Thursday, January 27, 2011

Protip for book publishers

The Inner CircleIn the nearly three years since I bought my first Kindle, I've become an enormous fan. I've purchased about 100 books, and have read books on the first gen Kindle (now gifted to my in-laws), second-gen Kindle (a gift to my wife), my iPhone 3GS, my Nexus One, my iPad, and my Nexus S. The reading experience has been consistently terrific - synching between devices (so you can pick up on the phone where you left off on the Kindle) is flawless, the experience of transferring titles to any device is simple, and the more recent ability to lend titles to friends is great too.

But I had a terrible experience with a book last week, notable as much because it's the first time I've felt that the Kindle degraded my reading experience in three years. To be clear, this isn't Amazon's fault - it's a combination of a disappointing book (hardly their issue!) and a dumb decision by the publisher (which may have been intentional).

Let me explain: I heard an interview last week on NPR with Brad Meltzer, author of a new book about intrigue at the National Archives. (I know what you're thinking, and in hindsight, perhaps I should've thought twice: "intrigue" at the National Archives?) It sounded interesting, and I'd read some of Meltzer's work before so I picked it up.

I wasn't really enjoying the book as I read it. The plot strained credibility in several places, twists were pretty foreseeable, and Meltzer never really pulled me in. But it had one thing going for it: as I watched my progress meter on the Kindle get to just 25, 30, 40%, I figured that perhaps the best of the book was still in front of me. Maybe this was just necessary setup for a more engaging ride?

Then, at 47%, I was at the end of the book. The book didn't just end on a cliff-hanger, it ended with the main conflict in the story completely unresolved. Certain that there was a mistake, I tried to re-download the title. I skipped ahead to 50, 55% to see what was there - and discovered that Meltzer's publisher had bundled an entirely different book - by a different author - in with this downloaded title. End result? Total, utter confusion. (I'm not alone - here's one reviewer who had the same reaction; there are many others in the book's reviews.)

This is partly the author's fault: I can't remember another book I've read where the author so utterly punted on the central conflict at the end of the book. (After reading some reviews on Amazon, I discovered that this is the first book of a series Meltzer intends to write centered around these characters.) But it's also the publisher's fault: if they hadn't included the second book in the download, at least the Kindle's progress meter would've accurately reflected the % of book I'd read. As it was, the % meter reflected the % of the downloaded item I'd completed, which is useless - why do I care that I'm 47% of the way through the combination of two books by two different authors?

If Amazon has any opportunity here, it's to prohibit this kind of bundling by publishers - it degrades the user experience, and through no fault of their own, renders one of its key features useless. One of the tremendous assets of the Kindle reading experience is that it's consistent - not only across devices but across titles.

Bonus: I guess maybe I shouldn't have been so quick to dismiss the notion of intrigue at the National Archives. From this week's headlines:
Maybe Meltzer was on to something...?!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Tasker makes Android better

When I got my Nexus S last month, I was excited about a number of things, but particularly the remarkable battery life promised by a number of reviewers. If I had one complaint about the Nexus 1, it was that the battery often gave up the ghost by the end of the day. I got used to charging during the middle of the day just to be safe, and for the most part that worked, though it didn't avoid the fairly often end-of-day battery drain (which always seemed faster than at any other point in the day).

When I started seeing similar behavior with the Nexus S, I was concerned. Thanks to a couple Android utilities, however, I was able to finally figure out what the root issue was. And with the help of Tasker, a terrific Android app, I believe I've completely solved the problem - not to mention gained a very useful utility that's capable of doing a lot more.

It turns out that the issue is where I live: there's next to no T-Mobile service within about 100 yards of my house. Elsewhere in the neighborhood is fine - but the particular hill we live on is a dead spot. In Settings, I clicked on "About phone" and then "Battery Use" to get a full report of what processes were responsible for the battery usage. It's a handy way to know what's responsible (if anything) for abnormal battery consumption - in my case, it was "Cell standby". What this means is that the phone was trying to acquire a (mostly) nonexistent cell signal - the longer it tried, the faster the battery drained.

I experimented with using the phone's airplane mode (turning off all radio antennae) to see if it helped - and sure enough, the phone held its charge without a problem. Now that I'd isolated the culprit, I wanted to automate the process of disabling the radio antenna so that the phone wasn't constantly trying to reaquire a cell signal - that's where Tasker comes in.

Tasker's an automation app for Android. You can define a set of criteria that, when met, trigger an action - loading an app, presenting a menu, changing a system setting, etc. For this particular scenario, I just wanted to have the phone turn on airplane mode (but keep wifi and bluetooth on) whenever I'm home. Tasker made this a trivial task - and the battery at the end of the day is now often north of 40% where it was previously empty by day's end.

There's a lot that Tasker can do for you - check out the example profiles included in the Tasker wiki. Each profile is described in detail, and includes a download link so you can load the profile directly into Tasker. For around $6, it's a great deal. (You can download a 7 day trial here, if you want to kick the tires before buying.)

If you're looking for other things you can do with Tasker, Lifehacker has a great write-up with step-by-step instructions about how you can use Tasker to extend your Android phone's capabilities. I particularly like the profile that asks you which music app to load when you plug the headphones in:

I asked some co-workers for tips on how they use it, and one guy had a great idea: when the phone is placed face down (like in a meeting), have Tasker mute the audio and turn off wifi, bluetooth, GPS, etc. Ultimately, it's this kind of customization and control over your phone that I love about Android. One warning, however: Tasker, while powerful, is itself rather utilitarian in design. It will take a bit of getting used to, and you'll need to invest some time in learning its quirks from an interface perspective. (Critics will rightly point out that this is the trade you make when you give users customization and control over the phone. I'm quite comfortable with that trade-off, but your mileage may vary.)

So how about you: any Android automation tips? Do you have a Tasker profile you want to share? Feel free to leave them in the comments.