Category: Mobile Computing

Challenges that face the Windows 10 2-in-1 user

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 in viewer mode

These 2-in-1s are as important as the iPads and Android tablets out there

The Windows-10-based 2-in-1 portable computer like the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 Series that I reviewed just lately is appealing as a viable alternative to the iPad or Android tablet. For some users, it may be about a single device that they can use for creating material like writing that memoir; or enjoying content including playing some casual games like Words With Friends or watching online video. The same can also hold true for people who use clamshell laptops, especially the thin-and-light or entry-level variety and want to engage in these activities.

Here, these computers are seen by Microsoft and developers as another “PC-class” device i.e. a regular computer in the same vein as the typical desktop or laptop computer. It is in contrast to how the iPad and Android tablets are seen by their respective operating systems as a distinct mobile device which can be developed for separately.

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

But there is a lot more casual games, catch-up TV front-ends and other software being developed for these devices

But the mobile platforms have acquired a large range of software behind them that appeals to people who want to consume content. Here, the iOS App Store and the Google Play Store are replete with many respected social-play and casual games along with official native client apps for various media and information services including catch-up TV or video-on-demand services.

As well, most if not all, communications platforms and social networks implement a native client for the mobile platforms with a large percentage running a Windows 10 native client that can work on a regular computer and available through the Microsoft Store.

Let’s not forget that the Microsoft Store is full of the well-known games with different variants providing different user experiences and capability levels for these games, For example, no personal computing platform has ever existed without one or more variants of the common board games like chess or backgammon that you play against a hard-to-beat computer opponent.

SBS On Demand Windows 10 platform app

SBS On-Demand – one of the few catch-up TV / video-on-demand apps on the Windows 10 PC platform

But there are some online media services, games and apps that have been engineered for the touch experience but haven’t been ported to Windows 10 as Universal Windows Platform applications that can run on the 2-in-1 computers. If an app or game is ported to Windows 10, it typically may just be ported to the Mobile variant which means the Windows-10-based mobile phones. This affects some of the popular mobile-platform games like Plants vs Zombies or Piano Tiles, along with the “TV Everywhere” or “catch-up TV” apps that TV broadcasters and pay-TV platforms offer.

Similarly, a lot of the smart-home devices that work on the app-cessory model offer most of these apps only on the iOS App Store or the Google Play Store. Here, I have had to run an article about how to use the Web to set up or manage an Amazon Echo but most of the other devices wouldn’t work further without an app from these stores.

The only other option that people have for playing a favourite casual game or using an online media service is to use Web-based resources such as playing a Web-app version of the game or visiting the service’s Web page. In some cases, the pages aren’t really optimised for a touch-driven user interface like what these computers offer, nor do they take full advantage of what Windows and your 2-in-1 computer has to offer. Similarly, some of these services use Adobe Flash as the preferred advanced user interface rather than HTML5 and this has been highlighted as a security and performance risk.

Time to port those apps to Windows 10 PC

Microsoft is now simplifying the process for porting mobile-platform apps from iOS or Android to the Windows 10 Universal Windows Platform and having them available through the Windows Store thanks to Xamarin or Apache Cordova or various Windows Bridge frameworks. Some of these tools also simplify the process of writing and targeting an app to Windows 10, iOS and Android all at once, something that can work for those of us who are writing an app from scratch with the goal to target those platforms.

The challenge here for developers who have written iPad or other tablet apps would be to port them to Windows 10 and maintain a similar user experience to the iPad package. Then the developers would benefit from making tweaks to the app to exploit the Live Tiles and other Windows 10 user-interface features.

There also has to be some importance towards maintaining the same level of “touch-ability” between the tablet platforms thus yielding the same experience. Let’s not forget the issue of maintaining the same level of performance and playability across the different platforms so you are not finding that the Windows 10 port of that iPad game appears more sluggish than the original version.

By making sure that the mobile apps and games are available across iOS, Android and Windows 10 UWP including PC users who use the 2-in-1s, it can be feasible for app developers to cover all their bases and reach every platform effectively. In some cases, it could place the likes of the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 as viable personal-computer devices for the family house where Grandma lives.

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Do the large 2-in-1 convertible laptops still earn their keep?

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 courtesy of Lenovo

This style of 13″ or 15″ 2-in-1 convertible notebook is becoming more common in computer manufacturers’ product ranges

Increasingly most computer manufacturers are supplying at least one 2-in-1 convertible laptop that has a screen size of between 13” and 16” in their product lineups.

These work in a similar vein to the Lenovo Yoga range which made this concept more cost-effective. Here, the computer has a hinge that swivels through 360 degrees so that it changes between a laptop and a tablet, with the ability to be angled to be a viewer with the screen on a slant or to be set up in a “tent” mode that looks like an A-frame signhoard.

Some manufacturers like Dell, HP and Lenovo are offering a range of these computers with some models offering the kind of performance and storage expectations akin to most mainstream laptop computers for a price very close to one of these computers. This is while they offer the premium Ultrabook variants like HP’s Spectre X360 along with business-rated variants like HP’s Elitebook X360 that have all the security features desired by enterprise IT.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - tablet view

A large screen tablet for video viewing or e-book reading

These large convertible laptops have a screen size that appeals to regular laptop use which would underscore a lot of content-creation activity. But a significant number of people will consider them to be too large for use as a tablet, especially if the idea is to use it as something that takes over the iPad’s or Android tablet’s role. This is because these tablets have a screen size of between 10″ and 11″ that that yields a highly-portable device best suited to personal media consumption.

Some people may appreciate the large screen for these computers while used as a tablet compared to the conventional 10”-11” size pitched for tablet devices. For example older people and those who don’t have good eyesight will appreciate the large screen especially when it comes to reading or casual gameplay. It can also appeal to people who find the traditional laptop as their “comfort zone” but want to dabble with the tablet feel with that same screen size.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - image-viewer view

The viewer position that appeals for watching video content or flicking through photos on the sofa

Similarly, you could easily share the screen between two people.This is augmented by the use of that “presentation viewer” position which has the screen at that comfortable viewing angle while the keyboard serves as a base. In some cases, the larger area allows the weight of the base to be spread more easily. A classic example could be for the two of you to relax on the couch or in bed and watch that online video, or you to read through that PDF recipe file with the computer resting on the kitchen bench.

The large size screen in these tablet-based modes also allows us to see more text-based context without needing to zoom in and out or scroll the text. This can be useful for those of you who are presenting from material like notes stored on one of these computers.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - as a tent card

The tent view that can also appeal to use on the dining table or kitchen bench

The limitation with these larger convertible 2-in-1s regarding their size is that it may not appeal as something that is light enough to be pocketed away. Here, these computers would end up being transported in the same manner as the traditional laptop.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook at Phamish St Kilda

Yet it still can be a laptop for writing up what you want to write up

Similarly, there hasn’t been much effort taking place to port the mobile-platform games and apps to Windows 10, which just about all of these computers run. Here, a lot of these games that exist on the mobile platforms are optimised to exploit the touchscreen user experience which this class of computer offers as well. There is also the practice amongst a large number of “catch-up TV” and similar video-on-demand providers to expect the user to use the Web browser to visit their Web presence, but Windows 10 native apps written for these services can make for improved performance from these computers along with a sleek user experience.

I still see this class of computer earning their keep as a viable alternative to the traditional clamshell laptop computer and the 10” mobile-platform tablet that is always just used at home. Here, the large 2-in-1 convertible laptop can appeal to a large class of people who use a laptop or iPad just for the typical computing tasks such as video and photo viewing, word processing, Web browsing and online communications but who appreciate the large screen. As for the cost, even if the sticker price seems to be expensive, you are effectively buying two devices in one housing and are likely to end up likely to make heavy use of these computers rather than thinking of dealing with the two separate devices.

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Dual-device videocalling–how about it?

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TV setups with large screens and powerful sound systems could also appeal to videocalls where many people wish to participate

A reality that is surfacing with online communications platforms is the fact that most of us prefer to operate these platforms from our smartphones or tablets. Typically we are more comfortable with using these devices as our core hubs for managing personal contacts and conversations.

But there are times when we want to use a large screen such as our main TV for group videocalls. Examples of this may include family conversations with loved ones separated by distance, more so during special occasions like birthdays, Thanksgiving or Christmas. In the business context, there is the desire for two or more of us to engage in video conferences with business partners, suppliers, customers or employees separated by distance. For example, a lawyer and their client could be talking with someone who is selling their business as part of assessing the validity of that potential purchase.

Old lady making a video call at the dinner table press picture courtesy of NBNCo

This is more so when there is that family special moment

But most of the smart-TV and set-top platforms haven’t been engineered to work with the plethora of online-communications platforms that are out there. This is although Skype attempted to get this happening with various smart-TV and set-top platform vendors to allow the smart TV to serve as a Skype-based group videophone once you purchased and connected a Webcam accessory supplied by the manufacturer.

The Skype situation required users to log in to the Skype client on their TV or video device along with buying and installing a camera kit that worked with the TV. This was a case of entering credentials or searching for contacts using a “pick-and-choose” or SMS-style text-entry method which could lead to mistakes. This is compared to where most of us were more comfortable with performing these tasks on our smartphones or tablets because of a touchscreen keyboard or hardware keyboard accessory that made text entry easier.

Apple TV 4th Generation press picture courtesy of Apple

An Apple TV or Chromecast that has the software support for and is connected to a Webcam could simplify this process and place the focus on the smartphone as a control surface for videocalls

The goal I am outlining here is for one to be able to use a smart TV or network-connected video peripheral equipped with a Webcam-type camera device, along with their mobile device, all connected to the same home network and Internet connection to establish or continue a videocall on the TV’s large screen. Such a goal would be to implement the large-screen TV with its built-in speakers or connected sound system along with the Webcam as the videocalling-equivalent of the speakerphone we use for group or “conference” telephone calls when multiple people at either end want to participate in the call.

Set-top devices designed to work with platform mobile devices

A very strong reality that is surfacing for interlinking TVs and mobile devices is the use of a network-enabled video peripheral that provides a video link between the mobile device and video peripheral via one’s home network.

One of these devices is the Apple TV which works with iOS devices thanks to Apple AirPlay while the other is the Google Chromecast that works with Android devices. Both of these video devices can connect to your home network via Wi-Fi wireless or Ethernet with the Apple TV offering the latter option out of the box and the Chromecast offering it as an add-on option. As well, the Chromecast’s functionality is being integrated in to various newer smart TVs and video peripherals under the “Google Cast” or “Chromecast” feature name.

Is there a need for this functionality?

As I have said earlier on, the main usage driver for this functionality would be to place a group videocall where multiple people at the one location want to communicate with another . The classic examples would be for families communicating with distant relatives or businesses placing conference calls that involve multiple decision makers with two or more of these participants at one of the locations.

Social networks and mobile messaging

Most of the mobile messaging platforms offer some form of videocalling capability

In most cases, the “over-the-top” communications platforms like Facetime, Skype, Viber, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are primarily operated using the native mobile client app or the functionality that is part of the mobile platform. This way of managing videocalls appeals to most users because of access to the user’s own contact directory that exists on their device along with the handheld nature of the typical smartphone that appeals to this activity.

It is also worth knowing that some, if not all, of the “over-the-top” communications platforms will offer a “conference call” or “three-way call” function as part of their feature set, extending it to videocalls in at least the business-focused variants. This is where you could have multiple callers from different locations take part in the same conversation. Such setups would typically show the “other” callers as part of a multiple-picture “mosaic” on the screen. Here, the large screen can come in handy with seeing the multiple callers at once.

How is this achieved at the moment?

At the moment, these set-top platforms haven’t been engineered to allow for group videocalling and users would have to invoke screen-mirroring functionality on their mobile devices once they logically associate them with the video endpoint devices. Then they would have to position their mobile device on or in front of the TV so the other side can see your group, something which can be very precarious at times.

How could Apple, Google and co improve on this state of affairs?

Apple TV - Mirroring on - iPad

Should this still be the way to make group videocalls on your Apple TV or Chromecast?

Apple and Google could improve on their AirPlay and Chromecast platforms to provide an andio-video-data feed from the video peripheral to the mobile device using that peripheral. This would work in tandem with a companion Webcam/microphone accessory that can be installed on the TV and connected to the set-top device. For example, Apple could offer a Webcam for the latest generation Apple TV as an “MFi” accessory like they do with the game controllers that enable it to be a games console.

When users associate their mobile devices with a suitably-equipped Apple TV / Chromecast device that supports this enhancement, the communications apps on their phone detect the camera and microphone connected to the video peripheral. The user would then be able to see the camera offered as an alternative camera choice while they are engaged in a videocall, along with the microphone and TV speaker offered as a “speakerphone” option.

What will this entail?

It may require Apple and Google to write mobile endpoint software in to their iOS and Android operating systems to handle the return video feed and the existence of cameras connected to the Apple TV or Chromecast.

Similarly, the tvOS and Chromecast platforms will have to have extra endpoint software written for them while these devices would have to have hardware support for Webcam devices.

At the moment, the latest-generation Apple TV has a USB-C socket on it but this is just serving as a “service” port, but could be opened up as a peripheral port for wired MFi peripherals like a Webcam. Google uses a microUSB port on the Chromecast but this is primarily a power-supply and network-connection port. But they could, again, implement an “expansion module” that provides connectivity to a USB Webcam that is compliant to the USB Video and Audio device classes.

These situations could be answered through a subsequent hardware generation for each of the devices or, if the connections are software-addressable, a major-function firmware update could open up these connections for a camera.

As for application-level support, it may require that the extra camera connected to the Apple TV or Chromecast device be logically enumerated as another camera device by all smartphone apps that exploit the mobile phone’s cameras. The microphone in the camera and the TV’s speakers also would need to be enumerated as another communications-class audio device available to the communications apps. This kind of functionality could be implemented at operating-system level with very little work being asked of from third-party communications software developers.

User privacy can be assured through the same permissions-driven setup implemented in the platform’s app ecosystem that is implemented for access to the mobile device’s own camera and microphone. If users want to see this tightened, it could be feasible to require a separate permissions level for use of external cameras and audio-input devices. But users can simply physically disconnect the Webcam from the video peripheral device when they don’t intend to use it.

An alternative path for app-based connected-TV platforms

There is also an alternative path that smart-TV and set-top vendors could explore. Here, they could implement a universal network-based two-way video protocol that allows the smart TV or set-top device to serve as a large-screen video endpoint for the communications apps.

Similarly, a smart-TV / set-top applications platform could head down the path of using client-side applications that are focused for large-screen communications. This is in a similar vein to what was done for Skype by most smart-TV manufacturers, but the call-setup procedure can be simplified with the user operating their smartphone or tablet as the control surface for managing the call.

This could be invoked through techniques like DIAL (Discovery And Launch) that is used to permit mobile apps to discover large-screen “companion” apps on smart-TV or set-top devices in order to allow users to “throw” what they see on the mobile device to the large screen. As well, the connection to the user’s account could be managed through the use of a session-specific logical token established by the mobile device.

This concept can be taken further through the use of the TV screen as a display surface, typically for communications services’ messaging functions or to show incoming-call notifications.

Conclusion

What we still need to think of is to facilitate “dual-device” videocalling with the popular mobile platforms in order to simplify the task of establishing group videocalls using TVs and other large-screen display devices.

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Consumer Electronics Show 2017–Computer Trends

I am writing up a series of articles about the trends that have been put forward at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The first article in this series covers all of the trends affecting personal computers.

1: Computer Trends

2: Accessories And The Home Network

Computers

Most manufacturers were exhibiting refreshed versions of their product ranges. This is where the computers were being equipped with up-to-date chipsets and had their RAM, storage and other expectations brought up to date.

  • Key trends affecting mainstream computers included:
  • the use of Intel Kaby Lake processors for the computers’ horsepower
  • solid-state storage capacity in the order of up to 1 Terabyte
  • RAM capacity in the order of up to 16Gb
  • at least one USB Type-C socket on mainstream units with Thunderbolt 3 on premium units and / or ultraportables using just USB-C connections with some having 2 or more of these connectors

    Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon USB-C Thunderbolt-3 detail image - press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

    More of this year’s laptop computers will be equipped with these USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 sockets

  • Wi-Fi connectivity being 802.11ac multi-band with MU-MIMO operation

Another factor worth noticing is the increase in detachable or convertible “2-in-1” computers being offered by most, if not all, of the manufacturers; along with highly-stylish clamshell ultraportable computers. This class of computer is being brought on thanks to Microsoft’s Surface range of computers with some of of the computers in these classes also being about performance. The manufacturers are even offering a range of these “2-in-1” computers targeted towards business users with the security, manageability, durability and productivity features that this use case demands.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook press picture courtesy of Dell USA

More of these convertibles and detachable 2-in-1 computers will appear in manufacturers’ product ranges

Nearly every manufacturer had presented at least one high-performance gaming laptop with the Intel Core i7 processor, at least 16Gb RAM and 128Gb solid-state storage, dedicated graphics chipset. Most of these computers are even equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connection to allow for use with external graphics docks, considered as a way for core gamers to “soup up” these machines for higher gaming acumen.

Lenovo had refreshed most of their laptop range, especially the ThinkPad business range. Here, this is a product range that makes no distinction between the small-business/SOHO user class where a few of these computers are managed and the large-business/government user class where you are talking of a large fleet of computers handling highly-sensitive data.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon press image courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon has been refreshed to newer expectations

The new ThinkPads come in the form of a newer ThinkPad Yoga business convertible, a refreshed ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook and a refreshed ThinkPad X1 Yoga convertible. For example, the ThinkPad Yoga 370 has the 13.3” Full HD screen, the classic ThinkPad TrackPoint button as a navigation option but is driven by Intel Kaby Lake horsepower. This machine can be specified up to 16Gb RAM and 1Tb solid-state storage and has a Thunderbolt 3 connection along with 2 USB 3.0 ports. Lenovo even designed in protection circuitry for the USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 port to protect the ThinkPad against those dodgy non-compliant USB-C cables and chargers. Like the rest of the new ThinkPad bunch, this computer comes with the Windows 10 Signature Edition software image which is about being free of the bloatware that fills most of today’s laptop computers. The computer will set you back US$1264.

Other ThinkPads will also come with either a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connection depending on their position in the model range. For example the T470 family and the T570 family will be equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 connections. Let’s not forget how the ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Yoga have been refreshed. The Carbon implements horsepower in the Intel Kaby Lake Core i family, a 14” Quad HD display, 16Gb RAM and 1Tb SSD storage, and an expected battery runtime of 15 hours along with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. The X1 Yoga has been given the similar treatment with similar RAM and secondary-storage capacity but can be outfitted with an LTE-A wireless-broadband modem as an option.

Lenovo Legion Y720 gaming laptop - press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

Lenovo Legion Y720 gaming laptop with Dolby Atmos sound

Gamers can relish in the fact that Lenovo has premiered the Legion range of affordable high-performance gaming laptops. The Legion Y720 is the first of its kind to be equipped with Dolby Atmos sound. The Y520 has a Full HD IPS screen driven by NVIDIA GeForce GTX1050Ti dedicated graphics chipset, the choice of an Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU, 16Gb RAM and hard disk storage between 500Gb and 1Tb or solid-state storage between 128Gb and 512Gb, and network connectivity in the form of 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet. Peripheral connectivity is in the form of 1 x USB-C, 2 x USB 3.0 and 1 x USB 2.0 and an audio jack, with this computer asking for at least US$900. The better Y720, along with Dolby Atmos, has a bright IPS screen either as a Full HD or 4K resolution and driven by NVIDIA GeForce GTX1060 graphics chipset with 6Gb display memory. Lenovo was also offering a MIIX 720 creative-arts mobile workstation that eats at the Apple MacBook Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro lineup.

Dell XPS 15 Notebook press image courtesy of Dell USA

Dell XPS 15 ultraportable in a 15″ size

Dell had refreshed the XPS 13 lineup of Ultrabooks, known for offering the right combination of features, durability, comfort and price. But they also offered a convertible 2-in-1 variant of the XPS 13, again offering that right combination of features, durability, comfort and price. They also released the XPS 15 which is the smallest 15,6” laptop with Intel Kaby Lake processors, NVIDIA GeForce dedicated graphics and a fingerprint reader.

Dell XPS 27 all-in-one computer press image courtesy of Dell USA

Dell XPS 27 all-in-one computer with best bass response in its class

The XPS and Precision all-in-one desktop computers have had their sound quality improved rather than having it as an afterthought. This has led to audio quality from the XPS 27 and the Precision business equivalent being equivalent to that of a soundbar, thanks to the use of 10 speakers working at 50 watts per channel, including two downward-firing speakers to make the work surface augment the bass. Two passive radiators also augment the system’s bass response. Both have a 4K UHD touchscreen  while the Precision certified workstation can work with AMD Radeon graphics and Intel Xeon CPUs.

Like Lenovo, Dell had exhibited their business-grade computers at a trade fair typically associated with goods targeted at the consumer. This could underscore realities like people who use business-tier computers for “work-home” use including those of us who are running a business or practising a profession from our homes. Dell have been on a good wicket here because of themselves selling computers direct to the public and to business users for a long time.

Here, Dell had refreshed their XPS, Inspiron, Optiflex, Latitude and Precision computer lineups with new expectations. They would come with Kaby Lake horsepower under the bonnet, USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connectivity depending on the unit along with newer dedicated-graphics options from NVIDIA or AMD. The business machines would be equipped with Intel vPro manageability features to work with business-computer management software.

Dell Latitude 5285 business detachable 2-in-1 - press picture courtesy of Dell USA

Dell Latitude 5285 business detachable 2-in-1 – the most secure of its class

In the case of business computers, Dell had underscored a desire to integrate the aesthetics of consumer-tier ultraportable computers with the security, manageability and productivity wishes that the business community crave for. For example, the latest Latitude Ultrabooks and 2-in-1s show the looks but come up with the goods as a business “axe” computer. One of the systems in the Latitude lineup is the Latitude 7285 detachable 2-in-1s which implement WiTricity wireless charging and WiGig docking while the Latitude 5285 detachable 2-in-1 sells on a highly-strong security platform with Dell-developed data-protection / endpoint-protection software and the option for a fingerprint reader or smartcard reader.

Samsung had shown some Windows 10 tablets but they also presented the Notebook Odyssey gaming laptop, available as a 15” variant or a 17” higher-performing variant. Both of these implement “dual-storage” with a solid-state drive in the order of 256Gb for the 15” variant or 512Gb for the 17” variant along with a 1Tb traditional hard disk. RAM is in the order of 32Gb or 64Gb for the 17” variant while these are driven by Intel Core i7 CPUs. Graphics is looked after by NVIDIA GTX dedicated GPU with 2Gb or 4Gb display memory but the 17” variant also has a Thunderbolt 3 connection for external graphics units.

There is also the Notebook 9 which implements a 15” HD display driven by NVIDIA 940MX graphics processor and Core i7 processor. Of note, the Notebook 9 implements a Windows Hello fingerprint reader along with a USB-C port which is its power socket thanks to USB Power Delivery.

HP was not silent but had fielded the Spectre x360 15” convertible Ultrabook, one of the few 15” portable computers that can be a tablet or laptop. It is driven by Intel Core i7 Kaby Lake horsepower and has the quota of 16Gb RAM and either a 256Gb or 512Gb solid-state storage. The 15” 4K IPS screen is driven by an NVIDIA GeForce 940MX graphics processor with 2Gb display memory, but the sound-reproduction has been tuned by Bang & Olufsen while there is an HP-designed noise-cancelling microphone array. The Webcam is an HP infra-red type which is Windows Hello compatible for facial recognition login. Connectivity is in the form of an HDMI socket, 1 USB-C socket, 1 Thunderbolt 3 socket, 1 traditional USB Type-A socket and an SD-card drive. Expect this convertible’s battery to run for 12 hours and be ready to go after 90 minutes of quick charging. The expected price is US$1299 for the 256Gb variant and US$1499 for the 512Gb variant.

Another interesting trend highlighted at CES 2017 has been an increase in the number of “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers.  This is thanks to use cases like augmented-reality / virtual-reality gaming and an emphasis on aesthetics for desktop-based computing and has been brought about by the likes of the Intel Skull Canyon NUC. One of these was a range offered by Elitegroup with computers powered by Intel Braswell, Apollo Lake and Kaby Lake processors.

Zotac Mini PC press photo courtesy of Zotac

The latest Zotac Mini PC that is the hub of a “hi-fi” approach to computing

But Zotac approached the NUC trend in a manner not dissimilar to the “micro component” hi-fi systems, especially some of the premium offerings that emerged from Japan through the early 80s. These premium “micro-component” systems offered for their amplification needs a control amplifier and a power amplifier so as to provide more power output, along with their source components being a tuner and a cassette deck. In the case of Zotac, they offered the C-Series NUC midget computer which could be powered through its USB-C port thanks to USB Power Delivery. It came with the Intel Kaby Lake processors, NVIDIA GeForce dedicated graphics, a Thunderbolt 3 connector along with a few other features. The C-Series even has corporate manageability and security abilities such as Intel vPro and AMT system management along with the UNITE secure conferencing feature.

But Zotac offered an external “card-cage” graphics dock with a PCI Express x 16 expansion slot for graphics cards, 3 standard USB 3.0 ports and one USB 3.0 port supporting QuickCharge, but being able to supply power to the host computer via the Thunderbolt 3 port using USB Power Delivery. The graphics module’s power supply has a power budget of 400 watts and the module is known to be compatible with NVIDIA and AMD graphics cards.  They even offered their own NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Mini graphics card as a partner card for this dock.

The goal here was to supply a two-piece high-performance computer setup with a system unit and a module that can serve as its graphics subsystem and power supply. But users still had the ability to install better equipment when they felt like it. Or the graphics module could be purposed to provide extra graphics horsepower to portable, “all-in-one” and other small computers that are Thunderbolt-3-equipped as well as supplying necessary power through this port to host computers that honour USB Power Delivery.

Mobile Devices

Even though Samsung had suffered a deep blow with the exploding Galaxy Note 7 phablets, the mobile-computing platform has not died yet. It is although we may be hanging on to our smartphones for longer than the typical two-year contract period in order to save money.

At the moment, the phones that are being given an airing are the mid-tier Android smartphones like the Huawei Honor 6X with a dual camera and the ASUS Zenfone 3 Zoom which is one of the first to have an optical zoom on the rear camera’s lens.

Samsung launched their Galaxy A3 and A5 Android smartphones which are still positioned in the mid-tier segment. This is while Sony came to the fore with the XPeria X2 premium smartphone which has a 5.5” 4K display and 5Gb RAM, just above the baseline expectations for RAM capacity in a desktop computer.

LG had launched a range of low-tier Android smartphones that are equipped with user-replaceable batteries. The K3 is a compact unit with a 4.5” display while the K4 comes with the standard 5” display. There is the K8 5” selfie smartphone which has a highly-optimised front camera for taking those selfies to appear on Instagram or Facebook. Then LG brought the 13 megapixel camera featured in the G series lineup to the K10 5.3” smartphone. They also offered a Stylus 3 phablet with an integrated fingerprint scanner.

The next in the series will cover high-resolution monitors, computer accessories and the home network including the distributed-WiFi trend.

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Dell’s XPS 13 convertible laptop underscores value for money for its class

Article

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook press picture courtesy of Dell USA

The convertible 2-in-1 variant of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Why The Dell XPS 13 2 In 1 Is The Best Convertible Laptop | iTech Post

Laptop Mag CES 2017 Awards: Best Mobile Tech | Laptop Mag

My Comments

Previously, I had written an article about Dell underscoring value for money with their XPS 13 Ultrabook laptop. This was about choosing the right mix of functions and features that represent what most users are after when they are after that kind of product and offering it at a price that won’t bring “sticker shock” to most potential customers.

Initially I had a chance to review the first generation of the XPS 13 Ultrabook, finding it as a valid secondary notebook computer option for those of us who have a desktop or large laptop but want something to use while “on the road”. But Dell had consistently improved the computer over the subsequent generations, factoring in the newer features that would improve the user experience while keeping a highly-durable compact product that runs for a long time on its own batteries.

In the article, I drew an analogy to most if the mid-tier Panasonic (National) VHS home videocassette recorders offered in Europe, Australia and New Zealand through the mid 1980s, and the Sony mid-tier MiniDisc decks like the MDS-JE520 offered through the mid-to-late 1990s. Both these product ranges came with the features that were considered important for their end-users but at a price that was affordable to them.

But Dell went further when they released the Kaby-Lake-based iteration of the XPS 13 Ultrabook. Here, they issued a convertible variant of this model alongside the traditional clamshell variant. But they didn’t just attach “convertible” hinges to the XPS 13 Kaby Lake laptop. Rather they made sure it had the proper features and specifications associated with the XPS 13 lineup and for a similarly-affordable price.

For example, a baseline “secondary-computer” variant with Intel Core i5 horsepower, 4Gb RAM and 128Gb solid-state storage could set you back US$999. The limitation with the Intel Core i5 and i7 processors offered with the 2-in-1 is that they are based on the Kaby Lake equivalent of the Core M processors and are really targeted and tuned for “on-the-road” use with emphasis on power efficiency and reduced heat output, but wouldn’t perform well for advanced computing tasks.

With this model, there will be a need to buy extra accessories like a USB-C expansion module to connect most USB peripherals, external displays or digital-camera SD cards. But this is more engineered as a highly-portable computer and who knows what the next iteration of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook or convertible computer could be like.

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Mobile-device power-supply accessories always a valid Christmas gift idea

It is Christmas time and you want to buy some gifts for those people in your life.

A high-capacity slimline USB power bank - valid as a gift idea for mobile-technology users

A high-capacity slimline USB power bank – valid as a gift idea for mobile-technology users

One gift idea worth looking at for most people would be a power-supply accessory for their mobile devices. These come in the form of power-banks / external battery packs, multi-device chargers or charging devices that use other energy sources. They can also benefit mobile-device accessories like Bluetooth headsets or wireless game controllers that obtain their charging power from USB sockets.

The power banks or external battery packs have their own high-capacity battery but are charged from a USB-based power source like another USB battery charger. There are some of these battery packs that can work from four AA Duracells, which can allow you to charge up your phone from a set of batteries you buy at the local convenience store.

The USB external battery packs do come in a variety of styles from a small cylindrical style similar to a lipstick tube, through something as big as a small padlock, to a flat “candybar” style that doesn’t take up much room in your pants pocket while it powers your smartphone. But most of these units have differing battery capacities and power outputs and the units with a large battery capacity and 2.1A power output can earn their keep with the tablets or the high-end smartphones. As well, those battery packs with the high capacity can work well with situations where you make heavy use of your phone’s features like using the maps and navigation function, play music, use workout-tracking software or play games.

Similarly, these battery packs will earn their keep with those of us who spend a lot of time talking on our mobile phones because this can eat in to the phone’s battery’s runtime and the external battery will typically give you that extra battery power so you can talk longer. For example, I have used one of my USB battery packs to allow someone who was using their smartphone to counsel another person over the phone to talk longer with that person without fear of being cut off by a dead battery.

Another power-supply accessory worth considering are the multiple-outlet USB battery chargers, devices that I often refer to as “charging bars” but are also referred to as “charging stations”. These devices plug in to the AC power and can charge at least four USB-connected devices at once. What’s more is that they have a very high power budget with some of these devices even having the ability to give at least one of these sockets a dedicated supply of 2.4 amps. This can allow the device to comfortably charge one or two tablets and many smartphones concurrently, with the ability to provide the right amount of current to charge them quickly.

These “charging bars” avoid the need to plug multiple USB chargers in to a powerboard to charge or power many personal-electronics devices at the same location. One area where these devices earn their keep is the kitchen bench where a household will be “topping up” their mobile devices’ batteries for the day while they are having breakfast for example. Or, you may find that in an office a group of workers have their smartphones or tablets nearby and want to run these devices from external power to avoid compromising their devices’ battery runtime.

They also can be useful for charging up USB external battery packs and other accessories in such a way that you could charge your smartphone, a Bluetooth headset, an external battery pack and something else at the same time.

There are some other mobile-power-supply gifts out their that harvest energy from other sources like the sun or heat from a fire. A lot of these devices have been pitched as “novelty” devices and some of them won’t provide enough power to your smartphone or tablet from that energy source. Here, you need to be sure that the device can store a significant amount of power in an onboard battery because the energy source can easily fluctuate which is more so with solar panels or you have to hold it in a certain position to get the maximum power in to your mobile device.

As most of us use mobile devices “to the hilt” for multiple purposes, especially online, gaming or multimedia activity, we are going through our devices’ batteries very quickly. This is where devices like USB battery packs or multiple-USB-outlet “charging bars” are becoming very relevant as gift ideas.

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Samsung implements auto-focus on the Galaxy S8 to make it a selfie smartphone

Article

Samsung Galaxy Note Edge press image courtesy of Samsung

The front camera on the next premium smartphones could end up being equipped with auto-focus technology

The Galaxy S8 may provide better selfies thanks to autofocus implementation | Android Authority

Previous coverage on “selfie” smartphones

What Makes That Smartphone A “Selfie” Smartphone

My Comments

Increasingly smartphone manufacturers are paying attention to the kind of photos a smartphone’s or tablet’s front-facing camera takes. This has been driven by the phenomenon where young people are using these cameras to take “selfies” – pictures of themselves. Even venue owners and event hosts are catering to this trend by providing “selfie photobooths” with the appropriate decorations and props so they can take the funniest-looking selfie.

The way most of the manufacturers have approached this issue includes front-facing cameras with a resolution not dissimilar to the rear-facing camera, use of a wide-angle lens on the front-facing camera or even integrating software logic to remove blemishes from the photos that are taken.

But Samsung has gone further with their front-facing camera by implementing an auto-focus mechanism. Typically, a smartphone would be equipped with auto-focus on the rear-facing camera because this is the one used for general photography but the front-facing camera gets a fair bit of use for both videocalls and selfies. But implementing an auto-focus camera for both of the smartphone’s cameras would be costly and not worth it due to the close proximity of the subjects.

Here, they have implemented an auto-focus cameras on both the front-facing camera and the rear-facing camera for their new Galaxy S8 Android smartphone. This will be seen as a way to differentiate their premium smartphones from the rest of the pack due to the ability to yield that sharp videocall image or selfie.

As the cost of auto-focus cameras for smartphones and tablets that yield acceptable resolution goes downhill, it could become a trend for front-facing cameras on the smartphones, tablets, laptops and similar devices to have this feature for the best Skype videocall or selfie.

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Clipsal offers a built-in USB charger that fits most Australian wall plates

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Clipsal

Clipsal Saturn USB double power outlets press image courtesy of Clipsal

Clipsal Saturn USB double power outlets

USB Charger Mech Product Page

Press Release

My Comments

Clipsal have recently issued a packaged-short-form USB charger module that can fit in most, if not all, Australian electrical wall plates. Here, it occupies the same space and cutout as a switch mechanism or module used on any of the recent-issue wall plates that are commonly used in Australian buildings. But they also offer this as a solution that can be integrated into control panels where the goal is to have a USB charger that can be wired to 240V AC wiring that exists behind that panel.

They are pitching it as an alternative to people plugging USB chargers in to power outlets so we can charge our smartphones, or to create multiple USB charging outlets which can be a bonus in rooms like the kitchen, office, hallway or bedroom where many of these devices and their accessories are charged at once.

The classic household example would be a kitchen where you want to free up standard power outlets for those benchtop appliances like the KitchenAid mixer or the kettle, but you still want to charge that iPhone or iPad. Here, you can have the best of both worlds by installing a double USB power outlet where you can plug in a coffee machine, kettle and charge your iPad without dealing with an easy-to-lose double adaptor and USB charger.

This USB charger module serves one smartphone or tablet per module and serve a USB charging current of up to 1.2 amps. This would charge most smartphones and provide enough power to an iPad or similar tablet to avoid compromising battery runtime. As well, it is compliant to the USB Battery Charging Specification 1.2 and also factors in the length of the cable between the charger and the device, with the resulting resistance and voltage drop.

They are pitching it as a standalone module that can be fitted to existing or new wall plates or panels; or as part of different pre-assembled ready-to-install packages with one or two power outlets and / or multiple USB chargers. Here, they even describe the packages that have the regular power outlets and the USB charger outlets as “USB power points”. They also are offering different-coloured bezels for this module to allow them to be matched to the plate or panel they are installed in, something that will be considered of importance when it comes to décor.

A question that will soon surface is whether there will be a USB Type-C charger module compliant to the USB Power Delivery specification become available for this same kind of installation. This is as we see more computing devices come on the market that are being equipped with this newer connection as a power source. Similarly, a 2.1 amp variant of these modules could earn its keep with households who have many tablet devices or want their smartphones charged up very quickly.

What is happening at last is that integrated USB-charger solutions are arriving to the Australian market in a highly-flexible manner. It is worth asking your regular “sparkie” if they have these devices available to install when you next have him around so as to reduce the chaos associated with the many chargers.

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Android Auto now for every car independent of the head unit

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Android main interactive lock screen

Your Android phone could become its own driver-friendly interaction screen for Android Auto

Google

Android Auto Available In Every Car (Blog Post)

My Comments

Android Auto provides a driving-friendly “extension” for your Android-based smartphone on your car’s dashboard. This yields a simplified user interface for audio, navigation, communications and allied apps so you can use them at the wheel.

Increasingly most of the vehicle builders are offering Android Auto compatible infotainment setups for most of the models with a few car-audio manufacturers running with aftermarket head units that have this functionality. But not everyone can benefit from this technology at the moment, perhaps due to a vehicle builder like Toyota not providing support or you maintaining an existing car that doesn’t have this functionality.

Google has answered this problem with version 2 of Android Auto which has the ability to use your Android phone’s screen as an Audroid Auto user interface. This is being rolled out during the current major update cycle for the Android Auto app.

Cassette adaptor in use with a smartphone

An Android phone running Android Auto 2.0 can bring this cassette-adaptor-based setup for classic car stereos to current expectations

Here, you would install your phone on an in-vehicle mounting kit such as the kind that uses a suction cup to anchor to your vehicle’s windscreen. This will allow for your phone to be operated in a stable and road-legal manner while you are driving.

But you can have the sound come through your car’s speakers via a hands-free kit or car stereo that has Bluetooth communications-level or multimedia-level audio compatibility. Or you can use a 3.5mm auxiliary cable or cassette adaptor connected to your smartphone to have its sound through your car stereo. For those of us who have the Bluetooth-based setup, you can set the app to start automatically when your phone connects to the Bluetooth in-car audio device.

This update is infact taking advantage of the Android phablets and smartphones that have the larger display, making it viable for us to use them as a control surface for Android Auto setups. As well, some accessory builders are even taking advantage of this ability by offering Bluetooth-capable mounting kits that provide automatic enablement for Android Auto setups.

I also can see this benefiting the “two-wheeled” community once appropriate mounting kits become available for installation on to bikes and motorcycles. Here, they could use a Bluetooth headset or helmet and benefit from the reduced-interaction abilities that Android Auto offers so their hands are effectively on the handlebars and their eyes on the road all the time.

A good question to raise would be whether Android 2.0 could support a dual-device setup where an Android tablet could serve as a Android Auto display/control device, which could please those of us who want to integrate a 7”-8” tablet to bring Android Auto to our vehicles. Similarly, implementing Android Auto over a MirrorLink setup could open up paths for increased compatibility with infotainment setups.

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A Surface Book variant is actually a portable gaming rig

Article

Should you buy the Surface Book with Performance Base for gaming? | Windows Central

My Comments

Microsoft Surface Book press picture courtesy of Microsoft

A performance variant of the Microsoft Surface will show up as the stealth gaming rig

There have been the rise of gaming-grade laptops that have enough CPU and graphics-processing acumen to handle the latest games on the market with the full performance expectations. Here, most of the manufacturers are releasing at least one model with these abilities but most of these are styled like a muscle car or street rod.

But a few manufacturers are approaching this by offering performance computers that have a “stealth” look where their looks don’t betray the performance under the hood. Microsoft has now joined the party with a performance variant of the Surface Book which works with a “performance base”. This uses a keyboard base with the same graphics ability as the baseline variant of the Surface Studio all-in-one PC.

As with other Surface Book variants, the tablet detaches from the keyboard base so it can simply be a Windows 10 tablet but, when attached, it becomes a convertible laptop. Microsoft could provide the Performance Base not just as part of a system variant for how you wish to order the Surface Book, but as an upgrade option for existing Surface Books for those of us who want to upgrade them as a full-bore gaming or multimedia PC.

It is very similar to what can be done with Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C where manufacturers can offer a graphics module that connects to portable, all-in-one or low-profile computers to enhance their graphics performance. But this idea could be taken further with the use of coprocessors that are part of “performance modules” that could improve existing computers’ performance for gaming and multimedia tasks.

Personally I would find that the trend for portable and “all-in-one” computing is to offer gaming-rig performance as a model variant in one or more product lines rather than as its own product line. This is even though the manufacturer will offer a dedicated premium product line or brand that is focused towards gaming. Such products would appeal to those of us who value the performance angle for multimedia creation or gaming but don’t think of it like owning a “street-machine” car.

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