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September 26, 2010 / teknolog

The 2010 Kindle

Since the arrival of the first Kindle a few years back, I’ve been ever so slightly interested in the device. Because of my incessant moving around the world, I have come to dislike physical property and over the last few years I have tried to rid myself of most of my worldly possessions. Even though I am quite a prolific reader, this absolutely includes books, so I figured the Kindle would be perfect for me in this regard.

Up until recently, two things prevented me from getting one. Firstly, up until a year ago I was living back in the old country, where the Kindle was (and still is not) not offered for sale. Also, because I am somewhat of a cheapwad, I found the retail price of over 300 USD to be too high.

Now both of these limiting factors have been mitigated, and I’m happy to say that I’m the proud owner of a 2010 Kindle! The Kindle is now a much more bearable £109 here in the UK, and the latest version is smaller and prettier than before.

The device

About a week ago I received my Kindle after a few weeks waiting for delivery. Eagerly unboxing it, I was surprised at how little the device is Turning it on, it somewhat spookily greeted me with the title bar saying “Sebastian’s Kindle.” Apparently, since Amazon knows who it was that ordered the Kindle, they set it up for my account in the factory! Pretty neat!

The first impression is, as I said, that the Kindle is very slim and slender. It is the size of a standard paperback book, and about one centimeter thick. It actually slips into the back pocket of my favorite pair of jeans. The weight is also about the same as a paperback. In other words, it is not at all uncomfortable to hold in any way. Build quality is excellent, with a nice soft rubbery plastic that is very pleasant to touch.

The bulk of the surface is, of course, covered by the five six inch e-ink display, which is gorgeous. The pixels are tiny and contrast is great, much improved since previous models.

The user interface is primitive but well though out. The large page flipping buttons on the sides are convenient, and it is clever that you have forward and back buttons on both sides, so you can hold the Kindle in either hand. There is also a d-pad for navigating around the screen and clicking on hyperlinks.

Since the device is quite new on the market, it draws a lot of attention. In the first few days I showed it to at least a handful of strangers on the street who asked to see it. Funnily, every single person I showed it to assumed it has a touch screen, which it doesn’t.

Personally, I think not allowing touch input is a good design choice, because it gives you the freedom to hold it whichever way you want, including holding the screen itself without operating the device.

Connectivity

The Kindle comes in two editions, 3G+WiFi and WiFi only. I opted for the WiFi only model, because it is a bit cheaper, and because I don’t really see myself needing to buy books when I’m outside of WiFi range.

At the bottom of the device there is a standard micro-USB port for charging and data transfer. When you plug it into your computer the Kindle appears as a memory card, and you can copy books and music to it (or any file you want, I guess).

The Kindle store

Saturday morning I woke up in London greeted by sunshine. Seeing this as an excellent opportunity to try out the Kindle I went down to my favorite breakfast place and ordered a full English breakfast (yum). To go with it, I bought downloaded the latest edition of The Economist. I found the price of £4 to be a bit steep, because it is about as expensive as the print edition.

Buying books and magazines in the Kindle store is a predictably smooth experience, what with Amazon being the world’s largest retailer and holding that silly one-click-shopping patent. Patent or not, the shopping was indeed single click.

Text-to-speech and audio books

I found the text-to-speech feature to be surprisingly good. I can easily imagine myself listening to magazine articles and possibly books. It is, however,  absolutely ridiculous that many publishers choose to disable this feature, because it can by no means compare to the recorded performance of an audio book.

Speaking of audio books, the Kindle supports them in the Audible format, which makes sense since Amazon owns Audible. I haven’t tried listening to audio books yet, but I did try music playback (see below). The Kindle has a pair of surprisingly loud and good speakers on the back.

Web browser and music player

For good measure, Amazon has thrown in a rough web browser and what must be the world’s most primitive mp3 player. It will simply play all the mp3 files you place on device using the USB cable, in an order I couldn’t quite figure out.

Because of the e-ink screen, the web browser simply can’t do most page any justice. I can imagine myself using the browser to look up things in Wikipedia, but that’s about as far as it goes. I guess this is a scenario where the 3G model would be nice.

Final thoughts

I am very happy with the Kindle. It is a wonderful experience to read material on it, and the e-ink screen is a nice change from spending most of my days looking at LCD monitors.

Amazon has done a fantastic job with the device. We are still in the infancy of electronic book readers, and there are certainly many improvements that can be made, I strongly recommend buying the 2010 Amazon Kindle.

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September 9, 2010 / teknolog

Ovi Maps and the Nokia 5800 as car navigator

Introduction

This summer I’ve been traveling around the UK a rental car. Since I’m pretty new to Britain outside London, I brought my trusty Nokia 5800 to use together with Ovi Maps 3.4 with free navigation for Symbian to help me out.

These are my thoughts about Ovi Maps after two weeks of pretty intense usage.

General observations

Ovi Maps is a nice looking program. The UI is well thought out, with most functions easily accessible with a few taps on the screen, which is very important when using it while driving. The map is always shown full screen, and is attractively presented. In map mode you can obviously pan around as in any map application. In navigation mode, swiping in various directions will show you alternative views, which is a little confusing but can sometimes be nice.

A great feature of Ovi Maps is that you can use the Ovi Suite on your PC to pre-load the maps onto your device. This means that your phone doesn’t have to download the relatively large maps as you are navigating, which means less data consumption and more importantly, that it works great even when there is no network coverage.

Using your phone as a navigator consumes a lot of power. With the GPS receiver chip running, the phone CPU constantly updating the map and navigation data based on location, and with the screen backlight on all the time, it will drain your phone’s battery within a couple of hours.

Luckily, I had anticipated this and bought the Nokia DC-4 Car Charger to keep it powered. This worked well, and I could use the phone normally whenever I stopped the car.

GPS signal reception is pretty good, though not perfect. Initial lock is quick, as long as there is network coverage so you can get assisted GPS. The 5800 also keeps the signal pretty well, even placed in between the two front seats. In cloudy weather or when driving along narrow British farm roads hedged so high you can barely see the sky, the 5800 did lose signal and Ovi Maps would show the message “Waiting for GPS…”.

Maps

Last year, Nokia bought NavTeq to get hold of its own map database. This is presumably one of the reasons why Nokia can give away navigation for free, since they don’t have to pay a unit cost to anyone but themselves.

I found the quality of the maps to vary greatly. Mostly, they are fine, with only minor differences compared to reality. However, the farther from the big cities you get, the more bizarre and annoying mistakes you will find: junctions that aren’t joined properly, so that instead of a T-intersection the map shows an inverted L and a road on the side that is not connected to the L. Sigh.

Also, I wonder when the maps were last completely updated. I found several redesigned road sections, where for instance an intersection had been replaced with a roundabout. Judging by the vegetation grown in the roundabout, it must have been there more than a year.

Navigation

Judging a navigation algorithm in an area where you’ve never been is obviously a tricky proposition. You typically don’t know the best way to reach your destination, but sometimes I suspected that it was taking me along, let us say, the scenic route.

As mentioned above, poor map quality was often to blame. If the map doesn’t show the intersection properly, the routing algorithm obviously won’t know it is possible to turn every which way.

Also, there seems to be a poor tracking of

the relative size of roads. It obviously prefers motorways before country roads, but when it comes to large versus small country roads, it seems to be all the same to Ovi, whether 10 m wide or single track.

Something that seems completely missing in Ovi Maps is the “turn around when possible” feature. If you happen to miss a turn, it will simply find another way to drive there, which can mean a significant detour, when just turning around and making the originally proposed turn would be the sane way to do it.

Another important factor is speed at which the navigator can adapt to changes in the environment, such as missing the turn mentioned above. The Nokia 5800 is a pretty old phone, with a measly 400 MHz CPU that can barely keep up. Preparing the route can take a fair amount of time, upwards of 15 seconds. This means that when driving around aimlessly in a city, it will sometimes never catch up. Obviously, faster hardware will alleviate this problem.

Voice navigation

Ovi Maps comes with comprehensive voice navigation in a number of languages. A nice feature is that you can download the voices directly from the mobile client, and don’t need to rely on desktop software.

The voices are pretty good. I tried out English US and UK male and female voices with street name reading, and also the “surfer dude” voice. The surfer dude quickly gets pretty annoying, so I went back to either of the English voices. Apart from a funny bug in the female UK voice, where the road called, say, A30 is pronouned ah-thirty, I have no complaints.

Final thoughts

Ovi Maps is a perfectly fine navigation solution, it takes you where you want to go, generally using sensible roads. The UI is good and easy to use while driving, and the voice navigation works very well.

But Ovi Maps on the Nokia 5800 generally can’t replace a dedicated navigation device as it stands today. Most modern navigators have a much bigger screen than the Nokia 5800, which eases navigation. Also, modern navigators respond faster, since they have dedicated hardware optimised for navigation with a better antenna.

‘Throughout my two week trip, I was very happy with Ovi Maps, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.

I can’t wait to try Ovi Maps on the significantly improved Nokia N8, which has both a much faster CPU and a larger, brigher display. And with a few software revisions, Ovi Maps could well beat most navigators on the market.

August 22, 2010 / teknolog

Dissecting the Vodafone SureSignal Femtocell

This is the Vodafone SureSignal Femtocell. It is made by Sagem.

The device looks a lot like a WiFi router.

There are four activity LEDs: power, internet, phone and… check mark?.

On the back we find power and Ethernet ports, and a reset button.

Let’s remove the two screws and open the hatch.

Another screw holds the circuit board.

Closeup of the board.

Backside of the board.

That’s it! No magic, just a set of chips and capacitors, and a white thing which is probably the RF transceiver. It’s amazing how small a GSM base station can be these days.

Setting up the femtocell is trivial. I just plugged it into an Ethernet port on my router, and registered the device ID on the Vodafone website.

The femtocell runs quite warm even in standby, so much that I had to move it away from my router because it was overheathing.

All in all, I’m happy with the device. I now have perfect signal in my apartment, where before I had almost none.