Mar 312014
 

Google+ profileGoogle’s just released a new feature for its social network site (and mandatory YouTube comment system), Google+. Profile pages will now include the number of times said content has been viewed by others, dating back to October 2012. I’ll assume it’s not an April Fool’s joke, given the timing; Google’s April Fool’s joke this year seems to be something about Google Maps and Pokemon.

As you can see by this post’s picture, I currently have 68 followers on my Google+ profile page, with a total of 95,000+ views to date. Despite the double-digit number of followers, I assume the views come from my participation in Google+’s Communities forums, as well as views from Google searches in general (for material I posted as “public”).

If you’re wondering, yes, the feature can be turned off. In your Google+ profile, go to Settings > Profile, then uncheck “Show how many times your profile and content have been viewed.”

Feb 142014
 

peter_cottontail_valentineHappy Valentine’s Day (or “day before the candy goes on sale for half-price”), all.

Like the similar holiday themed posts I’ve done, here’s one dedicated to the day dedicated to romance, affection, and other matters of the heart… and how it’s all presented in cartoons.

Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown

There’s no one “definitive” Valentine’s Day special, but an entertaining one is “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown,” the 1975 “Peanuts” special about how Valentine’s Day equals (in true “Peanuts” fashion) unrequited love for everyone in the cast.

On TV: Since the early 2000s, ABC has rerun this special every year, usually paired up with a more recent Valentine’s Day special to fill out an hour, such as 2002′s “A Charlie Brown Valentine.”

On DVD: This special’s on several DVD releases, including a stand-alone release (coupled with late 60s special “You’re In Love, Charlie Brown” and 70s special “It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown”) and on the “Peanuts: 1970s Collection, Volume 2″ DVD set. For the former, you’ll be getting two strong specials and one weak one (“It’s Your First Kiss”), while the latter includes “It’s Your First Kiss” and several other specials typical of the mid-to-late 70s run.

Here Comes Peter Cottontail

While an Easter special, this Rankin-Bass classic involves time-travel to other holidays, including a scene (and song number) set on Valentine’s Day. I appreciate that Rankin-Bass remembered that February 14 is very much cold weather (snow, etc.) in a good chunk of the country, versus most media (probably a result of Hollywood’s southern California influence) treating it like it’s a warm spring day.

The Simpsons

The fourth season episode “I Love Lisa” centers around Valentine’s Day, Simpsons-style, from KBBL radio’s DJs playing “Monster Mash” by mistake to Bart triggering a Valentine’s-themed Vietnam flashback for Principal Skinner (Bart: “cool, I broke his brain!”). For good measure, we also get President’s Day (and another playing of “Monster Mash” by KBBL’s DJs… “doggone it!”). And of course, probably the best episode featuring Ralph Wiggum, who has a crush on Lisa after she’s the only one in the class to give him a valentine out of pity.

Google

Google usually offers a special Doodle for Valentine’s Day. In 2012, we got a nice animated short set to the tune of an old Tony Bennett song. It also manages to be gay-friendly (in a montage at the end).

Marvel and DC Comics

There’s been various Valentine’s Day cards featuring the two comic publisher’s superheroes over the decades. The website Andertoons has several examples of vintage superhero valentines:

I like that they included a valentine of Aquaman with Mera and Storm (the giant seahorse) in the 1980 DC set, as well as what seems to be a Superboy valentine (a young Kal-El in flight).

Nov 012013
 

Nexus 5On Halloween, Google officially released the Nexus 5, its successor to the previous Nexus 4 smartphone. Much of the information’s been leaked by now, so not much announced was actually a surprise (beyond maybe the price). A full list of the specs are available in this Engadget article.

Overall, despite costing $50 more than the base Nexus 4 model, the Nexus 5 does offer some improvements. Of particular interest:

  • The often-fragile (or so online reports claim) glass back of the Nexus 4 has been replaced by a plastic back, supposedly similar (according to Engadget) to the one on the Nexus 7.
  • The camera’s been improved with both optical image stabilizers (OIS) and with “true HDR” or “HDR+.” Both of these will supposedly reduce image blur, as well as correct for under- or overexposure. From the sounds of things, it should improve picture quality in low-light settings (such as indoors).

The glass back and the camera were in my opinion the weakest points of the Nexus 4, so I’m glad to see LG/Google correct both of these mediocre designs for the Nexus 5.

I’ll note that the Nexus 5 is slightly bigger than the Nexus 4. Not sure why the 5 needed to be even bigger than the 4, which I already find difficult-to-impossible to use single-handedly.

Still, the phone sounds like a good buy for the money. Those who’ve held off on buying a Nexus might want to consider this model.

Sep 032013
 

Android 4.4 (KitKat)Earlier today, Google announced that it’s arranged a licensing deal with candy maker Nestle that’ll see Android 4.4 have the dessert-themed name… “KitKat.” Yes, after the candy bar.

Google’s always chosen dessert-themed names for Android, as listed on this tie-in page, which also advertises Google Play/Android device prizes embedded in select Kit Kat wrappers. As for the spelling, it looks like the Android OS will be named “KitKat” (in camel case), while Google refers to the candy itself as “Kit Kat” (with a space).

And yes, the article’s correct: Kit Kats are made and sold by Hershey here in the United States, but by Nestle elsewhere. No word on whether Key Lime Pie, the previous next-gen name for Android, will be used for a future version. For that matter, there’s no word on whether or not we’ll see future Android versions retain generic dessert names, or also enter into marketing arrangements with other candy makers. Can you imagine Android versions named “Twizzler,” “Dilly Bar,” or “Twinkie?”

Aug 162013
 

google_plus_logoIt’s been a bit over a year since I first signed up for Google+, Google’s social media competitor to Facebook and Twitter.

For the most part, Google+ feels like “Facebook done right.” Among Google+’s positive aspects:

  • The design feels cleaner than Facebook’s, and a lot slicker. Some aspects of Facebook feel bolted on (when a new feature’s added), hard to find, or unintuitive.
  • Privacy settings are a big plus over Facebook. It’s easier to set desired posts to only be read by certain groups (or “circles” in Google+-speak), plus the general privacy settings are easier to access and use than Facebook’s. Also, unlike Facebook, Google+’s privacy settings don’t change constantly and intrusively.
  • Google+ ties into existing Google services well, including Android. This might relate to Google using Google+ as a “replacement” for some of its now-shuttered services (like Google Reader), or part of the attempt to boost Google+’s profile.
  • Google+’s Community groups are fairly active, with discussion groups for a range of topics.
  • Google+ has a very nice Android app.
  • Linking to my blog posts on Google+ (and, where appropriate, in some Community groups) helps in terms of promotion. Not always by a ton, but it’s a nice bit of a traffic boost.
  • No intrusive or grotesquely off-topic ads showing up in my feed, unlike Facebook. The fact that Facebook plans to install auto-playing video ads makes Google+ look even better.
  • Hangouts, Google+’s video chat feature, seems to be the biggest breakout success for Google+, and often the one reason anyone uses it at all. I’m not a Hangouts user, however.

One downside of Google+ is its biggest problem: Google+’s “ghost town” image. Few others I know actually use Google+; most of the people I know seem rooted to either Facebook or Twitter. Thus, the people in my circles are largely either companies, sites, celebrities, etc. I follow (Engadget, Marvel Comics, etc.) or people I’ve met through Google+ Community groups. On top of that, not all companies or sites use Google+, of course… and a few of the entities that do haven’t updated their Google+ pages in a long time.

Another downside is that there’s no customizable usernames for profile URLs; instead, it’s partially an unwieldy, long string of numbers. This seems like a rather gross oversight on Google’s part in my opinion, and might contribute to making it difficult to attract users. It’s also bizarre to see in 2013 a lack of such an URL feature. Google+ is slowly rolling out username-based URLs for users, but so far it’s mostly for companies and celebrities, not the average user.

Other than the above complaints, I’m enjoying using Google+. I’m still on Twitter and Facebook, but will stick with Google+ for the foreseeable future. One final note: if you wish to add me to your Google+ circles, here’s my profile:

https://plus.google.com/u/0/108111803643552573264/

 

Aug 102013
 

Nexus 4Several months back, I bought the Nexus 4 smartphone, which I spent much time pondering whether it’d be worth buying. My main concern was the various reports about the phone’s back glass cracking. While I posted an initial review, I thought I’d offer an update on how the phone’s going so far.

T-Mobile plan

I signed up with the $30/month T-Mobile plan, advertised on their website. The plan comes with 100 minutes plus 5GB of data. Data with T-Mobile works fine for me, even at my workplace, which often has issues with dead zones. And since I’m not streaming YouTube or Netflix heavily, I’m not in danger of hitting the 5GB cap.

The minutes, however, I have hit at least once; while I don’t talk much on the phone, conversations with family may sometimes stretch on at length. Hitting the limit while I was on vacation also wasn’t the most convenient time. Thus, I’ve kept an extra $5-$10 on my T-Mobile account in case time runs over. The $30/month plan charges an extra 10 cents per minute ($6/hour) for anything over 100 minutes.

I’m thinking about signing up with the non-free version of Skype, which for $3/month offers an unlimited calling plan from Skype’s mobile app to phone lines. It’d be cheap (versus what the next suitable tier of T-Mobile service would run), give me the benefits of unlimited calling, and save on my T-Mobile phone minutes.

Stock Android

The Nexus 4 comes with stock Android, which I’ve greatly enjoyed. The two best aspects being that my phone’s 8GB of space isn’t eaten up by unwanted garbage apps put there by the manufacturer, and I get to receive upgrades to the newest Android versions fairly quickly.

The apps work as well as any other mid-to-high end Android phone, of course.

Phone camera

I’ve made use of the phone’s camera, such as on my recent trip to Seattle. While the camera works fine for taking casual snapshots, the camera isn’t one of the Nexus 4′s strong points. It’s nicer than my previous phone’s cameras, but probably not as nice as the iPhone’s camera.

Protecting the phone

This was my biggest concern, per the various online reports about the phone breaking. However, most of these reports seem to show the phone never had any sort of case on it. In my case, I bought a generic $25 case from a T-Mobile kiosk; probably thanks to the case, the Nexus 4 has held up so far, even after the inevitable dropping of my phone a few times. I also put a screen protector on the phone, ones that I ordered from an Amazon vendor. The shields have prevented scratches so far, but the ones I bought seem to give the phone screen a slightly grainy look.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m enjoying the Nexus 4, and glad I bought it. I’d still consider this phone as a viable choice, provided one has a case for it. I assume Google will want to release an updated version soon, as the Nexus 4 model is about a year old.

If one’s considering alternate phones, other phones I’d look at include the recently-announced Moto X, the HTC One, the Samsung Galaxy S 4, and (for iOS fans) the iPhone 5. Engadget’s summer 2013 smartphone guide might be worth reading.

Jun 232013
 

RSS iconAs everyone interested in RSS knows by now, Google Reader will completely shut down on July 1. In the wake of the “Readerpocalypse” (as some online are calling this), various alternative services have crept up as possible replacements. (And no, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ are not full RSS replacements.)

While I’ve written before about Google Reader replacements, the one I’ve opted to go with (for now) is Feedly. Since the shutdown announcement, Feedly‘s become the most popular alternative. Advantages of Feedly:

  • Some desktop RSS readers are using Feedly as a substitution for Reader once it goes under. For instance, OS X’s Reeder application, which I use on my Mac, is switching to Feedly.
  • Feedly offers a mode to simplify its interface, making it somewhat resemble Google Reader. While not an exact match, it does offer an alternative to the cluttered Flipboard-style look some other RSS services have. I prefer a simplified interface for RSS purposes.
  • Feedly comes with apps for Android and iOS. This makes Feedly convenient to use on my smartphone, tablet, or computer.

Of course, no Reader substitute is perfect. In Feedly’s case, the main long-term concern is its lack of a clear business model. Other RSS substitutes like Newsblur offer a “premium” version for $1 or $2 per month, or carry advertising. It’s not clear what Feedly plans to do to stay viable in the long run, especially with the massive switch to Feedly’s services. Hopefully Feedly will hit upon something that’s not a nuisance or expensive.

May 192013
 

Nexus 4About a week ago, I bought the Nexus 4 smartphone via Google’s website. After much consideration, I decided the Nexus 4 sounded like the best option for the following reasons:

  • It’s inexpensive. I bought the 8GB model for $299 + two-day shipping + tax.
  • It’s unlocked and not part of a contract, allowing me to use a range of company’s prepaid services via swapping out the micro-SIM card. Even with the cost of going through several lesser smartphones in the past few years, I’ve calculated being on prepaid has still been much cheaper than what being on a contract during that time would’ve ran.
  • The only other prepaid option at the $300 range would’ve been the Samsung Galaxy S II. While it’s a nice enough phone, I didn’t think paying that much for 2011-era smartphone tech was a good idea.

Registration and set-up

The phone arrived pretty quickly, as did the micro-SIM card I ordered from T-Mobile, the prepaid carrier I’ve decided to use. Registering on T-Mobile’s website lets one choose a $30/month prepaid plan that offers “unlimited” 3G/4G data (data capped at 5GB) and 100 minutes per month. If one needs more than 100 minutes, extra time costs 10 cents/minute, which would be $6 for an hour. While the Nexus 4 doesn’t have “true” 4G (no LTE), it’s still much faster than my former Virgin Mobile/Sprint network, so I’m fine with it. I also don’t get many phone calls, so 100 minutes (and any extra time as needed) should work fine.

Setting up the Nexus 4 is just like setting up any other Android phone, including its hardware “cousin” the Nexus 7 tablet. After entering your Google email address and password, you’re prompted whether to restore previously saved apps/some options, which I chose to do. The Nexus 4 went ahead and downloaded most of the same apps I used on my previous phone and Nexus 7 tablet; for some reason, the Nexus 4 also imported the tablet’s wallpaper, which I soon changed.

Porting the phone number from Virgin Mobile ran into some problems. Porting required my Virgin Mobile account number, which forced me to call Virgin to acquire; the number wasn’t available via their online account management system. I finally got the number, after dealing with attempts by their customer service associate to hard sell sticking with Virgin. I then called T-Mobile and let them know I didn’t enter the account number when I registered online, which they soon entered for me. After this, the registration and number porting went through, and I set up the phone’s voice mail. Another reason for calling: when I initially went through T-Mobile’s online registration, the final step threw up an error message stating I hadn’t chosen some (unchoosable) payment option, an error I presume was related to my first account number-less attempt at porting the number from Virgin.

For more setup tips, GottaBeMobile’s Nexus 4 guide has some decent ones.

Android software

One of the Nexus 4′s signature traits is its use of a pure Android installation, without any manufacturer “skins.” Thus, things work quite smoothly, with the Nexus 4 running the newest version of Android. If you’ve used the Nexus 7 tablet, you’ll find the Nexus 4 works similarly. I am, however, still getting used to the size of the phone. With a 4.7-inch screen, it’s definitely the biggest smartphone I’ve ever used.

Protecting the phone

I purchased a case and plastic screen shield for the phone, as I usually do for smartphones. It’s also to address my one hesitation I had about buying the Nexus 4: comments online about the glass back cracking. However, none of the tech sites I usually read, nor Amazon.com’s user reviews, seemed to find it as prominent a problem as the comments made it out to sound. Phones made of glass don’t seem to have slowed down sales of the iPhone 4 or 4S, though Apple did wise up and dropped the use of glass from the iPhone 5. Hopefully, LG/Google will do the same for the next version of the Nexus phone.

Camera and photos

Taking photos works nicely, but some of the pictures have the wrong datestamp, defaulting to December 8, 2002 for some reason. While it’s easily fixed in iPhoto or Flickr, it’s still a concern.

The automatic backup of photos to either Google+ or Dropbox is nice. I’m still trying to figure out which one to stick with, though Google+ doesn’t expire access to most of its free storage space after a few years like Dropbox does. I wish Flickr would improve its Android app; automatic backing up of photos to Flickr doesn’t seem to be an option.

Here’s a few of the photos I’ve taken with the Nexus 4:

Downtown Milwaukee, May 2013

IMG_20130518_160227

IMG_20130518_160553

Conclusion

Overall, I’m enjoying the Nexus 4, and so far, I’m glad I bought the phone. I’m hoping the phone’s strong, mid-to-high-range specs (glass back/lack of LTE aside) make it last longer and have fewer problems than the previous two prepaid smartphones.

Those looking to buy a new unlocked or prepaid smartphone would probably be well served by the Nexus 4, keeping in mind the above mentioned caveats about the glass back/LTE. If buying a phone on contract, however, I’d also look at the HTC One, iPhone 5, and Galaxy S 4.

Mar 222013
 

google_logoRecently, Google’s announced a competing service to popular note-taking app Evernote, called “Google Keep.” With the recent news of Google shutting down Reader, there’s some concern about the longevity of other Google services with their “spring cleaning” bouts. Thus, I thought I’d give my guesses on which Google services might eventually bite the “spring cleaning” dust. My guesses are based on the assumption that Google’s core services/business interests consist of: search; advertising; social media data-mining (Google+); and Android (and other mobile services). Please note I have nothing against the items below—just guessing what Google might suddenly lose interest in someday…

Blogger/Blogspot

Google doesn’t seem to have done a huge amount with Blogspot over the years. While it’s still one of the most popular blog hosting services online, I wonder how well it really fits with Google’s current business models, or if they’ll decide it’s not worth trying to compete with WordPress.com, Tumblr, etc.

Google Keep

We already have Evernote and a myriad of other note-taking apps for Android and iOS—I don’t see the point in Google trying to introduce Keep, especially given it doesn’t really tie into the above-mentioned businesses. I suppose they could try to make it a part of Android or Google+ somehow, but it still seems like another future “spring cleaning” “yard sale” candidate.

Chrome OS/Chromebooks

Yes, there’s currently plenty of TV advertising for Google’s Chromebook netbooks (running the Chrome web browser-based ChromeOS). Still, with the shift away from netbooks in favor of tablets and smartphones running Google’s own Android (and Android being a huge success/the most successful Linux variant among the general public), offering a new netbook line running a non-standard OS seems like a long shot. (The general public didn’t care for Linux on their netbooks, wanting instead XP…) There’s reports, however, of schools being interested, plus Chromebooks might be useful for where just a web browser is needed (public libraries, etc.). Chromebooks’ reliance on the “cloud” (Google’s services) might also keep up Google’s interest, or at least keep them from giving up on quite as quickly.

Orkut

Orkut was a previous attempt at a social network by Google, but it never took off in the US. Orkut gained popularity in India and Brazil, however. While I wonder why Google didn’t just try to work at reviving/revamping Orkut for the US market instead of creating Google+ from scratch, I can see Google someday shutting down (or selling off) Orkut and migrating users to Google+.

Google Groups

Originally a Web-based Usenet archive service called “Deja News,” Google bought Deja, then tried to turn it into some mix of Usenet and customized discussion forums, before…ignoring it in recent years. With Google+ around and Usenet unpopular nowadays, I could see Google selling off or shutting down Google Groups.

Google Voice

A voice mail/phone number re-routing service? Sounds like another “cleaning” candidate to me…

Mar 132013
 

google_logoEarlier today, Google announced that it’s shutting down Google Reader, its RSS newsfeed service that, while lacking “Web 2.0″ “social” flash, was still fairly used by plenty of people. Presumably, Google assumes people will flock to their Flipboard-like program Currents, if not Google+.

Although RSS lacks “social media,” it’s still a useful function. While Twitter and Facebook have their uses, I can’t hover over my Twitter feed all day, lest I miss some interesting news item that flashes by, buried admist a bunch of other random posts. I also don’t want to manually check every site I go to to see if something’s updated. RSS takes care of both of these needs—new items are automatically listed in an RSS feed, are waiting for me to read at my own leisure, and kept in an organized manner that won’t see news items buried among posts about cat videos/baby pictures/etc. However, since RSS isn’t as advertising lucrative for companies (and it has a slightly geeky tone versus Facebook/Twitter), I can see why it’s being killed by Google. Cue the obligatory “RSS Is Dead” headlines by some tech/mainstream news outlets…

At this point, of course, comes the “what does Anthony suggest to replace Google Reader?” portion of the post. In my case, I need something that works on both my Mac Mini (in OS X) and on my Android smartphone and tablet, so my previous suggestion of Liferea (for Linux) and other stand-alone newsreaders won’t suffice. From a brief online perusal, possible alternatives include:

  • NewsBlur: open source-based RSS service, with apps available for Android and iOS devices. A free level of service is offered, while an unlimited service level costs US$1/month.
  • Netvibes: I’ve suggested Netvibes in the past as a replacement for the also-shuttered iGoogle portal page. However, it’s a bit more complicated than the others, although it offers Android/iOS functionality.
  • Feedly: Feedly is a fairly popular service that offers iOS and Android apps. It displays feeds in a slightly fancier format than the above two services, but seems more toned-down than Flipboard/Currents.

The above services offer web browser access (Feedly requires a Chrome/Firefox plugin), but aren’t open to third-party RSS newsreaders like Google Reader’s service. Which would mean my copy of Reeder for OS X (among the myriad of third-party software tied into Reader) might go unused, though Reeder stated they plan on making their reader fully independent of Google Reader.

I’ll let you know what happens with my RSS situation in the future…