Tag Archives: wifi

Which Tablet?

I was recently asked to recommend a tablet. I thought my reply might be generally useful, so below is a lightly edited version of what I wrote.

The machine I’d recommend depends. It depends mostly on how much you want to pay and what it might used for. The good news is that, by and large, you get what you pay for. (Corollary: don’t get any of the really cheap ones. Argos, for example, do a really cheap one. Avoid it.)

The main ones I’d consider are:

Kindle Fire HD 7″ £119

By far the cheapest but very much tied to Amazon — indeed it’s pretty much sold at cost with the expectation that you’ll spend more money with Amazon later on. That means there are fewer apps (games), you can’t download/rent movies from iTunes, etc. But if you just want to surf the web, check email, etc. and play some big names games it would be fine. Probably worth spending the extra £10 to get the version without adverts (“special offers”) though.

Google Nexus 7 £199

Nicer hardware than the Kindle but mostly what you get is access to the Google App Store, which has far more apps, lots of which are free or very cheap. It runs Android, which is the main competitor to Apple and is generally considered to be pretty good, though I’ve not used it much myself. It’s also not tied just to Amazon (though you still can’t get iTunes) but you can get most of the Amazon stuff. Like the Amazon one, it’s cheap because Google expect to make money from you in other ways.

Apple iPad Mini £249

Better hardware than either of the previous two (metal rather than plastic case) but, arguably, a worse screen than the Nexus (physically bigger but fewer pixels).

iPad gives you all the iPhone and iPad software — which is typically better than Android. Also gives access to iTunes for music, movies and TV shows. The iPad software is often considered to be bit easier and less confusing than Android and you’d get stuff like FaceTime and iMessage (free text messages with other Apple users) which you can’t get on Android.

iPad mini with Retina display £319

As above but with a far nicer screen and is about four times quicker. It will probably last longer as it’s more future proof (but that’s obviously speculation at this point). Possibly hard to get hold of right now as it literally just came out and it “supply constrained.”

Apple iPad Air £399

As above but with a 10″ screen rather than 8″. I have an older versions of this, though the mini didn’t exist when I got mine…

(The prices above are “retail” prices. Some of the links go to the same product but for a lower price.)

It’s also worth noting that you can get more expensive versions of all of them that come with more space and/or cellular radios (so you can access the Internet when you’re out of the range of a friendly WiFI network).

It’s even harder to give general advice about this than the tablets themselves. In general, the more you want to download movies and large, complex games, the more capacity you’ll need. If you mostly surf the web or read books even the smallest versions should be okay. (Indeed, that’s what I use.)

The 3G/4G question is tricky. Me, I get the cellular radio because I do travel with my iPad and I have a Pay As You GO SIM which means I don’t pay a penny in months that I don’t use it. But it does cost more. You might prefer to spend the extra to get a larger storage capacity.

When I first got an iPad, it was because users of one of my apps were asking for a version that used the iPad’s bigger screen. I was skeptical that I would actually use it. These days I probably use it more than my Mac. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s worth getting the right product rather than just the cheapest.

Update: Belkin Wi-Fi Phone

I just realised that the story of my Belkin Wi-Fi Phone for Skype lacks any form of closure. But before we get there, let’s start with a quick recap in case you didn’t read the original review or its follow-up.

Last year, after realising that we had spent over ?30 in a quarter on line rental but less than 50p on phone calls, we decided to get rid of our land-line and rely only on broadband and VoIP technology. After some thought we went for Skype and a physical handset that connected to our wireless access point. This seemed like a great solution as leaving a computer switched on 24/7 just so we could recieve calls on our SkypeIn number didn’t appeal.

The appeal quickly wore off when it materialised that the Belkin handset just didn’t work very well. Other parties complained of an annoying echo while we complained that it drifted on- and off-line, meaning that people had to be lucky and call us when it was online. It also exhibited stability problems, often crashing during a call or even while in standby. Belkin were actually pretty efficient about taking the handset back and replacing it with a less broken one.

    We were initially quite happy with the new phone. It actually worked free of the power cable and people were able to call us on our SkypeIn number on a couple of occasions.

    Unfortunately, the more we used it the more we noticed its flaws. For a wireless device, one of its biggest problems is the fact that you pretty much have to leave it plugged in all the time if you want to reach the end of your call without the battery dying. It was fine to unplug it when the call came in but the battery life in stand-by mode meant that even leaving it unplugged in the office for half a day would have been asking for trouble if someone rang.

    Then there were the random hangs. Sometimes, as noted in my follow-up post, the time just stuck, the machine unresponsive. Actually, I tell a lie. If you pushed a button the back-light would come on, giving the impression that it was still alive, but it wouldn’t actually do anything, like make or receive a call.

    Of greater concern were those hangs half way through a call. Typically it would happen after ringing a phone banking service and being kept on hold for an inordinate amount of time. It’s amazing that the phone is still intact after letting us down so badly. Actually, after a several such hangs during what was supposed to be a single transaction it’s amazing that all furniture, glasses and windows are still in one piece.

    Now that I mention phone banking, there was another point where the phone would let you down. At the beginning of each call I was expected to enter my card number and PIN. Fine, but their systems never seemed to recognise the Belkin. Now maybe this is a localisation issue (we have to call both UK and US banks) and not something I can squarely place with the phone, but it was nevertheless a frustration.

    In the end we dare not use the phone to make important calls, fearing that it would cut out at some critical juncture. Equally, we weren’t keen on using it to call family as they, understandably, were irritated when we had to call back three times just to complete a conversation. In the end it was a nice ideal that just didn’t work in practice for what we wanted it for, so a couple of months ago I put it on eBay.

    Now we have our SkypeIn number forwarding to our mobiles, meaning that, like international roaming, we have a pay to receive calls. With the number of landline calls we get this is not a huge problem, but it’s sad that it currently seems to be the only viable method of using Skype without having a computer switched on 24/7.

    When is a pencil and paper better than a computer?

    In this article in MacUser Howard Oakley notes that a number of schools have recently banned the use of wireless networks due to the unknown effects of the radio waves used. He then connects this with the declining number of people taking science subjects at those same schools and their ability to understand the likely risks of said networks.

    It’s an interesting piece, but what I find interesting is that as the general populations understanding of how the world works dwindles, so our reliance on high technology increases1.

    One incredible thing is that sometimes we start moving to a highly technical solution despite there being little advantage in it. Or at least as far as I can see, the advantage is that it is digital and new.

    My favourite example is that of electronic voting machines. It’s easy to point and laugh at all the problems that they’ve been causing, particularly in the recent elections in the US. But despite the problems, despite every indication that they often choose who wins an election rather than the electorate, there is still a drive to increase their use.

    The main thing that I want to know about the voting machines is this. What problem are they solving? What part of the old system was so broken that it required a complicated, flawed and unreliable new system?2

    Some say that the current system is inefficient or labour intensive or slow. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, that’s either untrue or by design. The system needs to be both anonymous and yet track fraud, two ends of the privacy spectrum. The model in use is similar to public key cryptography in that working out who made a particular vote is not impossible. In fact, in principle, it’s very easy. But unless you have plenty of time to manually check thousands of ballot papers it’s going to take a while. This is by design.

    Similarly, the effort required to count the votes in the first place is also a benefit. It makes it more difficult for any individual to have a dramatic effect on the final outcome. This is a good thing.

    And slow? It’s simple to make quicker: throw more people at it. That makes it quicker and reduces any inherent bias.

    I love new technology and gadgets, I’m fascinated by how they work and the effect that some of them have on society. But in the end, you have to use the right tool for the job. And the right tool does not always have an embedded computer.

    1. As this article asks, in relation to decreasing interesting in science degrees, “do they just totally not care about where things like web search and MP3 codecs and 3D graphics and peer-to-peer protocols come from”? []
    2. It’s also worth noting that before the new electronic machines, the US had problems. Remember the “hanging chads” problem with Bush’s first election? That was a flaw in a method of automatically counting votes. []

    Windows Mobile 5 on Virgin Mobile UK

    When I got my new phone, a HTC P4350, I quickly managed to make and receive phone calls and text messages. I even connected straight to the Internet over WiFi and (slowly) over GPRS. It never occured to me that sending a MMS, a picture message, would be so complicated.

    With a “Pow!” and a “Zap!” I asked their technical support people and got the answer. It works in two parts, firstly the GPRS side, which you can find in the Connections tab of the Settings screen:

    Virgin GPRS Settings

    (In case you can’t read them, the important settings are “goto.virginmobile.uk”, “user” (no password) and 193.30.166.3.)

    Once you can make a connection to Virgin you can configure the MMS side of things, which you can find in the “Options” menu of the Messaging application:

    Virgin MMS Settings

    (Again, important settings are: 193.30.166.1, “http://mms.virginmobile.co.uk:8002” and “WAP 1.2”.)

    And that should do the trick. Happy Multimedia Messaging!

    (With thanks to Plasq’s ComicLife for the over-the-top graphics.)

    Follow-up: Belkin Wi-Fi Phone

    Back in November I wrote about my then-new Belkin Wi-Fi Phone for Skype. At the time I was fairly pleased with the concept but less so with the actual implementation.

    The phone’s hardware was fine. The unit as a whole was reasonably solid. The buttons were a bit wobbly and the screen was smaller than you might initially think, but there was nothing to complain about too much.

    The software, however, was more problematic. The main issue we experienced was the unit drifting on- and off-line when it was left unattended. The only way of keeping the unit on-line all the time was to leave it plugged in. Not exactly optimal.

    On trying to upgrade the firmware we found that the update software was packaged as a Windows executable, not ideal for this Macintosh-only home. Of course the idea is that the phone can be used without a computer, so it?s slightly comical that the system requirements to fix known bugs are so specific.

    I tried reporting the bugs and asked for a solution from Belkin technical support. My first problem was that it wasn?t easy to negotiate their website. The Skype phone was so new that it was not possible to enter the SKU into their site, so I could raise a support call. After some time playing around I eventually found a way of doing it.

    My effort was rewarded with… nothing. I got no reply at all. Maybe they were confused by the UK details as it turns out that I’d posted my question to the US technical support department. I still think it was rude to get no reply whatsoever.

    I waited until January 2nd to resubmit the question. This time I was able to do so from the UK site and, fortunately, this time I got a response.

    My experience with them has been mixed. In general the information given has been good. My message had clearly been read by a real person. Often I get replies asking me to do something I already tried, or something that it clearly not possible.1 But not with Belkin. And they offered to replace the phone without any quibbling.

    I packaged the phone up and mailed it back to Belkin. I was quite impressed that they paid for the postage. Realising that our SkypeIn number was now unavailable when we didn’t have a computer switched on, I forwarded calls to our mobile numbers.2

    I would also commend them on returning calls. Their call centre was always busy, but after five minutes on hold they’d always take my number and then actually call back. Sure, if would have been easier if I could get through to a real person straight away, but this approach was a pleasant surprise.

    However what seems to have been lacking is communication. Responses often took over a week to arrive and sometimes not at all. In once instance I was told that the Customer Services department would be sending me the phone in a couple of days. They say this did happen but I recieved no notification and I ended up writing again a couple of weeks later when the phone failed to arrive. One advisor told me that the parcel had no tracking number. Another said that they couldn’t find my address.

    So after all this effort what is the verdict? Does the replacement phone work?

    It?s early days yet, but the answer seems to be a qualified “yes.” The phone operates correctly when under battery power. While it does seem to appear offline occasionally when viewed in another Skype window, calling my SkypeIn number from my mobile has, so far, usually resulted in the Belkin ringing. This is not 100% correct in my opinion, but is good enough for our use.

    The other definite plus is the reduction in the annoying echo that pretty much every caller on the old phone mentioned. As before, the call sounds fine from the Skype phone. From the other end of the SkypeOut3 call, however, things are much improved. And, so far, we’ve not had any problems with the reliability. We?ve not experienced any dropped calls or crashes during a call. This is something I intend keeping a close eye on in the future.

    The “qualified” comes from the things that still do not work correctly. For example, left unattended while we were at work yesterday, the phone somehow just got stuck at 15:50. This didn’t immediately arouse suspicion as it does tend to lose time very quickly. Pressing a button brought the otherwise blank screen to life giving the appearance of activity, but nothing actually worked. I had to restart it.

    Of course one of the main reasons we sent it back was so that we could reliably run it on battery power. We might have to reconsider this now we know how long it lasts between charges. And the answer is: not long. It has needed charging every couple of days so far, and that’s without it being used for calls.

    Overall the replacement phone is a great improvement over the original model. The call quality is improved and it is possible to operate it without mains power, which does mean that it does what it says on the box. Still, the glitches and the battery life stop me from unreservedly recommending the phone.

    1. My favourite is from a guy at a company that will remain nameless. He kept asking me to click the Start menu and select Internet Explorer. I explained that I had a Macintosh which had neither of those things. That would have been fine, except he was very insistent that I did, in fact, have a Start menu. And every computer had Internet Explorer. Clearly I was crazy. I eventually gave in, told him that I’d done as he asked and clicked Safari on my Dock. []
    2. I was a little hesitent to do this as I didn’t find much documentation on what to expect. Do both phones ring? What if one it switched off? What happens if we’re logged in on a computer, too? []
    3. One thing that works against the Belkin phone is not a problem with the device itself. In January Skype changed their call plans, requiring a “termination” charge for every call. In the case of many UK calls this will actually double the cost. This makes the case for switching away from having a landline less convincing than it was. []

    Review: Belkin Wi-Fi Phone

    The problem is this. To get ADSL you need to have a BT phone line. Yet, except for calling my parents, I don’t really use a land-line phone. This has made using ADSL broadband more expensive than I’d have liked as I had to pay ?11 a month for a phone line I don’t make calls with1. Fast forward to last month, when I find that I can get cable broadband without phone or digital TV service.

    Bingo! Bye-bye BT!

    Except… my folks don’t have broadband and would kill me if they had to call me on my mobile. So we needed some way to allow them to call us, especially when we didn’t have a computer switched on.

    I toyed with the idea of a SIP phone or a SIP adapter. This seemed a good solution as it’s a “standards compliant” VoIP system and, my thinking went, more likely to be future proof. I even got as far as ordering one on eBay but a dodgy seller put an end to that. Eventually I realised that I had never really had much success with SIP2 but had never had problems with Skype. I decided to give the Belkin WiFi phone a try.

    The pictures look good. If you think of a modern, “candy bar” style mobile phone you’re along the right lines. First impressions of the real thing are positive too. The slightly rubberised plastic case feels solid — robust but not heavy — and nice to the touch. It’s simple to slide off the back cover and insert the battery.

    It takes a little effort to push back the flap that covers the power socket but that’s probably a good thing. I charge it for four hours before realising that the “half full” battery icon on the display probably really means “charging.”

    Powering the device on I find that the buttons, while looking the part, are slightly wobbly and let the rest of the phone down. The second slight disappointment is the screen, which is actually smaller than you first think it will be. Sure, it’s big enough but there’s plenty of space for a bigger one.

    It’s necessary to pick your language (there was only one) and accept the Skype T’s and C’s before it tries to connect to a network. It’s pretty quick and immediately finds and tries to connect to an unsecured network. Not mine, of course, as I use “WPA Personal” security on mine.

    It looks like it gets a connection but reports that it’s unable to connect to the Internet. I use the menus to try to select my local network. The interface should be familiar to anyone with a mobile phone. The little joy-stick and two menu buttons along with on-screen prompts are simple to follow, partly because it’s much less sophisticated than most contemporary phones. I find the network section, select my network and enter the password and we’re in. Pretty easy.

    Next it says that my Skype password is wrong. Odd. I’ve not even entered a username yet! The “sign in” button just tries again and, despite looking, I don’t see anywhere to enter a new name.

    I give up and decide to look in the manual.

    It suggest that it should just be there under the sign-up menu and, strangely, it is now. Oh well, I enter my username and password. And that’s it. It quickly connects and downloads my contacts list. I see myself online using another account on my MacBook.

    I fiddle about with the menus, playing with some of the ring tones. There are only a few but I find a half-decent “ringing” sound and confirm that the vibrate option is on.

    Next I make a Skype-to-Skype call which sounds great at my end and is, reportedly, just like the user is on a PC from the other side.

    Feeling emboldend I try a landline number. Again, from the handset it sounds pretty much as good as any other phone. It’s not quite so good for the recpient of the call, who complains of an annoying echo. Nevertheless it’s clear enough to be useable and we happily talk for fifteen minutes without any glitches.

    In fact, once connected, the only glitch I’ve come across is not directly related to calls but is, potentially, a bit of a show-stopper. After the call I put the phone down and, like most mobile phones, after a short time the display goes into “screen saver” mode. Unlike my Sony Ericsson T630, which displays the time, the Belkin’s screen goes completely blank, leaving no indication that the phone is switched on at all.

    That’s not the show-stopper, that’s just annoying.

    But after ten minutes or so the phone appears off-line and making a call to it diverts straight to voice-mail. This makes it completely unsuitable as a home phone as any time someone calls we’re likely to be offline! The story so far is that I have sent an email to their technical support people and am waiting for a response.

    Overall it has good hardware but disappointing software. I have no problems with “basic” — I hardly use any of the complex stuff on my mobile — but it’s difficult to unreservedly recommend a product that takes itself off the network all by itself. If, however, Belkin have a solution then I’d be pretty happy with it. It’s not cheap (but then none of its competitors are) but making free calls without switching on a PC is a compelling prospect.

    1. To put this into context, our bill for calls last quarter was 38p. []
    2. I’m thinking that maybe I’m cursed. I bought a Bluetooth headset that refused to work with the dongle I had for my iBook. At home I needed to open lots of ports but always got mediocre sound quality and, when trying to buy credit, I could never get an authorisation code. Clearly it was never meant to be. []