I bought a Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone this weekend. Last night I flashed it with the latest stable build of CyanogenMod.
I've been watching the Android ecosystem mature over the last couple of years. For reasons I can't really recall now, I opted several years ago to purchase an Apple iPhone instead of an Android phone. I've never really regretted that decision -- the iPhone is indubitably an excellent product -- but I've chaffed at many of the decisions that Apple makes on my behalf. As a long-time Linux user, I'm comfortable poking around in options screens to tweak my systems to operate in ways that I like.
The initial transition to the Galaxy S3 was fairly seamless. I've been a long-time Google Apps user, so all of my email and contacts defined in GMail simply showed up on my phone when I authenticated my account. The friction of finding where the various UI buttons were located was minimal: smartphone UI and UX design is sufficiently sophisticated now that finding the "compose" button on any screen is pretty intuitive. The biggest mental hurdle for me was getting used to the two "physical" buttons on the Galaxy S3: the "menu" button at the bottom left of the screen, and the dedicated "back" button at the bottom right of the screen. After a day of use, these buttons became second nature.
Samsung's TouchWiz interface lies atop the stock Google Android experience. I didn't find anything terribly problematic about Samsung's efforts here. While I might grumble about the quantity (and relative uselessness) of some of the pre-loaded applications, the actual interface controls were very friendly. I particularly liked the camera application's use of the entire display as viewfinder.
But the reason I bought an Android device is because I wanted the "pure" Google experience, unmarred by carrier bloat. I'm a Verizon subscriber, which means that the new Google Nexus 4 smartphone is unavailable to me. In order to truly experience the native Google experience, I am required to flash a custom firmware onto my phone. CyanogenMod is the leading contender here, so I spent several hours researching my options, and the process for each.
There is an enormous community of Android enthusiasts using and developing solutions for doing exactly what I wanted to do. I'm not trail blazing, by any stretch. Indeed, I'm actually quite late to the game, and this has caused me no small amount of frustration. The enthusiast community has developed its own lingo, and currently assumes that all users are equally familiar with the ins and outs of flashing. This presents a major hurdle to new participants like myself.
I understand the concepts behind rooting, flashing, and superuser privileges, as well the different between locked and unlocked bootloaders. I do not, however, have any immediate understanding of terms like "ODIN" or "CWM". Nor am I intimately familiar with version numbers of existing Samsung firmware, or the differences between them (or, indeed, the sequence of their releases). Many of the tutorials I've found for flashing my phone presume a level of understanding that I am demonstrably lacking. This was frustrating.
After reading several tutorials, watching a number of YouTube videos, and performing an inordinate number of Google searches, I finally found what I thought was the best process for me.
Since mine was a brand new phone, with no data on it that I didn't already have somewhere else (ie: my GMail data), I didn't feel compelled to perform any kind of backup. If you're reading this because you want to flash your phone, you'll need to decide for yourself if you need to backup anything.
Since I was using a MacBook, many of the guides I found did not pertain to me. The guide that most applied to me was Mac Root Tool for S3 [Casual for Verizon S3]. This involves a Java application that roots the phone and optionally installs an unlocked bootloader. Notably, this solution does not install the CyanogenMod custom firmware. It merely performs some (but not all!) of the steps necessary to make such an installation possible.
The instructions state:
- Open this file
- Select Root with DebugFSRoot and Do It
- Select Flash Unsecure Aboot and Do It
- Use Odin or CWM to flash kernels to your device
The first two steps were easy enough. The third step confused me for several minutes until I realized that the "Flash Unsecure Aboot" required me to scroll down in the selector list. Once located and selected, this option gave a number of dire warnings about rendering my device unusable. I spent a good chunk of time trying to confirm whether this tool would work with the current version of my phone's firmware. This required a number of visits to various Android forums, and an awful lot of scrolling up and down. Finally satisfied, I clicked the "Do It" button, and felt remarkably underwhelmed when nothing much happened.
Step 4 didn't make much sense to me. Now that I've successfully flashed my phone, I do understand what they mean, and probably could have used them to finish the deal. But on my first attempt through this process, I didn't know what to do.
With a rooted phone, I now needed to unlock the bootloader. The recommended procedure was to download an app from the Google Play store called "ez_unlock". Once installed, the app simply showed me a white screen. Clearly something was wrong. I tried steps 1 and 2 from the Casual app again, but each time the ez_unlock app simply showed me a white screen.
More Google searching revealed that the way to tell if your running device is rooted is the presence of a new application called "Super User". I looked, and indeed that application was now present. I had not previously executed it. I clicked on it. It launched. I poked around, but couldn't find anything useful to do within in.
After launching the Super User app, I then tried the ez_unlock app again. This time it worked! It's (still) not clear to me if one needs to launch Super User first, but it seems probable. At the least, it can't hurt. ez_unlock allowed me to unlock the bootloader, which means I was now ready to install a custom firmware.
From the Google Play store I installed ROM Manager, and performed an in-app purchase to get the ROM Manager Touch upgrade. (An aside: I'm more than happy to give a couple dollars to the ingenious folks who produce tools to make this process easier.) This allowed me to download the latest stable version of CyanogenMod and the latest versions of various Google applications. This all worked without a hitch. My phone rebooted, and I was delighted to see the CyanogenMod splash screen.
After three or four minutes of the CyanogenMod splash screen, my delight turned to concern. Clearly something hadn't worked correctly. Several attempts to remedy the situation proved fruitless.
More Google searching took me back to the official CyanogenMod wiki for Galaxy SIII Full Update. This page specifically recommends using a microSD card to store the CyanogenMod image. I had not done this, because I do not yet have a microSD card for my Galaxy S3.
I used Angela's phone to download the latest stable CyanogenMod for the Verizon Galaxy S3, as well as the latest version of Google Apps, and copied these files to her microSD card. I installed this card into my phone, and followed the instructions for Flashing CyanogenMod using the Recovery Method. This worked flawlessly.
After a reboot, I was presented with the CyanogenMod splash screen, and then with the setup process for new devices. I set up my device, added my Google account, and within moments had a fully functional Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" installation.
The tl;dr moral of the story here is to use a microSD card when attempting to flash your Verizon Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone.
For the last couple years I've had a Mac Mini attached to my television. This has served as our DVD player and content streaming device. To this Mac Mini I had attached an external hard drive. This drive contained several movies I'd ripped as well as my entire iTunes music collection. I set up a wireless keyboard and mouse so that we could use the computer from the couch, but the reality is that using a web browser from 10 feet away is sub-optimal. This meant that we were often standing directly in front of the TV to find and start some show. The Mac Mini has been good enough, though everyone in the house will agree that it's not a stellar solution.
Last night, the external hard drive attached to the Mac took a plunge off the mantel, and stopped working. I'm frustrated that I lost all my media. But in reality, none of it is irreplacable. Moreover, I didn't avail myself to the bulk of that content with any regularity so most of the time it went unused.
The last couple of months have been bad for the hardware in my life. I clobbered my laptop's hard drive and shattered my iPhone. And now the external drive. I'm growing increasingly tired of hardware. Too much can go wrong, too easily. Too much maintenance is required, or too many ancillary purchases.
I don't consume enough media to feel compelled to own much of it. It's been years since I last bought a CD or DVD -- and almost as long since I last watched one -- and I'm not particularly interested in Blu-Ray. We're already Netflix subscribers, and we use Amazon Video On Demand with some regularity. Most of the time something like Last.fm or Pandora is sufficient for listening to music. I'm not enough of an audiophile to be able to justify Spotify's monthly fee. And I don't have a stereo system: all music gets played through my television's speakers.
I've been eyeing a Roku box for awhile, wondering whether it would be sufficiently easy to use without being annoying. It would allow us to continue to enjoy Netflix and Amazon VOD, as well as the various music streaming services. But a Roku would still be another piece of mostly fragile hardware that doesn't demonstrably make my life any better. Yes, it might facilitate distractions, but it's not really doing much to improve my quality of life.
Maybe it's not hardware fatigue I'm suffering, but digital fatigue. All the apps and web sites and servcies and doo-dads we consume every day are all mostly distractions. They don't improve my health. They don't do much to bring my family together. They often distract us from things that are arguably more important.
It's also entirely possible I'm just becoming a curmudgeonly middle aged man.
Unlike Owen, who lost the use of his iPhone by following the explicit directions of a support representative, I lost the use of my iPhone when it slipped from my fingers and landed squarely face down in a parking lot. The glass shattered pretty spectacularly. The phone still works, interestingly, but I'm afraid of the lacerations I might get just trying to unlock it.
I didn't have insurance on this phone, so the full-cost replacement would have been close to $700. No phone is worth that much money. I hemmed and hawed a bit, trying to decide if I should just downgrade to a flip phone and give up smartphones. I finally decided not to go the flip phone route.
Instead, I searched Craigslist for a suitable replacement. I found considerably more than I expected, with prices ranging from $250 to $500. Some of these postings suggested less than reputable provenance for the phones in question, so it was with some anxiety that I called one of the sellers to ask about his reasonably priced white iPhone 4. The story he told me was if not legit at least sufficiently well rehearsed as to sound fairly convincing, so I agreed to meet him in a parking lot to buy his phone.
It was a mildly surreal experience to buy a used iPhone from a college kid in a parking lot in the mideast United States. It felt like something out of a William Gibson novel. A quick inspection of the phone suggested that it was fully functional, so I gave the kid cash. I didn't haggle, as haggling has always proven to be a waste of my time: some people are good at it, indeed enjoy it, but it always just makes me grumpy and sullen.
So late yesterday afternoon my replacement iPhone was activated without incident. Indeed, everything seems to be working just fine.
Now I need to buy a screen replacement kit for my old phone, so that I can try to resurrect it. Assuming I'm successful in that endeavour, I'll then have two iPhone 4s I can sell to fund the purchase of the iPhone 5 that is being released next week.
I bought an iPhone yesterday.
I've been a long-time Sprint customer, but have recently grown dissatisfied with the CDMA technology used by them. After my trip to Barcelona, I realized that a GSM phone would be much more useful to me, should I do any more traveling abroad (something I very much want to do!). I recently renewed my contract with Sprint, though, so canceling my contract to change carriers would likely incur a hefty penalty. Needless to say, I was quite pleased to read about how to avoid the Sprint early termination fee, and began planning my transition to AT&T.
As previously stated, I'm interested in smartphones. A phone-only cellphone doesn't have much appeal to me. I'd been looking at purchasing a Blackberry Bold, and had done a fair amount of research on the device. The convergence of GSM, WiFi, and GPS really appealed to me. The only thing holding me back was the cost: with a purchase price of $299 online, or $399 in-store, I found it excruciatingly hard to justify the purchase.
Last weekend I spent some time at an AT&T store playing with the demo model of the Bold. I took Mike along with me for moral support, and his comments and observations were well received. Mike poo-pooed the Bold pretty quickly, mostly because he found the interface to be lackluster. "Everything looks like a web page. They could at least apply some CSS to spice it up!" he opined. I didn't entirely share his view, but it did make me look a little more critically at the device. On the way home from the store, I realized that the Bold's interface is, in fact, pretty boring.
That's not necessarily a bad thing; but a smartphone is as much a mobile computer as it is a phone, and I don't like boring computers. I like my computers to have some personality. I like to customize my computer interfaces to reflect my sense of playfulness and my aesthetic. I'm sure I could find some ways to do that with the Bold, but out of the box it's a very staid device.
I didn't spend much time considering the Blackberry Curve, the previous model of Blackberry. I know someone who has one, and who loves it. He uses T-Mobile, and thoroughly enjoys the UMA feature, which allows him to make calls over a WiFi connection. (Why more carriers don't support this, I don't understand: it still consumes plan minutes, and lessens the burden on the cellular radio infrastructure. There must be a lot of back-end routing that makes this less-than-desirable from the carrier's perspective. Pity.) The lack of GPS really turned me off from the Curve. The soon-to-be-released Curve 8900 does offer a GPS, and presumably a more modest purchase price than the Bold; but alas it's not yet available on carriers in the U.S., and I only had a couple days to play the get-out-of-Sprint-free card.
So yesterday I walked into the AT&T store and purchased an iPhone 3G. The fact that it was half as much as the Blackberry Bold was probably the largest factor in making the purchase. It was with no small amount of trepidation that I completed the sale: I had not forgotten my complaints against the iPhone from last year. I was also torn as to whether to pay full price for a new phone at the store, or to buy a refurbished model online for half the price. In the end, the thought of a full one-year warranty on a new phone, coupled with my intense desire for instant gratification, won out.
Not to be underlooked, though, was my intense fear of losing my current phone number. I didn't want my number to get lost in the shuffle were I to complete the transaction online. If something were to foul up in the number porting process while at the AT&T store, at least I could feel better by having a human being at which to yell. Thankfully the transfer went off without a hitch, and Larry, the AT&T store employee, had to bear no such abuse from me.
As for the iPhone itself, I like it so far. The form factor makes it not unpleasant to hold. I like the easily customizable home screen. Most things are extremely intuitive, if not downright enjoyable. The mail application is acceptable, but not great. It's much easier to read mail on the iPhone than it was to use ChatterEmail on my Centro. I find the browser interface to be absolutely superb, and using the iPhone-optimized versions of the various Google services on which I rely is vastly superior to the mobile versions served to the Palm. The on-screen keyboard is convenient, but not entirely easy, to use. I suspect that it will take me some to really gain proficiency with it.
As a long-time Palm user, I found it somewhat unsettling that the iPhone calendar application doesn't seem to support categories. I categorized all my calendar items on the Palm with "personal" or "work". After a moment's reflection, I realized that while I categorize events, that categorization doesn't really help me too much. I don't think I've ever filtered my list of calender items by categorization, so why was I doing it? Similarly, the lack of categories or tags for phone contacts is also a real mental hurdle. I really, really like to organize my contacts, and have a dozen categories defined in my Palm address book. I do often find myself listing all contacts from a certain category, so there will be a learning curve to adapt to the iPhone.
My biggest concern about using an iPhone is that I use GNU/Linux on my computers, so I don't have an officially supported mechanism for syncing the iPhone with my computer. In essence, the iPhone will be a stand-alone mobile computer that supplements, but does not entirely integrate with, my primary laptop. I think this will be okay because the iPhone App Store works pretty darned well from the iPhone itself. The only shortcoming I experienced thus far was that to use the App Store one needs a valid iTunes Music Store account. Luckily I had such an unused account from some time ago. (Unluckily, I had forgotten the password, so I had to install iTunes onto a Windows XP virtual machine in order to recover it. And then I had to supply credit card details so that I could actually gain access to the store. As John observed when I complained about this, "Welcome to their world. This isn't Ubuntu, Scott.")
I have no doubt that the iPhone will be a mixed blessing in terms of conveniences and headaches. I'm approaching it with an open mind, and a real desire to make it work. It might be the "gateway drug" to get me to purchase a Macintosh computer so that I can enjoy full synchronization, though I'd like to avoid that expense for as long as possible.
I've just successfully terminated my Sprint account, and managed to have the early termination fee waived. The support agent with which I originally spoke claimed that not all customers would be assessed the increased administrative fee, so I couldn't use that as an excuse to break my contract. Further, since I had already ported my numbers, I had willfully broken the contract and had earned the early termination fee. It's important to note that the Sprint surcharges, taxes, fees, and other charges support page says this:
Effective 1/1/2009, the Administrative Charge will increase to $0.99 per line.
It doesn't say anything about the fee increase being selectively applied to some customers. I was finally able to use the Sprint web-based support chat to have the early termination fee removed from my final bill. I explained that I had ported my numbers preemptively in order to ensure that I didn't lose them when the Sprint account was terminated; and I pointed out that the fee increase notification says nothing about selective application to some customers. With no further fuss, the early termination fee was rescinded.
My boss at work has suggested that he might purchase Apple iPhones for us. He needs a new phone, and wants to afford us the opportunity to play with the fancy new gadget, too. We'd be responsible for paying the monthly plan charges -- he'd only be able to get the phones themselves for us.
The battery in my Treo is beginning to lose charge, so I was at first a little excited at the idea of getting an iPhone. I admit to being extremely impressed by both the functionality and the sheer elegance of the unit. But upon careful reflection, I think I'm probably going to pass, for a number of reasons:
- The iPhone uses AT&T for the carrier, notorious for their eagerness to help spy on American citizens
- I don't use Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X, so I'd have trouble activating and syncing the iPhone through the iTunes Music Store
- the iPhone does not support Bluetooth Dial-Up Networking, which allows me to connect to the Internet from my laptop via my phone. Although I don't use this feature a lot, it's darned handy when I do use it.
- I don't listen to a lot of music while out and about, so the iPod functionality of the iPhone is not very appealing to me
Another compelling reason to avoid the iPhone is lack of third-party applications. Although I use it only rarely, one of the reasons I really like my Treo is the ability to ssh into Linux servers from anywhere. There is an ssh solution for iPhones, but it's (to me) an inelegant hack. I don't know that the Safari scripts permitted on the iPhone will provide the kind of features I would like to have.
The biggest reason not to get the iPhone, though, is cost -- both dollars and minutes. We use Sprint for our carrier, currently. Our Family Plan includes me, Carina, and my dad. We have a pool of minutes we all share, and we can call each other's cell phones without using any minutes. Were I to get an iPhone, I'd be paying an extra monetary fee every month, and Carina and my dad would have to consume minutes when communicating with me (though I likely wouldn't consume any minutes, due to the iPhone's free mobile-to-mobile calls).