Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review: Tech for University

Now that you're in University, you might be wondering what new tech you might need.  In the run up to University, big store pushing ‘back to school’ tech sales in our face.  You might see PCWorld having big banners advertising £100 discount off the latest computers or £50 rebate with the purchase of a certain brand of computer.  And it may seem that technology may be embedded into our daily lives, but I’m here to guide you through the maze of tech buying.  I will help you stay cool and within budget.

Computers

It is no arguing that computers and students go hand in hand.  Almost all of the lecture notes in the upcoming weeks can be found on Blackboard (Blackboard.swan.ac.uk) and most of you will be writing essay papers  on computers to be printed out later.


Today, there are so many laptops and so much competition in the market you should have no problem finding one that suits your needs at a reasonable price.  


Four of the most important hardware specs to look at when buying a new Windows PC are processor, memory, graphic card, and storage.


Processor

Computer processors come a myriad of model with a confusing number based model like the Core i7, i5, etc.  For everyday tasks, Core i3 or i5 would suit your need.  For the gamers out there, if your budget suits, you could going for the Core i7 processor, depending on the need of the game you’re playing since not all games are built equal.


Random Access Memory (RAM)

Ram is your computer’s ‘working area.’  The more RAM you have, the more concurrent tasks your computer can perform at the same time.  An example would be working on an essay while playing music in the background.  For an headache-less experience, look for a laptop around 4 GBs of RAM or more.


Storage

Your computer storage is like a filing cabinet.  The more storage you have, the more you can store.  Music, videos, pictures, and university work all use up storage.  Long ago, if you store a lot of things on your computer, just get a computer with more storage options.


However, nowadays, there are tons of cloud storage option available.  Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive allow you to save your work online and then access them anywhere.  So essentially you might not need that big a storage that a salesperson might be pushing at you.


In addition, adding to the mix are the two main types of hard drives HHDs and SSDs.  HHD or hard-disk drives are the traditional platter based hard drive of magnetic tapes that store your files.  As you can imagine, it takes time for the platter to ‘spin’ to the right place where the file is stored.  Therefore, SSDs or solid-state drives were created.  Unlike HHDs, SSDs have no moving parts; therefore, data can be accessed instantly with little to no delay.  It allows your computer more speed and efficiency.  A drawback of SSDs are the cost.  SSDs are a more expensive per GB.  But they might be worth your attention if you don’t store a lot of things on your computer.  And even if you do, hybrid-drives are an alternative compromise, storing essential software files on the SSD while regular files sit on the larger HHDs.


Graphics card

Graphics card, as the name suggest, os hardware that is used to convert the 1’s and 0’s into an image that you can see.  Cheap laptops often have the graphic processor built into the circuit board or even into the main processor chip.  These might be perfectly fine for everyday use, but for the power hungry gamer out there, it might be worth investing in a dedicated graphic card for maximum performance.


In addition to the hardware specs, an important aspect of a computer is the operating system.  Below are three of the most popular computer system.

Mac OS X
It is often the goto computer in movie University where all students are seen carrying one of these shiny slick aluminum machines.  But it is no arguing that they are quite pricey.  But if Apple is your liking you can grab a cheap bargain by going to the Apple Student store and buying a new device from there.  As of the writing of this blog, Apple is offering 15% off selected iMac lines.


Microsoft Windows OS


 Microsoft Windows is the king of operating system.  It is the de facto operating system of choice by manufacturers.  In addition, Microsoft is offering Windows 10 free of charge to users of Windows 7 or newer.  According to Microsoft’s website, this upgrade will only be valid for up to a year.  And since Windows 10 came out in July 29, 2015, I assume the offer will cease on July 29, 2016.  After that date you will have to start paying for an upgrade to the new operating system.


There are tons of computer buying guide out there, but ultimately the decision rest with you with choosing a computer that fit your needs.  Like the Mac OS X mention above, many of the Windows manufacturers are offering ‘student stores’ that offer discounts on the popular range of PCs.  One example is the HP student store.


Google Chrome OS

Google Chromebooks are the newcomers on the block.  They are powered by Chrome OS, a brand new operating system built by Google from the ground up with a view toward the web. If you have used a Chrome browser, you have pretty much used the operating system.  Chrome OS is a browser OS, and it is lightweight and require very little resource.  Updates install on the background and simply require a reboot to start. In addition, Chrome OS takes mere seconds (around 7 in my tests) from pressing the power button to being on the web.


Now you might be asking what use is a web browser when you can’t do anything offline.  Thanks to the Microsoft Scroogled smear campaign attempt to discredit Chrome OS, Chrome OS is painted in a negative light that it is basically a paperweight since it can’t do things that a ‘real PC’ can do.  Well don’t fret.  Word processing? No problem. Two solutions are available: Google docs or Microsoft Office online. Music your thing? No biggy. I'm pretty sure most of you are on YouTube anyway. Plus you can upload your music to Google Play Music online and it will work on any PC.  Anything you do on a traditional computer there is an equivalent application on the web.


Two Chromebooks I would recommend is the Dell Chromebook 11 or the Acer Chromebook 15. I personally have a HP Chromebook 14 powered by the Celeron 2995u processor with 4 GB RAM.


Cell Phones

It seems that cellphones are all the craze nowadays, with the top of the line Samsung Galaxy S6 or iPhone 6 seen as ‘cool’ and hip.  But do you really need those phones or that many minutes.  Shop around and find the best deal to suit your need.  You may find out you don’t actually need that much minutes offered on the plan.


In addition, you could try getting last year model or the year before that.  They are just as capable.  How much do you need the new iPhone 6 or the new Samsung Galaxy S6?  You could easily grab a bargain on the old iPhone 5 or the old Galaxy S4 or S5.  Last year’s flagship models are just as capable as this year’s model for a fraction of the cost.  In addition, there are tons of cheaper alternative like Motorola Moto X Play (from £21.99 per month (EE) or £249.99 sim free at Carphone Warehouse) or the Moto G (from £16.99 per month (EE) or £159.99 sim free at Carphone Warehouse).


Tablets

Tablets are perhaps the least appreciated techology.  With phones getting bigger and computers getting smaller, tablets are slowly getting crowded out of the market.  But tablets are great for taking notes.  I have one and frequently use that to scribble on lecture slides with any notes that I want to add during lectures.  However, but you don’t need to go purchase a new tablet just for University. You could always search eBay for a good second hand tablet


There are many tablets out there, but I personally recommend the Galaxy Note range since they have a stylus, which is good for taking notes.


Office software

Now we move onto the software.  I’m sure many of you are familiar with Microsoft Office for writing documents.  But if you don’t have that, don’t fret.  Swansea University provides a free copy of Office ProPlus for the PC (inc. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher etc.) or Microsoft Office for Apple Mac (inc. Word, Excel and PowerPoint).  To download a copy go to https://myuni.swan.ac.uk/myuni-library/media-and-it-support/. There maybe a similar deal offered by your local University


In addition, there are tons of free Microsoft office alternative out there.  One of them is Google’s Docs, which is an online document writer that is just as good as Microsoft Office.  One advantage of Google docs is that it allows easy collaboration of the document with other students.  Just click “share” on the document and then type on the email.  Then all your friends or group partner can type in the same document in real time.  There’s even a Google chat to discuss ideas.


Another free alternative is Openoffice or Microsoft Office Online, which is a watered down Office provided online by Microsoft.  It is quite similar to Google docs.

In summary, you don’t have to spend big bucks and go broke buying all the necessary techs for university.  And wherever the road may take you, have fun and enjoy your time at your chosen university!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Update: Review: Fallout Shelter on Android


This is an update to my review of Fallout Shelter on iOS.  In that review, I said that the game constantly crashes on my iPad Mini.

When the game came out on Android, I had to give it a try.  I installed the game on my Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (N1080) and started it.

The game went through a quick tutorial before letting the player do what they want.  While the experience was better in the sense that it didn't crash, it was not much different to the other resource based games like Virtual Villagers.  You have to build rooms for the resources (food, electricity, and fresh water).  The achievements is a good way to quickly build up your shelter.

I have also bought the Mr. Handy robot to gather resources when I'm offline.

Fallout Shelter gameplay.  Vault resources are shown along  top of the screen.

A notification appears when a room produces resources.

However, after a day of playing the game, I quickly became bored.  The game require me to do the same task repeatedly.  To "spice things up," the game occasionally throw monsters at you that you have to defeat.  But it feels like a treadmill.  You'll just keep fighting the same Raiders and Radroaches you fought thirty hours ago, an
d maybe you'll now kill them 25% faster with all your fancy new gear.

Also, there is no peace in your life if you decide to play the game.  The game frequently prompts you to return to it.  Also, if I'm not on the game, I have a sort of withdrawal symptom where I worry that if I'm not on, my colony would be doom.  At the back of my head I get the nagging feeling is the raider gone for too long and thus is dead?  Is my colony starving?

In the end, although the game is "better" than the other open ended resource based game in the sense in that you don't have to pay to "win" the game, I decided to free myself from the chain and uninstall the game from the tablet.

As Paul Tassi from Fobes.com said in A Warning To New 'Fallout Shelter' Players On Android, "It’s the dumbest kind of addiction ... . I wouldn’t have anyone else do the same before figuring out what a shallow experience the game really is.  One day is enough, and it’s the developer’s fault for not making it any deeper than that."

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Rant: Samsung and the case of the disappearing MicroSD Card

I have noticed a trend with major smartphone manufacturers to exclude MicroSD card slots from their phones in order to differentiate the different varieties and sell phones of different storage capacities.

What is a MicroSD card?  Well a MicroSD card, such as the one pictured to the right, is a type of storage device that allows you to store pictures, movies, music, etc on it.  Once upon a time, when internal storage was meagre, MicroSD Card was all the rage.  It allowed manufacturers to get away with less internal storage.  However, with smartphones, the apps are typically stored in the phone's internal storage, making the MicroSD card external storage quite useless for the task.

Then came Apple, whose first smartphone, the iPhone, didn't come with external storage.  Instead of allowing expandable storage, they sold their device with varying capacity of storage, where the user have to "predict" the amount of storage they might need in the future and buy the appropriate model.  I have heard too many a tale where iPhone users have "ran out of storage" since their storage needs have grown since they last bought the phone.  Also, each iteration of the iOS operating system that powers Apple's mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) were heavier than the last.  Thus, they ate more of the internal storage, leaving less space for the user.

If the iPhone had external storage, the user could have just bought an external storage card and offload all their photos onto that.  Some may argue, "but wait there's USB OTG (on the go), which allow you to plug in your USB storage device like flash drive."  To that I say, ha!  Would you seriously want to carry a USB pendrive around just in case you want to show your friends photos or playback music that you have "archived" since you no longer use them?

But thank gods that Android phones all come with a MicroSD card slt.  But wait, it seems that the MicroSD card slot is slowly growing missing.  In the mainstream Android market, the Nexus devices were first the one to do away with the slots.  First gen Motorola G and Moto X didn't come with the slots either and neither did the HTC One (M7).  However, those companies found the error in the ways and brought back the slot in later models of the devices.

However, it seems that Samsung, whose phones had always had an MicroSD card slot, is doing away with them.  The S6 and S6 edge device didn't come with the slot, much to my chagrin.  Instead they feature a metallic look that harken to the Apple iPhones.

While I'm not a big fan of the Samsung's physical button and their layout of the back / app switcher is opposite to 99% of non Samsung devices, in the past I was willing to give Samsung phones a go (I had one but swapped it for an Xperia Z2), but without the MicroSD card, it's bye bye Samsung. I am a long time Android user and my first smartphone phone is a Samsung device.  And plus, Samsung did a backward step here with the S6 and S6 Edge. The Samsung S5 had waterproofing whereas the S6 doesn't. On the other hand, Sony has done the opposite. The Xperia M doesn't have waterproofing while the M2 Aqua and all the latest range has waterproofing. In addition, the M4 has a capless waterproofed charger port. That means the only components that are hidden behind the caps are those you rarely touch i.e. the sim card and the MicroSD card slot.  It seems Samsung is trying to mimic Apple and "be cool" with their "redesign" turned out for the worse.

But enough about Samsung, the infamous (or famous depending on how you see it) OnePlus "smartphone killers" don't have the slots either.  OnePlus also relied on a clunky invite system, but that's beside the point.

By now you might be asking why would the company do away with the slots?  There could be a couple of reasons, simplifying of designs.  But the biggest factor is profits.  The MicroSD card stood in the way of storage differentiation.  With the slot present, if you need a larger storage, you could just go to a store and get a larger capacity card.  That means less profits to the smartphone manufacturers (and more to the MicroSD card producers).  Without the slot, the smartphone manufacturers can force user to buy a more expensive phone in anticipation of the storage that the consumer may need as in the consumer's eye, it's better to have more storage than less (and this is true).

So no matter how the company spin it, taking out the MicroSD card slot is an attempt to squeeze more money from the consumers.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Rant: Luxury smart phones

I am appalled with so call "luxury" phones like the Vertu Ti Android Ferrari.  They can fetch of up to $11,999.99, which seems quite a lot for a simple phone.

But what's so great with the phone?  Specs?  Nope.   As seen from the chart below, the specs fall in with other mid range phones, such as the Google Nexus 4, which came out a few months ago.  And the Google Nexus 4 have a cheaper price tag of around £135.00, depending on whether you want it brand new or used.

Vertu claims to be made in England by a single craftsman who makes each unit by hand (like sculpt it by hand? I'm sure you can't make the battery by hand... or the processor) at the company headquarters in Hampshire. In addition, What sets the Vertu apart from other competitors, other than the titanium and sapphire crystal, is its "live personal assistant on-call" at the press of a button. Vertu's Concierge Services enables the user to call a live person in the same region as the user to do functions, such as booking exclusive hotels and dinner reservations that can easily be done via apps.

Another example is the Bellperre Touch, which like the Vertu, has abmismal specs. According to the website, its specs are:

  • Dimensions: 138.0 x 69.4 x 9.4 mm
  • Weight: 166 g, Micro-SIM
  • 4.9 inch Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen
  • 48 GB MEMORY + 2 GB RAM
  • 3.5mm jack, NFC, Multitouch
  • GPRS Class 12 (4+1/3+2/2+3/1+4 slots), 32 - 48 kbps
  • EDGE Class 12
  • Speed: HSDPA, 42 Mbps; HSUPA; LTE
  • WLAN: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct
  • DLNA, Wi-Fi hotspot
  • DISPLAY, 720 x 1280 pixels, 16M colors
  • 2G Network: 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
  • 3G Network: 850 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100
  • Bluetooth: v4.0, A2DP, EDR
  • Android OS, CPU Dual-core 1.5 GHz
  • MicroUSB v2.0 (MHL), USB On-the-go
  • Autofocus CAMERA 8 MP, 3264 x 2448 pixels, LED flash
  • Simultaneous HD video and image recording
  • 1080p@30fps Video
  • Secondary cam: 1.9 MP, 720p@30fps
  • Accelerometer sensor, gyro, proximity, compass, barometer
  • GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS
  • Active noise cancellation with dedicated mic
  • TV-out (via MHL A/V link)
  • MP4/DivX/XviD/WMV/H.264/H.263 player
  • MP3/WAV/eAAC+/AC3/FLAC player
  • Organizer, Photo/video editor
  • Document editor (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF)
  • Stand-by: (2G) / Up to 330 h (3G)
  • Talk time: (2G) / Up to 14 h (3G)
  • Music play: Up to 48 h

In conclusion, are luxury phones worth it? Definately not. Unless you're looking for a phone for a permanent showcase, they quickly get outdated. And an advice for luxury phone makers, please make your phones specs worth the price. You could maybe stuff your phone with like 4 GB no 8 GB of ram, 128 GB or 1 TB of internal storage with microsd card expansion, and the top of the line custom octo-core (8 cores) processor with a clock speed of 3 GHz or greater.