Journerdism

Will Sullivan's guide to mobile, tablet & emerging tech ideas

August 5, 2013
by Will Sullivan
4 Comments

Google Nexus 7 as an international traveling companion postmortem

Well, I’m back and the dust has settled from my 6 weeks backpacking across Asia, and as promised here’s my post-trip evaluation of traveling solo with the Google Nexus 7 mini tablet (the original version). As you may recall, I said I selected the Nexus 7 over the iPad Mini for a handful of reasons, here’s how big a factor each proved to be in ‘real world’ usage:

Price
I’m not going to lie, I definitely felt smug and more comfortable knowing I spent half the price of what a iPad Mini with the same memory would have cost.

Offline Downloading of Languages for Google Translate
I actually didn’t use this as much as I had thought I would, but when I did , it helped a lot. At least making the effort or being able to show the translation in text to someone helped immensely in alands with completely unfamiliar text (non-latin). Sometimes it also helped get people interested in talking to me and helping me because they were fascinated by the technology.

Offline Downloading of Google Maps
This saved me many times on both the tablet and my phone and in retrospect could have been the most important and valuable resource. Especially when paired with GPS/Wifi triangulation (which worked in some cities), it saved me a few times from being completely lost and getting even more so. My reliance on this was also exacerbated by my need to travel as light as possible, so I didn’t bring a ton of paper guidebooks and maps. In fact, I hacked up the paper guidebooks I bought and taped them together so I was only carrying the country/cities that I’d be visiting in compact packages for each country.

Social, Sharing and Productivity
This was fantastic. Especially in areas where accessing wifi was slow or painfully unstable. Anything that added to efficiency and kept me enjoying the trip more and not fighting with technology was huge. …And Vine even launched on Android while I was out there, so that wasn’t that big of a deal. :D

General price of apps
This wasn’t a huge factor out on the road, but it was great before the trip to load up everything for almost no cost to help save on souvenirs and sushi.

Google Apps are generally better on Android than IOS
Totally true. Google’s apps became my crutch. I even stopped using Evernote and started posting drafts in Gmail and Google Docs for notes because they seemed to sync better offline.

Google Music is actually pretty excellent and getting better
This was very good and kept me sane in troubled times; Google Music + a $7 pair of Monoprice noise cancelling headphones saved me from crying babies, loud streets, long flights, tuk-tuk cat callers and prostitutes and allowed me to relax many, many times. The syncing and removal of items for offline could be improved, and the navigation was a little wonky but overall I was pretty happy with the experience.

Micro USB plug
Great benefit. I actually brought three USB cables and chargers and sent one home mid-way through the trip in a box of souvenirs since I didn’t really need it because all my devices were on the same standard. It may seem like a small thing, but when you’re carrying your entire life on your back, the fewer unnecessary things you can bring (and potentially lose), the better.

Google Now
I actually didn’t use this as much as I had thought I would, but when I did it was incredibly helpful and I kept saying to myself “Sheesh, I should use this more.” It was interesting to see how it customized to each city too. I needed to make it my home screen or something through to force the habit because there’s huge value here, especially with things like Google Glass evolving around it.

Google Voice to Text
This was excellent and a godsend. Typing *only* on tiny a glass screens for 6 weeks is not as glamorous as it sounds. As much as I love mobile and tablet technology, when I returned home I couldn’t wait to get a keyboard and mouse to be much more productive and get things done. In the final weeks, I had a bunch of detail oriented tasks (like filling out forms) I was procrastinating on doing for when I got home; it was just too arduous on mobile technology. Voice to Text gave me a break from tapping and allowed me to dictate (with pretty good accuracy) longer messages. I don’t know how much more the keyboard experience can improve on mobile devices but I do know that online form design using responsive principles has a long, long, long way to go for many sites.

More Keyboards Supported
I switched around Android keyboards a couple times but ended up sticking with Swype and Google’s Voice to Text keyboard. So while I didn’t need to use 213432 different keyboards, the ability to use Swype and not be locked into only the OS keyboard (as you are with Apple) was a big benefit for me. Especially since Swype does an excellent job of allowing you to add, as well as passively learn your regularly used phrases, names of people and places and suggests it accordingly.

Security
This extra level of security was fantastic and one time when I thought I’d lost my tablet, the fact that it was turned off and encrypted was a little solace knowing everything was safe. (The low cost of the tablet also lessened the blow/concern that I’d lost the tablet, but I soon found it and it was all good).

Inconspicuous
I didn’t have any incidents or issues, or notice anyone scoping me out really for being on the tablet. Apple products are definitely seen as luxury items and might have drawn more attention, but I don’t think this was a huge factor. If you’re generally street smart and keep your head on a swivel you usually will ward off most of this kind of trouble.

Display
I read a lot of ebooks on this trip; I brought more than a dozen with me and bought about 20 more on Amazon’s Kindle store. The detail and easy readability from the high res screen was fantastic. Outside of that though, I didn’t really need the higher resolution screen, as bandwidth was generally choked on wifi, so I couldn’t watch HD movies or anything like that).

 

As I said before, it wasn’t all peaches and cream — some of big drawbacks/concerns I had were very apt, and may have outweighed several of the benefits I listed above:

No rear camera, not the greatest front facing camera

This still isn’t a dealbreaker for me, but it was more disappointing than I’d thought it’d be. If I had a magic wand, I would have added a better quality front camera and a rear camera to the Nexus 7 and maybe left my mobile phone at home. With more storage, memory and screen size than my phone, the tablet beat the phone in almost every aspect except for cameras. And when I’m cutting up guidebooks to try and save on space in my backpack, carrying and keeping track of two electronic and fragile devices is double the work.

Outlook Exchange server for accessing work email
Kind of a big deal. I was tipped by my colleague Mark Young to check out Touchdown, a third party Outlook Exchange app, that provided a workable solution for this, and while it did most of that I needed, there were some syncing issues that I couldn’t ever figure out and the reload/refresh time for new messages was significant, so I definitely think the IOS Mail client for managing Outlook Exchange Email is better. This is really an issue with my employer’s IT department failing to support Android devices though, as I believe Android’s Mail client has vastly improved since 2.2, especially for security and remote wiping concerns of IT departments.

A metal body is better than plastic, I think?
Not a big deal at all. The Nexus 7 really took all the abuse I gave it — from spilling beer directly on it, a handful of drops, jostling around in my backpack for days of climbing the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, The Great Wall, Harajuku District of Tokyo and all over, to riding in my corny convertible cargo pant pockets that every over-prepared backpacking nerd wears — and survived like a champ without a problem and very minimal scuffs. I am glad I bought a cheap Nexus 7 screen protector because that got some abuse but saved the glass (I didn’t have any case to protect it — probably not the best idea in retrospect). Having used the lightweight Nexus 7 for so long now makes the full-sized, metal iPad feel like a slate slab, and even the iPad Mini feels significantly stouter, even though it is thinner in form — especially for reading long passages in books/websites. I’m think the Nexus 7 is better in the ‘size feel’ (even though they’re both very similar on size and weight).
Also, this isn’t a drawback, but it should be noted, I hesitated making the decision on this until the last minute before the trip because of rumored new product releases from both companies coming in May/June, but neither dropped any new products. Google just released their updated Nexus 7, which looks awesome, and fixes the lack-of-rear/decent quality-camera issue. It just proves/reminds me that you can’t live your life waiting on everyone else, believing the amazingly inaccurate tech press and gotta pull the trigger on what you know.

So overall, I’m happy with my choice and looking forward to enjoying the rest of the life of my Nexus 7, the little tablet that could. It will enjoy retirement as my pocketable ebook reader/music/web surfer for the backyard adirondack chair sitting and bedside reading, as well as a companion on longer metro or bus rides. I hope this helps those of you debating the decision.

Happy travels!

May 16, 2013
by Will Sullivan
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Choosing between the iPad Mini vs. Google Nexus 7 for an Asia backpacking vacation

I get asked a lot about mobile and tablet gear recommendations from people because the choices are overwhelming and constantly evolving. My answer is often “it depends” (based on their needs/situation/money/context/etc.) as I wouldn’t recommend the same thing to my Mom as my journalism friends.

This winter when I started planning for my solo, 6-week “Bucket List” backpacking trip across Asia where I’d need to travel light, but have as much technology crammed into the smallest, longest-lasting battery, highest storage for the money (more than 16 gb, as my Apple IOS account has several games that are each 1 GB alone) and most universal hardware and software formats, it came down to a battle between the current titans of the mini-tablets: The iPad Mini and Google Nexus 7.

Below I’m going to run down the factors that affected my decision and lead me to purchase a Nexus 7 (32gb wifi) for this device will be my primary connection with the outside world. First, for a little context, I work regularly in both of the Apple IOS and Android ecosystems (among many others), use both frequently and have app ‘investments’ in both of them. I won’t get into the argument of ‘full sized’ vs ‘mini’ tablets and Steve Jobs’ fallacy of having to ‘file down your fingers’ to use it (how does this not apply to the iPhone and all mobile phones, Mr. Jobs? Anyway… I digress.)

Also, many of the programs I will need and regularly use are available on both platforms — Skype, Evernote, Google Hangouts/Drive/Gmail/Maps/All the Google Apps for that matter, Kindle, Pocket, Zite, Flipboard, Snapseed, most social media apps — FacebookTwitterInstagramVine is the one Apple-only social media app and Outlook Exchange email support, but I can survive.

So with all of those factors being equal, here are the reasons I made my decision to go with the Nexus 7:

Price
This is probably the biggest factor for people who are seriously debating the two, since it is a significant difference. I was willing to pay more for the Mini though, so it wasn’t that huge of a factor for me. I bought this Nexus 7 with 32 GB of storage for $243.79 (including tax!) at the local GameStop across the street from me, which is surprisingly cheaper than you can get it from even the Google Play Store — $278.77 (after $13.99 shipping and $15.78 tax for me). The iPad Mini with 32 GB of storage would cost $454.74 ($429, with $25.74 tax and free shipping), so the cost difference is substantial.

Offline Downloading of Languages for Google Translate
This might have been the nail in the coffin for me. I won’t have wifi or cell coverage the vast majority of the entire trip. Not only does the Android version have amazing support for more than 70 languages (with data connections) and just recently the Android app opened up offline downloading for the translation modules in more than 50 languages, including many Asian countries.

Offline Downloading of Google Maps
This was the second nail in the coffin for me and sealed the deal. The IOS version of Google Maps doesn’t offer this yet. After buying some Kindle Ebook versions of guidebooks and finding many of their digital conversions for maps were completely terrible and pixelated — absolutely unreadable and unusable — this was a life saver (that I found out after I’d already made the purchase). They won’t have the valuable tips on good restaurants and bars that the guidebook maps would have, but at least the streets will be available for me to navigate my way. Google saved me where Lonely Planet and Rough Guides failed to deliver on digital.

Social, Sharing & Productivity
The irony that many social media apps, like Vine, often launch on IOS, first is pretty rich since Android’s workflow for sharing between apps is millions of miles better than Apple’s integration. For this trip, time is the most important thing to me — especially keeping my time on electronic devices limited — so I need to be able to work efficiently, keep up on major news and be productive and quick in my digital interactions. Apple just added Facebook sharing last year. On Android, basically any app you have install can be shared with if they support it. This is a HUGE benefit for me.

General price of apps
“In general” Android apps are free, IOS apps seem have more of an expectation to charge users. This is changing slowly, but it’s still kind of what I see in the market.

Google Apps are generally better on Android than IOS
I use a lot of Google applications that will be critical for this trip — Google Maps, Contacts, Calendar, Docs, Hangouts, Voice, Chat. They are generally offered on both platforms but most of the time the most innovative features are available on Android first and they’re more tightly integrated than on IOS.

Google Music is actually pretty excellent and getting better
My mental check-out / comfort time on this trip is going to be my music and the Google Music “Play Music” app is actually pretty good for managing and syncing a massive library. The new version released yesterday at Google I/O is excellent so far. They also offer up to 20,000 songs of music matching — FOR FREE — which many other services (such as iCloud/iTunes) charge for. Offline downloading support — HUGE — for this trip. As well as their instant playlists (sort of a Pandora-generated play stream of your own content) is pretty nifty.  If only I could find a good a Play Music-like, multi-platform ebook/pdf/epub cloud and offline-saving library system!

Micro USB plug
Using a universal hardware standard is very handy here. That means there’s less chargers to carry and it’s the same charger as my phone charger. They’re also MUCH easier to replace if I leave one at a hostel or hotel than having to try and find an Apple Store in rural Cambodia.

Google Now
I love this true personal assistant/productivity tool on my Android phone and having it available on my tablet will be fantastic too. Siri is a gimmick  Google Now is real, active help. Especially when I’m running around countries, need to have my own Pepper Potts assistant/love interest looking out for me for my schedule/flights/logistical meetings and other madness.

Google Voice to Text
Google’s Voice to Text keyboard works offline, Apple’s does not. Google’s is also vastly superior in accuracy compared to Apple’s, from my experience.

More Keyboards Supported
Android offers many different keyboard options, I’m probably going to be writing back home and answering work email a bunch. I need to be hyper-productive with this. I love Swype myself. Apple does not. The native Apple keyboard is very nice though, I must say.

Security
Android offers a higher level of security — you can encrypt the entire tablet — which is handy in case I leave it somewhere or if it gets stolen or pick-pocketed.

Inconspicuous
Traveling solo in developing countries, it’s probably better to be more inconspicuous with your fancy tech devices. Apple’s products are often seen as a luxury item and might draw more attention of thieves and pickpockets.

Display
This is a ‘nice to have’ but especially since I’m going to be reading a lot of e-Book versions of guidebooks, the higher pixel density of the Nexus 7 helps it’s case further. (They have 216 vs 163 pixels per inch for the Nexus versus Mini, respectively)
Now this isn’t all just peaches and cream, so I definitely want to acknowledge the big drawbacks and compromises I must make with this decision:

No rear camera, not the greatest front facing camera
Not a deal breaker for me as I’ll have my own separate camera for shooting photos, as well as an unlocked cell phone that I’ll be using for shooting more. It’d be nice to have a higher quality cam for Skyping or Google+ Hanging Out with people back home, but it’s not a deal breaker.

Outlook Exchange server for accessing work email
My current employer does not support Android yet for our work email Outlook Exchange access, which is a big bummer and going to be a time waster, but hopefully I’ll get super efficient at the web version. UPDATE: Kind of fixed! There’s an app called Touchdown HD to get around this (with a free 30 day trial and a $20 licence key for longer use), thanks to Mark Young for the tip/reminder!

A metal body is better than plastic, I think?
The metal body of the iPad mini just feels sturdier and it’s thinner, it’s also a little larger, which is a drawback, IMHO. The weight remains about the same but the Mini just feels more solid. So if all things were equal, I’d probably take the Mini form factor, but I really don’t mind the finish and slightly grippy soft plastic backing of the Nexus 7.

NOTE: This information is all useless starting…. now.
I had to pull the trigger on something so I should make the caveat that this post is based on the information and current market conditions of what was available. By the time I finish writing it and hit publish, it will be out dated. In fact, I seriously hesitated to buy the Nexus 7 because Google I/O was happening this week and there was ALLEGEDLY going to be a new Nexus 7 released (This version was released last year at Google I/O), but that didn’t happen. In retrospect, I lucked out, Google didn’t release a new version and I don’t have buyers remorse (I couldn’t have bought one even if they released it yesterday because I’m leaving on so soon). So basically, buyer beware, do your research, hopefully these thoughts can help you start out.

I’ll also report back after the trip and the dust settles on how it went and what I wish I’d have known or done differently.

 

April 28, 2013
by Will Sullivan
2 Comments

Two years and an industry paradigm shifting

Lighthouse photo courtesy Paul Bica on Flickr

Just over two years ago in April 2011, we opened the previously private Mobile Journalism Facebook group to be publicly visible …and not much happened.

It wasn’t the right time yet.

This past year though we’ve seen an exponential explosion in growth from about 50 members to almost 300, as the industry has shifted and more advocates for mobile journalism have come to publicly raise awareness, including Regina McCombs, Damon Kiesow, Amy Gahran, Robert Hernandez, and Cory Doctorow.

It’s been exciting to see the group grow and the industry lighting up, and realizing the shift and potential that has taken place. In my own career, mobile shifted from being part of my job focus to everything quickly. In 2008, at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch my responsibilities as Interactive Director were split focusing on mobile, social and multimedia, but since then it’s grown to be my primary focus through the RJI fellowship, a Director of Mobile News position at Lee Enterprises corporate, and now to my current role at the BBG, where my focus is on many markets that are basically mobile-*only* (Such as in many of our African and Southeast Asian countries, the first and only interaction our audiences have with the Internet is through mobile devices).

This is what excites me most about mobile: as more and more networks light up around the world, more devices fill the pockets of people around the world and the digital and information divide becomes narrower as people who have never experienced the awesome power of having the world’s information in the palm of their hand — and the resulting disruption, education and innovation that comes with that technological shift to all aspects of life — including culture, communication, news, health, education and money.

It reminds me of the motto and one of the early principles I learned in my career at Scripps in Florida: “Give light and the people will find their own way.”

We’re about to experience a supernova and I’m excited to see how the group, mobile and media industries continue to evolve.

Congrats gang, and happy anniversary!