My Gadgets of 2014

A laundry list of all the gadgets I used last year:

  • iPod Touch: I’d got this 2nd gen device in early 2010, and it has been pretty much reduced to the role of a music player now. The battery does not hold up for very long, but otherwise it’s fine. It’s stuck on iOS 5, and it made for some stunning contrast when I got my iPhone later in the year.
  • Lumia 720: This was my primary phone for nearly half of the year before I dropped it and busted the screen. It was a pleasure to use and I captured lots of photos & videos using this. I continue to recommend Windows Phones to people switching to modern smartphones for the first time.
  • Galaxy S3: A phone I got way back in mid-2012, and it never became my primary phone. It did serve as my primary internet device on the go till I got my iPhone. The performance also degraded over time and with my version of the device being omitted by Samsung for the Kitkat upgrade, I flashed it with Cyanogenmod 11. This did give a much needed performance boost, but I lost most of my gaming progress and ended up installing a lot fewer apps than I had before.
  • iPad mini: I had got the 64 GB version on the day it launched in India in Dec 2012, and it has become my go to browser & gaming device at home. iOS 7 & 8 have performed pretty decently on this though some of the newer games have performance issues due to the old old hardware. Even though I got the highest capacity, I still run into storage issues due to my large collection of games, music & comics (tons of them through Humble Bundle). Apart from this, my iPhone and office MacBook Air have ensured that I have companion devices to exploit the continuity features introduced in iOS 8 & Yosemite.
  • Kindle Paperwhite: I had gotten impatient and bought the 1st gen device in Dec 2013, just a few months before the launch of the second gen in India. Haven’t regretted the purchase though as my Kindle library has a couple hundred books plus there’s a bunch of them from other sources. I have read quite a few books on it and it is definitely more convenient than the iPad mini in that regard.
  • Canon EOS 550D: My DSLR completed 4 years this August, and I do manage to shoot special occasions on it – mostly cultural shows & family trips. The Lumia 720 & iPhone pretty much took over the casual (and not so casual at times) shooting role. Plus the phones are a lot more convenient for shooting video. My 4 lens kit along with a flash didn’t see any addition this year which is probably a sign of things to come.
  • Acer laptop: This Windows 7 machine has been through a hard disk replacement due to failure but manages to trudge on. I had bought it with the intention of gaming, but it seems to be having heating issues of late when running heavier games. Its role has been pretty much reduced to that of a home server, handling the occasional download and streaming duties. Gaming & browsing have been pretty much shifted to the iPad & smartphones though it manages to hang on to the printing duties.
  • TP Link modem & wifi routers: I had started off with a 3G wifi router a couple of years back to make the most of my MTS connection. We eventually went for an MTNL connection and a DSL modem cum wifi router took over as the main connection, and I shifted the old router to the role of a range extender for my bedroom. They’ve been doing pretty well apart from the streaming issues with the Apple TV.
  • MacBook Air: Thanks to my role of managing the official mobile apps at work, I ended up replacing the work HP Windows laptop with a MacBook Air in April. It’s been a pleasure to use, and took me a few weeks to appreciate the difference between Windows & OS X. In terms of the OS both Windows & OS X have their strengths & weaknesses. The real difference in user experience comes from the hardware – the default SSD in particular. This makes a ton of difference to the responsiveness of the machine and guarantees a near tablet\smartphone like response. I’m sure Windows laptops can feel the same way, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything priced below a MacBook Air equipped with SSDs by default.
  • Google Glass: Another device that I got to use for a few weeks due to my work role. Definitely not a mainstream device, especially in its current form, but it will certainly have a major role to play in the enterprise. The hardware is almost certain to get an upgrade this year and things should be interesting once more.
  • iPhone 5s: Ended up replacing my broken Lumia 720 with a gold 16 GB iPhone 5s after lots of debates. Bought it just before the 6\6+ launch when the prices were on the way down to reduce the cognitive dissonance a bit. The storage is definitely a limiting factor and the screen a tad small now that we have the larger iPhones, but everything else is just the way I wanted. My photo shooting has increased even more after the purchase, and so has my video taking. I’ve also finally got all the apps I use on my primary phone – Windows Phone was limited that way. TouchID is of course what it promises to be and has made me quite lazy. I suspect I’m now firmly in the iPhone camp with a finger in the Android camp.
  • Apple TV: Yet another Apple device for home. AirPlay is certainly handy to have for uses ranging from photo slideshows to showing off online videos. Plus the home sharing feature allows me to stream content from my laptop a lot more reliably (my TV could play some stuff, but not all formats). The Youtube channel also got a much needed overhaul towards the end of the year and I have finally started catching up on my Watch Later list.
  • Apple Airport Express: With the Apple TV came the limitations of my routers streaming capabilities. I’d faced it before when I’d tried to stream to the iPad, but the Apple TV just highlighted the problem even more. Did some research and zeroed in on the Airport Express instead of some ac capable router since I don’t have any device with ac yet. Things have been pretty smooth since then, though the range of the router is not that different from the TP Link ones.
  • Honourable mentions: I’ve still got my Altec Lansing ATP3 speakers purchased way back in 2007 as my primary speakers. The Senheisser HD 239 headphones purchased in 2013 saw a lot more use last year, though the SoundMagic earphones have been sparingly used. I also got a JBL bluetooth speaker that’s come in handy on many occasions. My Plantronics Voyager Pro HD bluetooth headset from 2012 is also going pretty strong and sees almost daily use.

2015 is probably too early for getting anything VR related, but I have a very strong suspicion that I’m going to end up with a wearable this year.

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The Kindle Paperwhite and Store: An Indian perspective

Amazon has been on a relentless journey since the Kindle launch in 2007, steadily making improvements to the product range to arrive at the perfect e-book reader. In the current era of pervasive LCD screens, the e-ink screens in the Kindle readers make for a paper like reading experience (albeit grayscale). This is the USP for dedicated e-book readers in the current tablet and smartphone era. The Kindle devices (apart from the large screen Kindle DX) have stuck to 6” screens that seem to be the ideal size, resembling your typical paperbacks. The devices started off with physical keyboards in the pre-iPhone era, and gradually evolved to a more compact form factor letting go of the keyboard in the Kindle Touch and 4th generation Kindle.

Hardware

The Kindle Paperwhite is the culmination of Amazon’s pursuit over the years, combining the essentials of an e-book reader with an attractive price point. Introduced in 2012 and upgraded last year, the Kindle Paperwhite is a near perfect e-book reader. The Pearl e-ink screen is of the de facto standard 6” size, with a 200+ dpi resolution resulting in print like readability and is the best of the current Kindle readers. There is also a special LED and fibre optics based backlight that can be adjusted to enable reading in poor lighting situations. In fact you can either turn off the light completely or turn it up to get rid of glare in most situations. While the first generation device had some complaints due to the non-uniform lighting in some devices, the second generation device has addressed this issue. Then there is also the touchscreen that makes for speedy navigation and organization of your collection. There are however no physical page turning buttons unlike the other Kindles, and this remains a bone of contention for some users. The touchscreen itself is not capacitive, but IR based due to which it can be activated by inadvertent contact with objects. It also supports multi touch (only 2 points though), and this can be used to adjust font size.

The device as a whole is quite lightweight (a little over 200 g which is around 50% heavier than a typical smartphone) and feels quite good in hand even though it is made of plastic with rounded edges. This also means that in case you doze off while reading on the bed, you are less likely to end up with injuries than your metallic tablets like the iPads. The Kindle Paperwhite has just one hardware button that functions as the power button. Apart from this the micro-USB port is the only discontinuity in the body. The device comes with just a USB cable in the box, and Amazon assumes that you have sufficient adapters at home to take care of the charging. Any standard USB adapter should do the trick for charging, and this is something that you will not need to do very often. Unlike smartphones with their daily and tablets with their near weekly charging requirements, the Kindle Paperwhite follows in its predecessor’s footsteps and gives a battery life of a month or more depending on usage. It’s been about 2 months since I bought my Kindle Paperwhite and have charged it twice thus far while having read over a dozen books.

The on device storage is just 2 GB with 1.25 GB usable for storing books. While that seems paltry by smartphone and tablet standards, e-books are typically text only and require very little storage space and the device should be able to comfortably accommodate hundreds of books, if not over a thousand. The Kindle Paperwhite also comes in 2 variants – Wi-Fi only and 3G, with a 20-30% premium for the latter. The 3G model is useful if you want to get hold of books on the go, but there are limits on the amount of data you can use per month since it comes with the connection built in (effectively Amazon subsidized) and you do not need to put in any SIM to use the network.

Getting content on the device is quite simple – just purchase your books from the Kindle bookstore. You can also side-load your own books into the device by connecting it to your PC, and add online articles and documents through mail.

Software

The Kindle Paperwhite user interface is pretty simple to use and there is a brief walkthrough of the features on your first power up. The home screen can be configured to display the covers of your book library or just a title list. The interaction is mostly gesture based with the screen split into 3 tap zones while reading – the top brings up the menu, the right 2/3 for page turning and left 1/3 for turning back. You can also swipe up-down\left-right to progress through lists. You can also organize your library into collections, which is particularly useful for large libraries. The top menu serves as a navigation system with a home and back button, a button to adjust the backlight, open up the Kindle Store and other menu items including font settings. There is also an experimental browser that you can use for web browsing in a pinch, along with social media integration to share snippets from the content you are reading.

The X-ray feature is also quite useful, particularly when you are reading books that have lots of characters and places. X-ray gives you snippets on the characters as they appear in the book along with visualization of areas where they feature. The second generation Paperwhite also has GoodReads integration for additional information on books, page flip that allows you to literally flip through the book without moving away from the page you are reading. You can also look up definitions of words and phrases in the built in dictionary and refer to Wikipedia as well. The touchscreen is quite handy for this purpose, and can also be used to highlight portions of the text.

The software on the whole is quite non-intrusive and fades into the background once you get reading and turning the pages which is precisely the reason for getting an e-book reader.

Amazon Kindle Store

The Kindle Paperwhite and other Kindle devices are but one side of the Amazon value proposition. The real reason why Amazon is producing the Kindle devices and selling them at a nominal profit is to rope you into their ecosystem which in this case is the Kindle bookstore. In fact, Amazon does not mind you using a different device like your smartphone or tablet as long as you are buying content from their bookstore. This is the reason they have got a Kindle App for every major platform including iOS, Android and Windows Phone. The devices and apps also sync your reading progress through the cloud, so you can continue reading from where you left off as long as you are signed in to your Amazon account.

Amazon has tuned the Kindle Store experience to minimize the amount of time you need to wait to start reading the book of your choice. Not only can you buy books directly from the Kindle Paperwhite when connected to a network, but you can also buy from the Amazon website and have it delivered to the device of your choice. In case you are unsure of the book content, you can also sample the first few pages for free. While this may not be a perfect substitute for flipping through a book in a physical store, the overall experience is a comprehensive improvement. Just the way Amazon revolutionized e-commerce, the Kindle Store lets you sample, buy and then start reading the book of your choice in the matter of a few minutes without stepping outside of what you were doing.

The Kindle US Store has been around for a while, but the Indian version launched only last year with e-books priced very aggressively – well below paperback editions. Many a times you will find bestsellers and popular books including new releases available at a fraction of paperback costs. The range is also extensive, and includes a good variety of Indian authors in addition to the typical international catalogue. There are also a range of photo heavy books available along with comics and graphic novels. These are however consumed best on large colour screen tablets due to their fixed layout. To round off the content availability, you can also subscribe to blogs, newspapers and magazines.

Conclusion

Amazon has completely transformed the way we purchase and read books over the years. It started off as one of the first successful online stores selling books, and then made e-books mainstream through the Kindle e-ink readers and the Kindle Store. Granted that a dedicated e-book reader may not be for everyone, especially when it is priced around Rs 10,000. This is the reason that Amazon also has the regular Kindle priced at a little over half of the Kindle Paperwhite for budget conscious readers. That device sacrifices the touchscreen and backlight along with some software features. In case you are looking for a general purpose device that also serves as a reader, Amazon has got you covered with the Kindle Fire devices that start just above the Kindle Paperwhite’s price.

That said, the Kindle Paperwhite in tandem with the massive collection in form of the Kindle Store makes for a very attractive value proposition. The device has an excellent backlit, sharp, paper-like screen with a multi-week battery life in a compact and lightweight form populated by the best bookstore in the world. If you have the budget, the Kindle Paperwhite is the best reading experience you can buy this year.

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in On the Rox magazine