söndag 23 juni 2013

Editorial: Keyboards

I am not an IT professional, but I have a bit of experience with computers, primarily Microsoft Windows and Office. Therefore, I tend to be the go-to guy at the office for the simple, everyday PC troubleshooting stuff.

If I were to prepare an FAQ containing, say, the top 10 most common problems that average Windows and Office users encounter, I guarantee you that accidental keyboard layout switching would be #1.

Sorting and pronunciation rules aside, every letter that is used in the English language is also used in Swedish. Then we tack on three umlaut characters (Å, Ä and Ö) at the end of the alphabet. Punctuation works likewise. All commonly-used programs automatically detect which language you're writing in, and adjust the inline spell checker accordingly. Still, Microsoft finds it necessary to activate keyboard layout switching via the Alt-Shift command as a default setting in Windows. What's the point, really? All the Alt-Shift command does is create confusion and frustration, because it is all too easy to hit that key combination by accident when you're typing and switching between open apps. All of a sudden, the "Swedish characters disappear" and my name is inevitably called.

Of course, you can get around this, by uninstalling English and Danish keyboard layouts and then deactivating the Alt-Shift shortcut via the Language toolbar. But it is a workaround that should not have to be performed in the first place.

While we're on the subject of computer keyboards, I find more and more evidence of how manufacturers cut corners nowadays by simplifying and combining. The first thing I noticed when I bought my old HP was that the "Swedish keys" were noticeably different from the rest of the keys, like they came from two different production batches. The characters were adjusted towards the upper left corner of the key, instead of being centered like B, C and H, etc. Of course, this could hardly matter less in actual usage, because I watch the screen as I'm typing and never the keys. It just looked tacky.

That was three years ago. Newer keyboards look even tackier - and cheaper. Most modern Swedish keyboards aren't strictly Swedish anymore, but a weird form of pan-Scandinavian. The Å, Ä and Ö keys, for instance, are crowded with the Norwegian and Danish equivalents (the Danish keyboard layout, for some strange reason, flips Ä and Ö...) and some of the dead keys have all sorts of squiggles on them. It is interesting in a weird sense, because one is led to wonder what sort of deliberate reasoning is involved when formulating the layout. "Okay, the Swedes have the § sign on that key, so let's move it... there!"

I like saying that the difference between good and great is the attention to detail. But it has also been brought home to me that perfect quite often is the enemy of good enough. Intellectually, I realize that there are serious cost savings involved in this keyboard simplification scheme.

In a previous life, I bought widgets such as screws for industrial customers, and there was always complaints about price increases, and lots of questions about what we could do to make the screws cheaper. The counter-argument is always that the real savings are done by the customer himself, but cutting down on the variety of fasteners that are used in production. Fewer variants means higher volumes per variant, which not only simplifies things a lot, but automatically leads to better prices.

I can only imagine that it works in the same way for computer manufacturers. A computer such as my Lenovo is probably not made willy-nilly. Each little component quite likely has a part number. Most probably have several, because an average key starts out as an anonymous black key and only later acquires its identity and purpose in life by having a white A or Q painted or glued onto it. The fewer part numbers they have to keep track of - which incidentally is cascaded as you move further towards the finished product - the more potential for savings. So long as those savings are (mostly) passed on to us end users and not just used to line the pockets of the executives.

Review: Lenovo Essential B590

In the beginning of 2013, everyone at work received new computers: laptops, desktops and thin clients depending on role and rank. All of us in the SAP project group got brand spanking new ThinkPad T430 or X230 laptops. At first, I wasn't too impressed by my T430, but that was just on visual inspection. After getting some stick time with it, I grew to like it, and thus when time came to replace my old HP at home, Lenovo was a strong candidate.

I always promise myself that I will buy my next computer in a store, where I can give it a little test drive, and I always wind up buying the machine sight unseen online. But I did read a couple of online reviews, and spent some time poring over pictures, just so that I wouldn't get any nasty ergonomic surprises when I opened the package.

In my opinion, a laptop computer lives or dies by its keyboard. I can learn to live with most computer quirks and annoyances, but not a bad or unintuitive keyboard. The B590 has every key in the right place - no switching of the Ctrl and Fn keys like on my office computer. It even has the navigation keys in exactly the same place as on my old HP! The keys are noticeably smaller than on the HP, but it only took an hour or so of insistent typing before I got used to them. I like the keyboard a lot, it feels solid and you get nice tactile and auditory feedback.

Since it's a widescreen laptop, there's even space for a numeric keypad to the right of the ordinary keyboard. I don't crunch a lot of numbers at home, but the keypad is a big bonus when I play Civilization and Alpha Centauri (I have a USB keypad lying around for contingencies). The drawback is that the keypad is a lot smaller than the regular keyboard. Additionally, the 0 key is not double-sized the way it would be on a standard computer keyboard, which leads us into my second complaint. The keyboard is just packed with keys. There isn't any spacing between the ordinary keyboard section, the numeric keypad and the arrow keys; everything is smushed together, which makes navigation by feel iffy at best. I will have to reprogram my muscle memory to look for the very clearly marked arrow keys.

Another important part of a laptop computer is the pointer solution. IBM's old laptops had that weird pointer stick in the middle of the keyboard, and I never learned how to use one properly. At least the Lenovo I use at work has a dual arrangement with both a stick and a touchpad, as well as dual sets of buttons. It's crowded, but at least it works. The B590 has only the touchpad, and it is way nicer and smoother than the one on my office computer. The buttons could have been a little less recessed, but it's not a dealbreaker by a long shot. I especially like that you can use smartphone-style two-finger gestures on touchpads nowadays: pinch to zoom, and drag with two fingers to scroll. Neat!

The general layout of the B590 is organized and logical. All the ports and sockets are situated on the sides, and there is nothing on the back. I can see at a glance what's plugged in and what's not, and I don't have to worry about bending or breaking a plug or a socket should I take the computer off the table and put it on my lap or on the couch. It is a good thing that not all USB ports are nestled together, because some of my USB plugs are a tad too big and tend to crowd the neighboring port, with unpredictable results. USB, by the way, is also a major dealbreaker for me when picking a computer. The more, the merrier, especially if I can get the faster USB 3 ports. This computer has four in total, two of which are USB 3, which is a good compromise. Another piece of hardware that I've learned to depend on is the SD card reader - essential when offloading pictures from my Nikon or sound files from my Zoom recorder.

I wish I could say something sensible about the performance, just to round out the review. But it would be pointless, really. Performance is pretty far down my list of priorities when selecting a new computer. Or rather: a machine that meets my I/O demands (SD card reader, DVD burner) also tends to have average or better specs, at least for the sort of stuff I do on a computer. I write, record and edit digital photographs. I don't do video or state-of-the-art computer games. Basically any modern computer will do for my purposes. The ergonomic issues are more important by far. And since the Lenovo Essential B590 nails them, I have to conclude that this was a good purchase. You do get a lot of computer for the money, and again I find that in electronics, last year's model on closeout is indeed the best deal you can find.

söndag 16 juni 2013

Review: HTC Wildfire S

The HTC Wildfire S is a cheap smartphone, and it shows. Normally, I'm the first to argue that you always get what you pay for. In this case, you don't even get that. This phone almost single-handedly disproved the utility of a smartphone as far as I'm concerned.

But let's start with the good bits, because there are actually a few of them. I personally like the size of the Wildfire S. A smallish screen is not necessarily a dealbreaker for me. On the contrary, it allows me to cradle the phone in my left hand and operate just about any app with nothing but my left thumb. The small form factor means that it also slides neatly into the front pocket of my jeans. The non-slip rubberized coating on the back cover is also a big plus.

The drawbacks, however, are more serious, especially since there are more of them.

The memory issue is the Big Bad as far as I see it. The 200 megabytes of RAM are barely enough to run the Android system and five apps. The storage can be expanded via a micro-SD card, but that's basically for music, pictures and video. Very few apps allow themselves to run from the card, so you're basically stuck anyway. Additionally, the phone service provider had a number of pre-installed apps that took up lots of space, didn't add anything of value, but couldn't be uninstalled no matter how hard I tried.

Using the phone reminds me of the bad old days of upgrading to Windows 95 on a computer that could barely run Windows 3.1. The only way to work around the limitations was a time-consuming daily routine of purging temporary files, and really strict discipline about which apps to install. It's not the way to go in the 21st century.

Next, there's the battery issue. In all fairness, I have been spoiled by my MP3 player, digital SLR and Nokia GSM mobile phone. All sport massive-capacity batteries, enabling me to spend over two weeks in the States without ever having to worry about charging. Lack of battery capacity does, however, appear to be a general smartphone problem. It's just that the HTC Wildfire S seems to be in the bottom pile as far as battery performance goes. I can get 48 hours of use from one charging cycle. But that's only if I keep the phone offline during the night and at the office. So basically, the battery lasts for no more than 1 hour in the morning and five hours in the afternoon and evening - for two days, actually meaning a total of 12 hours' endurance. This is dismal, a far cry from anything remotely near acceptable.

Lastly, there's been a number of really frustrating hardware and software errors. One day in February, the phone decided that it would to a complete reset all on its own. Every setting I had done over the last year was completely erased, and I was forced to start anew. The power button got really soggy during the last few months, it took an inordinate amount of torque to get it to display the exit menu (vital for battery life beyond 24 hours), and throughout my year with the Wildfire, it had an annoying tendency to freeze for a few seconds after I activated the phone to go in and actually, you know, do something with it.

When I first got the phone, I had a notion about taking it out for a proper photography session just to put the camera through its paces and see what it could do. Maybe it could replace my little Canon. No way. After I discovered that the battery charge level would virtually drop as I was watching, I decided that it wasn't worth the hassle. And then I never bothered to do anything to check out the MP3 player either. A metronome app would have doubled the utility of the thing, but it sucked battery so quickly that I wound up buying a proper digital metronome instead. So much for smartphone makers wanting us to put all eggs in one basket - my smartphone basically forced me to buy MORE gadgets to make up for its shortcomings!

The bottom line: smartphone technology might not be a complete dead end, but the HTC brand is now basically 100% shot as far as I'm concerned. Luckily there are better phones around that have allowed me to explore the smartphone world.

Review: HP Probook 4540s

After 3+ years of use, it really felt like my HP Probook 4510s was moribund. The DVD burner had long since stopped reading discs, let alone burning them. Out of a total of four USB 2 ports, only two remained that still gave me USB 2 performance. One had stopped working altogether, the fourth limped along at USB 1.1 speeds, which meant that it could handle my little Logitech mouse and nothing else. It was clearly time to invest in a new computer. Maybe I could do so before the old one packed it in altogether, maybe there is such a thing as a smooth transition even in the computer world.

Truth be told, I wasn't entirely pleased with the 4510s. Even on the very first day, it evinced a very annoying BIOS error where the network port could cold-start the computer all on its own. The only way to turn the bloody thing off was to disconnect the RJ45 cable, otherwise shutting down Windows and rebooting the computer was one and the same to the machine. Then, I had a series of run-ins with the touchpad. Anything you happened to touch it with more than one finger, the controlling software would crash in spectacular fashion.

But I reasoned that lightning couldn't conceivably strike twice in the same place, and other than those two annoyances and the natural age-related maladies, I was actually pleased enough with my HP that I decided they deserved a second chance.

Right.

I didn't catch it during the first few nights with the computer because I was too busy getting all the Windows 7 updates and all my software to run. But when I got down to the nitty-gritty and actually started using the computer, I discovered that something was dreadfully wrong with the keyboard. The first annoyance was a D key that required some persuasion before providing me with its letter. Then, when selecting large amounts of text by way of the Shift and PageDown shortcut, I discovered that there were serious connectivity problems beneath the keys. Selecting text was a decidedly haphazard process. There was simply no way of knowing if the next press of the PageDown button would yield a PageDown or the letter L. (By the way, typing when text is selected replaces that text - not always the desired effect when you're selecting large chunks of text for cutting and pasting.) After two days, this become irritating enough that I contacted the dealer, and after a call to the HP support center, they declared the machine dead on arrival.

The dealer offered me a slightly better machine as a replacement, but I declined. Apparently, I had bought the dealer's very last HP machine with Windows 7, and there is just no way I'm going to buy into Windows 8. So I asked for a refund, which I got in due course. But not after abandoning HP to go for a new brand. I'm sorry, but after hardware problems with two straight computers in the same range, I tend to stay away - and recommend others to do the same!

It is a shame, because the HP Probook 4540s is a stylish computer that in my opinion obliterates the old pro-Mac argument that PC:s somehow "lack design". Had the keyboard worked, it would have been a really comfortable one, and it was really well-speced for the price - once again proving that last year's model is the best deal in electronics.