Nexus 7: The Software

Categories: Gadgetry
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Published on: December 20, 2012

Here’s the thing: I don’t see a clear advantage between Android and iOS.

Sure, the buttons may be in different places, and settings and menus may be handled in different ways, but in general they work the same way and, I find, the latest iterations of each are stable, speedy, and slick. Android may offer a few extra features like animated wallpapers and widgets, but those are going to come down to personal preference.

The Nexus does offer more flexibility in security and locking. The tablet can be encrypted, for example, which I don’t believe is possible on iOS. A simple slide unlock is the default, but users can also substitute facial recognition, PIN unlock, password unlock, or a pattern unlock. There’s even a setting to require blinking during facial recognition to prevent someone from using a photograph to unlock a device.

Furthermore, I like that Android now offers multiple accounts on one device. If I hand my children my iPad, they have access to all of my data and access to all of my apps. With the Nexus 7, I was able to create a second profile for my oldest son. It created a bare-bones profile, and he then entered his school-provided Google account information to set up his own account and even install his own apps (those already existing on the tablet were not re-downloaded, just made available to his account). I can see this being an advantage in an education setting where devices may be shared between multiple students in a classroom.

In terms of straight-up usability, however, I like both. I have yet to find an important (to me) core app that isn’t available on both devices. Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, a good RSS reader, and social networking tools are all working just fine for me on Android. All of my reading has gone digital, and I find myself able to go back and forth between devices without any problems.

Jelly Bean on the Nexus 7 is also my first exposure to Google Now:

Google Now is the Android answer to personal assistant’s like Apple’s Siri, and it’s worked well for what I’ve used it for. However, it’s a good example of where Google’s cloud-centralized information can really shine. When I search a location in Google Maps while logged in to my Google account in Chrome on a desktop, that search appeared in Google Now on the tablet and I was told how long it would take me to get there. My Chrome browsing data also appears to sync to Chrome on the tablet, which has been handy when I needed to find a website I’d previously visited. Even my bookmarks are all available in both locations without my having to do anything more than simply logging in to the tablet. If a student forgets or loses his Android tablet, or he neglects to charge it, he can feasibly log in to his Google account on Chrome on a school computer and have access to his data.

My Nexus 7 updated itself to Android 4.1, Jelly Bean, moments after I took it out of the box. Unlike with my Android smart phone, I’m not having to wait until my carrier and handset manufacturer get around to providing an update (assuming they provide one at all). Also, where the three Android phones I’ve had experience with (an HTC Desire, Motorola Electrify, and my wife’s Samsung Acclaim) have all faced a number of strange glitches, memory issues, and spontaneous reboots, the Nexus 7 has been near flawless.

The first problem I ran into was a strange crash. The screen went black except for some random, colorful streaks flying around, and it made a high-pitched squeal in the speakers. A Google search showed this is a common problem, and a hard reset by holding down the power button for thirty seconds resolved it. The problem hasn’t recurred since that first time, and that was shortly after the initial update.

The second problem is the Wi-Fi issue I mentioned in my Nexus 7 hardware review. It seems to only happen when moving from one network to another (not a different AP, but a whole different network), and again, turning Wi-Fi off and back on solves the problem. Hopefully a future patch or update will fix it for good.

Beyond that, things have been smooth. The facial recognition works better and faster than I expected, and I was surprised it didn’t care when I put my glasses on (and when it fails it goes into a PIN unlock immediately). There is a slight pause when changing from one profile to the other, but not so long that it gets irritating. The device does appear to keep working more in the background while not in use, which could contribute to the perceived idle battery drain.

So what all can I actually do with it? I’ll address that in the next review post.

Nexus 7: The Hardware

Categories: Gadgetry
Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: December 17, 2012

My district picked up a Google Nexus 7 tablet for evaluation, and there’s a lot to cover so I’m going to break my comments out across a couple of posts this week, starting with hardware.

The Nexus 7 is built by Asus and is not as small as I expected. It’s taller and narrower than the Kindle Fire HD, but it’s still easy to read from and to manipulate. I can easily hold it in one hand, whether pinched between thumb and fingers along one edge or cradled across my palm with thumb on one side and fingers on the other.

Given we’re wanting to see how it fares in students’ hands, though, I gave the tablet to my ten-year-old son. He, too, found it very comfortable to hold and use.

Nexus 7 portrait
My son holding the Nexus 7 in portrait mode

I still see a remarkable difference between students and teachers when I hand them a new device. Most teachers, particularly those uncomfortable withe technology, will stare at the device and ask me how to turn it on. My son, like most students, went straight to work in search of buttons. The Nexus 7 has no buttons on the face when it’s powered off (the three you see at the bottom in the screenshot are all software buttons), so he searched the perimeter to find the power and volume buttons. He was in and exploring in seconds.

The Nexus is a weighty device given its size, but not uncomfortable. The chassis feels sturdy despite the plastic construction, and Google has placed the camera and mic near the top (short edge) and the speakers on the bottom back. The camera does not appear accessible by most apps, so must only be intended for video conferencing. The speakers have been loud and clear while playing YouTube videos.

Nexus 7 landscape
My son holds the Nexus 7 in landscape mode

The screen is very bright and crisp. It’s easy to read indoors, and it’s not too harsh and bright for reading in the dark. Scrolling through websites and flipping through apps was fast and smooth, and I had no trouble picking up Wi-Fi signals in various parts of our campus.

It does, however, seem to lose Wi-Fi from time to time. I don’t know whether this would be a software or hardware issue, and I’ve seen it happen both at work and at home while connected to two very different wireless routers. The Wi-Fi icon will turn white (it’s normally blue) and will say it’s connected, but to get back online I find it’s easiest to turn the Wi-Fi off and back on again.

I have mixed feelings on the battery life. I’ve used the Nexus 7 for long periods at a stretch with no troubles, and I’m confident it will get through one day without a charger. However, its standby time has something to be desired. Where the iPad seems like it can go for several days without draining, every time I’ve left the Nexus 7 for more than a day or two it’s been dead.

I’ve seen some praise Google’s decision to use a standard micro-B USB port due to charger availability, but don’t expect to solve the problem with a standard phone charger. In a pinch I tried to charge the Nexus with a 1-watt adapter, but even after charging for most of a school day it was barely to 30%. My cell phone’s charger provides less than 1 watt, so using it would take even longer. The Asus charger that comes with the Nexus, meanwhile, pumps out 2 watts and charged the tablet much faster. So, while the flexibility is there, it still comes at a convenience cost.

I purchased the rubbery Asus cover from the Play store after ditching the IVSO keyboard case, and I’ve been very happy with it. It provides protection without bulk, fitting more like a skin than a case. The front cover is soft and pliable, but thicker over the screen for extra protection. In fact, the raised portion that covers the screen fits neatly into the screen area to prevent it from slipping while in a carry bag. The cover is on the Nexus 7 in the photos above, and folding it back gets it out of the way without changing the comfort of holding the device. The cover does not, however, double as a stand.

In all, the Nexus 7 is a solid piece of hardware. I’ve come to enjoy reading from it, and the smaller form factor doesn’t get cumbersome like a full-size iPad can in some situations. I’d like to see it include a camera, but as is it’s a solid contender at a savings of $130 vs the iPad mini on the hardware side.

The Little Keyboard That Couldn’t

Categories: Gadgetry
Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: December 10, 2012

I picked up the IVSO Slim Faux Leather Keyboard Case for $20.00, thinking it might be a viable, portable keyboard for student use in a classroom. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t quite make the grade.

The complete setup is smaller than it looks

The price point is hard to ignore, and in terms of quality and construction, the value is there. The case is sturdy, the keyboard has a nice, tactile feel, and the whole package feels very durable. Springy hooks help hold the Nexus in place. My only gripe in terms of construction would be the flimsy ribbon cable on the USB plug and a question of how long those elastic straps in the corners might last before they become stretched out.

An additional failing in the USB plug is its orientation. With just a slight shift, the plug protrudes beyond the lip of the case, which could induce stress or damage. Given this is also the only way to charge the device, I would worry about the end of the pug breaking off inside the tablet. I think a sturdier cable and plug, along with a 90° bend in the adapter, could go a long way to providing safety.

The keyboard, once plugged in, works well. The case turns into a stand with a simple flap, similar to what you’d find on the back of a photo frame sitting on a desk. The Nexus recognized the keyboard immediately, and the keystrokes work in every app I tried, including the searches.

However, the keyboard is far too small for practical use. Here’s a closer look:

It’s also been redesigned to maximize frustration.

I often hit the wrong keys or multiple keys while trying to type. It’s difficult to find the home row by touch, and when resting my fingertips on the appropriate keys, my fingers were all crammed together. The redesign to cram all the keys into a tighter space only makes things worse, as some keys (such as backspace) have been moved and others shrunken (the spacebar and the right shift key).

In other words, expect to learn a whole new keyboard layout and to type with extreme precision. This, to me, is a deal breaker.

Furthermore, users will not be able to charge the device and use the keyboard at the same time because they occupy the same plug. Using the device as a tablet is also cumbersome; while the keyboard folds back, the whole package is thick and bulky enough that I found it much more comfortable to just remove the tablet from the case every time. I also had to unplug the keyboard for those moments because my fingers struck the keys.

My recommendation is unless you need a cheap keyboard and you’re going to use it this way all the time, this case is going to be more irritating than useful. That said, if you are looking for a device with a near-permanent keyboard and plan to do more typing than reading, just spring for a netbook.

A good concept, but lacking in execution. A redesigned keyboard and USB plug might merit a second chance.

Illinois Pension Problems

Categories: News
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Published on: December 6, 2012

You know it’s bad when Sal Khan uses your state as an example of how not to handle pensions:

Insult to injury, the state also has had no problem dipping into TRS to pay for other projects.

Who suffers in the end? Our students.

Well done, Illinois.

Hands On: Kindle Fire HD

Categories: Gadgetry
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Published on: December 5, 2012

The Kindle Fire would be a great tablet if users could separate it from the Amazon ecosystem.

Kindle Fire HD
“I’mma let you read, but first let me sell you something.”

Let me start by saying I like Amazon. I personally purchase all of my music through Amazon, almost all of my reading, and I purchase nutritional and weight lifting supplements through them regularly. I’m a Prime customer, I use the video service, and there’s a good chance my wife and I will do most—if not all—of our Christmas shopping through Amazon.

I like the screen. The stereo sound is a nice bonus. Navigating through books and apps is very responsive. The camera is on the long side of the device, prompting the user to hold the device in landscape mode for Skype, which actually makes sense given the video format. The battery life, even on standby, is quite good. I had no problems with wireless access. I did not test the HDMI out, but it’s nice to have it as an option.

After that, things get a little dicey, especially in an education setting.

First, while the $200 price point is equivalent to the Nexus 7 and sounds wonderful, expect to tack on another $15 per unit to get rid of advertising. Amazon makes no distinction as to whether the tablet is sold to a school or an individual, nor whether it’s being used by a child or an adult. While I’m sure Amazon will avoid racy ads, does an elementary student need a Discover Card? Do parents want schools effectively selling Men in Black 3 or Disney Epic Mickey to their children?

The device is also geared toward consumption over creation. No rear camera means no photography or video for students. The USB keyboards listed on Amazon go out of their way to say they’re not compatible with the Kindle Fire HD, but I did attach a Bluetooth keyboard with no trouble. However, without an app, there isn’t much point, and while the device does come with a QuickOffice app, there doesn’t appear to be a way to connect it to a Google Drive or Dropbox account without upgrading.

Which leads to the limited availability of apps. Aside from Amazon’s split from the Google Play store, I was not able to download any apps without having a credit card associated with the account, including free apps. Without the ability to push apps through Whispercast, the burden shifts to students to download apps they need, and will at least require obtaining gift cards for their Amazon accounts. Parents are going to have a problem with that.

Finally, the device is inflexible. If students or their parents are Barnes & Noble customers, they’re not going to get their Nook content on here. The interface is simple, but very different from other Android devices and smartphones, and there does not appear to be a way to customize screens or to use widgets. And while Dropbox and similar services are available, Google Drive is not, and the main apps are set up to go straight to Amazon’s Cloud Drive.

In the end, I just don’t need a device that is little more than a catalog for Amazon services. It’s great for someone who is looking for an e-reader that will also allow them to check email and keep up on Facebook, but it’s not quite a workhorse machine and I would not pursue it for 1:1 use. In a BYOT environment, at this point I would still recommend iPads or the Nexus over the Kindle.

Technology Winners vs Losers

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
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Published on: December 4, 2012

I found this chart referencing exercise and motivation, but I find it applies equally to technology adoption:

Winners vs Losers
Which side is your district on?

While “loser” may be a bit harsh in reference to a teacher who finds it difficult to learn new technology (much less apply them in the classroom), the general idea fits. A teacher who successfully integrates technology starts with the ideas listed under the winners column, while the teachers who struggle often have the frustrations under the losers column.

Consider “It’s too difficult.” This is often expressed as “I don’t have time.” These teachers are not looking beyond the immediate change. They are intimidated by new processes and new technology, and as such it’s difficult for them to understand the long-term benefits.

Next we have “See the pain.” These are the teachers who consider only their workload, or the effort they must put in to learn something new, and not the benefit the students will receive. I have teachers who often tell me, “I just don’t understand technology.” I understand the sentiment and I try to alleviate their frustrations as best I can, but do we ever accept “I just don’t understand math” from a student?

The “See the problems” teachers are the ones who worry about the naughty things kids might do with a device. For example, “They’re just going to be on Facebook all day.” Yes, a certain percentage of kids will not be reached. But what about the students who would take full advantage of a tablet or laptop if given the opportunity? Do we rip out a whole computer lab because a few students vandalized some of the equipment?

Finally, they just “Let it happen.” This could more accurately be expressed as “Have it forced upon them.” Whether it’s true or not, this is how the teacher feels, and because they have not taken ownership or participated up to this point, adoption gets even more difficult for them. In some cases, it becomes resentment, and they even find themselves at odds with administrative evaluation tools.

So what do we replace the word “loser” with?

Or, more importantly, how do we get our teachers into the other column?

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