Usability

Clicking away Friday, April 27, 2007

My friend Jonas Salling has started blogging again, and that's always a good thing.

He's got some recent posts up there as he tests the WiFi support for Clicker, and the results may surprise you!

Jonas is one of the hardest working developers out there, and he never settles for less than absolute excellence when releasing new stuff.

The long-in-development Clicker 3.5 is no exception, and it looks like it's getting really close to release. That's good news for all the fans of Clicker, since a great product is getting a lot better. And I'm sure he has many cool things in store moving forward as well.

Welcome back, Jonas -- looking forward to more posts!

WM/UIQ/WTF Friday, April 13, 2007

I freely admit, right at the start of this post, that I switch cell phones too often. A lot of this is because I try to do a lot with my mobile phone, mostly mail and web based. And I want the thing to work well with my Mac, and to be a phone: I don't really want a two-inch-thick "communication controller" on a belthook.

At the same time, I don't want a tiny screen or a crappy browser, and I need a decent way to input text.

I've had generally good luck with the recent generation Windows Mobile "smartphone" devices (like the T-Mobile Dash, aka the HTC Excalibur), but the version of Internet Explorer in them is pretty limited, and replying to support questions can be frustrating because of those limitations.

Some time ago, I'd purchased a Sony Ericsson M600i, which looked like it was going to be a good'un: good size, design, keyboard and capabilities. Unfortunately, at least 3/4 of a year ago, it seriously sucked. The design is good, but the version of UIQ3 it originally shipped with was buggy beyond words: the email program crashed constantly, disconnected from email, etc. The browser was capable, but it crashed all the time, too. And, to top it off, the thing wouldn't sync with the Mac.

It didn't last long... until I took it back out of the box last week.

After applying Sony Ericsson's recent software update (R9F011 for the curious), UIQ3 has taken a huge step into reliabilityland. All of a sudden, the applications are no longer crashing. Mail, while limited by some boneheaded design choices, works. The web browser has been updated, and it's fast and capable: it even renders some relatively complex stuff on the Shirt Pocket site.

On top of that, Kerio Mailserver has finally implemented support for the M600i's OTA ActiveSync (Exchange) support, so events, mail, contacts, etc are pushed to the device automatically. Combined with a new iSync plugin, the thing works with my Mac pretty well: transparent two-way sync is awfully compelling.

Not phone nirvana, but a nice set of updates combining to deliver a greatly improved experience. It'll be interesting to see how the iPhone measures up. If the "Push" support is only for Yahoo mail (I'm hoping that it properly supports IMAP IDLE), it doesn't do OTA sync, and it doesn't support a vibrant 3rd party community (that gives us Apple Design Award-winning products like Salling Clicker), its cool touchscreen and attractive UI won't really make up for its lack of capability.

Demo vs. reality -- always fun. We'll have to see in June.

HP: you rascal you! Thursday, March 15, 2007

It wasn't that long ago that HP had the absolute worst OSX drivers of any major peripheral developer. Their scanners barely worked, their printers sort of worked, the software they loaded was pretty shamefully buggy, flaky... they just sucked.

So, imagine my surprise when -- after a recent Mac purchase at the Apple Store -- I decided to get a "free" HP C6180 all-in-one printer and... hey! It's been de-suckified!

The thing is well designed, has good drivers, built-in networking, even scans and faxes over the network -- pushing or pulling to multiple "associated" Macs. It's not perfect but what the hell? It's like someone is writing these drivers who actually uses a Mac!

When did that happen? Doesn't HP know they're supposed to have crappy Mac products?

And after that good experience, and reading a number of great reviews, I grabbed an HP B9180 Photosmart Pro Printer, too. Again, a great printer, with good drivers, built-in networking, relatively frugal with inks, good paper handling: and it generates great prints.

This is HP -- "we generate huge dots with expensive ink and our photos look like crap" HP. And -- not.

Wow. I don't know what's going on at HP, but they should definitely keep it up.

Meeses Monday, July 31, 2006

One of the problems with Bluetooth mice and the Mac is that virtually none of them supply drivers. So, your mouse might have a gazillion handy-dandy buttons, but you’ll only get the wheel + right/left click.

For USB mice, USB Overdrive was the way to go for a long time, to the point where it was pretty clear that Microsoft’s own mouse and keyboard drivers were being done by the USB Overdrive guy. But, unfortunately, he’s been unable to get the Bluetooth support out the door.

Apple’s recent Bluetooth version of Mighty Mouse is out the door, but it, too, has minimal capability—you just can’t do much with the extra buttons, at least, not much beyond what has been pre-programmed. (And don’t get me started on that idiotic side-button-and-way-to-move-the-mouse-while-clicking implementation… ugh. Sometimes, Apple gets it wrong.)

For all this, there is a solution: Steer Mouse.

Steer Mouse is a replacement driver, like USB Overdrive, that enables all the various buttons for all your 3rd party mice, Bluetooth or USB, and even allows your Mighty Mouse to work more flexibly. (Alas, like USB Overdrive, it’s a preference pane that’s not really a preference pane.)

Works a treat with every mouse I’ve thrown at it. Just make sure to turn off the default “Move cursor to OK” action—the system should never, ever move the mouse on the user like that.

My Robots Monday, May 15, 2006

When I was a kid, I used a bunch of string, clothespins and pulleys to rig up a gizmo that was supposed to automatically make my bed for me. The idea—which I think I got out of a book (Thanks, Jake!)—was to attach the string to the top of the sheet and blanket, then use pulleys to run it to the edge of the headboard. You then route the string to the bottom of the bed, et voilá: pull the strings in the morning, and your bed’s made!

Except it didn’t really work out that way. Not only did I get tied up in the strings (quite lucky I didn’t strangle myself), but honking the strings didn’t really make my bed. It just sort of pulled the sheet up. Definitely not the hardest part of a properly made bed.

It was an interesting try, though, and a learning experience: automation isn’t easy. It’s relatively easy to get some crude part of the activity done, but the devil’s in the details.

I think a lot of my interest in this stuff was sparked by William Pene du Bois’ book The Twenty-One Balloons (or Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator—or maybe even that great story There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury), but whatever it was I’m fascinated by the concept of “automatic houses”, and always wondered if I’d live to see the day when household chores would be done with the push of a button, a glass of scotch, and a comfy chair.

I was pretty excited when Roomba came out a few years ago: they were clearly onto something, were paying attention to price points, and had extensive experience making more expensive robots for commercial and military use. Many improvements were made to their later generations, too, and they’ve now introduced a mop replacement, Scooba.

In parallel—or even before—Sweden’s Electrolux was working on their own robotic vacuum, which they presented to the world back in 1997. They released their first version—the Trilobite—in 2002 or so, followed by a significantly updated US version (also the Trilobite) in 2004, and Trilobite 2.0 in Europe at around the same time. Unlike iRobot, Electrolux wasn’t trying to hit a low price point; for them, the Trilobite is a technology showcase—and an example at what can be done with a mass-produced consumer product at the high end. (Dyson was working on something similar called the DC06, but abandoned the product, at least publicly, for performance reasons; other models, such as the Karcher are out as well, but I have no direct experience with them.)

It’s important to note that none of the robotic vacuums are going to Rosie-up your house. You will still have to use a regular vacuum every so often to do a deeper cleaning; if you dump a box of Quisp on the floor, they’re not going to dash out of their hole, clean it up, and run back. Instead, they’re intended to be used on a regular basis, doing general cleaning in between the times when you use a larger vacuum.

With those expectations in mind, here’s a comparison of the two. (I think this one of the longest posts I’ve written for this blog: sorry if it’s kinda boring, but I’m interested in this stuff.)

Roomba Scheduler - General Description
The Roomba Scheduler is iRobot’s current top-of-the-line model, with a street price of about $300 new. It’s quite similar to their “Discovery” model (priced $50 less), but—as the name implies—it can be scheduled to run automatically as desired.

Both the Scheduler and Discovery come with a docking station that charges the unit, and both will return to the charger at the end of their cleaning cycle.

It’s probably inaccurate to call the iRobot models “vacuums”. While they do have a small vacuum motor in them, their cleaning process is clearly patterned on a “floor and carpet sweeper” such as the Hoky or—given the spinning edge bush—the Leifheit Rotaro S. (There’s a thin, rotating “edge brush” at the front right that sweeps edge dirt toward the main brushes, much like the Leifheit.)

The Scheduler comes with an easily replaced NiMH battery pack, charger, two “virtual walls”, and various spares.

Overall, you can definitely tell Roomba units have been extensively cost reduced. The plastics, rubber, buttons etc are of reasonable but definitely not “high” quality. In the time I’ve had a Roomba, I’ve had to replace it twice due to failure. One failure was within three days of receipt, the other within a few months. Clearly, Roombas are not built to last, but they do come with a one year warranty. It takes a few weeks to get a replacement robot, should you need one. And, if you use a Roomba, you’ll probably need one.

Electrolux Trilobite (US Version - EL520A) - General Description
The US Trilobite EL520A is the only Trilobite available in this country, and streets as low as $1300. It cannot be scheduled automatically, but once turned on, it calculates the size of a room, and varies its cleaning time depending on what it finds.

Like the Roomba Scheduler, the Trilobite comes with a docking station that is placed along a wall, and the vacuum will return to the charger as needed. Unlike the Roomba, if the Trilobite runs out of juice in the middle of a cleaning cycle it will return to the charger and resume cleaning once full.

As you’d expect from Electrolux, the Trilobite has a real, rather strong (90W) vacuum, and relies on that—along with a beater bar with rubberized fins—for its cleaning.

The Trilobite comes with two internal NiMH battery packs (it switches between them automatically during operation), spare filters, and magnetic strips that can be used to prevent the robot from crossing room boundaries.

As mentioned above, Electrolux has released a new Trilobite in Europe—Trilobite 2.0 [ZA2]. The US model seems to have many, but not all, of the changes incorporated in 2.0—it’s more like Trilobite 1.8. Most notably, it has the redesigned fan, improved sensors, beater bar and the like. However, it lacks automatic scheduling and does not adjust its cleaning time based on the number of obstacles it encounters during the cleaning process. There may be other significant differences as well - there are reportedly over 200 changes from 1.0 to 2.0. I’ve tried to get more information from Electrolux without much success.

The Electrolux unit itself is beautifully manufactured. The plastics are of high quality, the industrial design—which resembles a horseshoe crab crossed with a trilobite—is witty and elegant. I’ve experienced no failures with my unit so far.

Roomba Scheduler - Operation
The Scheduler’s UI simple and easy to use: a power button and three operation mode buttons. The modes are:

  • Spot - Spot cleaning moves around in a rough circle, and is designed to clean a dirt spot quickly
  • Clean - Clean spends about an hour traversing the room, then returns to the dock
  • Max - Max cleaning works like clean, but runs until the battery runs out
Any errors are communicated with flashing lights and “beep codes” that indicate the problem area. The unit also communicates effectively with “happy”, “sad” and “what have I gotten myself into” sounds that are witty and helpful.

Roomba primarily uses a front “bump” sensor to detect obstacles. On its right side, it has an infrared sensor that detects walls, and under the bump sensor’s lip it has a series of infrared sensors that detect stairs and other drops. Two wide, nubby, independently powered wheels with black rubber covers move the Discovery from place to place. A small vacuum is integrated into the rear dustbin

The Roomba seems to have a few basic behaviors: wall following, crossing the room diagonally, spiraling and various obstacle avoidance maneuvers. The robot usually starts with a spiral. When it encounters an obstacle (with its bump or stair sensors), it either “bounces” off diagonally, tries to go “around” it (if a chair leg or the like), or tracks it (a wall or corner).

In Clean and Max modes, the Roomba’s “dirt detector” notices when there’s over a certain amount of particulate matter passing some built-in sensors. When this occurs, the vacuum spends extra time circling that area.

These behaviors are mixed randomly. Due to the random element and careful basic behavior choices, most surfaces are covered during the cleaning period.

When it comes time to dock, the Roomba doesn’t seem to actively “seek” its dock. Instead, it continues its regular behavior until it intersects the IR beam emanating from the dock. When it finds that signal, it follows it until it reaches the charging base.

Electrolux Trilobite - Operation
The Trilobite has a small, graphical LCD screen that displays its UI. It also has four buttons: Power, Stop, a navigation button and a “Yes” button. It has three main cleaning modes:

  • Normal - Normal mode measures the room size and calculates the amount of time necessary to clean it
  • Quick - Quick skips the measurement phase and moves directly into a fixed-time cleaning mode
  • Spot - Spot cleans a 10x10 area centered around the initial location
Other menu entries allow the fixed cleaning time and display language to be set. Any errors are displayed in the selected language on the LCD. Overall status is also communicated with various tunes much like the Roomba.

A large dustbin with a substantial filter is easily accessed under the top cover, which is released by a button at the rear of the unit. There’s a bump sensor at the front, but the Trilobite primarily uses its eight ultrasonic sensors, four pointing at about a 45 degree angle up, and four pointing out, to sense its environment. There are three additional infrared sensors on the bottom bumper, and additional sensors under its front lip. Two independently powered, narrow but large diameter wheels with clear urethane covers move it from place to place.

Like the Roomba, the Trilobite has a number of basic behaviors it combines during the cleaning process. In normal mode, it first uses a counter-clockwise wall-following to determine the size of the room. Once it re-encounters its dock, it moves into a cleaning mode.

In cleaning mode, the Trilobite makes diagonal runs, avoiding obstacles and changing speed and behavior depending on what it detects in the room. For example, if it encounters something it considers to be living (like a dog), it quickly “leaps back” to avoid it. If it approaches a “hard” object, it slows as it approaches, stops a fraction of an inch from its surface, and goes around. Steps are detected and avoided as expected.

Interestingly, the upward-facing ultrasonic sensors are used to detect when the Trilobite is under an object, like a bed. The sensors detect the boundaries of the object, and the vacuum uses that to ensure sufficient time is spent cleaning under it.

As with the Roomba, the Trilobite doesn’t really know where it has and hasn’t been, and it relies on a certain amount of randomness and time to ensure it’s covered the surface to be cleaned.

Docking behavior uses the wall-following technique, and moves in a counter-clockwise direction around the room until it encounters the dock. If the battery is depleted during a cleaning cycle, the Trilobite will locate its dock, charge, undock and complete the cycle.

Cleaning and clean-up
Overall, the Roomba and Trilobite do a pretty similar job cleaning a room. Neither “deep cleans” like a powerful vacuum with a beater bar (although the Trilobite gives it a try), but both manage to tidy things up nicely, rarely leaving a “missed” area.

Edging Performance
The Roomba definitely does a better job cleaning edges than the Trilobite. Part of this is due to the Roomba’s “edge brush”, which sweeps fluff and the like into the main brush’s path. But it’s also due to the fact that the Roomba bashes into edges, and doesn’t attempt to avoid contact with them. Although this does allow it to get closer to the wall, it has its downsides: my Roomba’s bumper is often smudged with paint it’s scraped off a baseboard or wall bottom, and this tendency isn’t helped by the sharp mold line on the bumper that’s right at the primary contact point. Should a wall be followed on the Roomba’s left, rather than its right (where the IR sensor is), near constant contact is made along the entire length of the wall.

The Trilobite does a reasonable job with edges (it makes a full, “edging” pass of the entire room during the measurement phase), but does not get as close—there’s probably 1/2” at the very edge that’s not directly cleaned.

Room Preparation
With the Roomba, it’s absolutely critical that all cords and delicate objects be moved before the cleaning takes place. All Roomba units are hungry for string, electrical cords, speaker wire and carpet fringe. Unfortunately, these items just don’t agree with its sensitive digestion and quickly get sucked in and tangled around the edge brush, main brush or rubber roller. When this happens, it plays a sad, sad song to apologize for the appliance it pulled onto the floor. It didn’t mean to be bad—it was just made that way!

The Trilobite, on the other hand, deals with most items—cords, fringe, even small objects—with aplomb. You wouldn’t want to leave a pile of papers or a magazine on the ground—both units will “read” them into bits—but a generally tidy room is easily handled by the Trilobite without any special care.

Both units have a way of preventing the robot from leaving a given area. The Roomba comes with two “virtual walls” that broadcast an infrared beam that the device detects and won’t cross. The Trilobite comes with a magnetic strip that can be temporarily or permanently installed that accomplishes the same thing.

I’ve found it’s far more important to “block” the Roomba into a space than it is to do so with the Trilobite. If the Roomba leaves a single room area, it’s unlikely to make it back to its dock, and will not clean the space effectively. Not so with the Trilobite: in our open plan house, the Trilobite can be switched on and will clean our lower level in one go, including entering the kitchen area, living space, reading area and the like. It needs to charge at the midpoint or so, but it does accomplish the task.

After Cleaning - Robot Needs Help!
In an ideal world, a robot vacuum wouldn’t just automatically top up its power tank—it’d empty its dust bin and take out the trash. Alas, this task is left to you, and there’s a pretty significant difference between the two units, especially if you have a pet with long hair (example: Ketzl, our Bernese Mountain Dog).

Dust Bins
The “dust bins” of both units are easy to remove. Roomba’s rear-mounted bin is designed in a “floor sweeper” kind of way, and it’s hard to avoid dumping fine dust and dirt on the floor when removing it. Once done, it’s easy to shake out particulate matter: you then disassemble part of the lower area where lint gathers by the vacuum filter. The Roomba’s bin isn’t very large, and should be emptied on a regular basis—if you’ve scheduled it to vacuum daily, I’d suggest checking it every few days, depending on the environment.

Trilobite has a large (1.2 Qt) sealed, plastic bin. Dust does not escape from it when it’s disconnected from the main unit: a flap closes over the intake, and the other end is covered by a microfiber filter that’s held closed by a magnetic cover: once open, dirt, fluff, etc is easily shaken into the trash. The 1/2” thick filter traps fine dust and should be replaced when necessary (as with most normal vacuums). The Trilobite automatically signals when the bin is full.

Brushes
Roomba’s brush mechanism must be disassembled and cleaned on a regular basis, and—in the “dog” case—gets seriously bound up with hair. The hair wraps itself around the brush, bearings and rubber bar, and requires a significant amount of time to cut, pull and remove.

Although newer models are easily disassembled (early Roombas required a screwdriver), hair can—and does—tie itself around the bushing on one side of the brush and bar, and—when present in sufficient quantity it’ll literally cause the plastic bearing cover to melt, deform and destroy itself. No doubt this is a known problem: a spare brush is supplied with the unit, as is a Roomba “cleaning tool” that has a razor blade and probe that makes the cleaning process easier. Even with that, it can take 20 minutes to clean the Roomba after it’s spent an hour vacuuming a room.

The Trilobite—since it relies primarily on its vacuum, rather than a brush—doesn’t have the same hair problem. Its bar occasionally gets a small amount of hair around it, but it’s made of aluminum (with urethane-looking fins) and doesn’t self-destruct. It’s easily cleaned when it needs to be, which isn’t very often.

Summary
The Roomba and Trilobite achieve their design goals in a broad sense: they automatically vacuum a room, and do a pretty good job of it. But a closer look reveals design differences and compromises that seriously impact the long term “live-with-it” factor that one must deal with after the initial “cool!” factor wears off.

Both are fascinating to watch do their thing, the Trilobite more so due to the intelligent behaviors it exhibits and the mechanical grace it shows in its movements (watching it carefully pick its way out of a jam, climb up onto a rug, pay special attention to under a bed, dock or follow a complex perimiter really shows what a good job Electrolux’s programmers did). The Roomba feels far more brute force as it bashes its way around the room at full speed (despite the fact that both devices rely on random-walk base behavior), but does an good job despite its lack of finesse.

It’s hard to emphasize this kind of thing enough, though. The more elegant approach of the Trilobite is a big advantage i. With the Roomba, as you watch it, you’re amazed it managed to do what it does at all. With the Trilobite, you’re surprised how well, cleverly, and carefully it performs its task. (This has its downside, too—expectations are very high given the overall “quality” impression and high price: when the Trilobite screws up, it’s harder to understand/forgive its failing. Maybe it needs to play a sadder song.)

At $300 for the top of the line model, Roomba is much, much more affordable, and its scheduling capability is handy (though not as handy as it could be with a larger, less messy bin). In a small, easily-blocked off, cord-free room without fringed rugs or hair, and rugged surroundings that don’t mind extensive “bump” contact, it does a good job. If you stay on top of its maintenance challenges—a significant timesink if you have a long-haired pet—it’ll serve its purpose admirably, although I have serious concerns about its longer term durability.

For me, though, the Trilobite is the clear winner. Its “no contact” approach works much better in most areas in my house, and its general charging and cleaning behaviors are better suited to an open plan space. It’s “vacuum-based” operation requires far less setup and maintenance with a pet in residence, and in that—and its overall elegance—it proves to be something that can be “lived with”, long term, with minimal compromise.

Exhaustive/exhausting Sunday, April 23, 2006

Maurits, of plasticsfuture, has posted an exhaustive, two part review of backup programs on Mac OS X. The first part focuses on the general issue of backing up files on OSX, and the second contains an extensive analysis of more backup programs than I’ve seen covered in one place—freeware, shareware and commercial.

In my blog, I tend to talk about the usability aspects of SuperDuper!, because that’s where I focus my efforts. I can only do that because Bruce and I have very high standards for the rest of SuperDuper!, and Bruce’s copy engine is second to none. In fact, in this review of 16 tools, SuperDuper! was the only tool that worked correctly:

The surprising conclusion is that almost all Macintosh backup or cloning programs do not fulfil (sic) their primary purpose, i.e., they are not able to restore files with all associated metadata. This is despite the fact that many of the tools are advertised as “safe”, “accurate”, “bug-free”, etc. The tools that fail are harmful because they generate a false sense of security. Even more exasperating is that many of these tools cost (significant amounts of) money. The only laudable exception is the great SuperDuper application, which performs flawlessly. (Emphasis mine.)

Many thanks to the pseudonymous Maurits for putting this whole thing together: it couldn’t have been easy to do.

MCE Experience vs. Comcast DVR Saturday, March 18, 2006

I was reading Wil Shipley’s recent post about his horrible Comcast DVR experience, which has some kind of Microsoft DVR software on it, and it amazed me how lousy it was, compared to my Sony VGX-XL1 Media Center PC.

I know Microsoft is a big company, but it sounds like the DVR division (if, indeed, they provided the software he was using) not only hasn’t talked to the Media Center team, they haven’t even looked at Media Center. Because MCE doesn’t have any of these problems. (Which isn’t to say it’s perfect, but it’s positively shiny in comparison to what Wil describes.)

I’ve been avoiding anything but analog cable because of exactly this kind of issue—I just don’t want to be forced to take Comcast’s lousy box. The Vista version of MCE, with CableCard support, can’t come soon enough.

Toshiro Mifune Gets His Organize On! Monday, January 23, 2006

Looks like the fine folks at Bare Bones Software have released Yojimbo, an great new take on the organizer-cum-database that many have tried, and failed, to do well…

The Yojimbo team has done a great job, addressing many of the classic missteps directly, with:

  • A good first cut at a smart “Quick Input” panel that analyzes what’s on the clipboard and pre-fills as much as possible
  • Rapid, global search capabilities that make it easy to locate things—including Spotlight support
  • A useful set of built-in datatypes
  • Easy “sub” organization using groups and tags
  • Full support for “archived” web pages, PDFs and the like
  • Item-by-item encryption
  • And, best of all, transparent, multi-machine synchronization through SyncServices and .mac
They’ve leveraged the great new features of Tiger like CoreData, SyncServices and—hey!—it’s even a Cocoa app!

The price is a very reasonable $39 for a single user on any number of (automatically synchronized) computers, with family pack and educational pricing, too.

To top it off, there’s a free, 30-day demo. There’s no excuse not to check it out—go to it!

Media Centers Sunday, December 11, 2005

More heresy, I know, but I’ve got a Windows XP Media Center Edition box connected to my HDTV, and—after about six months of use—I’m prepared to say that it’s actually pretty good!

We all know—from direct gotta-use-these-things experience—that this stuff is not easy. The general rule is that, if it connects to a TV, it’s got an awful, primitive, ugly and slow UI.

The best of these things is, without question, TiVo. While slow, TiVo tries to be relentlessly user-focused and friendly, and mostly achieves its goals. (Too bad about its recent compromises in that area, and the fact that, even with broad distribution and name recognition, it never really took the market by storm.)

At least for TV, TiVo sets a high bar. And, with some caveats, a high-end Media Center PC does a pretty darn good job with TV and DVDs (music and pictures, not so much, but I’m not using it for that).

So, keeping an open mind, let’s dive in.

There’s little question that the 10-foot UI on the MCE is—along with Smartphone—the very best attempt at a “new” UI I’ve ever seen Microsoft do. It’s very simple, reasonably attractive, scales well to different resolutions (from 480i to 1080p), and reacts quickly to user requests.

Despite the fun Steve Jobs had comparing the iMac’s remote to the generic MCE one, much like TiVo (whose remote it definitely resembles), normal use is accomplished with a similar set of buttons.

It’s important to note that a low “number of buttons” doesn’t necessarily mean “fewer controls”. Rather, it means “more on screen controls”. The real issue here is a balance between direct and indirect operation: a button, or a menu that you select from.

Super-simple remotes have been tried before, specifically by Bang & Olufsen in their BeoVision 1 product. That remote was very, very, very similar to Apple’s (no surprise there), and was abandoned quickly: users wanted more buttons and fewer menus for common operations.

With MCE, you’ve got the expected up/down/left/right navigation, select, play/pause, menu and back. And you could literally operate the thing with just that. Additional buttons are things like more complete transport controls (FF/REW, Chapter Skip FW/BK—and yes, it does a 30-second commercial skip), record, a number/alpha (phone-style) pad, power, volume and channel up/down).

The MCE team has clearly thought long and hard about the way users interact with video material, and with their TVs. It keeps your program running onscreen while you investigate the guide, record or search for other programs, verify recordings, pauses and resumes multiple programs, has a live TV buffer, smart FF/REW handling—all the things you’d expect are there.

Adding new individual recordings or series is simply a matter of searching and clicking a readily available onscreen button, and the recording modes cover the necessary exceptions, like one time/series, first run/repeat, how long to keep the show, channels to check, etc.

The unit itself can support a large number of tuners, something I think is pretty important, and will do simultaneous recordings from all of them transparently to the user. Conflicts are handled well, and all of this happens reliably. OTA HDTV is fully supported, as are video inputs from cable/satellite boxes.

The guide is right on target—and unlike TiVo, it’s free, with no subscription fees. It has some nice additional nice features like a “what movies are on right now” that shows you the movie’s video cover along with other information.

All this is handled with admirable simplicity and restraint, and it really does work well in person. That isn’t to say it looks even remotely Apple-like: the graphics don’t ever let you forget that it’s part of the Windows XP Family. But, within that, quite pleasant.

The fact that you can use an XBox 360 as an “extender”, and use the main MCE’s tuners and recorded material in other rooms, is a very nice bonus. Just turn the volume up up up, because the XBox makes a racket.

Where does it fall down? Apart from initial setup (getting this to work at 1080i through DVI was much too difficult), and an inability to really mix-up inputs with straight, non-decoder box cable, satellite and HDTV (admittedly a bit pathological, but one can dream), and no non-OTA HDTV recording (cable, satellite), it falls down where you’d expect: this is really an application, sitting on top of Windows XP—and ignore that fact at your peril. So, you have to run AntiVirus, Firewall, etc. If XP has trouble, your nice UI is relegated to a Task Bar button as you delve into the Device Manager and have your way with it. If your drivers stink, so will your experience.

If you don’t use it for anything but media, though, these problems are infrequent—but when they show their ugly heads, the illusion of friendliness and design is well and truly broken.

A more subtle thing is a detail that bothers me well beyond its importance: illogical transitions. MCE has a “zoom” effect that it uses when you go between “pages” of its UI. Mostly, the effect works, but when a playing video “zooms” down to a miniwindow when you go into the main UI, the zoom goes totally the wrong way. (It should shrink the video to the little window, exposing or zooming up the main UI, whereas right now the effect goes to the other corner, and just looks random and disorienting.)

When you’re whining about something that “minor” in the UI you know they’ve mostly got the big things right.

FrontRow—Apple’s first shot at this kind of thing, competes in a very different area. It doesn’t do TV at all, no recording, no input. Instead, it plays to Apple’s strength: music. And, in this, it does a better job that MCE does in that particular area. (Yes, I have EyeTV, and it isn’t part of FrontRow, has only a single tuner and poor guide integration. It really doesn’t compare favorably.) And, you’ve got the iLife things you’d expect: it’ll play your home videos and show your photos—as will MCE—both things I don’t, but it’s nice for those who do.

That’s as far as it goes, though. While I’m quite interested in where Apple takes FrontRow, it’s not really competition for this… yet. But I’m glad it looks like things are actually heating up in the space!

Hello? It’s your other anchor calling. Hello? Friday, November 18, 2005

I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I’m a fan of the i-mate SP3 Windows Mobile Smartphone.

Mobile phones are one of those things that are difficult to generalize: your reaction to the phone is likely based entirely on what you expect to get out of the device. So, if you’re looking for style and “fun”, there are phones for you. You want an email monster? Got that covered with the Treo or—for the truly disturbed—the Crackberry.

I have some basic requirements:

  1. The phone has to be GSM.
  2. It has to be able to be used as a bluetooth, tethered modem for my PowerBok.
  3. It has to be a good phone, of course.
  4. It has to be reasonably pocketable.
  5. It should work well with Salling Clicker.
  6. It has to support a bluetooth headset.
  7. It has to have a full-featured, totally synced phonebook that isn’t just a list of names/numbers.
  8. The mail client has to be full-featured, with IMAP support and folders.
  9. The web browser has to be fast, reasonably modern, and render well on a small screen.
  10. The calendar/tasks module has to sync, too.
I’ve gone through a lot of phones—a disturbing number—and the big problem I had was getting the “balance” right: they were either focused too much on being just a simple phone (Motorola v600, Sony T610), had flaky software (Sony P800/P900), weren’t phone enough (i-mate PDA2k, i-mate JAM), or just plain sucked (HP 6315).

But, with the SP3, i-mate/HTC got it right, at least for me.

It’s small, light, fast. Unlike a lot of Microsoft stuff, you can tell they not only thought about what the user needed, but actually came up with good solutions for those needs. A perfect example of this is the way you look up names in the phone book—you just start typing on the keypad, and it finds names that match those keys by number, any of the various letter combinations, etc.

It just works. And that can be said for the whole package: it works. Well. That’s a really good thing, and too rare in this market.

And now, they’ve gone and one-upped themselves with the SP5/5m.

The SP5 uses Windows Mobile 5, rather than 2003, and WM5 has made a lot of subtle improvements that definitely make things better, in little ways. The screen has been massively upgraded to a full QVGA unit, and it’s bright, sharp and gorgeous. And, somehow, they’ve put in both EDGE and WiFi support, while keeping the battery life and—for the most part—the small size.

It does have some faults, of course. It’s slightly underpowered, and has some problems pushing all those bits on the new screen. The radio stack, as is the case with most just-released HTC units, is a bit flaky. And it doesn’t have as much free memory as I’d expect it to have.

Plus, Salling Clicker doesn’t work with it yet, though it does work very nicely with the SP3. C’mon, Jonas—the SP5 needs some love!

But the biggest issue right now is that it doesn’t sync directly with my Mac, because it’s not supported by Missing Sync for Windows Mobile yet. No doubt they’ll fix that, but in the meantime I’ve actually managed to get things working reasonably well by making use of my Kerio Mail Server’s Exchange functionality and—of all things—Entourage. More on Entourage and this whole sync solution in another post.

In the meantime, it’s good stuff, and recommended.

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