Archived entries for reviews

Sony Tablet S review – Part 2

This is the second part of my review of the Sony Tablet S – here’s the first part.

Using the Tablet S
Sony’s device may be the Pope’s choice, but the first thing Jenny said after she picked it up and had a play with it: “It’s not very intuitive”. She too, is an Apple convert – when I upgraded to the iPhone 4, she received my crummy 3G as a hand-me-down. Despite it being excrutiatingly slow, she’s accustomed to the little niceties of the iOS interface and using Android was a stark reminder of the conclusion I came to in the previous part, that refinement trumps innovation.

But I’m not here to review Android – I’m not nearly qualified enough for that (and the imminent release of Ice Cream Sandwich would render any comments irrelevant very soon anyway). As far as the Sony-specific apps are concerned, they’re trivialities for me. Video and Music Unlimited are interesting, but not services I’d use – even less so because the model I tested doesn’t have 3G access (a model that does support it is forthcoming, I’m told). I’m not a big consumer of music and movies, but I imagine that Sony, as a content behemoth as well as an electronics giant, would have pretty good offerings.

The device is also PlayStation Certified, meaning that it can access the PlayStation Store, and play certain games (currently limited to a selection of PS1 titles). The device comes with Pinball Heroes and Crash Bandicoot. It’s difficult to play with the touch controls on the screen, but a recent software update allows a PlayStation controller to be hooked up to the Tablet, which makes the gaming proposition a lot more attractive.

There’s a reason why I’ve left ’til last to mention the features. It’s because They are irrelevant. This was a difficult concept to grasp for an old school computer geek like me, who grew up using Bytes and Hertz as the primary means of comparing systems. But seriously, when was the last time you cared – really cared – about the core specs of your main computer? Let’s be frank here: modern computers are fucking fast. They’re faster than anyone is likely to need any more, and speed is becoming about as relevant to a computing purchase as whether the unit has a floppy disk drive.

The Sony Tablet S has some stuff. It’s stuff that you’ll find in a lot of other current Android-based tablets. Its sole distinguishing feature is the inclusion of an Infrared port that allows you to use the device as a universal remote for all of the components of your home entertainment system (TV, sound system, blu-ray/DVD player, etc.) Admittedly, this is cool, and it’s surprising that Sony is the first to have it.

Conclusion – overall
My time with the Sony Tablet S gave me a good look over the fence – in fact not just a look, but a good decent trample. Having done so, it’s settled in my mind once and for all: the grass definitely isn’t greener on the other side. Looks like I’ll be staying with the dark side for now, but Sony have encouragingly nudged the bar slightly higher for all would-be players. In that they should be commended.

Sony Tablet S review – Part 1

Sony Tablet S

Recognise this picture from Wikipedia? That’s because it’s -my- picture. I wrote the Wikipedia article on the Sony Tablet S

I’m a recent convert to Apple; I purchased my first iPhone a couple of years ago, and it’s the longest I’ve ever owned any mobile phone – then I upgraded to the iPhone 4. Last year I gave a 21″ iMac as a gift to my in-laws, and a few months ago I bought myself an 11″ Macbook Air to use at work. On the other hand, I’d never so much as held an Android device for more than a few seconds, and know nothing about the platform.

So even though Sony (X) gave me the opportunity to babysit a Sony Tablet S – an Android tablet computer – don’t expect me to gush about it. I did take fairly extensive notes while testing it, which is why I’ve decided to split this review up into two parts. So here goes: an honest review of an Android device by an Apple user.

Design and ergonomics
The unique selling proposition of the Tablet S is its “wave” design. Sony’s departure from your usual thin, sleek slate design is intended to mimic a book or magazine bent backwards, making it easier to hold than other tablet devices.

I learnt about grips from this post on interaction design, so I can sound smart and say that when you hold the S you’re using a “Power grip” (using the palm of your hand for support), whereas with other devices you’re forced to use a “precision grip” (with only your fingertips).

Ultimately this leads to the Tablet S feeling lighter and easier to carry than the iPad because you’re using less muscle power to maintain a hold of it. The down side is that the lightness leads you into thinking that it’s cheaply built – which leads us to…

In this age of aluminium unibodies and carbon fibre this and that, a device at the price point of the Tablet S (starting at $579) shouldn’t feel quite so… plastic. Call me old school, but still feel that whenever I get a new tech gadget, it should feel like the future. The build quality of the S leaves much to be desired: most notably, the screen isn’t Gorilla Glass and the review unit I received came with scratches on the screen from a previous reviewer (scouts honour!) There are also some obvious seams, e.g. where the plastic “wave” back joins up with the screen there’s a noticeable (maybe 0.5mm) difference in height, into which all manner of gunk found its way – and considering how many people have handled the device before me, I shudder to think what it might consist of. In short, it feels like somebody glued a screen onto a crappy plastic housing.

Conclusion of part 1
Luxury car makers are infamous for spending (wasting) time on details such as making sure that doors have a certain “weight” to them, and that they make an appropriately satisfying “thud” noise when you close them. This is what Apple is known for: the relentless pursuit of perfection in its products, tweaking every little imaginably trivial thing until it becomes just so (if you don’t believe me then check out this article about making see-through aluminium).

What the Tablet S shows about Sony is that they can do good design, but have yet to grasp the concept that the proportion of refinement-to-design should be in the same ratio as that of the proverbial perspiration-to-inspiration.

A Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren

The cover of "A Generous Orthodoxy" by Brian McLarenWhat compels clergy to write? Is it to reach their congregations beyond Sundays? Are they peeved that their carefully crafted sermons are are only given one airing, and then forgotten forever-more? To have a resource that they can sell to raise funds? Or maybe it’s pride in thinking that one’s theology is somehow unique, or that they possess the skill to explain it better than any previous works in the vast realm of existing Christian literature? Whatever the reason, there sure are a lot of published pastors, because there’s enough printed material to sustain multiple franchises (e.g. Koorong, Word). Do other religions even have bookstore franchises?

At least Brian McLaren is more qualified than most – not in the sense of any religious accomplishment – but for the fact that he holds a Bachelor degree “with highest honour” (summa cum laud), as well as a Masters degree, in English. He also holds a controversially liberal view of his religion, which is the crux of A Generous Orthodoxy – to encourage Christians toward an idealised form of the faith that he describes as being both “neo-liberalist” and “neo-conservative”. Each chapter of the book provides a brief historical context of a particular denomination or orthodoxy, followed by the merits that warrant inclusion in his generous orthodoxy*.

I’d be punching above my weight to pretend that I know my left from my right, and all that religious and political speak other commentators take for granted, but what I can tell you is that I share much of McLaren’s views, except McLaren’s insistence on God. For example, the chapter on “Charismatic/contemplative” speaks out against rampant consumerism:

One acquires more and more things without taking the time to ever see and know them, and thus one never truly enjoys them. One has without truly having.

… which is quite agreeable. It should be enough just to stop here and encourage one to stop consuming beyond one’s means to appreciate that which is being consumed, but he goes on to suggest that the remedy must be in God:

I feel […] that I am carrying around this hilarious secret: that I actually own all things, that all things are mine-because I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s, and God allows me to have things in the way that matters most. Not having them in my legal possession […] but by having them in my spiritual possession.

I despise this kind of forced analogy between the physical and spiritual realms. What does it even mean to spiritually possess a physical object, other than assigning arbitrary moral values to them? It’s this kind of thinking – e.g. disputes about the sacraments – that led to the need to have a generous orthodoxy in the first place!

I feel similarly about the rest of the book – that there are many merits to the existence and efforts of the church: community, co-operation, tolerance, charity, repentance – none of which ultimately requires attribution to God except to use Him as the glue to join all these unrelated parts together in one big liberal ideology.

If you’re predisposed to noticing the faults in religious discourse, you’ll find plenty of fodder in A Generous Orthodoxy. McLaren’s literary background also sadly fails to inoculate him from the usual religious shtick of cheap, meaningless analogies (“Think of the difference between a corpse and a living, breathing body, and you’ll understand the difference between a bunch of words and words vitalized with God’s breath.”) and mangling the language (“What if we were to redefine protestant as “pro-testifying”?)

As usual, my pointed criticism has probably made me sound overly harsh. It’s not entirely intentional. As I alluded to before, the book contains much worth in regards to educating the Christian and secular reader alike about the many and various denominations of Christianity, and what there is to like about each. McLaren is a clear and lucid communicator, and while he’s no C. S. Lewis, this particular work doesn’t bring any discredit to the realm of Christian writing.


* I strongly recommending skipping past Part One entirely though, as McLaren spends an incredible amount of verbiage apologising for everything from the state of the Christian religion, to his lack of qualifications on the topic, to the very existence of the book itself – towards the end of it he’d almost convinced me not to bother reading the rest.


This book review is part of the series An Atheist in God’s Kingdom.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Optimus Prime - He's like a mechanical JesusThere’s a scene in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen that I feel suitably captures the state of the Transformers franchise after the release of this film: where a badly injured Jetfire sacrifices himself so that a recently resurrected, but weakened Optimus Prime can pillage his body parts to thwart the Fallen.

Since the 80’s, several attempts have been made to restore the Transformers concept back to its former glory, with new additions to the franchise such as Beast Wars, Beast Machines, Armada, Energon and most recently, Transformers: Animated. But sadly, none of them were able to capture the imagination of the newer generations of kids who hadn’t grown up knowing the awesomeness of Optimus Prime. Then came the 2007 movie by Michael Bay, a fairly successful resurrection of the franchise. It wasn’t as strong as it could have been, but it was adequate to rally the fans and get them behind the potential of a live action version.

TRUKK NOT MUNKEY! Optimus Primal from Beast Wars made fans question what it takes to be a leader of the TransformersThe second movie though, is a big, loud, lumbering beast, cobbled together by using scraps of mythology from the various franchises and attaching them to the freshly resurrected corpse, in the hope of thwarting the great apathy towards transforming robots. Therein lies a great irony: in their attempt to bring back Transformers, the writers have turned the franchise into something that isn’t about transforming robots any more, and there’s no transforming back. The most disappointing part about that is that the writers are Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who came up with the first movie, and were also responsible for the wildly successful Star Trek reboot. How did two such seemingly talented writers get it so very, very wrong?

Still, the Transformers universe is rich with potential, and as a fan I can only hope that the inevitable sequel won’t try to tempt fate by trying to be another successful failure.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

Sunny, from the 2004 movie I, RobotAs somebody that saw the movie before reading the book, it came as a bit of a shock to find that the two have very little in common with each other – the movie seems to be mostly new material. But in a strange way, it is very much in keeping with the spirit of Asimov’s work, which is a collection of short stories exploring the philosophical implications of The 3 Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The book is a series of short stories, loosely connected by a plot (if you could call it that) involving the character of Dr. Susan Calvin, who does not appear as a character in the short stories until about a third of the way in.

Dr. Calvin’s passion is robots, and she cares about them much more than she cares for humans. I wonder if Asimov’s personality was similar to Dr. Calvin’s, because he describes robots with greater attention and more passion than he does his human characters. This could have been a failing, but the strength of the book lies in the sheer inventiveness of the philosophy and the scenarios which Asimov creates to present them, without which he could very easily be just another sci-fi hack who uses lots of techno-babble to confound the reader.

So, back to the movie, it’s a telling sign of the strength of the idea that Asimov came up with, and the brilliance in the way that he communicated it, that the writers for the movie were able to come up with something original and yet so faithful to source material.

One other thing that the book shows is that it’s possible to write a larger work by writing several smaller and loosely related works, then tying them together with a narrative later on.

Verdict: not one of my favourites, but compelling argument that the strength of idea can help an author rise above mediocrity.


Buy I, Robot, by Isaac Asmov

P.S. You may be wondering why I’m suddenly doing book reviews.

I’m sure that an important part of the writing process is reading, and seeing how other authors write, so my reviews will always have a slightly “authorly” bent to them, with an aim of looking at the writing styles and the motivations of the author. With any luck this will help me, and hopefully you as well, to discover what it takes to be a successful writer.

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