Friday, May 31, 2013

Dated Hardware, Waiting for Hardware and the Nokia N900 in 2013

The Nokia N900 was released in November of 2009 - three and a half years ago. When I bought my first N900 in January of 2010 it was a huge upgrade for me in terms of both speed and software freedom (coming from a Blackberry). The idea of having a computer - a true computer - that was also a phone was amazing. The same device I used to send text messages, I also installed applications on using apt-get. True multitasking - my applications stayed open until I closed them, not until the operating system decided it wanted to kill them. I didn't mind paying the 450 USD it cost to purchase the brand new N900 out of contract - this was an awesome piece of technology!

Fast forward to 2013. Three years later I have gone through 2.5 Nokia N900s (I say 2.5, because the first two each broke in different ways and I was able to build a working device from their left overs) and still have it sitting on my desk as I write this. Three years is a long time in the world of mobile hardware and the N900 easily shows plenty of signs of aging. Compared to my wife's Nexus 4, it loads applications and web sites slowly.

So why is it I hold onto hardware/software that deserves an upgrade? Simple - no one has released a comparable replacement. At first I did not want to trade my true Linux operating system in for this dribble called Android everyone raves about. Upon giving Android a chance though - I could make do with it. The HTML5 supporting browsers on Andriod really provide a decent web experience (which beyond text messaging is what I mainly do on a mobile device).

The hold up then? The hardware. I'm not talking about the speed of the hardware though - I'm talking about the lack of design. Almost every modern mobile that is sold today is a pure touch device. Hardware keyboards are a thing of the past it seems.

Am I truly the last person left alive who doesn't like a software keyboard taking up half of my sub-10 inch screen while I type something?

When I search for modern cell phone hardware I certainly feel that way.

I have hope though! Within the next year we are expecting at least three new mobile operating systems to enter the landscape:
  • Ubuntu Mobile
  • Tizen
  • Firefox Mobile
I hope against all open that one of the hardware makers supporting these operating system breaks the current tread of touch-only devices. Maybe then I and stop picking up old N900s on Ebay when my existing one breaks!

~Jeff Hoogland

Monday, May 13, 2013

Samsung ARM Chromebook Review

The Samsung ARM Chromebook is one of a few ARM devices that I prepare Bodhi Linux images for. As such I've owned the hardware for almost six months now and during this time I've used it a fair amount. The goal of this post is to provide a comprehensive review of the product to see if it is something that could be useful to you.

Cost - 
Lets start with one of the first draws - the price point. The Chromebook comes in at under 300 USD. 250 USD plus shipping and handling to be exact.

Performance -
In terms of speed the Chromebook processor is snappy compared to other netbook offerings and ARM chipsets in general. The Chromebook sports the Samsung Exynos 5 1.7ghz dual core processor and 2gigs of DDR3 RAM. This coupled with the 16GB solid state hard drive allow the Chromebook to boot fully from a cold start in just a few seconds.

Under Chrome OS the Chromebook happily plays a variety of multimedia formats. Including 720p video files, 1080 flash streams, and Netflix.

Connections - 
In terms of "ports" the Chromebook sports two USB (one 3.0 and one 2.0), an SDHC card slot, HDMI video output, and a combination audio input/output jack. While all these ports are plenty functional I do have a few comments about them.

First - both USB ports, the HDMI and the power plug are all right next to each other on the back of the netbook. This means if you have all these ports in use at the same time space gets kind of tight (it also means if you have a clunky USB device it is going to block other ports).

Second - because the Chromebook has such little storage by default, it can be nice to use a SD card as extra space. Sadly, unlike most netbooks - when you insert a SD card into the Chromebook it does not go completely inside of the netbook. Meaning if you leave an SD card in the slot while transporting the netbook it is likely to get damaged.

Finally - maybe this one is just me, but I dislike not having traditional two ports for audio input/output. My traditional headsets do not work when using a Google hangout with this netbook.

Size & Feel - 
The Chromebook has an awesome form factor. Weighing in at just under 2.5 pound (about 1.1 KG) and having dimensions of 289.6 x 208.5 x 16.8 - 17.5 mm it is a sleek little device.

Personally I like Chicklet keyboards on laptops and the Chromebook keyboard is no exception for me. The keyboard layout on the Chromebook is one that is best described with an image though:

As you can see there is no super (or "Windows") modifier key, Capslock has been left off in favor of a "search" button, and while the top row of buttons may not read F1-F10 - under non-ChromeOS operating systems they return these values.

One design choice I found slightly odd with the Chromebook is that even though the hardware supports a "right" click function, all context menus within Chrome OS are called up with a two finger touch ("right" clicking in Chrome OS is no different than any other single finger touch).

Battery & Screen - 
The battery life on the Chromebook is one of the largest draws I think. It is easily one of the lightest pieces of hardware with a lengthy battery life. Through average web use the Chromebook sees just shy of seven hours of usage before you need to find an outlet.

While the screen resolution could be better, the Chromebook's 1366x768 screen resolution at least enables you to watch 720p video in their native quality.

Misc Thoughts -
I have had some trouble using the HDMI output on the Chromebook - the graphics drivers on Chrome OS seem to be fairly buggy. I've experience full system lock ups when attaching an external screen while the OS is running - but this does not happen every time and I cannot reproduce it consistently.

One that keeps me from using the Chromebook as my primary mobile computer over my old trusty Asus T101MT is that Dropbox does not create their software for ChromeOS or generic ARM Linux devices to date. I store a lot of data on this service and accessing it all via a web portal instead of having it sync to the system's local drive is very annoying. If you are open to using Google drive this is a non-issue, but I haven't had the time to make this jump as of yet.

Closing -
Who would I recommend the Chromebook to? Anyone who needs a device for accessing the web, but requires a keyboard to get their work done. If a large deal of your computing time is spent on Gmail, Facebook, Netflix, online shopping or Youtube then the Chromebook is the perfect device for you.

Who would I not recommend a Chromebook to? Someone that is looking to use it as their sole computer. While a lot of people use the web a lot - most people still have at least one or two desktop applications they need access to (such as my tie to drop box). Because of this Chrome OS's "web based" application eco-system currently still leaves some to be desired.

Do you own a Samsung ARM Chromebook? If so what are you thoughts on the device?

~Jeff Hoogland