Category Archives: computers

Chromebooks: Solid laptops for the budget niche

hp-chromebookOur next stop on the road to Black Friday is a curious one, since it’s as niche a product as there is. One wouldn’t think a laptop would be a specialized device – they are pretty much the definition of ubiquitous – but Google’s latest Chromebooks fit the description.

Chromebooks have taken their share of heat from reviewers and even from competitors such as Microsoft, some of which is deserved. As relatively inexpensive laptops powered by Google’s Chrome operating system, it’s perhaps fair to say there’s more they don’t do than what they do do. You wouldn’t want to do video editing or intensive CAD processing on them and they’re not really suitable for proper gaming either.

But they are pretty good for basic document work, email and other web uses – better than tablets, in many ways – and the real selling point is price. Most Chromebooks simply can’t be beat in that department. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on November 28, 2013 in computers, Google


All technology should take a lesson from cars

tron-carIf someone were to say that we’re living inside a giant computer, many people would probably think they were talking about The Matrix. While we may yet end up inside a big virtual world, the reality is we’re actually already living in a computer – or, more correctly, the computer is all around us.

The computer, or computing machine, has gone through a dramatic evolution over the past 30 years. At first, it shrank from room-filling mainframes into desktops, then it got even smaller to fit into the palms of our hands. The next epoch – the one just beginning – is seeing that computing power flow into everything, from the walls around us to the clothes we wear and even into our own bodies. With wireless networks now connecting anything and everything, the era of ubiquitous computing is upon us.

There are still a few steps to go, and the effects will be huge. I looked at some of these issues in a recent feature for The Globe and Mail. Check it out. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on March 25, 2013 in computers


Surface Pro: a solution without a problem?

surfaceIn my previous post, I mused on how Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet/laptop hybrid would be dead on arrival thanks to its $900 price tag. On further consideration, I’m convinced it will be DOA even at a lower price. As neither a tablet nor a laptop, it’s a device without a clear use case, which means it’s a solution in search of a problem. In other words, it’s a bad, bad idea.

Consider how tablets are used. The majority of buyers use them to surf the web while on the couch, browse photos, read e-books and email, watch movies and play games. Some power users also try to get actual business productivity out of them. In some cases, tablets do such tasks better than anything else – I’ve written before about how apps such as SignMyPad, which lets you sign documents with your finger, are invaluable – but in many other situations, they’re terrible. I would rather bash my head against a wall than use a tablet for spreadsheets, for example.

That’s not to say they’re not handy for business uses. Many professionals – from doctors to pilots – use them as portable displays, which come in handy for everything from patient charts to flight manuals. There are also many specialized tablet apps that do in fact make use of the touch screen in creative ways. Lighting Designer, as just one example, helps cinematographers set up shots with their fingers. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on December 3, 2012 in computers, microsoft


Why do we still use QWERTY keyboards?

The Dvorak keyboard: the better way doesn’t always win out.

A while ago, I wrote a post on how current video game consoles were essentially broken technology. Up until a few short years ago, they were quite the opposite. Like cars, they were the perfect gadgets because all you had to do was insert a disc (or key, as it were) and off you went.

But over the past few years, manufacturers have heaped all sorts of new functionality into the machines without maintaining that elegance in the process. Now, it’s hard to go through the same simple act of playing a game without multiple logins and download updates. Today’s game consoles, while able to do so much more than their predecessors, have effectively stepped backward in the grand scheme of technological evolution, unlike cars, which have added functionality but stayed relatively simple.

Technology is supposed to make tasks easier. When it doesn’t, it’s anti-engineering, a term I recently picked up while finally reading Guns, Germs and Steel, the Pulitzer-prize winning book by Jared Diamond that seeks to explain why some countries are richer and more advanced than others.

Diamond doesn’t talk about video game consoles in his book, which was first published in 1997, but he does relate an amazing anecdote that most people have probably never considered (unless of course they’ve read Guns, Germs and Steel): the standard keyboard that we all type on may just be the worst designed piece of technology ever. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on September 5, 2012 in computers, video games


A world without passwords? Yes, please

Here’s a quick question: how many passwords do you have? Probably a lot. A study five years ago by Microsoft found the average internet user had about 6.5, maintained 25 accounts that require them and typed in about eight per day. With the rise of social media since then, those numbers have probably all gone up.

At the same time, unless you’ve got Rain Man-like skills with numbers, your passwords probably aren’t all that secure. If, like me, you use the same password for a bunch of different accounts, you’re probably setting yourself up to get hacked (I’m just too forgetful to even try to remember multiple passwords).

Fortunately, the military is on it. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – the same people who brought us the internet – has a program called Active Authentication that seeks to give computers the ability to identify their users. The idea is to eliminate passwords entirely, to the point where the computer does its recognition work in the background. All the user has to do is sit down and get to work.

This can be accomplished by outfitting computers with an array of biometric tools and sensors, according to program director Richard Guidorizzi. A computer could identify its user, for example, by scanning a combination of his or her fingerprint, their pattern of mouse usage and even writing style. By incorporating such biometrics, the computer could effectively build a “cognitive fingerprint” of users that would be much more effective – and natural – than remembering a whole slew of complicated passwords.

Here Guidorizzi explaining the idea:

It sounds wacky, but that’s DARPA’s specialty. It wasn’t so long ago that the agency was experimenting with a certain voice-recognition tool, which is now popping up all over the place.


Posted by on June 25, 2012 in computers, DARPA


Do netbooks still have a place in a tablet universe?

About two years ago, Google excited a good number of tech pundits – myself included – with the announcement that Chrome netbooks were on the way. These were to be small, portable computers that ran Google’s Chrome operating system, which was basically a glorified web browser that replaced Microsoft’s Windows.

The idea is that with people doing more and more of their daily tasks on the web, a bulky operating system that slowed down the computer was no longer necessary. Just about everything can done through a browser today – from word processing to photo editing to spreadsheets – and files can be saved online in “the cloud,” so why bother having anything more on the computer? It was an interesting idea and I know I was quite excited about the prospect of pushing a power button and having the machine boot up, ready to use, in just a few seconds.

The Chrome netbooks have arrived but my, how the world has changed since then. Tablets – particularly the iPad – came along in the meantime and made the idea of netbooks quaint if not obsolete. Moreover, there is evidence that tablets are starting to eat away at PC usage entirely. The debate over whether we’re in the early stages of a post-PC world is ongoing with some solid arguments being made against the encroachment of tablets, but I’m certainly a believer, if only because of how I’m finding myself using computers, tablets and smartphones.

For the past week, I’ve been busy preparing for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or the annual video games show in Los Angeles, happening in early June. I’ve never been to the event so I’m not exactly sure what to expect, but I imagine it’ll be similar to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which I’ve attended many times. I’m expecting busy chaos, so any gear I bring with me has to be highly portable, versatile and light weight, with good battery life and connectivity options.

My biggest dilemma has been whether I should bring a laptop or go all tablet. As I wrote a little while back, the iPad is rapidly turning into a productivity tool for me. While it was basically a toy for the first year, I’ve been discovering new things to do with it and new ways to replace other gadgets.

That said, my primary computing need at E3 will be something to write on. Anybody who has ever used a touchscreen knows they’re murder to type on, so I investigated other options. The folks at the Apple store recommended something called the Matias keyboard, which is a full sized keyboard that can fold in half and connects to the tablet via Bluetooth.

I was surprised to learn that Matias is based in Newmarket, right near Toronto, so I shot off an email to the company requesting a loaner. I’ve been playing around with the keyboard for a couple of weeks now and it seems to work as advertised – it makes typing on the iPad a snap and it’s compact and lightweight when folded. I can’t fully endorse it without giving it a field test, but so far so good.

Going tablet-only would result in several bonuses. It means I could combine my productivity and entertainment devices into one – not only could I file stories from the show, I could also use it to find places to eat in L.A., watch movies on the plane ride and listen to music while in the shower. It’s also smaller, lighter and has better battery life than any laptop I’ve used.

There are some negatives, though. The iPad obviously can’t handle Flash, which means it has trouble rendering a good number of websites. Writing this blog, for example, is difficult if not impossible on the iPad (there’s a WordPress app, but it seems largely useless for the simple things I generally do). Also, I may have to do some video editing from the show. While it’s certainly possible to do on the tablet, it’s about as fun as typing.

After taking everything into consideration, I’m afraid I’m right back to where I started – the tablet and the laptop seem tied in both their appeal and limitations. In the end, I’ll probably take both.

The notable thing to keep in mind for the long term, though, is that the tablet form factor is really only a year old. Five years from now, with the inevitable improvements in technology, I can’t see how laptops are going to maintain any advantages.

That brings us to netbooks. Shortly before the iPad was released, I bought a neat little $300 Acer netbook. It was nifty, but its keyboard was hard to type on and its battery life was atrocious. I’ve barely used it in the past year as a result.

Google’s Chrome netbooks are likely to be significant improvements, but I can’t really see where they’re going to fit within the grand scheme of things – at least not for me. As others have pointed out, the biggest problem with the devices is their pricing: the Acer netbook starts at $350 while Samsung’s offerings begin at $450, which is not that much less than some laptops and tablets. Moreover, the Chromebooks are at this point entirely dependent on being connected to the internet either via Wi-Fi or 3G wireless, which itself carries an extra cost. Without that connection, the computers are largely useless. Both laptops and tablets generally let you save documents and files on them, to be sent to the cloud once an internet connection is found.

Chrome netbooks may make sense for businesses and educational institutions looking to cut down their IT expenditures, but for there doesn’t seem to be a solid niche for them to fill with the average consumer. Even with lower pricing, it’s tough to see how they’re going to fit in.

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Posted by on May 20, 2011 in computers, Google, ipad


Why I’m a tablet fanboy

About a month back, my man Jesse Brown wrote a rather provocative post on his Maclean’s blog titled “The iPad sucks.” I was on vacation at the time so I didn’t really have a chance to respond, so now seems as good a time as any.

Ordinarily, I’m very much on Jesse’s wavelength as we agree on many things, like copyright and broadband. If you don’t know him, he’s the host of the great Search Engine podcast for TVO and co-founder of, a website that features online comic strips.

As far as the iPad is concerned, though, our mindsets couldn’t be more different. His main beefs are that it’s a product in search of a solution, that it doesn’t really do much new and that it is a closed device that Apple hamfistedly controls.

On all of those accounts, to quote Thor, I’d say thee nay.

True, when the iPad was first released, no one really knew what it would be used for. Analysts and journalists speculated that it would kill netbooks and revitalize newspapers and, as Jesse points out, it has probably done neither. But the same could be said for just about any technology product. There is always the use cases that its manufacturer intends, but then people figure out how to use it in different ways. The PlayStation 3, for example, was intended to play video games and movies, yet astrophysicists have used them to calculate black hole effects.

That’s an extreme example, but the point still stands. In many cases, if you build it, they will come – and each person figures out their own way to use it. The iPad has sold a gazillion units, which is proof that it’s actually a highly versatile device. While Apple suggested a few ways to use it, the millions who bought it – and the app developers who created for it – figured out their own use-case scenarios.

The one that has me totally sold is how the iPad allows users to completely eliminate paper from their lives. If you’re a regular reader, you may remember my recent rant about the exorbitant cost of printer ink. When my HP Photo Smart printer recently ran out, I resolved to go paper-free, which seemed like it might be a bit tricky given that I was getting ready to go on vacation to Thailand. Normally, I’d print out my hotel reservations and plane tickets and make photocopies of maps or relevant sections of my guide book.

This time around, I copied all my tickets and reservations onto the iPad as PDFs, where I could read them using a number of apps (I use Comic Zeal, which is ordinarily for reading digital comics books). I got a few weird glances from front-desk clerks at hotels when I handed them my reservations on an iPad rather than a piece of paper, but nevertheless, they were just as good. And rather than tote photocopies around, I downloaded a few apps that gave me maps and all the information I needed about the places I was going. Moreover, with the good and ubiquitous Wi-Fi I found in Thailand, I was able to find nearby restaurants and navigate with the GPS, not to mention get all my email and stay up to date on stuff.

Could I have done all that on a laptop or smartphone? Sure, and I did actually bring a phone along. I didn’t really use it though – in cases where I needed an internet connection, the iPad and its larger screen was always more convenient and better to look at and far more convenient than whipping out a laptop and firing it up.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve found myself strangely inundated with contracts to sign. Having banished my printer to the closet to await its eventual violent destruction (don’t worry, I’ll record and share that), this proved to be a bit of a problem and seemed to be the last obstacle in my quest to achieve printer-free bliss. Then I discovered a great app, SignMyPad, that lets you open PDFs and sign them by drawing your signature with your finger. You can also add in text and check marks, so you can fill out all manner of contracts and application forms. That’s something I surely wouldn’t want to try on a smartphone and it’s simply not possible on a regular computer. As it stands, I can’t see a situation in which I’d ever need a printer again. I can’t express enough how happy that makes me.

Many people – myself included – were initially concerned about how restrictive Apple would be regarding the content and apps that could go on the iPad. I was worried that if you wanted to put a movie on the device, for example, you’d have to purchase it from iTunes. Not so. The VLC app, for one, lets you copy over any movies you may have – ripped from DVDs or acquired in other ways – and completely bypass iTunes. That was a life saver when I discovered the earphone jack on my airplane seat was faulty. Rather than sit and listen to crackly sound for 15 hours, I was able to watch my own movies and TV shows on the plane.

Apple is known for being a very closed and secretive company, which are characteristics that manifest themselves both in the way the company does business and its products. And, as I’ve pointed out many times, the company is also very hypocritical when it comes to sex and pornography on its products. But so far, as it pertains to what can or can’t go on the iPad or any of Apple’s other mobile devices, fears of censorship and micromanaging control haven’t come to pass. That’s not to say they won’t, but there doesn’t seem to be any sort of media or content – porn included – that you can’t easily get on to the iPad.

Other companies’ tablets are sure to be just as good, if not better, and some will even be more open. Indeed, I played with the Motorola Xoom last week and it looks like a nice competitor. The iPad isn’t the be all and the end all, but it certainly isn’t all those things Jesse said it is. In my own experience, it does do new things and it does solve problems I have and it’s as open as I need it to be. Those who like to tinker with the guts of a device will surely figure out how to do so, but that’s something that just doesn’t concern me. I just want the thing to work and to do what I want it to do. Running Linux on it just isn’t high on my priority list.

I’m already hard-pressed to think of situations where my laptop is better than the iPad – viewing websites that use Flash is one obvious case, as is any situation where extensive typing is required. As such, the laptop is starting to gather dust from all the disuse of late. The trend is only going to increase as tablets, whether they’re Apple’s or someone else’s, are going to continue getting better.

UPDATE: I didn’t actually know VLC got pulled from the app store back in January. That said, there are other apps available – these may get pulled at some point too if they similarly run afoul of Apple’s app store policies. Even still, in a worst-case scenario there are many types of converting software out there that will translate your DVDs into formats that can be copied onto the iPad. It’s nowhere near as convenient but still completely doable.


Posted by on April 5, 2011 in apple, computers, ipad