Friday, February 5, 2016

Ubuntu Tablet!

Ubuntu is finally launching a tablet for Ubuntu Touch and regular Linux use. I've waited for something like this for a long time, but especially now that I have a high-performance desktop at home. A light-weight tablet would be a perfect companion device. Do all heavy work - image editing, gaming and so on - on the desktop, and the tablet everything else away from home.

The Ubuntu Tablet as tablet.
Picture from omgubuntu.co.uk.

Why this and not an Android tablet? Ubuntu Touch is Ubuntu's mobile system, already available on a few phones in Europe. It's a pretty good, lightweight system.

But connect a keyboard and perhaps a mouse, and the tablet becomes a full, unlimited Ubuntu desktop, with all the software and all the tools you would expect. It's a pretty compelling argument: I would never need to drag a laptop around any more. The lightweight tablet would be able to do it all.

My Android tablet works fine for web surfing and stuff, but it's not a laptop replacement. But with this one I could do full presentations; run interactive tutorials with students directly from the tablet; work on programming projects; do all my writing, editing and publishing; perhaps even some lightweight image editing. I'd basically not need a laptop any longer.
 
Unlike Android (or IOS), you don't have to rely on poky mobile replacements, but use all the actual, real apps directly: Write, calculate and present with Libre Office; surf the web with Firefox and Chrome; do graphics with Gimp and Inkscape; science all the data with Octave, R, Scipy and friends; get coding with Python, C/C++, Fortran, Ruby, or your favourite language; and use Vim or Emacs if you're Old Skool, or IntelliJ and Eclipse if you pine for a full IDE — or even the Arduino software for some on-the-road microcontroller development.

The tablet with bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and an external monitor.
Now you've got a full, regular Ubuntu desktop at your fingertips.
Picture from omgubuntu.co.uk


The device is a 10" tablet from BQ, a Spanish maker, with a high-resolution screen, a decent ARM CPU, 2GB ram, and 16GB internal storage, with a slot for a 64GB micro-sd card. Overall it's good hardware, in a tablet that gets favourable reviews as an Android tablet.

At first I wore my "laptop hat", so I was a bit sceptical: "Um? A bit low powered, isn't it?". 2GB RAM would be the low end for a laptop, and 16GB storage is not a lot of room. Even a full 64GB micro-sd card isn't comparable to a real laptop.

But as I thought about it, I realized just how great a device this is. It is a thin, light-weight — lighter even than my beloved Sony Tablet Z! — tablet at a very good price. As a device, it's really quite capable; faster than my current tablet and several times more powerful than the newest Raspberry Pi 2 that people use for all kinds of things, including as an inexpensive desktop, server and even development machine.

The Android version is €250 (€200-220 online), and the Ubuntu version will be about the same. That's less than half of a Sony or Samsung high-end tablet, or what a not-painfully-bad laptop would cost you.

Most important, the price is within the "play money" limit for a lot of people. You can get one and try it out without having to make a big budget commitment. If it fits your work-flow, great! If not, then no harm done. At the very worst, you'll have a spare tablet around the house.


One more thought: Microsoft has sort-of-similar convergence devices in their Surface tablets that are much more capable. But they really are a different kind of device; larger keyboard-less Intel-based laptops, with much higher weight, bulk and price. They are really competing with regular laptops, not tablets. Yes, you can apparently install Ubuntu on them if you want. But at that size and price, I would probably just get a regular laptop instead.

Microsoft did have an ARM-based tablet once. It flopped hard. It's problem — apart from being rather heavy and expensive — was the lack of any software (and they even expressly disallowed users from loading software on it on their own). It wasn't compatible with classic Windows apps, so developers had to port their software, then publish it in a special "store." And nobody did.


Lack of software is not the same problem for the Ubuntu tablet. After all, most Linux and Ubuntu software is open source, and is only a rebuild away from being available for ARM systems as well. You can — and people do — run a full Linux desktop on the (much less powerful) Raspberry Pi, and you can effortlessly do it on this tablet.

This hardware is plenty capable of running all but the most demanding things. I wouldn't edit film scans on this - but then, I wouldn't do it on a laptop either any longer; that's why I got that big desktop after all. Analysing large amounts of simulation data is probably also out due to the limited storage, but I have computers for that at work.

I'd really only miss some closed-source games that won't run on an ARM cpu. I've been slowly playing through my library of GOG adventures during business trips, and I wouldn't be able to do that on this one.


Do I want one of these? Yes. Yes, I want one very much. At first the specs worried me, but after thinking a bit I realize this is a perfect first Ubuntu tablet, in price and performance. In the ordinary course of things I would probably press the "buy" button within hours of it going on sale.

Unfortunately, I don't think I will be able to. One problem is the availability. It's an European tablet, and will be sold in Europe and US only. If I have to import one myself, the price will likely rise by a third, and go well beyond my "play money" level.

But most importantly, I am leaving active research and will likely be unemployed by the end of March (a subject for another post). Spending even a smallish chunk of money on a new toy weeks before you lose your income would not be terribly prudent, to say the least. Once I do find new work I may well celebrate by getting one of these, but unless the Computer Fairy comes for a surprise visit I will have stand by and watch the launch by the sidelines.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

That New Computer Smell


I replace my laptop every few years. It's been almost four years since I got my T430, and while it's OK overall, the Ethernet port is very flaky and the screen colours are so off by now that I no longer can edit pictures on it. It was time to start thinking about getting a new one. Except this time I didn't.

A long time ago when I was a student — a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I still had hair — I used to build my own desktops. Computers became obsolete within months, and laptops were slow, clumsy luxury items. A self-built desktop made sense.

But as the pace of improvement slowed you could use a computer for a few years before it became too old. And laptops improved hugely, even as the price dropped. By the time I came to Japan, I was a laptop user. Small and light was key. It was my only computer, and I'd bring it to work and back, to cafés, on day-trips and on vacations.

Then the smart-phone and tablet revolution happened, and I no longer had to bring a computer everywhere. A tablet is way better in a café than a computer ever was. I could get a larger, heavier, more capable laptop, the T430 I use now. With a larger, faster machine programming, writing and image editing all became easier. And I rediscovered gaming again, after more than ten years away from the hobby.

Today I have my own file server, and I have a separate laptop at work. I no longer actually bring the laptop anywhere. The T430 hardly moves from its spot on the dining table. And if I'm not going to bring it anywhere, a laptop doesn't make much sense. They're still a compromise after all, with high price, limited power and small screens.


Everything Old is New Again

I give myself a good-sized budget for my own computers. I rely on them every day for years after all, so I don't want to skimp on them. Last autumn I took a look at just what kind of desktop I could buy or build for myself for the cost of a new high-end laptop. I found out two things.

First, building your own desktop is still a lot cheaper than buying ready-made if you want a higher-end computer, especially if your needs don't match the machines on sale. Second, today you get a whole lot of desktop computer for the price of a good laptop.

My budget was 200k yen, and I wanted to spend 1/4 or so on the monitor. Never skimp on the monitor; that's the one thing you're constantly staring at after all. After some online searching and a couple of visits to Den-den town(1) I came home with a large pile of cardboard boxes, then spent a happy(2) weekend assembling the stuff.

I wanted a multi-core system for simulations and image processing, but a Xeon system was right out. I have a Xeon workstation at work and it's great, but I could have burned my entire budget just on the CPU. No dual-socket motherboards or beefy on-die caches for me.

Instead I got an Intel K7-5820K processor and motherboard. That's Intels not-quite newest, not-quite topmost enthusiast processor. Six cores (12 "cores" with hyperthreading), and a nice 15MB L3 cache. Overclocking it to 3.8Ghz gives me a nice speed boost, and still keeps it cool and quiet.

I added 32GB of RAM. Sufficient, but I'd have picked twice that with a larger budget. There's no such thing as too much memory after all, and a system really flies when you can put temporary files and caches in RAM. I also got a 250GB SSD as system drive. Again, with a roomier budget I would have doubled that size. A 2TB secondary HD serves as bulk storage.

An Nvidia GTX 750 graphics card is nowhere near the high end, but it's quite cheap and fairly capable. It's also very quiet. A micro-ATX motherboard, a CPU cooler (Intels stock cooler) and a quiet-running 500W power supply rounds off the machine. I reused an old case from a discarded desktop, and I already have a keyboard (the so very wonderful Happy Hacking Professional JP(3)) and mouse.

The computer came to about 150K yen. I spent the rest on an Eizo fs2434 flat panel display. Eizo monitors are well-known for good color reproduction and accurate rendering. I didn't have enough for their professional colour balanced image editing monitors, but their consumer monitors still have a very good reputation. I've been very happy with it so far.

My new computer (artists depiction). It's a plain box, invisible under the desk. The monitor is a featureless panel behind a black keyboard. Nothing much to photograph.

Using The Thing

I installed Ubuntu on it and I've used it since late autumn. While my laptop still is nice, this is a whole different experience. The large, clear, accurate screen is much easier on the eyes, and the speed, both for applications and graphics isn't even comparable. Source builds finish in moments. Drawing in Inkscape is so much easier on a large screen, and Gimp is fast fast fast.

Good as the Lenovo laptop keyboards are, I love being able to use my HHK keyboard. Kerbal Space Program is butter-smooth at all times. I now actually prefer my workroom even in the cold of winter as my desktop there is so much better than the laptop in the warm, cosy living room.

As an added bonus the computer is right at my workbench. When I was playing with electronics I had to use my tablet to search the net and look up things. Now I got a large monitor I can fill with information, circuit diagrams, drawings and search results, without taking up space on the table.

A desktop is very upgradeable and I intend to upgrade this machine over time. The CPU will still be fast enough in 6-8 years, and the monitor should be fine for a decade or longer. Games are usually limited by the graphics, so I'll perhaps replace the GPU in a couple of years (preferably AMD if they can get their Linux drivers in order). A larger SSD in 3-4 years is a good idea, and possibly more memory as well. With a better CPU cooler and case I could clock the CPU higher, but I don't really think it's worth it.


The laptop isn't going anywhere. It's useful to have a computer in the living room, and I like having a second system for experimentation. If or when it dies it's certain to be replaced with something very small, light and cheap. An Ubuntu tablet would not go amiss...


(1) I normally prefer buying in shops over doing it online. I happily pay a 10-20% premium for the convenience of asking for advice; getting the stuff right then and there; and being able to return or exchange it without hassle should I need to.

(2) Well, mostly. Protip: If the motherboard has a big power connector marked "CPU"; and the power supply has a separate power cord marked "CPU"; and the instructions tell you to plug in the CPU power; and the big diagram at the back shows a separate connection from the power supply to the CPU; do plug the power cord into the connector. Without CPU power the machine will not boot. Ask me how I know. Ask me how many hours it took to realize this.

(3) Notice how that site has static links to close-up pictures for people that disable Javascript. They know their customers.



Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year


2016, the Year of the Monkey


Happy 2016 from Janne and Ritsuko

Thursday, December 24, 2015

December

It's certainly been a very slow year on this blog. I apologize for that.

Our project has entered its final phase this year, and will end on March 31st. And with the end of the project is an end of to access to the K computer. That means we're very busy trying to get stuff working, and finish things while we still have time.

Also, my employment is tied to the project. When the project ends, so does my job. I need to decide what to do next, and finding a new job of course adds quite a bit of stress and uncertainty. Needless to say, writing on the blog has taken a backseat to other things.

But my winter vacation starts tomorrow. The actual last day is the 28th, but I took two days off, so today is my last day. We're going on a holiday trip, and will return right at the start of the new year. For once I will be able to get a Fukubukuro (lucky bag) at Den-Den town on the 2nd. Then it's back to work. But for now, for a few days, we're leaving all that behind us. Happy travels!


Istanbul Airport.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Istanbul


My, how time flies. It's Christmas already, we're preparing our midwinter trip, and I have yet to post about the second part of our summer adventures.

After my brothers wedding in Sweden, we left not for home, but for the far shores of mystical Istanbul. We stayed five nights on the European side, at an apartment hotel called T-Loft near Taksim square.

T-Loft T-Loft
T-Loft Istanbul. A comfortable apartment hotel with kitchen and living room. Plenty of space to stow your bags out of sight and with a kitchen you can cook for yourself.

An apartment hotel like this is a great way to visit a city. You have the convenience of a hotel, but you have a small kitchen and fridge, with enough space to cook and eat in if you want to. We didn't cook, but we bought fruit for evening snacks (one watermelon is a lot for two people), and made tea.

Washlet!
The washlet is quite possibly the most wonderful hygiene invention since indoor plumbing. Once you're used to it, it's hard to go back to dry wiping. I'm happy to say that Turkey also has a form of washlet. It's a simple water spout controlled by the faucet on the wall, and you use your hand to direct the water, but it works just as well as the high-tech Japanese version.

This one Guy
A young man waiting for someone on the street around the corner from T-Loft.

Greengrocer
A greengrocer down the street.

The old Constantinople was located on the European western coast, and that part of the city, up towards Taksim, feels old and well-worn. Most famous buildings and sightseeing spots are located there, along with many old (and badly maintained) buildings, narrow alleyways and small shops. And, of course, many, many tourists everywhere. If you've been to Stockholm it's like a hugely enlarged Old Town (Gamla Stan) with souvenir shops, tour groups and loud people with cameras against a backdrop of bemused locals. Istanbul straddles the border between Europe and Middle East, and it shows; visitors are an even mix of people from East and West.


Taksim
Taksim, a block down from the tourist area.

Blue Mosque
The men's washing area at the Blue Mosque.

It's not just touristy, but sometimes a bit scammy as well. Unavoidable I guess, but it means you need to be careful about where you spend your money. We were advised to avoid any shopping at the Grand Bazaar, for instance, since the risk of getting ripped off or scammed is so high.

Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar. Magnificent building. But a lot of shops sell cheap tat, or are very overpriced. People warned us to even touch anything in the shops here, since a common scam is where you're forced to buy something you "broke", though it was broken from the start.

Spice Bazaar
The spice bazaar is also cool. It's touristy as well, but at least it mostly deals in fairly inexpensive stuff so you won't get ripped off a lot.

The Asian side feels more modern, prosperous and more like a regular city. Nice, wide streets, outdoor cafes and parks, and not as many tourists. After the outdoor circus in the west, it's refreshing to spend some time in a normal city for a change. The ferries between the two sides are comfortable, frequent and cheap. It's a great way to see the city from a different angle, and well worth a trip even if you have no particular goal in mind.

Seagulls
Seagulls follow the ferry towards Asia. In the background the north-west Istanbul with the new office parks and financial areas.

Fishermen
A Turkish colleague of mine loved fishing. Turns out it's not just him; the waterfront fills up with fishermen at dusk. Seems like a pleasant enough way to spend your evening.

Tram
A tram is rounding a bend in Kadiköy, near the harbour. Just ahead, towards the north, is a small electronics district.

Loving
A young couple with eyes only for each other at a cafe in Kadiköy. I sometimes wish we had outdoor cafes like this in Osaka, but the weather here just isn't cooperative.

Turkish food is good — you wouldn't expect anything else. Lots of variations on sliced, grilled meat, whether as a filled sandwich (what I'd call a kebab) or as a sit-down meal with fries, sauce and so on. But of course there's lots of other dishes ranging from rolled cabbage to pizza to mezze.

Döner
Meat, sauce and fries. We call anything with this kind of meat "kebab" in Sweden; I'm sure it has a different name here, but I could never quite get to be bottom of what to call it. I also don't remember the name of this dish. We had half a dozen variants of it during our stay.

Lunchtime
Lunchtime.

Turkey has inspired a lot of Swedish and European modern dishes so they carry few surprises. Instead it's the small things that stick in memory for me. Ayran, for instance. It's such a simple thing: you whisk yoghurt, cold water and salt until it starts getting a little foamy. Drink with your meal. It's salty, sour, fresh and absolutely perfect with spicy foods on hot summer days.

Simit
Simit is like a pretzel, bagel or kringla; a chewy, slightly salty bread, often sold on the street in Istanbul. Goes down a treat as a light meal, and leaves ample room for some baklava, sponge cake and other sweets at a cafe later on.

Turkish coffee is famous (Sweden got coffee from the turks during some war or another). You make it by briefly boiling up finely ground coffee in a small pot, then you pour the unfiltered brew into a cup. It gives you a head similar to espresso, and a surprisingly delicate flavour. The trick when drinking it is to not disturb the grounds in the bottom. We got a stainless steel pot for two cups, and I'm gradually learning how to brew it at home.

Cafe
Coffee or tea, there's lots of cafes around that will serve you your favourite drink. Fancy and expensive or, like here, a hole in the wall with a shady outdoor spot.

Nargile
Water pipes are apparently a real thing here. People do smoke them in cafes and restaurants, andf not just at the tourist places either. BW conversion from a digital shot; the mixed color balance was just hopeless at this place.

The coffee may be famous, but what Turks drink is tea. We're talking bottomless amounts of the stuff. You get it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and any time in between. People drink it in shops and offices while they work. Road workers and construction crews take constant tea breaks. Tea house employees rush by on the street with trays delivering hot tea to customers.

Tea
Turkish tea. These tulip-shaped glasses are used everywhere, and are a great souvenir to bring home.

One tip: At the airport they sell glasses like these for 4000-5000 yen each. If you go to a regular kitchen-goods store you find much the same glasses for around 100-200 yen. We grabbed enough glasses and plates that we don't have to worry if we break a few.

The tea is very good. You simmer the rough black tea for 15-20 minutes, making it dark red and strong. Then you pour it into tulip-shaped glasses and cut it with hot water to taste. Enjoy at work or at home, alone or with friends. We talked with a couple of middle-aged turks at one cafe, and they said they might drink one cup of coffee a day, but twenty glasses or more of tea.

Tea and a Smoke
Tea and a smoke. Everybody, and I mean everybody, drinks tea, everywhere and all the time. Kidney stones are very common in Turkey (~15% per year); I wonder if it's not perhaps connected.

Tea Delivery
Tea delivery.

We had planned to find a cooking class while in Istanbul. Cooking schools are fun, and Turkish food is so very good. But to our surprise, schools for tourists are quite rare there, and the ones we found were all fully booked. So no class this time, but we did buy two cookbooks at least. We'll book a class ahead of next time. And there will definitely be a next time — Istanbul was a great experience, and we want to return. You can see all the pictures from Istanbul in this album.

Funicular
Istanbul has a very nice, very useful rail network with subways and trams. The coolest variant is the funiculars: underground cable cars that climb the steep hills on the European side. There's two that I know of, one from the seaside up to Taksim square; and this one from the sea up to Karaköy, Istanbuls oldest railway.

Angel Wings
Angel wings. Karaköy.

News of the day
Reading the news.

Police
Motorcycle police. Haven't seen MC police with two riders before. Of course, I haven't seen MC police with automatic weapons in hand either. Must be a local thing.

Fire Brigade
The fire brigade checks a fire alarm near Taksim Square. It turned out to be nothing. But with all the old buildings crammed together and the narrow, winding streets I'm not surprised they take any alarm seriously.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Ubuntu Users Guide To Updating Your Xperia Device

I have an Xperia Z tablet. I've had it for three years now, and I'm as happy with it now as I were when I first wrote about it. Speedy, tough and extremely light.

Except for one thing. For whatever reason, this particular model (SGP312), with this  particular Japanese version of Android, haven't had an update in two years. This is especially surprising as  Sony Mobile is pretty good at keeping older hardware updated, and as other country versions of this tablet still get regular updates.

The last year has seen several serious security issues with Android, and many older devices got updated to Android 5.1.1. this autumn. I'd very much like it on my tablet as well, for peace of mind if nothing else.

Fortunately, Sony Mobile is pretty enlightened when it comes to giving you access to your own hardware. Many manufacturers will go to great lengths to stop you from unlocking or changing their products in any way. But Sony will help you unlock your phone, and even provides information to custom system makers to help them do a better job.

So, while I ideally would have gotten updated automatically, with a Sony tablet I can at least do it myself without jumping through too many hoops.


If you look up how to update manually on the net, chances are you'll encounter a nightmare of complicated, conflicting information. Long, convoluted instructions that have you manually unlock and root your tablet, install recovery software, download custom system images from sketchy Russian file servers and so on.

But all this is completely unnecessary. We have some simple, reliable tools around today that will easily let you download and install official system images, even if they haven't been released in your part of the world yet. They'll even root your device for you if you want.


So here is my quick guide to updating your Xperia device, using Ubuntu 15.10. If you're a Linux user, like me, you will find the process a bit unsettling. Instead of just installing the software with the software updater, you need to visit different web sites and download packages from file sharing sites, blindly trusting you're not downloading something bad. Apparently Windows users do this all the time.

You need two applications, both of which are cross platform and work on Windows, Linux and OSX:

The first application is XperiFirm. It's a download tool for the official Sony system versions for all Xperia devices. It's like the official "PC Companion" application, except that it lets you download any official system version no matter what device you have.

Follow the explanations on that page — download the file, install mono and the ssl certificates, and run the tool. Select your device type and device, and choose the specific system variant you want. If you select one of the available variants, you'll see the latest release version available.



The variants mostly differ by region in the world, but sometimes there's also carrier-specific versions here. In the screenshot above, I've selected "SGP312 Wi-Fi" on the left, and I've looked at the "EU4" and the "Japan" variant. As you can see, the latest Japan release ("10.3.1 ...") is a lot older than the EU4 ("10.7.A ...") one — that's exactly my problem.

Which variant to pick? For phones it can matter, since different variants set up the mobile phone hardware for different regions. A variant for Europe may have trouble getting a good connection in Japan. For tablets it's not really important. The difference is mostly things like the default language, installed extra apps and things like that. You can really pick any one you like. I picked EU4 for no particular reason. Click the version number up in the right corner and it will download the firmware.


Once done, we need to package the firmware and install on the tablet. For that we need a second application, called Flashtool. It's just a little cumbersome to install, but follow the instructions and we're good to go.

First, make sure Linux will recognize your Sony as a valid USB device (Windows and Mac users need to install a driver that basically does the same thing):

$ cd /etc/udev/rules.d
$ sudo gedit 51-sony.rules

In the file, add the line:

SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ACTION=="add", ATTRS{idVendor}=="0fce", ATTRS{idProduct}=="*", MODE="0777"

Save and exit. Restart the USB device manager:

$ sudo service udev restart


Download Flashtool. Follow the "Linux" link for the latest release. At the time of writing, you first download 0.9.19.8 — just click on the Torrent link and when Ubuntu asks, select the default "Transmission" as the app to use. The download will start after a while. Unpack the file:

$ 7z e flashtool-0.9.19.8-linux.tar.7z

(If you don't have "7z", install it with 'sudo apt-get install p7zip').

Now, dowload the 0.9.19.10 'patch' from the page above (this might not be available, and not necessary by the time you read this). It's a file called 'x10flasher.jar'. Just move it into the Flashtool directory where it replaces the existing version:

$ mv x10flasher.jar Flashtool/

On your tablet, go to "developer options" at the bottom (tab "build number" in "about tablet" repeatedly if you don't have that) and activate USB debugging. Go to "Security" and activate "Allow unknown sources". Connect the tablet to your computer with an USB cable. Start Flashtool:

$ cd Flashtool
$ ./Flashtool

Select Tools-> Bundles-> Create. In "Select source folder", select the directory full of files you downloaded earlier. It's named something like "SGP312_VMo EU1_1273-3865_10.7.A.0.222_R4E". For device, branding and version you can probably put anything you want, but it's a good idea to enter the right values — "SGP312", "EU1", and "10.7.A.0.222" for instance — so you know what version it is. Select all in the folder list and press the right-arrow button to say that everything in the bundle will be installed.

Click the lightning bolt (flash device), and select "flashmode" in the popup. You get a window looking much like this:



Pick the directory where you downloaded the firmware earlier. Pick it in the list (here I have two different ones). I left all other options at their defaults. Press "Flash" and follow the on-screen instructions. Basically you need to put your tablet or phone in flash mode, and how to do that differs a bit.

After a long while, the process will finish. Reboot and enjoy your new version!

Flashtool can do a lot of other useful things. It can unlock your device, it can root it, and you can remove things you don't want from the system image. I haven't tried any of these functions, and don't know how well they work. I would recommend not doing any of these things unless you actually need to. Some Sony software (like the camera, for some models) don't work properly with a rooted device, for instance. And if you remove something important from the firmware by mistake your tablet will fail to boot.


How is the update itself? I updated from 4.2.2 to 5.1.1. There's some visual tweaks and changes, and the operating system itself has no doubt seen a lot of internal improvements and bug fixes. My main reason for updating is the security fixes.

But the most significant change I experience is the keyboard. The Sony International Keyboard is great; it lets you use more than one language (such as Swedish and English) at the same time and gives you typing suggestions for both. In version 5 the keyboard is much better, with faster, more accurate suggestions.

The Japanese keyboard has also improved a lot, and now lets you input text by drawing kanji and kana by hand if you want to. It no longer defaults to romaji every time you select it, but remembers the state you used last. Switching between keyboards also feels faster and smoother than before.

The on-screen keyboard is the primary way to input text, and improvements here have a big impact. I'm happy I could update for this reason alone. Well worth spending my day off on this.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

An easy way to cut smartphone bills by a third (if you live in Japan)

I have a post up on Japan Mobile Tech on how I cut my smartphone cost to less than 1/3 of before — from 7500 yen to 2000 yen — while keeping the same service on the same physical network.

The trick? Split voice and data into separate subscriptions. I got myself a brand-new flip-phone as my actual phone, and changed my Docomo account to a FOMA voice-only account. 1050 yen a month in total.

Then I got a data-only SIM from IIJmio for my smartphone. That's 935 yen a month for 3GB. We can keep our free family calls on Docomo, while paying only a fraction of the data cost. And IIJmio uses the same physical network as Docomo, so there's no practical difference in reception or data speeds.

In all, I will save about 100 000 yen over the next two years. Not bad for a bit of creative contract juggling.