OK Computer

On my desk at work I’ve got a fair number of books which get used to varying degrees. My favourite of these – even though I never use it in a work capacity – is one I brought in myself, called “The Usborne Guide to Computers”. Published some 30 years ago, it describes itself as “a simple and colourful introduction for beginners”, and includes the following, somewhat prophetic, words on the back cover:

To lots of people, computers are complicated and mysterious machines, but before long, owning a computer will probably be as common as owning a wristwatch.

I think they got that one pretty much spot on, especially if when you factor in smartphones (owned, apparently, by around 1/3 of the adult UK population).

The reasons I keep that book around are mostly ironic, but it’s also a useful reminder of how far we’ve advanced in a very short space of time (relatively). Several things presented in that book as visions of the future have come to pass, such as pocket computers with touch-sensitive controls and the ability to “call up a computer hundreds of miles away and receive information from it on your own computer”. There’s even a section about the pros and cons of large “databanks”, which notes that some people are concerned about such data falling into the wrong hands – concerns that are still relevant today.

I must have got this book when I was about 6 or 7, which makes it an interesting reference point in comparing the technology I grew up with to what Heather and Megan are already used to dealing with. I took the following picture this morning, on my “pocket computer” and it perfectly illustrates how at ease our girls are with all sorts of gadgets and gizmos.

M + H use the iPadYes, that really is Heather showing Megan how to use the iPad! Of course, at 5 months she’s far too young to grasp what it is, or what it’s for, although touchscreens do mean she can interact – I’ve got “drawings” saved to prove it!

Heather, on the other hand, is a veteran. Peppa Pig and Dora games are old hat now – videos are where it’s at. And it’s not just the ones we’ve ripped for our upcoming trip to Ireland – she’s also a big fan of YouTube. Except she doesn’t call it YouTube – the first syllable tends to get replaced with whatever it is she actually wants to watch (“MickeyTube”, “DoraTube” etc). Navigating the menus, opening and closing apps, changing the volume and even unlocking the iPad/phone are all skills she’s well and truly mastered – and that goes for my Android phone as well as the iPad and Mummy’s iPhone.

The downside to all this, of course, is that sometimes she can get a bit too adventurous. For example, this week she’s discovered how to re-arrange icons, sort them into menus, and even delete apps altogether. Needless to say we’ve now locked down a lot of these functions, but I’m sure there’s plenty more for her to discover.

So, at two and a half, does Heather’s tech-savvy highlight some sort of genius in the making, or is it a testament to the simplicity of modern touchscreen devices? I suspect the latter, combined with a child’s lack of techno-fear . Whatever it is, Gem and I are constantly amazed at what she manages to do. And I suspect it won’t be long before she’s showing us how to do things, as well as her sister.

This autumn I'm running/cycling in a 30km duathlon and a half marathon, to raise money for Breast Cancer Campaign. You can read more about my challenge here or support me here. All donations, however big or small, gratefully received!

iPad or not iPad?

iPad 2 adYesterday, Apple launched the iPad 2. Depending on whose reaction you read, this is either the most important event in the history of mankind, or just a minor upgrade to what is already a pretty good product.

What caught my eye, though, wasn’t all the improvements that have been made (iPad 2 is faster/lighter/thinner/has cameras) but the £100 drop in price of the original models.

We’re going to Ireland for a family wedding later in the year, and had been investigating in-car DVD players to keep Heather entertained en route. We very quickly came to the conclusion that it would be an expensive purchase for something that will only be used once in a blue moon, but that it would ultimately be worth it.

And then I had an idea.

For a long time Gem has dreamt of a touchscreen computer she could use in the kitchen. For someone who cooks – and in more recent times, bakes too – it would be more convenient than printing recipes off the internet, not to mention better for the environment! For years now, we’ve been monitoring the cost of touchscreen devices as they’ve become more mainstream and more affordable, although still not cheap either.

So, my idea was to buy a tablet computer that could be used to play movies and/or games in the car – objective #1 – but could also be used in the kitchen – objective #2. Yes, it’s going to be more expensive than a DVD player, but if we get more use out of it, that makes it better value, right?

This was the tail end of 2010, as decent Android tablets started to appear on the market. Only trouble is that with one or two exceptions (Galaxy Tab, Dell Streak, neither of which had as big a screen as we’d like) there was nothing to actually hold and play with. No sign of an Archos 101 or Advent VEGA, which were the two tablets that caught my eye. And I’m not going to part with hundreds of pounds for something I’ve not had a chance to try out.

So we waited. And waited. And, um, waited. And now the iPad 2 has come along. Which is still above the £200-300 price range we’ve set ourselves, but it has caused the price of the entry level iPad 1 to drop to £329, which I think we could stretch to, and I have no doubt we’d be happy with that.

I also know, however, thata slew of new Android tablets are coming in the next few months. Whether they’ll be any good at our price point, or come along in time for our road trip, is a different question. And there isn’t much information about yet, on which to base any kind of decision.

So here’s our dilemma: we’re definitely going to buy something, so do we pick up a discounted iPad 1 while stocks last, or wait another month or two in the hope that an Android device comes along that fits our basic requirement (> 7″ screen, plays music/video, web browser, no 3G or cameras required) and that we can actually get our hands on, the risk being that nothing does and we end up splashing out on something off spec.

Of course, winning an iPad in Why Settle‘s prize draw would make it an easy decision!

Comments/suggestions welcome…

This autumn I'm running/cycling in a 30km duathlon and a half marathon, to raise money for Breast Cancer Campaign. You can read more about my challenge here or support me here. All donations, however big or small, gratefully received!