Archive for the ‘Chrome’ Category
Just over a year ago I wrote my first post here on Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights. That was just after buying my third Netbook. Yes, you read that right: third.
I bought an EEE PC within a few weeks of first release, in November of 2007: the Linux version (Windows XP was not even an option at that point) with the 7 inch, 800×600 screen and the 4Gig SSD. I loved it. It was so tiny, and so fast, and I had a blast finding apps to do all the things I wanted to do with it. Linux apps. GIMP. LightZone. (I am a photographer.) Open Office. FireFox and Thunderbird. It was fun.
However, it would not run Lightroom, and I really, really depend on Lightroom. I could not even find anything close on Linux. GIMP and LightZone were able editors, if idiosyncratic, but there simply was not a capable image cataloging system for the Linux OS…not that I found anyway. Still, I was hooked on the Netbook form factor: so portable, so handy…but I wanted it to be able to do the day-in/day-out stuff I do on a laptop while traveling. So when I saw a EEE PC 900 16G with XP on sale at Best Buy one day, for not much more than I had paid for my 7 inch Linux machine six months before, on impulse (or because I really really needed to run Lightroom), I bought it. Great little machine. One of the last with a Celeron processor but lots of room on that 16GB SSD (or so I thought). And easily enough processing power to run Lightroom. I was a happy man.
Unfortunately, Lightroom and Windows XP, I concluded all too soon, do not like SSDs. Lightroom does a lot of writing to disk to maintain a catalog that seems to contain 4 or 5 separate files for every image you own, and within six months, the SSD simply died…just suddenly, right after a Lightroom update and a subsequent Lightroom crash, XP would no longer boot. I tried everything. To make it worse, I was on a business trip, far away from home in a strange city, as they say. I was devastated. I went into Staples to see what one of those Windows repair CDs and an external DVD drive would cost me, and there, on an end-cap, for not much more than the cost of the stuff that might or might not repair my EEE PC, (and more than $100 less than the EEE PC 900 had been just six months before), was an Acer Aspire One with Atom processor and a 120Gig HD. Yes.
You know what happened.
I loved the Acer Aspire One. It was the first of my Netbooks that really, truly did all I hoped for. It ran Lightroom, and ran it well (no more library related crashes). It ran PhotoShop Elements (though not well if you tried to have both Lightroom and PhShEl open at the same time). It played Hulu streaming TV (if you did not attempt to view full screen, and were patient with it). And, of course, it ran Office like a champ. I discovered Google Chrome about the same time, and moved my life pretty much into the cloud…inspired by having to rebuild everything from the ground up when my EEE PC had to be replaced. That experience, moving into the cloud, got me started writing Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights.
(By the way, I tried everything to resurrect that EEE PC. Reinstalled Windows. Installed Linux in several flavors. Or attempted to. The SSD kept turning up bad sectors and no OS would boot. I eventually sent it to Asus for repair and they confirmed that it was totaled, so totaled that the computer had to be replaced outright…which Asus did, after a very, very long time. I set the replacement up for my wife when it finally came back, and it has served her well: for web surfing, email, and a little light word-processing, which is all she really wants a computer for anyway.
Just establishing my bonafides I guess.
It is a year later: a little over two years since the first Netbooks appeared on the market, and I have been on board the whole time. I recently, after a misfire with the HP Mini 311 ION based super-netbook (see Atom+ION: empty promise?), replaced the Aspire One with an Aspire Timeline 1810TZ, one of the first affordable thin and light, sort of, kind of, Netbooks powered by the CULV (Consumer Ultra Low Voltage) processors. It is the same size as the largest Netbooks, and priced not much above them, but, with its dual core Pentium processor and GM4500 integrated graphics, it is in a whole different class, performance wise.
I wrote an early piece here called Netbooks: too good for their own good, (which is still one of my most read pieces, every week, even a year later). That was, if you remember, just about the time all the pundits were saying that the Netbook would kill the laptop industry, and maybe bring down the whole silicon empire. Too cheap. Too limited. Too cheap.
No one, the wise commentators said, could make any serious money off them, and they would undoubtedly force down the price of conventional laptops (the bread and butter, high calorie products then keeping the industry fat) so that the makers would bankrupt themselves trying to stay in the game.
Or, others predicted, as soon as early adopters and geeks realized that these were not real computers…like you couldn’t do any real work on them or play any real games or do anything much beyond surf the net and check your email, or geekwise, install alternative OSs and hack around with hardware mods…I mean, not real computers!…once the geeks got tired of playing with the new toys and regular folks realized their limitations the Netbook would die a natural death. Early adopters’ machines would clog ebay and shoppers would return to their senses and plunk down the considerably more calories…er, cash…for a real laptop.
If, of course, any of the real laptop makers were still in business by then.
Gloom. Doom. Gloom and doom.
And look what happened!
We experienced a slight hiccup in our economy (thanks to some greedy bankers, may they enjoy their just rewards) and suddenly everyone discovered their Scottish ancestry: we all became bargain hunters, Value Conscious Consumers, thrifty even. Not just a few, but a lot of people, literally droves of people, looked at the price/ performance ratio in the laptop market and decided “you know what, a Netbook is just fine for the computing I really do.” And weary road warriors (among whom I count myself), tired of lugging 5 pounds of ugly everywhere they went, lined up at Netbook counters to buy them. Suddenly the Netbook was all that was keeping the computer industry alive. Relative upstarts like Asus and Acer and MCI were taking significant market share from more established and more conservative companies. Acer grew to #2 in laptops purely on the strength of a single Netbook offering (the Aspire One 250), and Asus seemed intent on creating a whole new industry all on its own, releasing a bewildering array of different EEE PC models with what amounted to indecipherable numerical code names, which seemed to change month to month, sometimes day to day.
Of course everyone had to get into the game. Pretty soon you could by a Netbook from anyone you wanted…all cookie cutter similar: 10 inch, 1024×600 screen, Atom processor, 945 graphics, 1 gig ram, Windows XP on a 160Gig HD…so alike you needed a program to tell them apart, and even then, if someone scraped off the logos and turned them all lose in a mall, even their own mothers could not have sorted them. This very similarity spawned a whole blogging industry with the sole purpose of trying to discover some difference between the machines. They failed, but the blogs thrived.
Oh Sony did produce a long thin job, with an atypical Atom processor: “not at Netbook. NOT a Netbook” according to Sony, but no one was fooled, and since they forgot to price it like a netbook, the results were predictable, especially in a tanking economy.
And Apple, being Apple, decided if upstarts like Acer and Asus (who was actually still producing laptops under contract for Apple) where going to change the rules and threaten everyone’s profits, then Apple would not play at all. So there! That’ll fix you. Their answer was the Mac Air: a completely different kind of machine, thin and light, based on an all but afore mentioned ULV processor (which is CULV without the C for Consumer and the ultra long batter life) and priced slightly above current full sized laptops. No one was fooled. Okay, maybe, like, very few were fooled…well, maybe, quite a few, but nothing like the numbers buying real cookie cutter Netbooks.
And the pundits were right in at least one way. The very existence of the capable Netbook forced the prices of full-sized laptops down. Late this summer, at the nadir, you could buy a full-sized laptop with a real, if not latest and greatest and most powerful, processor, a 15 inch standard resolution screen, a couple of Gigs of ram, a decent sized hard-drive, wifi, and Vista Home for under $500…under $400…even under $300 in one memorable WalMart door-buster special. After Thanksgiving sales repeated those price-points and there are now any number of full-sized entry-level laptops regularly available in the $400 price range. They are not, in reality, much more able than a Netbook that sells for slightly less, but they are full-sized! And to date, Silicon Valley has not closed down…and the factories in China seem to keep going strong.
Within the past months also, several attempts have been made to break out of the Netbook mold at, or just above, traditional Netbook price-points. Everyone agrees that Netbook graphics leave a lot to be desired, so nVidia proposed to do something about it by pairing an Atom with their ION graphic processor for accelerated graphics. The first out the door was the HP Mini 311, mentioned above. We will see more. Whether this is actually a good idea or not will have to wait the verdict of the consumer, but my vote, as one who does not ever play games which require 3D video effects, is already in. (Again, see here.)
The second break-mold move was inspired, of course, at least in part, by the Mac Air. Apple generally actually knows what they are doing, often foresees a market that no else knows is out there, and produces a product that no one is actually ready for…at a price very few are willing to pay…but with enough adopters so that other companies take note, come in at lower prices points with similar offerings and attempt to eat Apple’s lunch (the hyena metaphor is hard to resist here). (Other companies do not always succeed: Apple still has the magic touch…the combination of functionality, elegance, and cool that often carries the day even at substantially higher prices: take the iPod/iPhone for example.) Just substitue a Consumer Ultra Low Voltage processor (slightly slower, slightly lower voltage) for the ULV (Ultra Low Voltage) processor in the Air, slap in Windows 7 Home Premium instead of OS10, and you are good, in theory, to go.
We are seeing an increasing number of CULV machines, the best with dual core Pentium or Core2 Duo processors, 2-4 gigs of ram, generous hard drives, decent integrated graphics, and, as above, Windows 7 Home Premium (the first Windows I can actually say I have liked, which comes to me as a considerable surprise). Not all are as thin and light as the Mac Air but the ones with 11.6 and 12.1 inch, 1366×768 wide (HD, 16/9 form factor) screens and are small and light enough to just about qualify as Netbooks. And they are getting 7 to 8 hours of battery life! These little machines are, to my way of thinking, exactly what the road warriors among us have been waiting for. Priced between $500 and $600, you pay a substantially more than for a 10 inch Netbook (which are going this Christmas season for under $300) but you get a fully functional, no significant compromise (unless you are a gamer), eminently portable machine which is able to do just about anything you would want to do on the road. They run Lightroom and PhotoShop (at least Elements which is what I have on mine) as fast as a full sized laptop (faster than my 18 month old Dell). They will play HD video just fine (which my Dell will not), and even stream Hulu in high-res if you have the new beta Adobe Flash plug-in. They will even run the latest HD capable video editing apps and do a decent job of on-the-spot HD editing. And of course, Office simply flies, and your browser catches every curl and rides the pipe-line all the way to shore.
So, how did the Netbook phenomena change the laptop game?
1) it revealed a unsuspected market for good enough computing at the under $400 price point. I say unsuspected, but clearly at least Intel suspected there was some market there, or they would not have built the Celeron and Atom platforms on which the Netbook revolution is based. But I doubt even they suspected the size of the market, or how fast it would grow. Because of the Netbook, millions of people around the world (okay, mostly in developed countries, but we are trying here) have entered the computer age for the first time. Millions have discovered the internet: social networks, email, and Hulu who otherwise would have still been closed out of the cloud. Life is good!
2) To remain competitive, computer companies have had to reposition their full-sized entry-level laptops, which, honestly, had always been designed for not much more than good enough computing and were always ridiculously overpriced. They are now priced where they belong…where the average householder who just needs a computer for the internet, taxes, iTunes and Hulu can justify buying one…and families can seriously consider getting one for each of their children. This gives consumers two good enough options: a full-sized, affordable laptop, or a slightly smaller, slightly less expensive, but still able Netbook. Life is good!
3) Turns out, a portion of Netbook users and buyers actually intended to do real work on the machines. They bought them because they were the first really affordable portable alternative to the full-sized laptop. Remember, two years ago the makers were charging a $1000 premium for a screen under 13 inch…and that was on top of the $1000 entry point for any laptop. The Netbook, along with the Mac Air, demonstrated that there was a market among mobile professionals and serious students for fully capable, small, light, thin laptop at an affordable price. The Mac Air proved the concept. The Netbook provided the price-point. And the makers have responded with affordable CULV machines that make the heart of any road warrior beat a little faster, and have seriously mobile students salivating. Life is good! And it is only going to get better as this new class of machines heats up, and competition gets more intense, and the machines get even better. Imagine a CULV machine with discrete graphics. Oh, wait, that would be the Mac Air…but I really meant an affordable CULV machine with discrete graphics. Then, for most consumers, life will be really good.
4) Netbooks kept Windows XP alive until MicroSoft was forced to develop Windows 7, and to develop it intelligently as one of the largest live tested efforts in recent memory. Life is, OS wise, good!
But what, you ask, does the future hold for Netbooks? Will they survive in the face of just slightly more able full-sized laptops at the same price-point? Will they survive in the face of way more able, but slightly more expensive CULV machines the same size and weight? Clearly Intel thinks they will, or they would not be developing Pinetrail.
Me, I have my doubts. Certainly there will continue to be a market for small, portable, good enough computers with great battery life, but I suspect it will not continue to grow (explode) as the Netbook market has over the past two years. A lot of potential Netbook buyers will opt for the larger screen of the full-sized entry-level laptop, as long a prices remain comparable, even if they pay a bit more. And I see the CULV machines sucking off all of the mobile professional and student market. Why would any road warrior buy a Netbook when, for a few hundred dollars more (but still way less than a compact laptop of two years ago) you can a real portable computer, with a real processor, enough memory, storage, and power to completely replace your full sized work laptop. Even mobile photographers and videographers have to think about size and weight when traveling these days. The CULV platform, with decent 1366×768 screen, simply makes a lot of sense.
But no matter! The point is that the lowly Netbook has, all on its own, completely revolutionized the laptop game…the game will never be the same, and life is, in my humble opinion, a better for it.
Or at least that’s what I think.
Or Making Your Netbook Awesome with Chrome: With more than a little help from StandaloneStack.
Screen real estate is at an premium on any Netbook, whether it is the increasingly rare 7 inch, the run-of-the-mill 8.9 inch, or the increasingly common 10 inch. (I, personally, refuse to call anything with over a 10 inch LCD a Netbook, no matter what processor it has inside.) The same small form factor that makes the Netbook easy to carry, cramps the visual experience, and diminishes the ease and effectiveness of many web sites and web pages…not to mention web apps.
Firefox has, for several generations now, had a full screen mode. Press F11 and the navigation and bookmark bars at the top of the page sort of melt up to the edge of the frame, giving you a significant increase in viewing area. Maybe not so essential if you are just checking your GMail, but often appreciated when viewing images on Flickr or SmugMug, watching video on hulu, or working with an on-line image editor like Sumo-paint or a web app like Google Docs.
At first glance the best Chrome can do is to hide the bookmarks bar (Control B). True the header and and tab bar are pretty small compared to Firefox or Explorer, but they are there, and they are taking up screen space that is unnecessary while you are navigating a relatively closed site like Flickr, or using GMail as a mail client.
You would think Google would have thought of that. I have seen the “where is my F11 toggle” question more than a few times on Chrome discussion blogs, and I am sure it is a frequent feature request at Google.
Of course, Google did think of that, at least in a manner of speaking…and actually took the concept one better.
Chrome has the ability, through Google Gears, to take any web page, web site, or web app and make it into what amounts to a stand alone desktop application. Under page controls in the upper right corner of the browser window (the little page icon next to the wrench), you will find the first entry is Create Application Shortcuts. Choosing it gives you options for creating application shortcuts on your Desktop, in the Start Menu, and/or in the Quick Launch Tray. (Assuming you have Google Gears installed and activated.)
When you make your choice, and for purposes of this article my choice was always just to create a Desktop icon, the page you are viewing will pop out of the browser and into a window of its own…a fully functional Chrome window, but without the header, navigation bars, and bookmarks bar. All you will have at the top is a thin blue band with the name of the running application and the mandatory minimize, full/tiled toggle, and close buttons. You can, if you need and want, click the full/tiled button to expand the page to take up the full screen. Full screen!
I imagine Google had applications like Mail, shown above, in mind when they created this feature. Afterall, many people keep their mail client open in a window all the time, floating in the background, and there is no need for GMail to be floating in a Chrome tab in that case. Much better that it behave like a stand alone app, in an window that you can resize at will, independently of any Chrome window and tabs that you might have open at the same time.
And, of course, real web apps, like Sumo-paint or Google Docs, are ideal canidates for the Gears app treatment. Opened from a Application shortcut, they behave just like any stand alone application.
More than that though, you may have noted that I said Google and Gears can take any web page, any web site, and make it into a stand alone app. Take SmugMug or Flickr for instance. Both of these sites can be challenge on a netbook, as the amount of screen real estate limits the size at which you can view work, and the number of thumbnails on a page that you can work with comfortably. On the other hand, once you are in a SmugMug gallery, or surfing someone’s photostream on Flickr, you are pretty much in a self contained universe and don’t really require more than one of Chrome’s tabs. Turning SmugMug or Flickr into a stand alone app provides a significantly different experience of gallery and photo viewing.
So this stand alone app Google Chrome idea has potential. You can create shortcuts and icons for each of your commonly frequented web sites and web apps that you visit often, or at least the ones where you are relativley self contained, and screen real estate is at a premium.
By the way, in the properties dialog for your shortcut icons, you can set the shortcut to open the window in normal, minimize, or maximize (full screen) modes, depending on your work habits.
An asside here on one of the vagaries of Chrome. Chrome does not yet have full support for Greasemonkey scripts…or rather, it does, but there is no easy or elegant way to turn it on yet. Personally, I use one Greasemonkey script all the time in my work with Flickr. Super Invite and Comment Improved is a Greasemonkey script that adds dropdown menus for a set of award groups of your choosing to every comment box on Flickr, one for Invite and one for Award. Choosing a group’s name from the dropdown, automatically places the code for the invitation or award in your comment box, so that the graphics and group links appear under your comment like magic. Considering that the only other way to get the code is to go to the group page, copy the code, return to the image you want to comment or invite, and paste it in to the comment box, SICI is a huge time saver, and I would not willingly live without it.
That means that, at least when working with Flickr, I need Greasemonkey enabled in Chrome. To accomplish this I had appended ” -enable-greasemonkey” to the target path for my Chrome shortcut in my Quick Launch tray, by going into the shortcuts property dialog and pasting it in after the last quotation mark in the existing target.
However, now that I have a Flickr stand alone shortcut, that means going in and appending it to the target of that shortcut too. Easily done. But what if I open chrome by clicking on my GMail stand alone application shortcut and then navigate out to Flickr. That means going in and enabling greasemonkey for every stand alone application shortcut icon. A pain, but easily done, and necessary only until Google provides a toggle for Greasemonkey in the Options dialog (soon please!).
On the subject of navigating out to another web site from within any of your new Chrome stand alone apps, Google has you covered. In the upper left corner of the stand alone window you will see the icon for your app. There is a dropdown menu under there (click it and see), and one of the choices is “open browser window”. This will open a new Chrome window, with header, tabs, navigation bar, and your bookmarks so you can go wherever your heart desires. It is independent of your stand alone app window, and can be resized, or closed without effecting your stand alone.
So far, so good. We have created a set of stand alone application shortcut icons for all our frequently used, and space hungy, web sites and web applications, but that brings up the issue of what to do with all those new shortcut icons. Will they clutter up your desktop, turning it into, well, a messy executive’s desktop while his secretary is on vacation?
The ideal place for them would be the Quick Launch tray. Once there, a single click opens the stand alone version of your web site. (One of the things (call me lazy) that I hate about shortcut icons on the desktop is the fact that your have to double click them to activate.) However, on a netbook, that Quick Launch bar can quickly fill to overflowing, and leave little or no room for running apps between it and the task bar on the right.
Enter StandaloneStack! I did some research on alternative arrangements for shortcut icons and Standalone Stacker stands out as the best of the bunch.
If you are not familiar with Stackers, they are add-ons for some of the popular Launcher Bar and Quick Launch programs which mimic the Apple Mac’s Leopard application stacks, by arranging your shortcut icons in creative ways on your desktop. StandaloneStack does the trick, as the name might suggest, independently, using your existing windows Quick Launch and task trays.
There was recently a good post on StandaloneStack on Lifehacker (which is where I discovered it, by the way).
You can download StandaloneStack here. You could follow the instructions on the web page to create your first Stack. I did. But it turns out the instructions, like most instructions written by someone who already knows how to do it, leave more than a few things, as they say, to the imagination. Let me walk you through it.
Here is the goal:
To accomplish this, you download the StandaloneStack zip file from the site above. Unzip it to a newly created folder on your C: drive, called something like “standalonestacker”. For ease in what follows, immediately make a copy of that folder, somewhere else. It turns out that if you want more than one stack, each has to reside in a uniquely named folder. You will want to keep the original standalonestacker folder as a template. So select your folder, choose Copy from the File Explorer task menu on the left, create a new folder with an appropriate name (I called my first one “InternetStack”) in the directory you plan to use, copy, and then navigate to the new folder wherever you put it. I have an “Tools and Applications” folder in My Documents where I store all this kind of stuff.
Open your new Stacker folder. Left click on the StandaloneStack application icon and choose “create shortcut” from the drop-down menu. Select the new shortcut and change its name to whatever you want. In my case I called it “Internet”. You can do this by left-clicking, choosing “renane”, or by just clicking on the existing name to highlight it, and typing in your new name.
If you want to get fancy, and if you are planning on having more than one Stack, you might as well get fancy right now, then left click on the newly named shortcut icon and open the Properties dialog. You will see an option to “Change Icon”. Click it. This provides a dialog to select another icon, but unfortunately there is only the Stacker icon in the box. To get another icon, decide which application icon you want to be the representative icon for this whole stack. In my case I chose Chrome. Find a Chrome shortcut on your desktop (or make one). Open its properties dialog. Click Change Icon, and select and copy the complete text in the Look Here box. Go back to your Stacker shortcut icon properties dialog and past the location into the Change Icon dialog for that shortcut. Hit return. Presto, the icon for Chrome (or whatever you chose) appears in the selection box. Select it and apply or close. Your Stack shortcut will now have the Chrome (or whatever) icon.
Now, before you go any further, navigate to an appropriate folder (I used My Documents again) and create a folder to store the shortcuts for this Stack. Name it something appropriate. I called my “Internet”. Drag, copy, or move the shortcuts for this stack into this new folder. At least one shortcut at this point. You can add others later.
Okay. Now back to the Stacker folder. If this is your first stack, you can open the StandaloneStack settings dialog by double-clicking the icon you just created for it. If not, or to be safe, hold down the shift or control keys while double-clicking the icon.
In the dialog that pops up, for the Folder box, browse and navigate to the folder you just created to hold your shortcuts. Select it and the folder path will appear in the folder box. Choose Grid from the Mode dropdown, and whatever Sort method you want. Close the dialog.
Now, drag your new Stack shortcut to the Quick Launch tray. When you click it the grid view stack will open right above it, in its semi-transparent backgound as shown above. From here on out, when you want to add shortcuts to this Stack, just choose the Open Folder shortcut right in the grid view itself. Drag in your new shortcuts, close the folder and you are good to go.
To create another Stack, go back to your standalonestck folder on the C: drive, make a new uniquely named copy of the folder, and follow the steps above. You can put as many Stacks in the Quick Launch tray as you want.
I just have two so far. One that contains all my new stand alone Chrome apps, and one that contains the shortcuts for my graphics programs and folders (with it’s own unique icon, borrowed from Lightroom). That means that I can delete all my Internet and graphics Quick Launch shortcut icons, and all the shortcuts that littered my desktop! Neat. No really, neat…no clutter. Easy to use. Organization itself.
Chrome stand alone apps and StandaloneStack create, really, a whole alternative work space for the netbook, allowing you many options and maximum use of the available screen space. You can always run Chrome in its standard mode, when you need the tabbed browsing feature (for instance when copy and pasting urls from one site to another, as in when writing a blog, etc.)
By the way, if you have more Chrome stand alone apps open at the same time than will fit in the running apps space on your task bar, they will group into a single pop-up menu (provided you have your taskbar set to group like).
Chrome stand alone apps and StandaloneStack will not be to every netbook user’s taste, or match every work-style, but I am finding the combination a very worthwhile investment in more efficient computing.