My eyebrows rose so far this morning, they almost left my forehead completely. That was my immediate reaction upon reading the headline of Ed Bott’s latest opus for ZDnet entitled “Google’s latest Chrome release tries to replace the Windows 8 desktop” (1/15/2014, The Ed Bott Report). And sure enough, although some contortions are required, that’s exactly how the latest Chrome version — numbered 32.0.1700.76 –behaves in a Windows 8 or 8.1 desktop environment. Here’s the “About” info for that particular Chrome version which, according to the Chrome Releases blog, was pushed out yesterday as stable release (1/14/14).
An interesting new Chrome menu entry “Relaunch Chrome in Windows 8 mode” lets you set up a pseudo-desktop on Windows 8.
First, there are a couple of gotchas involved, some of which may be deal-breakers for some Windows 8.x users:
1. To use this Chrome mode, you must designate Chrome as your default Web browser (no workaround to this so far, as near as I can tell, though some may be forthcoming).
2. Numerous plug-ins for the Chrome “desktop mode” don’t work in Metro UI mode (here, desktop mode means Chrome running on the Windows 8 desktop, not running as the Windows 8 desktop; that latter approach actually involves running Chrome as a special kind of Modern UI app, even though it doesn’t come from the Windows Store). Thus, for example, my Norton Identity Safe is unavailable in this mode (which is something of an issue for me, because it’s my primary password repository).
3. There is a screen snap capability of sorts inside the Chrome desktop Window, but it’s strictly left/right, and takes up half the working area inside the Chrome “desktop area.”
4. I observed some flakiness in working with Chrome in the Modern UI as a “desktop of sorts:” several times, either the entire program or windows on the desktop (analogous to tabs in the “real desktop” version of Chrome, I guess) closed themselves down without warning. Checking my reliability monitor, I don’t see any Chrome related errors, though I do see that the PSI Agent and Skype both stopped working shortly after I started playing with this new Chrome facility. I’m speculating, but I have to believe it might have some minor stability issues. Google’s usually both conscientious and quick when it comes to fixing such things, though.
Overall, this facility is interesting, but I don’t perceive it as a viable alternative to true Windows 8 desktop replacement environments such as Stardock’s Start8 or the SourceForge Classic Shell project. I’m somewhat put off by the loss of some key plug-ins (but that could be fixed by switching to a Metro UI friendly password manager, of which there are many in the Windows Store). But the stability issues (which have kept recurring as I’ve kept using the Metro UI version through the “Relaunch …” menu option) are a pretty definite no-no for me. Chrome is the browser of choice for my second monitor, so that when I’m researching or writing on the first monitor, I’m looking stuff up and checking things out in Chrome. To keep losing my open windows and tabs while I’m working simply isn’t acceptable. But again, Google is usually pretty good a catching and fixing such things. Thus, I plan to try again later, in the expectation that a more solid and reliable computing experience no doubt awaits.
My son, Gregory, is in the fourth grade this year, so we’re working on his first-ever science project for school. In collaboration with his science teacher, we selected a very interesting topic to help him develop testing, analysis, and reporting skills — namely “Which Windows Power Plan setting has the biggest impact on battery life?” The answer to the question is actually more interesting and less obvious than it might immediately appear, because like the answer to any good question, it begins with “That depends…”
The funny thing is, when testing battery life, you will often use Power Plan settings that make no sense for real-world, everyday usage scenarios.
What battery life depends on more than anything else is whether a notebook is idle or busy. If the notebook is idle, the best thing you can do is put the machine to sleep as quickly as possible to avoid wasting too much energy essentially on doing nothing (or very little, since even when a computer is idle, it’s still running the OS, checking in with peripherals, refreshing the RAM, handling interrupts and so on and so forth, without necessarily doing much for the computer’s user). If the notebook is busy, the best thing to do is to strike a variety of compromises between high performance (which consumes lots of power) and throttling back (which consumes less) on screen brightness and CPU activity (the two biggest energy suckers on notebook PCs, in terms of actual power drain over time).
As with any kind of compromise, one must accept certain trade-offs when setting intervals. It does take some time for a computer to wake up when it goes to sleep, so you’ll want to avoid going to sleep too terribly quickly, to avoid having to pay the “wake-up penalty” after pausing to think before entering input into a text window, or while reading a page of text. That’s probably why Windows sets the default in many power plans in the 5 to 10 minute range to give users enough time to cogitate and reflect between key presses or mouse clicks to let the OS know they remain actively engaged. On the busy front, one must choose how dim one can stand screen the screen to be in active use, then select a dim-out interval at which to cut that level in half without likewise interfering overmuch with productivity and real-world use. In our testing, Gregory and I observed that he had no trouble going to 40 percent brightness for regular use, and 20 percent for dimmed status, while I (with my sexagenarian eyeballs) couldn’t really tolerate much less than 60 percent (80 preferred) for workaday use, and 40 percent for dimmed status.
We also observed that trimming spin-down or turn-off intervals for most devices with timeout intervals (HDD, display, LAN/WWAN, and so forth) had a noticeable effect on battery life, but that managing sleep (when idle) or screen brightness (when active or busy) had the biggest overall impacts. The former played heavily when idle, and the latter when busy, so a fruitful combination of the two actually resulted in the best overall battery life. Careful examination of the Maximum Battery Life and Energy Saver Power Plans (or their moral analogues from vendors other than Lenovo) will show that their engineers agree completely with this approach. If you tune your power plan to fit your normal working modes, you’ll probably agree as well.
In my last blog post, I lamented the high costs that come with some special-purpose (ruggedized) or high-function Windows 8.1 tablets. In this post, I take a look at what’s available on the other end of the market, both in terms of price and functionality, to explore other, more affordable options for business use. To begin this conversation, I have to observe that Intel’s new quad-core Bay Trail Atom CPU is a real game changer for this market segment. Why do I say this? Because the chip finally offers enough power (and enough simultaneous threads of execution) to cope with modern Windows in a usable and not-too-frustrating way.
Next, I’ll digress by way of historical comparison and contrast: I bought an Atom-based Asus EEE PC a few years back when the netbook fad struck the market. It was a cute little machine and worked sorta kinda OK. But ultimately, it was just too slow and underpowered for me to enjoy working on it, no matter how much I appreciated its excellent battery life, small form factor, and supreme portability. Surfing the Web was an endurance test, typing text would sometimes involve enough lag between striking the key and seeing it appear in a text window that I might lose track of my thoughts, and even navigating the file system on Windows 7 involved more patience that I really had to bring to such a no-brainer mundane task. Suffice it to say I did everything I could to speed up the EEE, including a 128 GB SSD and doubling up from 1 to 2 GB of RAM, all to no real avail. Thereupon, I gave up on netbooks with this personal summation: “Nice. Cute. Too slow. Not for me.”
Since then, I’ve been waiting for Moore’s Law and the inexorable march of technology to produce a netbook like form factor with all-day battery life, enough computing horsepower to get the job done, and enough pixels on a small(ish) screen to make looking at the UI tolerable. Touch isn’t a bad thing, either, and on a small tablet (I’ve learned to love my iPad 2, while living within its sometimes restrictive limitations) it’s reallyi quite handy. So for me — and I suspect for a great many other PC-savvy business users — I’ve been waiting for a small, light, portable PC that’s powerful enough to let me surf the Web, read and write e-mail, work in MS Office, and run the various applications and apps I use to get my job done, with enough battery power to make it for 8 hours or longer.
Until quite recently, I’ve been waiting in vain. MS came close with the Surface Pro 2, but it’s still a little too heavy, battery life a little too short, and the price tag a little too high. But in the last quarter, I’ve seen a whole slew of smaller form-factor tablets (7 and 8 inch mostly, but even some 10 inchers) that use Intel’s new Bay Trail Atom with 4 GB of RAM, a 32 to 128 GB SSD, Intel GT2 graphics, and sufficient battery capacity to keep them going 8 hours or longer when running a light or mixed workload that matches most workday use. They might not make 8 hours playing games or watching videos/movies, but many of them also offer accessible and removable batteries, so that users can swap a depleted one with a charged-up replacement and keep on going even when the first battery runs out. All I can say is “Way cool!” I plan to add several to my gadget collection, and see how they hold up in everyday use.
Of the current crop available — and there are possibly as many as a dozen already in the marketplace — these five have captured my particular attention:
1. Dell Venue 8 Pro ($299-349) [8.0″ display at 1280×800, Z3740D CPU, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, no card reader, dock and cover/keyboard options available)
2. Lenovo ThinkPad 8 ($399 and up) [8.3″ display at 1980×1200, Z3770 CPU, 4 GB RAM, 64 or 128 GB SSD, micro SDXC card reader, dock and cover/keyboard options available]
3. Asus VivoTab Note 8 ($299 – 349) [8.0″ display at 1280×800, Z3740 CPU, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, micro SDHC card reader, dock and cover/keyboard options available]
4. Toshiba Satellite Encore ($329 and up) [8.0″ display at 1280×800, Z3740 CPU, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, microSDHC card reader, no info on dock or cover/keyboard available]
5. Acer Iconia W4 ($330 – 380) [8.o” at 1280×800, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, microHDMI and microUSB ports, microSDHC card reader, cover and keyboard available, no info on dock]
Based on such reviews as are available and comparing the specs, the Lenovo stands out for its higher-res display, and bigger storage options. The Dell also gets great reviews, but is a little lacking on expansion options (no microSD card reader is kind of a drag, nor any video out either, except for wireless Miracast). The Acer gets dinged for sub-par construction and a less-than-bright display, and I don’t know much about the Toshiba or Asus units just yet. Stay tuned, as I keep digging further. There’s still time for some new entrants to pop up as well, as CES comes to a close today (or this weekend).
Intel is looking to light a path into uncharted territory as it unveils reference designs for smart wearables and a new Edison chip.
The chip behemoth introduced a number of smart reference designs this week for new wearable technologies that include a smart watch, smart sports ear buds, and smart Bluetooth headset, in addition to support for dual operating systems on a single device.
What could potentially be Intel’s most compelling offering is the tiny chip dubbed Edison. The SD-card sized chip could greatly impact Intel’s influence in the emerging market for the Internet of Things.
Edison is a system-on-a-chip that includes an x86 compatible core supporting Linux, WiFi, Bluetooth, flash storage and more. The new low-power chip is designed for smart computing and wearable devices that require a small, powerful and low-power processor form factor.
The company demoed the chip at the Computer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. Edison was installed in a toy turtle and linked to sensors connected in a baby’s onesie, which tracked the child’s temperature and movement. The baby’s temperature was sent to the mother’s coffee cup, for example. If the signal was green the baby’s temperature was fine. If it was red, the baby was hot or distressed and needed something.
While Intel showed Edison in a consumer application, one can also think how the chip might be applied to enterprises. In fact the emerging phrase of the “Enterprise of Things” is beginning to be used to highlight business deployment applications in the whole IoT market.
Connectivity is going beyond the datacenter and PCs and mobile devices to really developing serious business applications.
Theoretically, why not add an Edison chip to an employee’s PC or tablet? If something is wrong with the device, an alert can be sent immediately to the organization’s IT department and IT staff can be more proactive in delivering a resolution for the wayward device to ensure an employee remains productive. The employee may not even need to enter a help desk ticket because the IT staff already identified the problem. The possibilities are endless.
Intel also debuted new smart wearables that could actually be useful to one’s life, rather than being a futuristic concept. For example, the smart ear buds enable one to link to an app and keep track of exercise time, distance and heart rate all in one unit. Other technologies require one to wear a separate heart rate device.
The company also showed a smart watch reference design that offers geo-fencing capabilities. This would allow parents or caregivers to keep close track of their kids or elderly people by ensuring they are in the right place and to digitally notify them if they are off the beaten path.
In addition, Intel also showed Jarvis, a smart Bluetooth headset that acts like your personal secretary. (Is it a mere coincidence that Intel named the smart headset J.A.R.V.I.S. just like Tony Stark’s a.k.a. Iron Man’s artificial intelligent computer?)
While Intel’s big news for smart wearables and Edison portends the possibility of innovative things to come, the biggest shocker during Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s CES keynote were the violent images in the video clip Intel showed on screen about the consequences of mining key minerals used in electronics in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The area is strife with regional fighting and trade from the minerals fund armed groups.
After four years of working with the industry and governments around the world, tracking the supply chain for the minerals from the mines to its factories, Krzanich revealed all of Intel’s microprocessors manufactured this year would be conflict-free. That statement received the biggest applause of the night. Kudos to Intel for being socially responsible.
All this week, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is underway in Las Vegas, so it’s “prime time” for all the PC companies to make product announcements — especially those that target US markets and buyers. In the past few months a number of business oriented Windows 8.1 tablets have made their debut, and more are popping up every day in Las Vegas right now. What I find interesting is that tablets that specifically target business users often tend to cost more than those aimed at consumers, even though their innards may not differ much (or at all) from consumer oriented makes and models.
When a business unit does come along, it can bring more and more advanced features to such products, and those do justify some added expense. Thus, it’s not unusual to hear about support for Smart Cards, fingerprint scanners, improved durability features (heavier chassis, stronger materials, adherence to MIL-STD-810G specifications for drops, vibration, humidity, and outsized temperature ranges at both hot and cold ends of the spectrum), better manageability (vPro, Intel’s AMT), and so forth.
The FZ-M1 is an incredible workhorse of a small Windows 8.1 tablet, but the price is nothing short of staggering.
Here’s the rub: some of these business oriented models cost a small fortune. Panasonic has just introduced a 7″ Touchpad FZ-M1 ruggedized Windows 8.1 tablet, for example. It is designed to cope with modest abuse, water, and harsher-than-normal working environments, while delivering a classic “thin and light” Windows 8.1 tablet experience. It’s fanless, and includes a Haswell i5 or Celeron ULV mobile processor, offers 1280×800 resolution, supports a 128 or 256 GB SSD, with 8 GB RAM for the i5 model (and probably 4GB for the down-market Celeron model). This unit also includes 4G LTE, Bluetooth 4.0, and 802.11 abgn-ac networking, with a USB 3.0 port, a microSDXC card slot, and a docking connector. Add-on options available include docking station, GPS, barcode scanner, RJ-45 Ethernet and serial ports, plus NFC, RFID or a magnetic stripe readers. It weighs 1.2 pounds (540g) and measures 0.7″ (1.8 cm) thick. Battery life is rated at 8 hours, and the battery is replaceable, so that field use may be further extended by swapping in a spare, fully-charged battery. The unit also boasts a 3-year warranty, unusual in today’s PC marketplace. But ouch, this puppy costs some serious scratch: with the i5 CPU and a 128GB SSD, sans any of the many add-ons available, pricing starts at $2,099. I’m guessing that fully tricked-out version could easily cost between $2,500 and 3,000.
Another case in point is the fascinating and feature-laden Fujitsu Stylistic Q704 I blogged about last week (“Fujitsu Makes Bold-Entry into High-end...”) Though its screen is bigger (12.5″) with full HD (1920×1080) resolution, and it offers an i7 CPU option as well — so you get more for the money — it, too, starts at around $1,500. The unit I configured for myself with i7, keyboard cover with extra battery, GPS, NFC, 8 GB RAM, and a 256 GB SSD came in at just under $3,000 with a $75 discount coupon to help ease the pain ever so slightly.
Problems with business uptake of Windows 8 and 8.1 aside for the moment, it’s also clear that cost is another potential hurdle which business buyers must overcome to get onto the Windows 8.* tablet bandwagon. My fundamental question is “Does it really have to be this way, or is it just a case of determining by iteration just what the traffic will bear?” So far, it looks like OEMs are starting high, and seek to be forcibly ratcheted downward, which may be a good strategy to protect them from financial exposure, but appears at least in part responsible for lukewarm market reception and uptake as well.
Over the past three months — more or less since the release of Windows 8.1 — I’ve finally started to see some PC-based tablets that appear poised to give Apple actual competition for the market niche that the iPad has more or less owned for the past four-plus years. This platform has become so popular and ubiquitous that when I looked up the launch date for the iPad 1 (April 3, 2010) I was stunned to realize that it’s really only been a little over four years since the first IPad came out.
The release of several new Windows 8 (and 8.1) tablets in the past quarter appears to put some potentially game-changing new entrants into the 8-10″ tablet market. As far as I can tell, it’s the energy efficient but sufficiently high-powered quad core Bay Trail models of Atom processors that are finally going to give PC makers a valid comeback to the ever-popular iPad platforms in 7″ and 10″ formats. Thus, for example, I’ve looked at the $350 Dell Venue 8 Pro (Z3740D, 64GB SSD, 2 GB RAM, Intel HD graphics) and the Lenovo ThinkPad 8 (Z3770, up to 128 GB SSD, up to 8 GB RAM, Intel HD graphics; pricing not yet available: base level set at $399 so top-line must be at least $800) as the first of what will no doubt be a whole slew of small and light tablets that offer sufficient power and capability to give iPad a run for consumer’s money.
At 8.8mm thick, under a pound in weight, with full HD (1920×1200) resolution, and up to 8 GB RAM, and 256 GB SSD, the high-end ThinkPad8 could give Apple heartburn — as long as it’s not too much over $900 in price.
I expect we’ll start to see more machines of this type showing up at CES (underway in Vegas right now, starting today) and that Windows will finally be able to pose a meaningful counter to the iPad. Will this be enough to make a difference, and change market dynamics and consumer inclinations? We’ll see!
Thanks to Brad Sams at Neowin and Ron G (Editor-in-Chief) at WinBeta, I just learned this morning that MS is building its latest Surface Pro 2 tablets with Intel i5 4300U processors, instead of the 4200U models featured in their first batch of machines initially released in late October 2013. The older model clocks at 1.6 Ghz with a “Max Turbo” frequency of 2.6 GHz (i5-4200U ARK page), while the newer model clocks at 1.9 GHz with Max Turbo at 2.9 GHx (i5-4300U ARK page). That’s about 18% more oomph, which probably isn’t enough for most users to notice. Also, Graphics Max Dynamic Frequency for the 4300U is 1.1 GHz, where the 4200U is 1 GHz, a 10% bump. Otherwise, there’s no real difference between those two parts, in terms of cores, threads, cache, memory capacity, and so forth.
Does a modest CPU upgrade indicate that Surface Pro 2 sales are better than expected, so MS had to switch to a new part? Or is it a form of expiation for recent firmware woes?
WinBeta reached out to Microsoft to inquire about this change, first reported on machines returned for exchange to the company in the wake of last month’s flawed firmware update for the Surface Pro 2. They report hearing from a Microsoft spokesperson “…that small changes to internal components do take place over the lifetime of the product…in order to ensure that the product experience remains excellent.” That firmware update still hasn’t appeared, despite MS’s decision to pull the change after users reported issues with installation of the update and with sharply reduced battery life in the wake of some successful installs. However, the latest rumors indicate that a new firmware version probably won’t be released until Patch Tuesday for January, which occurs on the 14th of this month.
Here’s an interesting graph from the Market Share Reports for “Desktop Operating System Market Share” at netmarketshare.com. Today, January 2, it shows The Windows 8.1 number at 3.6%, with the Windows Vista number at 3.61%. I’m pretty sure that means by next month, if not sooner, Windows 8.1 will pull ahead of Vista for once and for all, and won’t look back at such numbers for some time to come.
The numbers for desktop OS share on the Internet show Windows Vista and 8.1 neck-and-neck for the moment.
But Vista’s share never climbed much above 10% at any time in its lifecycle, and has steadily declined in recent years. Although 8.1 has yet to make significant inroads into the business side of the market, it’s picking up momentum on the consumer side. I have to believe that it will surpass Windows 8 some time in the next calendar quarter or two, and cross the ten percent mark that represents something of perihelion for Vista’s approach to the center of our desktop “solar system” before too much longer after that.
What’s really interesting is to observe and learn how Microsoft’s new rapid cadence will play out in terms of desktop share as NetMarketShare measures it. I expect we’ll see Windows itself becoming something of a “long tail” distribution, with popular versions trailing somewhat behind the leading edge (as leading versions Windows 7 and XP now occupy slots 2 and 3 releases behind the leading-edge 8.1 version). It should also be interesting to observe how long XP maintains the number two slot after April 2014 when long-term support for the OS is discontinued at Microsoft.
Here’s a classic good news-bad news scenario for serious Windows users seeking a lightweight Windows 8.1 tablet with acceptable battery life (which I define as more than 8 hours, or enough to get users through a whole day, or a long flight away from AC power). The Fujitsu Stylistic Q704 offers a true HD (1920×1080) 12.5″ screen, with options for a dual core i7-4600U CPU with 8 GB RAM and a 256 GB SSD, and up to 10 hours of battery life. Its dimensions are svelte: 0.47″ x 12.19″ x 7.85″ and it weighs just 2.16 lbs (under 981 grams). It offers a dual-boot with Windows 7 SP1 and Windows 8.1 both preinstalled, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11 a/g/n Wi-Fi, one each USB 3.0 and 2.0 connectors, Intel HD 4400 graphics, and a media card reader (to add up to an additional 64 GB of microSDHC or SDXC flash memory, and 128 GB as such modules become more widely available and affordable; I even see discussion of a 256 GB module at myego360.com though product links are not currently available). The package is described as “semi-ruggedized” and it offers a number of waterproofing options (notice the water droplets artfully arranged at the lower right in the photo below):
The bad news is that this sucker is extraordinarily expensive. Just for grins, I jumped onto www.shopfujitsu.com to configure a top-of-the line Q704, and nearly fell over when it priced out at $2,852.00, including a $50 off promotion code I was able to find and put to work. For that money, the build includes a Core i7-4600U CPU (dual core, 4 threads, 2.1 GHz clock with 3.3 GHz max turbo, 4 MB cache, 15W max TDP), 8 GB RAM, built-in GPS, 256 GB SSD, a keyboard dock with external battery, NFC, and a SmartCard reader. But still, this is nearly $1,000 more than a similarly configured Surface Pro 2, so you’re paying a hefty premium for the four hours of additional battery life and added processing power that this unit should deliver.
Still looks like a great machine, though, and one worth pondering at length. Pick the “Customize” button in the middle column on the Fujitsu store’s Q704 page to configure a system to your heart’s content, too. Will the “chancellor of the exchequer” here at home (my wife, that is) authorize such an extravagance? Not bloody likely!! But it’s still nice to dream a little … or a lot, as is the case here.
[Note added 1:05 PM CST 12/30/13: To my amazement and delight, my request for the Q704 has been approved. I went looking again for coupons, and found a $75 discount that beat my earlier $50 off discovery. It’s “FUJITSUTECHBARGAIN” and you can use it, too, if you like. I’ve applied for a 36-month business lease just to see how that all goes, and will report back here further after New Year’s when my application will no doubt get processed. No word on build or ship dates until then either, but the site told me that the ship date was still “TBD” when I submitted that application.]
Last summer, my trusty Dell All-in-One 968 became unusable, thanks to the failure of one of its color inkjets (if memory serves it was either red or magenta, depending on whether that device uses an RGBK or CMYK color model). Ever since its retirement via the safe electronics disposal available from the great folks at Goodwill Industries, I’ve been struggling to remove all traces of its existence from the driver files on the Windows PCs belonging to the Homegroup on my house network. I finally took out the heavy artillery over the holiday, and used Driver Store Explorer [RAPR] and its “Force Deletion” option to forcibly remove all remaining traces of the AIO drivers from those machines. [Warning! RAPR requires an older .NET version –which means either version 2.0 or 3.0 — serviced by the MS 3.5 Framework download. It will manage the download process for you, but you may need to apply relevant Windows Updates to patch potential security issues and functionality gaps as well. When I added this to one of my 8.1 PCs that lacked this support, however, Windows Update gave it a clean bill of health immediately thereafter.]
The key to removing persistent drivers is in checking the “Force Deletion” box below the Delete Package button.
Only by checking the boxes to the left of the two Dell Inkjet Drivers entries shown (oem44.inf and oem45.inf), and then checking the “Force Deletion” box beneath the Delete Package button in RAPR was I able to make these pesky and persistent printer drivers disappear from my Windows PCs. This technique works for any such persistent drivers that otherwise resist removal, but you’d better be darn sure that you don’t need those drivers (or can find them again) should their return ever be mandated. To ease any concerns you might have in restoring them, you can first use the right-click “Export” option in RAPR to make backup copies in another directory of your choosing, before getting rid of them. I had no such concerns for the inkjet drivers, because I have replaced that printer with a very nice Dell 2155 cn color laser printer, whose drivers you see already resident in the foregoing RAPR display as well.