Categories
mobile

Ask Bill: Which Chromebook?

Kelvin Yong writes about the Chromebook:

Earlier the year, you reviewed a few Chromebooks and I’ve followed them. However I’m a bit confused which is a good one to get for. Seeing that on today’s news Google and Intel are working together to bring out new Chromebook with i3 processor, I’d imagine that won’t be for a few months before it will reach the market.

Anyhow, what’s your take of the current range – Toshiba, Samsung, HP Chromebook 11 (Exynos 5) and HP Chromebook 14 – or wait for i3 Chromebook?

I’ve only spent serious time with two Chromebooks: the HP Chromebook 14 and the Acer C720. I’m still hoping to get my hands on a Samsung Chromebook.

I’ve seen a few other, but only for a short period.

Chromebooks are inexpensive computers. They come with zero bundled software and most have basic specifications. Normally they come with relatively feeble processors, not much Ram, little in the way of specialist graphics hardware and hardly any local storage.

That’s OK because hardware makers optimise Chromebooks for simpler computing. You wouldn’t run Photoshop on one of these.

While first Chromebooks were effectively a reboot of the netbook, cheap almost throwaway computers, the latest batch is more elegant.

Paying more for a Chromebook

Of the current crop, your choice comes down to a simple matter of whether you want to pay a little extra for, let’s say, HP’s lightweight magnesium alloy frame, glossy white plastic exterior and the bright IPS panel display. The Acer C720 is nice because it is thin and light. Both are well made and look better than you’d expect given the low price.

I found all the Chromebooks were responsive enough – you get more of a performance boost from moving to a better broadband connection than you would from a faster processor.

Without doing benchmarks I can’t say for certain where you would or wouldn’t notice the extra grunt from an Intel i3, the issue is that once you start worrying about moving up to a more powerful system, you might want to think about moving out of the Chromebook class – for roughly the same money you could buy a Windows system that can run the Chrome browser most of the time AND run Windows apps.

The other issue to consider is what the i3 processor does for battery life. My understanding is Intel designed the chip more for performance than for battery life, so you may be trading work time for extra grunt you can’t use.

Categories
productivity

Lenovo wants to own hardware market

IBM may be exiting the hardware business. Dell and HP would like to move their focus from shifting boxes to selling software and services.

Meanwhile, Lenovo is building up a head of steam to dominate computer hardware.

The company has been around since the 1980s. Things took off in 2005 when it purchased IBM’s PC business. It still makes the iconic ThinkPad laptops.

Lenovo – world’s largest PC business

Last year Lenovo became the world’s largest PC maker – at least in terms of unit sales – ahead of HP, Dell, Acer and Asus.

The company has revenues of more than US$30 billion and, unlike some other PC makers, is profitable. In 2012 it posted a net income of around US$500 million.

I can’t think of another recent major PC industry acquisition as successful as Lenovo’s take over of the IBM PC business. The Chinese owners had the sense to leave the ex-IBM engineers and managers get on with doing what they do well while providing the financial and logistical support needed to succeed.

Servers, phones

2014 has barely begun, yet already this year Lenovo has moved to buy IBM’s low-end Intel-based server operation and pay Google almost $3 billion for the Motorola phone business.

Both acquisitions are huge.  They represent huge risks. IBM wanted to exit low-end servers at least partly because the margins aren’t great. Google’s reasons for selling Motorola are probably more strategic – owning a handset maker conflicts with its Android strategy.

And then there’s the painful matter of integrating cultures – although as we’ve seen with the IBM PC business, Lenovo is good at that.

Industry domination?

Lenovo is on a trajectory towards dominating technology hardware. Today it is still a distance behind Apple or Samsung, but it represents a clear challenge. It has strong management and first-rate research and development. The operational side of the business is second to none.

The company was already building a head of steam in the phone business – although that was mainly in China. Buying Motorola propels Lenovo to become the number three handset maker worldwide. The IBM server deal cements the company firmly in business markets – that will help sell its branded PCs and phones to corporate customers.

It’s already time for us acknowledge Lenovo as a third hardware giant alongside Apple and Samsung. It is a company worth watching.

Categories
mobile

Why you can’t judge a Chromebook by the cover

Just as tablet makers like Apple pack 80 percent of PC functionality into a slim new format, Chromebook makers bundle a different, but just as essential, subset of PC features, in a familiar-looking hardware package. The two moves are a pincer attack on the traditional PC.

A wake-up call from Acer

Spending a week with Acer’s C720 Chromebook was a wake-up call.

At first glance, the C720 isn’t promising. It’s an NZ$400 laptop. How could something that price deliver the goods?

Acer’s Chromebook hardware specification is far from fancy. The C720 screen measures 11.6 inches and resolution is just 1388 by 768. My phone has more pixels

Most phones also have more computing power than the C720’s Celeron processor. Many do better than 4GB of Ram and the C720’s 16GB SSD.

Power doesn’t come into it

The hardware barely matters. Much of the important processing takes place elsewhere. The most important thing in a Chromebook box is the operating system: Chrome OS.

Like the hardware, on paper Chrome OS promises little. Although Linux-based, in effect it is simply a swept-up version of Google’s Chrome browser.

You could be forgiven for dismissing Chromebook as another netbook-style flash in the pan. It may look that way if you’ve spent the last 25 years welded to Microsoft’s operating systems and software. After all, the PC era was all about delivering ever more power and features.

Yet that personal computing model was already being questioned by netbooks and phones before Apple unleashed the first iPad tablet. It turns out most users don’t need all that power, cost and complexity in a traditional PC. They never did.

The dark side of the Chromebook

Three things stand between the Chromebook and widespread acceptance.

First is a growing suspicion of Google’s business model. The company wants to know far too much about customers. Its main business is selling advertising.

Second, there are still a few things that you can’t do that well with Chrome OS. It’s not good for content creation, even web design is tricky.

Third, Chrome faces a confusing challenge from within Google. Earlier this month hardware makers were showing Android-based laptops.

Destination or journey?

I suspect the Chromebook – in its current form – is a transitional product. What’s clear is that Google and Chromebook makers are on to something worthwhile. It’s a direction worth exploring and one I will keep an eye on.

Categories
productivity

Desktop Android emerges as Windows rival

HP’s latest all-in-one business computer uses Android for its operating system instead of Microsoft Windows.  In another step away from the old Wintel approach that HP once championed, the new machine sports a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 4 processor instead of an Intel chip.

Acer, Asustek and Lenovo are also bringing desktop Android PCs and laptops to market.

There’s a clear need for HP to experiment with Windows alternatives. But is desktop Android the right choice for a business desktop?

Unhappy with Microsoft

Like many other PC makers, HP isn’t happy about Microsoft’s entry into the hardware market. The software giant’s Surface PC-style tablets are both a criticism of existing PC brands and a direct challenge to the companies that made Microsoft rich.

Another strike against Microsoft is customer resistance to Windows 8. It isn’t popular with individuals or with businesses. Retailers and PC makers report buyers prefer systems with an older version of Windows.

Apple isn’t willing to licence its OS X operating system. Straightforward desktop versions of Linux (Android is Linux-based) have failed to ignite sales, which leaves computer makers with little choice but to use a Google operating system.

Android, or Chrome?

Google offers two options: Android and Chrome. Chrome is effectively a browser that operates as a cloud-based OS. Android was built for mobile phones and can be found on tablets.

Is Android the right choice as a desktop OS?

I can’t answer that until I’ve tested an Android-based desktop. I spent time with Chrome and found it is a good choice for most, not all computing tasks.

HP says it chose desktop Android over Chrome because the phone OS is more flexible, cheaper and allows more customisation.

Inexpensive

The Slate 21 sells for US$400 in the United States – expect to pay around $600 plus when it hits New Zealand. HP says if it opted for Chrome it wouldn’t have been able to keep the price as low.

HP also says Android functions better offline than Chrome. That last point seems odd as few desktops spend much time not connected to the internet these days.

Another point is that Google has tighter control over Chrome than Android. Users have no choice but to upgrade at Google’s whim. Companies running Chrome-based systems have fewer options to customise software to their needs.

Chrome has the advantage of Google’s web-based apps while the Slate 21 comes with the Kingsoft Office Suite which works with Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents. Of course there’s nothing to stop Slate 21 owners from pointing their browsers at Google Apps.

Is desktop Android viable?

On one level Android doesn’t look like a great desktop OS. It was built for phones and few, other than enthusiasts, regard it as the best phone OS. On tablets it isn’t as enjoyable or productive as iOS or Windows. And yet…

The truth is that all most modern computer users need is a decent browser. Almost all important work can take place online and in the cloud. Android comes with a choice of decent browsers including Chrome.

There are also some OK-ish apps already available, none of them cost much. Developers can quickly tweak their existing products for bigger screens. With a million or so apps to choose from, a Slate 21 user can be productive from day one.

Will Android fly on the desktop? To be honest I’m not sure. I can’t see any obvious reason why not. You certainly can’t argue with the price. The only glaring problem I can see is with people who need to run heavy-duty applications like Photoshop and other media creation tools.

Desktop Android is unlikely to hurt Apple in  the near future – that company owns the high ground across desktops, tablets and smartphones. The real danger is to Microsoft.

Categories
review

The best devices of 2013

In 2013 Software got cloudier. Smartphones got bigger. Pixels on just about everything got smaller. New Zealand’s mobile data networks got faster and service providers began selling fibre broadband.

While you couldn’t call 2013 a vintage year, technology lurched forward.

Admittedly, I didn’t see everything that appeared in 2013. Some encounters were fleeting. There were devices I only saw at press functions in fancy hotels. I briefly saw smartphones or tablets in the hour or so warm up before recording the New Zealand Tech Podcast.

Here are the products that impressed me:

Laptops

Computer sales plunged as people turned to smartphones, tablets and devices straddling all the gaps between the three. Mid-year I raced out to buy Apple’s 2013 13 inch MacBook Air within days of reading its specification.

Why? I was in the market for a new, lightweight laptop.

Although the 2013 MacBook Air is slower than the earlier version, its performance is more than ample for any task I want to throw at it. What captured my heart and my wallet was the 12 hour battery. I’ve noticed I no longer get that much from my Air even though it’s only five months old – I still regularly get 10 hours between charges. That’s still impressive. Nothing else comes close.

Acer’s C720 Chromebook caught my eye. The idea behind the Chromebook is solid enough, I would have loved to see what HP did with the format, but those models never made it to New Zealand. And the Google ChromeBook pixel also seems worth investigating.

Between laptops and tablets

Microsoft’s Surface 2 is exactly what you’d expect to find if you ask a PC company to build a tablet. It’s closer to a touch screen laptop than to Apple’s iPad.

Stick a Type Cover 2 on this baby and its a great value vessel for running Office apps while on the move. If I didn’t buy the Air, this would have been on my shopping list. I suspect it would struggle handling web design on the Surface 2, but it’s brilliant for day-to-day writing. Any moment now someone will quibble that the Surface 2 is a tablet, well it is, but…

A far better tablet

The iPad Air is by far the best tablet I’ve ever seen. Presumably the best tablet ever made. It’s lighter than earlier iPads and more comfortable to hold than any rival. The retina display is beautiful and all the necessary power to drive the thing is there. The lower weight and ten hours battery life make even more portable than earlier iPads.

Many people are excited about the iPad Mini with Retina. It’s basically the same as the Air with a smaller screen, making it lighter and more portable again. I prefer the larger size, both are impressive.

Best pricey phones

For me two phones stood out in 2013. Nokia’s Lumia 1020 packs a ridiculously high resolution camera – with 41 megapixels. You can take incredibly detailed images and crop them to taste. For a journalist it’s a great tool.

Despite some critics saying we’ve now gone past “peak Apple” the company managed to deliver three great products in 2013. The third was the iPhone 5S which adds a spruced-up camera with two flashes to take better photos and the neat Touch-ID sensor which quickly unlocks the phone.

Other smartphones

I  regret not spending more time with the HTC One – I only held it for a few minutes. It has a beautiful design and 4.7 inch screen. The camera has fewer megapixels than other smartphones, but this is countered by clever oversampling technology to capture good pictures in poor light.

The other Android phone I’d like to have seen more of was the Google Nexus 5I’ve not  had a great Android experience in the past, but the Nexus 5 promises a purer Android experience than elsewhere – that’s something that might overcome the annoyances.

Although I spent time with the Samsung S4, I found the phone didn’t live to expectations. It’s a nice enough phone – an advanced Android that comes packed with a bewildering array of software and features. On the other hand, there are few stand-outs in the 4S deal. It certainly has nothing like the Lumia 1020’s camera or the iPhone 5S Touch ID.

Cheaper phones

PR and marketing people often whinge if journalists use honest words like cheap to describe phones that cost less money. Still one nice less expensive phone that crossed my desk in 2013 was the Nokia Lumia 625Is a study, nicely specced 4G phone for less than $500. I recommend it if you don’t want to spend lots on a mobile device.