Living the Google Life – Day 1

Over the past few years I’ve noticed a few things about how I use my technology. Although the majority of the devices I own bare the markings of a certain California based fruit company (no not Apricot for you old-timers like me out there) the software I use has a distinctly Googly flavour. Gmail handles my communication, Google calendar attempts to bring order to my chaos, I write the articles that feed my family on Google Drive, Google Search aids my research, Google Maps help me get where I’m going, and Google + is fast becoming my preferred destination for social networking. If only the company made devices. Well, actually, it kind of does now. With the current range of Nexus devices we have tablets and phones that are intended to show us the mobile world as Google thinks it should be, and Chrome OS running on Chromebooks showcase how this translates to a full blown desktop operating system (stop that sniggering at the back!). So I thought, well, why not try living with them? Not piecemeal, but entirely.

I already have a Chromebook, which has proven itself over several months to be an excellent writing machine, and the Nexus 7 joined our family at Christmas. So it wouldn’t take much to skip over to the green fields of Android and complete the lineup. Armed with my univendor flavoured scheme I made a call to Google UK, who took pity on this impoverished freelance tech writer and agreed to loan me a Nexus 4 phone and Nexus 10 tablet for two weeks, possibly out of interest in my findings, but mainly to stop me calling them again.

And here I am. Nervous? Yep, just a little.

My iPhone 4S has been de-simmed and placed carefully in a dark draw, not to see the light of Facebook again for 14 days. The iPad 4 which accompanies me pretty much everywhere I go has been surgically removed from my hands, leaving the phantom tingles of a once present limb in its wake. Now I am in the company of strangers. The Nexus 4 will be my phone, the Nexus 7 my Kindle and handy sidekick, while the Nexus 10 takes on the challenges of the heavy duty tablet assignments. The Mr T of this technological A-Team if you will. Ensuring all the lovely plans come together is my Samsung Chromebook – you know, the really cheap one that I think is pretty damn wonderful.

2013-06-24 20.47.01

How will it all work out? I don’t know, but I’m hoping that by the end of the two weeks I’ll be a little wiser in the ways of Google Fu. I also hope you’ll join me as I take these steps into a fruit free fortnight. Time for a technical adventure…

Are you an experienced Nexus user? If so what apps should I be running? I’ve already downloaded the standards – Kindle, Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Wunderlist, Pulse and Audible, but are there others that make life on a Nexus device a glorious thing? Let me know in the comments below, and please feel free to ask any questions or offer suggestions on things I can try while exploring the world of Google living. 

 

Living with the…Kindle Paperwhite

I love books. Actual, physical books.

In fact when I first heard about e-readers the idea just turned me cold. How could people give up the feel of a proper book in their hands, the artwork on the sleeves, and all those creases in the spine that acted as waypoints for the adventure you’d just experienced? What grey, cold, computer could have the same heartwarming effect?

Well, as it turns out…the Amazon Kindle.

I bought my first Kindle as kind of an experiment. The slim plastic casing was lightweight, easy to hold, and in direct sunlight the pages looked, well, like a book. I tried in vain to fight the lures of this temptress, but in truth, she had me once I read my first e-inked line. The transition was swift. When perusing the listings on Amazon I’d check to see if new titles came in digital formats. Second-hand bookshops, once a sanctuary to me, slipped from my mind and faded into legend. Only something that could be emailed to my device was worthy of inclusion in my collection.

I had been digitised.

Where once I was a man whose home was packed with books, now the shelves were empty, an ebook collection nestled in the slim belly of my Kindle…and I was happy.

But there was one area in which the little device struggled. Well to be honest it didn’t struggle, it outright failed. Low light. If the sun went behind a cloud, the lightbulbs chose to shine in different directions, or my warm glow of literary self satisfaction faded, then the Kindle became next to useless.

KindlePaperwhite2

I tried various lights that could be attached to the Kindle, but these all quickly became annoying. Some were bulky and added weight, others were tiny and flapped about all over the place like epileptic stick insects. I considered the official Amazon case with a built in light, but the hilarious price of £50 soon put paid to that idea. No, I was a dayreader now, and that is how it would stay. Unless I sat by a desk lamp of course.

Then came rumours of a new Kindle…one that would bring light to the word. I held my breath. Could this be true?

Slowly rumours transformed into speculation, then tentative, leaked technical specs appeared. So, the prophesies were soon to be made plastic. Glory be! Shortly afterwards the Kindle Paperwhite appeared, replete with an internal light and the promise of eternal happiness. Well, the happiness was only available through certain outlets, but the light remained standard. Lo, the Paperwhite had come into the world…and it was good.

After spending the past two weeks with this luminescent device I must admit that sadly…it’s rather wonderful. I say sadly because it now means a frantic scramble to gather together enough cash to buy the damn thing. Thus it was, as ever shall be.

What makes the Paperwhite so attractive is the illumination itself. I’ve tried reading books on my iPad, Nexus 7, and various mobile phones over the years. It’s not a terrible experience, but my eyes tend to tire quickly when staring at small text on those harshly bright screens. The Kindle Paperwhite glows in a more gentle fashion, allowing you to spend longer reading and less time Googling for symptoms of cataracts.

Have you seen the light?

The design is elegantly simple too. Gone is the keyboard that wasted so much space on my old unit, replaced instead by a touch-screen. Thankfully there’s no swiping involved. You just tap the left side to go back, the right to go forward, the top to bring up a menu, and the bottom to see how much of the book remains. Actually this is a great little feature as the lower display swaps between the rather random ‘Loc’ display – which acts as a page number – to a far more useful option that uses your average reading speed to calculate how long it will take you to finish reading the book. Simple, brilliant, and mildly accurate.

Otherwise it’s business as usual for the Kindle. Meaning that the extra functionality (distractions) tablets and phones offer are sacrificed in favour of a dedicated reading experience. It’s hard to convey just how powerful this simplicity is. When you pick up an iPad you can read, then check your email, quickly update Facebook, maybe order another book from the Amazon website, then watch that video that your friend has just sent, possibly a quick game of Ski Safari, then….what was I doing again?

On a Kindle you pick the device up with a solitary purpose in mind – reading – and with the Paperwhite you can now do that anywhere at all. The battery still lasts forever, you can load new titles from your computer or have them delivered straight to the unit from the Amazon store, and the compact design means it’s comfortable to hold for long literary sessions.

If you’re a reader then there’s no better device on which to enjoy the words of others.

Living with the…Google Nexus 7

I adopted the tablet revolution quite early on. In the build up to the release of Apple’s iPad I was critical of how useful something like Steve Jobs’ latest magical creation could be. In fact the first time I encountered an iPad it left me unimpressed. I played with a few apps, discovered that well lit rooms were no friend of the tablet then decided that laptops were for me, not these expensive toys. I can’t remember when I changed my mind, but somehow – via a generous birthday present – I had the chance to really explore this new computer format…and from then on I was hooked.

Now the iPad is easily my most used piece of hardware. Internet browsing is strangely serene on it, podcasts play loud enough that I can use the device as a mobile speaker unit in the house, reading is great at night, I’ve rediscovered an old love of comic books thanks to excellent apps like Comix, and when teamed up with my Apple TV the iPad brings the endless time-wasting joy of Youtube directly to my TV. I’ve even been known to do the odd bit of writing on my beloved machine, including this blog post.

So now it’s pretty fair to say that I’ll always want a tablet in my life. Funny how times change. The problem is that due to the closed nature of the production of tablets there’s no way I can fix one or upgrade it to maintain optimum performance. Slowly, over time, my original iPad has developed…issues. Due to the low 256mb of internal memory apps now crash in a frustratingly regular fashion, and some tasks that were once instant now drag their heels in spectacular fashion. I’m guessing this is the way that Apple and their competitors ensure that we move up to a new device every three years or so, just like we do with phones. But a £500 purchase is something I want to last a bit longer than that, especially when it’s being used for non-intensive tasks. Thus it was with great interest when I saw that Google had released the Nexus 7 – a smaller, lighter, much, much cheaper tablet that had the press in unanimous praise. Could this be the Droid I’m looking for?

Good things come in small packages….sometimes.

There’s no doubt that the Nexus 7 is an attractive device. Everyone that has seen the review unit I’ve been using was impressed by it’s bright, clear screen and diminutive form. Holding it in the hand was a light relief from its chunky inspiration, and the latest Jelly Bean Android software felt quick and stable. Initially it was an instant success and I thought that my bank account could be saved the mauling that Apple had bestowed upon it in previous days. Then the cracks began to appear.

The Nexus is small…but it’s also too big.

Confused? Yes, I’m not surprised. You see swiping and pinch-to-zooming is all well and good, but to navigate the internet, send emails, or interact with social media you’re going to need to enter some text. Typing on the iPad is, well, excellent. In landscape mode I can pretty much type at 80% of my top speeds, with a surprising level of accuracy. Using the Nexus 7 is somewhat confusing. Landscape mode is a bit of a stretch and the onscreen keyboard feels less accurate and sensitive than the Apple one. Turning to portrait mode makes the Nexus seem like an over-large phone, and once again the lower accuracy makes it easier to make mistakes. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s not the effortless experience that I’ve enjoyed on my iPad.

Of course the Nexus’ size becomes an advantage when using apps like Google Currents and Flipboard, which are both excellent and make catching up on news a very easy and pleasant experience. Amazon’s Kindle app is also a standout. Reading novels on pages that are pretty much the same as an actual book feels right, and the screen definition renders the text in a crisp manner. Social media is a little less splendid. The Facebook and Twitter apps appear to be the mobile versions, offering smaller text size and a compact view that just seems to lessen the experience, especially Facebook with it’s constant flow of pictures. Google+ is decent, but again feels a cheaper alternative to the magnificent iPad offering.

After exploring these sites I noticed another oddity of the device. With the iPad I tend to balance the unit against my legs, lean it on furniture, or prop it up against any random protuberances that offer purchase. It means that my arms don’t tire of holding what is still a quite substantial weight. The Nexus is light and slim, but I found that I had to hold it all the time, which actually ended up causing my hands to ache faster than the iPad did. It’s a small thing, but as I suffer from an old RSI injury, this became a bigger issue rather quickly.

You’ll be needing this…

Ok, so comparing a £200 device to a £400 one seems a little unfair. Of course the iPad should be a more luxurious environment, it damn well better be for double the price. But the reason I’m doing this is that I was serious about converting from an expensive Apple device that I use mainly for media consumption to a cheaper alternative that offered most of the benefits with only a few losses. After a few weeks with the Nexus 7 though I was disappointed to realise that the iPad has pretty much ruined me for anything else. The drop down felt so vast in terms of quality, not of build – the Nexus is very solid – but rather experience. I’ve rarely felt frustrated by the iPad (except now that it crashes more often) but the Nexus became annoying in a fairly short space of time. As an e-reader it’s a very tempting option, offering more functionality than the Kindle Paperwhite for only £50 more, but for more general purpose tablet adventures it seems limited and more akin to a phone.

I dearly wanted to love this device, as did my wallet, and to be fair my children did. I think the issues I had with size were the exact opposite for them. But the compromises seem too big to make this a viable option to those who have grown used to the glorious expanse of Apple’s tablet. Even my mother, who has to be surgically removed from my iPad every time she comes over, but for whom the price tag is prohibitive, couldn’t get on with the Nexus. The text size proving difficult for her older eyes.

The Nexus is a cool little device which some people will undoubtedly love. For me though it looks like another trip to the Apple store looms in March when the new model comes out. Better start saving now then…