Sunday, November 20, 2011

Addicted to Ti: Habanero Cycles

My first road bike (of my adult life) was a 2002 Lemond Victoire.  It was a wonderful bike, but it had one fatal flaw: it didn't fit me.  Of course it took me awhile (about 4 years, I guess) to fully appreciate this; after all, I had nothing to compare it to.  I didn't realize that hitting ones knees on the front bars when pedaling out of the saddle wasn't the norm, that fairly significant (> 1") toe-front-wheel overlap wasn't a requirement, or that 12.5cm disparity between seat and handlebar height was as appropriate a position for a bike as a Snoop Dogg music video. Apparently I was a little naive.  And by "was", I mean up until a couple weeks ago when I sold that bike and bought a new Habanero Cycles frame.

Habanero Cycles, judging from their site, is a few guys down in Florida that act as a (super-lightweight) middle man for titanium frames made in China.  I think this graphic on the landing page pretty much sums up the shop:
This simple GIF, with its jagged pixel edges and MS-Paint-era aesthetic, eschews modern web design fashions and technologies.  Habanero Cycles with their straight tubes, traditional triangles, and encouragement of 1" head tubes seems to do much the  does the equivalent in the cycling world.

But, perhaps unlike the GIF image above, I think a lot of people would agree that these are really timeless and attractive  bicycles.  I certainly think so.  After all, this is my second Habanero Cycles frame.

Last year, I decided to build a cyclocross bike for commuting, to replace my single speed.  I like riding a single speed, but I wanted a bike that could fit fenders and one that had gears since I was anticipating pulling a baby trailer with it on the weekends.  Here was the bike in "commuter mode" after building it and before actually making it practical for commuting (adding fenders, lights, switching to compact crankset, etc.):

As it turns out, it also works for riding as a cyclocross bike.  I raced in my first cx race this fall and plan to do another in a couple weeks.

My new bike is a road frame, which I have to explain to my non-cycling friends and family is very, very different from a cyclocross frame -- you just can't really tell by looking at it.

(Yes, I removed the down-tube decals; I wasn't a big fan of the orange lettering on this model.)

I think that I would be betraying the "NO HYPE" mantra of Habanero Cycles if I started weaving word tapestries (or at least potholders) from the cycling reviewer lexicon: "lateral stiffness", "vertical compliance", "soak up road chatter", "effortless climbing", etc.  (but not too many cetera, this is a shockingly shallow vocabulary pool).  I do, however, have a few general statements that I would like to make about both frames:

  • They are very well built.  The craftsmanship is excellent; the finish fantastic; the welds are beautiful.  (I tried explaining this value of "beautiful welds" to my wife, but she seemed unconvinced that this is why it should cost as much as a personal computer.)
  • They are built like (light) tanks.  Strength and durability are values that Habanero Cycles extols and these frames implement those values.  And as a result ...
  • They're not super-lightweight frames.  I'd guess that you could probably find high-end designer steel frames around the same weight, but I can't imagine they would be anywhere near as strong or stiff.  My Lemond Victoire frame probably weighed almost 1 lb less than the Habanero that replaced it, but it was very flexy (wheels would rub brakes on out of seat climbing).  I would rather have a solid frame.  And you can save weight in other places.  My 60cm Habanero build weighted in at 17 lbs 3oz (compared to 18 lbs 11oz for my Lemond) -- and didn't break the bank.
  • They ride like bicycles.  In truth, I think both frames feel fantastic.  If I had to elaborate, I would say that the ride is similar to steel bikes I've ridden (e.g. my SE Lager single speed or the '80s Bianchi I rented last winter): the frame feels solid & mutes texture on paved surfaces.  To borrow another buzz phrase, these are also laterally stiff frames.  I don't notice them wagging side to side when standing on the pedals.  They both just kinda ride like bikes should.

Perhaps on par with the quality of the frames themselves, though, is the the customer service. I have worked mostly with Mark (I think he does the online stuff for them, and I tend to do more by email than phone) and the customer support has been superb.  We had many back and forth emails where he helped me choose frame size and suggestion other component dimensions to get the geometry I wanted; he's worked with me through some follow-up issues with seatpost slipping (diagnosis is bad seatpost binder bold; he's sending a replacement) -- answering emails on weekends, etc.  I have certainly never experienced such excellent customer service in the cycling industry.

After writing this, I think it's less that I'm addicted to titanium, and more that I'm addicted to the ideals embodied by that "NO HYPE" GIF image.  I like the fact that these bikes don't claim to be anything more than well-built bicycles: they embrace the fundamental triangle design that all other frame designs circle around, use traditional dimensions and geometries, favor strength and durability over weight savings, and represent a really well-crafted product.  I do like the stress-free qualities (low-maintenance finish, no rusting) and ride quality, but I think this is just part of that same bigger picture here.  There's nothing wrong with innovation, but there's often nothing wrong with the original edition either.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Commuter tires: the Continental 4 Seasons review

Choosing tires always feels like such an important decision.  They're obviously an important aspect of a bike's setup, the interface to the environment, and a powerful fashion statement.  It's not a fleeting decision; tires last a long time -- or they're supposed to -- and while you can change them if they're wrong it's a pain and it makes your hands black.  I can only imagine that the weight of this decision is akin to drafting a fantasy football team -- or maybe even a real football team.

And probably much like a football team, you wouldn't want to use the same tires from year to year.  No, you'd want to toss out the thing that worked great (in my case the Panaracer T-Serv tires that I sold with my single speed) and change it up.

MSRP $80 (!!!), street price $60+.

I love my (700x23c) Continental Gatorskin tires on my road bike so much I decided that the Continental 4 Seasons were the tires for me.  After all, I do ride for 4 seasons.  The marketing blurb struck a chord in my heart: 

A tire meant for road riders who do it the real way - ride all the time, on all types of roads, in all types of conditions. [...] Get the speed and dependability you need with the 4 Season, built for the long haul road rider.

Perfect! At the time I found them on sale for $47 so the price wasn't just stupid.  I was starting off riding in the winter, so I figured it was a perfect test.  These are lightweight tires at 240g for the 700x25c.

Well, my first rear tire only lasted 300 miles or so before the bead blew out on an otherwise serene ride into work.  Luckily it blew out right near work, so I could walk the bike in the last couple blocks.

I made a halfhearted attempt to get Continental to warranty the tire, but they never got back to me.  I couldn't find my receipt.  I ordered from the internet.  So I walked into my LBS with my head hung low and paid full price for a replacement.  I figured that by paying the price of a one-way airplane ticket across the country, I'd probably be able to at least get that many miles out of it.

Well, after approximately 3,000 miles this is what my rear tire looks like.  (The danger of having full fenders on your bike is that you can forget to check your rear tire.) 

I have to say that I find it a little ironic they're called "4 seasons", since they only seem to last two.  Maybe by "long haul road rider" they actually meant, "someone that takes a short spin on the weekends -- weather permitting".

Maybe 3,000 miles is expected (though it looks like I should have replaced these hundreds of miles ago), but it seems a little premature to me.

I will say that the tires have good grip and they did as well as could be expected on icy trails.  Probably the softness of the rubber is what's accounting for the wear.  I did get a flat once when I drove over glass on the nearby trail, but one can only expect so much of rubber.

So, your mileage may vary.  (Hopefully your mileage is greater than mine.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

CyanogenMod, you saved my Captivate.

I've decided to start writing a few short blog posts again.  I think my problem with "contributing to the internet" is that it does require a certain sense of confidence in the value of one's thoughts or opinions.  I typically don't think mine are worth sharing, but every now and then I do think "this might help others avoid misery".  This is one of those times.  Oh, Samsung Captivate, it is of you I sing.

If you were, as I was, lured away from the iPhone to the Samsung Captivate (the Galaxy S model for AT&T), I am sorry for what you have had to endure.  Don't let this phone drive you away from Android.  There's a light at the end of this tunnel; it's cyan-colored.

To be fair here, there are some good things about the Captivate.

  1. The screen.  The Super AMOLED screen on the Captivate is beautiful.  Maybe it's because Samsung makes TVs, but they know how to do color, contrast, etc.
  2. Photo and video quality.  The camera is a 5mp camera which takes good pictures (for a phone).  The HD video recording is also really great (for a phone).  It's made it possible to take lots of decent quality, impromptu baby videos and that's really valuable.  The recording app itself is not that great, but the products are nice.
  3. And of course, there's Android.  This phone has definitely done a poor job of "porting" it over, but I do love the Android OS.  I can run Python scripts on my phone, build apps without paying for a developer license, run Samba for sharing files to my desktop, view content in Flash, use the latest & greatest Google apps, etc.  And I believe in open software.

... but there are some things that are not so great:

  1. Performance.  This phone with the official Android builds is SLOW!  The stock phone came with Eclaire (2.1), which was acceptable but missing enough capabilities that it was a little hard to be slow at anything.  Everyone was waiting eagerly for Froyo (2.2).  I ran a "leaked" Froyo for a little bit, but it was horribly slow.  For example, it would take multiple attempts with the swipe pattern to unlock my phone because it was not recognizing touches; answering calls was hit or miss for the same reason.  Swiping between screens was jerky.  Apps would get stuck in unresponsive states.  It was a disaster.  I tried one of the "aftermarket" kernels that did improve speed but at the cost of a battery that only lasted half a day.  I downgraded to Eclaire.  Then official Froyo came out and I upgraded.  It was better than the leaked version, but not a lot.  Less jerky movements, but still lots of applications hanging for a long time.  Games like Need for Speed were jerky while playing.  If I was honest, it was pretty crappy.
  2. Bluetooth.  So probably half of my phone calls are made in the car and I use my car's Bluetooth so that I don't have to be driving dangerously (or illegally) .  Well, the Samsung pairs fine with my car, but it would disconnect after being used for a couple of minutes.  Then it would reconnect.  So imagine driving down the highway at 65mph and your car saying "the bluetooth connection has been lost".  I'm trying to get the phone of out my pocket and yelling "hang on a sec" so that the other party doesn't say anything important that only my nether region could hear. As soon as I get it out of my pocket, the car picks up the link again.  What a piece of crap.
  3. Samsung's Android skin and crapware.  Samsung made some sort of iPhone-like skin.  It's not really all that surprising that Apple is suing them.  Their app list was a cheap knock-off of the iPhone screens.  They provided a bunch of really junky applications that you couldn't uninstall.  The camera and video app worked but were pretty annoying to use. There are ways to work around this and replace some of the stock behaviors with Android (the beauty of Android), but the out-of-the-box OS experience was pretty disheartening.  If I was a less technically savvy or less adventurous user, I'm sure I would have returned this phone within a week.
  4. Abysmal update schedule.  Samsung is way behind with their software updates.  Gingerbread was released in Dec 2010 and still hasn't been released for the Captivate (it's now Oct 2011).
  5. GPS is horrible.  This is probably partly hardware related, but the functionality of the GPS has also been greatly affected by the OS version.  Some versions of the OS have worked better than others (Froyo was an improvement), but it's bad enough that it makes Google Navigation frequently useless (it keeps thinking I've left the route when I haven't, for example).
  6. Locked down by AT&T.  They disabled "Untrusted Sources" for installing apps.   So you can only use the official market.  You can obviously work around this with rooting, but one shouldn't have to void their warranty to install something from Amazon's market or from an open-source google code project.

On the whole, I would say that the negatives outweighed the positives quite significantly.  So if you had any less self-discipline-- or faster automatic windows in your car -- your Captivate is probably in a river or the ditch alongside some stretch of highway.  I'm sure you don't regret that decision.  If you do still have your Captivate, though, I have some good news: CyanogenMod.
CyanogenMod is an open-source, aftermarket firmware for numerous smartphones; and as of version 7.1.0, the Samsung Captivate is on the list of supported phones.  (In theory the official ROMs are also open-source, since they have to be by [GPL] license, but they are not developed as open-source projects.)  CyanogenMod was not trivial to install (more below) but was well worth it.  It is a huge improvement and basically makes this feel like a new, and vastly superior phone.  (I've been running this for around a month now.)
  • The Bluetooth now works.  I was worried since I assumed it uses the BlueZ Linux BT stack, which doesn't have the best reputation, but it works flawlessly in my car.  No more rummaging in my pocket, while yelling at the person on the other end.
  • The camera/video recorder app is vastly superior to Samsung's.
  • I have the latest (Gingerbread) version of the Android OS, with all the improvements that brings (not least of which is a much better keyboard).
  • Performance is fantastic.  Feels twice as fast as stock Froyo build.  No more jerky unlocking or call answering; no more jerkiness in Need for Speed car racing :)
  • CyanogenMod uses ADWLauncher as it's "skin" which is  also vastly superior to Samsung's.
  • No more crap applications I can't delete.
  • GPS seems to work better than any other OS/version I've tried.  It is still slow to lock on to exact position, but seems to track correctly and not randomly jump a few neighborhoods over.  It is definitely usable now.
  • Lots of developer-friendly features.  Obviously things like "Unsigned Sources" can be enabled.  There's also tethering and a while lot more. I haven't scratched the surface of this yet.
  • Battery life did not degrade. I would have expected that a phone that runs much faster would suck down battery faster, but I get the same battery life as before (which admittedly is only a day of few calls and moderate network use).
The downside is that you'll void your warranty.  Of course, at this point Samsung's warranty is likely expired for me and even it it was still active, it was only going to guarantee me the crappy performance, poor hardware support, and inferior OS spin of the stock system.  Yeah, that was a pretty easy decision.

Getting it installed is not hard if you have some patience, a strong stomach (you may need to descend into the bowels of the internet or wade through troll-infested forums for help or obscure workarounds). If things go wrong, it may help to have some understanding of Linux systems, but you're going to be following some forum steps either way.  There is a good installation guide on Cyanogen's wiki; follow that and it may just work for you without a hitch.  Basically you will need to install a new kernel which supports ClockworkMod Recovery using Heimdall, then install ClockworkMod Recovery itself, and finally install the CyanogenMod ROM using ClockworkMod recovery application.  So you will first have a stock-ish system running on ClockworkMod Recovery before you then install CyanogenMod.  The beauty of this is that ClockworkMod will let you backup your current ROM completely in case something goes wrong.  Before you start you'll also want to make sure your apps (and their data) are all backed up.  I use Titanium Backup; it does this well.

I had one significant problem following the instructions.  If you are running (stock) Froyo, as I was, you will need to ensure that your "recovery" application is downgraded to version 2e.  The 3e recovery utility will only run/install signed packages, which prevented me from getting the ClockworkMod Recovery boot loader installed.  This thread may help.  Or Google for "2e recovery Captivate" and wade through the results.  When I originally had this problem I was able to find a thread where someone had posted just the 2e recovery utility, and I was able to overwrite the utility through the phone (needed root and a file utility that supported remounting partitions rw -- I told you this wasn't for weak stomachs) -- I'm not able to find that thread right now.  I was happy that I didn't have to boot into Windows to do any of the upgrade steps (I'm running Ubuntu 64-bit).

Anyway, hopefully this proves useful to someone.  If you haven't already thrown away your Captivate, don't; rescue it with CyanogenMod!