computers

I officially love the Kindle Fire

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I’ve been a gadget nerd for close to forever now. Most of the time, I’m carrying an iPod Touch in one pocket, a BlackBerry in another and my laptop in my bag. I actually own three laptops, an iPad and a desktop. I’ve got a DS, a Wii and an Xbox 360 (with Kinect, thank you).

My newest and most favorite gadget is the Kindle Fire. It has joined the elite group of gadgets I carry with me at all times, and I use it more than any other gadget in my collection.

If you’re wondering whether you should get one, the answer is yes.

Here’s what I love about it:

1. No Apple. My biggest frustration with the iPad and iPod Touch is Apple, and my inability to do what I want with my devices. I can’t understand Apple’s app approval process, either. While we’re told it is to ensure we get the best apps, the App Store is chock full of garbage. The Kindle has a different master — Amazon — but I’ve been in Apple land so long that it just feels good to get out.

2. Android. The Kindle Fire runs a heavily modified version of Google’s Android operating system. It’s easy to use, responsive, and generally makes lots of sense. The Kindle doesn’t seem to get bogged down and clunky the way early-gen Android phones did. After a few days of interacting with the Fire, iOS started to look its age — old and outdated, by tech standards.

3. Form. The Kindle Fire is the perfect size. I’ve spent quite a lot of time going from iPad to iPod, frustrated that one is too big and the other is too small. The iPad is just too heavy and bulky and slippery to be used comfortably as a reader. And playing games that require two hands in nearly impossible. The iPod Touch is nice for playing some games, but too small to be a reader. I use my devices often for Netflix and YouTube. While Netflix looks great on the iPad, you need to prop the iPad up or suffer carpal tunnel syndrome. The iPod Touch is so small that you’ll need to hold it fairly close in order to enjoy what you’re watching. The Kindle fire, however, can be comfortably held in one hand at a distance that isn’t awkward. In addition, the non-slip back on the Kindle Fire makes it easier and more comfortable to hold.

4. Amazon. If Apple’s iTunes and App Store have any competition, it’s Amazon. The Amazon Marketplace includes apps, music, movies, books — in short, all the media you care to consume is right there for the taking. And there’s plenty of free content as well, especially if you’re an Amazon Prime member. The Kindle makes it easy to shop Amazon for non-digital items, too.

5. Price. Without a doubt, the Kindle is the best value on the market. Yes, it’s less powerful than the iPad. It’s smaller, it doesn’t have the fancy screen resolution, and it isn’t made by Apple. But at $200, you can get two Kindle Fires for the price of one low-end iPad, and still have $100 left over. Better yet, consider the annual updates Apple makes to the iPad. If you were to buy a new iPad each year for five years, you’d shell out $2,500. Five Kindle Fires? $1,000. Considering that this is the first edition of the Kindle Fire, I have to assume there are many improvements to come. Frankly, I don’t mind dropping a couple hundred dollars each year to get a new Fire. An iPad? It just isn’t worth the money.

 

It isn’t all roses, however. Here are a few things I dislike about the Fire:

1. Amazon. I really dislike being locked into any single ecosystem, which is why I’m one of the few dinosaurs who still carries a BlackBerry. I enjoy tinkering and playing with free apps found out in the wild. I’m smart enough to mess with my devices without messing them up. I don’t want to have to jailbreak a device in order to get it to do what I want. Amazon’s decision to lock the Kindle into its own ecosystem, for me, causes problems like….

2. Access. There’s no Facebook app for the Kindle Fire, but the Fire comes loaded with a nifty Facebook icon right on the home screen — cleverly added to your favorites — that links you to Facebook’s mobile site. There is, however, a Facebook app for Android. Unfortunately, you can’t get it, because it isn’t in the Amazon Marketplace. But there’s a Twitter app, which works quite well. The problem here is that Amazon obviously picked a favorite by including Facebook in the favorites, even though there’s no dedicated app available. And Facebook, thinking you’re running a regular Android device, prompts you regularly to download its Android app — which doesn’t exist on the Marketplace, and therefore can’t be installed. Amazon needs to fix such things. To me, this is clearly the biggest frustration.

3. Options. There really needs to be a 3G option here. I generally use my Kindle at home, but I’d love for it to be more portable. Unfortunately, when I’m on the go, I find myself forced to reach for my BlackBerry for Internet access, when I’d really like to grab the Fire. That being said, I could easily get around the problem with a mobile hotspot — which is likely what I’ll do.

4. Carousel. I don’t even know what it’s supposed to do. I thought at first that it was for negotiating through open programs. It seems, however, to be a running history of what you’ve recently had open. That’s okay, but I’d like the ability to change its function, so it doesn’t keep everything. If there’s already a dedicated link (like the web) or there’s already a favorite, why clutter up the carousel with those things? It looks neat, but functions…meh.

 

Anyone who is in the market for a tablet needs to understand an important point: Tablets are for consuming, not creating. A tablet is a great device to use if you’re watching video, surfing the net, reading a book, playing games. But it is a miserable device to use for actually working on. Typing on the iPad or Kindle is awful. Both have unfortunate autocorrect issues. Both are uncomfortable and inefficient. Both are terrible for editing text. But neither is truly meant for that. They’re meant to be used for consuming information, for flipping through photos, for reading. Apple markets the iPad otherwise, but I can’t imagine editing a book or writing anything longer than a short email on an iPad. Drawing? Maybe. Creating music? Perhaps. But most humans don’t work in creative fields; standard office work with a tablet is not a good time.

So that’s my take on it. If you want a tablet, go with the Kindle Fire. Simple as that.

 

 

What the heck is wrong with HP?

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HP has finally gotten on my last nerve. I’m absolutely fed up. And, frankly, I’m surprised I’m not hearing more of an uproar from the Internets.

I’ve had quite a few HP products over the years — mostly printers and desktop machines. A year ago I decided on an HP laptop. Though I really like the machine, I was immediately assaulted with a bunch of crap I didn’t need — various HP-branded software that “helped” me do things on my brand-new Windows 7 machine. On top of that, I got the obligatory crapware, games and trial antivirus software. I deleted and uninstalled all of it, and have been pleasantly surprised by the machine. I liked it so much that when it came time to buy a new desktop machine, I bought a big HP, with lots of bells and whistles.

Again, I was forced to remove a bunch of crapware when I got Karen (I named her Karen). But I guess the sad commentary is that I’m used to that ritual. Karen ran beautifully for several months. A couple of months ago, however, I got the dreaded blue screen. The first of many.

At first it was no big deal. Karen would start up again and continue along where we left off. But then things started going crazy. So I called HP tech support. The computer was under warranty, I was told, so no worries. It would be fixed. But there were worries.

Immediately, tech support blamed the software I was running. Nevermind that I’d been running it for months, or that I’d spent a considerable time online hunting down the specific BSOD error and knew the cause. His solution was to uninstall the software I was using first and see if the problem persisted.

“Well,” I said. “It’s video editing software. And I actually use the computer to edit video. If I uninstall it, I will not be editing video…and probably not using the computer.” I asked if he had specific procedures for the BSOD I was getting. He said he did not. In fact, he did not take note of what the error was. I asked to talk to someone who had used a computer before.

I was transferred to someone else. This time, I was told immediately to format my hard drive and reinstall the operating system. The gentleman offered to walk me through the steps to do so. “No,” I said. “This is not an OS problem. It is a hardware problem.”

He challenged me, and told me to run HP’s hardware diagnostics. He said he would call back in two hours so I could report the results. “This is not a hardware problem,” he said. “If it’s a hardware problem, the diagnostics will show us.”

Well, the diagnostics wouldn’t run. The machine bluescreened in the middle of the tests. And the guy from HP didn’t call me back in two hours. In fact, HP didn’t call back for four days. My computer was 30 miles away. They said they’d call me back later that night. They called six days later. Again, I wasn’t expecting the call. I was at the mall. They said they’d call the next day.

Miraculously, things started working again. I thought perhaps they were right. Maybe it was OS related. Maybe it was just a bum update from Microsoft that was fixed. And life went on. Until two weeks ago, when the blue screens came fast and furious. Poor Karen crashed within minutes of booting up. And things were looking grim.

I backed up all my files. I wiped the drive. I reinstalled the OS. The blue screens continued.

My call to HP went as I expected. I was told to reinstall the OS again. I was told I would have to spend $20 on rescue disks to restore the machine’s factory OS install. Again I was told to run the hardware diagnostics and to call back when they completed. When Karen bluescreened during the diagnostics I called. On the other end was Buck — the first American I talked to throughout the ordeal.

It didn’t take Buck long. He listened to my story. We ran the diagnostic test again. He asked me a couple of questions, took lots of notes, and set me up immediately to get Karen sent in for repair. Less than a week later, she’s back at my desk. And things are going well.

So…why am I complaining? Look: I had a pretty simple problem. The fact is, HP’s tech support staff did everything it could to keep from having to fix it. Team members blamed me, my software, Microsoft’s software…anything but the build itself. They failed to return phone calls when they were promised (in fact, at one point a caller claimed they’d called me every night; I just hadn’t answered the phone). They didn’t even listen to the symptoms or document them so that someone who actually knew something about computers could help.

At the end of my experience, I was left thinking HP’s method of dealing with customer problems such as mine is to stonewall, argue and put off any solution until the customer gives up. It’s unacceptable.

Let’s add to it my HP wireless printer. No, I can’t just install it like a normal printer. I actually have to use a setup CD, which is impossible on my netbook. So to print a simple document I’d typed, I had to download the software from HP and install. And I was horrified to find not only had it installed the printer, but also several other pieces of software — all accessible through four — FOUR — desktop icons. It’s a printer, folks. PLEASE let it BE a printer.

HP needs to learn to respect its customers. I should not have to spend time removing garbage I don’t want. I should not have to spend hours talking to tech support. Setting up a printer should not take 20 minutes. Show customers some respect and you’ll earn their loyalty. You’ve already lost mine.

UPDATE:
As you’ll read in the comments below, my poor Karen began bluescreening again, just days after she was returned to me.

In the days since, I’ve spent countless hours on the phone with HP tech support, the escalations department, and the executive customer relations department. I’m going to try to keep this update short, but I don’t know if that’s possible.

My first call to HP to report they hadn’t fixed the problem went poorly. As you can read below, I was told to test the hard drive for the umpteenth time. I politely declined, and asked if I could talked to someone else. I was told I could not, and that if I refused to run a hard drive diagnostic, the tech would not help. I was given a number to call, but that number went to dead air.

My next call didn’t go much better. I talked to two different people, and was finally told my case was being sent to the escalations department, where someone would decide how best to proceed. I asked to have that person call my cell phone any time the next day from 9 am to 11 pm.

At 2:30 am, my home phone rang. It was HP, offering to help fix the “problems you are having getting online.” Well…it was 2:30 am, and at no time did I ever say I was having a problem getting online. And I had just told them to stop calling my home phone.

The next day, Jon from escalations called. He called my home phone, again after I said not to. I returned the call, and somehow ended up with Kelsey, who said  she’d be happy to help resolve the issues I was having with the “computer booting up.” Again, not the problem I was having. After talking to her extensively, I was offered the opportunity to send Karen back to Texas for repair. And I guess I could have just agreed to that. But these are people who utterly failed to diagnose and correct the problem already. I told Kelsey I want someone to come to my house, or I would like to take the machine somewhere to have someone actually look at it — someone I can talk to. She told me although my warranty didn’t cover such things, she’d send an email to someone else and try to get a home visit approved. I thanked her, and asked her to call my cell phone when she had an answer. We confirmed the number.

The next day, she called me back. On my home phone. I received the message and called back, where a man named Michael happily told me a tech would come to my house. To replace my hard drive.

I’ll admit that at this point I flipped out, and I appreciate Michael’s patience. I told him the hard drive was fine. I explained the situation. He told me he builds his own computers, and agreed the BSOD error didn’t sound hard drive related to him either. His guess was motherboard and processor. I’ll point out that in my first call to HP tech support — on Dec. 31st — I told them there was a problem with the CPU.

He made a note for Kelsey to call the next day (yesterday). Again, she told me a tech was coming to replace a part that isn’t broken. I said no. I told her I wanted someone to come look at the machine, diagnose the problem, and fix what was broken. But the repair staff doesn’t troubleshoot, Kelsey told me — that’s what the folks on the phone do. And those folks on the phone just tell the repair staff what part to replace.

Long and short is that my computer still isn’t fixed. My warranty runs out in just days, and the HP staff doesn’t seem to want to put in the effort to make sure it works.

They’ve made a big deal of waiving a $50 fee for a home repair call. But the fact is they’ve cost me hours of time and weeks of productivity. How have they made it up to me? How have they tried to make it up to me at all? They haven’t. They seem to believe it’s enough to merely get me back to where I started, despite the fact that they’ve cost me time and money.

Thank goodness for my Acer netbook. It’s gotten me through this mess. And I can assure you, HP will never get my business again.

UPDATE 2:
So…I scheduled an appointment with HP to have a tech come to my house last week to fix Karen. Well…to replace the motherboard. I took the day off, as I was told the tech would arrive between noon and 4. At 9:30 my phone rang. The guy on the other end said he was calling to confirm my appointment. “Yes,” I said. “I’ve taken the day off from work, and will be waiting.”

“Well,” he said, “if we can’t make it today, will you be around tomorrow?”

What?

He explained they were trying to find a tech, and he’d call me in a couple of hours to let me know when they’d show up. He never called. Nobody did. I spent the whole day waiting. The next day I set up another appointment, for Saturday. But you know what? I was sick of it. Something needed to get done.

I called Kelsey the next day and told her to get creative, make me an offer and make me happy. She promised to get back to me the very next morning. She didn’t. I called and got Todd on the phone. Though she’d promised to call, Kelsey actually had the day off. And that was really all it took.

I’d decided the night before that it was time to take more drastic action. I told Todd I was through being nice. My next stop would be small claims court. His tone changed immediately. He actually listened to my story — even acted bewildered when I told him I’d diagnosed the problem even before making my first call to support. He offered to put in a request to send a new machine. In the meantime, he told me to allow the repairman to replace the motherboard — just in case.

Saturday came, and the motherboard was replaced. The repairman watched as Karen booted up and promptly bluescreened. He called HP.

I could hear his conversation, and he explained the BSOD error. “Why are you replacing the motherboard?” the guy on the other end said. “This is a problem with the CPU.”

Exactly.

It’s now Tuesday, and I just got off the phone with Todd. HP is sending me a new computer — one with better specs than Karen. I’m relieved to hear that, and I’m glad to know this fiasco is finally coming to a close. But my feelings haven’t changed. The next time I shop for a computer or printer, HP will not be on my list.

It should not take three months and the threat of legal action for any company to listen to its customers and response appropriately. Had I been listened to three months ago, Karen would have gone to the shop, the CPU would have been replaced, and I’d be singing HP’s praises here. Instead I’ve been frustrated, annoyed, and treated like a fool.

I’m not a fool.

UPDATE 3:

Well, the saga seems to have ended. I received my new computer on Friday. It wasn’t the one I was promised — that one, I’m told, was sold out — but an acceptable replacement. I used it over the weekend, and it seems to be working fine. I’m now about to send old Karen back to HP, where I hope she’s treated well.

I’ve certainly written more than enough on this subject, so I don’t want to belabor the point much longer. Yes, in the end, HP did the right thing. But that end took a LONG time to get to, not to mention several threats on my part and hours upon hours of aggravation.

Here’s my advice: Do not take no for an answer. Fight tooth and nail to get what’s coming to you. If HP refuses, don’t be afraid to take the company to small claims court. Remember that you’ve paid for the machine, and the law says you should expect it to work.

The iPad is not a game changer. Get over it.

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I’m writing this from my brand-new netbook, which shows you exactly how useful and user friendly I find the iPad, and how excited I am that a new iPad is just days away.

You may recall that I mocked the iPad a bit at its launch, pointing out nine things the iPad couldn’t do. But I bought one anyway, knowing the limitations, because it felt wrong to trash a device I never used. Perhaps, I reasoned, I was missing something about the overall experience. And I believe in giving devices the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve been living with the iPad now for about two months, and I can tell you that not only has life with the iPad confirmed everything I wrote at launch, but the device is actually less useful than I expected. In many ways, it’s just plain worse than I imagined.

First off, it just stinks to type on. The on-screen keyboard is a miserable experience for a touch typist. Yes, it gets better with practice. But I shouldn’t HAVE to practice typing. I know how to type already. That means e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, document creation and editing are all miserable. Any time I have to type on the iPad — even just typing URLs and search terms — I cringe. Apple has not improved on the keyboard. At all.

Secondly, you really have no idea how much Internet you’re missing without Flash until you try running a device without Flash. And there’s a lot of Internet out there that the iPad just can’t display. A lot of that content is Flash video; on the iPad, you get nothing but YouTube and whatever video you find in apps made specifically for iPad. The most annoying thing ever? The e-mail from a friend, linking you to a video…that you can’t watch.

But at least you’ve got YouTube, right? At the iPad launch, Steve Jobs said YouTube “shines” on the iPad. Well…not quite. You actually don’t even get all of YouTube on the iPad; instead, you get only what’s available on the YouTube mobile site. That means unless a video uploader has specifically chosen to make their videos available for mobile devices, you won’t see it. Videos from Vevo don’t even show up in search results. And worse? No device I own has a tougher time playing YouTube videos. The constant halting and buffering is enough to make me curse Steve Jobs at the top of my lungs, out of pure frustration (I actually yell “JOOOBBBBSSS!!!). And I can’t even choose which resolution to watch those videos in.

The only thing I’ve found pleasurable on the iPad is gaming. And only casual games, at that. Angry Birds and Cut the Rope are fun, easy time wasters. I enjoy Doodle Fit, a couple of air hockey apps, checkers. But more intense gaming that requires using on-screen joystick controls is nearly impossible. Games like Super Fly, Mortal Kombat and Back Breaker are difficult to impossible. And the entire device is too heavy to hold comfortably.

Frankly, the iPad just doesn’t do anything it does better than any other device. The Nintendo DS is a better, more portable and cheaper gaming device. My netbook is better at surfing the net, composing and reading e-mail, watching video, and generally, well, everything. It’s just about the same size as an iPad when closed up, and it cost me half what the iPad set me back.

The new iPad addresses some of the shortcomings of the original. It includes cameras, a dual-core processor, HDMI out. But it doesn’t address the fundamental issues: The iPad is not useful enough to be a must-have device. In fact, I pick mine up rarely anymore. And that only to play a quick game or watch YouTube video.

Apple has shipped a lot of iPads, and they’ll ship a lot more in the coming year. A trip to any computer store will show you that the netbook market has eroded (I haven’t seen anything other than Acer Aspire One models in ages). My fear is that netbooks will soon go the way of the dodo, based purely on the “oh gosh” factor of the iPad. Thanks to its price and “magical”-ness (read: marketing), the iPad is one of those devices people desire. Unfortunately, it’s a disappointing little beast.

That’s not to say the iPad is all bad. I see plenty of ways businesses — especially sales professionals — could use it. But for me, still, it just isn’t right.

Initial impressions: iPod Touch

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You may recall my iPod Touch debacle several months ago. After a little wrangling, it turns out the iPod was, after all, in need of a part Apple no longer has. So I was fortunate enough to get a nice check to put toward a brand-new iPod (or anything else I wanted).

I decided to wait for the newest iteration of the iPod touch — you know, the one with the camera, the Retina display and iOS 4. I picked one up Saturday and I’ve spent the weekend with it. My initial reactions follow…

Retina display
Obviously, this is the first and biggest thing Apple’s pushed for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Supposedly the best and most beautiful display ever on such a small device. My take? It’s okay. Yes, it’s pretty. Images are bright and sharp. But as I suspected, the Retina display is nearly unnecessary on such a small device. It doesn’t really add enough to the iPod experience to warrant the hype. Pretty, yes. Essential, no.

Camera
The dual cameras are the second biggest additions. I’ll admit it’s cool to have a camera and video camera in my pocket at all times. Problem with it is I already have both on my BlackBerry, so it becomes a bit redundant. I haven’t spent any time with the video editing capabilities, but I do a lot of video editing on the PC already. And I’m likely to continue doing so.

Facetime
First of all, I think Facetime is a great idea.  If you really want to see the person you’re talking to, Facetime will let you do that. But, as we’ve grown to expect from Apple, it doesn’t integrate with other video chat applications, such as Skype. That’s a shame. I’d much rather Apple can Facetime and run a really great Skype app. I can’t use Facetime because I have no friends on iPod Touch or iPhone…that sorta renders it useless to have.

Speed
Yes, the new  iPod Touch is faster and runs smoother than the old version. As always, it’s a pleasure to use on its own. There’s really not all that much to say here…we expect Apple products to work. It does. My old iPod Touch was my go-to gadget for that very reason. This one is every bit as good. But that’s really not good enough.

Bottom line
I like the iPod Touch. I really do. Over the summer, however, I learned to live without it. And I replaced the iPod Touch — at least most of it — with the BlackBerry Torch, which gives me web browsing that’s just as good, an e-mail experience that’s better, a slide-out QWERTY keyboard that makes input way easier, and comparable YouTube surfing, media playback and more. Plus it makes phone calls.

The other thing I didn’t miss about the iPod? iTunes. Immediately upon plugging in the new iPod, I remembered just how much I detest the iTunes experience. Get this: On the BlackBerry, I can drag and drop files onto my media card, using the device as a drive. And they just show up where I want them. Though I can use media management software, it is not necessary. I couldn’t do a single thing on the new iPod without iTunes. And synching the apps I’d previously purchased was a nightmare — some 40 apps needed updating, and Apple wouldn’t let me download the updates without signing in with my Apple ID. Several of the apps had been removed from the app store, so I continue to be notified that they need updating, only to get another notifier that they can’t be found. And, as always, iTunes is so bloated and bulky that I’m running it on an old Windows XP machine with almost nothing else on it — it’s my iTunes machine — and iTunes brings the poor beast to its knees every time it launches.

Time will eventually tell if the iPod Touch finds its way into the same place in my daily routine that it used to have. For now, I feel the improvements are too slight to make it work the upgrade. And with the exploding smartphone market, Apple needs to step up its game if it intends to use iPod Touch as the cornerstone of its media player market.

Chat Roulette: Proof that people suck

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I don’t visit Chat Roulette. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. I don’t go there. The mere thought terrifies me. It shouldn’t — after all, I’m a grown man. But there are some things I’d just rather not see.

Chat Roulette is a pretty brilliant idea, actually. It’s one of those ideas that could only have been dreamed up by an idealistic teenager, who just wondered what it would be like if you could just hit a button and video chat with a random stranger anywhere in the world. Pretty awesome, right?

Wrong.

Like way too many other things online, creeps are immediately drawn in. And just to be clear, Internet perverts will always find a way to ruin any good idea. Always.

In the Chat Roulette I envision, a schoolteacher could put the service up on the projector in front of the class, hit a button and be connected to someone in Germany or France. The kids could ask questions about the chatter’s traditions or the food. They could actually learn something. It would be like when I was a youngster and we had penpals in other countries, only Chat Roulette would allow users to speak in real-time. I could even see classrooms using this daily — like a daily trip around the world. And even average Joes could go online and chat with random strangers, either for fun or to learn. It my vision, Chat Roulette could play a huge part in drawing the world closer together, breaking down borders and fostering understanding between people.

Instead, we get perverts.

C-NET’s Natali Del Conte, in a report for CBS, showed it doesn’t take but a couple of mouse clicks before a Chat Roulette visitor is exposed to nudity or propositioned for sex. And, as such, it’s not a safe playground.

I don’t know what the 17-year-old Russian lad who invented Chat Roulette had in mind when he launched the site a few short months ago. According the rules, there’s no pornography, nudity, illegal or immoral behavior allowed.  But as Jon Stewart points out, this is the Internet.

Point is, the Internet’s never seen a good idea it couldn’t screw up. And Chat Roulette was ruined before it ever got off the ground. My advice to the Chat Roulette developers? Figure out a content filter that allows safe surfing, and you’ll find your user numbers grow. Legitimize your site before it gets any more out of hand than it already is, and perhaps create an education-only section, where school kids can interact with each other in the classroom.

Right now, all you’ve got is a website that proves people suck.

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