T-mobile's G2: Android done precisely, totally, wrong.

(GeekStuff)

2010-10-08 11:42
Comment [1]

Okay, don’t get me wrong. The fundamental hardware feature set of the phone? Great.

Here’s the thing. T-mobile has decided to have this phone seriously crippled in a number of ways, all of which conspire to screw legitimate users for no obvious benefit to anyone. And, being a company, they are of course blatantly, flatly, lying about the whole thing.

What did they do? They allocated a big chunk of the built-in storage to a special setup that lets them restore the phone to factory settings if certain things are changed. The sorts of things changed when one “roots” the phone (gets full access to the internal storage, so you can do things like shut off or remove unwanted applications.) What effect does this have? In their words, it “ensures optimum performance”. That’s a lie. What it really does:

  • It ensures that, no matter what your feelings are, you will run the provided Amazon MP3 app, and the Photobucket app. Period. Doesn’t matter whether you want to deal with either company. Those applications are running. If you shut them off, they are restarted. You cannot escape. Memory and battery life are both being dedicated to running these, and you don’t get a vote in it.
  • It means that, of the advertised “4GB” of storage the phone has, about 1.2GB is available to you. This isn’t the normall amount of storage used up by formatting and preinstalled software; this is a massive decrease in provided storage, far beyond what you’d see on any other device.
  • It prevents you from running a variety of perfectly legitimate programs that are not illegal, unlawful, dangerous, or harmful to the phone or the network.

That’s it. It doesn’t make anything run better. In fact, because one of the effects of this setup is to force certain unwanted applications to run all the time, it isn’t just that it’s not ensuring optimum performance — it’s that it is ensuring bad performance compared to what you could get if you were allowed to shut off unwanted software.

This is a pretty shitty thing to do, T-mobile. It’s shitty to screw your customers. It’s shitty to lie about it. No, you are not “ensuring optimum performance”. You’re screwing us out of storage space we paid for, and you’re wasting battery life (not one of this phone’s strong points) on software we didn’t ask for and don’t want.

Some people have argued, perhaps plausibly, that the concern vendors have is that people who root their phones sometimes damage them. True dat. And then some of those people file bogus warranty claims. Probably also true. And as a result, the natural thing to do is screw everyone else in a misguided effort to slow these people down… Is that gonna work? I don’t think it is. Is it a reasonable or rational response? No. Is it an ethical response? Hell no. It’s malware. It’s a rootkit. It’s the same kind of technology that botnet authors use, running for exactly the same reason — to assert control over someone else’s hardware.

If T-mobile really wants to do something to avoid bogus warranty claims from people screwing up their phones when rooting them, that’s super easy to do. Right out of the box, provide the phone with an easy user-accessible way to get root. As soon as you do this, people stop trying to “root” their phones in ways that can turn the phones into bricks; instead, they just use the software they want to use and go on their merry way. If you really want, install some kind of non-volatile storage and make a note in it when the root software gets run. No one’s gonna waste time trying to outsmart that, why would they care? People only do crazy stuff to get their phones rooted because that’s what they need to do in order to get access to the hardware they paid for. Give them the access free, and they’ll take the easy path.

Compare this with Sony’s PS3 woes; efforts on cracking the PS3 didn’t get serious until Sony took away the easy way to run Linux on it. Once Sony did that, people who wanted to do perfectly ordinary and legitimate stuff, using features they had paid for, suddenly had to break the security to do it… So they did. If T-mobile would stop shipping phones preconfigured to run unwanted crapware, and with core functionality disabled, T-mobile would stop seeing people bricking phones trying to fix them.

Anyway, long story short: If you don’t need any of the other functionality, and don’t mind running bogus crapware like the Amazon MP3 store thing, the G2’s a pretty nice piece of hardware. However, do be aware that it has much worse specs than advertised due to malicious software factory-installed by T-mobile. If you want the real, advertised, specs, you’re gonna have to wait until either T-mobile goes honest again, or the developer community figures out how to bypass and disable the rootkit. Which could be a couple of weeks, easy.

Before this, I used to recommend T-mobile as being a better-run company than their competition. Now, I’m not so sure.

Peter Seebach

Comment [1]

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Mmm shiny

(Personal, GeekStuff)

2010-10-08 00:04
Comment [3]

It’s finally happened.

LED christmas lights come in a compete selection of rainbow colors. Indeed, all on a single string.

My room is, of course, now decorated with several strings of rainbow-colored lights. I find highly saturated colors soothing. I particularly like them in patterns, such as rainbows. A room with very little light other than lots of brightly colored lights is pretty ideal for me. So… Rainbow christmas lights. Lots of them.

This is pretty much beyond my skill to get the camera to do a good job with. Just assume that the colors are actually more saturated than they look, and the room as a whole looks sort of purple-blue with a bit of a red undertone. The blue and purple LEDs are clearly winning, with the red sort of following up on them; the green/yellow side of things is just not staying competitive.

But the overall feel of the thing is quite cheery.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [3]

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We are living in the future.

(Personal, GeekStuff)

2010-10-05 23:48
Comment

A lot of the things people said we “would” be able to do are now pretty commonplace. One of my phones (the G2) has an app called “tricorder” that can measure gravity (well, acceleration — good luck telling those apart), magnetism, some kinds of EM spectrum, and can do real-time spectrum analysis of audio. It could probably do real-time spectrum analysis of the camera input, too, but they happen not to have written that yet. You can take a picture of an object and have a decent chance of the software figuring out what it is and telling you where you can buy one. If you can get a barcode, you’re set — it can get exactly that item for you.

It’s not even interesting any more to have a phone that can take pictures of higher quality than we used to be able to make at all for any price and send them around the world in seconds. I mean, you have to spend serious time and effort to find a phone that CAN’T do that. The resolution on the displays of current phones is high enough that I can no longer perceive pixels in them.

What’s been really interesting has been the mix of ways in which we anticipated the effects of these changes and ways in which we totally failed to. The effect of mobile phones on markets in emerging countries seems to have been a bit of a surprise — no one realized they’d replace monetary transactions in places with no real banking, did they? It surprised me, although once you’ve thought of it it’s obvious.

I suppose I should be disappointed that we never really did rocket cars, but the stuff we’ve gotten instead is frankly better.

As Jesse pointed out: For most end-user purposes, the size and shape of a storage device is now a matter of ergonomics, not storage design. You can get 64GB storage devices around the size of a pinky nail; the reason thumb drives are still thumb-sized is purely a matter of convenience to the user, because if you make them too small we lose them.

LED lighting has reduced the energy cost of a given amount of illumination further than I actually expected to see it go in my lifetime… and with any luck, I have a few years left in me. Bandwidth has gotten to the point where I don’t even pay attention to whether I’ve already downloaded a given multi-gigabyte DVD image yet in most cases. Who cares? Storage and bandwidth are too cheap to meter.

That none of this appears to have eliminated war and poverty should, I suppose, not surprise us.

Peter Seebach

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A human body? We shall do SCIENCE to it!

(Personal)

2010-10-04 19:54
Comment [1]

So, Jesse had an appointment with a rehab therapist today.

Background: For the last “few years”, Jesse has been inexplicably sore all over, achey, prone to joints popping and creaking, unable to even just walk around for very long or stand for long without being too sore to stand or even move. Even sitting in regular chairs has been a problem. Or lying down. … You could see how this would get annoying.

So. Rehab therapist asks a ton of questions. What hurts, when does it hurt, what do you do. Starts running Jesse through various things. “Lean forward slowly. Tell me when it starts to hurt.”

And then… Science started happening. If you’ve ever watched a mechanic or a programmer debugging something, you know what I mean. The point at which it goes from just collecting data to a specific theory. Oddly specific requests. Predictions of “this should be a bit of a stabbing pain in your lower back on the right side.”

And then, it turns out, a diagnosis. And once the theory was in place, the doctor had another series of exercises. Move here, push there, bend your knee out while keeping your ankles together…

And bam. Pain gone.

Apparently! It is possible for your hip bones to move against the bone that’s sorta between them. And normally they move just a tiny little bit, and all is well. But they can also rotate. And if one of them gets rotated just a bit forwards, and the other just a bit backwards, and the one that’s rotated forwards can’t move that tiny little bit anymore, you are FUCKED. And not in a good way, mind.

Anyway, there shall be followup visits and explaining of exercises to keep this from recurring, but it looks like the actual culprit for all this agony was a chair with a broken spring on one side. Whoops.

Peter Seebach

Comment [1]

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Initial impressions of the Android G2, plus comparison with iPhone

(GeekStuff)

2010-10-03 16:19
Comment

Well, it’d been a while since I last got a phone, and I was due for an upgrade. And Microsoft seems pretty firmly committed to destroying the old Sidekick line. Worse, my Sidekick has a habit of stuttering when trying to send touch tone signals during a call, making online systems a nightmare to navigate. So I popped over to Radio Shack and got a G2.

Impressions

Overall… This is an impressive bit of hardware, but I don’t think they’ve quite figured out what they’re doing. It’s a really interesting experience comparing this to the iPhone, which I also have. On the whole, I can see clear cases where each of them is more useful than the other. I’m not gonna be ditching the iPhone any time soon, but I’m also not about to give up the G2. (The Sidekick, by contrast, is completely replaced by the G2.)

So, thing one. Modern technology is getting pretty far ahead of me these days. I mean, seriously. The Sidekick, which I got two years ago or so, came with a 128MB additional memory card installed. The G2 comes with an 8GB card. (Nominal internal storage is 4GB, although you only get about 1.2GB for apps as of this writing.) The resolution on the G2’s display is ridiculous; I can’t see the pixels, but they tell me it has a lot.

Hardware

Screen: I haven’t got an iPhone 4 to compare with, although I have seen one. The G2 and the iPhone 4 were both gorgeous. The 3GS display is clearly lower resolution, but quite pretty. The G2’s display is a little further from square — not sure whether that’s good or bad. Between the G2 and the 3GS, though, the G2 clearly wins. The display is sharper. I can’t really tell you whether one or the other has “better” colors for sure, but I think the G2 colors look a little richer.

Battery life: Both wear down pretty fast if you’re running a lot of apps. Solution: Keep USB cables handy.

Charging cable: Neither uses the normal standard mini-USB connector. The iPhone has, of course, the special magic ipod cable. Boo. The G2 has a cable I’ve never seen on anything else… except my Nook. So I guess I have to take back the claim that they both have a nonstandard cable, and revert to the more subtle complaint that they both have a cable which is apparently standard but not the standard I’m used to. I still wish they’d just have used the cable everyone else did — I have a ton of chargers for that kind of cable, and not many for the new one these guys used.

Storage: The iPhone comes with a bunch more onboard storage, but isn’t expandable. You can get a 64GB iPhone. The G2 is 4GB, as advertised, but in practice has about 1.2GB available for apps. On the other hand, you can get expansion cards for it at least as large as 64GB, and you can swap cards. (Swapping, though, is a huge pain — the card is behind the battery, so you basically have to shut everything down to swap.) On the other hand, I don’t plan to use the G2 to hold a complete copy of my music library, so I don’t actually care… That said, I have a lot more than 2GB of apps on my iPhone, so the G2 really does need that expansion slot. On the bright side, they ship with an 8GB card for it, as mentioned previously.

Processor performance, and so on… Eh, whatever. Modern phones are, for the most part, Fast Enough. I don’t remember how fast either of these is, and I don’t care. They both do stuff fast enough that I’m a lot more concerned about network performance.

Network performance: T-mobile utterly stomps AT&T here. I can’t even pretend to find this surprising or noteworthy. (This isn’t just an HSPA thing or whatever; the AT&T network sometimes underperforms my years-older pre-3G hardware.)

User Experience

But… where it really gets interesting is the user experience. The iPhone tends to win on simplicity and clarity. It takes a while to learn the idioms, but once learned, they’re pretty consistent and they’re pretty easy to remember and use. The Android interface tends to be a bit less polished. For instance, to delete a bookmark on the iPhone, you swipe across it and hit the delete button which suddenly appears. On the G2, you click-and-hold on the bookmark, at which point a sub-menu appears, which does not contain the word Delete, nor a scrollbar… but it’s scrollable and if you scroll you can find a delete option. (There is a brief flash of a scrollbar just as the menu pops up, but you can easily miss it.)

The G2 has some nice features, though. Many buttons have tactile feedback, because the phone twitches momentarily when you hit them. This is something I got used to on the Wii a while back, and I really do like it now — tactile feedback is good. The lack of consistency, though, is not so good — only some buttons have this feedback, and I can’t tell you which ones or why.

The G2 has an additional touchpad thing, which I am hugely impressed by. My blackberry and sidekick both have a trackball, which can be used to scroll around or click. On the G2, there’s a similar device, but it’s a touchpad that can be used for scrolling and clicking. I’m really impressed by it — it’s about a quarter inch across, but is suitably tuned so that scrolling with it does what I mean.

The G2 and iphone software keyboards both suck, in different ways. Or, alternatively, they’re both pretty nice. In different ways. The G2’s big thing is the “Swype” typing mechanism, where you just draw a sorta swoopy line through the letters of the word you want and it guesses what you want. This works amazingly well, but not flawlessly. Still, it’s pretty good. The iPhone’s feedback on what key you’re actually selecting works better for me, though. Still, both are at least usable.

The G2 wins hugely on having a hardware keyboard. Sorry, Apple. Nothing you do on screen seems to be able to come close to the quality of the hardware keyboard experience. Even though this is not an amazingly good hardware keyboard. This, in fact, is the one place where I’d say the old sidekick was superior to the G2. Possibly because its keyboard had another row so it could separate out numbers from letters, and generally have a few more options. That said, the G2’s feels nicer.

The iphone wins big on accessibility, in that it has some built in. Apparently you can download a screen reader from the android market, but the iphone has the functionality built in out of the box. (A blind user reviews the iPhone.)

Built-in software

Software… It’s really hard to usefully compare these. They’re not better or worse at somehow similar tasks. They’re basically not trying to do the same thing. The iPhone’s built in software is slick, polished, and fairly limited. The G2 has questionable polish but is loaded with interesting options that make no sense and you’d never want to use them except… woah, I just thought of a great use for… yeah, that kind of thing. (Sorry for the stream-of-consciousness presentation, but I can’t figure out a clearer way to articulate it.)

Neither phone lets you delete the built-in apps. This annoys me, because they’re taking up space, and also other resources. For instance, I have a flickr account. As a result, I have a very low level of interest in photobucket support… But the built-in photobucket app is running, taking up memory, and I can’t make it stop. (I can kill it using a task manager applet — I just can’t make it stop coming back from the dead. … edited to add, maybe I can, I found an option somewhere, but I can’t tell whether it worked.) Similarly, there’s a voice dialing app. I don’t care. I don’t use voice dialing. And yet, I can’t find a way to turn it off. Annoying. But, in the defense of each phone, the other is just as bad.

Basically, if I just wanted to hand someone a device and have them be able to use it to do whatever it does, it’d be the iPhone. If I wanted to hand someone a device to play with and maybe see what they could make of it, it’d be the G2. The G2 rewards playing around more, but it’s harder to get it to do simple stuff.

Third-party software

The iphone app store is in many ways more polished; it certainly has a lot more categories and divisions. On the other hand, a lot of the stuff in those categories is just plain miscategorized. The android app store has a lot more under-the-hood stuff available, which I think is a very good thing. The G2 wins big on security, here — it tells you what each application wants access to in order to run. On the down side, a lot of applications want access to things that, frankly, they have no business accessing. But! At least you’re told about it. It’s sort of a step forwards, eh?

The most obvious difference between them, from my point of view, is that you can get a shell program for the G2. Apple’s phone isn’t about to give you a shell. You’re in a cage, and the cage is really pretty, but it will always be a cage. By contrast, the Android market gives you a ton of options for stuff that may or may not be safe, or legal, or whatever. There are apps for it to let you tether it (use the phone as a network connection for a laptop or something). Apple is pretty hostile to that sort of thing; Android just puts ‘em up, and it’s up to you whether you think your vendor will let you get away with it or not. (Many carriers, T-mobile included, refuse to sell tethering plans, but are pretty apathetic about preventing people from doing it if they really want to.)

If I could only have one…

It’d be a hard choice. I think I’d go with the G2 — more flexibility. The phone where “USB Debugging” is a selectable option is more appealing to me than the phone where you need a $99/year developer license to upload even your own home-written software. Note that this is specifically in response to the question of which phone I would prefer; I don’t necessarily think most people would agree. Android’s certainly maturing quite a bit, but it doesn’t feel like as polished a platform as the iPhone yet. For users who don’t mind not being able to see under the hood, the iPhone may be a more pleasant environment.

If T-Mobile were to get their act together and provide a working tethering plan so we could use the standard, built-in, already-fully-developed, tethering features of Android, the G2 would be a much more compelling win for gadget geeks. As is, it’s still better, I think, but not by as much.

Note that this all assumes carrier is a non-issue. I have overall had a much more positive experience with T-mobile than I have with AT&T, and in general, I go into any interaction with AT&T’s network expecting it to be dodgy and slow, while the browser on the G2, I expect to Just Work. (In the iPhone’s defense, Safari works wonderfully over WiFi. It’s the network, not the phone, sucking.)

Peter Seebach

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Watching old movies is weird.

(Personal)

2010-10-02 14:52
Comment

So, a while back, we saw a handful of old James Bond movies on sale for $5 each, and picked them up. They’re from the Roger Moore era. In the process of watching these, I’ve learned many things. For instance, I learned that in canon, James Bond was married. I didn’t realize this. I have to say, it’s not one of the things that would most come to mind if you were to think about his most noticeable character traits.

FWIW, I still like Moore’s Bond the best. I like the unruffled mild silliness much better than I like the later “super gritty”. And yes, I’m well aware that this is less true to the books; the books really didn’t appeal to me as much.

Why, you ask, am I watching fluffy old movies? Because I have a cold, and while I no longer feel as though I am dying, I still don’t have much for brains, so it’s silly old movies for me. Although I am a bit concerned by the housemates discussing nailing my door shut and painting “Lord Have Mercy” on it. Really, it wasn’t THAT bad.

Peter Seebach

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... WTF? "Diet" food is actually tasty?

(Personal)

2010-09-27 20:47
Comment

So, one of my friends has been eating a bunch of food from the “diet” section of the grocery store, not out of a desire to lose weight, but just because it’s apparently tasty.

Well, I noticed that there was a “Lean Cuisine” branded microwave pizza. And I like pizza, most of the time, and I wouldn’t mind a single-person sized pizza. So I got one.

It’s delicious. This really surprised me. I’m used to frozen pizza being a little bland in spots, and sort of having to doctor it to turn it into food. More importantly, I’m used to basically anything advertised as diet, lite, light, lean, thin, or possibly desireable to people who want to lose weight, as tasting like stale cardboard. (I assume this is how you are supposed to lose weight; if food is horrible, you don’t eat it.) This was actually tasty without any special magic. The downside, of course, is the price — it’s about the same price as twice as much pizza of a more conventional variety. On the other hand, if I don’t want twice as much pizza, that’s not an awful thing.

Now I just need to hit the grocery store on a day when they have enough of them to cover my breakfast needs for a while.

Peter Seebach

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This is getting ridiculous.

(GeekStuff)

2010-09-27 17:37
Comment [1]

So, I’ve been doing some cleaning, and I’ve consolidated some stuff, and moved some stuff around.

I have a shelf full of “old hard drives”. It now has on it something in excess of four or five terabytes of storage space which I’m not using because I just plain don’t have any immediate use for it. It’s drives that were used for one of the old servers, or a backup disk from a previous laptop that I’m not quite sure I want to wipe out now, or whatever… And it’s a few terabytes of space. And not only am I not currently using it, I don’t have any immediate plans to use it. The biggest impetus to do anything about it all, really, is the realization that it’s getting full and I can’t stash my old drives there anymore until I clear it out or something.

Peter Seebach

Comment [1]

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... But I wanna go to FROGGIES!

(Personal)

2010-09-24 19:34
Comment

So, one of my favorite places to eat is Froggy Bottoms. Well, was. First, look at their web site, especially the picture showing their patio, above the river.

Now look at Froggy Bottoms, underwater this afternoon.

Obviously, I am not going there for dinner tonight. Or any time real soon.

I really hope they get repaired and back in order soon, though, because they make exceptional food. If you’re ever in Northfield, and they’re open again, do step in and try it out. Although I am not a stew person, I am told their Irish Stew is pretty much the best you can get from a restaurant on this continent. Burgers aren’t half bad either.

ETA: More coverage on Locally Grown.

Peter Seebach

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More thoughts about learning (computer) languages...

(GeekStuff)

2010-09-22 19:51
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I’ve picked up a fair number of programming languages. In recent years, though, I’ve noticed something: They’re getting easier. Now, before you jump out and say “of course, language design has improved”, I’m not talking about improvements in language design; I’m talking about a shift in what my brain does when confronted with a new thing which looks sort of like a programming language.

I think some of it is just that it’s harder and harder for people to come up with something that’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. I’m a couple hundred pages into a book on Python, and I’ve seen one construct so far that I don’t think I’ve seen in other languages in a recognizable form, but honestly I think at least a couple of the languages I know could probably do something functionally quite similar.

I’ve also noticed that ease of learning new languages doesn’t seem to affect how much I like or dislike them, so far. PHP was pretty easy to pick up, but I find it loathesome. Python is pretty easy to pick up, and I don’t really like it, but I find it pretty tolerable. If I had to code in Python for a few months, I wouldn’t spend the whole time frustrated and annoyed; that’s a lot nicer than anything I could say about PHP.

The question of what makes a language likeable is pretty thoroughly non-obvious. It’s not high level languages with simple syntax; I love C, and even though I’m moderately fluent in several high level scripting languages, I still often use C for “trivial” programs — even ones that involve string manipulation or set manipulation, which are much, much, easier to do in something like Python or Ruby. It’s not lack of quirks or annoyances; I’m happy to rant about the various flaws in C, but I recognize the sound technical reasons for which most of them can probably never be changed. (Hundreds of millions of lines of installed sound technical reasons around the world…)

FWIW, some time further in, I’m still not really liking Python. I’m not disliking it particularly, though, and from me, that’s probably actually sorta complimentary.

Something I find myself wanting, though, is a gigantic table of idioms in Perl, Python, PHP, Ruby, Lua, and maybe C, which shows roughly how to translate some common idioms from one language to another. Not that every idiom is portable to every language…

/* translate this to Python, plx? */
	int n=(count+7)/8;
	switch(count%8){
	case 0:	do{	*to = *from++;
	case 7:		*to = *from++;
	case 6:		*to = *from++;
	case 5:		*to = *from++;
	case 4:		*to = *from++;
	case 3:		*to = *from++;
	case 2:		*to = *from++;
	case 1:		*to = *from++;
		}while(--n>0);
	}

(Slightly modified from the original, because register is no longer meaningful to most people.)

Peter Seebach

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