Review of the Google OnHub From TP Link

OnHub_1

Update (1/13/2017): The OnHub has been replaced by Google WiFi. One of the dangers of being an early adopter is that sometimes you spend money on products that turn out to be little more than prototypes. Looks like I’ll be upgrading.

Update (5/2/2016): The OnHub now works with IFTTT (If This Than That). Looks like I’m going to be making a lot of updates to this post.

Update (4/25/2016): The OnHub now has support for guest networks. (I’m back to only having to use one router again.) You can even allow your guest network to have access to streaming devices like the Chromecast and Chromecast Audio. Thanks, Google!

Whenever Google dabbles in hardware, I pay attention. And whenever anyone claims to be rethinking not only an ubiquitous consumer electronic, but an entire customer experience, my curiosity is piqued. Google’s OnHub project is both.

I went with the model from TP Link since it was the only one available at the time I was buying, but the model from ASUS looks similar enough that I wouldn’t expect major differences. Here’s a breakdown of my experience with the OnHub so far.

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Logitech MX Master Review

logitech_mx_master_1

Despite multi-touch screens, voice interaction, and science fiction’s promise of gestural operating environments, the primary ways we interact with computers are still through the firmly established keyboard and mouse. I’ve tested dozens of keyboards to finally find a couple I can claim to truly love, but the same level of passion has always eluded me when it came to mice. So when Logitech boldly proclaimed that they revolutionized the nearly fifty-year-old peripheral with the MX Master, I was in.

Let’s start with some highlights:

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Video Review of the Google Nexus 7 Tablet

I’ve spent about a week with the Nexus 7 tablet now so I thought I’d do a quick video to capture my impressions:

If you’d rather read than watch, here are the highlights:

  • I really like the 7-inch form factor. Since I have an 11″ MacBook Air, 10-inch tablets don’t feel all that portable to me. 7-inch tablets are very portable, very light, allow me to easily type with my thumbs, and are much easier to hold for long periods of time while reading.
  • The performance is excellent. The combination of the hardware and Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) make the Nexus 7 as smooth and polished as any iOS device.
  • The battery life seems very good. I didn’t explicitly test it, but I’ve only had to charge the Nexus 7 a few times since I started using it. It may not be as good as something like the iPad, but I found the battery to be more than sufficient.
  • I’m not crazy about the emphasis on the Google Play store by default. Since it competes with the Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7 is designed primarily as a content consumption device (which also justifies the very aggressive pricing — Google wants to make money on the ecosystem rather than hardware). Fortunately all the conduits into the the Google Play store are implemented as widgets which you can just delete in order to get a more traditional tablet experience. I should point out that I actually like the Google Play store and have used it several times already — I just don’t want it to be the central experience of my tablet.
  • My only complaint/request is that I want to be able to buy a higher-end version. I like this device enough that I’d happily pay more for a rear-facing HD camera and 4G wireless support. That said, I know Google is competing with the Kindle Fire, and the price is extremely aggressive for such a capable device. I think Google is doing the right thing for now, however I hope they release versions with more features in the future.

To summarize: great device which is absolutely worth the $199/$249 price.

My Current Keyboard Configuration

my_keyboard_configurationThe picture above is one of my home workstations where I think I’ve finally gotten the right keyboard/pointer configuration. Here’s what you’re looking at:

  • The black keyboard on the bottom is a Filco Majestouch mechanical keyboard with MX Cherry Brown switches (review with video here). This is what I use for most of my typing. The Alt and Windows keys have been swapped and Alt and Command remapped in software to make it more Mac friendly.
  • The keyboard above it is an Apple bluetooth keyboard. I use it for typing when I’m in virtual meetings in order to keep the noise down (it’s very quiet while the mechanical keyboard is way too loud for meetings), and for its media keys (volume up, volume down, and mute). (If you want media keys on your non-Apple keyboard, see this post by Grant Skinner.)
  • The mouse is an Apple Magic Mouse. Mice are very personal objects which people feel strongly about, so I’m not going to claim that it’s the best. In fact, I have a few Logitech mice which are equally good if not better. But I enjoy the accuracy and the gestures of the Magic Mouse enough that I’ve stuck with it. (In my opinion, this is the first mouse Apple has ever made that’s usable.)
  • The trackpad beside the top keyboard is the Apple Magic Trackpad. I use it for gestures and sometimes for scrolling. I also sometimes connect the bluetooth keyboard and trackpad or mouse to my phone.
  • The phone is a Galaxy Nexus. I usually have my iPhone 4S beside it, but I used it to take the photo. I rely on them for notifications. Rather than having alerts pop up on my monitor all the time and distract me, I use my phones for email, calendar, and text notifications. (I have two phones because I do mobile development — and because I love them both.)
  • I have an Energizer family sized battery charger off to the side to keep the keyboard and pointing devices powered. I find I’m swapping out batteries about every two weeks.

I have two other workstations: one for Windows, and one at the office. They’re both different just to mix things up a bit, so maybe I’ll get pictures of them at some point, as well.

Using a Mobile Device as a Desktop Computer

Part 1

Part 2

Part 2 Table of Contents:

Some friends of mine and I are experimenting with what it’s like to use a mobile device (in this case, a Galaxy Nexus) as a desktop computer. With the addition of a bluetooth keyboard, multi-touch trackpad, and a monitor, I found that the experience is surprisingly good.

I don’t demo all that many applications in the video for fear of inadvertently showing sensitive data, but I think I show enough that you can get an idea for how close we already are to this type of computing model. In fact, I think if you were to set up a workspace like this for someone who didn’t have “professional” needs (such as writing code or video editing), and/or someone who didn’t have a lot of preconceptions about how a computer should work, they would be perfectly happy with the experience. I was able to do all of the following with relative ease:

  • Browse the internet.
  • Read news.
  • Manage my calendar, tasks, contacts, etc.
  • Read and write email almost as easily as I can on my desktop.
  • Listen to music and podcasts.
  • Chat on IM.
  • Edit documents.
  • Do some light photo editing (in the default gallery application).
  • Participate in social networks (Google+, Twitter, and Facebook).
  • Watch videos on YouTube and Netflix.

In other words, I was able to do most of what many people do with desktop computers on a daily basis. Of course, there were a few key things I wasn’t able to do such as:

  • Write code. I’m sure it’s possible, but definitely not practical, and probably not something I would enjoy.
  • Advanced editing of things like photos and video.
  • Advanced file management. With this kind of computing model, you definitely want to keep as much data in the cloud as possible since the file system is generally de-emphasized on mobile devices.

Keep in mind that I’m using a stock Android device with whatever capabilities are already in the OS. If you’re willing to go as far as installing Linux on your phone, you can do far more than this. Additionally, operating systems will likely have much better support for this kind of model in the future — in particular, Windows 8 with Metro.

I’m really curious about whether this kind of interaction represents the future of computing. Are we moving toward a model where we use multiple computers and mobile devices with all our data in the cloud, or in five to ten years, are we all just going to use our phones for most of our computing needs? I’m guessing it’s going to be somewhere in the middle (as these things tend to be), but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Update: I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the cables I used to make this work. Here’s all you need to know:

  • For the display, I used a Samsung MHL to HDMI adapter (along with an HDMI cable, obviously). If you want to do audio through your monitor, make sure your HDMI cable supports audio.
  • For a USB keyboard and mouse, you’ll need a micro USB host mode OTG cable, and a powered USB hub. (I used a bluetooth keyboard and mouse, so this isn’t in the video.)
  • For audio (if you don’t have speakers in your monitor), I just used a standard 3.5mm audio cable from the phone to my computer speakers.

Thanks to Matt Pandina for helping to get this working.

New Gaming PC

After relying primarily on consoles (Xbox and PS3) for gaming over the last few years (and occasionally a very nice Lenovo ThinkPad with a surprisingly capable graphics card), I decided it was finally time to build a serious gaming rig. I’m still tuning and tweaking, so I can’t give a final verdict yet, but so far, I’ve been very happy with it. Here are the components/specs:

  • Intel Core i7-2600K Sandy Bridge 3.4GHz CPU
  • 2x MSI N570GTX Twin Frozr II OC GeForce GTX 570 video cards
  • 16GB (4 x 4GB) Corsair Vengeance DDR3 240-Pin 1.5V SDRAM
  • 2x Western Digital 1TB 7200 RPM drives in a RAID 1 configuration
  • SAMSUNG 470 Series 128GB SATA II Internal Solid State Drive (so game data loads faster)
  • MSI P67A-GD53 ATX Intel Motherboard
  • LG Blu-ray/DVD/CD reader/writer
  • CORSAIR Hydro H70 CWCH70 CPU Cooler
  • CORSAIR 750W ATX12V power supply
  • COOLER MASTER Black Steel/Plastic ATX Full Tower Computer Case
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Professional

At this point, I’ve still put more time into building and tweaking than actual gaming, but hopefully that’s about to change. I’m a few hours into Fallout: New Vegas, and will probably go from there to Mass Effect, Brink, L4D, and eventually StarCraft II. Any other suggestions?

Update: I’ve gotten a lot of questions on cost, so here’s some additional information. I paid about $2,300 for everything (including Windows 7), shipped. If you’re interested in building your own gaming system, you can do it for much less, however. Here are some ways to save money without sacrificing very much (if anything) in the way of gaming performance:

  • Shop around rather than buying all your components from the same site. I spent enough time researching components that I didn’t want to spend even more time finding the lowest prices on them, so I was lazy and bought them all from the same retailer. That said, I bought them from Newegg which has pretty aggressive pricing, so I probably wouldn’t have saved very much.
  • Skip the liquid CPU cooler. The fan that comes with your CPU is sufficient. I just used a liquid cooling system for fun, and just in case I want to get really aggressive with the overclocking (which I haven’t yet).
  • Use fewer hard drives. I could have saved a lot of money just using a single 500GB drive rather than two 1TB drives and an SSD. In fact, this could probably have been my single biggest savings.
  • Buy a cheaper case. The case I decided on was expensive, but I wanted something nice and big for air flow and expansion, and I figured I’ll have the same case for a long time as I upgrade individual components. But there are much cheaper cases out there that will still work fine.
  • Buy less RAM. 8GM would have been plenty. 12GB is kind of ridiculous, but as you can see, I had a little too much fun designing this thing.

If I had really wanted to, I could have probably gotten the cost of everything down to about $1,800 and still had an amazing machine. Of course, I could have also spent much more, so I figure it all balances out in the end.

Review of the New Apple TV

apple_tvI recently got rid of my Verizon FiOS television service (a topic for another post), so when Apple announced the new Apple TV, I ordered one straightaway. At $99, I felt like I had nothing to lose.

I’ve only been using it for a few days, but so far, I’m very happy with it. We’ve used it almost exclusively for Netflix streaming, and to confirm what Steve Jobs said during Apple’s press event, the Apple TV is probably the best Netflix steaming client. As far an I’m concerned, if I only use it for Netflix and for browsing my Flickr stream, it was well worth the $99.

We haven’t “rented” anything yet, and I’m not sure I’ll get into the habit of paying 99¢ for a single viewing of a television show, but I’m not ready to discount the business model yet. Although it still doesn’t feel quite right, I think it might actually make sense. I only watch a handful of television shows, so even if I pay 99¢ for every one of them, I’ll still be way ahead of where I was with FiOS. And most importantly, I’d only be paying for the content I watch rather than the thousands of hours of programming that I don’t watch which, in my opinion, is the biggest problem with the traditional television subscription model.

I will probably pay a movie now and then, however as Netflix streaming becomes more comprehensive (which I assume it will), there will less of a need to pay per film. That said, I do think $3.99 is a reasonable price for low-end HD content, so I’m not opposed to the occasional movie rental.

I don’t know how successful the Apple TV will be, but I do know that I want to support new business models around media. I’m perfectly willing to buy content, and in fact, I think it’s important to back business models you believe in by buying into them, but the models simply have to make sense, and they have to represent good values. Apple TV certainly isn’t 100% there yet, but in my opinion, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Things I really like about the Apple TV:

  • Very compact. As usual, Apple really knew what it was doing when it designed this thing. It sits next to my PS3, and is next to invisible. Adding an Apple TV to your collection of consoles and set-top boxes will not require you to rearrange your entire component cabinet. It doesn’t even have a power brick, so it won’t add much to the jungle of cords and cables behind your screen.
  • Great remote. Aside from the battery (see below), I really like the Apple TV remote. Apple knows that the remote is the part of the device that you interface with, so it feels very high-quality and works well.
  • Great UI. Traditional television service providers have always had something against simple and intuitive user interfaces. Once again, Apple to the rescue.
  • Very responsive. My old Verizon FiOS set-top box was buggy, slow, and unstable. Although the Apple TV’s software isn’t flawless (see below), it’s far more robust and responsive than the FiOS box I just sent back to Verizon. It’s also far faster and more robust than the OS and applications built into my Sony Bravia. (Sometimes I wonder why Sony even bothered.)
  • Built-in WiFi. To get my TV online (it has built-in services like Netflix streaming, Amazon on-demand, etc.), I had to set up a wireless bridge which cost extra money, time (in configuration), and precious space. The Apple TV is basically self-sufficient, as devices today should be.
  • No Netflix activation. For some reason, when I set up Netflix streaming on other clients (like my PS3 or my Sony Bravia), I had to go through a horrible registration/activation process which required having a computer nearby, creating an account with Sony, copying codes and URLs back and forth, etc. Every time I set up a new device, I always wonder why I can’t just enter my Netflix credentials and be done with it. That’s exactly how it works on the Apple TV. I’m pretty certain Apple wouldn’t have shipped a device with the same experience you have to go through activating something like a PlayStation.
  • It’s cheap. At $99, there’s almost no reason not to try it. If you’re a Netflix user, you have absolutely nothing to lose.

Some issues to watch out for:

  • It doesn’t come with an HDMI cable. I know Apple likes small packaging, and I know they were trying to keep the price down, but I was disappointed that I had to poach an HDMI cable off another device. Replacing it will add at least another $20 to the price of the Apple TV — a cost which I think it’s fair to call “hidden.”
  • The remote is great (nice and simple, and very high-quality), but it uses a CR2032 button cell battery. I just recently got every toy, remote, sensor, and peripheral in the house using rechargeable batteries, and now I have to worry about keeping a CR2032 handy (since you can’t use the Apple TV without it, you don’t want to wait until the battery actually dies to buy a replacement). I’d like to see a rechargeable option, like PS3 controllers.
  • The Apple TV remote also controls the MacBook I keep near my TV and use primarily as a stereo. This isn’t horrible since I mostly use the Remote application to control iTunes, but I did have to stop the Apple TV setup process to disable the remote on my MacBook. If this happens to you, open System Preferences, then go into Security, and check the “Disable remote control infrared receiver” box.
  • I’ve gotten a couple of errors claiming that my HDMI cable doesn’t support HDCP (a digital copy protection protocol) which made the Apple TV inoperable. After rebooting, it worked fine. I imagine this is a bug that will be fixed in a future software upgrade, and really nothing to worry about.

Review of the New Kindle 3

I’ve been a big fan of the Amazon Kindle since its initial release, and I’ve faithfully upgraded with every new generation. The Kindle 2 was a huge improvement over the first model, and the newest third generation Kindle appears to be a worthy and worthwhile successor, as well.

The biggest differences between the Kindle 2 and the Kindle 3 are:

kindle_3_comparison

The very compact Kindle 3 on top of the larger Kindle 2.

  • Better screen. Amazon claims that the Kindle 3 has 50% better contrast than any other e-reader. I’m not exactly sure how contrast is quantified, but I can say that the Kindle 3’s screen is much better than the Kindle 2’s. In fact, the first thing I noticed about the Kindle 3 after unpacking it was how much whiter the background looked.
  • Smaller form factor. The Kindle 3 is 21% smaller than the Kindle 2 and 17% lighter. In terms of dimensions, that’s about half an inch smaller in both width and height. Note that the 6″ screen remains the same size.
  • Wi-Fi version. Amazon is now selling a Wi-Fi version for $139 and a 3G version for $189. I decided to go with the Wi-Fi version and save the $50.
  • Better battery. I haven’t really been able to test the battery thoroughly yet, but Amazon claims that the Kindle 3’s battery will last up to a month (with wireless turned off). Based on the battery performance of my other Kindles, I would say that’s probably accurate.
  • More storage. My Mac reports the size of the Kindle 2 as 1.59GB, and the size of the Kindle 3 as 3.33GB. Amazon says that’s enough to store 3,500 books.
  • Faster page turns. Amazon says the page turns on the Kindle 3 are 20% faster. Honestly, that seems low to me. I would say the Kindle 3 is at least 50% faster if not even more, but I’m not doing actual benchmarks. Let’s just say that the Kindle 3 is noticeably and significantly faster.
  • Better fonts. The fonts on the Kindle 3 appear thicker and darker.
  • No joystick. The Kindle 3 replaces the navigation joystick of the Kindle 2 with a D-pad. So far, I think I prefer the new D-pad.
  • Rubberized backing. The Kindle 2 has a brushed metal backing and the Kindle 3 has a nice soft rubberized coating on the back.
  • Better PDF reader. The new PDF reader on the Kindle 3 supports looking up words in the dictionary, notes, and highlighting. I don’t find the Kindle particularly useful for PDF viewing because PDF text gets scaled rather than reflowing, but if PDF viewing is important to you, the Kindle 3’s improvements will probably be a welcomed upgrade.
  • WebKit-based browser. WebKit is the standard for mobile browsers now, and Amazon has built it into the the Kindle 3. I don’t consider this a very important feature, however; frankly, I think you’d be crazy to browse the web on any Kindle. The Kindle 3’s browser works much better than previous Kindle’s, but if you have a computer, smart phone, or tablet anywhere nearby, you’re always going to reach for it over your Kindle when you need to look something up on the web. That said, in a pinch — when you’re out at the pool and your phone and your iPad are both up in the room — it’s serviceable.
  • New color. I bought the graphite version which is the only Wi-Fi option available, but the 3G version comes in graphite or white.

The three features that mean the most to me are the higher contrast screen, smaller size, and faster page turns. These are the things that you will notice right away, and that you will appreciate throughout the entire life of the product. The new lower prices are nice, as well. The cheaper the Kindle gets, the more places and situations you’re willing to expose it to, and hence, the more useful it becomes. I still don’t think we’ve hit that magical price point where purchasing a Kindle and keeping it with you at all times is a no-brainer, but we’re definitely one step closer.

Tour of My New Home Office

Here’s a quick tour of the home office I recently finished building. If you’re thinking of designing your own office, hopefully this will give you some ideas and inspiration.

A quick summary of things I did right:

  • Lots of light switches meaning very flexible task lighting (including dimmers).
  • Very large closet (with its own light).
  • Wire shelving that is both strong and configurable. Additionally, the light can easily penetrate the openings in order to reach lower shelves. (Use foam core board on any shelves that hold straps or other small items that you don’t want to fall through.)
  • Two workstations configured for different kinds of tasks. My primary workstation also raises and lowers.
  • Liberal amounts of insulation, especially in the ceiling. Insulation obviously helps keep the temperature comfortable, but it also keeps the noise down.
  • Bamboo flooring. It’s cheap, durable, environmentally friendly, and looks as good as more expensive hardwoods, in my opinion.
  • Reading chair. Sometimes it’s nice to get away from the computer and relax in a nice comfortable chair.
  • Isolated circuit. My office is on its own electrical circuit, so if something else in the house trips a breaker, it won’t shut off power in my office.
  • Coaxial and network jacks. My wireless signal is pretty strong down here, but I went ahead and ran a network cable anyway for the additional bandwidth.

Things I did wrong:

  • No power outlets at desk-height. I put in a lot of power outlets (12 in a relatively small room), but I didn’t install any at desk height. Unfortunately it didn’t occur to me until after the drywall was in.
  • No track lighting. I used recessed lighting rather than track lighting. Tracks would have given me some additional configurability, and the ceilings are probably high enough.

Is Verizon the new AT&T?

If you thought AT&T’s exclusive access to the iPhone has made them brazen, check out what happened at the Verizon store on Friday while I was checking out the new Motorola Droid:

  1. The first thing I confirmed was that Verizon does expect you to pay $45/mo for data if you want to use Exchange. I’m guessing you don’t actually have to buy a corporate plan to use Exchange, but they certainly want to make you think you do. Since my company doesn’t pay for my phone, but I still want to use it to access my corporate email, there’s no way I’m paying $15/mo more just for Exchange access. To be fair, I believe AT&T also offers corporate plans, but nobody ever tried to sell me one, and Exchange works fine with the regular $30/mo plan.
  2. I also confirmed that Verizon is raising their early termination fee on November 15th from $175 (somewhat reasonable) to $350 (absolutely absurd). That means after November 15th, pretty much nothing will be able to get me to buy a Verizon phone (until AT&T does the same thing, that is, which I’m sure is coming).
  3. The most atrocious thing I saw was a salesperson tell a customer that he just found out that the Droid was going to have all the apps that the iPhone has. I chuckled, but let it pass until I heard him use the same line on someone else standing next to me as I played with the display model. That was too much. When I called it on him, he assured me that all iPhone applications were being ported to Android. He wasn’t happy when I explained to him (and the other customer) that there was no way that was going to happen. Nor was he particular receptive when I suggested that he pitch the Droid on its own merits (of which it has plenty) rather than misrepresenting it. I really hope this was a sales tactic employed by this salesperson alone, and not something he was instructed to say during sales training.

Part of the reason I was so interested in the Droid was to get away from AT&T which I feel has abused their exclusive access to the iPhone, however from what I can tell so far, Verizon isn’t going to be much better. My inclination at this point is to stick with the devil that I know.

The Phone Itself

My impressions of the Droid were pretty positive in general, but I don’t feel like the keyboard was done well enough to justify the additional size, weight, and moving parts. The four primary problems I found with the keyboard were:

  1. It’s not centered. Because of the D pad on the right, you have to really stretch your right thumb for it to be in position which throws everything off. In my experience, keyboards need to be symmetrical to be usable.
  2. The keys aren’t offset. In order to save space, they keys are in a tight grid rather than an actual keyboard pattern. This seems subtle, but it really slows down typing.
  3. There’s no dedicated number row. Having to use meta keys frequently on a thumb board really slows me down.
  4. The keys aren’t raised enough. I made as many mistakes on the physical keyboard as I did on the software keyboard, and more than I make on my iPhone’s virtual keyboard. Maybe I’d adjust to it eventually, but then again, maybe I wouldn’t.

Google, Motorola, and Verizon are right to focus on a phone that has things that people want, but that Apple isn’t interested in providing (like keyboards), but that doesn’t mean we’ll be happy with a substandard implementation. We’re all so accustomed to the virtual keyboard on the iPhone by now that a physical keyboard has to be done extremely well for it to qualify as an advantage. It really baffles me why so few phones get keyboards right. Here’s a hint: get an old Sidekick 2 or 3, and do exactly what they did. That’s it. Don’t compromise, and don’t even try to make improvements. A keyboard as good as the Sidekick’s on a device as powerful as the Droid would be hugely compelling, and would certainly be enough to make me switch.

The State of the Mobile Industry

So what is ultimately going to save us from this mess that passes as the mobile industry in this country? In the short term, government regulation that makes all these anti-competitive practices (huge early termination fees, unrealistically long contracts, arbitrary software approval processes, etc.) unlawful. And in the long term, our best hope is ubiquitous Wi-Fi (or whatever the name will be for Wi-Fi that’s everywhere). Having ubiquitous and affordable Wi-Fi instantly transforms the mobile industry into what the PC market is today. In other words, rather than being locked into contracts, being forced to pay exorbitant monthly rates, and having your hardware purchases tightly controlled by poorly run service providers, consumers will be able to purchase any type of hardware they want right off the shelf running whichever operating system they like best, then do anything they want with it, including making as many VoIP calls as they want to whomever they want, installing any application they want, and buying as many different devices as they want. Unfortunately, we’re still a long ways away from what’s best for consumers as my trip to the Verizon store reminded me.