Sunday, October 27, 2013

My new “do everything” smart device– the Google Nexus 7

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Engadget Review of the Google Nexus 7 2013 Tablet

When I began researching my phone and internet options for my upcoming winter travels to Mexico, I found a confusing and bewildering array of options that were either outdated technology, required multiple solutions/devices/plans, or were overpriced and limited to just one country or the other.

While traveling in Mexico, I had just a few simple tech needs:

  • Share internet bandwidth from a single cellular data plan across multiple devices (phone, tablet, laptop)
  • Make/receive a few text messages or VOIP phone or Skype video calls if needed (using a wired or Bluetooth headset)
  • GPS navigation & maps (with or without a cell connection)
  • a Spanish-English translation app (again, on or offline)
  • Preview photos of the day (without having to squint to see them on the back of my camera)
  • Listen to internet radio stations or my own music library
  • Read eBooks, magazines, blogs & web news (while sitting on the beach!)
  • Jot down handwritten notes with a pen stylus (I like being paperless!). 

Most importantly, I didn’t want to have to buy new devices that I’d only be able to use in Mexico—if I needed to buy something new, I wanted to be able to use it in just about any country I might travel to.

Well, fortunately, I’ve found such a singular “do it all” wonder -- the Google Nexus 7 2013 LTE tablet. 

At only $349 for a 32GB tablet, it’s cheaper than most “unlocked” LTE/GSM smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy series or Apple’s iPhone.

Unlocked phones/tablets allow you to keep your same device and just swap out a small SIM card whenever you wish to change cell carriers (like when going from the US to Mexico).  These SIM cards usually come with prepaid plans, so you only need to pay for the day/week/month and amount of bandwidth you need—no contracts required!

When I go to Mexico, I’ll plan to use the Telcel “Amiga” prepaid data plan.  Here in the U.S., since I already have a data contract with Verizon for my Mifi, I’ve just moved the SIM card from the Mifi and popped it into the Nexus 7.  No additional activation/changes with Verizon needed!

The $349 LTE Nexus 7 is also significantly cheaper than it’s newest competitor, the new iPad Mini Retina LTE just announced this week (a 32GB iPad Mini LTE costs an eye-popping $629 --  almost twice the price of the Nexus!).

For nearly $300 more, you’d think the new iPad Mini Retina would blow the doors off the humble Nexus 7 with added features and performance..but it just doesn’t!  Sure, it beats the Nexus in a couple of areas, but they are surprisingly few:

  • it gives10 hrs of battery life vs. Nexus’ 8-9 hrs,
  • a 7.9” wider screen vs. the Nexus’ narrower 7”, and
  • it supports more legacy 2G/3G cellular networks than Nexus’ GSM-only legacy networks (so, if 2G or 3G Verizon and Sprint are necessary in your new small tablet and you don’t already have a Mifi or USB stick, the Mini Retina will be your ticket).

Besides that, the Nexus 7 is very much equal to the more expensive iPad Mini Retina.  Both tablets have:

  • High resolution screens that make text easier to read and photos/videos more “crisp” and colorful.  (Both tablets have resolutions exceeding 320 ppi).
  • Truly “unlocked” LTE cellular.  Both tablets can accept SIM cards from dozens of cell carriers around the world.  No need to buy additional tablets or phones when going to a different country—just buy a SIM card from the carrier you want and pop it into your tablet!  Yes, there are a few caveats to ensure your tablet supports the carrier’s specific frequency range, and that you buy the properly sized SIM card for your tablet (the Nexus uses a micro SIM; iPad mini uses a nano SIM).
  • Both LTE tablets offer “wireless hotspot” functionality to share the device’s internet signal with other devices (such as your laptop or phone).
  • Nearly identical tech specs – very similar weight and thinness, both have dual-band WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, front and rear cameras, speakers and mic, and other tech performance features.  Both are solid, well-built devices.
  • The Nexus 7 offers similar cases and accessories as the iPad Mini.  For instance, I’m using this really neat cover from Poetic that mimic’s Apple’s smart cover so that the tablet turns on/off automatically when I open or close the case cover.  Cool!

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But here’s where I like the Nexus 7 better:

  • Offline (downloadable) Google Maps and Google Translate.  This is HUGE when traveling to a foreign country where you might not know if/where cell coverage is present.
  • Android’s voice assistant is noticeably faster and more useful than Apple’s Siri.  I loved Siri when it first debuted a few years ago.  The wise-crack jokes, and the novelty of being able to ask a question and get an spoken answer.  But Siri seems to rely much more on network connectivity, and that connectivity can often be dog slow or non-existent.  Google’s voice assistant seems to have quite a bit more intelligence cached right into the device, so it’s responses are often nearly instantaneous and network bottlenecks seem much less of an issue.  While Siri might be great for a high-powered business executive checking appointments, creating new reminders and the like, Google’s voice assistant seems much more useful when actually out and about traveling—“where’s the closest Police Station or Hospital?” “what does ____ mean in English?” “ how much is ___ pesos in US Dollars?” “How many miles is ____ kilometers?” Google’s superior search engine and mapping win out here every time!
  • A number of anecdotal reports say that Android GPS seems to often be more accurate when offline than Apple GPS.  Not sure if that will be true with the new iPad Mini, but it likely will be as Apple made no announcements of any improvements here.
  • I like the narrower 7” screen of the Nexus.  It’s easier to hold in one hand and easier to slide into my purse or backpack.
  • I also like the fact that just about any generic micro USB cable/adapter will charge the Nexus.  No need for proprietary, overpriced Lightening cables!
  • And last but not least, Nexus 7 is already shipping!  The new iPad Mini Retina won’t be out until November and, likely too late before I leave for Mexico.

Now, to be clear, I’ve been a faithful iOS and App Store devotee for years now.  Apple’s operating system is still a bit more refined and more “comfortable” than Android, the iPad still feels more responsive and accurate to handwriting apps with a stylus, and the App Store has millions of additional apps (many specifically designed for tablets) that the Google Play Store.  But, when comparing all the more popular major apps, you’ll find them on both platforms.  So, yes, the App Store may have 3,000 more “fart” apps than Android, but of the dozen or so “fart” apps on the Play Store, one should suit your needs just fine Smile

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I’m now using the Nexus versus my older iPad 2 (which now always feels too big and cumbersome), or my iPhone 4S (which I only seem to use for phone calls now, as it’s screen feels just way too small and difficult to use for apps compared to the Nexus).

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This little Nexus is just right!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Touring Downtown Chicago

My brother Randy came to town for a week-long visit to help with a variety of house-moving and RV projects.  So wonderful to have a “Handy Randy” in the family!  He had the major item from my “Randy-Do” list completed within 24 hours of his arrival—installing swivels for my new View’s front seats!  They are soooo comfortable now!

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After another work day on house stuff, we decided to take Wednesday off and be tourists in downtown Chicago (this was his vacation, after all!).  It was a delightfully warm and sunny day in the 70’s.  Perfect for walking around the city.  We first stopped at the giant Chicago theatre sign on State Street--

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Then we passed the famous Picasso statue at Daley Plaza where this little kid decided to add himself as a “photo bomb” to the picture Randy was taking of me—too funny!

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Randy posed in front of Daley Plaza’s fountain (dyed bright orange for Halloween)!

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We then continued walking west in the Loop past Chicago’s City Hall

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and the Chicago Board of Trade building with it’s statue of Ceres, the goddess of Agriculture, topping it’s roof.

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But, today, we were destined for Willis Tower (previously known as Sears Tower, which had been the tallest building in the world for 25 years until Malaysia’s Petronas Towers surpassed it in 1998).

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In all these years, neither one of us had ever been to the Tower’s skydeck observatory so this clear autumn day was finally THE day to rectify that!  We purchased our tickets and were soon whooshed up to the 103rd floor.  The views were absolutely amazing from up there!  Randy took a great pano shot with his iPhone--

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So I had to give it a try with my iPhone too!

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and of course, we had to pose in front of the buildings as well:

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As we headed over to the west side of the observation deck, we found the newest novelty to lure tourists – the Ledge!  There are actually 4 floor-to-ceiling windows that have been replaced with giant Plexiglas “boxes” that jut out over Wacker Drive a few thousand feet below!  I made the mistake of looking down before stepping onto one of the ledges and could barely muster the courage to walk a few steps out (and certainly did not look down again while I did!).  But they made for fun photos!  The last one was taken by the official photo vendor and the scene behind us is real (and not superimposed!).
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RL Ledge

Before riding the elevators up to the top, the photo vendor had also taken our picture in front of a green screen.  Randy laughed that his bright green t-shirt might make for a very interesting result seeing as it matched the screen almost perfectly.  When we returned back down to ground level to buy our photos, yes indeed, these photos were a riot!  Me and my half-invisible brother!!!

RL Chi Night

After the Tower, we headed back over to Wabash street to look for a good deli for lunch.  When I used to work downtown in the 1980’s, there were a bunch of them.  Unfortunately, now, the only “old familiar places” still remaining seemed to be The Palmer House hotel and my favorite funky camera shop, Central Camera--

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Just about all the old delis have sold out to big retail & fast food names like TJ Maxx, McDonald’s, and the like.  We did manage to find one kinda yuppie deli/wine/cheese place called Pastoral that turned out to be pretty good—they didn’t have any seating, so we took our sack lunches to-go and ate our sandwiches beneath the colonnade at Millennium Park. Not a bad picnic spot!

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After lunch, we headed over to “the Bean” for a few obligatory self-portraits and reflection shots--
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and marveled at the new powder blue rental bikes that have sprouted up throughout the Loop (what a great idea!):

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Then it was back to the car for a drive along the Magnificent Mile (Michigan Avenue) and Lake Shore Drive to photograph some attractions out the car window!

The John Hancock Building--
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The new Trump Tower looking down the Chicago River--

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and a quick skyline shot from Planetarium Point--

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At the end of our glorious day of sightseeing, we hit a monster traffic jam on the drive home, which wisely slapped us back into reality—Chicago is a magical place to visit (especially when the weather is agreeable!), but not always a perfect place to live full-time.  I’m still glad my new full-time RV home has wheels!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Autumn Camping Weekend in Iowa

While the biggest news of my late September weekend trip to Iowa was coming home with a new RV, the rest of the weekend was quite enjoyable as well!  The original plan for the weekend was to attend the Midwest T@B rally at Sugar Bottom COE campground near Iowa City.  We last camped here with the same T@B friends back in 2010 when we still had our T@B trailer.  That July rally had been miserably hot and humid, so all subsequent Iowa rallies were planned for the more hospitable weather of early summer or fall.

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I set up my View near my T@B friends, but not so close that I’d ruin the effect of their cute little campers all parked in a row--

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My friend Kathy had mentioned at the Rock Creek rally a few months ago that she wanted to take up kayaking and was thinking about buying a Sea Eagle.  When I checked with her before the weekend and found out she still had yet to buy one (but still wanted one), I knew she’d be the perfect recipient to donate my original Sea Eagle SE330 to.  I’d not had the SE330 out of it’s bag in a couple of years, but it pumped up just fine and seemed to be in perfect shape.  Kathy was thrilled to get it, and David and I were excited to get another kayak partner for next summer’s planned paddling at the Rock Creek rally!

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The winds were a bit too strong to do any kayaking this weekend, so we just admired Coralville Lake from the shoreline.  Millie woke me up early enough to take a few sunrise walks.  The first morning was partly cloudy with a wonderful colors over the lake--

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While the next morning, the lake was shrouded in ground fog.  It still made for some interesting photos!
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The gang gathered around the campfire both day and night--

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Saturday afternoon brought a few soaking thunderstorms, so a few of us decided to head out to the local pizza pub for a nice warm dinner and conversation.

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On Sunday, Millie and I packed up camp and headed up to Forest City, Iowa to Lichtsinn Motors RV, where we’d trade our ‘08 View for the new ‘07.  It was a beautiful sunny fall day as we zig-zagged along the farm roads past the countless acres of corn drying in the fields.  One last silhouette of the ‘08 View!
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Forest City is home to Winnebago’s headquarters and main factory.  We had a wonderful rally here back in 2010 with the View-Navion Skinny Winnie group.  The courtesy parking at Winnebago’s visitor’s center was pretty full today --

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so Millie and I decided instead to stay at the pretty little town campground, Pammel Park, along the banks of the Winnebago river.  We had the place all to ourselves!

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Millie insisted I pull her swimming towel and water toy out of the closet so she could make a beeline to the riverbank to do some late afternoon swimming.  If her muddy paws are any indication, she had an absolutely fabulous time!

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After dinner, we decided to cross the suspension bridge to the trails on the other side of the riverbank.  What a neat little park!

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After a quiet and peaceful final night in the ‘08 View, we packed up and did a final drive a few blocks up the street to Lichtsinn.  So long, ‘08 View, you served us well!

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