Tech Update: Samsung Chromebook (2012)

Samsung Chromebook (2012)
Samsung Chromebook (2012)

So, I mentioned that Meg has something of a “fondness” for our Kindle Fire HD 8.9, mostly just for watching TV shows.  As a result, my tablet has been somewhat co-opted in favor of my toddler on most weekends, when I’d like to sit on the couch and catch up on my online reading from the previous few days.  Compound this with the fact that tablets don’t have keyboards, so when traveling, I don’t generally have anything I can type a lengthy e-mail with (unless I borrow a nearby computer, which is sometimes a viable option).

Now, I gave up laptops after my last one failed, mostly because I don’t really need one anymore (especially for gaming), and because they are made obsolete within a few short months, despite spending $1000 on a reasonably decent one that should comfortably last you a few years.  We’ve still got Brooke’s Dell Mini 10 netbook, but as it was somewhat underpowered the day we bought it nearly 4 years ago, it wasn’t my first choice of solutions.

Enter the Google Chromebook.  These are cheap, netbook-type laptops that don’t run Windows, but instead run a modified version of Gentoo Linux called “Chrome OS.”  Essentially, it’s an operating system that functions almost exclusively in a web browser.  Actually, the first iterations of the operating system were literally just the Google Chrome browser and nothing else: no file manager, no storage on the hard drive, no nothing.

The strategy behind Chrome OS and Chromebooks at large are to provide a low-cost solution to consumers to drive people closer and closer to “living in the cloud,” where they do their typing in Google Docs, they store their photos on Google+, they send their e-mail with Gmail, they use the Chrome browser, they play games in that browser, and they use Google Music to store and play their MP3s.

It’s the idea where just about everything they do is inside a web browser, and for many people, that’s just fine.  A lot of people buy a nice laptop and only use it to check Facebook and Pinterest, never needing to install heavy photo editing software, play graphics-intensive games, or run AutoCAD.  They may have the occasional document to write, but don’t need macros or anything more complicated than double-spacing and bold text.

And for these people, a Chromebook is just fine.  Best of all, as it’s a browser-running-on-Linux, it’s virtually virus immune and all updates come down automatically in the background.  As it runs Chrome, if you take advantage of its Cloud Sync functionality, everything gets synced between computers and browsers, so if you lose or break your Chromebook, you just log in to a new one and it’s set up identically to your old one.

The Samsung Chromebook that I picked up a few weeks ago has a 11.6″ screen, a full-size keyboard, a few USB ports, an SD card port, and HDMI out (if you wanted to have an external monitor or send it to your television).  The difference is that it runs an ARM-based processor (as opposed to an Intel or AMD processor like your PC or Mac has), which is similar to the processors running your cell phones.  This particular Chromebook has a 16 GB SSD, as well.  The combination of the SSD and ARM chip means there are zero fans in the device, allowing it to be crazy thin, crazy quiet, and crazy efficient (about 6.5 hrs of battery life).

And the price for this thing?  $250.  To be fair, I got it cheaper than that, but I think it’s worth the $250 asking price.

The big key is to think about what you need/want a laptop for.  This thing doesn’t run Windows, so if you want to use Microsoft Word, you’re out of luck.  If you want to install Adobe Photoshop, you’re out of luck.  If you want to install Steam and a copy of Age of Empires II, you’re out of luck.  But, if you live mostly in a browser for most things you do and you’re already tightly integrated with Google services (i.e. you use Android smartphones, like we do), then it makes perfect sense and serves as a great laptop.  I’m pretty happy with it thus far, and have had a good time finding alternatives to programs I use routinely that function within a web browser.  For example, Pixlr is a photo editing tool based on The Gimp that has many of the same functions of Photoshop.  Let that sink in: a Photoshop-capable alternative running in a web browser.  Nuts.

So, overall, I’m a big fan so far.  It isn’t perfect, but for the most part, it does all that I need it to and then some.  It’s well worth it if you don’t need anything “over-capable” and you do most things in a web browser.

Tech Update: Kindle Fire HD 8.9

Kindle Fire HD 8.9
Kindle Fire HD 8.9

As our first tablet, we picked up a first-gen Kindle Fire in the Fall of 2011, a 7″ color Android-based device that was tightly integrated into Amazon’s app ecosystem and Amazon’s world of content, including movies, music and books.  Generally speaking, we were pretty happy with the device, as it had a nice screen, had a more portable size than an iPad, and worked well with games, Netflix, and other stuff.  Oh, and it was incredibly cheap (the first “real” tablet for $200).

One thing the 7″ Kindle Fire didn’t do well, though, was web-browsing.  Granted, browsing websites on a 4″ phone screen isn’t very pleasant either, but a 7″ screen is even more awkward, as apps and web pages aren’t set up well for the 7″ form-factor.  There are “mobile” web pages that are designed for small screens (e.g. ~4″ phone screens), and then there’s the full-size pages that look good on regular computer screens.  But on a 7″ screen, it just looks silly.  The sizes of links and text are heavily distorted.

Well, Amazon heard my cries and updated their tablet by creating two new versions: the Kindle Fire HD (still 7″, but with a higher resolution screen) and the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (a slightly faster tablet, but more importantly, with an 8.9″ screen).  The new device has a bigger hard drive, faster processor, a front-facing camera, better speakers, and the aforementioned larger screen.  And, believe you me, it’s gorgeous (1920×1200 resolution).  Web browsing still isn’t as good as using a mouse and keyboard, but it’s much improved now that regular web pages look properly (with a higher resolution than my PC’s 1080p monitor).

The other features of the tablet are pretty nice too, including the camera, the impressive speakers (for a device this size…), and an improved interface that Meg can navigate to find Dora and Blue’s Clues videos.  It still only has WiFi, though Amazon offers a 4G LTE version that offers 200 MB of data per month for $50 a year (which is a steal).

I mentioned earlier that the Kindle Fire HD uses Amazon’s proprietary appstore, which is generally useful and gives you free stuff, but doesn’t give you access to regular Google-specific Android apps like Gmail, Google Calendar and Google+.  You can use their alternative apps that link to the various Google services, but it isn’t the same and they aren’t as good.  I can live without them, but it’s a consideration when comparing this device and other Android tablets.

One other complaint is the use of Skype for video chat.  We tried this with my parents a few times, but for some reason, I can’t get the speakers to generate enough volume.  The speakers can get really loud if you’re listening to music, but for some strange reason, Skype doesn’t seem to amplify the volume like any other program on the device.  It’s usable, but not as good as on other devices.

Finally, it took me a bit to figure out charging with the thing.  The old Kindle Fire came with a charger and AC adapter, but the new HD versions only come with a USB cable and you have to buy the “faster charger” for $20 extra.  I tried charging it with USB and, left overnight, I think it only gained about 20%.  Even using our phone chargers plugged into the wall, it still wouldn’t work properly.  It turns out the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 requires a 1.8 A charger, rather than the typical 1 A chargers that come with cell phones.  Once I found one (from Amazon…), it charged quite quickly.  Considering they don’t really include an instruction manual in the box, it would have been nice to have them be a bit more explicit on this front, but oh well.

For the money, it was a good deal and I’ve been happy with the purchase.  I like reading on it (some people don’t like reading on larger tablets and prefer the 7″ size and, to some extent, I agree…but it’s alright for my purposes…), it plays some games and it is great to have around for when Meg wants to watch something that I don’t want to watch.  We take it upstairs every night so Meg can watch the last 5 min of one of her shows as she lays in bed.

That alone makes it worth it. 🙂

Tech Update: HTC One X


I haven’t been writing all that much recently, and as I’ve picked up a few “toys” in the last 6 months, I thought it would be useful to write a bit about my experiences with each one.  I’ll separate all these out into different posts, so you’ve got more to look forward to (hah!).

Brooke and I were both up for new cell phones last November and we had a few options available, but as we both had HTC phones previously and were generally happy with them, the HTC One X was the device of choice for both of us (Brooke got the black one, I got the white one).  Compared to my 2+ year old HTC Inspire 4G, this thing is a revelation, though compared with Brooke’s HTC Aria, it’s surely unbelievable.  I was used to a semi-large screen size, jumping from 4.3″ on my Inspire to 4.7″ on the One X, but Brooke’s jump from 3.2″ to 4.7″ was a bigger adjustment.

The screen’s unbelievable.  Seriously, there are times where I’d rather look at pictures on the phone than on a computer screen.  The rest of the hardware is pretty nice too, including the speakers and the camera.  One problem both our phones had was with the SIM card slot, where the device would conveniently forget it had a SIM card installed and wouldn’t let you make a call until you restarted the phone.  Thankfully, the phone reboots very quickly, as compared with our own phones, but it was still a pain.  It started happening a month or two into owning them, but once we got the cards replaced at a local AT&T store, we didn’t have the issue anymore.

Another complaint from my perspective (that is to say, Brooke didn’t care about this…) is more on the AT&T side than the HTC side.  The phone shipped with Android 4.0 (“Ice Cream Sandwich”), which was a newer version than my older phone (Android 2.3, or “Gingerbread”).  In some ways, this was like the difference between Windows 95 and Windows XP: a noticeable jump to a very stable, better operating system for a mobile device.  At the time we got the phones in November, we knew that Android 4.1 (“Jelly Bean”) was coming out for the HTC One X in the near future (as in, like, a week later).  However, just because HTC released the update didn’t mean AT&T would actually deliver the update to our phones in a timely manner.  We finally got the update on March 7th, a full 3 months after it was made available, and at least 2 months after other carriers made it available for the same device.  Very frustrating.  This update was akin to the jump between Windows XP and Windows 7: Android ICS worked well, but Android JB was available  faster, more efficient, and with additional features, like Google Now (Google’s “Siri” competitor).  Believe you me, the update was worth it: Jelly Bean is great.

In the end, I think we’re both very happy with the phones.  Any niggling issues we have probably wouldn’t be solved by other devices and, to be honest, the features announced on the newest phones for this year (the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4) don’t appear to be that drastic of an improvement.  This is good, though, so I’m not as ancy for a new phone once I see the new hottness floating around in other hands.

Because of the update issue I had with AT&T, there’s a strong possibility I’ll go with something like the Nexus 4 next time I get a new phone.  Google sells “Nexus phones” directly through their site and they work with AT&T and T-Mobile networks.  They are usually around $300 (so, more expensive than the “on-contract” phones from AT&T, yet cheaper in the long run as you can jump carriers without paying penalties), but they get Android updates on-time and are not pre-installed with software from AT&T or other carriers.  Much more “free and open” and easier to work with, depending on what you want to do.  By the time I’m ready to upgrade my One X, there’ll be a new Nexus phone out (perhaps two iterations by then…a new one is to be announced in May…) and I’ll give it a serious look.

Still, the HTC One X is a good phone.  I wish more people would use HTC devices, as they’re well designed and a pleasure to use (when the SIM card functions…).  Samsung shouldn’t have a monopoly on Android phones, but their marketing is clearly working.  Hopefully HTC survives another year and can keep making good stuff.  If they do, I’ll give ’em a look next time around.