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.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cloud 9

I love my Cr-48 (the Google netbook I got to test out that has no conventional hard drive or local file storage). In case you aren't up on your hipster internet lingo, cloud computing means the storage or processing or whatever is distributed between servers and not done on your local machine. You store files on the web, not on the machine sitting in front of you.

Disclaimer first: this post is really boring and it won't hurt my feelings if you just come back when Boss is pontificating about menstruating pinatas or something more interesting. But in case you like the techno-geeky stuff, this post is for you.

Here are the main problems people seem to have with "the cloud":
  1. I won't have *control* over my own information!
  2. It won't be safe on their servers; I've seen in the news how they're hacked all the time!
  3. What if I'm not online? I can't do anything.

Let me respond to these:
  1. You have more control over files online where you can get to them from any computer than you do when they are only on your local machine--the one you always forget to make backups for and the one where Windows requires you to genuflect and kiss its ring before accessing a folder it doesn't trust you with.
  2. Servers controlled by companies like Google and Amazon are safer than most people's local machines. Granted, there are Internet-based companies that play fast and loose with personal information and the news is filled with a rotating stream of them being hacked. The places I store my data online are high quality (with the exception of a few banks that have sent me new credit cards because of online security breaches and that have nothing whatsoever to do with me deliberately storing my information in the cloud). If you take an objective look at the security level of your wifi network at your house, or your family members' surfing habits clicking on any shiny ad that could be malicious, I'd take my chances with the cloud any day!
  3. And not being online? It's no worse than being online and not having access to your files because you're not sitting right in front of the particular machine that stores them. I've tried to share files and folders and external hard drives over my local network. It's frustrating and unnecessary! Windows constantly tells me that I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing and then thwarts me when I try to do it anyway. It's like the argument about gun control laws only keeping guns away from honest people and not criminals--Windows security keeps me from using my own files the way I want but seems to have plenty of ways for the bad guys to get in. On balance, having your files in the cloud makes them much more accessible, not less accessible because you might not always be online.
I thought after getting the Cr-48 I might have to make quite a few changes to how I use my computer to adapt to a computer that is only on the web. But, it turns out, I've already been making the change to the cloud gradually over the last decade, I just didn't realize it in quite those terms until today. For example, here are some of the things I used to do on my local machine that now I do online nearly exclusively:
  1. Office software (i.e. word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations). I started using Google docs a while back for nearly everything and I find it works for 90% of what I need. Occasionally I need a few fancier features than what they have, and for that I have my trusty desktop and the cloud won't hack it. But, for the vast majority of what I do both at work and at home, the cloud is it. For those who like the pretty (albeit over-wrought and infuriating, imho) look of MS Office, there is a web based version of that software if you'd rather use it than Google docs. I'd say you're crazy and try to convince you otherwise, but I'll tone it down for 5 seconds. [Incidentally, I've been impressed with this web-based presentation software.]
  2. E-mail. I can hardly believe I ever did non-web-based e-mail, but I suppose it's true. I used to use a client installed on the local machine that downloaded my messages off the server on to the local machine where I could never read them again from any other web-connected computer. Craziness! Hotmail paved the way (then was assimilated by the Microsoft Borg) and Gmail raised the bar. It's all web all the time, now. Oddly, this is one place where cloud storage trumps local too. My work e-mail limits me to less than 80 megs of storage. Compare that to the 8 gigs in Gmail. Weird.
  3. Documents and records. I can keep scanned documents in the cloud like my kids' birth certificates (bring those up at the airport and save the printouts), my diplomas, etc. I've been looking for my tax return from last year and I can't find it on any of my hard drives or computers around here. I wish I had put it in the cloud for easy access from anywhere, but I just dropped $15 last night trying to download a new copy of last years' return from taxact and it turns out they don't even have the pdf I need! For storage that synchronizes across all your computers and is accessible from the web too, I like Dropbox. I still use google docs to store most things, though, because you can upload videos, pdfs, and other kinds of files besides just office documents.
  4. Tax preparation. Speaking of storing tax records, how about doing the taxes in the first place? I used to buy Turbotax, but for the last several years I've used Freefile online and you get the exact same benefits without purchasing the software. This year for the first time ever, my online preparation was free as well as both the federal and state filing with H&R Block (as long as you access their site through the freefile page and live in a state that has free filing). I can't convince my parents to save their money by doing it this way, but I do think the cloud is the best.
  5. Money management. I used Microsoft Money software for years, and then realized that the jerks had actually built an expiration date (in effect) into the software that required me to buy more of their crappy software later to continue to use my data. Seriously! I couldn't access my own meticulously gathered financial records without paying Microsoft a perpetual upgrade fee? Now I use my bank sites with which keeps track of the big picture and budgeting better than MS Money ever did. So neener Microsoft!
  6. Books. I don't read on the computer all that often, but when I do, it's in the cloud (pdf's saved in my Dropbox account, textbooks with login-enabled e-versions, Amazon kindle fiction, Google Books, etc). That way your place is always saved and updated whether you were reading on your ipod or your laptop or switching back and forth or whatever.
  7. Music. Although I've got a huge music collection and I like to listen to it on my computer and ipod every once in a while, I use them much much less than I listen to Pandora or, which are fresher and give me access to lots of music I don't have to pay for, and which are available from any computer with Internet. Better. Definitely better.
  8. As for movies and TV, we're a big-time Netflix family. We dropped the cable TV bill more than a year ago and haven't missed it much at all. We have Netflix streaming setup through the xbox and our kids love it, we have control of what is coming in, knowledge of what actually got watched, and access to more movies and TV shows that we like than we had when we had TV. We also split some time with hulu and youtube on the computer, but Netflix rules at our house.
  9. Games. I'm admittedly more of a social gamer these days. I'm much more likely to use the arcade feature of the xbox than the full version discs. So, it works out pretty well that if I need a Plants vs. Zombies or Bejeweled fix sometime, they're available online for the computer, not necessitating a local install. Call of Duty? Not so much. But, for us, that's okay because I've got the xbox for that and I don't use the computer for that kind of gaming anyway. Who has the time?
  10. Photos and videos. Here's where I still have some adapting yet to do. I am convinced that storing my stuff in the cloud is a better way to go than locally where they get deleted or corrupted or lost or diluted to oblivion, but I haven't quite made the change yet. We do share a fair number of photos via facebook and flickr and picasa web albums, but this is a very small percentage of our total stash. There are online video editors (which I haven't used much) and photo editors like picnik (which I have used and I've been impressed with). Cloud still wins... although the space needed may argue for a compromise. I buy a new external hard drive every year, it seems, and if I spent that money for getting a lot more online storage in the cloud instead, It'd probably be a zero sum game. We'll see how this one plays out!
Anyway, this may be the most boring post ever, and Boss warned me. But I wanted to at least make a case for cloud based computing. It's new and seems odd to many, but I do think it's a better way to go for many many reasons. Making the transition for us has happened without even realizing it, for the most part. Shortly after we were married we decided not to buy any more books or CDs or DVDs, opting instead for using the library and rentals (with reasonable exceptions, of course). That was sort of a conceptual leap into the cloud, if not literal cloud storage, I suppose. And so it's probably been easier for us over the years to make the computing switch to the cloud. So, here we are a nerdy case example of living with our heads in the clouds, and the Cr-48 is now taking it to the next level.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Nerdiness Extravaganza

This is Coach writing this post, not Boss. Just want to clarify for those few followers of this blog who enjoy reading the clever musing of my sweet wife--I'm not her. I am far less clever and less able to sew a purse. However, in the technological nerdiness category, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that in this household, I reign supreme.

Case in point: I just got a brand spankin' new Google netbook in the mail today. It's one of their tester thingys that they've sent out to fanboys like me to try out their new web-based operating system and give them feedback. From what I understand, this thing doesn't have a hard drive for local storage, it doesn't have an optical drive, and you don't install any programs. The idea is that you do *everything* via an always-on web connection. Anyone who would consider using such a device as their main computer is, by definition, uber nerdy. And here I am.

I couldn't actually wait to write this post *on* the computer because it's charging right now and I'm too excited to wait. But, I will definitely be blogging about my experience with it because I'm now feeling a little evangelical on the topic. I love Google and despite that I own no stock and haven't made any money off them (well... until now, I suppose... receiving a free laptop computer does tend to bias one), I've loved them for years. What's not to love about a company that can do all the incredible things they've done for free?

I don't know that my opinion counts for much, but I'll share some thoughts for what they're worth as I use this little gem. I wish someone whose blog I read had warned me to NEVER buy an HP Touchsmart laptop. Well, dear reader, consider YOURself warned anyway. We'll see whether Google manages to measure up to my portable device expectations or whether I'll move on and get that iPad I've been planning on for the last several months.