Another mobility path (Asus Transformer TF300T)
Woot had the Asus Transformer TF300T on sale cheap recently, and I’d always been enamored of the form factor - I’d played around with Android/x86 on the EEEpc briefly, even without a touch screen, and I’m certainly one of the people stalling on getting a MacBook Air because it really should have a screen which is a detachable (retina) iPad :-) Likewise the Motorola Atrix was pretty tempting when it first came out (I got to poke at one and conclude that it wasn’t quite there yet but was a good direction, it certainly wasn’t enough to switch me over to AT&T at the time.) The TF300T is an interesting pile of neat features:
- runs Jelly Bean (shipped with ICS, over-the-net upgrade immediately on unboxing; slight chance that this implies a possible upgrade to the next Android too…)
- decent mac-ish keyboard that solidly latches on - the assembled Transformer really does feel like a laptop
- extra battery in the keyboard
- SD slot and USB port (meets my “can use to caption pics from the dSLR” target)
It has a touchpad, which is a negative as I’ve pointed out before - but there’s a top-row key to turn it off entirely, so it doesn’t end up bothering me (and yet I can turn it back if I must have it… or I can just touch the screen which I keep forgetting :-)
Oddly the Jelly Bean upgrade was more trouble than benefit: my two primary “content production” (as opposed to consuming/surfing) apps, Flickr and Tumblr, report themselves as “not compatible with your device.” I’m actually writing this on the TF300T, using the website and Chrome - but I’m at home with solid network, and making use of tumblr’s “save as draft” feature - and I’m still worrying about not actually having persistence or auto-save. (Still going through the exercise, of course; writing speed is certainly 100% anyway, the keyboard is Just Fine as long as I don’t think about it too much :-) (Update: The Tumblr app now has tablet support, though it’s still inconsistent about rotation.)
Having carried the Transformer for another week, I’ve taken a few more steps:
- installed a 32G microSD card (in the “tablet”, there’s an empty SD slot in the “keyboard” too)
rsync for androidand some scripting to keep the last 90 days of photography on the card (mostly to be able to show it off from the tablet, but that may become more)
- picked up the relevant “micro HDMI” cable, I’m typing this in front of a Toshiba 21.5” LCD (another Woot! - $99, great price for another monitor “just to have around”, usually I use it on VGA with an old thinkpad, but it works pretty well with this - sometimes a little glitchy in “scale” mode, no problems at all in “crop” mode which just drops the bottom-of-screen Jelly Bean control bar.)
- also picked up the SD and USB adaptors that plug in to the tablet itself - they’re redundant with using the keyboard slab, but seemed like they might be convenient and would be easier to get ahold of now rather than down the road.
It’s definitely working out as “mobile typewriter” - just slightly less overhead than the GNote+bluetooth approach, at the cost of making one pocket a lot bulkier. Was also useful for getting some quick cat pictures up on Flickr after all, even without the native app - the Web UI uploader is just fine, stick the card into the keyboard (haven’t tried USB-to-camera yet), select the image from
/Removable/SD, add some tags and a description, done. Winter is upon us (no really, just because it was 55F two days in a row, doesn’t mean, umm…) so I won’t be getting as many excuses to go out “in the field” and want to immediately push wildlife shots to Flickr, but I might do a few more for practice anyhow.
Another thing the transformer is letting me experiment with is the whole idea of a “MacBook Air with a removable iPad screen” - the TF300T is a fine prototype of that, and it turns out that
- having the touchpad does help, especially with the button to turn it off
- reaching up and touching UI elements on the screen isn’t that bad after all - as long as it’s a sparse thing, I wouldn’t want to do something screen-UI-intensive that way, but most apps with that property are games anyway :-)
- having the extra battery “mileage” is the real benefit of such a combination
- noone at Google is sitting down and trying to work this way, there are still a bunch of ways in which the UI is a touch UI first and other paths are clunky (though I haven’t found any that are entirely missing.)
I haven’t tried SSH or VNC from here yet; oddly, I’ve kept finding plenty to do that doesn’t need either of them; it’s not that I don’t need to do those things, but if I’m forcing myself to spend time using the transformer, I can use the time well, just a little selectively. (I really need to come up with a decent programming solution - in fact, I should try Koding again, see if it works better from here than from the CR-48 ChromeBook…)
Android Phone as PDA/Laptop Replacement
I’ve had a dream for a long time of carrying a useful computing environment on me, without being encumbered by it. The first interesting piece of hardware was the Cambridge Z88 (the TRS-80 Model 100 was plausible, but expensive and pretty large; it was the laptop of its day, and at least a decade after for some niches… but the Z88 was the size of an issue of Byte Magazine and ran for days on some AA batteries, by virtue of tricks like turning the CPU off between keystrokes.) I took it on various trips, fought with uploading and downloading over the serial port… In the end it was difficult to develop for, even harder to develop on, and laptops ended up covering the “real work” niche - eJournal or space age typewriter replacement didn’t catch on that broadly.
They did, however, catch on narrowly, there were fascinating glimpses in the mid to late 90s of how various (particularly UK) science fiction writers actually used science fictional working environments; Charlie Stross had various early mini-laptops, Warren Ellis pioneered the “hang out in the pub and drink and smoke over a PalmPilot and foldout keyboard” model - which became my benchmark for portability, the idea that you could pull two or maybe three pieces of hardware out of your pockets (small enough pieces that people didn’t suspect that you were smuggling or shoplifting) and suddenly be able to Do Real Work without needing an office or other chunk of Corporate (ie. Too Expensive for Individuals) Infrastructure. (I didn’t actually care about being “live”, though even PalmPilots had web browsers; from day 1 it was clear that the Net was as much a source of simulated productivity as actual, and that Real Work involved getting ideas out of the brain and onto “paper”.)
The years rolled by, producing a spectrum of Palms - the Sony ones with built in camera and keyboard marked the end of the 20th century, just in time to get entirely displaced by cell phones. This was actually a horrible time for the PDA space - the entire hardware-in-your-pocket space turned around and started building telephones, which certainly provided value to a much broader range of people - almost literally everyone as we can see today, “not having a cellphone” is just strange in 2012 - but the design effort was now going into antennas and batteries, screens got worse, keyboards got far worse (when T9 looks like a good sophisticated option, you know you’ve gone very far down a strange path.) At the same time, laptops were getting smaller and cheaper, skimming off the less demanding majority of mobile writers, luring them with nice screens and the ability to run modern (not to say good) word processing tools, and all you had to do was carry a backpack, and stay near an outlet. (I’m no exception - being able to run a compiler while hanging out with people was a big deal; in the early 2000’s, being able to fix bugs in the taxi on the way to supporting a sales call for your startup was a huge deal.)
Then Apple changed everything.
Note that I’ve never owned an iPhone (though I have an iPad) - I still have to acknowledge that the iPhone kicked an amazing competitive “arms-race” back in the right direction. All of a sudden, portable devices with long battery life, gigahertz processors, and lots of storage were The Thing, and an entire industry pivoted from trying to interest people in flippier flip-phones to trying to catch up with the idea that you had an awesome computer in your pocket, with a sophisticated development ecosystem (ok, that took longer, but it was inevitable) and oh, by the way, it takes care of making phone calls too, when you’re not using it for everything else in your (online) life.
Very rapidly, my niche was back under the big tent with everybody else and billions in R&D were going my way. Sitting in a coffeeshop and poking at your phone was a mundane thing. Writing and publishing to the internet was suddenly something everybody was doing (and while I’ll sneer at facebook and foursquare updates right along with the rest of my disdainfully elitist peers - it’s still writing and, to the extent that it’s pushed out specifically for others to read, still publishing, and it still needed the tools I wanted.)
I almost missed it.
I’ve kept an eye on the tools and toys, of course. Poked at various ways of hooking keyboards up to phones, played with various design sketches for better ways to connect the hardware (I’ve got pictures of a wood-and-styrofoam mockup that hooks an IBM Model M clicky keyboard up to an original model Oqo - which I used as my “work laptop” for weeks, but entirely failed to be more portable than the Toughbook I’d been using beforehand - the Toughbook actually had a handle and hooks for a shoulder strap right on it) but I never really sat down and did it, I just poked at the gadgets.
Turns out that “poking at gadgets” is almost as much of a distraction from Real Accomplishment as arguing on the internet. I got a hint at this a while back when laser printers first got cheap - I plugged one in to my linux box, and printed, and it just worked. (I did end up tweaking the default from 300dpi to 600dpi… 6 months later even that much wasn’t necessary; I guess I’m not a victim of the ESR curse.) Having done that, I noticed that the documentation said the printer worked on Solaris too, and almost went and tried it to see if it really did - which led a friend of mine to comment “it’s like a cat, with a mouse that’s already dead - you’ve just got to bat it around a little and see if it will start being fun again?”
This also took a while to sink in. Part of the problem is that I’m actually very good at poking at gadgets, and I work in a field where that’s encouraged, or at least tolerated as a sign that you’re the sort of person they need to have around to get the computers to actually be useful. This usefulness leads directly to a decent income, which (combined with decent shopping skills) means no end to the stream of gadgets to poke at (as you’ve seen in this blog already, KickStarter is the biggest distraction I’ve had since Amazon came along.) The end result is that I’ve basically felt no pressure at all to get back to the original goal of “being usefully portable”. At the same time, I’ve gotten relatively picky about working environments; I learned on typewriters so I’ve hated most modern non-IBM keyboards, and I find mice to be a dead end that we just haven’t escaped from, so I turn trackpads off - the Mouse Stick is just minimal enough, it’s nearby when I must use a mouse, and at the same time my hands don’t have to leave the keyboard to use it; this is rather incompatible with the huge level of compromise that goes in to making portable keyboards, let alone pocketable ones.
Thus it is that I’m sitting in front of a Galaxy Note (the I-717 phone, not the larger tablets) looking at a very readable 25 lines of this posting, and typing on a Motorola KZ450 - a bluetooth keyboard with Mouse Stick - that is itself only barely thicker than the phone, yet has enough travel that I’m typing full speed and full accuracy relative to my ThinkPad (with the caveat that typing English is much easier than typing Code, but this keyboard looks up to the challenge.) As far as writing goes, there are no compromises here - I’m not thinking in letters, I’m basically thinking in sentences and while I do expect to go back and edit, the “data entry” part of the path is not a limiting factor. There’s no interruption between intending to write and writing and having the words appear on-screen; I have actual flow going on, and I’ve been writing for an hour and a half without feeling like I’m doing a special exercise or straining or contorting myself - I’m just writing. At my stopping point, I’ll save-as-draft (in the Android Tumblr app I’m using), turn off the keyboard, put the GNote back in my shirt pocket, unfold the stand back into “keyboard cover” configuration and clip it back on to the keyboard - stuff the keyboard into a jacket pocket, have a last sip of tea, and walk away.
(In the interests of full disclosure - this is a test run; I’ve had the keyboard for a week and kept failing to sit down and use it, so I’m at a worktable at home, the tea is a late-night decaf k-cup brew, the network is my local wifi. That said, the test was a complete success; the only “challenges” were figuring out that I needed to hit “back” to get the on-screen keyboard to pop down, and that save-as-draft wasn’t a missing button, it was a setting under options that changes the “publish” button to one that just says “save”. Also I have no idea how to do a word count here, but a quick scroll and sample tells me I’ve gotten around 1500 words down. NaNoWriMo it isn’t - but it is something and I’m going to have to sink my teeth into it for real now…)
Update: I’m at Pycon.CA and although I did bring two laptops and the iPad, they’re back at the hotel - I’m actually attending with only what I have in my pockets. Of course, I’m wearing a ScottEVest (winter model from a couple of years back - the newer models have fewer pockets and lower build quality, unfortunately) so I have a lot in my pockets; during the talks I primarily take notes in S/Memo, using a ThinkPad wacom-stylus, which is basically the electronic equivalent (in size and look) of a Moleskine; I occasionally hop out into Chrome to check out a URL mentioned in a talk, or hop into Plume to broadcast a choice quote on the conference hashtag. Since we just have chairs, and not tables, that’s been about the limit during lectures; I’m skipping the OpenStack lecture (no discredit to the speaker, I went through the slides in advance, and it looks like it isn’t going to cover anything I didn’t pick up in a major cloud service evaluation I did for work a year and a half ago, so it’s a good time to take a break) to hang out at the “bar” which has tables and decent chairs. I have the keyboard set up, and an Energizer “Energi To Go” battery pack boosting the Galaxy Note, and have only had one person stop by to comment on the setup. (I’m not alone in the bar; four people with conventional laptops, and one organizer reading a paperback book.) Overall it has been a pretty effective conference and blogging setup. The weak point in the short term has been photography; simple “tweet this picture” doesn’t work at all, plume uploading to twitter just gives “media too large”, so instead if I want real time pictures I shoot them with the pureview 808, share-to-flickr, wait for the upload to finish, then come back to the Android flickr app, pick that picture and hit share-to-twitter, add the comment and post. This is still kind of silly :-) and fails to support completely casual photo streaming. (I should try just shooting from the flickr app on the Note, but the 808 is a lot more almost-camera-like.)
I’m still pulling all of the cameras back to the laptop and managing the archive with kphotoalbum there. The next big step will probably be to use rsync-for-android (which actually works on ICS, it failed entirely under Gingerbread) to push/pull the most recent year of images onto the phone, and thus use it to synchronize the devices and push them back to my archive; then I can cherry pick things to twitter, and later pull things back to the laptop when I want to do my conventional kphotoalbum-based tag-heavy workflow. The other “next step” is to look into using git-annex to manage the diverse photo pools, but I’m stalling on that until the work from the kickstarter project goes mainstream.
Update 2: hit “edit” in the web interface, and preview shows proper markdown rendering, so re-saved. Will have to try to use the mobile website instead of the app for future writeups, I’m more likely to remember to do tags that way…
Welcome to the future!
Giving Open Source Android apps a Kick
Corbin Champion has a solid start with addi (an Octave-like Android app that has an optional port-of-real-Octave engine, though the other mode is more functional at this time) and is asking for funding to make it a really solid Octave/Gnuplot for Android. He’s got a convincing record of actually doing the work as open source, too.
I know a number of researchers who’d get good use out of this - but few of them have the budget to throw at something like this. I like the idea, though, so I’ve tossed some money in… plus I’d like to encourage the model, as a low friction way for a project to declare that they have a plan and a way to use money, if any gets sent their way, with well understood semantics for how the money collection actually happens (the reduction in bike-shedding alone might be enough of a friction reduction to make it worthwhile :-)
Colorimeters, Colorful LED displays, and Kicksaver
The IO Rodeo Colorimeter kit is building a basic easy-to-assemble (no soldering!) Open Source Hardware colorimeter - a basic scientific measurement tool, which uses different frequencies of light to measure properties of a liquid sample. The design looks very student-friendly, and is a good start on understanding that instruments aren’t magic…
This 8-digit 7 segment display board is a nice module for old-school lots-of-digits output - if you were doing your own version of a DeLorean back-to-the-future dashboard, it’d be a good component to have :-) I’ll note that in practice, a $60 refurb android tablet might be near-useless as a portable appliance, but it would make a great embedded display with graphs and whatever simulated-digit output you want… but I like LEDs so I backed it anyway.
Given how terrible Kickstarter is at actually helping me find interesting gadget projects (hey Amazon! buy them and force them to use your recommendation engine! :-) I owe credit for finding the LED display project to (KickSaver)[http://www.kicksaver.net/] - not actually a search engine, but certainly an interesting browsing alternative - you give them a price threshold, they give you kickstarter projects that need that amount to kick them over to successful funding. (Got a better idea? Fork Kicksaver on github and let me know what you came up with…)