Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Amazon Go & automation

The Amazon Go store concept is an interesting innovation in retail. Following the opening of Amazon's Seattle store, I noticed some websites stating their fear for the future of retail in the loss of human interaction and more importantly jobs. The latter issue of job loss is common sense, in market economies, as wage labour is ascribed ultimate value as a means to a living and social standing - it doesn't matter if many jobs are actually needed.

In my view, automated technologies are just material means that make adaptation to our natural order less dependent on direct human activity. Thus technologies offer positive possibilities in freeing human activity and resources in other directions. The real issue is the value orientation that informs how these technologies are used. In the case of Amazon Go, these technologies operate in a market economy centered on exponential growth. In contrast, in the context of mutual alternatives the use of these technologies could mean a positive re-thinking of social goals in ways that are responsive to more human possibilities of living.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The Always Connected PC

The 'Always Connected PC' (ACPC) is Microsoft's attempt, in collaboration with major vendors, to innovate in the laptop market. Microsoft market the ACPC as a 'technology shift':
We are again at the beginning of another major technology shift: the ability to be connected anytime, anywhere with Always Connected PCs that are instantly on, always connected with incredible battery life.
Below is a summary of the ACPC's differentiating characteristics according to Windows Central:
  1. Instant on: Similar to smartphones and tablets, the ACPC doesn't hibernate and receives instant notifications.  
  2. Always connected: The laptop supports LTE and is always connected to the internet. 
  3. Long battery life: So far, the announced devices advertise a battery life between 20 - 22 hours. In addition, standby mode should last for weeks. 
The default operating system is Windows 10 S but there is the option to change to Windows 10 Home/Pro. It is not clear if all ACPC laptops are intended to run on ARM processors but, so far, the announced devices ship with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835. The Snapdragon 835 is specifically optimised for Windows 10 S, so it is not clear how the processor will work with Windows 10 Home/Pro. Will performance/battery life take a hit? Different ACPC laptops will be available soon so we will have a better picture after their release. I expect disadvantages early on before Microsoft and Qualcomm (or others) work on solutions that improve performance and battery life.

The ACPC is here to stay

I believe Microsoft takes the ACPC seriously. This marketed "technology shift" reminds me of Microsoft's previous collaboration with Intel to release the Ultrabook. Similar to the Ultrabook, Microsoft has set minimum requirements for an ACPC device:
It needs to have 13-plus hours of battery life in use, and "weeks" of battery life when it's in sleep or standby mode. It needs to have an LTE cellular modem. It has to be thin and light. And it needs to run Windows 10 S by default, a version of the operating system released last year that maximizes battery life and performance
Right now, there are three officially announced ACPC laptops: Asus NovaGoHP Envy x2, and the Lenovo Miix 630 (a preview of the Asus NovoGo is available here). The Asus NovaGo starts at $599, the Lenovo Miix 630 at $799.99 and the pricing for the HP Envy x2 is yet to be announced. The pricing is high considering hardware specifications and I expect prices to go down as more vendors release their own versions of the ACPC. 

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Picking the right Onyx Boox N96

Onyx's N96 e-reader comes in different versions and it is confusing to choose the right one. Below are the different versions of the Onyx BOOX N96:
  • Onyx Boox N96: No front-light; supports pen and finger touch. 
  • Onyx Boox N96C: No front-light; supports finger touch.
  • Onyx Boox  N96ML: Built-in front-light; supports pen touch. 
  • Onyx Boox N96CML: Built-in front-light; supports finger touch.
The above four models are previous generation devices with an E-Ink Pearl screen. The current generation is available in two models (there could be more but below are the ones I identified):
  • Onyx Boox  N96 Carta+: No front-light; supports pen and finger touch.
  • Onyx Boox  N96ML Carta+: Built-in front-light; supports pen touch.
The above two models are latest generation ones with an E-Ink Carta screen. Both the previous generation and the current one support Android 4 and come with the same screen resolution (1280 X 825). The important difference is that the latest generation models have an E-Ink Carta screen. Onyx claim the E-Ink Carta refresh means darker text with more detail.

I have not tested any of these devices but, on paper, the model to choose is the Onyx N96 Carta+ (dual touch). In my view, dual touch is more important than front-light functionality, as it is more convenient and with greater flexibility. In addition, if the stylus is lost, the device is still functional with touch support.

The eBook Reader reviewed the Onyx Boox  N96ML Carta+ and I recommend reading the article here.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Tech for studying (2): Digitizing notes

There are studies that indicate traditional pen and paper note taking is better for knowledge retention and understanding. To back-up handwritten notes, it is a good idea to digitize them and there are different notebooks designed for this purpose.

Moleskine and Leuchtturm both sell notebooks optimised for digitisation. Moleskine collaborated with Evernote to produce a 'smart' notebook. The notebook's paper has dotted lines that are optimised for scanning via a smartphone/tablet camera. After scanning, content is enhanced for OCR to enable searching handwritten notes in Evernote. The notebook also includes stickers that can be pre-set, within Evernote, to tag scanned documents or to send notes to certain notebooks.

Leuchtturm utilises Whitelines paper that is designed to work with the Whitelines Android/iOS application. Similar to Moleskine's 'smart' notebook, Whitelines paper makes lines disappear and notes standout after scanning. The lines, in this case, are white and the background grey, with four corner markers that auto-detect the page selected for scanning. At the bottom of the page, there are three squares that can be ticked to send the document to an email, Evernote and Dropbox. In the app, it is possible to set destination preferences for each of these options.

I prefer Whitelines paper to Moleskine's Evernote notebook, as the latter is tightly integrated to work within the Evernote app; Whitelines, in contrast, is platform neutral. The results of scanning can vary but Whitelines, from experience, consistently produces better results. Further, it is not necessary to purchase a Leuchtturm notebook to use Whitelines paper, as Whitelines produce their own notebooks that can be purchased in different formats and sizes.

Rocketbook notebooks perform a similar function to the Evernote smart notebook and Leuchtturm’s Whitelines Link notebooks. The difference is that Rocketbook sells re-usable notebooks. The Rocketbook Wave can be erased using microwave heat and re-used up to five times. The Rocketbook Everlast is marketed as “endlessly reusable”; the notebook's pages can be wiped clean using a damp cloth. The Pilot FriXion pen is required to re-use both notebooks. To test Rocketbook’s scannable paper there are PDF downloads here; to get the best result, the sheets should be used with the Rocketbook app.

A final point: handwritten notes, in a regular notebook, can be uploaded to the cloud with a designated scanning app and some of these apps support OCR too. The paper, in these notebooks, may not be optimised for digitization but often, from experience, I found the difference in results negligible (one issue to consider is that lines, in lined notebooks, remain after scanning a document). I regularly use Adobe Scan but there are other applications.

Sunday, 31 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.

Saturday, 30 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 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.


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.