TagTools I Use

Tools I Use (September 2012 edition)

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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.

Camera

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.

Headphones

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.

Tools I Use: MediaTemple for Hosting

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MediaTempleFed up with your hosting service prodider’s lousy service, endless hotline calls and slow email response times? Been there, done that. After almost 10 years at 1&1, I’ve had enough. Lucky for me, I had a chat with Johannes Kleske who recommended MediaTemple. I switched, and I don’t regret it a bit.

To call MediaTemple (MT) a small indie host wouldn’t really do them justice, since they aren’t so small after all (MT’s about page). However, it feels just like you’re talking to your local corner hosting shop, so to speak. You drop them a line, you get your answer right away. You don’t get annoying marketing emails. The help section and FAQs work, and in fact contain solutions to most of your problems. (Take that, 1&1!)

What’s more important, though, is that everything just works a charme and is set up very smartly. Example? One-click installations for tools like WordPress or Drupal give you a fresh WordPress when you need, it hardly takes a minute. No more screwing around with FTP or your databases (unless you want to). I’m told MT’s hosting architecture scales very well in case your blog ends up on Digg or Slashdot, but haven’t tested that one yet. Oh, and if you have other users’ email accounts to manage, worry not: You just send them a link to their own admin panel and they can take care of it themselves, you won’t even be involved in their password retrieval process.

MT give you reasonable (bordering excessive) data limits. My hosting plan (MT’s smallest, the GridService) gives me 100GB of storage, 1TB of transfer, and what seems to be a very stable architecture for a mere $20/month.

I switched to MediaTemple, and I’m not planning to leave them anytime soon. If you’re unhappy with your host (or maybe just not overly happy), my recommendation goes to MediaTemple.

What is all this about? Quite often I get asked by friends and colleagues what tools I use for certain tasks. Just as often, I ask them the same question: Word of mouth recommendations top most other research when it comes to getting things done. That’s why I started collecting my recommendations in a loose series of posts titled “Tools I Use” (see more recommendations).

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

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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

Pros:

  • 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).

Cons:

  • 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.

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