Category: Computer Hardware Design

Serious challenges to Apple from the Windows and Android front

Article

Sony Vaio Pro 13 Ultrabook v Apple MacBook Air For Photographers

My Comments

Previously, Apple had a stronghold on computing for the creative industries with most of their Macintosh computers. This was even since the Macintosh platform was launched where these computers with their graphical-user-interface being run alongside a laser printer brought in the concept of desktop publishing.

Similarly, they had a few years cornering the mobile computing platform with their iPhone and iPad devices. It also included capturing the premium “stylish computing” market with their MacBook Air and, in some cases, the MacBook Pro laptops.

Now a few computing devices and platforms are challenging Apple in a lot of these fronts. Over the last year, Samsung, HTC and Sony have fielded some very impressive highly-capable smartphones that have put the iPhone on notice like the Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4. These phones also show an impressive “cool” style about them as well as the phones being able to take as good an image as an Apple iPhone.

As for mobile tablets, the 7” coat-pocket tablets like the Google Nexus 7 have created a distinct market niche which Apple couldn’t successfully fill with the right device. Similar, Sony had tendered the XPeria Z which has come close to competing with the iPad as far as 10” tablets are concerned.

HP Envy 15-3000 Series laptop

HP Envy 15-3000 Series Beats Edition multimedia laptop

Over the last few years, there have been a number of laptops and notebooks that have answered the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air in many ways. For example, the HP Envy 15-3000 which I previously reviewed provided a construction look and feel that is very close to the MacBook Pro series of laptops. Lately, Sony fielded the VAIO Pro 13 which is a Windows 8 Ultrabook that has been described in a review by “The Age” as having a photo-grade display and is capable of answering a similar-size MacBook Air as a portable workflow computer for a professional photographer. Here, this one implemented a highly-controllable Full HD display which was able to yield the proper colour temperature for photography.

Toshiba Satellite P870 desktop-replacement laptop Harman-Kardon speakers

Harman-Kardon speakers to give this laptop full sound

As well, companies who have a strong presence in the recording and reproduction of music are becoming involved in the quest for improved sound quality in Windows-based laptops. Examples of these include Beats by Dr Dre working with HP to provide improved sound for HP Envy laptops; premium Toshiba laptops being equipped with Harman-Kardon speakers and ASUS laptops having Bang & Olufsen sound tuning. Who knows what would be happening soon with even the conversion of audio signals between the digital and analogue domains being worked on so as to provide a line-level sound quality equal to or better than the Apple MacBook Pro.

Of course, the Windows and Android equipment have supported an “open-frame” operating environment for both the hardware and software where common standards set by industry groups have been respected. For example, the Android smartphones use MicroUSB as a power / data connection, it is easier for users to gain access to the files held on their Windows or Android devices, and users can integrate an Android or Windows device to a Wi-Fi wireless network at the touch of a button using WPS setup.

What I do see is that regular and mobile computing is swinging from Apple being considered the “cool kid” for both these applications to a situation where they are considered a has-been.

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ASUS integrates a UPS and external battery pack in one of their desktop tower PCs

Article

ASUS intros the Desktop PC G10, packing a built-in UPS and portable battery (hands-on video) | Engadget

Video

Click to view

My Comments

The classic “tower-style” desktop PC could be considered to be losing its market share amongst users other than small businesses and hardcore computer gamers as the laptops and all-in-one desktops gain hold amongst the mainstream PC buyers.

But ASUS have worked on a way to take things further for this class of computer. Typically, a computer like this that is involved in mission-critical work may be hooked up to an external uninterruptable power supply to allow users to properly shut these units down, or to provide continual service when the power goes out. Typically these devices are a loaf-size box that has to reside near the computer and can look very ugly.

Here, ASUS have provided a removable battery pack which doubles as a uninterruptable power supply for the computer or as an external battery pack for a smartphone or tablet. When it is installed in the computer, this pack will charge up and stay charged while the computer is on AC power but will provide half-an-hour’s worth of power to allow you to shut down the computer properly when the AC power is removed. But you can remove the battery pack and use that to run your battery-thirsty smartphone for longer by plugging its USB cable in to one of the USB sockets on the edge of that pack.

This is definitely one way ASUS have thought beyond the norm when it comes to power-supply design and I would like to see this design concept be taken further such as an aftermarket add-on for existing “tower” desktops or with higher-capacity batteries available for this setup.

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The trend towards app-based devices

HP OfficeJet 6700 Premium control panel detail

The HP OfficeJet 6700 Premium – an example of a printer’s control panel that is about printing apps

Previously, only “regular” desktop and laptop computers were highly programmable with a huge hive of companies and individuals writing programs for them. These typically ranged from applications like word processors, spreadsheets, databases, graphics editors and the like through to games and entertainment software. Typically the people who used these computers either loaded the software from tapes, disks or other media or simply downloaded them from bulletin-boards, online services or the Internet initially by telephone but through networks like cable TV. Then they ran these programs on the computers to gain the benefit from them.

Now, Apple popularised the idea of downloading programs to their mobile devices using the iTunes App Store. This is although there were online services and Internet Web sites hosting programs for other mobile devices but the practice was considered very difficult. It included loading the programs from the iTunes App Store using the phone’s control surface without the need to use a regular computer to facilitate this procedure.

QR code used in a newspaper to link to its mobile site

A smartphone based on the Android platform

Subsequently companies who manufactured mobile phones and tablet computers implemented this kind of software download and used the platform which these devices were built on as a software-development platform for third-party programmers. This led to the mobile devices i.e. the smartphones, media players and tablet computers gaining that same kind of flexibility as the regular computers.  We have ended up with remarks with “There’s an app for that” for daily tasks because of this situation.

As I mentioned before, the app stores have started to become like the bulletin boards and download services of yore where these services became full of substandard software.

Now we are seeing printers and television sets becoming developed to work on app-driven platforms. This allows these devices to perform more that what they were initially designed to do. For example, the smart-TV platforms are acquiring software front-ends for most of the catch-up TV services.

As we will head towards more devices having online and Internet functionality, we could see more of the app stores surfacing. For people who work on apps or Websites, this could become a situation where front-ends or apps would need to be ported for the different platforms. In some cases, it could end up with games and entertainment software pitched towards the dashboard of a car or towards that “Internet refrigerator” or “online microwave oven”. But on the other hand, this could lead towards increasing the role of these devices in our lifestyle. In this case, functions like device cameras could become part of health and wellness monitoring as what Fujitsu is working on.

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The Badgy card printer–a tool to turn out custom ID cards and short-run plastic cards

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Badgy

Badgy Card Printer – Design & Print id badges on plastic pvc cards

My Comments

A common question for anyone in business is what tools do exist for printing out plastic cards in short runs whether with the same design or populated with particular data such as a person’s details for an ID or membership card. Situations may include turning out membership or ID cards on an “as-required, while-you-wait” basis such as for late attendees at a conference or new library members, or making a test print of a card design to see how it looks.

There is a machine that can do this in colour in the form of the Badgy dye-sublimation card printer. This unit, which connects to a regular computer via USB, can print up cards using a ribbon that has a 100-card yield and can work with thin or thick cards. It can work with third-party cards such as magstripe and smart cards, but can’t encode any of the machine-readable cards itself.

It is based around you downloading templates with pre-designed art from the site and using the supplied software to turn out the cards. Of course, this unit would use a Windows printer driver so you could press your desktop-publishing software in to printing to these cards as long as they have the ability to print to the standard “credit-card” size, which is supplied by the driver software as a defined paper size. This could include the ability to use the software to turn out ID cards using the software’s mail-merging abilities or turn out short-run “for approval” card designs before you commit to a large card-print run.

The fact that it doesn’t encode the magstripe or smart cards shouldn’t phase you as long as you have a separate machine which encodes these cards. This wouldn’t be an issue with, for example, a hotel-based conference or event application where you may turn out ID or participant cards which are to be used as guest-room keycards. In this case, the workflow would require the staff member to transfer the card between the Badgy machine and the card encoder to create a useable custom-printed keycard which is the event ID card.

The cost per card would typically be AUD$0.88 per thin card or AUD$0.96 per thick card. But to develop this concept further, it could be feasible to work with other cheaper methods like ink-jet printing for these short-run applications appealing to small businesses. At least this machine is for plastic cards like the colour laser or high-volume inkjet printer is for brochures and stationery.

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HP now issues the fastest small-business desktop inkjet printer

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Hewlett-Packard

HP Officejet Pro X Printers with HP PageWide Technology (Product Site)

My Comments

HP have joined Brother in raising the bar for wet-ink-based printing. What Brother have done is to develop a compact inkjet multifunction printer that works the printhead along the long edge of the paper rather than the short edge to allow for this compact design.

But HP have taken things differently by using a stationary “full-width” printhead in their latest run of desktop business inkjet printers known as the OfficeJet Pro X. Here, this avoids the need for a small printhead to move back and forth to print across the page. This has allowed these printers to achieve print speeds of around 70 pages per minute for the premium models in the series and 55 pages per minute for the standard models in the series.

The stationary “full-width” printhead is a technology used in some of the digital printing presses used by an increasing number of print shops to turn out short-order process-colour printing jobs for small businesses and community organisations at cost-effective prices.  As well as this high-speed feature that HP promotes, there is the obvious reduction in mechanical parts needed in the printer, which gives other benefits like increased reliability and reduced operating noise.

As for costs, these printers sell at prices that are comparable to a lot of the high-end desktop colour laser printers like the Brother HL-4150CDN and they have a similar duty cycle to these machines. There may be still some further questions to raise such as the cost of the ink cartridges for these machines.

On the other hand, HP could even take this technology further with other printer classes such as using the stationary inkjet printhead in areas dominated by the thermal-paper printing method such as receipt and label printers. It may also be interesting to see whether Epson or Brother may integrate the stationary-printhead technology with their piezoelectric “pump-method” ink-delivery methods as another competing high-speed inkjet system.

Of course, who knows what kind of game-changing technologies would appear in many of the different product classes.

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Touchscreen interfaces becoming more relevant for regular computing

Article

Touchscreens | Apple | Mac | PC | Macbooks | Photos

My Comments

Increased relevance to regular desktop computing

Windows 8 Modern UI start screen

Windows 8 “Modern UI” start screen – optimised for touchscreens

Since Windows 8 with its “Modern” user interface came on to the scene late last year, the touchscreen has been valued as a part of the regular computer rather than an option for some business computers or for use with mobile computing devices like tablets and smartphones.

Here, the touchscreens in this computing context are seen as a complementary third method to control the computer. It comes in handy with coarse navigation of the user interface, especially with selecting options or working “at-a-glance” dashboards like the “Modern” UI that is your start point in Windows 8. You can also flick across material you are reading or viewing such as text you are “skimming” or a PowerPoint presentation. This is something I have experienced for myself when I reviewed the Fujitsu TH550M convertible, the Sony VAIO J Series all-in-one and the HP Envy X2 detachable-keyboard “hybrid” tablet. The HP, for that matter, was the first touchscreen computer that I reviewed with Windows 8.

HP Envy X2 Detachable-Keyboard Hybrid Tablet

HP Envy X2 detachable-keyboard hybrid tablet computer

As we already know, the consumer tablet computers like the Apple iPad drew us towards the touchscreen paradigm. But Windows 8 plus some variants of desktop Linux had integrated touchscreen computing from the ground up rather than as an afterthought.

Apple missing out on the touchscreen trend with the Macintosh

The article that I cite raised the issue that Apple weren’t equipping the Macintosh regular-computing platform with touchscreens even though other platforms that serve the same usage style were equipped with this feature. This is because they see the regular-computing platform of being comparatively little value to the iOS mobile-computing platform. It is similar to how they added on the mouse and the 3.5” floppy disk to the Apple II platform in 1987 even though the Macintosh, which was the “new baby” with both these options commercialised these features from the day it was launched in 1984.

On the other hand, Apple could enable the MacOS X operating system with touch control as part of a major upgrade then roll out the functionality in to the MacBook and iMac lineups as well as offer a Desktop Display with touch abilities.

Other gaps in the touchscreen computing trend

Speaking of this, there aren’t many add-on touchscreen monitors available at a reasonable price for use with the regular “tower” desktop. This is more so with monitors sold through larger technology chains that pitch at the small business or the consumer. Typically, you may find that these places offer a touchscreen monitor that is a smaller size and pitched for the POS system, thus sold at a price that is considered ridiculous for regular desktop computing.

Personally, I would rather see more of the touchscreen monitors being available at a slight premium above a non-touch variant of a particular monitor screen size and resolution. Here, one could set up a multi-screen arrangement with one touch-enabled monitor and use the touch-enabled monitor as, for example, a persistent “Modern UI” control screen. This could then lead to a gradual upgrade path for those of us who want the “all-touch” user interface across the multiple screens.

Conclusion

Of course, these comments may be too early to make as Windows 8 and the “open-frame” computing crowd makes the touchscreen display mature quickly and more software authors integrate touch in to their software and games.

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What could the dynamic E-ink keyboard mean?

Article

This Dynamic E-Ink Keyboard Needs To Become A Real Thing | Gizmodo Australia

My Comments

There have been many attempts and prototypes put forward in relation to a computer keyboard that uses dynamic labelling but a lot of these attempts yielded extremely-expensive implementaions.

Why bring about a keyboard with dynamically-labelled keys? One application would be to allow a user to implement a language-specific keyboard layout without having to rely on confusing labelling. Think of a German-speaking user who wants to implement the “QWERTZ” layout or a French-speaking user who wants the “AZERTY” layout, let alone keyboard layouts for the Hebrew, Japanese or other languages that don’t use Latin scripts.

Similarly, you could see implementations like “function key” grids that have keys labelled according to the program or situation. The obvious applications could include CAD/CAM/computer graphics with one touch access to often used commands and shapes; retail / hospitality POS with one-touch access to products and transaction types; let alone hardcore gamers wanting keyboards where they can “drop” actions to gain an upper-hand on their opponents.

For that matter, there could be one keyboard design for accessory keyboards that can be sold around the world, able to be connected to a Windows / Linux or Macintosh computer and showing the layout for the country that it is used in. Similarly a laptop manufacturer could show up with a keyboard that implements a keyboard layout that is particular to a user’s language.

Here, the proposed keyboards would use the E-ink technology that is used in the Amazon Kindle or other e-book readers. This technology would avoid extra layers and the need to keep refreshing the display area. Instead the E-ink’s weaknesses concerning animation may not be of concern for this application and allow for a cheaply-produced dynamically-labeled keyboard or keypad.

Of course, the USB and Bluetooth “human-interface-device” logical device classes would need to be updated to support dynamic labelling for keyboards and the operating systems would need to implement this as part of their class drivers for this device class. Initially we could see manufacturers implementing this function with device drivers and other manufacturer-specific software but there needs to be the action to implement this concept as a device class.

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The EU stands behind the creation of a “semiconductor Airbus”

Article – French language

L’UE appelle à la création d’un « Airbus des puces » | Le Monde Informatique (France)

My Comments

The European Union does play host to some electro-technical activity, whether in the form of research or design and manufacture of finished product. Think of names like Philips, Pace (set-top box applications), Loewe, B&O, Nokia and Siemens amongst many others when it comes to finished applications. Or you may think of Acorn who has built up the ARM microarchitecture used in most smartphones and tablets or B&O who have built up the ICEPower reference design for high-quality Class-D switching power amplifiers. As far as semiconductors and microelectronics are concerned, STMicroelectronics is the only European representative in the 10 main semiconductor companies.

But there has been a call for the European Union to strengthen a European-grown microelectronics industry. They effectively want to see a “digital Airbus” or “Airbus for semiconductors”. This is where Airbus, the France-based European aerospace name, has become associated with building the impressive airliners like the A380 superjumbo and been in a position to challenge established players like he US-based Boeing.

Here, the European Commission wants to launch an industrial plan to seed the European semiconductor industry by making Europe financially attractive to invest in for this industry. This encompasses the research and development aspect; as well as production of the components; and they want the European Union and its constituent Member States to work together on this.

What I see of this is that the European “finished-products” names could move towards the local “Airbus for semiconductors” once they see that the products can work well with their finished-product designs. Similarly, if this company can answer established firms like Intel, AMD and NVIDIA for CPU or graphics-processor designs, this could be a chance for Europe to facilitate a lively competitive microprocessor market.

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The perfect expansion module for those Ultrabooks

Article

VMultra bundles USB hub, DVD drive, SD slot and 500GB HDD to form ultimate laptop peripheral — Engadget

My Comments

Previously, I have written some articles on the USB-connected expansion modules that can extend the functionality of those Ultrabooks and similar ultraportable computers. Here, I was

This included my reviewing a Sony VAIO Z Series premium ultraportable that was equipped with one of these modules that had an integrated slot-load Blu-Ray player.

But what amazes me about this particular VMultra expansion module is that it is effectively acting as a “storage hub” with an SD card reader, DVD burner and a 500Gb hard disk, thus adding at least three extra drive letters or disk icons to your computer. This also is effectively adding on an external hard disk to the computer for use in keeping “main office” work on the desk while you have “portable” work in the computer. Expect this unit to be equipped with a USB 3.0 host interface as well as a multi-port USB hub that most likely continuously self-powered so you can also charge those gadgets off it.

This could become the start of the expansion module that is more about a virtual system unit for an ultraportable, being equipped with onboard secondary storage, DisplayLink video functionality, audio functionality and the like to be kept as an “at home” or “at office” option.

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Why purchase as much storage capacity as you can afford when you buy a computing device

Toshiba Tecra R950 business laptop

Toshiba Tecra R950 business laptop

Very often, I notice people who are buying a computer, tablet or similar device purchase the device based on the price without thinking of the issue of the unit’s secondary-storage capacity.

But in most situations, the cheaper variants of these devices have lesser storage capacity. This may not be an issue if the device is serving as a secondary computing device and you are likely to either use a auxiliary storage devices like external hard disks, removable SD cards or cloud-hosted / network-hosted storage with the device regularly. What can happen as you use that iPad or laptop is that the main storage capacity fills up and it feels as though there is a noose around your neck as there is less storage capacity on your device for you to store programs or data. In some situations, the device doesn’t perform as well as it should.

You also think of having to frequently purge your system of data that may be “put away” but is to be on hand for use at a later time. In some cases, this activity may cause you to dump data that you may later regret dumping.

Toshiba AT300 10" Android tablet computer

Toshiba AT300 10″ Android tablet computer

But you can avoid this with new computing devices especially those you expect to use as your main computing devices if you buy or specify as much storage capacity as you can afford. For example, I encouraged someone who was in the market for an iPad to think of the higher-capacity models because people tend to have them full of photos, music, email and apps very quickly.

In most cases, your device’s storage capacity can be a key bargaining point when choosing that device. For example, you may have something of AUD$100-200 between one storage class and another more capacious storage class for a tablet or a laptop. Some dealers may also try to offer the variant with more capacity for the same price as the model that you are after and have budgeted on.

There is also a reality that as time passes on, the cost of data storage does reduce for a particular capacity due to Moore’s Law.

So if I buy or specify a computing device for someone, especially if the device is expected to be a main or sole computing device, I would make sure that there is as much hard disk, SSD or other storage space as you can afford.

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