Best of 2009: Movies

Kicking off my annual (and no doubt much coveted) ‘best of’ lists, a bit belated this time. Some may actually slip into 2010, but oh well 🙂

So, movies! Continuing my trend of recent years, I didn’t see very many new movies in the theater this year. But of what few I saw, here’s my nominees for best movie, in no particular order:

District 9
Star Trek

District 9 came out of left field and blew me away. I haven’t been so pleasantly surprised by a movie since The Matrix ten years ago. It’s a gritty realistic-ish take on mankind’s reaction to refugee aliens showing up in the near future. Amazing effects and newsish camera work did much to draw me in.

I was nervous about Star Trek, having no idea what J.J. Abrams’ attempt to save the franchise would wield. Thankfully he nailed it, managing to reboot the classic story with new actors in a way which didn’t alienate the Trekkies/Trekkers. Fun from start to finish. I never thought I’d actually enjoy hearing the Beastie Boys on a Star Trek soundtrack.

Lastly I’m going to go ahead and reserve a nomination spot on my annual list for whatever Pixar releases in a given year. From the opening montage, which brought a tear to my eye, I knew Up would be special. Pixar got a whole new level of emotional response out of me with this one. The cliche apples – I laughed, I cried, etc etc. Even the 3D effects managed to blend into the film, without resorting to cheap tricks.

I could give any of these three movies the award and sleep soundly tonight. And not that Pixar needs more accolades, but Up ultimately eeks out the competition. It achieved amazing levels of emotional response blended seamlessly with wacky humor, amazing visuals, and remarkable acting. I’m looking forward to the Blu-ray.

Review: Motorola Droid

Now that the Droid has been out for over a month this review might be a little questionably useful for early adopters, but I’m going to go ahead and write it anyway 🙂

In short, I like the Droid a lot. It’s the first smartphone I’ve ever owned (after 2 years of living on an iPod Touch mostly happily), and lives up my expectations.

Fake Q&A with myself:

How is the Droid as a plain old phone?
Call quality is excellent, better than any other phone I’ve ever owned. It also gets a stronger signal than my previous phone (an env2) did in a lot of places. Granted I don’t make a lot of phone calls, but in over a month of use I don’t think I’ve dropped a call once.

How’s the battery life?
In a word: OK. In a day of average use I drain the battery to about 15%. For me, ‘average use’ means maybe 10-15 minutes of actual phone calls, and the rest of my use is on the data side. Browsing the web, using apps, maybe a bit of GPS navigation, etc. But for a real power user who wants to rely on more battery-intensive tasks like GPS for all day use, the Droid’s battery simply won’t cut it. Invest in a car charger and a docking cradle for your desk. I have both of those, and have managed to get myself into a routine of charging the Droid whenever I’m not using it.
Incidentally, I love that the Droid uses a standard mini USB plug for charging. This is the first time in my life that I haven’t had to buy all new chargers when upgrading a phone.

How’s the screen?
It’s a thing of beauty. I never thought my iPod Touch screen was anything to sneeze at, but it looks downright blurry next to the Droid. I can read much smaller font sizes on the Droid than I ever could on the iTouch.

How’re the apps?
I’ve found an app for almost everything I want to do on the phone. See this post for some of my favorites. My favorite thing about the Android app store is that I can get a refund on any app for 24 hours after purchase. So trying out new things is very easy & risk free.

How’s the physical keyboard?
The buttons are closer together than is ideal, but I got used to it quickly. I have tiny fingers, so others might not like it as much as I do. I should also note that I’m the only Droid user I’ve heard of who uses the physical keyboard whenever possible – everyone else I know prefers the on screen one. The on screen keyboard is fine, I just find I can type faster on the physical option.

How’s the browser?
Mostly good. It does some strange things with auto-formatting text for a mobile screen. This is usually helpful, but sometimes screws things up a bit. Much fuss has been made over the Droid browser’s lack of multitouch. I don’t really miss it as much as I thought I might – double tapping to zoom in works just fine.

Alright buddy, this is a glowing review so far. What don’t you like about the Droid?
There are definite shortcomings. The camera is one of them. It’s supposedly a 5 megapixel camera, but I would never guess that from the results. Any photo not taken in very bright lighting is grainy. The autofocus works well, but the interface for changing focus options is terrible and difficult to get to quickly. The camera has a LED flash, but it’s pretty useless for taking pictures. I get far more use of the LED as a flashlight than an actual camera flash.

Media syncing is entirely user-unfriendly. I’ve been spoiled by using iTunes to get music onto the iPod Touch, and miss it dearly. I’ve found some third party solutions to sync music & video onto the Droid, but none work well enough that I want to endorse them here. Google needs some native software for this, and pronto.

Media playback is kind of mediocre. Again, spoiled by iPods. It works, but the interface isn’t nearly as well thought out as Apple’s.

There’s no bluetooth voice dialing. A small thing, yes, but also something that has no excuse for being left out. My last three phones all had it, and not having this feature makes it technically illegal to make a call while I’m driving in North Carolina – even with a headset.

Let’s counteract that with some good: What are your favorite things about the Droid?
Running apps in the background is amazingly useful – far more than I expected it to be. Swapping between different apps on the Droid is far faster and more convenient than on iDevices.

The GPS driving navigation feels like it fell out of a time machine from 10 years in the future. Melissa and I were in DC recently to see a Swell Season concert. I spoke into my phone: “Navigate to the Swell Season concert in Washington, DC”, and it knew where I wanted to go! Behind the scenes it used the web to figure out the venue of the concert and direct us straight to the front door. It also pulls in live traffic speed info, which more than once has let me plot a detour around upcoming traffic jams.

Full integration with Google Voice is extremely promising, and I’m inches away from converting over to a GV phone number for daily use.

I really love that apps can play nicely with the browser. For example, I installed a great app called GeoBeagle to use for Geocaching. When I click on a link to a cache on, an option pops up – would I like to load this link in the browser, or save the cache it points at into GeoBeagle? Similarly, clicking on a podcast feed asks me if I’d like to subscribe to that podcast in Google Listen.

Widgets on the home screen are extremely handy & useful. I can control music playback, check the weather, change screen brightness, toggle wi-fi, turn on the LED as a flashlight and more without launching any apps or going into any settings menus.

The Droid is a great smartphone. I’m very happy with it and it fits into my daily information needs very well.

Publishers don’t understand e-books

This Wall Street Journal article touched many nerves for me: Publishers hold back e-books.

So hold on, I’m going to get a bit ranty and this’ll probably be a long post 🙂

Summary: Two major publishers have decided that they’re going to hold back e-book versions of their titles for months after the hardback release.

From the article, here’s their justification:

“The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback,” said Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS Corp. “We believe some people will be disappointed. But with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”

A much better (and more profitable) course of action would be to simply embrace the e-book world and figure out how to adapt to this new ecosystem. Change is coming, and burying their heads in the sand isn’t how publishers will survive.

Some publishers try to make the argument that people have had the choice to buy a hardback immediately or wait for the cheap paperback for decades. And surely placing an e-book release between those two options just extends this model, right? They have this nonsensical vision that people with e-book readers will run out and buy hardbacks instead when their e-books are taken away. This could not be more wrong. Here’s what’s going to happen instead:

Meet Consumer Bob. Consumer Bob invested a lot of money in a Kindle. He obviously bought the device because he wants to read books on it, right? So Bob hears about a new book on TV and thinks he’d like to read it. Bob can’t find that book for his Kindle. At this point, Bob will do one of two things:

A)If Bob’s tech-savvy he’ll pirate the e-book he wants. Publisher gets no money.
B)If Bob isn’t tech-savvy he’ll buy another e-book to read, and probably forget the first book ever existed. Possibly a different publisher gets money.

Bob spent $250+ on his Kindle, and you better believe he wants to get use out of it. After plunking down that chunk of change, buying a paper book can feel a bit like wasting money. As a Sony Reader owner, I feel this sometimes myself. But Bob is also used to instant gratification and instant delivery of e-books, and doesn’t want to wait for the print version to arrive by mail or a trip to the store. Bob likely isn’t going to change his habits.

But let’s go back and look at part of that article quote again:

“…we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”

What? Consumers are finding something new they want, and your response is to deny it to them? How does that make any kind of business sense? With that attitude you deserve to hemorrhage money.

Another article quote:

“Even as the retail price of many new hardcover novels creeps above $27, Amazon and Barnes & Noble boast many new best sellers for only $9.99 in the e-book format.

Increasingly, publishers have come to fear that the bargain prices will lead consumers to conclude that books are worth only $10, or less, upsetting the pricing model that has survived for decades.”

You know what? They’re right. A DRM-locked e-book simply isn’t worth $27. It’s barely even worth $10. I’m not going to pay the same amount for an e-book that a paper copy would cost me, when I can actually do LESS with that e-copy than the print: I can’t loan it, resell it, or donate it. So I will never ever pay full price, or near full price, for a DRM-locked e-book. Ever. And anybody who does hasn’t thought things through. I’d only consider buying DRM books with a massive (something like 75% or more) discount over the print version, unless the e-version has some other equally massive advantage.

But publishers even shoot themselves in the foot when they stumble on an e-gold mine. Stephen King’s new book, Under The Dome, is over 1000 pages. I don’t want to lug that back-breaking monster around with me, especially on the bus. I want to have it on my phone or e-book reader. This is a case where an e-book has clear convenience advantages over a print version, maybe even enough to overlook DRM issues. I was planning on buying it.

But King’s publisher, Scribner, has decided to shoot the e-book in the head. And not once, but twice. First the e-version won’t be available until 12/24, a full six weeks after the print version was released. Second, they’re charging wholesale prices for the e-book to distributors (like Amazon and B&N) of $35.

My moral outrage from their pricing issues aside (there’s no way they’ll ever convince me that it costs the same to print and ship an e-book as a print book), I REALLY don’t want the massive print version. No matter how discounted it is. So I’m left with just one option to acquire the book legally: Buy Under The Dome as an e-book on 12/24. This is the exact same end result as if the book was released the same day as the print version, 11/10. All Scribner has done is provided me with 6 weeks to forget that I want the book. 6 weeks to find something else to read, or maybe run across negative reviews and decide I don’t want the book after all. A thousand things could make me change my mind about buying the book. Forcing me to wait gains them nothing, and only introduces unnecessary risks into the question of whether or not they’ll get money from me.

And meanwhile I hate to break it to them, but despite Scribner’s best efforts Under The Dome is available as an eBook right now. It’s been pirated, of course. A quick search of the web shows a pirated version, likely scanned in by a large cooperative group, freely available all over the web (and with no DRM!). So Scribner has created an ecosystem where piracy is literally the only option for potential customers who would otherwise line up to give them money, AND that piracy delivers what’s actually a superior product with no DRM. King is a high profile writer with die-hard fans who want his book immediately, not six weeks from now. What are they going to do?

The sad thing is that Scribner will likely use this piracy situation as supposed evidence of how the e-book system doesn’t work and is killing the publishing industry. And they’ll never even see through their own fear, uncertainty, and doubt to realize that the root causes live in their own backyard.

Indispensable Android Apps

About a month ago I finally joined the smartphone world. Verizon released the Motorola Droid phone, which runs on Google’s Android software platform. I’m 95% satisfied with the phone, with only a few minor quibbles. I’ll get into those in another post. But first, here’s some of the 3rd party Android apps I’ve used most often:

Aldiko: An e-book reader, every bit as good as Stanza is on the iPhone. And that’s high praise.

Android Scripting Environment: This one’s just a bit of nerdy programming fun, you can write quick python scripts to do things on the phone – speak words, read your text messages, scan & process barcodes, etc.

Astro: A great file browser & manager, a category which Android oddly doesn’t have a default app for.

CardioTrainer: Keeps track of your workouts via GPS. I use it on my bike with great results. Kind of like Nike+, but free!

DockRunner: Kicks the Droid into its alarm clock nightstand type mode, which usually can only be accessed by placing the phone in its official Motorola docking cradle (and that cradle costs $30).

Listen: Google’s podcast downloader & organizer.

Mototorch LED: Turns on the Droid’s camera flash LED for use as a (surprisingly powerful) flashlight. Plus as a bonus, you can use the LED as a strobe or to send morse code flashes – always handy.

Pixelpipe Lite: For some reason the Droid’s built in photo uploaders strip all EXIF data out of the photo while uploading – including date stamp and rotation info. Pixelpipe is the only Flickr & Twitter photo uploading app I’ve found that preserves this data.

Twidroid: This app’s latest update took it from a good Twitter client to a great one.

That’s it for now! Look for a more in-depth Droid review at some time in the semi-near future.