Skip to content

Chevy Volt: A short review

The first electric car (with a hybrid backup drivetrain).


Review
I drove the Volt at a GM promotional event (Mainstreet) at Giants stadium in NJ a few weeks ago and am pleased to report that the Volt drives just like a real car. The acceleration, braking and handling were no better and no worse than an above-average compact sedan. The only noticeable difference was that it was exceptionally quiet (even with the backup gasoline engine running at the time of test drive) and the gearshifts were smoother than any other car (because there are no gear changes.) Acceleration was adequate. The most notable thing here for the average driver is not the 0-60 time (about 9.2 seconds), but that compared to any other car, it feels qualitatively better. No engine revving, no subtle hesitation at gear changes. Just smooth acceleration.

Analysis
The Volt uses a unique drivetrain. Some people call it a hybrid, GM calls it a “extended range electric vehicle”. I would argue that it is actually most accurately described as an “electric car with a hybrid backup drivetrain”. Mine is the most accurate, but it sounds the worst. The fact is that the Chevy Volt’s place in history is secured because it was the first mass-produced passenger car that can be powered solely by electricity from a normal 110 V household wall outlet. An overnight (7 hour) charge time is plenty to get the Volt up to 100% charge for 30-40 miles of electric-only driving.

Where it gets confusing – and where the Volt draws flak from detractors – is that it does have a gasoline engine on board. I will spare you from the details of the Voltec powertrain, but suffice to say that after the battery powers the car for 35 miles, the gasoline engine activates so that you can fully complete the 50 mile drive to grandma’s house. Or the 350 mile drive to the other grandma’s house.

Things can really get complicated when explaining the Volt, so I’ve boiled down the explanation of how to use the Volt into the following four questions:

Is it possible to drive the Chevy Volt only on electricity from a plug?
Yes. It is absolutely possible to never use gas with the Chevy Volt– you would just have to limit drives to under about 35 miles between charges.

Why should I fill the Volt with with gas if I can just plug it in?
Because if you happen to drive for longer than 30-40 miles, you will get stuck and need to call a tow truck. If you fill it with gas, it will keep going for another 250 miles+.

Is it possible to drive the Chevy Volt only on gas without plugging it in?
Yes. The gas engine will generate electricity to drive the car, so you never have to plug it in.

Why should I plug the car in if it can run solely on gas?
Because the Volt uses less energy (and less money) when it is running on electric power from the plug. The initial 40 miles you drive using the battery power costs about $1-worth of electricity while each additional 40 miles you drive using gas costs about [whatever the price of gas is today].

Upshot:
So the Volt when driven on an everyday basis would save a lot of money on gasoline because the equivalent electricity would cost a lot less. Over 5 years a Volt owner could save anywhere between $2000-$5000 on gasoline compared to a conventional car. There are a few big catches, however:

First, the Volt only seats 4 passengers instead of the usual 5 for most sedans. The reason is that the battery is so large that it takes up the space in the middle of the bench of the rear seat.
Secondly, the Volt costs buyers $42,000. Even with the federal tax credit, the net cost for a well-equipped Volt starts at $33,000. Assuming a fuel-cost savings of ~$3,000 for owning a Volt for 5 years, one could reasonably compare the Volt to a $30,000 conventional car. For that amount, one could obtain a near-luxury four-door sedan with more room, more power and seating for five. The Volt is certainly not a value proposition at this point in time and is not particularly practical either. Anyone without a private garage and/or an electrical outlet available for charging the car should not even consider buying the Volt (e.g., apartment dwellers).

Despite the negatives, the Volt is very worth getting to know because while expensive, the impressively efficient technology is not exorbitant. It is tantalizingly close to being a real, practical, everyday alternative to conventional gasoline internal combustion engine drivetrains that power other cars.

As it is right now, the Volt is a niche vehicle for early-adopters that don’t mind paying extra for a new technology. For the Volt (and other electric vehicles) to become mainstream, one of two things need to happen:

1.) If the Volt as-is becomes significantly less expensive. If the Volt can be available for $30,000, it becomes a reasonable and affordable option for many drivers.

2.) If battery technology improves. Higher energy density in batteries is needed. Higher energy density would allow for smaller-sized batteries (which would allow for more passenger/cargo room and a lighter vehicle) and/or extended driving range.

Although these are formidable barriers to mainstream adoption of electric vehicles other serious barriers have already been addressed (operation at cold/hot temperatures, driving dynamics, safety) and the pathway to success is known.

Verdict: Wait. But it will be worth the wait.

HP Veer 4G Review

The HP Veer 4G was released in May 2011 with little fanfare on the AT&T network. It is running WebOS 2.1, the most up-to-date version of the operating system.

 What makes this phone different than other smartphones? 

The physical form is smaller than any other smartphone on the market. It has a 2.6 inch screen and a slide-out physical keyboard. In this age of ever larger screens and phones, the Veer will easily slip into any pants pocket. The Veer is billed as “4G” but is actually HSPA+ rather than LTE. What does this mean? It means that web browsing is noticeably faster than on 3G phones, but doesn’t match true 4G speeds.

It’s running WebOS which was developed by Palm and first introduced in 2009. The primary differences between WebOS and other mobile OS’s are:

1) It is dependent on a physical keyboard in addition to a multitouch screen.

2) It has a superior multitasking user interface allowing switching between applications.

The Veer makes good use of the slide-out keyboard. While it takes an extra step to flip out the keyboard, WebOS allows you to cut a step out of many tasks to compensate. For example, once you start typing anything, WebOS prompts you to act on what you just typed and allows you to pick from a bevy of menu options including Google search, starting an e-mail, posting to Twitter or Facebook, among other options. In any other OS, those respective actions would require you to open an application first. WebOS allows you to cut to the chase.

The ‘card’ multitasking concept (see video) is the best in the mobile OS space. Well, at least Microsoft and RIM think so; RIM’s Playbook and Windows Mango have both blatantly ripped off the side-to-side finger swiping action that allows the user to cycle between apps.

Despite some of the advantages, the Veer has very little going for it. The multitasking is somewhat better than Android and iOS phones, but performance and responsiveness suffer as a tradeoff. The OS is more apt to hang and memory leaks often interfere with the theoretical ability to multitask. Sometimes an app will take many, many seconds to load when other apps are open. Other times, an app will refuse to open at all.

As for the size, the Veer’s greatest advantage is also a disadvantage. The small screen makes it less possible to do extensive reading or working on this phone relative to other smart phones. Even if you could deal with the small size and are looking forward to the svelte size, their is another catch: in order to plug in a standard 3.5mm headphone, you need to use a magnetic dongle that attaches to the side of the Veer like an ear. (see picture) This is unfortunately not a joke. The unique, small size of the veer is neutralized by an awkward accessory that hangs off of the side of the phone which effectively de-sleeks the phone.

magnetic dongle

Finally, this mini phone comes with a mini app catalog. The total app count on WebOS’s app store currently stands at around 8,000. Meanwhile, there are tens of thousands of apps on iOS and Android that are not available for the Veer.

Summary:

The Veer isn’t a bad phone, but there really is no reason to buy one. Over the course of 2 years (including mandatory AT&T voice, text, and data), an iPhone 4 would cost only 5% more than a Veer. Meanwhile, there are a slew of AT&T Android phones that are the same price as a Veer. One reason to buy this phone is the small size, but even the small form factor is marred by the headphone dongle. Another reason to consider the Veer is for WebOS which is unique, but ultimately offers no advantage over iOS or Android.

Verdict: 

Not Recommended

 

HP Veer 4G Specs

  • Screen: 2.6-inch, 400×320
  • Processor and RAM: 800MHz Qualcomm Scorpion, 512MB RAM
  • Storage: 8GB
  • Camera: 5-megapixel, VGA video, fixed focus
  • Carrier: AT&T
  • Phone Price: $99 w/ 2-year contract
  • Service Price:
  • $1800($75/month 2 year with 2GB/month data, 450 voice minutes/month, 1000 texts/month)
  • $2040($85/month 2 year with 2GB/month data, 450 voice minutes/month, unlimited texts)

A Primer on Google+

What is it?

There is no way around it. When you talk about Google+ you have to compare it to Facebook. On the surface, it is largely the same: you connect with people you know and you can communicate with many people at once via posted ‘updates’ which other people see in their ‘stream’ which are similar to Facebook’s ‘news feed’. There are two key differences, however, that make Google+ the Yin to Facebook’s Yang.

1. When you post an ‘update’ (or link, picture, or video) in Google+, you can easily exclude certain groups of people from seeing it. You can spare acquaintances your vacation pictures while sparing your friends from work-related matters.

2. No one can post on your ‘wall’. When someone looks at your wall, they only see the posts that you put there and furthermore, only the ones that you allow them to see. Grandma gets to see the ‘nice’ pictures while your friends get to see the ‘niiiice’ pictures.

If this doesn’t sound like much, you’re not alone. The change in structure is subtle; it is only the implications that are huge. And that is the fundamental problem with Google+: it’s tough to precisely explain why it is so good.

What does this really mean?

You know how everyone jokes nervously about their mother joining Facebook? You know how nearly everyone has made the mistake of adding a boss or coworker to Facebook? You know how everyone suffers over adding or subtracting ‘friends’ from Facebook? Those three simple examples illuminate the fundamental structural flaw of Facebook and conversely, the fundamental strength of Google+. Google+ eliminates the aforementioned problematic scenarios by allowing users to compartmentalize your network into various ‘circles’. For example, you can place grandma into your ‘family’ circle and your boss in the ‘coworkers’ circle. Next time your status update says: “Skipping Boss’s BBQ to go to grandma’s”, you can post it to your ‘family’ and ‘friends’ circles and your boss will never see it.

It is a bit of a chore to compartmentalize people into ‘circles’, but in the end, it is a powerful tool that REALLY allows you the freedom to connect with everyone you know without the strings of over-sharing or over-receiving from your contacts. Google+ has the underpinnings of the ultimate social network.

The irony here is that Google+ is the smaller social network but the structure is such that it is what Facebook wanted to be; the ultimate social network. In Google+, you REALLY can add everyone as a ‘friend’ because you can sort them into categories and selectively communicate with them (or not) whether they are close friends, coworkers, networking contacts, family, celebrities, etc.

Should I join Google+ and leave Facebook

Yes and no, respectively. If you are like most Facebook users, you have many friends and pictures on Facebook and there is no point in ever leaving. But here’s why you should consider adding Google+. Firstly, if you currently use Gmail, Google+ is integrated into your ‘black bar’ menu. You can use Google+ just as easily as you use Google Calendar, Google Docs, etc. You can ignore it just as easily too. The only intrusion into your Gmail is a little square at the top right corner that turns red when you have a Google+ notification(s). Google+ is as intrusive or as reclusive as you want it to be.

Secondly, Google+ really has the potential to be a ‘Facebook Pro’. Facebook is essentially a playground, but Google+ has the tools to allow for connecting with leaders in your professional field, coworkers, network contacts, salespeople, etc. Nobody would ever dare do these things on Facebook with good reason.

Upshot:

Google+ is currently an invite-only beta, but keep an eye on it. Facebook is in no danger, but Google+ has the potential to literally be a serious social network.

Old Blog (posts up to May 2009)

This is the old blog with posts up to May 2009. After that I stopped writing, but never stopped thinking. New posts coming very soon.

ThriftyTechie