Thoughts on Mobile, Part Three: Connecting Dots 4, 5, 6

Yesterday’s post ran long, so I decided to cut it in half. Here’s the rest of it, or the third in a series of two articles. (Something like that…)

A group video call on Skype.

A group video call on Skype.

Dot #4: Connectivity and Sharing. Here in the 21st century, we demand not only connectivity but sharing of information in real time. We fall short in whiteboard-type environments where we can see ideas and people simultaneously, and when we do, the interaction is sub-par, but this will steadily improve through Skype, Google, and new ventures. All portable devices must connect anywhere, at any time–this is a shortcoming of some apps (Evernote, for example) and some devices (most portable computers, unless a separate wireless hot spot is generated by a nearby cell phone). This is foolish retro-thinking. The next generation of computers, tablets, all devices should include built-in connectivity for WiFi, 3G, 4G, and so on. Fortunately, these devices and their related systems work very well. And, fortunately, the technology is constantly improving to allow more throughput, faster speeds, fewer problems, and increased security. What we don’t have quite yet is a kind of super-DropBox where it’s easy to share any document on any device, regardless of whether it’s in the cloud or on a specific device. VPN (Virtual Private Network) technology resembles a solution, but what we need is a more robust, full-featured, easy-to-use system. I suspect Apple and Google are hard at work developing something to do this job–they’re already on the way with Google Docs and the new iWork set for release later this year.


Dot #5: Output. This one is confusing. I own an iPad which doesn’t do well in an environment where printed documents are the standard. Most printers won’t talk to a tablet–though some now have email addresses for that purpose (yes, some printers have email addresses–seems confusing, I know). When I was using a portable computer, I often printed documents. With the tablet, I find myself storing documents and reading them on the tablet’s screen. Far less printing. Almost none, in fact. My output is, typically, an email to someone who wants or needs to read something I wrote. I do print some documents for reference, but printed documents are difficult to revise, so I tend to focus on digital copies. The file folder in my briefcase were once filled with paper, but now, not so much. Even handwritten notes are being replaced by the notes that I take on the tablet–when they’re in Evernote, they’re very easily shared with my other devices and with other people via email or shared settings.

Dot #6: Portable. For me, this means the device goes just about everywhere I go. In that regard, the iPhone (any smartphone, really) is a suitable solution, if one with a too-small screen. There is access to web and email, phone, messaging, internet, iWork documents, Evernote, the list goes on. The tablet does not go everywhere because it’s a little too big, even for someone like me who is rarely seen outside my home without a shoulder bag. There’s some minor conflict here about size: the phone ought to be larger, the iPad needs to be both small enough to carry everywhere (the iPad Mini) but large enough to provide a full page of printed material or to create diagrams or word processing documents or spreadsheets or presentations (the iPad full-size model). At first, I was sure I would need a keyboard, so I bought one and thought I’d carry it everywhere. I don’t. In fact, I use the portable keyboard only when I have a lot of writing to do away from home–not so often, as it turns out.

How long does the device need to run between recharges? Eight hours seems pretty reasonable, more is nice.

GoalZero's external solar charger is convenient, but this technology should be built into every portable device.

GoalZero’s external solar charger is convenient, but this technology should be built into every portable device.

Any accessories required, as one might carry with a portable computer? Absolutely not.

One further notion about portability: the device must be easily used anywhere. With an iPad or tablet of sufficient size, that’s anywhere at all, standing, sitting, lying down. With a portable computer, a desktop surface makes the process so much more comfortable–though some people can work with the computer on their lap (I need a fat pillow to do that, and the computer tends to slide around). The tablet can be raised or lowered to adjust for eye position and lighting; this is difficult to do with a portable computer.

Of course, everyone’s needs are different, and some people use their portable device as a power tool. For most users, I suspect this is overkill–just like a gigantic SUV might be for local grocery runs and soccer practice.

What’s next? I think we’ll see keyboards becoming vestigial, and improved touch screens as the standard for portable devices. I know the devices will become faster, contain more storage, offer better screens and longer battery power, and we all know that prices will remain quite low, but will slowly rise. There will be more pocketable devices, and attempts to move away from a traditional flat screen. OLED technology, for example, allows a screen to roll up for storage. This will be the next frontier, worthy because the size of the screen is the key determinant for portability. Once that dot becomes more flexibly defines, all of the other dots line up in support. That’s the longer-term future.


For the shorter-term future, I’d look to combining my tablet and phone into a single device that works and plays nicely with a more powerful computer (which will also evolve) in my home or office.

And what about power? Since they can be charged almost anywhere, I like solar cells. They’re small, flat, and becoming affordable. I also like charging mats. AC adapters are probably unavoidable, but better batteries make them less essential.

Sorry for the long post, and for the multiple parts. This was interesting to write, so I just kept going.

Beyond the Easel – Serious Field Work

I visited B&H Photo in Manhattan with a sketched diagram in my hand, hoping to find something that would allow me to attach a shelf to my tripod. When I was using the tripod only for still photography, the need was there, but minimal. When I started using the tripod for drawing and painting (with a sketch board firmly attached to the tripod head), it became clear that I needed a place for my pastels, my paints, the water, the paper towels. When I added videography, the tripod kept the camera firm and fluid, but I needed a handy place for the microphone, the iPad, the Zoom audio recorder, and other supplies.

After trying to rig something on my own, and failing, I started visiting local hardware stores, and was able to cobble together a solution involving perforated steel strips and cotton twine. At best, I had devised a temporary solution. Entering B&H, my hopes were not high.

Then, I spotted a large, flat piece of plastic called a Tripad. Aha! This was the solution. As you can see in the image, the Tripad surface extends from two of the three tripod legs. The genius part–the part that I never considered when I was doing my own (lame-o) inventing was a brace that fit over the head of the tripod and supported itself by hanging onto the far leg. B&H has lots of tripods, and I happened to find myself there around dinner time, when the busy store wasn’t too crowded. The Tripad worked: it was stable, not too large, and, quite perfect. The surface measures 15 inches wide and 11 inches deep (plus the part that connects to the tripod legs); the second triangular piece fits over the head and onto the leg. It weighs three pounds and holds eight. It comes along with me, but mostly when I travel by car; it’s little heavy and large for casual use, but durable and solid for professional applications. Here’s the video; see for yourself. The Tripad costs $99, and you can buy it here.

Now, back in my inventing days, I was thinking (though never seriously) about a setup that might involve not a full shelf but a pair of arms extending, on the perpendicular, from the tripod legs. There is an artist’s tripod with this design (Mabef M27), but I could never quite figure out which search terms could be used to find such a contraption on Google.

Then, I got lucky. I found the Easel Butler: Maximillian (or, for friends, Max). I liked the site immediately: the device “weights less than two bananas.” And that turns out to be true. In ounces, that’s 11.5, and in length, it’s 14 inches. There is a metal brace that slides over two easel legs. The brace has two holes: into each hole, you place a metal rod. The rods are kept in place by rubber o-rings (which you must be careful not to close, especially when working in the field). There’s a bag that attaches to the far side of the easel, a counterweight. With Max’s arms outstretched, I was able to place a full box of pastels without once worrying about an accident due to instability (clumsiness is, of course, another matter entirely). Easel Butler sets up in an about a minute, and requires about as much time to strike and put away. It comes with a nice little bag. It’s sturdy, well-thought-out, and well made. And the whole package is light enough for anyone to take along, and small enough to fit into a suitcase so it can travel with you, anywhere in the world. Want to see it in action? Watch this… Or just buy it here for $37.95.

I’m happy. A month ago, I was traveling some inept path with no real understanding of how to solve a problem. Now, I have two good solutions, each well-suited to a particular creative application. Below, some additional pictures that may convince you to invest, or, at least, to think differently about the way you work when you create.

Here’s the Tripad on a trip to Mount Everest.

I hadn’t considered this possibility before, but the Easel Butler allows one pair of arms to be attached to all three sides of the tripod. For a pastel artist, or a serious videographer or photographer, this is a terrific (and extremely cost effective) solution. Lightweight, too!

Here’s a more relaxed, in-the-field version of the Easel Butler in use. Very, very simple.

Useful iPad Stuff

(This turned out to be a popular blog post, but I neglected to mention a favorite product, so I’ve revised the article. See below.)

A collection of products that I’ve been meaning to write about…

First–and this one is free–is the 150-plus page iPad Buyer’s Guide from iLounge. If any one publication is the definitive iPad guide, this must be it. It begins with a very complete guide to every iPad model on the planet–very useful for those who are considering a purchase, a skip-over for those who already own one–then digs into articles about iPad innovators, including Inkling (which makes the interactive travel guides I wrote about last week). Just about every aspect of the iPad culture is explored, including some decidedly weird comments from the doubters (I thought we were past this negative stuff, but obviously, they do not). There are pages and pages about useful accessories, top apps, lots more. What’s more, everything is presented in a punchy, fun-to-browse way. It’s available for your computer screen in one-page or two-page-spread format, or in one-page specifically for the iPad. Nice work!

Second, a surprise, at least to me. I’ve used an iPhone for years, and an iPad for a year or so. The input device is my finger, and until yesterday, that worked just fine. Just for fun, I tried an iPad stylus. I liked it. A lot. There are lots of iPad styli available–including the colorful series of Bamboo stylus products from Wacom, and the one I used, the AluPen from Just|Mobile. The AluPen is about four inches long, and feels like a fat crayon. The rubber tip makes contact with the screen’s surface with surprising accuracy. I was able to execute every iPad function more smoothly (and with no fingertip oil or friction), so the experience seemed smoother, quicker, and more precise. Consistent with current trends, stylus makers now offer two models, one with a built-in pen (the kind you use to write on paper, the kind with ink). The AluPen Pro uses Pelikan ink, which seems consistent with Just|Mobile’s higher-quality approach to their whole product line. Before you buy, be sure to explore the extensive text, pictures and video on The Verge.

Third, remote power. At January’s Consumer Electronics Show, lots of companies were showing remote power accessories for both iPhone and iPad. Once again, I was impressed by the Just|Mobile products, despite their odd name: Gum. The Gum Plus is the smaller unit, designed mostly for the iPhone (which it can charge several times without being refreshed), and, in a pinch, you can use it to charge the iPad, if not fully, then enough to keep working for a while. For the iPad, you’ll want the larger, and somewhat heavier, Gum Max, which carries enough portable power to completely recharge an iPad, and then, an iPhone. The way this works: you plug the GUM into your AC outlet, fill it with power, and then, carry it with you. When you need the power, you plug your iPhone or iPad into the portable GUM unit. Then, when time and access permit, you recharge the GUM, and, presumably, your iPhone and iPad, too. Some people will use these devices regularly. If you plan to use the Gum only sometimes, you must remember to discharge and recharge the unit for best results.

Fourth, remote storage. Apple designed the iPad so that its local storage would be limited… and the cloud would provide the rest. Unfortunately, even 64GB is not enough local storage for those who rely upon the iPad as their primary portable device, and there is no such thing as a USB Flash Drive or SD Card to augment storage. I am very impressed with the idea of the Seagate’s GoFlex Satellite Drive, and as soon as it’s up and running, I will report back to you.

I reposted because I forgot my favorite new iPad accessory. It’s an eraser. But it doesn’t erase ink or pencil. It erases the ridiculous smudges that magically appear on every iPad screen. I use it often, especially on sunny days when the reflected finger grease (sorry) makes it difficult to see the screen properly. So, here’s the solid plastic 3-inch by 4-inch white plastic eraser with a specially-made black bottom…my best friend when the smudges become annoying on an otherwise beautiful day. The company is Best iProducts. The iEraser costs $14.95, and it’s proudly made in America. They can imprint company logos. It works on a bare screen, but not with a screen protector. All of which is nice to know, but what I really like is that this little eraser really works. First time, every time. Smudges gone! And it couldn’t be simpler. Small company, good product, who could ask for anything more?


A Go-Everywhere iPad/Android Keyboard

Competing against nothing is not easy. Every iPad and every Android tablet comes with an on-screen keyboard that costs nothing and weighs nothing. In fact, I am using one right now. It’s fine for short documents with no formatting, but I prefer a proper keyboard for longer writing sessions.

I use the Apple wireless keyboard that came with my iMac (I use a wired keyboard on my desk, so this one was a spare. I invested in a durable slipcase from www.sfbags.comfor $29. and I carry an extra pair of AA batteries, just in case the Bluetooth eats too much power. Mostly, it works as well as any Bluetooth device. It’s a bit taller than the iPad, but then, it is a full-sized computer keyboard. Weight of keyboard, case and two sets of batteries: one pound. I do not carry it everywhere.

The new ZAGGKeys FLEX is about 3/4 as long as the Apple keyboard, so the keys are closer together. It weighs about 3/4 of a pound, but it is much more compact. Power is provided via USB, not AA cells. Special buttons on the keyboard are used for undo, cut, paste, and search. The keyboard easily switches from Apple to Android mode. One button pairs the keyboard to either device.

The niftiest part is the stand that doubles as the case. It’s lightweight and very stable–more firm that Apple’s magnetic iPad cover.

The keyboard is a little clunky and a little noisy–convenient but Apple’s keyboard is both elegant and silent.

Cost: Apple wireless keyboard ($69) + SF bags slipcase ($29) + a year’s batteries = $100.

Cost: ZAGGKeys FLEX: about $80.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, there were dozens of iPad accessory-makers on the show floor. I like ZAGG–they seem to come up with clever solutions. Here, they’ve got a good idea, but $20 and a quarter pound are not enough to overcome the significant quality advantage of the Apple / SF Bags solution.

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