Posts tagged with reviews

A case for my MacBook Pro: Snugg wallet case review

I did it. Earlier this year I caved and purchased a MacBook Pro 15″ Retina after being Mac-less for a few months despite some reservations about the lack of upgrade options.

Finally I had a lovely unibody machine. Now I needed something to prevent the beating my 17″ acquired over the years – something with a bit of padding to prevent the occasional bump as my backpacks tend to be very thin.

Imagine my surprise when the people at Snugg asked if I was interested in a free case to review. I’d been considering something quite plain but my eyes lit up at their Snugg MacBook Pro 15 Wallet Case in Brown Leather.

The case arrived a few days later and you can just smell the leather. The outside is a slightly rough texture (on the brown at least) with very neat stitching while the inside is a very smooth microfiber – presumably to ensure the MacBook slides in nicely.

Front of my MacBook Pro case.

The front flap snaps down with quite a strong magnet – a worry for the older magnetic hard drive machines perhaps but not a concern for people with SSD drives. It also features a small business card holder and the back has a full-width pouch that easily fits a few documents.

The fit is great, it is indeed “snugg” without being tricky to remove. Despite providing good protection the case isn’t bulky and fits nicely into my backpack and on one occasion I’ve just carried it as-is. Hmm I wonder if you could attach a shoulder-strap…

Side view of my MacBook Pro in the case.

I’ve taken to putting the case under my laptop – the slightly thicker top angling the laptop keyboard to a more comfortable position.

Overall a very nice case – I might grab one for my iPad and my wife has made it known to me that she’d quite like one too!

[)amien

Experiencing Chromecast – my review

My eagerly-awaited Chromecast arrived a couple of weeks ago. Despite the reports that Google had run out of Netflix codes my 3-month streaming code arrived a few days before by email – a great deal given that it is also valid for current Netflix customers too.

Setup

The requirements for using a Chromecast are:

  • HDMI-capable display
  • 2.4 GHz 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi network
  • iOS device, Android device or laptop with Chrome

The box

The box was quite small but contained everything you need and a couple of things you might not, specifically:

  1. Chromecast device – with HDMI at one end and Micro USB at the other
  2. Micro USB to USB cable – to provide power to the device
  3. HDMI extension cable – if Chromecast is obstructed from fitting in your HDMI port
  4. USB wall socket adapter – if you don’t have USB ports available

The device itself is a rather small affair about twice as long as a HDMI connector and a little wider and thicker.

Power

Some people are upset that it needs a USB power cable given the promo shots show no such cable.

HDMI however only supplies 50ma of power wile USB supplies 500-900mA. Chromecast is a small computer with 1080p output and Wi-Fi so it’s going to be needing a lot more than HDMI can supply. If you were hoping HDMI 1.4 would address that you’ll be disappointed.

Given that your options are:

  1. Plug USB cable into TV USB socket (if it has one that is always-on)
  2. Use included USB wall socket adapter
  3. Find something in range with an always-on USB socket

Configuration

My Yamaha receiver/amp is the hub for my system and all devices have to go through to get sound (it also makes switching device simpler).

My amp lives in a small confided space below my TV which reduces the Wi-Fi range but the Apple Time Capsule is near enough for a strong single and indeed the spare USB port it has provides power.

Connecting Chromecast to an amplifier

Once connected and powered up you’ll be presented with something like this on your screen which cycles through one of many beautiful background images both during setup and when idle. I’m not sure if the images are location-aware or Google chose it because they’re also in the bay area.

Chromecast setup on TV

Chromecast starts up with it’s own temporary wireless network. Then you download one of the two setup programs for either Mac or Windows and it will switch you to that network (with no warning, I hope you weren’t downloading anything) and will prompt you for your Wi-Fi details. With any luck it will switch Chromecast over to that and it’s up to you to switch your machine back.

A WPS option would have eliminated the need for downloads and disconnects but given how few people know about WPS (it’s very hidden away on my Time Capsule) it’s an understandable omission.

Netflix Playback

iPad

The Chromecast is a very lightweight device and as such you need another device to control it. My wife and I both have iPad’s that are normally nearby so this is primarily the source of plays.

Basically the app looks as normal however you’ll see a little icon at the top right. I’m going to call this the “cast” icon as it’s also used in YouTube and the Chrome Cast plug-in. Tapping it shows which of your devices to play on. If something is already playing you get a blue bar at the top to let you jump in to control it:

Netflix + iPad asking what to play onNetflix + iPad showing already playing

Once the show or movie is playing you get artwork for the show and a bunch of controls to move forward/backward, change audio and subtitle options or go back. Hidden behind the stack of cards at the top is the episode menu for switching episode or season. This is useful as there isn’t yet a “post-play” experience to take you to the next episode automatically.

I ran into a problem that should your HDMI link be interrupted or your iPad sleep you may get the error I captured below. If you do you’ll need to quit the Netflix app and restart it to regain control.

Netflix + iPad showing already playingNetflix + iPad showing connect error

Android

Netflix for Android behaves in a very similar way to the iPad – the same blue bar while playing and a very similar during-playback experience and menu button. I’ve not included screenshots because it is so similar but I can put them up if anyone asks :)

Web/Silverlight

Running the Silverlight based player from the website also reveals the cast icon tucked between subtitles and sharing on the playback control but only if it is running within Chrome and the extension is installed. This works on both the PC and the Mac despite Silverlight for Chrome on the Mac never becoming officially supported by Microsoft.

Netflix + Silverlight showing play on

Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer users are out of luck for now although it there is a possibility that Windows 8.1 and IE 11 with HTML5 based playback may have the option – I’ll have to try it and report back. (Windows 8.x DRM doesn’t work in a virtual machine)

Chrome

YouTube

I have a love-hate relationship with YouTube. I love the wide variety of content but hate the duplicate content, poor encoding, confusing channel organization, re-buffering and choppy full-screen performance on Chrome for Mac. (Works fine in Safari, how odd)

Thankfully Chromecast solves a couple of these. Re-buffering and full-screen performance are great here. Just find your video and hit the cast icon at the bottom right to choose where to start it in a similar way to Netflix.

YouTube asking what to play on

When it’s already playing the Chrome Cast extension gets involved and shows you what is going on:

Chrome Cast extension showing details

If you try clicking this icon to cast either YouTube or Netflix you’ll get a warning telling you to use the icons within the players themselves. This is a bit clunky and I would imagine Google will improve the interop here in the future so you can just always use the Cast button.

Web

As well as video streaming you can browse web sites from Chrome using the Cast extension. Simply hit the Cast button on the toolbar and choose again where you want it to go:

Chrome Cast extension menu

There are also various options available to control how things look on the screen.

Chrome Cast extension options

Rendering quality is okay from a distance but a mess close-up most likely due to the 720p limit and some sort of scaling going on. 1 pixel lines and curves are a mess as is small text.

Usability is okay as long as you are looking at your laptop and not your TV as there is no mouse pointer, context menus, toolbars and a second or two of lag even over fast solid Wi-Fi.

Weirdly selected text shows as selected and web sites with hover effects show that effect even with no mouse. I think these omissions and inclusions are simply the result of what Chrome renders via WebKit rather than a rational set of choices.

Oddly I received performance warnings on a MacBook Pro 2.6 GHz with no major apps running.

Desktop sharing

Usability and screen display quality were massively improved by choosing the semi-hidden and experimental “Cast entire screen”:

Chrome Cast desktop sharing option

This could give offices a very cool and simple way to setup sharing for presentations in Keynote/PowerPoint without the dreaded hunt for the right cable or adapter that always seems to happen.

Lag was also improved when dropping down to lower resolutions.

Suggested improvements

It’s a great device but there is always room for improvement. I’d like to see:

  1. More video streaming services – Hulu & Amazon Prime
  2. Some music streaming services – Spotify & Pandora
  3. DLNA streaming support for existing media/libraries
  4. Native Mac OS X & Windows drivers to add Chromecast as additional wireless display
  5. Configure a source for background images when not in use

More streaming services are coming so that’s covered.

Getting DLNA support (or indeed Airplay for Mac loving friends) will probably require some open source efforts. Thankfully Google have the start of a Google Cast API/SDK available so that should just be a matter of time.

The wireless second display option would be awesome for developers, testers and presenters. Let’s hope somebody figures that out.

Conclusion

The Chromecast is a great device.

From the time we switched it as completely taken over our Netflix home viewing. We were using an Xbox 360 but the Chromecast:

  • is faster to launch
  • is quieter
  • supports 1080p (the Xbox runs native 1080p on only a handful of titles, everything else is hardware up-scaled)
  • supports Netflix profiles
  • doesn’t play cheesy UI effect noises through my surround system
  • uses less power

Additionally instead of watching YouTube on our laptops we just cast them over to the big screen and sound.

For $35 it’s an absolute steal.

[)amien

Disclosure: As a former Netflix employee I have stock options in Netflix.

Acer Aspire S7 review – two months in

Given my new focus on Windows 8 apps and the loss of my MacBook Pro I was in the market for a Windows 8 laptop.

My requirements were that it had a touchscreen display with at least 1080p resolution, fast (i5 or better with an SSD) and very slim. You’d be surprised at how such simple requirements leave you with such a small selection right now.

I settled on the Acer Aspire S7 although I had a couple of reservations as it supports a maximum of 4GB of RAM and a glossy display. Here’s my thoughts so far after two months of almost-daily use:

Buying experience

I picked up the machine from my local Microsoft Store in the mall. The process was quick and painless and I was in and out in under 10 minutes even though the store was rather busy. I did have to decline a free Windows 8 tutorial but otherwise it was plain sailing.

Un-boxing

The product was well packed and nicely presented very much like an Apple product. The similarities ended there however as unlike Apple the box included a bunch of items Apple would charge extra for. These were:

  1. Leather-like slip-cover
  2. Small Acer-branded Bluetooth mouse
  3. USB to Ethernet adapter
  4. Mini-HDMI to VGA adapter

The adapters are very useful, the mouse of no use to me (I only use Logitech G5/G500’s) and the slip-cover I thought would be useful but is a bit unwieldy and it started to break after light use.

Anyone complaining that the machine doesn’t have Ethernet or VGA physically built into the device (I’m looking at you ZDNet) would do well to remember that both those connectors are thicker than this machine and there are plenty of thick klunky machines to choose from if having it built-in is important to you.

There is a good video on YouTube that shows somebody else actually going through the unboxing process.

Display

The tiny 13.3″ display sports almost the same resolution as my 24″ Dell at 1600 x 1080 and at this size and resolution the screen is great. Small text is not unreadable  at the regular DPI and larger text feels smooth and refined.

The touch aspect of this screen is incredible and I’m able to reliably move 8 objects concurrently on the game we wrote called Sticker Tales. The display actually supports ten concurrent touch points but at 13.3″ trying to find space for ten fingers to move is tricky unless you have tiny fingers.

That’s not to say everything about the display is good. As usual the gloss finish is incredibly annoying and within a week it has three indentations presumably from being pressed against small specs when closed against the keyboard although I’ve not seen the actual cause. Thankfully you can only spot them when the screen is mostly dark and the display is very bright and colorful.

Unlike some of the current touch-capable machines the screen on this one doesn’t completely flip over. It can however go completely flat… that might erm, be useful… to someone?

Keyboard

The keyboard is a mixed bunch. The basic layout and feel of the keyboard is good and it follows an almost-flush (2mm raised) chiclet style keyboard with back-lighting. Okay, that’s the good news.

The bad news is that there are no function keys so it’s Fn+numbers for those. The back-light comes on every time you bring the machine out of sleep and you have to tap Fn+U several times to get rid of it. There are a bunch of Fn special keys across Q through O the worst of which is Fn+T which is easily hit and turns off the track-pad with no notification. You’ll be incredibly confused the first couple of times you do this when you meant to press CtrlT to open a new tab.

Another annoyance for developers and power users is that the home/page up and end/page down are flush with the left and right arrows. Get used to typos. Symbols and the caps/enter keys are also a bit unusual too. Overall the keyboard feels more style over usability.

Track-pad

The track-pad is probably good enough for most people. Frankly my mind is so hard-wired from the hard-button on my pre-unibody MacBook Pro that I’ve been struggling with button-less track-pads ever since. Thankfully the included software lets you disable some of the more annoying gestures like zoom if you’re having issues retraining your digits.

Weight and size

I have to admit the weight is awesome and despite my reservations after 4 years on a 17″ laptop the size is great. I really wouldn’t want to go any smaller though and when I get my own personal machine (this Aspire is a work one) later this year it will likely be a 15″ primarily because of the keyboard space limitations on a 13.3″ and the fact I don’t want…

Graphics

Like all sub-15″ ultrabooks you’re stuck with the Intel HD 4000 graphics that are actually embedded inside the Ivy Bridge Intel Core i5/i7 CPU. Yes, even Apple’s 13″ MacBook’s suffer this limitation too.

If you want better graphics performance in an Ultrabook you’re probably going to have to wait until June when Intel’s new replacement for Ivy Bridge comes out and the graphics get ramped again.

Conclusion

This is a great machine for overall regular and light usage but I can’t recommend it to developers.

The lack of function keys mixed with the 4GB RAM limit are going to be painful for users of virtual machines or IDEs. If Acer had sense they would up the RAM on the i7 version to 8GB to further differentiate the two.

[)amien

Great books coming to the big screen

As you may have guessed I enjoy books and movies very much and so when I hear that a book I loved is getting the film treatment I’m filled with excitement and apprehension as to whether it will live up to the imagery in my head.

Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series were both spot on, Paycheck was very much off the mark.

Here’s a few in the pipeline or already released elsewhere but yet to hit the UK.

Stardust (2007)Stardust at Amazon

One of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, wrote a grown-up fairy-tale about a star that falls to Earth (a little like 10th Kingdom but with less comedy).

Much of the cast, the directory and writing team are all English although the ‘star’ role goes to the very lovely American Sienna Miller. The film is scheduled for an October 19th release here in the UK and is already out stateside.

Neil also has Beowulf and Coraline coming out in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

Northern Lights / The Golden Compass (2007)

The Golden Compass at Amazon

The first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series will no doubt be compared to Harry Potter in that it is a series aimed at children, features magic and has a strong female character in the lead. The similarities extend to the first book in the series having a different name in the USA and England but thankfully end there.

Whilst the casting of the film looks good abandoning the religious aspects is worrying – why DO the directors and film companies feel the need to excise or alter important parts of source material that has already proven a commercial success?

Cross your fingers and hope it hasn’t lost too much for the UK release on December 7th.

I Am Legend (2007)

I Am Legend at Amazon

Will Smith is leading the role as the last human being alive on the planet after a condition turns the rest of the population into vampires. He goes hunting by day whilst they sleep and ensures his home is fortified for the nightly onslaught when they wake.

Richard Matheson penned the novella in 1954, any novel still in print 50+ years after it was written signals to me the book must be good.

One worry is that Hollywood will turn this into a massive in-your-face action flick instead of the brooding horror of the book. The trivia at IMDB notes large budgets, sets and military vehicles/extras so this is a very distinct possibility. Hollywood have done this several times with Philip K Dick’s books and just not getting the point that his stories show ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

We will find out here in the UK January 4th and Mr Matheson has The Box and The Incredible Shrinking Man due out in 2008.

The Golden Man / Next (2007)

Second Variety (Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 3) at Amazon

Philip K Dick’s book is the story of a golden man, the next evolution of humanity, who can see into the near future and his attempt at escaping his pursuers (kind of like the escape scene in Minority Report).

Not technically forthcoming as it hit the UK shores in April but I missed it being that it had a totally different name to the book. Being that the guy who can see into the future is now a Las Vegas magician played by Nicholas Cage I’m not sure I’ll bother.

If there was a point to the book about how we will react to our own evolution it’s lost. Perhaps Hollywood think that’s been covered enough by the X-Men franchise.

Altered Carbon (2009 ?)

Altered Carbon at Amazon

Richard K. Morgan writes the story of one Takeshi Kovacks, an ex-military elite soldier in a future where your body is easily replaced providing the metal backup device implanted in the base of your skull is in tact. Kovacks is egotistical, violent and methodical in his new job as a private investigator seeking out why his rich client apparently committed suicide (and was promptly restored from backup but lost some essential hours).

The book is gritty and certainly not aimed at children. Would Hollywood pay the big bucks required to get the imagery right for such a grand undertaking of a film that would be limited to an adult/18 category is unlikely but somebody has the rights and is penning in a 2009 release date.

If the film is a success there are two more books in the series which will demand grander sets and even larger budgets.

Rendezvous with Rama (2009 ?)

Rendezvous with Rama

Morgan Freeman picked up the rights to Arthur C. Clarke’s fantastic novel about a large cylindrical object that enters our solar system briefly and the subsequent exploration of it’s interior but has seemingly done little since.

There used to be a web site with some renders and notes but that has long since gone and the ‘producers are still working on the adaptation’ and Morgan’s schedule seems to indicate he is rather busy on other projects.

Morgan claims that part of the delay is getting a studio on board that doesn’t want to turn it into an action movie (great news and can be a success as Contact shows) and that they are still working on the script (get David Peoples on the case).

Whilst the film is on a grand scale it would probably be relatively cheap to film as most of it could be green-screened against rendered backgrounds being that everything inside Rama is not man-made anyway.

[)amien