Windows Phone Is Actually Awesome

Windows takes a lot of crap from fanboys, and Apple products do the same, but while our prejudices can be well-founded it’s always worth taking an honest look at the opposition.  With its Windows Phone mobile OS, Microsoft has built a very fun and functional platform that in some ways exceeds the user experience of Android and iOS.

Microsoft’s presence on mobile platforms somewhat changes its historical relationship with hardware.  In the days when you were a PC person or a Mac person, one advantage of the personal computer was an open hardware standard, allowing not only for custom computer appearance, but easy part interchangeability.  Apple, on the other hand, released highly integrated platforms that were much more likely to be replaced than repaired or modified.  With smartphones, this advantage for Microsoft no longer exists.  Smartphones are integrated platforms and can’t be upgraded in bits and pieces like the PCs of yore.  But Microsoft remains a software-centered business, allowing hardware partners like Nokia and HTC to take the lead even as it dabbles in offerings like the Surface tablet and the hugely successful Xbox line.

My first exposure to the future was Microsoft’s Zune HD, a media player without a cellular radio.  In 2009, the premium materials used (metal and glass) and the cutting edge-technology (flash storage and capacitative touchscreen) really anticipated the demands of smartphone consumers in 2013.  Microsoft’s user interface on the Zune was bold and thoughtful, and has clearly carried over to the new Windows Phone platform.  Text is large and clean and represents a highly evolved design sensibility.

But the star of Windows Phone is the new live tile interface, which allows you to customize what you most want to touch and where and how to touch it.  You can devote larger areas of the screen to represent more important or more frequently used apps.  I am most likely to be taking a picture, so I place the Camera app on the spot where my thumb extends most naturally, and enlarge it so I am more likely to actually select it with a hurried tap.  Put your favorite apps where your thumb swings most easily, and when you run out of room scroll down and start over from the center of action.  Live tiles can stretch on forever, like an infinite game of hopscotch.  And rearranging the placement and sizing of tiles is like modern art (a Mondrian) for the OCD power user.

Live tiles vs. Piet Mondrian
Live tiles vs. Piet Mondrian


The quality of Windows Phone might be a moot point in the face of Apple’s and Google’s dominant market positions, but Nokia has engineered a game-changing technology and promised it all, for now, to Microsoft.  The 41-megapixel Pro Cam found in Nokia’s Lumia 1020 redefines what a smartphone can and should be capable of.  You can read elsewhere about how the technology works, capturing a ton of data and down-sampling it into a stellar 5 megapixel image.  In a perverse fashion, Pro Cam proves that megapixels don’t matter: after all, the great quality of the final image is represented in 5 megapixels, not 41.  With a big enough sensor you wouldn’t need 41 million crappy, crammed-together photodiodes to make a great 5 megapixel image.

Of course, the image quality of Pro Cam still has limits imposed by its smaller sensor size relative to mirrorless cameras and DSLRs.  Noise is higher, and dynamic range is lower.  But you run into limitations with larger sensors as well, such as not being able to fit the damn camera in your pocket (with apologies to Sony’s RX100).

There is an old saying, you get what you pay for, and while this adage holds less true in the age of Google, Microsoft is working feverishly to uphold it.  And with the Gates Foundation working so progressively to better peoples’ lives through science, it’s hard to feel foolish putting money in Microsoft’s pockets.  I switched to the Lumia 1020 from a Nexus 4, and there is so much more in the handset to love.  The bulging lens assembly of the Pro Cam adds to the personality and fetish appeal of the phone, and the image stabilization system rattles faintly when you move the phone, which means you could use it to entertain your baby.  The 1020 offers more concrete advantages as well, such as a screen that is easily readable in sunlight and excellent battery life that can stretch to 2 days of moderate use.

But user experience is king, and without Microsoft’s live tiles and underlying OS all this technology would be wasted (as it was on Nokia’s 808 PureView, released in 2012 with a Symbian OS).  There are still a few drawbacks to Windows phone, such as a trailing app ecosystem, but I downloaded all the software I needed and used on Android without a problem.  The 1020 is also a large phone, especially compared to the lilliputian iPhone 5, but it’s not too big by any means.  Much respect to Apple and Google, but I’ve touched the future, and I won’t be going back.


Kepler Doubles its Prospects

The planet-hunting spacecraft known as Kepler has detected the first definitive exoplanet in a binary star system, and lead author Dr. Laurance Doyle has all the details on Life at the SETI Institute. He writes, “Perhaps half the stars in the galaxy are in double star systems. Understanding that planets can form in close binary systems means that these, too, can be targets in the search for habitable worlds.” The twin stars have a combined mass less than that of our sun—and the planet is the size of Saturn, in an orbit as close as Venus. Fellow SETI Astronomer Dr. Franck Marchis writes, “There is no equivalent in our solar system of such a large and dense exoplanet. Kepler-16b has the same size as Saturn but a higher density, suggesting that it could be made of a core of ice/rock (half its size) surrounded by an atmosphere in a configuration similar to Saturn.” In other words, having two suns doesn’t automatically make a planet hot, sandy, and full of Jawas. It’s all about orbiting in that “Goldilocks” zone, where the temperature is just right.

Feats of Engineering

It seems like every time we turn around, there’s another new smartphone or robotic butler pouring coffee in our laps. On Uncertain Principles, the engineering breakthroughs du jour are “technical advances in ion trap quantum computing.” Chad Orzel explains, “previous experiments have used optical frequencies to manipulate the states of the ions, using light from very complicated laser systems.” Such lasers (though effective) are unwieldy, and researchers are now using simple microwaves to perform the same functions. This promises quantum computers on a chip—eventually. Meanwhile, on the USA Science and Engineering Festival blog, Kandy Collins profiles a researcher who used nanoparticles “to build synthetic platelets of biodegradable polymers which are designed to link with the body’s natural platelets to slow or stop bleeding faster after injury.” And on The Weizmann Wave, scientists are fabricating some of the straightest nanowires ever by depositing molecules of gallium nitride into the grooves of an artificial sapphire surface. Professor Ernesto Joselevich says since “control of structure and miniaturization go hand in hand in the semiconductor industry, this method could well become standard within the decade.”

Aesthetic Tech

On Universe, Claire L. Evans takes us all the way back to 1966, when an event called 9 Evenings happened in New York City. This “epic art salon” brought together ten artists with a bevy of engineers from Bell Laboratories, who “helped the artists with complex technical components to their pieces.” FM transmitters, infrared cameras, amplifiers and photoelectric cells contributed to “performances, installations, and dances that blended technology with fine art to somewhat legendary effect.” Claire has pictures and video of the event on Universe. And on Bioephemera, Jessica Palmer shows us a “clever little feat of engineering and product design,” a watch which displays the time in braille. Called the Haptica, this watch has a novel aesthetic informed by its function, making it (shall we say) timeless.

Astro News Near and Far

On Life at the SETI Institute, Dr. Franck Marchis shares the latest results from Kepler, a telescope in an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit which keeps a distant eye on 156,453 stars. Kepler watches for tell-tale reductions in brightness, which “could be due to the transit of an exoplanet passing between its star and us.” As of Tuesday, Kepler has identified 1202 likely new exoplanets, tripling the number of known worlds beyond our solar system. These results suggest that out of the 200 billion stars in our galaxy, “several hundred million of them could have an exoplanet with a surface temperature adequate to sustain liquid water.” Great, now where’s our hyperdrive? Ethan Siegel also reports that Hubble has detected a galaxy at a record-breaking redshift of 10.3, making it the most distant galaxy ever observed. If it still exists, it’s probably full of planets too.

Google: The Hand that Rocks the Cradle

If the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, then what of the hand that rocks the world? Dr. Jeffrey Toney reports that Google recently showed its revolutionary colors with speak2tweet, a service that enabled netless Egyptians to access Twitter over the phone. After breaking with China over censorship issues last year, Google’s political conscience is becoming clear. Their Android operating system powers smartphones around the world, their driverless cars turn heads in California, and the new information services just keep on coming. Jessica Palmer shares the Google Art Project, where you can virtually tour the world’s museums and inspect artwork at incredible levels of detail. PZ Myers decries the indiscriminate filtering of Google Scholar, which returns creationist sources among its academic search results. And Frank Swain plugs the phrase ‘apparent death’ into Google’s Ngram Viewer, which plots the rise and fall of word usage in its concordance of digitized books. Google’s mantra is ‘don’t be evil,’ but as their influence grows, here’s hoping that power won’t corrupt their good intentions.

Linking Fact and Fiction

i-727d32e5032303905de7127284b5eaa9-sfbuzz.jpgGood science takes time, but good science fiction hinges on impatience. Why wait for the invention of real technological marvels when you can imagine them yourself or see them on TV? On The Quantum Pontiff, Dave Bacon ponders the formative links between fantasy and reality, spurred by an Intel talk on the possibilities of “fictional prototyping.” He writes, “the creative act of telling a story shares many similarities with the creative act of developing a new research idea or inventing a new technology.” On Built on Facts, Matt Springer compares phasers with lasers, writing “it’s a nice job perk that I can see old science fiction tropes come to life pretty much every day.” On Aardvarchaelogy, Martin Rundkvist says there are two ways of writing SF: either you use current scientific knowledge to write an explanation that “sort of makes sense,” or you use “technobabble” to dazzle your readers with made-up vocabulary. Do neither and, like author Dan Simmons, you will be ridiculed. Finally, travel back in time for an article by Chad Orzel on Uncertain Principles, where he considers the long-running role of mysticism in SF, and notes that the genre “has broadened considerably over the last few decades.”

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