Saturday, November 30, 2013

Lenovo Mix 2, 8" Windows Tablet

I had already made three trips to the local Best Buy to lay hands on Lenovo's 8" tablet. What made me pull the trigger and get one, I'm not sure. I think it's like I said before, this is toy territory.
No pen input or 64 bit processor means I'll be using my Miix 2 to primarily consume, browse, and play.

It does run full Windows 8.1 and comes with Office Home and Student for free. One could use the tablet as a productivity sidecar, but I am more curious about how well it runs games, plays video, and browses the web.

The Bad

Other than the usual WiFi connectivity issues that seem to plague my Windows 8.1 devices, they ship the device with a really short USB cable to charge it with. Some folks might complain that the Miix 2 has only has a mini USB port, micro SD slot, and headphone jack. Personally, I like the simplicity and thinnest a limited port selection grants the device.

It comes with Windows 8.1, one of the worst versions of Windows I've used but one of the only tablet optimized desktop operating systems out there. I could complain (again) about all the things I dislike about Windows 8.1, but until there's a touch friendly version of Ubuntu, this is pretty much what everyone is stuck with. Grin and bear it as it were.

The Good

With devices designed for consumption it is the screen that is most important. There are tablets with higher resolution screens, but for my purposes 1280 x 800 in an 8" form factor is dazzling. It will also be better for scaling in both new and older programs and games. The pixel density is plenty, and I didn't notice much of a difference between my iPad 3 and the Miix 2 when looking at my photos or digital artwork. I think there's a point where the eyes don't care anymore. 

The second most important thing is how the tablet feels in the hand. The Miix 2 does not disappoint, being very thin, light, and comfortable even in one hand. The rounded edges and slightly textured back panel are a pleasure to hold without being so course you can't put decals or stickers on the back of the device.

Finally, there is durability to consider. In the two days I've owned the device I've managed to drop it once. "Drop" falls somewhat short of describing what I did. While fumbling with my scarf I tossed the Miix 2 into a wall, whereby it ricocheted over into another wall, and then finally came to rest on the floor. My wife gasped audibly but having already logged a charge cycle with the device I had some notion of how tough it is. The device survived without a scratch.

Fallout 2 and my library of games from the Windows Store all run just fine. I get a little nostalgic loading old games to the device because of the limited hard drive space. I have to choosy about what I load, like it was 1989 all over again. Games load and run very quickly provided you're playing older or tablet optimized games. I haven't tried anything more modern as there is no room.

Battery life is more or less as advertised. I think I get slightly more than the advertised seven hours but I have the screen brightness turned to the lowest setting all the time. Yes, it's plenty bright like that except for the brightest ambient conditions.

I used the Miix 2 to Skype with my family and used both cameras during the conversation. It's as good an experience with Skype as I've had with any other device. It took a minute for the service to spin up but once it'd been running the picture and sound quality was good. There was some break up on my end but I think that was a connection issue as opposed to something with the device.

Recommended Accessories

Bluetooth Mouse and Keyboard - You'll need these for actual productivity and playing older games that aren't touch screen capable. I'm using the Microsoft Sculpt Mouse and a Logitech Backlit keyboard with mine. Edit: DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT install the Logitech SetPoint software. It is crap. Just pair the keyboard using the Windows Bluetooth Utility.

6" Micro USB to standard USB Cable - As already mentioned, the cord that comes with the Miix is really short.

Capacitive Nub Stylus - Wacom makes a good one. Everything else I've used has worn out quickly.

Micro SD Card - 32 GB is not a lot of room and if you have any audio or visual media you'll want to store it off of the primary storage. SanDisk is what I use.
Ear buds/Headphones - The speaker on the Miix 2 isn't bad, but headphones are recommended.

Case - I had a Waterfield Designs/SF Bags keyboard case/bag laying around. It has four interior pockets and a partitioned external pocked. It holds the tablet, Bluetooth keyboard, mouse, cables, micro SD cards, and capacitive stylus with ease and in a compact form.

Stuff I Might Try

I'm thinking about getting an external battery, like what people get to recharge cell phones on the go. If I could find one that could fit in my SFbags Keyboard Case with everything else I'd have a pretty good travel machine. Also, a wall outlet charger with two USB ports would be pretty great as well.

I'm still on the hunt for a suitable sleeve when I just want to carry the tablet and leave my "travel kit" behind. The Samsung Note 8.0 has very similar dimensions and anything that isn't a vacuum formed fit would probably work. I'll update if I find anything decent.

How to add RAM to your Miix 2?
Like this:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Inspiron 3000 11" [3137] + Ubuntu

Grabbed up one of Dell's Inspiron 3000 (3137) 11" notebooks on the cheap for the purpose of tinkering in Ubuntu and as a travel computer. It was long overdo as traveling is nerve-wracking enough without hauling a $1500+ piece of equipment through security. Dropping my MacBook Pro and dinging the side should have been a hint the first time I traveled to Kansas.

I'm not throwing this up as an in depth review, just a few thoughts on the machine you might not see elsewhere. Being the wanton violator of warranties, I cracked it open to swap hard drives. Serendipity often being my ally, my back up drive and the one that came with the Dell may have come off the same Western Digital assembly line as they looked absolutely identical.

Windows 8 runs really (really) slow. Remember back in the late 90s when you'd have to wait for a program to load and the whole machine would just freeze up while it struggled to push it forward? Yeah, it's like that. Upgrading it to 4GB of ram and a solid state drive would make this a very capable machine and still under $600.

There were three things that made me look at this machine, in spite of it possessing weak specifications.

1. Long Battery Life - Dell advertises that it gets excellent battery life which in manufacturer-speak means anything over 5 hours. When I lifted this thing out of the box, it felt heavy and well-built in my hands. Opening it up revealed that half what's inside is a battery. I haven't managed to run it through a full battery cycle, six hours of use later, and it says I have three hours left.

I bet with the right solid state drive one could squeeze out another 30 to 45 minutes beyond that. Battery life is huge for me. I like being able to go anywhere I want to work if I need to vary my environment but I hate worrying about finding a plug-in. This device effectively dispels that anxiety.

2. 64 Bit Processor - I'll spare you the technical mumbo jumbo, but I prefer running operating systems and programs in 64 bit mode for various reasons. That Intel is making low-watt Celeron processors using 64 bit architecture is pretty great. One of the chief reasons I avoided many of the Windows Tablets was because they were 32 bit.

3. Touch Screen - I like having one, and it feels like Dell doesn't make you pay for it with this device. It works great in Windows 8 and as good as one would expect in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. The touchpad is roomy, a boon most of the time except when you're typing in Ubuntu as the palm rejection function never works properly.

This is one of the few computers I've bought for under $400 that felt like I was getting more than what I paid for. A "netbook" this is not. The build quality is excellent, keyboard is decent, and it has a great array of ports that include and SD card reader. Ubuntu 12.04 loaded up without a hitch. There are still some errors in the background but nothing that effects the user experience or performance. WiFi and Bluetooth just worked which was nice.

I read some complaints about the screen being dim. Maybe I'm just used to living in a cave but I have it turned down one tick above the lowest setting and have no problem seeing the screen, even if it is a bit glossy. If you plan to run 64 bit Ubuntu, there is no need to upgrade the hard drive or RAM unless that's just your default with a new machine. Stock hard drive and 2 GB of RAM works fine for me.

In all, I was happy enough with the purchase to put a UPW sticker on the lid after making sure it would pair with my Wacom wireless tablet.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mavericks, A Few Days Later

Maybe it's just the contrast with having to struggle with Windows 8.1 over the last four days, but I really like Mavericks. When you use a computer every day it is the nearly imperceptible things that make the experience enjoyable or something that frays the nerves. What Apple generally delivers is stability and reliability, and Mavericks is no exception. 

The Bad:


This application is still as problematic as it has always been. Since 2009, across multiple versions of OSX I always have to make sure the app is off and my machine actually shuts down. Otherwise I'll open the lid to a resume situation where my battery is dead because OSX got hung up on the Mail app while trying to shut down. 

That said, it's still the best email app I've used on on a desktop OS. I don't know that I've ever used a "good" email application except on the iPad. 


I won't rehash what basically the entire Internet has already said about iTunes. It's awful, will probably always be awful, and if you've bought into the ecosystem you're doomed to continue using it. 

In iTunes defense, I've never used even a decent media management application before. Everything I've tried is somewhere between the "stinks like poop" and "this makes my mind hurt" categories. 


Like I said before, the new versions are pale shadows of what they used to be and lack a lot of functionality. If you can scare up a copy of the older versions or already own them, you're golden. Otherwise, you'll have to wait for the improvements Apple has promised. 

The reason for this is that Apple rebuilt these apps from the ground up to be 64 bit, and getting them back to their former awesome will take time. 

The Good:

System & Resource Management

My 2009 MacBook Pro was given new life by Mavericks. Aside from the failing battery, it runs and handles noticeably better than before installing the update. Everything I do feels like it isn't leaning on the system as much and the laptop can just do more. That almost imperceptible lag between operations, saving, opening applications, and similar is shorter or just absent entirely. 

With only a few very system intensive applications do I see the icon bounce on the dock or the spinning beach ball of doom. Everything just seems to go when I click it. Where I was constantly checking Activity Monitor to see what was slowing my machine down, I never even look now. 

For me, this is huge. 


For me, this aspect of OS updates is pretty important. The biggest weakness of some software and hardware manufacturers is not that they can't identify when they've done something wrong. The real problem is when they can't recognize when they've done something right. 

There is a lot of what I like about Mavericks are the same things I liked about Leopard and everything in between. 

Anything Apple adds to the OS, I can pretty much ignore if I want and stick to the core UI and means of navigating and organizing my apps and data. If I don't want to use Mission Control or Launchpad, I don't have to. 

There was no pressure to update to Mavericks and Apple didn't lock my machine with a gray bar and a link directing me to the Apple Store. That's a big deal considering the very tacky way Microsoft has decided to "encourage" people to update. 

Like Windows 8.1, Mavericks was advertised to be free. Given the work day hours I've spent struggling with Windows, only Mavericks lives up to that marketing.

I'm not bitter or anything. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Windows 8.1 Surface Pro Follow Up

My Surface Pro had become so useless by lunchtime yesterday I decided to completely reinstall the operating system and the Windows 8.1 update. I would like to say that maybe eight months of heavy use contributed to the OS being corrupted, but it was fine before the 8.1 update. A full battery cycle later, I can safely say the full reset was the way to go. If you’re planning to go to Windows 8.1 via an upgrade through the store, back up your data and fully reset the machine.

You don’t need to do the system clean that takes hours, but install nothing but OS updates until you’ve upgraded to Windows 8.1. Once you have 8.1 on your system, install your applications and any updates for them. So far the machine runs as stable as Windows gets without all the issues I was having before. Performance is back to where I’m used to it being. This is probably normal SOP for Windows machines, something I’d forgotten in my four year journey with the Mac OS.

One thing I discovered through all this is a troubling issue with Start Menu or “Metro” applications. Even after you swipe down to close them, they continue running in the background. I haven’t found any way to kill them except via Task Manager. I discovered this as I was running through them to see if there were any I wanted to use. While sitting idle beside me on the couch, my Surface Pro kicked on its fans prompting me to see what was running the system so hard. The five Metro apps I’d opened were still using up system resources and pressing the system.

I keep the Task Manager open on the desktop side to kill these apps by default now. There is probably some rudimentary resource management software that shuts these apps off completely at some point, but if it stresses my Surface Pro, I can’t imagine what it would do to a user unaware of such things with an Atom powered device. I get that there will always be some user level resource management, but the degree required with Windows 8 hurts the experience, in my opinion.

I have to just treat it like a game, where I am required to manage resources or my space ship will run out of gas or overheat and blow up. Maybe Microsoft could just build that into the OS so keeping apps from burning up your machine or running down the battery had one of a variety of quaint game interfaces? I’m probably being really sarcastic now, but for reals… Microsoft fix this.

Fortunately for me, I use few enough apps and the all run in desktop mode I can ignore the start menu entirely, leaving a few seldom used desktop app icons there to keep the taskbar. While this works great on my workstation, it isn’t the best way to go on my Surface. It has a smaller screen and I like having the scaling at the native 100% making everything tiny in desktop mode. To that end, the Start Menu or Metro interface works as a springboard so I’m not squinting at icons on the taskbar and the touch interface works for me a little more than it works against me.

Stylus input is, post full reinstall, back to being stellar. As I’ve said before, I would really like a device with an 8” form factor, but I don’t think I’ll endure any portable computer I buy lacking pixel accurate pen input. You will need to recalibrate the pen after a full reinstall, but this is a very fast process one can access from Control Panel -> Tablet PC Settings.  

I’ll be following up with Mavericks next week after I have had a chance to use it more.

Update: [11/13/2013] After battling with Windows 8.1 over the last day or so, I'm throwing in the towel and downgrading. Many of the problems I thought were fixed by a full re-install returned. Having external disk management, WiFi, or the touch screen input fail on my Surface Pro at regular intervals is extremely annoying. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Mavericks vs. Windows 8.1

I thought that comparing these two operating systems wouldn’t be entirely fair as I was installing 8.1 to my Surface Pro and Mavericks to a 2009 MacBook. I thought Microsoft would have the advantage with the release of their OS and hardware being closer together. This didn't end up being the case by a long shot.

I tried to keep this under a thousand words for easy reading, but if you're curious, and you know how to, contact me with your questions. 

They both take quite a bit of time to download and install. As always make sure you have your device running on AC power and give yourself an hour or more to get it done depending on your connection speed. 

Microsoft basically forces you to upgrade from 8.0 to 8.1. If you don’t, they lock your machine with a gray bar and a single option allowing you to go to the store. When I go to the store, the option reads “Windows 8.1 Preview” or something like that. When I clicked it, I was not sure if I was getting the full version or the preview version. Searching around the store did not yield any clarity. 

Windows 8.1 will mostly hose your system. You will have to re-install applications, drivers, and nothing will work as well as it did with 8.0. Peripherals will cease to work, the OS will “misplace” external drives and SD cards at random and generally anger you beyond any threshold of sanity. Your device may also experience boot failure requiring that you shut down and try again. 

At intervals, my Surface Pro will tell me it’s trying to repair itself and diagnose a problem at boot up. This (of course) always fails and I have to reboot to get the device to function. While I’m using my Surface, it will lose track of the SD card, the Type Cover, cease accepting touch input, constrain the pen to a tiny corner of the desktop, and engage in other extremely frustrating shenanigans. Windows 8.1 turned my very functional and useful device into a baldness and anxiety generator. 

This is a stark contrast with Apple’s new OS offering. 

Apple doesn’t force you to update and the process if very simple. When the update is complete, your system will function as it did before, if not better. Your mouse, keyboard, monitor, external drives, and so forth will function like they did and you may have to update a few apps that have been optimized for Mavericks. 

My laptop runs cooler, faster, and with slightly greater speed. It boots quickly, but still takes a while to shut down. Overall, system performance has improved and after several hours of use I could begin to feel or garner a sense of the boost. Apple doesn’t always deliver a smooth OS update, but they pretty much nailed it this time around. 

Application Comparison, In Brief
Adobe/Autodesk – These are better on a Mac for a myriad of reasons. I’ve adapted to using them on Windows but in the back of my mind, I know the experience is better with Apple’s operating system. 

Browsers – I tend to use Chrome over Safari or Internet Explorer and the mobile equivalents of both depending on the OS I’m using. I don’t love one browser over another really. 

Calendar – Apple’s calendar application is better in almost every possible way. I could write a thousand words about why it’s better. 

Cloud Computing – SkyDrive is far more useful than iCloud but somewhat less reliable when coupled with other 1st Party Applications. Microsoft Office can’t be trusted to sync documents to the cloud unfortunately, while iWorks does a fine job of working with iCloud. That SkyDrive has an apparent file system and can be used to store any sort of file gives it the advantage where I’m concerned. 

Contacts – Microsoft’s “People” application leans on your social networks, has a better UI, and means of adding and syncing contacts than Apple’s “Contacts” app. 

Content Creation/Management – Apple has their iLife applications, Garage Band, iMovie, and iPhoto while Microsoft has a few content management applications that basically pale in comparison. Microsoft has MS Paint and Fresh Paint though, which I love. 

Dictionary – Apple’s built in dictionary app is super handy for anyone who writes. I have got it on the dock and open whenever I’m writing. 

Emulation – There are a number of options for both. I do not struggle to find ways of playing ancient games in a DOS box with either Microsoft or Apple products. 

Games – This is a battle of ecosystems. Still, I’d rather look at Microsoft’s Xbox integrated Games App over Apple’s Game Center any day. 

Mail – Microsoft’s Mail app has come a long way, but Apple still has the upperhand in my opinion. 

Maps – I use Google, in a browser. 

Metro vs. Launchpad – Launchpad and the Metro/Start Menus are a best answer to the UI question asked by all cursor driven operating systems. What is the best way to access, array, and execute applications loaded on my machine? Both are still failing at this in epic fashion, but at least Microsoft gives you the option to boot directly to desktop mode now. 

Music – Apple and Microsoft are competing in this category for the purpose of inventing new and horrible things to do to users. Microsoft’s Music App is worthless ad-fueled crap you should just delete. iTunes is not much better, but it does not subject you to advertising except for defaulting to Apple’s Music Service/Radio tab once after an update. 

Video Chat – FaceTime and Skype are very competitive products. I use them both. 

MS Office vs. iWorks
I used Pages 09’ to write two full length novels, three novellas, and a quarter million words worth of game design documents. Previous to that, I used nothing but Microsoft Word and Publisher for everything. The newer versions of Office are slick and feature rich but crippled by unreliable save/load (with Word anyway) with SkyDrive. However, I love OneNote and its extremely fluid pen input. I need to find a home for all my notebooks and pens, as I no longer need them so long as I have OneNote and a device with a stylus.

Apple recently identified and systematically removed everything I loved about Pages making it barely worth using. They have recently promised to start adding features back in, and Microsoft has been improving their presence in the cloud but it’s really hard to rebuild trust once it’s been lost. The upside is that Apple didn't remove my previous version of Pages from my Mac or the file associations thereof. 

I understand they’re making a device that runs Pages 09’, MS OneNote, and has a touchscreen with stylus. It runs on Unicorn Tears though. 

I’ve had fewer issues with 8.1 on my Lenovo Workstation (which is extremely confusing) than I have with my Microsoft Surface Pro. After much bug chasing, Windows 8.1 still loses track of my external drives and is far slower to boot and shut down than 8.0 on my Lenovo. I wish I could say the same with my Surface. I’m going to try and do a fresh install of the OS and then update again. 

Maybe I’ll have better luck the second time around. 

It’s a strange world when I think Microsoft and Lenovo are making better hardware than Apple, while Apple seems to have the upper hand in the software department. I really like the way Mac OSX runs on a computer, and the reliability it provides. But, I really like stylus/pen input, and that doesn't seem to be part of Apple’s design paradigm. 

At the end of the day, I'm a hardware guy and I’d rather endure Microsoft’s substandard software and have a great machine with a touch screen and stylus. 

Edit: A few frustrating days later, I'm downgrading to Windows 8.0. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Toy Territory - 8" Tablets

Ten years ago, I bought a Handspring Visor Prism running the old Palm OS. As a handheld computing device, it was the best there was at the time. In a way, I think I've been looking for something to replace it for a long time.

Apple's iPod Touch and my Windows Phones have been the closest thing I've owned to a handheld device since. As much as I miss the ability to hold a computing device in one hand, I also missed the Stylus. The Handspring didn't have a high resolution screen or a touch optimized OS, but it had a really good stylus for the time.

There a number of new devices coming out this month, and I've been mesmerized by them. I certainly don't need something with an 8" form factor for work, this is strictly toy territory. All the same, I really want one to play with.

Dell Venue Pro 8 Inch

These seem to have hit the market earlier than the others and the reviews have been positive. The Windows button being mechanical and situated on the side opposed to capacitive and up front is really attractive. The rubberized back looks good too.

No stylus worth mentioning, if the Dell support forums are any indication.

Lenovo IdeaTab Miix 8 Inch

It's Lenovo (a good thing), and otherwise the same as the Dell. Rumors say there might be a 128 GB version offered down the road, which is a pretty mighty advantage if true.

The stylus snaps into the screen cover in this snazzy sort of way. However, it's a capacitive stylus, no better than your finger really.

Acer Iconia W4 8 Inch

It looks better than the Iconia W3, but it's still being manufactured by Acer. Looking at the rest of their line, that might be a good thing or a bad thing. It used to be I wouldn't even look at their hardware, but they make a decent Ultrabook now.

No stylus worth mentioning.

Toshiba Encore 8 Inch

Not a lot out there on this device yet.

Stylus? I've no clue.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0

It looks like it's been made of cheap plastic and the camera sticks out the back slightly leaving a bump on the back side. It's kinda ugly. It's running Android, which I'm not a fan of. I haven't even used an Android device since 2.0. This device retails $100 higher than the Windows 8 tablets and has half the hard drive space.

Stylus? By all accounts, reviews, and customer feedback it is supposed to be excellent. Also, it tucks inside the device just like my old Handspring Visor.

Update: Microsoft has an Android Version of it's OneNote app, but from the reviews I've read... no pen input functionality. Boo.

Other Devices

Samsung is probably my only hope at this point. I've seen reports that they are building a dual booting Windows RT/Android device. My hope is that they make a Galaxy Note 8.0 device that runs full Windows 8. I'm not holding my breath as it would be more expensive and less competitive of them to do so. At the same time, they'd be filling a niche no one else has so far.

The hardest part is being patient and waiting to see what the manufacturers have up their sleeves for the Christmas season.