I started The Stone Mind less than a year ago, in February 2012. In some ways, it feels like I just started. In other ways, it’s like I’ve been writing it forever. At first it was just a way to keep me working with words after I left my job as a magazine editor. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted the blog to be about. I posted product reviews, photo galleries, an interview or two, personal essays, even a short story. As the months passed, things came into their own focus, and now most of my posts deal with climbing, nature (human and otherwise), and Eastern philosophy, and the many ways in which these topics connect, overlap, and inform each other.
In 2013, I plan to explore these topics further, while at the same time reserving the right to strike out in new directions — this blog, after all, is nothing if not an experiment and an act of personal passion.
Before moving ahead, however, I thought it might be nice to take a quick look back at the most popular posts of the past year. Here are the Top 10 (out of more than 100), ranked by page views. For various reasons, these are the ones that have garnered the most eyeballs. There are many other posts that are dear to me on this blog that have received only a fraction of the views. I know time and attention are the Internet’s most precious commodities, but if you like any of the posts listed below, you might consider taking a moment to poke around in the archives, too. Either way, I hope you find something that interests you.
The iPad is undoubtedly the king of pads (a dubious title if I’ve ever heard one). Although it certainly wasn’t the first tablet, it was the first tablet to achieve widespread acceptance. The iPad’s simple, “just works” interface (Apple’s hallmark and greatest asset) has enabled users to… to… well, I suppose it’s allowed them to “surf” the “net,” check email, watch videos, listen to music (and more!), all from the palm of their hands. Both hands. Or more realistically, their laps. Their laps where their laptops used to go.
Well, iPads do have touch screens and killer battery life. At any rate, I have one, and I’m pretty psyched on it, even if it doesn’t do all that much that my laptop, desktop, and even my Android phone can’t do. Now that I think about it, it’s weird how much I like it, considering it’s almost completely redundant. (It does really shine when I’m traveling. And I like reading books on it.) But there’s one thing I always felt would add a lot to the iPad, and that’s a real stylus.
I bought one of those crappy capacitive stlyli from the Internets about a year ago. My fiancée sighed when she found out. “What’d you get that for?” she asked. I explained how fat and dumb my finger felt when taking notes or making sketches on the iPad. I explained the need for a finer point and better control. “How cool would it be if I could use the iPad like a pad of paper — you know, to take notes in a meeting or edit PDFs onscreen. It would make the iPad, like, nearly perfect!” She rolled her eyes, which was the correct response. I’ve hardly used the thing. Every time Ido use it I’m amazed at how litte demonstrable improvement it offers over my fingertip.
So when I came across the Cregle iPen on Kickstarter and watched the compelling video, I scrambled to place the order. (Well, my fiancée placed the order, as it was to be a Christmas gift. I guess I convinced her the iPen was better than the other stylus I bought.) At the time, the fundraising goal had already been more than tripled. (At close, the project raised $162,333, more than 500% to goal.) I pledged my $70, was excited for about fifteen minutes, and then forgot all about it. Until I started getting the emails.
Over the next three and a half months, I received seventeenthirty-two emails from Cregle. There were delays. Problems with Apple. Talk of refunds. Talk of which apps the iPen would work with. About a week ago, I started inquiring about a refund myself, thinking perhaps the whole project was taking on water. There was this disheartening post on theverge.com about Cregle not really being a start-up, the iPen not really being the first active stylus for the iPad, and other shady business. In fact, there may be shady business going on, but I no longer care, because today I got my iPen.
Just so you understand the theory, the iPen is an “active” stylus, meaning it feeds additional information about its location to the iPad, rather than just interacting with the iPad’s capacitive touch screen, like the above-mention crappy stylus. To make the iPen active, Cregle employs a two-part system. The stylus itself is battery powered and holds at its tip a nib that moves slightly in and out with pressure. The second component is the receiver, which is a rectangular block about the size of a pack of gum that slots into the the UART port (the charging port) on the bottom of the iPad. The receiver picks up on the pen’s location and relays that information to the iPad. In theory, this should offer a very fine-grained location awareness and, thus, a more accurate stylus experience.
I’m looking forward to putting the iPen through its paces and writing in more detail, but having played with it for ten minutes, I can already make a few observations.
The stylus itself is stylish and comfortable to hold.
The iPen works, but it is not a perfect or seamless experience. Sometimes it will stop writing, or loose sensitivity and need to be re calibrated.
However, when it does work, the sensitivity and accuracy are much better than with capacitive styli or a fingertip.
For truly taking notes, as with a pen and paper, the iPen is still not there. It reminds me of writing with a ballpoint pen that periodically stops writing and then starts flowing again; it’s not impossible to write with, but it is hard to get into the rhythm of it.
Something strange: the iPen came with two “refill” nibs that go into the end of the pen, and a little metal tweezer to extract them. What happens to these nibs that requires them to be replaced, I can only imagine.
I get the sense that GhostWriter Notes, which is the only one of the compatible programs I have, is not the best. UPad seems better, and I’d love to try the iPen with another app, as it may be that some of my issues are software and not hardware related
Probably the best thing about GhostWriter Notes is the Evernote compatibility. I depend on this app for my day to day writing and thought storage.
At this point, I couldn’t rightfully say whether the iPen is worth the money. (One doesn’t, or shouldn’t, go in on a Kickstarter project expecting perfection.) But I think the iPen is a very interesting concept that’s relatively well executed. My guess is that additional and more-advanced app support will improve the experience greatly. And the next generation iPen will probably offer improvements in accuracy, consistency, and maybe even some additional features, like pressure sensitivity.
I’ll write and doodle with the iPen for a while and then report back. In the meantime, I’m happy to answer questions or hear from others who get early release versions of the iPen from Cregle.
*** Updated January 6, 2013 – scroll to the bottom of the page for my thoughts after 10 months of use, including impressions of the Belkin AirCast Auto HandsFree and the iPhone 5 ***
THE PROBLEM [No duh] Music technology moves fast. [/No duh] Depending on the product, a reasonable upgrade cycle can be anywhere from a two to four years. Any piece of high-tech gadgetry more than five years old, even if it’s still working, is in danger of becoming a paperweight. Most people, however, upgrade their cars a lot less frequently than they do their music players. (In the past fifteen years, I’ve owned a Walkman, two or three portable CD players, a MiniDisk player, thee iPods and three smart phones with music capabilities.) The result is a car / music technology gap that fuels a whole industry for quick-fix products.
The first such “gap product” I owned was the infamous tape-deck adapter. You probably had one, too. I used it in my ten-year-old Honda Accord hatchback in the CD era. I remember popping the fake cassette into the dashboard, plugging the trailing wire into my DiscMan, and then trying not to hit any bumps on the way to school, to minimize skipping. My next car had an in-dash CD player (hurrah!), but before long, I had to buy an FM transmitter so I could listen to my iPod while cruising for honeys.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. Today my car has an AUX input, but now I want Bluetooth, so I can play my music, sans annoying wires, and make hands-free phone calls. Some modern / luxury cars come with Bluetooth capabilities, and you can buy after-market in-dash stereos with this functionality, but those solutions are too involved for me. To again cheaply and easily bridge the car / technology gap, I began searching for an add-on Bluetooth solution.
THE SOLUTION – THE BELKIN AIRCAST AUTO HANDSFREE When I started poking around, I assumed there would be many established automotive Bluetooth devices on the market. Strangely, I found only a handful of items. Further, the available information (reviews, product specs) was thin. I Googled, and read, and Googled some more, eventually landing on the Belkin AirCast Auto HandsFree.
The AirCast Auto product video, although cheesy, was relatively clear. The AirCast seemed to offer the functionality I was looking for. With it, I would be able to:
Play music from my phone wirelessly, via Bluetooth, through my car stereo
Control my phone wirelessly — play and pause music and skip songs, plus initiate voice dialing
Conduct in-car, hands-free phone calls via built-in microphone
Keep my phone charged on long rides via a powered USB port
I went to BustBuy to pick one up, but the sales guy knew of no such device. He checked the system and found they didn’t have any in stock, so I went home and logged on to the Internet, where I was able to order one no problem. It cost $57 before shipping.
When the AirCast Auto arrived at my door three days later, the box was so light, I thought they’d forgotten to enclose the product. On opening, however, I found the device. Simple and cleanly designed, the AirCast is composed of a round, half-dollar-sized button/microphone; a mounting plate for the button/mic, which is simply a disk with stick-um on one side and a magnet on the other; a thin wire connecting the button/mic to a 12-volt plug, which goes into what used to be known as the cigarette lighter port; and another cable terminating in a 3.5mm headphone plug that goes into the AUX port.
SETTING UP AND USING THE AIRCAST AUTO The first thing you should do is plug in the AUX cable and the 12-volt plug. Then, find a flat spot on your dashboard facing you and as close as possible to your head, making sure the cable will reach and not get in the way of any important stuff, like your gear shifter. Once you have a good spot for the button/mic selected, un-peel the backing on the sticky mounting disk and press it firmly down. When you hold the button/mic to the mounting plate, it should attach itself via the mysterious force known as magnetism.
Finally, you’ll need to pair the AirCast with your phone, which takes a little doing. I won’t go into it here, but refer to the instructions. Also be aware that the AirCast isn’t necessarilycompatible with all Bluetooth phones. My phone, the HTC Inspire, wasn’t listed on the packaging as one of the compatible devices. It works anyway, so I’m not sure how Belkin came up with the list.
Once you’ve successfully paired your phone to the AirCast, every time you get in your car, you should be able to push the AirCast’s single button to re-establish the connection. The lighted ring on the button’s face will go from red to blue when the pairing is made. Wait a few seconds and then press the button again to begin playing your music. When music is playing, a single press will pause the song. Press again to resume. Two presses in quick succession will skip to the next track. Hold and press for two or three seconds to activate your phone’s voice dialing (“Call: Kings of Grillz,” for example). When making a call, simply speak into the air as if you were talking to a passenger and the mic will pick up your voice.
THE VERDICT The Belkin AirCast does a great job of adding very basic Bluetooth functionality to a vehicle for a reasonable price. I’d definitely recommend it, with the caveat that it’s not fancy. It lets you play music, make calls, and charge your phone. You cannot switch between playlists or otherwise control your phone.
I love being able to get into my car, phone in pocket, push the dashboard-mounted button, and have my whole MP3 library rolling on shuffle, loud and clear through the car stereo. When I get a call, I just press the button to answer. After the caller hangs up, my music kicks back in where it left off. Sweet.
The sound quality is actually better than when I used a 3.5mm audio cable to plug my phone directly into the AUX port. My theory on this is that there is one less connection for the signal to travel through, as the Bluetooth stream is digital and, therefore, without interference or quality degradation. Someone who knows better than I do should correct me in the comments, below, if this doesn’t make sense…
The quality of the calls is pretty solid, too. I have been told by the folks on the other end that I sound a little faint, but relatively clear. I think things would probably be even clearer and louder if I had a better place to mount the mic. Right now, it’s pretty far down and to the right of me when I’m seated behind the wheel. (See update, below, for my new take on this topic.)
The biggest problem I have encountered with the Belkin AirCast Auto is the interface with my phone’s various music player apps. I have three apps for playing music — a Android stock player, Poweramp, and doubleTwist. I’m not sure how to dictate which of these the Bluetooth music connection automatically activates. When I’m using Power Amp, and I do the long press to initiate a voice call, for some reason the music starts to play through my phone speakers and not the car speakers. At the same time, the voice dialer kicks in, but the phone is no longer connected to the AirCast, so I can’t hear what’s going on. I have to manually cancel the voice dial on the phone and reconnect with the AirCast. If your phone was in your bag or pocket, this would be very inconvenient, and you might have to wait until you pull over to get the music playing again. I think this issue is more with my phone than with the player, but it’s still an issue. Maybe when I replace my Inspire with an iPhone, things will work a bit more smoothly.
Anybody else out there try this thing? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts…
*** UPDATE January 6, 2013 ***
I have been using the Belkin AirCast Auto HandsFree for about 10 months now. For most of that time, I was using it with an Android phone, the HTC Inspire (which, on the whole, was a crappy phone). The combo worked tolerably well, but it had a few problems: First, it took a while (10-15 seconds) to pair whenever I go in my car (I know, big deal, right?). Worse, I couldn’t find a way to set the default music player app that my phone used with the device. When using anything other than the stock Android music app, the voice dialing capability of the phone didn’t work. In addition, I couldn’t figure out how to use Android’s voice command functionality to do things like play a particular song or playlist. All I could do was play, pause, and skip songs. Basic, but still a nice set up.
But about two months ago I got an iPhone 5 and it’s been a major improvement.
The iPhone 5 seems to work better with the AirCast Auto HandsFree in every regard. It pairs almost instantly and it works like a charm with Siri, allowing me to verbally initiate phone calls, select songs, albums, artists, or playlists to play, and more. Unfortunately, it does not let me do things like request turn-by-turn driving directions, which would be an excellent addition. “Siri, give me directions to the Johnny Kolache’s, Salt Lake City, Utah,” yields the following response: “Sorry, Justin, I can’t help you with that.” Ah well, maybe in the next update…
A note on call quality through the Belkin AirCast Auto HandsFree: After using the device to make calls from the road for several months, I’ve decided it’s not worth the convenience. The quality on both ends is just a little too low. When talking to my parents, they’ll often remark that it sounds like I’m calling from a tin can, and the road noise (I drive a Honda Element — maybe your Lexus would be better in this department) is overpowering. Instead, I plug in the headphones with in-line mic that came with my iPhone and chat that way. It’s easier for both parties to hear the conversation.
So, after 10 months, my verdict remains the same: for a low-cost Bluetooth add-on solution, the Belkin AirCast Auto HandsFree is great, especially with the iPhone 5 (and, I’m assuming, the 4 and 4s, too). If you want something that will allow you to visually control your phone’s music player, you’ll probably need to pony up for an in-dash system with LCD display, but that’s a whole other ball of wax. If all you want is to play your tunes through your car stereo system sans wires, this is a killer little solution.