Wednesday, February 23, 2011

For devices, less is often more

Who do you want as a sidekick, a burly carni strongman or a ninja that never sleeps?

Before you get too interested, this is another post about gadgets. Specifically, I'm thinking iPad vs. Cr-48 vs. conventional Windows laptop. There. You've been warned.

I've always been a gadget guy and I've wanted to get the latest gizmo long before I can really ever afford it. Eight years ago when I was getting married I convinced my mom to buy an expensive digital camera for the occasion, mainly because I wanted to play with one and I couldn't afford one myself. The thing I learned back then that is still true today is that specs do not accurately describe the quality of what you're getting. A 5 megapixel camera could have a horrible noisy picture compared to a higher quality 1 megapixel camera that had good processing--it just had bigger files with more pixels to *possibly* capture the details if they were there to begin with. But people didn't bother with looking at image quality so much back then, they just wanted the camera with the highest number of megapixels plastered on the side. It was a fallacious "appeal to authority" the likes of which could have been a case example for my logic 101 class in college--the numbers were the authority to declare this camera superior in the face of all other subjective assessments, however misleading they higher numbers might be.

All that is to lead into the idea that computers, cell phones, and other gadgets suffer the same fate. When people evaluate computers, it's often all about the specs--how much memory, storage and processor speed are you getting? So then when they buy a cell phone or Apple device, they fall into the same line of thinking, asking whether it multitasks or runs flash or has some additional feature that the other device does not, making this the mark of superiority. And, to be fair, having certain indispensible features can make or break a device, so that's appropriate some of the time. But usually what I see is that people don't really pay attention to how they actually use these devices-- they like the idea of a carni strongman who can lift anything rather than a ninja who can lift your particular carry on bag and also manage to continue lifting it for 50 miles while the strongman lasted only half a mile!

In case that was a bit vague, let me clarify. I need a portable device that has a long battery and does what I want it to do when I want it to do it. Sure, I like a computer that I can use to edit videos and play super high frame rate games on, etc. But I'd rather have a portable device that can't do those things if cramming those features into my portable device means that it will have to sacrifice battery life. Not enough battery means I can't do anything at all after a little while, which is far less acceptable to me than having a long period of reliably doing my low-resource boring day-to-day things.

When you read the tech news about Android devices, iOS devices, and old-school cell phones, people fall into the megapixel trap of citing specs or feature lists as the objective gold standard for device quality. It doesn't work that way, in my opinion. I have an iPod Touch and I love the thing, and it's because it is so responsive and it lasts a long time between charges. I don't want Flash and multi-tasking if it comes at the price of those core benefits (and it often does). Not that I have a lot of experience with Android, but my buddy's Android phone was snappy as could be after he first got it, but was slow and sluggish after a year of use--I presume exactly because of the multi-tasking bloat that is draining the battery and slowing things down that is typical of older devices after lots of installations.

Now, for the Cr-48. Here's a device that exemplifies exactly what I'm talking about. It's a full computer allowing keyboard typing (I can't even conceive of writing this post on an ipad!) but without the bloat under the hood that keeps the device from responding quickly and lasting the day without a wall outlet. In the comments where I've seen Chrome OS discussed, a lot of people ask over and over, "What can this thing do that I can't do on a regular laptop? Why should I settle for something that has so many limitations when netbooks are so cheap these days and have so much more capability!?" Translation: why would I want a ninja when I could have a carni? And the answer is the same as before: because the ninja will let you do what you need to do more reliably and more quickly than a flashy strongman who can do "more" but fails in the day to day.

Some might say a Kindle or Nook fits the same bill. And it probably does, I've just never used them so I can't comment. But if you have a specific need: reading with low eye strain, reliable long lasting battery, etc... then I can see why you'd go there instead of an iPad or other device with more features at a cost.

For most of what I do on a regular daily basis, battery life and responsiveness are key. That means I have to sacrifice some of the bloat--the ability to do super processor intensive things like Flash games may not be ideal, for example. But if it means I don't run out of battery right when I need it, it's worth it. For devices, less is often more, and so far the Cr-48 is hitting the sweet spot in the middle.

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