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?

Galapagos Tech


The other day I talked to my friend Ryo who lives in Japan and uses an iPhone. In this he’s not alone – iPhones are, in Japan as much as anywhere else, a cool gadget to have. Yet, here using this particular product has some different implications than elsewhere: In Tokyo, Japanese smartphones have many features and functions that their equivalents abroad don’t have. They serve as metro pass, to buy things at vending machines (which you also can do with the metro pass), replace credit cards. In other words, they’re the key to pretty much every transaction you have in any given day. In order to use an iPhone, my friend had to start carrying a wallet again, which he hadn’t done for a long time before.

Japan is full of these technologies: By themselves, or rather in their particular environment, they’re quite advanced. They’re a bit like a glimpse into the near future, but on some odd tangent, or parallel track. Yet, take them out of this ecosystem and they stop to work, as they’re not compatible with the hardware and software stack anywhere else.

The term used for this phenomenon in Japan: Galapagos Tech. It only exists in this particular, singular context and nowhere else.

I love the expression; hadn’t heard about it before. It’s quite a powerful notion. And as my Japanese friend put it: We (Japan) are good at invention cool stuff, but we’re bad at marketing and exporting it abroad. There’s something here, but more importantly this may serve as a reminder of the importance of interoperability and standards in technology. You don’t want to be the subject of study, but little use. You don’t want to force your users to carry a wallet again, or anything they had rather discard.

Nokia is back on the radar


Ever since the iPhone launched in 2007 and thereby kicked off the era of real smartphones as we know them today, Nokia has been pretty much dead for the geek crowd.

Today, I’m not so sure anymore.

Nokia has been struggling quite a bit with the smartphone market. Their products just didn’t live up to the competition, their platform choices seemed poor to say the least.

And still: More recently Nokia has put out some quite noteworthy products. They few and far between, but things are getting interesting once more. The top end of the Lumia series (particularly the Lumia 900 phone) is a package of both gorgeous hardware and a pretty cool interface. Nokia’s new route planner incorporates public transport data in ways far superior to Google’s attempts so far. The WebGL-based Google Earth-style Nokia Global Maps 3D is – despite limited geographies – fantastic, particularly for something that runs in your browser.

In Berlin, we’re close to where a bunch of Nokia’s mobile services are based. I would hope that there’s a connection there, Berlin influencing Nokia’s folks as Nokia’s talent imports influence the city. If that connection exists I don’t know, but I find it a strangely comforting thought.

It’s hard to tell if these positive hits recently have been more or less lucky or if they are the first manifestations of a larger change inside the company. And if it is a larger change, is it too little too late? We’ll have to wait and see. I just know that there’s something going on there that brought Nokia back on the radar – in all the good ways.

iPhone Killer Prototype


Says my friend and open design guru Ronen Kadushin:

Whenever a new hand held device, or new exciting smartphone hits the market, a questions roars through the internets, tech blogs and news: Is this the iPhone killer? The answer is always…well…not quite, not yet…. So I was thinking, maybe these guys who make these devices are not looking at the right place for that iPhone killer. Why don’t I scratch that dream product itch, and transform this buzzword into a real product that it’s soul purpose is to do what it claims to be….. I’d like to introduce you to the iPhonekiller….It’s amazing… It is an open design, you can download it from my website, produce and use it. It is 1.6 Kg , 25mm ( 3.5 lbs, 1 inch) of precision laser cut steel, with a fantastic 36 cm wood ax handle. You can just feel the awesome power of it when you hold it in your hand..It’s amazing…….

And here it is, the iPhone Killer:

iPhone Killer by Ronen Kadushin

iPhone Killer by Ronen Kadushin

Like all Open Design products, you can modify and improve on the design easily. All the CAD files are available for download under a Creative Commons license.

Ronen’s website has all the details for the iPhone Killer.

Images by Ronen Kadushin & Chanan Strauss, some rights reserved

Funny iPhone Fakes


Earlier today I happened to see this phone:

What you probably can’t really see thanks to the poor video quality is that this phone is actually branded as an iPhone. It’s hilarious.

I have to admit I find it very refreshing in a way to see that these folks didn’t even try to clone an iPhone or anything similar. They built this thing with no resemblance whatsoever to the original product. It’s all blinkenlights and shiny pink and full of logos. (Although it supposedly holds two SIM cards, which would be a pretty impressive feat given it’s otherwise not-quite-so-premium nature.)

Anyway, this inspired me to a brief Google search for iPhone fakes (some of which in fact are spelled lPhone, with a lower-case L). I’m sure you can find even better ones than that. (Feel free to post them in the comments.) Please note that most of these aren’t even real clones. They are basically freely invented and just (totally illegitimately and without any real resemblance to the original) labeled as iPhones. However, you can clearly see different degrees of inventiveness.

Because there’s a lot of images here, the complete post comes after the jump.


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.