Summer Hardware

All our fancy gadgetry is effectively useless outside controlled environments, and it sucks.

Every year around this time I’m sharply reminded of that as I take to the road and try to pack a year’s worth of postponed projects and a virtually immense stack of reading material of all sorts in order to attempt (somewhat futilely) to make some headway into them.

My travel kit consists of little more than my iPad and a Nook Touch, and I’ve managed to turn those into a fabulous setup. I can write blissfully, code a fair amount and read a lot, but the arrangement is still somewhat unsatisfactory on a few counts.

The Non-Laptop

Back in the day, I used to chug my iBook along, and that was pretty much it.

I’d be lucky to have network connectivity at all, so expectations were low and many a blissful hour was spent shaving pet yaks of various descriptions in a tiny little archipelago of manually synced folders. If there was any form of connectivity, then I’d go to town on my e-mail and look at a few websites (there weren’t that many anyway).

Things went pretty much downhill from there. Bluetooth tethering and GPRS made it harder to lack connectivity (but, even today, not at all impossible), but laptops became beefier, more powerful, and… hotter.

In a country where 40˚C (104˚F) is common enough indoors, using any kind of laptop in Summertime is a fair bit more than bothersome – not to mention lugging it about, of course.

The iPad is just easier. I whip it out and it’s instantly ready - no boot time, no slow tenderizing of my lap and unmentionables at near 50˚C, no hangups, no fiddling with modems, no hassles.

Packing an external keyboard is a no-brainer (I have a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, which despite lacking an Esc key is hands down the best keyboard out there for travelling), and I can deal with just about anything using iOS apps alone, so I never looked back.

The downside is that it’s pretty hard to develop non-web stuff on it.

I can sketch out application logic in Pythonista, code in Textastic, etc., but running and testing anything but JavaScript and Python without a remote machine is a right pain, so I maintain a cheap VPS for the single purpose of developing on the move – I log in to a ultra-fast, custom-built RDP-over-SSH session via Jump Desktop and have a “normal” Linux environment at my disposal (more on that in a few days, but here’s the Vagrant setup for it).

But there’s nothing quite like having local storage and a (truly local) UNIX prompt, so I’ve been leaning toward replacing my 2008 MacBook with something else. A smaller, (literally) cooler something.

A Chromebook springs to mind (more often than not, really), but the interesting ones in terms of price, battery life and stated (temperature) coolness are ARM and over a year old, so forking out live cash for them is pretty much a non-starter (unless I can find a second-hand one really cheap).

I probably wouldn’t be able to get prebuilt ARM binaries for some of the stuff I want to do, but that’s solvable – If I could turn my Android phone into a server, I suppose I could manage.

But it’s hard to justify paying for a Chromebook when for mostly the same amount I can grab a cheap laptop like the Asus X201E – which happens to have a quite decent keyboard, a good-sized touchpad and a decent enough screen for the price (around a quarter that of a decent 11” MacBook Air, which given my current lack of hard cash might as well be cast from a single block of unobtanium).

So the odds are all stacked against any of the options. Short of having something fall out of the sky (and I’ve already had my moment of luck for the year), I’m going to have to live with a VPS a good while longer. And it isn’t that bad, really1.

The Reader Conundrum

But the real challenge is reading stuff. I used to pack a bag full of books to go with that iBook, but thanks to the Kindle, those days are long gone.

My Kindle is gathering dust these days (until I sell it off to add a few bucks to my gadget fund), but I shall be forever grateful to it, since it blew the doors off the e-book market and there is nothing quite as relaxing and lightweight as an e-book reader.

Unless, of course, that e-book reader doubles as a decent web browser and can run Android apps – which is why a while back I hunted down a refurbished Nook Touch on eBay, converted all my e-books to ePUB, and pretty much gave up on the Kindle until Amazon ships an e-ink Android tablet.

This because (in case you have any doubts) pretty much all Android tablets are useless in direct sunlight unless you want something that becomes both utterly unreadable and unbearably hot to hold.

The Nook Touch, once “liberated”, is absolutely unbeatable as a travel reader. Like many others, I’ve hacked it to run standard Android apps (Dropbox, GMail, Evernote and Opera), but it’s stuck on Android 2.1, so its usefulness is limited and I expect it’ll probably last another year until those apps stop working.

But as an open, unfettered reader, it’s wonderful. My VPS runs Calibre to download and convert weekly editions of my Instapaper queue, the Economist and a few other custom “magazines”2 which are then put up on a Dropbox folder, from which I retrieve them as necessary.

It’s less convenient than the Kindle I used to use, but a lot more flexible, with a notable exception – reading PDFs on the Nook Touch is downright impossible, not just due to its screen size but also due to the usual issues (tiny fonts, absence of text reflow in most PDFs, and iffy scrolling).

But the e-book reader market is currently on the downturn, since even though the small devices are cheap, there doesn’t seem to be much demand for larger ones. Hence the cost of sizable e-ink panels is still far too high, creating a negative feedback loop that will likely never bring to fruition my dreams of an Android 4.0 e-ink tablet.

So I’ve been looking wistfully at the current 7” tablet craze and wondering how many people responsible for pushing those things have ever tried to use them in direct sunlight.

I’ve come to the sad conclusion that they must be cave-dwellers, evil Marketing ogres or both, and await Amazon’s next move to see if the next Kindle will be interesting enough to hack into submission.

Until then, I’m going to curl up in a nice hammock with entirely too much stuff to read and ponder the way technological progress is still largely orthogonal to human happiness.

  1. Well, provided I have decent mobile coverage. Murphy’s law of mobile data ensures that even in a country with otherwise excellent 3G and LTE coverage, the precise spot you’re visiting will unaccountably drop you in GPRS hell every half-hour or so as German tourists upload coy snapshots of their tanned hides to Facebook↩︎

  2. Incidentally, I wish Prismatic would export to Instapaper, since that’s one of the missing pieces of my information intake puzzle.  ↩︎