Posts in category technology - page 3

Three weeks with Windows Phone 7 – a Mac users perspective

It’s been a few weeks since I took up Microsoft’s employee offer of a free Windows Phone 7 (when you renew a 2 year contract) and combined it with AT&T’s offer of buy-one-get-one-free for my wife.

So how have things been going?

Physical

Compared to the iPhone 3G the Focus is much more comfortable.

The larger screen size means a wider and taller phone but with less surround it’s not unwieldy – far from it. In fact the phone sits far more comfortably in my hand than the iPhone did. This is partly because it’s a better match for the size of my hand, partly because it’s a little lighter but mostly I think because the bevel is a lot more subtle and less steep and awkward than the iPhone’s shiny-pebble inspired design.

On the flip side it does look and feel a little cheaper and less solid but a small part of that is because the back of the phone flips off like many other allowing you access to the battery, sim and memory expansion slot. The dedicated back and home buttons below the screen help keep the display clear of chrome and give the apps the space they need.

The major disappointment for me here is the screen. While it is very bright and has great contrast if, like me, you hold it rather close to your face you can see a dithering pattern caused by the unusual LED sub-pixel arrangement called PenTile on every color except green. I’ve learned to hold it a little father away as the text rendering is very nice otherwise but compared to a friends iPhone 4 the screen is a letdown.

User interface

Until you’ve used the Zune-inspired interface (part of an overall design strategy called Metro) it’s a little hard to put it into words. Static screenshots certainly don’t do it justice as it’s all about movement and flow in a way other devices aren’t.

Starting from a tiled home page that gives you a peek into your mail, messages, people and games through a gorgeous combination of animation, text and imagery that keeps the page feeling fresh and alive – a spirit that is carried through the rest of the device – not just with the built-in screens and features but also into many third-party apps (more on that soon).

In a way it feels like a window onto a bigger world behind it instead of a subset of that world crammed onto a small screen. It’s like the difference between a mobile web browser that scales in and out on a whole page versus a mobile-optimized page that lacks detail and finesse.

As many will know my wife and I are primarily based on Apple technology but even after a week with the Focus my wife announced (with a slightly sad face) that her iPhone 3GS felt old – even with iOS 4.1 on it. I have to admit the same feeling. Sure the iPhone is cure but the icon-and-list approach with the odd red circle to indicate some activity now lacks engagement.

Part of Microsoft’s advertising campaign has been the get-in-get-out approach and the home page and email works really well here. So much so that it’s broken my 3 year ritual almost instantly in that I now check my email on my phone each morning when I get up instead of using the laptop to do the same. If I can find a good Google Reader app then the laptop might not open until I get to work.

I had an initial worry when I first turned it on as there were a bunch of AT&T applications and tiles installed however it let me remove all the ones I don’t want or use (e.g. U-Verse) Score +1 for consumers over providers :)

Mac integration

I’m in a minority among friends as I actually like iTunes. It sorts, it plays, it lets me get audio-books, podcasts and legal music quick and fast. I’ve also used it to rip a fair number of my own tracks from CD and bolstered my collection with tracks from Amazon MP3 sometimes (like their $3.99 Tron: Legacy deal). Sure I wish it allowed plug-ins for different music formats – I have a soft spot for chip-music – but apart from that it’s been quite pain free.

iTunes however only likes to play with iPods, iPads and iPhones. Other companies have hooked their devices in unofficially in the past and Apple have been sure to quickly break it.

Thankfully Microsoft haven’t let the Mac fans out in the cold and provide the Windows Phone 7 Connector for Mac.

The software does an okay job at sending music and videos from your iTunes library over to your USB connected phone although obviously DRM-protected content isn’t going to work.

What was disappointing however is even “Purchased music” from iTunes won’t actually play on the Windows Phone even though it syncs. I’m assuming this is a bug as there isn’t any DRM here (that is marked “Protected music”) and the file format is Dolby’s own AAC not Apple’s so I don’t see why it shouldn’t work.

It also won’t sync your Mac’s Address Book and Calendar’s directly however there is a way to do this quite easily indirectly – see below.

Contacts

Enter your Facebook name and password and it will fill your contacts from Facebook with each getting their own ‘what’s new’ etc. Like most people this isn’t exactly what I want but I took the opportunity to prune 100 people I never speak to – an option also exists to only supplement existing contacts on the phone with their Facebook pictures and feeds.

It also helpfully pulled in my Gmail contacts and in the cases where I have a contact card in Gmail for somebody on Facebook did a good job of joining them up. Some it seems were automatic possibly based on email addresses and full names. Others had recommendation when I went to join that were always correct and in a handful of cases I just had to tell it which ones to join up manually because they had changed their name on Facebook.

In some cases I merged three cards for a single person – their semi-public Facebook profile and photo, their private telephone numbers from Gmail and their semi-public Windows Live details for messenger and Xbox.

Finally I added my Outlook/Exchange account – all worked flawlessly and for each account you get to choose whether to bring in contacts and calendars and in most cases mail (but not for Facebook).

The result of all this is that my phone is now the best contact list I have on any device. It combines them beautifully in a way no other device I’ve owned has and not once in the three weeks since I set it up has it got confused, lost details or had sync problems.

Very sweet… unless of course your primary contact information is your Mac’s Address Book as any Mac-owning iPhone owners will be.

Getting Address Book contacts onto Windows Phone

Please forgive the SEO-tuned heading but I didn’t find any useful information online and want to share this simple technique with others :)

You’ll need a Gmail account to make this work (it also works with Google Apps for Domains too), simply:

  1. Copy important details from your Gmail contacts manually into Address Book as needed
  2. Wipe out your Gmail contacts (or backup with Export first if you want but don’t re-import)
  3. Open the Address Book application and head into Preferences
  4. Choose the option to sync “On My Mac” with Google and hit configure to enter your Gmail details
  5. Delete the Gmail profile from your Windows Phone 7 and then re-add it (otherwise it won’t sync phone numbers)

This means you’ll have your Mac contacts at your fingertip in Gmail so make sure your Gmail account has a secure password and follow their steps to ensure your account is well protected.

Reception & call quality

I was nervous about getting back into bed with AT&T for another two years. I need coverage at work and home as I don’t have a dedicated phone at either location and many times AT&T had left me with only a single bar to get by.

I am somewhat confused that I get 3-4 bars on the Samsung Focus in both locations and I’ve yet to have the chopping up or disconnecting of calls that I attributed to AT&T when using my iPhone 3G. Stranger still is that when I have had 1 bar (one place in my apartment) I am actually still able to make calls without it cutting out or dropping. My iPhone taught me never to try with 1 bar…

Visual voicemail is gone as I guess that was an Apple exclusive but I’ve only had a handful of voicemail messages over the last 2 years so I doubt i’ll miss it.

Camera

The camera seems pretty good and has some HDR and anti-shake options as standard as well as limited bunch of image effects. It also does video but I haven’t tried that yet.

Marketplace

You sign into this with your Xbox LIVE credentials and once you’re there it’s not a far off experience from the iTunes store except that it has a lot less apps. While it’s good you don’t have to wade through so much junk to find good stuff there are some omissions too like Hulu and for many people they’ll be missing Angry Birds and their favorite games and apps. I also haven’t found a good Windows Phone-like navigation app although the built-in Bing app is no worse than the Google Maps app on the iPhone that occasionally gave me nonsensical (drive into the ocean) or wrong directions (Seattle hotel being off by 2 blocks).

On the plus side some favorite sites have their own apps and they have fully embraced the metro user interface to provide a great experience – these include IMDB, eBay, Facebook, Twitter.

The bad side here is that the marketplace you’ll be presented with is the one your Xbox LIVE account is associated with and once you’ve set-up your phone YOU CAN’T CHANGE IT!

For me this means I can’t get Netflix on my device as my Xbox account is set to USA. Previously Xbox didn’t let you change your country but recently introduced a facility to let you migrate your account to one of several new countries they now support. I’m hopeful they’ll let more general country changes next year as I’m not giving up my 8800 gamer score and cool gamertag (damieng) without a fight.

Summary

There are a whole bunch of extra things I haven’t covered here including the Bing maps, Office docs, Xbox LIVE, Zune and the various apps. I’ll either update this article or post another :)

I haven’t switched my iPhone on in three weeks. There are a few apps I do miss but they’re also on my iPad.

[)amien

Origins of a love affair

BBC Micro Computer's OwlFrom an earliest memory of a cream colored box emblazoned with letters, mostly black – some red, came an owl proclaiming allegiance to the BBC.

This small box sat silently, patiently even, in our classroom for the best part of a year. On the few occasions our teacher was brave enough to flip the switch the machine would chirp into life with it’s two-tone beep and would state on capital white letters on a black background that it was BASIC. At this point the teacher would key-in the mythical incantation of CHAIN “” – handily jotted on a nearby note – and feed the beast a cassette tape.

Some time later the machine would announce it’s vague disappointment with the contents of the tape and be put back to sleep. One time, and one time only, I recall a screen full of bright colors masquerading as pirates looking for treasure.

I was 11.

Such a tantalizing taste of computing left me hungry for more. I knew precisely two people who owned computers. One possessed a cut-down version of the BBC Micro from my classroom called the Acorn Electron and guarded it like a sacred treasure, the other was a friend and more accommodating so much so that he agreed, with little optimism, we could type my program listing into his computer.

What combination of childish scrawl, lack of understanding of programming concepts or the cobbled-together dialect of BASIC was responsible for his Texas Instruments TI-99 rejecting my program I would never know. However neither that failure nor the subsequent arrival and rapid departure of a ‘programmable’ Philips G7000 Videopac from my home would quench my thirst.

A new school year started and for me that meant a new school and new subjects the most interesting of these was named Information Technology or IT for short. I don’t recall much of these early lessons other than some exposure to word processing, videotext and a simplified geometry-base programming language for drawing shapes called Logo.

This fixed schedule held little interest to me although the machines themselves did and the teacher opened the room of fifteen or so BBC Micro’s equipped with 5.25″ floppy drives to the ever-changing line of misfits queued outside to play games. But unlike my old school a few people here actually knew a little about these machines.

Chuckie Egg and Mr. E were favorites while masochists would fire up Castle Quest, Citadel and Repton 2 despite being impossible to complete and lacking a crucial save-game option. Fewer still braved the open-ended and Elite space trading/combat game which would let you resume your position each day. Right on commander!

Games consisted of a few files passed between easily damaged 5.25″ floppy disks that students had mysteriously acquired. Remembering which file to CHAIN, *EXEC or *LOAD was a task in itself made worse by the ever-changing scene of kids and games. Now I finally had a machine to myself for a brief period each day I set about solving the first real world problem I encountered here and wanted to create something that would automatically boot and let you select a game by pressing a letter or a number.

Scouring magazines, loaning one of the few BBC BASIC programming manuals from the teacher and occasionally LISTing other people’s I came up with something that worked. Before long it had double height text, colors and some basic animation. Included in the program were some basic instructions on how to edit the program to fit the games on your own disk and it spread like wildfire.

Shortly after my father, who made gadget trading one of his hobbies, brought home a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 16KB. It was less powerful than the BBC’s at school and had to be hooked up to a television and cassette record to be of any use and had small rubber keys that were hard to type on. I played and programmed on it for hours without interruption and it finally became mine when my mother made it clear to my father it couldn’t be traded out for the next gadget. Within a few months the machine had died after something metallic got in through the edge connector.

I was heartbroken but found a neighbor was selling his Spectrum 48K and persuaded my parents to buy it. The extra memory was useful but even better was the hard-key keyboard and the original Sinclair BASIC programming manual I’d been missing. That year my parents split, my father moved out and we moved to a new parish on our little island of Guernsey which meant new friends and a new school. A school that had IT sharing lessons with technical drawing.

My hopes weren’t high…

[)amien