Outlier Ultrahigh Rolltop Backpack thoughts, part 1

I’m on my second, so this is a review of both versions of yet another horribly named bag. The first version had a non-stretch liner to the front zip pocket, no top to the interior sleeve that holds the back plate in place, and slightly different angles on the side stretch pockets. I believe all changes are very much for the better, and recommend the second version in all situations. After several years of only second hand availability, Outlier has recently re-stocked, which makes this review more timely. Unfortunately the price has increased significantly, which makes correctly valuing the product harder. Hopefully this review will help with that as well.

As mentioned elsewhere, over the last several years I’ve worked hard to eliminate weight and stuff from my travel kit. One of the key steps was moving to single-bag travel. For short trips that means the GR1 and for longer trips a North Face Base Camp Duffel that I am also working on a review of. Both of those bags, while ideal for packability, durability, and flexibility, are heavier than necessary for a day pack. For simple packability, Eagle Creek and others sell ultra-light weight day packs, but those too lack structure and durability, not to mention sacrificing something in appearance. These considerations, and a curiosity about materials, led me to dyneema bags and the Outlier Ultrahigh Rolltop Backpack.

The rolltop has two great features: it’s incredibly lightweight, and it can be collapsed to basically nothing. This means I can add it to my single bag carry by removing the frame sheet and rolling it up. The frame sheet I put in the bottom of the North Face duffel and the rolled bag gets crammed in above the pack it cubes. This lets me have a durable, light weight bag for daily use, mostly taking samples and laptop to work meetings, as well as shopping, hiking, or whatever else. For these situations the appearance and durability of the Outlier bag are far superior to similar light weight bags, and yet it can be collapsed for longer cross-border journeys as well as put into the duffel for international flights, allowing me to avoid checking luggage.

The bag itself has a couple of good features and a couple of drawbacks. Most of them center around the roll top, which long time readers will know I’m not a fan of. In this case, the most critical one is that the roll top makes the bag lie very flat when opened, and allows it to both accommodate large items and compress tightly when mostly empty. While it remains annoyingly slow to open, despite the Fidlock closures, the roll top is a solid compromise given the bag’s weight, size, and materials. I’d be very curious to test the quad zip version, but have not had an opportunity. Given the price, I don’t expect to.

Between the first and second generation Outlier revised the bag slightly as noted above. Most importantly for me, they changed the inner material of the zip pocket from a non-stretch fabric to a stretch one. This is critical as that non-stretch material on my first bag tore during my first year of use, probably due to a pen or key or other object pressing against the edge of the pocket during use. Two years in the second version with a 4-way stretch material for that pocket shows no signs of damage or even wear. It’s a critical improvement in my experience. The other changes are also for the better, as mentioned, but more minor, and wouldn’t impact my purchase decision.

One of the big features of the roll top system on this bag is the Fidlock magnetic closures that secure the roll. These are great, quick to attach and release. However, when using the bag open-topped, which I do a lot when doing grocery runs to maximize internal volume, the magnetic pieces stick out and can get caught on doorways. I have lost one this way, tearing it out on a doorway and then being unable to properly screw it in again, leading to it falling out repeatedly. Outlier support sent me a new magnet piece, which I screwed in on my own and has worked perfectly over the last four months. I still use the bag open like that a lot, because it’s the most convenient fashion, but am a bit more careful when entering or exiting houses and cars.

The bag is also a bit small for a 15” laptop, which is not a problem I have, but something to be aware of depending on gear needs. It’s a very comfortable home for a 13” size. It also, wonderfully, perfectly fits a six pack of beer in bottles in normal vertical fashion, something that may or may not have been on the designers’ minds.

As someone who is on the road a lot and generally rough on bags, I’ve damaged most parts of this bag over the years. This gives me a good feel for the overall durability. The fabric on the zipper pull gave out on my current trip, and the zipper pull is slightly too small for comfort without, so I’ll have to add something to that. I’ve bent the frame sheet due to extreme travel situations, and it’s a little hard to get perfectly flat again, though this doesn’t impact the bag or my use at all. And I’ve filled the Fidlock magnet ends with sand frequently enough to be well aware of how difficult sand is to remove from magnets. In short, I’ve put this bag through a lot, and other than the internal pocket tearing, which has been addressed in v2, and the Fidlock magnet getting pulled off, the bag is in incredible shape. Outlier’s durability claims for the material are true. This also speaks well for other cuben or dyneema bags such as SDR Traveller, Hyperlite, and Pitcharpak’s wallet line, which I’ve used for a half dozen years at this point.

While the Outlier rolltop is a very specific product aimed at a relatively specific market, I find myself using and thus recommending this bag more than any other I own, including the GR1, which I love. The combination of durability, flexibility, and lightweight structure make the Outlier bag an easy choice on days when I’m not sure what I’ll encounter, and make me happy to take a bag when I otherwise wouldn’t, as it’s basically no burden when empty.

At a new higher price this bag is a little harder to recommend, simply because $475 is a lot of money for any product. However, as I said about the GR1, if it fits your budget, this is a hard bag to beat, and I absolutely love mine.

Patagonia Stormfront Roll Top Boat Bag thoughts, part 1

For the past few years I’ve been packing ever less and traveling ever more. In this new life travel comes down to three things: what you need, what you have, and how annoyed by lugging it around you are. The challenge lies in minimizing the last while equalizing the first two. The key to all three of course is to minimize the first, need, which makes the resulting jenga algebra easier.

This review is about one way to do all three.

Duffels have made a comeback the past few years, often in the guise of a weekender. The premise is simple: a bag to hold some stuff for a short trip that doesn’t require much carrying. This means no hiking, though some duffels have backpack straps. This means no wheels. And, most essentially for the category, this means not much bag structure.

The poorly named Patagonia Stormfront Roll Top Boat Bag 47L focuses on this last element. The entire bag consists of a TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) coated nylon that is cut and welded into shape. The handles, shoulder strap attachment points, zipper pocket, and carry loops are all welded on. This is a common construction in the boat/wet outdoor market, and all the bags in the Stormfront line feature the same base materials. Sea Line also makes a great line of bags using similar styling and a wider range of colors.

The Roll Top Boat Bag (hereafter boat bag to save words) is unique to this line in both size (47 liters) and lack of structure. When empty it can be folded or squished completely flat. There is a stiff plastic plate at the bottom, which is very useful to keep some shape when packing, but can be removed as needed. There are two simple mesh zip pockets internal and one external. There are two loops for attaching sandals, towels, hats, or jackets that were probably intended for more specific fishing gear. And that’s it. Empty, the bag folds almost flat, and is incredibly easy to stow in a closet, a major benefit in small apartments.

The best feature of this bag is also it’s great weakness: the roll top. The roll top provides a simple, waterproof, and variable size closure system. The last part is the key. Open, this bag becomes a holding cube, able to contain and hide huge amounts of gear. It is ideal when staying somewhere for a few days, as it can be opened up and used as a staging area, like a set of drawers, for all one’s belongings. Better than a small suitcase in this regard. Two of us have operated out of one for a week, without much re-packing during that time. It’s cavernous when fully expanded, as the pictures on Patagonia’s site demonstrate.

Needless to say this style of bag requires pack-it cubes. The specific style doesn’t matter, but in a bag without structure, items need to be grouped to prevent everything becoming a stew at the bottom of the bag. And that stew headlines the second part of this review, the problems with this kind of bag structure.  First, roll top bags require a lengthy opening. Especially in the minimal style of the Stormfront, which features only one tiny exterior pocket, this means every interaction requires unclipping and unrolling the entire bag. This wouldn’t be such a burden if not for the second problem, unique to roll top duffels: shouldering it causes the closure to shift and gradually work it’s way open. This happens because when carried by the shoulder strap the two ends of the strap exert compressing pressure from the bag’s ends, which crunches it to the middle. The result is that the flat roll top becomes arched, and is no longer held flat and tight across the bag. Under this pressure the rolled portion, without something to secure it in the middle, will gradually work its way open. This is especially problematic when moving quickly while carrying the bag on one shoulder, but happens over time regardless of position or speed. Also, because the TPU coating on the Stormfront is quite slick, it loosens especially easily. Without some kind of anchor or strap though, I believe any roll top bag of this size will open eventually. On the Stormfront it means carrying the bag is an exercise in rearranging, as the top will gradually shift, which allows the contents to move. Without pack-it cubes, the entire bag becomes a stew of items. With them, it retains the structure of the cubes’ exterior, but slides uncomfortably on the back.

Thus, after a lot of use, this is an excellent bag at the destination, but a difficult bag to carry to one. If transit involves primarily driving, boating, or short airplane rides where it doesn’t need to be checked, this is an excellent bag. The light weight, collapsibility, and cavernous interior are strong recommendations. Given the lengthy name, this is precisely the market Patagonia is targeting, and probably a correct one. Unfortunately the roll top that gives it such amazing storage when open is incredibly finicky when closed, and requires patience to carry for any length of time. This makes the bag much less useful for long walks or active sports, which are my primary use cases. The rather poor shoulder strap on the boat bag does not help, as it is thin and shifts around during use.

Overall this is a very well-built bag for specific uses, and we love it for short flights or weekend trips to friends’ houses.

Unfortunately the shifting and uncomfortable experience of carrying this bag for several hours has soured me somewhat on roll top duffels, and so I avoid all thought of more expensive ones like this seemingly awesome Outlier bag. I’d love to hear from other folk who carry roll top duffels, especially on a shoulder for any length of time.

The future in 2G

A lot of my job is done abroad. This year I spent almost two and a half months abroad, 73 days all told. Being out of the States so often and for so long, cumulatively, gives me many opprotunities to learn and to remember things I’ve forgotten since moving back to the US in 2008. I really appreciate these chances, even if some of them are lonely, or represent significant challenges at work. Enough are interesting and for personal adventure to keep me happy, and keep me traveling.

2014 brought one specific change to my travel methods, and because of that an experience I wanted to share. I no longer use local SIMs, save in extraordinary situations. In October of 2013, T-Mobile, an American mobile phone company, launched free international data roaming. Even now, more than a year later, typing those words feels amazing. Free international data. To give context, previous international data deals available in the US ran something in the realm of $30 USD for 50 megabytes of international roaming data. Thirty dollars for fifty megabytes. It’s easy to see why I switched to T-Mobile.

The catch, because of course there is one, is that this free and unlimited data comes down from the tower at 2G speeds.

So I spent one fifth of 2014 on 2G, and the remaining four fifths on LTE. Or with no service in the wilder parts of the US, specifically northern California, north western Colorado, and a lot of the cross-country train ride. That is another trade-off that comes with chosing T-Mobile. It’s an easy choice for me, being primarily a city person.

Having free international data and spending so much time on the road, be it in the trains of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, or the traffic of Manila and Shenzhen, not to mention factories, restaurants, and hotels, means a lot of phone time. A lot of email. A lot of Twitter. A lot of web. And that leads to the point. In 2014, the web is hard on 2G. Sites load slowly, first displaying banner ads and only then, tens of seconds later, the all-text content of the article. Mastheads take dozens of seconds to load, complex drop down menus and high-resolution logos. Analytics packages. And ads. Some activities and apps simply don’t scale well to 2G. Instagram, for example, is an exercise in patience, but a worthwhile one. And Google Maps, well…

In 2014 it feels like the network is finally everywhere, or almost. And it feels like the future. Being able to turn on my phone in any country on landing and check on my cat, at home in San Francisco, will probably still feel surprisingly wonderful for another couple of years. And 2G isn’t bad for most things. Despite how it probably sounds, this post is not meant as a complaint. It’s meant as a note, a reminder, and a future consideration. For example, loading time for maps matter. More than anything, maps are used when in unfamiliar locations, and often those are situations without great network access. Be it hotel wifi, 2G cell network, or just the slow connections of many smaller cities, maps are most necessary on the fringes, out of our comfort zone, and often in something of a hurry. Yes, most of the places I’ve been have faster networks. Hong Kong has excellent service, faster than the US in many cases. But not every place does. Not every city has LTE, nor every carrier, and that’s the point.

I view these 73 days on 2G as a test of how we interact with networks, and as a challenge for service design. Twitter as it used to be, all text 140 characters or less, was the perfect low-bandwidth mobile-first service. Modern Twitter, with video, photos, expanded links, and soundcloud embedded, is increasingly something built for fast networks, for always-on connections. Not necessarily a bad set of decisions, but a definite shift from a service originally built on SMS, built for the mobile networks we used to have and that many still do.

Of course not all things are built for slow mobile networks, and that’s fine. Heck, Tumblr is one of them, image heavy and full of .gifs. Oh god, .gifs on 2G. If ever a format’s resurgence has come without consideration of bandwith, .gif is it.

Overall I think a few weeks on 2G is something product teams should experience, and consider, not just today or this year, but well into the future. There will be people on slower networks and with worse connections for much longer than San Francisco, which had quite poor cell networks just a handfull of years ago. If a service is designed to change the world” it needs to be usable out in that world.

Picharpak Travel Wallet thoughts, part 1

I’ve been looking for a travel wallet lately. I’d like something that will hold a passport, a couple of different transit cards, money, maybe a spare SIM, a couple of business cards, and still fit in a back pocket. Over the past year or two I’ve started traveling with my passport tucked behind my wallet in my back pocket, so I know a wallet sized for the passport would fit my use cases. What I didn’t know was how well, or where to get one. Money too has been a problem, as most US-made wallets don’t gracefully hold larger bills. As someone who spends a lot of time in China, where the 100 RMB notes are large, this is an annoyance that grates. So I was looking for a wallet that fit a passport, fit in a back pocket, held Chinese currency, and possibly had a SIM slot.

While there are plenty of blogs devoted to frequent fliers, milage points, hotel reviews, two week camping trips, and non-tent sleeping options, the parts of travel that matter to me are surprisingly lightly covered. Traveling light but not backpacking, carrying as little as possible, carrying it in a way that allows for inconvenient travel methods and locations, and yet still being presentable for business meetings seems to be an under-served market. Or just a small one.

The only wallet I found that seemed designed around my needs was Bellroy’s Travel Wallet. At $120, it’s still on my shopping list, or Christmas list. The video though perfectly encapsulated my use cases. I don’t particularly care about the pen, as I have a favorite cheap pen on hand at all times, but the rest? It’s got a SIM slot, a passport slot, spare card slots for transit cards, and is big enough to hold boarding passes! If that doesn’t sound exciting, I’ve proven how specific the use case is.

For the last two years I’ve carried a Yasutomo 2020 wa-ben cuben fiber wallet. Like so many people, this was inspired by William Gibson’s interview. As someone who spends a lot of time looking at outdoor gear, fibers, bags, and clothing, I have been talking to and watching Jason’s company, now Picharpak Workshop, ever since. He’s been building a broader product base, and during a conversation one night in Hong Kong, I offered to test new products. For Christmas I bought my fiancée one of his limited edition hybrid wallets. To my my surprise an early sample of a travel wallet showed up in the package!

Built on the same idea as Bellroy’s, Picharpak’s travel wallet features a couple of extra card slots in the back and two spare SIM slots on the passport sleeve. It also has an extra slot for a touch pay transit card behind the normal card slots. Otherwise it resembles the wa-ben, with the same two slots for bills or receipts and the same cuben fiber construction. Like my original wa-ben, the travel wallet prototype is made of CT9.5, and so won’t offer good abrasion resistance. Jason’s newer hybrid wallets have different outermost layers and offer much better abrasion resistance. From the turfed-up photos of my 2 year old wallet it’s clear this is a serious design improvement. Along with the limited hybrid, I ordered one of the newer woven fiber cuben hybrids, to possibly replace my old wa-ben and to check whether the transparent options had been improved as well. They have, and the new woven cuben hybrid retains the old look while offering a smother and more durable outer shell. I’m all for it.

Testing has taken some time. A couple of day trips to Mexico in January provided the first opportunity. The wallet was a relief from carrying passport and wallet in the same pocket, l as I’d supposed, convenient and simple. Swapping wallets prior to travel was the only obstacle. After the second trip I considered carrying the travel wallet as my regular wallet. However on the second trip I learned that the slick CT9.5 slips out of pants with stretch. Not ideal, but I’d expect a full version to feature the hybrid construction. At this point I also switched full time to the hybrid wallet, and now can’t see myself returning to the CT9.5 construction full time. One of the early concerns, that the SIM card would slip out its holder, proved unfounded. My China Unicom SIM, seen in the photos, has been secure for the past three months.

Travel wallets like this may be a small market, but they’re an excellent idea. For those of us who travel lightly, frequently, and yet for work, the simplification is worth the wallet-swapping. I can’t wait for a finished version.

GR1 thoughts, part 1

The GR1 was a Christmas present last year, 2012. As the number of day trips I make to factories increases, I was looking for a single backpack to carry clothes, samples, and a laptop into strange environments. I needed a backpack because of the walking, and a single bag because of the flights, cars, busses, and hassle of travel. Because these trips are usually only for a couple of days, I didn’t need that much space. The last two years of repeated packing have made me a more economical traveler, and I started as a minimalist with regards to things.

I did about thirty hours of reading before putting the GR1 on my Christmas list. I already have a couple of really wonderful bags, including a custom-built R.E.Load Civilian messenger, a Tom Bihn ID briefcase, and a Timbuk2 Q backpack. For work I’d been using the Q, as carrying a laptop, samples, and notebook on one shoulder had gotten painful. Backpacks and dress clothes will never meld perfectly, but for frequent travel they’re far superior. The Q has wonderful pockets and access points, and remains one of my favorite bags, but it was stretched to capacity with clothing, and simply couldn’t handle a spare pair of shoes. In many ways the GR1 was simply a step up from the Q, with similar intentions and a larger carrying capacity.

As an operations and manufacturing person, the US-made nature of all of these bags is important. While the Q is imported, many of Timbuk2’s bags are made in the US and the R.E.Load, Tom Bihn, and Goruck bags are entirely US-made. Manufacturing will only come back to the US if the end customers care, and I do. Money before words.

How then has the last year been, traveling with the GR1? How has it weathered Mexican factories, Chinese ferries, Japanese business meetings and dozens upon dozens of airports, sports fields, and shopping trips? Are the straps really better for their width, and the laptop slot better for the curved zipper? Is the ability to pack it flat really better than a top-loading style bag, and is the minimal aesthetic in terms of pockets really more customizable with additional smaller pockets or pack-it cubes? These were some of my questions, especially given the price, and some of the things I wanted to answer publicly, to help those doing similar research.

First, a sketch from months ago outlining some of my thoughts at the time:

image

The notes from 8 months in hold true at 12, with a few changes.

Best parts of the GR1:

  • It rarely looks dirty, and cleans easily.
  • It’s always big enough for one more thing, which is usually my hat or jacket when the sun comes out.
  • It’s sturdy enough that I can pick it up from any reachable part, even fully loaded.
  • It stows cleanly because there are few dangling pieces to catch in doors and overhead bins, or on branches and other people, like in a crowded bus or subway.

Worst parts:

  • There’s no side handle, which the Q has, so sometimes it’s hard to get a grip on.
  • Because the zipper on the laptop slot wraps from side to top, it hampers me in two ways:
    • The zipper dangles down into my back, rather than off the side of the bag
    • It’s very hard to take the laptop out without taking the bag off, a useful ability in airport security lines. The Q backpack laptop compartment is incredibly easy to access one handed while wearing the bag. The curved zipper design on the laptop/hydration pocket is the biggest drawback of the GR1, and something I’d really like to see changed. Maybe it’s different with a hydration bladder, which I never use. It’s hard for me to see how, given that the zipper would still hang down into the wearer’s back even if the access isn’t an issue.
  • The straps are set a little wide for a 5’9″ guy, especially when first purchased, as they’re very stiff to begin with. 12 months later this bothers me less than it did at 8 months.

What then are my thoughts on this bag, three hundred dollars and three hundred and sixty five days later? It’s a very good backpack, built in the US for people who move and travel in much the same way I do. In the same year I’ve owned it, Jorve has also carried one every day, and Seth has purchased a GR2 and dragged it to Myanmar and back a few times, as well as around Asia and up through the New England coast to Maine. The Goruck bags are good bags. If the money makes sense, and the use that’s outlined above, in other reviews, and on their site sounds like yours, then yes, the gear’s good.

iPhone 4S thoughts, part 1

A preamble: Given the current uncompetitive US cellular climate and relatively atrocious level of service provided by all of the major players, a major goal of mine remains minimizing the total dollars given to my cell provider. If this is a shared goal, the optimal time for cell phone replacement, on contract, at subsidized rates, is the first moment possible.

To clarify: Apple sells unlocked iPhones for $650. AT&T sells locked iPhones for $200. That means AT&T purchases iPhones at some rate slightly lower than $650 and subsidizes some amount less than $450 to each customer to entice them into a 2-year contract with a total value somewhere north of $2,000.

This means for every iPhone sold, AT&T pays Apple up front, and earns it back over time. When the subsidy has been recovered, usually between 18 and 24 months, AT&T begins offering its customers new phones at fully subsidized rates in exchange for signing a new contract.

Because the user’s monthly bill does not decline once their subsidy is paid off, AT&T’s profit increases immediately for every customer who continues to use their old phone after it is paid off.

Thus, to avoid paying AT&T any extra money, AT&T customers should upgrade immediately upon being able to receive a full subsidy again.

Hence, 16 months after standing in line for an iPhone 4 at launch day, I have an iPhone 4S.

Palm Pre 2 thoughts, part 2

Last of it’s kind, the Palm Pre 2 arrived in December at my office, unlocked, direct from HP.

I have been asked a dozen times why, happy with my iPhone 4, I purchased a Pre 2. The answer can be found here. It was not a joke, I firmly believed releasing unlocked hardware would help Palm. The fact that it took a near-collapse and subsequent assimilation by HP to push the new corporation (HPalm?) into releasing unlocked GSM hardware does not deter me. By all accounts the Pre 2 and webOS 2 were far superior to the originals, and I was eager. The results speak both to the Palm team’s successes and to the difficulty of their chosen task.

The Pre 2 is what I consider to be the best form factor possible. While I have gotten very comfortable typing on a touch screen over the last several years, the speed allowed by a hardware keyboard can never be equaled.  I do not mean the typing speed, though that may be true. I mean the speed of access. The iPhone has a single means of access: the screen. Although the display can function as a variety of inputs (keyboard, number pad, chooser list, etc.) the phone and OS must first be told which one of those to present.  With a single swipe left from the home screen every application, person, message, and web site is searchable. The key to that sentence is the beginning, with a single swipe left from the home screen”. Without that gesture from that particular location, there is no search.

On the Pre 2, and any other device with hardware keyboard, search can simply be a function of beginning to type. Context for the display, from an unaccessed state, does not matter. On my iPhone 4 I often attempt to swipe left while in an app only to realize I have to first return to the home screen with a button press and then swipe left. Only after that is complete will I be able to start my search query.

Likewise, storing the hardware keyboard in portrait orientation, below the screen, is a fantastic fit. It means the phone can be all screen whenever possible. It also means that when the keyboard is extended the phone feels incredibly natural to hold. Landscape keyboards unbalance phones, making them unwieldy and heavy, impossible to hold in a single hand, let alone type on with one.

The Pre 2’s small screen size does not bother me after an hour or two. In fact it is the iPhone that feels large and strangely flat upon returning to it. This is a long way of saying the Pre 2 feels great in the hand and pocket, and is easy on the eyes.

However, the Pre 2 desperately needs a rotation lock. The hardware rotation lock on the iPad (prior to iOS 4.1 or post iOS 4.2) is a brilliant feature.  Turning the Pre 2 can be a surprisingly frustrating experience, because the sensor’s calibration and response speed lag slightly, meaning that one turns the phone to landscape (when reading a web site, for example), waits, returns it back to portrait and then to landscape again very quickly, and then watches as the phone performs all 3 transformations in a disjointed manner.  The odd shake” of the phone to make the sensor adjust the screen that old (pre iOS 4.0) iPhone users knew is back with webOS.

There it is then: the Pre 2 is hardware I constantly want to touch. It looks good, it feels good, and using it is, mostly, absolutely wonderful. Every time I go back to it I’m happy, and every time I leave it I miss the small shape and the clicking keys.  WebOS is a delight to use, works as advertised and has a sense of motion and organization lacking from it’s competitors, Android and iOS.  It is a wonderful platform, and something I will watch further.

Why then do I constantly return to my iPhone 4?  There are two reasons, and they revolve around the same concept, something only my time with these two phones has made me understand.

Trust.

When I have to work on my phone, which is a more and more common occurance globally, I can’t hesitate. When I’m driving to a vendor’s office or a FedEx location I googled three minutes ago, when I’m trying to call someone from a restaurant, or when I’m looking for an email with pricing I got a month ago, I have to know that my phone will do what I want.

The Pre 2 and webOS are pretty, they multitask well, their notification system is achingly simple and wonderfully functional. And when I launch Google Maps it sometimes works.  Sometimes it sits pulsing at the launch screen for several minutes, until I use the wonderful card interface to go back to my email.  When I try to call someone from my bluetooth headset and realize that I have to find their information on the phone, because bluetooth voice dial, while listed as a feature for webOS 2.1, does not yet work on my Pre 2’s webOS 2.0.1, I miss my iPhone.

When I am going out for the afternoon and look at the battery meter on the Pre 2, it often reads 40%.  At 2 pm that is a worrisome thing, something that makes me think about my charger’s location and my ability to power the phone from my car’s USB socket.

The Pre 2 and HPs new OS are wonderful things. But they do not inspire trust. Not yet. Battery life and responsiveness are two things I used not to consider critical with smartphones. They all had poor battery life and they all were a little slow to respond.  In that market the Pre 2 looks great, because the thought that went into webOS is clearly worlds above what went into most phone operating systems. That is not the current market.

I enjoy using the Pre 2, and wish I could do so more often.  I hope that webOS 2.1 brings better performance, fewer bugs, and bluetooth voice dialing, which is a deal breaker for my 45 minute commute.  Perhaps the Pre 3 will feature a more robust battery, and a more responsive mapping application. I hope so. I would love to be able to recommend webOS, to show my friends my phone and to have them be able to buy one, from HP unlocked, from T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon. I would like more people to see this carefully designed OS. I think that would be good for everyone.

Maybe this summer.

Until then I’ll admire my Pre 2 and use it, with my hand-cut SIM card adaptor, on days I don’t need to do a lot of work.

Honda Fit thoughts, part 1

Next week will mark my fourth month with the 2010 Honda Fit Sport.  Like all items thoroughly researched online prior to purchase, I had expectations and opinions about it and cars like it long before I set foot in a dealer or got behind the wheel. 

Now, with the benefit of a few weeks behind the wheel, my opinions have been clarified with experience, and I can say something far too rare:

The Honda Fit consistently exceeds my expectations and surprises me with the consideration that went into it’s design. 

Named the Mobile,” as it does not squire Batman, my Fit Sport has a range of options surprising both for breadth and specificity. There are 8+ cup holders. Paddle shifters. A USB port for the stereo. Tire air level indicators. Magic seats. A MPG read out. Seemingly every feature I envy on larger cars. And yet the list of features left out is striking too: automatic headlights, steering wheel volume controls, a temperature gauge, automatic seats, floor mats (which are optional).  Each of these represents a choice to meet a price, but more importantly to cater to a specific customer. And that customer, it seems, is me. The Mobile has everything I want and absolutely nothing I don’t.

The Fit is not a big car. Living in San Francisco, this is a major consideration, as parking is a challenge even in my neighborhood. Being able to park on my block, often in front of my house, because the Fit is small enough for the odd spaces that sit vacant, is a boon of startlingly large proportions.  This is why I was looking at hatchbacks.

Yet, and this is the miracle of Honda’s design, the Fit feels full-sized from the inside.  Five adults fit without discomfort.  And the Magic Seat” touted by salesmen on both coasts is indeed magical, transforming the car that seems to have no depth to a hauler to rival small SUVs.  Does this miracle of engineering and optical trickery seem impossible to believe? It should. The proof however overwhelms the skepticism.  Consider the following list:

  • A Full size Ikea mattress
  • Four Workrite Sierra single table electric desks (unassembled)
  • Two 5’9″ humans, prone and asleep

All of those things have fit comfortably in the Fit with the seats flat.  Not at the same time, of course.

The last one is particularly impressive, given the car’s length and width, both of which are smaller than a standard family car.  Sleeping in it, I wondered if my legs would cramp.  Actually, no, because, with a slight bend at the waist, I could keep them straight.

While this doesn’t help the 6’5″ members of our community, it’s an impressive feature of a ~$17,000 car, options depending.

This post comes about because a woman, walking by while I was parking in an exceptionally small space directly across from my apartment building today, said I’m thinking of getting one of those.”

My response was simply that it was an outstanding automobile, and that I loved it more every day.

That’s a strong endorsement,” she said.

Which is true.

iPhone 4 thoughts, part 4

I’ve now had my iPhone 4 for several weeks, and wanted to re-visit these thoughts, to see if I’d changed my mind on anything.

First, the iPhone 4 is pretty awesome. The display is gorgeous and battery life is much, much better.  The responsiveness of the camera has me using it all the time, and the ability to multi-task, even in limited ways, is great.

The rubber Bumper case is annoying, because it clings to the fabric on the inside of my pockets, which makes the phone hard to get in and out.  This leads to me not wanting to use it, which in turn means I will have to deal with the antenna issue and the fact that I spent $30 on the case.  Apple has just dealt with the $30 portion of that problem.

Under 4.0.1 I no longer ever have 5 bars in my house.  I live in San Francisco.  Coverage has not changed.  It’s good to have a better understanding of how poor AT&T is here, and I wish I had my phone configured to display -db, as the Anandtech people do.  I’ll look into that.

The antenna issue, whatever Steve Jobs, John Gruber, et al. say, is both real and a hardware flaw.  I have now spent quite a bit of time holding other people’s iPhones, as well as the demo units in the store.  I have found phones that will drop from 5 bars all the way into Searching…” and I have found phones that, in the exact same location, will drop from 5 bars to 3 and no lower.  I do not see any way of telling them apart, other than holding multiple phones in the hand.  Note that, in order to truly tell, one must hold the phone for upwards of one minute.  In shorter amounts of time the phones look identical, as they will all drop roughly 2 bars.  Only after a longer time will some phones continue all the way down to no signal and the battery-destroying Searching…” mode.

The proximity sensor issue is also real, but very, very tricky to diagnose or understand, as it seems to only happen after the sensor has been activated.  I have only had it happen one time, where a call ended surprisingly and I looked at the phone and realized the screen was on.  I don’t spend a lot of time on the phone, making only a few brief calls a day, and encountered the issue on a more lengthy call.  I suspect this is fixable in software.

The reflective clarity of the Apple logo on the back is amazing.

The iPod app is nicer now.  I don’t use it too often, though I am starting to as I grow less afraid of my battery, but the subtle interface changes, which mostly present more details on each screen, are much appreciated.

I love being able to see the percentage of battery remaining rather than simply the icon.  This has been possible since the 3GS, but is new to me.

My best usage time on the iPhone from 100% charged to shut down is 6 hours 34 minutes of usage and 38 hours 21 minutes of standby.  That, to me, was impressive.

And, on a very specific note for one person, let me say this: don’t put your phone in the same pocket with your keys.  That would be stupid.

iPhone 4 thoughts, part 3

My iPhone 4 says 16 GB on the box.  Under Settings > General > About it says Capacity 14.0 GB with 2.8 GB listed as available.  I checked all of the display models at the Apple store today, and they all reported the same 14.0 GB, as did my first iPhone 4.

Does this mean that the OS is taking up 2 GB?  Or that the 16 GB are actually 14 GB when formatted?  Or some combination of the two?  Strange, because my old iPhone 3G, also running iOS 4, also sold in box as a 16 GB model, currently shows a capacity of 14.5 GB.

The old phone lacks a lot of features such as multitasking, yet half a gigabyte seems like a lot. If you’ve seen anything different or have any explanation let me know.

iPhone 4 thoughts, part 2

This morning as I was using my iPhone 4 with Bumper on in a room that normally has poor signal strength I noticed the signal dropping.  I was on wifi as well, so connectivity was fine, of course, but the bars declined in the same manner as yesterday when held without Bumper on.

I shifted the Bumper and the bars returned.  This means that, in areas where signal strength was, with the iPhone 3G, questionable, the iPhone 4 antennas are more vulnerable to the bridging interference than in strong coverage areas.  This corresponds with findings posted by others.

I then removed the bumper and the problem was easily reproducible by holding the phone in my left hand in all areas of the house, regardless of coverage strength.  I’d been debating heading back to the Apple store, and this pushed me over the edge.  I got on the bus.

When I got to Stonestown Galleria, having not used the phone at all on the cold bus ride (this is San Francisco), the problem wasn’t initially apparent.  I sat in the food court for ten minutes, debating what to do and holding the phone with full 3G signal.  I’ll note for others that when I say holding the phone” I mean lightly, not some death grip, and in a very, very standard way, not in any special fashion. My hands are not and were not wet.

After about ten minutes, while I was trying to come up with a way to explain this bug to the Apple store staff, the bars started dropping.  Note that the Galleria is much warmer than the outdoors, so I believe the antennas are more vulnerable to interference and detuning at warmer temperatures.

I went to the Apple store and demonstrated the problem to the first staffer I found.  He referred me to the Genius Bar, made me a walk-in appointment, and asked me to wait. I did, and while doing so tested the phones in the display area.  None of them dropped immediately but I did not hold any for more than a few moments, as I was trying to test them all. During this time I was not holding my iPhone 4.

When the Genius called me I explained the problem and he asked if I could show him. I pulled out the phone (sans-Bumper) and held it lightly.  The bars began to fade.  He said that this was the first time he’d seen it, and asked to try.  When either of us let go of the phone the bars come back, and when he held the phone the bars dropped.

He was impressed, and said that after hearing about the problem he’d tried to reproduce it, but hadn’t been able to on the display models.  I told him I’d tried and failed also.  He took the phone and ran tests, including restoring it from DFU mode. He also got me a new phone.

After restoring it the phone did not immediately demonstrate the problem, but once we’d held it for a few minutes the bars began to drop again, until the phone lost signal and began searching for a network.  I should note here that the Apple store has excellent AT&T coverage.

He said they’d send my old phone off to engineering, and they were excited to have one with a reproducible problem.  He and another staffer set up my new phone and activated it, and asked if I wanted to try it before leaving. I said yes, and held the phone. Having been synced with iTunes moments before it was already warm and bars began immediately dropping.  Both Apple store staff reproduced the problem with the new phone.

At this point I was very relieved to know that it wasn’t just me, or just my phone. Strange, but the fact that it’s widespread, or at least _more widely spread_ is comforting.  The Genius who’d been helping me then said that they think it’s either a firmware or a design issue, and that there wasn’t anything else he could really do, because they had to find a solution internally, and that they were learning as they went.  He was very polite and genuinely interested in solving the problem.

I said I understood and that I’d take the new phone home, and he told me to swing back by if it became a more serious problem.  He then said the most interesting thing:

I tried to reproduce the problem on the display units, but I definitely didn’t hold them for as long as we’ve held this one.”

Me neither,” I said.

Now I know how it works though,” he said, I’m glad to see it.”

The phone is awesome, and I’m glad to have it.  The Bumper seems to make the problem almost disappear.  However, the problem is both real and reproducible, and affects more than just one unit.  If you’re not seeing this, that’s wonderful, but it’s something I’d test for if I were going to buy an iPhone 4.  It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s big enough of a problem that a) Apple should give out free Bumpers and b) you want to know if your phone does it in case there’s a widely-issued fix or recall.

iPhone 4 thoughts, part 1

It is very odd to hold a device that is glass on both sides. Without looking the direction it is facing isn’t apparent.  Also, coming from the 3G, it feels very, very slick.  So did the iPad initially, and the constant fear of dropping that has ebbed with familiarity.

The much-discussed problem whereby holding the phone in the left hand so as to bridge the antenna gap causes the signal to gradually degrade and disappear on 3G is definitely real and immediately obvious. If you are buying a phone in store as opposed to delivery this is something you should be checking for.  Hold the phone for 15 seconds with your palm over the gap while it is on (which requires in-store activation).  Hopefully there is a fix, but I assume that it is a hardware problem, as only some phones seem to exhibit it. The rubber Apple Bumper case fixes this, which lends more credence to it being a hardware problem, as the case is non-conductive.

[Update] This problem is not 100% reproducible. I just sat in the car and held the phone, sans-case, in my left hand and the signal did not drop. Returned to house, took case off, and the signal drops immediately when held in left hand as noted above. Could this depend on signal interference as well, such as the wifi network in my house? Will report further. [/Update]

The screen is very, very good. Almost bizarrely clear, as some text, noticeably in the Messaging app, looks far different than it did on older generations of iPhone.

The camera shutter speed is astonishingly fast… for a phone.

Call volume is startlingly loud.  This means nothing for call quality, which I haven’t tested in any serious way.

It’s still an iPhone.

That was a long line.

10 things I learned yesterday

  1. IMAX 3D shows on Tuesday evenings do sell out.

  2. If someone is a good director, 10 years away from the mainstream doesn’t have to destroy their ability (which opposes the George Lucas principle, though that gives rise to the question of initial talent, which I will not discuss here).

  3.  Making Titanic doesn’t stop someone from loving science fiction.

  4.  Gollum really was a massive step in the blending of motion-captured live actors and CG creatures.

  5.  Waiting for the technology you need to be developed can work, but building it yourself is almost always the right choice.

  6.  If someone who is a good director and loves science fiction spends ten years of their life building the technology they need to make a movie, it is worth $19 to see it in IMAX 3D.

  7.  Probably twice.

  8.  Unless you have a very small nose, and so can’t comfortably wear the 3D glasses as their correct focal length is farther from your eyes than your nose will allow.

  9.  Which is not a problem I have.

  10.  However this means the 2nd time I see Avatar will probably be on a normal screen.

Growing up Watchmen

The hardest part about Watchmen, that everyone seems (wonderfully) to understand, is that it was built as a comic book.  It references itself in the way that the best comics can, because it is so easy for the reader to flip back, having a visual guide as well as the words.  The comic book really is a wonderful medium, and Watchmen is its pinnacle.

Now, going to see this adaptation last night we knew these things:

  1.  Story is fantastic (having both read graphic in past week)

  2.  Snyder stuck to visual guide (from previews)

  3.  Story will be simplified (no pirate sections)

  4.  Snyder thinks that crunching and gasping equals fighting and sex (from 300)

  5.  If he gets anything right at all I’ll be excited because I love it (same as LotR)

Walking out three hours later, which is neither too long nor something audiences can’t stand, we remembered those points, which really helped.  Yes, the story was fantastic, and, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, who got the 300 treatment, everyone looked good.  Rorschach and the Comedian were incredible.  Watching Dr. Manhattan drop the photograph on Mars made me so happy, as did watching his suit assemble itself on him (which I would have watched for longer).  Things like the long pull out from the statue in the rain prior to the Comedian’s burial were wonderful.

The cuts were understandable.  Hollis’ death was the last thing cut (says Wikipedia), which I understand (and am glad was the last thing to go).  The pirate ship story was of course going to go (though is supposed to be added in for the DVD).

Now we come to the personal portion of this review/examination:  Zach Snyder’s incomprehensibility.   Here we have someone who grew up with the same influences as I did, who deeply loves the same books.  I think it’s pretty impossible to see Watchmen and not think that Snyder loves the graphic.  He does, and I believe that, and I think that it’s very visible in the scenes he does not alter.

The problem is that Zach Snyder has almost no sense of subtlety.  As noted earlier, he thinks that a fight is not a fight if bones don’t come through skin.  Every punch must have an accompanying crunch sound effect so loud as to make the audience wince.  The sound track has only two volumes: loud, and REALLY LOUD, which is reserved for touching, soft, or very complicated scenes.  The visual grace that began this generation’s obsession with intricate fight scenes, that of the first Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, is utterly lost.  The Nite Owl is an out-of-shape 40 year-old man, and yet when he punches bones break and people crash through walls.  Zach Snyder is unable to see that people will understand a fight scene without bone crushing.  This is a flaw we were well aware of going in, because of 300, and simply hoped he would avoid as it did not hew to the source material at all.  He demonstrated no such restraint.  The prison escape is a perfect example.  Rorschach’s scenes are handled with wit and delicacy, even in their gruesome nature, but the Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II are forced into an awkward (and utterly manufactured) brawl that is both unfortunately long and ridiculously loud.  By making them so forceful Snyder removes a central portion of Moore’s idea, that these are heroes who are adventuring for the first time in years.  In Gibbon’s original art this is handled so deftly (see page 15 of issue 3).  Snyder will have none of this deftness.

Dr. Manhattan, as mentioned earlier, has the physique of a body-builder, and is more frontally nude than a) he is in the graphic or b) is necessary.  He also is needlessly shown exploding Vietnamese soldiers, another moment where Snyder looked at Moore & Gibbon’s work (which the shot otherwise mimics very closely) and was like well, this was cool, but it would have been so much better if they EXPLODED.”  In so many ways it is like watching a fifteen year-old boy’s thoughts.  More bone breaking, more nudity, and louder sound effects are always better.

I had a good time.  But every time a fight scene approached I winced, hoping we could get through it without any horrible disfigurations.  This doesn’t mean all the fighting was poorly done.  The opening fight was wonderfully done.  Most of Rorschach’s fighting was excellent.  The re-visioning of the death of the convict Rorschach ties to the cell bars was very good.  Snyder’s attempt to modernize the conflict with the inclusion of oil and energy was awkwardly welded to a cold-war plot.

In retrospect, this is a better movie than I expected from a very tasteless director.  He delivered his personal brand of utterly over-the-top and graceless fighting alongside a very tight rendition of the story.  Big props to the screenwriter.

There are only two scenes that stop the movie from being good, and something that I would go see again:

  1. Nite Owl & Silk Spectre IIs love scene in Archie.  In utter contrast to the first love scene, on the couch, which is moderate and tasteful and NOT set to absurdly loud music, this second scene is so awful and horribly over-long that most of the audience was cringing and looking at their phones.  Absolutely uncomfortable to watch is usually not what directors are going for in sex scenes.

  2. Rorschach putting a cleaver into the guy’s head.  Unlike the previous mention, which is basically straight from the book just shot & scored horribly, this scene is totally created for the movie, and alters Rorschach’s character fundamentally.  Rorschach is not a deranged psycho killer who cleaves people in two.  This scene fails in all three of the ways an adaptation can fail, that being it alters the story and characters, adds nothing, and takes unnecessary attention away from the original work.  For those who may not know or remember, in the original Rorschach cuffs the man to a chair, sets the house on fire, and throws him a hacksaw with the advice don’t bother cutting through the cuff, you don’t have time for that.” He then stands outside the house for an hour, but no one comes out.  As originally written it is evocative and characteristic without being over-the-top gory and psychotic.  But, as we all know, Snyder is unable to appreciate subtlety or simply good writing.  His mantra of more gore louder!” is impossible to miss.

Yeah.  So for all of you who have been asking me how I feel about this on Twitter/im/text, here’s your answer.  It’s good, it’s fun, it’s much better than I possibly expected Zach Snyder to do, and if it could be edited again (by someone else) it could be really wonderful.  Unfortunately, even with a supremely tasteful base text (as opposed to the incredibly simple and violent one he had with 300), Snyder is unable to resist his own urges, to everyone’s detriment.

Recommendation:  Go buy the graphic and read it before seeing this film.  The hype surrounding this movie means it is available at every major book store, and well worth your time & money.  If you saw the film first, the same advice applies.  You’ll have to trust me that the parts you’ve complained about (horrid score, awful fighting, painful sex scenes, atrocious cleaver-to-the-head shots) were Zach Snyder, and not Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons.

M83 and the album of 2008

A lot of people post about their albums of the year.  Usually they do it sometime within that year.  I don’t bother, though sometimes lengthy emails go out, those last weeks of December, extolling something to people unfortunate enough to attract my attention with similar lists.

Most of those lists, painstakingly crafted, are then forgotten, set adrift into the winds of a million similar compilations and lost forever.  Or at least until the next December, when we all vow to make better lists than last time, because some of those songs were so popular, we didn’t look indy enough at all.

Sometimes, though, we’re just right.  Looking back, months later, we can say Wow, really nailed that one, absolutely hands down the best thing to have come out of 2008, musically.”

M83 Saturdays = Youth is that rare truth.  Listening to Too Late’ as I write this it is both timeless and relaxing.  Timeless seems an odd adjective, as most reviews start with M83 is a blast of nostalgic 80’s sound done well” or some other nonsense.  Timeless in that, unlike MGMTs hits from last summer, I am not immediately transported to a place or a time.  Which is good, because that means when I hear M83 in another few months it will still sound just good, not like that one time we…”

It’s the best album of the year, it’s the best album of a long time.  If you don’t have a copy go dig it out and throw it on.

Sometimes it’s nice to be right.