Recommended laptops, March 2018

Every now and then I am asked to recommend what PC to buy. The great variety in individual needs and preferences make this ungrateful task – it is dangerous to follow someone else’s advice, and not to do your own homework, and hands-on testing yourself. But, said that, here are some of my current favourites, based on my individual and highly idiosyncratic preferences:

My key criterion is to start from a laptop, rather than a desktop PC: laptops are powerful enough for almost anything, and they provide more versatility. When used in office, or home desk, one can plug in external keyboard, mouse/trackball and display, and use the local network resources such as printers and file servers. The Thunderbolt interface has made it easy to have all those things plugged in via a single connector, so I’d recommend checking that the laptop comes with Thunderbolt (it uses USB-C type connector, but not all USB-C ports are Thunderbolt ports).

When we talk about laptops, my key criteria would be to first look at the weight and get as light device as possible, considering two other key criteria: excellent keyboard and good touch display.

The reasons for those priorities are that I personally carry the laptop with me pretty much always, and weight is then a really important factor. If thing is heavy, the temptation is just to leave it where it sits, rather than pick it up while rushing into a quick meeting. And when in the meeting one needs to make notes, or check some information, one is at the mercy of a smartphone picked from the pocket, and the ergonomics are much worse in that situation. Ergonomics relate to the point about excellent keyboard and display, alike. Keyboard is to me the main interface, since I write a lot. Bad or even average keyboard will make things painful in the long run, if you write hours and hours daily. Prioritising the keyboard is something that your hands, health and general life satisfaction will thank, in the long run.

Touch display is something that will probably divide the opinions of many technology experts, even. In the Apple Macintosh ecosystem of computers there is no touch screen computer available: that modality is reserved to iPad and iPhone mobile devices. I think that having a touch screen on a laptop is something that once learned, one cannot go away from. I find myself trying to scroll and swipe my non-touchscreen devices nowadays all the time. Windows 10 as an operating system has currently the best support for touch screen gestures, but there are devices in the Linux and Chromebook ecosystems that also support touch. Touch screen display makes handling applications, files easier, and zooming in and out of text and images a snap. Moving hands away from keyboard and touchpad every now and then to the edges of the screen is probably also good for ergonomics. However, trying to keep one’s hands on the laptop screen for extended times is not a good idea, as it is straining. Touch screen is not absolutely needed, but it is an excellent extra. However, it is important that the screen is bright, sharp, and has wide viewing angles; it is really frustrating to work on dim washed-out displays, particularly in brightly lit conditions. You have to squint, and end up with a terrible headache at the end of the day. In LCD screens look for IPS (in-plane switching) technology, or for OLED screens. The latter, however, are still rather rare and expensive in laptops. But OLED has the best contrast, and it is the technology that smartphone manufacturers like Samsung and Apple use in their flagship mobile devices.

All other technical specifications in a laptop PC are, for me, secondary for those three. It is good to have a lot of memory, a large and fast SSD disk, and a powerful processor (CPU), for example, but according to my experience, if you have a modern laptop that is light-weight, and has excellent keyboard and display, it will also come with other specs that are more than enough for all everyday computing tasks. Things are a bit different if we are talking about a PC that will have gaming as its primary use, for example. Then it would be important to have a discrete graphics card (GPU) rather than only the built-in, integrated graphics in the laptop. That feature, with related added requirements to other technology means that such laptops are usually more pricey, and a desktop PC is in most cases better choice for heavy duty gaming than a laptop. But dedicated gaming laptops (with discrete graphics currently in the Nvidia Pascal architecture level – including GTX 1050, 1060 and even 1080 types) are evolving, and becoming all the time more popular choices. Even while many of such laptops are thick and heavy, for many gamers it is nice to be able to carry the “hulking monster” into a LAN party, eSports event, or such. But gaming laptops are not your daily, thin and light work devices for basic tasks. They are too overpowered for such uses (and consume their battery too fast), and – on the other hand – if a manufacturer tries fitting in a powerful discrete graphics card into a slim, lightweight frame, there will be generally overheating problems, if one really starts to put the system under heavy gaming loads. The overheated system will then start “throttling”, which means that it will automatically decrease the speed it is operating with, in order to cool down. These limitations will perhaps be eased with the next, “Volta” generation of GPU microarchitecture, making thin, light and very powerful laptop computers more viable. They will probably come with a high price, though.

Said all that, I can then highlight few systems that I think are worthy of consideration at this timepoint – late March, 2018.

To start from the basics, I think that most general users would profit from having a close look at Chromebook type of laptop computers. They are a bit different from Windows/Mac type personal computers that many people are mostly familiar with, and have their own limitations, but also clear benefits. The ChromeOS (operating system by Google) is a stripped down version of Linux, and provides fast and reliable user experience, as the web-based, “thin-client” system does not slow down in same way as a more complex operating system that needs to cope with all kinds of applications that are installed locally into it over the years. Chromebooks are fast and simple, and also secure in the sense that the operating system features auto-updating, running code in secure “sandbox”, and verified boot, where the initial boot code checks for any system compromises. The default file location in Chomebooks is a cloud service, which might turn away some, but for a regular user it is mostly a good idea to have cloud storage: a disk crash or lost computer does not lead into losing one’s files, as the cloud operates as an automatic backup.

ASUS Chromebook Flip (C302CA)
ASUS Chromebook Flip (C302CA; photo © ASUS).

ASUS Chromebook Flip (C302CA model) [see link] has been getting good reviews. I have not used this one personally, and it is on the expensive side of Chromebooks, but it has nice design, it is rather light (1,18 kg / 2,6 pounds), and keyboard and display are reportedly decent or even good. It has a touch screen, and can run Android apps, which is becoming one of the key future directions where the ChromeOS is heading. As an alternative, consider Samsung Chromebook Pro [see link], which apparently has worse keyboard, but features an active stylus, which makes it strong when used as a tablet device.

For premium business use, I’d recommend having a look at the classic Thinkpad line of laptop computers. Thin and light Thinkpad X1 Carbon (2018) [see link] comes now also with a touch screen option (only in FHD/1080p resolution, though), and has a very good keyboard. It has been recently updated into 8th generation Intel processors, which as quad-core systems provide a performance boost. For a more touch screen oriented users, I recommend considering Thinkpad X1 Yoga [see link] model. Both of these Lenovo offerings are quite expensive, but come with important business use features, like (optional) 4G/LTE-A data card connectivity. Wi-Fi is often unreliable, and going through the tethering process via a smartphone mobile hotspot is not optimal, if you are running fast from meeting to meeting, or working while on the road. The Yoga model also used to have a striking OLED display, but that is being discontinued in the X1 Yoga 3rd generation (2018) models; that is replaced by a 14-inch “Dolby Vision HDR touchscreen” (max brightness of 500 nits, 2,560 x 1,440 resolution). HDR is still an emerging technology in laptop displays (and elsewhere as well), but it promises a wider colour gamut – a set of available colours. Though, I am personally happy with the OLED in the 2017 model X1 Yoga I am mostly using for daily work these days. X1 Carbon is lighter (1,13 kg), but X1 Yoga is not too heavy either (1,27 kg). Note though, that the keyboard in Yoga is not as good as in the Carbon.

Thinkpad X1 Yoga
Thinkpad X1 Yoga (image © Lenovo).

There are several interesting alternatives, all with their distinctive strengths (and weaknesses). I mention here just shortly these:

  • Dell XPS 13 (2018) [see link] line of ultraportable laptops with their excellent “InfinityEdge” displays has also been updated to 8th gen quad core processors, and is marketed as the “world’s smallest 13-inch laptop”, due to the very thin bezels. With the weight of 1,21 kg (2,67 pounds), XPS 13 is very compact, and some might even miss having a bit wider bezels, for easier screen handling. XPS does not offer 4G/LTE module option, to my knowledge.
  • ASUS Zenbook Pro (UX550) [see link] is a 15-inch laptop, which is a bit heavier (with 1,8 kg), but it scales up to 4k displays, and can come with discrete GTX 1050 Ti graphics option. For being a bit thicker and heavier, Zenbook Pro is reported to have a long battery life, and rather capable graphics performance, with relatively minor throttling issues. It has still 7th gen processors (as quad core versions, though).
  • Nice, pretty lightweight 15-inch laptops come from Dell (XPS 15) [see link] and LG, for example – particularly with LG gram 15 [see link], which is apparently a very impressive device, and weighs only 1,1 kg while being a 15-inch laptop; it is shame we cannot get it here in Finland, though.
  • Huawei Matebook X Pro
    Huawei Matebook X Pro (photo © Huawei).
  • As Apple has (for my eyes) ruined their excellent Macbook Pro line, with too shallow keyboard, and by not proving any touch screen options, people are free to hunt for Macbook-like experiences elsewhere. Chinese manufacturers are always fast to copy things, and Huawei Matebook X Pro [see link] is an interesting example: it has a touch screen (3K LTPS display, 3000 x 2000 resolution with 260 PPI, 100 % colour space, 450 nits brightness), 8th gen processors, GTX MX 150 discrete graphics, 57,4 Wh battery, Dolby Atmos sound system, etc, etc. This package weighs 1,33 kg. It is particularly nice to see them not copying Apple in their highly limited ports and connectivity – Matebook X Pro has both Thunderbolt/USB-C, but also the older USB-A, and a regular 3,5 mm headphone port. I am dubious about the quality of the keyboard, though, until I have tested it personally. And, one can always be a bit paranoid about the underlying security of Chinese-made information technology; but then again, the Western companies have not proved necessarily any better in that area. It is good to have more competition in the high end of laptops, as well.
  • Finally, one must mention also Microsoft, which sells its own Surface line of products, which have very good integration with the touch features of Windows 10, of course, and also generally come with displays, keyboards and touchpads that are among the very best. Surface Book 2 [see link] is their most versatile and powerful device: there are both 15-inch and 13,5-inch models, both having quad-core processors, discrete graphics (up to GTX 1060), and good battery life (advertised up to 17 hours, but one can trust that the real-life use times will be much less). Book 2 is a two-in-one device with a detachable screen that can work independently as a tablet. However, this setup is heavier (1,6 kg for 13,5-inch, 1,9 kg for the 15-inch model) than the Surface Laptop [see link], which does not work as a tablet, but has a great touch-screen, and weighs less (c. 1,5 kg). The “surface” of this Surface laptop is pleasurable alcantara, a cloth material.
MS Surface Laptop with Alcantara
MS Surface Laptop with alcantara (image © Microsoft).

To sum up, there are many really good options these days in personal computers, and laptops in general have evolved in many important areas. Still it is important to have hands-on experience before committing – particularly if one is using the new workhorse intensely, this is a crucial tool decision, after all. And personal preference (and, of course, available budget) really matters.

Tools for Trade

Lenovo X1 Yoga (2nd gen) in tablet mode
Lenovo X1 Yoga (2nd gen) in tablet mode.

The key research infrastructures these days include e.g. access to online publication databases, and ability to communicate with your colleagues (including such prosaic things as email, file sharing and real-time chat). While an astrophysicist relies on satellite data and a physicist to a particle accelerator, for example, in research and humanities and human sciences is less reliant on expensive technical infrastructures. Understanding how to do an interview, design a reliable survey, or being able to carefully read, analyse and interpret human texts and expressions is often enough.

Said that, there are tools that are useful for researchers of many kinds and fields. Solid reference database system is one (I use Zotero). In everyday meetings and in the field, note taking is one of the key skills and practices. While most of us carry our trusty laptops everywhere, one can do with a lightweight device, such as iPad Pro. There are nice keyboard covers and precise active pens available for today’s tablet computers. When I type more, I usually pick up my trusty Logitech K810 (I have several of those). But Lenovo Yoga 510 that I have at home has also that kind of keyboard that I love: snappy and precise, but light of touch, and of low profile. It is also a two-in-one, convertible laptop, but a much better version from same company is X1 Yoga (2nd generation). That one is equipped with a built-in active pen, while being also flexible and powerful enough so that it can run both utility software, and contemporary games and VR applications – at least when linked with an eGPU system. For that, I use Asus ROG XG Station 2, which connects to X1 Yoga with a Thunderbolt 3 cable, thereby plugging into the graphics power of NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070. A system like this has the benefit that one can carry around a reasonably light and thin laptop computer, which scales up to workstation class capabilities when plugged in at the desk.

ROG XG Station 2 with Thunderbolt 3.
ROG XG Station 2 with Thunderbolt 3.

One of the most useful research tools is actually a capable smartphone. For example, with a good mobile camera one can take photos to make visual notes, photograph one’s handwritten notes, or shoot copies of projected presentation slides at seminars and conferences. When coupled with a fast 4G or Wi-Fi connection and automatic upload to a cloud service, the same photo notes almost immediately appear also the laptop computer, so that they can be attached to the right folder, or combined with typed observation notes and metadata. This is much faster than having a high-resolution video recording of the event; that kind of more robust documentation setups are necessary in certain experimental settings, focus group interview sessions, collaborative innovation workshops, etc., but in many occasions written notes and mobile phone photos are just enough. I personally use both iPhone (8 Plus) and Android systems (Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and S7).

Writing is one of they key things academics do, and writing software is a research tool category on its own. For active pen handwriting I use both Microsoft OneNote and Nebo by MyScript. Nebo is particularly good in real-time text recognition and automatic conversion of drawn shapes into vector graphics. I link a video by them below:

My main note database is at Evernote, while online collaborative writing and planning is mostly done in Google Docs/Drive, and consortium project file sharing is done either in Dropbox or in Office365.

Microsoft Word may be the gold standard of writing software in stand-alone documents, but their relative share has radically gone down in today’s distributed and collaborative work. And while MS Word might still have the best multi-lingual proofing tools, for example, the first draft might come from an online Google Document, and the final copy end up into WordPress, to be published in some research project blog or website, or in a peer-reviewed online academic publication, for example. The long, book length projects are best handled in dedicated writing environment such as Scrivener, but most collaborative book projects are best handled with a combination of different tools, combined with cloud based sharing and collaboration in services like Dropbox, Drive, or Office365.

If you have not collaborated in this kind of environment, have a look at tutorials, here is just a short video introduction by Google into sharing in Docs:

What are your favourite research and writing tools?

Photography and artificial intelligence

Google Clips camera
Google Clips camera (image copyright: Google).

The main media attention in applications of AI, artificial intelligence and machine learning, has been on such application areas as smart traffic, autonomous cars, recommendation algorithms, and expert systems in all kinds of professional work. There are, however, also very interesting developments taking place around photography currently.

There are multiple areas where AI is augmenting or transforming photography. One is in how the software tools that professional and amateur photographers are using are advancing. It is getting all the time easier to select complex areas in photos, for example, and apply all kinds of useful, interesting or creative effects and functions in them (see e.g. what Adobe is writing about this in: https://blogs.adobe.com/conversations/2017/10/primer-on-artificial-intelligence.html). The technical quality of photos is improving, as AI and advanced algorithmic techniques are applied in e.g. enhancing the level of detail in digital photos. Even a blurry, low-pixel file can be augmented with AI to look like a very realistic, high resolution photo of the subject (on this, see: https://petapixel.com/2017/11/01/photo-enhancement-starting-get-crazy/.

But the applications of AI do not stop there. Google and other developers are experimenting with “AI-augmented cameras” that can recognize persons and events taking place, and take action, making photos and videos at moments and topics that the AI, rather than the human photographer deemed as worthy (see, e.g. Google Clips: https://www.theverge.com/2017/10/4/16405200/google-clips-camera-ai-photos-video-hands-on-wi-fi-direct). This development can go into multiple directions. There are already smart surveillance cameras, for example, that learn to recognize the family members, and differentiate them from unknown persons entering the house, for example. Such a camera, combined with a conversant backend service, can also serve the human users in their various information needs: telling whether kids have come home in time, or in keeping track of any out-of-ordinary events that the camera and algorithms might have noticed. In the below video is featured Lighthouse AI, that combines a smart security camera with such an “interactive assistant”:

In the domain of amateur (and also professional) photographer practices, AI also means many fundamental changes. There are already add-on tools like Arsenal, the “smart camera assistant”, which is based on the idea that manually tweaking all the complex settings of modern DSLR cameras is not that inspiring, or even necessary, for many users, and that a cloud-based intelligence could handle many challenging photography situations with better success than a fumbling regular user (see their Kickstarter video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmfGeaBX-0Q). Such algorithms are already also being built into the cameras of flagship smartphones (see, e.g. AI-enhanced camera functionalities in Huawei Mate 10, and in Google’s Pixel 2, which use AI to produce sharper photos with better image stabilization and better optimized dynamic range). Such smartphones, like Apple’s iPhone X, typically come with a dedicated chip for AI/machine learning operations, like the “Neural Engine” of Apple. (See e.g. https://www.wired.com/story/apples-neural-engine-infuses-the-iphone-with-ai-smarts/).

Many of these developments point the way towards a future age of “computational photography”, where algorithms play as crucial role in the creation of visual representations as optics do today (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computational_photography). It is interesting, for example, to think about situations where photographic presentations are constructed from data derived from myriad of different kinds of optical sensors, scattered in wearable technologies and into the environment, and who will try their best to match the mood, tone or message, set by the human “creative director”, who is no longer employed as the actual camera-man/woman. It is also becoming increasingly complex to define authorship and ownership of photos, and most importantly, the privacy and related processing issues related to the visual and photographic data. – We are living interesting times…

Future of interfaces: AirPods

apple-airpods
Apple AirPods (image © Apple).

I am a regular user of headphones of various kinds, both wired and wireless, closed and open, with noise cancellation, and without. The latest piece of this technology I invested in are the “AirPods” by Apple.

Externally, these things are almost comically similar to the standard “EarPods” they provide with, or as the upgrade option for their mobile devices. The classic white Apple design is there, just the cord has been cut, leaving the connector stems protruding from the user ears, like small antennas (which they probably also indeed are, as well as directional microphone arms).

There are wireless headphone-microphone sets that have slightly better sound quality (even if AirPods are perfectly decent as wireless earbuds), or even more neutral design. What is here interesting in one part is the “seamless” user experience which Apple has invested in – and the “artificial intelligence” Siri assistant which is another key part of the AirPod concept.

The user experience of AirPods is superior to any other headphones I have tested, which is related to the way the small and light AirPods immediatelly connect with the Apple iPhones, detect when they are placed into the ear, or or not, and work hours on one charge – and quickly recharge after a short session inside their stylishly designed, smart battery case. These things “just work”, in the spirit of original Apple philosophy. In order to achieve this, Apple has managed to create a seamless combination of tiny sensors, battery technology, and a dedicated “W1 chip” which manages the wireless functionalities of AirPods.

The integration with Siri assistant is the other key part of AirPod concept, and the one that probably divides user’s views more than any other feature. A double tap to the side of an AirPod activates Siri, which can indeed understand short commands in multiple languages, and respond to them, carrying out even simple conversations with the user. Talking to an invisible assistant is not, however, part of today’s mobile user cultures – even if Spike Jonze’s film “Her” (2013) shows that the idea is certainly floating around today. Still, mobile devices are often used while on the move, in public places, in buses, trains or in airplanes, and it is just not feasible nor socially acceptable that people carry out constant conversations with their invisible assistants in this kind of environments – not yet today, at least.

Regardless of this, Apple AirPods are actually to a certain degree designed to rely on such constant conversations, which both makes them futuristic and ambitious, but also a rather controversial piece of design and engineering. Most notably, there are no physical buttons or other ways for adjusting volume in these headphones: you just double tap to the side of AirPods, and verbally tell Siri to turn the volume up, or down. This mostly works just fine, Siri does the j0b, but a small touch control gesture would be just so much more user friendly.

There is something engaging in testing Siri with the AirPods, nevertheless. I did find myself walking around the neighborhood, talking to the air, and testing what Siri can do. There are already dozens of commands and actions that can be activated with the help of AirPods and Siri (there is no official listing, but examples are given in lists like this one: https://www.cnet.com/how-to/the-complete-list-of-siri-commands/). The abilities of Siri still fall short in many areas, it did not completely understand Finnish I used in my testing, and the integration of third party apps is often limited, which is a real bottleneck, as these apps are what most of us are using our mobile devices for, most of the time. Actually, Google and the assistant they have in Android is better than Siri in many areas relevant for daily life (maps, traffic information, for example), but the user experience of their assistant is not yet as seamless or integrated whole as that of Apple’s Siri is.

All this considered, using AirPods is certainly another step into the general developmental direction where pervasive computing, AI, conversational interfaces and augmented reality are taking us, in good or bad. Well worth checking out, at least – for more in Apple’s own pages, see: http://www.apple.com/airpods/.

Apple TV, 4th generation

Apple has been developing their television offerings in multiple fronts: in one sense, much television content and viewers have already moved into Apple (and Google) platforms, as online video and streaming media keeps on growing in popularity. According to one market research report, in 18-24 age group (in America), between 2011 and 2016, traditional television viewing has dropped by almost 40 %. At the same time, subscriptions to streaming video services (like Netflix) are growing. Particularly among the young people, some reports already suggest that they are spending more time watching streaming video as contrasted to watching live television programs. Just in the period from 2012 to 2014, mobile video views increased by 400 %.

Still, the television set remains as the centrepiece of most Western living rooms. Apple TV is designed to adapt games, music, photos and movies from the Apple ecosystem to the big screen. After some problems with the old, second generation Apple TV, I got today the new, 4th generation Apple TV. It has more powerful processor, more memory, a new remote control that has a small touch surface, and runs a new version of tvOS. The most important aspect regarding expansions into new services is the ability to download and install apps and games from thousands that are available in the App Store for tvOS.

After some quick testing, I think that I will prefer using the Remote app in my iPhone 6 Plus, rather than navigating with the small physical remote, which feels a bit finicky. Also, for games the dedicated video game controller (Steelseries Nimbus) would definitely provide a better sense of control. The Nimbus should also play nice with iPhone and iPad games, in addition to Apple TV ones.

Setup of the system was simple enough, and was most easily handled via another Apple device – iCloud was utilized to access Wi-Fi and other registered home settings automatically. Apart from the bit tricky touch controls, the user experience is excellent. Even the default screensavers of the new system are this time high-definition video clips, which are great to behold in themselves. This is not a 4k system, though, so if you have already upgraded the living room television into 4k version, the new Apple TV does not support that. Ours is still a Full HD Sony Bravia, so no problem for us. Compared to some other competing streaming media boxes (like Roku 4, Amazon Fire TV, Nvidia Shield Android TV), the feature set of Apple TV in comparison to its price might seem a bit lacklustre. The entire Apple ecosystem has its own benefits (as well as downsides) though.

Tech Tips for New Students

Working cross-platform
Going cross-platform: same text accessed via various versions of MS Word and Dropbox in Surface Pro 4, iPad Mini (with Zagg slim book keyboard case), Toshiba Chromebook 2, and iPhone 6 Plus, in the front.

There are many useful practices and tools that can be recommended for new university students; many good study practices are pretty universal, but then there are also elements that relate to what one studies, where one studies – to the institutional or disciplinary frames of academic work. A student that works on a degree in theoretical physics, electronics engineering, organic chemistry, history of the Middle Ages, Japanese language or business administration, for example, all will probably have elements in their studies that are unique to their fields. I will here focus on some simple technicalities should be useful for many students in the humanities, social sciences or digital media studies related fields, as well as for those in our own, Internet and Game Studies degree program.

There are study practices that belong to the daily organisation of work, to the tools, the services and software that one will use, for example. My focus here is on the digital tools and technology that I have found useful – even essential – for today’s university studies, but that does not mean I would downplay the importance of non-digital, informal and more traditional ways of doing things. The ways of taking notes in lectures and seminars is one thing, for example. For many people the use of pen or pencil on paper is absolutely essential, and they are most effective when using their hands in drawing and writing physically to the paper. Also, rather than just participating in online discussion fora, having really good, traditional discussions in the campus café or bar with the fellow students are important in quite many ways. But taken that, there are also some other tools and environments that are worth considering.

It used to be that computers were boxy things that were used in university’s PC classes (apart from terminals, used to access the mainframes). Today, the information and communication technology landscape has greatly changed. Most students carry in their pockets smartphones that are much more capable devices than the mainframes of the past. Also, the operating systems do not matter as much as they did only a few years ago. It used to be a major choice whether one went and joined the camp of Windows (Microsoft-empowered PC computers), that of Apple Macintosh computers, those with Linux, or some other, more obscure camp. The capabilities and software available for each environment were different. Today, it is perfectly possible to access same tools, software or services with all major operating environments. Thus, there is more freedom of choice.

The basic functions most of us in academia probably need daily include reading, writing, communicating/collaborating, research, data collecting, scheduling and other work organisation tasks and use of the related tools. It is an interesting situation that most of these tasks can be achieved already with the mobile device many of us carry with us all the time. A smartphone of iOS or Android kind can be combined with an external Bluetooth keyboard and used for taking notes in the lectures, accessing online reading materials, for using cloud services and most other necessary tasks. In addition, smartphone is of course an effective tool for communication, with its apps for instant messaging, video or voice conferencing. The cameraphone capabilities can be used for taking visual notes, or for scanning one’s physical notes with their mindmaps, drawings and handwriting into digital format. The benefit of that kind of hybrid strategy is it allows taking advantage both of the supreme tactile qualities of physical pen and paper, while also allowing the organisation of scanned materials into digital folders, possibly even in full-text searchable format.

The best tools for this basic task of note taking and organisation are Evernote and MS OneNote. OneNote is the more fully featured one – and more complex – of these two, and allows one to create multiple notebooks, each with several different sections and pages that can include text, images, lists and many other kinds of items. Taking some time to learn how to use OneNote effectively to organise multiple materials is definitely worth it. There are also OneNote plugins for most internet browsers, allowing one to capture materials quickly while surfing various sites.

MS OneNote
MS OneNote, Microsoft tutorial materials.

Evernote is more simple and straightforward tool, and this is perhaps exactly why many prefer it. Saving and searching materials in Evernote is very quick, and it has excellent integration to mobile. OneNote is particularly strong if one invests to Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (or Surface Book), which have a Surface Pen that is a great note taking tool, and allows one to quickly capture materials from a browser window, writing on top of web pages, etc. On the other hand, if one is using an Apple iPhone, iPad or Android phone or tablet, Evernote has characteristics that shine there. On Samsung Note devices with “S Pen” one can take screenshots and make handwritten notes in mostly similar manner than one can do with the MS Surface Pen in the Microsoft environment.

In addition to the note solution, a cloud service is one of the bedrocks of today’s academic world. Some years ago it was perfectly possible to have software or hardware crash and realize that (backups missing), all that important work is now gone. Cloud services have their question marks regarding privacy and security, but for most users the benefits are overwhelming. A tool like Dropbox will silently work in the background and make sure that the most recent versions of all files are always backed up. A file that is in the cloud can also be shared with other users, and some services have expanded into real-time collaboration environments where multiple people can discuss and work together on shared documents. This is especially strong in Google Drive and Google Docs, which includes simplified versions of familiar office tools: text editor, spreadsheet, and presentation programs (cf. classic versions of Microsoft Office: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint; LibreOffice has similar, free, open-source versions). Microsoft cloud service, Office 365 is currently provided for our university’s students and staff as the default environment free of charge, and it includes the OneDrive storage service as well as Outlook email system, and access to both desktop as well as cloud-hosted versions of Office applications – Word Online, Excel Online, PowerPoint Online, and OneNote Online. Apple has their own iCloud system, with Mac office tools (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) also can be operated in browser, as iCloud versions. All major productivity tools have also iOS and Android mobile app versions of their core functionalities available. It is also possible to save, for example, MS Office documents into the MS OneCloud, or into Dropbox – a seamless synchronization with multiple devices and operating systems is an excellent thing, as it makes possible to start writing on desktop computer, continue with a mobile device, and then finish things up with a laptop computer, for example.

Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X (Macintosh computers) and Linux have a longer history, but I recommend students also having a look at Google’s Chrome OS and Chromebook devices. They are generally cheaper, and provide reliable and very easy to maintain environment that can be used for perhaps 80 % or 90 % of the basic academic tasks. Chromebooks work really well with Google Drive and Google Docs, but principally any service that be accessed as a browser-based, cloud version also works in Chromebooks. It is possible, for example, to create documents in Word or PowerPoint Online, and save them into OneDrive or Dropbox so that they will sync with the other personal computers and mobile devices one might be using. There is a development project at Google to make it possible to run Android mobile applications in Chrome OS devices, which means that the next generation of Chromebooks (which will all most likely support touchscreens) will be even more attractive than today’s versions.

For planning, teamwork, task deadlines and calendar sharing, there are multiple tools available that range from MS Outlook to Google Calendar. I have found that sharing of calendars generally works easier with the Google system, while Outlook allows deeper integration into organisation’s personnel databases etc. It is really good idea to plan and break down all key course work into manageable parts and set milestones (interim deadlines) for them. This can be achieved with careful use of calendars, where one can mark down the hours that are required for personal, as well as teamwork, in addition to lectures, seminars and exercise classes your timetable might include. That way, not all crucial jobs are packed next to the end of term or period deadlines. I personally use a combination of several Google Calendars (the core one synced with the official UTA Outlook calendar) and Wunderlist to-do list app/service. There are also several dedicated project management tools (Asana, Trello, etc.), but mostly you can work the tasks with basic tools like Google Docs, Sheets (Word, Excel) and then break down the tasks and milestones into the calendar you share with your team. Communications are also essential, and apart from email, people today generally utilize Facebook (Messenger, Groups, Pages), Skype, WhatsApp, Google+/Hangouts, Twitter, Instagram and similar social media tools. One of the key skills in this area is to create multiple filter settings or more fine-grained sharing settings (possibly even different accounts and profiles) for professional and private purposes. The intermixing of personal, study related and various commercial dimensions is almost inevitable in these services, which is why some people try to avoid social media altogether. Wisely used, these services can be nevertheless immensely useful in many ways.

All those tools and services require accounts and login details that are easily rather unsafe, by e.g. our tendency to recycle same or very similar passwords. Please do not do that – there will inevitably be a hacking incident or some other issue with some of those services, and that will lead you into trouble in all the others, too. There are various rules-based ways of generating complex passwords for different services, and I recommend using two-factor authentication always when it is available. This is a system where typically a separate mobile app or text messages act as a backup security measure whenever the service is accessed from a new device or location. Life is also much easier using a password manager like LastPass or 1Password, where one only needs to remember the master password – the service will remember the other, complex and automatically generated passwords for you. In several contemporary systems, there are also face recognition (Windows 10 Hello), fingerprint authentication or iris recognition technologies that are designed to provide a further layer of protection at the hardware level. The operating systems are also getting better in protecting against computer viruses, even without a dedicated anti-virus software. There are multiple scams and social engineering hacks in the connected, online world that even the most sophisticated anti-virus tools cannot protect you against.

Finally, a reference database is an important part of any study project. While it is certainly possible to have a physical shoebox full of index cards, filled with quotes, notes and bibliographic details of journal articles, conference papers and book chapters, it is not the most efficient way of doing things. There are comprehensive reference database management services like RefWorks (supported by UTA) and EndNote that are good for this job. I personally like Zotero, which exists both as cloud/browser-based service in Zotero.org, but most importantly allows quick capture of full reference details through browser plugins, and then inserting references in all standard formats into course papers and thesis works, in simple copy-paste style. There can also be set up shared, topics based bibliographic databases, managed by teams in Zotero.org – an example is Zotero version of DigiPlay bibliography (created by Jason Rutter, and converted by Jesper Juul): https://www.zotero.org/groups/digiplay .

As a final note, regardless of the actual tools one uses, it is the systematic and innovative application of those that really sets excellent study practices apart. Even the most cutting edge tools do not automate the research and learning – this is something that needs to be done by yourself, and in your individual style. There are also other solutions, that have not been explored in this short note, that might suit your style. Scrivener, for example, is a more comprehensive “writing studio”, where one can collect snippets of research, order fragments and create structure in more flexible manner than is possible than in e.g. MS Word (even while its Outline View is too underused). The landscape of digital, physical, social and creative opportunities is all the time expanding and changing – if you have suggestions for additions to this topic, please feel free to make those below in the comments.

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.)