On Lem's Pericalypsis

perfectVacuumIn the foreword of that joke book that is Perfect Vacuum, where its author, the Polish essayist Stanislaw Lem, reviews a series of nonexistent literary works (they reside only in the universe of his boundless imagination), the prologue writer tells us that, with this, Lem tries to give life to — or perhaps get rid of some of his overabundant ideas, considering that he has much more literary projects than biological lifespan to accomplish them. Thus, by the resource of ‘reviewing’ a few novels that, attributed to equally fictitious authors, he would’ve written himself were his life to last longer, he at least can offer to us the thought arguments or plots, along with the possible, suggested controversy or debate the hypotetical lecturers of the nonexistent books might have come up with. By the way, and for icing the cake, by the end of the foreword we are hinted to suspect that this, too — the foreword itself — is, in turn, Lem’s own craft, and not another person’s. Quite a feat of literary juggling.
Perfect Vacuum is an excellent work; a display of dialectic dexterity, intelligence, logic, and fantasy in equal measure with imagination, all of which at some passages has made me swoon.
And because I have so much liked it, I’m quoting here four of such paragraphs; not necessarily the best, but in any case remarkable ones, most of all considering the decade (the 70’s) they were written, which should suffice to give us an idea of Lem’s amazing clearvoyance and prophetic dowry. All four quotes belong to Perycalipsis, one of the book ‘reviews’ featured in the volume. Continue reading “On Lem's Pericalypsis”

+50 screenshots revealing Windows phone issues. A WP8 review.

This is a difficult article because the list of issues and flaws of Windows Phone is close to inexahustible. At the beginning, some months ago, my intention was to cover them all, but, overwhelmed by what I realized was a superhuman task, not being inexhaustible myself, at a given point I stopped, deeming it Mission impossible. Still, I hope I did some useful work which, despite not being complete, can surely convey to the curious reader some idea about this extremely buggy and unforgivably restrictive operating system from Microsoft.
Also please mark that this is not a review proper, but a list of reasons–some feeble, some very powerful–to rule out the purchase of a Windows phone, for most consumers. Sure, the system has its virtues, who can deny it?; like for instance its stability; but it’s the type of stability you can find also in the good old hand-cranked telephones: as they have no features, they won’t break. If one hundred restrictions and limitations is the price for stability, it’s too high a price in my opinion. In any case, it’s not true that restrictions are the price for stability; that’s only what Microsoft wants us to believe. The real reason behind WP8’s restrictions is purely commercial. Continue reading “+50 screenshots revealing Windows phone issues. A WP8 review.”

Lumia 925 & Windows Phone 8. Independent review

lumia925
Microsoft (aka Nokia) Lumia 925

Apology: as Microsoft owns both Nokia devices and Windows Phone 8 operating system, there’s often no way for me to tell where a given problem lies, whether in the hardware or in the software. So, I apologize in advance if I make mistakes when blaming one or the other for some of the many issues this couplet has. Actually, by the time I wrote this review I was new to Windows Phone, an OS I had never been curious about, and I would’ve never gone for it if it weren’t because Nokia was, by then, the only brand providing the most valuable feature I ask of a cellular: free offline maps (HERE maps).
For the tests I’m subjecting the Lumia to in this review, I’m using two other devices as a reference: a Nokia C7 (Symbian Belle) and a LG Optimus Black (Android).
Look and feel
I won’t digress much in this section. Physically, the Lumia 925 is one of the sexiest handsets I’ve ever beheld; a pleasure to hold, and slim as can be, feeling very light while not fragile (regrettably too prone to slip off your grasp) and featuring a fine form factor, though a bit too wide for single-handed use unless you’ve really long fingers. Its design is simple and elegant: an aluminum frame holding together the display and the plastic back cover (pity it’s not also aluminum, but it pays off for the sake of lightness). The three discrete physical buttons are placed on the right side, and hence the first flaw I find about it: the volume rocker. Nokia should learn something from other brands and start placing the volume keys on the left, which is more handy and allows for a firmer grasp. Right below the display sit the three haptic (and awkward) buttons that Microsoft imposes on Windows Phone handsets. On the back there is the mandatory camera lense, a very good quality Carl Zeiss, the flash leds and the loudspeaker.
Usability. The Windows Phone OS.
Very regrettably, Windows Phone is just about restrictions. I’ve never seen such a fine hardware spoiled by such a dreadful software. WP8 is totally unworthy of this device, and definitely wastes its capabilities. There are so many glitches, setbacks and restrictions in WP8 that I’m at a loss about where to start.
Perhaps the first thing I noticed is that waking up the phone needs two steps, instead of just one like most other phones. Even without a screen lock, you need to: 1st, push the power (or double-tap the display) for getting past the standby screen (called glance, something nice and useful); 2nd, slide up the lock screen; only then you’re presented with the tiled Win_8/ WP8 iconic home screen (and it’s pretty obvious where Bill Gates wants to lead us: to purchase both his computer OS and his smartphone OS.) Some might consider this two-stepped wake up a feature, as it’s less prone to accidentally waking up the phone, but for me it’s an extra hassle.
Application list layout
Tapping on the central haptic button always shows the only one home screen, where you can pin, in a vertically scrollable matrix, your favourite apps’ tiles (each providing three optional sizes for different levels of ‘live’ information); and sliding the home screen to the left takes us to the very unwieldy applications screen: a one-colum, big-font-sized list of all installed apps, in alphabetical order, seemingly designed for the inexcusable purposes of wasting display room and–lacking a scrollbar– turning app search into a slow task.  As you can see, barely seven apps fit in a screen when other OS’s would fit twenty. Fortunately you can get a screen with alphabet shortcuts just by pressing on any letter in the list, which is something nice and handy. But there was no need to reinvent the wheel.
Search 'feature'
The right haptic button is one of WP8’s most inconvenient features, imho: not only it stands always in the middle of every thumb movement you make, thus often being hit by accident, but also serves to the main purpose of marketing Microsoft’s Bing search engine: it brings forward a browser featured with two icons for music recognizing and QR code scanning. Unfortunately you can’t remap the haptic buttons, nor disable any of them. This is obviously made on purpose, which I find to be almost a swindle: a total waste of a precious haptic button blatantly serving Microsoft’s own profit instead of the buyer’s use.
Finally the left haptic button, return, despite being the most used is the hardest to tap: most people will need to use two hands for that; and if you try to reach it with your right thumb single-handedly… you’ll just accidentally hit search once more and help promote Bing (very cunningly thought, Microsoft). For the rest, return works very much like a browser’s left arrow: it takes us to wherever we were before, and it’s often the only way for collapsing the popup keyboard.
Another down side, to me, about WP8 OS is the development and use restrictions severely imposed on the user, most of all when it comes to filesystem access, which is close to null. Microsoft is paranoid about this. There’s almost no way of file exploring except for a few standard MTP-accessible folders (photos, downloads, videos, etc). This is a big con for anyone willing to have a decent control over which files he’s storing in his device, and takes up a lot of the Lumia 925’s very scant storage room, as you can’t perform any kind of thorough filesystem cleaning task. This leads to a ceaseless increase of garbage files you can’t get rid of, and quickly shrinks the scarce storage. In my unit, after just one month of use, the so called other (aka dump) category in the filesystem rounded up to 800 MB. After one year, there is 1.6 GB of other stuff which you can never get rid of. There are a couple apps in the App store to help delete this garbage, but I haven’t succeeded with any of them.
Settings layout Another one annoying thing about WP8 is the settings layout: instead of a hierarchy with ten or fifteen main categories holding subcategories, you get a scroll list with 54 items (!!), divided in two groups: system and applications, and sorted out without any criteria whatsoever, logical, alphabetical or human-understandable. For finding a given setting, you need to slowly scroll through the whole list, which happens to be extremely inconvenient and cumbersome.
For instance, under system there is a setting named Storage check and another one called Phone storage. Or for example Wallet, Phone or Background tasks are counterintuitively listed under applications. Inversely, Email+accounts, Internet sharing, Kids corner or even Company apps, don’t go under applicatoins, but under system. Sorry, Microsoft, WTF?
WP8's keypad
What else? There is no single press to the dial pad, like every other phone on the planet has. On WP8 you need at least two keypresses: first hit the phone tile, then the keypad option. Worse yet: the T9 keypad lacks a keyboard feature; I mean, you can’t type letters with the T9, despite they’re shown under the numbers; but they’re merely ornamental. So, no contacts finding and filtering. There is a free app in the store (Phone dialer) that can do this, but then you always need to confirm the call, as WP8 restricts call access to apps. (Thanks to DreamTeam Mobile for thieir app.)
Another one of the most arguable points in WP8: no app nor shortcut is allowed to change settings. They’re only allowed to provide a link to some setting; therefore you always need at least two taps where other OSes need just one. Some say this is on account of the (shooing and always vague) safety reasons; but until someone tells me a real solid argument to buy those reasons, I’ll keep thinking it’s but Microsoft’s unnecessary restrictions.
No notifications when in eco-mode
Except for calls and SMSs, there are no background notifications when in Battery saver mode, which is close to unacceptable for IM apps (Viber, Telegram, etc). There is an exceptions list where you can place the apps you don’t want to be affected by Battery saver mode, but it doesn’t work: apps never get to know they’re in the whitelist. This means you can’t stay socially connected and preserve power, which is an extraordinary inconsistence: if you want to get notified of instant messages you have to turn Battery saver mode off, your battery will drain quickly and you won’t get IMs any more; but if you preserve your battery, then you don’t get IM’s either.
Keyboard in predictive text mode takes 80% screen.
As to the virtual keyboard, I’ve never had to deal with anything this bad. Drawn in the maximal-minimalistic kind of style with which Microsft wants to reinvent the hot water, WP8’s oversized and simplistic keyboard is both unpractical for typing on, and obstructing with the app running behind. Some of its main issues are:
Lacks one-tap basic signs (a question mark, for instance), and overall signs and symbols are bothersome to find, and time-consuming.
Lower row misplaced to the right. Specially in the Spanish layout, letters in the lower row are oddly (and annoyingly) placed: keys to be pressed with the left thumb are noticeably closer to the right one.
Too wide suggestions’ stripe in predictive text mode, leaving barely one fourth of the screen to the app behind.
Virtual keyboards for smartphones have already been brought to perfection by iOS and Android designers, and hardly anything else can be done to make them any better; therefore, any step in the line of bringing to humankind a new way of typing is plain pretentious. The wheel can not be reinvented, Microsoft: WP8’s keyboard does not contribute with anything to the typing experience, while certainly detracts usability.
And to crown it all, you can’t add dirty words to the dictionary. Actually, there is a bug with the dictionary that makes it to suddenly stop accepting new words, until you reset it (thus losing all previously added ones).
One good thing can be said about this keyboard, though: predictive text works like a charm. Most of the time it gives me just about the right suggestion. Better than Android for sure.
To finish this section, just a word about the Skype app: you can’t send SMS with it. Funny enough, Skype belongs to Microsoft.
Usability. The device.
One of the brightest sides of this handset is the display. Simply superb: resolution, color density, responsiveness, brightness, reflections… you name it. All aspects of the screen are great, the best I’ve had, which is a lot to say.
Other strong point in the Lumia 925 is the camera, which is extremely good for a mobile. Sometimes it takes pictures as good as with my Nikon Coolpix. The Karl Zeiss lens, along with Lumia’s five photo applications, let you profit its possibilities to the max. However, I don’t quite see the point in Nokia offering four different camera applicationss (besides the WP8 default), because they’re redundant and confusing. I wish there was just one app, offering all the features together, because most of the times I lose good shots only thinking which of the five apps should I use.
Call quality is acceptably good. Voice through the earpiece sounds clean, undistorted and crisp.
But that’s as good as it gets, because the Lumia 925 has an awful 2G data transmission. Whatever its cause–hardware or software–sometimes it can’t establish a 2G connection even when in good signal (2-3 bars): in exactly in the same spot where both my Nokia C7 and my LG Optimus Black need only ten seconds to sync mail or chats, the Lumia can take up to three minutes to connect, only to  give up unsucceded. No problem with 3G, however, but very often 2G is just more convenient, and at times the only signal available.  In this regard, the Lumia scores an absolute zero. They’ve done a very poor job here for an alleged flagship phone: it oughtn’t have any problems with data over GPRS where an outdated Android Froyo or a relegated Symbian Belle do the job flawlessly.
Another one big flaw is the too little storage: it’s RAM is exactly 16,000,000 bytes big, which is only 15.2 GB instead of 16 GB as the marketing goes. At the very essential, this RAM has to contain the OS itself, which is around 2,6 GB (!!), plus the apps, plus some maps and quite a few shots (that’s why you buy this device: offline maps and the Karl Zeiss), plus the darned ‘other’ folder 1.6 GB large. This means, practically you have around 5 GB of real storage left, definitely too little for your multimedia content. As I don’t see any good reason for not shipping a 32 GB chip, or at least a microSD expansion slot(!), I firmly believe that this is done deliberately to force you to use OneDrive, the cloud. Bill Gates doesn’t want you to store locally, but on his servers, wherefrom his crue can collect data and statistics to be sold to the best bidder; then he boasts he helps the poor children in Africa: yes, he does so with the money he makes selling your privacy.
As to battery life, it’s quite poor; fully disappointing when it comes to practical use. With normal-to-intensive use I need to charge the phone twice a day. Sure, if you put the handset to sleep in eco-mode mode, battery can last well over ten days; but nobody buys this phone for not using it. Or if you only use it for calls over 2G, battery life is still quite acceptable: three or four days without a recharge; but then again, you don’t spend 350 € in a piece of hardware like this for just that. A Lumia 925 buyer looks for much more: you want to chat, navigate, use VOIP, videoconference, listen to music, play videos, take photos, check email, use maps, etc. But if you do this, then a fully charged battery won’t make it till the end of the day. See this screenshot here:
Battery drain
The steep dive between 4 and 6 pm happened with two hours of Viber chat, which drained around 45% of the power. Extrapolating this, then four hours of IM-ing will give you a dead phone (supposing it was fully charged). Actually when IM-ing the processor gets so hot you can frie an egg on it. And it doesn’t depend on your favourite IM app; it happens with all the most popular (Whatsapp, Viber, Skype, Telegram). Comparatively, think that on my Nokia C7 Belle I can chat thrice that time until I run out of power, having a much smaller battery.

* * *

And that’s all so far. I’ve left behind in this review some typical aspects like multimedia capabilities, camera details, web browsing experience or extended information about calls. It’s not an overlook, but there are dozens of professional reviews out there that will give you extense and, as far as I’ve read, quite reliable information regarding those features. My main point here was to talk about those sides proffesional reviewers never mention.
Epilogue
I can’t really see what kind of customers is Microsoft targetting with WP8. Buying a smartphone for getting mostly restrictions and for losing features seems to me absurd. Perhaps it’s a matter of fashion, but I don’t get it. Actually, many WP8 buyers comment online that they were just bored of Android and wanted to try something different. Well, I reckon you need to be ample on money for that. From my point of view, the only one good reason for purchasing a Microsoft Nokia used to be HERE maps. But now you can have that in Android as well, so, what gives? True, some things are really cool about the 925: Glance is cool; the stability of WP8 is cool (yet, sometimes it freezes), but at the cost of restrictions.

Fix for Macbook white screen of death. Shame on Apple!

If one day, on booting your Macbook (likely, after doing some serious modification to your hdd or filesystems), you hear the startup chime but you get an empty white screen showing no activity at all, which stays there forever, then you’ve come across the dreaded white screen of death.

In order to fix it, first you can try the (sufficiently explained somewhere else) recommendations of the sort: insert the System Install medium, reset the SMC, reset the PRAM, hold down the Option, C or N keys, boot off the network, etc. But if nothing of that works, don’t panic! Don’t pay much attention to posts out there saying that your hard drive/motherboard is “fried”, nor take yet your machine to the Apple service for getting stolen once again. There are many chances that nothhing is wrong with your hardware. Follow the steps I explain here and, instead of a very expensive repair bill, you’ll probably only spend (depending on your model) $12 on a Phillips #00 screwdriver, plus maybe $14 on a Torx T5.

Now, before you proceed to the fix, I think it’s good you read this brief explanation about how a Macbook boots, so you know what’s going on.

The sequence is more or less like this: the EFI firmware tries to boot either off the hard drive or off another bootable medium (a CD/DVD unit, an install USB stick, the network, etc), if previously so set via OS-X’s Startup Manager. Now, let’s consider the two cases, starting from the second: when the firmware is NOT set to boot off the hard drive, it looks, as instructed, for the alternative boot medium that it was told; but if it doesn’t find it (or the medium isn’t bootable), then it will automatically revert to booting off the hard drive. However, when the firmware is set to boot off the hdd (which is the default) and this drive isn’t bootable (for whatever reason) then it WILL NOT automatically try to find any other alternative boot media, so it doesn’t boot at all, thus presenting to you the white screen of death. This is the stupid logic for which you’ve paid a fortune, instead of buying a cheaper and bullet-proof PC.

Now, how can you work around this problem? Here comes my “copyrighted” fix. It’s quite simple:

Step #1. With the help of the screwdrivers that I mentioned above, remove your Macbook’s back cover and unattach the hard drive from the motherboard (in iFixit you have a great tutorial on how to do it. Don’t be afraid. It’s extemely easy, and even fun. I’m sure you can do it). Having NO hard drive at all is the only way to force the system firmware to automatically look for alternative boot media. So, now

Step #2. simply make available such medium (USB, DVD, network…) and, voilá!, after one minute or so, you’ll take a deep sigh because when you see the little spinning icon, and the laptop will boot. Congratulations: you’ve done the most difficult part; the rest is easy:

Step #3. Once your laptop booted, it’s essential that you go to the Utilities menu, open the Startup Manager and set the computer to, next time, boot off anything except the hard drive, or you’ll be in the same SHITuation upon next boot! Next,

Step #4. attach again the hard drive to the motherboard and reboot. It should boot as instructed, presenting no white screen. Now go again to Utilities menu and, using the Disk Utility, repair or (in the worst case) format your hard drive, as needed.

That’s all! SHAME on Apple for neither fixing their firmware nor offering this solution it in their support webpage, but, instead, joyfully getting your money twice: first when selling their crap, second when fixing it.

Notice: I am the “discoverer” of this fix, and I’ve published it here for Apple’s shame and for your benefit. If I’ve spared you one week anguish and/or a $500 bill at the nearest Apple workshop, you might like to show your gratefulness by inviting me a beer. Simply donate here what you’d pay for a beer in your favourite bar. Cheap and nice, huh? 😉

(One last word: due to the excessive amount of comments to this thread, no newer can be posted. I believe that most doubts or questions have already being posted and replied. Please read carefully throughout the comments, because your answer is probably there.)