Google Nexus 7, 2nd generation

I had one of those heavy birthdays last week. The kind of birthday that prompts your spouse to purchase you something geeky and electronic to make you smile and possibly not feel quite as old as you are. (Isn’t every birthday like that?) On this birthday, after some advance negotiations (“I’m not getting this unless you tell me you will definitely be happy with it”), I received the recently released second-generation version of the Google Nexus 7. And yes, I am very, very pleased with it.

For a long time I hesitated between the iPad mini and the Nexus 7. My wife got an iPad a couple of years ago and has been delighted with it ever since. About eight months ago her father got an iPad mini and he too has been delighted with it. And since cost, on this one occasion, was no bar (these heavy birthdays really do only come around rarely) I could easily have gone with the iPad mini. But everything I’d been reading about the new Nexus 7 suggested that it was more than equal to the challenge of the iPad mini. Plus, I was a bit concerned that we were getting painted into a corner here with our iMacs and the iPad; perhaps it was time to branch off into a different paradigm with an Android device (well, actually it’s probably the same paradigm, just a different company/environment). Then there was the much-vaunted beauty of the new Nexus screen. And finally, even though someone else was buying this for me, there was the cost difference, which here is about one hundred dollars. And that does mean something.

Choice made, heavy birthday survived, now it’s time to report on the joys (or not) of actually using the Nexus 7. Reader, I can safely say that it is wonderful.

The set-up of the device was painless. I found the apps I was looking for in Google Play, initially adding them to a wish list until I was ready to begin installing them. I’ve got the apps you might expect, I suppose: Facebook, IMDB, BBC News, LinkedIn, Dropbox, CBC News, Skype, Twitter, Flickr and more. There are a few apps I have installed based on recommendations from across the net. For example, Duolingo, which is a language-learning app, turns out to be fabulous (it is available for the iPad as well). I’m sure I will find lots more in time, but I’ve got enough to be getting on with.

One thing that was expected was how easy the move to Android is if you’ve already been enjoying a variety of Google products. Gmail, Drive (Google Docs, as was), Maps, and such just work the way you would expect. The browser is Google Chrome, which is fine with me. And there are apps for Google Earth, your Gmail contacts, and for Google+ (for which I’ve yet to find a real use).

Of course one of my goals for this device was to use it for reading e-books and other e-materials. To that end I purchased a subscription to The New Yorker magazine through Google Play Magazines. The subscription cost was reasonable and I’ve got to say that the magazine looks great on the device. It is easy to navigate, easy to read, and it has lots of additional multimedia content. I figure this will get me in the habit of reading on the device and that will make the move to reading books here easier. To that end I have added the Overdrive media app, which is what our public library uses. And of course there is also Google Play Books should I wish to purchase any e-books (though I’m so stingy it will take a great deal to break down my reservations on that).

Mostly I’m just having fun with my new Nexus. I still have a bit of a learning curve ahead, no doubt, but that’s no bother. Oh, and one last thing, my Nexus 7 is now housed in a nice Snugg case/cover. I guess I’m set.

Not so much moving on as being pushed – after Google Reader

Back in July of 2012, Google announced that its much-loved customizable homepage, iGoogle, would be shutting down in November of 2013. Along with others, I searched the heavens for further signs of the end times—a rain of toads, a column of fire, dogs and cats living together. Nothing. Apparently it was just a commercial decision by a large corporation that could no longer see a financial advantage in sustaining the iGoogle environment of widgets and gadgets and whatnot. Not a lot of ad revenue in widgets, I suppose (at least not the ones I was using).

Today, Google has announced that Google Reader—its RSS feed reader—will be shutting down in July 2013. I’ve checked the heavens and once again it appears this is just a corporate decision. Well then.

I’ve never loved Google Reader. It was only ever functional. When I would come across an RSS feed that I wanted to keep track of, I would “subscribe” to it in my Google Reader. It provided a means of grouping one’s RSS feeds, labelling them in a common fashion. But that was never truly useful since Google Reader’s user interface was never convenient for a quick scan of RSS items.

What was useful, however, was the fact that I could take an output feed from Google Reader—a conglomeration of all the RSS feeds to which I had subscribed within Google Reader—and feed it through an iGoogle gadget so that my entire set of RSS feeds would appear on my homepage in abbreviated form (just the feed title). I have no interest in reading the vast majority of items that appear in my RSS feeds. I just scan through the titles of the items and when I find one for which I would like to see the full content, I just click on it. Simple. When I’m done I mark all of the items “as read” and they are whisked away leaving me with a nice clean, empty, Google Reader gadget on my iGoogle homepage waiting for the next batch of items when they arrive.

I don’t suppose I am a big user of RSS feeds. I have 76 feeds currently in my Google Reader. Collectively they produce between 150 to 200 items in my Google Reader gadget on my iGoogle homepage per day. Of those, I probably look at maybe 10 or 15.

But now my need for finding a viable replacement for my iGoogle homepage just moved from “pending” to “urgent”. (Not panicky urgent, just ordinary urgent.) I already know about a few alternatives, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking that I should just do my own thing, probably within a Drupal installation on a site I already use.

Change comes to all of us, with or without heavenly signs. I just don’t enjoy being chivvied.

After iGoogle

I have been using iGoogle as my personalized homepage for more than five years. I have recommended it to people who also now use it. So I was disappointed to learn at the beginning of July that Google intends to “retire” iGoogle on 1 November 2013.

I suppose I don’t do a great deal with iGoogle. For me there have always been two key widgets: the Google Bookmarks and Google Reader widgets. I have a tidy set of links that I like to have available to me at all times. And I’m a bit old-school (if a non-techie can be ‘old-school’ about something techie) in that I prefer to gather the rss feeds of news sites and blogs that I enjoy and read them in one handy location, i.e. my homepage. Less essential widgets (for me), but still useful, are the French and German Word-Of-The-Day widgets from Transparent Language and the small Google Translate widget. I also use a weather widget that keeps me updated on the state of the rain (or sun) in Oxford, London, and Toronto, but that is only looked at periodically.

One reason that iGoogle has been so convenient is that I often cycle between a variety of browsers, computers, and operating systems. My iGoogle homepage, however, stays constant whether I am using Firefox or Safari or Chrome, or PC, Mac, or Linux.

Another reason for iGoogle’s convenience is its robustness and (in an environment of rapid change) stability. More than five years is a long time these days. And, yes, maybe I’m getting settled in my ways. But still…

Google notes that in the current era of modern mobile apps, “the need for something like iGoogle has eroded over time”. But not for me. My need for it remains exactly the same as when I first started using it more than five years ago. I don’t use “mobile” devices. I use desktops and laptops. I use a web browser. Am I the last one who works this way?

Unfortunately none of the alternatives that Google suggests are terribly convenient. Yes, I could use tabs in my browser for the Google Bookmarks web page and the Google Reader web page, and likewise for Google Translate and other widgets I use daily. But have you looked at the Google Bookmarks web page? Or the Google Reader web page? They are very user-unfriendly, at least a compared with the straightforward way their data is dealt with in my current iGoogle widgets.

As I see it, at the moment, there are two possibilities for how I will organize my daily web use after iGoogle’s demise. I will either have to go with a pre-packaged solution, such as NetVibes. Or I will have to set up my own personalized homepage on one of the domains I manage. Neither is ideal.

I, perhaps naïvely, like Google. I like most of Google’s family of tools (Gmail, Reader, Bookmarks, Calendar, Maps, Docs [now Drive], etc.). And I liked iGoogle.

iPad experiences

I never wanted an iPad. When they first came out I thought they would be fun but not useful. It made sense to me that something that might be sitting in your lap ought to be touch friendly. But maybe that’s a guy thing. In any case, I never expected to have one fall into my lap. And then one did. So now, after a couple of months of use, I can offer some thoughts.

A lot of people will tell you that the iPad is not a laptop or desktop replacement. Those people are right. This is a product with some distinct limitations. So let’s get those out of the way off the top. Printing is pretty much a write-off. Storage is limited (if tens of gigabytes is limited). Editing MS Office documents in anything like a serious way is effectively a non-starter. Some websites built primarily with flash are effectively inaccessible. Okay, so those are the limitations. I say, let’s just set them aside and look at what the iPad actually does do, and do well.

First, connectivity to wireless is a breeze. That’s not surprising for a Mac; I’m just confirming it. Access to email (thought not necessarily full editing and storage manipulation) is straightforward. Websites (the ones that are not entirely built in flash) load quickly and look beautiful. Once you figure out that the idea of tabs in a browser is not really there, you can bounce around the web about as quickly as you can with any other browser. Oh, and when you get on a plane, switching to Airplane Mode is painlessly simple.

Second, there are lots of apps available for the iPad. For the most part I have only been using those apps that are free. But there are even lots of those. I like the iBook app, and the IMDB app, and the NFB (National Film Board of Canada) app, and BBC news app. Maps, which comes pre-installed, is really useful. And even the Skype app works satisfactorily.

Third, the display is beautiful. Photos, videos, and even movies look great. The latter beat the sad “personal entertainment” screen on the back of the airplane seat hands down. I also bought a splitter for the earphone jack, so my wife and I were able to watch a couple of films together on the plane – films I rented from iTunes for 30 days for 99 cents each.

It is light and (seemingly) sturdy and the battery goes and goes and goes.

The iPad doesn’t do everything. So if you want something that does everything, then you need to look elsewhere, and good luck to you. But within its limitations, I have found the iPad to be an excellent travelling companion during more than 4 weeks on the road in the past couple of months.

Refresh rate

How often do you upgrade your operating system or your computer hardware at home? With me it depends. I like to keep my Ubuntu systems current, which means I will usually make a clean install every six months as the next release comes out. Since I am installing Ubuntu on dual-boot Windows machines, I am not typically refreshing the hardware at the same time.

I tend to only start using a new Windows operating system when I buy new hardware (if the hardware I am buying comes with Windows installed). I get the itch to move after about three years, but it may take four or sometimes five years before I have the spare cash to enable a hardware refresh. And even then I’m only talking about my principal machine, since I tend to keep the older machines running for other purposes. The oldest one I have at the moment is a 2005 Dell Dimension 9100 desktop – still running fine on Windows XP and the latest Ubuntu.

Now that I’ve made the move to an iMac as my principal machine at home, I thought I was done needing to learn new Windows operating systems. Not true.

My father is about to refresh his hardware and software. He has a ten year old Pentium 4 with 256 MB of RAM running, slowly, Windows XP. It is, for me, almost excruciatingly sluggish. And since his Internet connection was DSL “lite” (many times faster than a dial-up modem!) the combination could quite simply stop you in your tracks. I finally convinced him that it was time to make a change.

I argued that two factors impacted his current user experience. (There’s no point making your case if you aren’t going to take it seriously and do a thorough job.) One was his Internet connection and the other was the processing power and speed of his computer. To “change his game” he needed to address both factors at once. Somewhat to my surprise, he agreed.

He has already made the call to upgrade his DSL. He should now have a connection roughly comparable to what I’m getting through Bell. He tells me that he already notices the difference. Web pages only take a few seconds to load, as against the 30 or more seconds most pages used to take. When I visit him next, I will install a wireless router to his system. This will not improve his experience. But it will provide a more normal (dread word!) computing environment for his grandchildren who are used to taking their laptops with them when they visit their friends and having full Internet connectivity while they are there.

As for the hardware and operating system refresh, I put forward two recommendations. One was the iMac with which I have been completely satisfied. The other was a mid-range Dell, which of course would mean Windows 7.

Some people are change averse. My father is one of these people. Some people have little if any intuitive grasp of computers. Again he falls into this group. Some people also have little or no interest in learning anything new that has to do with computers (and consequently feel no excitement in the possibility of playing with a new system). Again, that’s him. So, no matter what, I will be absorbing a fair portion of the change cost of moving him to a new computing environment.

In the end he chose the less expensive option. Fair enough. He will still have a much, much better user experience than he does currently. It may even give him a taste of some of the fun that is possible with computers. (But I doubt it.) And meanwhile I have started reading this very large book on Windows 7. I’m looking forward to his new computer arriving next week.


No, really.