Sunday, December 14, 2008

Want to upgrade from your old laptop, but can't afford it? Try this!

If you were wanting a new laptop/computer but can't afford it, here are some quick (and some slow) ways to breathe new life into your tired old lappie, or at least make it bearable to use and cart around until you can get your tax return ;) This post came about because I was struggling with this issue myself (actually, I suffer this every six months after I buy ANYTHING), and so I thought I'd share some of the tricks and tips that I've used to curb my purchasing of new gadgets. Enjoy :)

1)upgrade the RAM/HD - this is a great way to get more out of your existing computer, providing that you haven’t maxed it out to begin with. Getting new RAM will improve performance, and depending on your HD drive, you could either improve the performance and/or improve the capacity. And don't throw out the old parts either - coz provided they’re not faulty, you may be able to get some life out of them yet.

2)get a new battery - similar to upgrading the innards, getting a new battery to replace one that isn’t holding its charge anymore, or getting another to supplement the existing one, will help enable you to enjoy your lappie away from the cord a bit more, which increases its relevance in your tech life, and keeps it with you.

3)give your laptop a new look – I find that my eye starts wandering for new laptops when my device starts looking less than new...depending on your device, the remedy could be as simple as giving the thing a quick once over with a damp cloth (you filthy little monkey, you!) and you're well on your way to restoring your laptop to its pristine state. Of course, some device designs age better than others (I'm convinced that the dells look old when they come out of the factory), so if you're the person who plans to hold on to a device for a while, as shallow as it may seem, paying attention to how the laptop looks will help you to be happy about your purchase in a few year’s time. Also, pay attention to what materials are being used in your laptop – matte materials will start looking old when parts of it become shiny from being used, and they’ll also be more susceptible to staining as well, unless it’s a dark colour.

Another way to go, is to add a completely new look, by applying decals. There are a couple of companies that specialise in decals for your laptop/devices, like gelaskins, garskin and skinit, and they have the added benefit of being easy to peel off when you tire of them, or they start looking a bit grubby.

Finally, give your desktop screen an overhaul too, since It’s no good having a spruced up exterior, when the interior looks old (its like steampunk in reverse). I won't go into specifics (actually, I'm not even going to bother :P), but here is one article that I reckon, covers the subject quite well for windows XP: (link)

4)do a spring/summer clean - remember when you first got your computer and it ran quite fast (provided there wasn't much bloatware - your mileage may vary)? Well to get that new computer snappiness, I highly recommend doing a complete restore of your device, especially if its older than XP. Not only does it clear out the crap that slows the computer down (not sure exactly what, but I know it happens) but its also a chance for you to reassess which applications actually need to be on your device in the first place. A few caveats though -this will take a while, -you will have to backup all your files and folder before you do it - and you will have to reinstate any printers and network connections your computer may use, which may make you unpopular with the IT guy at work if he needs to set that all up for you.

5) swap computers with someone else - now, not everyone can do this obviously, but relying on the adage that 'a change is as good as a holiday', it may be worth it if you did the old switcheroo with another member of your family. Obviously this won't be as effective if the laptops are identical - but if they're not really fussed about the hardware that they're using, or you can bribe the other party in some way, this could be one way to make two people happy :)

Alright, so there are just a few ways you can breathe life into your old laptop, and a few of these tips can be applied to a variety of devices to different extents - most of them do involve spending, but if they mean that you won't have to buy another laptop/device for a while yet, then its money well spent, and its good for the environment!

Next blogpost, I'll discuss the benefits of, and the way to properly re-gift your old tech to your family, as well as the my thoughts on giving geek gifts to non-geeks and its implications (two words: “tech support”).

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pat's Quick and Dirty Acer Aspire One Review

First Impressions
Build quality is very good. Seams are tight, and all the different components fit very well. The construction is light, but solid. The pearlescent white plastic behind the screen looks to belong to a more expensive device, and the materials look to be of a high standard. It’s easily the most good-looking netbook in my opinion, possibly tying with the HP mini-note 2133, which is very stylish, but loses points for its bulkiness. The battery fits flush into the battery compartment and the material matches the plastics furnishing the underside of the netbook, so the battery fits well with the overall aesthetics of the design.
Unfortunately however, its with the slotting of the battery into the compartment, and powering on of the device, that the great first impression I had dissipated. Like a beautiful girl who snores like 60 year old overweight man with sleep apnoea, the loud, incessant whine of the Aspire One’s CPU fan just ruins an otherwise perfect moment. Its drone is constant, with the fan activated as soon as the netbook is turned on, and remains on, even when the netbook is idle, occasionally increasing in pitch when the the device is put to use. I understand that this serves to keep the CPU cool, but having owned the first gen Asus EEE PC for over a year, along with a few full-sized laptops, I can honestly say that the noise coming out of the Acer is the loudest I’ve experienced from a laptop. Although it does blend in with ambient noise, during my testing in a quiet room, the noise was so noticeable that I had to turn it off only after 15 minutes or so of operation. I could imagine this noise making the user a target of annoyed looks in a quiet lecture theatre, or a study area.

But overlooking this point, I must say that the screen is gorgeous. The relatively low resolution (1024x600) is well complimented by the small screen size, which means that visually, the screen renders crisp images, with barely noticeable 'jaggies' or blurriness. The backlighting is also very good, with the lowest setting still throwing a nice amount of illumination to the screen. Despite the wide-screen view, websites are easy to navigate, with only downward scrolling needed.
The keyboard is a good size, with good-sized shift keys one either end (an oft ignored aspect by other netbook manufacturers). Keys are comfortable to type on, and with time (and not being a touch-typist) I reckon I could get quite fast on it, despite the smaller size. The keys are a bit squishy, with the keys being slow to spring back after being depressed, but in any case, the keys register accurately and without any lag.
Unfortunately, while I would consider the Aspire One’s keyboard to be one of the better netbook keyboards I have used, I have to say that the touchpad would have to be one of the worst. The rectangular touch pad consists of the touch surface flanked by the left and right buttons on the side, instead of underneath as with other touchpads. This caused all manner of frustration for me, since I am so accustomed to using touchpads one-handed (usually for invoking the keyboard shortcuts with my left hand, while operating the cursor with my right). First of all, left-clicking using the dedicated button required the dexterity of a surgeon who does finger-yoga...however I managed to get around this obstacle by simply tapping on the touchpad itself, which in itself was quite usable and accurate. However, right-clicking proved to be an insurmountable obstacle, since my hand almost had to approach the touchpad from the north-east to even get my thumb in position to click the right button. To add insult to injury, both mouse buttons sit flush with the chassis and required a pretty hefty push, which was not always possible from the angle of my thumb, making it difficult to highlight text accurately because I couldn't maintain sufficient pressure over the left button with my thumb alone, and overall slowed down the act of activating context specific menu's via right-clicking. I seriously wonder how this touchpad design got past user testing (if any).

Fortunately, crapware is kept to a minimum, with google desktop, mcafee antivirus, and a trial of microsoft office being the only ones I noticed, so kudos for Acer for realising that its not a good idea to bog the system down anymore than it already is. Perhaps the only criticism I have, is in comparison to the linux version, the XP variant is missing the office and other tools that are present, but that only really affects those that are completely new to computing, which arguably is not the target market for the XP variant. All in all, on the software side, Acer keeps the MS install of XP home edition free from clutter.

I won't really touch on this because I've decided really early on not to keep the device, so I'm reluctant to install any software, and there are several reviews on the One that have already covered this, so I'll skip it. I will say that wireless performance is more than adequate (it identified and logged on to my home wifi network with ease) and webpages rendered quickly. Youtube videos work fine in both windowed and full-screen modes but moving the mouse causes it to drop frames immediately, and having the CPU at just under 50% probably has something to do with it. Taken as an indicator, I don't think multi-tasking will be a strong-suit of the One, though really, the small screen would really make that difficult to begin with anyway.
Sound from the bottom-firing speakers are not the best, but also not the worst sounding I've experienced from a laptop - suffice it to say that having the One on your shoulder boom-box style won't really be viable (or realistic anyway) or being the source of music for your neighourhood block party.

Battery life
The included battery is a thin block which is almost the length of the netbook, approximately 1.5cm thick, and sits flush with the chassis. While this makes the whole package aethetically pleasing, it does place limits on the battery's capacity, which ends up being a relatively paltry 2200mAH. Translated to real world usage, this means 2hrs of work with the screen at the lowest setting, and wifi turned off. Acer's decision to skimp on battery in this way is disappointing, because it severely limits the capacity of the One to work as a mobile device. Maybe my idea of target market serviced by netbooks is incorrect, but I thought the aim of having such compact laptops was so that they can be used on the go, part of which includes use in scenarios where access to cabled power is not available ie lecture theatres, and cafe's. With the battery life as is, the One would just make two 1 hour lectures before needing a recharge, less if some of that time involves use of wifi.

On that note, charging takes about 1min/1% of battery life when the One is being used, so with the stock standard battery, approximately 1hr and 40min are required to charge the battery from 0 to full - not bad, but certainly means that for continuous all day use, you'll have to be spending most of your day being plugged in.

Final thoughts
During my brief time using the One, I tried my hardest to love the device, and there certainly was a lot to love: looks, build quality, and computing performance were either on par, or better than expected for the price. However the misgivings with this device were just too obvious, probably emphasised by the attention to detail in the other aspects, and were things that I could not come to terms with, such as battery life, and that ruddy CPU fan noise! Its such a shame that the great detail to the design and execution of the chassis didn't extend to making a larger space for the battery, or having enough space to have a touchpad with the buttons in a more familiar position. To end on a positive note, I think that Acer has shown with the One that they are serious about their entry in the increasingly more crowded netbook market, and I hope that gen 2 of the One goes further in enhancing the usability of the device.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Living without a laptop for 5 days - not bad at all.

I reckon that its a pretty exciting time to be a geek - due to the rapid advances in battery and radio technology, being attached to a computer or the web no longer requires one to be sitting at a desk. Furthermore, computers themselves are getting smaller, and are now available in form-factors such as smartphones and mp3 players.

The no laptop challenge

With the smartphones and ipods being such capable internet devices, and with the majority of my web surfing needs not extending beyond basic websurfing and downloading the occassional podcast, I thought I'd set myself the challenge of leaving my laptop at home and relying on my smartphone and ipod during a 5 day conference in Adelaide earlier this year. So the first device I decided to bring was my smartphone, since a phone would be a must for safety as well as enabling contact with my work colleagues which were arriving on different flights. The phone also provided a source of 'reliable' internet access (based on the coverage maps of my provider), which I could use anywhere, and more importantly, at any time. The decision for leaving the laptop at home was made even easier by the fact that I didnt have to present anything this time around, so there really wasn't a need for the computing power of a full-sized computer. Sure my smartphone had powerpoint viewing software, and I could simply keep a copy of my talk on a usb stick, but I tend to be a little paranoid about things like presentations as it is without trying to add another variable to the mix. Anyway, in the end I decided to keep my gadget count to two - the smartphone and the ipod touch, both capable and extremely pocketable devices.

So armed with my smartphone (the Windows Mobile 6 based Dopod 838 at the time) and the first gen ipod touch, I headed off to the airport.

First off, I cannot tell you how liberating it is to not have to carry more than one bag into the plane, nor how much quicker it is to go through the baggage check - I think I even chuckled quietly to myself while watching the people around me trying to juggle their multiple bags in order to take out their laptops to place on the conveyor belts for scanning.

Also, this was around the ti,e when the airports had so many different rules on what you could and could not bring on board the plane with you, and I was adamant that I didn't want to have to check in any luggage, especially if my laptop was going to be in it. It turned out later that my worries were unfounded, but it was too late to do anything about it now.

Past the gates, I turned on my phone, and fired off a few work emails and a couple of tweets as I made my way down to the the boarding area, grabbing a slightly overpriced coffee and donut while browsing the news headlines on, the wonders of mobile internet. as I walk past some internet kiosks littered around the airport terminals, and the people hogging access to them, I had another smug chuckle, then had a quick virtual window shop at some online stores. when i got to the terminal, I thought I'd save some of my mobile internet quota for when I actually got to Adelaide and had a quick war-drive for any free wifi...unfortunately there was only a for-pay hotspot provided by the Airport, so it was straight back on the mobile internet. When it came time to board, I just got up and continued surfing until I handed the boarding pass to the nice attendant, put the phone in my pocket and walked the ramp and boarded the plane without skipping a beat. Once my bag was in the overhead locker, I settled down on my seat, fired a couple of sms's, looked at what was happening on my twitter feed, and feeling so smug about the whole thing that I would probably punch myself in the face if I ever saw me. When it was time, I activated flight mode on my phone, and got my headphones ready for when we were in the air, and were allowed to use electronic devices again. This time, the ipod was my source of entertainment , which contained about 3 hours worth of podcasts that I'd downloaded over the air via wifi, thanks to an app called mobilecast (thanks to jailbreaking).

Once I touched down in Adelaide and got to the conference floor, the phone came in handy for the periods when I was feeling bored and a little anti-social, and in the evening, the free google maps app was handy for navigating around an unfamiliar city, using cell-tower triangulation to approximate my location, since my phone did not have gps. I think even I was amazed at how capable the Dopod was at fulfilling all of my computing requirements, including downloading a couple of podcasts over the mobile internet when I settled in at the motel.

at this point I should say that my use of the smartphone as a source of internet access over the ipod touch was less due to usability and interface factors, than it is by the fact that there is absolutely no free wifi to be had where I needed it to be in Adelaide...I probably could have looked a little harder, but because I had already signed-up and am paying for mobile internet, my laziness kicked, and I defaulted to using that full time. A few months later, I came across some software that would allow a windows mobile phone to act as a wifi hotspot, which would effectively allowed me to tether the touch to my phone...unfortunately I did discover this after the fact, and would probably just result in draining both my phone and ipod batteries quicker anyway, but good to know that its out there. Incidentally, I now have the symbian version of that program running on my current smartphone (the E71), and though i rarely use it, it does come in handy for when O need to access sites that dont work on the E71's in built browser, like hotmail for instance.

Anyhoo, for 5 straight days and despite being in a new city, I remained connected to the internet where I want, and when I want, and though I had to put up with starring at the world wide web through a small 2'8 inch screen, there was not a point during the whole time when I was lamenting my decision to forego the laptop. Can I also say that being laptop free allowed me to travel lighter during the conference since I'm too paranoid to leave anything valuable in my hotel room, which left more space in my schwag bag for, well, shwag of course :)

So as an epilogue to this post, I find myself increasingly turning to my smartphone and ipod touch when seeking to access the internet since that little experiment, and I find that my laptop is spending more and more time on my desk, and has been relegated to performing desktop tasks like video encoding, image manipulation and word processing. I probably should note at this point that this blogpost was written entirely from my E71 while lying in bed :), though I did upload it (and performed some minor changes) on a full-sized laptop.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Nokia E71 Review part 1: Unboxing photos

Okay, so technically this doesn't really count as a review since I'm only showing unboxing photos, but in the weird and wonderful way that my brain works, I've managed to write the second part of the review (camera performance) first, so I needed something to slot in as post to introduce the fact that I'm reviewing the E71.

For the sake of full disclosure, I paid for this device with my own money, having researched the device extensively for the past few days before I pulled the trigger, so if the review ends up a bit gushy, then its probably me trying to justify the purchase. Also, I'm not a professional blogger, or a professional anything that has to do with publishing in a format for 'normal' people to read, so my sentences will be convoluted and not properly formatted, so bear with me. Worse comes to worse, just look at the photos :) And awayyyy we go!

Nokia E71 review part 2: Camera performance

In this second part of my E71 review, I take a look at the camera performance, but not only as a device for taking happy snaps, but in its ability to work as a productivity tool.


The camera has a 3.2MP sensor, which doesn't really mean anything to me, since its not any carl zeiss optics, but it does make the images more usable when viewing on the device, or on the web. What I do like is that the camera has auto-focus, and what's more interesting, is that you don't necessarily have to use it. When you activate the camera, you can immediately take a photo by pressing the enter button in the middle of the direction pad – lag using this method fairly good, but don't except to catch any good photos of hyperactive pets or other fast-moving objects with this thing. However, if you want the camera to focus, you press the “T” button on the QWERTY thumboard, and the autofocus attempts to lock focus. Now I haven't tried this for far away subjects, but I find that the best implementation of cameras with a focusing ability is for taking close-up/macro images.

Now I know that comparing the performance of a chintzy, strapped on camera in a smartphone to that of a dedicated camera with proper optics is a bit unfair, but I really wanted to compare the feature of the E71's camera that I was most excited with, namely the autofocus.

But looking at E71's general performance, we can see the images have a definite blue cast (which I find to be a symptom of Nokia smartphones that aren't part of the N95 series), and items in bright sun are overexposed when you let the E71 control exposure (Fig 1). But with a slew of manual settings you can fiddle with (exposure compensation, white balance, and scene modes), you might be able to get a usable image for web use.

Figure 1: General camera performance

Now, as a macro-geek and information hoarder, I'm border-line obsessed with taking macro photos, as well as having electronic versions of hardcopy texts and whatnot. What I was hoping with the E71 is that the macro ability is good enough for me to jot things down on random pieces of paper, then taking a photo of it for storage on the E71. I am happy to say that in both scenarios, the E71's camera does a competent job.

Ignoring the blue cast of the pictures, we can see that in the two macro images I've taken, the sharpness in the E71 images aren't too bad, and doesn't seem to lag that far behind the dedicated camera in terms of autofocus ability. Note that for the sample images below (Fig 2) that I've taken a 500x500 pixel crop of the original images from the two devices, so the sensor MP differences are controlled for.

Figure 2: Comparing Macro capability of E71

In terms of taking photos of text, there is an obvious limit on how much you can fit in the one image, simply owing to the limits of the 3.2MP sensor. Another important factor is getting enough light onto the subject, in order to get quick enough shutter speeds to take care of camera-shake. But again, a competent effort that's good enough to make the camera useful as a tool. Again, examples are below (Fig. 3 for a closeup of 12point font, and Fig. 4 for an image taken of an A4 sized page).

Figure 3: Close-up of 12 point font

Figure 4: Macro image of an A4 page

Friday, May 23, 2008

Mini laptop anyone?

Are you a part-time roadwarrior that has to give a presentation interstate at a conference, and would rather not have to bring your big-ass, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, weighs-a-freaking-tonne desktop replacement? Then the Asus EEE PC might just be what you need. And at the moment, Penta Computers, which has a brick and mortar shopfront at Ultimo, is selling the EEE 4G (900Mhz celeron processor, 512Mb RAM, 4Gb SSD, Xandros OS) for $371, which is a bargain considering that they originally cost $500 when they launched in Australia about 6 months ago, and are still being sold near the original price at the big box stores (like Officeworks, Myer and Harvey Norman). A version with XP pre-installed will cost $108 extra, unless you're ok with a green coloured one, which is bizarrely only $32 more.

At first blush, the EEE might seem too much like a kids computer, but when you look past the 'kid/n00b-friendly' interface of the reworked Xandros Linux OS, you'll see that you're actually getting quite a lot for something that costs just a bit more than a PDA/smartphone, but is much more capable. Its has an ethernet port for a start, which is very handy for the times when you only have cable access to a network, a VGA-out port for outputting to a bigger screen or onto a projector set-up, and three USB host ports, which at the very least, can power some peripherals.
Just add a monitor, a USB keyboard and mouse (the supplied keyboard and touchpad are a bit cramped), and an external USB HD and you've almost got yourself a basic, but capable desktop to work with. On the go, the Asus can perform adequately with wifi on for approximately 3 hours, which is enough to get some emails checked, get some surfing done, and maybe review and edit some office documents when you have some free time. And to think, a few years ago, an ultraportable laptop that is not too dissimilar from the EEE specs would have set you back a few thousand dollars...

PS: If you think the EEE prices are cheap now, you may be able to get an even cheaper price in a few months, when the second iteration of the Asus EEE PC arrives (I'd like to say in Q3 08, but I have nothing to back that up), which has more screen real estate (9 inches, 1024x600), more memory (1Gb) and more SSD space (12-20Gb)...of course it may be the case that the second gen (dubbed the EEE-900) might be more to your liking, so the choice is yours.

For all y'all who already have an iPhone...

...and where after a case, brick and mortar retailer Dick Smith Electronics are already selling iPhone cases (from leather flippy ones to reflective and clear hard cases) even before the iPhone has been launched officially here in Australia.

Not having an iPhone myself, I can't really make any recommendations with regards to cases for it, but as an iPod Touch user, I am a fan of the DLO JamJacket with 'cable management'. Basically, the cable management consists of some extra silicon jutting out of the back of the case where you can wind your headphones when you're not using them, and even has little holes that fit the headphone 'heads' and the jack...genius! Having said that, having all that junk jutting out the back of your otherwise wafer-thin (Monty Python reference) iPod does look a bit dodge at first, but the utility is worth it in my opinion.

I might post some piccies of the DLO jacket (which was a birthday present btw, and not a review product that was sent to me) if anyone cares.

Also, I haven't really done much research if the DLO case can be had for cheaper at another store, so it may well be cheaper elsewhere.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cheap external storage anyone?

Officeworks is offering a 1Tb external HD for $249...which would be awesome, except I had just previously purchased the exact same product for $299 less than a month ago!!! Anyhoo, my loss is your gain (if you were shopping around for some storage)...backup early and often people!

Trying something new

Having a chat to a professional blogger at STUB (shoutout to Nareev) got me thinking that maybe I should make my blog a bit more useful for people, and maybe eventually people will actually have a reason to read it.

Anyhoo, I was thinking of ways I can help people, and I came upon the idea of pointing out tech bargains that I spot here and there. I mean, I tend to window shop on the interwebs during my lunch breaks anyway, and this way my time-wasting exercise might be helpful. Let's see how we go, eh?

Searching online, errr, tomorrow (I am le tired)