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.

Gaming station, next generation

As I wrote around Christmas 2011, I made my latest big PC upgrade then, going for Asus P8Z68-V, GEN3 motherboard and ASUS GTX 560 Ti DirectCU II TOP based system. This served me four, rather than planned five years though. Apparently the motherboard peripherals failed, and then BIOS upgrade went astray, plus botched CMOS reset attempt finally killed the motherboard completely – some nice components were left to my hands, but this system lives no more: https://fransmayra.fi/2011/12/28/the-five-year-upgrade-plan/.

I must say that while setting up your own PC is interesting in itself, the compatibility and driver issues are also bit stressful and tiresome (particularly now, having spent most of last night fighting to revive the old PC system). Thus, this time I decided to submit an order to a store that sells pre-configured, pre-installed and tested PCs that also have the operating system set up. After comparing prices and configurations a bit, I ended up with SystemaStore shop from Oulu. These are some of the highlights of this new gaming station:

Processor: INTEL Core i5-6500 3.2GHz LGA1151 6MB BOXED
Cooler Master HYPER 212 EVO
Motherboad: ASUS Z170-P LGA1151 ATX DDR4 (max. 64GB ram)
Memory: Kingston HyperX Fury 8GB(2x4GB) DDR4 2133Mhz
SSD: Samsung 850 EVO 250GB SSD SATA3
HDD: 1TB 7200RPM SATA3 (Seagate barracuda st1000dm003)
Graphics card: ASUS Strix GeForce GTX 970 OC 4GB (0dB IDLE)
DVD drive: 24X DVD+-RW SATA
Case: Corsair Carbide 200R USB3.0 ATX kotelo
Power source: Corsair 650W 80Plus® Certified ATX (VS650)
Connections: USB2.0/USB3.0/USB type C
OS: Windows 10 64-bit home FI

Let’s see how long it takes before this arrives and I will be able to do the tests (and start working and playing with it – hopefully before my Christmas vacation is over!)

Some product photos:

ASUS-P170-sideways
ASUS Z170-P LGA1151 ATX DDR4

Asus-STRIX-970
ASUS Strix GeForce GTX 970 OC 4GB

Asus-STRIX-970-box
ASUS Strix GeForce GTX 970, box

Cooler-Master-EVO
Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO

Corsair-200r
Corsair Carbide 200R case

intel_core_i5-6500_32ghz_lga1151_6mb_cache_up_to_360ghz_fc-lga14c_skylake_box-34173680-2
Intel Core i5 processor box

Kingston-Fury
Kingston HyperX Fury DDR memory

Samsung-EVO-SSD
Samsung EVO 250 GB SSD
 

 

Corsair VS650 power source
 
More about the motherboard here: https://www.asus.com/fi/Motherboards/Z170-P/

More about the graphics card here: https://www.asus.com/fi/Graphics-Cards/STRIXGTX970DC2OC4GD5/

Time Capsule

Airport Time Capsule
Airport Time Capsule

Continuing to troubleshoot our persistent home networking problems: while we have got a high pile of various routers, last several years the heart of the network has been Asus RT-N56U dual-band model, which was awarded as the fastest router available in 2011. It was a slim device, and after I updated the firmware to the Padawan version, there was also more than enough room for tweaking. However, the constant connection failures and speed dropping finally pointed towards the life-cycle of our router coming to an end. The router has been located in very narrow space, without cooling, so it should not have come as a surprise that its components have started failing after a few years.

The selection of a router for a home where there are a fair number of connected devices (smartphones, tablets and computers are just one part of them) is a tricky business. I wanted to have a  802.11ac model, but otherwise I kept on reading and comparing various options. According to specs, speed and configuration options, the current top model of Asus, RT-AC87U, was for a long time my number one choice. However, the actual user reports were a rather mixed bag: there seems to have been various bugs and issues with both the software and hardware of this, 4×4 antenna configuration, dual band ac model. And I have come to learn that I have less and less time and patience for tweaking tech — or at least, I want the router and network infrastructure to “just work”, so that I can use the Internet while tweaking, testing and playing with something more interesting.

The conclusion was to get yet another Apple product, this time AirPort Time Capsule (2 TB model). It does not reach quite as extreme speeds as the RT-AC87U, but then again, there is limited support for hardware that is capable of reaching its theoretical 1,3 Gbps top speeds. I am increasingly relying on my Macbook Pro Retina also when at home, and we are actively using several iPads and other Apple devices, so having the full Apple compatibility, while not a “must”, was a nice bonus. The user reports about the new AirPort Time Capsule have been overwhelmingly positive, emphasising its robust reliability, so I am interested to see whether this router lives up to its reputation also as the backbone of our household. So far, so good. All our devices have succesfully got online, and the speeds are close to the 100/10 Mbps maximum, also in Wifi, when close to the AirPort. And the Macbook is now making its automatic backups in the background, which is nice.

Officejet

HP Officejet Pro 8620
HP Officejet Pro 8620

Home office upgrade: our laser colour printer, Canon i-SENSYS LBP5050n was bought in summer 2009, more than 5 years ago. It had its fair share of driver problems, and connection problems in the home LAN. Recently the connection has mostly worked for the first print, but then some error mode would require rebooting the printer to get the next pages printed. The print cartridges were also expensive, and cheaper replacement ink cartridges proved to be leaky, and giving poor quality prints. It has been time to upgrade for a long time.

Our new workhorse is an office inkjet printer-scanner, one of the new generation of multifunctional devices that support multiple wired and wireless connections, including printing and scanning with email, saving scans directly to shared network drives, and printing from mobile and tablet devices. The model is called HP Officejet Pro 8620, and while not the latest or greatest in terms of advertised features, the reliable reputation of HP as a printer maker meant a lot in this case. The quality of inkjet printing was making me cautious a bit, but on the other hand, HP advertises that the printing costs of their Officejets are up to 50 % lower than the costs of laser printing. Based on tests, the “best” quality of printer is pretty decent on regular copy paper, though inkjet technology achieves its best results on special papers, or photo papers, of course.

The printer specs (in Finnish) are here: http://www8.hp.com/fi/fi/products/printers/product-detail.html?oid=5367615

Video streaming: it is a jungle out there

Tinkernut: The Basics of Video Encoding
Tinkernut: The Basics of Video Encoding

Today’s video playback world is in an “interesting” state. Some examples from our own home and life:

  • We have video content (ranging over a decade in age) that has been recorded using variety of mobile phones, compact digital cameras, webcams, digital SLRs, and dedicated video cameras, at least
  • All of these seem to have produced file formats using different video codecs, encapsulation containers, different resolutions, etc.
  • Some of our video content has been converted and uploaded into cloud services, such as YouTube, Flickr, Dropbox, etc.
  • There are multiple storage and server devices in the house: PC workstations (Windows, Mac, Linux), one PC server (Windows 2008 Server Web Edition), and one NAS (Buffalo LS-WXL)
  • The servers claim to be DNLA compatible (there has been several different software tools set up to the Windows Server; in NAS there is a Twonky Media Server)
  • The typical video streaming use situations include, but are not limited to:
    • Using Apple TV device to access local network disk share
    • Using Apple TV device to access YouTube or other cloud service
    • Using iPad or iPhone to stream local or cloud video content via AirPlay to Apple TV
    • Using PlayStation 3 to access local network disk share
    • Using PlayStation 3 to access cloud service
    • Using a laptop (PC, Mac, Linux) to access local disk share or a cloud service, possibly streaming the video to the big screen with the help of AirPlay (Mac), or Chromecast (Windows)
    • Using an Android phone or tablet to access local disk shares or cloud services, often streaming the video to the big screen via Google Chromecast stick
    • There are also a “smart” tv and a blu-ray player with embedded DNLA playback functionalities, but those work even worse than the above options
    • It should be noted that there are multiple, differently featured software tools in both iOS and Android devices, and Chromecast support particularly appears to be “work in progress”, AirPlay has more solid support.

When I try to play a video file e.g. from 2007 (recorded using some obscure codec that some antique compact camera then supported), the situation is more likely to fail than to succeed. I have found that the best chance to actually see the video is by copying the file to a PC and opening it in some well-supported video player. The streaming will most likely not work. Apart from the PCs, PlayStation 3 appears to support most of our video files. iPad and Android phones and tablets do not really work well with most of local video file contents, even while the support has been getting better over the years. Most recent content, created with the new Androids or iPhones, for example, is more likely to perform well also in the complex home media streaming environment. The old video files will most probably always remain tricky. One solution would be to convert (and possibly upload to an online cloud service) all videos, since e.g. YouTube is rather well supported in different device environments. In reality, the hundreds of files will never be processed in this manner, and many people will probably also prefer to keep their most private, personal videos only in local storage rather than in some cloud service.

Hybridex and COST Action workshop, Lisbon

Our hybrid, playful media, games and toys project Hybridex carried out yesterday a joint workshop in Lisbon on ideating new concepts for future services and products that innovatively combine the strenghts of physical materials with the digital functionalities. Headed by Annakaisa Kultima, c. 40 European researchers from multiple disciplinary backgrounds experimented using the IDECARDS approach – and I think that we got valuable feedback on the method, as well as some very interesting new product or service concepts. Link to the COST Action FP1104 info page is here.

Solution to the iPad wifi issues?

As a somewhat sad and ridiculous conclusion, it seems that the most certain way to get iPad to connect via wifi to Internet is to replace your current router with a new one — made by Apple, of course. I ran out of options with my Belkin N+ Wireless Router, at least. It was possible to open the network and leave it totally unprotected – iPad accepted it only then – but I did not prefer to have it set up that way. So, Cupertino, here we go again (AirPort Express works fine with iPad & iPhone, of course). This must be part of Apple’s not-so-secret plan of world domination?