24 February 2007

A show on the side

One of the more exciting new technologies to come from the Windows Vista stable is Sideshow. Its purported function is to run small programs (or 'gadgets' as Microsoft likes to call them), allowing users to access a range of PC functionality either remotely or without the computer even being on.

The first device to come out with this functionality is the Asus W5fe laptop. In this particular incarnation, the Sideshow facility is embedded in the lid of the laptop, and allows you to access your personal information without having to spin it up. Sounds like a good idea, although if the laptop is off, your data is only cached, not automatically synchronised with the server.

So far so not very exciting. In this day and age where every mobile phone syncs with Outlook, it is hard to imagine a situation where you would need to look up an address on the lid of your laptop rather than your phone.

But even if you don't have a phone that can do that, you can still replicate some of that functionality with a much older bit of technology - the Xircom REX 6000. This clever bit of kit, which can be had on eBay for around a tenner, is a touchscreen PDA small enough to sit in your laptop's cardbus slot. The real magic is that it syncs via the PCMCIA connection. So, even when your, say Asus W5f (sans 'e') is off, you can whip out your REX and look up that appointment or contact detail.

Tetris and over a hundred other programs can be added to the mix if so desired (call them 'gadgets' if you like). And if you don't want to lug your laptop around with you, you can always pop the REX in your shirt or jeans pocket and leave the computer behind. Try that with the Asus! It is also a more elegant solution than taping a Pocket PC to your laptop as an auxiliary display.

I am not discounting Sideshow as a platform entirely, and there are some really exciting looking remote controls based on it being released soon, but in its current form it is not doing anything that couldn't be done years ago.

22 February 2007

Movin' on up

In my view, one of the best smartphones to ever have come out is the Motorola MPx200. This was one of the earliest, and possibly the first, clamshell smartphones. Sure it didn't have a camera, bluetooth or WiFi, but it was durable, functional and fairly good looking.

The real magic, however, lay in the possibility of upgrading the operating system. The MPx200 was initially released with Windows Smartphone 2002 on it. Before long though, a ROM was leaked which allowed you to upgrade the entire operating system to Windows Mobile 2003 Smartphone. And then more recently, it was possible to take it even further to Windows Mobile 5 Smartphone. Until last week this was the most up to date operating system available on any Windows phone.

Now of course, Windows Mobile 6 is out. You have to wonder whether an upgrade will be available for this still fully functional 5-year old phone.

Unfortunately, one of the main sites for cooking up these ROMs is being shut down by Microsoft. I can see why, but the fact that the software is upgradeable is what drew me to the hardware to begin with. So it appears to be a case of cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Sad times indeed.

There's life in her yet

The PDA is dead. At least that's what Slashdot tells me. Again, and again, and again. Indeed, my second ever PDA, an iPAQ h2210 I bought 4 years ago when it came out, briefly suffered a case of neglect and was placed on ice for a while, supplanted by a newer and equally capable convergent mobile phone.

Yet it has recently come to life, and in fact, is much more useful now than it has ever been. I no longer use it for PIM and Office functions, but because you can install programs onto it, it has taken on a new role. Here is the software which resuscitated my PDA.

If there is a single piece of software which brought the Pocket PC back to life, it is PDAWin's TV Remote. I normally have four different remote controls, but with this program, I can transform my Pocket PC into a universal remote. Note that not all PDAs have a sufficiently powerful infrared transmitter to reach from your sofa to the TV set; thankfully the h2210 is one of them. This program is worth every cent I paid and has given the PDA a new lease of life.

The next program is OmegaOne's 1-calc Lite. Windows Pocket PC 2003 comes with a built-in calculator which is both ugly and rudimentary. Thankfully Microsoft provide this calculator from their website for free. It includes a unit converter and a tip calculator with large glossy buttons, making it really useful.

Another program which has given my PDA a new role is Pocket GBA. Are you someone who plays games on your Pocket PC? Well, I never used to either, the extent being the odd attempt at Jawbreaker or Solitaire. Part of the reason was the lack of good games. With Pocket GBA though, the entire universe of Game Boy Advance games is available. Now I can get my Mario, Zelda or Donkey Kong fix on the PDA. Where you get the ROMs though, is another question!

The last program which I find useful is JB Piano, another freeware utility which turns your PDA into a virtual piano. I'm in a choir, and while I am not tone deaf, I do find it hard to look at a note and pitch it perfectly off the top of my head. JB Piano solves this problem by producing the note I'm looking for pitch perfect from the PDA speaker. I use it all the time when rehearsing and find it really invaluable.

So there we have it - an outdated PDA which was briefly retired, but has been resurrected and is now more functional than ever!

The inevitable iPhone-y post

The post is inevitable because the current king of shiny gadgets which must be resisted has got to be the Apple iPhone, and it is not even on sale yet!

I am not going to argue about whether any of the technologies presented in the iPhone are particularly groundbreaking, but I do want to say that I am not all that impressed. I do appreciate the interface which has prompted all sorts of copycat skins from Blackberries to Treos. The one which has drawn the most ire from Apple, however, is, understandably, the skins for Windows Pocket PC devices.

Now, I have an old iPAQ h4350 which runs Pocket PC 2003 first edition. Normally it stays connected to the internet via WiFi, and it runs Skype. With good noise cancellation and a decent microphone, this does as well as most dedicated Skype phones. The h4350, however, also has a built-in QWERTY keyboard which makes it ideal for instant messaging with Skype and MSN messenger, so in that sense it is already more versatile.

Because you can customise the interface as much as you like with a Pocket PC, I decided to create an iPhone skin. I made my own, but these are readily available all over the internet, much to Apple's annoyance no doubt. The interface sure looks nicer. As for the functions, I have installed Windows Live Search mobile which runs really well and gives good aerial and line maps of most places in the U.K. The weather button links to Weather Watcher, and the stocks button links to AvantGo, all of which are free 3rd-party programs.

Is there a point to this? Well, no, not really, but it does go to show how a 4-year old PDA which can be had quite cheaply on eBay, can approximate the looks and functionality (and in some ways exceed them) of what is currently in vogue.

And when the iPhone becomes passé, and some other gadget takes it place, the h4350 can be modified again.

A timely slap

This post by Joel Johnson of Gizmodo fame really resonates with me. His response to the push to constantly upgrade?

Stop buying this crap. Just stop it. You don't need it. Wait a year until the reviews come out and the other suckers too addicted to having the very latest and greatest buy it, put up a review, and have moved on to something else. Stop buying broken products and then shrugging your shoulders when it doesn't do what it is supposed to. Stop buying products that serve any other master than you. Use older stuff that works. Make it yourself. Only buy new stuff from companies that have proven themselves good servants of their customers in the past. Complaining online about this stuff helps, but really, just stop buying it.

I fully acknowledge that I am a bit of a techno faddist, and am constantly drawn to the coolest new toys. Thankfully, I do have a modicum of common sense and can resist running out and splurging on that new phone/PDA/laptop/whatever. That is what this blog is about anyway.

Vive la Résistance!