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News from the IT travel department

I am a writer and I travel a lot. I also suffer from the laughable delusion that I can work on the road. I live surrounded by a chaotic miasma of weird and semi-functional mobile computing devices, some of which have strange habits; I've sometimes been tempted to turn this into a tech/gadget blog, but I'm not rich/mad enough to buy the gizmos out of my own pocket, and I'm not really interested in going back into journalism and doing it as a business. So you can take this posting as one in an occasional series of twitches from my not-quite-dead magazine pundit reflexes.

I've just spent three out of the past six weeks away from home, and I am annoyed. Nothing quite works right for me; moreover, it's probably not a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it. The sad fact is, mobile computing is trapped in a local minimum — a sub-optimal point in the phase space of cheaper/lighter/faster from which it cannot escape without some corporate entity somewhere taking a gamble and launching a new hopeful monster of mobile computing upon the world ... frankly, the situation has barely improved since 1999, when I was happily toting around a Psion 5MX. It had its drawbacks (it, in turn, had stepped back from the omnicompetent brilliance of the Psion Series 3, which was basically a real computer that did just about everything you expected of a desktop in those days and which you could stick in your pocket), but within those limits it kicked sand in the face of today's mobile gadgets. (And it's the direct ancestor of many of them; it's operating system, EPOC/32, is today better known as Symbian.) Bluntly, mobile computing devices today are crap. Here's why ...

For starters I'm going to nail my colours to the mast and declare that I am a Mac user. There: I said it! I dislike Windows. Partly this is because I come from UNIX-land — I pre-date Windows — and I expect my operating systems to make sense, and to be designed along consistent lines. Windows wasn't designed along consistent lines; it just sort of happened, and bits got bolted on top. If operating systems were houses, Windows would be a chaotic jumbled rookery. Mac OS X is the current best-of-breed desktop workstation environment in UNIX-land; and although stuff's been bolted on top over the years, there's still a relatively clean BSD layer underneath all the cruft. Linux would be a contender if you could collectively slap the development community around the head with Apple's circa-1985 Human Interface Guidelines, but as things stand they're more interested in featuritis than usability. Apple, for all their sins — have you noticed how Steve Jobs comes to resemble a Bond villain more with every passing year? — understand the value of industrial design (vital at a consumer level), and know that raw computing power is useless if the users can't get at it (vital at a developer level). Apple, as a friendly hack of my acquaintance put it, has one single customer: Steve. For any given product, if Steve doesn't like it, it doesn't ship. And Steve is reputedly a perfectionist asshole and a control freak. These are personality traits I hate in my customers, but adore in my suppliers. So count me in on the cult of Mac (up to a point).

Microsoft, in contrast, also has just one customer: Steve. Balmer, that is. Microsoft makes products that only a company like Microsoft could like — a corporation with 87,000 employees and a huge IT departmental spend. Microsoft eats its own dogfood eagerly, and if anyone in-house needs a piece of software, they'll build one to fit the requirement — and it will have features galore, features to match every bullet point on the PowerPoint pitch, regardless of whether they're useful, necessary, or even belong in the product. This is not an intrinsically bad way to run a software company — but Microsoft's products are managed by developers: design and usability come a long way down the ladder. Evidence: let's look back to last year and compare Windows Mobile 6.0 with iPhone OS 2.2. Windows Mobile wiped the floor with the iPhone OS on features (what, no cut and paste?!) but the iPhone OS knocked the spots off Windows Mobile on sheer usability — for any given task, if it could be accomplished on both systems, the iPhone was much easier to use.

Linux: here, hand me those pliers and that duct tape. Look, it works now! What's your problem?

(Yes, the server this blog sits on is running Debian. I've been intimately familiar with Linux for years — I used it as my main desktop OS from 1995 onwards until OS X got powerful enough to do what I needed. Nevertheless, when I'm trying to Get Stuff Done, having to pull out the duct tape every fifteen minutes gets old fast. The newer Ubuntu releases are promising, but they're not in OS X getting-stuff-done land yet. Watch the skies ...)

Now, I travel. A lot. I want portable computing.

I've tried Netbooks. The problem with netbooks is this: they suck. Many of them have keyboards designed by folks for whom western European languages are not their first, or even second, script. I am sick and tired of keyboards where the right shift key is buried among the arrow keys, so that half the time you try and type a W or A you end up inserting a lowercase letter on the line above. I am sick and tired of keyboards too small to type on, or with missing characters. Welcome to netbook land!

If the keyboards are good (and HP have got them right), the screen resolution is low. And if they get the screen right as well, you end up battling with an asthmatic, gutless processor. The Intel Atom family CPUs have just about no cache, and they deliver piss-poor performance. The icing on the cake for me was installing OS X on an Asus Eee 1000 with an SSD. Two minutes to boot! Welcome back to the 1980s and the world of floppy disks.

I have a first-generation Macbook Air. Unlike the netbooks, it has a full sized screen and keyboard. It also runs on a real processor — a Core 2 Duo — and even the gutless first generation model (with an iPod's hard disk and a cheap Intel 950 video chipset) can boot in less than 30 seconds. It does, however, tend to wheeze loudly when I throw my regular working set of apps at it — OpenOffice, Thunderbird for email, and Firefox with about 30 tabs — spinning up the fans and blasting hot air over my knees. If I have a rush of cash to the wallet I'll trade up to the current model which has a whole lot more grunt (and where the high end SSD-equpped model costs a hundred quid less than this low-end one did when they first came out). The only real problem with the Macbook Air is its lack of ports (come on: one USB socket?) ... but remember, Apple is the company that first launched wifi in a laptop, back in 1998: if they've got any sense, the next revision of the Macbook Air will come with Wireless USB (at which point: problem solved).

Yes, there are cheaper laptops that resemble the Airbook, and can be coerced into running Linux rather than XP — from the likes of Acer and Asus. Alas, they tend to have Atom CPUs. A cheap knock-off is a cheap knock-off. And there are expensive knock-offs: the Dell Adamo (come on, a 1.2GHz Core Solo processor? For 50% more than a Macbook Air?) or the new Sony Vaio P (ditto, and don't get me started on Sony's attitude to after-sales service).

But. The Airbook isn't really usable in economy-class seating. What if I want to whip out a computer, Psion 5-like, and tap away in coach class for 20 hours on a pair of AA cells?

The story here is even more dismal.

I'm going to turn 45 next month, and my eyesight is succumbing to presbyopia. I can cope fine with a laptop screen with a traditional pixel dot pitch of 72 to 95 pixels per inch (ghastly imperial units again — why can't we go metric, dammit?). But modern handheld gadgets are going for much finer dot pitch, in the range 120-200 pixels per inch. At which point you need a user interface that scales up gracefully, or older eyes can't see the menu or mouse pointer any more.

I've got one device, a media player — the Viliv S5 — that runs Windows XP (and would run Linux too, if the vendor hadn't crippled the BIOS). It does run my core applications (one at a time; it's another gutless Atom CPU), as well as playing movies. The trouble is, the screen has a 5" diagonal, and somehow crams 1024 pixels into the 10.4 centimetres of its width — that's a little under 100 pixels per cm, or around 250 pixels per inch. Windows XP does not do 250 pixel/inch displays terribly well. In fact, although I can happily watch a movie on it, trying to use desktop apps on it makes my eyes bleed.

I gather Sony market a class of subnotebook, the Vaio P, which would fit my bill (if I went for one of the high-end models that are only sold in Japan, and ripped Windows Vista off the thing). Unfortunately they crammed a 1600x768 pixel display onto the thing ... with a 203.2 mm diagonal! Welcome to the eye-bleed clubhouse. And that's before I mention the 2 hour battery life (or you can shell out £180 notes for a 4 hour extended battery).

Sharp have gone one better, with a palmtop I'm still drooling after even though I know I can't use it: the Netwalker. It runs Ubuntu and comes with my core productivity apps and an acceptable battery life ... but again: it has the same size screen as the Viliv M5.

Who the hell are they designing these devices for? Anyone aged over 40 is going to find them impossible to use without reading glasses (memo to self: get reading glasses!). We're stuck with user interfaces that don't scale well to high pixel density displays, and a mess of brain-damaged pen-based machines (have you ever tried to write a novel with a pen?), and nobody seems to be paying attention to usability. Maybe the legendary Apple tablet will save us all, but I'm getting awfully tired waiting. Meanwhile: our portable medium-sized device experience is still way behind what it was like in the late 1990s. Maybe I should go on eBay and hunt down a second-hand Psion 5MX ...

99 Comments

1:

Small note on the "relatively clean BSD layer" - as we're doing some development for Mac, the best thing coming in mind for the cleanliness of the BSD layer seems to be "the result of a kitten pile that was ran over by a lawnmower", in the last few months the mac has reached the "wtf" level of windows here between the developers.
(Linux isn't that much better, either, but still below those two).

Otherwise, if you find a device that can be small and useful, please yell. I'm one of those lugging around a 3.5kg laptop, because all the rest sucks so much (hey, at least it's a good exercise and the battery life makes you do something else for a change, instead of just staring at the screen all the time).

2:

IIRC OSX is moving over to a fully scaled display.

You can change the rendering on Windows to take account of high DPI displays & scale appropriately, but unfortunately there are a bunch of applications out there that break horribly if you set your DPI to anything other than 95, so they're going to have to come up with some weird emulation setup when people realise that actually, reading text on a 200dpi display is much easier than on a 95dpi one & such displays start to become common-place.

The other option might be something like the Nokia N900 with a decent bluetooth keyboard, if you can find one. I ran emacs in the terminal on an N800 (you could set the text size to something reasonable) and it was OK, but the bluetooth keyboard I had wasn't stable enough to be comfortable.

I can send you my old Psion 5 if you'd like it in the meantime :)

3:

You mention of the pixel-size of modern screens strikes a chord with my experience. I replaced a CRT monitor recently with a last-season wide-screen LCD, and much bigger. It would be nice to be able to tell Windows XP to up the pixels-per-inch a bit more, and have that ripple through all the applications.

Maybe that will come in Windows 7. I suspect that the driving force for that tech is HDTV, and that's why the small eye-bleeders exist. Sure, the huge-screen TV with HDTV is out there, and staggeringly expensive, but the market wants portable devices with the vertical resolution.

And an LCD feels sharper. Even a tiny netbook screen seems clearer than that old CRT monitor did.

The trouble is that Windows, and the net, has plenty of stuff which is going to have problems. The existing pixels-per-inch choice does nasty things to too much software. Drop-down pick-lists have large text squeezed into small boxes, for instance.

4:

Phil Armstrong: I have a brace of Think Outside folding bluetooth keyboards and I am going to hang onto them until you pry them from my cold, dead hands. I have a Nokia N810, but alas, the screen digitizer has died and it's out of warranty. It was a little painful to use, anyway. (You'd think I'd have learned by now, right?)

NB: I now have an appointment for (another) eye test. I think the presbyopia has moved on since it was diagnosed last December, and I really need reading glasses. Who knows? I may suddenly find the Viliv tablet is workable, with vision correction. (I trained myself to work with teeny tiny fonts many years ago, when recovering from a detached retina; it'd be nice to go back there.)

5:

Thanks Charlie, I now have a name for my declining eyesight. If you need glasses do what I did as an interim measure. Go to your local pharmacy (or 1 pound store) and get the reading glasses. Basically just magnifying lenses in frames. By golly they work. The lowest magnification is +1 which suits me fine. AU$20 from a pharmacy and about AU$4 from the el cheapo shops. If you don't really need a prescription it can save you hundreds.

6:

Have you looked at stuff on Dynamism.com in the US?

I had a Toshiba Libretto from them a few years back that ran on the Transmeta Crusoe chip - decent keyboard, allbeit only a 600Mhz processor, and a 12-hour battery life.

They're currently showing the UMID M1 which looks interesting and a whole range of ultralights (as well as netbooks etc.)

And I totally agree, re Psion S3/3as, they were awesome, and we could do with an updated version. I'd buy one like a shot.

7:

I found some £6 reading glasses in my local Tesco the other day, though they were in sealed packets so you couldn't try them out. Several other places, like Boots or Lloyds or indeed the local pound store (in Wells) have sunglass-vending-style open racks with mirrors so you can try them out for lens action and fashion coolth.

The first thing that swims into view, though, is usually some notice recommending you get your eyes properly checked.

The other alternative is a Gilliam-Brazil-style magnifying Fresnel lens in front of the tiny screens, and a solid metal frame to hold them both steady... Oh. Not so portable.

8:

you jump around a bit from symbian to netbooks I'm not really sure what you're after, not sure you know yourself.

but n900 http://www.nokian900.com/

You can ad any bluetooth keyboard. For the proly too small (for you) screen it has TV out which you can connect to any media device, VR headset, TV / projector that is handy. That is until pocket projectors are common.

Until there are some technological revolutions you're not gonna get a useable keyboard, giant screen, 20hour battery, fits in my pocket device.

9:

I briefly lusted after a Macbook Air, but ended up with a Lenovo Thinkpad X301 ... great keyboard & display, pretty good battery life (well over 3 hours work w/ 6 cell) although it would indeed be great if they could just kidnap some Apple designers just for a bit ...

10:

Just an unrelated hint: Even if you have the money to do so, you really shouldn't fall for the SSD upsell trap in Apple notebooks. They ship Samsung disks, and those are really really bad at common things (random writes of small files, to be precise). Check out the two big Anandtech SSD stories for the details, but it boils down to this: If you buy a lower-priced Macbook with the cheapest HDD option and then buy & upgrade to an intel X-25 II yourself, you spend about as much overall, but end up with a far more responsive system.

11:

njharman: I know exactly what I'm after. Symbian to netbooks is no jump at all if you ever ran a Psion Series 7. (Hint: google it.)

The issue is not screen size per se, it's usability. Desktop OSs simply don't work well on anything less than 9" diagonal (as millions of Asus Eee 701 buyers discovered). We had a usable 20-hour battery life, fits-in-pocket machine back in 1999; alas, they don't do bluetooth, wifi, or modern web browsing, or I'd still be using one (green screen and all).

As for the N900, I am not terribly impressed by Maemo, at least in its earlier incarnations. If they get Documents-To-Go fully ported (which appears to be in the pipeline) I might change my tune, but not until.

sharks: even the first generation Airbook is a sweet machine -- it's just that I expect more than it can deliver. The new model benchmarks about four times as fast, due to a whole bunch of tweaks -- the processor is running 30% faster, there's a new GPU that's got 450% of the rendering performance, and the high-end SSD model costs what the low-end hard disk model used to. I'm counting my pennies and keeping one eye on what old Airbooks sell for on eBay, against the day I can afford the upgrade.

12:

Just wait until you get some afto-aspro eyes. But then I suppose you won't need to see less than 100 pixels per inch.

13:

Just wait until you get some afto-aspro eyes. But then I suppose you won't need to see more than 100 pixels per inch.

14:

Andreas: thanks, that's a handy tip.

(I didn't mention my main machine, because it's not terribly portable outside the home: last-gen (removable battery) Macbook Pro 15", with an OCZ SATA SSD upgrade (which I fitted myself before the Intel X25 drives were available).

It's a sweet machine, but more of a portable desktop than anything you can shove in a shoulder bag and walk around with. (Translation: I get neck/shoulder or back ache if I schlep it around for too long.)

Drake: question-mark?

15:

So what exactly happened in Dresden to make you write this rant about usability, or better "non-usability"? ;-))

16:

@Andreas
Yeah. The Anandtech story is quite good, and there are quite a few SSDs on the market now using the indilinx controller that makes the new OCZs so good

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indilinx#Indilinx_Barefoot

From the article, it certainly sounds game changing, and it's easily possible that for my next computer I'll be spending more on the disk than the CPU.

17:

I love the post -- you've written 60% of one I had in my queue, so now I can point to yours. To finish it off, you need to also add 'what's wrong with google' (ex: there's one user, and it's the metamind - also see Cringely - http://www.cringely.com/2009/09/the-peoples-republic-of-google/).

I'm betting that Google will launch a Google-branded Chromestellation netbook (ChromeBook?) in the fall. Be interesting to see how that compares.

PS. I got an error when I first tried to post this.

As for pixel size and UI scaling -- anyone remember the scalable UI Apple promised us 4+ years ago? I had to buy my mother a CRT because even now CRT resolution adjustment is the only way to scale. (Windows has had a sort of vector scaling since the Win 98 days or earlier, but it's never worked.)

18:

Ok, it doesn't run on double-As, but my wife is running Ubuntu on this and loves it:

http://www.amazon.com/Acer-Aspire-Timeline-AS3810T-6775-13-3-Inch/dp/B002FGTJ36/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&s=electronics&qid=1253020114&sr=8-11

13.3" screen, 8-hour battery life (supposedly. she's never run it all the way down), Core2Duo, 3lbs, $800. All hardware supported on the version of Ubuntu that comes out next month.

Just an FYI, YMMV, etc.

19:

Charlie: When you get the eye exam, make sure to tell them the reading distance. My doctor assumed 18" (sorry, Imperial again) because 'that's how people hold books.' And he didn't tell me. The next year, I asked for the optimal distance to be shorter, because I don't sit that far from a laptop. Or novel, most days.

Also, in the US, most optometrists run eye checks in bright light. This constricts the pupil, and gives you better DOF, just like higher f-stop on a camera. As you get presbyopia, this amounts to sloppy work on the doctor's part.

20:

I still have a Psion Series 5mx. I still dust it off occasionally in wistful memory of the times I spent getting to sync files to my Linux desktop machine and the sheer joy of running a mobile computing device of a couple of AA's for *weeks*.

I have an EeePC 1000HE netbook, it's the first piece of kit that makes me feel like I did with my 5mx, and I have been through enough PDA's/PDA Smartphone/Smartphones to know what I need in a mobile device these days.

Yes it's hopelessly underpowered (but it runs Ubuntu so nicely), and I don't have to worry about finding a power socket at conferences anymore, even with the wifi on.

Wouldn't want to necessarily type on it all day long but the chicklet keyboard is not particularly any worse than my Macbook...

21:

As a traveling writer and lecturer, I've agonized over the kinds of tradeoffs you mention, and have owned my share of solutions. The Psion Series 7 was my favourite, what with its great battery life, keyboard and rock-stable OS. That is, until it ended its short and oh so expensive life on a cold, hard airport floor. Which brings me to my main point when it comes to choosing a machine: it needs to withstand the rigours of travel, or alternatively be cheap enough to be replaceable when the inevitable happens.

Lately, I've opted for the latter and consequently bought an ASUS 1000H some months ago. Though I still run the original XP installation when I need to hook it up to a projector, Ubuntu 9.04 is my main OS. And I've found it to be much faster than I expected. It boots in about 30 seconds flat, and Openoffice runs fine. As for Firefox, in my experience it's been a memory hog since Ubuntu 8.04, and at the moment I'm running Opera instead. Sleek, fast and with the Opera Turbo option which really helps when my 3G network slows down.

It is by no means a replacement for my Lenovo T61, but whenever I'm on a plane and see someone in the seat next to me struggle to fit a Macbook Air on their table, I just unfold my petite 1000H, smile and type away while I think of the future netbook models I will be able to afford for the price of a single Mac.

22:

I miss my Tandy 100 sometimes -- 20 hours on 4 AA and a built-in 300 baud modem for connectivity. The software was personally written by Bill Gates and the hardware was nearly indestructible.

More recently I've been lugging a Panasonic CF-29 Toughbook. The built in handle and 4.5 kg of heft make it suitable for hand-to-hand combat. It has held up beautifully on numerous around-the-world flights and encountered plenty of hazardous conditions from red-wine-in-turbulence to Saharan-sandstorms. The LiPo battery used to give me four hours of Linux coding, but it is fading after four years, so I may need to replace it.

But the software is nothing special. Compared to the "instant-on" of the Tandy, all of the modern devices are positively sluggish.

23:

Someone already mentioned the N900, but the N800 and bluetooth keyboard would probably do just what you're after. The bluetooth keyboards come in all shapes and sizes so I'm sure you'd be able to find one that suits - mine folds in half to be about the same size as the N800 itself and runs on two AAA batteries.

24:

Years ago I had an HP100LX which, when on a table was touch-typeable for me, but when held in my hands was thumb-typeable. When all these other handhelds started coming out, I was sorry I sold it because it was still a great pocket-size computer.

25:

Two points:

(1) You consider Unix "old"? I predate Unix! I still remember enough JCL to get a set of cards ready for VMS! You young whippersnappers...

(2) I found it interesting that you mentioned the biggest problem with portable devices largely in passing: battery life/power consumption (two halves of the same problem). There's a reason that they both suck: Patent expiration. Critical enabling patents for both battery technology and power consumption control did not expire until 2001 and 2002 respectively. That these were based on work done for the space program shouldn't surprise anyone. It might surprise you who owned them... and wouldn't license them for research (let alone commercial deployment) in a way that would make sense for the researcher. Hint: What to the UK, Texas, and Venezuala have in common?

(3) There's one other class of persons disserved by portable-device technology: Touch-typists. Dammit, I shouldn't have to move my fingers off the home row on a dimly lit, turbulence-influenced airplane to operate the machine! And, similarly, something falling on the bloody touchpad (something that IBM did right: that minijoystick in the middle of the keyboard) shouldn't input undesired commands.

I have a lot less trouble with slightly small keyboards than do most; I have small hands and waaaay too many years playing keyboard instruments, so I adapt to different keyboard sizes pretty quickly. As Our Host notes, though, key placement is another issue entirely.

26:

> . . . (have you ever tried to write a novel with a pen?) . . .

Not personally, but I believe it's possible, or at least has been done in the past ;)

27:

I'm really angry at the slew of crappy developers who write operating systems software for mobile devices (I'm a developer myself).

How long does it take to make a useable interface for a mobile device! Apple managed it so why can't all the idiots at Microsoft?

They really need to be hit very hard and repeatedly until they get it right!

Personally I despise Apple and their corporate tactics (want to develop for the iphone - buy a Mac!) but they produce a damn good mobile device.

However just as good a device could have been produced years ago if only a few people had got their act together!

Hopefully the success of the iphone will deliver a suitable kick in the arse to other mobile developers and get them working seriously instead of pissing about.

28:

The real problem, which I don't think any manufacturer is addressing, is how to input text quickly and reliably on a handheld device.

With a device like the MacBook Air (or any similar size laptop), you have a full size keyboard and it's all down to your typing speed.

Smaller netbooks get more and more cramped keyboards which are less and less useful for actually writing on.

When you get down to handheld touch screen / stylus devices, they're *AWFUL* for input. The iPhone isn't too bad with a bit of practise and trust in the autocorrect, but it's nothing like being able to record your thoughts with a proper laptop.

Way back when (cue special effects), Dennis Norden was advertising the Microwriter Agenda, a single handed chording keyboard which allowed you to input text with one hand. And this was pretty effective.

http://www.bellaire.demon.co.uk/ is the current home of this device for Palm PDAs.

It's hard to see someone making a device which requires learning a new interface like the microwriter these days, but it's also hard to see how it's possible to get keyboard speed input with only one hand on a handheld device.

Dasher (http://wol.ra.phy.cam.ac.uk/) is one possible direction and the microwriter is another possible style. Is there any other option?

Voice Recognition is probably a dead end - can you imagine the noise of everyone inputting text out loud? - despite being the most science-fictional style of input, it's also the most error prone:

COMPUTER: "...eddies in the space-time continuum have resulted in ..."

HUMAN: "What?! Get him out of that!"

C: "Error. "

H: "Computer! Get Eddy out of the spacey-thingy conti-whatsit!"

C: "Error. Would you like to open the pod bay doors? And step outside?"

29:

http://www.nannini.com/en/products/dett.aspx?cod=COMP1&div=EYECARE

According to a friend whose opinion I value, "They hinge exactly like you'd think, and really go in a
case that's 10 mm thick. Filling up no pockets. (the mechanism also makes
it easy to set them at your preferred angle on your face, since you can
fiddle with each leg.)"

30:

Regarding Microsoft.

Its not 1 customer. Its 87,000 all of whom can shout just loud enough to keep their request on that powerpoint slide.

As for laptops I stick to the proper Sony Japanese equipment (a 2 year old TX series at the moment). Buy just after they are discontinued and they end up being £500 overpriced rather than £1000.

31:

Daniel Swan:
Amen on the EEE 1000HE have one dual booting XP and EasyPeasy really a winner on power consumption. Still prefer my EEE 900A for complete portability.

Re: Glasses
Bring your laptop to your optometrist and get fitted for your working distance. I got this done at Costco and the difference is amazing.

Re Boot:
The real solution is to make an instant boot dedicated distro like express gate optimized for a decent WP and browser. Minimalist windows manager as well. Rig that with a ARM based system and you are well within the target performance.

32:

"If operating systems were houses, Windows would be a chaotic jumbled rookery."

In the final days of Mac OS Classic, someone in Apple engineering made a T-shirt. The text read "Macintosh Mystery OS", and the picture parodied the Winchester Mystery House, rifle heir Sarah Winchester's eccentric mansion.

I'd left Apple by that time, but I spent a couple of years mapping the spaghetti in the Mac while I was there. So I had a full appreciation.

I always coveted those shirts, but never got one. Only seen one a handful of times.

33:

CEP @25: it's worth noting that the Sony Vaio P machines have the trackpoint device rather than a trackpad -- might be useful to you! Sony allegedly designed the whole machine around the keyboard, to make touch-typing possible. (Just remember to downgrade them to run XP or Linux ...) They're a bit sluggish, but in the UK Sony are offering a £150 cashback between now and December, and they're fully supported on Ubuntu: for £600 they're a lot lighter and more portable than a regular netbook (if you can see the screen).

Robin @27: sure Apple require you to develop for iPhone on a Mac ... just like Microsoft require you to develop for Windows Mobile on a Windows XP/Vista/7 box. This is definitely pot/kettle/non-white territory.

Odaiwai @28: my personal favourite was Fitaly, but the inventor and primary developer died a year or so ago (just as with the Microwriter chord-keyboard design).

Bob @32: I feel your pain. Recently had cause to boot up a first generation flying saucer iBook from 1999, running OS 9.2. The flashbacks were Not Pleasant -- I'd have said it was more H. H. Holmes than Sarah Winchester.


34:

Charlie, you haven't mentioned Google's Chrome OS, which sounds like it might be ideal for your needs when it comes out next year. After all, if anyone can create a Linux distro with mass-market appeal it's going to be Google, and the Chrome browser is amazing - it displaced Firefox for me very quickly on Windows, and I also use a development version on Ubuntu. An OS built around this sounds very promising.
Not much it can do about crappy netbook keyboards though...

35:

I have a first gen Asus Eee 701 4G, and I love it. I have it running a custom, stripped down Slackware install (full KDE desktop). It works awesome, it's plenty fast, and I like the interface, but I'm a duct-tape-and-pliers kind of guy.

I do quite a bit to remap my keyboard on any machine--both the capslock key and escape keys emit the Escape keystroke. Why? Well, let me explain how I fixed the right-shift on my Eee. I remapped the up-arrow to be right-shift, so I have a full sized shift key under my right pinky (which has some nerve damage, so having fiddly keyboard problems for it is very bad for me). I then remapped Fn-k as up-arrow and Fn-j as down-arrow, and all the *nix guys know why I remapped caps-lock the way I did (I'm a vi user, escape is commonly used key).

So, the only gripe I have with the Eee is that the 'h' key isn't modified by the Fn key. The Fn key operates at the hardware level, so I can't have my full hjkl arrow key set without some serious hacking--which I don't want to do, since the Eee is otherwise perfect (and I don't have money to replace it right now, as cheap as it is).

Although, I need to setup my desktop keyboard so Win+[hjkl] are arrow keys everywhere, because it feels so good.

36:

About those brain-damaged pen-based devices:

I would dearly like to have a non-brain-damaged pen-based device. I want a 11" x 8.5" slate with enough computer inside to run Ubuntu desktop, but designed primarily for browsing the web, reading mathematics books, and taking handwritten notes on. I don't need a built-in keyboard, just a touchscreen and a USB port. (LaTeX is nice for typesetting a finished set of ideas, but it's a miserable way to think.) And I want it to be light. I don't need a 5 lb "rugged" machine. I want to carry it comfortably in my backpack, not tote it to oceanic oil drilling platforms.

Anyone ever seen such a thing?

37:

You might want to consider one of the head mounted displays. The cheap ones have horrible resolution (480x480 for some of them), but the display would seem larger. I've never gotten to use them, but I figure you're in a better spot to preview them, or talk to someone who has.

38:

@36 This is close, though it's a bit smaller than you want.
http://gizmodo.com/5346140/always-innovating-touch-book-now-has-working-accelerometer-and-sticks-to-fridge-but-not-totally-baked

Also, you might want to make the "You must preview" warning a little more prominent.

39:

Input for portable devices:

Put a two-handed keyboard on the back of the device (fingers facing each other), add a bit of a handle for the thumbs and implement 2 buttons for each thumb (space, shift, Enter, alt-for-numbers-and-punctuation). Try to make do with no more than 15 keys for each hand, or use simple(!) chords for 10 each.

Key labels could be displayed on the display to make the touch typing easier to start with, but it will still be annoying enough that the brain will learn to make do without them rather sooner than later (unlike regular keyboards, where you can type looking at the keys all the time and never learn to touch type without conscious effort).

AFAIK it's not patented yet, although Apple patented the same thing with a touchpad on the back. This may look more pretty but is actually misguided, since a touchpad isn't a feelpad. And high fidelity tactile feedback is king in typing.

40:

Call me weird, but I really don't understand the point of mobile devices for non-professional use. For taking short notes there is the paper notebook or just a cell phone. (is it still legal to leave home without it in the UK? Or will just leaving your phone at home send you to a slammer?)

If you really, really need a computer, what's wrong with lugging around a full sized laptop? They're awfully lightweight.. I mean, what, 2.5 kilos? Your dads or grand-dads probably used to march days with heavy packs while saving the western civilization... all that to allow you to moan about carrying a paltry 2.5 kilos of computer in a backpack?

What I would really like would be a big, powerful laptop, with heavy, long lasting batteries, weighing something like six or seven kilos, with a sturdy outer shell, which could be carried like a case, or on my back. (Hey, it's exercise, and we all could use a lot more of it, iron man afficionados excepted)
Preferably with quality thumbprint lock, reel-in power cord, and the outer case built to withstand 7.62mm rifle hits. Perhaps made from these Spectra fibers, with some spaced steel backing.

*Autocad doesn't really need that much, but certain games do.. (not to mention future editions of Autocad)

41:

Schmidt: if you think 2.5Kg is awfully lightweight, you don't have my dodgy neck/back joints.

Nor is my iphone up to serious note-taking, in the absence of a bluetooth keyboard HID and a screen that's physically large enough to see.

You're young, aren't you?

42:

Tetragramm @ 38:

That's pretty good, but I'm not sure if it'll capture the academic market. The 1000x600 resolution doesn't look right for viewing book, and I'm a bit hesitant to buy a slate that isn't specifically meant for use with a stylus.

Anyways, thanks for the pointer and apologies to our host for hijacking the comments with my own complaints.

43:

tp1024 at nr 39: if you do that, you might as well use a Velotype keyboard. Basically one types full syllables in one chord. It allows you you keep up with speaking speed.

(oh and why does preview/submission not work? I got lots of "invalid request" errors until I enabled that well-known security hole called javascript)

44:

#41: Post #40 smells more like troll than someone young.


45:

Curmudgeon: poster @40 showed up on an earlier thread and took a little bit of a kicking. Seemed more clueless than trollish ... at least, so far.

46:

@43:

After how much training? The point is really to try and make it as quickly to learn and use as possible, while using as few keys as possible. Chording should be avoided in the standard layout for speed.

So, you'd probably need 13 keys for each hand, probably with two rows of 5 keys and one with 3 for the not so frequent letters. You could borrow some of it from the Dvorak layout. aoeui dhtns for the first row etc. (Yes, I do use Dvorak to touchtype on an EEE 701 and yes, I am lazy and want all the world to accommodate to *my* particular kind of laziness. ;) But I also think it would make sense.)

Using syllables is not universal, such systems are highly dependent on the language you use. So, I would have to learn two very different layouts for my native German and English. (And I don't even want to think about breaking English down to all its possible syllables ...)

47:

Apple's software is all right, and their hardware isn't bad (though it is a bit limited in range--suppose I want a merely mid-end computer which isn't a giant screen?), but I really, really loathe their input devices. Their keyboard is just horrible, and their mouse isn't very good either. My *laptop's* keyboard is much better (despite being designed in Taiwan, and having many of the problems you point out with that).

I always though a higher-res display was better, even in smaller size, but than I am
a. Young (though hardly with good eyes)
b. assuming vector or similar scaling of display elements. Merely making everything smaller isn't any good.

48:

AJ. @36 Crunchpad [1] fits that bill. Not sure when it is out though.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CrunchPad

49:

I think you're underestimating the low-end eeePC range of netbooks.

My "mobile" machine is the eeePC 1000H and I'm running it with WindowsXP/Opera/StarOffice. I have to admit that I sometimes do hit points where it feels kinda slow, like my old Toshiba Satellite 15" notebook from 2002, but considering the price and the, for that price level, good design, I can live with those rare moments of hitting performance bottlenecks, considering that, even if I'd upgrade to a newer model a year early and thus shortened my replacement cycle by a third, I still won't be spending even a third (more like a fourth) of what operating successive MacBook Air's would cost me. As the 1000H is a 10.2 inch model it has decently sized keys but my main complaint with the keyboard is indeed the placement of the right shift key, though IMO the 1000HE keyboard has been improved in that aspect.

As long as you don't expect too much from it the 1000H is a wonderful machine even with XP as an OS as the installation and even the pre-installed apps are remarkably well thought out in comparison to most other (and many far higher priced) machines out there. It was quite an experience to have a new computer that worked as expected/wished for on first boot out of the box (though I gather that this is not so unique for Apple systems). Granted, with the beginning of this paragraph I'm outing myself as a non-IT-geek in my sheeplike acceptance of a pre-install with some MS products and an MS OS (but, heck, at least I switched the browser to Opera). In addition to office apps, presentations and especially netsurfing I'm using it as a "motherstation" for my ebookreader and my ipod (the 160GB HD helps there), a mobile television and, with DOSBOX, to fill my nostalgic need to play the games of my youth (Centurion, Red Storm Rising, Silent Service...) once in a while.

50:

I wouldn't write a book on it, but I'm very interested to see what comes of this:

http://openpandora.org/

51:

After I read what some people want/need, I was reminded of this:

http://www.theonion.com/content/video/sony_releases_new_stupid_piece_of

52:

A.J. @36:

That's pretty much my dream, too. What I want is something I can use as a sketchpad / photographic light table / Photoshop retouching machine with a touch screen and a stylus (drawing with your fingers is just too frustrating for precision work; I've done finicky Photoshop retouching with a touchpad, a similar exercise, and it's painful). Light weight? Damn right; the typical sketching posture is with the pad lying on one forearm, maybe braced in the crook of the elbow, stylus in the other hand. Try to hold that pose for an hour or so with a 2.5 Kg laptop!

So far as I know, no one has ever built a commercial product that has all the requirements: good user interface, high resolution touch screen, low weight, and low power consumption. There have been experimental machines built (and I've lusted after several of them), but the market for this sort of product is too small for anyone to be willing to develop cutting edge technology to build it. Wait until e-ink has been available for a few years, and wifi power consumption has been engineered down. It's really annoying too, I've been wanting one of those things for more than 30 years, ever since Alan Kay wrote about the Dynabook.

Charlie @ OP:
Once again you've managed to state my position better than I could. I too came from Unix to the microcomputer world of Windows and Mac. In my case, I designed window-based user interfaces on Unix similar to the Xerox Dorado and Star that Jobs copied for the Mac, so I know what can be done with small memories and slow processors; Windows never did cut it.

Incidentally, my solution for dealing with aging eyes and varying distance work is varifocal lenses. They are expensive to be sure, but if your eyes stop changing diopters they can last for years, and they let you focus on screens at comfortable distances while still allowing you to get up close to a book.

53:

Bruce,

I've found a few "netbook slates" (this seems to be the key phrase) that look pretty close to what I'm asking for. Most of them have a miniature widescreen and no stylus and aren't available in the US yet, but something like this seems to be coming soon.

54:

@49:

Yeah, but wouldn't it be great if not just Sony, but *everyone* could have their own stupid and unusable piece of crud, that you can slap against your forehead. Because you didn't see the obvious point that makes it perfectly unusable? :)

After all, a corollary to Sturgeons law is: 10% of everything is *not* crap ...

55:

I found that that the current generation of netbooks available here in Oz all suffer from the same problem that Charlie mentioned in his original comment, namely the fonts when Windows is used in the default screen resolution is far too small (for 62 year old eyes with intraocular lens implants and reading glasses).

Even my (oldish) Palm Tungsten E2 is easier to read! I ended up using an old IBM X40 Thinkpad as a "netbook" - works well for me...

56:

Ahh… I loved my Palm Vx and 4-pane folding keyboard cum palmstand: the autonomy, compacity, usability and sturdiness are hard to beat. Were it not for the poor connectivity and offline-ess of it, I suspect I would still be running this neat machine today.

Over the years, I went from Palm-plus-'desktop' (wall of CRTs with 7 boxes running 6 OSes in a 19" rack farm-grade cabinet) to a single laptop in a backpack I tote almost everywhere, stopping by every permutation of portable(s)/luggable/handheld on the way.

Best of the waypoints:

- Apple 12" G3 iBook (known as iceBook): for the autonomy, sturdiness, palm-rest one-handed typing ability (and coach seating usability).

- ACER TravelMate 8104: for the 15.4" WSXGA/GFx card, low weight, wealth of connectors, high horsepower and flexibility (everything easily swappable, from batteries to drives to network cards).

- Apple 15.4" 'aluminium' MacBook Pro: almost as good as the ACER (same size and weight, better autonomy, but with comparatively poor screen res/GFx card and no hardware flexibility), and saved me from toting the 'writer' iceBook anymore (multiboot ftw).

My current 'trekking turtle' kit: MacBook Pro Unibody 17" (with antiglare screen: don't pass on the option) sleeved in a Tom Binh's Vertical Brain Cell lodged in a North Face 'Fuse Box' backpack.
Weather and trouble proof for a total weight of under 5kg with AC plus a couple external 2.5" HDDs and accessories (bags included).

On the plus side: full office on the go (6-7h realistic autonomy), easy and comfy to tote and (un)pack, with enough room to spare in the still fairly compact backpack to act as overnight travel bag.

On the minus side: definitely neither wallet nor palmrest-friendly, and won't be easy to operate in coach flights (unless you fully recline and the guy in front doesn't), not so good in really hot climates (can be solved with software undervolting/clocking).

Personal peeves and typical Apple-themed annoyances:
- no keyboard with numpad factory-option available (although the speakers that steal the 'natural' real estate for a numpad are surprizingly good),
- DVD drive not optional, and second HDD or hot-swap battery therefore not an option (short of modding, that is),
- limited connectivity (the last generation MacBook Pro dropped the extra FW400 connector, and there is no e-SATA socket either),
- crappy webcam and new, stupider video-out connector — adapters not included — seriously, it's a 3 grand machine, for Pete's sake.

Schmidt @ 40 — the above kit won't survive rifle bullets, but otherwise is a pretty sound compromise between portability/usability/autonomy/sturdiness.

My 2c on the usability/portability/performance dilemma: the perfect portable-yet-powerful machine isn't there yet, by a long shot, unless some company soon finds an angle to make modular/wearable computing commercially viable.

57:

Also, in the US, most optometrists run eye checks in bright light. This constricts the pupil, and gives you better DOF, just like higher f-stop on a camera. As you get presbyopia, this amounts to sloppy work on the doctor's part.

Usually in a darkened room, with the chart the brightest thing in it, in my five decades of experience.
They'll also dilate your pupils, which means you can't see without sunglasses for a couple of hours after, either.

I have a netbook with two decent shift keys in the usual place, and the arrow keys smaller and a little more out of the way. But I'm also dealing with smaller hands (and a tendency to do text more than keypad entry).

58:

I'm just about 15 years your elder, and I've reached a further stage with vision issues. I have a pair of glasses for wear outdoors, with polarizing lenses to protect against UV, and with correction for myopia. I have a pair of reading glasses for wear indoors, which correct for the presbyopia of age, which I wear when I'm at the computer, as now. And I have a different pair of reading glasses for print, which I wear when I'm copy editing hard copy (yes, I still get some work as hard copy!), or when I'm reading small type such as the Oxford English Dictionary or the telephone directory, and sometimes for general reading. I literally cannot read the print in the telephone directory with my computer glasses! Fortunately, my optometrist recognizes that reading print and reading pixels make different demands on vision. You might make inquiries about whether this sort of thing is available where you are.

59:

Robin @27, Stross 33: but they had a Windows NT port, back in the OpenStep 4.2 and earlier days (yes, i386 PC, SPARC, 68k NeXT, PARISC, NT, something else? (and a few unfinished)).

I was not in the least bit suprised to see OS X on x86, it ran on it NeXTStep 3.1-4.2 (apple bought them just before 4.2 was done) and the DR1&2 releases of OS X could still run on x86.

So, at least in a very theoretical sense, it should not be a big deal to support windows, well, if they kept the port up to date.

MEasure the distance to the computer screen, and get reading glasses set for that, helps a fair bit.

60:

Thorsten @48: I have in fact tried an Eee 1000 (as hinted at above). Didn't work for me -- not enough grunt, not enough screen real estate, cramped/annoying keyboard.

Bruce @50: Unfortunately I've got retinal trouble -- specifically about 50% of my right eyeball simply doesn't work -- that make varifocals a sub-optimal solution. (My peripheral vision on the right sucks, and anything more than ten degrees below my direct line of sight is actually in a whopping great blind spot. Put it together with the current fashion for narrow frames and they're useless.)

61:

Looking at yesterdays news the ProBook 5310m looks interesting.

3.7lb and a 13.3 inch screen with a decent processor.

62:

Count me in for the "real laptop" option. I think the computer I most enjoyed using was an Apple G4 iBook; 12" screen, i.e. tiny, great power life, flawless s2ram/s2disk, unix under the bonnet, good kbd, remarkably robust as well.

My current Samsung Q45 would be pretty good if I could find any way of making the screen brightness control work under linux.

Given a free choice, I think I'd go for a 12" ThinkPad.

63:

Alex: I hear your G4 iBook and raise you a G4 12" Powerbook of the same vintage. That was a nice piece of kit. Alas, it's long in the tooth -- slow and relatively heavy by modern standards, and the OS X migration to ia64 means that modern software won't run on it. (You want heavy? The 12" Powerbook weighs slightly more than a modern 13" widescreen Macbook Pro, which packs triple the RAM and considerably more punch.)

64:

My own personal tote-able is an Advent 4490 (UK-rebadge of MSI Wind U90), which does the minimal delivery required of it very nicely. However, my work machine is a Dell Latitude D420 (12" screen, full-size notebook keyboard), which only weighs a hair more. Performance is excellent, considering the dimensional limitations. Maybe a reconditioned 'pro' micro notebook like mine, or the Lenovo X300, with a suitable new linux variant install, would be a good power-net-book option without the Apple-related compromises.

65:

Martin: I ran a Sony Vaio TX2 for a couple of years. Pros: it had incredible battery life and screen quality, ran Linux flawlessly, and was the size of a netbook. Cons: cost (eye-watering), build quality (by the time I was through with it half the keycaps had worn through to grey plastic), performance (1.2GHz Core Solo processors are not much beefier than 1.33GHz Atom 270s, i.e. sluggish).

I'd still consider a Vaio TZ, despite the Sony Suck Syndrome, except they make the Macbook Air look like a cheap netbook (and they're slower).

The three things the Macbook Air needs to be a killer machine are: longer battery life, more memory, and wireless USB. The first may be physically impossible given the constraints of energy storage tech, but the latter two ... let's say I'm hoping for a January or November product announcement, two years after the initial product launch.

66:

Charlie @33: 'sure Apple require you to develop for iPhone on a Mac ... just like Microsoft require you to develop for Windows Mobile on a Windows XP/Vista/7 box. This is definitely pot/kettle/non-white territory'

However there's virtualisation to consider. I can develop for sindows by using a virtual pc hosted on a mac, but I can't develop for osx/iphone by using a virtual mac on a pc because apple have deliberately prevented their os from running on non apple hardware.

There are hacks to get around it but thats not the way i roll baby - straight out of the box for me please.

Virtualisation is the way forward for developers.

67:

Charlie @65

Ah, been-there-done-that, understood. "My" D420 seems pretty robust, but as it spends a good part of its life in a dock on my desk, it's hardly been stress-tested...

As for the Air, my own home-based machine for the past years has been a 12" G4 IBook. I look at the Air and feel the Secret Policemen's Ball Yorkshiremen sketch coming on. Still the best computer experience I've ever had, though, speaking as a Luddite-type basic user.

68:

Why I don't own a MacBook Air ?
Not enough battery life for the form factor, not enough oomph for the pricetag, (unless hooked up a 'real screen', it is a 'second machine', even for a writer) lacking connectivity (USB/e-SATA would do for me).

Random design questions for the ubergeeks out there:

- What happened to the F21 school of thought (CPUs and buses with no fixed clocks that throttle up and down seamlessly, depending on load) ? Those looked promising, back in the day.

- Fans suck, no kidding: they draw juice and prevent the shell from being sealed, thus dust/moisture sneak into the machine and on circuits.
What about filling the lower case with thermal gel and slapping thin planar heat spreaders (flat heat pipes) on the back of the display casing for a low-consumption, no moving parts cooling solution on laptops and palmtops/netbooks ?

- Wireless, detachable, 'brains': I vaguely remember designs from the 90's that sandwiched the display/keyboard folding bit with a detachable bottom slice of extra CPU/RAM/storage. Sounds like the ubiquitous wireless of today should make possible to keep the 'brain' part stored in a purse/backpack, linked to a thin, lightweight 'dumb' I/O unit by wireless.

…I mean, that would go nicely with my hydrogen-fueled flying car, until we all get brain augmentations and relocate into a Blizzard version of the Matrix, no ?

69:

I also LOVED my Psion 5MX, more than all portable computing devices I had since. I am reasonably happy with my current Gphone (HTC smartphone powered by Android), but of course the screen is too small for continued reading and writing.

I think you gave the best solution in a video interview I watched last year, where you talked of the glasses used by the character in Halting State and mentioned http://lumusvision.com/ as a promising prototype.

The portable device world has been sort of static for a decade (I mean, only incremental improvements with no major breakthroughs), but I have some feeling that it will take off soon.

70:

Robin @66: I think you may be making the common mistake of thinking Apple is a software company that also sells hardware, like Microsoft.

Apple's business model is totally different from Microsoft's. If you run Windows in a VM on a Mac, that's great for Microsoft - they've sold a copy of Windows - they don't sell the box anyway so what the hell do they care what brand it is?

If You were to run Mac OS on a Dell though, what do Apple get? A sale of Mac OS X? I'm sure that $29 purchase of Snow Leopard will be a great consolation for them after losing out on the $1000+ hardware purchase.

Apple sell premium hardware and practically give away their software to sweeten the deal. If they let you run their software on other people's machines (legitimately), they'd be bankrupt within a week. Or they'd have to start charging $300 for Mac OS and fill it chock full of DRM and 3rd party crapware to cover their costs, like some other vendors I can think of.

71:

@41

Young? I'm too old, I think. Though, through the warped optics of middle-age, I may still be seen as 'young'.

I didn't say any phone is good for serious note-taking. Though, perhaps if you hooked a moderate sized wireless bluetooth keyboard to it... and spent €200 euro for some shiny new glasses. Is there a catch?

Then there's the low-cost option of pen and paper, still often used by lot of university students worldwide, myself included.

.. if 2.5 kilo is too much, for serious note-taking, there are machines like that Toshiba R500 which weight just a kilo.

Anyway. Dodgy joints or not, you can always carry the laptop in a backpack on your back, and I seriously doubt that with your estimated body-weight of say 70kgs, carrying ~2.1% of additional mass is inconcievable.

@54

..if only laptops had desktop-style keyboards. They are already pretty useful, but the keyboards seem invariably awful to me. The keys are too small and not high enough.

Isn't Apple kit still overpriced compared to say, high-end Lenovo notebooks? Where I live, Apple is the still the domain of certain graphics people and terminal fashion victims. Nearly every student at my university has a laptop.. and none of these are from Apple. Maybe they're ashamed of them, who knows :)

All we need is something like that Emotiv Epoc device that could input text. But I'm afraid that there's a long way to go from reading some motor nerve signals to inputting text at a reasonable rate. There already are pretty good lcd glasses, though those with better res were expensive two years ago when I was looking..

72:

@41

Young? I'm too old, I think. Though, through the warped optics of middle-age, I may still be seen as 'young'.

I didn't say any phone is good for serious note-taking. Though, perhaps if you hooked a moderate sized wireless bluetooth keyboard to it... and spent €200 euro for some shiny new glasses. Is there a catch?

Then there's the low-cost option of pen and paper, still often used by lot of university students worldwide, myself included.

.. if 2.5 kilo is too much, for serious note-taking, there are machines like that Toshiba R500 which weight just a kilo.

Anyway. Dodgy joints or not, you can always carry the laptop in a backpack on your back, and I seriously doubt that with your estimated body-weight of say 70kgs, carrying ~2.1% of additional mass is inconcievable.

@54

..if only laptops had desktop-style keyboards. They are already pretty useful, but the keyboards seem invariably awful to me. The keys are too small and not high enough.

Isn't Apple kit still overpriced compared to say, high-end Lenovo notebooks? Where I live, Apple is the still the domain of certain graphics people and terminal fashion victims. Nearly every student at my university has a laptop.. and none of these are from Apple. Maybe they're ashamed of them, who knows :)

All we need is something like that Emotiv Epoc device that could input text. But I'm afraid that there's a long way to go from reading some motor nerve signals to inputting text at a reasonable rate. There already are pretty good lcd glasses, though those with better res were expensive two years ago when I was looking..

73:

Charlie @ 65:

I bought a G3 Powerbook (the "Pismo" model) in 2000, about 2 months after they were announced, and it remained my primary computer for 7 years. I finally gave it up because I was doing a lot of Photoshop work, and the 2 gig memory limit and 400 Mhz G3 just couldn't handle the load. But other than that sort of performance-intensive application, that computer did the job splendidly. I got OS X 10.0 in developer beta and loaded it on, and never looked back to OS 9.

One important trick about buying a Mac is to try to guess where the dividing line for support is going to be in future OS's and apps that are important to you. The Pismo was supported up to 0S X 10.5 (although it was a dog on everything after 10.3). I selected my current laptop (a MacBook Pro 15" with 2 cores) based on needing a 64-bit Intel processor, since I figured that future OS's would require that for performance reasons, if not minimal support requirements.

74:

Eh, I tried OSX for a while but I can't get to like it. I like apple hardware nearly as much as I dislike the os... I think my problem is that I'm a perfectionist asshole and a control freak nearly as much as Steve Jobs, stealing Charle definition, and my ideas about what a system must do does differ from Steve ones..
With Linux, even if I sometimes must discover a new ancient language to swear with, I've the technical capabilities to mostly beat it into submission. With osx, you do as Steve command, or you don't do (please note, I'm not even taking ms products into consideration... I keep them onto a machine for emergency external apps use, but I don't turn it on more than a couple times/year...).

About mobile devices, I've an old Asus 12" laptop (stripped of winxp and with debian on it) 4 years old, but still working quite well (I had to change the battery tough, it died totally one year ago). I tried netbooks but I've been a bit disappointed, they're still too slow. I obtained better results with a 6 years old thinkpad I configured for my father...

75:

I think some of us have missed Charlie's usage pattern. It's pretty demanding. It's not just keeping up with basic text entry.

I'm happy with my 7-inch-screen Eee. Followed Charlie's advice about getting a couple of large SDHC cards. I found the supplied Zandros linux was OK, but poorly supported, and when I got back from hospital I switched to Eeebuntu.

Remember, these have more power and RAM than the top-end portables of the turn of the century.

Looking a bit wider, the world is changing. HD-ready TVs can compete with dedicated monitors--HDMI seems to be a crossover interface--and Asus seem on the verge of releasing their "keyboard" machine. Only one USB port, so you need a hub, but it's eerily reminiscent of early personal machines such as the TRS-80.

It doesn't look so bad a starting point for the student bedroom TV/computer, but they do cut corners on sound quality.

76:

Schmidt: Toshiba's laptop build quality has gone through the floor in the past few years -- their lightweight machines flex alarmingly. Unibody aluminium for me, I think. My iPhone, alas, doesn't talk to bluetooth HID devices. There may be a keyboard for it sooner or later, but I'm not holding my breath. Glasses: I'm working on that.

I get writer's cramp scrawling an address on an envelope, never mind drafting a chapter in a notepad; my text entry needs involve writing upwards of 500,000 words per year, so using a notepad would involve a lot of copy typing. Hence my need for a keyboard.

Finally, your estimate of my weight assumes I'm skinny and don't like beer. I weigh closer to 100 kilos than 70, and my back does not thank me for adding any more weight. Again, I'm working on it ... but doing better at not packing any more weight on rather than losing what I've already got.

77:

re: Schmidt @ 72

Anyway. Dodgy joints or not, you can always carry the laptop in a backpack on your back, and I seriously doubt that with your estimated body-weight of say 70kgs, carrying ~2.1% of additional mass is inconcievable.

One doesn't want always to have to use a backpack. When I commute on the train to work, it helps that I have a shoulder-bag and nowt else, not a chunky backpack that I have to make room for. When I do travel with a backpack, I'd often prefer to use its space for travelly things, like books clothes and boardgames, not weigh it down and fill it up with laptop.

As for another peeve -- trying to run Eclipse on something like an eee PC or an Aspire teaches you two things: (a) ye gods, those tiny things have enough power to support it! (b) Ye gods, how much waste-of-space window furniture Eclipse has! On a nice big monitor you don't notice so much, but squeezing down onto netbook screen means that you have tiny little text windows and lots and lots of icons and spacers and margins and uncle tom cobbled-up and all of frelling little use. (fx:gnashing-of-teeth)


78:

rushmc @ 50: Pandora's the palmtop version of Duke Nukem Whenever. I'll believe it's out when I see a production model, face-to-face.

I have had occasional lust for an iPhone, because it does indeed Just Work, but:

* O2's network appears to be a flaming piece of junk, even by the low standards of UK mobile networks. (I'm amazed I've managed to not buy a Thuraya handset.)

* £540 is a spectacular chunk of change for a phone, even if it does replace my iTouch. Contract prices aren't worth the money in the UK. US prices are even more obscene, but the network doesn't suck quite as hard as O2. (The last isn't saying much.)

* Quite a lot of applications I want are ones that Apple has rejected or would be likely to.

I'm happy at present with my HTC Magic (call it 90% of an iPhone) and iTouch 32GB; I'm moving to yet another country in a year and will reevaluate the situation then; hopefully, Android will be shined up some more.

On the computer side, I've got a MBP 15" pre-Santa Rosa for most use, and an Eee 1000 when I need lightweight. On the latter, I've switched to using mostly command-line apps because a lot of the GUI stuff expects a 768-pixel-tall screen. (Meh.) I can crank up gnome-terminal's font size as necessary for my eyes (corrected with lenses, but still have eyestrain issues because they're bad enough NHS pays for the exams).

79:

@77

Good point, people on mass transit dislike them..
I would like to have but have not seen a hard-shelled case that can be both slung over one's shoulder carried like an attache case.

@76 I thought you were a round and shortish(under 1.75m) person.
I'm not sure why. Probably the dearth of photographs.
Btw.. beer has nothing to do with weight, :) I like drinking it like any other südMährische resident, but I still look as if I just escaped from some WWII ghetto film set. Not to mention that I drink half a liter of Lumumba every day.(that's cocoa with rum in it)

..on topic..

What about dictation?
The old fashioned kind with a typist... or using speech recognition software..but that may be slower than typing... and I'm not sure how good speech-to-text is these days. Never saw the need.


80:

Dictation/speech-to-text doesn't work for me. Reason: I'm one of those writers who needs to see the correct text in front of him. If I make an error I have to back up and correct it immediately. When typing, you can do this trivially, but when dictating, it breaks the flow of speech.

Moreover, if you do train yourself to keep speaking, speech-to-text errors are pernicious. If you mis-type, likely as not what you mis-type is not a dictionary word and your spelling checker will flag it. If your speech-to-text software mishears you, what you get is a homophone, i.e. a dictionary word that is nevertheless not correct in the current context. That's a whole lot harder to spot after the fact when you're editing!

Finally, I use a broad vocabulary (significantly wider than your usual dictation software expects), have a non-American accent (which trips up most software), and invent neologisms on the fly (ditto). All of these habits conspire to make me about the world's worst subject for speech transcription software, and I'm lucky to get an error rate down as low as 10% ... or to put it another way, one error per sentence, or one error per four seconds of speech.

As for using a dictation typist, this may sound silly but I can't write when someone is reading over my shoulder, and I strongly doubt that I could dictate when a human being is listening. I get self-conscious, which kills the creative process.

81:

@80
Neologisms, they aren't that common, so maybe it'd be possible to train the software to recognize them. The microsoft speech-to-text has that feature.

But from your post I gather you've tried it and found it wanting. Well, it keeps improving, I guess.

With the typist.. would you be still self-conscious if the transcription took place later? Could be pretty comfortable, lounging on a sofa, petting a cat and dictating a book at the same time.

---------

I keep wondering when a useful brain-computer interface hits the market. The emotiv epoc seems very, very crude to me, not to mention slow. My guess is not before 2030.

Anyone knows whether it's even possible picking up words from the the brain(Broca's area?) without resorting to NMR or implanting electrodes?

82:

Schmidt: the vocabulary I use in fiction is about three times as broad as average. It's not just neologisms; it's obscure words that aren't in the speech-to-text system dictionaries.

Yes, you can train 'em. But stopping to train a new word every paragraph (for thousands of new words in a single book) gets old, fast.

Also, you tend to overlook the fact that the rhythm of written prose doesn't resemble that of spoken English. Srsly. Pick up a novel, hunt for some dialog, and try reading it aloud -- or a descriptive passage. If I switched to speech, the whole voice of my fiction would change (and not, I think, for the better).

83:

@CS in #82
.. I'm not sure about the 'voice' thing, but reading out novels aloud sounds... sort of silly. To me it seems what is to be spoken has to be much more terse and written differently than what is just supposed to be read..

Maybe there'll be better dictionaries in time.
I'm re-reading Revolution Business(semester hasn't started yet.. ) now and the language doesn't seem that complex or unusual.
Accelerando is an entirely different matter, of course. Not that hard to parse, but full of unusual words.

Then there's stuff like Gravity's Rainbow, reading which is akin to wading through concrete. For me at least. Maybe native speakers find it easier.

84:

To me it seems what is to be spoken has to be much more terse and written differently than what is just supposed to be read.

Correct. When I give public readings from my work, if you see me, you'll see I'm reading from a typescript -- because I abridge and edit the text to make it readable. Using speech-to-text software puts the process into reverse; you'd end up with a work of fiction that sounded like a monologue or a radio play unless you put a lot of work into editing it.

That's why the vast majority of authors don't use speech recognition software, even though it's been a fairly mature technology for a decade now: the only author I know of to use it extensively began doing so after he managed to acquire multiple compound fractures of both wrists while working towards multiple deadlines.

85:

I came across an article the other day (by Microsoft as it happens) that said that in the research they had done only 55% of people ran their (LCD) displays at the maximum resolution that they were capable of - this was with native resolutions from 1280x1024 upwards. The given reason was normally that stuff was too small otherwise so you are actually in the majority here.

My take (and MSs) is that application writers need to put some effort into allowing their applications to be 'zoomed' gracefully. The OS can attempt to make this easier but in the end it is up to the application people. I am acutely aware how bad the current situation is as my primary monitor has a native dot pitch of 204dpi. Please don't campaign for the pixels to be larger, just for applications to use them better!

86:

John: this is one reason why I like Apple kit. They've been taking scalability seriously for a long time.

87:

Heh... back in the days of Windows 2.x, Windows 3.x everyone took it seriously 'cos they had no choice. Pixels weren't square back then and you had to ask the OS what was going on to stand any chance of producing a sensible picture - its only after VGA became widespread that people got lazy and started taking shortcuts.

I have yet to see a T221 plugged into a Mac to see how well it works. Vista's auto-scaling works moderately well though I dislike the fuzzy icons and occasional fuzzy bitmapped fonts it can inevitably produce.

88:

"have you ever tried to write a novel with a pen?"

I love it.

How about a pair of glasses - the current ones ahve too low resolution, but meeting the eye-bleeding screens in the middle with the virtual desktop hung a distance away might work?


My sweet spot gadget was the Z81, way back.

89:

Adrian: once the glasses come with visual correction, are wireless, have a decent battery life, and can be worn outdoors, I will seriously consider using them full-time. For now? They're toys (overpriced and with limited applications).

91:

reading out novels aloud sounds... sort of silly
Have you never done it? You're missing out on a real and considerable pleasure. I read aloud from novels every day: to friends, to my children, sometimes to myself. My first serious courtship included reading aloud to each other the then-new-in-hardback "Crow Road". The first time I drove coast-to-coast in the US we read "The Princess Bride" aloud to each other (it took the first two days). A good friend of mine has read "The Lord of the Rings" aloud more than once, to the children of friends.
Is it silly to read poetry aloud?

92:

Nick Barnes @90, my audio components have no integrity. If someone reads to me, or preaches, or declaims, my mind wanders off to other things. The only thing I can do to stop it is handwork.

93:

Netbooks will be obsolete. Soon.

Wait 12 months: high end phones will have a 2GHz dual core Cortex A9 ARM chip. The chipsets being released now have 1080P output. The next embedded PowerVR GPU makes that interesting & useful, by providing PlayStation2 level performance.

Display is a limiting factor. You talk about wireless usb, but what about wireless hd or whdi? We already rely on peripherials, but the ubi-comp dream starts making sense once you can do everything wirelessly, including use displays.

For those times when you do need a display, there are pocket projectors, pocket displays (nanovision makes a nice 7" touchscreen w/ a usb interface), epaper displays, and hopefully ultra-thin OLED displays in the future.

Recent brain dump on this ubi-comp future:
http://thefowle.livejournal.com/388992.html?mode=reply

94:

rektide: AIUI, the dual core Cortex A9 has power consumption competitive with an Atom A270. That's not going to work in a mobile phone! A MID, perhaps -- but not a phone.

Meanwhile, users are voting with their wallets for netbooks (a tiny fragment of the PC market by value, about 30% of the laptop field by volume). Even though Intel's reference spec is obsolescent and will be dead soon, the form factor -- a light, small laptop with a typable keyboard that runs for 12+ hours on battery -- has a lot of life in it, just as the desktop three-box PC is still with us today.

The trouble with pocket projectors/displays/etc is that you have to set them up. I just spent a weekend trying to live with a MID and an external keyboard. Hint: trying to get multiple gadgets to work together is invariably harder than using a single integral machine.

95:

Charlie; the figures I've seen cited for ARM's 2GHz dual core A9 are 250mW per CPU, or 0.125mW/MHz. This is no where near the 2W power draw of an 1.6GHz Atom running full tilt. ARM's Cortex A8 core runs at 0.59mW/MHz, and is used on the latest iPhone and Nokia's N900. Even full tilt, the new dual core A9 is only fractionally more power hungry than these mainstream units.

Of course the core is only a minor part of the equation. The figures I've been quoting are for the CPU only. Turn on the System on Chip's (SoC) various multimedia engines and in the pathological max-draw case the OMAP3530 can draw considerably over 1W. This is still far more thrifty than the Atom, which relies on a multi-watt and physically cumbersome to integrate chipset for similar services (gpu). More so than CPU, the major breaking challenges are next gen OpenGL cores-- PowerVR is promising a 4 core mobile gpu with raw stats hovering very near PS2 levels.

Practically speaking, adaptability is the key. Even a hypothetical eight core ARM beast capable of running 4GHz at 0.125mW/MHz/core would fit on a cell phone, so long as most of the cores were powered down and the remainder scaled back most of the time (and the phone had heat pipes). ARM is a master of allowing developers to ration out power only in the cases when its needed, and, the continuous activity of gaming aside, typically these demands are only millisecond bursts. The rest of the time, the chip can idle (OMAP3 core idles ~8mW, for example, v. the 350 mW 600MHz consumption).

I confess that right now the proposal that cellphones will take over computers is verifiable insane. As you say, users /are/ voting with their wallets for netbooks, and, as you say, peripherals are aggravating to use. That was kind of the pervasive computing dream, that peripherals could be seamlessly accessed as "services" in an ad-hoc fashion (a variant of "the network is the computer") and in spite of a decade of work, it remains a pie in the sky fantasy, with numerous single-use-case exceptions (BlueTooth headsets, BlueTooth keyboards, DisplayPort video+audio+usb, HDMI video+audio+wifi, AirPort media streaming, UPnP/DLNA media sharing). Theres no greater picture for what connectivity there is, and as a result only minimal ad-hocracy in action. However, I firmly believe that we're approaching the adaption curve from the other side this time, with the perspective of necessity and demand, rather than ubicomps academic desire to innovate: cell phones _will_ be as computationally capable as netbooks, and once that shift begins to happen users will demand ways to tap this power, and the pervasive computing will out of necessity grow into being. Step by step progress such as full motion picture remote desktop over wifi will open the manifold, and begin a mainstream adaption.

Let me put it this way: the next get mobile chipsets nearly universally have 1080P output-- if we havent begun using that for more than portable media playing in 5 years, I swear I'll axe myself and good riddance to the whole lot of you. Cheers! ;) Thanks for the reply.

96:

Also note that a high powered ARM+GPU combo running off a laptop sized battery would get not mere hours of runtime, but days of runtime.

Atom too is attempting to become more thrifty. At today's Intel Developer Forum (IDF), Moblin 2.1 was presented with the noted new feature being an interface targeted at phone-sized devices. Its a war, and the real target is ultra-mobile (I just wish P.A. Semi's PPC re-imaging was around to join in the fray).

97:

I have an EEEPC 1000H and I found that it needed some tweaking out of the box in order to work optimally (less clutter and more speed).

First, you need to get rid of the bubblegum interface in XP and some of the associated visual effects (you won't miss them).

Then, you need to resize some of the window and font options so that the menus look more appropriate for a device of this size.

I remember this post gave me some tips:
http://forum.eeeuser.com/viewtopic.php?id=38486

But essentially turning off several visual effects, optimizing the GUI, and running through one of those "make Windows XP faster" website tutorials, you can improve the performance significantly.*

The other trick is to reduce your dependence on cold booting. The Xandros models of the EEEPC can boot up very quickly - 30-45 seconds.

But Windows XP boots slower. So don't boot it while on the road. I like to give my 1000H a boost by turning it on while it is on AC, and then taking only the netbook with me, sans adapted. It's battery has declined by maybe 2 percent by the time I reach my destination, and I only have to wait seconds for it to boot up.

Also, Ubuntu works remarkably well on netbook hardware and boots quickly.

The remaining problem is the keyboard, and I confess as Charles mentions only the HP models seem to have excellent keyboards, though some of the Acer models are not bad.

For web browsing, office work (especially if you have boot loaded a MS or OpenOffice quickstarter - boot loading is your friend on an XP netbook), and classic gaming, the netbook is fine. You can bring a minature mouse along with you too if you wish to cut down on keyboard use.

*A key trick is to use TweakUI to reduce the built-in Windows delay that waits for several milliseconds after you position your mouse over a menu, before allowing you to access the submenus.

98:

Battery life? Go to The Shack and buy a pair of C-cell holders. Hot glue them back-to back. Buy the appropriate Adaptaplug plug as well as an Adaptaplug cable with bare wires on one end, and their female connector on the other. Five minutes of soldering (including the time to heat the iron) and wallah! A long-duration battery pack. (Originally developed for amateur radio disaster response work.)

Make sure, however, if flying, to buy the batteries AFTER passing through the orchestra seats at Security Theater, or at least leave them in their store wrappers, and unwrapped batteries in the holder seem to suggest some eeeeeeeevil whereas batteries in their package seem much more harmless.

99:

@AJ: Maybe Microsoft's new Courier is what you are looking for. http://gizmodo.com/5370223/courier-tablet-runs-windows-7-hardware-made-by-microsoft

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on September 15, 2009 9:27 AM.

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