Posts Tagged ‘technology’

When a phone is not a phone

A brief taxonomy of mobile computing devices.

I have been writing a post about my Nexus 5 phone and came across a theory: the Nexus 5 is not, in fact, a phone.

I suggest that modern mobile computers that are between smartwatches and tablets in size can be roughly split into two categories:

  1. “Phone” – use mainly for text and voice, single-handed, will be dropped, will be used on the go
  2. “Mobile device” – two-handed, used in safe locations, seated or at least securely standing

Size impacts how you use a device. It is difficult to use a device bigger than early smartphones one-handed. The situation isn’t helped by slippery surfaces like glass or metal on both sides of many new phones. If you regularly attempt to pull a large smartphone out of a pocket while walking or cycling, you’ll drop it eventually.

And while phones were designed to be dropped with minimum damage – compact shape, non-structural outer body, rounded plastic corners that take in most of the crash energy, even battery covers that pop off – modern devices might as well be designed to take maximum damage when dropped, with rigid materials throughout and functional edge-to-edge glass on a large front face.

Fragile smartphones that don’t take being dropped well have been a problem for almost a decade now and there’s little to indicate that the situation is getting better. Workarounds include protective or grippy cases, but I would much rather just have a phone that doesn’t need a case in the first place. I understand their value for specialized needs or carrying methods – for couriers or sport – but I just want to send short text messages and check next bus time a couple of times a day.

Here is a small selection of phones and mobile devices released over the past two decades:


Degooglifying, step 1: Cleaning up

I’ve been looking to reduce my dependence on Google for a while (see my posts archive on degooglifying), but so far that amounted to figuring out how dependent I was on Android. I’ve now finally started working on actually reducing my Google footprint a bit. Here’s some notes on my process.

My goal isn’t to never again visit a Google website or service, but I will be happy if they end up collecting less information about me, whether through Analytics (which I already block), Gmail, or Maps.

Steps so far were: take stock (I am unorganized, so by far most important), delete stuff I no longer use, and start archiving things in my actual archives rather than haphazardly in various Google services, particularly Gmail.


Android apps I use, November 2016

Last year I wrote a self-indulgent post about Android apps I use, with some details and explanations. It’s time for an update!

As much as it is an indulgent list, it has served a secondary purpose: the act of looking at the device and compiling a list encourages me to consider the apps I’m listing, and whether I really use them or need them. As mentioned in the original post, I’ve been wary of platform lock-in and dependency. I’ve also increasingly attempted to remove non-essential notifications and temptations for idle browsing.


Build This Idea: Better DC Power

A significant amount of my home plug use – if not outright electricity use – is for electronics. When travelling, various electronics are the only reason I need to bring plug adapters.

(Point-and-shoot and SLR cameras are particularly bad, usually requiring proprietary chargers that don’t even charge all that fast.)

For a brief moment late last century, you could travel with no chargers, and just buy more AAs wherever you went. Or use a local charger with rechargeable AAs from anywhere. A Walkman would run on American AAs as well as on European AAs.

The Nexus 5 has a 8.7 Wh battery, a lot bigger than 0.6 to 3.9 Wh in an AA battery. But there’s problems.

Phones, tablets, laptops, various camera chargers all ultimately use low-voltage and fairly low-power DC. Using wall-warts from to 220 V AC is just asking for waste. Using incompatible power adapters for many devices is insanity.

USB sort of solves this, but comes with its own problems. Using the same plug for data and power is going to end up like CD autorun did in the 1990s: helpful but dangerous. Plugging into an unknown charger — or an unknown cable — is a risk now. You couldn’t get your Walkman rooted by a AA battery. (You could conceivably get a device fried by a rogue battery, but that’s a one-time loss, not an ongoing pwnage.)

You can now get USB cables with a switch to disconnect data pins, or with data pins unconnected, but that means you’re carrying your own cable. Android has an OS-level data switch, but I am less than confident of many manufacturers’ ability to not get low-level firmware pwned, so a phone-based low-level physical switch would be appreciated. Still, these are hacks: better make sure not to switch by accident.

USB Type C gives more power, which will come in handy for bigger devices. At some point you have to ask why put data pins on something you’d ideally plug in everywhere, why require trusting the chargers? I can only hope it is a stop-gap until better wireless power is possible. (Just make sure you can’t get rooted over the air!)

Still, the installed base means that working with various kinds of USB (type A and micro-B in particular) is probably our best bet — and maybe at some point we’ll get hardware with a physical data pins switch. So: power pins on the 5 V DC USB plug for everything!

Canon and Nikon, I’m looking at you.

Bonus: photovoltaics

Photovoltaic/solar panels generate intermittent DC electricity. That is a very interesting fit with electronics. Traditionally a big problem with using solar power is storing energy for when it’s dark. Many electronics have batteries that can store the energy for several days, and using DC eliminates AC/DC conversions.

It would be a neat project to put a PV panel on the top lid of a laptop. The top of a 15″ laptop is about 0.10 square meters and could collect about 15 to 30 watts (around 45 degrees latitude, with today’s mid-efficiency panels). That’s not as much as a AC power brick — for bigger laptops, these are usually rated 50-70 watt — but it’ll top up a laptop nicely. Plus, a deep purple/black PV panel would look very nice on a black laptop. Novena case, anyone?

One thing to note is that you’d have to make sure things don’t melt. Consumer electronics aren’t usually designed with being left in midday sun in mind.

PV panels on phones would be a tougher sell due to smaller size and therefore energy potential, and things like SLR camera battery chargers are ill-suited. Perhaps it would be better to have one PV panel with a thin battery, and running everything off a common charging standard. These exist for USB but efficiency is iffy and design is often uninspiring.

Even if these aren’t commercially viable for mainstream products, I would love to see them as aftermarket or hobby mods: a replacement lid for a Thinkpad, or a flat, e-reader-size USB power bank with a PV panel on top.

Android apps I use

Or, degooglifying myself, part 0

I’ve always been mindful of vendor lock-in. I like options; vendor lock-in takes options away. I’ve been particularly paranoid about smartphone platforms: a couple of dollars on apps here and there and before you know it you’re invested in your current platform to the tune of a hundred bucks or more.

Fleeing then-horrible Blackberry, I went with Android in 2011. Since then, Google has been progressively killing off sync options (Contacts, Calendar) to less popular platforms, raising additional fears about data lock-in. I haven’t found a “perfect” platform-and-device combination, so there’s always been a lingering dissatisfaction. (I started writing this post in April 2013.) Over the years I realized I would like to reduce my dependence on Google’s goodwill/advertising/world domination plans and start hosting my data myself.

The first step to quitting is knowing what exactly you’d miss. In 2012, I half-jokingly asked on Twitter about an app to track my app usage. I didn’t hear anything and some basic searches were not promising, so I ended up compiling a list by hand. Here’s apps I use, and have used, on Android.