Tag Archives: technology

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.

Netbooks for sixth graders?

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I am a tech guy.   A geek, a nerd,  the whole shebang.   My home office has three or four shells of old computers.    I am plugged in all the time, whether it is an iPhone, iPad, one of two Macbooks, even technology on my wrist when I exercise.  I help people with computers, setup networks, etc… I have four old hard drives just sitting on the floor next to me as I write.       So why do I find myself annoyed to read that the local school district spent $800,000 to equip 1000 sixth graders with $400 crapbooks, er… netbooks?    Underpowered laptops in the hands of 12 year olds;  on three year leases.     

Is it personal experiences that these computers are not worth close to that amount, and will end up piles of junk long before these kids – expected to use them day-in and day-out for three years – are done with them?  I’ve seen first-hand the damage a 6th grader can do to a netbook, a laptop, and a desktop.  And its not pretty.  

Is it the sense that in a largely upper-middle class school district, in a state that is BROKE, I am forced to ask why are we spending $800,000 per year (as one can only expect the program to continue) to equip families with devices that most of them could afford on their own?   Sure, there are poor families in Unit 5; and if we were to require laptops/netbooks, I’d certainly support helping them out.   Or maybe some of it is annoyance that even though I pay a god-awful amount of money on local property/school taxes (close to $6K per year), I still got hit with almost $200 in “fees” when my kid registered for high school.   (Why is there a fee needed to take geometry? — But I digress….)

Is it the sense that we are focusing too much on technology, and not enough on the three Rs of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmitic?     A friend who is (an excellent) teacher at one of the jr high schools was quoted  in the paper saying “this will change how we teach, not what we teach.”    You know, I am not certain I buy that argument.  As a college professor over the past two decades, I have watched students become more and more tech savvy (or at least tech dependent, they are not all saavy), and less and less prepared for college.   I teach a generation of kids that seems to have lost the ability to read anything longer than… gasp… a blog entry.  Books?   They don’t even buy them.  But they can make powerpoint presentations for group projects.  (Yet, even here they tend to make the most atrocious-looking powerpoints imaginable, so even that is questionable). 

I am not sure why I am bothered by the schools embracing technology in this way.   An expanded wireless network, computers in the hands of every kid.   Call me cynical, but I am not sure we are going down the right path.    

Curmudgeonly yours… 

First Reactions to OS X Mountain Lion

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Yeah, I am a geek, and the first thing I did this morning was go into the App Store to see if Mountain Lion, the latest version of Mac OS X (10.8) was out.  It was, and I clicked purchase.   $20 later and the 4.34 GB file began downloading.   An hour later (it took longer to download the file than to install it) I was roaring like a Mountain Lion (or do they chuff and not roar? ) Anyways, I digress.  

First reactions.   The core of OS X Lion is intact.  This is less a major overhaul of the OS than it is a series of welcome enhancements.    OS X is taking a huge step towards total integration with Apple’s iOS operating system found on iPads and iPhones.  And as an owner of both an iPad and an iPhone, this is a very good thing.   The first thing I saw was icons in the dock for Reminders, Messages, and Notes.  Identical to their iOS 5.0/6.0 applications, thanks to iCloud, these applications now sync content seemlessly between the iPhone/iPad and Mac.  I created a note on the Mac, had the iPad open, five seconds later it showed up there. I edited it on the iPad, and the changes were practically instantaneous on the Mac.  

I have been running the beta of Messages since this spring, so that was not exciting, but for communicating with others in the Apple ecosystem, Messages is awesome.   Send texts from your computer.    Alas, it only works for users on iOS 5 or higher.   All you Android folks – sorry, I can’t message you through my Mac.  

Next up, Safari 6.  I have also been running the beta of this for the past month, but with ML, it now has an iCloud tab.   I can instantly see the browser windows open on my iPad and iPhone, and switch to any page.    There is now a unified address bar (like in Chrome) so searches and addresses are in the same place.  A few other features, but the biggest thing is Safari just felt fast.

Then we come to Airplay.    Yes, in the place of the display icon on the menu bar is now the iOS Airplay icon.   If you have an Apple TV, this is cool.   Click on it, and you can mirror your Mac’s screen to an Apple TV.  Works great.   It automatically scaled my display to a 16×9 screen with small black bars (but still looked good) and played instantly on my Apple tv.  I loaded a 1080p video from You Tube in Safari, went full screen, and it played flawlessly on the Apple TV.    Now I can use Amazon Prime Video on my Apple TV, just need the assistance of my Mac.   Very nice.

Twitter is now integrated into the OS;  I can tweet from pretty much anywhere (and soon will be able to do the same with Facebook, but that is still under development).   This brings me to the notification bar.  Just like in iOS, Mail, Twitter, and other apps can place notifications of events in a dropdown box on the right side of the screen.  Works well.   Will definitely put Growl out of business.   Would like to see a bit more volume when a notification comes in, and I have not yet found the Do Not Disturb button.  

There are updates to iWork, iPhoto, iMovie, and Aperture.  Now, in iWork apps (say Pages) and Preview you can rename a file from the title bar, move it to iCloud, Duplicate it, etc.  All from the title bar!   From within Pages or Numbers or Preview, click OPEN from the file menu, and you can choose between files stored in iCloud and files stored on your mac.  Also very cool.   Finally, iCloud is getting it.   Not quite Dropbox, but a huge improvement.     From within iPhoto you can now share to Photostream, to Twitter, and to Messages.   Got a photo you want to text to an iOS user, easy as pie.   Have a photo in iPhoto you want to tweet – just as simple.   

Mail and Finder now have easy access to the Photo Browser.   You can attach any photo from your iPhoto Library into an email – or search directly for a photo from Finder.   No need to open iPhoto.   There is now a MEDIA section in Finder for Photos, Music, and Movies.    Yet, all drawing on the power of the iPhoto and iTunes libraries.  

What have I missed?  Oh yeah, Voice Dictation.    Double click the function key and a Siri-like sound and microphone appears on the screen.  Talk to your mac and it will listen.  Same technology, works as well as on the iPhone and iPad.    I like it a lot.   When done either click the mouse on Done (my initial reaction was to touch it on the screen – but this is NOT an iPad!  DOH!), or click FN again.   Works great.   Now I can talk to my computer whenever I want – and while you already know I am crazy, I’ll at least be accomplishing something.   

I am sure I have missed something, but its only been 2 hours since I installed the operating system.   Is Mountain Lion a game changer?  Is it a whole new OS?  Absolutely not.   It is a series of enhancements to a solid operating system designed to make it easier to use, and to make it more relevant to the way we compute.   If you live in Apple’s walled garden, and have a mac, iPhone, and iPad, then Mountain Lion is well worth it.  I absolutely love the total integration among my devices – and how seemless that process is.   Worth $20?  Absolutely.   

Shortcomings?  I haven’t found any yet.  I don’t think they have improved the full-screen mode support for dual displays (but I have not connected this machine to a second display yet. 

 PS If you are going to take the plunge, remember to save the installer to a USB external drive before installing it – so you have a copy.  The installer disappears when the OS is installed.  And be smart and so a full backup before installing.   🙂

First Impressions of the “new” iPad

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What?  Another first impressions report of Apple’s latest gadget?   Yup.  I am an early adopter.   My wife would say that is a disease, a vice.   An expensive one at that, but better than spending my money in bars drinking. Anyway, I digress.    I have owned an iPad since the iPad 2 came out last March.   Before that, I spent the prior year in Apple-denial, refusing to buy an “over-sized” iPod touch.    While I liked the Samsung Galaxy Tab (the original 7” model), I was drawn to the iPad 2 — I found the size of the 7” screen too limiting to do real work on the tablet.  (See this blog post for my original reasons for switching to an iPad).   One year later, I remained firmly planted in the world of the iPad.

The iPad 2 is fast; it is elegant; everything works;  applications are slick, the user interface is easy.  With a 9.7” screen, I could read and annotate PDFs in almost full-size.   iPad 2 brought me into a paper-less world.    All of my classes are now prepped using tools that enable me to have my notes and class materials on the iPad.  I do not need to bring anything to class except the iPad.  I attend numerous long meetings, and take notes on it.   I use UPad to take notes, often using a stylus, so I can write in my own script.    I export notes to PDFs, which I can access on my MacBook Air.  With the almost ubiquitous presence of Dropbox services, I have access to over 40GB of materials.    The iPad 2 rocks.   It has never failed me.  

So, why the need for an iPad 3? (technically its the iPad (3rd generation), but I’ll stick with iPad 3 instead of the new iPad).    After following the tech blogs for the past year, the rumors of the next great iPad were that it would draw upon the success of the iPhone 4 and 4S, which feature a high density “retina” display, that makes the icons on the screen look as if they are painted on.    There was talk of a 4G/LTE iPad, a faster processor, a better camera.    Of those things, only one thing excited me: the retina display.   As an iPhone 4S user, I have absolutely loved the display on that device — even though it was considerably smaller than my prior Droid X phone.    The iPhone 4S’ retina display TRULY DOES LOOK like it was painted on.  That comparison is absolutely true.   The idea of a similar screen for the much larger iPad intrigued me.  

I spent a lot of time reading on the iPad: whether it is a book on the Kindle app, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Daily, or one of a handful of magazines, or web pages, forums, and social media outlets, reading is the number one thing I do on the iPad.   Yes, I use it to take notes; yes I use it for meetings, for lectures.    But even when I am “creating” rather than “consuming” the iPad is being used to read.   What I don’t do is play a lot of immersive 3D games.    For me, gaming is Easy Sudoku, Bejeweled, or Video Poker. So, the enhanced graphics capabilities were less important.  But text that was more than High Definition, that equalled print in a book or magazine (and exceeded print in a newspaper)… that drew me in.

I successfully put my iPad 2 up for sale, and pre-ordered an iPad 3.  It arrived late yesterday afternoon.    When I unboxed it, I was struck by the fact that the box looked identical to the iPad 2.   Indeed, if it were not for the model number, you would not necessarily know you were getting an iPad 3.  The iPad looks identical to the prior generation.   I weighs slightly more (.09 pounds), but I have not been able to distinguish the weight difference.  It is a tad thicker, but again, side by side, we are talking minor changes.   It came pre-loaded with Apple’s latest iOS 5.1 software, and the setup was identical to the iPad 2.   Turn it on, find a wi-fi network, log-in with an Apple ID,  connect to iTunes (or iCloud), and either setup a new iPad or restore from a backup.  I chose to use iTunes to restore from the last backup of my iPad 2 (I could have used iCloud, but knew iTunes would be quicker).   Four minutes later I was up and running, and 30 minutes later, all 94 of the apps I had on my iPad had transferred.   

First impression?  The screen.   The icons have much more definition, they are clearer; they are brighter; the text descriptions for them are sharp.   Very similar to the iPhone 4S in that sense, but bigger.   But its when you go into an app that you see the real effect.  I immediately loaded the Kindle app.   After a quick log-in to my Amazon account, and download of a book, I was reading.   And I almost fell over.  I have never seen electronic text so crisp.  No pixelation at all.  More clear than on my MacBook Air’s screen, better than anything I have ever seen.   Heck, I am not sure I have seen printed text look as good.  Then I went to the New York Times — and was equally stunned.  The visually appealing interface the Times iPad app uses was magnified by the quality of the text.   It draws you in.   And the text of articles is of the same quality as the Kindle.   Next up, Safari.   I loaded Facebook.   Browser text had that same fine quality.   Ironically, Facebook’s graphics (their blue menu) looked a bit fuzzy in comparison.    Time and time again, I was blown away by the visual appearance of the word on screen.   Even iPhone-native apps looked better.  The iPad has always had a 2X zoom mode for iPhone apps, which always looked fuzzy and blurry on the iPad and iPad 2.   Now, the 2X display is much improved.  Its still not perfect, but its quite functional.  

I then took my iPad 2 and put the two devices side by side.   The iPad that I thought was the coolest thing since sliced bread for the past year suddenly looked pale and cheap in comparison.  Not because the iPad 2 was slow (indeed, the iPad 3 and 2 seem to be equally fast at loading applications; neither have any lag whatsoever), but because all of a sudden, the iPad 2 seemed to have developed a pixelized look.  I COULD SEE the pixels where I could never see them before.  It was like switching from a blue ray in 1080p HDTV to a standard definition television show.   I guess if you double the resolution of the iPad, and put more pixels per inch than any device before it, you are going to notice a difference.  And you do.     

The improvements in resolution – coupled by a quad-core graphics processor – mean even better video performance.   I use my iPad at the gym all the time, either viewing TV shows on Netflix or videos I have downloaded from iTunes.    The iPad 2 had great video; the iPad 3 takes it to another level.  Sharp images, smooth video, the difference is really significant.   Whether it is the higher than high definition resolution or the graphic processor is unclear to me, but wow – the results are stunning.

Any downsides?   Only that not all apps are “retina” ready, and third-party developers have to do some updating.    Sadly, UPad – the great note-taking app I referred to above – does not play well with the retina display.  In fact, it no longer functions.   And Note Taker HD, a close-second to UPad, which still manages to work, suddenly looks blurry in terms of the on-screen notes.   In addition, some programs that use their own fonts instead of the stock ones provided by Apple, also suffer from a “blurry” effect.   But I suspect in the next week or so, many applications will get the “retina” treatment, and will be updated.   And, I have little doubt that Apple will require retina-support for future apps.   

Is the retina display alone enough to merit upgrading to an iPad 3?   Absolutely.   NO doubt in my mind at all.   Sure, the iPad 3 has a quad-core graphics processor, and now sports a 5MP camera like what was in the iPhone 4 (but not 4S);  and it has 1 gb of ram as opposed to 512MP.    None of that matters to me.  The iPad 2 was fast – it did everything I asked it to.    I never used the camera on the iPad – perhaps because I thought you looked like a dork taking a photo with a 10” tablet.   I don’t have high expectations for the camera in the iPad 3, but that is not important to me.    

I can’t speak to the 4G/LTE broadband speeds, since I bought a Wi-Fi only iPad.  I already pay for a data plan on my iPhone, and because I spent 95% of my time in places where there is wi-fi readily available, I was not motivated by that (although all accounts from friends at satellieguys suggest that the 4G speeds are stunning).   

Is the iPad 3 worth it?   Without a doubt, yes.   No reservations at all, and no regrets.  Until yesterday, the iPad 2 was the best tablet available on the planet.   It has been beat – by the iPad 3.    The iPad 2 is still a great tablet, and can give people several years use.   Just don’t put it side by side next to a “new” iPad. Everyone wondered what the iPad killer would be – and Apple provided the answer.

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