Updating… 100%

It’s been a while! 5 months to be exact. A lot has been happening in this time, which is one of the reasons why I haven’t posted anything in so long. So, I figured I should do an update post to bring everything up to speed. First of all, it’s been now 5+ months since I ordered a try-on of these Warby Parker Felton glasses and I still haven’t decided if I want to buy them or not. I like them but I have a usable pair, so I’m kind of waiting until they break to get new ones. But mine are 5 years old already. Maybe it’s time to buy a pair of glasses even if the old ones aren’t broken yet. I’m easily the most indecisive person on the planet.

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EDUCATION – after 7 years of work, my PhD is finally, officially complete and since May 10th, I have the degree to prove it! It was a lot of hard work, studying, research and overall becoming an academic professional, but it feels good to have finally achieved this level. There’s also something to say about being the first Doctor in the family. Lots of sweat, tears, stress, joy, but mostly stress. Either way, it’s done, moving on. It’s now time to focus on enjoying teaching and working on my research articles whenever time allows. Obligatory degree shot:

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And bonus shot of the actual graduation day. Extra points for Bryan and I being able to graduate and walk together. Not many married couples get to do that.

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WORK – I’ve been working at the current institution for one year on a single-term contract. Graduating from the PhD certainly helped as it facilitated my getting a new position with a more stable 3-year renewable contract. That means Bryan and I get much more security laborally/financially and we can now start thinking about buying a house. Also, there’s extra cool points for being able to teach my courses but refer to myself as Dr. Xabier Granja in the syllabus!

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LIFE – May/June/July were busy months. First we went to San Francisco for a wedding. Then we embarked to Spain for a couple weeks, where we were joined by most of our Chicago friends for what I call Wedding Part 2. To clarify, Bryan and I got married last year but since it was too difficult to get all our families together (and it seemed fairer to do an everybody-or-nobody kind of deal) we just celebrated with our closest friends, which I refer to as Wedding Part 1. So, exactly 1 year and 1 day later, we did Part 2 in Spain: if Part 1 was the ceremony in Chicago, Part 2 was the after-party in a wonderful bar on the top of a cliff that oversees a northern Spanish beach. About 40 people attended between family and friends, most of which won’t be able to make it to the American reception with 90 friends/family this August 14 in Chicago, which we’ll call Wedding Part 3. None of it makes sense… but somehow it all makes sense. All I can tell you is that it would certainly be cheaper to do 1 event on 1 day and 1 set of people, but although we certainly don’t get 3 weddings for the price of one, we do get 3 times the memories. As a bonus, here’s a shot from El Peñón in Sopelana, Spain:

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TECHNOLOGY – finally, I’m abandoning WP. This surely comes as a surprise, but allow me to explain. 5 months ago I mentioned my purchase of a Nexus 4, my initial trial of Android 4.0. I loved the hardware, despised the software. Then, while I was too busy enjoying WP8.1 and dictating texts, reminders and calendar appointments to Cortana, this happened:

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Suddenly, and without warning, Google finally found its design chops with L/5.0/Lollipop. The difference is striking: Android went from horrible to beautiful, from bland to colorful. Google established an excellent design philosophy, actually thought about what they were doing and found inspiration in the material properties of layers and light. The videos at google.com/design are inspiring, but most of all this is thoughtful, elegant design just like I’ve always felt Windows Phone was. The problem is that WP had the design but not the platform; and now Google has the platform and the design. This, paired to the fact that Microsoft is scaling back on mobile hardware/software and that several apps that are important to me were actually eliminated from the store by their publishers, were the last nails on my WP obsession. Good design is worthless if it ceases to be functional. What’s more, just 2 years ago WP offered the best bang for buck with great phones for around $100. Nothing on Android could touch the fluidity, experience, design and affordability of a Lumia 620 or a 520.

In the following 24 months though, something happened: Microsoft stopped trying, probably too busy fixing the mess created with Windows 8 (not a bad decision considering how wonderful Windows 10 has turned out to be). The software ceased to have any new features since 8.1 and Cortana. There are many unacceptable stagnant, easy to fix software oversights: for example, the Battery Saver feature doesn’t auto-setup to kick in at 20%. Once you manually set it up, it won’t actually disable battery saver when you charge the phone next. What? This is a perfect example of how Microsoft has ignored software development on its own platform. Hardware doesn’t fare much better: low-end Lumia phones, once great bargains, started to be cheap. Not affordable, good deals. Just cheap. Cheap screen, cheap build, cheap CPU, inexcusable 512MB RAM in a 1GB world (justified by how well optimized the software was… which is true, but still not an excuse in 2014/2015). I had defended Windows Phones for years as better value when compared to Android, but now this is no longer the case and I’m glad to see Anandtech agrees with me:

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And this is, in a nutshell, what happened. Microsoft stalled when they could absolutely not afford to do so as the 3rd ecosystem, while Google saw what Microsoft had been doing excellently in 2012 with low end phones and struck back: thus the creation of the Moto G and later, more impressively, the Moto E. I’m mostly interested in the latter: I’m a firm believer that the 1st gen of anything should always be skipped, it’s never worth your money. 2nd gen usually shows you what something can become and may even be great, 3rd gen is where things start rocking the market. Indeed, the 1st Moto E was disruptive but could safely be ignored as it sacrificed too much (ergonomics, screen, camera, CPU). 2nd gen Moto E? An impressive second take, one that you can easily evaluate yourselves comparing the innards. After my – granted, wonderful – hardware experience with the Lumia 635, which is cheap as chips, I’ve had a revelation: I don’t need a $400 phone. I don’t need a $300 phone. I could benefit from but don’t necessarily need a $200 phone. The Moto E 2nd gen LTE sells for $99 on Amazon right now and has mostly the same hardware as the lower end Moto G that costs $80 more dollars (SD410, 1GB RAM, IPS screen). So I bought one, because the value in the 2nd gen Moto E is unbeatable. Here’s a proud shot for posterity:

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The value in this device is so great, actually, that I’m considering just buying Moto E’s every year, provided the upgraded models are worth the money and conserve the value. Think that sounds crazy? Now remember there’s millions of people that upgrade their iPhone every year: I can buy 6 Moto Es for the price of 1 iPhone. Annual upgrade cycle doesn’t sound so crazy in the context of the Moto E value (also it’s a great excuse to renew my mom and dad’s phones at a regular interval instead of the potatoes they’re using at the moment).

Finally, laptops. Earlier in the spring I sold my Surface 2. Why? Because Microsoft announced they were effectively abandoning the RT platform and moving onto Windows 10 on a full x86-64 architecture. Knowing this, I was lucky enough to sell it on eBay and recover %80 of the money I originally spent on it. Since then, I have been using Bryan’s old MacBook Air and the experience hasn’t been pretty. It’s not that getting used to the OS X ecosystem was challenging per se, instead… well, a picture is worth a thousand words:

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Nope, that’s not an artistic wallpaper. That’s a heavily crashed LCD, and yup. That’s what I’ve been using for the past half year. Why? Because 10nm Intel Skylake CPUs are coming in October and they’re a pretty big deal, so I didn’t want to waste $700 before better hardware came along (let’s face it: 14nm Broadwell are kind of a joke and not much better than the previous Ivy Bridge. There’s a reason Broadwell is only going to have a 6 month market life, artificially extended to 9 months so Intel doesn’t lose millions in already produced chips). It is perhaps surprising that it hasn’t really been that bad to use this MacBook, now on Windows 10, in such a state. I mostly use the laptop for work, where I just plug it in to a 24″ monitor in my office. When I bring it to classes to take attendance, there’s a nice 40% of the lower-left screen area that’s crack free, so I can fit an Excel window there momentarily. It’s only been a real annoyance when traveling, since this laptop and my phone are really the only mobile devices I have at my disposal. What’s more, upon starting the Fall semester I’ll be getting an iPad 2 for faculty through the University, so the main pain point of this MacBook is removed; so much so that I’m even considering not getting a new laptop and keep using this. But I know I shouldn’t. I should own a normal working laptop. So I’ll probably buy one. And the front runner in that race is:

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Asus UX305. Thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air. Same aluminum build. 9h of battery life. 1080p IPS screen (better than the current MacBook Air). 8GB RAM (what the what?) and 256GB SSD (again, w00t??). Free upgrade to Windows 10 (or by the time I buy it, it’ll probably ship with Windows 10 already). I admit it’s been really hard to not spend the miserly $699 that Asus asks for this machine, but I’m still waiting mostly because I hope/expect Asus will release a Skylake version of this laptop this fall. Maybe even cram in a biometric camera for Windows Hello. We’ll see, but this is the strongest contender by far.

And that’s it for now! Hopefully it won’t take me months to post something here again, but between teaching 5 courses, working on publishing an article and doing other research as a Faculty Fellow, it is likely my schedule will get complicated again. Even so, I should be pretty excited about that new laptop that I hope I won’t be able to avoid writing another post.

Until then.

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Found one!

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And its name is Lumia 635. The 735 was the real contender, the one I really wanted, but not at the $300+ price it released, that’s an insult. You may remember what I had to say about it a few months ago about its pros and cons:

635: Cheap. Non-unibody. Health tracking. LTE. VS Bad camera. No front camera. No ambient light sensor. Low-res screen.

So, why did I end up choosing this phone? Simple: the price dropped to a ridiculous $68 on December 20th and at that price, it was too good a bargain to pass. At this point a fully functioning modern smartphone for $68 wasn’t cheap, it was a steal and I’ve been enjoying it for the past 2 months. The non-unibody factor turned up to be no problem at all: this phone is crazy thin and light, whereas my 920 unibody was fat and heavy. The health tracking? Works beautifully and reminds me how little I walk everyday. The LTE is just as fast as it was on my 920. The 512MB RAM certainly isn’t as good as 1GB, but the phone works quite fast and feels speedy – similar to my 920 actually. I’m sure it’d be a bit more responsive with 1GB, but it’s not slow or feels sluggish by any means.

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The negatives get a bit more annoying, mainly the camera. It’s crap, period. It takes passable pictures, but they’re all bad honestly (coming from the 920) and only salvageable for social network posting after I’ve done a quick edit on Photoshop express, even pictures taken in daylight are dull. At least having a bad camera on my phone has rekindled my use of my Sony NEX 5N, so there’s some gain to be had here. Not having a front camera isn’t a problem %99 of the time – I’m not one to take selfies, but hey there’s always those couple times when you want to get a small group shot and it’s just easier seeing the screen… no biggie though. I can turn the phone around to use the main camera and the Lumia selfie app will beep (like crazy) to indicate we’re in the picture. Not perfect, but kinda works. For $68, I’ll put up with it. The lack of ambient sensor is something I thought would really annoy me… not so, honestly. I keep the screen at medium and it’s totally fine 90% of the day. When it’s bright and sunny outside, I switch it to High (I keep the setting on the action center so it’s easy to get to). What’s an improvement, actually, is in bed at night: my 920 turned the brightness down but it was always a bit too bright to be comfortable. With the 635 I can actually specify how low I want the Low level to be (or the mid, or the high) so I turned it real low and its now a pleasure to use in a pitch dark room, or on a car ride at night.

Talking about the screen – it’s beautiful. Sure, it’s no longer 768p like the 920 and that shows, I’m not going to lie: it’s fuzzier and less detailed. It’s also not going at 60hz like the 920’s screen. But hey, it’s still an IPS panel with ClearBlack, contrast is great and the color are actually better than what I was seeing on the 920. Well, at least they look better, deeper and richer to me. Don’t take my word for it, let’s compare (*Note: some shots show heavy fringing on the 635 – this is because the camera is picking up the pixel pattern and since it can resolve the detail it shows that distortion, but that’s not visible at all in real life):

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Side by side, the 920 looks better overall, but remember: I paid $250 for the 920 refurbished (which was already cheap) whereas the 635 cost $68, new. Locked to T-Mobile, sure, but just last week I called and they got my phone unlocked with no problem at all, so I’ll be able to use it when my husband and I fly to Spain this summer – and eventually give this phone to my mom for good while I’ll renew to a Windows 10 phone. So, essentially, it’s a liberated phone for $68. Beat that value, iPhone/any-Android-ever. I was never a huge fan of the original matte white case T-Mobile included so I spent $6 and got this blue case on eBay.

So there you have it: a good phone for anybody who just wants a nice, decent smartphone for normal use. It’s a stopgap for me as I really want a better camera and an AMOLED screen once Windows 10 phones are released, but it’s a perfectly fine phone that, for the price, is an amazing value.

My phone history – updated

Well, it happened again.

As happy as I am with my Lumia 620, the truth is that my mom’s Samsung Focus WP7 is now about 4 years old and she is completely outdated. While she likes the phone, WP7 development has been virtually abandoned as WP8 is completely based on actual Windows 8 and not Windows CE (which is not really Windows at all) like WP7 was. So, in preparation for her next birthday, I’ll be giving her my like-new 620 so she can leave the past behind and come back to present modernity. Of course, most likely she’ll half-joke half-complain that I’m giving her a used phone that I no longer want (which is untrue) while not realizing this will be the most expensive and high quality phone she has ever owned, but oh well… such is my destiny and I’m used to it. At least she will stop complaining that Whatsapp/Skype and other apps don’t work properly (obvious, since they haven’t received updates on WP7 since the beginning of time…).

Anyway, I was waiting for MWC2014 in Barcelona this end of February to see what WP8.1 devices Nokia/Microsoft release, most likely quadcores with 2gb RAM. I was on the fence about what I would upgrade to, the new devices or just last year’s 920 since it has that fantastic Pureview camera. If I were limited to be with one carrier, I’d get the 1020 with its 41mp camera and not look back, but since I travel back and forth to Europe, I need to be able to swap microSIM cards, which means I need unlocked devices. Which are WAY more expensive than locked ones. Since what’ll be announced at MWC won’t be 64-bit SOCs – those won’t be coming until the fall – I figured it wouldn’t really matter what I decided to buy. Coincidentally, as I was doing this process in my head, WPCentral released this article about 920s being available on eBay, unlocked, for a miserly $200. I couldn’t order one fast enough, this is a crazy good deal. Last year’s phone, sure, but also last year’s flagship phone, which means it’ll still be supported pretty much for the next year or maybe two. Even when it gets to the cutoff for future OS updates, its camera will still laugh at 95% of what the market offers. So there you go, 920 is on its way towards me from California, refurbished (so basically new, while technically not exactly “new”, yet legally has to be sold at as-used price). Queue the obligatory update to my phone history for the annals of history:
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This 920 should last me at least 2 years, great phone, flagship specs, best-in-class camera (let’s face it, that was my main draw, photography), support for at least 1/2 years. Other than discovering an unknown love for all things matte, this situation also made me think that I/people in general buy phones at a much faster rate than before. My 1st phone lasted 3 years, 2nd phone another 3, same with the 3rd phone… had the 4th for 1 year, 5th for 1/2 year, 6th for 1/2 year… though the last 2 don’t really count as I hated the Android OS and the 620 will be handed to my mom, those are exceptions (if mom didn’t need a new phone I’d happily keep using the 620). I don’t think we can blame this on consumerism as some do, although it’s certainly a factor in this accelerating trend.

I’d say the main factor is that technology is getting much better much faster. My Alcatel, the brick that vanquished my fears of being mugged at night because it essentially constituted a weapon, lasted so long because screens didn’t get any better for a while. Sure, the Nokia 3310 was a welcome upgrade but the increase in resolution wasn’t THAT big a deal, the main thing with that one was the lighter package. The 6500 was even smaller and had a color screen, but note how that more noticeable change took about 10 years to occur. From then on, technology has improved at a much faster pace. The Samsung Focus had a brilliant AMOLED screen but lacked in resolution. 2 years later the Nexus 4 had a great HD screen. 1 year later the Lumia 620 was the upgrade to WP8 that I wanted since the unlocked 920 was crazy expensive. I’m positive the WP8.1 devices in MWC2014 will absolutely trump and laugh at my 920, but the trick here is that the 920 is already beefy enough to withstand an upgrade to WP9 if that happens next year. Yet, as you see, everything is getting so much better so much faster, which is welcome news, but we need to try to calm down with the purchasing rate/pace. If the 920 supports WP9 as I fully expect it to (other 512MB RAM Lumias I’m much more doubtful about…) and it doesn’t die (meaning I drop and break it), I expect to be using this device for a long, long time, 2 years minimum, 3 years probable, 4 years unlikely but possible (by then we might have flexible 2K resolution AMOLED IGZO panels and, as Steve Jobs used to say, you don’t even know how much you really want them yet).

To conclude, here’s a couple shots of my new best buddy to help me traverse the treacherous waters of life:

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