Archived entries for technology

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.


Packaging for a vintage Star Trek TricorderOne of the key reasons for the iPhones’s success is its ability to run apps. What’s notable about this is that the name “iPhone” is a huge misnomer – the device so many people call a phone is not really a phone at all (even smartphone is a stretch). We think it’s one because: we bought it to replace our old mobile phone (which really was a phone); because of the “phone” part in its name; and because – yes – it is capable of making and receiving calls. But the device itself is a chameleon. It can transform into whatever the software and its inputs and outputs allow it to do.

For example, in the past if Jenny wanted an audio recording device to record counselling sessions with clients, she’d have to go and buy a tape recorder. Now instead, she simply installs a recording app on her iPhone, and the built-in microphone and storage capabilities of the device delivers the functionality she needs.

So predicting the next big advance in gadgetry becomes about how many input and output modes we can generalise into a single device, like how touchscreens and GPS were groundbreaking additions to mobile devices. Geeks everywhere are anticipating the next round of smartphones, but the rumour mill merely points to “upgrades” that improve existing technologies – faster processors, better screens and higher resolution cameras. But nothing really revolutionary…. well OK, there’s Near Field Communications (NFC), which may have the potential to transform commercial transactions, although innovation in the financial realm is generally resisted by large, incumbent institutions like banks (consider how many years it took for Paypal to become widely accepted – a scenario currently being played out again with Square, a payment system devised by the man who created Twitter).

Really, we may already know what the future of handheld devices look like. Just as the Apple Newton might have paved the way for the iPhone (although one would be drawing a long bow to suggest that they could’ve predicted one from the other), technologies that already exist today give us glimpses into upcoming devices. Pointing the way are the tricorders from the fictional Star Trek universe – for which there’s now an X Prize on offer to the first group that is able to successfully develop one – and of course that old McGuffin, Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver.

The question comes down to need. If you could carry it in your hand, what would your ideal mobile device include?

What’s wrong with wireless?

An angry-looking wireless router made out of felt materialYou may remember me writing about the National Broadband Network just prior to last year’s Federal Election, where I laid down a few thoughts on why I believe it is such an important piece of infrastructure for Australia. Sadly, support for the concept of a (mostly) homogeneous, nation-wide fibre-optic network has gained little traction since then, because of a concerted media campaign against it led by the Liberal mouthpiece The Australian. Its unrelenting stream of angry rhetoric has given the Coalition and Luddites a number of specious arguments to use against then NBN, particularly the one where wireless is supposedly a better alternative than rolling out optical fibre.

As a tech-savvy person, I find it very difficult to understand why we’re even having this debate. After all, there are certain ineffable truths on our side – as the famous geeky quote goes: “ye cannae change tha’ laws o’ physics!” – and yet every day we endure tirade after hateful tirade about why the project is oh-so-wrong.

To that end, I found a post by user jwbam on the Whirlpool forums very insightful. He writes:

The benefits and limitations of modern networking technologies are not intuitively obvious. What technically-informed people know about telecommunications infrastructure is the result of over a century of research by countless scientists and engineers funded by governments, military and corporations. The limitations of wireless may seem simple and obvious to you and I, but the average person in the street:

  • doesn’t know or care what radio spectrum is, nor that it is a limited resource;
  • thinks that because wireless has no wires, it must be cheaper and better;
  • considers wired and wireless technologies to be equal in all respects;
  • sees wireless gadgets in the shops that feature faster-than-NBN speeds, and doesn’t realise the difference between local area networks (LAN) and the internet (wide-area networks, or WAN);
  • sees a wireless modem that just works, all by itself, without any thought for the infrastructure that enables it – towers, spectrum and backhaul;
  • believes that their wireless link has a global range.

But most importantly, they don’t know how much there is that they don’t know, so they make no effort to learn how it all works and what the limitations are.

(Used with permission; edited for length and clarity)

He goes on to explain that because consumer networking technology has become simple, cheap and user-friendly, people expect that the same qualities must apply to large-scale networking infrastructure. So when they hear about the cost and complexity of the NBN fibre rollout, it suddenly seems expensive, exorbitant and excessive, and they position themselves to oppose it as yet another inefficient and ineffectual government program.

I’m not suggesting that everybody should have a working knowledge of the technology in order to refute the claims; it’s that politicians and journalists (who should know better) are presenting scathing arguments riddled with these ridiculous factual errors, and people – oblivious to the truth – get taken in by it. Normally we’d laugh derisively at the hacks who presume to tell experts how a thing could be better, but are we now faced with a group whose hatred of Labor is so complete that they’ll accept lies as credible? Incredible.

In this election, think more broad(band)ly

Fibre AustraliaOf all the major policies being debated in Australia’s 2010 election, it should be of no surprise that my interest lies mainly with the building of a National Broadband Network (NBN). In a nutshell, last year the Labor government kicked off a large-scale infrastructure project to build a nationwide network of fibre-optic cables capable of carrying telecommunications traffic at much higher speeds than the existing copper-based network that our phones and internet run on. If Liberal wins, they have pledged to stop work on it immediately, and instead adopt a vastly inferior approach.

Before your eyes glaze completely over, let me quickly say that even though the other issues might be more important to you in regards to how you vote, give me this opportunity to explain why you should give at least a passing thought to the NBN.

Who cares about the Internet?
By virtue of the fact that you’re reading this blog, I’m probably preaching to the converted. However I’m sure that you can think of family, friends and colleagues who think that going online is all about porn, spam, and time wasting. Online services (not simply the Web) are helping to transform society for the better. Have they tried submitting their tax return via e-tax and getting their refund promptly within 14 days? Do they know that they can talk to family and friends around the globe for free using Skype? Missed a show on TV and used a site like ABC iView to catch it there instead? The Internet isn’t about just the Web any more, and resist it all you like, but it’s quickly becoming an integral part of our lives.

Do we need more speed?
All of those things are available today, so what’s the NBN going to deliver that we can’t already get? In today’s terms, nothing. The issue is not, and should not be about speed. It’s about how efficiently we can move data around in a society and economy increasingly dependant on information. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google loves to rattle off the statistic that every 2 days, we are creating as much information as all of humankind has ever generated from between the dawn of time up until 2003.

It’s not even relevant what the information is: news, entertainment, business, and even non-human readable information such as farm-to-fork tracking of food, the future holds a tsunami of data that needs the capacity to carry it. A helpful but imperfect analogy would be traffic congestion. As our population grows and more and more cars appear, our limited road infrastructure would need to be upgraded by building more and bigger roads. Unfortunately there’s a physical limitation – there just isn’t any space. But because fibre doesn’t take any more room than copper wire, it’s as if you could turn a 2-lane street into a 16-lane freeway without it taking up any extra space.

Can’t it wait until later?
We need to consider that the infrastructure being built is not for today, or even the near future – the NBN won’t even be completed until the next decade. Our current copper network has served us well since the first trunk linking Sydney and Melbourne was laid back in 1907, with the remainder of the country wired up at significant expense to the Commonwealth of Australia by the Postmaster General, through ’til 1935.

The PMG position is a Federal Ministerial post, overseeing the Postmaster-General’s Department that was in charge of all domestic telephone, telegraph and postal services. With 16,000 staff, it accounted for 90% of the new federal bureaucracy. That figure went up to over 120,000 staff (around 50% of the federal bureaucracy) by the late sixties. (Source)

Pause to think about that for a moment. The building of the original telecommunications network accounted for between 50 – 90% of what we would today call “the government” of its time. But I digress.

Building the NBN is still predominantly physical work and will take a long time time to wire up the whole country, so whether we start now, next year, or next decade, the longer we put this project off, the further into the future it will be before we can start reaping the benefits of the NBN.

What about the cost?
The other massive stumbling block for opponents of NBN is the cost. There are so many misconceptions about it that I don’t have any hope of addressing them all here without burying you in gory technical details, but two huge points are:

  • The $43 billion figure constantly being thrown around is not one big huge lump-sum of taxpayers’ money, payable to NBN Co. up front. It is spread out over 8 years, and consists of a combination of taxpayer dollars (around $26-30bn roughly) and the sale of government bonds to private investors.
  • $43bn represents 3.85% of Australia’s annual gross domestic product, which averaged over 8 years is half-a-percent per year. We’re investing 0.5% of our country’s economic wealth into building the digital backbone of the future.

Still think it’s expensive? There’s more, but I don’t want to bore you with details on why the Coalition’s scare campaign is severely misguided. For that, I will simply point you in the direction of one Mr Ross Gittins.

The money could be better used elsewhere
A person could say this about any policy that one disagrees with. Faster rail links between cities? Don’t travel. More hospital beds? Fit as a fiddle. Paid parental leave? Already had five, can I give one back? It’s the moral high ground, and since no individual is going to agree with the way in which every single dollar is spent in this country – the arts, community building, welfare, etc. – it’s plain douche-baggery to object on the grounds that the funds should be spent on something else.

The government can’t be trusted to deliver on time, on budget
True. You got me there. But let me leave you with this quote, from Ian Verrender in the Sydney Morning Hearld:

[Tony Abbott] may not consider the potential long-term economic benefits to the nation. But his single-minded devotion to the enormous costs involved in the project at least has one major benefit. It will focus the minds of those whose task it is to roll out the network to make sure it is achieved with utmost efficiency.

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