Thursday, December 30, 2010

My ultraportable dilemma

It's time for me to get a new laptop. My Dell XPS M1330 is still running well, though a bit battle scarred. But I like to upgrade well before I see any real trouble - as a self-employed person, I have only one machine and no backup plan to deal with downtime.

Owing to heavy travel and daily commuting, I prefer ultraportables. An ultraportable is defined as a machine which weighs approximately 2kg or less and it usually has a screen size of 11 to 13 inches. However, it needs to have specs of a performance notebook, rather than a netbook ; which in today's terms means, an iCore processor, 3GB or more of RAM and 320-500 GB of Hard Drive space.

These are some of the issues I have faced in selecting an ultraportable.
1) Price : Ultraportables are mostly targeted at business users and carry a steep business tag. At the top end,  Dell Latitude and the Sony Vaio Z series go above Rs. 1 lakh and this pricing makes them more appropriate for corporations than individuals. At the lower end of the price spectrum, Dell Vostro and the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge series are priced from Rs.30,000 onwards, but the lower-priced models tend to carry older, slower processors. The business orientation of ultraportables is reflected in the pricing - you can clearly see the hierarchy from the CEO's laptop, to one that is intended for a travelling sales representative.

2) Feature/spec set trade-offs
If you look at mainstream notebooks (especially those with 15 inch screens), the feature set at a price range tends to be stable across manufacturers. For example, the latest laptops across brands are featuring iCore processor and 3GB of RAM and are priced from Rs.30-40,000. Pay a premium (usually upto Rs.50,000) and you get an iCore 5 processor, perhaps a dedicated graphics card, more storage space. It is easy to understand the pricing structure and then take a decision.

With ultraportables, different manufacturers (and models) tend to trade off different specs for portability and price, making the decision fairly confusing, despite the fact that there are only a handful of true ultraportables.
For instance, the Sony Vaio Z series implements SSD (Solid State Drives) to command the Rs.1 lakh + price, but I would argue that this is not a feature I would pay such a huge premium for. The Lenovo ThinkPad Edge series offers easy prices (under Rs. 50,000) but features a range of older AMD and Core2Duo processors, as do some of the Dell Vostro models. Add to this the fact that some machines have optical drive, and others do not, some have graphic cards, while others do not, and the configuration options tend to be limited. For example, you cannot get a graphics card option on Vostro. Battery life also tends to vary a lot.

3) You cannot see or try before buying.
You will not see ultraportable ranges in large stores - not even in Croma. Mostly, you have to order directly from the manufacturer or through the distributor. While looks are not that important for me, I do like to check the keyboard and screen for myself to ensure a comfortable usage experience. You end up relying on reviews, which are fortunately comprehensive and reliable guides to making a choice.

My verdict after one week of comparing all models within my budget, is that there is currently no perfect ultraportable. Nothing that excites me as much as Dell XPS did 3 years ago. Still, here is my shortlist - I guess I will have to choose one of these.

1) Dell Vostro 3300

In this configuration, Dell India currently offers only iCore 3 or iCore 5 processors, so you won't be short of computing power for business productivity. There is 3 GB of RAM, 320 GB HDD @7200 RPM and an inbuilt optical drive. There is no option for Graphics card (which is fine for me).

Prices range from Rs. 35,000 to Rs. 45,000 exclusive of tax and delivery, so your budget in any case will not exceed Rs.50,000.In terms of pure specs at this price point, this is the most attractive ultraportable on the market right now. Dells support for Vostro is also very good, making this a reliable choice for small business users like me.

But there are some inherent defects with this model. The biggest one is the low battery life of the default 4-cell battery reported in user comments on the Dell site and reviews on CNet Asia and other sites. We are talking an average that's closer to 2 hours. This may not pose a problem if you are always close to a power source, but it's still below par. You can spend extra bucks to buy an 8-cell battery, but that kind of defeats the purpose, increasing the weight, cost and ruining the looks of the machine. I had made an earlier post about this model and it's kinda disappointing for me that they have not worked to improve battery life at all! I really wish that Dell offered a default 6 cell battery on this unit that would at least deliver the mandatory 3-3.5 hours of use that is acceptable for a laptop.

2) Toshiba Portege R700
Toshiba India currently offers two flavors of this laptop - one with iCore 3 processor and 320 GB HDD and the other with iCore 5 processor and 500 GB HDD. Both the models are incredibly light (under 1.5 kg) and both have garnered rave reviews from sites like LaptopMag and even a word of praise in Walt Mossberg's column at WSJ.

The Portege R700 shows Dell the way to do it, offering 6 hours of battery life on a 6 cell battery. The flip side seems to be that this machine heats up a lot (but most laptops with powerful processors unfortunately do that). It also has a very loud fan. But these are small quibbles for me.

I would love to buy this machine, and the only reason it's not No.1 in my list, is that the price is Rs.65,00 for the i3 version and Rs.75,000 for the i5 version. It's not a budget ultraportable, nor is it priced over the moon, but when I can get the same specs on a Dell for Rs.30,000 less, I cannot blindly go for this. Approximately 1/2 kg less weight and 4 extra hours of battery life are a draw, but not at this price premium. The price does  include a 3 year limited warranty, which is better than Dell's default 1 year warranty.

The newest Vostro on the block is displayed on the Dell India website, but price or order information has not yet been put up. According to PC World India, the price will be in the Rs.36,000-45,000 range depending on whether you go with Core i3 or Corei5 option. The Vostro V130 has killer looks, is really light and thin and features the newest range of ULV iCore processors. Where Vostro V130 falters though, is on exactly this aspect - battery life. It delivers even less than 2 hours on average (though it has a six cell battery) which is very poor considering that the entire purpose of the ULV processor is to save power and extend battery life, with a small impact on performance. This machine lacks an optical drive and has a sealed battery unit which cannot be user-replaced. However, it does have an HDMI port which is lacking in the Vostro 3300.
There are some more models that would have been at the top of this shortlist, if only they were available in India. For example, the Asus U45Jc-A1, which is the ultraportable cousin of the 14 inch U45Jc. Or Acer's newest Timeline X series, featuring the same ULV iCore processor as Dell V130, but with more than triple the battery life.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Kindle : the cheapest and best ebook reader?

Bloomberg has reported  that Amazon is likely to sell 8 million Kindles in 2010, which is 60% higher than predicted by analysts. To put this in perspective, Apple has sold 7.4 million iPads since their debut in April. And Amazon sold only 2.4 million Kindles last year. The Kindle sales figures are unofficial and based on industry sources, as Amazon does not share its sales data. But the figures reveal how the ebook reader market is booming despite predictions that tablets will wipe out the category,  and Amazon's extent of leadership over rivals like Sony and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

The latest, 3rd generation Kindle was launched earlier this year and has gotten good reviews from CNet, Engadget and a lot of other sites. Smaller and lighter than the earlier Kindle and priced at USD 139 (around Rs.6000) for the wi-fi only model, this is probably the cheapest and best ebook reader you can get at that price. Throw in a battery that goes on for a month, a rudimentary webkit browser, 4GB of memory that's good for 3500 ebooks and 6 inch screen with higher contrast ratio for clear reading. Isn't that enough reasons to buy one?

(image from ThinkDigit)
You can pay $189 (around Rs.8500) and get one with global 3G but it does not make sense in India unless you're a globe trotter. After all, 3G here is not amounting to much right now. And even if it did, Amazon would charge a whopping 99 cents per MB to transfer your personal documents through their WhisperNet service (it's only 15 cents per MB if you live in the US). Ebooks tend to be very small files, but the MBs add up quickly.

The only catch is that the Kindle does not support epub, the open standard ebook format. However, it does offer enhanced PDF support including zoom, pan, dictionary lookup, notes  and highlights.
My friend Pratap recently told me that he is getting a Kindle from abroad, which led me to research how much of application it will have in India even if you don't choose to download paid stuff in $$s from the Amazon Store (a 3-5% foreign transaction fee is levied by most Indian credit card companies making this a commercially unattractive transaction)

Seems there is a lot I can do on the Kindle even if I don't buy from Amazon. Take a look at the sources of free ebooks  that Amazon claims you can access on the Kindle. From most of these sites, you can download a Kindle format to your PC and transfer it to your device through USB. Or you could use WhisperNet as described above.

I use both Open Library and Project Gutenberg when I have a passion to read classics from my literature student days - books that have stayed in my heart even if I have no room for them anymore in my crowded Mumbai apartment.  Thinking of having thousands of them at my fingertips anywhere is almost enough to make me spring for an ebook reader, here and now. But I know from experience that this desire to carry around  your entire digital life all the time is addictive and I try to resist it. There is no end to it really and in no time at all, I would be into terrabytes and spending a fortune on storage.

There seems no simple way to buy the Kindle in India. You have to order it from Amazon online and pay the hefty shipping fee to India, unless you can get a relative abroad to bring it down with them. Or alternatively you could figure it out with sites like 20North who will charge you in rupees and ship to you from the US. In fact, 20North is currently listing  the Kindle at approximately Rs. 10,000 (or Rs. 9000 sans customs, if you gift it to someone else).

Or you could get the Wink ebook reader from Bangalore based EC Media, which was also launched this year. Wink initially launched with two flavors - a wi-fi only model and a wi-fi + 3G. Now the website also shows a smaller version of the device (5 inch screen)

I see from the website that the prices have been slashed compared to launch : the XTS is now selling at Rs. 8999 compared to the launch price of Rs. 12,000. This seems reasonable given that the device is more like a 2nd generation Kindle in its spec sheet.

I think the Wink merits a post on its own in the future and I will do one. Right now I am off to drool a little more over the Kindle...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Net neutrality : the debate so far

I have embarked on a difficult topic this time. Net neutrality is a subject of academic study with political and business implications. But I have decided to write about it as a layperson who reaps the benefits of a 'free' internet. and I guess this is where most of us are at.

The context of the debate is the FCC Proposal for net neutrality that goes for vote tomorrow and eventually to the US Congress. While the laws that get passed will be applicable to the US, they will definitely set a precedent for other countries.

You can download and read this mammoth-sized document here. The key points are;
1) The proposed legislation will be applicable only to all forms of broadband access (wired and wireless broadband) and will not regulate the actual content of the internet itself (in any case, it's not even possible to control what gets put up on the net). In other words, the regulations will encompass the broadband providers - ISPs and mobile companies - and their services to end consumers. The inclusion of wireless and mobile networks is a big one - till now, FCC has regulated only wired internet. Mobile internet will increasingly become the future of internet access.
2) The proposal will codify four 'principles' of an earlier Internet Policy designed to protect consumer's access to content, services, and applications of their choice, and through devices and service providers of their choice. In short, it is an assurance that competition can exist in the broadband space to ensure that the needs and rights of consumers are protected.
3) The proposal will also codify two new, additional principles of broadband access which apply to broadband providers. Firstly, that they will be required to not discriminate between services, content and applications that are offered to consumers through their own platform. This assumes significance when we consider that today many broadband providers offer both free and paid services and content like video and voice, which could clash with the free or paid products and services offered by other companies. Secondly, the broadband companies would be required to have greater transparency in disclosing information about how they manage their networks and users. As congestion on networks increases, broadband providers have developed sophisticated means of shaping and controlling internet traffic. For instance, some providers block torrents, conduct 'deep packet analysis' to understand the nature of traffic on their networks, and implement 'fair usage' policies that favor greater speed to low-usage end customers compared to those with extremely heavy upload and download. The FCC proposal will not end such practices by broadband companies, but will force them to make clearer disclosures upfront.
4) Finally, the FCC proposal recognises the right of broadband providers to undertaking 'reasonable network management'. To quote, " The draft rules would not prohibit broadband Internet access service providers from taking reasonable action to prevent the transfer of unlawful content, such as the unlawful distribution of copyrighted works." Till now, the proposed regulations were protecting consumer rights - in this clause, the emphasis is on protecting the rights of corporate entities.
5) The FCC has created a separate category for 'specialised' or managed services of the ISPs and is drafting proposals to regulate such services.

What are the implications of the FCC's draft regulations and why are they attracting widespread commentary and criticism within the US?

1) Control over Broadband access is a sensitive issue because it is control over the Internet
This Ars Technica review of 4 books on the subject of the free internet puts the entire issue into perspective. Broadband access itself is a potential 'bottleneck'. The internet may have every type of content on it, but who controls the access point? It is the network operators. It is particularly revealing that the operators have been using the US First Amendment (Freedom of speech) to argue against net neutrality and claim that they can control traffic on 'their' networks. So does the right to freedom protect consumers, the corporations, or both, and how will it do that? Their does not seem to be an easy answer to this question. Unless we are able to restrict network providers to a role only as providers of a 'pipe' (common carriers, in other words) as opposed to cable networks which are closed carriers controlling and producing their own content.

2) Does the net need regulation at all?
It is an undisputed fact that the open internet has been a communication rennaisance, giving a voice to millions of people, and that a neutral net has been a breeding ground of innovation and competition. However, are we fine as we are? A dominant line of thought is that the net has been proven to govern itself - and what we need to protect, if at all, is it's naturally open structure.

Is government intervention needed at all? Will it make things better or worse? And if there is government intervention, should it not be focussed on consumer rights rather than on the consumer-business interface? Do companies' rights and regulations really need government sanction or can we leave market forces to decide? Past history has shown that legislation can force companies into oligarchic structures that protect an industry's profitability, more than consumer interest.

3) Does it benefit the consumer, or are some parties only protecting their own interests?
The FCC lost some ground earlier this year in the net neutrality debate when a US court ruled against their authority under current law to impose regulations on ISPs. Clearly, the proposed legislations put FCC back in the forefront of regulation. And by extending the purview to mobile broadband networks, FCC is sharpening its teeth as well. You can read the Wall Street Journal article by Robert M. McDowell, Republican commissioner of FCC, to get a perspective on this.

For another perspective, read the revised net neutrality proposal submitted to FCC by Google and Verizon earlier this year. Interesting to note that they proposed to entirely exclude mobile broadband services from the scope of the proposal. Does that come from a vested interest of both Google and Verizon in Android-powered devices?

Opponents to the policy also point out, as does David Dayen that the proposals seek to instituionalise a 'pretend net neutrality'; to quote, "You can’t block content, but if you can “manage” it, you can essentially slow it out of existence." Nor does it prevent companies from offering 'paid priority access' to content. In this sense, it does benefit the service providers, rather than consumers. You can read more about opponents to the net neutrality proposal on Marvin Ammori's blog

Any legislation is sensitive, because it sets precedents,offers a benchmark for future laws, and eventually shapes the way industries grow and develop.The debate on the FCC regulations has a wider implication for all of us as users of a free internet. I think it's a worthwhile issue for us to follow and think about in our own context - what is net neutrality, how does it benefit end consumers, and how can it be implemented in a way that is in our best interest

Sunday, December 19, 2010

tablets in 2011 - what to expect

Tablets have just begun to come into their own and the good news is that we are likely to see many more launches in 2011. What can we expect by way of hardware, software and of course, pricing?

1) Hardware
Hardware for tablets will approach top-end parity, as it has done for cellphones. The processor of choice is dual core, and there are several manufacturers in the fray. Samsung has already announced the Orion, with a pair of 1 GHz ARM Cortex A9 cores. The NVidia Tegra  chipset has already been integrated into several tablets and mobile phones including the newly launched LG Optimus 2X, and Notion Ink's Adam tablet. Texas Instruments has so far been powering Motorola phones with a single core chip, and will be debuting the 1.5 GHz OMAP dual core mobile processor next year. The performance will reportedly be faster than the NVidia Tegra. Qualcomm also has 1.2 GHz and 1.5 GHz processors coming up. Hopefully, a lot of these powerhouses will get showcased at CES 2011 in January. For the end user, dual core processors will translate into better hardware acceleration for 3D graphics, gaming and viewing HD video, as well as effortless multi-tasking. This opens up new scope for functionality on tablets.

So much for processor speeds, what about display?  The best displays on the market currently are Apples Retina display (iPhone), Samsung's SAMOLED (Super AMOLED) and Sony's Super LCD. While I would love to see SAMOLED on tablets, this year we have seen that Samsung has been unable to keep up with the global demand for the display. The company has promised to address the issue in 2011, by boosting production, but obviously, alternatives will arise to the much coveted AMOLED display. One such alternative is the low-powered PixelQi hybrid LCD display, which can function like an LCD display and colored EInk display through dimming of the optional backlight. The PixelQi display has been a huge talking point for Notion Ink's Adam tablet and it definitely has potential if the company can get it into mass production, as it can make your tablet double up as a true ebook reader.

2) Software

Software and the UI (user interface) will be the critical factor which will make or break a tablet. Till date, only Apple has a genuine tablet-customised operating system. We have seen a variety of Android tablets, but Google claims that Android is not currently optimised for tablets (displays larger than 5 inches). In effect, the tablets that run on Android today are only offering a blown up smartphone experience.

The way of the future is operating systems that are created specifically for tablets. Notion Ink has designed the Eden UI for its Adam tablet, Blackberry will create a new OS based on QnX for its upcoming PlayBook and Nokia has a very promising candidate for handhelds in the Maemo OS, which currently features on the Nokia N900.  And of course, Android 3 (Honeycomb) will be optimised for tablets.

A dedicated operating system and apps, are what will distinguish tablets from smartphones. We would expect tablets to do what our phones cannot, and to an extent, what our laptops can. With the way hardware is heading, in terms of pure specs, tablets will overtake netbooks, but will also be way more expensive. In order to substitute them, tablets have to make themselves more useful. For instance, I need to tout my laptop around to download and edit work-related attachments, as this is something that cannot be done on my smartphone. If a tablet would let me do this task easily, it could replace my laptop in several scenarios. But for this, the tablet would have to facilitate tasks that I take for granted on my laptop, including such basics as copy and paste.

Pricing is also a critical part of the equation. Tablets are 'in-between' devices. You will definitely need a mobile phone and you will need a laptop or PC, but you do not really need a tablet. The pricing needs to tempt you to buy one, else it will only be a geek's toy. I believe that to succeed, tablets need to pitch their pricing in the same range as notebooks (USD 300-400, or Rs.12,000-15,000). Only then will we see mass adoption of this form factor.

Meanwhile, we can look forward to 2011 as the year when tablets will really come into their own strength.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

More information about Notion Ink's Adam Tablet

A month ago, I had blogged about Notion Ink's Adam Tablet. A lot of action has happened since then, if you've been following Rohan Shravan's blog. The Adam has gone on global pre-order, and basically been a sell out. There have been glitches with the online ordering system, some criticism around the high shipping fees and apprehensions about buying a tablet that no one has yet seen in action. But Notion Ink will finally display the tablet at CES 2010 and that should answer a lot of questions that are currently floating around. The people who have pre-ordered will receive their tablets in the second week of January 2011.

About the pre-order sales, DNA reports Shravan saying that they are split 60-40 between Europe and USA. No one from India has bought this device? That's a shame, considering the starting price is barely Rs. 15,000.

As launch date nears, Shravan has been sharing more and more info about the Adam, and this interview with Android Police answers a lot of questions. Some of the interesting points for me were;

1) The Adam has its own custom UI called Eden, designed by Notion Ink, which Shravan claims will be extremely responsive. Notion Ink will bundle two multi-touch keyboards, which have been tested to produce fewer errors while typing. The UI will also capitalise on the speedy Nvidia Tegra 2 processor to provide smooth multi-tasking.
2) The Adam will not have access to the Android Marketplace (so you can't download either free or paid Android Apps). Shravan claims that the reason for this is that only Android 3 (Honeycomb) will be optimised for tablet displays. Till then, Android and the world of Android apps, will not work on the Adam's 10 inch display.

3) However, the Adam comes pre-loaded with a variety of apps including a complete office suite, email app, browser, e-book reader and several other standard functionalities, presumably all designed by Notion Ink and their partners.

 4) The Adam ships with an option of two displays - the standard LCD display will not run out of stock, but the yet to be mass produced PixelQi display is likely to be in shortage in the future. According to me, PixelQi is one of the cutting edge technologies that makes this device a worthwhile investment.

I am waiting for a video demo which Rohan Shravan promised to post today, to get more dope on the Adam. It is definitely on my 'to buy' list. But as I said in an earlier post, I need to see functionality for a tablet in my life before I shell out cash. I think the Adam is one of the most promising candidates in the tablet space today, and I hope it lives up to my expectations!

My Wi-fi nightmares

Since the past 3 months, I have been facing a problem. I connect to the internet on my laptop through a Linksys wi-fi router, and at least twice a day, I face connectivity issues. Either I just cannot find my wi-fi network, or my laptop automatically disconnects. Using a standard procedure to troubleshoot a wi-fi connection, I tried moving my router closer to the living room where I access the net. And then I tried to change the channel on which my router connects. In order to do this, I downloaded inSSIDer from Metageek. InSSIDer is a software that uses your wi-fi card to scan and display all the wireless networks in your vicinty, and also maps the signal strength of each network. You can use the information to choose a less congested channel for your router.

But I was in for an unpleasant surprise. The picture says it all
First of all, there are no less than 25 APs (access points) or wireless connections. 95% of these are Tikona wireless connections - there is a Tikona wireless access point on top of my building. The Tikona routers show up under the name 'ruckus' - an appropriate name, considering that they are generating all the wi-fi noise and disturbance. And it is these Tikona routers that are hogging literally all the bands from 6 to 11. I switched to 1 after the scan - you can see my router in red (Nisha Linksys) but even 1 is not interference free.

Seems that our wi-fi networks are getting extremely crowded. I now have a choice to either switch back to internet through LAN (not a choice really) or to get a more powerful router. I doubt if my connection can hold its own against the plethora of ruckus-causing Ruckus routers that Tikona has put out in my building.

If you face problems with wi-fi connectivity, do download this tool and run the scan. The results may surprise you.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cowon is back with the X7

I realise that it's been a long time since I have written on my core passion : headphones and DAPs. To be honest, there were not a lot of developments to write about though. I sometimes wonder if DAPs as a category will survive; beyond a niche segment of audiophiles, cellphones dispense your daily dose of music and most of them do a decent job though my ears are not very tolerant of them. People praise the SQ of the Samsung Wave but to me it sounds a tad metallic.

But now I have cause to rejoice as engadget reports that the Cowon X7 is here. This player has a 4.3 " resistive touch screen, a mammoth HDD with 80/120/160 GB options and a killer battery life of 103 hours for audio. And of course, the legendary Cowon SQ. Having owned the Cowon D2, and listened to both the X5 and the S9, I can say that these guys really deliver good sound quality.

Tech2 reports that the D2 is available in India for Rs.18,000.

Like many people, I value the extra hard drive space, which has vanished as most brands shift to solid state drives and expandable memory through SD cards. In March I had posted about the absence of large capacity MP3 players apart from the iPod classic which audiophiles consider to have a sub-optimal audio quality.

I look forward to getting my hands on a review unit. And believe me, I would LOVE to review this one.