Kies To The Shitty

Samsung Kies

There can be little doubt that Samsung makes a fine phone. They make a few crappy ones too of course; a friend of mine has the Galaxy Y, which actually hurts slightly to look at. It is fair to say though that with the Galaxy S II, Nexus, and Note, they make three of the best phones you can buy.

But if one thing lets all of them down, it’s Kies. This is the software they provide for connecting their phones to computer, which you’d use for example to transfer music to the phone or photographs from it. Or, to synchronise the contacts on your phone and computer. That’s such a useful function that it’s one of the main reasons I use a smartphone. Having just one version of all your email addresses and phone numbers, kept in sync across all your devices, is heaven compared to the situation a few years ago when I had some addresses in one webmail account, some in another, some on the computer, some phone numbers on the SIM, some in phone memory, some more in another phone’s memory…

These are Android phones of course, so you can just do it the Google way and sync all your contacts with Gmail. Which is fine, but I don’t really want to put all my eggs into Google’s basket. Plus I use other email addresses as well.

So what I do is funnel all my email accounts into Microsoft Outlook. That not only gives me a way to gather all my contacts together, but allows me to read old Gmail and other webmail even when not online. (It’s simple enough to set up, and if you prefer you can use another email client like Thunderbird.) That makes it easy to ensure I don’t have multiple versions of the same contact with slightly different names, defunct numbers and so on. A bit of a pain, but so much better to do now than when you need to call someone. Then it’s usually a simple matter to sync the contacts in your phone with the ones in Outlook.

Unless you’re doing it with Samsung Kies, which takes bloody forever and fails almost incessantly. Time after time, the process would hang at 64% complete. Giving up and unplugging the phone, I find that it got stuck on one contact or another and copied it over and over and over again. Shit.

It can be hard, considering you’re syncing not just Outlook with your phone, but your phone with Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc., to pinpoint exactly where things are going awry. But it seems it came down to a few malformed address book entries knocking Kies for a loop. Things like a hyphen appearing at the start of a name field. I’m sorry Samsung, but that’s ridiculous.

I think I’ve combed these idiosyncrasies out by now (fingers crossed). It actually completes the sync anyway. Right now though it’s using almost half a Gig of memory just to display the contacts on my phone. It took forever to even reach this point, and now they are finally visible my computer is too constipated to let me scroll through them. Oh, and it also cannot transfer my audio and video files because I don’t have a sound card fitted at the moment. I don’t need to play them, or convert them, or run these media files in any way, just copy them from A to B. But because it can find no hardware, Kies won’t even acknowledge their existence.

And it takes forever to load, and it’s confusing to use, and it’s shockingly unresponsive. It is just a breathtakingly badly-designed piece of software. I used to think Nokia’s Ovi Suite was a bit of a mess. Ovi is a futuristic dream compared to this. It’s as if Samsung were so keen to outdo Apple that they even decided to make something more annoying than iTunes.

Samsung make great hardware, and the software actually on the phones seems to be excellent too, but Kies could really undermine your confidence.

I’ll get back to you when I figure out how to live without it.

What Will Be In The Ice Cream Sandwich?

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It may lack a pen cursor, but the responsive line you can create demonstrates the Galaxy Note's potential as a drawing tool

I am eating an ice cream sandwich, thinking about Ice Cream Sandwich. This is either a complete coincidence, or my subconscious is taking the piss.

I refer of course to the next version of the Android operating system. Each one is named alphabetically after a dessert, because the people at Google maybe drink a little bit too much at lunchtime. So the main current version of Android is known as Gingerbread, the one they brought out specifically for tablets is called Honeycomb.

Ice Cream Sandwich is meant to reunify the line, to combine the features of both phone and tablet versions and scale well to screens of any size. So far it’s available on few devices except the Galaxy Nexus, but it’s promised soon for Samsung’s other large-screened Galaxy phones like the fantastically popular S II – and of course the Note.

As I’ve mentioned, us Note owners in particular are champing at the bit for ICS. It seems such a desirable match for a device that also combines features of phone and tablet. And if leaks are anything to go by, it will introduce all-round improvements to performance and the interface. Not that there’s a lot wrong with the Note as it is; if there were no ICS waiting in the wings I’d probably be quite satisfied with Gingerbread. The main frustration is knowing it’s there, being dangled. The release date has slipped so much now that Samsung have promised a compensatory “Premium Suite” along with it, which includes a more developed pen-based note taking app and – wait for it – an exclusive level of Angry Birds.

Well and good, but for me there is a major disappointment.

A thing that could really improve the Note’s pen is a pointer, tracking the pen tip as it moves above the screen. The hardware allows for this; it’s precisely the same as that recommend for Windows pen input. On the Tablet PC and its descendants, the pen’s position above the screen – not on it – moves the pointer in the same way a mouse would; actually touching the screen with the pen is equivalent to a mouse click.

This is made possible by the clever Wacom technology employed. The pen has a radio circuit inside it. It isn’t powered by any battery though, but by radio itself – it simply resonates to a signal broadcast by a grid behind the screen. The same grid detects this echo, and thereby tracks the pen’s position. Pressing the pen’s button, or touching the screen with its pressure-detecting tip, simply modifies the signal returned.

This is excellent for drawing, because with an electronic pen there will almost always be some calibration issue – the potential for a difference between where the pen tip touches the screen and where the mark it makes appears – even if it is only parallax caused by the thickness of the screen glass. But if you use a pen and screen system like Tablet PC or Wacom’s Cintiq, you soon learn to watch not the tip of your pen, as you would if you were drawing on paper, but the cursor that tracks it on the screen. That way there is no calibration issue, your line appears precisely where you expect.

Samsung’s S Pen however follows the same paradigm as finger input. The screen is – seemingly – unaware of the pen’s position until it touches it. But Ice Cream Sandwich, being conceived to run on a much wider range of hardware, has native support for digital pens which includes being able to respond to “hover” events. It must therefore be aware of the pen’s exact position above the screen – and could be displaying it.

So it would be nice to see a little dot tracking the pen in S Memo, the Note’s inbuilt drawing app. But going by videos of a leaked version of the upcoming firmware, it seems alas it is not to be. Perhaps Samsung consider it too big a break with the touch-input paradigm. It’s a shame though, because the potential seems to be there.

Will we see developers taking on the challenge? A drawing program with a pointer could be a killer app for the Note range of phones and tablets. Especially if it also had the other features most sought after by artists: Layers of course, a good painting engine that creates convincing brush and pen strokes (like the one from the open source MyPaint project), and selection and fill tools.

Anyone feel like coding that?

alas

Androids And Sunshine

image

Again an incredible day. Not hot exactly, maybe about 18C. The sort of temperatures you can wear as little as you like in, yet walk around all day without breaking a sweat. Comfortable weather. Relaxed weather. Sexy weather. I sat by the canal and contemplated my navel. Then I contemplated my friend’s navel. Hers was best.

But back to Android. I’ve had more than a week to get used to the world’s leading smartphone OS. How am I feeling?

Still a little irritated, to be honest. But that’s not really Android’s fault. I’m asking a lot of it – in essence, I want this phone in my pocket to do almost everything I carry a PC around for now. The major exception would be complex Photoshop work for finished drawings, that really would be overambitious, but I hope to be able to do most of my spontaneous sketching, as well as all the online stuff of course. And some serious text editing, such as this.

As I was saying earlier, I was spoiled for mobile blogging with the Nokia N900. By its excellent desktop-like browser, but also its hardware keyboard. I am getting to like using Swype though, the text entry method where you trace from letter to letter on the keyboard. It is very good, but there are one or two things Android really, really misses badly.

Like Ctrl+z.

To my shock and astonishment, there its no universal command in Android for “undo”. And undo is something I use a lot. A lot lot. On every keyboard I’ve owned, the Z is always first to wear off. So its absence is deeply disorientating. And painful. I was writing this column yesterday, and accidentally hit the “select all” option. How to undo that? I try the Android “back” key, as conceptually back is a little like undo.

Only – and this is a mistake I’ve made many times in my first week – instead of hitting the back button in the bottom right corner, I hit the return key on the keyboard, immediately above it. Which overwrites everything with a new blank line.

So I… Wait, I… There isn’t anything I can do. Two wrong key presses, and I’ve consigned an hour’s work to oblivion. Crap.

That ain’t good enough, Android. As there is no undo feature in the OS, entering text into a Web page becomes extremely hazardous. (A browser has no undo feature, as it assumes one exists in the OS…) Of course an individual app can have the facility, but guess what? The WordPress one doesn’t.

So until Google fix this shit I need a new approach. I found two. The first was a custom keyboard that also has undo functions. That means doing without Swype unfortunately, but it may be the solution for some special purposes. Or if you don’t happen to like Swype anyway. The one I’ve tried is called Programmer Keyboard, a lovably OTT solution that gives you a full 101-key desktop board on your phone!

And it also gives me the other thing I really miss from Android – arrow keys. Oh but you can select things with your finger! Yeah, or the letter next to the one you want, and then the one the other side of it, and then the line below… Gimme arrow keys.

A better approach though is to avoid composing the text in the page or app altogether, by using a proper text editor. The one I’m trying – and liking – is called Jota. (Pronounced “iota” rather than “jotter” apparently; I have no idea where the developer is from.) This has all the essential editing tools, for both writers and coders, even in its free version – and that includes multi-level undo.

Oh, and you can put arrow keys on its toolbar too. People, we have a winner.

No Compromise: Introducing The Galaxy Note

©SamsungThere are phones and there are tablets, and basically the only difference between them is size. But that difference is not trivial. Far from it; in mobile technology, form factor is everything. Difference in size means difference in purpose. A tablet is as big as is comfortable to use for ‘media consumption’ on the couch, a phone as small and portable as it can be while remaining usable. Anything intermediate is a compromise that falls between stools. Such is contemporary design wisdom.

And it’s wrong. People use their phones more and more for browsing, reading, viewing media and playing games. All else being equal, these will always be better on a bigger screen. So it’s very arguable that the best portable device is the biggest one you can comfortably carry. How big is that though, exactly?

Bigger than you might expect. Samsung‘s view – and I tend to agree with them – is that the upper threshold is what you can easily get in and out of an ordinary jeans pocket (video). In most ways, their new Galaxy Note is just an upgraded version of their popular Galaxy S II. What sets it apart is its simply humongous 5.3″ screen, surely as big as a mobile phone can get and still remain mobile. That’s not a compromise, that’s pushing an idea to its extreme. Seen this way it’s the recent generation of 7″ Android tablets that fell between two stools – smaller than the iPad, but not small enough to be truly portable.

Some reviewers have worried about looking foolish, holding such a large device up to the face. Well yes, maybe this is not the phone for the overly self-conscious. But I suspect it will attract more glances of interest, even envy, than amusement. It’s not merely the size of the screen that makes it stand out. With its resolution of 1280 x 800 – higher than the iPad – and luxuriant saturated AMOLED colours, it’s gaining a reputation as one of the most beautiful ever seen on a mobile device.

©SamsungBut the controversies only begin with the Note’s size. There’s also that pen. How can the addition of an input device somehow be a fault? For this we can blame Steve Jobs. Making a dig at the original Windows Mobile, he said “if you see a stylus, they blew it.” He was wrong too though. If you need a stylus they blew it, sure. Poking at tiny icons with a stick is not cool. But the Note has a touch interface as good as any of its rivals. More than one review has seemed almost to take offence at this. If you don’t need the pen to use the phone, what’s it doing there?

For sure, it would still be a fabulous device without it. You could use the Note merely as a huge-screened Web browser, HD video player and camera, e-book reader, satnav, tablet, gaming device etc. without ever withdrawing the pen from its bay. But for others – myself included – that pen is precisely the reason why we’ll be giving our money to Samsung. This is no plastic stylus. An advanced, sensitive pen would be a brilliant complement to a device big enough to use like a notebook. And once again Samsung has not cut any corners, using gold-standard technology from Wacom, makers of the Intuos and Cintiq tablets found in graphics studios worldwide. The sketching, annotation and handwriting possibilities this “S-Pen” adds put the Galaxy Note into a league of its own. Or would, if its screen hadn’t already.

It may not be on its own much longer though. It’s being joined by a rival product from fellow Koreans LG. Their Optimus Vu will have comparable dimensions and also comes equipped with a pen – rejoicing in the name “Rubberdium”. (No clues as to what the technology is yet, but they describe it as dedicated so it is probably an active device.) And it may be far from the last. The fourth iteration of Android, with its ability to scale to different screen sizes and its inbuilt support for pens, seems tailor-made for devices like this. (The Note does not actually have Ice Cream Sandwich yet, but will get it as soon as it’s ready – possibly next month.) With these features clearly part of Google’s vision, will we be seeing a phablet from Motorola next?

I hope so for the sake of diversity, but speaking for myself it’s hard to imagination any device in the near future improving on the Galaxy Note. Wacom technology appearing on a phone is a long-held dream I seriously thought would never come true. So I want to use this more than any device I’ve seen in nearly ten years. And frustratingly, about anywhere in the world seems to be getting the Note before Ireland. Vodafone has at least have confirmed they will be carrying it though. No details on pricing yet, but if you want you can register your interest here and get notified as soon as it goes on sale.

Just one question remains then – what will we call this new class of device? Phablet seems to be catching on, even if some abhor the word. Well, it’s not as bad as tabphone or phoneblet. I have a different suggestion though. We could take a word that technology has made redundant and give it a new job. Let’s call it the Phonebook.

What Phone Is Right For You? – Index

Articles I’ve written to help you choose a phone.

 

English: Windows Phone 7 powered LG Panther(GW...
The Outsider - Windows Phone 7

1 – The Scene

Why are there so many competing kinds of phone now?

2 – But First…

Remember you don’t have to get a high-end smartphone.

3 – Enter The Gladiators

A quick overview of the types available.

4 – The Business End

Phones for work: Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, and Blackberry.

5 – Apple Changes Everything

It’s the biggest thing to happen to mobile phones – and perhaps even computing – for years. What makes the iPhone so special?

6 – Paradigm Shift Hits The Fan

An aside on the present and future of mobile computing, and what the rise of the smartphone really means.

7 – I, Android

Only Google it seems were able to learn from what Apple did and react fast enough. Have they actually beaten them at their own game?

What The Hell Is IPv6?

IPv4 exhaustion
The Red Line Shows Remaining Available Internet Addresses

So did you enjoy World IPv6 Day?

All right, there’s a fairly large chance that you have no freaking idea what I’m talking about. To put it as briefly as possible, the Internet is running out of addresses. The old system (IPv4) could only handle four billion of them. And as every computer, phone, tablet and other device connected to the Internet needs one, we were going to break the four billion mark sometime very soon. So, much like when your local telephone system adds an extra digit to its numbers to make room for new subscribers, the Internet is making its addresses longer. The new system is called IPv6.

We do not talk about IPv5.

But adding one digit to a phone number lets you create only ten times as many. The switch to IPv6 is more expansive than that. Seriously more. It will allow for 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as many Internet addresses as now. This is what mathematicians call a “silly number”.

As an end-user you’re not going to notice any difference. The process started years ago, and will take more years to complete. Yesterday’s “World IPv6 Day” was more or less a publicity stunt organised by some of the Net’s bigger names, Google and Facebook among them, to alert the industry to the necessity of upgrading. IPv6 was tested on a bigger scale than ever before and, well if you’re reading this then I guess nothing broke too badly.

So, a good thing then. We needed more addresses for the Internet to keep on expanding. But… this many? It will mean we could all have a few trillion to call our own. My toes can have a Skype account each. You could Internet-enable every leaf on every tree. It’s hard to imagine how you could ever use that many.

And there may be a downside to that. More anon!

What The Hell Is IPv6?

IPv4 exhaustion
The Red Line Shows Remaining Available Internet Addresses

So did you enjoy World IPv6 Day?

All right, there’s a fairly large chance that you have no freaking idea what I’m talking about. To put it as briefly as possible, the Internet is running out of addresses. The old system (IPv4) could only handle four billion of them. And as every computer, phone, tablet and other device connected to the Internet needs one, we were going to break the four billion mark sometime very soon. So, much like when your local telephone system adds an extra digit to its numbers to make room for new subscribers, the Internet is making its addresses longer. The new system is called IPv6.

We do not talk about IPv5.

But adding one digit to a phone number lets you create only ten times as many. The switch to IPv6 is more expansive than that. Seriously more. It will allow for 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as many Internet addresses as now. This is what mathematicians call a “silly number”.

As an end-user you’re not going to notice any difference. The process started years ago, and will take more years to complete. Yesterday’s “World IPv6 Day” was more or less a publicity stunt organised by some of the Net’s bigger names, Google and Facebook among them, to alert the industry to the necessity of upgrading. IPv6 was tested on a bigger scale than ever before and, well if you’re reading this then I guess nothing broke too badly.

So, a good thing then. We needed more addresses for the Internet to keep on expanding. But… this many? It will mean we could all have a few trillion to call our own. My toes can have a Skype account each. You could Internet-enable every leaf on every tree. It’s hard to imagine how you could ever use that many.

And there may be a downside to that. More anon!