Tablets not quite ready for mainstream computing

The new tablet from Apple, the iPad Pro, which comes in two sizes as of this year, is quite impressive. I’m sure they’re fast, and the addition of a stylus for more precise control is an interesting and fitting choice (which also hearkens back to the first tablets Microsoft made, years and years ago).

Apple’s push to market them as mainstream computing devices, as replacements for laptops and desktops is also interesting and worthwhile (and it also mirrors Microsoft’s past efforts in this area).

Yet I have to say that the time hasn’t yet come for it. Oh, we’re close — we’re very close — but trying to do all of one’s computing on a tablet is still an exercise in frustration, and it will continue to be so until tablets are robust enough to handle serious computing and more importantly, mobile apps evolve to the point where they offer all of the options of desktop apps. That will involve a concerted effort from both hardware and software makers of all shapes and sizes.

apple-ipad-pro

I’m glad that Apple’s picked up the ball on this and is running with it, but in my book, they haven’t won the game yet. Tablets are still a niche market when it comes to laptop and desktop replacement and let’s face it, most people use them to go on Facebook, YouTube or Netflix (hardly something that qualifies as work).

I’ve tried repeatedly to use an iPad as a desktop replacement, and while it works quite well for dawdling on the websites mentioned in the previous paragraph, even there the options offered by the mobile apps are limited.

For example, the Facebook Pages app doesn’t let me manage my pages the way the desktop version of Facebook lets me do it, because it doesn’t give me all of the options available to me there. So I still have to remember what I can’t do on my tablet and go back to my desktop to do those things. The YouTube app won’t let me access all of my comments and block offensive commenters. So when I’m traveling without access to my desktop, that’s a frustration. But some of you will say, “Why don’t you access those websites through the mobile browser and take care of things that way?” Because I’m automatically directed to mobile versions of those sites and I still don’t have access to the options I need.

I tried editing short videos on my iPad, and while the performance of iMovie app was pretty good, my tablet got pretty warm and ran through the battery as I edited simple clips, making me wonder what would happen if I tried to edit multiple camera angles and longer videos on it. Oh, wait, I can’t do that, because in the mobile iMovie app, there are no such options and of course there isn’t a mobile Final Cut Pro app. There’s no sound to video synchronization, the options for cutting soundtracks in and out are very limited, and the list goes on and on.

But surely you can work on a book on an iPad, right? Well, my wife tried to do that on one of her new books and she couldn’t. It’s just a text file at this point, somewhere between 100-200 pages. The iPad should have been able to work on it just fine but nope, it kept choking on it. The cursor would barely chug along as she typed, forcing her to take frequent breaks and allow it to catch up. The diacritics were all screwed up. After about half an hour of this nonsense, she gave up and went back to her laptop, which is an aged, mostly toothless beast, an 8-year old MacBook Pro with all the speed of a constipated sloth, but it still fares better than a tablet when it comes to editing books.

Well, what about the Photos app? Surely you can at least edit photos on it? Well, I downloaded photos from one of my DSLRs on my iPad (with the aid of this little gadget), and it got hot and ran through half the battery just importing them and generating previews. As I started to browse through them, it would take 5-7 seconds just to let me see a crisp version of each photo. Granted, these were raw files and I have an iPad Air, not an iPad Pro, but I can’t imagine things being too different on the newest, shiniest Pro tablet. I’ll give credit to the Photos app when it comes to editing photos taken with the iPad or the iPhone. It’s plenty fast on those. But the idea of replacing the notebook or a desktop means you’ll be editing photos taken with other cameras as well. And it’s just not there yet.

So where are we? Simply put, tablets are great for fiddling around on the internet but they just aren’t up to par when it comes to replacing notebooks and desktops, at least in my own experience.

That’s not to say I don’t yearn for the day when that happens! I’d love to only have to carry a tablet and a portable keyboard with me as I travel. Even at home there’d be huge benefits in terms of energy use (we’re talking tens of times less than notebooks or desktops), carbon footprint and other aspects. I do hope Apple (and others) continue to push the envelope on this. I particularly want to see mobile apps become full-fledged working apps for power users. Once that happens, hardware is bound to catch up with the needs of the software and we’ll be in business.

Electricity in Romania

Here’s what I keep saying to every friend and acquaintance who visits my house: you definitely need a voltage stabilizer if you live in Romania.

voltage-stabilizer

Around midnight last night the current started fluctuating wildly. Our UPS units were going crazy, clicking and kicking on and off, trying to contain the power fluctuations and cutoffs. After quickly shutting off all important equipment in the office, I went to see the voltage stabilizer down in the basement. It was going nuts as well trying to keep the current to our house stable, its arms moving quickly back and forth across the copper coils, barely containing the madness. I shut off all current to the house, fearing the stabilizer would burn out.

As I write this, it’s past noon (the following day) and the current still isn’t back on. Oh, it’s been back on and off sporadically, but nothing reliable to speak of. And I found out from one of our neighbors that the scrambling and bungling Electrica (that’s the power company) employees reversed the polarity on one of the phases in the neighborhood, which means they potentially burned out some people’s electrical appliances. As a matter of fact, another neighbor said his heating furnace shorted out and almost caught fire from all the electricity problems during the night.

This is part of the price one pays for living in Romania. It’s a beautiful country, but as they say, caveat emptor.

You may recall unreliable electrical power was partly to blame for a massive data loss that occurred to me a few years ago, before I replaced all wiring and fuses in the house and added the voltage stabilizer. The Drobo units I was using then simply didn’t have the capability to keep the data uncorrupted when experiencing multiple power failures within a short amount of time. They’d simply lose track of some bits, and then the corruption would spread across the drives, eating more and more data, to the point where the Drobo would cease to mount. Nowadays, Drobos come with built-in batteries that allow them to safely complete data operations and shut off in case of a power failure, and they also have some algorithms in place to ensure that data corruption is kept at bay, but it’s hard to trust a device meant to keep your data safe once it’s lost about 20% of your most treasured data, isn’t it?

Truly sustainable computing

Plenty could be written about this subject. I just want to call for change in two areas, because I believe they’d have the greatest impact here and now:

  1. Desktop computers should have a projected life span of 20 years.
  2. Laptops and mobile phones should have a projected life span of 10 years.

Why 10 years for laptops and mobile phones? Because they’re portable, they get banged up more and chances are they’re not going to look that good after 8-10 years, but they should be made to last that long nonetheless. Even if you won’t want to use them after a few years, you can sell them and someone else with a smaller budget will be happy to use them for as long as they last.

This means internal circuitry, which is most often the culprit in computing, should be made to last a looooong time. This is doable. There are cars and planes in use today with circuits made 15-20 years ago, which are still functioning properly. I think hardware meant for personal computing is purposely made to stop working after a few years, because computers are always upgraded and hardware manufacturers plan for obsolescence from the get-go.

There is a better way. Enclosures for all computing devices should be solidly made and finished. They should be stunningly beautiful and their design should stand the test of time. They should be easy to open and the innards serviced. And internal components should be made in such a way that they stand the rigors of heavy use through two decades, even if they become obsolete, market-wise. I think we’ve gotten to the point in computing where even if a computer is no longer desirable by someone who wants a fast machine, it’s still good enough for daily use by someone who does basic computing tasks.

I may live to eat the words in this paragraph, but surely USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, PCIe, 4K resolution and other goodies that are currently available should suffice for a while. I can’t imagine word processing applications or web applications requiring more than this, even 10 years from now. And if they do, a solid, serviceable enclosure and upgradeable hardware with backward compatibility for widely accepted standards and protocols should be enough to keep a computer going… and going… and going…

And once we pass that 20-year mark, why not make our next goal even bigger? Let’s plan for 100-year computers and let’s start doing it right now. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have machines made in 2015-2016 still in daily use in 2115-2116?

If you work in hardware, I’m sure you can think of plenty of reasons why this isn’t doable. It’s pretty easy to find reasons not to do something, and this applies to just about anything. But I want to challenge you to find ways to make this work, because it’s what we need to do in order to survive in the future. We can’t go on trashing the planet and taking from it indefinitely. We need to start conserving and giving back to it. We should focus on making it clean and beautiful.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of phones I have to throw away after 2-3 years because they turn into unusable crap. I’m sick and tired of computers and external hardware that start to break down after 3 years, some of them right after their warranty expires. And if would see what a mess we’ve made of this world, with destructive mining for rare earth minerals used in our electronics and with mountains of electronic trash polluting the ground and water tables in many places around the world, you’d be sick and tired of this as well.

There are much better ways of doing things. FairPhone is pointing the way for mobile phones. iFixit is helping too, with online service manuals and parts. But the bulk of the work still hasn’t been done. I still don’t see 20-year computers and 10-year laptops in stores. Where are they? Who’s making them? I’d like to buy one.

Multitasking and digital gadgets are making us less productive

Here’s a neat infographic that clearly shows how multitasking and the various gadgets we own and use throughout the day are making us less productive and stressing our brains and our hearts.

Frequent multitasking makes us unable to focus properly, to make good decisions, set goals and retrieve memories from short and long-term memory. It also makes us less empathic and decreases the amount of grey matter in our brains; it keeps us in a constant state of “fight or flight”. This is NOT good for us. It can take as long as five days for the harmful effects of our digital lifestyle to wear off and for our bodies to return to normal, if we decide to cut ourselves off from it or reduce it drastically.

So, focus on only one thing at a time when you’re at the computer. Limit the amount of time you spend browsing websites and/or switching between them. And take breaks from the computer. If it’s not your job to be at it all day long, don’t spend your day glued to it. Use it as little as possible. Make your life as analog as possible. You’ll be healthier and smarter for it.

Digital Stress and Your Brain
Via: OnlineUniversities.com

Mac Pro line overdue for a hardware refresh

Because of the recent hardware failure on my MacBook Pro, I started to think about getting a new computer.

Given my intensive computing needs, I naturally looked toward the Mac Pro, but I was disappointed to find that its specs are lagging behind the times. The differences between it and what other Apple computers offer are enough for me to hold off on making the purchase.

The areas where it needs to improve can (almost) be summarized by this screenshot:

Thunderbolt

The iMac already has Thunderbolt ports, but the Mac Pro (the top-of-the-line model) doesn’t. Why isn’t it there already?

If Thunderbolt is “the fastest, most versatile I/O in a desktop”, why is it MIA on the Mac Pro? Shouldn’t it be on Apple’s most powerful desktop? If it’s got 10 Gbps data channels, and it’s tens of times faster than FW800 or USB 2.0, why isn’t it on the Mac Pro?

It even made it onto the MBP… Will Thunderbolt make it onto the MacBook before it makes it onto the Mac Pro?

SATA 6GB/S

The Mac Pro’s internal architecture can support SATA 6Gb/s speeds. There are already SATA 6Gb/s hard drives on the market, at very affordable prices. Why doesn’t the Mac Pro, where storage bandwidth really matters, include SATA 6Gb/s technology? Why is it still stuck at SATA 3Gb/s?

USB 3.0

Where is USB 3.0 on the Mac Pro? It still only has USB 2.0 ports. I already have USB 3.0 peripherals, which I wouldn’t be able to use at their native speed if I got a Mac Pro.

Furthermore, where is USB 3.0 on any Mac? USB 3.0 is here to stay, it’s fast, and it’s on a lot of peripherals. It goes without saying that Apple needs to include it on the Mac Pro and on the rest of its computers.

What’s worrying is that Mac OS X Lion may not ship with support for USB 3.0, as this article suggests. No, no, no, Apple, please don’t do that…

30-inch Display

This is more of an annoyance, but it’s worth mentioning. Ever since it came out, I always dreamed of owning a 30-inch Cinema Display. Given some of the stuff I’m doing these days, I could really use it, too. But Apple no longer makes it. The only large display they make these days is the 27-inch Cinema Display, which is very nice, and it uses LED instead of LCD technology, but it’s not a 30-inch, is it?

The value of a good backup

While working on the fifth episode of RTTE, I learned first hand the value of a good backup. The hard drive on my editing computer (my MacBook Pro) died suddenly and without warning. Thankfully, my data was backed up in two geographically different locations.

The day my hard drive died, I’d just gotten done with some file cleanups, and was getting ready to leave for a trip abroad. I shut down my computer, then realized I needed to check on a couple things, and booted it up again, only this time, it wouldn’t start. I kept getting a grey screen, meaning video was working, but it refused to boot into the OS. And I kept hearing the “click of death” as the hard drive churned. I tried booting off the Snow Leopard DVD, but that didn’t work either. I’d tested the hard drive’s SMART status just a couple of weeks before, and the utility had told me the drive had no problems whatsoever.

I had reason to worry for a couple of reasons:

  1. The laptop refused to boot up from the OS X DVD, potentially indicating other problems than a dead hard drive. I do push my laptop quite a bit as I edit photos and video, and I’d already replaced its motherboard once. I was worried I might have to spend more than I wanted to on repairs.
  2. All of the footage for the fifth episode of RTTE was on my laptop. Thankfully, it was also backed up in a couple of other places, but still, I hadn’t had reason to test those backups until now. What if I couldn’t recover it?

I had no time for further troubleshooting. I had to leave, and my laptop was useless to me. I left it home, and drove away, worried about what would happen when I returned.

A week later, I got home and tried to boot off the DVD again. No luck. I had to send it in, to make sure nothing else was wrong. In Romania, there’s only one Apple-authorized repair shop. They’re in Bucharest, and they’re called Noumax. I sent it to them for a diagnosis, and a couple of days later, I heard back from them: only the hard drive was defective, from what they could tell.

I was pressed for time. I had to edit and release the fifth episode of RTTE, and I also had to shoot some more footage for it. I didn’t have time to wait for the store to fix the laptop, so I asked them to get it back to me, while I ordered a replacement hard drive from an online store with fast, next-day delivery (eMag).

The hard drive and the laptop arrived the next day. I replaced the hard drive, using this guide, and also cleaned the motherboard and CPU fans of dust, then restored the whole system from the latest Time Machine backup. This meant that I got back everything that was on my laptop a few hours before it died.

I’d have preferred to do a clean OS install, then install the apps I needed one by one, then restore my files, especially since I hadn’t reformatted my laptop since I bought it a few years ago, but that would have been a 2-3 day job, and I just didn’t have the time. Thankfully, OS X is so stable that even a 3-year old install, during which I installed and removed many apps, still works fairly fast and doesn’t crash.

Some might say, what’s the big deal? The laptop was backed up, and you restored it… whoopee… Not so fast, grasshopper! The gravity of the situation doesn’t sink in until you realize it’s your work — YEARS of hard work — that you might have just lost because of a hardware failure. That’s when your hands begin to tremble and your throat gets dry, and a few white hairs appear instantly on your head. Even if the data’s backed up (or so you think) until your data’s restored and it’s all there, you just don’t know if you can get it back.

I’ve worked in IT for about 15 years. I’ve restored plenty of machines, desktops and servers alike. I’ve done plenty of backups. But my own computer has never gone down. I’ve never had a catastrophic hardware failure like this one until now. So even though I’ve been exposed to this kind of thing before, I just didn’t realize how painful it is until now. And I didn’t appreciate the value of a good backup until now.

So, here’s my advice to you, as if you didn’t hear it plenty of times in the past… BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER!

If you have a Mac, definitely use Time Machine. It just works. It’s beautifully simple. I’ve been backing up my laptop with Time Machine to the same reliable drive for years. It’s this little LaCie hard drive.

But the LaCie drive might fail at some point, which is why I also back up my data with CrashPlan. For this second backup, I also send my data to a geographically-different location. Since we live in Romania these days, I back up to my parents’ house in the US, where the backup gets stored on a Drobo. And the backup is also encrypted automatically by CrashPlan, which means it can’t be intercepted along the way.

It’s because of my obsessive-compulsive backup strategy that I was able to recover so quickly from the hardware failure. Thankfully, these days backups are made so easy by software like Time Machine and CrashPlan that anyone can keep their work safe. So please, back up your data, and do it often!

One more thing. You know the old saying, every cloud has a silver lining? It was true in my case. When I ordered the new drive for my laptop, I was able to upgrade from its existing 250GB SATA hard drive with an 8MB buffer and 5400 rpm to a spacious 750GB SATA hard drive with a 32MB buffer and 7200 rpm, which means my laptop now churns along a little faster, and has a lot more room for the 1080p footage of my shows. 🙂

Java finally acknowledges upgrade issues

Not sure how many of you have been aware of this, but Java upgrades over the past several years have been problematic for Windows users. When a new version of Java came out, the installer would prompt you to upgrade, but would never prompt you to remove the old version, or do it for you. In my work, I’d see computers with as many as 10-12 different versions of Java on them. The user, unaware of the messiness built into the Java upgrade, would leave the old versions on their machine, and they’d keep piling up. You could see them in the Add/Remove Control Panel, but how many people know how to look there, and how many know that it’s okay to remove old versions of Java?

So I was heartened to see that Java is finally acknowledging the problem with old Java versions sitting on Windows machines, and is now prompting users to remove them after installing the new version. See the screenshot below.

Ideally, their upgrade engine ought to remove them for the user, but at least this is a step in the right direction. And to think that Java is being used everywhere these days (even where you don’t want it), and it took all this time for them to straighten out the upgrade issues. It’s a bit shameful if you ask me.