Quick Notes on the OnePlus One

I’ve been a happy owner and user of a Nexus 4 for about two years (and the Nexus S before that), but in the last few months, my phone was starting to show its age. I was barely getting a full day’s usage out of the battery and after the Lollipop updates, things seemed generally more sluggish in general. It was time for an update, and following my usual habit of a skipping at least a generation when it comes to tech, I was really hoping to get a Nexus 6. Unfortunately, the $650+ price point placed it more than a little out of my reach. I’ve never owned a non-Nexus smartphone, but it seemed like it was finally time to move on to something else.

There’s been a lot of hype and news about the OnePlus One that I won’t bother recapping here. In short, the OnePlus One is a reasonably priced, state-of-the-art Android smartphone that comes unlocked and runs a version of the CyanogenMod ROM. It’s not stock Android like the Nexus line, but there’s no bloatware either and it works just fine with the full suite of Google Apps and (as far as I can tell) most popular Android apps in general. After being invite only for several months, you can now buy one from the OnePlus website, but only on Tuesdays. I’ve had mine for about two weeks now and thoroughly enjoy it. Yesterday a friend of mine asked me about my experiences about the device. I thought I’d collect all the points I made in that conversation and share them here.

For starters, I really like the device. It’s much snappier as compared to my Nexus 4, the large screen is gorgeous and the design in general is well executed. I got the 64GB “Black Sandstone” version. As the name suggests, the back of the phone has a black, sandstone-like texture that makes the device quite pleasant to hold. Time will tell if the texture holds up with daily wear and tear. The battery life is really good—I can easily get almost two days of moderate use on a full charge, and well over a day even with heavy usage. It’s really nice to know that I have a good few hours of usage left even if I forget to plug it in overnight.

I was a little concerned about the large 5.5″ screen, which is pretty massive compared to smartphone screens I’m used to. However, after a few weeks, I’ve gotten used to it and it feels really comfortable to use on a daily basis. By and large, I can use it with one hand (even for input using the swipe keyboard), but it is definitely easier to use with two hands. In fact, the device is light and slim enough that compared to my Nexus 4, it actually feels lighter and less of a burden to carry around. I do a lot of reading on my iPad Air (RSS, websites and Instapaper) but I’ve barely used it over the last two weeks. I’ve been testing out the One as a tablet replacement, at least for format-independent reading, and it’s been working out quite well so far.

I only have two main gripes about the One. First the CyanogenMod ROM that it’s using is still based on KitKat and I got used to Lollipop on the Nexus 4. But in all fairness, there’s nothing I seriously miss or can’t live without. And there’s a Lollipop-based ROM in the works. Second, the swipe keyboard seems noticeably less accurate than what I’ve gotten used to. However, that might just be because I still have the muscle memory of using the swipe keyboard on a smaller phone.

In summary, I think the OnePlus One is currently the best option for an unlocked, reasonably priced smartphone, especially given how expensive the Nexus 6 is.

Amazon’s Digital Wonderland

A few weeks ago I found myself in Seattle, WA. Contrary to popular belief, it was a rather bright and sunny few days (if somewhat chilly). Here’s an obligatory picture of the Sky Needle.

Sky Needle

Anyways, on the first day there I fought a mostly losing battle against travel-induced tiredness (I was up at 4:30 in the morning) and walked around downtown for a while, somewhat zombie-like. I spent the most of the next day in one of Amazon’s new buildings attending their first ever PhD Symposium. I got to meet Amazon employees like Swami Sivasubramanian, one of the creators of Amazon’s Dynamo database, as well as fellow graduate students like Rahul Potharaju. The day was full of interesting presentations and the breaks in between were packed with lots of cool conversations. I presented my current project, Merlin(excuse the visuals) and got some good feedback. All-in-all it was a great day, I had a wonderful time and I hope Amazon keeps having more of these research Symposia.

But that’s not what this post is about. Personally, I think of Amazon as a retailer first and a technology company second. In fact, I’ve even written a post about their exemplary customer service. Even though I’ve known about EC2 for years and have used both S3 and Glacier as personal backup, the idea of Amazon as a technology company has always been at the back of my mind. In fact, it was only while attending the symposium that I really thought about the full weight of Amazon as a technology services company.

After coming home I looked up the keynote from Amazon’s recent Re:Invent conference. The keynote shows off some of their more interesting recent technology (including new EC2 instances) as well as client technologies built on top of it (including companies like Netflix and Vimeo). I also stumbled across Dave Winer’s post on Amazon’s support of static JavaScript applications and why that’s so interesting and important.

The more I think about it, the more I like Amazon. They make incredible technology, employ lots of really smart people and have a refreshingly honest and direct business model in an industry dominated by advertising and harvesting user data. From computation, to storage, to scalable DNS, Amazon offers a suite of services that’s just about stunning in its breadth. Though I’ve had little use for their services personally (apart from Glacier for backup), I can see myself extensively using their systems and technology if I was building any of type of scalable, distributed service.

Even as I write this, I’m trying to come up with excuses for trying out more of their technology. What would I build? I honestly don’t know. But looking at the range of Amazon technologies and thinking about the possibilities reminds me of the feelings I got when I first started programming and learning about computers.

In many ways, the world has changed since I started writing code about 12 years ago. I had a lot of fun writing LOGO and BASIC programs and then hacking together little Perl scripts. Today I find myself wondering what the loosely coupled services and technologies offered by Amazon and other cloud computing services enable. I wonder if the new programmers of today, still learning on primarily single-threaded, single-box computing platforms, should be encouraged to move on to the brave new world of instantly accessible, practically unlimited computing power. I wonder what we’ll achieve if we were to take distributed, connected computation as the starting point, rather than the state of the art.

As an ending note, let’s think about Microsoft. It’s become standard to talk about Google as today’s Microsoft, but I’m starting to wonder if that title doesn’t rightfully belong to Amazon. I’m not talking about monopolistic activities or questionable business practices, but rather their similarities in making computing more popular. Microsoft’s goal (ostensibly) was to put a computer in every household. Amazon, for its part, has commoditized high-powered computing and distributed systems and made them available to people with modest budgets. I suppose the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Google wants your endorsements

Google’s updates to its Terms of Service have been made the rounds of the Internet last week. The particular bit that caught people’s attention was about something called “Shared Endorsements”. What are shared endorsements? From Google’s announcement:

Feedback from people you know can save you time and improve results for you and your friends across all Google services, including Search, Maps, Play and in advertising. For example, your friends might see that you rated an album 4 stars on the band’s Google Play page. And the +1 you gave your favorite local bakery could be included in an ad that the bakery runs through Google. We call these recommendations shared endorsements and you can learn more about them here.

Essentially, if you +1 a particular product, or write a review, then Google can use your name and picture when it displays ads related to that product. This move has understandably ruffled some feathers and merited a piece in the New York Times. John Gruber says that he is “looking forward to hearing from Google fans how this is acceptable” (as if Apple would do anything different if they had a social network).

Personally, I don’t consider this to be a violation of privacy. I consider social networks to essentially be public spaces. For me, that means I rarely upload personal photos and whatever text I post I would be willing to put on a public blog. Now, I would be peeved if Google took a negative review I wrote about a product and turned it into an endorsement. The examples show that Google shows a snippet of whatever review I write and a star rating. I would prefer there be some textual analysis happening to make sure that reviews are actually positive before using them as an endorsement. Since I don’t see any sign of that happening, I’ve decided to opt out. To be clear, my objection is not to Google using my reviews to sell products — I simply want to know that they use them accurately.

I do wish that we had an enforceable expectation of privacy in social networks, but by and large, we don’t. As users of Facebook, Google+ or any other social network we should be aware that their purpose is to make money for their shareholders. Without a payment option, it would be naive of us to expect that our data would not be monetized in every conceivable fashion.

For what it’s worth, I think Google has handled this move in the proper way. They made a public announcement and detailed in clear, unambiguous language what their plans were. They also provide a clear option to turn off Shared Endorsements. The opt-out page reiterates what Shared Endorsements are and provides a single clear checkbox. In contrast, Facebook has been doing essentially the same form of endorsement for a long time now and I don’t remember seeing a public announcement when they started. Their privacy settings are also infamous for being confusing and hard to navigate.

I would love for there to be a social network that’s free of advertisements and whose goal isn’t to data-mine and sell my data the first chance they get. In absence of such a network, it’s up to us, the users, to make the best of what’s available. I do like the utility that these services provide and I am willing to let them have certain information in order to continue providing that service. However I also make sure that I opt out of measures that I don’t want to be a part of. I don’t think Google+ has done the best job of building a social network (see the debacles relating to real names and identities), but this particular move has been better handled than most.

Upgrading to Ice Cream Sandwich

I’m about six months behind the rest of the world when it comes to phone software, but I finally upgraded my Nexus S  to Ice Cream Sandwich. Unfortunately the process was not as smooth as I would have liked: even though I have an unlocked stock phone from Google I still couldn’t get the OTA upgrade and had to find and manually download it. However, the upgrade basically destroyed my phone. Everything was slow and laggy, apps crashed all the time and battery life was down to a few hours. After a few days of trying to troubleshoot I gave up and did a “factory reset”. The reset removed all apps and reset to just the base OS (the upgraded ICS version in this case). Luckily this seemed to fix everything. Now that I’ve re-installed the apps that I did regularly use my phone is better than ever.

I really the look and feel of ICS. It’s close enough to Gingerbread that I don’t feel lost but it’s different enough to feel like I’m using something new. I like the blue and black theme much better than the previous orange (though I wish there was a selection of color themes). The more 2D feel of the interface (at least for the native Android apps) is really nice too. It’s different enough from iOS but not as different as Metro (or whatever it’s supposed to be called now). Some apps like the music player, the  contacts app and Gmail have had significant redesigns and are a quite a bit nicer to use. I don’t know what changes they have made to the keyboard but it seems much more natural to type on and more accurate. However the caps lock feature seems to be gone which is a bit annoying at times. Most third party apps seem to be unchanged by the design changes. The whole phone seems much snappier and faster. Battery life during actual use seems about the same, though it does seem longer on standby ( I haven’t made any scientific measurements).

I’ve been pretty happy with the Android platform and this phone in particular since I got it. It was not quite as polished as iOS but it wasn’t significantly deficient either. With the ICS update I feel like Android has made small but steady improvements to the whole experience. Since I mostly use the stock Android apps and popular ones like Facebook and Twitter I haven’t explored the ecosystem much. That being said, I have no complaints about the apps and services I do use. I use my phone basically as a quick lookup and occasional texting and calling device — I much prefer a proper computer when it comes to doing work. For those purposes the phone is great. With the improved keyboard I’ve been using it for quick emails and IM as well. If I was in the habit of keeping a shorter blog I think I could use the phone to write for that as well.

I don’t plan on switching phones any time soon and I’m glad to say that it looks like I won’t be forced to. The Nexus S is a solid device (not perfect, but solid). I wish it had a better camera and I’d be happy to pay for an OmniFocus app (even if it was just read only) but apart from that I’m happy with it. The ICS update made it better than it was and there doesn’t seem to have been any unnecessary superfluous changes. I hope the Jelly Bean update (when it comes) will keep going in the right direction.

Sunday Selection 2012-04-08

Today’s selection is something of a health special. For better or for worse our minds are intimately tied to our bodies. Until the day we have seamless uploading technology we’ll have to take care of bodies if we want our minds to work well. And in order to do that we need to know about how our bodies actually work and what’s good for us.

Around the Web

Is Sugar Toxic? The title is perhaps deliberately inflammatory, but the notion behind is perhaps just as troubling. Is is possible that sugar (not just high fructose corn syrup) is not just harmful in large quantities but something that’s dangerous by nature?

Humans: hot, sweaty, natural-born runners I’ll be the first to admit that I’d be happy if I could get away with doing no exercise at all. Unfortunately that’s not the case. The good news is that evolution has equipped us with the systems we need to be powerfully capable runners. Being a regular runner doesn’t require superhuman feats of dedication – it’s in our genes, we just have to tap into our latent biological potential.

From the shelves

The Four Hour Body I don’t really agree with Tim Ferriss’ Four-Hour Work Week ethic, but I do like the compendium of practical health and fitness information that he’s assembled in this book. While some of his advice is probably best taken with a physician’s advice this book will give you some great ideas and actionable guidelines for becoming healthier and stronger.

Moving Pictures

What Would You Do With Your Own Google? That, is a very good question. Cure cancer? Cure aging? End poverty and world hunger? We’re living in a world of unprecedented computational power and incredible amounts of data to crunch. What could we learn from all that data and how can we use it to change the world?

A New Year, A New Phone

This year I’ve decided to make a foray into the future by finally getting myself a proper smartphone. I’ve had an iPod Touch for a while but also had a simple Nokia not-smart phone to make actual phone calls. It’s always been somewhat annoying to have to manage two devices: a real phone for calls or texts and the iPod for any Internet and data-related work. A large part of my resistance to getting an actual smartphone was that I simply didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a cell phone plan when I was surrounded by wi-fi all the time and barely made actual phone calls. But now that there are finally both reasonably cheap unlocked smartphones and contract-free data plans I decided to bite the bullet.

The unlocked iPhone 4S would end up costing me a tad over $800 after tax and Applecare. I was also getting bored of the iOS ecosystem and its closed, silo system for apps. So instead I got myself a much cheaper unlocked Android phone – the Google/Samsung Nexus S. I’m pairing that with a $30 a month T-Mobile data and phone plan. I’m still waiting for a new SIM card to show up but till then I’m making use of the ample wifi coverage that’s a side-effect of living in a college town. For now, I’m only going to talk about my first impressions on the Nexus S itself.

Google Nexus S
Google Nexus S (via Wikipedia)

The Nexus S is Google’s previous flagship phone. Its current flagship is the Galaxy Nexus which Google is also selling unlocked. However it’s almost twice the price I paid for the Nexus S and in my opinion, isn’t sufficient of an upgrade to justify the price. Even though it’s about a year old by now (and technically running the old version of Android), I haven’t had a problem with it so far.

It looks pretty different from the iPhone and the plastic feel takes some getting used it. I also think it slips more easily, but that might just be a personal problem. The back of the phone has something of a ridge at the bottom which I guess is supposed to make it easier to hold. Though the build quality does feel inferior as compared to the iPhone, I like it and have no major complaints.

The Android sofware feels like a breath of fresh air as compared to the iPhone. It is considerably more customizable and I like the presence of both tradiiontal apps as well as “widgets” that add functionality directly to your home screens. I’ve found widgets great for quickly looking up data like the weather, Twitter mentions or what system services are currently running.

The tinkerer in me loves how customizable the Android system is. Changing the look and feel is just the beginning. There are a lot of bells and whistles and options and sometimes it can be a rather confusing. For now I’ve only stuck to the usual set of apps (Twitter, Foursquare, Camera) but I’m looking forward to trying out new and interesting apps in the future. More than that I feel like Android would be a really good platform if I decide to get into mobile dev anytime soon.

There are a few things about the Nexus S that I’m concerned with. I think the battery life is a tad too short, especially with the geolocation services on all the time. Luckily, the battery monitor widget makes it simple to turn off services with a touch so maybe some manual management might make it better. While the Google apps are really well integrated (especially Google Voice) and apps from large companies are well done, third-party apps seem to be of considerably less quality than iOS equivalents. I don’t really blame the developers given the multitude of devices but it does mean that finding good apps for simple things like RSS is more difficult than it should be.

Despite the glitches and minor annoyances I really like the Nexus S. The hardware is pretty solid and I like Android so far. Right now having a fully functional smartphone is still pretty new to me, but I’m hoping that when the novelty wears off I’ll dive into actually programming the powerful computer in my pocket.

Attention to details

Yesterday I decided to subscribe to a friend’s RSS feed. She is currently in Japan and writing about her experiences there (yes, she’s been talking about the earthquake among other things). I’ve been carrying around my Chrome netbook since it’s more comfortable to use than my Eee PC netbook and I was using when I decided to subscribe to her feed. Chrome OS is supposed to be optimized for living on the web and RSS is definitely a part of the web. In fact, Google Reader is the probably the best web-based feed reader out there (and one of the better RSS readers period). However, despite Google’s expertise with the web and their investment in ChromeOS doing something as simple as subscribing to an RSS feed takes three separate steps.

When you get to a webpage that has associated RSS feeds, Chrome will auto-detect them and put a small RSS icon in the address bar. When you click that icon you get  a list of available feeds. That’s fine because it exposes important information in an unobtrusive form and makes more detailed information easily available. Once you click whichever link you do want to subscribe to, you get taken to another page which shows a preview of the feed articles and lets you choose which feed reader you want to subscribe to. To be fair, this step can be removed by picking a default feed reader. In my case I choose Google Reader. But instead of just adding your feed to Google Reader, you are dropped into Reader where you have to click the subscribe button to actually subscribe to the feed. Though I’ve seen far worse signup processes, this could all be boiled down to a single step process if Google Reader and Google Chrome OS worked just a little bit better together (yes, I said Google twice to make a point).

I’ve done this lots of times already, but today it really bothered me. A few hours before I subscribed to my friend’s feed, I read Andy Ihnatko’s review of the iPad 2. If you’re considering buying the iPad 2 (or just interested in it) take half an hour and go read it. I want to highlight the part of the article that really stuck with me (and fueled my annoyance at the Chrome/Reader signup process).

The iPad 2 Smart Cover is emblematic of what makes Apple a great technology company. I kind of want to hide one in my jacket pocket every time a tech company is giving me my first briefing on a new tablet, and bring it out at a decisive moment.

“Halt,” I would say, unrolling the Smart Cover and holding it before me like a talisman to ward off evil. “Did you put as much thought into your entire tablet as Apple put into this deceptively simple screen cover?”

See, I’m increasingly coming to the view that the small things matter. Not only do they matter, they are downright important and worthy of serious attention especially if they are part of products you want to get into the hands of lots of people. Unfortunately this does not seem to be clear to people and companies that are making said products, even companies that should know better.

As much as we’d like to pretend that humans are logical beings and use products and services based purely on their technical merits, the truth is we’re not Vulcans. Using beautiful, well-designed products and living in attractive environments actually makes us feel better and more productive. And when it comes to making a solid, fine-tuned experience, the small stuff matters. It really matters.

Not to sound like a total fanboy, but Apple realizes this and executes it well, and is one of the few companies that do. Interestingly enough, Apple’s penchant for polish and good design spills over into the whole ecosystem of Mac apps. OS X is the only platform where I honestly say that some applications are beautiful. The web is a becoming close second thanks to the increase in quality of rendering engines. I think this is an analog of the “broken windows theory” — Apple actively discourages broken windows on its platform. It’s own products are useful, well-designed and a joy to use. They’re continually raising the bar, in terms of hardware, software and the combined experience.

Demanding perfection and not shipping bad products is not a easy choice to make, but is certainly pays. Again, Apple last made $14 billion in profits. In profits. And is now the second largest company in the world. Companies like Moleskin, Behance and Rhodia make beautiful, thoughtfully designed stationary products and they’re not cheap. But they’re worth it. If you’re serious about creating products and services that people not only use, but want to use, then you should sweat the small stuff and work on creating the filter.