Over on AndroidCentral, everyone seems to be discussing favorite Android hardware and software of 2014. While I don’t have nearly enough experience with Android hardware and software for me to make a reasonable blog post about it, I have gained experience with other hardware and software this year, many of which warrant mention. One big difference between AndroidCentral’s posts and mine: I don’t write briefly. Verbosity is my style, when left to my own devices.

While writing this post, I found myself distracted by the past… thinking about devices and technology from earlier in my life. Instead of cluttering this post, I wrote about that separately (because it’s more about my life and interaction with technology, rather than the technology itself). You need not read that, I assure you. The short version is that my background is primarily with Windows (client and server) and I have a little bit of experience with Linux (on servers). My preferred smartphone/tablet platform is Android.

My personal primary computing environment

Despite having a lengthy history with Windows (for both clients and servers), in mid-2013, I grew tired of fighting with Windows 8’s Metro UI. I switched to Ubuntu, then Xubuntu, then Kubuntu. At the beginning of 2014, I was running Kubuntu 13.10 on my ThinkPad X230. I was reasonably content… despite a few problems:

  • There are no email clients for Linux that I consider acceptable. Yes, I’m aware of Thunderbird, and about a dozen others. They’re all awful. I don’t understand how that’s even possible anymore, but it is. Thunderbird used to be decent. o_o
  • There are still, somehow, even in 2014, graphics issues in Linux when using multiple monitors. Or at least there were on that particular graphics card and driver combination.
  • Speaking of graphics, Windows 7 and 8’s performance in VMWare Workstation was horrible, probably because VMWare didn’t play friendly with my graphics drivers. Particularly when running SQL Server Management Studio, Outlook 2010, Internet Explorer, or FourJs Genero Desktop Client. Those last two are important, because they’re required for my office’s ERP system, in which I spend a tremendous amount of time.
  • When at work, I use RDP quite a lot. Remmina is not an acceptable connection manager, simply because it crashes a lot. And by a lot, I mean at least a few times a day.
I’ve never been known to be patient with things that irritate me, particularly when it’s one of my possessions that is irritating me. Even more-so when it’s happening frequently. And when I’m irritated, I tend to bitch to my friends. They’d heard quite often how much Remmina/FreeRDP annoyed the hell out of me, and “why the hell isn’t there a decent mail client for Linux?!”. They understandably got tired of hearing it. One friend trolled/badgered me nearly non-stop to try OS X.

I’d done research on MacBooks, at the insistence of my friend, but was still uncertain. I certainly didn’t want anything larger than 13” - my ThinkPad was a light 13”, and I absolutely didn’t want anything heavier. Retina must have been a crock of shit - I had been using my ThinkPad’s IPS display without any complaint at all (well, without complaint about the display quality). One April day, Remmina crashed. I got up from my desk, told my coworkers that I’d be back after-hours, and drove to the Apple store. Hours (!) later, I was the hesitant owner of a MacBook Pro 15” with Retina Display. The retina display is fantastic.

Hardware-wise, the MBPr is one of the better devices I’ve ever used. It doesn’t compare to the build quality of, say, an IBM ThinkPad T60, but it’s nonetheless better than most. In a different way… not sure how to describe it. I don’t necessarily think that it’s any better than the ThinkPad X230 that I had immediately prior to it, but it’s different. I prefer the keyboard that was used on ThinkPads before X230 (like on my X200) over the Mac, but the trackpad on the Mac is by far the best trackpad that I’ve ever used. And by “best”, I mean it is the only one that I have ever found acceptable. It’s very significant to me that I do not find its build quality to be awful - I do find most computer hardware to be awful.

I do not regret my decision to buy the Mac, despite hating some of the choices Apple has made with regard to the OS X user interface. Most of them, however, can be overcome with third-party utilities (because I’m not the only one with these particular complaints). Thanks to this list of applications, my experience with OS X has been better than my experience with Windows 88.1 and with all forms of desktop-enabled Linux (in no particular order, just as they come to mind):

  • BetterTouchTool
  • VMWare Fusion
  • Alfred
  • USB Overdrive
  • Witch
  • Flux
  • MS Outlook 15 (2014) for Mac
  • Arq Backup
  • RoyalTSX
  • iTerm2
A couple of those (RoyalTSX and Flux are the two that come to mind) are now available for Windows, but I didn’t use them in Windows, and they’ve nonetheless improved my OS X experience.

Alfred, in particular, is my hero. It’s everything I’ve ever wished for in an application launcher. Cmd+Space, and he’s right there, wanting to know what it is that troubles you. He usually knows how to fulfill your desires within just two or three keystrokes, too. I would very sincerely miss Alfred if I had to use any desktop environment without him.

Oh, and Witch. Witch fixes nearly everything that is wrong with the way OS X handles application and document (read: window) switching. I despise the way OS X handles it out of the box. If Witch weren’t around, I’d not be using OS X. Period.

VMWare Fusion is awesome. It runs Windows 8.1 in a VM - unity mode - without a complaint. It consumes some resources - it’s running an operating system, of course it’s going to. But it’s not excessive. It “just. fucking. works.” That is, except with Outlook 2010. It still somehow manages to destroy my processor utilization, and make everything seem to crawl. That’s why I subscribed to O365 (Personal) the day Microsoft announced the release of Outlook 15 for Mac (because that’s the only legal acquisition venue, ugh). I hadn’t found any mail client for Mac that I found acceptable, either, until Outlook 15.

My opinion of OS X is that I find it acceptable for personal use, among both novices (who find Windows too advanced) and IT professionals (who love the BSD/nix-ness of it). I do not think that it would be even remotely acceptable in an enterprise, though - its central management abilities (at least without third-party software) are awful. I definitely continue to prefer Windows for the enterprise, Metro or no.

Everything Else

Here’s everything else I use on a near-daily basis:

Growing up, we only had broadcast (OTA) television. It sucked, because if you missed something, you were out of luck. I subscribed to DirecTV as soon as I moved out of my parents’ house, and have kept it ever since. That is, until this past October. I (with the help of my brother) put up a Winegard HD8200U antenna, so that I could receive broadcast television (from Columbus OH). I also put an antenna rotor on the tower, so that if the wind turned the antenna, I could correct that without having to climb onto the roof. ;) The antenna’s coaxial output is connected to a lightning arrestor and then to an HDHomeRun HDHR3-US IP-network-equipped television tuner. A home-built home theatre PC (HTPC) running MythTV as a DVR connects to the HDHR3-US, and records the content I request. The HTPC is connected to a Denon AVR-X2000 receiver, which is in turn connected to a Klipsch Promedia 5.1 surround-sound speaker package, as well as a Panasonic 42” Plasma TV.

Bringing all of those home theatre components together is iRule@Home. iRule is a software remote control, which runs on Android and iOS smartphones and tablets. It’s able to control devices which are able to communicate via HTTP, serial or  infrared gateways. For those devices which don’t speak IP natively (or those which do in a restricted manner), iRule works with GlobalCache gateways. I have two GlobalCache iTach Flex devices: one for RS232 communication (which controls my Denon receiver), and one with a triple-head iR emitter (which controls my TV and BluRay player). I very highly recommend iRule.

In late 2013, I bought an Anker car charger, for my cell phone, and my friend Jason P hard-wired it into the overhead console of my car, so that it now powers the dock that I put my phone in whenever I’m driving. In 2014, I bought more Anker products, and have concluded that they’re an amazing company. ;) I have, and recommend, each of these products:

  • Anker® 2nd Gen Astro Mini 3200mAh Lipstick-Sized Portable Charger External Battery Power Bank with PowerIQ
  • Anker® 2.5 Inch USB 3.0 Hard Drive Disk External Enclosure Case for 9.5mm & 7mm 2.5” SATA HDD and SSD
  • Anker® USB 3.0 to RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet Adapter Supporting 10/100/1000 bit Ethernet
  • Anker® [5-Pack] Premium Micro USB Cables in Assorted Lengths (3ft, 6ft, 1ft)
  • Anker® 40W 5-Port High Speed Desktop USB Charger with PowerIQ
  • Anker® 24W Dual-Port Rapid USB Car Charger with PowerIQ
  • Anker® 2nd Gen Astro E3 Ultra Compact 10000mAh Portable Charger External Battery Power Bank with PowerIQ

In late August and early September, my friend Lawson and I went on a road trip from Bremen OH to Bellingham WA. For the entire trip, I had two GoPro Hero 3+ Black cameras operating, in 0.5 second time-lapse configuration, to document our trip. Yes, that’s a shit-ton of pictures. No, I haven’t processed them all yet. Yes, they’re high quality. Yes, I recommend GoPros to anyone else who could possibly come up with a good reason to either video or time-lapse photo anything. They’re awesome. Just use supported microSD cards. ;)

In 2013, I bought a Samsung Galaxy S4 GPE. I liked the phone, sincerely. But then it started malfunctioning. It had a proximity sensor, so that when you hold it up to your ear (to use it as a phone), the display would shut off and you wouldn’t activate anything. But there was a design defect with the sensor, and it would accumulate dirt/dust, and there was nothing the end-user could do about it. The end result was that the phone had to be exchanged under warranty.

During the last stages of my original Galaxy S4’s life, it refused to let me be on a call and also use the dialer. That made pressing numbers during a phone call impossible. When I receive calls from my office, I have to press # to accept them… which was impossible. This happened at a terribly inconvenient time - two days before I was to leave on a week-long trip for work.

I bought a Nexus 5  from T-Mobile, because it was the only carrier-unlocked GSM phone that I could find on short notice. Google exchanged my GS4 under warranty for a replacement, but by that time, I already had the Nexus 5. I continued carrying the Nexus 5 as my primary device for a few months… I shouldn’t have. I should have switched back to the GS4 as soon as I got the replacement device. I hate the Nexus 5, and I have hated it since shortly after I bought it.

In September, I bought a Motorola “Moto X” (2013 model). I’d done exhaustive research on it, and concluded that it was an awesome model. What sealed the deal was that I got it for a steal, on Swappa. I cannot possibly explain how wonderful this phone is (physically). I have few complaints about it software-wise (it does come with a few bloatware apps from Moto, but they’re relatively unobtrusive). It’s small - just 4.7”, which is significantly smaller than most Android phones now. The Moto X’s body size (5.09 x 2.57 x 0.41 in) is also significantly smaller than my friend’s iPhone 6 (at 5.44 x 2.64 x 0.27 in), despite the screen being the same size (at 4.7”), and it’s very significantly smaller than the iPhone 6+ (body 6.22 x 3.06 x 0.28 in; display 5.5”).

Motorola unfortunately made the 2014 model of the Moto X significantly larger, with a 5.2” display (body size 5.54 x 2.85 x 0.39 in). That makes it all but unusable for me. :-\ If I hadn’t purchased the Moto X, I would probably have bought a Sony Xperia Z3 Compact (body 5.01 x 2.56 x 0.34 in; display 4.6”). That small form factor is FANTASTIC.

Why not iPhone? Because I hate Apple’s draconian approach to everything on iPhone - particularly the user interface. I can’t make it work for me. Every time I touch an iPhone or iPad, I cringe. Yes, I’m aware that iOS is generally considered to be more secure than Android. Security/privacy is irrelevant when the product is unusable.

A few years ago, I bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7. While I very much like its size, Samsung abandoned it immediately after it was launched - it didn’t receive many software updates, its bootloader was locked, and was generally miserable from every perspective aside from physically. I nonetheless continued to use it - not a ton, but some. Well, it decided that it was no longer interested in maintaining a battery charge.

As a result, I started looking for a new tablet. I use it mostly for reading ebooks, watching movies when I’m traveling, and otherwise consuming content. My Galaxy Tab 7.7 was equipped with a CDMA radio, and I had an account with Verizon for it, for a while. Unfortunately Verizon doesn’t work very well at my house, and it had a low data cap anyway, so I didn’t maintain my Verizon account for it for very long. My home internet connection is terrible, so it would be nice to have a fast and unlimited connection on the device where I consume a lot of media.

There are remarkably few devices that meet my size criteria, which is between 7 and 9 inches - erring on the side of smaller. That immediately restricted my device selection to two current devices - the nVIDIA Shield Tablet and the Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact. There are a few differences between them… cost, waterproofing, ability to be used as a phone, and general build quality. The Z3 is more expensive, can be used as a phone, is waterproof, and, from what I’ve read, has a significantly better build quality than does the Shield. The ability to use it as a phone was crucial for me: it allows me to put it on a T-Mobile Unlimited LTE Data plan, which is only possible for phones, rather than data-only tablets. The Z3 was therefore my obvious choice.

It’s an awesome device. It’s the perfect size - I like it significantly more than I liked my Tab 7.7. I’ve had it for less than a couple of months, but I’ve already read several books and watched numerous movies (most of which were while I was traveling, but I was traveling a significant portion of the time I’ve had it, so…). It’s running a recent version of Android, and is promised to be kept reasonable up to date for as long as possible (though all manufacturers say that; I just hope Sony follows through). Oh, and it supports microSD! That’s another deal-breaker - had the Nexus 7 (2013) supported microSD, I’d have probably gotten a cheap phone from T-Mobile, and tethered the two in order to accomplish my needs, at less cost. But… it doesn’t. Le sigh.

I recommend the Z3 Tablet Compact to anyone in the Android camp who needs a reasonably sized device that has every function under the sun, and an excellent build quality to boot.

Ultimate Ears Super.fi 5 Pro Earphones

OK, these have nothing to do with 2014. I’ve had them for a few years, but I use them frequently, and I still like them as much now as I did when they were new.