ChromeOS: iPhone OS 1.0, 2.0.

It’s been almost three months since I’ve blogged last. I’m really sorry about that. Shortly after writing my last blog post, the Eleven project began, and I’ve been focused on that lately. That, and I just haven’t found the inspiration to blog in quite awhile. Until now.

Sometimes, you find a product that makes you think, “How does this even exist? The idea behind it is so dumb!” The new Asus Chromebox (and Chromeboxes, and ChromeOS products in general, but especially Chromeboxes) is the poster child of such products. Chromebooks made zero sense. Chromeboxes make even less sense (negative one sense?). As implied by the title, this post is intended as a critique of ChromeOS in general, but I’d first like to address Chromeboxes, as they seem to be a special kind of pointless.

WTF is a Chromebox?

A Chromebox is a desktop running ChromeOS. ChromeOS’s supposed “advantage” is battery life, so I don’t quite get the point of running it on a desktop (or anything else for that matter, because it’s useless, but that’s a matter for another part of this post…).

Why would anyone want that?

Because apparently Google’s marketing machine is good at convincing people to buy things that are totally useless. The point of a desktop is to do the things you can’t do with a laptop. ChromeOS only does web browsing. And last I checked, any decent laptop can do that just fine. Buying a desktop just for web browsing would be like buying a semi truck to haul your canoe. What’s more, apparently they’re making a version of this thing with an i7. I kid you not. I’m not really sure what kind of web sites you’re visiting that demand an i7 to use them, but that sounds like more of a problem with web developers than with computer hardware…

I should make clear at this point that I’m not trying to suggest Chromebooks are a sensible product with my “desktops are supposed to be more capable than laptops” line. I, like any sensible customer, expect my laptop to do a fair bit as well. It can’t run intense games or multiple VM’s, but my laptop (a 13″ rMBP with an i5 and 8GB RAM) is capable of most other tasks I’d ever need a computer for, including a fair bit of dev work. As an extension of my philosophy, a laptop should be able to do more than a phone or tablet. And my phone and tablet (Nexus 5 and 7, respectively) can run apps. Something a Chromebook can only dream of (unless of course you erase it and put a real Linux distro on it, although Chrome “OS” is supposed to be its primary selling point).

That title still makes no sense.

I indeed meant for this post to slam ChromeOS in general. But I needed to rant specifically about Chromeboxes first, just because. So, about that title…

Remember iPhone OS 1.0?

It had no apps. Aside from crappy web apps, which as far as I know, nobody ever used. And the iPhone is renowned primarily for its app ecosystem (note: I’m an Android user, and even I acknowledge this).

Art called Steve “half a dozen times to lobby for the potential of the apps,” according to the book, but Steve was against them

If it were up to Steve Jobs, the iPhone would not have native apps, arguably its defining characteristic. This was the origin of iOS jailbreaking – people were fed up with the limited capabilities of (surprise!) web apps.

The demand for native apps on iOS was so high that the hand of the infamously stubborn Steve Jobs was forced into giving in. Seriously, remember how he brushed off the fairly serious Antennagate as “You’re holding it wrong”? In the mind of Jobs, the demand for apps must’ve many times more serious, in order to actually cause him to relent. And because of this, iOS, a platform that originally shipped without native app support, became renowned for its native app ecosystem. In short, ditching web apps was the best thing that ever happened to iOS.

Go home Google, you’re drunk

Google should take note. If native apps are so essential on a phone, they’re that much more essential on a laptop, and definitely more so on a desktop. You’re not doing anyone any favors by dumbing down the computing experience to that extent. Once again, look at Apple. They’ve managed to create a system that’s “idiot-proof” without limiting their OS to the role of a glorified web browser. That, and Google’s strategy seems a little… incoherent? Their mobile OS isn’t dumbed down at all. But their desktop OS is? Am I missing something here? Or maybe not. Google is somewhat infamous for throwing ideas at the wall then seeing what sticks (Chromeboxes certainly haven’t stuck, as I don’t know anybody who owns one, and neither have Chromebooks, as I’ve only ever seen one in the wild).

ChromeOS is almost an insight into the road not taken by Apple – what if Steve Jobs didn’t back down, and iOS remained nothing but a haven for poorly-crafted web apps? It would be jeered at and mocked by tech culture, and everyone else would be blissfully unaware of the fact that it even exists. I’m no fan of Microsoft, but… they’re right:

I’ve come to the conclusion that ChromeOS isn’t meant to be taken as a serious product. It’s just another Google experiment – a public beta test. Google themselves don’t use it (I believe they use Macs internally). They know it isn’t a usable product. If Google really wants to make a desktop OS, they should use Android as a base. Or Ubuntu or some other Linux distro. Add the Play Store, and allow Android apps to run in windowed mode (also, please do this on tablets as well while you’re at it). People do actually expect to do things with their computers. And there’s nothing a Chromebox, or a Chromebook for that matter, can do that a desktop or laptop running OS X, Windows, or Linux can’t do. Meanwhile, these systems can do so much more. Even OpenOffice (or LibreOffice, or whatever they’re calling it these days) trumps Google Docs by a longshot. Oh, and it works without an internet connection.

What says it all? I was at Best Buy a few months ago, and I wanted to try out a Chromebook, just so I could bash it fairly. An employee found it necessary to inform me that it’s just a web browser. “I know.” Apparently they get a lot of complaints from people who buy them and then return them or something. I can just picture the typical consumer:

Consumer: I can’t install any programs on my laptop.

Employee: It’s a Chromebook.

Consumer: So? It’s got Chrome on it? It’s a laptop. Surely it does something useful as well.

Employee: Nope.

Consumer: Oh? Why would Google make something so useless? I’m not buying Google or Chrome anything anymore.

It’s like Windows RT all over again (remember all the stories/discussion about users who don’t understand how it doesn’t run any of their Windows apps?). It’s supposedly intended to target your average “idiot” consumer. But your average “idiot” consumer can’t understand what it is and isn’t capable of, expects it to be just like any other laptop, buys it, and gets confused (then probably returns it).

TL;DR ChromeOS is tarnishing Google’s reputation, and there are two groups of people: its target market, whom it will confuse the ever-living crap out of, as they (understandably – people should expect their desktop OS to be more capable than iPhone OS 1.0) aren’t capable of understanding its limitations; and geeks, who know that it’s useless.

Review: Nexus 5

On October 31, Google announced the long-rumored successor to the Nexus 4. The Nexus 5, once again manufactured by LG, features a 4.95in 1080p display at 446ppi (as compared to the Nexus 4’s 4.7in display at 318ppi), along with a Snapdragon 800 processor. It’s also available in a new 32GB variant. Disappointingly, it retains the same 2GB of RAM as its predecessor. It’s not that 2GB wasn’t enough for the N4 – it was. But I’ve noticed some background apps closing in situations where they wouldn’t on a Nexus 4. I don’t know if this is a KitKat issue, or if it’s because driving the larger screen just needs more memory. Regardless, it’s time for me to answer the question probably on everyone’s mind, in my first-ever hardware review (thus far I’ve only done software): Is the Nexus 5 a worthy successor to the venerable Nexus 4?

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My Nexus 5 beside its box

Value proposition of the century

The value Google offers by means of the Nexus program is truly admirable. The 16GB model starts at $350 unlocked. I paid $450 for it at Best Buy because I was tired of waiting for my Play Store order, but even then, the Best Buy reps were astounded that a phone specced as such was made available at that price. It’s also worthy of mention that the Best Buy reps claimed that the Nexus 5 only works on Sprint. It came with a Sprint SIM card, but worked just fine with my T-Mobile SIM. I had to go back to the store the next day to help my brother shop for something, and the rep that sold me the phone recognized me, at which point I pointed out that the phone indeed works with T-Mobile. You’re welcome. This isn’t the first time I’ve upstaged a Best Buy employee either, yet I somehow can’t get a job there despite having tried multiple times. I suppose I’m getting a little off-topic…

Regardless, this isn’t the first time someone’s tried offering a value phone. The Nokia Lumia 520/521 should also come to mind. It’s a bit of a different concept though. The Lumia 52x isn’t intended to compete at the high end. Due to the fact that the Windows Phone OS runs well on low-end hardware, it runs well enough, but some things (like the screen) are still lackluster. That said, $100 for a modern smartphone is a good value for what it is. Kick the concept up a notch and add Android to take advantage of top-of-the-line hardware, and you have the Nexus 5. It’s priced like a budget phone, but make no mistake: it competes at the very top. For instance, if compared spec-for-spec to “the” Android phone to beat, the Galaxy S4, the Nexus 5 is in most ways equal or superior to the much more expensive (and overrated) Samsung device.

For instance, the N5 has a Snapdragon 800 clocked at 2.29GHz, while the S4 has a Snapdragon 600 clocked at 1.9GHz. Both have 2GB RAM and screens that are (for all practical purposes) five inches at roughly the same pixel density. And I have a strong preference for the design of the Nexus 5 over that of the S4. More on that later.

Performance

Google made big promises with Android 4.4 KitKat, and chose the Nexus 5 as the device to show that off. Was that a good choice? Powered by a quad-core Snapdragon 800, the Nexus 5 indeed manages to run everything noticeably faster than the Nexus 4 did. And the N4 itself wasn’t slow by any means. I tried Asphalt 8 on it, which played flawlessly (that said, it also played on my brother’s fourth-gen iPod Touch… which didn’t well support what he led me to believe about it being the Crysis of mobile gaming). In an example that distinguishes the N5 from the N4, it also doesn’t lag at the point of the five-second alert in Dots. It did this on the N4.

Needless to say, in most cases, I’m impressed with the performance of the Nexus 5, with one gripe. It comes with the same 2GB of RAM featured in the Nexus 4. I don’t actually know if this is a fault of not having enough RAM, or if it’s a KitKat/Chrome bug, but frequently when listening to Grooveshark songs in Chrome and doing other things, the music will stop and the page will reload when I flip back to it. I’ve never had this problem previously, so it may well be a KitKat bug. That said, I can’t particularly fault Google/LG for this, since 2GB is competitive with other flagship Android devices like the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. Plus, it’s got the benefit of not having to run bloatware UI layers on top of the OS.

As a side note, some other reviewers have claimed it has scrolling issues in apps like Chrome. The Nexus 4 did. But so far, I’ve experienced no such thing on the Nexus 5 (which is quite refreshing).

Screen

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Nexus 5 displaying Chrome. My apologies for any less-than-stellar pictures. Any pictures of the phone itself I took with my Lumia 521.

The Nexus 5’s improved screen is basically the reason why I bought it. I already had LTE unofficially, and the Nexus 4 was “fast enough.” It’s not much bigger than the screen on the Nexus 4, but the slightly-increased real estate (without increasing actual phone size – phones are the perfect size already, but if you can figure out how to make the screen bigger, great) is still much appreciated. The pixel density of the Nexus 5 is a staggering 446ppi, bested only by the HTC One. It’s great for reading, and even better for videos and gaming. I’ve never been terribly impressed with watching video on a phone screen. Until now. The slightly larger size and much higher pixel density improve things quite a bit.

Design

Nexus 5, back view

A lot of reviews that I’ve read have harped on the Nexus 5 for its design, which they claim is somehow lacking. I don’t know why. I like it. Both from an aesthetic perspective, and from a practical one. It feels amazing in hand, and looks like the smaller cousin of the Nexus 7, an incredibly sleek and professional-looking device.

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Nexus 7 (2013) next to Nexus 5

And yes, it’s a plastic device. But it’s, dare I say it, classy plastic. In most cases, I’m vehemently against plastic devices. Anything Samsung churns out both looks and feels horrible (seriously, as compared to the Galaxy S4, the Nexus 5 is a paragon of design). Even the iPhone 5C kind of looks like a toy. But the Nexus 5 feels like a thing of substance, despite being thinner and lighter than its predecessor. It feels densely packed, like a device that uses wisely every bit of space given to it.

And as a bonus, I don’t have to try so hard to only put it on soft surfaces like I had to with my Nexus 4. I like to keep my devices in pristine condition, so I would only place my N4 on cloth or paper, or in my pocket. I can set down my N5 anywhere and not worry about it.

Camera

Truth be told, I’m a perfectionist about image quality. So I’ve never owned a phone with a camera I’m actually happy with. But I’m a perfectionist about other things as well, meaning the only phones with cameras I’d be happy with (high-end Lumias, basically) would require sacrifices I’m unwilling to make, namely being saddled with the hardware and software limitations of the still-immature Windows Phone platform (that said, it has many of the same limitations as the already-mature iOS platform, so it may never grow out of them). So I basically put up with cameras that aren’t particularly wonderful in order to have an otherwise-perfect phone. That said, at least the camera is better than that of the Nexus 4.

Click on the samples for a full-size view.

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A picture of part of my desk. Yes, I need to clean that up. =/

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A picture of the same area, but in (even) less light than usual.

 

An image of my car. Yes, I need to wash that.

 

Another image taken outside, this time with better light.

 

One more, taken outside.

Needless to say, I have no pretense of being a professional photographer. But these photos should do a decent job of demonstrating the Nexus 5’s camera in a range of settings. The photos are passable, but far short of crystal clear. Maybe someday there will exist a Nexus device with a good camera. Today is not that day. The results are far from bad, but not particularly great either.

Miscellanea

The Nexus 5 also (officially) features a LTE radio. This is nothing new to me, as one could always enable it unofficially on the Nexus 4. But it’s nice to not have to do so every time I reboot the device. I’ve been speed testing the LTE in various places around town, and I’ve never managed to get the 20+Mbps result I got with my N4 once, but I probably got lucky that time. While on the topic of cellular radios, as I suggested earlier, the Nexus 5 is compatible with CDMA networks. Or to be specific, it’s compatible with Sprint. So if you’re a customer of the largest carrier in the United States (Verizon), you’re out of luck thanks to Verizon, Google, and their childish bickering.

I also applaud Google for offering a 32GB variant of the device this time around. I have the 16GB model due to presently being on a slightly-restricted budget, but it’s good to know that Google isn’t trying to shoehorn everyone into their asinine “cloud” vision after all. I really do wish they’d allow an SD card slot though. I’ve got a 32GB one sitting around that I don’t get much use out of.

Conclusion

The Nexus 5 is an upgrade to the Nexus 4 in almost all regards. It’s faster, has a gorgeous screen, (finally) has (official) LTE, and has a design that is (at least in my opinion – I’ve learned that the best way to find out what hell on earth is like is to try to convince people that design sensibilities are objective) substantially better than that of the Nexus 4, which wasn’t particularly ugly to begin with. The camera is improved but could still use more improvement, and that’s my only real complaint about the device, and forgivable because it’s only $350. The Nexus 5 isn’t quite the perfect phone, but it’s close. Dare I say it, it’s the best you can get right now. And it’s far better than one could reasonably expect for that price tag. Did I mention that it runs stock Android and comes fully carrier- and bootloader-unlocked?

Final score

9/10

 

Upgrades: A Journey Through Time

Be glad I’m not in charge of naming a feature film. This post will deviate a little from my usual style, in that it will be more pictures than words. Regardless, it should be an interesting trip through history.

Anyway, I’ve attempted (and succeeded) in taking a Windows 1.0 VM, and upgrading it through to Windows 8.1, in the sequence of: 1.0, 2.0, 2.1, 3.0, 3.1, 95, 98, 98SE, Me, XP, Vista, 7, 8, 8.1. I figured the ride was interesting enough that maybe I should do it again, and document it here. I’ll try to give enough detail as to what I did so any given reader can reproduce this. For starters, I’m using VMWare Workstation 10 with this configuration:

The next step is to install MS-DOS 5.

The journey begins.

MS-DOS 5, installed. Wow, that went quickly.

Now it’s time to actually install Windows 1.0. After swapping through six floppy images, I have this:

Sadly, this garbled mess is all I can get.

I can enter an app, and sort of see it, but it’s too blurry for me to figure out how to exit it. Alt + F4 doesn’t work. At least I’m not old enough to remember this. It seems painful.

Now it’s time to install Windows 2.0. At least this one’s usable. Mouse and all. I mean, I’m glad I never had to use this on a daily basis or anything, but wow, I’m shocked I could get it working perfectly. Sort of, at least. I tried opening abc.txt, and it crashed.

MS-DOS Executive. Erm… thought I was looking for Windows.

We’ll revisit Windows 2.x again later. Much later.

Now to install Windows 2.1. You’ll have to install it from DOS; otherwise you’ll get an error about not having enough memory. I don’t know why. I gave it 16MB at this point, which was more than any computer had at that time, as far as I know.

Back on the theme of apparently not having enough memory despite having plenty, when I try to run it, I get this.

I followed this MS guide (which I’m impressed is even still up) to fix another error, just leading to this one. Onward, I suppose. Windows 3.0!

Heh, I get it. Windows.

Trippy. Also, nice game selection…

Now for the Windows 3.1 upgrade. Ah, 3.1, the first OS I ever used. I don’t really remember it that well though.

It manages to remember this throughout all future upgrades. Impressive!

Seems more… colorful?

It seems things are getting modern enough to go fairly seamlessly now. Or not. Windows 95 comes on a CD, complicating things, as 3.1 doesn’t recognize my CD drive. Guess things aren’t getting modern enough after all. At least I’m done flipping floppies. You can always just boot from floppy, then install from there. It’ll do an upgrade install anyway. Do remember to change the VM type to Windows 95 at this point.

It preserved that crappy background I selected, and the Ms-dos_5 disk label I’ve had for quite some time now.

It also has working sound now, and it sounds awful.

You’d probably do well to put in some more RAM now as well.

Next up: Windows 98. I put in the installer. It makes some obnoxious and loud noise. At least from here on out my CD drive works and I can do all my upgrades from within Windows.

Doesn’t my blog look wonderful in IE4?

Also, I finally installed VMWare Tools at this point (although uninstalling them to install the correct ones for XP becomes quite a point of contention – you have to use the MS uninstall troubleshooter, or alternatively as I figured out the second time around, just uninstall VMWare Tools before the XP upgrade), so things will look a bit better and be a lot less laggy for me.

Now for 98SE.

I can convert this to FAT32 now. I probably should.

Done. Also notice the user info and crappy background from 3.0 are still there (as well as the volume name).

Now to upgrade to the infamous Windows Me, after which I can finally bid good riddance to the Windows 9x line. I don’t know why it was so maligned. It installed without a hitch.

User info, check. Awful background, check.

At this point, there are important things to consider. Namely, do recall that this is sitting on a 1.5GB partition. That won’t be big enough for the XP upgrade. So I used the GParted Live CD to resize it. I’ve got no idea how big of a partition Me can handle, so I’ll resize it to 64GB. Should last me awhile. Also, it would probably be a good idea to bump up the RAM again. Seems as though it can handle 512MB well enough (also the GParted Live CD won’t seem to boot on only 64MB anyway). Finally, I uninstalled VMWare Tools. In my practice run, I didn’t, and had to jump through hoops to get it upgraded once I got to XP.

XP, the OS that won’t die, and IE6, the browser that won’t die.

Despite being a lot more “modern” than its predecessor, XP is still ancient by modern standards, and people would do well to realize that sooner or later. Unfortunately, my workplace actually still uses this. Fortunately, I don’t touch those computers unless something’s wrong with them. My blog looks just about as horrible in IE6 as it does in IE4. Also, I bumped the VM up to 4GB of RAM (it only sees 3 though). I also have to convert the disk again, to NTFS, in order to install Vista.

Hmm… it lost the crappy cubes background. Kept the computer and workgroup names I assigned it back in 3.x though.

For some reason, my VM also kept the “View Channels” Quick Launch icon.

Windows 7.

At this point, not much remains unchanged. The wallpaper’s changed itself yet again, and even the taskbar icons that were there since the 98 install are gone. Kind of disappointing. Well, this will be rather boring from this point forward, but you’ve made it this far. Onward, I suppose.

Windows 8. Nothing to see here.

At this point, it looks fairly obviously “stock,” with the exception of the compatibility report on the desktop. A few things stay until the bitter end, but they’re not very obvious. I’ll cover them in a bit.

 

Yep. Still looks fairly stock. This stopped being interesting awhile ago.

This step marks the last of this journey. Beginning with Windows 1.0 and ending with 8.1, this is the result. I expected something a little more interesting in the end, especially since quite a bit of stuff from early on kept itself throughout the XP and Vista upgrades.

To recap, things that didn’t make it:

Desktop wallpaper

Quick launch icons

Most applications

Things that did:

 

Yep. That’s MS-DOS 5 alright!

The volume name.

What is this, I don’t even…

A bunch of old Windows and DOS files. Strangely enough, I can even get some Windows 2.1 apps to run all the way through 8.1. I don’t actually know what this one does though.

The Windows 2.11 Control Panel. Now that’s a bit more interesting.

I wonder if it actually does anything. Now that I’m done with my experiment, it shouldn’t matter if I trash this VM…

Strangely enough, yes.

The only setting that works is the one to switch mouse buttons. But it works nonetheless. Finding that out kind of made this whole thing worth it. Although I suppose it doesn’t go with my topic of things preserved through OS upgrades, since you could probably just copy in that CONTROL.EXE and try it. I doubt any of this information is useful, as no computer that ran Windows 1.0 in the real world could ever be upgraded to anything even approaching a modern OS, but it is possible in a simulated environment, with the results described. You’ll probably never actually need to do this, but… it’s fun to do when you’re bored.

A Week with Windows Phone

 

I think from now on, my blog posts will start with the tweets that inspired them. To be honest, Twitter has become such an integral part of my life that I don’t think I’d have a blog if not for it. All my blog posts evolve from tweets. Seriously, if you want me to blog about something, engage me in debate about it on Twitter. It’ll probably happen.

Needless to say, this time the subject is my experiment with Windows Phone. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, and a lot of my criticism of the platform was unfair (note that not all of my criticism was unfair). I’ll start out by addressing some myths I previously believed about the platform, then try to formulate a list of good and bad things about it. Finally, I’ll talk about what I’d like to see from the platform in the future.

Myth:

Windows Phone can’t access Youtube, except via their website.

Truth:

There exist unofficial Youtube apps, namely MetroTube (which is possibly the best Youtube app I’ve ever used, especially from an aesthetic perspective).

Myth:

Windows Phone has no apps.

Truth:

Windows Phone has no games. Well, almost none. It obviously has your staples of Angry Birds (which sadly isn’t free as it is on Android), Fruit Ninja, etc…, but its game selection is still quite lacking. I’ll come back to this later. As far as other apps go, it covers the basics well enough. The built in media player seems to play the file types I had on my Nexus 4 (although if I wanted to play an MKV, I’d probably have a problem on my Lumia 521), there exist official Twitter and Facebook apps, Skype (obviously), IRC clients (which I’ve only used briefly… I don’t actually IRC from my phone much), Foursquare, and even, impressively, the Speedtest.net app.

So now I come to my list of things I liked and didn’t like about Windows Phone. I’ll start with the good, and finish with the bad, so I can lead into a discussion the direction I hope MS takes it.

Good

The design.

Awhile back, I wasn’t a fan of the Windows Phone design. I made mockups that were basically text slapped onto some colored boxes. But then I realized that it’s neither “so simple a 3-year-old could do it,” nor bad by any means. It’s actually beautiful. Extensively so.

 

A screenshot I took of a tweet of mine in the WP8 Twitter app. I referenced it later in another tweet where I mentioned how much I liked this font.

Windows Phone would be nothing if not for gorgeous typography. I even got responses from people on Twitter saying they intended to install that font on their Android devices. But as far as I can tell, Metro (yes, I know it’s not called that anymore, but I could care less about what some small-time German retailer thinks) basically exists to show off this font, and for good reason. Oh, and in case you’re curious about the context of that tweet: I was browsing through the Chili’s menu, and the lunch-sized half portion of a flatbread was only fifty cents cheaper than the full-sized portion, which was nine dollars. If you buy the half-sized flatbread, you’re an idiot (I usually get the California Grilled Chicken, and the Skillet Chocolate Chip Cookie for dessert; they’re pretty awesome). Hopefully you’re not reading this hungry; I’m bringing up Chili’s again in the cons part of the list.

Unobtrusive carrier integration

 

I don’t know what T-Mobile TV is, but I don’t want it. Luckily, I can get rid of it.

Phones often come with carrier bloatware. As I normally use a Nexus, I’ve been immune to this experience on Android. But considering I have friends with more mainstream phones, I’ve seen the terror of carrier bloatware. It exists on Windows Phone too. But fortunately, carrier apps can simply be uninstalled. But some of them are actually useful. It’s nice to have T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling for instance, something I don’t get on my N4.

Nokia hardware

For a budget device (no, really, it just cost me $115, completely off-contract), you’d never be able to tell the Lumia 521 was one. Aside from taking awhile to start apps, which seems to be a common complaint on Windows Phone, it makes effective use of the hardware, which is capable of doing pretty much everything I might need to ask of it. Furthermore, it has things that I don’t even have in my Nexus 4, like an SD card slot and an FM radio. Also, I’m not really a fan of plastic, but it feels nice in my hand. It might be a little thicker than it needs to be though, probably due to the removable battery, a feature whose usefulness I question (although considering Nokia’s been in this business longer than everyone else, back when this was standard, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised).

Software updates

Something that bothered me to no end was that at the announcement of Windows Phone 8, Microsoft announced that they were dropping all WP7 devices. Just like that. Bought one? Well, now it’s a paperweight. Apparently MS has committed to doing better. It sounds like my 521’s good for updates for the next three years. That’s about what one could expect from an iPhone or Nexus device.

Bad

Incomplete/confusing software

 

I have no clue if I’ve unlocked these specials or not.

There’s no question. The design of the WP8 Foursquare app is attractively minimalistic. But is it functional?

I had two complaints about this app. The first is that I had to select “post to Twitter” every time I checked in somewhere. This would just default to on in the Android version of the app. The second is that I couldn’t tell whether I’d unlocked the specials at the location.They showed up, but the Android app gave clear visual cues that yes, I’ve unlocked the special. It displays a coupon code, but it does that even if I haven’t checked in. I think it gives me the same code every time anyway, so it probably validates against a Foursquare server or something when used. If I later find out that I paid $6 for a dessert I could’ve gotten for free, I will not be happy.

Filesystem

Yes, this is a problem on iOS too. It’s one of the reasons I stopped using that platform on a regular basis. I know I can access some parts of it by connecting to my desktop at home, but I’d really like a file manager with direct access, at least to my user directory. And to extend this concept, I’d like apps to be able to access files created/managed by each other to a greater extent. One of those things that just completely alienates me about iOS is that the apps all feel disconnected from each other. You can’t establish any sort of workflow. It pretty much applies to Windows Phone as well. On Android, I can download any file of my choice in Chrome, then open it in any of my apps I might need it in. Furthermore, I can sort it into a location of my choice in my user directory. The inability for me to do this is probably my biggest complaint about Windows Phone. Actually, if they fixed this one thing, I’d likely consider switching to it full-time.

Sideloading

Another thing I really like about Android: It truly has no limits. I can install whatever I want on it. I’m free! Sadly, Windows Phone has the same walled garden mentality as iOS. I won’t hold my breath on this one, but Microsoft might want to consider the popularity of its competition: iOS market share is declining, in favor of Android, which eschews the walled garden model. Ultimately, it’s something I can live without on a mobile platform, but if not for anything but ideological reasons, it’s something I’d really prefer to have.

Notifications

In Android, all my notifications are in one place. In Windows Phone, I’m briefly alerted that something happened, but if it’s not on a tile on my home screen and I missed that alert, I’m out of luck. I’m aware that MS plans to implement a notification center in WP8.1. I look forward to it.

Games

This is a tradeoff I learned to live with to a small extent on Android. While Android eventually gets most games (World of Goo, and more recently Dots, being notable examples I care about), it takes awhile. Supposedly it’s getting Tilt to Live 2 (it never got the first one) at some point after the iOS version comes out. Who knows when that’ll be. These three games are among my favorites of all mobile games I’ve played. I’d really like to see them on Windows Phone. I doubt I ever will. That said, there are a lot of knockoffs of the Dots game on the Windows Phone Store. MS, could you please remove them? They look tacky and awful, and remind me of something I really want (in its pure form) but can’t have. Oh, and an appeal to the developers of the actual Dots game: Please port it to Windows Phone. Your game would fit right in with the aesthetic of the OS.

Where from here?

As mentioned before, I’d really like to see the ability to access some shared portion of the filesystem in all apps. MS doesn’t have to make a file browser. Someone else could do that. It would go far to make everything feel more connected, as opposed to feeling like a set of sparse, distant islands.

More games would also be nice. I realize the onus is on third-party developers to do that, but this is probably the biggest thing on everyone’s mind but mine, and the second-biggest on mine.

 

Who knows? Maybe this is the key to both problems. With only one platform to develop for, developers may be more likely to target Windows Phone. And depending on what set(s) of API’s MS will put into this unified platform, perhaps it’ll include the filesystem access I was hoping to see (I’ve never actually used Windows RT, but there are ARM-compatible file browsing apps on the Windows Store that allow me to access, at the bare minimum, anything within my user folder, on desktop Windows 8).

In summary, Windows Phone has the potential for a great future. And it’s almost there (as in, enough to where I’ll be rotating my 521 and my N4 a fair bit). The only question that remains is will it go in the right direction?

Why Chrome Apps Are a Bad Idea

The stable version of Google Chrome now supports something Google refers to as “desktop apps,” and people are already claiming it’s the next big thing. Except…

It isn’t.

Here’s the tweet that inspired this post.

I know I love to rail on web apps at every chance I get, but one of the major problems with web apps (besides the whole not available offline thing, which Google has actually solved, apparently) is really a problem with cross-platform apps in general. They feel native nowhere. So the biggest remaining problem with Chrome apps is the same one that plagues Java apps. They look horrible on any OS. The dream of effortless cross-platform apps needs to stay just that, a dream. Something has to be sacrificed, and often that sacrifice is the app’s native feel. I’m actually quite surprised chosafine would support cross-platform anything, since on the same day as the Chrome announcement, he also tweeted a complaint about an Android app that looked like a quick and dirty iOS port. This is the experience Chrome apps would leave us with.

 

Google Keep, running on Windows 8

Google Keep, running on OS X 10.9

Notice it doesn’t have the look and feel of a Windows app, but that of Gmail. Maybe it’d look in-place on ChromeOS, but on Windows and OS X, it obviously doesn’t. People want apps that look native on their platform of choice. Chrome apps just don’t offer this (that said, I was admittedly a little impressed that it at least did feel like a “desktop app,” just not like a Windows or OS X app). If you’ve ever used JDownloader, you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about. It does the job, but it looks awful.

Back to chosafine’s tweet, in reference to the idea that Windows and OS X are somehow lagging behind as operating systems, and that this will somehow hand a victory to Chrome apps. It won’t. Neither party has abandoned the desktop. OS X 10.9 adds tabbed Finder windows, and Windows 8 had an assortment of enhancements on the desktop end, including detailed file operation windows and Ribbon-adorned Explorer windows. And, most importantly, native apps for either platform, when done well, still look native on that platform. There’s nothing a Chrome app can do that a native app can’t. And while Google claims to be bridging this gap, there’s quite a few things native apps can do that Chrome apps can’t.

And a little off-topic I suppose, since Windows 8.1 kind of does this too (but at least there’s a way around it – disconnect from the network while setting up), but I don’t like being tied into a cloud account. With ChromeOS and/or Chrome apps, there’s no way around that (nor is there with Metro apps, but at least there’s still desktop apps).

I haven’t even mentioned the biggest flaw in the Chrome ecosystem yet (note, I’m just criticizing Chrome as an app platform and as an OS; it’s a wonderful browser and currently my browser of choice when on Windows). What might that be?

It won’t ever have any apps.

This is the same reason desktop Linux never took off. Nobody wants another platform to develop for. Let’s take Adobe for example. Their Creative Suite… uh, Creative Cloud (once again, an idea that bugs me, but at least it was cracked on day one… ) runs on both Windows and Mac OS X. That reaches pretty much 99% of the desktop market. Except Linux users, who either use a FOSS alternative like Gimp, or run the Windows version in something like Wine. And I highly doubt Adobe cares enough about offering a solution to those users that they’d bother to rewrite Photoshop and the like as a Chrome app. Especially considering it’d be no more native than the Wine solution. Oh, and it’d be able to run on Chromebooks. But what Chromebook is powerful enough to run stuff like Adobe’s professional apps anyway? Even the Pixel struggles with simple tasks like playing video. And may I remind you that the Pixel costs a lot more than my aging MacBook Air, which can play video and run Photoshop just fine? So yeah… not really Adobe’s target market there.

Then there’s also Microsoft Office. Once again, has versions for both Windows and OS X. What would Microsoft have to gain by offering their product as a Chrome app? Pretty much nothing. Their product is already available to everyone, aside from a few thousand users. And please don’t tell me “But… Google Docs!” If you’ve ever had to do anything beyond typing a letter (and it’s 2013… who still does that?), you’ll know Google Docs is a joke.

If Google’s endgame here is to get people to buy Chromebooks, it won’t happen. There’s a chicken and egg problem at play (the same reason Windows Phone’s app ecosystem will never reach critical mass). Nobody develops for it because it has no users, and it has no users because nobody develops for it.

And finally (this isn’t so much a problem as a thought), hasn’t Chrome kind of fallen far from its original mission? Wasn’t the idea to make a simple browser to compete with the everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink Firefox? Granted I appreciate the fact that Chrome has extensions now (I remember the days when it didn’t), and I personally use an ad blocker and Grooveshark downloader, both of which make my experience much better, but aren’t apps a bit too far? If you notice, both of the extensions I use are somehow relevant to browsing. These apps aren’t. I dunno… am I old-fashioned for thinking a web browser should still be a web browser? It seems that nowadays, it’s Chrome that’s the king of bloat, not Firefox.