Saturday, 30 December 2017

Best budget Chromebooks of 2017

In the previous post on the best budget tech of 2017, I forgot to include Chromebook recommendations. Recently I have moved on from Chromebooks, as I find writing in a browser using Google Docs frustrating and often slow when rendering large documents. There is the option to use Microsoft Word's Android app but the version does not compare to the full desktop version. Further, Google Play is still in Beta on most Chromebooks and Microsoft Word can be unstable and cumbersome to work with a non-touch screen. Despite my problems with Chromebooks recently, I still think the platform meets the needs of many users and is genuinely useful in education.

The budget Chromebooks that stood out in 2017, in my opinion, would be Acer's CB3-431 14" Full HD Chromebook and the Asus C301 13.3. Both devices come with a full HD screen, quad core N3160 processor, 4GB RAM and 32 GB storage (Asus offer the C301 with different processors but the N3160 seems to be the only option that is readily available). I have used the Acer Chromebook 14 and liked the full HD IPS screen. One issue with the laptop is the below average battery life, in comparison to other Chromebooks. I haven't tested the Asus C301 but based on specifications and this review by Chrome Unboxed, it is an affordable Chromebook that gets it right.

Finally, the 32GB storage on both devices means installing Gallium OS is workable (Gallium OS is a Linux distribution that is based on Xubuntu. The distribution is optimised to work with Chromebook hardware). With Gallium OS you get a full fledged desktop environment and can use desktop applications e.g. Libre Office, Firefox, Calibre etc.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Best budget tech of 2017

In late 2016, a number of vendors released entry laptops with 4GB rather than 2GB RAM. For example, we had the HP Stream 14 and the Acer ES11/ES13. Yet, these devices remained restricted due to their underpowered processors. For this reason, I found the Lenovo 110S with its more powerful quad core N3160 a better proposition in comparison to slower dual core N3350/N3060 laptops with 4GB RAM. The device serves the purpose of a secondary mobile laptop and comes with a one-year office 365 subscription. Lenovo recently updated the 110S with the 120S. The latter device, in its base configuration, comes with a weaker dual core Intel Celeron N3350 Processor, making the previous generation the better option. While technically released late 2016, I think the Ideapad 110S is the best entry-level laptop in 2017.

Beyond the entry-level but within the budget category, we have seen the release of a number of laptops with full HD screens, more powerful quad core processors, 4GB RAM and 64GB storage. The 14 inch Asus Vivobook L403 and the Acer Swift 1 13 are examples and both are capable primary laptops. Smaller vendors released similar laptops at lower prices but these devices need to be imported from China, leading to possible complications with after-sale support (on the plus side, I have noticed Geekbuying.com are now shipping laptops from warehouses based in Germany). Based on positive reviews, the Chuwi Lapbook 14.1 and Jumper EZBOOK 3 PRO are the pick of the bunch.

Tablets

Amazon owns the budget tablet category. Cutting the right corners, Amazon delivered stand out tablets in the Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 10. The Fire HD 8 is a solid device, with very good battery life, that delivers what most users expect from a tablet. The Fire HD 10 surpasses expectations with a screen that compares with mid-level tablets. Beyond Amazon, Lenovo released the Tab 4 HD 8; the device is priced higher than Fire HD 8 but comes with a better screen, better cameras and more RAM.

Concerning e-readers, Barnes & Noble released the Nook Glowlight 3 but the device is only available in the US. It will be interesting to see what Amazon do with the Kindle Paperwhite in 2018. I expect Amazon to release a 6 inch Kindle Paperwhite 4 with incremental updates.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Happy new year to all!

To all visitors, I wish you a happy and fruitful new year. I hope that, after some stagnation, 2018 will bring innovative e-readers in all shapes and sizes!

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Kindle Oasis 2 accessories

If you wish to use a case for the Kindle Oasis then a third party cover/sleeve is necessary since Amazon withdrew their official version. So far, options are limited. Below is a short list of alternative accessories:
  • Moko specialize in Kindle e-reader and Fire tablet accessories. The Moko case does cover the Oasis completely, unlike the official Amazon case, but does not provide a flat reading surface when open. The case is not perfect and the quality does not compare to Amazon's official covers but, so far, it is the best option. I use the 'Almond Blossoms' Moko case and the painting's print quality is good. Another issue is the cover's weak magnets; when closed the front cover can move. 
  • If you do not mind holding the Oasis bare then a sleeve is a good option to cover the device when travelling. The Amazon Basics eight-inch sleeve, not technically a third party accessory, fits the Oasis perfectly and provides adequate padding. The eight-inch sleeve also fits the Oasis with a case on. 
  • Fintie is another manufacturer that produces Kindle cases. I haven’t tested the cover and so can’t judge its quality. One issue that put me off is the cover’s padded vinyl feel. 
A final point: I would avoid any case with straps, even if advertised compatible with the Oasis. The main issue is the design of the Oasis with one end being thicker. At the thinner end, the straps cover the bottom corners of the screen.

Monday, 18 December 2017

CLEARink's display technology

The advent of the consumer e-reader, introduced by Sony and Amazon (2006 – 2007), contributed to the growth of innovative low-power reflective displays that supported colour. For example, we had different e-paper applications from Fujitsu, Plastic Logic, Mirasol and Liquavista (acquired by Amazon). At first, these e-paper solutions were promising but, so far, nothing materialised

CLEARink is another e-paper solution that promises not only static colour solutions but also video support. The initial focus, according to CLEARink, is to produce devices targeted at education and this means support for both text and video output. If CLEARink delivers on its promise we might even see low-powered laptops fitted with a CLEARink display, making them ideal for out-door reading/writing and with positive eyesight health implications too. This idea is not new, 'One Laptop per Child Foundation' previously partnered with Pixel Xi to produce dual-mode display laptops (Pixel Xi no longer operates). Pixel Xi's dual-mode display, different to CLEARink's technology, allowed the screen's backlight to be turned on and off; the idea was to preserve energy and support outdoor readability.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Oasis PDF support correction

In a previous post regarding the Oasis's PDF support, I stated the following:
I found it useful that the Oasis’s buttons only turn to the next page of a PDF document, rather than scroll down a page; this is a good implementation as it removes any confusion between page scrolling and page turning.
I mainly read PDF files in landscape mode, due to the restricted seven inch screen estate, and, consequently, didn't notice the mistake made in the above observation (also, recently, I've predominately been reading e-books). To clarify, tap to scroll or using the buttons perform the exact same function in a zoomed-in PDF document: i.e., both enable the user to scroll down a page and turn to the next one when a page is completed. Unfortunately, the implementation of this function is buggy and the device, sometimes, for no reason, zooms-in further. In addition, when scrolling to the next page, the Oasis does not jump to the top of the page. As a result, depending on the PDF file, some lines could be accidentally missed. To ensure a page-turn starts at the top of a page it then becomes necessary to drag manually upwards.

To resolve these issues with tap/button-click to scroll, the best option, in my view, is to scroll a page by dragging downwards when zoomed-in. After completing a page, again to avoid the tap to scroll function, first zoom-out with a double tap and then follow this by a tap/button-click to turn the page. In the next page, repeat the double-tap to zoom-in and drag to scroll downwards. This option might be cumbersome but it is workable and makes PDF portrait reading more stable.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Kindle Oasis Review: The Oasis sets the new benchmark for an e-reader

Without doubt, the latest iteration of Kindle Oasis is the best e-reader from Amazon. Yet, this is expected considering the pricing and premium tag. The question is if the device offers that much extra to justify the price differential in comparison to other e-readers. Overall, while Amazon should have done more to distinguish the Oasis, the device sets the benchmark for a feature rich and immersive e-reading experience.

An a-symmetric design that doesn’t work 

I am not a fan of the device’s design. The metallic back, without a case, is cold to the hand and the device’s lopsided design makes it uneven to hold. Amazon designed their official case to attach magnetically to the thicker end to provide a flat reading surface. Unfortunately, this leaves part of the metallic back exposed when the case is closed (Amazon withdrew the official case due to design flaws).

The buttons are a real plus. They are located at the thicker end and make page turning so much easier with one-handed reading. The buttons can be used left and right-handed, as the Oasis supports automatic rotation.

Extra-size makes a difference

The extra inch makes a significant difference. The device is seven inch across and this means a thirty percent increase in reading screen estate. There is also extra width; the device’s width is closer to the Aura One than the Paperwhite. I find the extra space helps with text immersion and the extra width makes PDF text more legible in landscape mode.

Nice screen but nothing special

If you are coming from the Kindle Paperwhite then you will notice little difference in screen quality (both devices come with an E-Ink Carta screen and 300 DPI). I found the Oasis’s contrast slightly lacking but the text sharp.

The adaptive front-light has twelve LEDs that produce uniform lighting with little shadowing. The front-light is the best I’ve seen on an e-reader and significantly better than the Kobo Aura One. The Kindle Oasis, unlike the Aura One, does not support front-light colour shifting for night-time reading.

Kobo Aura One vs. Kindle Oasis front-light comparison 

Solid and stable software

As stated in a review of the Kindle Basic, Amazon’s Kindle software is feature rich and stable (I have provided an overview of the Kindle’s operating system in the Kindle Basic review. Also, I have previously posted on the Kindle’s good PDF support here). Amazon runs the near same software on all its e-readers. Software differences that do exist cater for device specific hardware features e.g. Bluetooth support and adaptive display lighting.

One software issue that continues to frustrate is the limited control over text display. Font size options are set in absolute size and the difference between, for example, size two and three is too disproportionate (the issue is accentuated with a relatively high 300 DPI screen). A possible solution, to get something between size three and four, is to increase font-weight to two. Unfortunately, this option only works with AZW3 e-books. Hopefully, in the future, there will be a software update that extends font weight options to MOBI e-books.

The Oasis comes with in-built Bluetooth support and Audible integration. I would recommend going for the 32GB Oasis if Audio books are something important (audio books take a lot of storage). Personally, I find something like a smart-phone, laptop or tablet better suited for audio books.

Battery life & waterproofing

This is Amazon’s first e-reader with waterproofing. I haven’t tested the feature but Amazon advertise the device with an IPX8 rating that can withstand immersion in up to 2 metres of fresh water for one hour.

I expected better battery-life, considering the pricing. Based on personal estimation, I found the Oasis’s battery life to be behind the Paperwhite but still last longer than the Aura One. This is not surprising as the Paperwhite has a larger battery capacity (the Paperwhite has a 1320 mAh battery capacity. In comparion, the Kindle Oasis 2 has a 1000 mAh battery capacity). Of course, battery life depends on, for example, front-light intensity, indexing and WiFi.

Too expensive for an e-reader?

Is the Oasis too expensive for an e-reader? Many technology websites answer in the affirmative. I think the device is dedicated to the e-reading community and for this segment of users, the Oasis might be worth-it.

The better question to ask, directed at dedicated e-readers, is if the Oasis is worth-it considering the existence of, for example, the cheaper Kobo H20 and Aura One? In my view, if it is merely a question of hardware then the Aura One would be the better choice. Even so, Amazon’s superior and polished software experience makes the Oasis the better overall e-reader.

Verdict

Initially, when the Oasis was released, I judged the Oasis to be priced too high for what it offers. After using the device, I have change my mind. Yes, the bigger screen finally distinguishes the Oasis compared to the Paperwhite and Voyage. However, more than just hardware, the software is what makes the Oasis standout. Most things just work better, compared to other e-readers e.g. smoother highlighting, syncing of personal documents across Amazon devices/apps, consideration of PDF support and the ability to export annotations in different formats etc.

The downside with the Oasis is that it is not innovative enough. I expect more from a high-end Kindle e-reader. For example, stylus support, a larger screen, better contrast and improved battery life. I think the broader issue is not just cost but also Amazon’s conservative strategy in the development of its e-readers.

To conclude, before the Oasis, the Aura One was the benchmark for a larger e-reader. Yet, if you are willing to go one inch smaller, the Oasis is the one to go for.