Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Useful features in gmail labs

Today, I noticed a new feature on Gmail that made me really happy. I completed a work-related mail and hit the 'send' button when a Gmail notification popped up, telling me that my mail included the body text "I am attaching a file" but there was no attachment detected in the mail. Here is a screenshot of the message from the Google Labs blog



I realised that I had actually forgotten to attach the file and promptly rectified the error. I am grateful that Gmail saved me time and trouble, and therefore helped me increase my productivity.

The Forgotten Attachment detector was part of Gmail Labs till March 2010 and has now graduated as an integrated feature in gmail. Gmail Labs, launched in 2008, is described by Google as a 'testing ground for experimental features'. As a user of gmail, you can test these features and give feedback to Google. Since its experimental, these features are disabled by default in your Gmail account but you can enable them yourself.

I have enabled several interesting features on gmail labs on my email. Here's how you can enable these features:

1) Log into gmail and click on settings in the right hand side corner of the screen

2) ..and navigate to the tab labelled 'labs'


The useful features on Gmail labs, which I am using right now are

1) Undo Send
This useful feature delays sending of a mail by around 15 seconds, giving time to give a 'cancel sending' command.  I do sometimes get feelings that I have not written all that I need to, or worse, that I have made a gaffe, and this feature gives me time to correct the mistake.

2) Wrong Bob
This is another fantastic lab feature, which works like this. I have a client and an accountant who share the same first name and once, to my embarrassment, I accidentally sent a mail to the client, which was meant for the accountant. Definitely not good to send personal financial information to a client. Wrong Bob offers suggestions to check if you mean Bob X instead of Bob Y. 

3) Create document
You can create a google document from an email conversation. That is useful when people write mails with a lot of information that needs to get captured/formatted.

4) Previews in mail
You can see previews of Google Docs, Picasa or Flickr links in mails. YouTube previews has already graduated from Gmail labs to become a full feature of gmail.

5) Multiple Inboxes
This feature lets you view extra threads/ labels/ list of emails as seperate inboxes. Pretty neat, I can separate my official and personal mails through this

6) Customisable interface
Features like Move Icon Column, Navbar drag and drop and Right Side Chat help you to move items around on your screen making it customisable to suit you.

With features like this, I'm much less likely to go back to Thunderbird or Outlook as a mail client. Especially now that Gmail also has enabled offline mail and caches your messages on your hard drive allowing you to compose and even attach files in offline mode. I'm extremely satisfied with gmail, the only catch is that I cannot access these features on my Nokia E61 using the push mail client. Well, maybe it's time to contemplate a shift to an Android-powered phone...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chronicles from history : all the portable music devices I have ever owned

I really started this blog to write about MP3 players and headphones and in the recent past, I have just written about everything else. And that's the only excuse I am going to offer for this post.
1) Sony Walkman 1986
Dad got it back for me from a trip to Japan and for the life of me I cannot remember the model but it looked like this more or less (image from Audiogold UK)
I used it till it broke and I say that with pride and full approval of my dad who believes we must use and wear out all our gadgets because anyway we will replace them 2 years down the line. I recall that this player used to jam my tapes regularly, stopped fast forwarding and towards the end of its life, operated only on prayer, but it was with me for three years. At least. No recall of what headphones I used with it, I was in school at the time! Thanks Dad for my first taste of portable music. Later I had a Panasonic walkman and another Sony, but the first Sony stays in my memory.

2) Sony CD Player (1998)
This came much later, after I started earning on my first job. I remember buying this as a birthday gift for myself. Here is the nearest picture to what I owned. Again, I can't remember the model, but I payed nearly Rs. 5000 at Sony World Chennai for this one. Image from Engadget;


I paired it with a pair of Sony Street Style 'phones which I picked up at the Sony World along with the player. It cost me Rs. 3000, if I remember right. Here is an image, courtesy uselog and I am using a quote referenced by Jasper in his post about the design of the headphones

Kazuo Ichikawa began to focus on a newer, more casual style of headphone that would fit behind the neck rather than over the head or directly in the ear. [...] His inspiration came from the way people use conventional headphones in the street (allowing them to drop behind the neck), how people wear baseball caps (often with the visor pointing backwards), and the apparatus that folk-singer Bob Dylan used to support his harmonica while performing in concert.
"A critical issue when designing headphones is to make them fit properly," says Mr. Ichikawa. "Yet there is a huge difference from one person to another in the distance from one ear, over the top of the head to the other ear. When you factor in hair styles and the possibility of a cap or hat, you realize that the traditional headphone is no good"
(Digital Dreams, The Work of the Sony Design Center, by Paul Kunkel.)
I was not a geek when I bought this sound set up but I realise that I lucked out. Over the next 6 years, I enjoyed fantastic sound and started a decent CD collection. The player did not play MP3s and it became temperamental after 2002 so I used to hook it to my home theatre system through the Line In and enjoy my CDs at home. I traded this player in 2004 at Rs. 1500 against a new 2.1 music system.

3) Creative MuVo V200 (2005)

I'm not the type who can survive without portable music for long and on a business trip to Bangkok I seized the opportunity to pick up a Creative MuVo V200 from the famous Panthip Plaza. I paid nearly Rs. 5000 for a 1 GB player without a rechargeable battery.(image from The Register review (2005)

Incidentally, I bought this player blind, and on a tight budget, but it is one of Creatives best-selling models down the years, in various avtaars. I was extremely happy with the sound quality and the battery life on 2 AAA cells. I could not afford anything more than the stock headphones but it sounded great to me. And it was the first time I really experienced MP3 portability. One of the conveniences of this device was that it had a built in pen-drive so you did not need any wires to plug it into your laptop

I used to hang it round my neck :) when I travelled in Mumbai locals to work. I finally sold it to a colleague for Rs. 3500 after 2 years. She tells me it is still working fine, though she now uses it purely as a 1 GB pen drive.

And I sold it because something new and exciting was compelling my attention totally. Like, Creative, Apple and everyone else did not exist.

4) IRiver H320 (2006)

The decision to purchase this player rather than an iPod, made me recognise the geek in me. For the first time, I browsed forums and sites for reviews to make an informed choice. And I decided in favor of open source firmware (rockbox), drag and drop functionality and fantastic sound quality. After a couple of hiccups, I procured the unit of eBay India for  Rs. 13000. It was not officially available in India, but I wanted it at any cost.

I quote with pride from Andreas Odegards fantastic write up  on ABI about the 10th anniversary of MP3 players (it's an old article but a must read):



"If there ever was a cult mp3 player in the audiophile community, this would be it. Even today - 3.5 years after its release - it's used by people everywhere and sell for a decent price on sites such as eBay.
The H320 and H340 players natively support OGG along with MP3 and WMA, and are are also capable of playing back video - though this feature is very limited. Rockbox expanded the H300's features to include 15 audio codecs - among them FLAC - and that combined with the excellent audio quality has made this player the audiophile legend that it is."

'Nuff said, now look at the player itself; image from Tim Andersen's IT Writing

It is no beauty maybe, especially next to an iPod but it brought a lot of beauty into my life, and I was proud to own it. Two years ago I passed it to my Dad. It still works, but battery life is down to 1 hour. I paired with Sony MDR In-ear phones which gave me really good sound quality. I cannot describe the joy this player has brought into my life. I loaded my first videos, I joined my first fan community (misticriver) and I listened to the best music my ears had heard till then.  RIP iRiver.

5) Cowon D2 (2008- date)

My current player is the famous Cowon D2 (16 GB) which is also a classic 'best' MP3 player from iAudio. I have an 8 GB version with Indian warranty.(image from techtree). Among the many things that I love about this player are that I charge it once in 2 weeks though I play it all the time, I get fantastic playback either through my headphones or when I plug it to powered speakers, and a vibrant support community at www.iaudiophile.net


I pair it with my first audiophile headphones, the awesome Triple Fi 10 series. And I am in sonic bliss.

I would love to hear about your MP3 player nostalgia too!

What is a smartphone?

This is a question that I asked myself today. Of late, I have been reading and posting about top-of-the-line models including the iPhone 4, Motorola Droid, HTC Incredible, Nexus One, Dell Lightning etc and the respective Operating Systems that each one runs on. And I wondered if I needed to update my definition of what a smartphone is in 2010.

About.com offers an interesting definition and perspective, pointing out that smartphones offer functionality that you would find on a personal computer or PDA like the ability to access high speed internet, sync your email, run productivity applications etc. The article also references an era when we possessed separate cell phones and PDAs like the Palm Pilot (where are they today?)

So we have a distinction between a smartphone and a 'feature phone' depending on the extent to which the phone can perform at least some of the  functions that we do on our computers or laptops. But obviously the amount of things that we can do on a smartphone today is far more than what we could do, say 1 year ago. So this is my personal definition of a smartphone in 2010. It is based on the hardware and software and I have included examples at the high-end and low-end, to describe what I mean.

1) Operating System
A smartphone today needs to be running one of these operating systems - Android, iPhone OS, S^3 or Bada. Add to that list, in the not-so-distant future, Blackberry OS 6.0,Windows Phone 7 or MeeGo. Does it mean that a phone running Symbian S60 is not a smartphone? Does an Atom processor mean a netbook is not a laptop? The answer to both questions is 'no' but this is a time-bound answer. Newer and more powerful operating systems have already begun to re-define a smartphone and what it can do. I consider my Nokia E61 to be a fantastic business phone, but I'm not sure its a smartphone any more.

2) Apps and widgets
Apple showed the way, and now other players are following suit. Apps enable functionality on your phone as much as software does on your PC/ notebook. A smartphone manufacturer has to support his device with an App Store offering apps for gaming, business, news, music and a plethora of other needs. You don't need to have a smart phone to use apps, but the number, and quality of apps that can run (and run simultaneously) on a smartphone will distinguish it from others.


3) Touchscreen interface
It's not my cup of tea, but touch interfaces are becoming ubiquitous on smart phones. Some offer touchscreen + full QWERTY but capacitive touch functionality is becoming de facto on smart phones.Touchscreen displays also allow for larger screens, thereby increasing useability

4) Display
Whether it is the iPhone 4 Retina Display or the Super AMOLED display on Samsung's Wave and Galaxy phones, hi-res displays are going to differentiate smartphones from the pack. When you bear in mind that mobiles are becoming thin clients, accessing all we need on the Web, we are going to spend more and more time on them.A fantastic display makes it easier to do this

5) Processor Power and RAM
A 1 GHz processor has been the norm on the top end phones we've seen in 2010 and we can expect the computing power to go up in the near future.

6) Bells and Whistles

Merely having a camera or a music player (even a music player the quality of the iPhone) will not make a smartphone any more. These are additional functionalities that can be extended into feature phones, or even a dedicated range of music phones such as the ones put out by Sony and Nokia. But inclusions like GPS, a 10 or 12 megapixel camera, HD recording and playback, will differentiate your smartphone from the pack.

So what will be the price range for smartphones in 2010? Most manufacturers are clustered at the upper end with the Sony Xperia 10, iPhone and Motorola Droid clustered at a Rs. 30-35000 price point. Anchoring the lower price point is Samsung Wave which has been priced at Rs. 19100 in the Indian market. If this is too steep for you, take heart from the fact that entry level prices for new models should reduce a few years down the line. And companies like HTC, Samsung and Nokia will do their best to enable even non-smartphones with more features. And with almost every company other than Apple and Blackberry building phones on the Android platform, I'm sure greater functionality will enter into affordable handsets.

Exciting times ahead and I'm going to stick out my neck and say; if you're planning to upgrade your phone, wait a bit if you can. The market picture could change in just 6 months and will surely be different one year down the line.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Geek toys for your kids!

Anyone who has read my previous post on geek gear will realise that I drool over the stuff at ThinkGeek. Luckily shipping prices to India are untenable, else I would have bought out most of their store by now. This post is to look at  their fantastic collection of geek toys. Just the thing you should be buying for your kids in a digital age. These are my personal favs but you (and your kid) may have your own opinion. Read on...

1) Illuminated Jet Bib Feeding System



This one cracked me up totally, both concept and write up; 'for the flight into the gaping baby maw!' Red wing tip lights on the airplane shaped spoon draw your toddlers attention while the motion-activated LED lights on the runway bib light up to guide your planeload of babyfood to a safe landing. Well nothing is guaranteed really, when you land on a moving runway!

2) Newbie T-Shirt
Dad or mom in IT? Want your toddler to follow in your footsteps? You need to get him/ her this newbie shirt. Seriously, it's the cutest thing I've seen. Anyway, they will make you wear it before long. They're not gonna remain newbies forever you know.

3) Yoda Backpack

I belong to the Star Wars generation and I owned and broke a lightsaber in the '70s to prove it. So this Yoda backpack makes me very happy. Geeklings need to know their geek history and Yoda sure is part of it. The backpack is tiny and looks as though the little Jedi master is hanging over your shoulder. Seriously cute. For some strange reason, in the customer action shots posted on the sites, only adults have sent in photos of themselves wearing it. Either the kids didn't dig Yoda, or they just wanted to keep it for themselves. Or geeks are really just kids (they really are) Whatever.

4) Baby's First MP3 Player

The name says it all. And being a kids' version, their is parental volume control and a speaker instead of earphones. But I think it's optimistic to expect, as ThinkGeek does, that this will keep kids away from your iPhone. Why should they?

5) Super Mario Chess Set
When Super Mario Brothers meets chess, it looks like this

I realise that there is a lot of nostalgia for me personally in this post. This was my geek childhood and I would love for kids today to get it. Would it be relevant for them? Let's just say that its preferable to Hannah Montana.

Smartphones for 2010 : Part 4 : What is Samsung bada?

Engadget reports that Samsung plans to corner more than 10% of the worlds' smartphone market by end 2010. Currently, the Korean company's global smartphone market share stands at just 0.5% so they have a lot of ground to cover. As of Q1 2010, the market leaders are Nokia (39.3%), RIM (19.4%) and Apple (16.1%).
 
Samsung hopes to ride to this ambitious market share on their home-grown bada mobile OS platform.bada  is entirely a touchphone platform.

According to the bada site, the word bada means 'ocean' in Korean, and should always be written in lowercase.



The site also interestingly comments (and I quote);

"The vision of bada is smartphone for everyone. bada's main goal is not to compete with existing smartphone platforms. Instead, bada will turn Samsung's conventional customers into smartphone users by providing cost-effective smartphones. This means that bada will open and extend a new smartphone market which does not exist in the current mobile market"

Hmm. It's an interesting premise especially from an Asian perspective. According to the Economic Times, Samsung's market share in India in 2009-10 is 17.4%, up from 10% last year. The same article notes that Indian handset manufacturers like Spice, Karbonn and Micromax have captured upto 14% of the Indian handset market. Most of these companies offer cheap but expensive looking and feature rich handsets with QWERTY keyboard, trackball, Dual Sim etc. in a Rs.5000-10000 range. Samsung will definitely have one eye on the low-cost competition and hope that Bada can provide a competitive advantage, by providing a branded alternative, which the Indian customer will always prefer. It will also take the fight to Nokia in the low cost handset market. So when I look at bada, I would prefer to not compare it to Android, iPhone OS or even S^3. (note that Samsung continues to support the Android platform through models such as Galaxy S). By their own admission, Samsung's vision for bada seems to be enabling better user experience on low-cost hardware through the OS, not limiting it only to the high end and expensive handsets. In India, we know that low-cost works and works big time. Maybe Samsung's ambitious vision can come true.

Today, apps and widgets are critical to the success of a platform and Samsung has launched its App Store, which should expand rapidly now that an SDK has been released for developers. One of the areas that Samsung is betting heavily on is mobile gaming and the company has tie-ups in place with Gameloft, Capcom and EA. 

The first bada-powered Samsung handset is the Wave S8500, which has been launched worldwide and is available in India for Rs. 19,100 according to Fonearena


This is described by Samsung as a 'premium image phone' packing a Super AMOLED (high daylight visibility) Display 3.3 inch screen, a 1 GHz processor, 5 MP Camera, High-speed Bluetooth 3, HD recording, and the list goes on. But note the price, in comparison with Android devices and Samsung's own Android powered Galaxy S, which are all in the Rs.30000 range. Already the high end bada phone is way cheaper than premium competition. Initial reports like this one on Engadget suggest that the bada OS still needs working on, and may be at an immature stage. But Mobile Review has given the device and the new interface a big thumbs up.

People speculate as to why we need another OS. There are also criticisms that it is just a mash-up of Android and iPhone and the Wave itself just feels like a feature phone. But I have a different take. I am holding Samsung to their vision of providing bada on low cost handsets. I want to see phones in the Rs. 5000-10000 range equipped with push mail, widgets and Apps, fantastic capacative touch interface and an experience closer to smartphones. I can see how that could transform the phone experience of the average budget phone user. And I hope Samsung takes that route.

Might just persuade me to switch from Nokia and give it a try :)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Smartphones for 2010 : part 3 : S^3

Symbian is the ubiquitous mobile OS platform that runs on Nokia phones. Given the Finnish giant's huge market share, this makes it the worlds most widely used mobile OS today. According to Allaboutsymbian, devices running on Symbian include Sony Ericcson P Series, Nokia N and E Series smartphones and the Nokia Communicator.

Originally owned by  Symbian Ltd. and later acquired by Nokia, Symbian is today available as an open source software through the Symbian Foundation; the code was released in Feb 2010. This step was undertaken to interest developers to work on the platform.

S^3 (Symbian 3) will be the first entirely open source version released by the Symbian Foundation, and promises a significantly enhanced user experience over  the older S60 platform. To a large extent, it will have to catch up with competitive mobile platforms which have forged ahead, especially in touchscreen technology. Still, in  India where Nokia has regularly topped the Most Trusted Brands Survey, and most of us buy Nokia with our eyes shut, S^3 is likely to be the OS that most of us will have on our next smartphone.

The latest news from Symbian is that S^3 is 'functionally complete' meaning that it will go into beta testing to improve stability, fix bugs etc. The final release is expected in September 2010. Nokia N8 is the first device that has been announced on the S^3 platform, but we can expect launches by other handset manufacturers also. Incidentally, Nokia has announced that later NSeries phones will shift to MeeGo, a collaboration with Intel using a Linux based platform.

For an exhaustive review of the S^3 OS, read this excellent article by Eldar Murtazin at Mobile Review. Most of what I've written below is summarised from his review and all images are also from Mobile Review.

Here is the visualisation of the S^3 experience from Nokia Conversations:


And some of the key improvements are:
1. User Interface
With increased RAM and hardware acceleration, Nokia users should see a jump in speed compared to their previous smartphone experience; the OS will also support multi-tasking and running several apps simultaneously.It will also automatically switch from 3G to WLAN mode.

Touchscreen functionality will now include single click, flick scrolling and pinch and zoom. All of this makes navigation far easier. For instance, you just have to swipe the screen to jump from one screen to another. And you can also swipe the screen to copy and paste text into any other section of the device.

One cool feature is the context sensitive messaging which allows you to add any type of content into a message - the system figures out whether to send it as MMS, SMS or whatever message form.

You can also choose upto 3 different home screens/ views. The homescreens support multiple pages for widgets and you can flick through them



The interfaces for text, email and IM are more feature rich and bring the experience closer to typing on a real computer screen rather than on a phone


2) Enhanced Media Player
The re-worked Media player experience is closer to the iPhone supporting horizontal and vertical mode. 


3) Picture menu
Special transition effects have been added to pictures including fade and transitions on slide shows. There is a built in editor to crop, apply effects, and re-size images

4) Video
Exciting video features include the ability to HDMI and Dolby Digital Plus support meaning that you can plug the phone to a TV set (if it has a HDMI port) and watch 1080 p Video with 5.1 sound. A solid video editor is also included, which allows you to perform most of the editing functions you would use on your desktop

There is lots more, but Eldar's final conclusion is that at least in the current release, the S^3 OS mostly just manages to catch up with competition (Android and Apple) and does not offer anything substantially new. The flip side is that millions of Nokia users including myself, will get acquainted with an entirely new interface,and way of using our phones. And meanwhile, work has already started on Symbian 4.

I do hope that S^3 is made available on Nokia's budget smartphones including the excellent E Series.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Do I really need a desktop?

Recently I have been debating replacing my 3 year old desktop which rarely gets used any more with a second laptop. This blog post by Christopher Dawson on ZDNet has raised some questions in my mind. He basically puts across the case that today, access to the cloud/internet is more vital for most of us, since a large portion of our time is spent working off the Net. And therefore, is there really a need to splash out money on an expensive loaded laptop? He makes a case for a good netbook/smartphone/ tablet to work on the move and a powerful desktop at home for more meaty tasks, when you need the extra performance. And in the current scenario, if you shop carefully, you can get both for a price less than 'the worlds thinnest laptop' or a desktop replacement laptop. It's a good case and worth considering for people on a budget and people who run a home office (count me in both groups)

In one of my earlier posts, I had questioned the wisdom of getting a netbook, when portable laptops like my Dell XPS 1330 provide a better performance and a reasonable level of portability.  But that was in March, and things are changing rapidly in the Netbook world - prices are falling, there are talks of a dual core Atom processor in the works, and options of Windows 7, Linux and Chrome OS are available. So will that change my opinion? Should I replace my ageing desktop with a second, more powerful one, or should I get a good netbook for a slightly lower cost? The cost differential should not be large as I basically want to replace only the CPU. I could get a netbook for approximately Rs.17000-19000 at Croma or Vijay Sales and a desktop without monitor for Rs.20000-25000. In this price range, the desktop would have an E7x series processor, 4 GB RAM, 250 GB + hard drive, wi-fi and Windows 7. It would be a decent upgrade on my current desktop.


And after a lot of thought, I have decided that my second machine will be neither a desktop nor a netbook, but a budget 'performance notebook' in the Rs. 35,000 range (i3 processor, 250 GB HDD, 4 GB RAM). And here are my reasons:
1) Space :
In a small Mumbai flat, housing a desktop does pinch. Mine has a dedicated cabinet. I am itching to use that space for the papers and files that pile up effortlessly in a home office. So, it has to be portable.
2) Backup option :
One of the disadvantages in a Home Office environment is a lack of good professional IT support, which is always on call 24X7 in an organisation. If you work with a company and your laptop goes on the blink, chances are that within a few hours you will be given a replacement, your backed up data will be transferred onto it, and you will suffer a few hours of downtime at best. But that won't be the case for me, now that my machines are out of warranty. Even when they were within warranty, onsite repair would take at least 24 hours. I cannot afford that kind of downtime, and I need a laptop constantly as I travel a lot. So it makes sense for me to have a second laptop rather than a desktop. At least, I will have a second machine to keep going with my work.
3) Performance/ power
My style of working, like most people, is multi-tasking. At any point, I have 5-6 tabs open in Firefox, 2-3 heavy PowerPoint files, background music playing and possibly also a Skype call in progress. From what I have seen and tested of Netbooks, they would struggle would  this load. Manage, but struggle and slow down. I'm not used to that any more. So if I do get a second mobile client, it would be a performance notebook. Already, the specs would make it a bit faster than my 2 year old XPS, though it would be bulkier. And it would double up as my desktop replacement (maybe I would hook it up to my 19 inch LCD monitor for movies or video editing). I would spend maybe Rs. 10,000 more than I would on a desktop and Rs.15,000 more than I would on a netbook, but it would give me far greater functionality for the kind of work that I do.

I still cannot justify a netbook/tablet/thin client at least in an Indian context, where net connectivity remains poor, 3G non-existent and as a result, makes the Cloud a distant dream rather than a reality.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Office Suites Part 1 : MS Office 2010

 Microsoft has launched MS Office 2010 in India a few days ago. Priced at Rs. 4999 for Home and Student version and Rs. 10999 for the Home and Business version, it should however be available at a discounted price when bundled with an OEM purchase. Dell is currently bundling the Home and Student version with new laptops at Rs. 3000 which is a fairly reasonable price.

In case you don't purchase the suite,  your machine comes pre-loaded with MS Office Starter, a free trial version that includes only MS Word and Excel. Alternatively you can download the beta version from the Microsoft site, giving you a 60 day free trial. Warning : If you do this, the default option will over-write your existing copy of MS office. During installation you have to customise to install MS Office 2010 separately.

Also note that this time, Microsoft has NOT offered upgrade pricing for users of Office 2007; you have to pay the full price unless you very recently purchased an OEM/ licenced copy which specifies a free upgrade. Bummer.

I am a fairly savvy and heavy user of PowerPoint and an occasional user of Word and Excel.  So I need to consider the upgrade to Office 2010. Simultaneously, I am checking out Open Office to see if that works well for me. I do not choose to make a head-on comparison because I don't think it is entirely fair to compare a free open source software to a business-oriented offering starting at Rs.4000 and upwards. I believe that while they can substitute each other, they can also serve different need sets. And we are lucky that Open Office gives us an legally free option to MS Office.

So here is my summary of what works for me in Office 2010.

1. Cost effectiveness
The price gap between Home and Student version and Home and Business version is Rs. 6000 but the only feature difference is that the Business version has Outlook. If like me, you are on web-based mail for your business and use Google Calendar, you will not really miss Outlook too much.

Besides, Home and Student version offers 3 licenses in the price, which works out to Rs.1300 per machine - and that's just a one-time payment. I pay more to renew my anti-virus annually, so in my book, it is a good buy. I need only one copy, so I will probably team up with a couple of friends to purchase it.

2.PowerPoint upgrades
Given that my business is consulting and a consultant's only end-product is a presentation, a good presentation software is a critical investment for me.I experienced a quantum jump in the tools and quality of output when I upgraded from Office 2003 to 2007. As an evolved user, I would say that the jump to MS Office 2010 is not that huge, it's more like small tweaks that make a difference.

1) The ability to edit audio and video files in a presentation document is useful but not vital for me. I already use dedicated editing tools for my audio and video clips and while the embedded editing feature is an added convenience, I am not sure that I would use it except for basic edits. I also have bad experiences of PowerPoint slowing down, hanging or even crashing when working with very heavy files - particularly embarrassing is when it hangs while projecting a presentation. I am not referring to a limitation in PowerPoint here, possibly the limitation is my own hardware, groaning under the burden of Vista (but leave that for now)

2) I won't say the same for the picture editing tools. They are pretty awesome. For the first time, I get a few photoshop-like (and OK, Apple-like) tools to make picture editing a breeze. My skills and requirements for pictures do not run to learning or buying Photoshop, so these  new tools are a welcome addition

3) Built in PDF support finally puts Office on par with Open Office. Thanks a ton guys. In Office 2007, the add-on PDF plugin was an added irritant to download and install.  Till even recently, I get queries from people asking how to convert their documents to PDF

4) Cloud computing
We have already experienced this with Google Docs, but MS Office will offer the convenience in-built into the interface. You can share a document for editing through Web Apps (still to be launched) or broadcast a presentation live at a click of a button and people can view it on their browsers

Significant improvements are also reported in Word and Excel but I am not a big user of either so I can't really comment.

If you were to ask me whether I would upgrade rightaway my answer is 'maybe'. If I said yes, it would be in a scenario where I was feeling rich or succumbed to my geek side. Eventually, of course I will upgrade. You can say I feel a mild enthusiasm but no compulsion.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wireless MP3 freedom

The more you get used to being wireless the more you like it. And if it works for your laptop, won't you start wanting wire-free music on your headphones next?

I've never really been too impressed with the sound quality of bluetooth stereo headsets. They might work OK enough to play a few songs off your mobile phone but that's not enough for an audiophile like me to justify sinking a few thousands.

Sony made a solution available when they launched their W-series walkman headphones last year. (model no. NWZ-W202). Available at Rs. 4990 with 2 GB  inbuilt memory these 'phones provided a great option - Sony quality music built into the headset, playback of multiple formats (MP3/AAC/WMA). Another neat feature is the quick charge - 3 minutes charge gives 90 minutes of playback. And the hot pink color is nice, but guys can find it in black if they want. I quite like the pink myself

There were some reports of sweat affecting some pieces, prompting Sony to replace the affected models in the US. Now the W series features the water resitant w252 model at the same price, with the usual caveat from the company that they are water resistant and not waterproof. Should be able to resist some sweat though.

Now there is a local alternative in India featuring the same technology and approach. The Xone Free Wire headphones. Manufactured by a Chennai based company, they are touted on the website as 'the worlds' first headsets with built in MP3 player and FM radio.'

I tested a pair at the Chennai Airport departure lounge, where Xone has set up a store. The Xone (pronounced Zone) headphones are priced at Rs. Rs. 2700 for 1 GB, 3600 for 2 GB and Rs. 4500 for 4 GB. So there is a range of options to suit different budgets, all significantly cheaper than Sony

Unlike the Sony W series, these are not buds but street-style on the ear cans.  This means that they will leak a little sound, so they are unsuitable for quiet locations like libraries, because they may disturb others. But they would be great for using in situations where you need to hear ambient sounds - for instance, when working in the kitchen, or even taking a walk. Of course, it's a matter of preference whether you prefer cans or in-ear buds. For me, cans are a better option when exercising, contrary to popular wisdom, because I don't like my ears to be blocked.




Another plus that these babies have over the Sony is that they have built in FM transmitter. Now I don't listen to FM but several people do, and with just 2/4 GB built in memory, it might be nice to tune in to some other music for a change.

The headphones have a built in rechargeable battery and charge through USB cable or an optional wall adapter. The salesman advised us  to use this option only in emergency as USB charging would lead to a longer life.

I have to admit, I was  pleasantly surprised by the sound quality on first hearing, and I am not easy to please. The Xone Free Wires were plenty loud, had a fair amount of clarity and detail and packed a decent bass. We picked up a pair for my mom, who was quite smitten by the concept, and I will need to listen a bit more to provide a detailed review, but at first listening, they had my attention. The sound was way more decent than what I have  heard from premium priced stereo bluetooth headsets. They reminded me a little of my first pair of Sony street style phones which I used with my CD player, more than 10 years ago.

The only quibble I had was with the build quality which looked a little shoddy. At this price, I would have wanted a better build, and I was disappointed to see some paste/gum on the earpads and the wires showed through the plastic headband. Hopefully, they will correct these small issues.

Currently, the Xone freewires retail at limited locations with stores in Chennai and Coimbatore airport lounges and a few other locations in Hyderabad and Chennai. There is a plan to open an outlet at the Oberoi mall in Mumbai soon.

If you happen to be at the airport lounge, do test them out. It's very rarely that we get an opportunity to test 'phones before buying in India. I would say, these are definitely worth a listen, and if you are looking for wire-free convenience, these cans are a worthy contender.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Google Waves, should I wave back?

Anand, who comments regularly on my blog, was the first to draw my attention to Google Wave. It attracted a lot of buzz (the noun, not the Google kind) when it was launched as an invitation-based platform in the last quarter of 2009, but it does not seem to be catching on with the junta, very much as was the case with Google Buzz. Almost all my friends have a Google Account, but I do not catch up with them on Buzz, only on FB or Twitter. And none of my colleagues or friends have yet started using Wave.

It's a pity, because Wave is an attempt to introduce a new to the world concept - a virtual platform for real-time collaboration using rich media (photos, videos, chat, calls and most other things you normally do on the Net). In theory, it is a powerful tool and in my case I can see several potential applications:

1) Collaboration with colleagues in offshore locations. Wave is a fantastic platform to brainstorm a presentation or ideate in situations where we cannot be together in the same room. It allows you to doodle, add video or audio, edit and make changes in text in real time in any part of the discussion, so that you can co-create in the true sense. This is incredibly exciting to me and I believe it will be the future way of working. Already, chart paper is very passe in an age when we think on our computer screens. To see what I mean, watch this Google Wave video below:


2) My job is consumer research and Google Wave re-defines conventional online research through blogs/ forums and bulletin boards. The media-rich approach encourages people to express themselves in any possible way that they could, and perhaps in more ways, than when they meet in a room for a mere 'focus group discussion'

3) Merely to socialise with friends, it is a so much more fulfilling tool than Facebook or social networking sites. Because when you create a wave, it becomes a shared space that you can stay in. It won't fade away into oblivion, even if it is updated sporadically. You can add your images, comments, links to blogs, edit other comments. And the playback feature which lets you see how a wave was created, and changes made in it, is such a cool feature, just from the view point of pure geekery.

Of course, there is a flip side. To be part of a wave, you must have a gmail account, which does limit collaboration at a corporate level. I've been playing with it for sometime and though it's a good interface, it does need some learning. Even a moderate level of newness can deter non-geeks which means that other colleagues may not find it the best medium to collaborate. And finally, it's still in beta so I'm sure a few bugs will pop up.

Still, I intend to use it at the earliest opportunity. It's a step towards the Cloud and definitely a step in the right direction

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Remember to ask for a discount on Dell accessories

Dell has done it again. Given me 40% off on the price of a replacement battery for my laptop, just because I asked.

It  is virtually impossible to order Dell accessories online in India and I gave up after a 1 hour search. Instead I dialled the (non-toll-free) number to Bangalore and resigned myself  to the 10 minute wait time to be connected to the right person. The only good thing, is that at the end of the wait, your work does get done efficiently.

Dell quoted the cost of a replacement battery for my XPS 1330 at Rs. 9000. I pointed out that aftermarket replacements are retailing for as low as Rs. 3000 in the market. The Dell rep promised to check (which took 5 minutes) and came back to me with a revised cost of around Rs.5000, which I took. Thereafter, the replacement battery was delivered to me within 3 working days.

I've said it before and I will say it again, it pays to ask boldly for discounts when dealing with Dell, whether buying new equipment or accessories. I have experienced this no less than 4 times now, when buying products for myself or for friends and each time I have gotten a benefit of at least Rs. 4000 on the listed price.

Tablets : roundup

The response of consumers clearly demonstrates that the iPad has a place in their lives as an entertainment device. It may be hard for other manufacturers to create a product that competes head-on with it. But they are launching a range of interesting devices in the tablet/e-book reader space that can do things the iPad cannot. And I for one, am definitely interested.

I went back to read this article on The History of Tablet PCs which is pretty interesting. It started off as something called 'pen computing', using input from a pen or stylus. This Huffington Post article shows a pictoral history of tablet PCs starting with the Rand GRAFACON  (1964) which sold for $18,000!

Pen computing never really took off although products were launched in the 1990s by companies like Microsoft, Toshiba, IBM and Samsung. In the past few years, tablets and slates have made a big comeback with varied applications, better software and touch interface, long battery life and prices that are competitive with netbooks (though they need not necessarily substitute a netbook). The most common usage for tablets is as an e-book reader (Nook, Kindle) though iPad has bucked this trend by providing a device which does so much more.

With a thin and light form factor, in my opinion, tablets function best as a book substitute - a book reader, or a digital notebook to doodle, draw, or even take notes. And the new spate of launches seem designed for these applications.

1) The ASUS Eee tablet featured on Engadget is a digital notebook cum e-book reader. The features that interest me on this device are not just the 2 megapixel camera, the 10 hour battery life and the SD Card slot. It is the sensitivity of the device to touch input which will apparently very closely approximate the feeling of writing on paper. The device is expected to retail at $199-299 and release in September. I am excited by the potential of this device to revive pen computing. And I would love to use one of these babies to take notes in a meeting or seminar instead of a notebook (I keep losing notebooks and pens, but I DO NOT lose gadgets. Ever.)

2) My cousin Prashanth drew my attention to the KNO tablet. Described as a 'digital textbook',it is primarily targeted at students; the company will partner with textbook publishers for digitisation of course content. The website reports that the KNO will let students scribble onto the digital pages of the textbook, drag internet content into their notes and view HD video, in addition to making audio recordings.

The most interesting feature of the KNO for me is the dual color 14 inch LCD screens and the ability to multitask. Built on the Linux platform, the device will also support Adobe Flash and HTML 5.








The sheer size of the device has produced some negative comments from consumers (at 5.5 pounds, it weighs as much as a laptop). Also the price which is reported as 'under $1000' may prove to be a deterrent. Preliminary comments from potential users across forums seem to suggest that while the concept is interesting, a smaller (10 inch) screen and a more portable form factor might make it more appealing.

There are a whole bunch of other new tablet launches out there, across brands like Acer, LG and HP, but many of them are still in the prototype stage. Hopefully, we should see some interesting stuff coming out. And those of us who did not spring for an iPad may see value in some of them.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Supercomputers, powered by Linux

The biannual list of the worlds' top 500 Supercomputers was released on 1st June and The Linux Magazine reports that 455 (91%) of them run some version of Linux!

Now I think that is a great ad for Linux to pull in more users "Runs Supercomputers, and your desktop". What say?

Some more interesting stats from the Top 500 site
USA has the highest number of supercomputers in the list (282) as well as the fastest one, the Cray XT Jaguar, but China has moved to the No. 2 position with 24 supercomputers in the shortlist, tying with Germany.
Two Chinese supercomputers are in the Top 10, including the Nebulae at No.2  which is actually the fastest in theoretical peak performance. (Now when will we see India up there?!)
India has 4 supercomputers in the top 500 list. The fastest is EKA owned by Tata Sons at No. 33. The remaining supercomputers are in IIT Kanpur, IITM (Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology) and C-DAC.
85% of the computers use Quad Core processors with 408 systems (80.4%) using Intel Processors
IBM sells the most supercomputers followed by HP.

An interesting interactive treemap of this data is available on the BBC website.

By the way this is how the fastest supercomputer looks (The Cray Jaguar XT from whatsthelatest.net)





For me, the top 500 supercomputer list is equivalent to the Fortune 500. It inspires awe, excitement, envy and yes, patriotic pride. I look for the day when an Indian supercomputer is at the top of this list!

Blackberry OS 6 preview

In the flurry of tech press news surrounding Android and the launch of iPhone OS 4.0, Blackberry coverage has been a little low key. But in late April, the company released videos of its new Bold 9800 running the BB OS 6.0, which it claims will be a significant upgrade over the OS 5.0.

Pictures of the phone from The Berry Fix reveal a pretty cool looking device, a slider with a virtual QWERTY keyboard in addition to the regular keypad and trackpad.





Bonny Cha reports on Crave that OS 6.0 will feature the new, improved, faster WebKit browser with support for tabbed browsing. In addition, it will have new interfaces, graphics and animations.

RIM has always had a reputation for reliable push email support making it a logical corporate choice. But in an era when iPhone and Android powered smartphones bring in more apps and powerful processors to run them on, clearly RIM recognises that this alone cannot remain a competitive advantage for them.
 
The device is expected to come to launch in June in USA. No word yet on an India release date or price, but it should be coming here pretty soon for sure.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Check your telecom operators QoS!

Recently, TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) has made it mandatory for telcos to display their QoS (quality of service) performance against the benchmark on their websites. The QoS (quality of service) survey is a quarterly survery conducted by TRAI in all telecom circles across the country. In addition, TRAI also publishes the Performance Indication Report for telecom services (Currently the April 2010 report is up for 2009). You can access the TRAI performance indicator reports here and the QoS reports for individual circles here. And of course, your local newspaper will also report QoS scores for your circle.

I believe that it is worthwhile to go through these scores when you are deciding to switch to a new cell service provider, or simply to press for a better service delivery from your existing one. And definitely you must look at this information alongside the tariff plans and schemes, and weight both aspects when you take a decision.

I have scanned below a table showing performance of telecom providers in Mumbai ( as separate from Maharashtra) from a report by Times of India. You can read the online report here



This data has helped me to reach a few conclusions about the service offered by my own cell operator, Bharti Airtel, in Mumbai.
1. The downtimes on Airtel are significantly higher than other private operators. I used to think that this was because coverage is weak in my area or because I live in a high-rise but it appears from the TRAI data that the problem is endemic to Airtel. As an Airtel user, I should definitely push for better call quality and coverage. The biggest lesson for me here is that the biggest provider need not necessarily give me the biggest advantage!
2. My parents use BSNL in Pune and I realise why they can never get through to me or I to them! The downtime on BSNL is the highest in the state (13h 27 minutes). But now I also know that the fault is not wholly attributable to the state-owned network and my own Airtel network is also to blame. When I looked at pg 67 of this report (Annexure 4.1 : performance on QoS Parameters), I realised that BSNL and Airtel at an overall level have more 'worse affected cells' with more than 3% call drop rates. In other words, at an overall level, their call drop rates do not meet the benchmarks.
3. The claims by some operators of better call quality due to less network congestion do not seem to be merely advertising spiel. The figures for Tata Tele, Idea and  Vodafone Essar look pretty impressive in Mumbai.
4. Digging deeper into the latest TRAI Performance Indicator Report (page 53 onwards) I found the following additional information
a. In Mumbai and Maharashtra, the following providers do not meet the quality benchmark of 3% for call drop rates in 'worst affected cells'
BSNL (15.10% in MH)
Idea (9.52% in Mumbai and 9.74% in MH)
Airtel (9.74% in MH)
Aircel (6.05% in MH)

On customer service quality parameters by the operators, it is a different story for the state though. Some exmaples :
Airtel meets most of the service norms (and I have experienced this as a user).
Reliance Communications, Aircel and Idea fall short on time taken to answer customer calls in Mumbai (the benchmark is that 90% of calls or more should be answered within 60 seconds).
Vodafone Essar falls short on time taken to refund the deposit after closure of service in Mumbai (the benchmark is 100% within 60 days)

I think that the TRAI reports are an excellent initiative giving customers the power of objective information in making a choice of cell service operator. Highly recommended to read and evaluate whether you are getting the best service from your operator!