Category Archives: Reviews

Rosetta Stone Launches iPad App

Yesterday Rosetta Stone launched their TOTALe HD app for the iPad device, another platform which Rosetta Stone included in trying to create a total immersion process for learning a new language.  I was excited to try and get my hands on the app as soon as I managed to get an opportunity.

The app was a welcome addition because now I finally have another reason to use my iPad instead of sit in the corner as a photo frame, which is where the device spends most of the time now.  Rosetta Stone released their app as a free download from the Apple App Store.  In order to use the application, you need to have an active TOTALe subscription to take advantage of the app.  This is included with any purchase of any Rosetta Stone language product as well as if you purchase an online subscription through Rosetta Stone’s website which can even be purchased at three month increments for as little as $199 which would give you access to all levels of the language.

The app itself is great.  While it does not include many of the additional you would get on a PC such as the Studio sessions with instructors or the online games and stories, but the course does include all of the courseware as well as the previous scores that you might have had from taking a lesson.  The courses themselves don’t appear to be stored on the iPad device but downloaded as a stream.  This can lead to the application dragging from time to time if you have a weak internet connection, but in general the app is far less drag on a connection than streaming video and doesn’t have to be as responsive as VoIP or online gaming.

Some of the positive things that I did enjoy with the iPad app for Rosetta Stone is the freedom and portability of the iPad with the functionality of the application.  I can take learning on the iPad outside to my porch where I can enjoy the spring weather and learn a new language. Many times the PC version would almost seem better on a touch screen where the iPad app makes that fully available for you and actually allows some portions of the lessons to proceed a split second faster.  The app takes up little room on the iPad and so even the lowest end 16GB model shouldn’t have any problem with storage capacity.  The installation of the application is only 12.6 MB and has to be done through the iTunes App store.

The downsides to the app are that the courses aren’t stored on the iPad which is unfortunate because I really would like to use the device without having to be connected to a WiFi or 3G connection.  On the positive side, 3G coverage is enough for you to use the courses although I don’t know what the data plan usage would be.   Other problems with the app include the fact that some minor data points are missing yet from the Rosetta App including one of the features that I use to study which would be the date the last time a lesson was completed.  One other feature that I find frustrating is when you have languages in a different character set such as Chinese or Arabic, the app resets the character set after every lesson.  This was very annoying for me because I try and make my learning process just a bit more difficult by learning the advanced characters.  Generally on the PC side, the character set is somewhat static unless you completely close out of Rosetta Stone.

The application is clearly a first release and has a number of issues.  Performance appears to be there, while occasionally response just does not seem to be there.  However, this also can be experienced with a weak internet connection on the PC variant of Rosetta Stone.  One of the clear bugs happened to be how some of the courses would have completion of over 100% for the score.  Clearly this is a bug that will probably be fixed in an update.  I don’t feel the that any of the bugs are detrimental to the learning process.  However I did have the application crash during a lesson.   I was able to pick up right where I left off when the application failed though and within a few seconds.  While working on the application I spent two hours studying Japanese while working through three core lessons.

Overall, I would recommend this application to any iPad owner as well as I would say that Rosetta Stone is definitely a great opportunity to learn another language and worth the expense, especially compared to taking college level courses.  I think that the only way to learn a language faster would be to move to a country where the language to be learned is native to the area.  My hopes are that Rosetta Stone will allow the application to download lessons similarly as downloading movies from iTunes because I would really like to be able to use this in areas where 3G just is not available.

UPDATE: June 7th, 2011.  After further investigation I have discovered that portions of the course where are missing from the iPad version.  Ths would include any lesson that would require typing such as the grammar, and the writing portions of the application.   Hopefully Rosetta Stone will realize that the iPad is also capable of text input with the onscreen keyboard at some point in time.

Samsung Intercept Review


I recently fought with AT&T as a carrier and after reaching the end of my 2 year contract, I finally decided to change cellular providers to Sprint. While AT&T has a great reputation elsewhere, in my location, they have failed to provide 3G coverage and even have had outages as of late due to an influx of population related to the annual arrival of college students.

Coincidentally at the same time my contract was just about up, my Samsung Eternity suffered from a flaw in the screen that wouldn’t allow for me to dial from the right side of the screen. When having to dial a number composed of mostly sixes, I decided that my phone could no longer be of use and so I went in search of another phone.

I have chose to look to the Samsung Intercept as the answer to my prayers. The phone has a 3.2” touch screen with a full qwerty keyboard that is easily usable by even my larger sized hands. The Phone features the Android 2.1 Operating System with Google connectivity. Many things about the Android OS makes the phone great. After logging into my gmail account and porting over my contacts, my contacts needed some serious sorting, but everything was there and linking contacts seemed relatively easy.

The phone seemed to be sluggish at times. The processor is noticeably slower than the Epic and other more expensive phones. The phone even seems a bit more sluggish than the older Samsung Moment. Over all the feel of the phone is rather cheap compared to similar priced phones. Part of this could be because of the licensing of Google’s android. One thing that both the Epic and the Intercept seem to have issues with is home row of soft keys. I have seen an Epic which already has these keys not functioning the majority of the time. Although having access to TV as well as several apps from the Android market made the phone feel much more usable, the thoughts that the Android was a mobile internet device first and a phone second was quite frustrating. A few other items that nagged at me was the inability to change to notification settings to include custom ring tones. I could easily assign a custom ring tone to a contact, but when having 300 contacts, setting these up was a bit too much of a task than what I was willing to take on.

One additional feature that I had with my Samsung Eternity that I was hoping to get away from on my Samsung Intercept was pocket-dialing. I would lock the phone and simply by sliding the phone into my pocket, it would unlock and start surfing the web or some other task to which I was unaware of.  Apparently there is a copy of some Armymen game that I have yet to download because of this.

On a much more positive note, the integration of apps where one could easily upload and send off a picture taken by the phone is very much welcome. The Android OS makes most of this possible.  The older propriety OS on the Samsung Eternity didn’t seem to have as much integration.

While the phone has many advantages that make it a great device for connecting to the web and creating a great online experience, putting the phone functionality as a secondary feature makes the Samsung Intercept more of that phone that you want if you don’t care about talking on the phone. But for that web-centric integration device, the Intercept still does pretty well. But on a personal note, I would recommend saving your money for a HTC Evo or a Samsung Epic if you want your Android phone.  My personal bad review of the Intercept is not so much because of the weakness of the phone, but the weakness of the phone compared to the predecessor.  The Samsung Intercept screen is not as clean or crisp as the Samsung Moment.  The construction of the phone feels poorer compared to the Moment.  In fact, the inferiority of this phone almost makes me think that Samsung pushed the phone to keep an option open for the mid-range phone while really driving people to consider the Galaxy S phones.    So while this phone is in and of itself not a terrible phone, the fact that the device is a step down in quality yet in the same tier as the Moment does not please me and that is why I definitely feel that Samsung has lost my business at this time.

One late development that I have had with the phone is that the screen has a flaw and does not respond to touch in certain sections.  This is a second of Samsung’s devices which has me concerned about their quality at this time.  I definitely feel burnt by Samsung in this matter, but fortunately my carrier Sprint was ready and willing to fix the problem and replace the phone without any restocking fee.  So I will be doing a review of the HTC Evo 4 soon.

Asus 1008HA clamshell netbook review

The Asus 1008HA Eee PC netbook is one of the sleekest netbooks on the market.  I first previewed the Asus 1008HA “clamshell” in June, and I called it an inexpensive miniature MacBook Air.  The 1008HA comes with your slightly enhanced Intel Atom N280 processor, Intel GMA950 chipset, 1 GB RAM, 160 GB 2.5″ hard drive, Bluetooth, 802.11n and 10/100 Ethernet, SDHC flash slot, 10.1″ LCD screen, and Windows XP.  Street price for the Asus 1008HA is in the range slightly north of $400.

For this particular review, I’m not going to get into the performance aspect of this netbook in terms of video playback capability since it’s identical to the Asus 1000HE.  I explain in detail how well a netbook with this type of CPU and chipset configuration works in this Asus 1000HE review.

The good

The size, shape, and weight of the clamshell netbook was simply amazing.  It’s something you can just toss into a backpack or purse and it doesn’t even feel like you’re hauling a laptop around.  There are no breaks in the contour and even the Ethernet port uses a collapsible opening to follow the flow of the clamshell.  Even the power port is tiny so that it doesn’t ruin the contour.  For a netbook this light with a small and light battery, I was shocked that it was still possible to achieve nearly 6 hours of web surfing over Wi-Fi.  It’s one thing to achieve 6 hours with a bulging heavy battery, getting it in such a light weight form factor is a great engineering achievement.  The edge to edge keyboard is almost full size and they actually give you a full size right shift key (though I’ve long trained myself to only use the left shift).  The slight keyboard flexing problem I noted in my Asus 1000HE review doesn’t affect the 1008HA keyboard and it is fairly easy to type on.

The compromises

The beautiful clamshell design does pose some interesting compromises.  For one thing, there’s no immediate VGA port on the netbook because it’s too tall to fit into the side. What you do get is a dongle that connects to a miniature port hidden behind a contour cover on the side that’s tucked away underneath the 1008HA.  It’s quite a clever design that makes it so that you won’t lose or forget the VGA dongle like you would on a MacBook Air, but it does take some delicate work hooking up the dongle and VGA cables.  This is why I can’t wait for the day that we can drop the DB-15 analog VGA port altogether for a simple small and consolidate audio/video HDMI port, and that trend seems to be happening already with some of the newest netbooks.

The other challenge of the clamshell is that just plugging in a headphone requires you to flip open the side panel and leave it open while you’re plugged in.  The power plug is so tiny that I’m sometimes afraid that I might bend or break the plug although it seems to be fairly sturdy so long as you handle it with finesse.

The bad

Every product has bad points, and the Asus 1008HA is no exception.  But what kills me is that every netbook and even some notebook makers are doing the same thing.  For one thing, the glossy screen just makes it hard to see in a brightly lit room or one with many windows.  I know this is the trend these days, but the Asus 1000HE had an absolutely gorgeous screen with almost no glare.  Why the industry is hell bent on putting in a “feature” that might look nice and shiny when the netbook is turned off is beyond me.  I guess until consumers stop buying netbooks and notebooks with glossy screens altogether, our eyes will continue to be assaulted.  So for this reason alone, I would declare what I would otherwise consider a great product a bad buy.  I’m almost loathed to give any positive review of this netbook because I hate glossy screens that much.  It is possible to put a coating on the screen or an anti-glare sheet, but it’s still not as good as a screen that didn’t have the glossy surface to begin with.

The other show stopper for me is the single bar mouse button.  Reviewers and consumers alike almost universally hate this “feature”.  It’s almost as if some idiot product manager decided that they wanted to emulate the look of a single-button MacBook, but the fact that you can’t actually push down the middle of the button makes these trackpad buttons unusable.  There’s nothing more frustrating than pushing down the middle of the button only to find out that it’s not going anywhere.  The actual area you can push is only along the left and right edges of the bar.  The Asus 1000HE had it perfect and I don’t know why Asus felt it was necessary to ruin a good thing.

I don’t care much for the glossy body but that isn’t a show stopper for me.  But between the crappy mouse button and the blindingly glossy screen, it stopped me from buying a 1008HA.  So if you don’t like glossy screens and single bar seesaw buttons on the trackpad, this netbook is not for you.  Now I understand that Asus isn’t the only guilty party here and most other notebook makers are following some of these same nasty design principles.  All I’m saying is that I’m fed up with these bad design choices and you should be too.

The great battery life

The Asus 1008HA uses a non-modular lithium polymer battery that is molded to fit into the chassis to exploit every bit of space.  Most laptops use lithium ion batteries that are modular and quickly detachable, but lithium ion can’t be shaped as easily and they have to be cylindrically shaped which makes them bulkier.  More importantly, lithium ion has a much shorter life span and you can expect to lose around 7% of your battery capacity every year.  Lithium polymers cost more and they lack modularity, but they are more compact because they can take any shape.  Lithium polymer batteries also last twice as long as lithium ion which is probably good enough for the useful lifespan of the netbook.

The power consumption of the Asus 1008HA was surprisingly low.  I was able to achieve 5.82 hours while refreshing two websites every minute using a Wi-Fi connection and having the LCD set to 40% brightness.  With a 31 watt*hour battery divided by 5.82 hours, that translates to an average power draw of just 5.33 watts which is nothing short of amazing.  By comparison, this HP DV2 netbook based on an AMD Neo platform consumes 20.1 watts under a similar workload and similar LCD brightness which forces it to sacrafice significant battery life even while carrying a larger heavier battery.

Note: This 5.82 hour result comes in slightly short of Asus’ 6 hour advertising claim which shows that Asus is very honest with their battery life claims.  With the Wi-Fi off and LCD set to minimum brightness, I could achieve 8 hours of document editing or reading time which is a valid use case for business travelers on airplanes.  However, I think the more common usage scenario is Wi-Fi enabled web surfing and I think Asus’ claim of 6 hours not only meets legal requirements, but it matches user expectations.

For a netbook of this class with a standard Intel Atom N280 and GMA950 graphics chipset, it almost seems that Asus was able to drop the total power consumption by 25% when compared to other netbooks with the same CPU and chipset.  The Asus 1000HE which uses an identical CPU and chipset can drop down to around 5.5 watts while idling with the screen at minimum brightness.  The 1008HA somehow manages to drop power consumption down to 3.9 watts.  Even during standard definition DivX/XVID video playback with the LCD set to 40% brightness, I was able to achieve slightly over 4.5 hours which means the unit was drawing 6.9 watts of power on average.  I didn’t think that was possible to go that low until we got to the next generation Intel PineTrail-M platform.

Summary

  • Very good looking and desirable form factor with the exception of the bad glossy display and bad single bar mouse button.
  • Keyboard is very nice, possibly nicer than the Asus 1000HE because there is less keyboard flex.
  • Battery life was outstanding considering the small lightweight battery you’re carrying.  The Asus 1008HA is probably the smallest netbook you can find that gets close to 6 hours of honest to goodness usable battery life.
  • It performs like any other netbook with this type of hardware, and 720P video playback works fine so long as you’re using efficiently coded software.

Canon 500D (T1i) erratic exposure problem

This video is shot with the Canon 500D (AKA Rebel T1i).  While the footage looks great (considering the fact that I didn’t really have much light in the room, Canon really needs to give us manual aperture and exposure control for video mode on this camera because of the erratic exposure behavior in video recording mode.  When I zoom in or out, you can see a quick change in brightness and hear some clicking noises when the aperture mechanism becomes erratic.   Canon added manual controls for video mode on their higher end 5D Mark II in a firmware upgrade, so all the 500D owners need to unite and demand the same firmware upgrade for the 500D (Note that full manual control is already supported in still photo mode).

Regarding the movie star in this video, this cute little orange tabby was feral 2 weeks ago when he came to my house looking for mommy, and now he’s nearly doubled his weight and became tame (and spoiled).

Note that despite the fact that I set the embedded video to so called “HD” 720P mode (which is actually only ~2 Mbps meaning it’s lower than DVD quality for everything other than completely still footage), Google changed it so that you have to manually toggle the “HD” button to see the higher quality. I’m sure the bandwidth costs are killing Google so they’re hoping that most people won’t opt in on the higher quality.

Update 7/26/2009 – This guy hacked a Sigma lens to do manual aperture.
Update 7/27/2009 – This problem appears only when I’m using the Tokina 28-70 2.8 lens, which happens to be my favorite lens as far as optics and zoom characteristics are concerned.  It doesn’t appear on the 18-55 USM/IS 3.5-5.6 Canon lens that came with the Canon 500D camera, nor does it happen with an older Sigma 70-300 macro-capable lens.  Also noteworthy is I can pretty much shoot ants with the 300 mm Sigma.  And because the resolution demands of even 720P and 1080P video isn’t that high compared to still photography, I can pretty much use any lens with great results.

First quick impressions on the Asus Eee PC 1008HA clamshell

Just got my hands on an Asus Eee PC 1008HA clamshell yesterday afternoon.  So far, this thing is very much impressing me with its form factor.  The 1008HA looks like a miniature MacBook Air at 1.1 kilogram (2.4 pounds) and no more than 1 inch thick.  There are no breaks in the contour of the chassis and the unit looks very nice.  I put the unit in my wife’s purse and it barely feels like there’s a netbook inside.  The ladies will definitely care for the pink, red, blue, or white 1008HA.

Quick estimate on battery life looks like it will last 5-6 hours with wireless on, maybe 7+ hours with wireless off for reading/editing text, and just over 4 hours in video playback.  Of course, I need to put it through an actual drain test to be sure and that will be part of the full product review.

Update June 7, 2009 – Finished battery drain test last night on DivX 4 704×396 video playback.  With the LCD at 40% brightness and wireless turned off (using the convenient wireless toggle button), it achieved 4 hours and 22 minute playback time which is astonishing for a netbook weighing so little.

Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook review

Asus 1000HE netbook

I’ve previously called the Asus 1000HE netbook one of the best values in the netbook market in terms of bang per buck but I had to try it out myself to see if it actually lives up to my expectations.  I’ve now had the opportunity to live with the Asus 1000HE for about a month and I’ve performed a good deal of testing on it to see how it performs in common tasks that one would expect a netbook to perform.

The Intel Atom N280 CPU

The Asus 1000HE is one of the first netbooks on the market that use the slightly faster N280 1.66 GHz Atom processor with a faster Front Side Bus (FSB) whereas most netbooks use the N270 1.6 GHz Atom.  The 1000HE uses two additional unofficial clock speeds of 1.25 GHz in low voltage mode and an overclocked setting of 1.75 GHz.  It’s actually quite common for netbook makers to offer a “turbo” mode for their products and MSI even pushes some of their N270 netbooks to 1.9 GHz and some users even push their Atom processors to 2 GHz.  At the stock speed of 1.66 GHz, the Intel Atom N280 has a super low Thermal Design Power (TDP) of 2 watts compared to the 2.5 watt TDP of the N270 processor.

The Intel Atom’s closest competitor is the Via Nano 1.3 GHz processor which has a TDP of 8 watts.  The Nano 1.3 doesn’t perform as well as the Atom 1.6 or 1.66 processor.  There have been many mainstream websites that have deceptively compared the Via Nano 1.8 GHz 25 watt TDP desktop processor to an Atom 1.6 and incorrectly declared the Nano the superior netbook product.  But when we compare actual netbook parts and usable clock frequencies, it becomes apparent why netbook manufacturers have overwhelmingly selected the Atom.  The Atom as a netbook processor simply has better performance and battery life than any other netbook processor.

The Intel 945GSE GMA950 graphics chipset

One of the disappointments in the Asus 1000HE is the continued use of the Intel 945GSE GMA950 graphics chipset when the newer Intel GN40 chipset is available.  Unfortunately, we’re going to have to get use to GMA950 because even the next generation of Atom processors will have the 945GSE processor embedded on to the processor package itself as a separate die.  But some good can come out of this as software makers are being forced to optimize their software again which results in better performance for everyone whether they use a netbook or high-end desktop computer.  However, I see the Asus 1000HE as more of a premium netbook and I wouldn’t mind paying an extra $20 to $30 for a GN40 chipset which decodes 720P or 1080P high definition video.

Asus is coming out with the 1004DN netbook with a GN40 graphics chipset with a smaller 1.8″ hard drive and battery to make room for the optical drive but I’d rather have the bigger/faster 2.5″ hard drive and bigger battery.  Optical drives are obsolete as far as I’m concerned and you can always hook up a USB optical drive and rip the movies you want on to the hard drive or just put a bunch of movies on a cheap SDHC flash card.

Glare free vivid contrast display

The first thing I noticed about the 1000HE was the gorgeous 10″ 1024 by 600 display.  The display is probably one of the best netbook displays I’ve ever seen and it’s one of the few on the market that doesn’t use a glossy coating.  That means you get to look at the actual content on the screen and not the bright reflection of the lights or windows.  This particular matt finish display was surprisingly vivid in contrast and it has one of the deepest blacks I’ve ever seen which makes all the brighter colors pop out.  The 1000HE LED backlighting is also super bright.

Tip 1: There are third party tools like eeectl can boost the LED brightness high enough to make the display very readable in broad daylight.  You wouldn’t want to use that tool indoor because it makes the screen too bright and it drains the battery much faster.  Eeectl can also control the fan speed, CPU clock speed and voltage settings though you should be very careful with the tool because you can lock up your system requiring a hard reboot and possibly even damage it.

Unfortunately, most netbooks (and laptops) on the market have unfortunately switched to glossy displays because it’s one of those cheap aesthetic effects that consumers seem to be swayed by.  It’s refreshing to see Asus bucking the stupid glossy LCD trend.  The only bad thing to say about the display is that it doesn’t have a resolution of 1280 by 800 which is typically only available on 12.1″ LCDs and rarely smaller screens with the exception of the very expensive Sony Vaio P.  I could see a lot of demand for a higher priced premium netbook with higher display resolution and GN40 graphics chipset.

Video playback performance

As far as video playback and CPU performance is concerned, the Asus 1000HE is essentially not much different than any other 945 plus Atom N270 1.6 GHz netbook on the market.  The N280 1.66 GHz processor makes it slightly faster than the N270 as expected because of additional 3.75% clock speed increase.  I’ve managed to get good 720P video playback performance even in 1.25 GHz power save mode if the application is optimized.  Adobe Flash and Apple QuickTime are some of the least optimized video playback software on the market and they fail badly at 720P playback.  Windows Media Player, VLC, and Media Player Classic using the K-Lite Mega Codec pack works well with 720P playback.  Luckily, I’ve found a great way to convert Apple QuickTime MOV files to AVI files which allow for very smooth playback using VLC using FFmpeg and I’ll follow up with a tutorial on that.

For browser embedded video content, Windows Media Player works the best though it only works on the Windows platform.  For cross platform compatibility, Silverlight stutters slightly with 1280×720 (720P) content but runs 854×480 (480P wide screen) smoothly and barely runs 1024×576 (576P widescreen) content in 1.75 GHz turbo mode.  Adobe Flash has no chance with 720P and barely handles 480P widescreen content on Hulu.com.  You can compare all three embedded players here.  The popularity of netbooks will hopefully get Microsoft and Adobe to optimize their video playback though Microsoft clearly has a substantial head start.

The chassis and overall design

The Asus 1000HE chassis has a glossy finish which looks great until you actually touch the darn thing.  Once you touch it, it looks like you’ve been slobbering all over it because the material is a huge finger print and oil magnet.  The 1000HE also has two USB ports on the right hand side which is really useful for hooking up an external USB-powered optical drive.  You need two USB ports to provide enough electrical power to drive an optical drive and the last thing you want to have to do is use a USB extension cable to reach the other side of the netbook.

Tip 2: There’s a single access panel to gain access to the 2.5″ hard drive and memory slot.  If you want to boost the performance of the Asus 1000HE netbook, just put in one of the fastest and lowest power 2.5″ 320 GB hard drives on the market for around $75.  I took my Vista storage score from 5.3 to 5.9, doubled my capacity, improve battery life, and boosted transfer times by 50% with this relatively inexpensive investment and it’s the best improvement you can make on any laptop or netbook on the market.  For another $20, you can replace the SODIMM and double the RAM which is also very beneficial especially if you’re going to upgrade to Windows 7.  1 GB will worked fine when I tested Windows 7 beta but more RAM always results in better performance.  Storage and memory performance is as important as CPU and graphics and often overlooked.

The LCD lid unfortunately doesn’t quite open up 180 degrees or more which is annoying to me since I like to prop my fully opened Lenovo ThinkPad X200 on my thighs on an airplane and read it like a book.  The display becomes twice as large because it’s half the distance to my eyes and I can comfortably view two pages side by side.  I can still do this to a certain extent with the Asus 1000HE but it’s not comfortable because the display isn’t quite facing me.  Overall, the Asus 1000HE is a slightly larger and heavier netbook because it uses a 10″ display and a huge capacity 6-cell battery but it’s a good tradeoff because the product is much more usable.

Bluetooth and 802.11n wireless

The wireless capabilities of the Asus 1000HE are impressive.  It comes with both 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth out of the box when many laptops charge an extra $50 for these two features.  Having 802.11n means you get to transfer files more quickly though you’ll probably want to opt for a wired interface or just using the SDHC slot to transfer larger files.  Bluetooth is an absolute necessity for a wireless mouse and cell phone tethering for wireless Internet access.

The keyboard

The Asus 1000HE keyboard uses a Chiclet design which is common on Apple Macbooks.  Overall, I found touch typing on the 1000HE reliable and fast so long as I didn’t accidently palm the track pad (which is why I usually prefer track points).  There were some minor keyboard flex issues in the upper left hand corner of the keyboard with the F1, F2, F3, ~, 1, 2, and 3 keys but I don’t use those keys that often and it’s more of a minor annoyance than a problem.  This annoyance might be attributed to the fact that this is a pre-production unit.  I noticed there were even a few screws missing inside that were supposed to hold the hard drive in place, so I expect the production units to be better.

Best netbook track pad on the market

Asus 1000HE trackpad

Although I personally prefer a track point over a track pad, the Asus 1000HE probably has one of the best netbook track pads on the market.  It’s big enough and the buttons are correctly placed so you can operate it like a normal track pad on a full size laptop.  Most netbooks track pads are frustrating to me because they put the buttons on the sides of the track pad or use a silly single wide button on the bottom that seesaws left and right.  Because of the way the 1000HE mouse buttons goes over the bottom edge, your thumbs can actually press forward and down which is more ergonomically correct for a track pad of this size.  It’s also a multi-touch track pad that supports zooming, two finger scrolling, and maybe some other gestures.  Scrolling worked fairly well but zooming is a bit difficult to control.  Most desktop operating systems and applications (including those from Apple) don’t really have good smooth scrolling/zooming interfaces like the iPhone so I place the blame on the software rather than the hardware.  Modern computing hardware (including netbooks) is fast enough to play video on a 3D surface so there’s really no excuse they can’t get the scrolling and zooming on a simple webpage smooth and responsive.

Super long battery life

Battery life is one of the most important metrics on any portable device and this is where the Asus 1000HE shines.  I measured the peak battery life of the Asus 1000HE to just over 11 hours if everything is set to the absolute lowest power setting.  No, that’s not a typo when I wrote over 11 hours.  That means the 1000HE draws less than 5.3 watts in this lowest power operating mode.  That is with 802.11n, Bluetooth, and camera is turned off and the screen is set to the lowest possible brightness and nothing is taxing the CPU, GPU, or storage subsystem at all.  Realistically, this is not a common usage scenario for most people but I have on occasion used my laptop in this manner when I’m reading or editing documents on a darkened airplane.

The other common usage scenario is 480P H.263 video playback which is the codec commonly found in DivX video files.  H.264 would likely result in slightly higher CPU utilization and lower battery life but I used H.263 for the video playback battery drain test.  I used VLC because it was the least CPU hungry playback software.  On the hardware, I shut off 802.11n, Bluetooth, and the camera and set the display to 40% brightness and clocked the processor down to 1.25 GHz low voltage mode.  I ran a full power drain in this configuration and managed to get an astounding 6.8 hours which is simply crazy.  That means I’m drawing a mere 8.53 watts during video playback.

For most other tasks, I can usually get an honest 6 to 9 hours depending on what clock speed I’m running at, how CPU and graphics intensive my applications are, and whether wireless is running or not.  Most netbooks and laptops won’t even touch this kind of battery life and you can reliably go around all day without carrying the AC adapter which makes up for the slightly bulky weight of 1000HE at 3.2 lbs.  You just throw the 1000HE in your bag and never worry about untangling or tripping over the AC adapter’s wiring.  Simply wake the machine when you need it and put it to sleep when you don’t.  Just be aware that there is about a 25% power drain per 24 hour period in suspend mode because power is needed to keep the memory state but that isn’t a problem if you’re charging the laptop once a day.

Other features of Asus 1000HE

The webcam is a decent 1.3 megapixel camera rather than the usual 0.3 megapixel cameras you see on many netbooks.  I’ve posted some samples on YouTube here and here and the performance for a built in webcam is relatively good.  You’re not going to be running Skype in HQ video mode anytime soon because the processor isn’t fast enough to encode/decode 480P H.264 in real time nor is the camera capable of producing a low noise image needed for Skype HQ mode, but standard Skype video conferencing runs fine.  Then again, no built in webcam on any laptop regardless of price will handle Skype in HQ mode and you would need something like the $75 Logitech Quickcam Pro.

Instant OS restore is another good feature.  Simply hit the F9 at boot time and it will load Norton Ghost and restore the system image to factory settings.  The 1000HE comes with two hard drive partitions so if you store all your data in the second partition, you won’t have to worry about losing any data when you invoke the factory restore and recreate the C drive.

Another good feature is the “boot booster” feature in the BIOS.  Once you turn it on, the BIOS post time drops from 13 seconds down to 2 seconds so you can start loading the OS sooner and cut down the overall boot times.  After system post, the system takes another 27 seconds to get to a fully operational Windows XP desktop.  With boot booster on, it’s possible to finish a complete boot in just under 30 seconds though I generally use suspend mode to start up the system in about 4 seconds.

Conclusion

For a typical street price of $375, the Asus 1000HE netbook simply can’t be beat in terms of value.  It is one of the best netbooks on the market at any price.  The netbook is a bit bulky compared to other 8.9″ netbooks with 3-cell batteries but you don’t need to carry your charger with you and the bigger size screen and track pad is a welcome change in netbook design.  You can’t put it in a large coat pocket like the Sony Vaio P but the Vaio costs $900+ and has horrible battery life and a tiny display.  If you’re looking for a reasonably priced 10″ netbook with a great looking non-glare display and all-day battery life, the 1000HE is for you.

Spiceworks CEO Scott Abel talks about version 3.5

This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Scott Abel, CEO and co-founder of Spiceworks. We caught up on what’s new in their latest release (version 3.5) of their network management software, and how the company is doing in general.

The last time I did a “hands on” with Spiceworks, I really liked the software. I also really like the company’s approach to things. They take feature requests from users and are very focused on what the users really want and need. They’ve managed to stay very focused on their market (small companies with about 250 or fewer network devices). They are successfully using Agile development techniques in a way that is working well. And the results show: they have a user base of over 600,000 active users (not 600,000 initiated software downloads). And this is purely through word-of-mouth marketing.

What I found very interesting in today’s conversation, is what Spiceworks’ goals and approach was to this release. They collected anonymous usage information of the application, and spent a lot of time talking with users. For the new version, they looked at the existing features that were underutilized, and tried to find ways to make them more useful. As Scott put it, “features that don’t get used are resources that are pissed away.” He’s right. One of the most frustrating things to a developer, is to get a feature request for something that the product already does. It means that we spent time and energy writing code that is going unused.

Scott told me that whenever they get a chance, they spend time on site with users seeing how they actually use the software. At one customer site, they saw a customer who did not realize that some settings could be changed, because the number was put on a label that needed to be double-clicked to go into editing mode instead of a text box. The settings pages now use text boxes. They have also added a few contextual tips throughout the application to help users see what they might be otherwise missing.

Aside from interface improvements, they have added a real time network traffic analyzer, to help users find out where the performance bottlenecks are. They have also changed the dashboard so that reports can be placed on it as widgets. There is also a new “timeline” feature to allow system administrators to see the history of changes on their networks, which has quickly become a popular feature.

Most importantly, they have opened up portions of their API to allow customers to write their own widgets and dashboards using JavaScript. Additionally, users can post their items to the Spiceworks community site. This means that users can also make their own mashups if they are so inclined. The thinking behind this move is simple. Spiceworks has always tried to keep their feature set contained to what is absolutely needed. At the same time, many users have particular needs. By opening up the APIs and providing a forum for users to share their code, Spiceworks lets the application do what users need it to do, without having to clog the core application up with features.

While Spiceworks has worked hard to keep their focus on small (250 or less devices on the network, 100 or so employees) companies, the application is scaling well, and they have loosened the restrictions on the number of devices it can manage. As a result, they are seeing ovet 3% of their users have more than 250 devices on the network, getting their foot into the enterprise computing door. Along those lines, they are adding Nagios integration, so that shops with existing Nagios deployments can monitor their devices from within Spiceworks.

J.Ja

Note: I have written content for Spicework’s community sites under contract in the past.

Review of The Evoluent Vertical Mouse

I have been battling arm/wrist/hand injuries for a while. Last summer, when I really got into weightlifting, I had some tendonitis. After that healed, I had some real wrist issues in November, aggravated by heavy lifting. I know that the computer is at the root of these problems, and the weights just bring them to the surface. At the recommendation of a friend, I ordered one of the Evoluent vertical mice. I have been using it all day, and so far, I love it! If you are looking to reduce pain or fatigue in your mousing arm, definitely give this a try.

The basic idea, is that your arm’s natural position is flat at your sides. Put into a mousing position, your hand would be in a “handshake” position. Rotating your arm 90 degrees to lie flat on the desk puts stress on the joints, tendons, and ligaments. A “vertical mouse” is designed to allow your arm to remain in the “handshake” position.

My biggest fear with the Evoluent, is that I would lose the high quality and sensitivity of the Logitech MX 518 that I had been using. I was plesantly surprised on this score. The Evoluent has a button on the bottom allowing me to adjust it from 800 DPI to 2600 DPI, which is a broader range than the MX 518. As a bonus, it retains its setting even after losing power, which means that I do not need to reset it after switching between PCs on my KVM. This was a major anoyance on the MX 518; I trained myself to automatically bump up the DPI after switching PCs. Unfortunately, unlike the MX 518, adjusting DPI involves turning the mouse over (and using trial-and-error to find the DPI setting best suited for the task at hand), which is less convenient that pushing buttons near the scroll wheel like on the MX 518.

Another fear I had, was dragging my little finger all over the mouse pad. The mouse is well designed, and my finger does not rub at all. Also, with the high DPI setting, I barely need to move my hand, which helps. The Evoluent has a nice, solid feel to it, but it is not heavy, either. The material feels great in my hand, and retains heat well, so it doesn’t feel like grabbing a cold stone like some mice do.

Now, for the things that I don’t like. I do not like the sensitivity of the buttons. Well, I should say, I love how senstive they are, but because of the design, when I grab the mouse, I tend to accidentally click a button. Also, I tend to do a click when I started a movement to the left. I know that this will take some time to get used to, and I am not too worried about it. Also, if it is important to you (and it is not to me), the mouse is aesthetically unpleasing. Finally, I am not a big fan of the third mouse button in general, especially when it is used as a “back” button, as it the case here… that causes me pain when it is accidentally clicked!

Overall, I know that the things I do not like about the Evoluent are mostly “learning curve” items that won’t bother me in a week. Again, if you have problems with yours hands, wrists, carpal tunnel, etc., give this one a try. For me, taking care of my arm is critical, so I am glad that I got this mouse. I snagged it for roughly $35 after shipping, as a Newegg open box, but they retail for around $50.

J.Ja

Game Review: Peggles

This week, I came across another one of those little gems of a video game. The current find is the “Peggles” games from Pop Cap. I had played a game from them before (“Bookworm” on my cell phone) and it packed a great bang for my buck. When Steam offered me a free play of “Peggles Extreme”, I was happy to give it a try. And I am glad I did! From here on out, when I say “Peggles”, take that to mean any of the games in the series.

Peggles is a simple game, and reminds me a bit of an old-school brick-bouncer. Instead of being played from the bottom, Peggles is played from the top. You aim a cannon and fire a ball, which bounces between pegs and bricks. Once the ball is fired, you have no control over the action. The turn is ended when the ball goes down the bottom of the screen. And peg or brick that the ball hits lights up. In general, lit objects do not clear away until the end of the turn, although one special power (the “Fireball”) immediately clears objects, and if the ball is stuck, lit objects clear out. You start with 10 balls to fire, and the object of the standard boards is clear 25 orange pegs/bricks. Each turn will make a random blue (normal) object be a purple bonus object, and each board contains two randomly placed green objects which activate your character’s special power. You can earn more balls by scoring highly in a turn. Additionally, there is a “free ball bucket” moving across the bottom of the screen; if your ball lands in it instead of falling off of the bottom of the screen, you get a free ball. Also, there is one “special power” which can potentially give you a free ball. When you clear the board, after hitting the final orange object, you enter “Extreme Fever” mode which grants “Fever Points” based on where the ball finally lands, and how many balls you have remaining.

While the game itself is very easy to understand (almost like an upside-down pinball, with no flippers, unless you activate one particular special power, which grants flippers), the game is insanely addictive. The typical board takes only a few minutes to play through. “Peggles Deluxe” contains 55 boards, and after you beat them, it has 55 “Challenges” which are the normal boards with extreme rules (such as having to clear 55 orange items instead of the normal 25).

What I especially appreciate about the game, is that it is just brainless enough to be a game I can play right before bed. In addition, it only needs the mouse to be played, so if I Jarrett is napping on me or sitting in my lap, that is not a problem (offhand, he thought that watching the game was fascinating, lots of bright lights, colors, sounds, and motion). Additionally, it is a game that I would not mind any child seeing; no violence, bad words, or anything even moderately offensive (except in the “Peggles Extreme” freebie version, which has images taken from various Valve games, which show some violence and blood). I can pick up and re-join a game in an instant, and not have to wonder where I was or what I was about to do. In other words, if you want a game that fits a limited time schedule for gaming, “Peggles” is perfect.

The price is right; I bought “Peggles Deluxe” and “Peggles Nights” for under $14 total from Steam. I suggest you give it a try too.

J.Ja

The best video game I’ve played in years

A few nights ago, I read a review of a new game, “The World of Goo”. The description sounded interesting, kind of “Lemmings” meets “Pipe Dream”. Tonight I tried the demo. From my perspective, this is the best video game that I have played in years. It fits my needs perfectly:

  • Level based playÉ some levels only take a few minutes to complete
  • Quiet Ð this is important when Jarrett (my son, whose room is adjacent to my office) is asleep and I have time to play games
  • Intellectual, but not too in depth Ð again, I play games LATE at night, I want to be challenged, but not forced to keep a notebook
  • Stupid simple Ð I don’t even think the game has a tutorial
  • Little to no need for reaction time Ð “twitch” games don’t hold my interest too often
  • Fresh, innovative concept Ð this game has it
  • Gameplay is not based upon direct competition against others, but competition against yourself
I cannot recommend this game enough. For $19.95 on Steam, it is a steal, too. I have not played Portal, so I can’t compare it, but I will say that it holds up well to Lemmings in terms of the concept. It’s a lot like Phun (a physics simulator), but with a goal and a game, not just “play in the sandbox”.

If you are someone like me, who would like to play a nice video game that doesn’t make a lot of noise, doesn’t have high time requirements, and can be played on a “pick up and go” basis, this is the perfect game. Congrats to 2DBoy for putting together such a superb game.

J.Ja