Thoughts on Mobile Computing, Part One

It’s risky to generalize, but I suspect the following is true for most people, most of the time:

  • Higher-stakes projects involving significant amounts of concentration require a quiet work environment with a more powerful computer and a larger screen; and
  • Lower-stakes projects, initial planning, and work-on-the-go require a lightweight computing device, often with a smaller screen

Certainly, some people must work on the go, or prefer the flexibility of a more powerful computer on the go, and others, quite sensibly, prefer just one device, not two (or three, or more). Seems to me, the high-stakes machine ought to be a versatile notebook connected to a 20-inch or larger screen, with proper backup, and the low-stakes machine ought to weigh as close to two pounds as possible, offer all-day battery life, and easily connect to any WiFi, 3G, 4G, or whatever other service may be available. That is: the portable really ought to be portable, and no so much a full-scale machine unless you feel the need to combine functions into a single box.

iPad and iPhoneWhen the latest upgrades to the MacBook Air were released last week, I thought I might finally break my pattern–iPad for portability, iMac for serious work in the home office–with an in-between machine that could do both. After hours of research and experimentation with the Air in various settings, I decided to wait until the autumn to upgrade the iPad, once again leaving the portable out of the mix. Why? The Air does not connect via 3G/4G, but instead requires a separate network to be established on my iPhone (clunky solution, but it works). And, to my astonishment, I actually prefer the touch screen to the keyboard when computing in a mobile environment. I sacrifice a degree of functionality for the reduced weight and increased connectivity, but then, most of my mobile work does not result in an elaborate finished product–this, I do on a computer.

I suppose that’s why the call from HP was so intriguing. Here was an opportunity to experiment with a portable computer in my daily life–something I have not done in several years, and an opportunity to experiment with a Windows computer, something I had not done in a decade or more. And, the computer would be running the intriguing Windows 8 operating system, the one with the cool colored tiles. What’s more, my sample model offered 3G/4G capability.

At the same time, I decided to learn more about the $250 Google Chrome portable computer sold by Samsung. It, too, offered the connectivity that the Air sadly lacks.

Keeping an open mind about new and better ways to work, I tried the HP EliteBook 2170p. The specs are similar to a MacBook Air, and the cost is about the same (around $1,000 for the basic model). It weighs less than 3 pounds–more than that seems too heavy, at least for me, to be carried everywhere–and the feature set is similar, too. There’s a light-up keyboard, an SD card slot (more versatile here, and, BTW, absent on even the latest MacBook Air), similar processor options, no HDMI slot (odd to see a VGA port on a contemporary computer, but this one is designed for older-style business use). Screen resolution is about the same, but the images on the Air are more vivid, and the type is easier to read. The 11-inch screen size is comfortable for light work, but challenging for serious word processing, spreadsheets, even word processing–and this is true for the Air as well. It’s possible to use this computer with a 3G/4G network; this feature is sadly lacking on the Air.

Windows8Today is Sunday the 16th, and I have lunch at noon. That’s easy to see on the colorful Windows 8 interface. Right now, it’s 68 degrees and it’s going to rain today. Click through for details, and the weird non-intutitive interface design returns. It’s unclear what to do next, the brief instructions are unclear and the type is often too small to read. Click once or twice more, and the whole deal looks like Windows from the turn of the century. For reasons I do not understand, several “chickets” appear on the right side of the screen. These offer a combination of settings, search, and device access–not sure why these are shown separately, but the more I dive into Windows 8, the more I come up with “why would they do it that way?” questions. I’ve now spent several hours with Windows 8. Overall, I’d give it a “meh.”

HP-Elite-BookHow about the HP Elite as an example of a contemporary portable computer? It’s okay, but the design is boxy, it’s a little heavy for the 11-inch screen it carries (the 13-inch MacBook Air also weighs 3 pounds). It offers just one operating system (Air offers both Windows and Mac for about the same price).

homepage-promo

For one-quarter of the price, I think most people would be able to accomplish most of their tasks on Samsung’s Chromebook, which costs $250 ($329 with 3G, which is very useful). No fuss: buy one today at neighborhood Staples store. This is a basic, 2.4 pound (lightweight!) portable–not fancy, but it is reasonably well-built and functional, if you limit your desire for functionality to word processing, web browsing, spreadsheets, presentations, email, watching movies, listening to music, and a few dozen other activities. The Chrome Web Store makes the selection and installation of a great many Chrome apps available for use on any Chrome computer, and on any computer with a Chrome browser installed. This level of flexibility is hard to find in the Apple world and nearly impossible to find in the Windows world–Google and its users benefit from a design approach that is totally 21st century, and, in fact, totally new in the 2010s. It’s fresh, inexpensive, and it works.

Here's a small sample of the many apps available in the Google Chrome store.

Here’s a small sample of the many apps available in the Google Chrome store.

It’s not easy being a Windows computer maker in 2013. There is so much legacy–so many enterprise interests to be served–that there is limited available space for innovation. Easy of use, portability, interoperability, slick interfaces, web app stores, these are not ideas that fit comfortably into an enterprise structure that demands standardization (new approach is focused, mostly, upon customization), a work-anywhere approach, high levels of security and reliability, rock-solid applications, and more. HP is one of many Windows-based computer makers who struggle with these issues. This situation has been made much more challenging by Apple’s elegant design and passionate user base, and, now, things are even more difficult because Google is changing the game with a far lower cost structure. And in here, somewhere, is the growing Android ecosystem–not quite as well-positioned but a significant force just the same.

Swing back around to the simple demands of getting work done in the office and at home, I think I’ll stand pat with the iPad because it weighs about a pound-and-a-half and easily connects to either wifi or 3G (my next one will be 4G), and an iMac at home with a larger screen. No, the iPad is not perfect (but I have surprised myself with its flexibility, and with my comfort level in using the touch screen almost all of the time and the accessory keyboard almost not at all). Yes, I pay more for the privilege of using the integrated Apple system. Comparables are emerging, sometimes offering features that Apple cannot or will not, but in the horserace, it’s Apple, Google, and perhaps Android, with Windows off in the distance in a post 20th century haze.

Coming in Part 2: thinking a few years into the future.

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