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Archos Internet Tablet 101: very interesting…

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[I am adding a note here to clarify right up front: I am not a power user. As stated below, my main purpose for this tablet is displaying images from my SmugMug galleries, showing an occasional video, playing music, working email and my twitter and facebook accounts, reading a bit, and general messing around on the internet. I do not play games. If your usage is going to be more intense than that, then your conclusions may well be different than mine. That said…]

Though, as you know if you read this blog, I am convinced iPhone user (4), I have, so far, been able to resist the iPad. I have had one to play with for several weeks on two different occasions (to facilitate app reviews) and it simply does not do enough, in my opinion, beyond the iPhone to justify a minimum investment of $500.

That does not mean, though, that I don’t suffer, in this pre-CES season of tablet fever, a certain amount of tablet envy. And there are a few specific things I could use a tablet for where neither my iPhone or my laptop will do as well.

For one, I travel to a variety of birding destinations each year, and do a lot of photography and videography. It would be excellent to have a device that could easily display what I had shot that day for folks I meet, without having to fire up the laptop. And, of course, web surfing, while possible on the iPhone (and actually quite good by any reasonable comparison) would obviously be better and easier on a larger screen. (Oh bananas, lets be honest, almost anything beyond making a phone call would be easier on a bigger screen.)

The difficulty, as you know if you have been paying attention to tablet fever this year, is that there are not many good alternatives to the iPad out there. There have a slew of Android tablet introductions and announcements over the past 6 months, but the actual products that have made it to market range from disappointing at the lower price end (most are truly cheap China iPad knock-offs)…to just as expensive as an iPad at the somewhat more satisfying end (the Samsung Galaxy Tab). CES may see some movement here, but my feeling is that devices that have anything like the performance of an iPad are going to be priced at least in the same range as the (so far disappointing) Viewsonic G…$400 plus…or at the iPad level (Galaxy Tab), and the under $300 offerings are going to continue to be poorly designed toys with marginal performance.

Which is what makes the new Generation 8 Internet Tablets from Archos stand out. The Archos 70 and the Archos 101 are particularly attractive iPad alternatives. They share the same relatively powerful ARM 8 processor running at a gigahertz, Open GL graphics acceleration, and both have been upgraded to Android 2.2 lately. With a simple hack (provided by a passionate Archos fan), you can have the full Android Market, and all the Google apps. And this from a company that has been making touch screen multimedia players for many years, and internet tablets for several…a company that has shown itself to be responsive to customer needs, and which has fan community that is just as passionate, if not as large, as the Apple folks.

It was the last two factors, actually, that convinced me to order a 101, one Saturday when they had them in stock for about 4 hours on the Archos.com web-store. Some of the China Pads look like they could be made to work, especially for my purposes, and they are considerably less expensive, but you have absolutely no assurance of on-going support. Android is a moving target, with frequent version upgrades (2.2 is just out, and already folks are readying 2.3 upgrades) and with each upgrade someone has to design custom firmware for your particular machine. I have confidence, based on history, that Archos intends to keep up. And, with the active fan community, you are not totally reliant on the company at that…a visit to the ArchosFans forums is vastly reassuring to the potential buyer…or at least is was to this potential Archos owner.

And a word about the obvious differences between Android and iOS. Android is clearly not as polished or as tablet ready as iOS, which Apple tweaked specifically with the iPad in mind. However, as mentioned above, Android is an open source operating system in rapid development, and stands to make significant tablet related gains over the next few upgrades. Then too, it is an open source, open system, vastly different than Apple’s closed system. You can customize and adapt to heart’s content. And, given the fanatical Android development community, if you can conceive of an improvement to your user experience on an Android machine, someone has probably anticipated you, and there is already an app for that. As I will detail further in, I have already replaced the stock Android keyboard, the home screen/app launcher, the stock internet browser, and the Gallery and twitter client supplied by Archos, etc. etc. It is easy, and it certainly appeals to my inner geek!

Don’t get me wrong. It is not that the out of the box Archos experience would not be satisfying to most people…I think it would be…it is just that it can easily be improved. To put it another way, those looking for a first internet tablet experience at less than the cost of an iPad are likely to be satisfied, out of the box, with the Archos gen8 machines. If your expectations have already been colored by some exposure to the iPad, and you are hoping for iPad like performance or better, then you will need to make a few changes to the basic user experience by installing the Market hack, and switching out or replacing some apps, and adding others…but, given the will, in very short order, in my opinion, you will have an internet tablet experience that rivals that of the iPad, for just over half the price.

You can have all the fun of customization, or you can be guided by my experiences…which I will detail later on.

First a few notes about the machine itself. Build quality is very good, a mixture of metal, plastic, and glass, but clearly not up the quality of the iPad. Price you pay for the lower price. It feels solid in your hands, but the plastics creak a bit when handled. The capacitive touch screen, full multi-touch, is excellent: As responsive as my iPhone 4, and certainly as responsive as the iPad. The screen is bright and sharp, with a resolution of 1024×600…fully adequate for viewing images or videos. The viewing angles have come in for some criticism on the various forums and review sites, and, while it may be more limited than the iPad, it is, imho, perfectly adequate* for almost any use. The built in kickstand is excellent for adjusting the angle of the screen for maximum quality and ease of use. (Tip…invest in an inexpensive mouse pad and put it under the 101 and kickstand while it is standing…this will make the whole thing much more stable.)  In my experience so far, it handles video up to 720p HD fairly well. The Video player becomes sluggish and unresponsive with large (10 minute) H264 HD, but it plays them fine. It is just difficult to pause or change volume. The only vids I have not been able to play smoothly are the native Motion JPG (.mov) HD files right out of my Canon cameras. The speakers are barely adequate, but actually a cut above most found on laptops.

General performance for applications is pretty snappy. The latest firmware for Android 2.2 (released on December 16th) allows you to set the processor speed and performance to three different levels, including full on 1GHz, and on that setting the 101is as responsive as the iPad or iPhone 4 on most applications.  The one exception is the stock Andriod launcher, which can develop an annoying lag when returning from an app, but that is a software issue and easily fixed by installing any number of free launcher alternatives (more on that later).

Archos is still waiting on Adobe certification of their own Flash 10.1 plugin, but the stock 10.1 from the Market will at least allow most flash based websites to display properly, and will play standard embedded YouTube video fairly well…though it struggles more with HD. (The dedicated YouTube app works fine for any YouTube video I have thrown at it so far.) I check the Archos website daily to see if Flash is ready. No joy so far.

Other really nice hardware touches are the Micro SD card slot for expanding internal storage (up to 32G), the Micro USB port for connecting to your computer and mounting both internal storage and Micro SD if you have one installed, and the standard sized USB host port, which allows you to use USB sticks, Flash Card Readers, and even external drives if they are low power or have their own power supply (I have a feeling even a low power drive would drain the 101 battery pretty fast and might give unreliable performance…but self powered drives should work fine). USB support is a bit spotty in my experience, with mount and unmount issues frequent, but I am learning to work with it for the most part. My general impression is that it is better to unmount from the Archos instead of the computer…and you need to use the Notifier Unmount for the USB host, not the one in the settings panel :).

The 101 also has HDMI out, though I have not experimented with it. Archos claims it is the only implementation that allows you to put the whole Android experience on your HD TV (while using the 101 as a control pad). I am not a gamer, so I can’t say how this works with games, but it does seem an attractive option.

Of course it has an accelerometer and position censor so everything (or most things) auto rotate from landscape to portrait and back, and you can use the devise itself to control many games.

Okay..so lets talk about the apps that transform the 101 from an satisfying Android internet tablet to a superior internet tablet experience.

The first thing to do is to make sure your firmware and version of Android is up to date. Eventually Archos will start shipping units with 2.2 installed, but if you have a unit with 2.1 it should tell you an update is available when you first boot up the machine. If not, go to Settings > About > Firmware Update and initiate the process.

Once 2.2 is installed, you should go online on your computer and find the latest version of gappsinstall.apk. Try ArchosFans.com or the Archos gen8 forum on XDA Developers or just google it. As of this writing, the current version is v5, but the author says v6 is near. Find the latest one. You should find instructions with it, but just in case, download it to your computer, mount the 101 via USB cable to your computer, drag the downloaded file into the top level of your internal storage (as in, in no folder). Unmount your 101 (press Stop USB on the Archos screen) and unplug the USB cable. Using the Files app, find the gppsinstall file, touch it and choose install. Then, find the app itself in your main apps window, and run the app. That will install the latest version of the Market app, and a few other google basics. (You will have access to the majority of apps, but some will still be hidden. There is a fix for that.  More on that later).

The first app I downloaded and installed was GMail. If you use GMail, and especially if you are already addicted to threaded conversations, Google style, there is no point in using the EMail app Archos bundles with the 101.

IMG_8323IMG_8324Since I intend to use the 101 as a photo viewer, the Gallery app got attention next. The stock app is okay, but there are better viewers out there. QuickPic is amazing, very like the photo viewer on iOS, and based on folders, which it automatically locates by contents, even if they are on your expansion Micro SD card. It does everything I need it to do and does it really fast. I like it.

If you use SmugMug for online image storage and viewing, SmugFolio does a good job of automatically downloading your galleries (unattended) and displaying the contents even when you are not on-line. Somehow it stores the images in a fraction of the space the real jpg files would take, so it is practical even if you, as I do, have thousands of images on SmugMug.

You will want the official YouTube app if you do any YouTube at all. As above, it handles any YouTube video with aplomb.

And, while on video, find Adobe Flash Viewer 10.1. it is not optimized for the Archos machines, and eventually Archos will replace it with one that is, but the one in the Market works for now, at least for viewing lower resolution embedded video and your usual flash animations.

Again, the stock Android browser is okay, but there are better browsers out. Dolphin HD is my favorite…fast, tabbed, themed, excellent all around.

It is maybe a matter of taste, but I do not like the stock Android keyboard. The offset space bar drives me crazy. I found Better Keyboard in the Market and downloaded it. It is pretty good, but…

The keyboard you really want is Swiftkey, and you have to do the Market fix mentioned above to find it. Searching for Swiftkey before the fix returns no matches. Here’s how to fix it.

  1. Settings–>Manage Applications–>All–>Market (Clear Cache then ‘Force Stop’ — DO NOT clear data)
  2. Settings–>Manage Applications–>All–>Google Services Framework (Clear data then ‘Force Stop’)
  3. Return to the Home screen.
  4. REBOOT

Once you do these steps, you will find all kinds of previously hidden apps in the Market the next time you run it. I am not sure why, but there it is.

IMG_8321Search for Swiftkey now and at least download the trial version. I ran the trial for about 10 minutes realizing I could not live without it and buying and installing the full version…despite the fact that I had already bought Better Keyboard. (Follow onscreen prompts when you first run Swiftkey to install it as your default keyboard, and download the correct language module for predictions.) Swiftkey fits the 101 screen better…is way easier to type on…has superior prediction…has a much more intelligent number and alternate keys system (you don’t have to shift to number for numbers or other symbol keys…just hold the key down just a bit longer and the secondary character will be entered (ie, hold T down and 5 is entered…hold ? down and ! is entered…it is so IMG_8322brilliant!). If you do shift to numbers, you get a new keyboard with a number pad on one side and symbols on the other…so intelligent! Going a level deeper with the symbol key gives you a full set of left/right/up/down keys to move the cursor around in your text…which is a real blessing for those of us with large finger tips). If you are like me, you will never return to stock!

And speaking of stock…the stock 2.2 launcher/home screen is kind of creaky. It has strange lags and does not always respond as expected. There are better alternatives. The two I tried are Launcher Pro and Zeam, both free apps. Launcher Pro does not quite scale to the 101 screen, probably because of Archos’ use of soft buttons on the right side of the screen. Still it only takes a slight drag to make it align itself. Launcher Pro is, all and all, an improvement over stock, but the one I settled on is Zeam. It uses picsay-1293458954less resources, is slightly faster, and scales to the 101 screen perfectly. I have mine set to a single home screen, since I don’t intend to use many apps, and since most of my common apps fit in the app tray on the right side of the screen (or bottom if you run in portrait…and you are not limited to 5 apps in the tray as you are in LP). Adding actions and widgets is dead easy…I even added the Show Notifications action to my tray, since I will be using it often to unmount USB stuff (as above).

IMG_8325What else? If you have to move large files, you will need a better file manager than the stock Files. I looked for one that had drag and drop…I mean we are a touch machine here…and found ScaliCommander. Despite some luke-warm reviews, it works well, and allows me to drag files from my camera’s SD card in a Card Reader in the USB port to internal storage. Move does not work for files and folders of any size, but Copy does, even for massive Video files. It will also allow you to view the full file system, not just the storage level as the stock app does. You can open folders in multiple panels and literally drag and drop as you do in Windows or the Mac OS. I tried others first, but Scali is the only one that let me copy large files.

Weather apps? Weather Channel, hands down. The most complete display of info by far, including hourly and 10 day forecasts, the ability to turn off GPS (necessary on the 101) and enter locations manually, and three sizes of widget…widgets that don’t hang the machine up on launch when there is not yet a wifi connection (which WeatherBug does…I even took WeatherBug off my laptops, since it gave me lots of trouble there too). Accuweather just won’t run without the GPS. So, despite the fact that Accuweather is in the unfixed market and it requires the fix to find Weather Channel, it is Weather Channel all the way.

The only Facebook app I have tried is the official free one, and it is fine, though I miss the ability to add bookmarked profiles or pages (as you can do in the iPhone version).

picsay-1293459614Archos ships the 101 with the free version of Toutier, which is not bad, except in comparison with the best of the iPhone twitter clients. I liked it well enough to buy the full version, but I soon noticed that is very slow to update the lists on launch compared to other Android clients, especially if have more than one account. I will, by the way, offer an expanded comparison of twitter clients for Android on tablets in the near future, but for now, I tried the official free Twitter inc. app (not well suited to tablet use), the free and Pro versions of Twidroyd (not bad but somehow clunky, reminiscent of the ultra powerful but interface-challenged Twittelator Pro for the iPhone), and finally settled on Tweetcaster Pro…which has, imho, the best mix of features and usability. It is, for instance, the only one to give you unread counts for tweets and replies. There is some funkiness when you first open the app as the splash screen forces portrait…but as soon as that clears the app works fine in landscape on the 101.

Of course I have Hootsuite on there for its unique ability to post, and to schedule future posts, to multiple twitter, facebook, and facebook pages accounts. (With a scroll to top feature Hootsuite could be my full time social media client.)

I downloaded and used Google Reader for a while…but like the web app on the iPhone, GR for Android is just a bit clumsy to use (well, more than a little bit). To read a post, you have to open its folder, then select the feed, or chose all, then select the title, which opens the title alone on a screen, then select the title again to open the post. Not pretty.  If you are reading a post and want to go back to the main menu to open another folder, you have backtrack through way too many screens to get there. The same thing happens when you mark a post or group of posts read…you have to back all the way out to get to another folder. Not pretty and not inspiring.

Though it is relatively expensive, the pro version of NewsRob is everything Google Reader should have been. Easy to use, displays the feeds attractively (much like they appear on the Google Reader web site on the computer), fast, and simple to navigate. NewsRob was designed by someone who must spend considerable time reading feeds, and it shows.

If you are Kindle user, the Kindle app, though it only works in portrait, will allow you to read your Kindle books on the Archos. Nook is also available. What I can see, is using the Archos for reading color books and magazines as they become available…and if you are considering the Nook Color for Christmas, you really might want to check out what $50 more gets you from Archos (though if reading were my primary purpose I would look a the Archos 7o instead of the 101.)

I have found a few more apps which I may review in more detail later on: PicSay Pro is an excellent photo editor, Tripit is its generally elegant self, there are calculators and converters for travelers, etc. etc,

I have only had the Archos 101 Internet Tablet for 4 days now, and I am still figuring the thing out. Besides being my first tablet, it is my first Android device of any kind. There are, apparently, all kinds of hidden features to Android 2.2. It took me 3 days to find the Notification panel (accessible by pulling down the Notification bar at the top of the screen), and someoneon ArchosFans forum (Brownrat, thank you) had to point out the Unmount function of Notifications for USB devices. I don’t think I would have ever have found that. Just a few moments ago I discovered that there is a menu on the main apps page that gives instant access to Manage Apps and Uninstall. I am not sure if that is a feature of Android or of Zeam but it is something I know I will use, now that I know where it is.

Then too, my other primary discovery already is how very, very small the iPhone 4 is :).

Already I can see that the Tablet is going to be an essential part of my internet and social experience. I have a little pay as you go MiFi from Virgin Mobile that should work most places I visit. Makes an ideal companion for the Archos 101.

And I have to say that all those companies who are pinning hopes on an imminent introduction of yet another Android tablet are going to have difficulty matching the functionality, the quality, and value of the Archos gen8 Tablets. Archos has pretty well hit the sweet spot with a combination of powerful hardware; a flexible, adaptable, perfectible, OS and software package; and a price that makes it an easy, almost an impulse, buy.

No wonder no one can keep them in stock.


*Screen angles: there is a lot of discussion of how bad the Archos screen is, with some people getting pretty heated about it, on the forums. The best viewing angle on my screen in landscape mode is about 15 degrees below perpendicular to the surface, which puts the tablet at just about the ideal angle (about 30° to the surface it is resting on) for typing or working with it propped up on its stand on a table. It is also the angle that tablet assumes when held naturally in my hands. Though I lose some contrast when I view from either side of screen I don’t see any significant change in brightness or contrast through an angle of about 60°, 30° on either side of straight on. If I tip the screen back so I am further below the ideal angle, I have an additional 20° before I lose significant contrast. If I tip the screen up toward me, I begin to lose brightness at the bottom edge of the screen almost immediately, but it is usable through about 10°. That amounts to a vertical viewing angle of about 30°. In Portrait mode, the angles are the same, though the ideal angle moves to straight on perpendicular to the screen. That means that I have more angle to the right than I do to the left, with the tablet held normally with the ports up, and lots of room for tipping the screen in the vertical dimension. I could, of course put the more generous angle on the other side by tipping the whole device over. For my use this is “adequate” viewing angle.

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Written by singraham

December 22, 2010 at 4:46 pm

iPhone 4!: living up to expectations

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iPhoneI skipped the iPhone 3GS…it just came at the wrong time in my AT&T contract, and the reasons to upgrade, video and a slight speed bump, were just not compelling enough to shell out what it would have cost me for the early upgrade.

Of course, that made me particularly eager for Apple’s next iPhone offering. I followed every rumor for more than a year. The leaked iPhones, with their tantalizing mix of new features and new look, along with tidbits gleaned from the developer versions of iOS4, only built my anticipation and solidified my determination to upgrade. I followed the actual iPhone 4 announcement on live-blogs and twitter. And, of course, after a frustrating hour with Apple’s site, I preordered my iPhone 4 upgrade direct from AT&T at just after 5AM on the 15th.

Ordering from AT&T meant that I was not one of the folks who got their iPhone 4 on the 22nd or the 23rd. Mine came on the 24th, when I was 300 miles from home, with a daughter at her college orientation. Sigh. Still it was there when I got home on Friday night, and I had it activated and all my apps and music loaded before bed-time.

I have now lived with it for 3 weeks, and I can honestly say, despite all the flap about the antenna problem, it has lived up to every expectation.

Lets get the antenna issue out of the way right up front. My impression so far is that the actual performance on both voice and data is slightly to greatly better (depending on where you are) than my iPhone 3G. It is really had to tell. Though 3G coverage in Southern Maine is pretty good, we live in an AT&T pocket, where reception has always been a problem. I have tried antennas and signal boosters. Nothing helps much. I show maybe one bar more with the iPhone 4 than I did with the 3G…maybe…the signal comes and goes (I think the technical term is breathes)…but then it has always done that here. On a visit to Rockland this week, which is outside the 3G coverage, I was able to get emails and send texts over EDGE in areas where I had not been able to 6 weeks ago with my 3G. This is a good sign. I have yet to drop a call or have a data transfer fail. This is also a good sign.

[Note 7/16: iOS 4.0.1 cured this particular problem…I can no longer make the bars drop with the case on! This is good, I think.] On the other hand, even with a case on, I can, in some situations, especially when the phone is showing high bars, make the bars drop by shielding the bottom left side of the phone with my hand. Maybe it is my aura? If I change my grip, I can watch the bars climb back up. On the other hand, in these same areas the bars fall and climb even with the phone lying flat on a table not being touched at all.

I will be traveling to the west coast the week after next, so I will give the phone and AT&T’s network a real workout. I will report back. So far, though, while I admit that I would be happier if the signal were always at 5 bars, I am pretty pleased with the iPhone 4’s performance as a phone.

[Note 8/7: I have now taken several trips with the iPhone 4 and I can definitely say that overall phone reception is better than my iPhone 3G. Quite a bit better. Even in north coastal California, where EDGE was all, the phone still worked fine. And I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of 3G I was able to pick up, even in the more rural areas of CA. This is good.]

Lets be plain: in every other way, the iPhone 4 and iOS4 simply blow away any other portable computing device or platform I have ever owned or imagined. The iPhone 4 is blazingly fast compared to my 3G. Apps open faster, even from a cold start. When iOS4 compliant apps return from saved state (that is when they have been open and active already) it really does feel like they were running all the time in the background. Apps that would barely run on the 3G (say Navigon or the Audubon Field Guide series) simply cruse on the iPhone 4. Even apps that were already fairly snappy on the 3G (my twitter clients like SimplyTweet or Osfoora) are noticeably snappier on the iPhone 4. Switching views, for instance, is instantaneous. Pop. This speed makes using useful apps just that much more enjoyable. Smile

I am, in fact, loving the app launcher tray, the folder system, the whole look and feel and logic of the new OS. It works for me.

Then there is the camera. You have to remember I am coming from a 3G, not a 3GS, and the improvement in the photo quality is simply stunning. The camera, like the OS, just works for me. I would never have considered my 3G camera a serious substitute for a real camera: crappy lens, no focus, iffy exposure, etc. On the other hand, if caught out in the world with just my iPhone 4, I could easily be a happy photographer. I would miss a zoom lens, but except for that, the camera does a very respectable job of capturing the world. And HD Video. It even works behind the eyepiece of my spotting scope for some emergency HD Vid  and decent stills of birds. [Note 7/16: In addition to the above, I have discovered new apps like AutoStitcher and Pro HDR that allow me to do things with my iPhone 4 camera that would be impossible (or at least much more difficult) with most conventional cameras.]

Oh, and did I mention the screen? Sharp. Vivid. Pretty okay outside (though not great…this is no OLED). It looks as good or better than the screen on my 11 inch laptop.

Finally, though it may seem silly, one of the things I especially like about the iPhone 4 is that I can carry it in a case without it taking up any more pocket space than my naked 3G…and this is good for both antenna reasons and for protection for that lovely, but fragile, glass back! (Not that I intend to drop it, even in the case! You see my iPhone in it’s iFrogz silicone case in the pic above.)

So…yes…the iPhone 4 is living up to my expectations and then some.

Written by singraham

July 10, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Netbooks for the Traveling Photographer: take two

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Acer Aspire One 10in. on top. HP Mini 311. Dell 13.1 inch below.

[NOTE: while much of this is still true, I have now replaced the HP Mini 311 with a CULV based Acer Aspire Timeline 1810TZ. To see why, read Atom + ION: empty promise?]

Just over a year ago I wrote a piece on my Point & Shoot Landscape Blog called Netbooks for Traveling Photographers. It is among the most popular posts I have ever written, and is still getting regular hits a year later. It is still worth a read if you are new to the subject of Netbooks, and have specific questions on how they manage a photographic work-flow.

Until a week ago I was still using the Acer Aspire One 250 that is described in that article. I have processed more than 2000 thousand images, primarily in Lightroom, on that little Netbook in the past year. I have had no reason to regret my choice and I still highly recommend a Netbook to any photographer who spends much time on the road. It is hard to match the simple portability, and they are certainly powerful enough from all but the most demanding tasks. And, there is nothing quite like a Netbook for ease of doing all the daily stuff you need a computer for. Load up a browser (I use Chrome for preference), subscribe to a Google account, and you can do email, calendar, news feeds, Twitter, FaceBook, etc. etc. With a copy of ThinkFree or Open office (or even the real MicroSoft Office), you can even tweak the occasional PowerPoint for work…or run numbers in Excel: all on a machine that requires very little effort to carry. I have made two trips to Europe in the past year without my work laptop: just carried my Blackberry and my Netbook and I was good to go.

Within the past five months, however, I have gotten more heavily into HD video, and, while you can edit HD on a conventional Atom powered Netbook like the Aspire One, no one would claim that it is an enjoyable experience.

Lightroom's Develop Module on the Aspire One

About that same time, the first announcements of a new class of Thin and Light laptops, some not much bigger than your average Netbook, began to appear. The smallest of the Thin and Lights are 11.6-12.1 inch screen machines with a screen resolution of 1366×768 (16/9 wide screen, HD video format), and are powered by the new CULV processors from Intel (Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage). The CULV processors come in various shades of single and dual core, and are based on the more powerful processors used in real laptops. They are several times as powerful as the Atom processors used in Netbooks, but due to low voltage circuits, get just as good battery life. They are paired with the more capable Intel integrated GM4500 graphics as well.

Lr's Develop Module on the HP Mini's larger screen

Also, about that time the first ION based Netbooks began to be announced: primarily in the form of the HP Mini 311. This Netbook combines an 11.6 inch, 1366×768 screen with the same Atom processor found in the majority of Netbooks, but uses the NVIDA ION graphics processor instead of the usual Intel integrated GM950 graphics. Since graphic performance, especially the ability to render complex 3D graphics and video streams, is one area where Netbooks are noticeably deficient, the ION platform, at least on paper, offers the promise of real improvement. For one thing, today’s graphics rich OSs should be a lot happier on an ION based machine.

Couple that with the Adobe announcement of an upgraded Flash plugin which specifically takes advantage of the graphics acceleration offered by the ION and GM4500 graphics processors, and we are beginning to see some new possibilities opening for Netbook sized laptops.

As important as HD video was to my deliberations as I read the first reviews of the new machines, one of the major reasons I was looking was screen resolution. After a year of living with the 1024×600 10 inch screen on the Aspire One, I was beginning to feel just a little cramped. 1366×768? I could imagine how Lightroom would look on a screen that big (big being relative…I was determined to say as close to the Netbook form factor as possible: I really value the portablilty!)

Suffice it to say that I did my research and opted for the HP Mini 311 with ION Graphics. For one thing, while more expensive than a conventional 10 inch Atom powered Netbook, it was still less expensive than the dual core CULV machines. For another, reviewers rated the ION graphics performance significantly higher than the GM4500, and the new Flash beta is optimized for ION at a slightly higher level than it is for the Intel chipset.

And, perhaps as important in the end, the HP was available when I was ready to buy and the dual core Aspire 1810T (my other strong contender) was not. On such little things the tides of decision turn…at least, it seems, my decisions!

PhotoShop Element's Camera Distortion Filter

So far the HP Mini 311 has met all my expectations. It is not too much larger than my Aspire One. It still fits in the same over the shoulder backpack I used for the Aspire. The extra screen real-estate makes a huge difference in viewing images and working in Lightroom (not to mention Powerpoint and Excel). With 3 Gigs of memory installed, it runs both Lightroom and PhotoShop Elements at the same time…flicking back and forth between them instantly. And it runs both programs faster than the Aspire One ever managed. The speed increase in noticeable and welcome in Lightroom, on every operation, but especially on complex actions like the graduated filter effects…but it is totally amazing on PhSElements, turning a real sluggard, which crashed way too often, into a working proposition for the first time in my experience on a Netbook. This has significantly changed my post-processing work flow already, making it possible for me to use PhotoShop Elements as my external editor while running Lightroom: for those times I need to apply layers, local edits, or use, for instance, the Correct Camera Distortion filter (see Distortion City…and how to cure it! on P&S Landscapes). Slick.

With the Atom processor, HD video editing is still a challenge, but along with the new computer I discovered a new video editor: Corel Video Studio 12, which does the trick of creating low resolution stand in files for HD video as you import it into a project, so your editing is done quickly and easily, and then the edits are applied to the original HD files when the final project is burned to disk. Corel runs just fine on the HP Mini 311.

HD Video in Windows Media Player

The 311 even runs HULU desktop…something it should not, by the specs, do. And, with the new Adobe Flash 10.1 beta installed, it does really well on HD video from YouTube or other streaming sites. Windows Media Player handles raw MP4 video straight from the camera with ease. Impressive. Watching an HD video on a 1366×768 16/9 ratio screen is, in fact, a real pleasure.

I should mention that the HP Mini 311 I bought came with Windows 7 Home Premium. It provided my first experience of Windows 7, and while I will never be a real fan of Windows, it is the best implementation I have seen yet, and seems well suited to the Atom/ION platform. It is notably faster in almost every operation than Windows XP, at least on the 311, and many of the rough edges of XP seem to have been well and intelligently smoothed. Every program I rely on has, so far, run at least as well under 7 as it did under XP, and maybe even a bit better.

It is still Windows, of course.

I will have to wait for more extensive reviews of the newer CULV machines to see my somewhat impulsive buy was, in the end, for the best…but I am very impressed with the HP Mini 311. In another year there will undoubtedly be CULV machines with more powerful graphics processors. Combine the CPU power and a dedicated graphics accelerator and you would have a Netbook sized machine to rival almost any laptop on the market. We will see. Nothing is forever, but for now my HP Mini is pretty much this photographers dream of the mobile image processing station!

Corel VideoStudio 12

almost full sized key board for very easy typing.

Written by singraham

December 5, 2009 at 6:57 am

iPhone 3.0 (briefly)

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OS 3.0

OS 3.0

So, everyone else in the iVerse has had their say on the new iPhone OS. My turn.

1) it does appear slightly faster on some apps…but not on all…and not on certain functions that apply across apps. Just about every app I have opens faster, and the more memory intense the app is the more the improvement. iBird, which has a huge database (by iPhone standards) shows the greatest improvement. On the other hand, opening the text entry box in all applications seems just a bit slower. Maybe the addition of new features like Cut, Copy, and Paste has a little cost.

2) Speaking of Cut, Copy, Paste: at last! Still, it does not work as well as I had hoped. For instance, some programs just don’t do the whole scrolling text within the text field thing well at all, and a glaring example is Mobile Gmail (maybe it is really a Safari issue, but GMail is the Safari based application that I use the most). I was hoping to be able to easily trim email replies for the few email groups I follow…an arduous task without Cut or multi-line delete. It works fine in the built in Mail app. Just select text and Cut. However, since you can not finger scroll the text field in a GMail reply, getting to the end of the block you want to delete is almost as painful as holding the X key down used to be. You have to drag the selection delimiter down below the text box somewhere and hope that the box will scroll down sometime before you finger stops working. Sometimes it refuses to scroll at all. Can you hear my teeth gnashing?

Still, I would rather have Cut, Copy, Paste than not. I will just be using Mail more often…if only Mail would display mail in conversation/threaded format!

3) Camera is indeed improved, even in the old 3G model.

4) What gives with the App Store. New features and layout in 3.0 on launch day…now apparently rescinded???

5) New Photo features: select multiple pics to email…and especially to delete…are real time savers! However, it took me forever to figure out how to do it. Hidden under the email button! Once found it is dead easy. Very good.

6) The one app I hoped for a significant speed difference on, Zensify, shows no improvement at all.

Lest you get the impression that I am disappointed with 3.0, let me reassure you. I am delighted. It does not quite make the 3G a brand new phone (or cure my 3GS desire) but it come close enough so that I can wait to be eligible for an upgrade when iPhone 3GT or 4G or whatever they call it comes out, maybe a year from now??

Written by singraham

June 19, 2009 at 10:01 am

Why Google should (maybe) develop an OS!

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gOs Cloud, the first browser based OS. Or is it?

gOs Cloud, the first browser based OS. Or is it?

Rumors keep surfacing, since the introduction of Chrome, that Google is developing an operating system to compete with Windows, Linux, and the Mac’s OSX.

Good idea? Or bad idea? Opinion seems mixed.

My recent experience in setting up a netbook (Asus EEE PC 701 with Linux) for my wife taught me something unexpected.

Asus certainly tried to strike a balance between simplicity and usability in their simple Linux based tabbed desktop, but, to be honest, it is still a lot more than many users need. It is certainly more than Carol needs…and one of my first tasks was to put the few icons she really does need (Mail, iGoogle to open her browser, print, and shutdown) on the favorites page.

The simplified Linux tabbed desktop on the EEE PC

The simplified Linux tabbed desktop on the EEE PC

Then, when I was watching her work yesterday, she clicked on a word document someone had sent her in an email, and it opened in Open Office for her to view it. She does not even know Open Office is on the machine, and will, very likely, never have to open it from its icon, but it does need to be there for her when she needs it.

Recent articles about the upcoming gOs Cloud (pictured above, at the top of the post), the browser based, instant on, operating system, have also caught my eye. gOs makes the assumption that many connected computers (people) will generally not need anything more than a browser, with a few application icons inside. Most tasks will be done using web apps, as opposed to applications that reside on the hard drive and depend on a conventional OS (Linux, Windows, OSX, etc.) to control all the peripheral and IO functions of the machine (Monitor, USB, Keyborad, wifi, etc., etc.). The browser itself will have full control of the machine interfaces, with no need for a supervising OS.

So, I assume, when you double click a word attachment in your email (collected in some internet email client, like GMail), it will open in Google Docs, or ThinkFree Office, or some other web based word-processing application…and not in Word or OpenOffice, or some other hard drive based application. When you double click an image file it will open your browser for viewing (and presumably the browser will have basic editing features included (zoom, crop, resize, sharpen), and a link to Adobe Express, or Googles Picassa (in a web based form), or Picnic for more serious editing. You will, of course, have the option to work off line, using local lightweight browser based apps and accessing your otherwise online documents via a local cache on your hard drive…kind of like Google Gears.

And that is when it hit me: Chrome. Google Gears. Google Docs. GMail. Google Calendar. Picassa. YouTube. Google Sites. Google Desktop.

Maybe Google really is building an OS???

They certainly have many of the necessary pieces for the connected OS, the cloud OS, of the future already in place. Even gOs Cloud relies heavily on Google web apps. All Google needs to do is to teach Chrome to wrest control of the machine’s IO functions from the resident OS, and they are good to go. The job is done. Chrome becomes your operating system.

Is this the OS of the future, and Google's secret dream?

Is this the OS of the future, and Google's secret dream?

And for many of us that would be just fine. It would satisfy most of our day to day work and play computing needs, especially on our mobile machines…our netbooks.

As they say, though, just because something can be done, it does not follow that it is a good idea to do it.

Personally, I would like to see Google try. I will even be an early adopter, on my netbook, as long as Google allows for running some of my Windows staples…Lightroom and iTunes in particular…or provides adequate web based substitutes.

What is certain is that someone will invent/develop such a cloud based operating system. I am sure the visionaries at Microsoft (oops. Oxymoron alert!), at Google, at Mozilla, and at a host of little start-ups (not to say up-starts) like gOs, are hard at work on it even while you read this…at this very moment.

Exciting times.

I say: go to it Google!

Note: some 6 hours later: Interestingly enough, after this went to press, this article popped up on my Google Reader: NetVibes Founder Working on Netbook OS

Smallish world. Netbook sized. Covered in cloud.

Written by singraham

December 9, 2008 at 6:38 am