Saturday, August 15, 2020
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More on the Sony eBook Reader

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After a week with Waterstones' new Sony eBook Reader I now have a definite view on the future of this technology. I like it. Faced with the 100 free classics which come with the unit, I've worked my way through Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities plus I have rummaged around in several other books. So far, the experience has been positive and I have bought three novels from the Waterstones on-line store. What I like about the Sony is that it is thin and compact. From the front it is the same size as an average paperback, but about one third of the thickness. While it weighs a bit more than a paperback, this isn't noticeable and it is more comfortable to hold and read than a real book.

The display, the new liquid ink technology, is very easy on the eye and is just as easy to see in all light conditions as the page of a normal book. There is no backlighting, so you need the same levels of ambient light that you would need for ordinary reading. In most lighting conditions, though, the screen is bright and clear and there is no problem with glare in sunlight, for instance.

Controls are very simple. There are buttons for page forward and back and they are not easily pressed by mistake. I have read reviews of the Amazon Kindle, for instance, where it is criticised because the page-turn bar is too easily pressed so you lose your place. Another button adjusts type size–small, medium and large, roughly equivalent to 9pt, 12pt and 16pt. So there is a display for everyone and older readers will appreciate the ability to choose a really large typeface.

Whichever type you choose, the pagination is dynamic. There is no scrolling, you just press to turn the page. Obviously, if you choose the largest typeface the number of pages in the book increases accordingly. The operation is very simple. Apart from the above adjustments and the list-view of books, the only other option is to look at bookmarks. You create them by pressing a bookmark button and the system keeps track of the most recent marks. Using this facility you can jump between several books and always know where you are up to. In most cases, I simply switch off the book when I want to pause. As soon as you switch on again the display comes back to the last-viewed page.

After a week, I now prefer to read the Sony rather than a standard book. This is quite a statement and I didn't think I would be so impressed. I can now envisage a time when I can pick up my eBook reader and have my entire library in my hand. This isn't so far fetched because we already have that facility with music and the iPod.

At the moment the problem is that not all publishers are willing to take part in electronic publication. There are gaping holes in the lists and it is still necessary to buy real books if you want to follow some of your favourite authors. If you only read classics, though, you are in luck because they are mostly out of copyright and freely available in electronic form.

I predict that electronic books will grab the imagination of the public sooner than anyone predicts. Once the market gets to critical mass, the publishers will flock to join the bandwagon. In the meantime, we are pioneers.

There are several ebook readers available in the UK but the main contenders are the Sony from Waterstones and the Rex Iliad from Borders. Amazon are likely to join the fray soon with their Kindle which is linked to the Amazon on-line store. The Iliad has many more features, such as annotation, but is twice the price (£400) and is just too large. The Sony does a good job of replacing a book and keeps the options to the bare minimum. At the moment I like that, although in the future I can envisage making more use of footnotes, annotations and cross-referencing.

For the moment, though, it is thumbs up to ebook readers. Anyone who wants to criticise should read a complete ebook before holding forth.

Mac User Groups

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This evening I'm paying my first visit to the London Mac User Group (LMUG) and it turns out to be a friendly and informative affair at The Hobgoblin pub in Balcombe Street NW1. For anyone new to the Mac world, a MUG is an ideal introduction and a way of getting to know some fellow users. Meetings usually take place every month and the format includes a presentation by an expert and a very useful question-and-answer session. Similar MUG groups operate throughout the country. You can find a complete list of local groups at Mac Users UK.

Counting the Megabytes

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Keeping track of data usage, particularly when roaming abroad, is essential if you want to avoid nasty surprises when the bill comes in. Inclusive packages at home are now more generous than they were only a year ago–typically 3 or 5GB per month compared with a miserly 20 or 80MB previously. And out-of-bundle usage is charged at as little as £15 per gigabyte on Vodafone, which is reasonable at the moment.

Vodafone have a handy data usage calculator to give you an idea of how much you are likely to use in a typical month.

Even so, if you are doing lots of downloading, it is possible to top 3GB or even 5GB within a month. Abroad, though, it is another matter. With some carriers fixing roaming rates of to £7.50 a megabyte (£7,500 per gigabyte!) the potential for serious financial loss is there. We have all read horror stories of data users returning from abroad to find bills in the tens of thousands. It sounds daft, but it is easy to see how it can happen.

Vodafone have a new 24-hour bundle which kicks in if you use data while abroad in most European countries. This costs £10 per day and has a "fair usage" policy of 50MB in the 24-hour period. This is a welcome development and it means that usage is capped provided you keep an eye on downloads. If you go over the 50MB you are charged at £5.20 per megabyte (a staggering £5,200 per gigabyte). Rates outside Europe are even higher and it is essential to familiarise yourself with your carrier's price list before venturing abroad.

If you have a data contract, it is absolutely essential to know what you are using. Unfortunately, the carriers do not make this easy. I am familiar with Vodafone, for instance, and the Mac software is a mere shadow of the package offered for PC users. When loading the software you do get a panel showing usage at the last session and total usage to date (which can be reset) but once you go to connect you cannot retrieve this panel for referece. Typically, you don't see it again until you have reconnected the modem for another session; and that can be many thousands of pounds too late.

I am therefore indebted to Macworld for pointing me in the direction of a free program called CheetahWatch which provides a running monitor of usage and also adds an easy connect/disconnect option. I agree with Macworld that this utility is an absolute must if you have a data contract. I downloaded it before the weekend and have found it to be reliable and very informative. It provides you with signal strength, type of network (GRPS/WCDMA/HSDPA) as well as traffic watch and connection watch. With CheetahWatch you can feel in control and know exactly what you are letting yourself in for, just so long as you know exactly how much your service provider charges.

Sony eBook Reader and Waterstones

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This morning British bookstore chain Waterstones launched the Sony eBook reader at a cost of £199. I have been looking at eBook readers for some time but I remain unconvinced that the new technology will be to books what MP3 players have been to music. The jury is currently out. But I am trying Waterstones' new toy and, so far, I have been impressed. Earlier this year I rejected the Rex Iliad, which has more features (such as annotations), but is large and cumbersome and costs twice the price of the Sony. It isn't Mac compatible either.

So the Sony it is for now. Let's get the bad point out of the way first: The Sony eBook reader, as with the Iliad, is NOT Mac compatible (or, at least, the store and archival software isn't). This is usually a good enough reason for me not to buy, but this time I decided to give it a go. Fortunately I have Parallels Desktop to run Windows and I was able to get the Sony reader up and running in a short time. The package from Waterstones comes with a CD of 100 classic books, and Adobe Digital Editions, which you must download, gives a starter pack of, mostly, excerpts to whet the appetite.

The device itself is a good looker and has the dimensions of a standard paperback, although it is much thinner. For comparison purposes, the reader with the standard folder case weighs in at 400g while an average paperback is 250g and the equivalent hardback is 650g. So it is an easy thing to carry, particularly if you normally travel with half a dozen books. Instead of the bulk and upwards of 2kg out of your baggage allowance, your collection never weighs more than 400g.

So far I have tested the operation and read a couple of pages. The screen technology of these latest eBook readers is a dramatic improvement on earlier efforts and the screen looks as near as possible the same as a page in a book, but perhaps with a slight greyish background. I will report on developments when I have had more experience of actually reading something.

I am not overjoyed with Waterstones' online bookstore. First impressions show very few books from my favourite authors and it is not so easy to stay within the eBook store. It is all too easy to be seduced by a button (in the eBook store) for "best sellers" only to find yourself buying a proper book. I was happy to go with Waterstones because I hope the content will have a British bias, but I think they need to get more titles listed quickly if the eBook reader is to be really successful.

Getting Things Done (Chapter 2)

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As I said in my previous post, managing tasks is high on my list of priorities. I find that an organised to-do list makes for an uncluttered mind. When you don't have a task manager, however simple, ideas are constantly buzzing around in your head and being swatted away at the slightlest distraction. All those good ideas simply disappear because you have nowhere to record them. Even a simple notebook such as a Moleskine can take a load off your mind. I always keep a Moleskine handy for ad hoc jottings of ideas. But organisation means having somewhere organised to record all these ideas. I mentioned in my last post the use of iCal tasks and, for a more ambitious view, Bento. But now I'd like to talk about another product that has both Mac and iPhone versions which sync together.

OmniFocus is a fully fledged task management system which follows GTD (Getting Things Done) principles. You can shovel in ideas at random and then sort them out into projects, contexts and due dates at your leisure. A context in GTD-speak is the place where you can perform the action. Contexts are usually expressed with the @ sign for obvious reasons. So we can have @Phone, @Errands, @Bank, @Mac, @Home and whatever you feel comfortable with. By assigning all your actions (tasks) to a context you can easily find out what is available to do at the moment. For instance, if you are in the supermarket, all you really want do know is what do in @Errands:Groceries. The other contexts are fairly irrelevant until you get to your computer or your home.

OmniFocus works with the calendards in iCal, so I have changed all my calendars to reflect contexts. Thus, I have @Home, @Errands, @Mac, @People, @Phone, etc, set up as calendars. Most appointments, also, fit into these categories and the system works well with Omni. Synchronisation is conducted via MobileMe or a similar service. So your home/office computers and your iPhone are constantly syncing and anything you enter while on the road will be on your computer when you get back to base.

There isn't enough space in a short blog paragraph to describe the capabilities of OmniFocus, but I would recommend it to anyone who values organisation. The syncing iPhone version (from the Apps Store) is great, so you have all your stuff with you wherever you go. A cool feature of the iPhone application is that it is "context aware". So, for instance, if you set up your local supermarket as a location iPhone will warn you when you are passing that you need to call in for tomatoes, bread and pickled gherkins. How often have you returned home only to remember you meant to call in at the laundry or newsagent?

Omniiphone

Although in my working life I attended countless time-management forums and conferences, I got the itch for GTD after reading Andrew Mason's excellent blog, Did I Get Things Done?. There is much more information on this blog than I can fit in here, plus lots of links to other time-management and organisational sites. I'd recommend it to everyone. And try out OmniFocus because I don't think you will regret it. For more reading go to David Allen's page; he's the guru of GTD and has published some excellent books.

Getting Things Done (Chapter 1)

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I'm an inveterate list maker and I am never happy until I have all my tasks filed away and categorised. As I get older I realise I begin to rely more and more on my reminders and task lists. For new Mac users there's an easy and simple way of keeping track of your tasks built right into iCal. These tasks can be synchronised between computers (for instance by MobileMe) and you can view the lists in Mail. Also, working in Mail, you can create Smart Folders to provide views such as all tasks in a particular calendar or all tasks due today.

If you are a bit more ambitious I would recomment Filemaker Pro's Bento as a way of adding to the rather basic task management capabilities of iCal. The beauty of Bento (apart from the fact that it is a powerful and easy-to-use database in its own right; it's the database for the rest of us) is that it works directly on your iCal tasks data without any need for synchronisation. You can even add fields to your iCal tasks for greater analysis and reporting capabilities. Yet these fields remain in Bento and are not added to the simple items in iCal. Whenever you open Bento they are there.

Bento allows for Smart Groups but with greater customisation of parameters. All in all, it provides a great enhancement and adds great power to the standard iCal offering. I also use Bento for customised databases which are easy to set up–such as an exercise log, a list of books, a packing list. It's really easy to use.

The major drawback of Bento is that there is no iPhone version available. And that's where OmniFocus comes in. It's a very powerful task management system based on the GTD principles of David Allen. GTD is a fascinating concept and needs an item of its own, so watch out for Chapter 2.

O2’s iPhone Contracts Shine

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I believe we have been very luck in the UK. The new O2 iPhone contracts appear to be really good value. I chose the £35-a-month deal over 18 months and I get 600 minutes, 500 texts and unlimited data. On this deal I got the iPhone for £159. In addition to the basics I get unlimited free access to two of Britain's biggest hotspot services–BT Open Zone and The Cloud. I am already making full use of these services. The Cloud is in my local pub and I can find BT in Caffe Nero coffee shops and loads of other places.

There is some method in O2's linking with these WiFi services because while you are using a direct WiFi connection you are not using up O2's data allowances. In fact, I will be surprised if anyone manages to use more than 300 MB of data a month over the cellular network. Of course, if O2 and Apple permitted tethering (using your phone as a modem for a laptop) data usage would jump into the gigabytes.

For the moment I am paying Vodafone £15 a month for 3GB of data use on my MacBook Air, but eventually it would be nice to have everything under one umbrella.

When I return to Greece I will have to visit Vodafone Greece (Apple's partner there) to negotiate a much worse deal than I can get with O2. Instead of unlimited data they give a miserly 200MB a month (is this a Greek joke?) and only 100 minutes/150 texts. On the plus side, the contract iPhone is unlocked and can be used with SIM cards throughout the world. It's at a price, though–€459 or £375. Incidentally, you can buy an unlocked 8GB iPhone WITHOUT CONTRACT from Vodafone Greece for €499 (16GB is €569) and this is a better option than jail-breaking a locked phone in my opinion. For anyone with contracts in more than one country it makes sense to buy unlocked.

Doc Tries a New Prescription

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Visited my doctor yesterday and my hypochondria took a back seat when I spied a brand new, shiny MacBook Pro on his desk. It turns out that two weeks ago he had a sudden fit of madness and raided the local Apple Store. In addition to the laptop he'd bought a 24in iMac and an iPhone. He was absolutely delighted, as are all converts. We talked Mac until I'd forgotten why I went to see him. There's a point to this item: he was running Windows on Parallels Desktop because he had a Microsoft Access medical database he couldn't do without. Where, he asked, had the @ sign gone to. I suppose this is a common question among ex-PC users and the answer is simple. When running Windows on the Mac via Parallels, the Mac keyboard becomes a PC keyboard, with all the buttons in the usual PC places. So the @ is produced by pressing the " (double quote) key. A quick glance at a nearby PC keyboard will usually help.

Monkey Glands Extend iPhone Use

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After two weeks with my new iPhone 3G I agree with other commentators about the limited battery life. A day out and about and I'm down to the last 10% of power. In fairness to Apple, the iPhone is just so handy and useful that I am using it for far longer than any previous phone or PDA. It's a fully-fledged computer, not just a phone. And my old Treo 750 wasn't much better on battery life if I'm being honest.

I am currently testing an auxilliary battery which plugs into the iPhone and can give up to two full charges. The small and neat Power Monkey, which looks nothing like a monkey, is proving to be a valuable addition to my portable arsenal. There are a number of similar devices such as the 3GJuice and the Kensington but on paper the Power monkey has the highest power capacity. It is British designed and you can see details at PowerTraveller UK.

Although the monkey is expensive at £65 it does come with an array of connectors for many mobile devices and a quality carry case. A bonus is a solar-panel charger so, in theory, you can have power wherever you go. I won't hold my breath for solar charging performance in Britain, but I am looking forward to trying out the device when I get back to Athens in October.

Keeping an Eye on the Rumours

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Buying a new laptop only to find there's a new model around the corner can be an annoying experience. Apple, in common with most manufacturers, tend to be secretive about up-coming models and it's hard to know when to jump into the market. Recently there have been rumours about an updated MacBook, perhaps with a more rounded Air-style case. And there are persistent rumours about new iPods, including the Nano and the Touch, with many pundits expecting them to be announced next Tuesday (September 9) at the publicised Apple event. It certainly pays to keep up to date with developments and to read all these rumours because they can help you plan your next upgrade and stop you making a mistake. My favourite site for up-to-the-minute information is Mac Rumors (without the u) and it is worth keeping a regular eye on postings. You can set it up as an RSS feed to OS X Mail or even to the iPhone using an application such as NetNewsWire (iTunes Apps Store). Also, on the iPhone, you can simply click on a web site's RSS feed logo and it will be fed into Safari's address bar. You will see the feed in Safari and all you need do is bookmark the page for future viewing.