iPad: First Impressions

First thoughts on Apple’s “magical” device.

iPadLast week, while I was away in Ventura, CA, recording a revision to my Twitter course for Lynda.com, I took the plunge and bought an iPad. I bought the 32 GB WiFi version. I already pay for Internet in three places and am not willing to add a fourth monthly Internet bill.

Because I had a lot of work to do all day in the recording booth and a lot of work to do in the evening to prepare for the next day in the recording booth, I didn’t open my new toy for over 24 hours. This was particularly difficult on the last day of recording when I could see the bag containing my new iPad right outside my booth, just beyond where my producer sat.

@Miraz commented on Twitter that I have iron willpower. She may be right, at least as far as this goes.

So later that day, when the course was in the can (dig my movie lingo), I finally got a chance to break my iPad out of its box and play with it.

Very First Impressions

My immediate impression on power up: disappointment.

The trouble is, if you don’t have an Internet connection when you first power up, there’s not much of interest to play with. So the “right out of the box” experience isn’t too thrilling. Perhaps Apple should have included some sort of video tour? Or sample content? Something to give you a gee whiz, this is fun feeling?

I didn’t have Internet when I first fired it up. I was staying in a hotel that had WiFi but it was kind of flakey. I’d connect with my MacBook Pro and maybe be able to access a page or two and then it would throw up a page forcing me to log in for free. It did this at least once a day. When my iPad reported that too many people were connected (?), I thought it was this weird hotel Internet.

Similarly, I had trouble connecting my iPad to my MacBook Pro with the provided cable. I kept getting weird error messages on the iPad. I kept doing what I thought — intuitively, mind you — would fix the problem. Eventually, it did. I made the connection to my MacBook Pro and, moments later, the weird hotel login screen appeared in Safari on my iPad. I connected to the world.

Suddenly, the iPad wasn’t so disappointing anymore.

The Good

I’ll tackle the list of what’s good about my first experience first.

  • Included Apps. The iPad comes with a number of applications and most of them are good, well designed, and useful. I’m constantly surprised by how well thought out some of them are. I’m especially impressed with the implementation of Address Book and the way Mail makes it very easy to add a sender as a contact. (More on apps — specifically, interface — in “The Bad” section below.)
  • iPad CaseApple Case. Frankly, I can’t understand why so many third party vendors are creating and selling cases for this device. The plain black case Apple offers (at a whopping $49) is excellent. It provides the protection you need for your iPad investment without making a slim, portable device unnecessarily bulky. And since the cover can be used to prop up the iPad at an angle in landscape view, it does double duty. Now that I’ve slipped my iPad into it, I can’t imagine the need for anything else.

Just two good things? Yes. For now. After all, these are my first impressions.

The Bad

Here’s what I didn’t like about the iPad. Remember these are first impressions. I’ve organized these by how nit-picky they are. The first ones are minor whines; the last ones are what I consider serious drawbacks.

  • Packaging. There’s too much. The box is beautiful, as most Apple product boxes are, but it’s about twice as big as it needs to be. As a result, I had to leave it behind in my hotel garbage pail. Couldn’t fit it in my luggage. And let’s be real here: Aren’t big boxes a bit wasteful?
  • Documentation. There is none. Well, there is a small card with a picture of the iPad and callouts to what its few buttons do. Beyond than that and a few brief instructions on the back of the card, you’re pretty much on your own until you can get on the Internet. That’s where you can download a 154-page iPad User Guide available as a PDF. As @JeffCarlson pointed out, there’s a link to this manual in Safari’s bookmarks. Sadly, I replaced Safari’s bookmarks before seeing that link. I had to stumble upon the documentation on Apple’s Web site. You can find it on the Manuals page.
  • Interface. While I’m sure the iPad’s interface is completely intuitive to someone who has been using an iPhone or an iPod Touch for years, it was very unintuitive to me. (I’ve never owned an iPhone or iPod Touch.) I didn’t immediately (or intuitively) know how to go back to a previous screen or perform some functions. I kept looking for Mac OS type interface elements that I needed to get a job done and coming up empty. Instead, there was some other element II’d never seen before that did the job. Yeah, I know I’m not a genius, but I make my living figuring out how things like this work and I still struggled a bit with it. I think that putting this in the hands of someone who has always used the same kind of computer and operating system his/her entire life will stoke up a lot of frustration. It’s very interesting to me how individuals who have no computer experience — very young children, older folks, and cats — seem to be able to use the iPad without much problem. I think it’s because they don’t have to “relearn” anything to do so.
  • Keyboard. In general, the keyboard is pretty good and very easy to use. But it’s definitely not one a writer would depend on to write a long piece. I started this blog post on my iPad (in the WordPress app, no less) and wound up sending it to my iMac to finish. (I got as far as the second bullet point in this list and added the images later.) I would go nuts if I had to write more than a few paragraphs with that keyboard. My main gripe? The apostrophe key. It’s in a weird place. I do need to mention, however, that since I learned how to use the dictionary assistant feature that’s part of text entry — I had to look it up in the User’s Guide, for Pete’s sake! — typing is a lot better, although not much faster. Using a wireless keyboard helps tremendously. The Keyboard Dock that Apple offers, by the way, is obviously not designed for travel. The Dock part doesn’t detach, making it extremely bulky. I’m surprised at Apple. They can do better design that that.
  • KindleKindle vs. iBooks. I think Apple missed the boat on this one. The Kindle app (see screenshot) has iBooks beat. Why? Because the Kindle app is available for iPad, iPhone, BlackBerry, Mac OS, Windows, etc. iBooks is available on iPad. So I go to Amazon.com and I buy a book. That book is automatically available on all of my registered devices. My bookmarks and last page read are automatically synchronized among them. So I can read a book in bed on my iPad and then, the next day, when I’m stuck waiting in line at the Motor Vehicle office, I can whip out my BlackBerry and continue reading where I left off. Theoretically, I can also register my husband’s Windows laptop so he can read my books, too. The only thing that would make this better is the ability to loan books to other Amazon.com account holders like Barnes and Noble’s Nook. (By the way, I named my iPad “Not Nook” because I cancelled my Nook order in January, expecting to buy an iPad instead. B&N dropped the ball when they couldn’t fulfill orders in a timely manner. Not having a problem doing that anymore, I bet.)
  • iTunes. The iTunes app is really the iTunes store. It’s embarrassing to admit that it took several frustrating sessions with my iPad to figure out that I had to use the iPod app to access my iTunes music. Hello, Apple? You had to include two store applications? You couldn’t just make one? This really illustrates what some blogger — wish I could remember who! — said about the iPad: it’s just a vehicle for selling content.
  • No FlashFlash. Okay, so the iPad doesn’t support Flash. I don’t care very much because I hate Flash. I hate the way it’s overused on the Web, I hate the way it takes so damn long to load on the shitty slow Internet connection in my Wickenburg office, I hate the way when it finally loads that it wastes time and bandwidth with idiotic content. Take, for example, the crappy design of Stingray Sushi’s Web site. Like I need to see dancing Sumo wrestlers? Hear loud music? I couldn’t see or hear it on my iPad, but even when my husband connected with his laptop, he still couldn’t figure out how to view a menu. Web designers lean too hard on Flash to make Web sites they think will impress clients. They don’t consider the user experience. If not having Flash on my iPad means I’ll miss experiencing crap like Stingray’s site (see iPad screenshot), I consider that a positive feature of the iPad. Right now, it’s just a drawback because I occasionally can’t see something I might need to see.
  • Tethering for Internet Access. I knew this would be an issue when I bought it, but it still bugs me: I cannot use Bluetooth to tether my iPad to my BlackBerry Storm for Internet access. I can do so with my MacBook Pros, my iMac, my old PowerBook, and even my Dell laptop when I need to. But this capability is unsupported on iPad and is likely to remain so. I resent this. The only reason Apple has locked up the tethering feature is so force encourage people to buy a more expensive device and sign up for Internet access with Apple-approved providers. And even a long-time Apple user like me — it’s been 21 years since I bought my first Mac — should be able to look at the situation objectively enough to realize that it sucks.

Overall, I Like it

After reading all this, it may sound like I hate my iPad. I don’t. I rather like it.

The challenge is to understand what the device is and isn’t — and how it can be part of my life. I already see a bright future for it as a take-everywhere device. I even bought a new purse that it will fit comfortably inside. (I was long overdue for a new purse anyway.)

Testing has shown that it handles my multiple IMAP e-mail accounts extremely well. Browsing is quite acceptable. The e-book reader (Kindle is my choice) is magnificent. Syncing through MobileMe puts my calendar, address book, and Safari bookmarks at my fingertips. (Literally.) Twitterrific’s iPad app is an excellent choice for accessing Twitter and Instapaper gives me the ability to read Web content I’ve saved for later reading, even when I’m offline. The Netflix app gives me access to movies available for immediate playing through my Netflix account. I’ve even tested the iPad with my merchant account and found that have no trouble processing credit card transactions.

Of course, these aren’t first impressions. These are the things I’ve learned since Wednesday evening at about 8 PM. Less than four days.

As I learn more, I’ll likely start churning out how-to pieces and tips on Maria’s Guides. I’ll be sharing more overall impressions — good and bad — here.

But don’t worry. I do have a life beyond my iPad.

Dan Brown Doesn’t Know Much about Helicopters

I guess a best-selling author doesn’t need to check his facts.

A few weeks ago, I forced myself to slog through Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I’m trying really hard to understand why people like this guy’s work. He’s a gawdawful writer. Have we become a nation of illiterates?

As a helicopter pilot, I’m really sensitive to errors about helicopters that appear in fiction. The Lost Symbol was chock full of them. Apparently, it’s too much to ask Dan Brown to take a peek at Wikipedia or talk to a helicopter pilot when writing passages that concern helicopters. It makes me wonder what other “facts” he got wrong.

This bugged me so much at the time that I wrote a post title “Facts in Fiction,” where I discuss the failure of novelists to check the real-life components of their fictional worlds. I wanted to include a discussion of Brown’s failures in that post, but didn’t have time to complete it. Instead, I’ll cover them here.

These are the passages that bugged me most:

Without warning, Omar felt a deafening vibration all around him, as if a tractor trailer were about to collide with his cab. He looked up, but the street was deserted. The noise increased, and suddenly a sleek black helicopter dropped down out of the night and landed hard in the middle of the plaza map.

Deafening vibration? We get it: helicopters are loud. But do they deafen with their vibrations?

Black Hawk Helicopter

Public domain image of UH-60L by SSGT Suzanne M. Jenkins, USAF from Wikipedia.

The “sleek black helicopter” he’s describing is a “Modified Sikorsky UH-60,” which is basically a Black Hawk. I’m not sure what kind of modifications Brown is talking about — there are many versions of this helicopter. I’m also not sure I’d use the adjective “sleek.”

But what bothers me more is how it “dropped down out of the night and landed hard” — if it “dropped out of the night,” it would indeed “land hard.” This poor helicopter “landed hard” three times in the book. I think the CIA should consider getting a new pilot.

CIA field agent Turner Simkins was perched on the strut of the Sikorsky helicopter as it touched down on the frosty grass. He leaped off, joined by his men, and immediately waved the chopper back up into the air to keep an eye on all the exits.

“Perched on the strut,” huh? Not perched on a skid? Oh, yeah, that’s right: A Black Hawk doesn’t have skids. It has wheels. If someone can tell me where a Black Hawk’s perchable strut is, please do.

High above the National Cathedral, the CIA pilot locked the helicopter in auto-hover mode and surveyed the perimeter of the building and the grounds. No movement. His thermal imaging couldn’t penetrate the cathedral stone, and so he couldn’t tell what the team was doing inside, but if anyone tried to slip out, the thermal would pick it up.

I honestly don’t know if there’s an auto pilot in a Black Hawk or whether it has an “auto-hover mode.” I suppose I could research this and find out. But I do know that there’s no way in hell that a CIA Black Hawk pilot (if there is such a thing) would be responsible for flying a helicopter and doing overhead surveillance using thermal imaging at the same time. Pilots fly, on-board observers observe.

As they rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, Katherine stopped short and pointed into a sitting room across the hall. Through the bay window, Langdon could see a sleek black helicopter sitting silent on the lawn. A lone pilot stood beside it, facing away from them and talking on his radio. There was also a black Escalade with tinted windows parked nearby.

Hello? Mr. Brown? A Black Hawk has a crew of two pilots. The original Black Hawk had a crew of four pilots. Yet the book consistently uses the word pilot — a singular noun — when referring to the person flying the helicopter. I guess it’s easier to write one character than two.

The modified UH-60 skimmed in low over the expansive rooftops of Kalorama Heights, thundering toward the coordinates given to them by the support team. Agent Simkins was the first to spot the black Escalade parked haphazardly on a lawn in front of one of the mansions. The driveway gate was closed, and the house was dark and quiet.

Sato gave the signal to touch down.

The aircraft landed hard on the front lawn amid several other vehicles . . . one of them a security sedan with a bubble light on top.

Google Maps shows Kalorama Heights to be a densely populated area of Washington, D.C. filled primarily with embassies. This is an especially poor location for the bad guy’s lair:

Black Hawk Dimensions

Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk dimensions public domain line drawing from Wikipedia.

  • An area filled with embassies is likely to have very, very tight security. It’s unlikely that the events Brown reports could happen at a “mansion” there without anyone noticing and calling the police.
  • Properties are not large — not in relation to the buildings on them. The fronts of buildings are generally right up on the street. It would be a stretch to park multiple vehicles on a lawn.
  • The area is heavily vegetated with lots of tall trees. This makes me wonder how a helicopter that’s almost 65 feet long and has a rotor diameter of nearly 54 feet can land on a lawn full of parked cars in this area.

So we’ve got a big helicopter and some loud activity happening in a densely populated, heavily treed embassy area of Washington, D.C.

Sato moved the group toward the dining room. Outside, the helicopter was warming up, its blades thundering louder and louder.

Warming up is a function of the engine. The blade sound would not be different. Spinning up is a function of the blades. In either case, the sound of the blades would not get louder. If the helicopter were spinning up, the sound of the blades — the rhythm of the blades — would get faster.

Sato could hear the whine of the helicopter blades at full pitch.

Pitch is a poor choice of words here. “Helicopter blades at full pitch” literally means the collective is full up. The helicopter should be flying, not on the ground (as it is in this passage). Full speed — meaning that they’re spinning at 100% RPM — is probably what Brown meant here.

Langdon felt his stomach drop as the CIA helicopter leaped off the lawn, banked hard, and accelerated faster than he ever imagined a helicopter could move.

This is a classic ignorant writer passage. If the helicopter could leap off the lawn — which it might, depending on load — Langdon’s stomach wouldn’t drop. He might feel pushed back in his seat. The only time you’re likely to feel a helicopter motion in your stomach is if the helicopter entered autorotation, which feels — especially the first time — as if you’ve crested the top hill of a kiddie roller coaster and are suddenly zipping downward.

As for accelerating fast, I don’t know much about Robert Langdon’s imagination, but helicopters generally don’t accelerate quickly. It’s not like slamming down the gas pedal in a Ferrari in first gear. (In fact, one of the challenges I face when photographing car and boat races is catching up to a high-speed car or boat that has passed us while we’re hovering.) Can’t say I’ve flown a Black Hawk lately, though.

Langdon held his breath as the helicopter dropped from the sky toward Dupont Circle. A handful of pedestrians scattered as the aircraft descended through an opening in the trees and landed hard on the lawn just south of the famous two-tiered fountain designed by the same two men who created the Lincoln Memorial.

There’s that hard-landing helicopter again. Maybe the problem is that Brown — and most of the rest of the population — doesn’t understand that helicopters don’t just “drop out of the sky” to land. There’s a thing called “settling with power” that will basically ensure a very hard landing if you descend too quickly straight down.

And don’t even get me started on the encyclopedic fact that has nothing to do with the plot, fouling up the end of that sentence.

Once everyone had jumped out, the pilot immediately lifted off, banking to the east, where he would climb to “silent altitude” and provide invisible support from above.

Silent altitude? What’s that? About 50,000 feet? I don’t know of any altitude above a point where a helicopter would be silent — especially if it still had to provide “invisible support” — whatever that is. I look forward to the day when the words silent and helicopter can be used in the same sentence as adjective describing noun.

The UH-60 pilot threw his rotors into overdrive, trying to keep his skids from touching any part of the large glass skylight. He knew the six thousand pounds of lift force that surged downward from his rotors was already straining the glass to its breaking point. Unfortunately, the incline of the pyramid beneath the helicopter was efficiently shedding the thrust sideways, robbing him of lift.

He threw his rotors into what? What the hell is that supposed to mean? And what’s with the “six thousand pounds of lift force” surging down from this rotors? Is he trying to say that rotor wash is exerting 6,000 pounds of force?

Hello? Helicopters do not work just like big fans blowing air down to fly. They have wings, just like airplanes do. Airfoils create the lift that makes a helicopter fly. Downwash just helps a bit when the helicopter is near the ground. That’s called ground effect.

And let’s look at this in real life — the helicopter had only 2 or 3 people on board. It had already discharged its passengers. Is Brown trying to say that the pilot was depending on ground effect to fly? On a winter night (cold; it landed on “frosty grass” once) in Washington DC (sea level)? How did it get off the ground with passengers on board — let alone leap into the sky — if it couldn’t even hover out of ground effect when it was nearly empty?

And what’s all this about skids? Didn’t we already establish that the Black Hawk has wheels? If you can’t read the words, Mr. Brown, at least look at the pictures.

Errors like this just prove that the writer has no understanding of how helicopters fly. Yet this and many of the other helicopter-related errors in this book could have been prevented if the passages were handed off to an experienced helicopter pilot as part of the editing process.

But I guess a bestselling author is beyond all that.

Religulous

A movie review.

ReligulousI just watched Bill Maher’s documentary, Religulous. It’s been in my Netflix queue for some time now and I recently let it ride to the top. I watched it on my second monitor while doing some relatively mindless work on the other.

The movie was just what I expected: Bill Maher trying to talk reason to religious zealots. While his breakaways to movie scenes and comic subtitles were generally amusing, much of the rest of the movie was quite disturbing. It isn’t Maher’s views that bother me — I share them. It’s the stubbornness of the religious zealots he spoke to. They simply did not want to listen to reason.

Want some specific examples?

He spoke with Christians about Jesus and pointed out that an ancient Egyptian god named Horus shared much of Jesus’s history, from virgin birth to crucifixion and resurrection. This is documented in ancient Egyptian writing. Yet the Christians refused to acknowledge that the Egyptian myths exist. How can they be so stubborn?

He pointed out to Christians that the New Testament, which forms the basis of Christianity and Christian beliefs says nothing about homosexuality being a sin. He pointed out other things that are and are not in the Bible. If what he said contradicted current Christian beliefs, however, these people denied what he said. They clearly had no clue what was in the holy scriptures they swore was the word of god.

He pointed out to Muslims that the Koran contains multiple references about violence against non-Muslim “infidels.” They either denied the meaning of those references or tried to claim that they applied to another time.

He had similar confrontations with Jews, Mormons (and ex-Mormons), and members of other religions.

This went on for nearly two hours.

This was exactly what I expected and, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it very much. It’s an argument he’ll never win. None of the atheists will. People have faith — blind faith in whatever it is that they believe. They ignore the evidence that they’re wrong. They go on believing, thinking that they’ll be rewarded someday while the non-believers — or the people that believe in Brand X religion — will be punished.

Meanwhile, they keep fighting and hating and killing and keeping their women and children in the dark ages intellectually — all in the name of their god.

It makes me sick.

I’m not quite sure what Maher intended to do with this movie. He’s obviously not going to convert anyone. There wasn’t enough comedy to make it fun to watch. Was he just trying to give atheists a bit of support in their quest for reason? To convince us to speak out as he has?

What’s the point?

This reminds me of a post I read last week on Think Atheist, “Why Talk About It?.” In it, the blogger compares religion to collecting stamps:

When you are in safe company, you poke fun at the stamp collectors and their silly beliefs. You find comfort in the fact that you are not the only sane person around. In a world of stamp collectors, you are one of only a few non-stamp collectors.

Maybe that’s what Religulous was all about: To remind us that we’re not the only ones who don’t collect stamps.

Welcome to Macintosh

A movie review.

Welcome to MacintoshThe other night, I watched Welcome to Macintosh, a new documentary by filmmakers Robert Baca and Josh RIzzo.

Here’s the review I just entered on Netflix, where I gave it 3 out of 5 stars:

I’m one of the “Mac faithful” and have been for years. I found this documentary mildly interesting — especially parts discussing trivia, such as how startup tones came about. In general, however, I found it to be a rather amateurish production, with far too much time spent on various collections of old Macs. The cutaway scenes with Mac models decorating the landscape was reminiscent of the “How It’s Made” television series and rather silly. I would like to have seen more interviews with Mac users, movers, and shakers, as well as some of those old Macs running some of the software from the early days.

This movie will appeal to any Mac fan interested in Apple’s history. But Apple haters will hate this movie; it comes across as real Apple “fanboy” material.

You can read another take on the movie from its premier on the Unofficial Apple Weblog: “TUAW On Scene: from the premiere of Welcome to Macintosh.”

SPOT Messenger: A First Look

Initial thoughts about my new flight following solution.

My friend, Jim, is an Idaho-based R44 pilot with a company very similar to mine. He’s a single pilot Part 135 tour and charter operator who sometimes operates over very remote terrain.

Of Flight Plans and Flight Following

One of the challenges we face as charter operators is last-minute route changes requested by paying passengers. For example, suppose the passenger books a flight from Scottsdale to Sedona. I’m required by the FAA to file a flight plan that indicates my route so that if we don’t turn up in Sedona, they’ll know which way we went and can [hopefully] find us. But at times — sometimes after the flight is already under way — the passenger might say something like, “Can you follow the course of the Verde River to Camp Verde?” This is not the most direct route and it’s not likely to be the one I planned. But what do I do? Say no?

[The right answer is yes, say no. That’s the answer the FAA wants to hear. But the FAA is not paying by the hour to conduct the flight. The FAA is not going to refer its friends to a friendly, accommodating pilot.]

The problem is, if I deviate from a route and something goes wrong, the search teams may not be looking for us anywhere near where we are. So they might not find us. And sure, I have an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) in my aircraft — even though it is not required by the FAA. But how well do those really work? It certainly didn’t help them find a pilot and his co-worker when they literally disappeared on a flight between Deer Valley in North Phoenix and Sedona nearly two years ago. They’re still missing.

And then there’s Steve Fossett. Or maybe I should have said, where’s Steve Fossett. They must have spent millions by now to find him and he’s still among the missing.

Airplane pilots and pilots flying in the flatlands of the midwest can request something called flight following from the flight service station (FSS). Flight following keeps you on radar so they pretty much always know where you are. The problem with helicopters is that we fly so darn low. Even if I flew up in nose bleed territory at, say, 1500 feet above ground level (AGL), the terrain in the area I fly is too mountainous to keep me on radar. I’d have to fly much higher to stay on radar. And if I’m going to be that high, I may as well fly a plane. So flight following is not a practical solution.

The True Geek’s Solution

Jim also flies in remote and often mountainous areas. And, like me, he’s a true gadget lover — someone who likes to fiddle with electronic toys. (I think he’s lusting for a POV.1 after seeing mine.) He was based in Chelan for cherry drying season and happened to see the SPOT Messenger displayed at the local Radio Shack. He went in and checked it out. Then he did more homework. Then he bought one and told me about it.

SPOT MessengerThe SPOT Satellite Messenger is a personal location device. It’s about the size of my Palm Treo and, as you can see here, bright orange so it’s easy to…well, spot.

My understanding of the unit is that it combines GPS receiver technology with satellite transmitter technology. So you turn it on and it acquires its position via GPS. You can then use one of four different features, depending on the subscription plan you choose:

  • The SPOT standard service plan, which costs $99/year, includes the following three features:

    • OK sends a text message or e-mail message to the phone numbers or e-mail addresses you specify. The message, which is customizable, tells the people on the list that you’re checking in OK and provides the GPS coordinates for your position. Those coordinates include a link that, when clicked, displays your position on Google Maps.
    • Help, is similar, but it sends a customizable help message to the people you specify. The idea here is that you need help and have no other way to contact someone who can help you.
    • 911 sends your GPS coordinates to the folks at the GEOS International Emergency Response Center, who, in turn, notify the appropriate emergency authorities. This is for real, life-threatening emergencies. The Response Center folks also contact, by phone, the two people you specify to notify them of the signal.
  • The tracking upgrade option, which costs another $49/year, includes live tracking, which, when activated, sends you GPS position every 10 minutes or so to the SPOT folks. This information is visible to anyone who has been given access to a Share page you configure with or without a password.

Jim went with both plans. When I bought mine on Monday, I did the same.

First Thoughts

I’ve been playing with SPOT on and off since Tuesday morning. In general, I like it and I think it’ll do the job I intend to use it for — flight following on those long cross-country flights.

After configuring message recipients, I started out by sending a few OK messages. Although the marketing material makes it seem as if those messages are instantaneous, they’re not. After pushing the OK button, the unit will try for up to 20 minutes to send your OK location via satellite uplink. It’ll send the message 3 times, but only one message is forwarded to the people on your list. For experimental purposes, I made myself one of those people. I had to wait longer than 20 minutes to receive one or two of the messages. To be fair, part of the reason for that could be my location at the time — flying between Wenatchee and Seattle in mountainous terrain. (I don’t think my cell phone was receiving very well.) The delay is satisfactory, once you realize that it’s not an instant communication.

For obvious reasons, I have not used Help or 911 yet. Let’s hope I never have to.

I did set up tracking. It took several tries to turn it on properly. The unit does not have a screen, so you have to rely on understanding the blinking lights to know what it’s doing — if anything. Twice I thought I was enabling tracking, but discovered that all I did was send OK messages. Once, tracking was on and in trying to turn it on, I really turned it off. In all cases, it was operator error. Evidently, you cannot turn on tracking during the 20-minute period in which an OK message is being sent. Since both features use the same button, it’s pretty easy to do one thing instead of the other if you don’t pay attention to how long you hold down the darn button.

My husband complained that the messages he received did not include the date and time. We later realized that it was because he was not viewing the message on his phone; he was viewing its summary. (My husband is text message challenged.)

Snowqualmie PassPad 6The e-mail version of the OK message is handy because of the link it includes. Click it and go right to Google Maps with the position clearly marked. Here are two examples. In the first one, we’re flying just to the east of Snowqualmie Pass over I-90. In the second one, we’re sitting on Pad 6 at Boeing Field in Seattle. These images are at two different magnifications. All GoogleMaps features work — it’s just the location put into GoogleMaps. My personal Messages page on the FindMeSpot.com Web site displays all points with the option of displaying any combination of them on Google Maps. It also enables me to download these points to a GPX or KML format file for use with a GPS receiver or GoogleEarth.

The Share page feature, which is still in beta, was not working when I first tried it. But it’s working now — and quite well! I set up a page that does not require a password so anyone could check in and see where I was when I was traveling with SPOT tracking turned on. Apparently, it only shows the past 24 hours of activity, so it you’re checking it now and there’s nothing going on, it’s because I’m not traveling with SPOT. But here’s what it looks like right now; as you can see, I spent a lot of time exploring Walla Walla, WA today:

SPOT Shared Page

A few things about this feature:

  • The lines between the points (which, for some reason, are not showing up in the screenshot) do not represent tracks. I was in a truck today and did stay on roads.
  • If the unit did not have a clear shot of the sky, the point that should have been recorded wasn’t. This wasn’t a problem today, since I had the unit sitting on the dashboard in the broiling sun — partially to see if heat would affect it. (It didn’t.)
  • Clicking a point in the list on the left side “flashes” that point in the display. You can also click other controls to get more information.
  • If you leave this page open, it will automatically update. So you can watch new points appear if you’re tracking someone. Way cool.

The URL for this feature is long and impossible to remember, so I created a custom URL using TinyURL: http://www.tinyurl.com/FindMaria. I invite you to try it for yourself.

Overall

My overall opinion is very positive. It will certainly give me peace of mind while flying in some of the remote desert locations I fly in. I think it’s worth the $150 unit cost plus annual subscriptions.

Even if something goes terribly wrong out there, I want to be found.

My next challenge: getting it to send OK messages to my Twitter account. Anyone have any ideas?