1. I bought a Logitech iPad Mini keyboard and although it doesn’t have a tab key it’s still pretty good

    Posted January 3, 2014 in hardware  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve started using my iPad Mini a bit more often. I like it, but typing on an iPad reminds me of tap-dancing on ice, so a couple of days ago I ordered a physical keyboard.

    The keyboard, a Logitech one, arrived in the post today.

    Keyboard in use

    The initial experience of using it was very strange. As my fingers sought out the individual keys my left hand signalled back to my brain with the disturbing news that there was no tab key next to the “A”.

    Typing hard

    If you touch-type, like this crocodile here, you probably know how weird that feels. The tab key doesn’t get used a lot while typing but it helps the fingers suss out where the “A”, “S” and “D” keys are. Without a tab key I kept pressing “S” when I meant to press “A”. Just imagine the social embarrassment that could cause.

    You mean to type: “That meal you cooked was a hit”
    You actually type: “That meal you cooked was s hit

    As I got more confident and started to type more quickly, a new problem emerged which reminded me of pretty much every time I’ve tried to combine a keyboard with a tablet. This involved the fingers brushing against the iPad’s screen every now and again, causing the cursor to jump to a new random location and making a right mess of the text I was entering. Having to stop typing every five words to reposition the cursor is not my idea of fun and it probably isn’t yours either.

    My hand is shown for scale

    That particular problem seemed to abate quite quickly though. I guess my fingers adjusted their flight paths without a conscious effort on my part, diverting to new routes that allowed them to hop from key to key without hitting the screen. And the little finger on my left hand was gradually coming to terms with its new responsibilities as the “A”-typing key, and my ring finger was making friends with the “S”. I was starting to get to grips with the thing at last.


    When writing I redraft sentences all the time. Very rarely do I write something and then leave it as it is. You’d never tell from reading this blog, of course, but it’s true. I’m utterly dependent on shift and arrow keys to select words, lines or entire paragraphs, then move them around or consign them to the scrapheap.

    These sorts of things are long-winded and frustrating to do on the iPad’s “soft” keyboard, so I was relieved, as I started to experiment with them, to find that the new “hard” keyboard actually did them pretty well. And when I stopped typing and turned it back into a case again, I was glad to see that the keyboard did the magnetic thing and made the iPad’s screen turn off too, same as the official Apple case. My earlier annoyance with the keyboard started to fade.

    I decided to write a post about the keyboard right away, before I became accustomed to its ways and forgot how it had felt in these first five minutes of use. And I thought, maybe I’ll type the post with the new keyboard, to really put it through its paces. Then I thought, life’s too short. So this post has been typed on a “real” keyboard.

    Croc typing away

    Sorry, little keyboard! You’re good – but not that good.

  2. Google Glass isn’t the surveillance nightmare it’s cracked up to be

    Posted April 7, 2013 in hardware  |  2 Comments so far

    When Google Glass was first announced in summer 2012 most people thought the glasses would make you look like a bit of a spod, even if the technology sounded impressive.

    It's safe to assume these would look even worse on normal people who aren't models

    It’s safe to assume these would look even worse on normal people who aren’t models

    Fast forward to spring 2013 and the mood music has changed. Organisations like Stop the Cyborgs have generated a lot of press with their message that Google Glass would be an intrusive technology which threatened to destroy whatever shreds of privacy we have left.

    This “surveillance-nightmare” theme has replaced “look-like-a-spod” as the primary anti-Glass argument. But have you noticed that they’re diametrically opposed to one another?

    In the earlier phase of the anti-Glass backlash, the idea was that the glasses were so conspicuous that if you wore them in public you’d find yourself scurrying for the safety of your home with the derisive catcalls of the masses ringing in your ears. Grannies would point and laugh while teenagers would inflict wedgies and other ritual humiliations, safe in the knowledge that if you took them to court no jury would convict, because any twelve reasonable men and women would heartily agree that you had it coming.

    But the current thinking is that the wearer of Google Glass, far from being a public spectacle, is a covert observer, a stealthy spy capturing and recording all our private moments for purposes we can only begin to imagine. Rather than being laughed at on the streets, they move about the city invisible to those whose privacy they’re violating.

    I don’t really buy this new argument. The original thinking, that the glasses are almost laughably conspicuous, still seems sensible to me, and I don’t believe it to be compatible with the newer idea that Google Glass will turn its users into highly effective secret agents. They just stick out too much for the users to be anything but highly visible.

    If anything, modern smartphones are more effective as surveillance devices than Glass is going to be. They are so ubiquitous that using one in public is not likely to draw attention. Their screens typically point at the faces of the users, and their backs give no indication of what they’re doing – no red lights come on when they’re filming, that sort of thing. They have mics, cameras, and a huge array of apps. If I was looking to carry out urban surveillance I’d start with a smartphone that no-one will notice, not with a piece of headgear that makes me a laughing stock.

    People like Stop the Cyborgs do have valid concerns, which they clearly state are more about ubiquitous computing in general rather than just Google Glass. And as a society we need to understand the ethical implications of forthcoming technological developments. A book like Adam Greenfield’s Everyware is a good place to start if you’re interested in that sort of thing, and I’d also recommend reading up on the implications of drone technology, which are far scarier than anything being placed in the hands of civilians.

    But simplifying these issues down to a single product, especially one that hasn’t even been released yet, is to underestimate their importance and their complexity. Hanging out in a bar that’s banned Google Glass will not keep you immune from privacy invasions – but it’s a great idea if you just want to avoid people that look like spods.

  3. Are we approaching the age of the disappearing computer?

    Posted February 7, 2011 in hardware  |  3 Comments so far

    Technology is getting smaller and more powerful all the time. Today’s phones pack more punch than the bulky PCs that sat on our desks ten years ago. Where is this trend going? Computers clearly aren’t going anywhere, but could the computer – the physical device we actually use – become so small that it effectively disappears?

    Let’s start by looking at what makes up a computer. For the sake of this post, we’ll assume there are two simple components – the “brain” and the “body”.

    The body and brain of a computer

    The body and brain of a computer (click for full size)

    The brain (CPU, hard drive, memory, etc) does the actual work. It gets smaller all the time, which has led to things like laptops, smartphones and tablets which only became possible because the brain got small enough. And if the brain keeps shrinking, even if it becomes microscopically small, that’s not a problem – after all, we don’t have to be able to see it or touch it.

    The body is different because it must be big enough to remain usable. Keyboards the size of postage stamps wouldn’t be much fun, would they? The human form sets a minimum size threshold for the computer’s body.

    Anyone who’s been through a 30-minute Angry Birds marathon will have learnt the hard way that smartphones aren’t great for sustained daily use (and, yes, I’m talking from personal experience here). We couldn’t use them like we use our main computers, which is fine because they can’t actually do what we need our main computers to do.

    So far, the cramped form factors of these handheld devices are consistent with their capabilities – but this might be about to change. We’re nearly at the stage where the smartphone’s body can easily house a brain capable of working as a desktop or laptop PC.

    The extended device

    As smartphone’s brains become ready to replace our main PCs, the only thing stopping them will be their small bodies and the discomfort caused by extended usage. But does this need to be the case? What if the smartphone’s brain extended itself into larger, more ergonomic bodies?

    Smartphone brain

    Tomorrow's powerful smartphones could control a whole range of devices (click for full size)

    I’ll admit, I find it difficult to get my head around such a small device projecting itself on to a large TV screen. Something about it seems counterintuitive. But I can see the benefits, and the technology’s already heading in this direction.

    The latest batch of HTC smartphones feature a technology called DNLA which lets mobiles stream video to televisions and other compatible display devices. If your TV isn’t bleeding-edge enough to support DLNA, you can get an adapter to do the job instead. So you can use your TV to watch the movies on your phone, which is obviously preferable to spending two hours hunched over your Desire HD.

    A more innovative approach has been taken by Motorola, whose forthcoming Atrix smartphone will be accompanied by a special dock – a much larger “body” that, when plugged in, turns the phone’s form factor into a laptop.

    Motorola Atrix with laptop dock

    This is much more interesting than just streaming video to a television. It represents a dramatic decoupling of the computer’s brain from its body, and points to a future where phones, as primary computing devices, are accessed through a wide range of interfaces. When we pick them up and turn them on they’ll behave like phones, but we’ll also interact with them through numerous devices in our immediate environment.

    Today’s computer may gradually vanish – our laptops and PCs becoming mere peripherals, mindless bodies controlled by the brains in our pockets. And it might go even further as the brain continues to shrink. Who’s to say that a similar fate doesn’t await the smartphone itself, that they won’t also become mere interface devices controlled by computers we wear as watches or jewellery? This might sound a bit sci-fi, but research fields like ambient intelligence and ubiquitous computing have even more radical ideas than these about where we might be heading.