What I Use: Tablets

What I Use:
– HTC Nexus 9
– Microsoft Surface 3
– Apple iPad Mini 4

Tablets are the most maligned category of personal computers, it seems you either love or hate them. I am in the love camp, and I use one or more tablets every day. Right now I am writing this article using my Surface 3, which is a 2-in-1 that I consider a tablet rather than a notebook computer. In my bag is a iPad Mini 4 and at home I have a Nexus 9. Each of these tablets run different operating systems (Windows 10, iOS, and Android) and have different screen sizes (10.1″, 7.9″, and 8.9″) and are used for different purposes.

first-htc-nexus-9-camera-samples-pop-up-125x125The Nexus 9 is my oldest tablet, I bought it in November, 2014, and at the time it was Google’s flagship “Nexus” tablet. In my opinion screen size dictates how you will use a tablet, and I think the Nexus 9’s 8.9″ screen strikes a good balance between holding in one hand to read and connecting to a keyboard to write. For a while the Nexus 9 was my only tablet, and I wrote a good number of blog posts using the Folio keyboard.

The fact that the Nexus 9 is my oldest tablet says something about Android tablets. Google did not produce a new tablet in 2016, the Pixel C remains the flagship Android tablet and it was announced in September 2015. I recall being put off by the price of the Pixel C, which still costs $499, while I only paid $278 for the Nexus 9 by using some credit card reward points on Amazon. I believe the retail price was $400.

CNet includes the Pixel C in their list of best tablets of 2016, even though it is a year old. Fact is, even though it has some quirks, the Nexus 9 is still a good tablet and it runs Android 7.1.1, which is the latest version of Android. Soon Google will stop providing Android updates to the Nexus 9, at which point I will have to decide whether I need another Android tablet.

One tablet-related development from Google during 2016 is that it has made it possible for Android apps to run natively on Chrome OS, which means you can now run full apps on a Chrome OS device and that newer Chrome OS notebooks will have touch screens. I expect more Chrome OS devices, capable of running Android apps will come to market during 2017, the real question is whether Google will launch a Pixel Chrome OS tablet or notebook. It’s possible that Google replaces the Pixel C with a Chrome OS-based 2-in-1 or convertible during the year and abandons stand alone tablets. Keep an eye on the price of the Pixel C during the spring, if it is to be replaced Google will likely start discounting current units before announcing a replacement.

120px-surface_pro_3_kickstandI bought the Surface 3 in the spring of 2015 to be my prime work tablet, mostly for its 10.1″ screen and the ability to handwrite notes in OneNote. During the day I use the Surface in portrait as my notepad during meetings, and all of my notes in OneNote synchronize with my corporate Office365 account. While I expected the Surface 3 to be a great tool for work, and it definitely has been that, I did not expect to use it as much for leisure as I have, mostly because of its kickstand.

The Surface 3’s built-in kickstand puts the tablet in three viewing angles, which makes it really useful for watching videos. I’ve watched many baseball games with the MLB At Bat app on the Surface 3, along with my favorite TWiT netcasts. I find Windows 10 works really well on a tablet oriented in landscape, and frankly if Microsoft had produced this tablet instead of the Windows RT tablets back in 2012, Windows 8 might have not been as much a failure as it became.

Microsoft no longer sells the Surface 3, although HP, Acer, and Asus all sell equivalent 2-in-1 tablets. The model of Surface 3 I bought has 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage, and I expect that it will continue running Windows 10 for a while. Even if Microsoft never released an update of Windows 10 that worked on the Surface 3 again, I think it would still be useful to me as it currently exists. Some people have complained that the Surface 3 is too slow, particularly in accessing local storage. I think the Surface 3 runs fast enough for me, which may be due to having 4 GB of RAM and that I mostly just use OneNote, I don’t need it to run Photoshop.

81px-ipad_mini_3_goldThis summer I bought the iPad Mini 4 after I realized that the 3rd generation iPad I own will not run iOS 10 and I needed a device running iOS 10 for work. I found a refurbished Mini 4 with 64 GB of storage on Gazelle for $325 and I’ve been really happy with the purchase. I am not a fan of iOS because I like the multitasking and sharing features of Android, and I dislike the grid of icons that iOS still uses for its home screens. Moving icons around in iOS is the absolute worst user experience of any mobile device.

Despite my dislike for iOS, I have to admit that the iPads are the most elegant hardware designs, and I have found the Mini’s thinness and 7.9″ screen perfect for reading. In the evenings while I am watching TV I usually have the Mini in hand to check Twitter, Facebook, review my RSS feeds, reading web content in Pocket, or eBooks using the Kindle app. I also have to admit that apps in iOS tend to have a little more polish that equivalent apps in Android, although I really dislike app developers who force their apps to landscape. Users should always, always, have control over the screen orientation on a tablet.

While small, the iPad Mini 4 is still too large for me to carry everywhere, my Nexus 6P remains always by my side as my most important personal computer. And though the 6-inch screen is big enough for reading eBooks, I still prefer the near 8″ screen size that makes it as comfortable to read as a paperback book. When I see tablets out in the wild, they are mostly smaller tablets, either from Apple, Samsung, or Amazon.

By now, you most likely have noticed a theme throughout this article, which is that with tablets, screen size really matters. Three years ago the focus seemed to be on 7-inch size tablets, so much so that Apple seemed compelled to release the iPad Mini. Now, it seems to be the focused has shifted to larger screens due to Microsoft’s success with the Surface Pro, which has a 12-inch screen, and that Apple again followed by releasing the iPad Pro.

Not only did Apple validate Microsoft’s 2-in-1 approach by providing a keyboard for the Pro and featuring the landscape-and-keyboard form factor prominently in ads, but it also provides a stylus/Pencil for handwriting on the screen. Back when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPad, and hence launched the tablets that we now know, he emphasized that for many, the iPad could be a sufficient replacement for notebook and desktop personal computers, and the iPad Pro seems to make that statement finally come true.

As I previously stated, I really like the 2-in-1 form factor but I am not entirely sold on tablets with screens larger than ten inches. If I had a 12-inch tablet, I am sure I would mostly use it as for my notebook computing use cases, but continue to use a smaller size device for my tablet computing use cases. Still, I think during the upcoming year new tablets will mostly fall in the 2-in-1 category, with lower tier companies continuing to provide smaller tablets at lower prices.

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Why I Like The Surface 3

Microsoft Surface 3

I regularly use two tablets, a Nexus 9 and a Surface 3 and I also own an iPad 3. We use the iPad primarily for watching streaming video, and the Nexus 9 is my primary reading and couch surfing device.

I’ve owned the original iPad, a Nexus 7 and an HTC tablet, so I have used tablets for a long time. Of all the tablets that I have used, the Surface 3 has been the most useful.

The Surface 3 is flexible enough to meet a wide variety of use cases because it runs Windows 10 and a vast amount of desktop software. Consequently, the Surface 3 is valuable for both work and play.

Because it runs Windows 10, I can connect the Surface 3 to my company’s email server and use Outlook. While I can also connect iPads and Android tablets to the same servers, you must use apps other than the version of Outlook that I regularly use.  I can use it to access corporate intranet sites via a VPN and desktop web browsers.

My main use case for the Surface 3 is taking notes in OneNote using the Surface Pen. The Surface’s ten inch screen makes it nearly as large as a sheet of paper, so I find it very comfortable for writing.

I like writing notes by hand, and studies show that handwriting helps to retain information. By using OneNote I don’t have to carry a bunch of paper, and I can quickly search for notes due to OneNote’s ability to index digital ink.

One way the Surface 3 has been optimized for taking notes is that clicking the button at the top of the Surface Pen, like you would a ballpoint pen, launches OneNote. The process mimics how you would pick up a pad of paper and click a pen to write. Double-clicking the Surface Pen button captures a screenshot and saves it in OneNote to annotate.

If you own a Surface 3 I recommend buying the new Surface Pen because the new tips make for a very smooth writing experience.

I think that Edge may be the best desktop web browser simply because it is really fast and renders pages beautifully. When I research information on the web, I can annotate a web page in digital ink and save a copy of that page in OneNote.

The 10.52″ x 7.36″ x 0.34″ dimensions of the Surface 3 make it the perfect size for a productivity tablet. In my opinion 12 inches is too large for tablets because they are hard to use while just being held in your hands. You are not going to comfortably carry an iPad Pro or Surface Pro in ways that you can carry a Surface or iPad.

While I expected to like the size of the Surface 3, I didn’t expect to find its built-in kickstand to be so useful. I prefer watching video on the Surface 3 rather than my iPad simply because I can stand it up in a good viewing position. I use the MLB At Bat, WatchESPN, and Netflix Windows Store (tablet) apps on the Surface 3.

Other Windows Store apps that I use regularly are Mail and Calendar, which come with Windows 10, MyRadar, and the MSN Apps: News, Money, Sports, and Weather. The Surface 3 came with an Office 365 subscription and full versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, and Powerpoint 2016, but I prefer using the Word and Excel mobile apps with their simpler UI.

As I wrote earlier, I am a heavy OneNote user, and because of that I use the Surface 3 as a tablet more than in “notebook” mode. I did buy the Type Cover, but if you walked by my desk you are likely to find the cover disconnected from the Surface 3 more than not.

The Type Cover is, in fact, the source of my main problem with the Surface 3. For some reason Windows 10 seems to forget that the cover exists. Some times I see USB errors, other times the keyboard just will not work. I am sure there is a Windows 10 driver issue, ironic given the problem is Microsoft hardware working with Microsoft software. The solution is to restart the tablet, which is quick enough to tolerate.

I occasionally have a similar issue with the Surface Pen; I will try writing on the tablet and nothing happens, the pen contact with the screen is not registered. Usually this problem is fixed by unscrewing the cap to disconnect the battery from the pen, which effectively resets the pen. Fortunately pen recognition issues happen much less frequently than the Type Cover issue.

At the time Microsoft released the Surface Pro 3, their were rumors that Microsoft was going to release a Surface Mini that had a seven inch screen. Reports are that Satya Nadella cancelled the release of the Surface Mini on the belief it would not sell.

The Surface 3 may not literally be the Surface Mini, but for all practical purposes it is, and I think the 10.5 inch screen provides for more functionality than a seven inch screen would.

Given that the Surface 3 is now a year old, speculation will be whether Microsoft will release a Surface 4 and if they do what changes it may make. I imagine a Surface 4 could have a faster CPU, more memory, more storage, be thinner and lighter, but frankly, while all these would we welcome improvements I don’t find them necessary.

In my opinion, the single biggest thing Microsoft could do to increase sales, beyond more marketing, is to lower the price so that one could buy the Surface 3, keyboard, and pen for no more than the $499 price they charge just for the tablet. Competing products from HP and Dell have such all-in one pricing, and frankly, if it had existed at the time I bought the Surface 3, I likely would have bought the HP Spectre X2.

Bottom line, after a year of ownership, I am very happy with the Surface 3 and it continues to be important part of my personal productivity toolkit. If you are looking for tablet to increase your productivity, I recommend you consider the 2-in-1s like the Surface 3.

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Personal Computing

Personal computing is browsing the web, playing music, watching movies, playing games, reading email, writing email, and creating documents. In short, it is everythingdo for which a computer is the tool for getting done.

Smartphones, tablets, notebook computers, and desktop computers are all devices that I can use for personal computing; they all are personal computers.

Smartphones are about portability and have displays that are 6 inches or smaller. My smartphone is my most personal computer, I take it everywhere and it contains, or has access to, the information most important to me that I always need.

Tablets are about flexibility, and have displays that are between 7 and 12 inches. I could carry my tablet with me almost everywhere and it fits easily in my Waterfield Indie bag. Tablet displays are larger than smartphones so I can view more information, and small enough to be held and used while sitting or standing. Like a smartphone, a tablet can be used while only being held in your hands and does not require a surface.

Notebook and desktop computers are about large displays and inputting a high volume of text. Both require a surface to hold the device in order for it to be used. Between the two, I am unsure why one would buy a desktop rather than a notebook when the price is the same. Gaming is a niche that requires the highest performing desktop and notebook computers.

A person who needs to always type a lot of text, use large displays, or play games will not realize the value in the flexibility of tablets and therefore will see no value in them. Such people will point out that ultra-thin notebooks are as portable as tablets.

A person who values flexibility may prefer a tablet over a notebook computer. If they wish to, one can connect a keyboard to a tablet to input text in a growing number of adequate word processors. Many tablets can also be attached to large displays.

People who can afford to may own one or more of these devices, using each as a situation requires. At a minimum, almost everyone has a smartphone and adds to that additional devices as their budget allows.

Ten years ago everyone would start with a desktop or notebook computer and then add a smartphone, but today the order of priority has flipped, which is the big change in personal computing during this past decade. Consequently, authors of content and applications seeking the largest market for their work will target smartphones.

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Curating and Sharing

One of the functions I serve in my role as technology consultant is to monitor a vast amount of information and identify important information to share with my peers and leaders. I try to boil down the information to a handful of topics that I think are important for my audience.

The challenge in curating and sharing this information is to do it with a minimal amount of work that produces an index that makes it easy to find the information. Recently I developed a workflow that utilizes Nuzzel, River4, Pocket, IFTTT, and Blogger. Here is an overview of the workflow, working from the web site back up to the source of the information.

tech2watch

The first step is in deciding where to publish the information on the Internet so that it can be accessed. I knew that I wanted to use If This Then That (IFTTT) to route the information to the web site, so that constrained me to five blogging platforms: Blogger, Medium, Tumblr, Weebly, and WordPress.

What I decided to do is create tags for the topics I am curating and organize them under the tech2watch category. I can then either direct readers to a specific topic or the entire group of items under tech2watch.

I’ve been using IFTTT to consolidate my social network posts to a WordPress blog, so I thought I would add categories and tags to that blog. However, because I am posting lots of information to that blog in addition to the topics I am curating, I decided to not use it, instead I decided to create a new site using Blogger, and in the process registered the tech2watch.info domain name.

Publishing Information on tech2watch

The next step is to create an IFTTT recipe that monitors my account on Pocket and publishes items with specific tags to the tech2watch web site. I chose a template for the site that displays the technical topics I am curating in a list on the right side of the page.

IFTTT has access to both my Pocket and Blogger accounts and the recipe monitors Pocket for any articles that have the tech2watch tag, and when it finds one, it creates a new post on the Blogger site. The article title is used for the title of the post, and each post is created using a template that provides a link to the full article followed by a snippet of the article.

Selecting What To Publish

I funnel all web articles for further reading to Pocket for a couple of reasons. I really like how it removes ads and other graphics from most web pages so that only the content of the article displays, making it easier for me to read. Pocket is available as an app on Android and iOS, as well as on the web, so I can read articles using any device I may have at hand. By using IFTTT I can post new items to tech2watch quickly using any device simply by tagging an article.

Finding Information To Share

The Internet provides a wealth of information that can be difficult to keep on top of. You could spend hours opening web site after web site looking for information, and nobody really does that any more as the work is best left to computer software. The sources for my information come to me via Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and Twitter.

RSS was created before Twitter and provides a way to monitor web sites. You use an application called an RSS Feed Reader (or RSS Aggregator) to scan a list of article titles and snippets, which you click to read. Google Reader was a popular RSS reader application that unfortunately was shut down several years ago, and Feedly has replaced it in popularity.

I use an application called River4 to monitor the web sites I subscribe to via RSS. River4 was written by Dave Winer, who created the RSS specification and continues to be a champion of RSS. The Pocket extension for Chrome provides a Save To Pocket option for when I right-click a link, so as I scan the river of articles, I right-click the ones I want to read and select Save To Pocket.

Twitter has replaced RSS for many people, and while most consider Twitter a social network, I think in reality it is used more like RSS readers. The difference is that with Twitter one follows other people, be they individuals or representatives of company brands or web sites.

Nuzzel is an app that is designed specifically to feature links to web sites that people share on Twitter, and it sorts the articles by how many of the people you follow share it, putting the most often shared items at the top of the list. You can expand to the view of the articles to also include the people who you follow, also follow.

The Workflow

As time permits during the day, I will scan through my RSS river and Nuzzel feed for articles that fall within the topics I am following. I use Chrome to access River4 on my desktop, smartphone and tablets, as well as for Nuzzel on my desktop, right-clicking to send the articles to Pocket. On my smartphone and tablet I use an app and the Android share function to send articles to Pocket.

When I have time to read, I load the Pocket app, and for appropriate articles I assign the tech2watch tag and the appropriate topic tag. IFTTT continually monitors my Pocket account and when it finds an item with the tech2watch tag, it uses the information from the article to create a post on the tech2watch site. Other than slight edits to specify which tags are included in the topic list, I don’t do any editing of what is posted to the tech2watch site, posting to it is completely automated by IFTTT.

The process I have created meets my need for simply and quickly curating content, and I think it does a good job showing the power of IFTTT in automating a time consuming task by adding the ability for Pocket to publish a web site.

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How Do I Like The Nexus 6P?

In early November I wrote of my expectations for the Nexus 6P as I was anticipating its arrival. Now, a little over a month later, it’s time for me to report on whether the Nexus 6P met my expectations. I am happy to report that the Nexus 6P exceeds my expectations.

Doze But Don’t Sleep

Battery life was the primary reason for replacing the first generation Moto X, which had been my daily driver, with a new phone. At Google I/O we learned about Doze, a new power management feature in Android 6.0 (Marshmallow), but frankly, Google had announced power management features before that did not result in significant power savings.

I was skeptical about whether Doze would meet Google’s claims, and my skepticism caused me to choose the Nexus 6P and its 3450 mAh battery over the Nexus 5X and its 2700 mAh battery even though I preferred the 5X’s smaller size.

While the larger battery in the 6P is obviously going to result in longer battery life, I’ve been so impressed by Doze that I wonder whether I could have gotten by with the smaller phone. Doze, combined with USB-C quick charging, has eliminated the battery life anxiety that I’ve been living with ever since I began using Android smartphones.

With the Moto X I religiously plugged the phone in every night so that it would fully charge while I slept and be read for me to go the next morning. Starting the day at a full charge kept me comfortable with the Moto X until dinner, by which I may have 30% battery life left. To get through the evening without worry, I had to top off the Moto X.

I have yet to recharge the Nexus 6P overnight. I don’t need to because either there is plenty of battery life left, or all I have to do is plug it in to its USB -C charger for 15 minutes to get the battery back to a comfortable level.

When I bought the Nexus 6P I also bought a second USB-C charger to leave at the office, as well as another USB-C charger for my car. For the first three weeks I never took the extra charger out of my bag at the office, I simply did not need it. In fact, it wasn’t until I went on a weekend trip that I even took the charger out of the box.

Frankly, I’ve never had a smartphone for which I have not had to worry about battery life. I know my iPhone toting friends will derisively comment on how the iPhone has always been this way for them, but frankly, I see lots of iPhone users carrying chargers, external battery packs, or battery pack cases. The only other device I have had the same battery life experience with is the iPad.

A Tablet In Hand

What the iPad and Nexus 6P have in common is a large size that enables large batteries. For a while I carried my iPad with me everywhere, until I tired of its size and weight. The Nexus 6P, while large for a smartphone, is much smaller than the iPad and yet it provides similar battery life experience.

Prior to the Nexus 6P arriving, I speculated whether I would start using it more than my Nexus 9 tablet. So far in practice I have not, when I am sitting on the couch I usually grab the tablet to check social networks and read web articles.

I don’t find it comfortable to hold the Nexus 6P for long periods of time while reading a book, it feels too small to hold in two hands for long and my hand starts to cramp when hold it in one hand for long. I do find the 6P’s screen plenty large for reading text.

The larger screen size brings me to the only real significant issue I have with the 6P, and even it is a nit and more a fault of software developers than Google. I use a few different 4 x 1 widgets that fit perfectly across the width of the screen on the Moto X, but are a half inch short on the 6P.

Developers can write their widgets so that users can re-size them but unfortunately that is not the case for the Yahoo Sports widget. Sure, there are alternate sports widgets available, but really, why can’t all developers make theirs re-sizable?

In November I had the following expectations:

  • Have much longer battery life than my current phone, the Moto X 2013. Expectation met
  • Run much faster, not slow down, and not lock up. The Nexus 6P is much faster than the Moto X, and I’ve yet to experience any slow downs or lock ups.
  • Be noticeably larger than the Moto X and it will take me some time getting accustomed to the size. The Nexus 6P is definitely larger, and while I am getting accustomed to it, I wonder how I will feel about it during summer.
  • Replace some for what I use a tablet, particularly reading The Nexus 6P has not replaced my tablet.
  • Receive updates faster than any other Android phone because it is a Nexus. Google has released version 6.0.1 of Android a few weeks ago, and it is already on my Nexus 6P.

In summary, if you are in the market for a new Android smartphone, and can get by with the larger size, I highly recommend the Nexus 6P, it may well be the best Android smartphone that you can buy.

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