Carlos, from Apple Care

apple-logoSo those who know me well, fully appreciate that I am not an Apple Fan Boy. I’ve written obliquely and directly on this issue.

My experience of the iPad over the past 12 months has certainly not endeared me (as a previously committed android tablet aficionado) to Apple, continually frustrated by a device and an operating system that tries hard, and continually falls short of expectation.

Neither has the events of the past 4 days endeared me to the hardware, or the software. But yet again – dropped firmly in the sh!te by the Apple “system” and perhaps my own efforts to do things my own way – I have subsequently been subject to a phone line support experience truly unparalleled in the annals of computer technical support. Let me start now as I will finish – Carlos, of Apple-Care (and the other two people I spoke at length to over the past 4 days) – I salute you.

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Android Apps

Here is a collector post where I’ll review and update the software I use and recommend on my Android phone. I’m now on my third android phone, through at least 4 major operating system upgrades and a host of minor ones. I use my phone for work and pleasure, to tell me where I’m supposed to be, listen to music, watch movies from my home server, navigate in the car, on the footpath and on the bus/train – and tell me where I parked my car.

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ezPDF Reader

There are no end of PDF readers on Android – including Adobe’s Acrobat Reader – but I’ve found ezPDF reader to be the best. I use it on my phone as well as tablet. I do a LOT of PDF reading. To get an idea of it’s capabilities – have a look at the user guide. It uses finger gestures for interaction and includes extensive markup and highlighting features. You can also add bookmarks to PDF documents to expedite navigation of large documents.

TeslaLED

Small but useful, it’s handy to be able to turn on the LED light built into your smartphone flash. There are dozens of apps around that do this, but I find TeslaLED to be a good one. It has a strobe feature and the ability to flash Morse code – not something I use everyday … It comes with a widget that you can place on your desktop and flick your LED on and Off.

Swype

Swype is one of the most poorly kept secrets on Android. I call it a secret because it’s not available on the Android Market – you have to sign up for the beta to get it. That said, it’s now coming as the default input keyboard on some Android phones.

The install technique is a little unusual in that it requires you to download an installer, then find and install the installer, which downloads the program, which then installs swype. Got that? Also along the way you have to register for the beta, then enter your details into the downloaded installer downloader.

But oh man is it worth it.

Many years ago, when I was very much into my Crappy Windows Mobile Phone, I used a keyboard called Fitaly. This was back in the days when you punched away at your pda with a plastic pen and typing on it was real bastard. Fitaly was a non-qwerty keyboard which was mathematically designed such that something like 80% of the most common keys were right in the middle of the keyboard. I eventually got myself up to something like 80 words a minute on this thing – it makes you cry when you look at today’s iPhone chicken scratch keyboard.

Anyway – since coming to Android I’ve discovered Swype. Let me say right now – it’s not available on iPhone. Did you get that? It’s not available on iPhone. Just in case …  IT’S NOT AVAILABLE ON iPHONE. So There. How do I make that blink with WordPress?

Swype is built on the same concept as predictive text input on non-qwerty keyboard mobile phones. Basically instead of chicken scratching your way across the keyboard, you swype your way along, pausing briefly (or not) at the letters you want typed. From the pattern you draw, Swype works out what is the most likely word. If there’s only one – it enters it. If there are several but the most likely one is very much the most likely – it enters it. Otherwise you get a list of possibilities, with the most likely being at the top and the default word if you continue swyping.

You can get VERY fast with Swype, and very accurate. I strongly suggest reviewing the tutorials and videos before you get too far into it  – it will save you a lot of frustration and lost productivity. Ask me how I know this.

ADW Launcher

I’ve never been one for replacing the standard operating system front end with something custom developed. My experience is that they’re at times buggy and often suffer when the operating system itself is updated. I’m not convinced of the productivity improvements claimed and quite frankly if I was buying something for the eye candy value, I’d probably have an Apple device, except perhaps the iPad – what the hell is the story with the tiny little icons with all that space in between them? Hello?

Then I was forced to use ADW Launcher.

I say forced, because the XDA crew decided to make it the default in Cyanogen – which I ran on my Nexus One for eight months or so. And since it was integrated with the operating system itself, I figured it would be plenty stable, which it was.

Then when I upgraded to the Nexus S and was forced to stay with the stock Android 2.3/4 operating system (still haven’t worked out how to root it) – I missed ADW so much that I bought it.

Apart from a suite of additional interface settings, I find on the fly manipulation of widgets to be extremely useful. I read about being able to re-size widgets in Honeycomb – I’m doing that now with Gingerbread and ADW. I have an extra column and row of icons on my screen, with everything sized down accordingly and spaced a little tighter. It’s an awesome bit of kit.

Juice Defender Ultimate

You won’t be using your new shiny smartphone for very long when you come to realise your battery life is crap. Gone are the days when you charge your phone every couple of days and when the battery is starting to look low you know you have until at least that night before you have to charge it.

Between these lovely big bright screens, ‘N’ wifi, 3g connectivity, GPS, Bluetooth, etc – you need a battery bigger than the phone itself to get a decent life out of it. Just one of the reasons I’m Android is because I can carry a spare battery and throw it in if I need to – try that on an iPhone.

Juice Defender give you Time of Day /  Location / Data throughput / Application aware control of the high consumers of power such as screen/wifi/3g as well as controlling application access and sync. Let me explain.

I’m in the hotel foyer in LA. I pull out my phone and turn it on. Because I’ve been there before, JD turns on the wifi and logs onto the hotel network. Depending on how long since the last one, Google Sync is started – checking mail, twitter, facebook, etc. Before this completes, I turn my phone off. In my pocket, as the data finishes downloading and the data throughput reduces below a nominated threshold, JD turns off the Wifi.

I leave the hotel. Every 15 minutes or so (you choose), JD turns on the 3g and another sync is activated. JD turns it off again shortly afterwards.

I approach “It’s a Grind” the coffee shop I frequent which has free wifi. JD knows where I am (cell towers) and turns on the wifi as I enter the shop. It attempts to log on but the Cafe has changed their password (again). The lack of data throughput is a trigger and JD turns off the Wifi again.

Juice Defender is indeed Ultimate.

FlightBoard, by Mobiata

Flight board is a really simple concept. Pick an airport, choose departures or arrivals, see the equivalent flight board. As someone who travels all the time this really simple app is excellent and serves me well.

Yes you can Facebook or Twitter about your flight and all of that shite, yes you can shoot a flight over to FlightTrack (slightly more useful). You can access delay data etc. The point is, at any stage during your travel journey, you can look and see if the flight is delayed, if there’s a gate assigned, if flights just before or after yours have been cancelled.

TeamViewer

I got out of the hardware sales/support business years ago, for good reasons. However I am doomed to support my immediate (and extended) family’s computer needs for the foreseeable future, and as such this is easiest accomplished through remote control. I enabled this for years through the paid tool GotoMyPc, but a while ago I finally went free with TeamViewer. It offers all of the functionality I need (Remote control, File transfer, VPN, Chat, etc) and not only has Android support – but has it in a way that is actually usable on a smart phone (something GotoMyPC has yet to do, even badly).

Skype

Skype pretty much sucks. That goes for the PC experience as well. I’ve used a dozen different VOIP solutions over the past 12 years or so, all mostly as a means of avoiding Skype – to make cheap calls also – but mainly to avoid Skype.

Whether it be the bloatware that Skype is on your machine, the restrictive private protocol that offends my open source sensibility, or just the fact that when you agree to install Skype you agree to potentially become a Skype supernode, routing calls to and from people you’ve never heard of, chewing up your bandwidth, Skype pisses me off.

But there are so many people on Skype, we’re now so far beyond the point where I can choose not to use it.

Skype is now beyond early days on Android and it shows. Finally we have Video. It took them long enough (ages after the iPhone). Finally you can also exit Skype and not have it running in the background. It’s still a confusing interface for what is essentially a simple need – but it works.  Damn it.

Volume Ace

One of the great features of Android is it’s flexibility. It’s clear from extended use that a great deal of thought went into the development of the back end. And the operating system is a documented open source development which allows apps to take full advantage to deliver a better (educated) user experience.

But it does make things complicated at times. Take volume.

It sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it. In fact there’s two buttons on the side – volume up, volume down – what could be simpler that. But which volume?

When your phone is ringing – these buttons control (and leave set) ring tone volume. When you’re talking with the handset against your head, they control that volume. When you use the speaker phone, they control that volume. When you’re listening to music, they control that volume. When you’re being told what to do by turn by turn voice navigation, they control that volume. And so on. At last count I was up to 9 different volume settings. If you want overall management of all these volumes – if you want profile management of them depending on where and when you are – how do you manage it all? Volume Ace.

Apart from giving you fine detail control of these volumes – Volume Ace lets you save configurations as pre-sets (Quite, Night, Loud, Meeting etc) controlling both volumes and vibrate, and you can access these presets with two clicks off a widget on the desktop.

Car Locator

Edward Kim has made a fortune out of Car Locator and it’s easy to see why. As someone who arrives back from a week away in Sydney/Los Angeles to a large staff car park with no markings whatsoever (goddam I hate Melbourne Airport non-Management) – remembering with my fatigue addled brain where I parked my car is a real hassle.

This little gem lets me press a button when I park; then when I return, I run it again and it leads me to my car. The sonar mode (it “boops” faster and faster as I draw closer) is a little kitch, but you can turn it off.

There’s lots of other tricksy bits built in but essentially it does very well what I need it to do – locate my car.

K9 Mail

Ok, so the built in gMail app on the Android operating system is awesome. Since Google insist on updating it regularly, there’s just no reason whatsoever to look for any alternative. Then there’s the built in app for your other POP3, iMap and Exchange mail … therein lies a different story.

So after a short, dissatisfying play with the provided software, I went hunting for something else. I swear it was not my penchant for Dr Who that lead me to settle on K9. It does POP3, iMap, Exchange (although not in a way supported by my company – but that solution is below). It’s open source, supports PGP – and most importantly handles multiple e-mail accounts – at last count I’m watching 11 e-mail accounts on my phone – brilliantly – using K9. Push mail, notifications, a breeze. Enjoy.

Touchdown Exchange Mail for Android

Ok, first a warning. This app is not your typical $4.99 app – you’re up for about AUD $20. The trap with this software is that you get 30 days to evaluate it, after which you’ve found you can’t live without it – and you’ll have to pay the $20.

If your company allows exchange sync through their firewall, I recommend this app. Although exchange sync is native to android, I couldn’t wear the draconian imposition of a security policy on my phone. Sure – secure the app; but the phone? What if I don’t want a full password on my phone, changed regularly, the ability for the company to delete stuff off my phone, etc. Stuff that.

Touchdown does email, calendar, tasks, contacts, global address book, etc. Push notification (or not) etc. Very clean interface, updated regularly.

Winamp

I should firstly point out that I HATE iTunes. There, that’s said.

Winamp is a full circle kind of thing for me. I suspect that I was the last person on earth to actually pay for Winamp just before they started distributing free about 10 years ago. They’ve since gone Pro, but I never forgave them back then for taking my money and then turning around and making Winamp free. I wrote to them and asked if I could have the current Pro version free, but unfortunately not – the company who sells it now is about three companies down the road since back then. Can’t hurt to try.

The reason I’ve come back to Winamp is that the pro version on my desktop – apart from managing about 2 terra-bytes of music – allows me to sync playlists and artists/albums wirelessly through my home network to my android phone. Did I mention it was wireless? The Winamp player on my Nexus works well and is pretty enough. The lock screen took me a while to figure out and letting it take over my headset occasionally gets me in trouble. But it’s wireless. Enough said.

Handy Sh!t : (HandyConversionsHandyCurrencyHandyCalc)

Ok, so you’ve got to have three things on your phone. Something to do Conversions. Something to do Currency. And a Calculator. I managed to find all three from the same source.

I have to say, there’s something seriously cool about these apps. Something mesmerizing. I can’t quite put my finger on it. The Conversions and Currency work well enough – the currencies update and you can add your own conversions if you’re trying to work not just in Bhat, Pounds and Euro’s but also Galactic Credits. They’re clean and pretty to look and the the interface is easy to work with.

But the calculator is seriously weird. It has some very cool stuff in it – graphing, solving quadratic equations, fractions, Algebra, you name it. I was once a real maths student with a  real calculator at Uni – a HP48 that I loved and knew backwards. When I came to Android I was pleased to be able to install a HP48 emulator for a while – at least until HandyCalc came along. At some point, I’ll learn to use it properly. Then watch me go.

 

Lost in a world of IT Choice … Not.

This post went live in Feb, 2010 – back when I was in the wilderness of looking for a smartphone. I’ve since gone Android – first the Nexus One, now the Nexus S – and I’m pleased with both of them. But I’m writing an article at the moment about the lack of choice when it comes to a non-Apple tablet, and it reminded me of where I was last year with Smartphones – so I thought I’d revive the article …

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I have a confession to make.  For some time now I’ve been indulging in an illicit, subversive, un-seemly behaviour – very much out of keeping with my persona and belief system as an IT hip type person (did I just use the word hip? Sorry, must be stress/guilt).

I’ve been doing this despite having a regular series of RSS feeds, podcasts, pre-defined Google News searches, regular e-mail subscriptions from a variety of sources related to the various fields of interests that I hold from time to time ranging through IT, Current News, Aviation, Aspergers, original thinking and several more. Yes, I have no life. Despite even looking through Twitter regularly and even occasionally reading Facebook … sometimes, about once a month, I buy a computer magazine. Yes, a physical, paper-with-disk-inside honest to goodness magazine. I hope Marty isn’t reading this.

I’m writing about it because yesterday I descended into the ridiculous. After years of this unthinkably legacy behaviour, instead of seeking to correct this weirdness, I succumbed to the economic reality of my addiction and subscribed to the magazine I most commonly purchase, for a year, hoping to save some cash.

By the way Maximum PC – if you’re reading this, how come the first magazine of my subscription came looking like someone had already read it, with no DVD? Is that normal?

Why is this bad? You have to ask? Magazines are static! Like most other mainstream IT media,  the content is out of date when it’s created – which is weeks (if not more) before I get anywhere near it. Trees die to produce them – completely un-necessarily in this day and age, in my opinion. The damn things are 50% adverts – 50% of which I have absolutely no interest in, even if there IS a genuine babe in the ad, much like some of the content of the magazine itself.  Print Media is dead, it’s only a matter of time, whether they realise it or not. This absolute truth is evidenced by the fact that the New Your Times is now charging for online content – something Rupert Murdoch has been bleating about, but now it’s here. Watch out Google News, your stealing paid content.

Now that it’s done, and I have my first magazine in hand, I’ve been thinking deeply about it and realise that this heinous act is a reflection of the shocking state of affairs we find ourselves in vis-a-vie the PDA/Smartphone/e-book reader/tablet market. It’s only technology dragging it’s heals that has allowed print media to last this long.

Let me explain. Two years ago I had a phone, a PDA and a laptop, and I was happy. Yes, yes I also had (and still have) a wife and family I love, a fulfilling work environment, divergent interests that kept my brain busy, a job that paid me enough and gave me enough time off to satisfy my family and divergent interests – but the point is, I was happy with my PDA/Laptop/Mobile combo. In a world of convergence, I felt I had the perfect solution for me – non-convergence. Then my PDA broke.

Since then I have been wandering in the wilderness without a replacement. Everything has been a compromise. I’m on my fourth phone, my second laptop, no PDA at all. My needs would appear to be simple, and for the most part common to your slightly above average savvy computer user (that excludes most Mac users I guess and by association, most iPhone users as well) who travels the world, yet with all my IT expertise (I’ve been buying computer magazines for a very long time – did I mention that?) – I can’t fulfil them with one device.

I want and need something that can REALLY browse the web, through Wifi and 3G, and do it on a decent screen – online and offline please. Something that REALLY does e-mail, multiple accounts easily managed (not like the iPhone), proper html mail. Something that will REALLY sync correctly with Outlook – Contacts, Calendar AND Tasks, without placing at risk the data that I (at times painstakingly) create and collect – thank you Nokia PC Suite for converting years of timed calendar events to all day events, almost instantaneously, bastards, that took me hours to fix.

What do I mean by REALLY? Well, that would be landscape and portrait browsing. Multi-touch zooming (one for Apple). Flash Support (one away from Apple). Being able to receive e-mail in one account and reply through another. Syncing through something works at least as well as MS Activesync has for about 5 years. Google synchronicity would be nice as well.

Good news on the horizon for Nokia sufferers though – Nokia have completely re-vamped PC Suite into Nokia Ovi, with a mac/iphone like interface. They’ve also completely removed the ability to sync your calendar and contacts with any other folder in Outlook other than your main ones. The day I sync my 1500 or so contacts across to my trusty old e51 is the day it stops working. Thanks Nokia.

Something that intelligently handles time zone changes so that when I tell it I’m in LA (or it works it out itself from the cell provider), it doesn’t go right ahead and adjust every calendar appointment I have throughout the time/space continuum backwards 17 hours – thank you Windows Mobile Phone, idiots.

Hey – does anyone know what PDA The Doctor uses? Something tied to the TARDIS? Anyone?

Something that will satisfy my occasional need to TwitterFacebook and IM (I acknowledge it’s wrong to call this a need and I’m seeking treatment, taking drugs and have a 12 step program, don’t worry). Something you can actually type stuff into – as opposed to the iPhone/Nexus One keyboards. Onscreen is fine but something external is preferred as soon as you get serious.

Something I can easily and practically use to read documents on – both real content which will ebb and flow gloriously across the screen like a properly constructed ebook, as well as pain in the ass PDF books and manuals that won’t morph at all, damn them. Something I can watch a movie on, listen to music on, would also be nice.

It needs a GPS of course – not so much for the maps, but to take advantage of the quiet revolution that Google is sneaking upon us in the form of search solutions that come to us with the combination of geographical as well as topical relevance.

Something with a battery life of slightly more than a day – as a pilot, some of my days are 36 hours long, at least in terms of finishing your day near a power point anyway. Phone calls would be useful as well – but it must enable VOIP calls as well (good one Apple, finally allow us to use Skype, but keep on blocking Google Talk).

And to top it all off – something that won’t cost me the best part of a thousand US dollars to get up and running – hardware AND software.

The iPhone, I hear you say? Did I mention the keyboard? What is it, not quite 2 years now since the iPhone massed the market? And how many external – blue tooth or otherwise – keyboards are there for the iPhone? Zippo. My old HP 4700 Windows Mobile 2003 device could sit on top of a $100 full sized keyboard that folded out of a container smaller than the pda itself and allow real productivity. Use the iPhone onscreen keyboard – don’t make me laugh. Onscreen smartphone keyboards are the biggest practical joke played on humanity since Chris Sholes “invented” the QWERTY keyboard, which in case you didn’t know is statistically derived to make learning to type as difficult as possible. Here we are 156 years later reproducing that keyboard on Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone. Don’t get me started on backwards compatibility or we’ll end up down the road of the Shuttle’s booster rocket diameter being based on the size of a horses ass, and that’s just not pretty.

Also, the iPhone is Apple. I have another problem right there. No, this is not a rabid, anti-Apple/anti-Steve Jobs bias, it’s a whole lot more anti-bias than that. An iPhone means iTunes. Syncing your data to Outlook with iTunes – have you tried that lately? You thought Activesync was a piece of crap? You have no idea. My kids have iTouch’s – an excellent platform, achieving just what they need it to do for them, and as far as it goes my hat’s off to Apple for the iTouch. But the iTouch means iTunes. We are now forced to put all our music and video into iTunes at my house. At last count, this is about 80gb of music and perhaps 900gb of video. After almost 2 years now of iTunes, trying to manage the music tags so you can find something, trying to recover bought music when we upgrade operating systems or computers, trying to get the library to share the content through to the media devices in the house – including other computers also running iTunes (how hard is that?), watching version after version of this bloatware crap come down through my internet connection like fat leaches through a tiny drain pipe, sucking my life’s blood away, I’m ready to buy two sticks for each of my kids and tell them to make their own entertainment. If they want to share their music, they can stand near one another and bang away.

Although I’m a PC guy (and deeply, emotionally offended at the PC Guy portrayal in the Apple ads) – I am not speaking with anti-Apple-ignorance like some. I did own one of the early iPhones. I was startled by the web browsing, initially pleased with the emailing, impressed with the growing suite of Apps, what a crappy phone. Did you catch that last bit, Steve Jobs? How is it that I can set an alarm on my 3 year old, fifty dollar Nokia, turn the phone off so it won’t wake me up (or go flat) and have it turn on and ring at the alarm time – but you can’t do that on $500 plus of iPhone?

I also support some legacy software apps that need to work with Macs, so I run a couple of virtual Macs on my PC. Let me tell you that’s no mean feat either. You want to run PC software on a Mac – Ok, you’ll need any of a number of standard virtual PC emulators that are easily obtainable and installable on the Mac and cheap to buy. Want to do the reverse, run the Mac on your PC? Now you’re in deep trouble, plumbing the depths of the enthusiasts market of hacked software and patched together open source, public licence solutions that no one in their right mind would touch. Something like my experience of playing with Linux a few years ago – no offence Linus.

So you can easily do PC-On-Mac – but it’s seriously not fun trying to do Mac-On-PC – what does that tell you? Which group of consumers has it right again? Would that be the 12% Mac market share? Hmmmm.

But on one level at least, I’m pleased that there are Macs in the world. When I’m struggling to fix some 5+ year old, crappy PC computer of a friend who invited me over on the pre-text of good coffee and cake to bang my head (both metaphorically and physically) against his corrupted Windows ME installation – it is music to my ears to hear them say “I think we should we buy a Mac – I hear Mac’s don’t have the problems of PC’s?” At this point my internal reaction is “Could you have told me that BEFORE I spent 90 minutes just trying your crappy Pentium Three computer to boot in Safe Mode? You’re gonna buy a Mac? – Piss off, I’m not going to fix your computer NOW.”

At this point, one of two things would happen. Externally, I would either say, ”Yes, I hear that as well – go buy a Mac”; or I would still like them at this point (good coffee/cake) and say “Yes, I hear that as well – go buy a Mac. It will cost you not quite twice as much, you will need to buy and re-learn all your software again unless you are very plain vanilla users who genuinely only want to email and browse.” (how many times have you hear that? Then they go and buy Halo and want to know why it runs slow) ”Your kids won’t be playing games on it and – oh yes – I won’t be around to fix it – I don’t do Macs”.

In spite of good coffee, I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut at these times, and we’re all much happier now – or at least I am, because I only ever hear once more from my friends who buy Macs … “Hi, want to come round for a coffee – we bought a Mac and we’re having trouble with …” … “That would be great, but unfortunately I don’t do Macs … This is a  recording … please leave a message you don’t mind me deleting.”

But I digress.

I played with a Sony e-book reader for a while. Slow and ugly, it does an ok job of handling those properly formatted e-books I mentioned before; and a shocking job of dealing with the crappy PDF non-flowing text books and manuals I’m forced to deal with as an Aviation professional (and an IT amateur). If you have time, patience and some expertise, it would be barely acceptable I suppose. No solution there – besides, buying ANOTHER device JUST to read e-books is insane.

Google has released it’s Nexus One (sue, Philip K. Dick, sue), on the back of 12 months of Android phone releases by other providers. I have yet to play with one, and will do so as soon as I can, but what I read gives me some pause. Initial lack of multi-touch is an issue, only 512k of ram for apps another. In some ways, the Nexus One is like the iPhone mark one. Intriguing, but not there yet. I could be an enthusiastic Nexus Three user two years from now.

Apple is soon to release the iPad. While it’s early days, and damned expensive for a device that won’t replace my phone, it does looks very promising with a larger screen that may just revolutionise the e-book reader market, at least until Apple pairs it with e-books in iTunes. Goddamned iTunes. Of course no multi-tasking, iphone operating system, no external USB/Card access, no GPS/Camera/Flash Support … In the very least the iPad will herald a series of PC devices that will bring real functionality to the market.

Because tablets are the future. I’ve been watching Star Trek for years and know this to be true. Two years from now we’ll have tablets up the kazoo, reading the daily newspaper, downloading books from Amazon (and Apple), watching movies on them, controlling your Hifi with it, navigating in your car, listening to music, on top of the usual email, browsing, etc. You’ll even be lowering your expectations a little and gaming on them (although not Halo 5). Hell, perhaps the iPad will have an external keyboard by then. Probably not the iPhone though.

*    *    *

I have a magazine subscription. They say the first step to a cure is admitting your problem. In this case I realise what I have actually now done is to put the rest of the world on notice – guys, you have a year to get off your tails and fix the PDA/Phone/EBook reader market with a device that actually works. You have been warned – don’t make me renew. In the meantime – I’m going to lash out and buy a …

Ken