Tools I Use (September 2012 edition)



As a geek, it’s one of my duties and privileges to occasionally give tech & gadget advice. Sometimes to companies, more often to friends and family. I try to collect that stuff online under the tag Tools I Use. Here’s a snapshot of some of the gadgets and tools I’m currently using, and why:

Macbook Air

I’m still on a Macbook Air of about two years of age, about to be replaced. It’s my main & only computer, and I’m on it all day, every day. The Air has enough power for almost anything I encounter day to day, and its super lightweight design makes more than up for the occasionally over-powered processor. Of course, an external screen is nice and recommended. More screen real estate is good.

Nexus S v Galaxy S3

I loved my Nexus S phone, pure Android goodness. But it’s old now, and about to die. Time to let it go.

After years on various Android phones, I was (once more) just about ready to jump ship and switch over to iPhone. Initially I went to Android because it was more open than Apple’s iOS platform, then admittedly because I didn’t want to admit to myself that Google’s competitor isn’t as open as it set out to be. Both platforms by now try to lock you into their ecosystems, and both by now have pretty mature ecosystems, too.

While I consider the hardware design, by now, more eye candy than the software & platform aspects, on the design front the new iPhone kicks the Samsung Galaxy S3’s ass any day. (Same goes for naming conventions, as the last sentence easily demonstrates.)

That said, back to platforms and software: My mail and calendar live at Google. I don’t like iTunes. And I prefer Google Maps over Apple’s less mature mapping tools. (I hear very good things about Nokia maps, but hey, you can’t have it all.) So any promise the iPhone can give me about better integrating iCloud, iTunes or Apple’s calendar and email sounds to me more like a bug than a feature. I understand why many people opt for the Apple-verse, but when the road forked way back when, with one road leading to Apple lock-in and the other leading to (slightly less total) Google lock-in, I made a choice, and now it seems not worth switching.

My new phone is the Samsung Galaxy S3, the current top-of-the-line Android phone, the flagship model.

To get a better hands-on feeling for iOS, I guess I’ll just get an iPad. Using both platforms in parallel will both maximize friction and transaction costs, and give me a good side by side comparison. It’s the price I have to pay for geeking out.


I don’t really use any camera besides my phone. I’m on the market for a super compact model, but for almost any given context the phone camera should be good enough.


For heavy duty, loud contexts (long plane rides, New York subway, etc) I use Audio Technica Quietpoint noise cancelling phones.

For the day to day, including sports and lots of conference calls, I’m quite happy with my Bose IE2 in-ears. Being in-ears, there’s lots of cable to get tangled up, but sound quality and fit are quite good. It’s not easy to find a good mix of headset and in-ears, and I’ve used them for the last nine months or so and am quite content with them.

Extra battery

On more intense days, my phone battery won’t make it through the day. So I frequently need some extra juice. A simple, if not particularly elegant solution is an external battery pack. I use one from TeckNet, which (like the name indicates) is a bit of a plasticky, cheap-ish affair. Yet, it works. And the current models actually look at least superficially like they might have improved in overall quality. Whichever brand you use, it’s good to have an extra charge of connectivity in your pocket.

Travel gear

  • Everyday backpack: Mission Workshop Rambler. Excellent, and just the right size and pocket layout for laptop & the necessary gadgets, extra jacket/sweatshirt, water bottle and all the cables, etc, that keep adding up.
  • Carry on: Rimowa IATA Cabin Trolley (two wheels). Hard to beat, and can take a beating. Heavy, but I like the aluminum finish. (The other materials are more light-weight.) Just big enough for 3-4 days of clothes and running shoes if you travel light.
  • Backpack for longer intense trips: Eagle Creek. Not sure which model, but I think it’s what they would now have updated to Rincon Vita. Light weight, huge volume, pretty much indestructible.

All of them are a bit on the pricy side, but are reliable, durable, feature a decent minimalistic design. I wouldn’t leave my home without them.

More recommendations

Helpful? If you’re into tool recommendations, I highly recommend Kevin Kelly’s fantastic Cool Tools.

At the next exhibition, let your gadget guide the way




Last weekend I was at the Louvre and took an audio (rather: interactive) guide with me. I was somewhat surprised to see that the device I was handed was a Nintendo DS. Awhile back in the Tate Modern in London I believe to remember seeing an iPod (semi-hidden in a plastic case) used as a guide.

It’s quite interesting to see how these devices are used and modded to serve this new purpose. In the case of the Louvre’s Nintendo handsets for example, the console would recognize in which room you are and offer more in-depth info for selected artworks in that room, or you could simply punch in the audio guide number of your artwork of choice. The principle is quite simple and it works reasonably well. Many other things could quite easily be handled by smartphone apps, and of course in many cases they already are. Well-produced audio content goes a long way in explaining a museum exhibition.

“Outdoors” exhibition apps (9/11 memorial and the like) are a slightly different take on the same general area, but the potential for interaction in public spaces adds an extra layer of design challenges – which were by the way excellently solved and incorporated in Janet Cardiff’s and George Bures Miller’s interactive iPod installation at dOCUMENTA.

Do you know of interesting examples of well-designed interactive exhibition apps, or interestingly executed, repurposed devices in museum contexts?

Nike+ First Impressions


So I got around to testing out the Nike+ Fuelband for a few days. Instead of a full on review, some quick, off the cuff impressions, thoughts & notes as long as they’re fresh:

The Fuelband is smooth, feels nicely heavy and well made. The rubbery surface is comfortable to wear, if maybe a bit too clunky, especially if you work on a computer a lot.

The display lights up only if you press a button, so usually you just walk around with a black wristband. The display is a set of LEDs and can show time, steps, calories as well as Nike’s own “currency”, the so-called “Fuel”. Below the display you see a status bar that starts with a single red dot and grows with your activity, going from yellow to green until you reach your daily goal. It’s fairly subtle and works intuitively. Having a watch on the wrist was a pleasant change as I usually don’t wear watches much.

Taking this for a spin. #fuelband Starting out, the Fuelband shows just a red marker: Go get a move on!

The battery lasts for a few days before you have to recharge via USB. Data upload works through USB, too, so it’s simple but not terribly elegant.

To set your goals, you enter your desired activity levels through an app on your desktop or iPhone (I use Android, so no mobile app for me). The default “normal” active day is set so low that I reached it even though only starting my test at 4pm the first day. Ramping it up to “active” days helps a bit, so you actually have to at least walk a bit during the day to meet the goals. I assume if you commute by car and work at a desk all day, it might be a challenge. If you’re somewhat active anyway it feels like you have to set the goals somewhat inflationary. Or maybe I just happened to have a particularly active week.

Over time, you can gather a number of stats, accessible through the Fuel app. Examples for the kind of stats you get, besides some graphs to indicate the overall development, would be Best Month, Best Wednesday, Average Activity etc. It’s intuitive, but doesn’t go very deep it seems.

I expect this will change if the API ever really opens up and more developers can play around with it. If you could use alternative interfaces like the Pebble for example that might become more interesting. As it stands, it feels a bit… how do I phrase it… American? I know this doesn’t quite capture it, but it’s this very Nike-ish tonality that I always personally find a bit off-turning. Then again, it’s their product and it’s a fitness product, so I guess that’s alright.

Right now it’s still in the novelty phase, and several people actually approached me at a restaurant to ask about it.

So in short: It’s a smooth, well produced gadget. Having tested it for about a week, it feels like the novelty and effect are wearing off already. I caught myself not even putting it on anymore after 4-5 days. The API might change that once it’s there, if it’s ever going to really open up.

Learning about pocket watches


I’m trying to find out more about these watches that I’ve stumbled upon. While I lack the appropriate terminology, I’ll try to describe them as best as I can and let the photos do the rest of the talking.

Four Watches

As far as I can tell, they’re from my grandfather. If they were his, or his dad’s or if he acquired them elsewhere I don’t know, and I have no way of finding out. He died more than 30 years ago just after I was born, and the watches have been in our household since, but there’s no documentation or anything.

You’ll note that most of them don’t work, and aren’t in the best shape. So this isn’t about finding any monetary value, but rather to learn more about where they come from, how old they are and if there’s anything to know about.

Below I’ll provide the best descriptions I can, plus the little I could dig up so far. If you have any pointers for me, please let me know (in the comments, or via contact form). Much appreciated!

No 1: Monopol Dürrstein

Monopol Dürrstein

The watch is gold and has a closing lid that’s operated by pressing the release button on top. On the outside it looks like it’s in a fairly decent state, on the inside the minute hand is slightly twisted. Winding the watch up produces a bit of a hollow sound and has no apparent effect. The watch won’t run.

Monopol Dürrstein

Monopol Dürrstein

The face is labeled with Arabic numerals. Bottom center, where the 6 would be, there’s what seems to be a stop watch, or an indicator of seconds.

Monopol Dürrstein

Monopol Dürrstein

There is an inscription on the inside of the lid: Monopol, and a logo of a star with the letter D in the middle, meaning the piece is the brand Monopol by Dürrstein. The logo looks something like this:

logo monopol dürrstein

Below the logo it says 388, which indicates the quality of the gold, and three intricate letters, MAO. It looks like there’s a tiny letter P written inside the A.

Monopol Dürrstein

Inside the lid there was a round piece of paper with some hand writing in pen. It’s hard to read. As far as I can tell it says, top to bottom:

281388 8Kg (or 8Ka) 2/7 glr (or similar) as well as several letters I can’t read.

Monopol Dürrstein

The back lid can be opened, too. Inside engravings show the Monopol D mark as well as the MAO again, plus a six-digit number: 281388.

Monopol Dürrstein -09

No 2: Remontoir Ancre

Remontoir Ancre

Remontoir Ancre

This timepiece is also gold (0,585) and heavily decorated, especially on the back. It’s in very bad repair. The front glass protector is missing, and the hour hand is broken off. The windup mechanism didn’t seem to work, however when I turned it a little into the other direction the clock would start ticking for a few moments, with the seconds hand moving.

The back of the watch shows a detailed image of maybe a coat of arms, a squire and a dog, as well as plenty of floral patterns.

Remontoir Ancre

The face is inscribed with large Roman numerals as well as much smaller Arabic numerals. Bottom center there’s the seconds indicator. The seconds hand is quite plain, but the minutes hand is very, very intricate.

Remontoir Ancre

Remontoir Ancre

Both the front and back lid can be opened. The front once held a glass pane that’s missing now. The back is heavily inscribed on the inside.

On the back of the body itself it says, top to bottom and in a variety of fonts:

REMONTOIR ANCRE Ligne Droite Spiral Breguet Châton 15 RUBIS (or RUBES)

On the inside of the back lid the engravings are:

a logo of a crown inside a circle a stylized icon of what seems to be a squirrel the gold quality marker 0,585 a tiny image of something too small to make out even with a looking glass, maybe a swan? a 5-digit number: 39977 below, turned sideways, the number 6

Remontoir Ancre

Remontoir Ancre

In the tiniest, tiniest writing, there are some more characters along the rim, so small that my eyes literally started watering trying to decipher it. As far as I can tell it says:

D241024T (or F) 211031 19631 and a cross in a circle and (in what appears to be engraved hand writing) 82720 and (maybe) the letter J. Potentially the last two characters are the initials OJ, maybe the watchmaker’s?

Remontoir Ancre

There’s a second, inner lid at the back that can be opened to access the mechanics of the watch. The inside of the lid has another engraving:

METAL 39977 and the initals “J.F.”

Remontoir Ancre

In the clock work, there’s two engraved words “avance” and “retard”, as well as an intricate little picture that seems to feature the letter B and a parrot.

Remontoir Ancre

Remontoir Ancre

Remontoir Ancre

No 3: Moretton London

Moretton London

This one is probably the oldest of the bunch, and not complete anymore as some of the body is missing. It’s relatively small and labeled as Moretton London.

The face shows big Roman numerals for the hours and smaller Arabic numerals. Further towards the center, the Arabic numerals 1 to 31 tell the day (only the uneven numbers are shown, the even numbers are spared). The hands show just a little decoration, and the minutes hand is twisted.

Moretton London

Since the body is missing, the backshows parts of the mechanics, which are quite intricately designed. The maker is engraved on the back, too: “Moretton London No 416”, as well as on a darker disk the numbers 1 to 4. Also, you can look inside from the side.

Moretton London

A first internet search brought up next to nothing about watch maker “Moretton”.

No 4: Crescent and Crown

Crescent and Crown

The probably newest of the bunch doesn’t seem to be marked by the maker, or at least not by a prominently featured brand. It’s silver, and much more modern and simple than the other ones. The font on the face is somewhat more playful and features Arabic numerals only.

Out of the whole lot, this one is by far in the best state of repair. When I wound up the clock it started ticking right away, and for the few minutes I’ve been checking it seems to keep the time.

The front lid holds a glass pane for protection, the hands are quite intricate.

The back lid shows a simple pattern with a blank coat of arms in the center.

Crescent and Crown

The inside of the back lid has just a few small engravings spread out across the lid:

AD a tiny image of maybe a peacock, an ostrich or some other animal (too small to tell) a silver mark (0,800) an image of some sort that’s too tiny to distinguish a logo of crescent and crown the number 165473

Crescent and Crown

Then, in even finer engraved hand writing:

10129 R(67/7) 15402 23490

Crescent and Crown

Inside the inner back lid, the mechanics looks much simpler and more modern than the other watches, with only minimal decoration and engravings. (F S and A R)

Crescent and Crown

Crescent and Crown

That’s all I have so far. If there’s any good resource that I could dig into, any recommendations are welcome.

Update: A big thank you to John Biggs, who helped me out with some background on the watches. They seem to be pretty basic turn-of-the-century watches. Also, before I hadn’t known that they used to sell the cases separate from the movements, so you could buy cheap movement and put it in a more expensive case.

iPad, so what?



So Apple announced the tablet after all. Going by the name iPad it’s just that – a tablet computer, or maybe rather a tablet phone as it runs on the iPhone operating system. A quick recap: the iPad does have wireless, a browser, multi-touch, motion sensors for gaming and many ways of purchasing content through Apple (by ways of iTunes store and a book store). It does not have a camers (so no video chat), not phone capabilities (no calls), no real ways of customizing anything.

It is, in other words, a media consumption device.

I’ll let this sink in for a minute since I think it’s profound. Both Apple laptops and iPhones are clearly devices to communicate and create. The iPad is more like the iPod in that it doesn’t enable you to input anything but text. (Which is fine for email, potentially a blog post and some Facebook status updates, but not much more than that.)

Some pundits claim that the iPad will revolutionize online content consumption, others say that it’s closed-system-approach will be the end of hacking & tinkering. (Johannes Kleske listed a number of articles with much more profound analyses than mine. Go read them!) I don’t think any of those are really true, nothing will change as profoundly as these articles suggest.

Instead, I do see some ups and downs being triggered through the iPad. My take in random order:

First, eventually ebook readers will make progress tremendously faster than they have done so far. The iPad really pushes this genre, which overall is great. It’s the kind of competition the ebook reader market really needed. (Let’s hope the competition will actually come up with great alternatives and not just give up like in the mp3 player market, where there’s still mostly crap because the iPod captured the largest market share.) So: thumb up for ebooks.

Second, if the iBook store (is it called that?) is implemented anything as well as iTunes, it’ll be interesting to see Amazon and Apple clash over a potentially huge market. I certainly hope that Amazon will be driven to switch of DRM in ebooks like with their mp3 downloads, and thus do everybody in the industry (and the consumers) a huge favor and beat Apple that way. Again, thumb up for ebooks.

Third, it was about time for a new category of device that’s slightly less ugly than a laptop to keep near your couch for random email & facebook checking. However, I wouldn’t bet a $500-900 device fills that niche for me. A tablet? Sure, why not. But it’s one of those $199 max things.

Fourth, I don’t think the iPad will stop anyone from tinkering. However, if you’re interested in how UIs disconnect us from the technology we’re using, please do read (or re-read) Neal Stephenson’s classic “In the beginning… was the command line“.

Fifth, Apple is trying to push their pay services down our throats. They’ve been doing this for a long time, of course. And the way iTunes demonstrated that you could actually sell music online was great – practically everybody profited from this. However, it feels like the iPad takes this to a whole new level. “Here’s your shiny new tablet”, Apple seems to say, “but you won’t be able to do anything with it unless you buy your music, your books, your games in our stores. Any maybe we won’t change our terms of services ever, in which case you might be able to consume all the stuff you bought for awhile.” After all, it’s important to keep in mind that every dollar you spend within the Apple ecosystem stays there, and dies with Apple – you can’t take your (paid) content outside this system. It’s total lock in, and it sucks like there is no tomorrow.

Sixth, the iPad might actually really help the struggling newspapers sell their content online. I’m really torn on this one. On one hand, this is great news since many newspapers and magazines have been fighting for survival for awhile now, and here’s a potential savior. On the other hand, I could go crazy thinking that the less experimental, more conservative, no: more lazy and old-school newspapers, those who just never got a hang of how to work the internet, could actually profit most from this. It’s quite possible that all the laggards in this field are better off than the risk takers and innovators, by just leaning back and blocking and complaining and waiting for Apple to come along and invent a gadget that allows them to keep doing what they had been doing for decades. I really hope the net savvy competitors in the field will win over those fighting the web. But Apple might have just awarded the technophobes. We’ll see.

That’s my two cent. What’s your take?

Image: by mattbuchanan, some rights reserved.

Nokia E71: You won’t fall in love, but it’s rock solid


I just switched from Blackberry to a Nokia 71. Since I asked a lot of questions during the switch and the Twitter crowd was incredibly helpful and kind in sharing their tipps, I’d like to share my experiences for those who are trying to decide if they, too, want to switch over to Nokia. So here’s what I noticed, the pros and cons, as well as a few hacks and software tipps to get it up and running as painlessly as possible.

Super-brief summary up-front


  • Beautiful, premium, awesome hardware.
  • Great form factor. Very, very slim.
  • Good software support (runs on Symbian S60).
  • Great feature set. (Private/business mode, connectivity etc)
  • Strong battery (3 days).


  • Slow, awkward browser.
  • Disappointing camera.
  • Haven’t found a decent Twitter client. (Tipps?)

That said, here’s what the Nokia E71 looks like:

Nokia E71

E71 keyboard

Pros and cons There’s a raving Nokia E71 review on WIRED where you can get the basic info about the phone. After using the E71 for a few weeks, I don’t share all their excitement, but agree: It’s a pretty darn good phone, “rock solid” as a friend pointed out.

First, a look at the hardware: The E71’s form factor and hardware is awesome. It’s plenty of metal and no cheap plastic. It seems very scratch-resistent. It’s super slim (10mm). It just feels great. It has a full QWERTY (or in my case QWERTZ) keyboard. The keyboard has a nice click (maybe just a tad too light) and keys that are kind of small, but still work pretty well. Switching from Blackberry, they feel a little crammed, but it’s lightyears ahead of typing on a touch screen. The keyboard, like the rest of the phone, feels solid and premium.

This picture gives you an idea how the form factor compares to the Nokia’s direct competitors in the field, the Blackberry Curve and the iPhone:

Nokia E71, Blackberry Curve, iPhone

It has a 3.2 million megapixel camera, which sounds great, but delivers surprisingly disappointing quality. The built-in light, it seems, can’t be switched off, and it seems that the camera definitively needs it. Compared to the Nokia N97, the E71 certainly scores low. Particularly in low light, the white noise makes the pictures look really sad. For comparison, two pictures taken with my E71:

Nokia E71 shot of some tags Image: Some tags in the subway shot with the E71 cam in low light. The white noise is unbearable. (Open photo in full size.)

Nokia E71 shot of an airport display Image: An airport display shot with the E71 cam. In bright light, the image quality is ok, but certainly could be better. (Open photo in full size.)

Wireless support and all work a charme. Also, I fell in love with the battery life. Depending on use, the phone lasted between two and three days per charge. After my one-day Blackberry battery, this feels grand. (Good thing, too – the E71 doesn’t charge via the mini USB cable but needs the extra Nokia charger.)

Let’s look at the software side. The E71 runs on Symbian OS, S60 more precisely, meaning it’s open source. (The iPhone’s walled-garden mentality really deterred me from getting an iPhone.) There’s plenty of software and apps available for S60, with more coming out every day.

Applications are plenty, get them wherever you want. You don’t need an Apple store to buy authenticated applications. That said, I’ve been trying to use Twibble as my Twitter client, but I’d love something faster and less awkward. (Can you recommend any alternative? Twibble is no comparison to Twitterberry goodness. I haven’t found a good WordPress blogging app yet. Google Maps, Google Mail and the Nokia software suite are pretty awesome, and even though I haven’t really tested it I hear the office support works a charme. The built-in browser seems slow and awkward at best. Certainly, the browsing experience could be improved a lot. (Strangely, that’s a point the Wired review doesn’t even mention.)

Syncing is a strong side of the E71. It comes with built-in Microsoft Exchange functionality, and a dual mode that allows you two separate private and business life, including separate calendars and email. Neat! My setup as a freelancer is built completely without any of the bigger corporate solutions, and based heavily on the Google suite. It took some tipps, digging through forums and tinkering, but I got the phone to sync with my Gmail address as well as Google Calendars. Mail syncing was easy. (I did screw briefly: Switching from POP3 to IMAP, I accidentally had the phone try downloading some 40.000 messages, which broke it a few times. “Breaking” in this context means anything from freezing to deleting the email profiles and settings, as well as a lot of rebooting.) The calender was a bit tricky, but in the end I got it working with some outside help by using Nuevasync with the phone’s Microsoft Exchange syncing tool. (That way you can sync up to 8 Google Calendars two ways.) It now seems to be working fine.

So where does that leave us?

Nokia E71

Nokia E71: You won’t fall in love, but it’s rock solid The phone does everything it should, and most of it very well. You won’t find anyone worshipping it like an iPhone, though. It’s a tool, and a good one. It’s not the kind of gadget that invites you to play around with it constantly, though. If you’re looking for something a little more playful, you should go for the iPhone instead. If just the camera could just be somewhat better. Besides, I’ll be happy with it the moment I find a better browser and Twitter app. For freelancers it can definitively replace a Blackberry. The full keyboard and the awesome battery life make it a decent choice.

In other words: Don’t expect to love this phone. But you certainly won’t regret getting one.


Design I Love: The Alchemy Goods Urban Messenger Bag


Designer Daily has a fun little game going on, a describe-your-favorite-design contest. How could I pass up this chance to give props to my the makers of my beloved new messenger bag? After all, especially small brands, shops and makers need all the promo they can get, and this case is no exception. What I’m talking about is the Urban Messenger bag by Alchemy Goods, a Seattle-based, bike-loving little mass-customizing bag and wallet shop.

Alchemy Goods Urban Messenger bag

So what’s the deal? Alchemy Goods (AG for short) uses almost exclusively recycled material, namely bike inner tubes and seatbelt straps. Yup, that’s right, old tubes. Nice thing, too: Not only are they absolutely water proof, they also have a distinct texture and nice haptic qualities. Oh, they can take quite a beating, too.

recycling factorIt’s all about the details with this bag that I’ve been lugging around for a few weeks now. (And I love it!) Just to name a few examples: A little indicator (see image to the right) shows you how much of your bag is recycled material. (The Urban bags are about 76 percent tubes and seatbelt straps.) Bike valves serve as zipper pulls. Whenever I look for a feature, it’s already there. Of course there’s a set of color options for the lining you can choose from.

Plus, of course, the bag looks pretty awesome, and outside Seattle you can be sure you won’t find too many of them. Also neat: Before ordering I had emailed Alchemy Goods with a few questions. Within a few hours I had all the answers I needed, directly from the founder. It’s a bag that just comes from a cool shop, and with good vibes. Oh, did I mention the lifetime warranty and all that? Well, seriously, my impression is that the bag won’t really need that. It looks pretty much indestructible.

Here’s two more details to get an idea:

the zipper pulls are made from valves The zipper pulls are made from old valves.

recycled tires And yes, the bags really are made from recycled inner tubes as this picture clearly shows.