Category Archives: Reviews

1Fit Fitness (Madison)

Over the summer, I was looking for a gym. Since I hadn’t been a member of a gym in probably 20 years, I wasn’t really sure what criteria I should use to pick one, but I liked Brian’s review strategy of testing gyms before signing up, so  I started with the gym that was closest to my house: 1Fit Fitness on County Line Road in Madison. I met with Chuck, the owner, and got a quick tour. First, a word about Chuck, who is a retired Army officer and super nice guy. He and his staff keep the gym clean and neat, which was apparent when I waked in the door. The gym is divided into two large areas: on the left, there are dumbbells (12.5-100 lbs), a Smith machine, a squat rack, and a couple of benches. On the right, there’s an incline bench, a big combo cable machine, a rack for doing pull-ups and dips, a variety of selectorized machines, and half-a-dozen assorted pieces of cardio gear. Each side has at least one TV, and the left side has a counter area with a small fridge with drinks for sale. The decor is extremely basic, although there are plenty of mirrors, which always bugs me a little bit. However, there are none of the typical meathead trappings: no diamond plate or posters of gigantic ripped dudes.

I signed up for their family plan, which is about $40/month for me plus two kids. For that price, I get unlimited, 24/7 use of the gym. It is rarely busy; I’ve never seen more than 4 other people there, and most of the time when I go I’m by myself. If you want a social gym, this probably isn’t the best choice. The place is staffed in the afternoons, Monday through Saturday— while “afternoon” sounds vague, I chose it because the actual hours seem to start anywhere between noon and 4pm and end at 6pm. I’ve seen the owner in a few times outside that time, but that’s unpredictable. However, since your key fob gets you 24/7 access, unless you need company, staffing hours are pretty much irrelevant.

There are a variety of classes offered, and several personal trainers who work out of the gym, but I don’t have anything to say about them because I haven’t used them.

Cons? Sure, a few. The gym doesn’t have some equipment that I wish it did: there’s no leg press machine, no trap bars, and only one curl bar (which is broken). This isn’t a huge deal, but it does point out the drawback of using a small locally-owned gym; at least in this case, Chuck can’t afford to invest the same kind of money as the big-box gyms. However, the ease of access makes up for that in my opinion; I love having a nearby gym that I can go to whenever I want, and I prefer supporting the locals. It might be easier to sign up for a chain such as Anytime Fitness so that I have better gym access when I travel, but for now I’ve had good luck finding gyms in each city where I travel.

In the meantime, I’m toying with the idea of adding a second membership at Workout Anytime or Planet Fitness just up the road; $10/month or so would get me some equipment I don’t currently have access to, plus better gym access when I travel. However, when I start triathlon training in the spring, I’ll want access to a pool, which means I’ll probably be stuck with switching to a bigger gym (or the local Y), so I’ll probably wait.

Bottom line: 1Fit is a solid gym and I’m happy with the value I get for the cost. I recommend it.

140608 update: 1Fit closed in March 2014 and has been replaced by an IronTribe location.

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Surface Pro first impressions

Saturday morning I decided, more or less on the spur of the moment, to try to grab a Surface Pro and try it out. This follows a well-established pattern; I wasn’t going to buy an Xbox 360 when it first came out, or an iPhone, and yet somehow on launch day I ended up with both of those. Anyway…

After some fruitless searching, Tom and I found a local Staples that had a 64GB Surface Pro. This was no mean trick because Huntsville doesn’t have a Microsoft Store (I know, right?) and the local Best Buys got zero stock. In fact, as far as I could tell there were none shipped to stores in Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham, or Atlanta. I’m betting that at least the Atlanta region got a handful but those sold out. Anyway, my local Staples stores apparently got 1 64GB unit apiece, so I went out and grabbed one. Total cost with the Type Cover and sales tax was $1111.

This isn’t a review; it’s more a collection of observations, since I don’t have time at the moment to string together a coherent narrative instead of just giving you factoids and observations. Thus this post is worth what you’ve paid for it :)

The hardware build quality is superb. It’s true that the device is thicker and heavier than an iPad, but it’s much lighter and smaller than my 15″ MacBook Pro. I was able to comfortably use it on my lap while on the sofa. One thing I didn’t expect: the Type Cover flexes more than I thought it would. I guess I hit the keys hard or something. This was a little disconcerting at first. The kickstand works very well, and I’ve gotten used to the odd feel of having the Type Cover folded around the back of the unit.

Setup was simple: I signed in with my Microsoft account and it synced all of my profile information. SkyDrive works beautifully, as do all the other Microsoft services (notably Xbox LIVE). I’m glad to have multiple accounts on the device, because the kids cannot get enough of playing with it. They’re used to the iPad and don’t think of it as remarkable, but all of them are fascinated by the Surface. David’s used it for two homework assignments– in preference to his Win7 laptop; Tom is fascinated by the pen interface; and Matt likes that he can play all the Flash-based games that don’t work on the iPad.

The Surface Pro is fast. It boots fast, apps run fast, and the UI performance is “fast and fluid,” to coin a phrase. It does have a fan, and in a silent room you can hear it when it kicks in, but it’s not obtrusive– it’s quieter than the fans in my MBP, for example. 

Battery life? Haven’t tested it, don’t much care. If I want to just browse and watch, I’ll use the iPad, with its excellent battery life. The Surface Pro is an adjunct to, and replacement for, my “real” laptop, which means a 4-5 hour battery life will suit me just fine. I do want to see whether I can charge it with my external 10Ah battery (the excellent RAVPower Dynamo), though I’ll need an adapter.

Setting up VPN access to my office network was trivial. Lync MX won’t work until I get some more server-side plumbing set up. I tried to sign in to the desktop version of Lync 2013 and couldn’t because I didn’t have the necessary server certificate– but going to the Windows Server CA page with IE 10 resulted in a message from the server telling me that my browser couldn’t be used to request a certificate, even though all I wanted to do was download the CA chain. I’ll have to look into this.

And speaking of desktop access: I was easily able to turn on RDP access and hit the tablet from my Mac, but there’s a bug in CoRD that makes the cursor sometimes disappear. I haven’t tried Microsoft’s (lame and poorly maintained) RDP client, nor have I tried RDP from a Windows machine. Just to see what would happen, I plugged the cable from my desktop monitor into the Surface Pro’s mini-Display Port and immediately got a beautiful, mirrored 1920 x 1080 desktop, as expected. 

As many other reviewers have noted it’s a little disorienting at first to have two separate environments: desktop and Metro. However, since I can alt-Tab to switch between apps, in practice that has been absolutely no problem for me. The lack of a Start menu is a bit aggravating, but again, there’s an easy solution: tap the Windows key and start typing. Problem solved.

One night, I sat on the sofa using Word 2013 on the Surface Pro to revise a book chapter. This worked very well; I much prefer the UI of Word 2013 to Word 2011 on the Mac. I didn’t try using any pen input as part of my editing workflow, although that’s on my to-do list.

The smaller physical size of the Surface Pro compared to the MBP is a great asset; I’m looking forward to using it on commercial flights. The Ars Technica review shows the Surface as having a larger footprint than the MBP, but that ignores the fact that you have to open the MBP to use it, and when you do, the screen won’t be at 90° to the bottom– it’ll be tilted further back, which is where the footprint problem comes from. In that configuration the MBP screen impinges on the seatback space, which is how laptops get broken by reclining seats.

I tried running Outlook 2013, flipping out the kickstand, and using the Surface as a calendar display sitting next to my main screen. It’s a fantastic size to use as an adjunct display like that; I could have multiple browser windows (American, Delta, and kayak.com) plastered all over my man 2560 x 1440 desktop and still have glance-able calendar access.

Bottom line: I’m well pleased with the Surface Pro so far and will be swapping out my 64GB unit for a 128GB unit as soon as I can find one in stock.

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My first Instacart experience

One of the best things about living in the Bay Area is that we get lots of things first. I saw Zero Dark Thirty several days before its general release, for instance. We also get lots of experimental or startup services and businesses. Some of these services stick around, like Über. Some,  like Cherry, the we-come-to-you car wash service that recently folded, do not.

Recently I got a promotional e-mail advertising Instacart, a new grocery delivery business. Their business plan is simple: you go to their site, pick out groceries from Safeway or Trader Joe’s, and they deliver your order to you. You can pay $15 for delivery within an hour, or $4 for delivery within a one-hour window that you specify. LivingSocial was offering $30 worth of groceries for $15 (disclaimer: referral link), so I jumped on the deal and headed to their site to place an order… or two. 

Using the site was painless. I had to plug in a credit card and delivery address, then I was able to browse and search for the things I wanted to order. I didn’t do an exhaustive search, but I had no trouble finding all the stuff I wanted. I ordered a basket of groceries from each of the two stores: chicken pot pies, honey-wheat bread, sliced peppered turkey breast, sliced pepper jack cheese, and bananas from Trader Joe’s and milk, Jimmy Dean sausage, red beans, yogurt, pears, and orange juice from Safeway. I scheduled both orders for delivery between 7 and 8 pm, got an order confirmation text, and went on about my business. Here’s what happened:

  • 7:44: sure enough, my phone dinged to tell me that TJ’s was out of pot pies and bread, but that my order would arrive at around 8:10. That was followed almost instantly by another text message telling me that Safeway was out of yogurt.
  • 8:19: I got an e-mail from Jen saying that they were running a bit behind and that I should expect delivery between 8:30 and 8:45.
  • 8:23 I got another text advising me of an 8:45 delivery time. Since none of these e-mails or text messages told me which order, I couldn’t tell which they were for, but I guess most of their customers don’t place multiple concurrent orders.
  • 8:31: An e-mail arrived with a nicely designed receipt for my TJ’s order. It clearly showed what I ordered, what was out of stock, and what the total amount charged to my credit card would be.
  • 8:35: the delivery driver called to tell me he had both my orders. I picked them up, tipped him $5, and that was that.

When I unpacked the groceries, I noted that they’d gotten everything right with a minor exception: I got a can of diced tomatoes and a container of spices that I didn’t order. I wasn’t charged for them, but I imagine some other customer will be wondering where their spaghetti-sauce ingredients got off to.

What did all this cost? Well, the groceries cost their regular in-store prices, meaning I lost out on any Safeway loyalty-card discounts, as well as any in-store specials or sales. Your first order delivery charge is waived; the second order cost $3.99. I consider that money exceptionally well spent given the amount of time it saved me: no looking for a parking space, no shopping-cart jousting in the store, and no waiting in line. Instacart definitely rewards advance planning; I’ll probably wait until I have a larger single order, and I’ll use the notes field on the order form to specify substitutions (e.g. it would have been fine if they’d brought me a different flavor of yogurt instead of none at all).

Overall this was a good first experience, and I’ll definitely be using Instacart again.

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First two weeks with the Lumia 920

A few quick notes jotted down from my two-week exploration with the Lumia 920 as my primary phone:

  • LTE is awesome, and the WP8 tethering app works flawlessly, with none of the flakiness of the corresponding iOS app.
  • There’s no TaxiMagic app for WP8, so I grabbed my iPhone 4 this morning to book a taxi. It felt tiny compared to the 920.. but it also felt terribly slow. Granted, the iPhone 4 is two hardware generations (at least) behind the 920, but I’d always previously been satisfied with its speed.
  • The Bluetooth crackling I complained about seems to be a bug in the Nokia Music app; it doesn’t happen when using Xbox Music or the built-in music app.
  • The Mac sync tool is buggy. Really, really buggy. This is my biggest current frustration with the phone, although since it automatically uploads pictures to SkyDrive at least I can grab photos without too much hassle. It occurred to me that I might want to use the Windows sync tool in BootCamp instead of relying on the Mac client, but then I’d have to give up iPhoto and iTunes integration.
  • Only today did I discover the very cool Groups feature, which allows you to see all status updates for a subset of your contacts from a single tile.
  • The WP Evernote app seems to have a bug where, when you edit a note, you get a blank white screen with no note contents. I’m not sure what causes this or whether it’s known, as I haven’t really had time to dig into it yet.
  • Nokia’s Panorama app is superb: it is super easy to take panoramic pictures with great alignment, through the expedient of showing a hollow circle that you align with a solid concentric circle. This works really well– here’s an example of a panorama I shot at the I-20 rest area in Vicksburg.

Although I briefly considered swapping the 920 for an HTC 8X, I decided not to for three primary reasons. First, the 920′s screen looks better to me– blacks and colors both look better on the 920. Second, Nokia’s bundled (and supported) apps are better– Panorama, SmartShot, Nokia Music, and Nokia Drive are great examples of how they’re adding value for their users. Third, the 920′s wireless charging feature would greatly simplify my phone usage– or at least it has that potential, once Nokia ships the plates.

Oh, and as long as I’m fantasizing about future developments: it would be great to get a full-fledged Starbucks app one day… sigh.

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Lumia 920 day 11: brick city

Happy Thanksgiving! Today I am thankful for AT&T’s return service (and irked at myself for leaving my MacBook Pro charger in Huntsville– thus the brevity of this entry. Low battery concentrates the mind…)

On Windows Phone devices, Windows Live IDs (WLID), now better known as Microsoft accounts. are the master accounts used to control access to Microsoft services. You have to link a WLID to the phone to buy or update apps. Once you put a WLID on the phone, the only way to change the associated WLID is to wipe the phone to factory settings and start over. Because (long boring historical discussion elided), I had to change the e-mail address on my WLID. The Xbox, Skype, and Windows Phone Marketplace aspects of this change went smoothly (although the change itself was damn near impossible to effect; I ended up having to get a friend who works at MS to open an internal support case.) Tim did the same thing recently and found that even his Surface took the change without issue.

My phone, however, did not, so I had to reset it and put in the new WLID. I did this last night… only to find that the 920 apparently has a bug that bricks it when you do a hard reset. Ooooops.

I understand the existence of software bugs; Lord knows I’ve suffered through my share of them on iOS. I put the phone aside, took it to the AT&T store in Alexandria, Louisiana, and was immediately given a replacement with no fuss– the staff were super helpful and friendly.

Now, a brief digression: at the AT&T store I saw the HTC 8X for the first time. Wow! What a great-looking phone: it’s the same width and height as the 920 but much thinner and lighter. I may give the 920 the boot and get an 8X instead, despite its inferior camera and smaller onboard storage.

Anyway: I took the replacement phone home and started trying to restore its settings. All of my old text messages and photos seem to have synced back from the cloud, but app settings, and the apps themselves, have not. This Paul Thurrott article says that the “App List + Settings” backup “includes Internet Explorer Favorites, the list of installed apps, and ‘most’ device settings.” I haven’t seen any evidence of it restoring those things but maybe I’m just being impatient; I’ll wait a bit longer. SMS messages synced automatically and immediately, but maybe apps take longer? One thing that doesn’t seem to be included in sync at all is the arrangement of tiles on the home screen; that’s an unfortunate omission given that I had finally gotten everything put the way I wanted it!

Last night, before the WLID change, I’d tried to use the Windows Phone connector for Mac OS to back up the phone, but it crashed each time I plugged the phone in. This morning, when I plugged the new phone in, sync worked flawlessly. I lived through the flakiness of iTunes sync for many years, and I’m not happy about having to relive it, especially because the WP connector is only supported through Microsoft’s forums.

The 920 camera is superb; I’ll post some photos I’ve taken with it once things settle down here a bit. 

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Lumia 920 days 2-5 review

I’m getting settled in to using the Lumia 920 as my daily phone. In some ways this is a big change, but in other ways it isn’t, as I’d been using the Lumia 800 a fair amount over the last few months as an alternate device.

Let me start by talking about connectivity. I’m not talking about just network connectivity, although that so far has been excellent. Even on AT&T’s crappy Bay Area network, I have yet to have a call drop or data service outage, even in notorious bad spots like right across the street from Pizz’a Chicago. No, I’m talking about physical and sync connectivity, beginning with sync connectivity.

I miss wireless sync; at least with Mac OS X, WP8 devices have to physically be plugged in to sync. The Windows Phone connector software has flaked out on me a few times this week. First it refused to sync anything at all, with only a useless error saying that some items couldn’t be synced. This turned out to be because of the OS X sandboxing feature, which prevents the WP connector from accessing music in the iTunes library folder. It’s easy to fix with the “Allow Access to Folder” command, but finding this out required a tedious slog through Microsoft’s support forum. Then yesterday, after updating to Office 2011 14.2.5, the WP connector started crashing each time I plugged the phone in. Back to the forum I went, where I found this article… that turned out not to be the problem. I posted the issue to the forum but haven’t gotten a response yet.

(At this point, lest you think me a hater, I would point out that Apple has exactly the same terrible support process: find an issue, post a plaintive query in their support forums, and hope that someone can help you out– or, alternatively, trek to the store and see if they can help you.)

Now, about the physical connection– the Lumia 920 uses a micro-USB connector. This is perfectly OK with me, as I have other devices that use the same connector, and I have Bluetooth audio streaming in my car. However, the port on the 920 is a little finicky; you have to push the connector firmly into it to ensure that it actually charges, as I found when I awoke one morning and found the phone dead because it hadn’t charged overnight while plugged in.

And speaking of battery life: I’d have to label it adequate. I get about a day’s worth of use, meaning that I leave home in the morning with a full charge and usually need to give the phone a snack sometime between 5 and 8 pm to get a full day’s use. This is essentially what I was getting from the iPhone 4, although the 920 has a bigger screen and LTE. Seems like a fair trade.

Oh, and one more miscellaneous hardware issue: the 920 screen shows fingerprints and smudges much more than the iPhone or Lumia 800. This is a bit annoying, but easily remedied.

The apps I’ve been using have continued to work well. I love the way that the Photos live tile displays my airplane photos; the motion of the live tile looks slick. The Facebook app has a number of annoyances, like insisting on scrolling up to the top of my news feed after I comment on or like any item in the feed.

My limited experience with the newly-released Skype app has been positive: it works well and looks good, though I haven’t tried it for any video calls yet.

The only app-related complaint I have involves Bluetooth music playback in the car: the phone will sometimes freeze for up to a minute. During that time I see the lock screen background, with nothing drawn on it, and the phone’s not responsive to the hardware controls, nor do the stereo controls trigger any action. This has happened three times so far, all at times when I got in the car, started it, and wanted to listen to music. I’m not sure what’s going on with it, but it’s definitely annoying.

Now, on to this installment of “Really?”: things that aren’t present in the hardware or software but really should be. I noticed that WP8 doesn’t seem to have a screen rotation lock, which is a bit of a hassle. I still really miss the hardware mute switch of the iPhone line. In fact, I will continue to miss it for a long time because of the ridiculous way that WP8 implements volume, at least as far as I can tell. If I turn the volume to mute so that the phone vibrates for alerts, that also turns off all sounds for everything on the phone– including Bluetooth audio and even listening to a voicemail message on the internal speaker. Phone calls aren’t affected, though, but this seems like a ridiculous design. I haven’t checked to see if there’s a separate volume level for headphone use, but I bet there isn’t.

Luckily alarms are unaffected, which reminds me of another missing feature: the ability to wake to music by setting a song as an alarm.

Apart from these quirks, the phone is a delight to use. I have the home screen set up the way I want it, and the pervasive use of live tiles really makes it easy for me to quickly see what’s what. The soft keyboard is a vast improvement over the one in iOS, and the autocorrect feature makes it absurdly simple to fix misspellings or to add new words to the dictionary. And I can’t say enough good about the color fidelity or display quality of the screen: it is simply gorgeous.

Tomorrow I’m flying to Huntsville, without my iPhone, so we’ll see how the WP8 experience stacks up for travel use. I’ve got MyTrips (a TripIt client) and the American Airlines app all loaded, so I expect good things.

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Lumia 920 day 1 review

Saying “day 1″ is a bit of a misnomer, since I’ve only had the phone since about noon, but I wanted to capture a few of my initial thoughts from using it during a typical weekend day: getting directions, handling e-mail and Facebook, and so on. I’ll keep posting these “day X” reviews every so often when I have more to say about the phone and OS.

I bought a black 920 at the Palo Alto AT&T store; I wanted a red one, but they were sold out of everything except black. In fact, I got the last one. That’s pretty impressive considering that we’re in the heart of Apple territory here. I bought the no-contract version; with a free wireless charging plate (which AT&T didn’t have; they’re shipping it separately) the total was about $438. For that I got… a very large phone. It feels disconcertingly large, in fact, and that’s the first thing I had to get used to.

Windows Phone 8 feels very familiar because I’m familiar with WP7.5. However, please note that there is a lot I don’t know about it, so some of the things I mention below may have fixes or workarounds that I just don’t know about. A few observations:

  • AT&T’s LTE coverage in and around Palo Alto is worlds better than their HSDPA coverage so far. I got a good signal in my parking garage and at a couple of the well-known dead spots along El Camino Real. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when I hit the Page Mill & Hanover intersection, which usually kills calls dead. 
  • Hotspot access was easy to set up, but my iPhone 4 won’t connect to it. I had the same problem using WP7.5 on a different Lumia with the same iPhone, so I’m not sure where the culprit is.
  • Nokia Music is nifty– like a cross between Spotify and Pandora. Having said that, there’s no Spotify app (see below). I am not sure that I’m ready to make the leap to Xbox Music just yet.
  • I’m glad that the 920 has 32GB of storage built-in. This strikes me as the minimum that would be useful for me.
  • When my car stereo (the JVC KW-NT500HDT) is paired with the phone and switched to use Bluetooth audio, there’s a faint crackling sound. It’s audible any time there’s not “real” audio playing, e.g. in the gaps between songs. The Lumia 800 didn’t do this so I suspect some aspect of the WP8 BT stack is to blame.
  • The Windows Phone sync app for Mac OS X is flaky. Sometimes it doesn’t notice that the phone is plugged in, so it won’t sync. Other times it displays mysterious errors indicating that songs couldn’t be synced (and telling me which songs), but not why.

NewImage

I have several dozen apps on my iPhone, most of which I rarely if ever use. The only apps I wished I had today were Spotify, Skype, and an app I use for checking aviation weather called AeroWeather Pro. There’s a close equivalent, Aviation Weather, that might do the trick; Skype for WP8 is on the way, and I am optimistic about Spotify. Apart from that, the major apps I need (Kindle, Google Reader, USAA, Netflix, Facebook, American Airlines, Fandango, Delta, Instapaper, Evernote) all have WP8 versions. Some of the other apps that would be nice to have, but not mandatory, include the client app for Safeway and Zynga’s Drop7, along with several specific aviation apps (CloudAhoy and the ForeFlight suite chief among them.)

Perhaps the biggest missing item from the phone is something that I don’t think it will ever have: iMessage. Many of my friends and family members have iOS devices– including all 3 of my kids– and switching back over to SMS-only messaging means I lose some functionality.

I can’t comment on battery life; the phone was not fully charged when I got it, I used it heavily all day, and it hasn’t been fully charged yet. I’m interested to see whether it outlasts the iPhone 4′s battery life (which should be easy!)

And two items from the “Seriously?” file: there’s no built-in timer, which is something that ancient generations of Nokia dumb phones have had since time immemorial, and there’s no way to set a custom text tone for an individual contact (although you can set per-person ringtones.)
 
More tomorrow when the phone journeys to work with me for the first time…

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