Monday, January 28, 2013

Buyer's Anxiety

I've spent the last couple of days ponder a new workstation with which to take my projects to the next level. It's a strange ritual that has been easy in the past because I just needed something that can make text. A $250 Netbook worked fine for what I needed with a little oomph for games, but only maybe. 

In 2009, I sprung for a MacBook Pro and a Cinema Display. They have, and continue to, serve me very well. My Lenovo E420 worked in tandem with them for most of my work on the Windows Phone 7 platform, but visual rendering and color sync between all the various platforms in which I worked had been a real challenge. I spent a lot of time getting that as right as I could with my only minimal amount of self training. 

Fast forward to the last couple of months and I'm suddenly serious as a heart attack about Windows Phone 8 development, far more than I had been about 7. I want to build beautiful things for the platform and my old partner in crime is similarly afflicted. Working 8-5 M-F on my novels leaves only nights and weekends to work on Windows Phone, and my time is more constrained even though I need more of it. 

My gracious wife has allowed me, in the past, to pull long hours, after hours, because she was working on her Master's. Now that she has her various degrees (I framed them a couple days ago), she will probably want to actually spend time with me again. At least that's my working theory. 

It was fine to spend time juggling Windows Phone development between platforms before because it was more of a side project and I had time in the evenings to burn. Normally I'm so sure about gear when I make a purchase, but this feels like I'm making a bigger decision than just buying a new workstation. 

I feel like I am committing to a path. I felt like Windows Phone development was just a fun thing before, and it still is, but to commit to several hundred frames of animation, and probably a thousand still images, all as good as I can possibly produce is the minimum investment I can make. 

I need a workstation that can let me write, render visuals with accurate color, stand up the WP8 SDK & Emulator, run Photoshop, Office, and a host of other applications that are part of my workflow. I've tried looking at HP's Probooks, but their site is unnavigable and none of the models seem to have any customization. Dell's site is a lot better, but none of the models have a color sensor built in and calibrated at the factory like Lenovo's W530. No one else even manufactures a contender from what I've seen. 

These machines do not appeal to my technological vanity. I love my iPad, and the MacBook Air, and Microsoft's Surface. Sadly, none of those have the horsepower or all the capabilities I'm looking for in a mobile workstation. The one thing the W530 lacks, I'll be able to add when Lenovo's mobile touchscreen monitor is released in the spring. I really thought I would always be a Mac guy after my bitter battle with Asus in the Fall of 2009. 

I've looked at new MacBook Pros (my current one won't work, no SLAT support) as a possibility, and they offer some pretty nice options in that regard. The retina display models are pointless for anything but video or photo editing. Building visuals for video games just works better (for me) with a 1:1 pixel mapping, which can be simulated in most apps, but I like seeing things as they would probably be seen on the target device, without scaling, etcetera. 

However, from what I've read online, there may be no way to (currently) get the Windows Phone 8 development tools to run on a Mac. Parallels and BootCamp don't work (near as I can tell), so I'm buying a Windows machine most likely. I'd be okay with waiting for a workaround if I thought one was on the horizon, but I doubt there's a bunch of Windows Phone 8 devs beating on Apple's door to produce one. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

December 2012

Working a 'regular' job generally means that you do a little bit of work for incremental rewards that sync up with time spent at daily endeavors. Working as an independent or self-published writer provides the opposite experience. You will work long hours and you won't see any reward until the process is complete. The incremental rewards lie within the task and the feelings one acquires as they grow as a person and a creative. 

The most obvious reward is the content one creates. When you look over at a stack of manuscripts, thoughts, world building, designs, poems, and impressions you've collected, there's a feeling. It is more than a pile of printouts and moleskines you've filled with things that came from your own mind, or through the observances of your own senses. 

It is validation of your own creativity, proof you exist, and echoes of that existence. Like no other animal or organism on earth, we make a record of things that allow us to proceed as a species. I still don't think that it is the calling of a few. Everyone should write.  

There's a difference when reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a video game when one has learned to appreciate the content and work that went into it. To create is to appreciate the creation of others and to connect with those people. This isn't to say you must paint with oils to appreciate a painting done in that medium, but it certainly enhances your understanding of all that went into a particular work. 

I fight the urge to give things intrinsic value, but I can never deny the same to the person or people behind what created those things. To have someone, an organization, or yourself benefit from what you create doesn't mean those things were really valuable. It's the creator that is valuable, something that copyright laws and governmental attempts to prevent piracy fails to take into consideration. 

It's the reason some of my favorite creations have been ruined. Not because the creations weren't protected or even appreciated, but because the creator was marginalized and ignored. How many of the greatest creative people have been recognized as such long after their deaths? Old hat.

I think about it more often now, particularly when someone wants to put something I've done on a t-shirt or coffee cup. I get asked to use my dabbler-rank illustration skills to help noble causes only on occasion, but I'm always glad to try and add my own value to things that are already priceless. December was one of those times, and I surprised myself with the work I produced. 

It was good timing. I will need a little extra confidence for what's to come in 2013.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Windows 8, Part 2

Okay, I've had awhile to work with Windows 8 Pro and ponder what Microsoft has done with their new operating system. I'm gonna just start rambling, quit reading when you get bored. 

Near as I can tell there are three versions of the OS for sale. First, there's the version that lets you upgrade to Windows Pro from XP SP3, Vista, and Windows 7. Second, there's a version that lets you upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 8 Pro. Finally, there is whatever they ship on new hardware if you buy a device. 

So, if you build your own system, you'll have to buy two operating systems to get Windows 8 installed on the machine. There is no "full" version of the OS allowing for a fresh install on a hand built machine. Feel free to chime in if I'm wrong or missed something. Maybe it's lurking on Microsoft's website somewhere, but I couldn't find it. 

I can only come to one conclusion relative to Microsoft's decision to market the OS this way. Hurrah for Steam coming to Ubuntu! Seriously, if you hand build a gaming machine, being able to download a free OS and play games on Steam is going to be pretty attractive. Not sure why Microsoft would want to give gamers a powerful incentive to go elsewhere, but I'm sure they know what they're doing. 

Yeah, enough about that. 

I've had a chance to use some of the Windows 8 applications. There are some that are quite good. There are some that should be awesome, but are horrible. Every application I used had bugs and felt half finished. 

The most disappointing of the bunch was the SkyDrive App. It's pretty much worthless. It should have been a click or two less for the purpose of accessing full browser functionality of your cloud storage. It's maddening because the browser experience is subpar when working from the Start Menu.

Yes, apps behave differently depending on whether they are launched from the Start Menu or the desktop. I get why they did this, but having the browser less functional in what's supposed to be casual computing mode seems counter intuitive. Maybe it's different with a touch screen? I hope so. 

A common theme among almost all apps is the inability to reliably stream video. Only the Netflix app seemed immune (it's great actually), but all the news and media apps with videos just crash or fail to load. Frustrating!

Most apps behave well when constrained to a third of the screen for better multitasking but a few fail to function properly. I found a keen text editor, but it ceases to function when constrained and some apps just don't work well unless they are windowed or full screen. Frustrating x2!!

Here again, the Netflix app seems to outperform all others working in full screen, constrained, and windowed modes. The app also pauses and restarts where you left off if you jump from Start Menu to Desktop or vice versa. They really (really) did a nice job with their application for Windows 8. 

I'm having some syncing issues with OneNote, but I suspect my working across three computing platforms is probably to blame. It syncs fine to my SkyDrive, my iPad, and Windows Phone 7, but I struggle on my Lenovo. Everything else that is MS Office or that is launched from the Desktop performs admirably. 

Windows 8 Pro is fast. It boots, loads applications, shuts down, and performs tasks very quickly. It out performs just about every operating system I've used, Mac, Microsoft, or Ubuntu. Only iOS on my iPad has the same responsiveness and feel. I really like clicking something and just having it just go, no spinning beach balls or hourglasses. 

I really like the way Windows 8 looks and behaves. However, and I think I said it in my other post, but navigating with a mouse and keyboard isn't ideal. I long for a touchscreen. When I had a chance to use the Surface RT, it must have ruined me because using the cursor to work with apps is nowhere near as smooth or intuitive as using your finger on a touchscreen. 

I'd recommend Windows 8 Pro to people, but definitely as part of purchasing new hardware. I don't recommend the upgrade, particularly if you have a Windows 7 machine you're happy with. Had to do over again, I would have patiently waited for the right Windows 8 hardware to be released and gone that road instead. 

If you are planning on building a new machine for gaming, wait and see what Valve and Nvidia do for Ubuntu or just stick with Windows 7. Windows 8 is a good OS for productivity, casual computing, and portable touchscreen form factors. 

The bad news is that there is little in the way of hardware for Windows 8 Pro so far. There are a handful of tablets and all-in-one devices that look promising but the best of the bunch has yet to be released. Lenovo and Microsoft's Windows Pro tablets aren't out yet and I'm waiting to see how it performs on devices with Atom processors. 

If Paul Thurrott is to be believed, Windows 8 PC sales haven't been all Microsoft hoped for. Personally, I don't see much out there worth buying. The few Windows 8 and Windows RT devices people can actually buy right now aren't that exciting. Microsoft is blaming manufacturers for dropping the ball, and they might be right. 

A short list of RT devices I've been looking at and my accompanying thoughts:

Asus Vivo Tab RT - Nope, don't like it. 
Dell XPS 10 - Nice design, build quality looks good, but it has a Snapdragon processor which makes me nervous. 
Lenovo Yoga (RT) - If I just wanted a standard laptop form factor, yeah, this would be a good choice. I'd never utilize the feature that is it's namesake. 
Microsoft Surface RT - Yep, of you want RT, I'd buy this. 

A short list of Pro devices I've been looking at and my accompanying thoughts:

Asus Vivo Tab - It's gotten a few good reviews, but I'm still holding a grudge over my last couple Asus laptops. 
Dell XPS 12 - Looks like it might be the most powerful of the bunch so far. You gotta pay for performance and the battery life might not be great, but it has nice specs. 
Dell Latitude 10 - It has a user replaceable battery and it's priced to move. This one might be my next depending on what the Surface Pro ends up looking like. 
Lenovo Thinkpad 2 - Beautifully designed, decent specs, and pricing. Might be what I go with if I don't have the patience to wait for Surface Pro. 
Microsoft Surface Pro - Waiting for final specs to be released, but if it is half as nice as the RT version, it'll be the one to buy probably. 

If you buy something through the Microsoft site, you can get an assurance two-year warranty plan for $99. It covers accidental damage and spills as well. I read through the terms looking for a catch, and aside from the usual legalese mumbo-jumbo it looks like a pretty good deal. If I pre-order a Thinkpad Tablet 2, I'll probably get the plan. 

I've been doing a lot of thinking about NFC or near field communications capabilities. A few of these laptops have NFC built in and I'm wondering what sort of capabilities this will grant the devices. I would love it if someone would make a device I could just set down on a charging pad and it would wirelessly charge, hook up to a monitor, keyboard, and other peripherals. I doubt these new devices will do all that, but I think it's coming, the end of cables, ports, and similar.