a moderate request

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A few months ago I wrote about my impressions of the iPad 2 and wasn’t terribly impressed. Since I always carry a smartphone and a netbook when I needed to take notes outside, I didn’t see a point in owning a tablet. Well months later, I was getting ready to studying abroad and wanted to simplify my  luggage. I wanted to read books but not carry my large collection of paperbacks. I also did not want to bring my netbook and large Sony laptop but still have a gadget to take notes on the go. That’s when I decided to purchase an Asus Eee Pad Transformer.

The Transformer is a 10-inch Android tablet with an attachable keyboard dock. Unlike many other tablets, the build quality is pretty nice made out of glass, metal, and hardplastic. The back of the tablet has a really nice texture that makes gripping easy. Like the iPad, holding the Transformer without the dock is still a little too heavy for me. The keyboard on the dock is small but useable. One problem I have is that when typing I sometimes accidentally click the trackpad, but I usually disable the trackpad and use an external mouse. The dock also has two usb ports and an SD card port, which is useful when I want to watch some videos on my external hard drive or check my photos that I just took. The dock also has a spare battery in it that can charge the tablet, which is great since I’m not at home most of the day. Spec-wise, I think it’s on par, if not better than the iPad.

The tablet is already a little short of a year old and has already been outclassed by the newer Transformer Primes, but Asus has been kind enough to update the OS to the latest software Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0). The tablet is snappier and faster with less bugs and annoyances. Typing has been a lot better as the OS doesn’t freeze when I’m typing really fast.

I have to admit. I quickly dismissed the iPad since I couldn’t see it as a productivity device. It wasn’t until I saw crazy people in coffee shops typing away on their iPads using their bluetooth keyboards that I saw the appeal. The number of productivity iPad apps are enormous compared to what’s in the Android Market. The number of tablet optimized Twitter apps are abysmal with none that are to my liking. The official Facebook and Twitter apps are not tablet optimized. Even the Google+ app isn’t. It’s really sad.

Despite not having a wide selection of quality apps, I’ve been able to find a few daily essentials. The recent Chrome beta browser is the best browser I’ve ever used on an Android device. The native Gmail app is amazing, and Google Docs is finally usable. I use Onenote and Evernote to take notes, Jotterpad (which is what I’m using now to type) for blog posts, and the Kindle app to read books. One of the best apps on the iPad is Flipboard, a user-generated magazine using Twitter to gather the most interesting posts on the internet. Though it’s not exactly the same, Feedly has been really enjoyable to read with its clear and magazine-style layout. There’s also some Adobe apps like Photoshop (which just recently got released on the iPad too) that I think might be helpful to me in the future.

I don’t know if I would really recommend the Transformer or any Android tablet at the moment. It’s fun for enthusiasts like me, and I found ways to make it useful in my daily life. But for most people I don’t think they can get through the frustrations I’ve had. At the moment it’s best to either get an iPad or wait to see what’s coming soon. With Windows 8 coming out later this fall, the future of Android tablets don’t look that great. But I’m sure Andy Rubin and the folks at Google are planning this for the long run.

I recently had the pleasure of borrowing my cousin’s iPad for a day and thought I’d share my thoughts.

Overview
The iPad gets a lot of hype. It’s a 10 inch touchscreen slate with a single button. It’s gorgeous in terms of build quality. The slate is simply a metal frame with a glass touchscreen on top. There’s an appstore with plenty of games, productivity tools, news readers, etc. It’s great to sit on the couch and read the newest tweets instead of carrying a full laptop or scroll endlessly on a smartphone’s small screen. Not only that but it’s also dead simple to use. The UI is laid out in rows of icons, one icon for each application. If the user wants to get away from an app, just click the single button at the bottom of the iPad (in portrait mode) and get back to the homescreen. Simple.

Techy babble
The iPad sounds like a great product for the average user, but maybe the iPad is just a little too simple. The iPad is basically an overblown iPhone, and I believe that statement. The dead simple UI is exactly the same, a desktop with a grid of icons with barely any complexity that a power user may want. With that being said, I admit that I am an Android user. I do prefer my Samsung Nexus S to my friend’s iPhone, but my bias is not a good excuse to write off my criticisms. Of course Apple is listening to their users complaining. Just look at iOS 5’s pulldown notification tray, obviously inspired by Android’s notification system that was implemented since day one. Hopefully, iOS 5 will make the system seem more connected.

When I used the iPad, I constantly felt disconnected. I was consecutively using one application at a time, never multitasking (and this 10 inch screen screams productivity potential). On an iPhone, I can understand why a user may want to do one task at a time. It’s a 3.5 inch screen; why would anyone need to open more than one app at a time? Maybe it’s simply psychological, but when I held the iPad 2, I noticed how it was the same size as a netbook and wondered if it had the potential to perform similar tasks. The smartphone has now become mature enough for users to have certain expectations, such as being able to take and send photos to social networks. It’s meant to perform simple tasks. With the iPad, I think that there is still confusion as to how consumers are suppose to use it. After all, the iPad is more expensive than many netbooks but without many of the functions. The iPad likes to advertise itself as a post-PC product for the masses, but it is a little expensive to be an appliance priced item. If someone is shelling out $500, people should know that it’s definitely not a PC replacement by any stretch of the imagination.

Games and apps
Being not much of a gamer, I didn’t play games on the tablet other than a few minutes of Angry Birds. I agree with those that say playing games on a large touchscreen is a lot more enjoyable than on a 4 inch smartphone; the extra 6 inches make a difference. The experience of swinging a bird across the screen seems a lot “fuller”, being able to enjoy the smooth animation of the birds flying across, hitting rocks, planks, and pigs. The social networking on the iPad, however, was a hit or miss. Though I did enjoy using Echofon (a popular Twitter app) on the iPad, the Facebook app was not optimize. There’s no native iPad app, so I was using the iPhone version instead. Once blown up from 1x to fullscreen, the application just looks like a mess. The text is blurry, and the gradient bars are heavily pixelated.

One of the most enjoyable uses of the iPad for me, however, was Flipboard and the NYTimes apps. Flipboard aggregates the news from twitter and creates a very visually appealing layout consisting of quality photos and flowing animation over a plane white background. I was constantly forgetting that Flipboard is basically just aggregating news articles and photos that’s popular on Twitter. I’m also a frequent reader of the New York Times and thought the iPad application was just as useful. It looks basically like a copy of the faux newspaper style layout of the site, though I’m not complaining. Reading the news on the couch and placing it on my lap was really enjoyable. I kept getting excited that I was basically reading things like a book without having to flip pages like one. My only complaint may be that the iPad is a little heavy to constantly hold it in the air. There were many times where I wanted to just hold the iPad closer to my face, but my hands just got tired.

Conclusion
Overall, the iPad is not really life-altering. Besides reading on the couch (which I barely am situated in the first place), there’s no real reason for me to buy an iPad. Maybe in the future instead using the laptop to read ebooks, I would use a tablet instead to study. But this is summertime, and I’m not actively reading ebooks. The iPad is okay for playing games and casually reading the news, however, since I’m not really much of a gamer and constantly have a laptop or smartphone near me, I don’t see a reason to buy an iPad.

My post on why people should consider subscription-based music services. It’s like Netflix but for music.

For the past few months I’ve been using Rdio, a monthly subscription site that offers unlimited music streaming and downloads. It’s a great bargain. Pay $5 a month, and listen to as much music on the site as time will give. Pay $10 and be able to use the mobile apps. It was a decision over picking a similar subscription-based music site called MOG due to its lackluster and underdeveloped Android app. Well, I decided to revisit MOG after a recent “major” update to the Android app and make a comparison between the two.

Why subscription music matters?

Think of the many services that people subscribe. They subscribe to their favorite newspaper, such as the New York Times for its news reporting, Netflix for its unlimited video streaming, and Hulu Plus for their favorite television shows. Why not pay a monthly fee for unlimited music streaming? As a huge music nerd, I think this is a brilliant idea. Just like Netflix, it is a gateway to discover new content that people may never have found and rediscover lost favorites. Listen to a new album and make a judgment call without going through complicated and sometimes illegal channels. There is, however, a catch. Subscribing to one of these music services mean that the user can only listen to music the record companies allow, and the user does not own any of the content. There’s no physical copy that the user can listen when their subscription runs out. In today’s world with the advance information technology, does anybody have to own everything that they listen?

Since the internet has open music discovery to new heights, everything is at their fingertips. Search for a torrent. Download. Own it. Buying physical copies become mere novelty for devoted fans. So what does the music industry have to do? Adapt. Sell $10 physical copies or offer $10 unlimited streaming and downloads? That’s, however, not the realities of the dilemma. The two choices should be to allow users to spend $0 by downloading illegal copies of CDs or give them the opportunity to listen to what they want at a reasonable cost. People like paying for legal avenues. Treat the customer with respect, and the customers will follow. Giving people unlimited streaming isn’t everything though. It’s about the execution, and that’s why I’m comparing MOG and Rdio.

The numbers

In terms of numbers, MOG has about a million more songs in its collection. MOG has more niche artists, such as Nathan Fake and James Holden, though Rdio is constantly updating its library. Even though numbers don’t necessarily mean everything, especially for the modest listener, MOG also offers some pop-artist albums that Rdio does not. One example that I’ve come is Kanye West’s College Dropout. Rdio doesn’t have the license to all of the songs, just fourteen of the twenty-one tracks. Unlike Rdio, MOG carries the entire album, including one of my favorites the Mos Def and Freeway collaborative “Two Words”. I have not found an album on MOG that are only partially available for streaming, but there have been numerous times that I have experienced this on Rdio.

One added feature that Rdio carries is the Match Collection that’s included with the desktop music player. The match collection tool allows Rdio to scan the user’s iTunes/Windows Media Player library. The songs that match with Rdio’s library are instantly added into the user’s collection. I find the match collection tool really useful in creating a quick collection of favorites on the site. Though Rdio does not have everything that I own, it catches the majority of it. One flaw with the match collection tool is that it sometimes only add part of albums into the collection, and I would have to manually add the rest of the songs. MOG does not have such a tool, nor even a desktop music player.

Audio quality

I am not a total audiophile, but I can usually tell if the audio quality is bad. When it comes to audio streaming, MOG and Rdio have similar quality coming out of my puny laptop speakers. It’s not CD quality, but for $10 a month and ease of use it’s well worth it. The major difference in audio quality is through their mobile apps. MOG and Rdio both offer music downloads to any Android/iPhone device. For comparison, I’m using a Samsung/Google Nexus S. I never use their radio and album streaming capabilities since it drains the battery. MOG offers two options for downloading, 64 kbps AAC+ and 320 kbps MP3 “high quality downloads”. Rdio however does not offer any options, and there’s a huge difference. For most users, the audio quality may not make much of a difference, but I really prefer MOG’s high quality downloads over Rdio’s subpar offering. Plug the phone while its playing Rdio to the car stereo, and I can hear the bass blaring while the rest of the song sounds like noise.

Interface

While MOG offers more content and better audio quality, what made me initially choose Rdio over MOG was its interface and ease of use. When it comes to interface, Rdio just makes more sense. On the Rdio dashboard, the right panel takes up 3/4 of the screen displaying various information on what the user’s network is listening. The site displays large album art that can be clicked to play instantly, add to queue, sync to the mobile device, and for more information. The left panel is restricted to the media player, showcasing the album art, track information, and large play, previous track, and forward track buttons. Click the playlist button, and the right panel changes to provide the “Recently Played”, “Now Playing”, and “Queue” list. The queue list divides the song by albums.


The MOG front page, however, looks incredibly underwhelming. Instead of the welcoming blue background and large buttons like on Rdio, the MOG site contains small, plain black text on a white background. The album art images are small (200x200!). There’s no sidebar player. In fact, no user can access what they were previous playing unless they select an artist, album, or song and click play or add to queue! It’s just counterintuitive and annoying. Unlike Rdio’s queue list, MOG is similar to itunes or winamp in which it organizes by songs instead of albums.

Both sites have a radio service similar to Pandora and Last.fm where the user can choose an artist and a custom playlist will be made based on similar artists. While this sounds great, I could not get the radio to work on the Rdio site. MOG has an advantage of having a similar artist meter where the user can choose how often MOG plays the same artist. It’s really useful if the user only wants to listen to their favorite artists but don’t want to choose a specific album. Music discovery on Rdio, however, makes more sense. Click on an artist profile, and on the right sidebar there is a biography of the artist, a list of similar artists, as well as a list of artists that inspire or were inspired that artist. MOG has none of that; artist profiles are very plain with only a list of songs, albums, and a few photos.

One of the appealing features that Rdio has is the social networking aspect. A user can follow other users, magazines, and websites and see what music they recommend as well as subscribe to their playlists. MOG has a similar social network, but discovery is not onpar. Instead, it seems that the social networking is only half formulated and hardly executed. Music recommendations are not based on a user’s music preference, but instead by MOG developers’. Users are encouraged to follow others, but there are little ways in discovering people with similar tastes. MOG however has a wider variety of playlists made by musicians, professionals, magazines and other publications, but there is no way of saving these playlists on the site!

Many of the problems that MOG have are resolved in the MOG beta site (http://mog.com/chrome). There is a dedicated player at the top of the page at all times. The layout is more welcoming with its multi-shaded gray interface, but many of the key features on the main site are left out. The playlist discovery section is gone. There is still little to no social networking, and the music recommendations are unappealing. Not everyone enjoys listening to Brad Paisley and Lady Gaga.

The Apps

Though MOG and Rdio have iPhone apps, this section is limited since I only really use the Android apps. The Rdio app is quite amazing. On the Rdio site, the user can choose which albums or playlists that they want to sync their mobile device. Open the Rdio app, and it will automatically download the files for offline listening. The MOG app, however, is lackluster, unpolished, unstable, and unusable. There is no sync-to-mobile button on the site to push albums or playlists to the Android app. The user must actively click download on their mobile device one by one for each album. Not only that, but the downloads are a lot slower. That can be because the MOG files are much higher in quality, but there are also frequent errors that will skip a track or stop the download queue entirely. There are many error messages and login problems that will stop the track or app entirely.

Comparatively, the Rdio app is like a godsend. It works smoothly with barely any hiccups. Click on an album, and it’ll play. Whenever there is a phone notification or phone call, the MOG app will randomly play a song. A MOG app user can search for a playlist and add it to their favorites on the phone, but it will not transfer over to the site. It’s like the website and app are not really even communicating to one another! The only communication that happens is that if a MOG user logins to the website, the app will discontinuously download the music files and stop playback because no one user can be in two places. The artificial barrier is nothing more than annoyance to the end user. Have more trust in the user. Most are not trying to take advantage of the system. To be fair, Rdio does not allow two playbacks at once either, but at least the mobile sync still works.

Conclusion

Both MOG and Rdio have their positives and negatives. MOG has better audio quality, while Rdio has a better user interface. In my case, I have little incentive to use Rdio’s social networking, and I don’t really care about radio features. If having a stable Android app is important, I would definitely recommend Rdio over MOG. Though MOG’s audio quality on downloads are so much better, the Rdio app is just more stable and easier to use.

Thanks to my friend Ryan, who graciously let me have his Zune, I stop using either MOG or Rdio’s android app. Music playback on the phone drains the battery too quickly. I now use MOG on my laptop mostly because the Chrome app is nice and that I cancelled my Rdio subscription before my friend gave me his Zune. Why not pay for the Zune subscription instead? Being a poor college student, I can’t justify paying $15 per month for the Zune Pass despite being a great service. Also, I really like being able to start MOG anywhere through the web browser. It’s OS neutral, which is great since I run Windows and Ubuntu. All of this monthly subscription business, however, is pointless when I’ll be overseas in a few months. If one of these subscription-based services would work in Japan, I would switch in a heartbeat. Maybe Google Music is the way to go for my case. I hope it works in Japan.