iPad – First impressions

4 04 2010

Yesterday morning, I took my visiting family to Niagara Falls which is oh-so-convenient-ly close to the US border, so of course I *had* to pay a visit to the Apple Store at the Walden Gallery Mall and buy the iPad I had reserved “just in case” 🙂 . At least that’s the story I tell myself to justify traveling 400 km just to address this totally illogical gadget lust.

I have not had much time to blog or do much else actually over the last 40 days or so, being busy at both work and personal fronts – had a few folks staying with us and others visiting us too. So, this post is going to be a bit rushed, just collecting my first impressions on the most expected iThing of the year. On top of it, I’m typing this on the iPad itself, using the revamped WordPress app, so pardon the clunkness of this post. So, there you go, in bullet point format:

– Overall, huge thumbs up to Apple for adding a new category in the already crowded portable computing landscape. The person sitting beside me at the mall was completely unaware of what the fuss was about at the Apple Store, thinking they were giving away something. When I opened the box, she gasped: “OMG, that’s a gigantic iPhone”! It definitely looks like that, but after a day using it, I can honestly say that it’s much more than that. As biology has repeatedly shown us, small increments in features can sometimes drive major leaps in innovation – stand-up posture and opposable thumbs being just two recent examples. The iPad is not just a big iPhone or iPod Touch, not a laptop without a keyboard, not a crippled netbook, not a fancier Kindle, nor a Mac version of the Tablet PC. It’s in its own category, and will follow its own evolution branch path. Personal Computing speciation just occurred, and we witnessed it first hand. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the iPad will succeed in its current incarnation. But it will influence what others will be doing over the next few years.

– The big positives: the device is fast, the screen is crispy, the layout is gorgeous and it feels good in your hands. Battery life is just unbelievably long. Maps, iBooks, Photos, and the various comics/magazines/newspaper/drawing apps all feel brand new in the big screen. That’s just a glimpse of what’s coming. The iPad is the best portable device to consume content that I have ever used.

– The negatives are well published already: the iPad would greatly benefit from a front-facing camera, multitasking, and more flexibility for applications to share context and objects, including files. All these limitations have one thing in common: they are related to content creation, not consumption. From a market perspective, it makes a lot of sense to target content consumers first, as they represent the vast majority of buyers. I also suspect those limitations are all part of overall Apple strategy to keep us buying the latest and greatest every few years or so. The Cupertino-based brain-trust creates products with enough features to make them desirable, but very rarely offers everything that’s technically feasible in any given release. This way, when an iPad with a camera comes next year, they will sell it in loads again. Furthermore, sometimes we waste too much time thinking about what we don’t have, as opposed to what’s there now for us to enjoy. That’s like being in Paris and complaining about not having a good beach to go to.

That’s it for now!

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A solution for handling accents on a Mac

17 01 2010

In the never-ending Mac versus PC discussion, I often find myself slightly favouring the Apple side for better hardware-software integration and for consistently bringing innovative and elegant solutions for some of the personal computing usability pain points. But it has never been a slam dunk for his Steveness, as Macs are not perfect either. By the way, my MacBook freezing problem is still there, making me likely the person who had the most problems with Mac computers in the world: video card, keyboard, trackpad, battery, optical drive, cooling fan, hard drive, and LCD screen (this one was my own fault).

My number one pet peeve on the Mac world ***WAS*** the way Mac OS handles accents when you have a US keyboard and want to write in one of the European languages that need accents and other special characters. I often write things in Portuguese, and in Windows, after you configure it properly, the keyboard just mimics the way typewriters handled accents: for example, to type the <é> in “Pelé” or “café”, you just type the key <‘> and then the letter <e>. On a Mac, once you configure it to use “Brazilian” as the Input Source, to type <é> you have to do something very awkward: type <Option>+<e>, then type <e>. Basically, <Option>+<e> is the acute accent, <Option>+<i> is the circumflex accent, <Option>+<n> is the tilde and so on.

Of course, the point here is not to mimic a typewriter – a large part, if not the majority, of people using computers today never used a typewriter. The point is that the US keyboard has keys with the acute accent, the circumflex accent and the tilde, so why not use them? <Option>+<e> is not intuitive at all, and you have to use three keystrokes instead of two, slowing you down enough to break your typing rhythm.

But there is a solution and I just found it yesterday! If you want your Mac to handle accents the Windows / typewriter way, try the following:

  1. Google “brasileiro.bundle teclado” (the original file in Geocities is no longer available). I found it here.
  2. Unzip the file and double-click the .dmg to mount it
  3. Copy the file Brasileiro.bundle to the folder /Library/Keyboard Layouts
  4. Log out and log in
  5. In System Preferences, go to Language & Text and then select Input Sources
  6. On the left panel, you should now have Brazil and Brazilian, with round Brazilian flag icons
  7. Enable Brazil if you are using a US keyboard, or Brazilian if you are using a Portuguese keyboard
  8. Enable Show input menu in menu bar
  9. In the menu bar at the top of your Mac, you should now see a flag with your default input language (in my case, it’s Canadian English). Just switch that to Brazil or Brazilian when typing in Portuguese. It also should work with all accented characters in Spanish and most in French (except the ligature ones: ae and oe; for those, I suspect you still have to resort to <Option>+<‘> and <Option>+<q>, or get a French.bundle file).

Input Menu with "Brazil" and "Canadian English"

I hope this helps the 0.01% of you for whom this is a Mac annoyance. And I hope that Apple fixes that in the near future to come as a default input source instead of hack.





Buying cheap laptops

15 12 2009

Back in October, my wife and I decided to buy a laptop for my mother-in-law – who lives in São Paulo, so that we could have video conversations over Skype. Brazilian customs allow each passenger to bring goods not exceeding USD 500 in total value without incurring any tariffs, so my target price was about CAD 540.

A week before our trip, we found the HP Pavillion laptop below (with Windows 7) on sale for – guess how much – CAD 538.99! Regular price was CAD 649.99.


HP Pavillion G60-538CA

Our plan did not work very well due to some logistic problems, so we brought the laptop back to Canada, and it’s now our secondary home computer, at least for the time being. And since I’m not a Mac, nor a PC, having both at home is actually a good thing. I do run Windows XP on my MacBook using VMWare Fusion, but that feels a bit like trying to fit a foot AND a hand inside a shoe: they go better separately.

How can they make it so cheap?

I guess that, to some extent, you get what you pay for. I have no idea why HP designers decided to have the key with the vertical bar (pipe) and backslash available on both sides of the Pavillion keyboard. All the other computers I had to date, Macs and PCs, had a large left shift key beside the “Z”. I keep typing the backslash every time I try to press the left shift key 😦 . Also, the vertical enter key takes a bit to get used to. Just compare the keyboards of the HP Pavillion with the one from the Thinkpad T600 that I use at work:

HP Pavillion keyboard

Thinkpad keyboard

Also, the Conexant Pebble High Definition SmartAudio microphone was unusable with the original driver and configuration. I had to upgrade the driver and change the setting to “2 channel, 16 bit, 48000 Hz (DVD Quality)”. It’s still not great, but Skype no longer requires screaming.

Finally, the DVD drive is very sensitive to scratches in the media. It was not able to read some of my DVDs, even though they ran smoothly on the Mac.

Are there any positives?

Overall, I think it’s been a good purchase considering the cost-benefit ratio.

Windows 7 is pretty good in my opinion. I still find Mac OS X better overall, but the gap is narrowing. My wife has never been a big fan of the MacBook, especially the Finder and the way Mac OS X deals with special characters. Just try to type “bênção” (blessing, in Portuguese) in your Mac. It did not help that I never bothered getting MS-Office for the Mac. NeoOffice is OK, but not a substitute for a commercial suite yet. I also rely a lot on freeware, and having 2 operating systems always running gives you more choices.

HP support was also surprisingly good. Earlier this week, the Pavillion went completely dead. I visited the HP support website and found that they provide support via chat:


HP Canada Support Website

I clicked on the “chat online” link and in a few seconds was already talking to their support rep. In about 5 minutes, everything was solved, with courteous and efficient service. In case you’re having a similar problem, here’s what I did:

  1. Disconnect the AC adapter and remove battery
  2. Press and hold down the power key for 1 minute
  3. Connect the AC Adapter to the notebook
  4. While turning on the laptop keep tapping F10 key… See More
  5. You’ll see the “Windows Resume Loader” screen
  6. Press ENTER to “continue with system resume”
  7. Shutdown the computer properly this time
  8. Put the battery back in
  9. Turn the computer on again

I suspect the problem was not because the battery was faulty, just a loosely connected plug, but I’ll keep an eye on it.

Finally, my son loves the CyberLink YouCam that comes with the Pavillion. It’s like the Mac’s Photo Booth, but by default it’s integrated with your other applications using the webcam. So, you can talk over Skype using all the special video effects like this:

CyberLink YouCam

Calling home on Christmas Day will be much more fun this year!





The Apple logo, Annie Hall and the single version of the truth

9 08 2009

CreativeBits published last week a good interview with Rob Janoff, the designer of the Apple logo (thanks to TUAW for the pointer). Over the years, I’ve heard several theories explaining the bitten apple, from the obvious (Eve’s bite on the forbidden fruit representing the lust for knowledge), to the nerdy (a reference to the computer term byte), to the convoluted (like the one below from Wikipedia).

Another explanation exists that the bitten apple pays homage to the mathematician Alan Turing, who committed suicide by eating an apple he had laced with cyanide.

Then you learn directly from the horse’s mouth that all of the above are just BS (his term, not mine). The real explanation turned out to be so much more mundane and simpler:

Anyway, when I explain the real reason why I did the bite it’s kind of a let down. But I’ll tell you. I designed it with a bite for scale, so people get that it was an apple not a cherry. Also it was kind of iconic about taking a bite out of an apple. Something that everyone can experience. It goes across cultures. If anybody ever had an apple he probably bitten into it and that’s what you get.

All the fancy theories about the bitten apple logo and the real reason is that Janoff didn’t want to have people mistaking his stylized apple by a cherry??? “Kind of a let down” is the understatement of the year.

This whole discussion reminds me of this classic scene from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall movie:

The video above is a bit long, so here is a description for the time-starved among you:

In one scene, Allen’s character, standing in a cinema queue with Annie and listening to someone behind him expound on Marshall McLuhan’s work, leaves the line to speak to the camera directly. The man then speaks to the camera in his defense, and Allen resolves the dispute by pulling McLuhan himself from behind a free-standing movie posterboard to tell the man that his interpretation is wrong.

I had a great literature teacher who told me many years ago that what an artist meant when creating his art is important if you are interested in history or passing an exam, but all the possible interpretations by consumers of that art are as legitimate as the one by the author, be her or him a writer, a musician, a painter or a sculptor. The bottom line is that once the art is out to the public, the audience owns its meaning, and that meaning will evolve as time and context keeps building on top of it, regardless of what the author’s original intention was.

Revisiting the Annie Hall scene from that perspective, Allen’s character, McLuhan and the Columbia U professor were all right in their distinct interpretations, and all wrong in assuming that only one was possible.

In the fields of IT and Business Intelligence, we often hear the (terrible) acronym SVOT, or Single Version of the Truth (sometimes referred as “one version of the truth”). While in very technical terms that may make sense – a person cannot have two different places of birth, for example – SVOT in anything above bits and bytes is just an urban myth.

A personal story to illustrate this: my maternal uncle’s place of birth was supposed to be some Japanese city named Keijo, according to old documents from my grandfather. As many of you know, my mother is Japanese, and I always just assumed that my uncle was born in Japan, so I never bothered looking for Keijo in the map. Last month, talking to my sister over Skype, I googled it and found that Keijo is actually the former Japanese name used for Seoul, the capital of South Korea, during the period of Japanese rule! In a few seconds, SVOT just became to me IDWTYART, as in “it depends what truth you are referring to” 🙂

Just to bring this post back to its original subject, I want to conclude it with a pictorial representation of SVOT vs. IDWTYART juxtaposing the iconic logo and its corresponding pwned version: