Author Archives: John Tyler

Working Through the Process of Buying a New Computer

The first thing you will notice if you haven’t bought a computer in a few years is that there are a lot more options than there once were. Buying a computer today is far more complicated than just choosing between a desktop and a laptop, as it were 10 years ago, or choosing between Mac and PC.

When Apple launched the iPad in 2010, the initial reaction by many in the tech industry was simply skepticism. Obviously, the consumer voice was far less hesitant to embrace the new technology and since that time we’ve been fortunate to undergo a tremendously innovative four years of tech releases: particularly in the PC realm.

Your choices for computing now are more cluttered than ever: laptop, tablet, desktop, laptop convertible, laptop hybrid, docked tablet, portable desktop, smartphone, or simply trying to survive off the wire. But, who am I kidding, that last option is hardly an option at all any more.

I recently underwent this process for the first time in two years when my apartment was broken into and my laptop stolen. For the first time in nearly five years, I was not decided on a product before shopping. Competition is a lovely thing, but man does it make for more of a headache when making a purchasing decision.

For a large number of consumers, Macs have become the obvious safe choice. My experience over the last week confirm this. The build quality, screen quality, performance, and particularly battery life remain at the top of the industry. But, where Apple was once the pinnacle of innovation, a thirsty resurging company reclaiming consumer confidence for the first time in two decades, they have lost a step and began to churn out one slightly more refined product after the next.

I was surprised while doing my shopping to find that the PC market is actually booming with innovation right now. Whereas PC hardware manufacturers such as HP, Dell, Lenovo, Sony, Samsung, and others were once backseat to the build quality executed by Apple – who control both software and hardware from the top down – the trend I noticed, above the $1,000 price range, was one of build quality and innovation. Of course, the budget PCs remain questionable at best and, while I’m happy those options exist, any consumer would be better fitted to save their money for a better day when they can really make a reliable purchase.

One of my primary complaints I have always had with PC laptops were the quality of the trackpad. Upon demoing a number of units in store, I am confident that the big players have finally figured out how to make them usable within the Windows interface. Even more rewarding, many of moved to touch screens, which conceptually seem questionable but in practice are simply brilliant. Windows 8 and 8.1 have retooled themselves to handle this feature and the user experience is benefiting greatly as a result.

I wonder how long it might be before Apple releases a touch screen enabled MacBook Pro or Air. While those pulling for Team Mac often scoff at the half-hearted efforts by Microsoft to regain the trust of consumers, I can’t help but wonder how many have bothered to play around with one of these machines.

Take for example the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2. Recently spotted at a Best Buy configured with a 1.8 ghz i7 processor, 8GB of ram, a 256 GB SSD, and a gorgeous 13” 3200×1800 display measuring less than an inch thick and just three pounds in weight. Those specs, on paper, will perk any tech enamored person’s ears, but it gets sweeter when you realize that the laptop folds back into a tablet, in addition to two other usability modes, and that the OS actually handles these transitions seamlessly. Most alarming, interacting with the machine in any of the modes, by keyboard, by touchscreen, by trackpad, or by voice is simply a joy.

Where Apple once cultivated the hearts and imaginations of those looking for a better product, Microsoft has stepped up and encouraged a growth of products that capture the “what ifs” of the “next big thing”.

I’ll admit, the initial batch of Windows 8 machines brought on no shortage of justified scrutiny; but, like so many other 1st generation iterations they were followed up by polished products with a real place in the consumer market. The hybrids, convertibles, and tablets (namely, the Surface Pro 2) are polished and perform incredibly well stacked against any Mac opposition.

Which, truthfully, is what saddens me the most. Microsoft did this to themselves, and far be it from me to feel sorrow for a multi-billion dollar multi-national company losing money each quarter, as a consumer I feel sorrow because the work being done, largely unnoticed by many of those in the market for these machines, invites the idea that competition may suffer as a result and competition is a good thing.

With all of the good things happening, and despite my criticisms of Apple playing it safe, we must admit that the strategy of producing a consistent and reliable – if uninnovative – product bodes well for the long-term growth of the company. The process of deciphering the dozens of options in the PC market before choosing a new computer was grueling. But, by engaging in this process, no matter how painful it was, I was forced to examine each feature, each pro, and each con and, as a result, I was able to better determine the exact kind of device I needed.

Best of all, was that due to the many offerings, I found a computer that fit my precise need.

I wanted something that could be used as a tablet, but I was primarily concerned with a functioning laptop. I wanted something that boasted a good battery life with a good screen and good performance; but was willing to sacrifice dedicated video and substantial storage space for form factor and mobility. I wanted something that could browse the web, watch Ted Talks and check Facebook, but I wanted to make sure that I was able to edit and build an Access database and update a website.

What came from that was a 13” laptop that folds into a tablet, has a tent mode to be used as a streaming media device, and folds out to one of the more enjoyable keyboard and trackpad experiences I’ve had on a PC laptop. Four years ago, this wasn’t even an option; in fact, many consumers were still wrapping their heads around the concept of what a tablet was.

What I’ve seen, by many of my friends, is a fear of the number of options and an unwillingness to explore the market because it is just too overwhelming. However, consumers should welcome the opportunity they have to spend two weeks bashing their heads against their desks reading tech reviews and blog opinions. Scrolling through various manufacturers’ options and checking their various configurations. Then getting mad and walking away from it frustrated with a hopeless feeling that they may never be able to make up their mind.

For nearly three decades, there has been one clear leader in home computing. Although that leader has shifted from time to time, the choice has been mostly obvious as to who was out in front in the consumer market at any given moment. For the first time in my lifetime, we are in an era where multiple massively sized companies have tremendous options that will work in a polished way that does not evoke needless frustration as though you’re competing against the tech you rely upon.

When I told folks I was shopping for a new computer their response was, “Get a Mac”. When someone asks me, my response will be, “Go play with every computer you can get your hands on, write down all the features you want, all the ones you can do without, set a price range and – believe it or not – more than likely there will actually be an option out there for you”.

I’ve never been able to give that advice before, but man it feels good.

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A Week with the New Chromebook

About a week ago, I was sitting at work late.  I was in a meeting and despite my intentions to leave at a healthy 6:00 PM to grab a nice dinner with my girlfriend, the clock was rolling on 10:00 PM.  Impulsively, I decided I needed to buy something and  my interest was turned to the Samsung Google Chromebook.  I’m not really sure why, I hadn’t seen any of the commercials, and previously, I had almost entirely written off the Chromebooks as legitimate devices.  I guess shopper’s therapy can do the darnedest things.

In case you’re just here for the short version of this review, here it is: buy it, probably.

If you need more detail, read on for more information.

The Good

  • The Chromebook costs $250.  That’s great.  It’s on par with 7” tablets and far cheaper than their 10” companions.  The price really is the sweetest thing about this device.
  • It is compact.  It’s been about two years since I last owned a Macbook Air and, admittedly, I missed this sort of portability.
  • Battery life is solid at six and a half hours to a charge, rated.  I’ve been getting slightly better performance, but I’m sure that will deteriorate over time.
  • The keyboard is what most of us have become accustomed to, with great key separation and relatively low pressure needed for touch typing.  The trackpad is equally accurate, and while it stutters at times it is far more accurate and reliable than the trackpad on what was a $1,500 ASUS gaming series laptop (A74sx).
  • The book time and power down time.  This device can be fully turned on and off almost at will, for once it it is more convenient than sleep mode.  This saves battery life and builds convenience to a product that is going to act as a middle ground between a smartphone and a more capable device.
  • Also, the WiFi is very quick to find networks and establish connections – in total I rarely wait more than 15 seconds before being powered on, logged in, and connected to the internet.
  • Very easy to setup remote desktop feature.  This may be the best part about trying to make this laptop work as your office and travel companion.
  • 100 GB Google Cloud storage.  This is a definite value, especially since you’ll be storing everything you do in the Cloud moving forward.
  • Replacing the caps lock key with a quick search button.  It is a very small detail, but every laptop manufacturer in existence should copy this practice immediately.  It is unbelievably convenient.
  • HDMI, USB 3.0, and Bluetooth support.  This will be really good for some people; I probably won’t be using either.  With the included cloud storage, I won’t need a USB drive and the trackpad is responsive enough I won’t need a mouse.

The Bad

  • It does have software limitations.  We’ll get to those and why they may not be a concern, but they will definitely a downer for some people.
  • The screen’s auto brightness feature.  This is a feature that’s meant to be good, like a cell phone in which the brightness changes for bright light and dark light viewing.  Unfortunately, the sensor on the Chromebook is completely off and over the last ten minutes I’ve counted at least thirty dramatic light adjustments.  I haven’t moved from my chair (but I am on an aircraft).
  • Its plastic.  This isn’t a huge problem, but it does scratch very easily.  For those of you who get uncomfortable with some case scratches you’ll need to protect it with a cover or cover it with stickers.
  • The screen hinge is relatively loose.  I hadn’t noticed this until I began writing this article, but I’m currently on a 3-seat wide aircraft from Boston to Cleveland experiencing noticeable turbulence.  The screen is bouncing back and forth quite a bit, that said I hadn’t previously experienced this in more stationary settings.

Holiday Acquisition Observation

  • If you’re thinking about this as a gift, you need to start searching immediately.  Chances are, you still won’t be able to land one and you might want to make up a really nice “IOU.”  This device, from my best observations, is sold out everywhere.  I originally ordered one on Amazon and was given a 3-week wait time.  I was lucky to find one at Best Buy but of the 8 stores in my area just one store had one, and they had only one.  After my purchase a week ago, all 8 stores remain sold out.  The good news is that for people who adopt this device, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is interest in the product and this should push continued support and development of Chrome OS.

How it Fits into your Life

The Chromebook is not a typical laptop.  At its base, it is quite simply a Google Chrome web browser.  If you can’t achieve what you’re looking for in a Chrome window then, for all intents and purposes you can’t do it with this laptop.  That’s going to strike some people as an impasse; however, I haven’t found it to be much of an issue.

I think, in many ways, the idea that I was buying a $250 Google Chrome web browser was more of a mental hurdle than anything else.  For many people, the idea that you can survive strictly on a web browser still seems fundamentally wrong – and for some people it isn’t quite possible.  My job consists mostly of documents, spreadsheets and the occasional presentation.  I do a lot of e-mail and a bit of web browsing.  In those regards, this is the perfect office and travel companion.

Prior to owning the Chromebook I had the iPad 3rd generation (and 1st and 2nd generations before that).  For whatever reason, I never found a good “fit” for this in my work-flow.  I see people making it work all the time, but it just wasn’t working for me.  If you’re one of these people who can’t fit that product into whatever it is you’re doing, your eyes should perk up here.  I sold my iPad for $600 used on Amazon (it was a white, 32GB, Verizon model), dropped the $250 on the Chromebook and used the other money to fund my recent excursion to Boston.  I don’t regret it a bit.

It goes without saying that you should be committed to the Google ecosystem to make this device flourish.  I recently also sold my iPhone 4S in favor of the Samsung Galaxy Note II.  Using an Android device with 4.1, Google Drive, Google Calendar and Google Docs means that this Chromebook just fits seamlessly into my lifestyle.  Everything is very smooth, auto-syncs, and works together.  Quite honestly, I find that it “just works” better than the current Apple ecosystem, which I still find relatively closed in terms of accessibility from any device.

The big downer for most people will be the software limitations.  If you can’t do it in a Chrome browser you likely can’t do it on this device.  That said, that doesn’t mean you need the internet.  I’m writing this a couple thousand miles in the air without connectivity (Google does give you a dozen in-air WiFi passes if your flight features the service).  The offline mode of many of Google products including Calendar, Email, Docs, and Drive means those few times when you’re not connected, you can still get things done.

But what if you really need a program that only runs on a proper OS?  There’s a very easy solution for this, Google Remote Desktop.  It is super simple to setup and allows you to access a home computer from within the Chromebook very easily.  It’s the easiest remote desktop client I’ve configured and, by and large, is perfectly functional.  I’ve experienced some problems streaming from Spotify and I’m not sure that you would want to use Photoshop through this, but I’ve used it to type a document in a letterhead template in Word and manipulate data in relatively complex Excel spreadsheets.

Essentially, Remote Desktop should hold you over in those rare times when you can’t get it done in a Chrome browser, but it is still a remote access client.  Most importantly, and much to my surprise, is that more often than not I don’t need to leave the Chrome browser anymore.  The app store for Chrome is relatively well featured and growing.

The Verdict

Samsung has done a great job on this device and really made an affordable, well built, netbook.  Google’s Chrome OS is developing nicely and implementation three really makes this “consumer ready.”  In 2010, when Google first debuted this idea I shrugged it off as another Wave project waiting to fail, but they’ve clearly got a vision and direction that works.  I hope people buy into it and its success continues.

If you’re on the fence, jump.  If you weren’t considering it, start.  I won’t be returning this computer anytime soon, and its likely that after my Note II, it will become my most used electronic device in my arsenal.

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