Acer Aspire Switch 10

Acer Aspire Switch 10

One day, I mentioned to someone that I didn’t want to spend money buying a fresh battery for my Lenovo X61T tablet computer. That evening, the battery died completely.

Not long after that, I swung by Best Buy to check out the Surface Pro 3 again. Microsoft has done some nice things there and I would like to show some meaningful support for decisions like the 3:2 screen aspect ratio and strong pressure-sensitive stylus integration.

The cheapest (Core i3) model on display couldn’t keep up with fast pen strokes (such as I use when scribbling notes), and palm rejection failed repeatedly. The Core i5 model seemed to keep up with the pen, but the overall dynamics of the pen (in OneNote) didn’t agree with me, nor did the soft-rubber-on-glass feeling. I’ll keep an open mind on the N-Trig pen, especially if it persists in a Surface Pro 4 or Mini in the medium term.

As much as I’d like to believe the Surface Pro kickstand solves the top-heaviness problem for computers with the primary electronics sitting behind the screen, the kickstand/type cover combo is clearly not going to sit comfortably in my lap. This matters for my use case.

As I was heading out of the store, an Acer Aspire Switch 10 caught my eye. This unit with a 16:10 aspect-ratio display looked very comfortable next to the adjacent Asus with a 16:9 one. Online I discovered that this is a convertible tablet, in the sense that it’s a tablet which docks into a keyboard base, much like the Asus TF101 and successors (and with what superficially seems to be an identical 1280 x 800 10.1-inch IPS screen).

If there isn’t a computer at any price that does everything I want, why not try a really economical one that ticks quite a few of the boxes? On sale at $350 Canadian (plus 13% tax and an eco fee, in the ridiculous way that retailers here are allowed to advertise a price that much smaller than the quantity of money you actually have to hand over to buy a thing), it was worth a try.

Pros:

  • I like the screen. I’d like a higher resolution, but at 10 inches diagonal, 1280 x 800 is OK. Vibrant colours. There was a time when a modest machine would meant a TN panel. Glad that’s no longer true!
  • Fanless system with solid-state storage: no whining, grinding or whooshing, and no delicate moving parts to fail.
  • The touchpad seems pretty responsive and left click by light tap works easily. Two-fingered scrolling is pretty good.
  • Nice to have the magnetic hinges and adjustable-angle keyboard to dock the computer in. I guess Microsoft would have shot their marketing strategy in the foot if they’d made a beautiful clamshell dock for the Surface Pro 3 that brought the whole package above the weight of a MacBook Air? Maybe they’ll be secure enough come SP4 time to release such a thing (put a battery in it!)

Cons:

  • Frequently the keyboard seems to disconnect and it misses a single character when I begin typing. This is probably the closest thing to a dealbreaker on this whole package.
  • This is definitely a lower-powered device. It’s noticeably slow processing JavaScript (TiddlyWiki). Touchscreen response is sometimes slow. Scrolling webpages and, especially, pinching to zoom are laggy. In general performance, my Core 2 Duo Lenovo X61T (running Linux) is definitely snappier.
  • I find the keyboard keys a bit stiff (I’m not used to chiclet keyboards)
  • Battery life is not great. This isn’t a whole-workday-unplugged computer, by a long shot.
  • The sound is a bit quiet on max (software?)
  • Need a fn key to access home and end (argh)
  • Can’t seem to scale the Windows UI on this computer? Controls on desktop apps are a little small for my fingers even with 1280×800 screen
  • Slight play on the hinges
  • I miss my trackpoint, but maybe I can get used to using a trackpad? I find text selection a pain with trackpad or touchscreen.
  • Touchpad has left and right buttons seamlessly integrated. It’s hard to press one while holding a finger in place on the touchpad.
  • No backlit keyboard :(
  • 1 GB of RAM (will this matter, given the slow CPU? I won’t be asking it to run Blender, compile or encode anything or do major image processing).
  • Not incredibly easy to grip to open up for quick setup.
  • The port selection is very limited. Even the dock doesn’t have a full-sized SD slot.

Other notes:

  • 32GB storage sounds small but I keep files on external storage (NAS) with a local copy of whatever I want to have available to work on.
  • It’s a bit top/back-heavy of course. Really not so bad, especially considering the keyboard doesn’t even have a battery in it to weigh it down.
  • The advantage of the 16:10 aspect ratio isn’t totally realized here as the chassis is big enough to accommodate the alternative 1366 x 768 screen. I’d have liked the device to be smaller or the screen to be larger, in the same package. In the case of a larger screen, I’d probably be looking for higher resolution. But now I’m talking myself into more expensive computers!

There would appear to be more cons in my list than pros, but they all have to be taken in the context of a quite inexpensive device. I miss a stylus, and the keyboard not registering the first character typed is a serious ssue. I mean issue. That was not staged.

 

Old tablets and new tablets

Lenovo X61T and purple horse

I’m typing on a buzzing, hot Lenovo X61T convertible tablet. It was aged when I bought it in 2010. The keyboard and battery were tired, and the screen is neither the high-res (1400×1050) nor the touchscreen version. Still, an actual ThinkPad tablet with a Wacom pen for pressure-sensitive, accurate drawing was a dream come true.

Now some time has passed, technology has moved on, and the remaining time to failure of the system fan can only be guessed at. Given that I am easily entranced by new gadgets, how is it that, so far, no device has managed to seem really sparkly and new next to my tired old 12-inch tablet?

Historically, there have been several reasons, and note that I have to use the word “I” a lot, because some of these are probably not compelling points for most people:

  • pressure-sensitive pen input: I really want it, I already have it, and it works great.
  •  screen resolution/aspect ratio: I’ve got 1024×768 pixels, a 4:3 aspect ratio. For a while there, it was hard to find more than 780 vertical pixels on a new laptop; not very exciting. I find the 16:9 ratio cramped on my work laptop, Android tablet (Asus Transformer TF101) and Android phone. The 4:3 of my parents’ iPads is much more comfortable.
  • screen technology: I really find the colours and viewing angles of TN panels problematic, and I prefer a matte screen over glossy.
  • touchpads: I do not like. I do like IBM/Lenovo’s trackpoint.
  • operating system: I’m looking for a computer, not a media-consumption machine. While Linux is my comfort zone, non-RT Windows would probably do. MacOS would require the most adaptation in terms of software applications.
  • price: when the computer I already have has most of the value for me that a new $2000 device offers, well, um, $2000 looks shinier than a new computer.

However, I would say that it’s conceivable that there will be a really shiny new tablet from one manufacturer or another before my system fan seizes up for good. Display resolution and quality have begun to progress again. While computer styluses have existed in the background for pretty much as long as computers have, mobile hardware has improved enough to make a stylus-enabled device really comfortable to hold and use. People are now used to interacting directly with their screens, and hardware and software development objectives for the mainstream largely coincide with those needed to improve the pen-input experience.

This wasn’t so much the case when the first Thinkpad tablet with a pen was released in 1992 (here’s a video of one in action), or in 2002, when Microsoft tried to popularize Tablet PCs with stylus input, and it didn’t catch on. These, and tablets and slates from Fujitsu, HP, Motion Computing, as well as, surely, others that I could check up on with a quick visit to the forums at tabletpcreview.com, have largely escaped the notice of mainstream consumers.

I should specify that when I say “stylus,” I’m not talking about a stick that acts as a proxy finger on a resistive or capacitive touchscreen; I mean a system with an active digitizer that allows the pen to hover and offers high precision and pressure sensitivity.

Asus, who have a long history of pushing the envelope with niche features on more-affordable devices — often with big trade-offs in other features and quality control — have been releasing stylus-equipped machines for years. Samsung (with their Android-based Galaxy Note range) and Microsoft (with the full-Windows Surface Pro series) have been trying to leverage the new hardware capabilities to popularize the stylus, and I think it’s working. Many people will never feel the need for a pen, but to benefit from one no longer costs so much, in money or in compromise. It’s going to be a fun time to watch developments and drool over new devices.

A side note: Despite Steve Jobs’ disparaging statement about styluses, I do wonder whether Apple will watch as others prime the consumer consciousness, and then swoop in with its cachet to scoop up the creative market with a Wacom-equipped iPad.

Another side note: Wacom has dominated the pen input scene for a long time, with peripheral non-screen artist tablets, Cintiq tablet-screen devices, and display-digitizer tech for slates and convertible laptops. There are other players, like N-Trig, which seems not to have matched Wacom for performance yet. It will be interesting to see whether this field becomes competitive.

Final note: Microsoft’s newly-announced Surface Pro 3 device at first seemed to tick an awful lot of boxes for me: Haswell CPU, 12-inch display, 3:2 aspect ratio, 2160×1440 resolution, type cover, adjustable kickstand — but ouch! an N-Trig pen! (And they seem to be talking up the “substantial” feel of the pen — yeah, no kidding, if it needs a battery!)  I’ll reserve judgement pending reviews. Maybe this is the moment N-Trig catches up with Wacom! But if Microsoft has forsaken digital artists for the sake of a price point and a pen that’s good enough for OneNote, it’ll be a shame, if not necessarily a bad business decision. The next one to watch may be Lenovo’s upcoming 10-inch, 16:10, Wacom-equipped ThinkPad 10 Tablet with its low-voltage CPU but full Windows. May be too small for me, though…

 

Thoughts spawned by trying out Trello

Today I tried out an online task management/collaboration system called Trello. I had read about Trello before, in an interview with Fog Creek Software CEO Joel Spolsky. It looks really nice, visual and flexible. I was curious as to whether it would meet the needs of a few of us at work, not always on-site at the same time, working together to get a piece of equipment up and running.

I took my Android device into the lab to get down a few tasks and notes. I created some “cards” in the very pleasant Trello Android app, and then tried to edit one to add some details. Trello didn’t allow me to open it because, the lab being just out of wifi range, this card had not been “synced”. I immediately understood that Trello isn’t useful to me in its current state. I’m still curious as to whether the overall system is well-designed, and whether it suits me, but the need for constant access to the net stops the show for me.

I see the cloud becoming more and more ubiquitous, and there are already those who don’t see a whole lot of difference between the complaints “I can’t see my data when I’m offline” and “I can’t see my data without providing electric power to my computer/tablet/phone.” However, leaving aside issues of control over our data, there are still those of us without uninterrupted net access.

In fact, if Trello’s creators are banking on massive adoption of a free version making it possible to charge a small percentage of users for some kind of version control, I think they are making a mistake: being unable to even read existing cards in their latest known state while offline is going to be an impediment to adoption by casual users. I may be wrong; it will be interesting to see.

Version control in a fast-paced collaborative environment is an interesting challenge and I bet some bright minds are trying to bring solutions to current apps, like Trello, in a way that’s as close as possible to being invisible, or at least “frictionless” to non-technical users.

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