Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Weekend with a chromebook

I managed to get my hands on an Acer Chromebook 13 for the weekend. I had been trying to use my old netbook running the Windows 10 preview as my main machine at home, but this was too good of an opportunity to pass up. For some reason I find the chromebook an intriguing idea. I keep thinking I need one then I wonder what I would actually use one for and if it could really replace my netbook. So when I noticed a nice new chromebook box sitting on my bosses desk I had to ask about it. When he said I could play with it, I knew I had to give it a go for at least a weekend. So how does the Acer Chromebook 13 and chromeOS stack up?


You may have heard ChromeOS described as a glorified web browser.  It is a little bit more than that.  ChromeOS utilizes the “cloud” for most things.  This leads to some limitations. A growing number of applictions are being offered online that mimic the traditional installed program.  There are claims of many complex and usable applications.  For example pixlr.com offers a image editor and wevideo edits video. At this point I haven’t had time to actually check these out.  

Anybody who keeps tabs at all on the industry probably knows that currently a strong push to moving software from local programs to services in the cloud. The software companies think this is great because now you don’t buy a license to a software you subscribe to a service, “CHACHING$$$”. As someone who has been around computers since I was a kid in the 80s, I’ve seen this push a couple times before. Anybody remember thin clients? Not to say I believe the effort is doomed to failure. With increasing network access, the environment is much more conducive to cloud computing than in the past.

But even today there will be times when you are offline. Google is trying to ease the pains of those times. They have encouraged many online resources to provide offline modes. Google themselves provide many offline versions that work in Chrome and on Chromebooks. Some other companies have followed suit, but not all.

For example right now I am writing this offline at the laundromat. I would prefer to be writing this in blogger, but blogger doesn't offer an offline mode.  I could be typing in the open browser window were I have the old version of this post, but what happens if the browser crashes or there is a hickup in the javascript when I reconnect and I lose all this I’ve written.  So I am forced to write this in google docs. I did have to setup the offline option for google docs while online.  Doing that means what I am writing here is being saved automatically to the small drive on this chromebook and will be synced back up to google drive when I reconnect.

ChromeOS does offer some other offline capabilities. You can plug in an sd card or a usb stick and interact with the files on them. I took the pictures for this blog with my camera than plugged in the usb stick. I did some simple photo editing and then uploaded them to flickr. I also played a video file. A usb external mouse worked fine. So it's not just a browser.

The Acer Chromebook 13

The Acer Chromebook 13 is a nice piece of kit. The plastics feel a little cheap but what do you expect for $300.  I enjoyed typing on the keyboard. I wish it was on my netbook. I could pound out novels on this thing. They didn't put a caps lock key on the keyboard. Instead it's a search key. This will make several people I know happy. This model carries a 1366x768 screen.  A version with a 1080p screen is available. The screen looks a little washed out but I found it easy to read. The stereo speakers provide good volume for watching youtube videos but music is horrible and tinny.  Acer claims thirteen hours of battery life. To test this I left the charger at the office for the weekend. With pretty normal use it is easily surviving the weekend. I don't think I would get the whole thirteen hours. Ten seems like a more accurate measurement.

Would I buy a Chromebook

This really is the ultimate question. No. Why? Despite what many in the tech press have said, the netbook is not a dead platform. For the same price of this chromebook I can get a netbook that runs a full fledged operating system. If I want the features given to me by ChromeOS, I just have to use chrome and the extensions. Yes the netbook might be a little slower and not have the battery life, but I just don't see that the Chromebook brings enough to the party to justify itself.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Living with and syncing across multiple devices

Alternate title: I have too many computers

All my comps

My standard electronic/computer load out at home(This was what I had when I started writing this blog post like a year ago):
  • Samsung Galaxy s4 smartphone (since replaced with a lumia windows phone, that is a story for another post)
  • Samsung Galaxy tab 7.0 2
  • Asus aspire one netbook
  • 13 inch macbook retina from work
  •  A few year old home built desktop machine running windows 7
  • a PS3
I have way too many computer/electronic devices in my life.  That's what us geeks do. It may not all be the latest and greatest but they are all dear to me. One of the biggest challenges with using so many electronic devices is keeping all  your information current. Luckily we live in a connected world.

So what things do I need to sync and have available across these devices? Well not the PS3. I only use the PS3 for playing games and watching youtube and netflix.

  • email
  • RSS feeds
  • Browsing history
  • Calendar 
  • Blogs in progress
  • works in progress(photoshop files stories I am writing etc)
  • media
  • ebooks
  • programming code
  • general notes

Several of these things have been solved without any work on my part.  Email has transition to the cloud. At work we use exchange and for personal stuff I use gmail. Both can be easily accessed from all my devices. The same holds true for calendars.  Both the exchange calendar and google calendar work easily with all my devices. Ok I say this all works easily but we all know their are hiccups. Sometimes an event doesn't sync or I delete an email on my phone but it's still there on outlook. Most importantly I can't view shared exchange calendars on my Windows Phone. Seriously?

Though I am on the social medias, I still get a good deal of my daily information in an ancient way from all the way back in the early 2000s.  Yes I am talking about the venerable RSS feed. Like so many others, I fell in love with Google Reader.  To the lamentations of the internet Google announced the closure of reader.  I won't go into my techno hippie rant how google is increasingly choosing the path of evil. The mad scramble for a replacement began.  Many ios people went to bloglovin. For a bit I looked into TheOldReader.  I liked it's simplicity but it didn't have a good enough mobile platform at the time.
I ended up using feedly.  The mobile app works well and the free product seems robust. The team keeps improving the product and offering many useful ways to interact with blog content. The also offer a paid version that seems very useful for professional bloggers. The paid feedly evernote connection looks like it could be very useful.
Speaking of Evernote, many people consider it one of the best modern productivity tools. I agree. Evernote is  massively powerful. useful and available on almost every platform. I only use about ten percent of what Evernote can do.  I use it for lists, take notes in meeting, and keep track of ongoing projects. I also use the browser add-on clipper to keep track of things I find online. I am no expert on maximizing evernote, so I've included some links below.
Microsoft offers a good alternative called Onenote.  In fact, I used onenote before switching to evernote.  I ran into the problem of Onenote being a windows office only app.  Since then, microsoft has expanded and improved Onenote. Most importantly, it is now available on all platforms. It really looks like a good Evernote replacement.

When I blog I don't use evernote.  As  I follow my blogging process, I do so entirely in blogger.  When inspiration strikes I put the idea and title in blogger. I do the outline right there in the draft and obviously keep the ongoing drafts there. 

One thing that has vexed(hehe I got to use the word vexed) web users for years has been syncing browsing history, bookmarks, etc between different machines. Both Chrome and Firefox have produced easy to use solutions to this long standing problem. For Chrome you just need to login to a google account on each browser. For Firefox you need to create a firefox account and then use that an each instance of firefox.  Obviously, this means that they store all your stuff on their servers, but they know everything about you anyway.

For anything else that I want to share across multiple devices I use dropbox.  It's free. It's easy. It is pretty much everywhere, though not on windows phone.

In the past, sharing media, music movies etc, across devices was a big hassle. No more. I don't even bother.  All my media is streamed. Music comes from streaming radio or spotify. Movies come through netflix or other means.