Sunday, July 24, 2011

What's a MacBook Air good for?

At the beginning of this year, I bought a MacBook Air. I bought a maxed out one, with a 13" screen, 2.13 GHz cpu, 4 gb ram, 256 gb SSD. This past week Apple refreshed the MacBook Air line and I've seen a lot of people asking the question "Could I use a MacBook Air for ___?" So here's what all I use it for, along with a comparison to my work computer a maxed out 15" MacBook Pro.

  • Web browsing. I run Chrome on it and it screams. Actually the MBA set an expectation for me about how ChromeOS and in particular how my Samsung Chromebook should perform. I basically expected the Chromebook to perform exactly like the Chrome browser on my MBA, which is awesome. I was very disappointed, as the Chromebook is nowhere close. Anyways, browsing on the MBA is fantastic. I can notice a slight difference in performance on super-JS heavy sites, with my MBP being slightly smoother. I think a non-engineer would have difficultly spotting these differences.
  • Word processing. I'm not just talking about rudimentary word processing either. When I got the MBA, I had a couple of chapters and appendices that I was still working on for Android in Practice. I used the MBA to write/complete these chapters. This involved using Microsoft Word along with the Manning Publications template for Word. The chapters were usually in the 30-50 page range, and often with tons of formatting (code, sidebars, etc.) and large graphics. I cannot tell any difference between my MBP and MBA for these massive Word docs.
  • Programming. Speaking of AIP, part of finishing it meant writing code for those chapters. I've run pretty much all of the code from AIP on my MBA with no problems at all. For smaller apps like I have in AIP, there is no appreciable difference between my MBA and MBP. Building a small app is an I/O bound task, and the SSD on the MBA shines. Now I have also built Bump on my MBA, and there is a very noticeable difference between it and my MBP. There are two major phases to the Bump build. The first is the native compilation, which is single-threaded. You can definitely notice a major CPU speed difference here, even though the raw clock speeds of the two machines are close. The second phase is the Scala/Java compilation phase. This is multi-threaded, and the four cores on my MBP obviously trump the two cores on the MBA. Still, I would saw the MBA compares favorably to the late-2008 era MacBook Pro that I used to use for work.
  • Photography. I used to use Aperture on my old MBP. On the MBA I decided to give Adobe Lightroom a try. So it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. However, Lightroom on my MBA blows away Aperture on my old MBP. I haven't tried either on my current MBP. Obviously the SSD makes a huge difference here. Nonetheless, post-processing on the MBA is super smooth. When it comes to my modest photography, Lightroom presents no problem for my MBA.
  • Watching video. I haven't watched too much video on my MBA, mostly just streaming Netflix. It is super smooth, though it will cause the machine's rarely used fan to kick-in (as will intense compilations, like building Bump.) Next week I am going on a cruise to Mexico, and I will probably buy/rent a few videos from iTunes to watch on the cruise. Based on previous experiences, I expect this to be super smooth and beautiful, though I have considered taking the MBP just for its bigger, high resolution screen.
  • Presentations. I've done a couple of talks using the MBA. For creating content in Keynote, I do sometimes notice a little sluggishness on the MBA that is not present on my MBP. For playback, it seems very smooth. However, I did have an animation glitch during one presentation. This never happened when previewing just on my MBA's screen, it only happened on the projected screen. Nobody seemed to notice during the presentation, except for me of course.

So there you go. What's a MacBook Air good for? Pretty much everything. If you are a professional developer who compiles software, then I think your money is best spent buying the most powerful computer available. This has always been true. Maybe this is also the case for professional photographers/videographers as well. However my MBA is way more than enough for most folks. Finally keep in mind that the new MBAs introduced this week are a good bit faster than my MBA, at least in terms of CPU speed.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Android JSON Bug

Today I was working on some code that needed to invoke a JavaScript function on a web page that was being displayed in a WebView within an Android application. As part of that function invocation a JSON object is passed in. It's actually a pretty complex JSON object. Of course it must be passed in simply as a string and then parsed by the JavaScript to an object. Android includes the JSON "reference implementation", so naturally I wanted to use this instead of relying on some 3rd party JSON library that would fatten up my APK. The standard way to do this with the reference implementation is to create an instance of org.json.JSONObject and use its toString method. You can create an empty instance and programmatically build up a JSON data structure, or you can give it a Java Map to build from. I chose to go the latter route.
When my web page choked, I wasn't too surprised. I'm never surprised when code I write has bugs initially. I added a log statement to show the data being passed in and was surprised to see that it looked like this:
{"a": "{b={c=d}}", "e":"f"}
This was not correct. This should have looked like this:
{"a": "{"b":"{"c":"d"}"}", "e":"f"}
To create the JSONObject that I was passing in, I passed it in a HashMap whose keys were all strings but whose values were either strings or another HashMap. So to create the above structure there would be code like this:
HashMap<String,Object> top = new HashMap<String,Object>();
HashMap<String,Object> a = new HashMap<String,Object>();
HashMap<String,Object> b = new HashMap<String,Object>();
b.put("c", "d");
a.put("b", b);
a.put("e", "f");
It seemed that the JSONObject code was flattening out my objects and producing incorrect JSON (WTF equal signs!) as a result. I put together a quick workaround to recursively replace any HashMap values with JSONObjects like this:
JSONObject jsonIfy(HashMap<String,Object> map){
	HashMap<String,Object> fixed = new HashMap<String,Object>();
	for (String key : map.keySet()){
		Object value = map.get(key);
		if (value instanceof Map){
			value = jsonIfy((HashMap<String,Object>) value);
	return new JSONObject(fixed);
This worked perfectly.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

ChromeOS and Photography

So far I've been pretty disappointed with the Samsung Chromebook that Google gave me for attending I/O this year. That sounds pretty ungrateful for a free computer, but I am intrigued by the idea of ChromeOS. I'd like to see it work, just as a technical achievement. I think that perhaps the Chromebook that I have falls short because of its lack of hardware, but perhaps its shortcomings are inherent with the OS.
Anyways, obviously the main idea with ChromeOS is that people spend all of their time on the web. However, one of the other common tasks that people do is use their computers to share digital photographs that they took with the camera. This might seem like a hard thing for ChromeOS to handle, but Google claimed that they had this figured out. So I decided to give it a spin.Here are the tools that I used.
Chromebook and Camera
I had taken a few dozen pictures at a Giants baseball game I went to last weekend with family. I took the SD card from my camera (a modest Nikon D3000) and plopped it into the SD card slot on the Chromebook. ChromeOS immediately opened a new tab with a file browser that allowed me to navigate and view my pictures on the SD card. Very nice!
Viewing SD card contents
You could preview and even delete photos. The preview was a little slow to load. You could select photos and start an upload to ... Picasa Google Photos of course. The upload takes place in the background with a little notification window letting you know about the progress. Again, very nice. Once the pics are uploaded, browsing/previewing is much smoother. I assume this is because you are browsing downsized versions of the pics, whereas the file manager on ChromeOS has you browsing through the full versions.
Pictures uploaded to Picasa
One of the things that I often do with my photos is edit them. One my MacBook Air, I use Adobe Lightroom. I didn't expect to have something as sophisticated as Lightroom, but I did expect to be able to do simple things like rotate and crop. I would also expect red-eye removal to be available, since this is a pretty common need. Anyways, the editing tool on the Picasa website is Picnik. I've used it before, and it is great. However, it had significant problems loading on ChromeOS:
Loading Picnik
Still loading...
Restart your browser? Umm...
I thought that maybe this memory error was because of the size of the photo (2.5 MB). That would imply that Picnik is purely client-side? I don't think so. I would assume that the full size photo was on the server, and in which case the memory problem is purely from the Picnik tools loading and has nothing to do with the size of the picture. Either way, I don't think this photo is too much above average. Megapixels are cheap these days.

So I couldn't edit the pics once uploaded to Picasa. I actually tried just using Picnik directly, not through Picasa, but it had the same problem. The nice thing is that any web app that allows you to upload pictures from your computer works great with ChromeOS. Here's Facebook for example:
Upload to Facebook
You could essentially upload from your SD card to Facebook this way. I would think that if a tool like Picnik worked, you could edit and then upload. You could probably sell a Chrome app that did that (it should allowing tagging of your Facebook friends too) and make a few bucks, assuming Chromebooks started selling.
I suppose a pretty common use case will be to simply upload all of the pics off of your SD card to Facebook. It seems like ChromeOS handles that pretty good. Put in you SD card, open up Facebook, and start uploading. If you use Picasa and Google+, it is even a little simpler. Editing seems to be a problem right now. Much like the general power performance of the Chromebook, it might be purely a function of subpar hardware. Maybe if Samsung put more memory in it, then Picnik wouldn't have choked? Hopefully the shortcomings can be addressed through software, since I don't think Google can update the RAM on my Chromebook.

Note: The "screenshots" were taken with my Nexus S. Why? Because the screenshot tool for ChromeOS didn't work for me. It works great on Chrome browser, but it would only capture part of the screen on ChromeOS and then freeze up. Sigh.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Spotify vs. Rdio

Today was the much anticipated US launch of Spotify. I've been using Rdio for several months, and really love it. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of posts out there comparing the two services. That's all good stuff to read. Here's my summary:

  • Spotify has more music. If you stick to stuff from the last 10 years and that you can find on iTunes, then you probably won't find much difference. But going further back or by going "more obscure", you will notice the differences.
  • Spotify has a desktop app, but it is an iTunes clone. The Rdio desktop app is more of a wrapper on their website. So big advantage to Spotify, despite being an ugly iTunes clone. Also, Spotify will play music on your computer, so it tries to be a replacement for iTunes.
  • The Rdio mobile app is way better, at least on Android. Subjectively, it has a cleaner design and is easier to use. The Spotify mobile app looks like I designed it. Objectively, the Rdio app's sync is far superior. Spotify requires your mobile device to be on the same wifi network as your computer that is running Spotify. On Rdio, you can easily send any song, album, playlist, etc. to all of your mobile devices with no requirements except that you've got an Internet connection.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Netflix Disappointment

Remember when Netflix started making us wait two weeks to get new releases? It was supposed to be a tradeoff to get more streaming content from Hollywod. Now here we are with higher prices than ever, less streaming content, and still no new releases on DVD.

Why can't we have a Rdio or Spotify for movies and TV? At some price, this should be possible, right? I know that is what I want, and I don't think I'm the only one. How much would you pay for it? I think my max price is somewhere north of $35/month, assuming I can use it on all of my devices. Doesn't it seem like there's a very profitable business out there for this kind of service at that price? I'm guessing backwards thinking in Hollywood is to blame here, along with continued paranoia over privacy. At least HBO seems to be getting this right.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Google+ and Hitting the Reset Button

Reset your social network

So you might have heard this week that there's this new social networking thing (*yawn*) called Google+. That's right, it's from Google. So it's gonna suck, right? I was skeptical at first, as were many others. After all, nobody roots for The Big Company who clones popular products made by smaller companies, and Google has had a well known poor track record in this space. But after a few days of using Google+, I'm a believer -- in its potential. Here's why.

Google+ is a chance to hit the rest button on social networking. For me, when I first started using Facebook it was mostly to catch up with old college classmates. Two big events happened later. Facebook was opened up to everybody, and Twitter showed up. When Facebook was opened up to everyone, I pretty much accepted friend requests from anyone I knew at all. I still didn't use Facebook that much. Meanwhile I really fell in love with Twitter when it showed up. On there I connected mostly with people in the same or related professions as me. Most of my tweets were around things that had to do with my job (programming, technology.)

Meanwhile on Facebook, I had more and more family members join. Suddenly Facebook became a great place to share family related things, especially pictures. Then I hooked up my Twitter account to Facebook. Now I could just post things to Twitter, and they would show up on Facebook. Then I would occasionally post pictures on Facebook as well. However, most of my tweets were geeky stuff. I did have some co-workers and college classmates who found such things interesting, but more and more most of my friends on Facebook (lots of family high school classmates) found this useless. Eventually I cut off the Twitter-Facebook connection.

My story here is certainly different from a lot of folks, but I imagine there are a lot of similarities too. Google+ seems to offer the possibility to do things over and get it right this time. The key is its grouping feature, Circles. You have to put people in Circles, so you are motivated to organize your friends. This is important. Facebook and Twitter have both had similar features for awhile, and they just aren't used. Twitter's lists aren't really comparable since you still send tweets to everyone. Facebook's groups are more comparable, so why aren't they used?

All your privacies are belong to us

First and foremost, I don't think Facebook really wants anyone to use them. They have a pretty strong history of trying to decrease privacy on their network. Obviously Facebook benefits if everything posted on their network can be searched and viewed by others on Facebook. It seems like one of those features that they added because some users wanted it, but it did not benefit Facebook The Business. Within a couple of days of Google+'s debut, reports came out of a Facebook engineer easily hacking together the same interface to use with Facebook groups. So clearly it would have been pretty easy for Facebook to make groups easy for users to use to organize their friends and incorporate groups into content published on Facebook, but instead Facebook chose not to do this.

This raises the question of why the heck is Google+ doing it? If I had to guess, I doubt that Google really wants to do this either. However, this is one of many places where Google+ feels like something designed around the strengths and weaknesses of its competition, Facebook and Twitter. Privacy was an obvious weakness of Facebook and so Google+ takes advantage of that. It's the kind of thing you do to get market share, whereas Facebook has been doing just the opposite because they are trying to monetize existing users and content.

Resistance is futile

Privacy is not the only place where Google+ feels like a product that has been cleverly designed around its competition. In fact it reminds me a lot of embrace, extend, extinguish era Microsoft. I think they have realized that they don't necessarily have to come up with something that Facebook and Twitter don't do at all, they can just do a lot of the same things and do them a little better. Some other examples of this are viewing pictures and allowing rich markup in status updates. So they make a slightly better product, then they play their own monopoly card by putting the G+ bar on top of all Google pages, including search results and GMail...

Anyways, going back to privacy... The creation of Circles is only half the battle. The other half is picking which of your Circles to publish to. G+ has made this easy to do, and it is a feature that I want to use. However, I don't know if others will do the same. Right now it still seems like most posts that I read are public. This may change as more people start to use G+, but maybe not.

If it doesn't change, then G+ then seems like it will be more of a competitor to Twitter than to Facebook. It already has a lot of similarities, since it uses an asymmetric friendship model like Twitter. I definitely noticed a drop in tweets by those I follow on Twitter since G+ came out. If people don't use the privacy features, then the most it could become is a better Twitter. There have been other better Twitters before, so I don't know if that is good enough. Features like hangouts (group video chat) and huddles (group messaging) seem like they could appeal to Facebook users, but it's hard to say right now. For me, the kind of folks who I use Facebook to communicate with, but would not use Twitter to communicate with, have not even heard of Google+. Yet.