I retired two devices this week

For about the past year I have been using two particular devices for my communications and personal entertainment desires. This week I am retiring both of them. One of them was sleek and sexy and knew all the right buzzwords to whisper at just the right times. It was slick and looked really nice when it was all decked out but had a nasty tendency to be temperamental when I most needed it. I’ll always love part of it, and I already miss the way it knew how I wanted to use it. The other was a solid and dependable friend which definitely had some high moments but mostly was just there when I needed it quietly getting stuff done.

I do think it’s a bit odd to describe my time with these devices in terms that I might also use to describe my personal relationships with partners, but in many ways that is not an in accurate way of looking at their place in my life. I have a need for a certain amount of personal time in my life and the way that I tend to fill that time is by interacting with the objects that I fill my life with. I do find this to be a somewhat mixed thing. I don’t like thinking of myself as someone to whom stuff matters. To be more honest though there is my large LEGO collection, my King 2280s Euphonium and Reynolds American Baritone, my SF and Fantasy books, my comics, and then there is all of this Tech: Computers, game consoles, phones, and all of the dozens of little gadgets that I interact with all of the time. I have a lot of stuff and so it is not surprising that the two items that I spend the most time with I have a certain emotional attachment to and thus anthropomorphize to some extent.

I bought my Zune HD about one year and two weeks ago. My existing Zune 30 (in classic brown!) was no longer keeping a charge after having been used at least eight hours a day for three years solid. (It turns out it just needed a vacation. I recently plugged it in to see what would happen and it’s working pretty much just fine again.) I was already invested in the Zune ecosystem and so the relatively new Zune HD was the obvious choice to move on to. At first I wasn’t sold on the touch interface. It didn’t seem like it would be able to keep up with how I used devices and the lack of physical buttons for common task didn’t seem to be entirely wise. I was at least half right, but not in the distrust for the touch interface. That turned out to be intuitive and effective, both in being fast enough and well thought out so that it was just pretty easy to do the things I wanted to do. The physical buttons did turn out to be an issue however. For those of you unfamiliar with a Zune HD, there are exactly three buttons: Power on the top, Return to Main Menu on the front, and something best described as Show Controls on the left side. It was that third button that was really the problem in the long term and it has everything to do with being able to quickly do things like pause playback or adjust volume control. Having to hit that single button and then wait for the controls to appear and then look at the screen to make sure I was hitting the correct part of the screen meant the difference between being able to quickly start talking to people who stepped into my cube and holding up a finger to let them know it was going to be a second or two while I put something away. It was a nuisance and it was the worst part of the device but I did get used to it and it did work well enough and did not detract enough from the rest of the experience to spoil it.

About six weeks later I had finally had enough of dealing with an older hand-me-down Windows Mobile 5.x smartphone and wanted to spend a bonus from work on something fun, so I bought a Palm Pre from Sprint. I had played with it in the store a bit and had been following the somewhat bumpy launch pretty closely, but it did seem like the device best suited for me. I had played with various Android devices and just didn’t find that they worked the way I wanted them to. Constantly getting in the way or hiding the things in odd places they just seemed clunky and somewhat obtuse. The smooth and slightly rounded pebble of the Pre is still a beautiful shape and the smooth action of the keyboard slider honestly make for a somewhat sensual experience. The operating system, WebOS, itself though is where it really shined. I still think that the card metaphor and gesture system implemented in WebOS is the absolute best smartphone interface I have ever used, and possibly will ever use. It really is that good! Being able to manage running applications is absolutely effortless and actually makes sense. It’s almost perfect, even in the 1.x form that I used it. Alas, it was not always going to be such a great relationship.

I’m getting read to hand the Zune HD over to a new, and appreciative, owner. I can’t think of a time that it has let me down and I expect that it will continue to be a great and useful device for at least another year, if not two or even three. The same can not be said of that Pre. It started with not being able to find a case or screen protector that really worked. The sliding keyboard meant that a case had to be in at least two parts and ended up mostly being more weight and plastic instead of actually protecting anything. Those gorgeous rounded sides of the screen meant that any screen protector would come off in a stiff wind, much less being slid into a pocket, and those protectors were necessary because, unlike the Zune HD, that screen is all plastic and took a scratch if you looked at it funny. In late October I noticed that the screen just wasn’t being quite as responsive as it once had been and after carefully looking at it saw a crack starting. Right now that crack is one centimeter into the display after having worked it’s way over the side and displays noticeable flex when the keyboard is slid out. Without screen protectors the entire screen looks a bit like it’s been scoured with steel wool. No huge scratches but just seemingly millions of small ones. But it was that deceptively alluring sliding keyboard that turned out to be the fatal flaw.

Monday morning on my way to work I disconnected the power tether and got ready to put it in my pocket but the keyboard wasn’t responding at all. I power cycled it and everything was fine and didn’t really think about it. Monday afternoon I took it out of my pocket to look something up, and once again the keyboard was dead. Power Cycling didn’t work the first time, but did the second. That evening I went to a mall close to work to wait out traffic from a snow fall and when I went to Tweet that I had arrived somewhere safely the keyboard worked long enough to get into Yak but then took three power cycles to come back for about two minutes before it died again. When the person you are with stops talking with you the relationship is over no matter how much good will is left. So I went inside and bought an HTC HD7 running Windows Phone 7 from some nice people at the T-Mobile kiosk and I haven’t looked back since.

In less time and more careful use then the Zune HD, the Palm Pre super model with all the sexy curves looks like an octogenarian who spent far too much time in tanning beds when she was young and won’t talk to me anymore. The quietly dependable Zune HD that spent a lot of time in the same pocket as my keys (Where I never put the Pre) has some very minor scrapes on the bezel but an utterly pristine screen that I never bothered to put any sort of protective skin over. It boots up every time. The controls all still work perfectly. I still gets hours and hours of battery life. I’m going to miss her.

Why retire the dependable Zune HD? Pretty simply I do not see a need to carry around two devices anymore and the HD7 does 90% of the same things that my Zune does. It is also part of the Zune ecosystem and those things it doesn’t do I’m not certain I am going to miss. My big worry with the HD7 is that it is HUGE, and I have concerns that aspect could make it difficult to carry around but it fits in my pocket just fine and isn’t appreciably heavier then the Pre.

If I like WebOS so much why not get a Palm Pre 2? The two device issue mentioned previously is a big reason but the more important one is that I just don’t trust the build quality on the Palm devices anymore, and the Pre line in particular. A friend’s Palm Pixi is turning out to be an excellent little workhorse but I just can’t imagine they’ve solved the hardware problems on the Pre and don’t want to spend $500 a third year in a row next November when that one fails on me too. In theory I could do some sort of equipment replacement plan but right now the Pre 2 is only sold as an unlocked GSM device and my understanding is that carriers won’t offer a plan for those.

So, into the Windows Phone 7 future I go and hopefully this HD7 turns out to be more like the Zune HD then that beautiful Palm Pre.

No tag for this post.

It never ends up like the magazine photo

I think that there is a truism in cooking that US media producers should keep in mind: It never ends up like the magazine photo. If you have ever done any amount of cooking you’ll know this fact, if not in those words. Even if the sum total of culinary creation you have indulged in extends as far as pressing buttons on a microwave you can not have failed to notice that the contents of the tray you pull out of the microwave has barely a passing resemblance to the “Serving Suggestion” pictured on the box. Attempts at real cooking with fancy ingredients inspired by the glossy pictures that face you down in the grocery store check out line only fare somewhat better, even if the flavor of the result hopefully knocks your socks off. The lesson learned fairly quickly from cooking is essentially that there are two kinds of recipes: The kind of recipe that makes something taste/feel a particular way, and the kind of recipe that makes something look a particular way. Unless it’s a photography magazine, generally the recipe is for how something tastes and that’s usually a good thing.

I think that begins to describe what happened with the BBC’s attempt at making a Top Gear series specifically for US audiences. In this case I think they had one of those recipes, but it appears to be the recipe (formula) from the photography magazine. You know, the one that says to use glue as the milk in cereal so that it looks right. Despite all the stories of kids eating glue in grade school, I never tried it more then once and while watching the episode “Cobra Attack” I was reminded why I never liked the taste of it very much.

There are definitely good things about the show but they seem to be largely mixed in with the bad. Adam Ferrara in particular embodied several of them. For example, his detailed deciphering of a Lamborghini model number was really useful information and was presented in a way that was interesting. On the other hand his interview of the legendary Buzz Aldrin was… not interesting. A full two minutes is given to the conversation between the two and as far as I can tell it was two minutes too long simply because the photography style recipe had been doggedly followed without any apparent understanding about why it works for Jeremy Clarkson. That formula must say that there should be some pleasant chit-chat and then the host eventually asks about the cars the guest has driven, followed by a softball along the lines of, “How did you like the track?” to move things along to the video replay of the celebrities attempt to drive quickly in a slow car.

I think one of the key reasons why it works for Mr Clarkson and not for Mr. Ferrara is that Clarkson at least looks like he is interested in the answers to the questions he is asking. For the first 40 seconds on the interview Adam seems to make an attempt to be genuinely interested in asking about Aldrin’s career and experience and then spends the remaining 1 min 20 seconds seemingly bored by asking rote “How about the blah blah?” from a list, even when Buzz at least tries to make those answers at least passably interesting. I would really be curious to see the rest of the footage from this section. Was there really nothing else more interesting to show the viewers?

In any case, the point of those questions is not to find out the details of what the guest has driven previously in any sort of detail, but instead it is to determine what kind of driver the guest is. Are they used to driving sports cars? Do they regularly drive at all? Are they a lead-foot or are they cautious? It gives information about the character of the guest which can be interesting. This recitation was not.

That kind of slavish copying of the style and rote of the original Top Gear series permeates the entire episode and are the key to the problems with the show. The main feature of this episode, and the source of the title, is a chase between a Dodge Viper and a Huey Cobra helicopter. Wow, I haven’t seen anything like that before. Oh, wait. A highlight of the next episode is a race against downhill skiers. Wait, not this one.

The flavor of the original Top Gear series is not attained by following that photographic formula to the letter. It is done by selecting the ingredients carefully and paying attention to what is happening in your pot while they cook. It doesn’t matter if the recipe says “high heat” if on your stove it starts to burn immediately. You turn the heat down! More apropos of this episode: a “pinch” of salt is a highly subjective measurement and should be adjusted to the taste of the audience.

One thought in fairness though, is that I have only seen episodes of the UK series after it had a chance to mature. I only have access to Season 6 and later easily, and so that is primarily what I have seen. Given enough time it is feasible that this lame copy could find it’s own voice. I suppose I just don’t trust that will happen. In that vein I asked people for good examples of UK media properties that had been remade in the US. The only examples that had come to mind for me had been the highly unfortunate “Coupling” by NBC. On balance there are several good examples including “Antiques Roadshow” (which I had thought was originally from the US), “American Idol”, and “The Office”. Now, I don’t particularly like either incarnation of those last two but that doesn’t make them bad shows in either form and I don’t think it’s fair to simply lump this attempt into something that could just be a popular misconception.

So is the US version of Top Gear a travesty? Heck no. The aforementioned bit explaining Lamborghini model numbers is a good example of when it really works. Similarly the graphic overlay of the guest’s position on the track while watching the lap is a nice touch, though using some transparency effects to make it slightly less prominent would be nice. Those kinds of little touches show that there is something there but unfortunately I think that by following the wrong formula a little too well makes the entirety end up tasting just like the paper those magazine photos are printed on.