Saturday, January 20, 2018

XHDATA D-808 Radio - Some Observations On Usability

I recently purchased a XHDATA D-808 World Band radio.  It's generating a fair amount of "buzz" in the shortwave listening community due to its low cost (less than $70 US) and an impressive feature list:

  • Frequency coverage - longwave, mediumwave AM, shortwave WITH SSB and covering the "full" shortwave range, FM, and air band.  
  • Small size (just about pocket-size)
  • 500 memories (100 for each of the bands)
  • FM RDS capability
  • Helpful tuning features including direct frequency entry, a variable "speed" tuning knob, a separate fine-tuning "wheel", up/down slewing buttons
  • External antenna jack
Also of note, unlike the nearly identical Digitech AR-1780, the D-808 ships with a soft faux-leather pouch, external wire antenna, rechargeable battery, and USB cable for charging, and at half the price of the AR-1780.

Further, the radio performs fairly well for a set of such a low price.  While I don't find performance on any band to be stellar, the D-808 certainly is capable of pulling in stations, especially with a suitable external antenna for SW and SW/SSB use.

This is not intended to be a full review of the radio; rather I wanted to share some observations on the usability factors, in particular those which I find to be lacking.  For some reason, very few radio reviewers seem to spend any time on ergonomics, or on the actual implementation of the controls that have to be used to operate the device.  Personally I find these things to be key to my long-term enjoyment of a radio, and strongly impact the likelihood that I will want to use a radio on a day-to-day basis.  I am more likely to USE and ENJOY a radio that is easy to tune, has decent auto-scanning capabilities, a sane memory preset scheme, etc. even if the radio isn't quite as strong a performer on every band.

The first thing I want to note is that the D-808 was implemented with buttons that are flush with the front of the case, and which require very firm presses to engage.  Combined with their small size and cramped arrangement, pressing them is simply uncomfortable.  My radio usually sits on a plastic picnic-style table and the radio slides around all over the table when I try to press buttons unless I hold onto it with the other hand.  This is a poor design decision that negatively impacts using this radio, especially as other design issues pretty much require a LOT of button pressing - and I'll come back to it again and again.

A nice feature of this radio is that is actually has a tuning knob, often absent from cheaper shortwave portables.  But this one has strong "stops" so it doesn't turning smoothly - each turn requires you to apply enough force to overcome the friction.  And the radio mutes with every turn, so it's pretty miserable for a casual session of "tuning around" a band.

As is the case with nearly all portable digital radios, the numeric keypad does double duty allowing entry of frequencies or access to memories.  On the D-808, the radio is always in a mode where the default action of pressing a number button is to call up a memory location.  Several negative (to my way of thinking) consequences arise as a result:
  • Because every keypress instantly pulls up a memory, the memory "pages" or banks must be limited to 10 memories apiece.  So if you wanted to program in all the MWARA frequencies, you would have to split these over many memory pages.  Then to tune through them you have to do extra keypresses to get from page to page.
  • In order to directly enter a frequency you have to first press a "freq" button since otherwise pressing the button would tune a preset station.  As with most shortwave radios you also have to press the freq button AGAIN at the end of any entry that doesn't use up all the available digits (basically any SW frequency under 10000). These extra button presses, combined with the poor button design (see above) makes frequency entry a laborious process.
There are of course other ways to tune; one helpful feature allows the D-808 to auto-tune-and-store frequencies in a band.  Here again, there are implementation issues - 
  • The radio seems to have a high threshold for recognizing a signal, so it "finds" far fewer frequencies than it can actually tune. To be really clear on that point, I can tune frequencies manually that are perfectly listenable but the D-808 doesn't find them when auto-tuning.  I have compared this function with a number of other portables and ALL of them find more frequencies than the D-808.  Note, the same inability to recognize a listenable frequency while scanning also affects scanning with the slewing buttons.
  • If you do happen to find a bunch of frequencies, they will be stored across multiple pages (see above issues with the small page size).
  • The auto-tuned frequencies are always stored starting in page 0 preset 0 for the chosen band and work up from there, so if you want to manually program memories, you need to put them on a high page.  There is no option to have found frequencies added to the existing list, it always overwrites. 
One final note on frequency memories - there is no way to access (tune) a preset other than pressing the associated key on the number pad (possibly AFTER doing additional keypresses to pull up the correct page).  You can't scan through a bank of stored frequencies.  You can't move from one to the next with the slewing buttons, nor with the tuning knob.  As with everything else requiring the use of button presses on this radio, this is a pain.

As for performance, despite many reviews giving the D-808 high marks, I find it to be only average, but it's also hard to gauge due to the usability impediments I've been describing.  For example, how do you measure shortwave performance?  Unless you have bench test equipment, you mainly test it by seeing how many stations you can pick up under various conditions (on the whip, with some kind of external antenna, indoors vs. outdoors, different times of day, etc.) and listening to them.  But consider:
  • Manual band-scanning sucks on this radio - the tuning knob is not comfortable for a long session moving through a band and the muting is bad
  • Using either the slewing/scanning buttons or the auto-tuning, the radio seems to require such strong signals that it finds very few stations - even when you KNOW the signal is there and you KNOW the D-808 is capable of tuning it
  • Auto-tuning stations and having them stored results in the frustrating experience of pressing buttons to step through them and having to switch pages
In short, in order to see what I can pick up with this radio I'm mostly spending time looking at EIBI schedules or the like, trying to figure out what ought to be tunable, and manually entering frequency after frequency.  It's very hard to compare how well this radio performs next to a radio that is much easier to use, like various models from Tecsun and Eton/Grundig.  

The end result of all these observations is that I'm again looking for a radio that hits closer to my sweet spot for features, performance and usability.  The D-808 will likely be the next radio I list on E-bay.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Comparing the Digitech AR1780 to the XHDATA D-808

Shortwave enthusiasts learn this lesson very early - all shortwave radios are the culmination of a combination of compromises.  Price, size/portability, reliability, frequency coverage, features, and vendor support all vary from one make and model to the next.  Further, putting a value on a number of these items is a subjective process - a radio's count of memories is a fixed number, but how important that number is varies from person to person.

Not surprisingly, we tend to group radios with similar sets of features, sizes, and prices into groups and compare them to one another.  But on occasion the shortwave industry presents us with virtually identical models from different brands or companies.  Sometimes these are manufactured in the same place by the same people and just branded differently.  And you'd expect those devices to really and truly be "the same".

Recently it was noted that the new XHDATA D-808 radio appeared to be identical to the Digitech AR-1780.  Both radios are of interest due to the following items on the set of scales mentioned above:

  • Frequency coverage is good - broad coverage of the shortwave band, longwave, mediumwave AM, FM broadcast band, and AIR band (a small range of VHF frequencies used by airports and airlines)
  • Single Sideband (SSB) capability - important for listening to Hams and some utility broadcasts
  • Small form factor
  • Built-in whip antenna and external antenna jack
  • Built-in battery charger
  • Relatively low prices (see below)
There are also a couple of items that are not so hot - one is from a company (Digitech) that has a decidedly low reputation, the other from a company most of us here in the states never heard of (XHDATA).  And speaking of "here in the states", both radios have to be ordered from overseas suppliers and shipped to the US.

It isn't my intention to do a full review of either set here, though - but rather to list the similarities and differences.  And the similarities are STRONG:
  • Nearly identical size, shape and weight (the weight WITH BATTERIES is identical, while the D-808 is slightly larger in a couple of dimensions)
  • Identical placement and labeling of buttons, knobs, and jacks on the radios with only a couple of exceptions, explained below
  • The built-in whips are the same size, same length and number of elements
  • The radios seem to use identical circuitry / DSP chips and have identical functions (indeed the manuals, both really slim and not too informative, are word-for-word the same)
  • As you would expect the display readouts are identical save for the backlight color
But there ARE differences:
  • The AR-1780 runs about $125 US plus shipping (I got mine on sale so that was about what I paid including shipping).  The D-808 runs about $69 US, including shipping (I got mine on sale at $49 including shipping).  This difference alone is driving a LOT of interest in the D-808
  • Aside from the radio itself, the AR-1780 ships with the manual, and...nothing else.  No batteries, no charging cables or devices, no earbuds, no external antenna, and no carrying case.  I'll come back to the lack of any power supply of any kind shortly.  By contrast, the D-808 ships with a soft faux-leather carrying pouch, a rechargeable battery, a USB charging cable, and a wire antenna that can be plugged into the available jack on the radio.  Given that the radio is already half the price of the AR-1780, these extras create an even stronger advantage for the D-808.
  • The AR-1780 uses 4 AA cells, and does have circuitry to charge Lithium Ion batteries inside the unit.  It does not come with any batteries - I have plenty of Sanyo Eneloops so that's not such a big issue - but the radio also does not include a charger and/or charging cable.  This is a pain since the AR-1780 uses an odd 7V charger.  Again, I use an external charger for my Eneloops.  In short, the fact that the unit can theoretically be run by an external power source and charge batteries inside is pretty much moot for the average buyer.  Compare this to the D-808, which uses a larger 18650 Li-Ion cell, and uses a standard micro-USB port to to charge.  The radio even ships with a micro-USB cable - not that you probably don't already have a bunch of them laying around, but it's nice to have it included.  You can charge this off an available computer port or wall-wart or whatever you have that can charge USB.   The different charger options for these radios results in one of the only real physical differences between the radios which is the power jack.
  • The power button itself is located in a different spot on each radio - just to the left of the display on the AR-1780, just to the right on the D-808
  • The buttons used on these radios are different, and this is the first downside for the D-808.  On the AR-1780 they are raised and very tactile.  On the D-808 they are flush with the case making them somewhat more of a pain to press (and impossible to to use the radio by feel - these are simple enough radios you could probably learn to operate the AR-1780 in the dark, but with flush buttons on the D-808 that would be a non-starter).
  • The black case used on the AR-1780 shows the silk-screened labels (some of which uses a dark orange ink in places) on the buttons and the case itself clearly.  The D-808 uses identical colors but on a grey case and the reddish orange labeling is super hard to read unless you hold the radio at an odd angle.  Advantage here goes to the AR-1780.
  • The screens used different color back-lighting - amber on the AR-1780, blueish-white on the D-808.  
So - weighing pros and cons, the radios are pretty much identical in terms of form and function and features with a slight usability edge to the AR-1780 based on easier to feel and press buttons and easier to read silk-screened labeling.  

The D-808 is a MUCH better VALUE proposition based on having identical features and performance and including the battery, charging cable, external wire antenna, and carrying pouch, for HALF the price of the AR-1780.  

What else?  Here are some TOTALLY SUBJECTIVE observations....
  • I prefer the black case of the AR-1780 to the grey used by the D-808.
  • I prefer the raised buttons on the AR-1780 to the flush ones on the D-808.
  • For some reason the AR-1780 *feels* like it weighs more (and mentally this equates to feeling more solidly built) than the D-808, even though I have weighed them both at 11.5 ounces including their batteries.  I think this is because the AR-1780 is very slightly smaller in a couple of dimensions so having the same weight in a little smaller packages makes it denser.
  • The first few hours of playing with the D-808 I was sure it was defective - it seemed to struggle to pick up the same stations as the AR-1780, the signal strength displays were reading way lower, and I was thinking about boxing it up and contacting the seller to return it.  But I removed the battery for a while, put it back in, and it has been perfect (compared to the AR-1780) ever since. 
  • Likewise the audio quality of the D-808 seemed much worse at first, but I think I may have had different bandwidth settings chosen.  At any rate I no longer notice any difference.
Recommendation - if the two radios came with the same accessories and were within $20 or so of each other, I'd almost certainly recommend the AR-1780, as it just feels better in the hand and when pressing buttons.  But given that it doesn't include batteries, requires an odd charger/adapter, and costs more than twice the price, the XHDATA is simply a FAR better value.

Final note - neither of these radios would get a strong recommendation from me regardless of price.  They are both decent performers but the memories are a pain in the rear to program and to access, entering frequencies is also a pain, and there are just better choices out there (especially for the price point of the AR-1780).  See the TECSUN PL-660/680 to understand what I mean.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Thoughts on the Harry's Shave Plan and Products

This seems important to get out of the way at the beginning - this is an unpaid and unsolicited review / commentary on the Harry's Shave Plan and products.  I have not been given any free product  beyond the trial set that everyone can order.

Harry's Shave Plan

Shave plans offer the ability to receive regular shipments of razor blades, shaving cream or gel, and related products on a monthly or semi-monthly basis.  The company offering the plan gets a guaranteed sale; the customer never runs out of blades and shaving cream, and saves money (potentially quite a lot) on products.  Assuming the blades are of decent quality, it's a win-win situation.  

Harry's seems to be the most heavily advertised shave plan, at least on the web sites I frequent.  I read a number of reviews, many of which were fairly obvious shills for Harry's, and a few which seemed (more-or-less) independent.  I also read a number of forums where people talked about their experiences.  

Without going over the "plus" side of the balance sheet just yet, the main negative thing people mentioned was that the individual blades in a Harry's cartridge are a bit closer together than on a typical Gillette (like a Fusion cartridge).  This means the Harry's blades can get "clogged" faster and require more frequent rinsing, and might also necessitate some changes in shaving technique - shorter strokes for example.

I can't count how many times I browsed to the Harry's site and almost signed up - mostly holding back because I had enough Fusion cartridges to last a while (I bought a bulk pack at Costco).  But eventually I got down to my last couple and signed up for the free trial and a shave plan.  Based on my habits, I ended up with a plan that gives me 8 blades every 3 months and a can of shaving gel.  I got my trial kit quickly and just got my first 3-month installment of new cartridges today.  I've been shaving on that first cartridge for a couple of weeks.

First Impressions

Harry's products are nicely packaged - kind of like buying an iPhone or a Kindle, you get the feeling you're unpacking something serious when you open the box.  The standard plastic handle (the Truman model) has a nice heft to it, apparently weighted within, and has a faintly rubbery surface for a solid grip.

The cartridge for the blade is easily detached and reattached, and comes with a nice plastic cover to keep "things" from knocking into the blades between uses or when packed for travel.  The cartridges have 5 blades, and even just visually they're obviously more tightly spaced than the Gillette Fusion ones.  

Shaving With Harry's Products

The gel provided by Harry's is ... gel.  It comes out looking like gel and turns into something like a thick foam on the skin.  The gel has a great "manly" scent, not strong at all yet definitely there, that will make you think about a good-old-fashioned barber shop.  As described above, the Truman handle has a little weight to it and a slightly rubberized grip, making it very comfortable to hold.  The cartridge slips on easily and is almost as easily removed, by gently squeezing a ring around the tip of the handle and sliding it outward.

As for the experience of shaving itself - if you're familiar with the Gillette Fusion, it's pretty different.  The closely spaced blades really do shave differently.  And I can understand where the complaints come in - with my Fusion cartridge I can do full, long strokes with the razor, maybe even a couple of those before having to rinse the blades, while with the Harry's it's much more likely I'll have to rinse more often - shorter strokes and very rarely more than one stroke.  And it's not just how often I have to rinse - the tighter blade spacing means that each rinse takes a bit more time and water to get the hair and gel to come out.  

So far that probably doesn't sound very good, but hang in there.

My first time shaving with the Harry's razor, I noted the above with a small amount of concern - I had read other reviews and forum posts indicating I might have the experience I've described so I was not too surprised, just uncertain if I would want to continue past the trial period.  However I decided to use the razor long enough to get the full use of the cartridge, somewhere around 4 to 5 shaves, and I began to notice some things.  

The second shave "felt" better.  I do not know why.  It just did.  I think part of working with any razor system, no matter the type, is getting to know the feel of the handle, the exact shape and dimensions of the blade, how it rocks on the handle, etc.  In short, any time you change razor systems there is going to be a brief period of adjustment.    By the end of my second shave with the Harry's cartridge and Truman handle, I was through that phase.

And on the third shave I noticed something else, totally unexpected - I liked the closer spacing on the blades.  Even though I was still taking shorter strokes and rinsing more, the blades felt better going over my skin.  

Unsure why, or whether I was just fooling myself, I did my next shave back on the trusty Gillette Fusion, and then switched back to the Harry's razor, and that's when I figured it out:  the wider spacing on the Fusion blades did indeed allow me to "shave faster" (for lack of a better phrase) but that contributed to a couple of issues that I just don't have any more with the Harry's.  Basically the Fusion tends to "slip" across my face faster, which is fine when you're on the flat plane of my cheek, but which has always been problematic on my chin, around my nose and upper lip, along my jaw line and neck around the Adam's apple.  Or to put it another way, on most of my face, I was constantly having to shave extra carefully with the Gillette Fusion to keep from scraping and cutting myself due to how fast it wants to glide around. 

By contrast, the Harry's doesn't "slip" along my face as fast, it has just a tiny bit more "grip" on my beard - not so much that I am conscious of having to tug or scrape, just more of a sure glide.  I don't worry about slipping and cutting myself with Harry's cartridges - they just move around my nose and jaw and chin and neck a a confident way.  The benefits to me are two-fold - I get fewer nicks and scrapes - no more dabbing my chin with a tissue - and I feel more relaxed about the entire process.  I will not go so far as to say I enjoy shaving, but it just seems like less of a hassle now.

Once I determined to stick with the Harry's Shave Plan, I went online and added an extra handle and pack of blades to my first order so I could keep spares in my travel kit.  I'm a Harry's convert, and I'll be quite happy paying less, having my supplies shipped to my door, and shaving with confidence.

Pros & Cons


  • Blades are 30% to 50% less expensive than premium 5-blade cartridges from well-known brands
  • Handles are well made and comfortable
  • Gel is good quality and smells great
  • Shave plan delivers products on a regular basis - and you determine the frequency of shipments and amount of product you receive (and you can alter the specifics of each shipment before it goes out)
  • Blades are quality steel and well-designed to glide smoothly but confidently (i.e. no slippage) across the face


  • Changing shaving products always takes some getting used to
  • Blades are more closely spaced which definitely changes some things, in particular practically guaranteeing a need for shorter strokes and more frequent rinses


If you're planning to sign up for the Harry's trial, please consider using this link: TRY HARRYS.  If you sign up using that link, I get $5 off on my next box of stuff from Harry's, and assuming you continue past the trial, you also will get $5 off on your first box.  

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Samsung Chromebook Pro - Early Review

This is a review of the Samsung Chromebook Pro.  I'm not a professional reviewer - I'm a user.  I do have a pretty extensive background in IT - computing, programming and networking.  This is not my first Chromebook.  Some factors about me and about my purchase of this device that will no doubt color my review:

  • I already had a Chromebook.  I have a positive view of Chromebooks in general and what they do, how they're meant to be used, etc.  
  • My old Chromebook worked great as a Chromebook, doing all the stuff Chromebooks do...with one or two minor caveats - a couple of web sites in particular were pretty poor performers (oddly enough Google sites like G+ and Inbox, and the CNN site is horrible)
  • A few things I never expected a Chromebook to do all that well, including rendering 3D in the browser, were sub-par on the old Chromebook.
  • From strictly a nerdist point of view, I was interested in the idea of running Android apps on a Chromebook.  Understand, I didn't need to run them but I thought it would be cool to try out.  Originally it could only be done using an emulator; now Google is slowly rolling out the capability for select Chromebooks, but my old one can't run them yet and probably won't run them well when and if it is supported
  • The old Chromebook was the late 2014 model Toshiba Chromebook 2 with the BayTrail Celeron processor. 
I began hearing about the Samsung Chromebook Pro late last year.  It was one of a pair of new Chromebooks from Samsung (the other being the Chromebook Plus) designed in partnership with Google to run Android apps alongside the main Chrome browser and browser-based apps.  The two models are virtually identical except for the color (silver for the Plus and black for the Pro), the processor (an ARM processor in the Plus and an Intel core m3 in the Pro) and the price - about $450 for the Plus and $550 for the Pro.  For a variety of reasons, the Plus went on sale about 5 months earlier than the Pro - there were persistent rumors of problems with the Pro, everything from heat-related issues to reported difficulties getting the Intel processor to run Android apps acceptably.  Note that in theory, the Pro is supposed to be the faster device - as fast or faster than the Plus for Android, and a LOT faster doing the browser-based work Chromebooks are known for.  That's why it cost $100 more.  

The Samsung Chromebook Pro hit the market a couple weeks ago, and I got mine within a few days of the first units hitting the street.  Having had a few weeks with it, how does it stack up.  That's what I'm going to write about here, but let me give you a hint - I just sold my Toshiba Chromebook 2 on Ebay.

Basic Description

The Samsung Chromebook Pro (I'm going to use the abbreviation SCP after this) is a laptop with a Intel core m3 processor (a "mobile" processor which nevertheless is a good bit more powerful than some of Intel's previous mobile CPUs), a 12.3 inch IPS display with a top resolution of 2400x1600, 4 gigs of RAM, and 32 gigs of SSD storage.  It has a micro-SD slot and two USB-C ports.  As this device is intended to run Android apps, it has a touch-screen, the screen folds all the way back around so the device can be used as a tablet, and it has a pen similar to what Samsung provides with their Galaxy Note smartphones and tablets.

As a piece of hardware, this is a really nice laptop.  It is an all-metal housing, and the black looks sweet.  The screen is gorgeous - bright and sharp.  One of my only "complaints" is that at 12.3 inches it's really not big enough to run at the top resolution (2400x1600) because none of the UI elements scale, and even though you can scale up the content of web pages, you typically don't have that kind of control for Android apps yet.  In other words unless you have super vision, you're probably going to run this at a slightly lower resolution.

If you haven't noticed, this thing isn't using the widescreen aspect ratio that has become so common in recent years - it has gone back to the sort of 3x2 shape we used to have on most monitors.  This works better for web browsing and running web apps - and since this is (after all) a Chromebook that works very well, giving you more vertical screen space.  

However in order to keep the size down, Samsung has a very narrow margin on either side of the keyboard and has shrunk and rearrange a couple of keys.  The one everyone notices - and which I am still getting used to - is the backspace key, which is now smaller than any normal key on the keyboard.  It is super easy to hit the "=" key by mistake.  Otherwise the keyboard works well enough and feels pretty good.

The USB situation is not ideal although I presume this is where things are headed - two USB-C ports.  No regular USB 2.0 or 3.0 ports.  By the way, you have to charge the device through one of those two ports as well.  I bought a hub that passes power through a USB-C connector into the laptop, gives me HDMI and VGA outputs, a wired gigabit ethernet port, and 3 USB 3.0 ports.  That helps.

Back to the screen - the touch screen is responsive.  The device goes into tablet mode when you flip the screen around past a certain point.  The pen works on the screen at any time as a pointer/selector, but can also be used for input in writing and drawing apps, and can also be used as a magnifier for a portion of the screen.  When not in use the pen tucks away in a spring-loaded slot on the device.

What I Like

I like the size, and the form factor.  The extra vertical space on screen gives a bit more content room for web pages, and web-work is still the #1 use for a Chromebook.  The web on this device is really snappy - including some things that used to bog down my old Chromebook, like the Google Inbox email site, Google Plus (G+), etc.  CNN is still kind of sucky - I tend to go to the main page and open a whole bunch of article links in new tabs, and there's so much multi-media crap, Flash, and other junk on CNN that it gets nasty fast.  But everything else has been very smooth, including things that render in 3D in the browser, like the 3D imagery on Google Maps.

The keyboard feels nice.  I listed my one complaint already and I'll mention it again later but overall the keys have a nice feel, and I can type on here for long periods.  The trackpad is awesome, too - I loved the one on my Toshiba but this one blows it away, it's like butter.

I like that the micro-SD is recessed behind a little cover. 

I love the screen, it's beautiful.  The touch aspect is unexpectedly nice - being able to pinch zoom any time, even on regular web pages, is awesome.  The hinges on the screen are stiff enough that I can rotate the screen pretty much any angle all the way until it's flat against the back of the keyboard, and it stays where I put it.  

I like the pen - although I am not, at present, using it much as intended.  Handwriting and drawing on screen is something I have not really "taken to" - I had a Samsung Galaxy Note phone for a long time and almost never used the pen there either.  But this pen can be used like an onscreen finger for anything, which is neat for precision pointing or just flicking around; and it can be put in magnifying glass mode which is sometimes neat for a person with poor eyes like mine.  I do have several drawing and note-taking programs I'm playing with to see if I will use it much for writing.  I've been a long-time user of Google Keep but so far using the pen in Keep doesn't feel very natural.

One of the biggest pleasant surprises has been running Android apps.  I had heard so much FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) about how an Intel processor would handle apps that I guess I had very low expectations.  Let me just say, so far I'm very impressed with what Google and Samsung have done here.  I can access the Play Store, pick an app, and install it, and run it - and apps are smooth and work well.  I have games, including some that do a lot of 3D like Vainglory; I have the full Android version of Instagram which is superior to looking at the Instagram web interface; I have got Snapseed on here which is fun for doing certain kinds of image edits.  I found a nice diagramming tool (for basic network diagrams).  There is just SO much available now that this becomes a much more full-featured device.  

In fact, for those of us that have enjoyed Chromebooks for what they are, adding Android apps feels like it's taking things in the wrong direction...but they're cool to have.

What I Don't Like

To beat the dead horse, I don't like the tiny backspace key.  For someone that does a lot of typing, it's damned inconvenient to reach for backspace and end up typing ====== all over the place.

No USB 3.0 ports is a pain in the butt, having to buy a dongle to turn one of my USB-C ports into USB 3.0 ports is bad, having to use a USB-C port to get my drift here.

Right now Android apps either operate by default in phone size/orientation, or they open full screen if you have the Chromebook Pro screen rotated back in tablet mode.  There's not much in between.  And the phone size/orientation can leave the app running in a tiny window if you're using a higher resolution.  There is a dev-mode option you can enable to run an app maximized by default and in portrait mode, and that works better for me.  With the dev mode options you can even turn on resizing for some apps.  However until Android O (and new versions of the apps) appears, we will not the capability very widespread.

A little worse is that Android app content doesn't scale (most of the time) - text is super small and controls can be as well.  It's usually better in full screen games which tend to scale as you would expect.

Battery life is rated at about 10 hours.  I have no idea who came up with that number, but I can tell you that if you turn on Bluetooth, or attach a wireless mouse dongle, and especially if you do streaming video, the battery life is heavily and quickly impacted.  I keep this plugged into the charger at all times unless I'm going to be out and about, and then I leave the mouse home.  I used to use Bluetooth so my phone could auto-unlock my screen, but I have disabled this for the time being.

Two Widely Discussed Issues

Almost since Google and Samsung announced a pair of new Chromebooks, one with an ARM processor and one with an Intel x86, there has been a lot written about how the Intel device might struggle with running Android apps.  Some have suggested they should be just fine, since Android apps are (theoretically) pure Java.  Others have rightly pointed out that many Android apps are written with custom, ARM-specific optimizations (since most phones and tablets use those kinds of CPUs).  Of course, Intel-based Chromebooks have had the advantage running Chrome OS and the full version of the Chrome browser.  It seemed that there was a basic tradeoff being offered - buy the Plus with the ARM processor if you mostly wanted Android apps and not so much Chrome, and buy the Pro with the Intel processor to maximize Chrome capability and expect some issues (poor, buggy performance) with Android apps.

I've already addressed this but to be perfectly clear - the Pro runs Android apps like a champ.  I have run fairly complex ones, too - they work, and work really well (given the caveats above about resizing and such, which affect the ARM-based Chromebook Plus equally).  There is a guy who runs a pro-ARM web site and appears writing all kinds of nasty comments about Intel and Intel-based devices who has been spreading a lot of unfounded crap around the comment sections of Chrome and IT web sites, and simply put, he's just wrong.  

The second issue has to do with "The Verge" tech web site.  It seems the Chromebook Pro may have a bit of a bug, probably in software, that causes the device to occasionally freeze.  I've seen it myself.  Not often mind you, and only when performing certain kinds of activities, but it does happen.  It seems to me almost certain that this will be fixed quickly - it doesn't look like it will be hard to nail down.  But The Verge is recommending people "do not buy" the device.  And I think that stinks - it's a really good device which pushes a bunch of new boundaries, and works remarkably well.  I do not believe the "do not buy" recommendation to be warranted.

Update: I have not had a freeze episode for several weeks.  I have no idea why; ChromeOS has not been updated since the initial release.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Two Days To Pixel (and I can't wait)

On Thursday I should be getting my Google Pixel XL (silver, 128GB).  I pre-ordered it from Verizon last week, and today I got the shipping notification.  Today (Tuesday, 10/18) Google lifted the embargo on reviews and all the major tech sites have pretty much published.  The synopsis?  Here's the breakdown:
  • Looks - most point out it looks like an iPhone.  Some folks like that, most think it would be nice if Google had innovated in some way.  Multiple sites griped about the glass on the top third of the back (around the fingerprint sensor).  I am thinking I'll have a case on mine as soon as possible so I will not know or care what the back looks like. 
  • Camera - most sites are genuinely impressed with the camera and from what I have seen, I will be too.  I am VERY excited about this part.
  • Assistant - Google Assistant is Google's "AI" similar to Siri on iPhone.  I have played a bit with the implementation in Google Allo, and for me, it's a mixed bag.  Sometimes it does something neat, sometimes not.  It seems that maybe the reviewers are experiencing the same thing - some reviews were really impressed with it and some not.
And those are the main areas the reviews have touched on.  Here is some information that puts the purchase in perspective for me.  I am currently using a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 that I bought nearly 3 years ago.  3 years isn't an eternity of course; and the phone DOES still work, and pretty well.  But for a piece of tech, and especially for an IT person, it's a bit dated.  I've waited quite a while because it's hard to justify spending the money on something like this TOO often, but I decided it was time when Google announced they were doing their first "all Google" phone.

Size-wise, it will be about the same as what I have (0.2 inches smaller diagonally on the screen but a LOT higher resolution, and probably a bit thinner and lighter).  The camera should be a lot better and more important to me, much faster - the camera on the Note 3 is a DOG to open and use.  One review says cell reception is a lot better and I'm hoping for that - I live right at the edge of Verizon's 4G LTE range and am hoping for more than a half a bar which is what I usually get now.  

One thing no one has really reviewed yet is the VR capabilities, and this is NOT something I bought the phone for - but since Google is giving away the DreamVR headset and remote, I am looking forward to trying it out.

I'll post back here soon!

Monday, January 4, 2016

One Year On - My Experience With A Chromebook

Note: If you don't know what a Chromebook is, this article may not make much sense.  Check out this link  to learn the basics - there are numerous other reviews and articles on the Internet that you can find with a quick search.  Then come back here to find out how using a Chromebook has worked for me!