Technological Sentimentality

I’ve been thinking about making a list — a list of things that I want to get rid off/sell before I graduate. I’m moving a few hundred miles and I’d don’t want to take anything I won’t be using. I’m getting rid of things like my large desk chair (which unfortunately is not very comfortable) and a bunch of books that I don’t plan on reading again. But I also have gadgets and computers that I don’t use or won’t be using any more.

I don’t consider myself particularly sentimental, but a lot of things that I have are “firsts” — my first iPod, my first laptop and so on. At the same time I don’t like clutter and I don’t want to hang on to things I know I won’t be using. For some things the decision is easy: my Eee PC netbook I’m going to get rid of because it just doesn’t fit into how I like to work. It’s just a bit too small and underpowered for me to get real work done on it. The Chrome netbook works for when I’m on campus and connected and I’m saving towards a Macbook. Similarly I’m not keeping my Mini — it’s dying slowly (the wifi and optical drive are both dead) and a new Macbook will take over everything I use it for. My larger linux laptop will stay, even though it’s older than the netbook. It has a larger screen and I got an upgrade to 4GB of RAM (thanks to my summer work at Virginia Tech). The battery is dead, but it’s too heavy to carry around comfortably anyway (again Macbook to the rescue). But it makes a great Linux development machine.

But I also have 80GB iPod Classic (I believe it’s in the first generation of Classics), a 16GB iPod Touch, a 7MP Canon Powershot camera and probably a few other things here and there that I’m forgetting about. For each of these there are reasons to keep them around and reasons to get rid of them. The Classic is a better music player than the Touch and has more space. The Touch is my mobile Internet device and gets a good amount of use as a PDA and Twitter/RSS client. The camera, well, it’s a camera and it doesn’t really get much use. The Touch and the camera could both be replaced by an iPhone, but getting one of those is much less definite than the Macbook. And the Classic was the first device I bought with my own money. So even though I barely ever use it (except maybe for infrequent gym trips) it does have some sentimental value.

Decisions, decisions. Though writing this post has helped me clean up my thoughts, I haven’t made up my mind. In an ideal world, I’d be able to take my computers and turn them in for a shiny new Macbook. Likewise, I’d take my Touch and camera and turn it into an iPhone. But part of my dilemma is that I probably won’t be doing a straight upgrade (because I’m a starving college student and I want to wait till Lion Macbooks come out). The latest I can keep stuff is the end of May when I graduate. Going by Apple’s record new Macbooks won’t be out until September which means I’ll be out of a properly portable computer for summer. That doesn’t seem like a smart idea (considering I’m a programmer and all that). It’s been awhile since I’ve been in the market for a completely new replacement computer and this selling/buying process is starting to bring back bad memories of playing the upgrade/wait game.

At this point I’m considering getting rid of as much as I can and just dealing with the months I find myself laptop-less. There are still some things that I need to think about: I don’t know what I’m doing over summer and there’s the little question of actually getting rid of my machines. I don’t want to just throw them away. I’d like to be able to give them to someone who will find some use of them. (Which means if you really want something I mentioned, contact me).

Braindump complete.

How many devices is enough?

I love gadgets and devices. I really do. Before I got introduced to the world of computers, I loved wristwatches. Then it was phones and computers. Now I have a fascination for mobile computers and phone-like devices (I don’t like phones as phones, just the physical gadgets). I’ve only really started buying my own devices since I moved to the US of A about two and half years ago. My current stock of devices is:

  1. A 15.4″ ‘work’ laptop
  2. A 4-year old Mac Mini
  3. A recent Eee PC netbook
  4. An old G4 used as a backup server (to be replaced by a VM when I leave school)
  5. A 2-year old iPod Classic
  6. A 7MP Canon Camera
  7. A dirt cheap Nokia cell phone

Though I use pretty all of them fairly regularly (except the camera) I think I have a few too many pieces of hardware. A lot of my friends think 4 computers is way too much, but I think I would really need about 3 computers: one machine (a desktop or larger laptop) for daily work, a netbook for travel and a remote server for backups and emergencies. However, it’s the portable devices that are starting to frustrate me.

I’m at the point where each of my portables does one job (and does it pretty well). My phone makes calls, my camera takes pictures and my iPod plays music. I can appreciate the fact that it’s a vaguely UNIX-y setup, but I’m coming to realize that the UNIX philosophy does not really apply to hardware, at least not to portable devices. In the case of software, it doesn’t really matter if you have 5 installed programs or 50. You have 50 functions either way. However the more devices you have, the more you need to lug around. And you only have two hands to hold them with.

In many ways, the iPhone is a stroke of pure genius. It’s combines all of my current devices into a single package. And it’s just the right size too: pocket-size. But I’m not going to get a iPhone for a good few years. I really don’t need  any of the expensive plans that the contracts require, especially since I don’t really like making phone calls. Also I want to take slightly better pictures than what the iPhone currently allows. Many of the same reasons apply to Android phones. And the third reason is that I’ve been thinking a lot about yet another device for a while: the Kindle.

On Ebook readers

Ebook readers are finally starting to make it into the mainstream. I like the idea of having a portable library that I can take everywhere with me. But at the same time it’s yet another dedicated device. Now you could argue that it’s possible to read documents on the iPhone or a similar device. It’s certainly possible, but it’s probably not something you want to do.

It’s a question of form-factors: the phone form-factor is good for always-on, in-your-pocket communication devices. Anything smaller and you wouldn’t be able to use the Internet with any comfort and much larger and it won’t fit in pockets. But when it comes to actual serious reading for extended periods of time, you want something that’s larger than can fit in one hand. The reasons may be psychological as well as physical, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re used to book-size material and would rather not adapt to something else. The sizes of the Kindle and Nook are bigger than what can fit in your pocket, which means that they won’t fill the role of smaller devices.

In some ways, a netbook and an E-book reader are of comparable form factors. They’re both too large to fit into your pocket, but they are small and light enough that you don’t need to think twice about slipping them into a backpack. This isn’t to say that they are comparable devices. I certainly wouldn’t curl up in bed with my netbook, and I wouldn’t use the Kindle to do any sort of serious text-processing (though web browsing, certainly).

As I keep wondering if I read enough books in enough places to warrant a Kindle (I probably don’t), I can’t help but also think about another contender waiting to jump in:

The Apple Tablet

My professor wants a device the size of a Kindle DX, but that connects to the Internet and can run apps. This is pretty much what the Apple will probably be. So no one really knows for certain what the Apple tablet will be like. But it’s probably going to be about the size of an ebook reader with features similar to, but not the same as, an iPhone. It’s almost certainly going to have some sort of wireless connectivity and might come subsidized with a data plan.

I’m sure a lot of people except the Apple tablet to cannibalize the ebook reader market the same way that the iPod took the over the MP3 player market. I doubt that’s going to happen, the main reason being that the distribution channels are already out of Apple’s reach. But going by Apple’s track record the tablet will certainly be an interesting device. And it’s going to be yet another device that I won’t get.

Firstly the price will almost certainly be too high for what I feel uncomfortable spending. Anything less than $500 and it risks eating into the iPod Touch market and I’m not ready to spend more than that. Secondly, I don’t want yet another semi-general purpose computer. Given the tablet’s probable size, I feel that wherever I’d take my tablet, I already take my netbook. And I’ll take a computer with a full keyboard over a tablet any day.

So how many devices do I really need?

I think the truth is that right now I have just the right number of portable devices. I have devices that do everything that I want to do when I’m moving (music, pictures, phone calls). I also have my netbook that acts as a quick way to get online when I don’t want to go find an actual computer.

None of the other devices offer really compelling devices for me to buy them. I don’t move around enough to justify an iPhone’s pricey plans. I have access to a wide selection of paper books at my school library and I don’t buy nearly enough books to justify a Kindle. And I simply do not have a suitable use case for using a tablet over my netbook.

As my current stock of items starts to fail, I will try to consolidate somewhat. The battery on my iPod is starting to show its age, but I’m waiting for an iPod Touch with a decent camera to come out to replace it. Combine that with a Skype number and constant wi-fi and I can leave out my phone too.

I’m still going to keep my eye on things and if I see a device that’s useful and low-priced enough, I might consider a buy. But only after I’ve thought things through on this blog.

Musical Musings

I just received an email from the founder of Pandora asking for support in bringing a halt to the RIAA’s attempts to gather more royalties from online music broadcasters at rates which would effectively bring online radio to an end. I’m personally a big fan of online radio and I would be really sad to see it come to an end for no reason other than pure and simple greed. The entertainment industry, especially music is at a very important point. The monopoly held by record and broadcasting companies is gradually being brought to an end by the growing prevalence of technology and the sophistication of media recording and editing tools available to the common man. Of course the industry isn’t about to let go of its major streams of income without fighting tooth and nail for it. The result is the proliferation of techniques and technologies which have no other purpose than restricting how consumers can use the media that they have legally bought.

Apple’s extremely successful online iTunes store uses digital rights management and a patent-licensed, non-free file format to prevent copying music. However the result isn’t really the stopping of privacy, but growing inconvenience for the user. You can’t officially use software other than iTunes to transfer music to your iPod and music bought on the iTunes store can’t be played without iTunes or some sort of unauthorized, unsupported plugin. I feel that DRM is quite simply an injustice to honest paying customers. While I do not support piracy and feel that musicians should be adequately compensated for their work, I don’t think any authority has the right to tell me what I should do with music that I have paid for. The RIAAs claims that storing my music on an online backup system like MP3Tunes or even on multiple CDs is illegal. Excuse me if I disagree.

The strangest part of this whole affair is that it is technologically impossible for any authority to regulate copying the way that the industry wants to. If you can create software to lock down particular media files, it is also possible to create software to open those locks. Of course the easiest thing to do, as a consumer is to simply not buy music or other media that is crippled by DRM or other restrictions. Music CDs are one way to go. However, if you are the type who prefers to buy music in a purely electronic online, you don’t have to turn to Apple’s DRM’d iTunes store any more. The recently launched Amazon MP3 store has a large and growing collection of DRM-free 256Kbps MP3 tracks for download as soon as you have paid. These are plain old MP3 files that can be copied and transferred without limit and loaded onto any MP3 player. I’ve been considering buying music online, and though I would still pay a little extra for a CD, I think Amazon’s store is a much better option than the iTunes store and it’s a great way for conscious consumers to vote with their wallets.

My own music collection is purely MP3, ripped from the CDs. I do use the iTunes/iPod combo, because it works for me. However, I do maintain separate backups of my music (on a separate computer and on DVD). The recent attempts by Apple to prevent the use of the iPod with iTunes MP3 players has disturbed me somewhat, but for the time being, I am content to tolerate it. At the same time, I don’t use the non-free AAC format (which is default for iTunes). Since the MP3 is not actually free or open, I have considered changing my music to something that is, such as Ogg Vorbis. However, I think that at this point that would be rather inconvenient for me. Most importantly, I use my iPod a lot and the iPod doesn’t support the Ogg Vorbis format. The Rockbox firmware for iPods and other players allows playing Ogg Vorbis files, but it only supports older iPods. When it becomes available for newer iPods, I will seriously consider a switch. In fact, I have been looking around for an older iPod that I could get for cheap to try Rockbox on it.

Though I’m content to use the iPod/iTunes combo for the time being, if Apple were to try to lock me in to its proprietary format, I would not hesitate to switch to a less restricted player (and Ogg Vorbis while I’m at it). I suspect that many other people would do the same, especially tech-savvy early-adopters. And it’s probably not a good idea to get the early adopters unhappy.

Edit: I had incorrectly referred to AAC as Apple’s proprietary format. Thanks to the first commenter below for pointing this out.