your Google Contacts list manually. Then the Pre will try to do some magic de-duping stuff to match up multiple listings from multiple sources into a single card per person, and sometimes it will work great but other times it will mysteriously fail. But at the end of this ordeal, if you change someone’s contact info on Google, it will automatically push an update to your phone forever — and you’ll start to wonder why no one else does it this way.

I underestimated how awesome it would be to walk around while getting notifications of everything I’d be getting if I were sitting in front of my lappy at home: Tweets, Facebook updates, emails, IMs — plus phone stuff like texts, calls, and voicemails. In fact sometimes it gets a little oppressive and you want to turn all that stuff off… but of course one feels that way sometimes online too. I’m also very pleased at the speed and usability of the apps even compared to the iPhone versions that I’ve seen.

What don’t I love so far? The hardware is a little “different” — especially the mini-USB port door which seems like it’s going to fall off at any moment. It took me forever to figure out how to change the backplate for Touchstone, and generally how to use the Touchstone adapter… which is cool but honestly saves you no time or effort for your $70. The thumbpad is REALLY recessed, and only has the shift key on one side. I’m not sure the browser on this thing is top-notch… seems to be a bit retarded about scaling. And maybe this bespeaks a unique mental weakness on my part, but I have had a hell of a time figuring out when I need to be scrolling through a long list by flicking up-and-down versus side-to-side.

But all in all, I am more than happy I stuck with Palm — and I hope the company really does well from this. It seems like one of those situations where they were so far down that innovation was the only option… and I’ve always loved those stories. Now if I can only get my SDK, I’ll be a truly happy camper!

HP Mini 1030NR netbook

For years I ran Linux on Thinkpads, until I was forced to go Macbook Pro for my work machine. In everyday life it’s fine, but when I travel it’s sure easy to get tired of a lappy that weighs 10 lb and has to be carried around in a padded backpack approximately the size and shape of a human torso. I can’t in good conscience not have a computer with me all the time; but the 15″ sure seems like overkill for days when I’ll be spending 2 hours on the computer rather than 12.

I think some personal quirks might make it easier than average for me to go netbook. For one thing, I’m female. That means smaller hands, but it also means I reliably carry a purse around and a form factor that fits in there is a big win. I’m not a huge consumer of digital media — my whole iTunes collection is only 1.23GB, and I’ve almost never watched a DVD on the lappy — so I don’t need much in the way of storage or multimedia. Especially now that I do all my coding on a remote dev server, all I need locally is Firefox, Thunderbird, an IM client, and a decent terminal.

I almost got the Dell Mini 9 (cherry red!) but time pressure pushed me in the direction of the HP Mini 1030NR. For a gig of RAM and 16 gig solid state disk with a black lid, the price is almost identical right now ($399.99 vs $374 plus shipping; I think HP will soon be shipping a slightly cheaper version without Windows) The HP has a slightly bigger screen (10.2″ vs 9″) and supposedly a near-fullsize keyboard, but honestly I think that’s all pretty much a wash. The biggest practical difference is the pointer device: the HP has the buttons on each side of the trackpad, while the Dell has them below.

I am not exactly a Paganini of the pointer — in fact someone once told me I was a drag-n-drop idiot! — but I’m not sure most people would be able to use the side-button trackpad effectively. You can configure it to allow mouse clicks, and then every time you double-tap the pad it will register as a click; or you can put it in left-hand mode, in which case the button on the right will become what is normally the “left-click” button. I’ve never mastered the art of using my thumb on the trackpad, but it seems like that technique might work well on this hardware. I personally brace my thumb against the bottom edge of the Mini while using my forefinger to move around, and cross the forefinger over the thumb to left-click — but I suspect those without years of piano lessons might find that movement annoying. Also, I should mention that for some reason the HP’s trackpad gets smudgy very easily; in fact, overall this machine shows fingertip oils badly on every surface.

For the first time in my entire 12+ year history with Linux, the install was a snap. I installed from USB, and for some reason it didn’t like the first stick; but we tried a different USB drive and the second one worked like a charm. I threw a stock Intrepid Ibex Ubuntu on there, plugged in an Ethernet cord, said yes to all the defaults, and just sat back while it did its thing. I can honestly say I’ve never had a Linux laptop that had perfect X11, wifi, suspend to RAM, and suspend to disk right out of the box. What makes it even more astonishing is that this is fairly new and quirky hardware.

Oddly enough, my problems came when I tried to use the Canonical Ubuntu Netbook Remix that is supposedly specific to these little lappies. Ume-launcher was horrifically buggy for me, and without that the other pieces are basically unusable — Maximus in particular is annoying without a launcher, since it deliberately removes all the title bars and resizing elements. I rolled back on that stuff and went back to a normal Gnome desktop, which seems to work fine although I might try a more compact theme.

I’m off on my trip tomorrow night, and will update this post when I see how the HP Mini worked out for me in the field.

UPDATE: So after a bit over a month, I’m quite happy with my purchase and have in fact replaced my Thinkpad with the HP Mini as my main Linux box. Away from the office, it’s fast becoming my favorite coding machine.

The main problem for me has been that I’m a “banger” on the keyboard… just a really fast, hard typist. Someone once told me my typing sounded like a machine gun when I was mad. The Mini really DEMANDS a delicate touch on both keyboard and trackpad, and it will punish you if you get too rough.

Also, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you get the “normal” hard disk on this thing. Go solid-state or stay home! The SSD stays very cool and makes almost no noise; the non-SSD has a super noisy fan that seems to run all the time.

Kindles for big fast readers

Will it bore you if, like every other Kindle owner, I review my experience? I bought mine because I was going on a month-long voyage overseas. The Kindle is unbeatable for this use case — it’s basically one book and a power cord versus however many tomes you were planning to haul around in your luggage. The only disconcerting thing is that (unlike a computer but like a book) there is no backlight, so if the ambient light is bad — like in a darkened airplane cabin, or on a super-glarey afternoon on the deck of a cruise ship — you won’t be able to read. I want to make it clear that you can easily take your Kindle overseas, you just won’t be able to use Whispernet to get books delivered to the unit wirelessly (although you can still use USB delivery if you have a computer), but everything else should work fine.

It’s pretty clear by now that the Kindle is the suck for texts where it’s an important part of the experience to see charts and graphs, maps, pictures, footnotes, or fixed line breaks (e.g. poetry). Not to put too fine a point on it, all of these will look like crap and/or be impossible to see at all. However I personally read a lot of genre fiction and nonfiction (mostly history), and the Kindle is brilliant for these. In the first case you won’t have the embarrassment of the cheesy covers usually slapped on YA, mystery, SF, horror, fantasy, and romance novels. In the latter you run far less risk of accidental death due to dropping a 15-lb hardcover on your face while you recline in bed.

Without exaggeration I am an exceptionally fast reader… but I think I’m even faster on the Kindle. After having pondered for a while, my theory is this: without intending to, your eye spends a lot of time travelling to the next page when you’re holding two pages open before you. If you eliminate that second page — plus any opportunity of skipping ahead or behind in the text — you actually force yourself to stay on a single page and just focus on reading it as quickly as possible.

There are obvious problems with the physical layout and hardware configuration of the Kindle, most notably that there is no obvious place to hold the unit with your hands. I expect this problem to be solved in the next release. The navigation system, which depends on a unidimensional roller-wheel with clicker, is primitive and unexact in the extreme. I’m not even going to get into the color and resolution issues with the screen, since those were obviously sacrificed to get to the desired price-point.

My true feeling is that Kindles are absolutely not worthwhile for people who read fewer than 24 books a year or buy fewer than 12 books a year — which is almost everyone anyway. Also if you prefer books that require charts and graphs, maps, pictures (esp color), footnotes, or fixed line breaks for full enjoyment, the Kindle will not make you happy. And finally there are localized issues — if you have easy access to a computerized inter-library loan, the relative value of instant books will be less — whereas if you’re basically at the mercy of a small-town system then the relative value might be higher.

Palm Pre lust

I’m far from a gadget-hound, but I’m insanely excited about the new Palm Pre. I’ve resisted the many and varied lures of the iPhone, the Blackberry, and the Android (don’t even mention Windows Mobile to me, thanks) — but I’m volunteering to shower my hard-earned cash on Palm. Why?

* Users are super loyal to their favored input devices; aka You can pry my thumbpad from my cold, dead hands.

* Screw AT&T in all its manifestations. That is one brand I have bad blood with, going back a long way. I trust Sprint a whole lot more on the 3G front.

* Hello, Hersheys? The iPhone is like holding a foil-wrapped chocolate bar up to your head to take a call. The Pre looks more like holding a bar of soap to your head.

* Linux core. Given that my last Palm lost its IM client (which I paid money for!) after a year or so, I would like to think the OS would make it easier for Open Source to pick up the slack on apps.

* Apps are allegedly going to be pure DHTML. People who haven’t developed an iPhone app (or paid for one to be developed) do not realize the import of this fact.

I should probably also confess that one of our friends is in charge of the software stack on this new Palm phone. I think that factor has minimal sway with me right now, but full disclosure whatever. I still think it’s an awesome addition to the Palm legacy, and I’ve been a fairly loyal customer for quite a while now.

Los Stinkpads

OK, I’m sure you’re all sick of my whining about hardware, so hopefully this will be the final episode for awhile.

So when I called IBM to get the miniPCI card on my T42 (which I decided to name Omaha, by the way) fixed, they told me I’d voided my warranty by installing Linux but if I took it into the shop and the paid professionals determined that my problem was entirely hardware related, IBM would honor the warranty. Piss on that, I just went out and bought an external wifi card. Problem solved! At Fry’s I was interested to see that a lot of wireless cards are now USB rather than PC card.

Next I plunged into the saga of turning my R31 back from a Linux box to a Windows machine. I got to spend a lot of quality time this weekend contemplating the great truth that if you delete the Windows bootloader (aka NTLDR) from the Master Boot Partition AND you have an IBM recovery disk instead of a legit XP disk, you are so screwed. The journey to recovery involved scoring a sketchily-licensed copy of XP from a friend, vacuuming all the dust inside my lappy so it wouldn’t keep overheating, and finally buying and installing a whole new (power-sucking) hard drive. But hey, I got a BIOS upgrade and a new screwdriver out of the deal, so who says 12 hours of my life was utterly wasted?

Wifi busted

Ever since my trip to Korea, the wireless on my Linux lappy has been wacked out. It drops the connection like every 5 minutes, even when the router is right in front of it and every other machine in the room is reporting 100% signal strength. The issue seems to be that the box does not see the connection at all, not that it detects signal but can’t connect. Therefore, once the signal gets dropped, attempts to reconnect via iwconfig will fail. Sometimes hibernating makes things better; but sometimes it results in a “No such device” error on ifup. Rebooting always causes the machine to detect wifi signal again, although it goes out 5 minutes later. I have not made any software or configuration changes recently that should affect the wifi subsystem. What do you guys think… is it my card? Antenna? Kernel modules?

Meanwhile, my new and unloved iBook is sitting here with perfect connectivity, power management, and shiny lickable buttons on its gorgeous apps. It even autodetected my wireless printer last night. It’s hard not to project a certain smugness onto the damn thing, although I realize that’s utterly moronic.

Since my last go-round with a Mac, I’ve found a couple of new projects that rock. I’m using Adium instead of Fire now, because I can’t resist the silly ducks. My previous emacs was a bit too prone to crashing, so I’m trying out Aquamacs. And of course NeoOffice is the answer to the curses of anyone who had to use OpenOffice under X11 on a Mac.

My Thinkpad is melting

For a $719 refurb, my R31 has been a decent performer for two years. But it was never problem-free, and recently it started overheating a lot — like actually refusing to boot because the core temp had been exceeded — and when that kind of stuff starts happening, it’s time to start shopping.

I thought for like a second about a Powerbook, but it’s just not for me. For one thing, stickers don’t look good on the lid. For another, I’m addicted to the TrackPoint (now with your choice of rubber cap styles! I’m a Classic Pencil Eraser girl myself) and the built-in three-button mouse. And I still hate fink, and a friend of mine just had the most horrific hard-disk meltdown experience with FileVault, and… ya know, I just actually prefer Linux. So thanks to everyone who expressed an interest, but I’m still not switching.

I’m springing for a nice Thinkpad T42 this time. The R series really wasn’t meeting my needs, and the T series has come down a lot in price. I got pressured by my friends to spring for the SXGA display, which I now agree is probably a good idea; and memory is so cheap at the moment that I went for 2GB. Hey, maybe I’ll be able to compile PHP in less than 6 hours now!

Now I just have to come up with a new name for the box. I use nice racehorses — this one is called Equipoise, for instance. And if anyone has good new stickers for the new lappy, send ’em my way please!