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Posts from the ‘Product Reviews’ Category

Nexus 7 and iPad Mini

For the first time since its introduction I find myself in the unusual position of being unable to recommend an iPad. Specifically the iPad mini. I’ve been casually testing the new Nexus 7 for a few weeks and find that transitioning back to the iPad Mini, while necessary for the productivity apps, and larger screen size, is nowhere near the pleasure it once was.

The Nexus 7, while occasionally sluggish at scrolling, really is running a better piece of silicon than the iPad Mini. It’s not really surprising since the Nexus 7 just launched and the A5 is several years old at this point. After using the Nexus 7 a refreshed iPad mini in the late summer or fall seems inevitable at this point.

My verdict:

Don’t buy an iPad mini today.

Don’t buy a Nexus 7 until after Apple’s next press event, unless you are already an android fan, in which case the Nexus 7 is a very nice device.

Siri is the iPhone 4s killer feature for motorcycle riders

via flickr user Al Pavangkanan

At first glance the iPhone 4s is an incremental improvement from the previous version. The pundits have blasted it as being a boring, yawn inducing, upgrade, and as an iPhone 4 owner, I had agreed with them. Until I acquired another piece of interesting technology and in the process, uncovered the iPhone 4s’s killer feature.

The Scala Rider G4 is an in helmet bluetooth device that lets the rider communicate with the outside world from the back of her motorcycle. I was motivated to pick up the G4 before a road trip down to Oregon so I would have a handy way to listen to music, and accept the occasional phone call on the 5 hour ride. The G4 worked perfectly, except for the occasionally miscommunication between myself and the iPhone itself. The iPhone 4s uses the old school voice control app which is usable, sort of, but it’s nowhere near perfect. I’ve gotten in touch with a few old friends unexpectedly (Matt Andersen and Mike Andreessen sound really similar…)

Enter Siri

If I’m completely honest, I believe Siri to be kind of a parlor trick, fun and flashy but somewhat useless for a majority of tasks. Off of the bike I get the most use out of Siri when I grow weary of trying to tap out long messages. Dictating to Siri instead of entering text via the on screen keyboard can be a huge time saver. The integration with Wolfram Alpha is fun but not earth shattering. Dictating reminders is nice. All periodically handy features that have an equivalent, likely superior alternative.

Unless you ride a motorcycle.

On a motorcycle you have this fantastically capable device in your pocket, that you simply can’t make use of. Sure it’ll play music, and if someone calls you, you can answer, but the metaphorical road runs out after that.

The true excitement behind Siri is not what you can do in your office, or at home, but what you can do between those places.

I will have Siri read texts to me while I’m riding. I’ll dictate responses back to her. If I feel like listening to some music, I can ramble off a command to shuffle some high rated songs and Siri will figure it out. If I have a random factual question that is bugging me, or something I need to add to a shopping list or todo list, Siri will help take notes for me. The list goes on and on.

I think Apple is stepping into a big void and offering a solution to a problem for which no one has taken ownership… what do you do about all these phone related car accidents? How do we help people take their eyes off their phones and put it back on the road?

Texting while driving? I have no reason to do that anymore…

How to organize anything: Trello

via Flickr User alborzshawn

I’ve been organizing projects for a number of years now. Originally I was simply organizing my own efforts as a software developer, putting together a todo list so I wouldn’t miss anything or skip a step. When things at the company got bigger I started dabbling with Microsoft Project, and started making gannt charts left and right. While they were useful during the initial planning stages of a product and helped get a general feel for how much time we had to devote to certain features, once the project started, the meticulously laid out project plan quickly got out of date. Without employing a full time project manager to track status and deadlines we were never able to keep up with the project plan. And since we would rather have added productive developers than management overhead, we reduced our planning to a simple excel spreadsheet that was straight-forward to update.

That worked fine for a year or so until we added more developers. At this point we needed something that was flexible, easy to use, and highly visible. That’s when we started using the agile development method of 4×6 cards pinned to a cork board. Don’t laugh. That a software company would use such a decided low-tech approach is certainly amusing, but honestly it just seemed to work best. It was easy to write new cards, it was easy to organize them, everyone could see what was being worked on, and the spacial limitations naturally limited how many cards could be up and in flight at any given time.

We ran with that system for years, augmented with our internal fogbugz installation for bug tracking (bug tracking and fixing doesn’t work well on cards).

Enter Trello.com

Since their launch back in early september our company has been using Trello to manage our development workflow for one simple reason: It’s easier than 4×6 cards. Yup, finally, after 6 years of working with 4×6 cards, I might actually have found a good replacement. Trello does a great job of modeling that simple workflow even though they are adding additional power.

The difficult part of a designing a piece of software like this is not so much how many features you add, but which ones you leave out. The magic is in keeping the product simple and flexible enough that people can devise their own workflows using the basics in the product. The fact that there are only three real concepts in Trello is what makes it so amazingly powerful. You have Boards, on Boards you have Lists, and on Lists you have cards. Boards can be anything, lists can be anything, and cards can be anything. You can assign someone to a card, and you can make notes on a  card, the same way we used to do with 4×6 cards with post-it notes. You can label cards with color coded labels, the same way we did with colored post-it notes. And you can move cards from list to list, the same way we did on the cork board for all those years.

We put together five boards for our group, Backlog, Up Next, Doing, Testing, Done, but these could easily be split a number of different ways.

If you add the concept of priority by making the order of the cards significant (you don’t need to order them in a significant manner, but the cards retain their order) and you’ve got pretty much everything you need for a fully functional project management system.

Our migration to Trello happened very organically. I recently had a planning session with our Team Lead and took a bunch of notes on my white board. It was on my todo list to transcribe those notes to our cork board. I had procrastinated for a good day or two when I got word about Trello. Rather than transcribing and updating the cork board (which was in the other room) I made cards in Trello and invited the development team. One of our testers jumped on it and started using it immediately (within minutes) and by the end of the next day everyone was on board.

To hear a bit about Trello from the creators:

If you’d like to learn a little more about the creator check out this interview. It should be required watching for any software entrepreneur.

A Review: Carrying half a cow, the saddleback waterbag

I recently purchased a new piece of luggage. I’m traveling a lot more than usual this year and needed something a little more versatile than my existing rolling bag.

As stated in a previous post, I’m not a big fan of rolling bags. I think our reliance on convenience has led many of us to underestimate our potential. Biking 20 miles, doing a pull up, running a 5k, or carrying a 15 lbs piece of luggage 1 mile through the airport are all attainable by any reasonably committed individual. In any case, my stubborn insistence that not everything in life should be easy led me toward a piece of carry on luggage that favored utility, durability, and style over convenience. Carry on here is used in the literal sense, in that I would “carry it”.  The piece in question ended up being a Saddleback Leather Waterbag. I spent a week trying to decide between the Waterbag and the Duffle bag, and eventually settled on the Waterbag. I felt the layout of the bag was more flexible and would enable me to stick with it as my primary travel bag in more situations. It has a high degree of expandability as well as flexibility. What follows are my impression after traveling to Orlando Florida for a 4 day business trip.

The waterbag sitting on my ottoman

Durability and Style:
The bag performed admirably. It’s rugged and durable. I don’t feel like the bag needs to be babied. If it’s dropped or drug, the resulting scuff marks only serves to make the bag look more remarkable. In most cases you can simply brush the dirt off and the bags inner beauty starts to shine through. It’s made from one single piece of leather, with only one major seam. It looks like it might require an entire cow to get this one piece of leather.

The curve in the major seam on the front of the bag serves as a nice stylistic touch. It adds a big of organic flow to the design. Saddleback has done a good job of letting the leather speak for itself. There is very little in the way of adornment on this bag. Everything other than the swoop of the stitching is functional first, and stylish due to it’s rugged form-follows-function design principals.

I went with the Dark Coffee brown color to match my messengers bag and the color is deep and rich. Since Saddleback uses leather that is dyed all the way through scratches don’t show up nearly as bad as with cheaper leather. My messengers bag has lightened up some in color over the last few years, but the weathering is showing up more where the leather is stretching some based on how I’m using it. It’s not a negative though, the resulting color shifts in the leather give the bags character, not at all like the cheaper leather bags often used as laptop cases.

Flexibility:

The backpack configuration is great for higher mileage or heavier weight.

I appreciate the flexibility built into the size of the bag. There are two rigid inserts that come with the bag, one that is 6 inches tall, and another that is 9 inches tall. I only needed 4 changes of clothes and was able to fit all of those in the bag as well as 50 or so product brochures for the trade show I was attending. while using the 6 inch insert and with room to spare. The bag can be flipped from an “over the shoulder” configuration, to a backpack. If the load starts to get heavy, this is the best way to travel without wheels and without destroying your back.

I wrapped the center strap over the top handle and used the attached leather handle to carry the bag when it wasn’t slung over my shoulder.  This is the same way it is setup in the picture above. In this configuration the bag is fairly watertight. On my walk home during an unexpected 60mph wind storm that everything inside stayed dry. My jeans however were another story.

If water-resistance isn’t an issue changing the bag to use the 9 inch insert and leaving the top a little less tightly sealed I could easily fit 6-7 days worth of clothes in this bag, enough to travel for a week or so by myself or 3-4 days with a friend.

I didn’t have an opportunity to try it in the  backpack configuration. I almost always use my messengers bag in this configuration and once you get comfortable swinging it over your shoulder it is actually quite convenient. It’s worth noting that the included strap is a little short in the backpack configuration and might not be suitable for larger guys.

Usability:
On my way through security I definitely felt rushed trying to unbuckle all three straps. In the future I will unstrap the 2 outside straps while in line. As the leather softens this will get easier as well. When the leather is stiff it can be a little tricky to get it the straps buckled. My messengers bag suffered from the same problem for the first few months.

On this most recent trip I also traveled with my messengers bag, and in the future I am going to avoid that. With a few additional pouches for my laptop and other assorted tech gadgets the waterbag would have had plenty of room and the simplicity would have been welcome.  Trying to carry both the waterbag and the messengers bag ended up being a bit of a juggling challenge. Using the messengers bag in the backpack configuration and slinging the waterbag over my shoulder was doable, but a bit tricky at times. Next time I will likely setup the waterbag as the backpack and carry the messengers bag by hand.

Negatives:
The main drawback of the bag is really the weight. If you are going to consider carrying this bag be prepared to build up a few calluses in the process. The bag didn’t end up feeling as heavy as I had feared. The external handle is a little firm and I’m hoping it will soften up over time. That said, I often slung it over my shoulder.

Roadtrip!

What’s next:
With the various buckles and d-rings riveted to the bag I’m excited to strap it on the back of the motorcycle for a weekend trip. Even in the rolled configuration it has more storage space than the top case I usually have on the motorcycle. I’ll probably bring a plastic bag to use in case of a downpour, but the bag is waterproof enough that it should survive the occasional squall.

Conclusion:
This is a great bag, and so far I’m thrilled with my purchase.

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