galaxy nexus: some first impressions

It was nearly two years ago that I got my first Android phone, a HTC Desire, so I figured it was time for an upgrade, so this week I picked up a shiny new Galaxy Nexus. While it’s not quite as fast as some newer phones, it’s a massive upgrade from the Desire, it’s affordable, and it should be more than fast enough to see me through the next two years.

Hardware impressions

The first thing you notice is its sheer size, and the second is that amazing screen. It’s large enough that it’s a little difficult to use one-handed, but I’m definitely getting used to it — the Desire already seems tiny in comparison. It’s surprisingly light, but not so much that it feels cheap, even though it’s mostly plastic. The textured back panel feels good, but doesn’t provide the same grip that the Desire’s rubberised back does.

Compared to the Desire, the performance is ridiculous. The Desire’s Achilles heel is its minimal internal storage, which leads many people (myself included) to install a custom ROM that moves internal application storage on to a special partition on the SD card; it’s a clever solution, but it can make the phone feel sluggish, because loading applications puts you at the mercy of your SD card’s performance. While I’m sure the substantially faster CPU and extra RAM help, I suspect it’s the faster internal storage that makes the Nexus feel so much faster in use.

ICS changes

I was running a hacked ICS ROM on my Desire, so the Nexus wasn’t a software upgrade for me; it was somewhat odd, in a way that I’m sure iPhone owners must be familiar with, to find my shiny new phone running the same OS as my existing phone. ICS really is a major upgrade — beyond the extra features, it just looks and feels much more distinct and consistent than any previous release.

The Nexus uses on-screen soft keys instead of hardware buttons, and the traditional menu button is not among them. In apps updated for ICS, the menu is available through a button within the application UI, while in older apps, a small menu button gets added to the soft keys; the newly-revamped Android style guide has all the details. I think it’s a good move — when I started using Android, I had to get in to the habit of hitting the menu button in every app just to see what it revealed, so making menus more discoverable is a plus.

Storage matters

One thing I really like about the Nexus is that it has unified internal storage — there’s still sandboxed application/data storage and shared virtual SD card storage, but they’re both on the one partition, so there’s no fixed division between them. The upshot is that the Nexus doesn’t support USB mass storage, since it can no longer provide direct block-level access to the internal storage. Instead, it implements the PTP and MTP protocols for file transfer.

Most photo apps (including Shotwell and iPhoto) support PTP, several music players (including Banshee and Rhythmbox) support MTP, and Nautilus supports them both, so if you just want to copy files, that’s easy to do, too. Windows also has built-in MTP support, but for general file transfer on OS X, you’ll need the Android File Transfer app. Another option is to use AirDroid, which lets you transfer files over Wi-Fi using your browser.

It’s clear that Google sees USB transfers as an archaic solution when you can store your photos and music in the cloud instead. I signed up for Google Music when I was last in the US, and I’ve since uploaded my music collection to it, so it was all accessible on the Nexus as soon as I signed in to my Google account. The photos from my Desire were all there, too, thanks to Google+’s instant upload feature.

Why not something newer?

The Galaxy Nexus has some obvious competitors now, such as HTC’s One X (and the smaller One S) and Samsung’s Galaxy S III; they’re both of a similar size and have newer, faster hardware. There were a few reasons for going with the Nexus — cost was a factor, as was the fixed battery on the One X (I’ve already bought a spare battery for use on our next holiday) — but my main motive was to get a stock Android device, without vendor customisations.

Both HTC and Samsung insist on some pretty heavy-handed meddling with the OS, undoing a lot of the great design work that went in to ICS. It also means they’ll be less likely to get updates in a timely manner — they may all run ICS today, but Android 4.1 looks set to be revealed as soon as next week, and there’s no telling how long it could take for HTC and Samsung to release their own upgrades.

transit of venus 2012

I haven’t written about any astronomical stuff for a while, but today was a special day — the 2012 Transit of Venus. A transit is just like an eclipse, but with a visibly smaller object moving in front of a large one; in this case, Venus moved across the face of the Sun, as viewed from Earth. These transits are rare — the next isn’t until 2117 — so I spent the morning at a special viewing event at the Melbourne Planetarium.

There were some clouds around early in the morning, but by the start of the transit at about 8:16, all was clear. The Planetarium had a great setup: a couple of small solar telescopes, which gave a great view of the whole Sun with some surface detail, and a couple of larger telescopes with heavy solar filters on them, which had more zoomed-in views. There was also a telescope set up to project the Sun’s light on to a projection screen.

After the actual viewing, there was a planetarium show explaining the mechanics of the transit, and discussing its historical importance; there’s some more detail on Wikipedia, but suffice it to say that observations of the transit were a big deal, and the 1769 transit in particular saw expeditions to all corners of the globe to get measurements. By the time the show was done, clouds had rolled over, and it looked like they were there to stay, but I hoped there’d be some breaks later in the day so I could make some observations from home.

Home observations

I hadn’t intended to try observing the transit at home, but after seeing it at the Planetarium, I was ready to give it a go. I took a simple approach: I strapped my binoculars to a tripod, pointed the big end toward the Sun, and pointed the eyepiece toward a piece of paper set up as a makeshift projection screen. It was very rudimentary, but it worked! I attached some extra paper to the binoculars to act as a shade, making sure that the projection screen was in shadow to give the best possible image.

A simple projection setup for solar observation, using binoculars

I used my DSLR to get some photos of the projected image, too. The images aren’t super-sharp, but you can definitely see Venus, and even a couple of faint sunspots in one of the images:

A little bit before the end of the transit, with Venus still within the Sun's disc

Right near the end of the transit, Venus looks like a tiny indent in the side of the Sun

I had trouble with the clouds on-and-off at home, and they rolled over after that last shot and stayed for a while; by the time they cleared, Venus was long gone.

It was definitely worth the effort of setting up at home, and it was surprisingly easy to do. After observing this transit, I’m definitely keen to look at some other solar events — a solar eclipse would be great! I don’t know when the next solar eclipse is due, but whenever it is, I’ll be ready.

sketchbook: musopen musings

Musopen is a fascinating project — it hosts public domain recordings of, and sheet music for, a large number of classical pieces. Many of the most famous classical works have long been in the public domain, but while the compositions themselves may be free to use, recordings of those works are still subject to copyright. Musopen, then, hosts recordings of those works that have also been released in to the public domain, mainly from student and college orchestras.

Nearly two years ago, Musopen’s founder had an ambitious idea: use funds from a Kickstarter project to commission classical recordings from a top-quality orchestra, which would then be released in to the public domain. The campaign was a great success, and the resulting recordings are now complete. The final mixes aren’t ready yet, but I’m more excited to see that the raw multitrack recordings are available!

The sessions are in ProTools format, but the recordings themselves are WAVs that can be imported in to Ardour or any other DAW quite easily. With some 560GB of high-quality orchestral stems to work with, there’s tremendous scope to incorporate these recordings in to other works, or process and edit them to create entirely new works. This is an incredible gift to the recording community, and I have a feeling we’ll be hearing elements of these recordings for decades to come.

In that spirit, I spent some time over the weekend playing with one of the pieces in Ardour. I took one of the shorter (and more frantic) pieces — Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro — and extracted a few short elements, stretching them out to create a short ambient electronic (the genre I affectionately call “artwank”) track. Beyond Ardour’s time-stretching and pitch-shifting tools, I used Argotlunar and Cumulus, which are both granular synths, to add a bit more textural variety.

mp3 | vorbis | 2:04