22 December 2014

Happy Holidays!

What's up people. I'm just sending out a good faith message of joy out for whichever holiday you may be celebrating over the next couple of weeks. It's our first Christmas as a married unit, and the first Christmas in our new/old house, so it'll definitely be an exciting one.

16 December 2014

The Nexus 4 Review - The Best Budget Phone for 2014

Budget smartphones have been getting a lot of attention these days. In general, it can be argued that the market for flagships has stagnated. There’s an overall lack of enthusiasm with new top-of-the-line phones upon unveiling within the tech world. It seems that over the last year or so, it’s become more difficult and therefore less likely, for manufacturers to bring brand new, innovative features that really impress people. Whether it’s the newest iterations from Apple, Samsung, HTC, Google, or any other major player, the improvements over previous models are smaller and incremental rather than truly revolutionary. Thinner, lighter, faster, sharper display, better camera, etc.

Screenshot 2014-12-15 at 2.38.07 PM.png
It's a pretty popular Google search
This may be why more attention is on wearables, smart homes, integration across devices, and the afformentioned value-for-money smartphone. This is also why, if you subscribe to any of the top tech news or review sources, you’ll find plenty of great advice on the “best smartphone if you’re on a budget”. Here are some pieces that inspired this article.

If you’ve been looking into buying a new phone as well, but aren’t interested in shelling out the better half of $1000, you’ve probably read a lot about many different phones, but odds are, most of the spotlight has been on the Moto G. It’s not the cheapest, or the best, but the consensus is that it strikes the perfect balance between today’s smartphone consumer demands, and an affordable price tag. The problem is, there’s one phone that has almost no attention at all in terms of budget smart phones and it should. It’s cheaper than the Moto G, has a better screen, more premium feeling design language, same amount of ram and generally, the same overall power under the hood. This phone, the real best budget phone, is the Nexus 4.

Over 2 years old and received the OTA
This is not to say that the Moto G doesn’t deserve all of the praise it’s received this year. It’s a great phone. Building upon last year’s model, it’s the affordable smartphone that hits all the right points for those that want a solid phone that can handle all of today’s typical needs - apps, photos, games, media and mobile browsing, but without the top-tier features and latest specs that come with the high price tags of flagships. It’s capable of 4G has a sharp display, is well designed with a decent camera and runs fairly smooth. The “runs fairly smooth” part has always been the big compromise with budget phones. Spending less than $500 on a phone usually meant stuttery software with plenty of bugs that really wasn’t capable of much and therefore not really fun to use. The Moto G is really one of the first affordable smartphones to turn those traits on their heads. Motorola designed a low-spec device, making it wallet-friendly, but focusing on simplicity rather than features, ensuring Android runs as smooth as possible.

This is why I’ve spent the last few months eagerly awaiting the Moto G’s 2014 release. I’ve been a proud Nexus 4 owner since launch back in 2012, and since it’s been over 2 years, my instincts has told me it’s time to get something new. So like any smart shopper, tech enthusiast, or big nerd would do, I started comparing specs, and came to a very surprising realisation. Upgrading from the Nexus 4 to the 2014 Moto G wouldn’t be a very logical move. Despite the 2 year age difference, I found out that these two phones are incredibly similar in capability. Even further, many aspects of the Nexus 4 are objectively higher-end than those of the Moto G. As strange as it may seem, given that the Nexus 4 was never a best-in-class phone, even when it was brand new, the reality is that it is quite easy to argue that the Nexus 4 is better than the Moto G.

The design of the Nexus 4 remains as one of the most unique designs any smartphone has every had. The glass back was nothing new at the time,the iPhone 4 was the first major release to do that. Glass backs have also been done since, most notably by the Sony Xperia Z series. However, the reflective, checkered pattern beneath the glass back gave the Nexus 4 a distinct visual marker without being too gaudy. In the right light the phone sparkled, otherwise, it was a very understated black glass panel with silver “nexus” branding. I have a dBrand skin on mine, so it’s a moot point in terms of visuals, but there’s still a rigidity to the phone which may mean more in terms of design and build quality.

+dbrand skins are the best
In a time where “lighter and thinner” seems to be the mark of innovation, the Nexus 4 has a solid feel and heft that, may have been light at its launch, but now, makes the phone feel unusually strong - even if only, artificially. It feels like an expensive, well designed device, despite being offered at an affordable price point. A dBrand skin solved the concern regarding slippery fracture prone backing, creating in my opinion the only nexus phone that has hit the “premium” mark in terms of fit and finish.

As far as software is concerned, Android 5.0 Lollipop is running fantastically on my phone. The phone is faster, the animations run smooth, and I honestly haven’t had an issue with lag. Really, there’s not much point into going over the software too much. There are plenty of Android Lollipop overviews out there. All that’s important here, is that, at least on my Nexus 4, it runs great and has definitely made the phone better.

100% stock. with Google Now Launcher
Despite my praise for the Nexus 4, the fact remains that I was pretty close to upgrading it and the main reason for this was the camera. It’s no secret that Nexus phones don’t have great camera’s and this phone is one of the reasons that reputation exists. The camera upon launch was pretty good, but it’s definitely nothing in comparison to modern flagships. It’s not a bad camera, but it’s not a camera you’re going to trust either. Every time I take a photo, I large part of me is prepared to be unsatisfied by it. This for me has always been the biggest cost-cutting measure which allowed these phones to be priced so competitively.

The camera's not the best
The other reason I was looking to replace my phone was the release of Android 5.0. I was mentally prepared for the Nexus 4 to not receive an update sicne it’s been over 2 years. Still, I wanted to see if it would receive the the update, and if so, how it handled it. To my surprise, the OTA game through in about a week after reports that Nexus 5s started receiving theirs and even before Nexus 6’s started shipping here (Australia). As I said before, there’s absolutely no problems with it. Lollipop is runnign fantastically on my unrooted, completely stock Australian Nexus 4.

A little while ago I took a poll to the Google+ Nexus Community asking which phones people would rather buy. As expected, the majority sided with the Moto G. Interestingly however, was the margin. 40% voted for the Nexus 4. Despite being 10% under even, this is still impressive considering the phone is over 2 years old. I doubt this would be much worse than the results would fair if it were the Nexus 5 were up against the Moto G. Further, I think it’s a safe assumption that if it were the even older Galaxy Nexus it may be pretty close to 0%.

40% voting for an out of production, 2 year old phone
Of course, the Moto G, just a few months into it’s life cycle is understandably more current and future-proofed than the Nexus 4 which is over 2 years old. Where the Moto G is likely to be supported for at least another year, I wouldn’t be surprised if 5.0 is the last update the Nexus 4 receives. Battery life is reportedly much better as well, despite the slighlty smaller battery. Design is subjective, I prefer my phone to sit flat on a table, so the curved Moto G would bother me a fair bit. It’s also subjective, but I don’t like the idea of having a phone any larger than the Nexus 4. I am a runner, and the idea of carrying something larger bothers me as well. This is the main reason I wouldn’t get a Nexus 5 - that and the protruding camera. I do like the front facing speakers however. I hope that more manufacturers jump on board with that.

This shot has me thinking it's the perfect size. 
The reality is that the Moto G and the Nexus 4 are very comparible devices. This is what was most astonishing and frankly, advocates the most for the quality of the Nexus 4. It was released over 2 years ago and for around half the price of the other 2012 flagships. Today in 2014, a phone arguably equal in power and capability is the almost unanimously regarded as the best value-for-money smartphone there is - despite being more expensive A quick scan of typical online retailers shows the 8 GB Moto G and the 16gb Nexus 4 are pretty similar in price. Although, a phone which has likely been out of production for over a year, being “brand new” may be a bit understandably questionable. So, despite the urge to get a shiny new phone (I bought the Toshiba Chromebook 2 instead), I decided to hold off and ready myself to leave the Nexus line behind and get the Sony Z3 Compact. I want a good camera.


01 December 2014

Toshiba Chromebook CB30-B: Australian Review

For $338 AUD from +JB Hi-Fi Official , it’s hard to imagine a laptop that’s already almost a year old could hold up and be good value, but then again, this is what Chromebooks are all about. This is my review of the (Australian) Toshiba Chromebook 2* CB-30 B.

Definitely not a powerhouse specs list
As you can see from the specifications, Chromebooks are not at all powerhouse machines and the Toshiba Chromebook 2 is no different. 16GB of onboard storage, 2GB of ram, a dual core Celeron processor clocking in at 2.16Ghz and a 720p display is about as barebones as a laptop can be. Then again, hardware and power internals mean much less to the usefulness of Chromebooks as they do Windows and Mac OS X counterparts.

Incredibly to set up
The reason you buy a Chromebook isn’t the hardware at all. It’s the software. If you’re after a Chromebook, it’s because you want something that will allow you to browse the web quickly, easily and safely. The benefits are greater if you’re comfortably immersed in Google’s ecosystem and if you are, a quality Chromebook can provide almost all of your computing needs.

Possible reasons a Chromebook wouldn’t work
That being said, there are a few notable concerns with Chromebooks and ChromeOS as a whole. The Chromebook CB30-B has been released in Australia since early 2014. Given that Chromebooks are already based on sub-standard hardware, I was definitely weary to go with one that wasn’t the newest of its kind. Machine becoming slow, buggy and unstable as they age is something most of us are used to with Windows machines (and Mac’s to a lesser extent), so I was very keen to see how this holds up ver time. The official word from Google is that ChromeOS will age better than any other system out there. This is because of the cloud-based nature of the entire system and how light it all is. ChromeOS is designed to be light, always up to date and fluid on even the weakest of setups. The idea is that since it’s mostly just a web-browser, cutting edge power is not needed for all of it’s functions to perform smoothly over the long term.

Simple and portable design
The other main concern most have with Chromebooks, myself included, is the need for an internet connection. ChromeOS is built for the internet. If you own a Chromebook, in many ways it is meant to be a given that you comfortable with living within Google’s servers i.e., Google Drive. This is why there is only 16GB of internal storage. I’m fine with this, and have been living in the cloud at increasing rates throughout the last few years. I love the ubiquity of cloud storage and the relief from being tethered to specific devices or local hard drives. Of course I have my backup drives, but carting around USB keys and portable hard drives to contain all of my files is an inconvenience I just don’t want any more. The concern however, becomes the reliance on a strong internet connection.

Living in Australia, the internet is a fair bit different than it is in most other wealthy countries. Long story short, compared to the US, what I read about Europe and Asia, and my home country of Canada, it’s slower, less accessible regarding free wi-fi, and isn’t capable of handling the same amounts of data. At home it’s great, but being able to park at any coffee shop and link up to a strong free connection, or setting my phone up as a hotspot just isn’t really something that exists.

Reasons why a Chromebook could work
With these concerns, I was still willing to roll the dice and give ChromeOS a shot for a few simple, but very important reason. Chromebooks seemed perfect for casual everyday browsing. I wanted a machine that would allow me to quickly and comfortable plow through emails, type out documents, manage the various spreadsheets I keep and keep up with my music and video consumption. Over the last two years, I’ve deliberately been testing out Youtube, Google Play and Google Drive to their full capacities to see if I really could function within Google’s suite of apps, and to this point everything was posititve. The only time I use Word, Excel, Outlook or anything else that wouldn’t be possible on a Chromebook, is entirely for work, for which I have work machines to use. ChromeOS therefore seemed like an easy move.
Google at it's fullest
The other important factor was the price. In Australia, Chromebooks range from $250 to $400 depending on the brand, model and specs. The potential for value is enormous given they perform well. While it may be true that you can get Windows machines at or near this price range (i.e., netbooks or very low powered laptops), Windows does not roll well with specs as light as these -- at least not from my personal experience. Where a system as light as ChromeOS is meant to fly on minimal power, Microsoft software generally requires pretty top-end and therefore expensive hardware to work well. Many of us have had to struggle with budget machines that can’t handle their primary functions because they just aren’t powerful enough.

Built for travel
With these concerns and hopes all accounted for, the best way to learn how anything works is, of course, to try it. So, trying to keep an objective eye open, and a notepad (Google Keep) nearby, here are my experiences after 3 weeks of owning a one year old Chromebook.

Initial thoughts
The first thing I noticed was that the screen wasn’t great. It’s a 720p 13.3 in LED display with a matte finish which isn’t bad, but definitely isn’t close to the top of the line. If you’re used to the Full HD displays found on $1000 laptops and super high pixel-densities found on flagship smartphones and tablets, you won’t be blown away by the vibrancy or sharpness of Toshiba Chromebook 2 screen. The matte finish is nice, high-end displays these days go with glossy more often than not, which I find annoying, but the reality is that while viewing angles, colour reproduction, and brightness are good, clarity isn’t. It’s important to remember this machine is only $300.

How ChromeOS is different from Windows
Furthermore, although I’m pretty used to the interface now, ChomeOS not being Windows is honestly pretty weird -- for lack of a better phrase. The file manager is different, managing multiple windows  is different, you use Chrome tabs for almost everything, there’s a shelf instead of a taskbar, there’s an awesome dedicated Search key. I definitely won’t say it’s worse, but it is different. In many ways it’s much better. Much like Macs, the design is entirely focused on what the software can do. As simple as it may be, within an hour I fell in love with the Search key. The settings menus are much easier, mainly because there are less of them, and although managing files, tabs and windows is a bit different, the basics are the same so it’s just a matter of learning. The F keys are specific to ChromeOS and are therefore much more useful. Brightness, volume, full-screen, screen-clip, refresh and forward/back buttons are much more useful than whatever myriad of functions come on generic Windows machines. I almost never touch the function keys on my Dell work laptop, yet they're getting plenty of use on my Chromebook.

Design is not perfect - notice the offset letters. 
Design and build quality
The last immediate thought I noted was about the design and build. Aesthetically, I’m very pleased with the look of the machine. It has opted for the silver and black stylings made famous by Apple, but has plenty of design elements to indicate it’s not a Macbook Air clone. There’s a waffle-like texture on the lid and under the base which make it feel more solid and easier to hold. The silver Toshiba and and Chrome branding are also placed with subtlety, yet still make the machine distinctive.

Very light weight
Unfortunately though, the low-cost of this device again becomes apparent when looking at some of the details. The lettering of the branding does not seem to have been fashioned perfectly. Some of the letters don’t sit right. The trackpad, though large and well-functioning, seems off-centred as well. There’s a gap along the left hand side that I can’t unsee. Many modern laptops these days are engineered in a way that allows you to open them with one hand. WIth this one though, two hands are needed both because the hinge seems a little too tight meaning you have to hold the base down or else you’ll life the entire machine up by the lid, and there isn’t a gap to allow you to grip the lid. Finally, I really, really hate the Skullcandy logo. I know this may be trivial, but it’s terrible.

The trackpad is fantastic, but imperfectly placed - see the gap?
I can’t believe how fast it starts up
Honestly, part of me questions that it ever truly shuts down. I have a fair bit of experience with top-end Windows ultrabooks that advertise quick bootup times so I’m used to 10-30 seconds of waiting, but the Toshiba Chromebook 2 is insane. From being completely off and cold, to on, logged in and my Gmail open, is on average 5 seconds, and if it was just asleep, it’s even faster. Typing in my password is literally the slowest part of booting up. The usefulness of this is far greater than many expect. I tend to leave the Windows machines I run on all the time because of how long they take to start up from being off cold. Knowing I can quickly boot back up and get to what I wanted to do instantaneously allows me to power down more often which is better for power consumption and the overall long-term health of the machine.

I really hate that the Skullcandy logo is here
Battery life is solid
I’m very happy with the battery life of the Toshiba so far. It’s advertised as getting up to 10.5 hours of juice, but I’ve always found it hard to really judge unless you give an example of usage. This week I’ve been noting how I’ve been using it and how much time I’ve been able to get out of the battery:
  • Unplugged the charger at 6:30am Thursday
  • 15 minutes of offline use
  • 30 minutes of public wifi use
  • Shut down
  • Ran Google Play Movie from 5:30pm to 7:30pm
  • Shut down
  • Browsing web from 6pm to 8pm Friday
  • Text editing from 9:30am to 11:30am Saturday
  • Put to sleep
  • Continued at noon until 2pm, 10% left
  • Plugged in and kept using, fully charged before 4pm

Overall, from Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon, I was able to get over 9 hours of legitimate usage time. This likely would be greater since I ran that movie Thursday evening which is typically something I wouldn’t do. Standby seems to be induce minimal draining, and again, booting up from cold is 5 seconds so I am completely confident in this machine’s ability to last a full work day or few days of intermittent usage on a single charge.

Screenshot 2014-11-30 at 5.30.25 PM.png
Navigating files is simple, but still different from Windows
The keyboard is standard, the trackpad is great.
While I love the layout of the keyboard, they don’t travel as much as I like. There’s not much to really say here. It’s a good keyboard. The keys don’t stick, I don’t find myself making unusual mistakes and they don’t feel like they will easily pop out,  but if you generally prefer full sized ergonomic desktop keyboard to thin, flat and flimsy laptop keyboards, you’ll feel the same about this. The trackpad on the other hand is outstanding. I have read a lot of very negative reviews of Chromebook trackpads, but this is easily the best trackpad I have ever used outside of a Macbook. It clicks well, glides smoothly, is accurate and very responsive.

An excellent keyboard to type on, with brilliant custom Chrome function keys
The support for multitouch is excellent as well. The standard two finger scrolling works perfectly, and I’ve recently discovered four finger scrolling to move across Chrome tabs which works equally well. The placement of the trackpad seems a little too far to the right. It’s flush in the centre of the base, which means it’s closer to my right hand when typing. It hasn’t caused any problems, but it is just something I have noticed.

Sound is surprisingly good
When I made this purchase, I generally accepted that the sound would be terrible. I figured with a $300 machine, one obvious cost-cutting move would be to limit the sound quality. Headphones are common for laptops anyway, so why have booming speakers from a budget laptop? To my surprise, the sound is far better than I expected. As is is the theme with the Toshiba Chromebook 2, audio quality is nothing incredible, but it’s definitely full, crisp and loud. Toshiba very smartly jumped on the trend of embedding the speakers underneath the keyboard. This allows for the sound to direct upward and from a more sizeable driver rather than bottom or side facing panels.  

Imperfect edges - another reminder this is only $300
Multimedia editing and gaming aren’t for Chromebooks
Photo editing works surprisingly well on a Chromebook. At the moment, the leading ChromeOS compatible photo editing app is Pixlr Editor which is incredibly robust given that it is free. Much like all the best software out there, it follows the principle of layers. I am still learning how to use it personaly, but there are plenty of youtube videos that show that some very in-depth work can be done with it. For lighter stuff, there are dozens of online filtering apps that can quickly touch photos up or add effects. The built in Google+ Photos app is incredible for photo storage, editing and software. It’s a shame it doesn’t get much attention.

Screenshot 2014-12-01 at 6.59.33 PM.png
Chrome Apps aren't all that bad
That’s where it stops though. At the moment there is no real video or audio editing suite and I doubt highly that there ever will be. We have to remember Chromebooks aren’t meant for power-use after all. This is also true with gaming. While simple web-based games work fine, you’re not going to be doing any high-order gaming on a Chromebook. They aren’t compatible and Chromebooks just wouldn’t handle them even if they were.

How useful is a Chromebook without the internet?
This was a deliberate test I had to address since many have it as a sticking point when thinking about Chromebooks. They’re meant to be used online which means much of the utility disappears without an internet connection. To be honest, I don’t really think this is much of an issue anyway. I don’t think I’ve used a computer without an internet connection in 10 years productively, but in the case of travel, where internet is not available, you definitely don’t want your laptop to be completely useless. Anyway, it didn’t take very long to realise that any claims of Chromebooks being useless without an active internet connection were totally false. You can still log in and run local files just as you would any laptop.

Good range of ports - the other wide has an SD Card slot and USB 2.0
As far as entertainment goes, running videos stored locally, or via USB key, SD Card or portable hard drive is absolutely no problem. I haven’t tested every video format out there, but all the standard download formats ran fine. Having only 16GB of internal storage (which is just about 9 really) is admittedly pretty thing, but again, hooking up external storage is no problem at all. The SD card slot is deep enough that a card won’t stick out of the side, so Iam considering leaving one in there permanently. If you’re worried about read and write speeds, don’t. The two USB ports (one of which being 3.0) have plenty of horses to keep up with general playing, moving and copying.

It takes some digging, but the Chrome Webstore is growing every day
As far as productivity goes, Google Drive works fairly well offline. Google Drive syncs for offline use which means that anything that recent that you have used, will still be usable without an internet connection. This means that you can open saved documents that you have worked on after the syncing has taken place, and you can open up new documents. As you would imagine, all work you do gets synced as soon as you’re connected again. The same goes for Google Calendar and Keep. It all works offline, stores things locally then syncs it once you’re connected again. Everything works well, but there is one obvious limitation in terms of access. I was able to access the documents I wrote since syncing, but anything older was completely inaccessible. What this means is that although your recently worked on documents are accessible, you have to remember that Google Drive is still cloud-based which means much of what is stored online can’t be accessed without the internet. Although this was a bit of a bummer, being able to access everything you have stored online, without an internet connection pretty much sounds impossible to me. The fact that offline sync exists in any form is amazing to me.

A dedicated Search key doesn't seem like it'd be a big deal, but it's value is felt very quickly
As long as you are aware of what Chromebooks can and cannot be used for, most would be very impressed with the Toshiba Chromebook 2. Given you are comfortable within Google’s world, and don’t need Microsoft Office, there isn’t a better deal you can find in terms of value for money. Casual browsing, multimedia, basic productivity, email, social networking, and everything else that the majority of people do within the Chrome browser already, works easily, fluidly and quickly. The display quality, internal storage, and processing power are by no means top of the line, but if you really are concerned with those things, you wouldn’t be looking for a machine less than $400 anyway. In fact, if you plan on gaming, editing audio and video or watching movies at the highest theatre quality, you won’t find something you’re happy with for the price of two Chromebooks for that matter. While it may take a shift in comfort, and some getting used to, a Chromebook is a the perfect laptop for those that just want to be online a quickly and easily as possible, and the Toshiba Chromebook 2 is a fantastic tool for doing just that.

*NOTE: I am aware that there is a newer Toshiba Chromebook 2 with 4gb ram and a 1080p IPS display. This is not that one. The name may be confusing, but in Australia, this is what it’s called. In any case, aside from the ram and display, the changes are minorly incremental. Though I have not tried the newer Chromebook 2, I’m positive you can apply everything I write here, but the newer one is better. In reality this is basically the original Toshiba Chromebook with the faster and less power-hungry n2830 instead of an old 2955u. Maybe it’s best to think of this as the Toshiba Chromebook 1.5.