Category Archives: technology

When it pays to not be an “early” adopter… Hello, again.

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For most of my adult life I used Windows PCs. And every year or so, I’d find myself wiping the hard drive and doing a “fresh install.” I’ve owned a ton of laptops, and they would usually last 2, maybe 3 years at the most. The last one was a behemoth Toshiba, and the power adapter broke.

In 2011 I made what was a monumental shift “to the dark side,” getting a MacBook Pro at work. Mac OS X offered a degree of creativity and flexibility to my work that I never had in the Windows world. I soon found myself embracing it, and realized I needed my own personal machine, one which wasn’t just a university machine, and which I could put everything on. So I bought a MacBook Air, in December 2011. That machine has travelled to Israel, and really everywhere. It quickly became my go-to computer. It weighed less than 3 pounds. Its only limitations were 4GB of ram and a 256GB SSD flash hard drive. But it was fast. Even though the MBP had a much faster processor and double the ram, it crawled in comparison to the read-write speeds of the Air’s SSD.

And until yesterday, I was still using it. I have NEVER owned a computer, laptop or desktop, that has lasted as long, and performed as well as that Air. But in the past year, it was beginning to show signs of age. As the software I was using would begin to push the limits of the Air’s ram, and two of the keys had actually had the finish worn off from use. The battery would only hold about half of the charge. And as an amateur photographer, I could not stand being limited by a 256Gb hard drive. But I was waiting for the newest release of the MacBook Pro. I wanted a machine with more ram, and with more storage.

The MacBook Pro line had not been updated since mid-2015, but that was a nice machine. 3.5 pounds, a Retina display, HDMI, USB 3, and thunderbolt ports. But Apple kept hinting the MacBook would be re-born. Last year they released an underpowered, small 12” MacBook which featured no ports, except one USB-C port. USB-C is brand-new and requires adapters for ANY existing USB device to work with it. The rumors were the new MacBook Pro would follow in the MacBook’s lead. Photos leaked on tech sites (this is not the Apple of Steve Jobs where people would be banished for releasing the newest innovations). There would be some sort of an OLED glass “touch bar” to replace the function keys.

But I held out hope that the new MacBook Pro would not eliminate all of its feature-set. Two weeks ago, that hope was dashed, when the Apple keynote announced the new machine. No USB ports, farewell to Thunderbolt ports, no SD-Card reader, no magnetic “Mag Safe” power connector. All gone. Yes, a touch bar, which even included Touch ID. And it was now the weight of the MacBook Air, and had a longer battery and brighter screen. Oh, and its starting price… $200 MORE than last year’s model.

I was torn. I wanted a new mac. I wanted a computer with the latest version of the Intel Core i5/i7 processor. But did I want this computer? I spent two days, debating what to do? How would I function with this new device? How would I get my external thunderbolt hard drives to work with it? How could I afford the steep price-tag? I then went on the Accessory page of Apple’s website, and realized that there were adapters for my USB keyboard, for my external monitor, there were adapters for everything. And then, after doing the math, and adding up everything I would need to function (multiple USB-C to USB adapters, USB-C to thunderbolt adapter, new HDMI and VGA adapters for connecting to projectors, and on and on… and I realized that purchasing a new MacBook Pro would cost an additional $200 JUST FOR ADAPTERS, which I would have to lug around with me. It was unclear to me if the new machines even deserved the title “Pro” — they sure didn’t appear to be machines aimed for professionals.

That alone made me realize that the newest creation out of Cupertino was not necessarily the greatest. And I could purchase LAST YEAR’S MacBook Pro, now called the MacBook Pro 13” – “Silver” for less money than it cost a mere two days ago. And that machine would still have every port I needed. This MacBook Pro would be in use for probably another 4 or 5 years. And for that time period, I would have access to everything I wanted.  I also knew that five years from now the tech world would likely look very differently. Apple’s experiment with USB-C would either succeed and it would become the industry standard, or it wouldn’t. It might very well be the next Thunderbolt (which was never adapted by others). But for the next few years, I could have a lightning fast MacBook Pro that offered everything I wanted, and not have to make any compromises, while not being the quintessential early adopter.

 

Yesterday, my new “old” MacBook Pro arrived. The machine is fast. It is quiet (makes virtually no noise, and its fan, when it runs, is far more quiet than the Air). The keyboard has that wonderful, new spongy feel. The Retina display is all it is cut out to be.  Hello again.

 

I’m certain I won’t miss the emoji keyboard.

 

Living on the wild side: two days with a Chromebook

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I am travelling abroad again this winter (back to Israel), and I did not want to bring my mac book air with me.  It is my primary work machine, and there are export control regulations as a state employee that I have to follow, and I decided I wanted to have a second, kind of “throw-away” computer for the trip. Plus, I didn’t like the idea of traveling with my primary machine.  After considerable research looking at low-end (sub$250) laptops, I realized I had options between Windows 10 machines and Chrome books.   I came close to purchasing a Windows 10 Lenovo machine, but could not pull the trigger.  I could not go back to a bloated OS, with everything in it that I didn’t need.  I didn’t want to be in Microsoft’s ecosystem.  I have been running OSX for 5 years, and am happy with that.  And I couldn’t imagine how a machine with 2GB of ram would fare running a full desktop OS.

So, I started looking at Chrome OS.   For the uninitiated, Chrome OS is Google’s operating system, which builds an entire operating system (based in linux, as is OS X) around its Chrome browser.   The system is meant to use applications and extensions supported by Chrome.  It is cloud-based, drawing heavily on Google Drive, but can run a wide variety of tools, both online and offline.  Prices were right.  11.6″ machines could be had for $150.   And these things are light.  Fanless computers.  To test it out, I started using Chrome on my macbook, installing a combination of applications and extensions to see what the experience would be like.   Everything I needed for travel was there.   Office productivity software, email, web, video, music.   Sure, I wouldn’t have access to iTunes (but I’ll still have my iPad for that).   And my fear that were I stuck someplace with little or no wi-fi that I’d have a sub 3 pound paper weight was unfounded.  Most software I needed could run off-line.   I decided to give it a try.  Hell, I can even play my favorite brain puzzle 2048 as a chrome app, right in the browser!  

The next step was what machine to get.  I was impressed by the Acer 11.7″ model.  At 2.4 pounds this thing weighed little more than a tablet.   But I was leery of the small screen.  It had a full size keyboard, but given my laptop usage, I was quite concerned I could have back issues, from my neck being at a weird angle (I use a 13″ macbook day in, with it literally on my lap for hours). I also did not like that it was a white plastic case.  The store display model was quite honestly, filthy.  I’m sure mine would loo the same.  I also checked out a similar Samsung Chromebook 2.  Also 2GB ram, and 11.6″ screen.  But the same concern about size was there.  So I started looking at the Toshiba 13.3″ Chrome book 2.   I was taken by two things.  This machine has 4GB of ram instead of the typical 2GB of ram.   (They all have 16GB of eMMC (an on-board version of a Solid State Drive for off-line storage).  But Chrome itself only takes about 5GB, so I’d have 10GB of storage space.  Plus, there was a full-sized SD card reader (in which I could easily add 128GB of storage) and a USB 3 and USB 2 port.   But the thing that got me was the High Definition screen.  This thing is incredible.   Crisp, making use of the newest technology for screens.  DId I say that it weighs less than 3 pounds. Identical in size to the mac book air.   Ad  So I bought it.  

I opened it up, and it booted in a few seconds (typically it takes about 5 seconds to boot), and asked to login to a google account, or create a new one.  I logged in to my account, and in the next ten minutes it transferred all of my google chrome settings, extensions, apps, and even google docs to the chromebook.  I’ve never seen a setup as quick as that.  Because I had done some prep work on my macbook using chrome, it was pretty much ready to go instantly.  Once that is done, the boot up is literally just a couple seconds long, if you choose to shut it down entirely.  

A couple days later, and I realize this is more than a throw-away machine.  It is a extremely fast, comfortable laptop to use for basic writing, web browsing, email, even music and netflix.   The Chromebook has a battery that is rated for 9 hours, and I’ll be darned if it doesn’t last that long.  It is fanless, and does not heat up much when used.  Completely silent.  Extremely fast.   I’m going to use a USB3.0 based “nub” drive (128GB), which barely protrudes  beyond the side of the device, as an external drive, to provide access to my library of documents, and probably some of my music.  WHat can’t it do?  Well, no Stata or MaxQDA for statistics (I’ll live).  Can’t run full versions of Microsoft Office (which I despise, so I’ll really live).   Can’t run itunes or some of my favorite mac programs.   But from the standpoint of basic writing, web browsing, email, this thing is extremely useful.  And did I say it is fast?   It’s lightning fast.   The keyboard is nice – feels like a mac. It even has a trackpad that works very similarly to the Mac one.   Its only limitation?  It doesn’t have a backlit keyboard (we are talking a $200 range laptop after all, and Toshiba does sell one with 32GB of storage, a backlit keyboard, and a Core i3 processor, but its double the price.   The Celeron processor and Chrome work great.  The High Definition display blows the mind.  

This is a great device.  It doesn’t replace my macbook, and to be honest, I wouldn’t want to give up all that the mac offers, but for travel, and for day to day light work, this is a great supplement.   I see mostly advantages, and only a few short comings.   It is the perfect computing companion to my primary work station.

I wrote this blog in Google Docs, on the chrome book.

 

Microsoft, sucking the OS X out of OS X one app at a time

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Last week Microsoft announced the availability of the preview version of the new Microsoft Office for Mac, the first update since 2011.  I downloaded it and was immediately struck by the amount of effort they took to make the Mac version look like the Windows and Surface versions.   No smooth edges, everything is boxy, very Microsoft Windows-like.   Blah, Blah, Blah… it looks terrible.

In the four years I have been using Apple’s OS X operating system, the one thing that has always struck me was the simple elegance of the operating system, the avoidance of hard-lines, the usability of the applications.  The ease of use that comes from every application using the menu bar at the top of the screen.  Not Microsoft.  Oh, it uses the menu, but then replicates its own Windows ribbon and menus in the application window.  This is duplicative, confusing, and creates a messy, pretty miserable user experience.

I downloaded the app and have Word on my computer because when you collaborate with Windows users you need to have Word available, but it really is not a pleasant writing environment.   I’ll take Nisus Writer Pro any day. Microsoft has a lot of work to do.  One of the best parts of Apple’s OS X is the writer-friendly operating system and application tools available.  Nisus Writer is a full-featured word processor that provides lots of tools, but none of the bloat.  It’s RTF file format works seamlessly with other research tools, namely Scrivener and DevonThink Pro.  Microsoft Word is just the big bully sucking up lots of disk space and making you want to poke out your eyes.

Then there is the new Outlook.  Now I am not going to be a cheerleader for Apple Mail.  As a mail program, Apple Mail is good, but it is slow, and its search functions are not great.  But compared with Outlook, and its boxy, ribbon-laden look, I’ll put up with the shortcomings.  I was hopeful, because ironically, the new Outlook for iOS is very good, an app worth looking at, maybe better than the Apple Mail app on the iPad and iPhone.   But not the OS X version.   Every time a new email program comes out, I test it, hoping that the killer app has finally arrived.  To this point, nothing has.  I’ll keep looking, but it is obvious that Microsoft won’t be high on my list.

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