Category Archives: Reviews

Product reviews

Tablet Time Warp

Just over two years ago, I bought a Motorola Xoom tablet. It had been the top Android tablet of 2011, which is damning with faint praise. But, it was $600 for the Wifi-only model or $800 for the 3G model when it was released. I got the 3G model but never used the 3G part of it, and only paid $200 18 months after it was released. Needless to say, it did not do well in the market of the time. This month, I splurged and got myself an Nvidia Shield tablet. This is at the top of the Android tablet market for 2014, so it seems a good comparison can be made about the progress of Android in the tablet space over the past three-plus years. It’s a mixed bag, to be sure.

The first thing you notice about a tablet when you pick it up is how it feels in your hand. The Xoom weighs 730 grams (over 1.5 pounds), while the Shield weighs 390 grams (less than one pound). The Shield is so lightweight, I’m constantly amazed at how much it can do. Of course, the reviews talk about the Shield as being heavy, so apparently less-powerful tablets are lighter. But, the Shield can play Half-Life 2 and Portal! Besides weight, there are other physical aspects of the tablets that strike me. The Xoom feels like a tank. Its body is primarily metal, with a plastic strip to expose the various antennas. The Shield feels delicate. It’s all-plastic, and my first one had a crack when I took it out of the package (RMA time!). For this reason, I’ve ordered a hybrid shock-absorbing hard case for the Shield. If I’m going to be using it to take credit card orders at craft shows, I want it to be protected.

Once you get the thing in your hand, you’ll turn it on. The Xoom has a 1280×800 screen (160 ppi) that can be described as adequate. Colors are a little washed out, and viewing angles are not bad. The Shield’s 1920×1200 screen (293 ppi) is really nice. It’s only 8 inches, instead of the Xoom’s 10 inches, and so it squeezes a lot of pixels into a small space. The tablets with even higher resolution might be just chasing specs, since this has no visible pixels at normal viewing distances. The colors don’t shift, the blacks are blacker, and the whole feeling is just nicer. Even though it’s 2 inches smaller, I can read pages at least as easily on the Shield as the Xoom. It does seem that both screens are a bit dim, so sunlight is a tough place to use them.

Both devices also have stereo speakers, but the Xoom has them facing away from the user for reasons that remain inexplicable. The Shield gets loud and the speakers face front. Both devices have 32GB of storage, which is mystifying. Do modern manufacturers not understand how truly large some programs are getting? Thankfully, both also have Micro SD card slots, and the Shield supports moving apps to the card as well as content. The Xoom has 1GB of RAM, and the Shield has 2 GB. Some other high end tablets are shipping with 3 GB, but 2 is probably plenty for the foreseeable future.

What about power? Whooboy, have things changed in the performance realm. Xoom and Shield both use Nvidia Tegra chips. The Xoom is a Tegra 2, a dual-core 1Ghz CPU with a 400Mhz GeForce GPU. It was quite a nice piece of kit for 2011, but programmers have been expanding the capabilities of Android apps and Google’s own services since then. It’s feeling pretty sluggish today, with pauses and hiccups aplenty. The Shield SOC is the Tegra K1 32-bit variant. This has a quad-core 2.2Ghz CPU with a Kepler-class GPU. Overall, the power of the K1 is in the same ballpark as an Xbox 360 (which came out in 2005, so don’t get too excited). Benchmarks are phenomenally different between the two systems – Xoom gets an Antutu score of 5000, Shield is over 40,000. 3dmark Icestorm on the Xoom gets 1290, but 31500 on the Shield.

But, what about daily usage? That’s where things get frustrating. In 2012, I was struck by how frequently I ran into portrait-only apps on Android. I have not seen a huge increase in non-Google apps that use the landscape orientation, other than games. In fact, some apps which did work on the Xoom in landscape last year were updated to be portrait-only this year. TiVo is a big offender here. It was late bringing out an Android version to begin with, then it produced two – one for phones and one for tablets. Earlier this year, they merged the two, but dropped support for landscape mode and dropped support for the older app as well. In fact, loading the app which worked just fine would cause it to immediately close with the message that you needed to get the new one, regardless of the fact that the new one didn’t bloody well work on the device. So I ended up with no TiVo-branded app on my Xoom. There are a number of apps which work in landscape on the Xoom but force the Shield into portrait mode. Apparently the programmers figured the smaller screen meant, “treat it like a big phone.” For some reason, the popular casual games Simpsons Tapped Out and Family Guy Quest for Stuff are buggy as heck on the Shield, but work just fine on the Xoom. I’ll be generous and give them some time to fix them, but the Shield did come out in July.

Even Google’s own apps are not perfect when it comes to landscape mode. The Google Inbox program (which is starting to grow on me) works in landscape, but doesn’t make very good use of the extra width. Worse, it forces you to perform the quick setup steps in portrait mode. If even El Goog doesn’t care enough about landscape to allow their programs to work exclusively in that orientation, the likelihood of anyone else supporting it enthusiastically is pretty low.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with my Shield. I got it during the Black Friday promo, so it came with not just Trine 2, but Half-Life 2, Portal, Half-Life 2 Episode 1 (upcoming), and the Shield Controller. The controller makes the smaller screen less cramped for games that support it, that’s for sure. That I can play Portal or some very impressive racing games on a device that weighs less than a pound is just amazing. That it cost half what the Xoom did less than four years earlier is really a testament to Moore’s Law.

A Good Man Goes to War

The foreshadowing at the beginning was a little too obvious, but the cold open had some great explodey bits and fabulous lines for Rory. But, once again, damn you, Steve Moffat! We’ve got to wait until September to get the second half of this two-parter? Holy frackin’ Sontarans!

Day of the Moon

What is up with Steven Moffat and his “arc-y” approach to the Doctor Who series? Although billed as the conclusion of a two-parter, “Day of the Moon” still managed to sneak in a giant hanging cliffhangery wobbly thing.

I love the Silents as the monsters, the whole Rory/Amy/Doctor triad, and the idea that Rory can sort of remember the previous reality where he was made of plastic. That’s about as far as I can go without giving away any major spoilers, but this is a great way to kick of the new season. Woohoo!

The Cape

Part Batman, part Dark Angel, part every cop show ever made, and a little bit of Robocop, the new series “The Cape” began this week.  So far, it’s a bit of a cliche-filled mess with one-dimensional characters.  On the other hand, Summer Glau.  Maybe we’ll give it another week to see what they make of the show.


Orwell = Lucius Fox (Batman)/Eyes Only (Dark Angel)
ARK = OCP (Robocop)
The Cape = Batman

Airport Review – LAX

Finally, the third of my three airport reviews – Los Angeles International (LAX). Holy crap, what an awful experience. I didn’t have to opt for the nudie photo or sexual assault, because it appeared the nudie photo machines were down on my security line. The counter agents and TSA employees were all quite polite, but there is obviously a serious infrastructural or procedural problem with LAX’s checkin process.  Since I’ve not been through LAX in many years, I assumed it would take twice as long to get through all the hoops as I was accustomed to in years past.  I was pretty close to accurate in that assessment, and I could imagine that there are times when my estimate would have been an underestimate of an order of magnitude.

I arrived four hours before my flight was due to takeoff, because I had run out of things to do in my hotel room and I can read at the airport just as well as anywhere else.  It took over 30 minutes just to get my bag checked, and then I had to carry it myself to the security scanners.  It makes me wonder what those giant conveyor belts behind the ticket agents are for.  Not to mention, since LAX is one of the growing number of “self check in” airports for American Airlines, the name “ticket agent” may be inaccurate as well.  The counter agent merely prints out the label that goes on the bag, after you’ve already verified your identity and printed out your own boarding pass at a kiosk that seemed to drive many people insane with confusion.

After that bizarroland detour, which was leavened by a trio of children who wanted to share all the details of their Disneyland experience, I was directed to the security line.  The security line started outdoors.  It started down the sidewalk.  It actually started near the neighboring terminal.  Thankfully, it only took 45 minutes to get through that line, which was a surprise of inestimable proportion.  It looked like the highest-volume day at Disneyland, waiting for Splash Mountain.  Insane.

Finally, I arrived at the top of the stairs where I could just see the security machinery.  The line bifurcated, then bifurcated again.  Each of those four lines went through a screener who made sure your ID and boarding pass matched. Then, each line split into 2-6 more individual lines.  Since I have a netbook which is listed on the sign as one of those items you don’t need to remove from its case, I didn’t.  That was wrong.  Take it out. Don’t put the case on top of it.  Give me your book.  It was weird as hell, but ultimately just a little more useless security theater.

Now I’ve entered the concourse, past the TSA employees who think they’re cops (no law enforcement function is endowed in these people, no matter what they dress up like).  I’m sipping an iced chai from Starbucks, and wishing that LAX was enlightened enough to have free wifi.  Just as in DFW, the options are T-Mobile or Admiral’s Club, which are both fee-based.  Unlike DFW, they don’t even have a wired free internet option available.  Considering the sheer number of business travelers through LAX, you’d think free wifi would be one of the most obvious things in the world.  *sigh

Airport Review – DFW

I didn’t have to go through security and check-in at Dallas-Fort Worth, so I can’t address those portions of the airport experience. The terminal is bright and easy to maneuver through, with two counter-rotating monorails zipping you around. There are CNN Airport News screens all over the place, but not too loud. The one closest to my connection looked like someone had tried to silence it with a shoe – the LCD had lots of nasty lines in the picture.

There was a Smoothie King right next to my gate, so that was nice. Opening up the netbook to make an entry was a bust, though. Unlike the tiny SJT, the massive DFW charges for wifi. Strangely, they provide several “free charge and internet” stations around the concourse. I don’t understand large corporations.

I’ll address LAX when I head home – it’s hard to get a flavor of an airport when you’re arriving. All I did was leave the plane, get my bag, and hop on the Enterprise shuttle.


Airport Review – SJT

As this is the first time I’ve flown since 2002, I am seeing three different airports with relatively fresh eyes. This morning, I started the journey at San Angelo Regional Airport (SJT), which is not the smallest I’ve been in (hello, Sierra Vista!) but it’s only got one airline and you have to ring a bell to get them to come to the counter.  They appear to have no more than 6 employees, who work as counter help, baggage handlers, and general support staff all.

SJT has free wifi in the lobby and in the concourse. Strangely, they are two different networks. They’re both “protected” by iPrism software, which has decided that I can’t program my DVR, read Gizmodo, or see images or CSS from Ars.Technica. I also can’t get to Livejournal because it’s a “web log” site, but I can get to Facebook just fine. This comports with my usual assumption that blocking software is based entirely on capricious decisions with no rational basis.

Security at SJT is relatively quick and painless, with no back-scatter body scanning and nobody I saw get groped. So far so good.

One great aspect of the SJT concourse and lobby is the complete lack of CNN Airport News. Those blaring idiot boxes with no means of escape are possibly the single longest-running aggravation of the traveler. I hated any layover when I traveled for work – even the airport employees seem to have no control over the volume on those things, because that would intrude on some revenue sharing no doubt. Anyway, SJT is quiet enough to hear all the cell phone conversations around you.

And the plane should be boarding soon, so off I go…


Notwithstanding the aircraft carrier-sized plot holes (not the least of which is the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling being inside St. Peter’s Basilica), the science that seems to have been invented by a screenwriter for maximum gibberish factor, and the general feel of “disaster porn,” The Boy convinced me to see the latest Roland Emmerich explodafest.

As I was summarizing the flick to The Woman, I was impressed with the sheer number of coincidences to move the plot in anything like a coherent direction. The failed writer just so happens to know a Russian mafioso with connections to the ark project, but just so happens to need a copilot, and the writer’s ex’s boyfriend just so happens to be an amateur pilot, etc.

And the characterizations… Well, there are a couple ways to approach an “end of the world” movie. You could look at the human drama of man’s inhumanity to man, with deep introspection and evaluation of the hard decisions needed to perpetuate the human species. Or, you could just slam an aircraft carrier into the White House. Since this is a Roland Emmerich film, you know which way he went.

Still, it’s not like anyone going to see “2012” expects anything other than what it delivers, and it delivers in spades. The Boy said it was the best movie he’d ever seen, and even though he says that about every movie we watch, and even though he seemed to forget that 6.89 billion people die in the film, he’s probably right. This is possibly the best disaster porn explodafest you’ll ever see.

Anathem – Read it

I still haven’t quite gotten through the last of the Baroque Cycle (I’m around page 2000), but I breezed through Anathem‘s 900+ pages in just a few days. Stephenson’s latest novel shows that he is capable of writing an ending, and he even dialed back the rampant exposition a bit. He added a few appendices to address that, but at least it didn’t interrupt the flow. The story of a non-religious “concent” (convent) that is filled with men and women who take themselves out of mainstream society for years to study science and philosophy…well, it’s a bit convoluted, isn’t it? Anyway, it ends up a good adventure involving all sorts of complicated cosmology and cosmogony and philosophy and even a little math and tiling problems. Very cool book. If you enjoyed Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash or any of Stephenson’s earlier novels, get it and read it. If you haven’t read Stephenson, understand that he’s long-winded and this book even includes a couple of extra languages. See below:

Words words words

Nokia Toys

Last week, the Nokia N800 tablet started dropping in price at various retailers, from its MSRP of $400 to a new normal of $240.  So, it’s hardly surprising that Nokia has announced the N810 this week.  The jump in specs is pretty impressive.  Not only did they add a built-in 2GB of storage, in addition to the 128MB of RAM they had in the N800, they’ve got a GPS receiver in that bad boy now.  And, of course, the big jump – a real keyboard.

My N770 is looking pretty “first generation” now, but considering that I don’t need the thing in the first place, I still don’t regret buying it when it went on clearance this summer.

In case you’re interested in comparing the three Nokia tablets that have been released, here ya go:


800×480 16-bit 4.1″

CPU250MHz TI1710330MHz TI2420400MHz TI2420
Usable RAM64MB128MB128MB
Storage included 64MB RS-MMC128MB Mini-SD2GB non-removable
Expansion1 RS-MMC slot2 SDHC slots1 Mini-SD slot
Size5.5×3.1×0.7 inches 5.67×2.95×0.51 inches 5×2.83×0.55 inches
Price at launch $359 (Dec 2005)$399 (Feb 2007)$479 (Nov 2007)

Nokia also claims the screen is brighter than the N800, and there’s a built-in FM transmitter (according to one site anyway). The web browser is now Mozilla-based (instead of Opera) and handles AJAX, Flash 9, and all the rest of the Web 2.0 stuff. A Skype client is pre-installed instead of being an additional download.  The Gizmo client now handles video.

The N810 is coming out next month for $480, which is about what I could spend on a cheap laptop. As the Internet Tablet has always been a niche product, is the higher price going to kill it, or is the addition of GPS and a keyboard going to save it? If the battery really does last for four hours of use, as claimed, it’s going to beat most UMPCs for portability and battery life, so it may do well.


Karl Schroeder has released Ventus as a free ebook download.  It’s very good.  If you’re interested in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, post-apocalyptic fiction (not strictly speaking, but a reversion to more primitive life yada yada), or just good speculative fiction about the future of humanity, give it a read.

Now to add a bunch of Schroeder books to my Amazon wishlist…


Ratatouille is a cool flick. The Boy was very amused, naturally. I can’t believe how awesome the water looked. I know, that makes me a huge geek, looking at the rendering. Sue me.

Anyway, the story is very cute, and the animation is awesome.  The end credits are a great retro look, and the short film played before the main movie is also quite funny.

Oh, and the wifi at McAlisters Deli almost reaches the theater, but is very usable at the ice cream parlor. 😉

October Road

Although I really only grabbed October Road because it starred Laura Prepon (growl), it’s actually a pretty good tale so far. The protagonist returns to his home town after ten years away and after writing a book obviously based on the town, which was apparently unflattering to its residents.

Some folks think it’s a ripoff of The Book of Joe, by Jonathon Tropper. I’m thinking the premise is probably common enough among writers that it’s been told dozens or hundreds of times. Heck, it’s not too far afield from the concept behind Ed. Ironically, Tom Cavanagh from that show is rumored to be starring in a movie version of Joe. Anyway, big success who returns to small town is not really too magical a premise.

It’s often said that everyone has a novel in them. We all have some rather unique combinations of events happen in our lives, no matter how unremarkable we think we are. My Aunt Lois has told me before that I really need to document better some of the strange folks I met in the Army. I don’t see how that becomes a book, but that’s only because I lack the essential gene possessed by all good writers. You know the gene; it’s the one that forces them to write, forces them to make their story concrete on paper. There’s always ten other things to read or watch or bake or . . . .

Oh, and Laura Prepon is still hot.

Scanner Darkly

Of the various Philip K. Dick movie adaptations, I don’t think most really get the Dick vibe. The theatrical cut of Blade Runner, for instance, was altogether too optimistic for a Dick story. Total Recall was not badly written, although the acting and special effects really nuked it for me.  Paycheck was not too bad; very disorienting and off-balance.  Minority Report was coherent and understandable, which isn’t really very accurate either. So, you can imagine how much I enjoyed the Linklater adaptation of A Scanner Darkly.

Not only does the protagonist not know what is going on most of the time, it never does become perfectly clear even at the end of the movie if his perceptions match reality or not. The rotoscoped animation is a perfect way to portray the insanity that the hallucinogenic story needed. Too bad that it didn’t even recoup its budget in the box office, but maybe it’ll get legs on DVD.

Definitely a good movie for those who like Kafka or Dick. Maybe not so much for those who like Grisham or Crichton.

The Departed

I went to see The Departed this afternoon. Wow. It’s a long movie, with a great soundtrack and fine actors. Marky Mark and Matt Damon provide authentic Boston accents and DiCaprio’s was pretty good too, but Vera Farmiga’s came and went so often I was trying to figure out where she was supposed to be from. I forgave her because she showed off her bum.

Spoilers after the break…

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Sandisk Sansa e260

I noticed that the “review” category has not had much activity, so I’ll remedy that.

In March of 2005, I bought a Rio Karma. This MP3 player was fantastic, with 20 gigs of storage space (enough for about 1/6th of my music collection), a fantastic interface, on-the-fly playlisting and all that jazz. It did not have an FM tuner or voice recorder, and it did depend on proprietary protocols to save music, but the ability to rearrange music and choose popular songs and all that were great. Sadly, the Karma is a delicate beast, with its hard drive not being the most durable they could find. Since it broke and Rio is gone, I was quite happy that I had paid for the 24 month warranty from Buy.

In June of this year, I replaced the Karma with the warranty money, getting a Sandisk Sansa e260 4 gig flash player. At the time, it was a 200 dollar player; it’s now routinely available for 150 or less.

With the most current firmware installed, the Sansa is a wonderful music player, although I do miss the Karma’s interface. The Sansa has two protocols: MTP and MSC (sometimes called UMS). In MTP mode, the player works only with Windows XP; in MSC mode it works with anything that recognizes USB removable media. Playlists are transferred only via MTP, although MSC mode is a faster system for simple transfers.

The Sansa also has a cool feature few players do these days: expansion. You can plug in a tiny little memory card, the microSD, to add up to 2 gigs of memory in theory (so far I can only find 1 gig cards at most). The expansion card can’t hold subscription content, and it’s not visible in MTP mode on the computer, but for music you want to keep on the player, or if you use MSC mode anyway, it’s another drive letter in Explorer.

That covers connections, but what about features? It has an FM tuner (and recorder), a voice recorder, and can manage videos (through a converter), photos, and either MP3 or WMA audio files. It supports the PlaysForSure stores, including subscription content, but I’m told does not support Audible files.

Playback is from a rather straight-forward interface, using a wheel and six buttons. Playlists from the computer are visible and usable, as well as one on-the-fly playlist on the player. I can’t tell you how well PlaysForSure works, as I refuse to participate in DRM. Thankfully, I can tell you that it works wonderfully with MediaMonkey in MTP mode. I don’t try to sync in MSC mode, so I’m not sure how well that works with MM; MSC mode is useful for clearing out old content you decide you don’t want to listen to, and it’s mandatory for firmware updates.

Photos are bright and sharp, although there is no zoom and a 1.5 inch screen is not exactly usable for a photo album.

You can play all your music, an artist, an album, a playlist, a genre, or a single track. In any of these, you can have shuffle engaged or not. There are several equalizer settings, and a custom equalizer (with latest firmware). Album art is displayed when you are playing a track, and you can cycle through a fairly useless spectrum analyzer, a larger view of the album art, and the next song in the queue. I rarely can tell what the next song will be before the player switches back to the default view, though. You have about three seconds to see it before it changes away, but it scrolls slowly through artist/album/track so if you have an artist and album with too many characters, you’re out of luck.

So, other things I dislike about the player? You can’t delete content on the player. The voice recorder button can’t be disabled without locking all controls; you will end up recording yourself without meaning to. You can’t edit playlists, except the “Go List” on the player. I really miss the “songs of the 80s” type playlists that the Karma had. Of course, with only 4 gigs of space, some of those modes are less useful than they were with 20. The videos are pretty pointless; not only is the screen only 1.5 inches, the videos are converted to an incredibly inefficient codec to play: the MJPEG format in Quicktime.

My son is able to navigate his playlist without any hassle, the radio works pretty well, and overall it’s a great and reliable player. Highly recommended for anyone who hasn’t already paid too much for DRM-infected files from iTunes Music Store.

Vacation Product Reviews

During the cruise, I brought along the new digital camera, the newish MiniDV camcorder, and a Jimi wallet. Here’s my impressions of how they fared.

Canon A610 digital camera

This 5 megapixel compact camera continues to impress me. I’m still on the original pack of four AA batteries that came packed with the camera. Considering that you usually assume the batteries that come with a device are half dead to begin with, this is very impressive. I’ve taken over four hundred photos on one set of batteries, plus a few short videos just to test it out.
I tried out the whole gamut of options on this bad boy last week. The series of cameras of which the A610 is part is the first group of consumer-level cameras equipped with the Digic II chip. The difference in speed from the Digic processor is amazing. I had a high-speed 1 gigabyte SD card and hit the “motor drive” mode to shoot still images continuously in full resolution (2,592 x 1,944). It never hiccuped, even after a series of 30 images in a row. Of course, this is without flash. Flash recycle times are the norm you expect.
Anyway, if you want to see the images, just go to the gallery and check ’em out. I didn’t do any retouching of the cruise photos before uploading them.


The camcorder is pretty much what you expect from a $300 miniDV camcorder. It works well, but it’s nothing magical. The low-light exposure is not very good, but no worse than any other in its class. Fortunately, Adobe Premiere is great at post-production – I use the level processing frequently. I picked up a 3 hour battery for under fifty bucks at the post-Thanksgiving sales, and it didn’t need to be recharged during the trip. I used the viewfinder more than the external LCD, so that affects battery life a lot. I’m getting footage together for a year-end “Best of Alex” DVD. Yes, I’m a geek.

Jimi Wallet

I got one of these in teal, to keep my cards and money out of my pocket when I was on the beach and such. It’s not waterproof, just splash-resistant. It was perfect for a cashless week, but I can see a major problem if I tried to carry more than a few bills in it. The Jimi fits in the front pocket of your pants, not the rear – some folks would probably have issues with that. For the cruise, it was much better than a normal wallet. Now, to get a replacement for the worn 8 year-old eelskin wallet I bought in Korea. Anyone have any of those lying around? 🙂

The Ethos Effect

Most recently finished book – L.E. Modesitt’s The Ethos Effect.

Although I usually like Modesitt’s science fiction, this one was written a bit differently. I guess I’m just noticing the Tom Swifties too much or something.

Anyway, throwing out the sometimes leaden dialog, the ideas of this Parafaith War sequel are interesting. One of the things SF excels at is showing us extremes of contemporary situations so we can see them from a different viewpoint. Things in this one that you may have heard about in recent years in real life: racial profiling, incarceration without trial or charges, religious fundamentalists driving bad government decisions, and military actions with no apparent logic behind them.