Thursday, 17 April 2014

Windows Phone 8.1 on my Nokia Lumia 720

Sometimes, I'm an early adopter. I don't often take the risk but there's no charge (as I'm a registered developer) and little danger in updating to Windows Phone 8.1 on my Lumia 720. The only thing that made me think twice is the idea that if something goes wrong there's no way to downgrade it again.

I can live with that. If there's anything seriously wrong Microsoft can bypass the carriers and offer another update.

The method was simple. Switch a few settings to pretend I'm American (I get to keep my UK currency etc) then install the 'Preview for Developers' app from the Windows Phone store and follow it up with a few prompted-for updates.

The end result is pretty neat. Cortana is excellent at deciphering my Northern British accent (if not totally brilliant at finding the result), the notification centre works as expected and is a welcome addition to Live Tiles (which I still prefer, incidentally), and the home screen background option can, if done okay, look quite groovy (see left).

It's a little tricky getting a background that works okay as firstly it could do with being a consistent contrast and secondly if it's a fussy image then your tiles can be 'lost' in the jumble.

I'm also liking the quick settings access on the notification drop-down, plus the ability to have apps downloaded onto the SD card could come in useful given that there are some games over 2GB in size!

I've had no performance problems, even on a lowly 720. My only real complaint is the new music app occasionally crashes during the selection process (but not playback).

All in all, it now feels more on parity with iOS and Android whilst retaining the distinctive (and superior) look, feel and ease of use of Windows Phone.

Recommended.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

New Writing Machine - Acer Chromebook C720

After getting back from visiting the in-laws over Christmas, I switched on my Samsung ARM Chromebook to find out it was broken.

To be fair, it was broken before I went (the trackpad is useless and just makes the pointer jump wildly around the screen at random). I had taken the back off, adjusted things and upon putting it back together it was working again. However, it was now broken once more and I cannot realistically take it apart before using it each time (I could use an external mouse, but choose not to).

One of the benefits of Chromebooks is that the nature of the cloud backing from Google means that switching to a new machine is as simple as signing in. All settings are transparently replicated and all data is in Google Drive (there is usually a 16GB SSD but it’s not really encouraged for long-term storage).

So, I bought an Acer C720 and within a minute or two of un-boxing it was signed in and carrying on as before.

I considered the HP Chromebook 11 or 14 but decided against them. The 14" is too big for my tastes (and the Google section of the shop said they were pre-ordered until June). The 11" had been withdrawn because of the charger – though I would have been happy to take one of the older ones and get the charger replaced.

Battery Life

As it happens I’m glad I went for the C720. I switched it on mid-afternoon yesterday and after around 5 hours of total actual usage the battery still showed another 9 hours left (that’s a little more than expected, but even now I’m on 54% charge and it is estimating over 5 hours).

Performance

It uses an Intel Haswell chip so not only does it give much better life than the other Chromebooks, but the performance is enhanced too. I can get at least double the tabs active (in comparison to the Samsung) before noticing any impact.

Screen Display

The Samsung has a matte display which is quite nice but rather dull and washed out. The C720 has a bright, shiny display (which can easily run on less than 100% brightness for battery efficiency) with vivid colours and clear text. In bright sunlight it is nowhere near as good as the Samsung but in all other situations it is superb – nearly as good as my 2012 MacBook Air (though not the wife’s Retina MacBook Pro).

Keyboard

It’s more difficult to be definitive on the keyboard. It feels good. It responds well. The arrow keys are nicely laid out, and the usual Chrome keys are as expected. I have no problem at all typing on it – the only concern is that on occasion it feels a little 'soft' but nothing that would be problematic. The Air beats it (but is 5 times the price). The Samsung is about on a par. There’s no back-light but I can live with that.

Sound

Disappointing at loud volumes. By which I mean full volume music has distortion. However, watching Netflix the sound is perfectly clear and distortion-free as the volume is more than enough without needing to go over about 75% anyway. Remember the price though ;).

Trackpad

As good as the Air. Seriously. Some reviews I've seen might imply otherwise, but once I turned on 'Australian Scrolling' in the settings it worked exactly as expected. I have fully usable click-tap, double-tap for context menu, click-drag and bi-directional scrolling.

Storage

You get 16GB of fast SSD, but to be honest it’s only there for temporary use as your Google Drive will also work offline and sync on re-connection. There’s an SD card slot plus 100GB of Drive space included.

Be aware though (and this is not made clear in advance) that the 100GB offer is only allowed once per account. As this is my second Chromebook I expected either a bump to 200GB or for the existing 100GB to be restarted hence giving me it for longer. However it knows my account has already had this offer applied once and refused to allow either case (in the end, I signed onto the machine under another of my accounts and got it applied to that one instead).

Conclusion

At a fifth the price of the Air it’s a bargain. Obviously it runs Chrome OS so there is no installing of local software (Chrome browser apps are fine). Ignore the FUD – there is no problem with running Chromebooks offline. You could write an entire book offline and the next time you connect it will automatically sync back up to your Google Drive. Plus, many browser apps work offline anyway.

It’s cheap, but doesn't feel as cheap as it is. It’s also powerful enough for the things it is designed to do, and has excellent battery life. The best purchase I have made for quite a while, and highly recommended.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Initial Experiments with PovRay

PovRay is a strange but powerful beast.

Rather than use an interactive sculpting tool like True Space or it's ilk, PovRay is procedural. You give it instructions and it runs them to create the final image programmatically.

I've been experimenting. The image you see on this post has been generated entirely by commands - that is, no manual drawing input. The raw source files are only a couple of screens of text, yet the output (renderable at any resolution I choose) is excellent.

I'm not providing the source here, but if you are drawing anything (or creating covers) mechanical, structural, science fictional or the like then I highly recommend it.