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[personal profile] raptorck

Every so often, I have the urge to rant, nay, outright bitch about the current state of technology.  This is one of those days.  I've had more than my fair share of gadgets, as most people realize, and at the end of the day, each and every one of them sucked, usually for all the same reasons:  The software.

My day at work consists of managing a network, pulling up gobs of data, troubleshooting issues left and right, and generally just keeping abreast of things using a fairly complicated toolkit.  As a result, my workstation setup ranges from four to six LCD screens, stacking up tons of remote administration tools, email, and IM.  Sometimes, I need to do a similar amount of work from home, and no company-issue laptop can possibly provide me with that much functionality.  (That's mostly because the tools that I need run on Windows.  More on that in a bit.)

When I go out, I really don't like the fact that I may or may not have to fix a major network issue from a massive laptop, so I have one of the smallest PCs imaginable to take with me.  Of course, the damned thing is still monstrously huge, but it's capable of running damned near anything, since it can run Windows XP.  I can tether to my phone, VPN to the office, open a remote session into a server/switch/router, tweak a few settings, and avoid a nasty trip to the office.  It's especially great when I'm, say, in a car heading back from Great Adventure, and have to deal with a major storage issue in one office or another.  Someone else drives, I fix, and no one's ever the wiser as to where I was.  This is one of those cases where technology was wonderful.

I suppose, of course, if I really tried, I could even pair my phone to the PC, route calls from Outlook's Address Book directly to the phone, talk on my headset, and generally just have things work there, too.  I do, after all, have all of the software in place, all of the information more-or-less at my fingertips, and all I seem to be lacking is mobile bandwidth.  It's a beautiful thing, but here's the dirty little secret:  The guts of my hardware rock, and the ergonomics SUCK.  I have a touchscreen, tablet-capable device, which sucks for writing, since the screen is small, the surface is too slippery, and the borders around the screen get in the way.  Additionally, there's no elegant scrolling options, and the overall resolution is a horrible compromise between not having enough pixels to show everything on the screen, and having too many pixels in a small space by default.

This isn't the first time that I've been burned.  I've also got a Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, which is a brilliant device, in theory.  As some of you may recall, Communism is also a wonderful idea, In Theory.  In reality, the 770 is a device with insufficient CPU, RAM, and battery life to be worth a damn to me, and to add insult to injury, the software is crap.  Its email client?  Garbage.  Media player?  Crashes.  Handwriting recognition?  Less than useless.  The on-screen thumb keyboard is a burden, it's unresponsive, and it provides not even the slightest amount of acceptable visual feedback.  All of that doesn't even begin to discuss its UI problems, which give me every indication that they locked a dozen UI designers in a dozen rooms and then slapped all of their work into a single device.

Of course, it does have Flash support, a real browser, and a wonderfully high-resolution screen, but all of that's not worth a damn if it can't fully replace my typical web browser.  In this day and age, it's really not asking too much to support Flash Video playback on a portable device, but then again, I can even point out modern XP machines that can't do that, so once again, software.  Thank you, Adobe, for making a brutally inefficient codec.

Now, I don't need Flash Video support to do my job, most of the time.  Sure, it's come up from time to time, but that's being pretty picky.  The question is, how many limited-purpose devices do I want in my home?  Do I really need an MP3 player, a video player, a web browser, and a remote terminal as separate devices, each of which can easily fit in my pocket?  Not really.  I could actually stand to have one nice general-purpose converged device to do all of these things.  For a while, I did, but apparently software has completely outpaced the abilities of small-scale hardware in the past few years.

Where does that leave me today?  Well, with a lot of extra crap, when all I really need is one acceptable device.  Maybe it doesn't even need to be pocketable, but I certainly wouldn't complain.  What it does need, of course, is a keyboard that one can type on comfortably, a screen that can be held at a proper angle relative to that keyboard, a CPU/GPU that can handle most video codecs at modern bitrates, and at least a four-hour battery life.

Most of this is best left to a handful of CPU/GPU combos, and the entire package needs to be comfortable.  Now we're left with a failing of software, and that's a bit nastier.  See, on a tiny screen, you need to be able to present data in a visible format, and then let the user pick that data and work with it in finer detail, and only one line of devices can do that:  Touchscreen iPods.  It's also the only thing, so far, that really works quickly and seamlessly with a touchscreen interface.  No trying to hit a tiny scrollbar, or tapping vainly around a close button.  Apps load, open, close, scroll, and generally just interact without having to fight with the device.  Your fingers don't bump into the edge of the screen, because the face of the unit is seamless to the non-control surfaces.  (Many TabletPCs also get this right.)  Your webpages are tiny, yes, but you can easily zoom in to what you want to see, and apps use up the entire screen.  Sure, there are a few controls that are missing, such as copy/paste, but that's something that just needs to be added on cleanly.

Give me a pocketable device with that general interface, and a biometric scanner.  Let me log into work using my thumbprint, and remote into my servers using a zoomable interface.  If I need 1024x768, then downscale the image, let me interact, and give me zoom functions that Just Work.  Play my videos, and do that quickly.  Talk to my home and office Wifi connections.  Tie me into my email, contacts, schedule, and let me edit my documents, spreadsheets, and so on.  Toss in a thumbboard with all the right keys.  I don't mind thumbboards, if they're done right.  Imagine my shock when I picked up an OQO, and started typing in command-key combos and relatively secure passwords without skipping a beat!  (Imagine my disappointment at the stylus-only touchscreen.)

Finally, give me all the battery life that you can muster, and then eke out a bit more.  Keep the core OS and a gob of additional application space on a solid-state drive, and use a 1.8" hard disk for mass storage, if you must.  Don't hobble performance, since I/O is king.  Don't hobble UI response, since usability depends on performance, and a device that gets in your way is a device stuck at home.  Give me a handheld tablet with no raised screen border, multi-touch, the ability to accept both finger and stylus input, and a clip-on keyboard with decent input.  Figure out the storage where you can, but if all else fails, slap in an SDHC/SDIO slot.  Build the software around the general idea that things need to work snappily, and just as well as they would on a full desktop.  Cram in specialized hardware if you have to, but *make it work.*

Most of these things require an eye for hardware design and software integration that Microsoft has yet to figure out, but Apple has nailed down perfectly.  I would be massively impressed with a miniature Apple tablet, running OS X on an x86 CPU, providing all of these UI controls for any generic app.  (This also means that I could just run any necessary MS apps via Parallels without anyone being the wiser.)

Are we still a few years off?  Of course.  But until someone gets off their ass and makes the one device that can do everything (just not all at once,) we're going to see a glut of products that all try to do 90% of the things we want, all at once, and do all of them very, very poorly.Type your cut contents here.

Date: 2008-01-07 10:20 pm (UTC)
twotone: (insane)
From: [personal profile] twotone
I was skimming my friends list and briefly incredibly confused as to why you were bitching about a goth festival.
Edited Date: 2008-01-07 10:21 pm (UTC)
(deleted comment)

Date: 2008-01-08 01:47 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] raptorck.livejournal.com
a) Eh. It's mostly a lot of work to keep things afloat because they won't pay up for a proper staffing level.

b) I don't advise using much beyond a GPS while driving, but I do that on the bike, so you may have a little more leeway.

c) Ask Spellos.

d) There are tons of PDAs, but data service is usually king here. HTC makes the Advantage, which is really slick for a WinMo device, but Windows Mobile just has too many compromises.

e) You may be able to give one of the upcoming Linux-based MIDs a shot, depending on what you need to run, but I'd really advise a test drive.

f) It's still a terrifying amount of stuff to maintain.

Date: 2008-01-08 12:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] obsequiosity.livejournal.com
I have been fascinated that YouTube has yet to be replaced by a service that is either faster, higher quality, or both. They took an old creaky codec and spliced it into a Flash interface. And we all seem content just to mess around with that.

Date: 2008-01-08 06:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] negrondevice.livejournal.com
Ditto man. D-I-T-T-O.

I had the N800 for awhile but it just never did the trick. I sold it. I figure the only thing that might work for me is something that runs Windows XP (NOT Windows Mobile). That Sony Vaio of yours is awesome but the screen is just too small. What I'm hoping is that UMPC's come far enough along so that I can actually carry one around and have it be worthwhile...And by worthwhile I mean long battery life, light and have something of a responsive & intuitive interface.

I like the Fujitsu LifeBook U810 but they max the thing out at 1GB and want ship it with Vista. They do give the option of using XP Tablet Edition. I've only been able to play with the demo model at J&R Computer World. Aside from it having Vista installed it's also banged up so I don't think it's a good indicator of what the user experience should be like - I hit ALT+F and the menu takes like 30 seconds to appear - WTF.

I also like the idea behind the Asus EEEpc. Light, uses a solid state drive and cheap. But IMO it's slightly underpowered and it uses Linux. There are reports of people installing XP on it, since it is Intel compatible hardware but with sporadic driver issues. Still it might be something to have a look at. J&R has these too and last time I went there seemed to be something of a crowd looking at these.

So dude..been there...and still doing that....


Date: 2008-01-08 07:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] raptorck.livejournal.com
A 5" display isn't the end of the world, dude. It's the resolution that kills you, and that's mostly Windows' fault. Take a look at the OQO model 02. Same size screen as the Sony, maybe marginally larger than the N800, but with a limited 800x480 resolution. They also cranked the shit out of the default UI settings, and big buttons/fonts actually help on that, especially when you use the interpolated zoom.

The U810, on the other hand, is trying to run Vista in 1GB of RAM, on a tiny 1.8" hard disk. You can cut RAM or disk IO in Vista, but not both. NEVER both. The screen, however, is still recessed, which makes it hard to use as a tablet.

The eeePC, however, is not bad at all. Not even a little bad. It's got good performance thanks to the (tiny) SSD, but the 800x480 can't zoom at all, so some things just won't be very usable. What it does have, however, is x86 Linux and a standard UI framework, so I can, more or less, run ANY existing Linux app on it without trouble. I think the only thing I lose with that is Exchange, but that's actually a big deal, and I'm not too thrilled about that. The N800's big flaw, aside from a complete lack of power, was that all apps had to be recompiled for ARM, and rearchitected for Hildon, which is just pure crap.

A 5" screen isn't really that bad. You use worse on your phone all the time. A 5" screen trying to recreate what you might use on an 11" screen, on the other hand, is beyond useless. Apps on the Sony need to run fullscreen, with either iPhone style kinetic scrolling, or OQO-style capacative touchscrollers, and they still need zooming. Oh so much zooming. My web pages absolutely should render properly on a 5" screen, but if I want to zoom in on half the page, why shouldn't I be able to?

I can probably replicate a lot of what makes the iPhone work as-is, but it's certainly not easy, and it's probably a job for Microsoft to handle at the topmost UI level.

Date: 2008-01-08 11:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] negrondevice.livejournal.com
>> A 5" display isn't the end of the world

I don't know I don't seem to strain as much with the other devices as I seem to on the Vaio.

As far as my phone, fuck that. I still have it but I stopped using it as anything but a phone and the thing I occasionally lookup shit on. For the life of me I can't figure out if it's the phone or the service when I see someone next to me yapping away on their phone and I get a "No Service Available" msg. Extremely frustrating.

I'm tempted by the eeePC...perhaps I'll install XP on it.

Date: 2008-01-09 12:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] raptorck.livejournal.com
You don't strain as much because of a nasty balance between the use case and the output. The N800 has a higher DPI than the Sony, but to Nokia's credit, they made sure that it shipped with nice, huge horking fonts. As a result, when holding the N800 at the same distance as the UX (a fool's proposition, if only for the sheer mass of the UX,) you've got tons more data on the UX screen, which has more-or-less stock XP, with 12-point fonts across the board. Since the UX has double the DPI resolution of the Eee, you're basically asking to go blind. It's cramming 60% more data in 70% of the space, which is pretty much guaranteed to kill you over time.

If, however, you bumped up the DPI to some happy compromise, accounting for the fact that you *will* be closer to the UX screen, you can get some very nice results. Basically, you need to fit no more than 800x480 worth of data onto that high-res 1024x600 screen. Neither Datavision nor J&R set up their demo models to do that, and that's probably going to scare away customers. Hell, go to J&R and look at the Q1 Ultra. Same resolution as the UX and the U810, but it's showing somewhat less data, since it's running at a higher, more sane DPI setting.

You don't gripe, for example, about the print in a book being too small. A printout on letter-sized paper may pump out something like 600dpi, but those words are the same size on the printout as they are in a paperback book. Same reading distance, same size. The UX is set up to ignore that, hence my argument for dynamic interpolated zoom. By default, don't give me any more data than what Windows might tend to deliver at 800x480. Leave the Start Menu and basic chrome alone at something like 10% of the screen height, as opposed to the 5% that it uses by default, and run the application at 128dpi instead of the default 96. If I want to zoom out, I drop down to an eyeball-burning 96, and when I zoom in, I can go up to the "natural" setting of about 256dpi, which is the actual resolution of that tiny tiny screen. (The N800 is somewhere around 220, for the record.)

I can tweak my UX to show that to you, if you'd like, as it might be helpful when you get any handheld, but I'll warn you: The Windows UI was not designed to run past about 105 dpi on a 1024-pixel wide screen. The system tray starts to overflow, and never shrinks. It's a huge bug, and makes your system look like crap.

(It is, however, usable, and much more touch-friendly.)

If you want to test something like that at home, ramp up the DPI settings in the Control Panel to 128 or so on a 15" 1024x768 display, and sit about 8 feet back, maybe a little more. That's what the UX *should* be set to, but can't properly support. I'm just willing to burn out my corneas faster than most.


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