All-in-one: still not there

HP-elite-x2
HP Elite X2 1012 press photo (image © HP).
Some time ago, I blogged about tablets as productivity devices, and then I also have written about some early experiences as a user of Microsoft Surface Pro 4: a Windows 10, 2-in-one tablet PC that relies on combination of touch screen, pen computing, and keyboard and touchpad cover (plus Cortana voice assistant, if you are a US/English user). It just might be that I am restless and curious by nature, but these days I find myself jumping from Microsoft to Apple to Google ecosystems, and not really finding what I am looking for from any of them.

When I am using an iOS or Android tablet, the file management is usually a mess, external keyboard and mouse inputs are not working reliably, and multitasking between several apps and services, copy-pasting or otherwise sharing information between them all is a pain.

When I am on a regular Windows laptop or PC, keyboard and mouse/touchpad usually are just fine, and file management, multitasking and copy-pasting work fine. Touch screen inputs and the ease of use lag behind tablet systems, though. (This is true also to the Apple OS X desktop environment, but I have pretty much given up the use of Macs for my work these days, I just could not configure the system to work and behave in the ways I want – as a Microsoft OS/PC user who has hacked his way around DOS, then Windows 3.0 etc., and thus has certain things pretty much “hard-wired” in the way I work.)

Surface Pro 4 is the most optimal, almost “all-in-one” system I have found so far, but I have started to increasingly dislike its keyboard cover. Surface Pro 4 cover is not that bad, but if you are a touch-typist, it is not perfect. There is still slight flex in the plastic construction and shallow key movement that turns me off, and produces typing errors exactly when you are in a hurry and you’d need to type fast. I am currently trying to find a way to get rid of the type cover, and instead use my favorite, Logitech K810 instead. But: I am not able to attach it to Surface Pro in solid enough way, and there is no touchpad in K810, so workflow with all those mouse right-clicks becomes rather complex.

I really like the simplicity of Chromebooks, and this blog note, for example, is written with my trusty Toshiba Chromebook 2, which has excellent, solid keyboard (though not backlighted), and a good, crisp Full HD IPS screen plus a responsive, large touchpad. However, I keep reaching out and trying to scroll the screen, which is not a touch version. (Asus Chromebook Flip would be one with a touch screen.) And there is nothing comparable to the Surface Pen, which is truly useful when one e.g. reads and makes notes to a pile of student papers in PDF/electronic formats. Also, file management in a Chrome OS is a mess, and web versions of popular apps still respond more slowly and are more limited than real desktop versions.

So, I keep on looking. Recently I tested the HP Elite X2 1012 (pictured), which is pretty identical to the Surface Pro systems that Microsoft produces, but has an excellent, metallic and solid keyboard cover, as well as other productivity oriented enhancements like the optional 4G/LTE sim card slot, USB C port with Thunderbolt technology, and a decent enough screen, pen and kickstand design. However, Elite X2 falls short in using less powerful Intel Core M series processors (Surface Pro 4 goes for regular Core i5 or i7 after the entry-level model), by being rather expensive, and according to the reviews I have read, also the battery life of Elite X2 is not something a real mobile office worker would prefere.

Maybe I can find a way to connect the Elite X2 metallic keyboard cover to the Surface Pro 4? Or maybe not.

(Edit: The battery life of Elite X2 actually appears to be good; the screen on the other hand only so-and-so.)

Tablets as productivity devices

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard for iPad Air
Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard for iPad Air
Professionally, I have a sort of on-off relationship with tablets (iPads, Android tablets, mainly, but I count also touch-screen small-size factor Windows 2-in-1’s in this category). As small and light, tablets are a natural solution when you have piles of papers and books in your bag, and want to travel light. There are so many things that every now and then I try to make and do with a tablet – only to clash again against some of the limitations of them: the inability to edit some particular file quickly in the native format, inability to simply copy and paste data between documents that are open in different applications, limitations of multitasking. Inability to quickly start that PC game that you are writing about, or re-run that SPSS analysis we urgently need for that paper we are working on.

But when you know what those limitations are, tablets are just great for those remaining 80 % or so of the stuff that we do in mobile office slash research sort of work. And there are actually features of tablets that may make them even stronger as productivity oriented devices than personal computers or fully powered laptops can be. There is the small, elite class of thin, light and very powerful laptop computers with touch screens (running Windows 10) which probably can be configured to be “best of both worlds”, but otherwise – a tablet with high dpi screen, fast enough processor (for those mobile-optimized apps) and excellent battery life simply flies above using a crappy, under-powered and heavy laptop or office PC from the last decade. The user experience is just so much better: everything reacts immediately, looks beautiful, runs for hours, and behaves gracefully. Particularly in iOS / Apple ecosystem this is true (Android can be a bit more bumpy ride), as the careful quality control and fierce competition in the iOS app space takes care that only those applications that are designed with the near-perfect balance of functionality and aesthetics get into the prime limelight. Compare that to the typical messy interfaces and menu jungles of traditional computer productivity software, and you’ll see what I mean.

The primary challenge of tablets for me is the text entry. I can happily surf, read, game, and watch video content of various kinds in a tablet, but when it comes to making those fast notes in a meeting where you need to have two or three background documents open at the same time, copy text or images from them, plus some links or other materials from the Internet, the limitations of tablets do tend to surface. (Accidentally, Surface 4 Pro or Surface Book by Microsoft would be solutions that I’d love to test some of these days – just in case someone from MS sales department happens to read this blog…) But there are ways to go around some of these limitations, using a combination of cloud services running in browser windows and dedicated apps and quickly rotating between them, so that the mobile operating system does not kill them and lose the important data view in the background. Also, having a full keyboard connected with the tablet device is a good solution for that day of work with a tablet. iPad Air with a premium wireless keyboard like Logitech K811 is shoulders above the situation where one is forced to slowly tap in individual letters with the standard virtual keyboard of a mobile device. (I am a touch-typist, which may explain my perspective here.)

In the future, it is increasingly likely that the differences between personal computers and mobile devices continues to erode and vanish. The high standards of ease of use, and user experience more generally, set by mobile device already influence the ways in which also computer software is being (re-)designed. The challenges waiting there are not trivial, though: when a powerful, professional tool is suddenly reduced into a “toy version” of itself, in the name of usability, the power users will cry foul. There are probably few lessons in the area of game (interface) design that can inform also the design of utility software, as the different “difficulty levels” or novice/standard/expert modes are being fine-tuned, or the lessons from tutorials of various kinds, and adaptive challenge levels or information density is being balanced.

From Smartphones to (Playful) Smart Devices?

Casio Databank
Casio Databank

If you were a techie nerd in the 80s, you might have used a Casio Databank wristwatch: a bulky device that had a small LCD screen, capable of acting as a calculator, address book, as well as a simple gaming device, while also providing advanced clock features. Those watches were (and still do) dividing user opinions, some enjoying their technically advanced, engineer-oriented pleasures, some staying as far as possible from such gadgets. With today’s focus on “smart watches” and “fitness bands”, such bulky appendices may be making a return to thousands of wrists this Christmas.

Another way of looking at these things is to consider them as the coming of the “wristwatch computer”, or manifestations of wearable, pervasive or ubiquitous computing, depending on the more general concept to adopt. As such small, “smart things” start to network and communicate with each other, they are also parts of “Internet of Things”, or “Web of Things” developments. The overall promise is of better services, which are more contextually aware, that provide information and interaction affordances in more convenient ways than the old, “PC-centric” computing paradigm has allowed. Such technologies are on the one hand inherently personal, as they connect with a trusted device (typically your mobile phone), which also may include your calendars, contact information, various social media accounts and other personalization information. On the other, they tap into new types of sensors, location-aware services and proximity beacons to provide novel services and experiences.

The futuristic promises are great, but the reality is still in the making. The current generation of smartwatches are limited in many ways, including unwieldy form factor, limited functionalities, occasional bugs, and typically rather short battery lives. The promise is nevertheless there, and many people appear to be drawn to experiment with such devices on the basis of two key functionalities: accessing smartphone alerts and information from a wristwatch, and for fitness or health information captured by the smartwatch sensors. The more advanced functionalities such as universal NFC payments, or location-based games are still waiting in the future.

My recent experiences on smartwatches are based on setting up the Samsung Galaxy Gear S (apparently a good exercise for your faculties also while lying down with a nasty flu in bed). There are multiple hoops that an early adopter seems to need to hop through: for example, you need to have a particular type of Samsung smartphone in order to use it. Having a custom rom in the phone was also a no-go, so in my case for example, I first had to uninstall the Cyanogenmod 11 I had been using in my Galaxy S4, wipe the phone, install the stock Samsung TouchWiz rom, and after that to proceed to reinstall all my applications, set up all the user accounts and re-authenticate e.g. all two-factor authentication-enabled services – a process that can easily take several hours, and is probably btw enough to turn away few interested testers.

Galaxy Gear S
Galaxy Gear S

After inserting a nano-SIM card (this device can also double as a stand-alone gsm phone), and charging the Gear S, it is time to install the necessary Galaxy Gear Manager application into Galaxy S4 from Galaxy Store (this is not available from the Google Play store, even if it is an Android app), which makes it possible to install applications and customize the Gear S. The limited selection of Gear apps is one indication of the somewhat problematic, fragmented character of current wearable ecosystems. Rather than supporting Android Wear, the Google ecosystem for wearables, Gear S is based on Tizen, a different Linux based mobile OS, developed by an association of companies, led by Samsung. Next year, the Apple Watch will arrive, opening up yet another key competing ecosystem. Getting support of e.g. your Google Maps favourites and navigation to Gear S soon does not seem likely in this competitive situation, and if you are having your calendar in Microsoft Exchange 365 server, or iCloud, for example, you first need to figure out how to get that information synchronized to the smartphone that acts as the “base station” for the particular smart device you got your eyes on. Everyone is obviously adopting a gold rush tactic, and try to grab as much land in the emerging user base as possible, trying to lock the users to their own, proprietary wearable ecosystem. From the user perspective, the situation is not optimal.

Thus, while it is nice to see e.g. movement information automatically recorded by Gear S in its S Health app, I am already a user of the leading Runkeeper service, and there is no Runkeeper app in Galaxy Gear S, nor is there a way to integrate S Health data with Runkeeper that I know of. Another handy feature would be to have the daily navigational guidance right at your wrist, when you need it. I have already long adopted the habit of including location information to all my important calendar events, so that when I am on the run, one click on the smartphone calendar will automatically open maps, with navigation, helping to choose whether to walk, pick up public transport or a taxi, which is particularly handy in a foreign country or city. Google Maps is particularly good with the public transportation schedule integration, but also Here Maps (ex-Nokia) is pretty decent in this area, at least here in Finland. Gear S does not support Google Maps/navigation, but Here Maps is supported (in “Beta”). It features turn-by-turn navigation, which appears to work and is a very good service. However, while Gear S has a bright and sharp two-inch AMOLED touch screen, which makes it into a very large wristwatch, it is still painful to use for typing in an address, with the tiny QWERTY keys. It is possible to use “Send to Gear” action from the smartphone version of Here Maps, but this seems to work only for beaming the walking instructions, and the entire operation also somewhat negates what is the key idea of wearables – of not needing to dig up the smartphone in a busy situation, with the smartwatch ready in the wrist. Another way around this would be to use “S Voice” input in Gear, but as the Finnish language is not supported, there is currently no way to just speak the local address to the Gear S. While you can get your meetings’ location information displayed in Gear S by including it into the default calendar in your supported Galaxy smartphone, it does no good trying to tap that address line in Gear S, as it is not currently linked to any navigation action.

It finally boils down to practical things such as battery life and form factor of the device, as well as language and application/service support, which of the emerging smartwatches will be a real success among the users. Based on very limited, first experiences, Galaxy Gear S is a good attempt, but finally a borderline case. The plastic-covered wrist computer is so large that at least my skin gets a bit sweaty and irritated after wearing it for several hours; stylistically, the size alone might be a complete turn-off for many potential users. Getting the notifications from text messages, emails (I opted out of those), Facebook or Twitter messages, or occasional Google Now update into the wrist display are sometimes truly useful alarms, but often distracting interferences. If you already have a tendency to lose your concentration easily, the current wearables might not be for you. On the other hand, if your work life relies on following and responding to the flow of various messages and communications and calendar events quickly and efficiently, you might consider one. I have not yet used actively Gear S for a full working day, but I suspect it should make it through a day even with the clock display turned on (the default behaviour is that it is turned off to save battery, and reacts to the movement of your rising hand by lighting up – which it often did, but also failed to do often enough to become really irritating to me at least).

Our research group has been doing studies into the future user cultures of emerging game and media technologies for years, and the ethics and rationale of design is something that we try to pay special attention with. Wearable smart technology holds promise e.g. in health, social and gamification applications of various kinds, potentially communicating the social presence of our important people literally to “our skin” in real time. It can also be used to remind us to balance our lives better, or to help us achieve our important goals by supportive messages or incentives. Gear S did bring up the S Health Pedometer display every now and then while I was writing this thing, reminding me about my physical inactivity and encouraging me to get up and moving. In my case, that was not probably the most efficient rhetoric Samsung could have adopted, but maybe there will be also other, more playful and less efficiency-oriented apps available in the future. And if not in Galaxy Gear platform, then those interesting experiments will be arriving in some other. (There was one, exploration oriented “POI Nearby” style Gear app I could find, but I could not get it to understand Finnish language or place names, either.) In any case, the door for real-world pervasive computing and play applications is now starting to open.

Gear S intro video:

More information e.g. in:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smartwatch
http://www.menstylefashion.com/retro-lcd-watches-bring-back-the-eightys-wrist-fashion/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casio_Databank
http://raredigitalwatches.com/digital/casio/cal1.html
http://www.samsung.com/global/microsite/gears/
http://www.samsung.com/us/support/howtoguide/N0000895/21285/305957

iPhone 6: boring, but must-have?

iPhone 6 & 6 Plus © Apple.
iPhone 6 & 6 Plus © Apple.

There have been substantial delays in my advance order for iPhone 6 Plus (apparently Apple underestimated the demand), and I have had some time to reflect on why I want to get the damned thing in the first place. There are no unique technological features in this phone that really set it apart in today’s hi-tech landscape (Apple Pay, for example, is not working in Finland). The screen is nice, the phone (both models, 6 and 6 Plus) are well-designed and thin, but then again – so are many other flagship smartphones today. Feature-wise, Apple has never really been the one to play the “we have the most, we get there first” game, rather, they are famous for coming in later, and for perfecting few selected ideas that often have been previously introduced by someone else.

I have never been an active “Apple fan”, even while it has been interesting to follow what they have to offer. Apple pays very close attention to design, but on the other hand closes down many options for hacking, personalising and extending their systems, which is something that a typical power-user or geek type abhors – or, at least used to.

What has changed then, if anything? On one hand, the crucial thing is that in the tech ecosystem, devices are increasingly just interfaces and entry points to content and services that reside in the cloud. My projects, documents, photos, and increasingly also the applications I use, live in the cloud. There is simply not that much need for tweaking the operating system, installing specific software, customising keyboard shortcuts, system parameters etc. than before – or is it just that I have got lazy? Moving all the time from office to the meeting room, then to the lecture hall, next to seminar room, then to home, and next to the airport, there are multiple devices while on the road that serve as portals for information, documents and services that are needed then and there. Internet connectivity and electricity rather than CPU cycles or available RAM are the key currencies today.

While on the run, I carry four tools with me today: Samsung Galaxy S4 (work phone), iPhone 4S (personal phone), iPad Air (main work tablet device), and Macbook Pro 13 Retina (personal laptop). I also use three Windows laptops (Asus Vivobook at home, Vaio Z and Vaio Z3 which I run in tandem in the office), and in the basement is the PC workstation/gaming PC that I self-assembled in December 2011. (The video gaming consoles, alternative tablets, media servers and streaming media boxes are not included in the discussion here.) All in all, it is S4 that is the most crucial element here, simply because it is mostly at hand whenever I need to check some discussion or document, look for some fact, reply to someone – and while a rather large smartphone, it is still compact enough so that I can carry it with me all the time, and it is also fast and responsive, and it has large enough, sharp touchscreen that allows interacting with all that media and communication in timely and effortless manner. I use iPhone 4S much less, mainly because its screen is so small. (Also, since both iOS 8 and today’s apps have been designed for much speedier iPhone versions, it is terribly slow.) Yet, the Android apps regularly fall short when compared to their iOS counterparts: there are missing features, updates arrive later, the user experience is not optimised for the device. For example, I really like Samsung Note 10.1 2014 Edition, which is – with its S Pen and multitasking features – arguably a better professional tablet device than iPad; yet, I do not carry it with me daily, simply as the Android apps are still often terrible. (Have you used e.g. official Facebook app in a large-screen Android tablet? The user interface looks like it is just the smartphone UI, blown up to 10 inches. Text is so small you have to squint.)

iPhone 6, and particularly 6 Plus, show Apple rising up to the challenge of screen size and performance level that Android users have enjoyed for some time already. Since many US based tech companies still have “iOS first” strategy, the app ecosystem of iPhones is so much stronger than its Android counterpart that in my kinds of use at least, investing to the expensive Apple offering makes sense. I study digital culture, media, Internet and games by profession, and many interesting games and apps only come available to the Apple land, or Android versions come later or in stripped-down forms. I am also avid mobile photographer, and while iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have smaller number of megapixels to offer than their leading rivals, their fast auto-focus, natural colours, and good low-light performance makes the new iPhones good choices also from the mobile photographer angle. (Top Lumia phones would have even better mobile cameras in this standpoint, but Windows Phone app ecosystem is even worse than Android one, where at least the numbers of apps have been rising, as the world-wide adoption of Android handsets creates demand for low-cost apps, in particular.)

To summarise, mobile is where the spotlight of information and communication technologies lies at the moment, and where games and digital culture in general is undergoing powerful developments. While raw processing power or piles of advanced features are no longer the pinnacle or guarantee for best user experiences, it is all those key elements in the minimalistic design, unified software and service ecosystem that support smooth and effortless access to content, that really counts. And while the new iPhone in terms of its technology and UI design is frankly pretty boring, it is for many people the optimal entrance to those services, discussions and creative efforts of theirs that they really care about.

So, where is that damned 6 Plus of mine, again? <sigh>

Contextual apps

S4 with the Cover app lock screen
S4 with the Cover app lock screen

There are digirati who claim that the era of contextual apps and services is here and that it will transform our daily lives (the recent, app-cataloguing book Age of Context by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel is one example). Since the mobile media experimentation and development really took off in the late nineties, there has been much talk and few real breakthroughs in this area. However, some recent developments have brought the “contextual revolution” a bit closer to reality. Particularly all the information industry giants like Google and Apple are collecting is making it easier to use algorithms and sensor data to identify various locations and provide estimates on what the user would be interested in doing in that particular spot. I have been test driving e.g. Cover, the contextual lock screen app, and Aviate, the contextual home screen app (currently in beta) in my Android device (Samsung Galaxy S4). While there is obvious promise in making the mobile operating system and user experience more adaptive, providing the most used applications in my particular locations seems still a bit hit-and-miss affair for these apps, at least. I suppose they will get better by learning from what I am actually doing, but currently I end up manually configuring the app shortcuts in the various “Spaces” that Aviate serves me, for example. And that is not exactly making the life easier than having a static home screen where I can immediately find my most used apps, always reliably in the same place. Having this “lively interface” where things are dynamically moving around can be also confusing, so my mind is stil divided about the actual usefulness of this, first generation. But I can definitely see that this kind of functionalities could come built-in some of the next versions of Android, for example. When these services start to know you better than yourself, the holding power of such apps can obviously grow to remarkable (or frightening, depending on the perspective) degrees. A really insightful recommendation system can really affect your behaviour (think about all those Amazon.com recommendations, for example), and when something similar is always making suggestions to you while you are going around and deciding upon the directions and activities in your daily life, the effect is potentially vastly greater.

Links:

Tablets, the Next Generation

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, with S Pen
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, with S Pen

I have been testing two very good tablets recently: iPad Mini with Retina Display (Cellular) and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition, LTE). In principle I would say that if you already are using a large-screen, phablet-style smartphone (like the Samsung Galaxy S4 I am using daily), and also carry around a powerful and light-weight laptop for the serious work stuff, tablet has a rather tight spot to cover. It is mostly too large to fit into your pocket (maybe a 7″ model like Nexus 7 can do that, however) so it not always available in the same way your smartphone is. And since the tablet does not have a full, dedicated keyboard and multitasking-oriented OS like your laptop has, it is not as efficient in the actual work, either. What to think about the continuing success of tablets, then?

When Apple introduced the original iPad, there were many who were sceptical about the actual benefits of again introducing the third, “middle category”, and there had been previous attempts to implement and market tablet computers and those had not been particularly successful. Apple’s virtue has been in the combination of extremely polished user experience with straightforward access to the key contents that most people actually care about. iPad proved that music, movies, photos, web and email can be rather well be handled also with a responsive, nicely designed tablet device.

iPad Mini with Retina Display continues the tradition of design excellence in Apple products. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful products of industrial design I have ever beheld. The care to the detail is admirable, and it is pleasure to touch and study this mini marvel. I have also been testing the new iPad Air and the new Mini has all the bells and whistles like its bigger brother, and it also boasts the same display resolution, just squeezed into significantly smaller frame. (There are some rather minor differences in processor power and in colour accuracy, in addition to size, to iPad Air’s benefit.) The iOS app ecosystem is the best in the mobile universe, and this concerns particularly the quality of applications. Many of the best iOS apps are just pleasure to use, so most games, lifestyle and productivity apps work best in the iOS environment. The main limitations, however, are at the growingly clear lack of innovation: iOS7, the newest version of Apple’s mobile operating system is prettier and in some areas clearly better than older versions of iOS. But the live titles and more flexible control scheme of Windows Phone provide more information at a glance, and Android is much more flexible and comes in myriad variations, with tools that a power user in particular can appreciate.

Google’s Nexus line of “stock Android” tablets and phones is perhaps the best example of the benefits that a modern mobile OS can provide, but there were important reasons why I wanted to turn my attention to a Galaxy Note this time. Most important of them was the “S Pen” stylus and its associated operating system enhancements.

Samsung’s S Pen is equipped with the state-of-the-art technology by Wacom, long-time leader in stylus and digitizing solutions. It is fascinating to see the fast reaction of tablet to the approacing tip of the small stylus, and writing and controlling of the tablet is effortless with the S Pen. It feels nice to be able to scribble handwritten text into a search box or straight into a document, and see the software automatically recognise and transform it into text. With Galaxy Note 10.1, I can take a PDF contract document, sent my a publisher, for example, and simply sign it with the S Pen, and email it back. This kind of common task has involved frustratingly complex negotiations between the hybrid worlds of print and digital documents, and now, with the help of S Pen and the magic of Evernote Skitch (a premium, paid feature), annotating PDFs is finally made natural and easy.

The downsides of Android’s increased capabilities include that often there is higher threshold of learning all the various features that manufacturers have made available to the user. iPad and its apps usually do less, but do it better. When I want to play games or consume content, I definitely lean more towards iPad Mini or iPad Air than an Android device. But when I today consider which device to pack with me for that next work trip, the choice is much harder. There is much B-quality bloatware and superfluous stuff in Samsung’s tablet, but also some really unique and genuinely useful features that make the life of a power user much easier. It is difficult to say what will be the outcome of the mobile competition in the long run, but the latest generation of tablets provide delightful and great user experiences, making a compelling case for the continuous existence of tablets as a device category.