Author Archives: Tim

Review: Velodyne vLeve on-ear headphones

Velodyne is best known for its fine range of sub-woofers, but the company also makes a range of headphones, of which the vLeve is towards the bottom of the range.

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The headphones are supplied in a smart glossy box with the reassuring words “High performance headphones” on the front. I am not sure what the name signifies though the word Leve means “Live” in some languages so it perhaps hints at enjoying life – what better way than listening to music through high quality cans?

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Inside the box are the headphones, a handy bag, and a 3.5mm jack cable. There is no adaptor for a 1/4″ jack socket; a shame though these are easily optainable elsewhere. The headphones fold for portability.

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The vLeve is lightweight and feels even a little flimsy though it seems well made. The design is the on-ear type. I found that careful positioning of the pads on your ears is essential for the best sound; it is surprising how much difference is made by a small change in position.

Velodyne is keen to sell you add-on skins to give a more colourful appearance.

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Since you may well be out and about wearing these the appearance is important and a matter of taste; personally I am happy without a skin as I care mainly about the sound, but these distinctive skins will appeal to many.

So how is the sound? It seems too obvious: but as you would expect from a sub-woofer company, the bass is exemplary. At first I thought the sound was a little bass-heavy, but comparison with other headphones does not bear this out. Rather, the bass is particularly tight and tuneful so you pay it more attention.

I played the excellent SACD We Get Requests by the Oscar Peterson Trio and the sound of Ray Brown’s double bass is a delight with a clean and natural sound.

The sound is relaxed, even slightly recessed, and may not appeal if you prefer a more analytical or exciting presentation. Swapping to my reference Sennheiser HD600s showed that the vLeve is not the last word in clarity or openness, but it was not disgraced and its compromises are easy to live with.

I did find the sound substantially better when using a headphone amplifier rather than an iPad or Nexus tablet (two that I tried). While this is not surprising in one sense, others are more tolerant of lesser amplification.

One annoyance: the cord at 130mm or just over 4 feet was too short for my liking, but again you can easily get a replacement if needed.

Note that Velodyne also make a similar wireless model, the vFree, which is reviewed separately.

A good choice especially for acoustic music and for use with high quality sources.

Price is $219 though available from around $130 if you scout around. UK prices to follow.

Published specifications:

  • Driver size: 34mm
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20 kHz
  • Sensitivity: 98 dB/1Khz/1mW
  • Impedance: 32 Ω

Microsoft announces the return of the Start menu to Windows 8 – again

Just announced at Microsoft’s Build conference in San Francisco: a new desktop Start menu:

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Note that this is not part of Windows 8.1 Update 1 (about to become available) but rather a future Windows 8.1 update. It will be free to all users.

The Start button was re-introduced in Windows 8.1, but only takes you to the Start screen. This new one runs entirely on the desktop.

Another key new feature in this future update is the ability to run universal Windows apps (which are Store apps) in a window on the desktop.

The plan to make Windows 8 a more compelling update for desktop users, and to promote Store apps to users who use keyboard and mouse and mainly desktop apps.

Neil Young’s Pono: an advance in digital music?

Thanks to the just-launched Kickstarter project, there are now firm technical details for Neil Young’s curious Pono project, which aims to solve what the musician sees as the loss of audio quality caused by the transition to digital music:

“Pono” is Hawaiian for righteous. What righteous means to our founder Neil Young is honoring the artist’s intention, and the soul of music. That’s why he’s been on a quest, for a few years now, to revive the magic that has been squeezed out of digital music. In the process of making music more convenient – easier to download, and more portable – we have sacrificed the emotional impact that only higher quality music can deliver.

There is a lot about emotion and the spirit of music in the pitch; but ultimately while music is art, audio is technology. What is the technology in Pono and can it deliver something markedly better than we have already?

Pono has several components. The first is a portable player:

  • 64GB on-board storage and 64GB SD card
  • 8 hour rechargeable battery
  • Software for PC and Mac to transfer songs
  • Two stereo output jack sockets, one for headphones, and one a line-out for connection to a home hi-fi system
  • Ability to play FLAC, ALAC, WAV, MP3, AIFF and AAC at resolutions (at least for FLAC) of up to 192Khz/24-bit. 

The Pono player will cost around $400.00, though early Kickstarter backers can pre-order for $200 (all sold now) or $300.00.

There will also be a Pono music store “supported by all major labels and their growing catalogues of high quality digital music”. The record companies will set their own prices, but high-res (24/96 and higher) music is expected to cost between $14.99 and $24.99 per album. Individual songs will also be available.

Here is the key question: will you hear the difference. Here is what the pitch says:

Yes. We are confident that you will hear the difference. We’re even more confident you will feel it. Everyone who’s ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic. Especially when they listen to music that they know well – their favorite music. They’re amazed by how much better the music sounds – and astonished at how much detail they didn’t realize was missing compared to the original. They tell us that not only do they hear the difference; they feel it in their body, in their soul.

Count me sceptical. There are two ways in which Pono can sound better than what you use at the moment to play music – which for many of us is a smartphone, a CD ripped to a hard drive and played from a PC, Mac or iPod, or streamed to a device like a Sonos or Squeezebox.

One is though superior electronics. Pono is designed by Ayre Acoustics, a high end audio company, and you can expect a Pono to sound good; but there is no reason to think it will sound better than many other DACs and pre-amplifiers available today. As a dedicated audio device it should sound better than the average smartphone; but Apple for one has always cared about audio quality so I would not count on a dramatic improvement.

The second is through higher resolution sources. This is a controversial area, and the Kickstarter pitch is misleading:

On the “low end” of higher resolution music (CD lossless, 16 bit/44.1kHz), PonoMusic files have about 6 times more musical information than a typical mp3. With ultra-high quality resolution recordings (24 bit/192kHz), the difference between a PonoMusic digital file and an mp3 is about 30 times more data from which your player reconstructs the “song”.

We need to examine what is meant by “musical information” in the above. The Pono blurb makes the assumption that more data must mean better sound. However, just because a CD “lossless” file is six times the size of an MP3 file does not mean it sounds six times better. Listening tests show that by the time you get to say 320kbps MP3, most people find it hard to hear the difference, because the lossy formats like MP3 and AAC are designed to discard data that we cannot hear.

What about 24/96 or 24/192 versus CD format (16/44)? Advocates will tell you that they hear a big difference, but the science of this is obscure; see 24/192 downloads and why they make no sense for an explanation, complete with accompanying videos that spell this out. Most listening tests that I am aware of have failed to detect an audible difference from resolutions above CD format. Even so, audio is subtle and complex enough that it would be brave to say there is never any audible improvement above 16/44; but if it exists, it is subtle and not the obvious difference that the Pono folk claim.

The irritation here is that digital music often does sound bad, but not because of limitations in the audio format. Rather, it is the modern engineering trend of whacking up the loudness so that the dynamic range and sense of space in the music is lost – which seems close to what Neil Young is complaining about. The solution to this is not primarily in high resolution formats, but in doing a better job in mastering.

Why then do so many well known names in music praise the Pono sound so highly?

While I would like to think that this is because of a technical breakthough, I suspect it is more to do with comparing excellent mastering from a good source to a typical over-loud CD or MP3 file, than anything revolutionary in Pono itself. If you have a high-resolution track that sounds great, try downsampling it to 16/44 and comparing it to that, before concluding that it is the format itself that provides the superior sound.

The highest distortion in the audio chain is in the transducers, speakers and microphones, and not in the digital storage, conversion and amplification.

The Pono Kickstarter has already raised $550,000 of its $800,000 goal which looks promising. Even if the high resolution aspect makes little sense, it is likely that the Pono music store will offer some great sounding digital music so the project will not be a complete dead loss.

That said, who is going to want Pono when a tiny music player, or just using your smartphone, is so much more convenient? Only a dedicated few. This, combined with the lack of any real technical breakthrough, means that Pono will likely stumble in the market, despite its good intentions.

Within the crazy audiophile world we are also going to hear voices saying, “you should have used DSD”, a alternative way of encoding high-resolution audio, as found in SACD disks.

Fun with amplifiers: classic Naim versus modern Yamaha integrated

Every year in an English country hotel near Melton Mowbray a strange but endearing event takes place.

Called variously the HiFi Wigwam Show (after the forum that runs it) or the Scalford HiFi Show (after the hotel where it takes place), this is a show where most of the exhibitors are enthusiasts rather than dealers, and the kit on show includes much that is old, unavailable or home-made – like these stacked Quad 57s from the Sixties.

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I turned up at Scalford with a simple experiment in mind. Take a classic pre-power amplifier from thirty years ago and compare it to a modern, budget, integrated amplifier. What kind of differences will be heard?

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The classic amplifier is a Naim 32.5 preamp powered by a Hi-Cap power supply, and a 250 power amplifier. Price back in 1984 in the region of £3500. The Naim was serviced around five years ago to replace old or failing electrolytic and tantalum capacitors.

The integrated is a Yamaha AS500 80w+80w amplifier currently on sale for around £230.

The source is a Logitech Media Server (Squeezebox Server) with a Squeezebox Touch modified to work with high resolution audio up to 24/192, and a Teac UD-H01 DAC. Speakers were Quad 11L, occasionally substituted with Linn Kans for a traditional Linn/Naim combination. A BK Electronics sub-woofer was on at a low level to supplement the bass.

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A QED MA19 switchbox was used to switch instantly between the two amplifiers. Naim NAC A4 cable was used throughout.

Disclaimer: this was not intended as a scientific investigation. Level matching was done by ear, and there were several aspects of the setup there were sub-optimal. The system was in a small hotel bedroom (as you can see by the headrest which forms the backdrop to the system) and thrown together quickly.

Still, the Naim amplifier is both highly regarded by many audiophiles, and also considered somewhat coloured, this failing more than mitigated by its pace and drive. The Yamaha won awards as a good budget amplifier but is not really anything special; however it has the benefit of modern electronics. These two amplifiers are very different both in age and (you would think) character.

A benefit of the setup was that both amplifiers were always on. Unless you knew the position of the switches and how they were wired, you could not tell which was playing. It was irresistible; when visitors asked which was playing I switched between them and said, you tell me.

Again, this was not science, and I have no tally of the results. Some visitors confidently identified the Naim and were correct, and an approximately equal number were incorrect. Some said they simply could not hear a difference, and two or three times I had to prove that the switchbox was working by twiddling the controls. A small boy who probably had the best hearing of all the visitors declared that there was no difference.

Note that I did reveal the identity of the amplifiers at regular intervals, so listeners typically listened sighted after listening blind.

Of those who expressed a preference, the Yamaha and Naim were each preferred equally often. Some said the Yamaha was slightly brighter (I agree with this).

There were two or three who expressed a strong preference for the Naim, but the consensus view was that the amplifiers sounded more alike than had been expected.

The sound was also pretty good. “I would be happy with either” was a common remark. I would have preferred to use high-end speakers, but the Quads proved delightfully transparent. Most visitors who heard both preferred the Quads to the Kans, which sounded thin and boxy in comparison, though I do wonder if after thirty years the crossover electronics in the Kans may need attention. It was easy to hear the difference between high quality and low quality sources. I used some of the high-resolution files which Linn kindly gave away as samples for Christmas 2013, along with other material.

A few reactions:

Tony L: The most amusing room for me was the Naim 32.5 / HiCap / 250 blind-test vs. the Yamaha AS500. That was great fun, and yes, I picked the AS500 as better. Twice. As did another ex-32.5/Hicap/250 owning friend. Ok it was through a nice easy to drive pair of Quad 11Ls, but you’d be amazed by how close they sounded!

YNWOAN: I heard the Yamaha/Naim demo and had no difficulty hearing a difference between the two with the Yamaha sounding rather ‘thin’ – even at the low levels used.

Pete the Feet: How cruel can a man be? Pitching a recently serviced Naim 32.5, Hicap and NAP250 against a paltry Yamaha £250 integrated. Not much difference but the Yamaha had the edge.

Some felt that the Naim was compromised by the stacking of the power supply and pre-amp on the power amp. There was no hum and I am sceptical of the difference moving them apart, or using acoustic tables, might have made; but of course it is possible. Another interesting thing to test would be the impact of the switchbox itself, though again I would be surprised if this is significant.

How much should you spend on an amplifier? Should all competent amplifiers sound the same? These are questions that interest me. I set up this experiment with no particular expectations, but the experience does make me wonder whether we worry too much about amplification, given that other parts of the audio chain introduce far more distortion (particularly transducers: microphones and loudspeakers).

A more rigorous experiment than mine came to similar conclusions:

How can it be possible that a basic system with such a price difference against the  reference” one, poorly placed, using the cheapest signal cables found, couldn’t be distinguished from the more expensive one?

And, most of it all, how come the cheap system was chosen by so many people as the best sounding of the two?

Shouldn’t the differences be so evident that it’d be a child’s game to pick the best?

Well, we think that each can reach to its own conclusion…

One further comment though. I love that Naim amplifier, and do not personally find something like the AS500 a satisfactory replacement, despite the convenience of a remote control. Is it just that the classic retro looks, high quality workmanship and solid construction convince my brain into hearing more convincing music reproduction, provided I know that it is playing? Or are there audio subtleties that cannot easily be recognised by quick switching?

Unfortunately the audio industry has such fear of blind testing that these questions are not investigated as often or as thoroughly as some of us would like.

Wearables or swearables? Mobile World Congress panel raises the questions but not the answers

An event called Wearable Wednesday, which took place last night at Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress, promised to explain the “State of the Wearable Economy”; but anyone hoping to better understand the economics of wearables after the event would have been largely disappointed – the closest it came was a statement by an Intel spokesperson that the number of connected devices is growing by 300% per year – but it was a fun and thought-provoking event nevertheless.

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The event was organized by Redg Snodgrass of Wearable World and featured some product pitches and a panel discussion. 

Raimo Van der Klein from GlassEffect, which offers apps and services for Google Glass, talked about contactless payments using Glass and showed a video in which a payment (using Bitcoin) is confirmed with a nod of the head. It sounds dangerously easy, but he went on to explain that you also have to read a QR code and make a voice command: still hands-free, but veering towards being too complex.

Despite wearable technology being cutting-edge and with obvious huge potential, the panel discussion was somewhat downbeat. Wearable technology lacks a killer app, we heard. Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit, emphasised that wearable technology has to be “either beautiful or invisible”, with both characteristics rare today. Wearables look like they are designed by engineers for engineers, he said.

That is a fair description of Google Glass, which seems to me more of a prototype than a product, fascinating though it is. One speaker declared that his wife will not let him wear Google Glass “because you look really stupid”. Add to that the unsettling “you are spying on me” effect that Glass has on others, and you get something that is less than attractive to most people.

Other issues discussed were power, with agreement that having to charge a device every few days is hopeless for something you are expected to wear all the time,  and fragmentation; there is no standard wearable platform.

Journalist Ina Fried who moderated the panel posed the question: is the future of wearables in low-power sensors, which talk to your smartphone where the intelligence resides,  or smart devices (some with displays) that do more but suffer from high power requirements?

In discussion with Vu afterwards he observed that the wearable technology that is already proven to be big business is the watch. Watches are proven and attractive devices that we use constantly. Someone asked me, why bother with a watch when you have a smartphone; but there are good reasons we still wear watches, including hands-free access, security (much harder to grab a watch than a phone) and instant results.

You can therefore see the logic behind smart watches: take something we use already and extend it. Unfortunately it is easy to make the watch concept worse rather than better, by adding complexity or the burden of constant recharging.

Another big theme is fitness sensors, and here at Mobile World Congress they are everywhere (Sony’s SmartBand and Samsung’s Gear Fit are two examples from big players). Is the public as fitness-obsessed as these companies hope? That is unknown, but it seems likely that health monitoring via wearable sensors will only increase. Questions raised include who owns the resulting data, how we can prevent it being used in ways we dislike (such as raising health insurance premiums if you have “bad” results), and whether it will breed hypochondria. Doctor, my heart rate is up a bit …

Privacy tends not to be a theme at this kind of event. “In a couple of years you will have the camera on continuously” enthused Snodgrass. As ever, the technology is there before we have learned what is appropriate usage or how it should be regulated, if at all.

Samsung Galaxy S5 with Gear 2, Gear Fit: quick hands-on, screenshots

Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S5 Android smartphone at an event last night in Barcelona, during Mobile World Congress. I attended the launch and spent some time trying the new Galaxy after the event.

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The first thing that struck me is how light it feels. It is 145g according to the spec.

Here is the home screen:

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The UI in general is clean and easy to use:

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I was interested in the camera, having looked at the camera on the new Sony Xperia Z2 yesterday, in comparison to the Nokia Lumia 1020. The S5 has a 16MP camera and Samsung showed off its fast automatic focus in the press launch. Here are the camera options:

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I took a couple of snaps with both the S5 and the Lumia 1020 for a quick comparison. The Lumia easily bested it. I’d judge that the Xperia Z2 would easily best it too. That said, the camera is fine and I doubt users will be disappointed; it’s just not the best choice if you are particularly keen on photography.

Health is big theme, especially in conjunction with the Gear Fit band. Samsung’s JK Shin said that keeping fit is a third key feature in a smartphone alongside camera and connectivity. Here is the fitness app:

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Samsung has included a heart rate sensor, so I took my pulse:

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There is a Kids Zone, reminiscent of what Microsoft has done for Windows Phone:

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Other notable features are water and dust resistance, fingerprint sensor with PayPal integration, and apparently new Enterprise security features of which I hope to learn more later today.

It looks like an excellent phone. A game changer? Enough to draw users from Apple? It feels more like just another smartphone, albeit a good one, but that may be just what the market wants. No silliness like the S4’s air gestures, just a solid new smartphone.

On sale date is April 11 2014.

Key specs:

  • LTE Cat.4 (150/50Mbps)
  • 5.1” FHD Super AMOLED (1920 x 1080) display
  • 2.5GHz Quad core application processor
  • Android 4.4.2 (Kitkat)
  • Camera: 16MP (rear), 2.0MP (front)
  • Video: UHD@30fps, HDR, video stabilization
  • IP67 Dust and water Resistant
  • WiFi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac HT80, MIMO(2×2)
  • Bluetooth®: 4.0 BLE / ANT+
  • USB: USB 3.0
  • NFC
  • IR Remote
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, gyro, proximity, compass, barometer, Hall, RGB ambient light, Gesture(IR), Finger Scanner, Heart rate sensor
    2GB RAM
  • Storage:Internal Memory: 16/32GB, microSD slot upto 64GB
    Size and weight:  142.0 x 72.5 x 8.1mm, 145g
  • Battery: 2800mAh Standby time: 390 hrs / Talk time: 21 hrs
     

Smartphone Camera fun: Nokia Lumia 1020 vs Sony Xperia Z2

Sony has announced the latest Xperia, the X2, here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

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The Z2 boasts “a pro-grade camera far beyond smartphone class performance”, and captures images at 20.7MP, as inscribed on the rear:

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Sony calls its imaging sensor technology Exmor, and the Xperia Z2 uses Exmor RS for mobile.

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The camera software on the Z2 has an extensive range of options, some of which are shown below.

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How does it compare though with Nokia’s PureView technology, and in particular the Lumia 1020 with its 41MP camera?

First, I tried taking a similar point and shoot picture of the delightful view from the Sony stand.

Here is the Sony. It is a detail from the full image, so you can view it at full resolution:

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and here is the Lumia:

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Note that I am not using a tripod so the quality is influenced by how good the image stabilisation software is, as well as the inherent quality of the optics.

Sony has a special demo to show off the low-light performance of the Z2.

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See that small hole? You align the phone so that the camera can see through the hole, and take a picture. It looks like it will turn out blank, but actually picks up an image from the low light:

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This is not full resolution, but you get the idea.

My first effort with the Lumia was a disaster:

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I was sure it could do better, so I whacked up the ISO sensitivity and set the shutter to 4s:

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Still, in terms of automatic settings detection, the Sony proved more effective.

Which camera is better? On this quick and dirty test I felt that both phones performed well, but I am not ready to give up the Lumia 1020 yet. Then again, you do have to live with the slight protrusion of the Lumia 1020 lens from the body, whereas the Z2 is perfectly smooth.

Disclaimer: I am not a photographer and my interest is in taking quick pictures of decent quality conveniently rather than getting the best that can be achieved. I look forward to more detailed comparisons of the Z2 vs Lumia 1020 from photography enthusiasts in due course.

Alcatel OneTouch shows Pop Fit wearable smartphone at Mobile World Congress

Alcatel OnTouch has announced the Pop Fit here in Barcelona, on the eve of Mobile World Congress.

The Pop Fit is a tiny 2.8” 240×320 pixel phone running Android 4.2, but well equipped for wireless with wifi, Bluetooth and GPS. It is designed as a media and fitness phone that you can strap on your arm when out and about.

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Here it is in action.

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You can get your music from internal storage (there is a micro SD slot), or from apps like Spotify and Sound Cloud.

Also included is the Runkeeper app for keeping track of your running and fitness efforts.

A smart flip cover, included in the box, protects the phone and lets you control media playback through the cover. There is also a choice of coloured snap-on back covers in the box.

The Pop Fit will retail for around €89 and be on sale from May 2014.

Alcatel OneTouch is a mobile phone brand owned by Chinese giant TCL Corporation, whose origins are in a tie-up between French company Alcatel and TCL back in 2004. However Alcatel sold its stake in 2005 leaving only the brand name.

Review: Acer C720 Chromebook and reflections on Chrome OS

When I saw the first announcement of Chrome OS I was amazed and wrote a breathless post:

I’m watching Google’s press briefing on the forthcoming Chrome OS. It is amazing. What Google is developing is a computer that answers several of the problems that have troubled users since the advent of the personal computer.

That was in November 2009. Unfortunately it has taken me a while to try a Chromebook (the generic name for a computer running Chrome OS) for myself; but I have been trying out an Acer C720 and what follows is in part a review of this machine, and in part some wider reflections on the Chrome OS and Chromebook concept.

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In terms of hardware, a Chromebook is another take on the netbook idea: a small, light laptop but running Linux rather than Windows. The earliest netbooks also ran Linux but the mass market could not cope with it; Google has done what is necessary to make it work for non-technical people, not least by hiding almost all of the operating system other than the browser.

I have given detailed specifications at the end of this post, but in summary this is an 11.6″ traditional clamshell laptop/netbook with 1.4Ghz Intel Haswell processor, 2GB RAM and 16GB SSD. It weighs just 1.2Kg

It’s cheap. You can pick one up for just under £200 at Amazon; it’s smart looking and does not feel as cheap as it is.

At left we have power input, HDMI out, USB 3.0 port and a standard headset socket.

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On the right there is an SD card slot, USB 2.0, and a lock attachment point.

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You can get a touchscreen version for an additional £80 or so but it does not seem worth it to me.

When you turn on for the first time, you have to accept the Google agreement. You won’t read it all, but here is something you should note:

You acknowledge and agree that Google may stop (permanently or temporarily) providing the Services (or any features within the Services) to you or to users generally at Google’s sole discretion, without prior notice to you…

You acknowledge and agree that if Google disables access to your account, you may be prevented from accessing the Services, your account details, or any files or other content which is contained in your account.

More on this later.

You can sign in as guest, and use the device to browse the web, or you can sign in with a Google account. If you sign in as guest, none of your activity (including any files you download) will be preserved when you sign out. This is a nice feature for, literally, guests for whom you want to give internet access while protecting both your privacy and to some extent theirs.

Normally you will sign in with a Google account. If you have used Google’s Chrome browser, much will be familiar. What you get is the browser, which you can run full screen or in a resizable window, and a taskbar along the bottom which shows running apps, date and time, network connection, battery status, and notifications.

Local storage is accessible via a file browser. This gives access to a Downloads folder, Google Drive which is cloud storage but includes offline files that are available locally, and USB storage devices that you attach.

I attached a drive full of media files and was able to play MP4 video and FLAC audio without any problems. Some file types, such as PDF and Microsoft Office, open in the browser. This aspect can be disorienting; there is no Quit option, but you just close the browser tab when you are done.

At the left of the taskbar is an Apps button which you might think of as a Start button since it has the same purpose. Click it, and app shortcuts appear in a window. You can also press the Search key, which sits where you would expect to see Caps Lock.

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A Chrome OS app is a web app, though it can take advantage of Chrome features like access to local storage or NaCl (Native Client), which lets you run compiled native code in the browser. NaCl is enabled by default.

I actually have a web app in the Chrome Store – apologies it is not very good, but it was a demonstration to support this how-to; it is really not difficult to adapt a web site though as ever, excellence is more challenging.

As an app platform, it would be wrong to think of a Chromebook as “crippled”, though it does require a change of mind-set if you are used to apps on Windows, OSX, iOS or Android. Apps are sandboxed, of course, and run in the browser, but native performance is possible and there are ways to access devices like the camera and local storage. Adobe Flash is also available. This is a physics demo using Native Client:

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and this is an audio editor:

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Can you get your work done? Probably, but if you are like me you will miss a few things like Microsoft Office or equivalent, or the Live Writer blog authoring tool (for which I have not found a good replacement on any platform). Of course you have full access to Google Docs, for browser-based document editing.

It also turns out that a Chromebook is a rather good Microsoft SkyDrive or Office 365 client. Perhaps it is just familiarity, but I prefer Office Web Apps to the Google Docs equivalents.

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I did experience an oddity in Office 365. I clicked a link to a recently opened document, which was an URL to a .docx file. This should have opened the document in Word web app, but instead it opened in a beta of Quickoffice running as a Chrome extension. This is bad, since editing the document and hitting save opened a Save As dialog for the local drive, or Google Drive, not the SharePoint site, and when I tried a document including an image, it was reported as corrupt.

It is possible to do some coding on a Chromebook, for example using the rather good online scripting IDE at script.google.com. This is a debugging session using the example script, which creates a document in Google Apps and emails a link:

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If you get stuck, there is always remote desktop to a Windows box as a fallback. There are several clients to choose from, of which I used 2X:

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Although the Linux shell is hidden unless you enable developer mode, you can press Ctrl-Alt-T and open crosh (Chrome OS Shell), enabling simple network testing with ping as well as an ssh client. More features magically appear if you do enable developer mode.

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Chromebook pros and cons

A Google Chromebook has several big advantages.

One, it’s safe; not entirely safe perhaps, but relatively immune from malware given that most users never get deeper into the operating system than the web browser, and therefore neither does anything else – though the machine is in fact hackable (in a good way) if you switch to Developer mode, and you can do things like getting shell access or installing Ubuntu if you want.

Second, it is good value. You are not paying for Windows or Office, and whatever deal Google makes with OEMs like Acer must be generous enough to allow for low prices.

It would actually make sense for Google to subsidise Chromebooks if it needed to, since they drive users to its services.

Third, a Chromebook is cloud-centric. If you lose it, or upgrade to a new machine, all your data will be there on Google’s cloud and you will hardly notice, with seamless sync of settings when you log in.

Fourth, Google and its hardware partners (in this case Acer) have done a good job. Sleep and resume works reliably – more so than any Windows machine I have known – and boot from cold takes seconds. Performance is fine, provided you have a strong internet connection.

There is no unwanted third-party software here unless you count Google’s own services; but if you did not want them you probably should not have bought a Chromebook. The out of box experience is good.

What are the annoyances? Here are a few.

The user interface is effective and not difficult to learn, though I do find that the screen fills with multiple tabs which is ugly and not that easy to navigate. You can float a browser window by dragging it down, in which case you get something that behaves as a new instance, and you can switch between instances with alt-tab.

Printing is awkward in that you have to set up Google Cloud Print and send your documents to Google and back even if the printer is right next to you.

Working offline is a problem but maybe not as bad as you have heard. The app store has a section devoted to apps that work offline, and you can create and edit documents offline other than spreadsheets, which are read-only. There is no problem with playing some videos or music from the built-in storage or from a USB drive when on the move and offline. If you are going to be offline a lot though, this is probably not the best choice.

Is this machine locked to Google? Maybe not as much as you would expect. There is no alternative web browser, but you can set your search engine to Bing, DuckDuckGo or anotehr if you prefer. Or you can enable developer mode and you install Linux, either in place of, or alongside Chrome OS. The two obvious choices are ChrUbuntu and Crouton, and setup is nicely explained here

http://www.kitware.com/blog/home/post/498

Does this machine breach your privacy? That is tough to answer; but it is worth noting that Chromebook offers, as far as I can tell, the same privacy settings that are in the Chrome browser. If you are happy using the Chrome browser in Windows or elsewhere, there is no reason not to be happy with a Chromebook from this perspective.

That said, this machine is committed to, on the one hand, cloud and web apps, and alongside that, the Google life. The two main objections to the Google life, it seems to me, are that Google’s business model depends on advertising and mining personal data for that purpose; and that it has been known for individuals to get locked out of their Google accounts for what might be arbitrary reasons whereupon comeback is difficult. It may be though that I worry too much, since this is uncommon, and trusting everything to Google is probably not high on the list of the most stupid things to do in IT.

Summing up

This is not a machine for every task. It is not a powerhouse, and in case you had not noticed, will not run apps other than browser apps. Either of those could be deal-breakers and might mean that you need a different device.

It is early days for laptops that run only browser apps, and there are areas of immaturity. Some file types are not supported or badly supported. The app store has limitations, and although there is a browser-based solution to most common tasks, it may not equal what can be done with a conventional app. The user interface is reasonable but utilitarian. Tastes vary, but personally I do not find Google Apps the equal of Microsoft Office yet, and I even miss Outlook, despite its many annoyances.

There are compromises then; but this is still a great little laptop, light and convenient, quick and responsive, and almost immune to PC-style problems and slowdowns.

In business or education, it is easy to see the attraction of a machine that is low maintenance and simple to replace if it breaks, provided that its capabilities match the tasks that are required.

The comparison with Windows RT is interesting and will be the subject of a separate post.

Watch this space. Chromebooks are already making inroads into the market for budget laptops, and in education, and I would expect this momentum to gather force as the platform matures.

Detailed specification:

  • Intel Celeron 2955U 1.4 GHz processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • SD card slot
  • 16GB SSD
  • 11.6″ 1366 x 768 TFT screen
  • Intel GMA HD Graphics
  • Webcam and Microphone
  • 3.5mm headset socket
  • HDMI out, 1USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0
  • Wireless: 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 +HS (High Speed)
  • 3950 mAh battery, quoted 8.5 hr battery life
  • Weight: 1.25 Kg