Stuff you may want to know before you go to London.

Intro

Over the past 3 years, I’ve been to London probably 20 times.  All of those trips, save 2, were for business.  Probably 10 of those weeks were in 2013.  I’ve been there at all times of the year, seen it rainy for a week, seen it boiling hot for a week (like July, 2013, where it was 36C, or 97F for several days), seen it sunny and cool, and even seen London in the snow (quick, everyone panic!).  I get asked about going there all the time by all sorts of people.  So, I decided to just write this up and share.  Here’s an amalgamation of stuff I can share.

Important: Above All Else!

If you’re from the US, or another left-hand drive/right side of the road country, pay attention.  It is engrained in your brain to look left first when you approach a street corner, and then start to step into the street.  If you keep doing this in London, you’re going to end up a stain on the front of a vehicle.  Look right first.  It bears saying again.  Look right first.  Conveniently, they know this, so at most street corners, look down first – it’s probably painted on the ground – “Look Right”.  Sometimes, on 1-way streets, or in the middle island of a street, it may say “Look Left”, but for the most part – LOOK RIGHT first.

Before you leave home – Smartphone Apps you want

I’ve got an iPhone, but I’m sure there are Android equivalents to these.  These are (in my opinion) indispensable apps to have.  Many of these chew data – be sure before you just start doing data roaming in another country.  Your carrier will often have international plans that will make it more affordable to do stuff like this.  Alternatively, if you use an unlocked phone (like I do), you can pick up a Pay as You Go (PAYG) SIM card from any of the many carriers over there.  I do T-Mobile, and use their £10 pack that gives me 200 minutes, a bunch of texts and 1G of data.  I can also call the US for 3p/min.  For an iPad, I use 3, where for £10, I get 1G of data, and 4G speeds.

  • Tube Map Pro
  • Citymapper – Bonus: works in loads of other cities too
  • Google Maps – Do you really not have this yet?
  • Hailo – For hailing a black cab, right to you, and pay with a card instead of cash!
  • Kabbee – Mini-cab (private hire car service) app
  • Uber – Car Service app, works in loads of cities

Transport From the Airport

I’m going to assume you’re flying into Heathrow (or LHR if you’re into the whole airport code thing).  Maybe you’re flying to Gatwick (LGW) or London City (LCY) too.  Some of this will still apply to you, but obviously, not many of the specifics.  Upon arrival at LHR, there are two primary methods for getting into town – public transport and a private-hire car service.

Public transport options range from the bus (which takes absolutely forever to get into town on), to the London Underground, aka The Tube (which takes slightly less than an eternity), to a combination of services like the Heathrow Connect or Heathrow Express.  For a single passenger, the Heathrow Express is a pretty decent deal.  It’s going to cost you about £20 to get an express train from LHR to Paddington Station (yes, the one the bear is named after).  After this, you can hop on the tube (Hammersmith & City, Bakerloo, Circle, or District Lines all stop there).  What’s the absolute cheapest way to get to Central London from LHR?  The Tube.  The Piccadilly Line runs all the way out to LHR, and will cost you £5.70 (as of July, 2014) to ride all the way into Zone 1 (i.e. Central London).  That ride’s going to be an hour or so, depending on where you’re going, and if you need to change trains anywhere along the way.  I did this once.  I absolutely hated it.  I made a solemn vow to never do this again.  If there are 2 or more of you, it’s almost certainly bound to be cheaper to just hire a car service to drive you to your hotel.

Often times, your hotel already works with a car service that will add the charges directly to your hotel bill.  This convenience often comes at a fairly steep price.  You’ll almost certainly get a very nice ride in a very nice car like an E-class Mercedes, but it’s probably going to run you £100+ for that nice ride.  So, what’s to do?  You’ve got options.  You can use Kabee (that app above) to book in advance, and you’ll know exactly what the cost will be.  You can also phone or email ahead to various other car services (go get your Google on already…) and set it up.  I’ve used Blackberry Cars in the past, and had reasonably good success.  I’ve also got a guy I just phone up directly and use as well.  The cost?  He charges me £40 to pickup at LHR and drive me to Central London, typically in the Covent Garden/Leicester Square/Trafalgar Square area.  I pay him in cash – so hit the ATM before you leave the airport.

Public Transport

The bulk of London’s public transport options can be paid for with a single ticket – the Oyster Card.  You want to get one right away.  There’s a £5 deposit and a minimum £5 top up, but you can get the deposit back by returning the card before you head for home.  Oyster is a touch-less system that uses RFID technology.  Be careful though – if you have other touch-less cards in the same wallet as the Oyster, and you just wave your wallet at the sensors, you can end up with “card clash”, and you don’t want that.  So, keep the Oyster apart from your regular cards.  If you’ve got a chip & pin credit card, you can use the machines to buy & top-up the cards.  If not, you’ll need to go to the assistance window, which is a pain in the rear sometimes, with long lines.  Call your bank/card issuer and see if they can hook you up with chip & pin before your trip.

London’s also a very cycle-friendly town.  You can do short-term rentals on bicycles with the Barclay’s bicycles you see all over town.  People generally refer to these as “Boris Bikes”, in honor of Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, who got the scheme off the ground.

Hotels

As always, Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV).  So, take what I say with a large grain of salt.  I don’t know (or in reality, actually care) about what your hotel preferences are – this is just what I’ve seen & experienced.  :)  First off – prepare yourself – it’s expensive, no two ways about it.  Unless you want to stay way out by Heathrow and spend your life traveling back & forth to town, you’re either going to pay a lot, or have a somewhat crappy room.  Do your homework – not all hotels have AC.  If you’re used to having it, and it’s a warmer time of year, you may be in for a big surprise.  During much of the year, you don’t need AC there, which is why many less costly properties don’t have it.

When I first started going to London, I stayed near where the bulk of my customers were located – Canary Wharf, aka the Docklands.  It’s a big hub for Financial Services companies.  I’ve stayed out there in the Marriott as well as the Four Seasons.  Both hotels are very nice.  One of my customers got a good rate at the Four Seasons (£175-200/night), so I stayed there more.  It’s a gorgeous hotel, with an impeccable staff.  Very high end.  BUT, it’s in a terribly boring part of town.  Since I last stayed there, there’s a little more nightlife in the Docklands, but it still pales in comparison to the rest of the city.  This is why I don’t stay there any more.  We ended up spending oodles of time in cabs, on boats, or in the Tube/DLR going back & forth in the evenings.

Ok, so no Canary Wharf for you, eh?  Good move.  I stay in a specific area, and have been at 3 hotels, all within a 10-minute walk of each other.

My most recent stay (July, 2014) was at the Waldorf Hilton, located on Aldwych (post code: WC2B 4DD).  This is a VERY nice hotel, and many rooms have been recently renovated, including the one we stayed in.  Reasonably good AC, decent TV for those times that you’re lounging around in the morning or before bed.  Not cheap – 4 of our 6 nights were paid with Hilton points, and the other 2 ran us £240/night.  Pretty short walk to Covent Garden tube (Piccadilly), Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo), Embankment (Circle, District, Northern), Temple (Circle, District) and Leicester Square (Northern, Piccadilly).  Across the street is the ME Hotel, which includes Radio, a VERY cool rooftop bar.

My last stay before that (December, 2013) was at The Trafalgar, located at the bottom of Trafalgar Square (SW1A 2TS).  Weird AC controls here.  Very nice location though.  For Tubes, it’s a short walk to Charing Cross and Embankment, not too far to Leicester Square and Covent Garden too.  Nice rooms, ran about £200/night.  Cool rooftop bar.

My usual is the St. Martins Lane Hotel, on St. Martins Lane.  It’s a block from Leicester Square, and a short walk to Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Embankment, and Charing Cross Tube Stations.  Very nice rooms, often with an included breakfast in the hotel restaurant.  If you catch it right when booking, you can often get it, including breakfast for under £200/night.

What’s important to know when you’re arriving early in the morning, having taken an overnight flight – check in time.  Many times, the hotels have a check-in time of 3pm, and you’re landing at 7am, followed by getting to the hotel.  So, you show up 8 or 9 am, and are hoping to get a room.  Sometimes you can, but most of the time, you can’t.  So what to do?  Often times, the hotels will offer an optional early check-in for a fee, or you just book the night before.  In other words, if you’re leaving Saturday night and getting in early Sunday, and want to guarantee a place to shower and take a nap – book for Saturday night.

Stuff to Do

Like any major city, you could spend months and fail to get all the cool stuff done.  Think about this as a highlight film.  There are a million things to do that I’m leaving out here.

London Eye

Everyone wants to ride the big ferris wheel.  Tube to Waterloo (Northern, Jubilee, Bakerloo, Waterloo & City), and then a walk to Jubilee Park, where the Eye is located.  You can (and should) book tickets in advance online.  If it’s a hot or a busy day, you want to pay a few £ more for the Fast Track tickets, which will let you skip the majority of the queue.  Great views of the city.  If it’s a hot day, the AC inside the big pods is VERY welcome.

The Shard

The Shard is the tallest building in Western Europe.  You can go all the way up to the very top to The View From the Shard, where the observation floors are 68-72, which only leaves the spire above you.  There’s nothing above you there (for now!).

Gong / Ting – in the Shangri La Hotel

Want to combine the high-floor view in the Shard with some cocktails or dinner?  Book a table in Gong for cocktails, or Ting for dinner.  Those are both in the Shangri La Hotel, in The Shard.  Both are located on the 52nd floor.  The view from Gong is absolutely fantastic.  Tables at Gong don’t come cheap – when we went it was a minimum £30/person minimum.  Ting is the restaurant.  As the names should tip you off, these are Asian-influenced places.

Pubs

These days, the majority of pubs you’ll come across are chains.  The major ones are All Bar One, Taylor-Walker and Fullers.  Of those, I tend to frequent Fullers locations.  My favorites would be the Artillery Arms, on Bunhill Row, near Old St Tube (Northern) or The Cat & The Canary, in Canary Wharf.  I also like the Henry Addington, also in Canary Wharf.

Food

London gets a bad rep for food.  It’s mostly unwarranted.  Yes, many “traditional” British dishes are bland or nasty, but there’s really no reason to eat all that stuff.  London is an extremely cosmopolitan city, and there’s something for everyone there.  Some of the places I like include Gig’s in Fitzrovia (Northern to Goodge St) – excellent Fish & Chips and Kebabs.  If Indian food is your thing, you’re in luck.  Some of the best Indian cuisine in the world is in London.  Two spots, both near Aldgate East Tube (District, Hammersmith & City) include Tayyab’s and Lahore Kebab House.  Tayyab’s has better ambiance, but I like the food at Lahore better.  Technically, Lahore is Pakistani, but it’s in the Punjabi region, so it’s close enough.  The food comes out fast & hot, and is amazingly good.  Lahore is a BYOB, and there’s an off-license (a convenience store that sells alcohol) at the corner.  Cobra is a nice beer to go with curry.  In the mood for a good burger?  London’s got you covered.  There’s Byron, who makes “proper hamburgers”, and they’re very tasty.  Back in the summer of 2013, it was all-out American burger chain war in Covent Garden, when both Five Guys and Shake Shack opened in Covent Garden.  Other popular spots include MEATLiquor and MEATMarket, among others.  One of my favorites that’s a little unusual – the Brown’s pub chain has a burger that’s a mix of Wild Boar & Chorizo, with Manchego cheese.  It’s amazingly tasty.  In the mood for Southern/BBQ?  Check out Joe’s in Covent Garden – great fried chicken and pulled pork.  High end Asian?  There’s always Sushi Samba or Roka – both excellent.

Museums

London is chock full of history and museums. There’s the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern, among others.  Some slightly different ones we’ve checked out and enjoyed include the Churchill War Rooms (Westminster Tube) – where Winston Churchill and his cabinet lived & ran World War II from, or the Geffrye Museum (Hoxton on the Overground).  The Geffrye is a very interesting museum.  It’s the museum of the living room.  It features 16 living rooms, all done up in period style dating from the 1600s through about 2000.

Harry Potter Stuff

Into Harry Potter?  There’s tons to see & do.  You can book a tour of the Warner Brothers studio where the films were made.  It’s accessible by train, followed by a short cab ride.  In Central London, still plenty to see.  Looking for Platform 9 3/4?  Go to Kings Cross/St. Pancras Station (Victoria, Piccadilly, Northern, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan).  Outside, there’s a whole setup, including a luggage trolley that’s chopped and attached to a brick wall, and a whole setup.  Want to see the site of the Leaky Cauldron, including the alley that the bad guy doing his Lost smoke monster impression flew up? Go to the corner of Great Newport Street and Charing Cross Road.  On Great Newport Street, there’s a small alley there between a couple of buildings..

Castles, etc.

There’s standard stuff like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.  But there’s other cool stuff you can do as well.  Like you can go out to Windsor Castle, in Windsor.  You can get a train from Paddington or Waterloo.  I’d recommend Paddington, since that goes to Windsor Central Station, which drops you right next to the castle.  You’ll have to change trains at Slough, but it’s not a big deal change.  Another option is Hampton Court Palace, which is reachable via a 35-ish minute train ride from Waterloo.

Stonehenge

You can take a trip out to Stonehenge via bus that leaves from Victoria, and often involves a visit to Bath.  I’ve heard from a number of people who’ve been to Stonehenge that it’s not nearly as impressive in person as you’d hope it would be.  It’s been described to me as “a bunch of rocks in a field next to a car park.”  If you’re really dying to do it, go for it.  You can also rent a car and drive there in about an hour or so.

Shopping

London has a TON of amazing places to shop.  Be warned – it’s not cheap.  The dollar isn’t terribly strong against the GBP.  Right now, it’s about $1.70 = £1.  That’s not so bad, but consider that numerical prices are pretty similar.  In other words, a lunch that’s $10 in the US is probably about £10.  That’s a 70% uptick in price.  Be prepared.  London isn’t the best for women’s fashion, unless you’re at one of the big stores like Harrod’s or Selfridge’s.  For men, there’s a ton of great clothing stores.  If you’re up for spending on custom, bespoke men’s clothing, you want to go to Savile Row. There’s no place finer on earth for bespoke tailoring.  If you’d like to check out the oldest Toy Store in the world, go see Hamley’s on Regent Street.  It’s been operating in that same location for over 250 years.  That’s right, a toy store older than the USA.  Are you an Apple Store junkie?  Go to their Covent Garden location.  It’s easily the most beautiful Apple Store I’ve ever seen.  Not the standard white, glass and light wood.  It’s utterly gorgeous.  Why are you still reading about it?  Go already!

Men’s Grooming & Shaving

Those who know me well know that I’m an old-school shaving junkie.  I’ve long since tossed cartridge razors in the trash.  They’re terribly expensive and just do a lousy job.  Gillette’s famous “lift & cut” action is little more than pulling hairs up to cut them off, leaving you red, irritated and susceptible to problems like razor burn and ingrown hairs.  A single double-edge blade is a much better shaver.  One sharp blade is far better than 4 or 5 mostly dull ones, any time.  Plus, real shaving cream & soap, whipped with a brush in a bowl or mug is far better for your face than aerosol-propelled goop.  With all that in mind, take a stroll through St. James.  You can hit all the big names, like Geo. F. Trumper, Truefitt & Hill, DR Harris, Floris, or my favorite, Taylor of Old Bond Street.  In addition to high-quality shaving products, one can get a traditional hot-towel straight razor shave from many of those companies as well.  At Taylor’s, I’ve seen two gentlemen (Neil and Kierry), who have always given me very good service and a high quality shave.  I wasn’t wow’d by the experience at Truefitt & Hill, so I wouldn’t go back.

The shaving renaissance in my bathroom

[None of the links in this post are affiliate links]

So, just about a year ago, I shunned the 17-blade, nuclear powered, vibrating monster from Gillette.  The Power Fusion was banished to the cabinet under the sink, along with the can of aerosol-propelled goop that I used to slather on my face.  In search of a better shave (I used to have 5 o’clock shadow at 11am), I decided to kick it old school, and opted for a double-edge safety razor.  My first razor was a Merkur 180 long handle.  Nice razor.  I ended up passing it on to my friend John, who is still using it.

It took a bit of time & learning the intricacies of a proper blade angle, etc., but I am not master of my facial hair.  Part of my initial problem was the manly man inside winning out and choosing the sharpest blade I could get my hands on – a Feather.  The Feather is a wonderful blade, which is super thin, flexible and is unbelievably sharp.  Starting with Feather was a huge mistake.  I eventually moved on to Astra SP blades, which were considerably more forgiving.  These days, I can manage a Feather easily enough.

Along the way, I’ve tried several razors, each with its subtle variations.  I’ve had:

  • Merkur 180
  • 1972 Gillette Super Speed (currently on loan to a friend)
  • 1972 Gillette Super Adjustable (the “black beauty”) – my “birth year razor”
  • Weber Polished with Bulldog Handle
  • Merkur Futur (loaner from a friend that I gave back – it gave me hamburger neck more than once!  For me – adjustments range from super-aggressive to “machete”.)
  • 1960 Gillette 195 (aka the Fatboy) – I had this one re-plated in rhodium, and it’s gorgeous

Currently, my stand has 3 razors in it – the Fatboy, the Beauty and the Weber.  I’m also trying out a 1956 Super Speed Red Tip and a 1963 Slim Adjustable that I got as a gifts for friends, and am going to have restored/re-plated soon.  The Red Tip has a reputation for being very aggressive, but I find it’s unwarranted.  I will say that I keep coming back to the Fatboy.  It’s a smooth piece of engineering.

So, that covers razor and blade.  What about shaving cream? After all, I did mention that I cast aside aerosol-propelled goo.  What did I opt for?  Despite having a coarse beard, my skin is a bit sensitive, so I opted for Taylor of Old Bond Street’s Jermyn Street cream & aftershave.  Those prices look high, and they are a bit.  Mostly, because US retailers have to import the stuff from the UK.  Happily, for me, I pick the stuff up for a fair bit less in London at the TOBS shop.  While more expensive than crappy canned goo, the stuff lasts a very long time, and is of extremely high quality.  My face is much happier with the gentler, more natural products I’ve been using.

Sometimes, I also use Proraso Red for a change of pace.  It’s a fairly mild cream as well.  It’s quite a bit cheaper too – $10 for a tube that lasts several months.

That cream goes onto the end of a badger brush, and gets swirled around in a cappucino mug with hot water to product a nice, smooth lather.  I do two passes on my face, one with the grain (WTG), and another across the grain (XTG).  I’ll do a few touchups and that’s it.

Printing from the iPad without buying a new printer

Ok, so you’ve got a snazzy new iPad, and would like to print.  Since iOS 4.2, Apple has had AirPrint, which only works with a small set of HP printers.  While yes, it’s super cool to be able to print from the iPad, how much will you really do this?  If it’s enough to warrant buying a new printer, good for you.  If you’re like me, and want to have the ability to do so, but probably will rarely do it.  Read on to find out more. Continue reading

Review/Howto: CyanogenMod 6.0

CyanogenMod LogoI finally did it.  I rooted, and took the plunge.  This past week, Cyanogen release CM6.0, based on Android 2.2, aka Froyo.  What the heck is this rooting business about?  One of the nifty things about Android is the open source nature of the beast.  Since the source code is all out there, users are free to modify, remix & reload to their heart’s content.  Now, I’ll grant you that you’re not likely to find a lot of kernel hackers out there who really want to squeeze the last bit of performance out of their phone.  However, that’s not to say that there aren’t users who want to serve up the phone “their way,” be that simply changing the look & feel of the device, swapping out the kernel for one that underclocks the CPU to save battery, or even simply gaining more control over the device (especially true in carrier-subsidized devices).

Right now, CM6 is available for a handful of HTC devices, as well as the original Motorola Droid.  For a complete list, check the wiki to see if your phone can use CM6.  First up, you’ll need root access to your device, as you’re going to need to flash a custom recovery image onto your phone.  Don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds.  Again, back to the wiki, look at the detailed directions for your device.  For some devices, like the Nexus One (what I’m using), you may want to grab the “Universal Androot” package.  It works for the N1, as well as a bunch of other devices, and is available from the developer’s site. And yes, Virginia, there is enough of the pages written in English that you’ll be able to figure it out.  If you’re a phone that’s not supported by the Universal Androot, you’re not sunk yet.  There’s either a manual process, which will be described on the wiki, linked above, OR if you have an HTC Evo, Desire, Incredible, Wildfire, Aria (aka Liberty) or Hero, you can use unrevoked.  It’s pretty painless.

CM6 Home Screen
My Home Screen

Warning: once you root, there may be no going back, especially if you do something like unlock the bootloader.  Officially speaking, once you unlock the bootloader (which isn’t always required), your warranty may be void.  I’m not responsible if you blow up your phone, start a small war, or your cat runs away.

Another warning: If you’re using a device that uses the HTC Sense UI, flashing CM6 will cause the UI to revert to the standard Android UI.

Got root?  Ok, now it’s onto the easy parts.  Install ROM Manager from the Android Market.  You can use the free version without any troubles.  Got that loaded?  Go ahead and flash the Clockworkmod Recovery to your phone.  ROM Manager should autodetect what type of phone you have, but it will ask for confirmation before it does anything.

Ready to roll?  Ok, grab the CM6 ROM image from a mirror.  While you’re at it, grab the latest Google Apps zip file for your phone type as well.  Stash those on your SD card.  Here we go.  First up, a full backup.  Back into ROM Manager, and “Reboot into Recovery”.  In the recovery?  Ok, now do a backup.  This is also called a “Nandroid Backup”.  What the heck is that?  Put simply, it’s a full backup of your current ROM image.  You want to do this.  REALLY.

Once you’re in the recovery menu, just do a backup.  Navigating the recovery menu uses the trackball to go up, down & select, and the power button acts as a “back button”. Your backup will take 3-5 minutes, and will require about 300-500 MB on your SD card.  Make sure you’ve got the space available!  For your reference, my Nexus One’s backup of the stock 2.2 image was 303MB.

HTC_IME Keyboard Portrait
HTC_IME Keyboard Portrait

All backed up?  Ok, let’s go.  Do a factory reset/wipe and wipe the cache as well.  Next, install a zip file from the SD card, specifically the CM6 ROM.  Repeat the steps to install the gapps image as well (if you’re planning on using the gapps, and you probably are).  All done?  Reboot.  Your phone will come up like it’s all brand new.

I’ve take some additional steps, going a bit further than just stock CM6.  I also added the HTC_IME Mod keyboard, which replaces the standard Android keyboard with the HTC Sense keyboard.  Once you get it installed, selecting it is as simple as doing a long press on a text field, and changing the input method to HTC_IME mod (assuming you’ve already turned the mod on in the system keyboard preferences!).

So back to the review.  So, was it all worth it?  I’d have to say yes.  Absolutely.  There was certain a small amount of inconvenience, associated with backup & restore of data, re-creating accounts and sync mappings, as well as the little things like prefs for ringtones, etc.  That was far and away outweighed by the good stuff I got – better performance, enhanced feature set – especially the use of ADW.Launcher by default, and the enhanced power control widget.

HTC_IME Keyboard Landscape
HTC_IME Keyboard Landscape

Ok, so now suppose you want to go back to where you started, how do you undo all of this?  Simply boot back into the recovery image, do another factory reset/wipe, wipe the cache and then restore.  Reboot, and you’re back.

Android is still in many regards somewhat of a wild west affair with regard to software updates, especially given the open source nature of the OS.  Will there be bumps along the way?  Probably.  Are you the type wants a phone that “just works” and doesn’t like to tinker?  CM6 probably isn’t for you, nor is pretty much any custom ROM.

Review: Nokia N97 Mini

N97 MiniRecently, the nice folks at WOMWorld sent me an N97 Mini to review.  Thanks guys.  I received the Euro model, the RM-555, which supports UMTS on the 900, 1900 and 2100 Mhz bands, in addition to quad-band GSM and a 802.11g WLAN radio.  Living in the US, I’d have preferred to have looked at a US model that included the UMTS 850 Mhz band, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?  Right.  So, on to the show..

Physical Attributes

The device’s size is great.  Nice and small.  I had an N97 for a (very) short time not long after it came out, and I was not a fan of the form factor.  It felt almost like carrying around an old 9500.  What a brick that thing was.  Contrasted with this, I’d be totally satisfied with the form factor.  Obviously, thinner wN97 Mini Home Screen Portraitould be better, to a point, but I’m not unhappy with the thickness.  In terms of construction, there’s just enough metal to make it feel solid in your hands, like it’s not going to snap in half while you’re typing on it.

One problem I had with the layout – the position of the headphone jack.  On my train ride home from the office yesterday, I had my headphones plugged in while listening to some tunes.  Typing a couple of emails and texts was awkward.  It would have been better if the headphone jack had moved toward the top, but the camera assembly would then need to be relocated.  Typing on the keyboard wasn’t bad, took a bit of getting used to, but nothing ridiculous.

Software

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  S60 is really showing its age.  Yes, S60 v5 has some advances over v3, even FP2, but it’s still got a lot of the baggage that’s accompanied S60 devices over the years – mostly speed related.  This phone won’t win any UI races.  The device lacks any form of multi-touch capabilities, due to its use of a resistive touchscreen.  Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments about how you can use resistive screens while wearing gloves.  Frankly, I don’t often find myself trying to use my phone while wearing gloves.  I’d rather have a capacitive screen – much more responsive.

N97 Mini Google MapsAs it’s big brother does, the N97 Mini includes Ovi Maps, and is compatible with the new version of Ovi Maps that includes free navigation.  I love the free navigation concept, and expect others to follow suit.  That said, I much prefer using Google Maps.  I find it faster and more responsive than Ovi Maps overall, and think it’s much better at finding things in the area because of its hooks into the Google Search infrastructure.  I’d use something like Ovi Maps in my car for navigation, but I’ve owned a Garmin Nuvi for several years now, and I’m not quite ready to get rid of it.

For email, I’m using Mail for Exchange.  The latest version for S60 v5 does not N97 Mini Home Screen Landscapeinclude HTML mail support, something I miss from my E72.  I’m planning on trying out RoadSync on this phone as well, but since I already know that it doesn’t support network destinations (i.e. access point groups), I’ll be disappointed there as well, though I will get my HTML mail.

In the browser arena, as expected, I found the Nokia browser to be adequate, but not really as good as I’d like to see it.  I tried out Opera Mobile on the device, and was generally more pleased with its functionality, though I found it to be slightly less responsive than the stock Nokia browser.

Network

I ran a some speed tests from a variety of sites, using both AT&T 3G data as well as via the WLAN in my home.  Over the air, I saw download speeds ranging from 500 – 780 kbps.  Over the WLAN, I saw speeds around 1.2 Mbps.  On my Mac on the same WLAN, I see about 18 Mbps down and 4.2 Mbps up (I have 20/5 FiOS at home).  These performance numbers are consistent with my tests with other S60 phones, like the E71, E72 and my wife’s E75.  It’s also close to what my iPhone toting friends in the area see.

Conclusions

In summary, the N97 Mini is definitely a better choice than the bigger N97.  It’s more pocketable, and has the same features, with a better form factor.  If all you’re after is an S60 v5 touch device, you’d probably be better off with the 5800 Nav Edition, but if you can’t live without a qwerty keyboard, the N97 Mini is a winner.  Will I buy one?  Probably not – I’m satisfied with my E72.  Right now, Android 2.1 has ActiveSync that gets email and contacts.  If they add calender support to it, I’ll be on an Android device before too long.  Why?  Newer devices, more innovation, actual integration with Google Voice – something I actually use on a daily basis and more than one vendor really interested in using it.  Hopefully S60 can turn things around before my next phone purchase.  As a co-worker said the other day, the call quality on Nokia devices is better than anything else I’ve ever used.

Home Virtualization Project 2.0

Virtualization FunnelYou may remember the Home Virtualization Project from last year.  In that project, I converted my existing server, based on a Shuttle XPC (SP35P2 Pro, to be more precise) from a Linux server running VMware Server 2.0 to a VMware ESXi 3.5 server.  It worked well, but left a few things to be desired, such as..

  1. No RAID
  2. Onboard NIC required significant fiddling to get working under ESXi 3.5u4
  3. No onboard video, so I needed a video card, plus a network card to get going (the real root cause of #1 above).
  4. A bit loud.  The system wasn’t terribly loud, but for something that’s on full-time in the background in my office, it could be distracting at times.

So here we are, it’s a brand-new year, so the big project was an upgrade, inspired by some requirements I found with a project at work.  In the end, the old server was converted into a workstation and now has a happy home.  So what’s the current system?  Another Shuttle XPC.  This time, it’s the SG45H7.  This is a slightly smaller chassis than the already small SP35P2 Pro.  The SP line has space for 2 hard drives up top, above the optical drive that the SG line lacks, resulting in a shorter case.  The SG45H7 is targeted as an HTPC, and includes onboard video with both SVGA and HDMI outputs.  Further, it includes 2 expansion slots, one PCIe x16 and one PCI. Continue reading

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