A look at Google’s Pixel C

Since my last thoughts on trips away without a laptop, I have come by Google’s Pixel C. It is a 10″ tablet so it may not raise hackles on an aircraft like the 12.9″ screen of the large Apple iPad Pro might. The one that I have tried comes with 64 GB of storage space and its companion keyboard cover (there is a folio version). Together, they can be bought for £448, a saving of £150 on the full price.

Google Pixel C

The Pixel C keyboard cover uses strong magnets to hold the tablet onto it and that does mean some extra effort when changing between the various modes. These include covering the tablet screen as well as piggy backing onto it with the screen side showing or attached in such a way that allows typing. The latter usefully allows you to vary the screen angle as you see fit instead of having to stick with whatever is selected for you by a manufacturer. Unlike the physical connection offered by an iPad Pro, Bluetooth is the means offered by the Pixel C and it works just as well from my experiences so far. Because of the smaller size, it feels a little cramped in comparison with a full size keyboard or even that with a 12.9″ iPad Pro. They also are of the scrabble variety though they work well otherwise.

The tablet itself is impressively fast compared to a HTC One A9 phone or even a Google Nexus 9 and that became very clear when it came to installing or updating apps. The speed is just as well since an upgrade to Android 7 (Nougat) was needed on the one that I tried. You can turn on adaptive brightness too, which is a bonus. Audio quality is nowhere near as good as a 12.9″ iPad Pro but that of the screen easily is good enough for assessing photos stored on a WD My Passport Wireless portable hard drive using the WD My Cloud app.

All in all, it may offer that bit more flexibility for overseas trips compared to the bigger iPad Pro so I am tempted to bring one with me instead. The possibility of seeing newly captured photos in slideshow mode is a big selling point since it does functions well for tasks like writing emails or blog posts, like this one since it started life on there. Otherwise, this is a well made device.

More thinking on travelling without a laptop

When it comes to the technology that I carry with me on trips away, I have begun to start weighing devices on my kitchen scales. The results are a little revealing. The HP Pavilion dm5 that has gone with me to Ireland and other places weighs between 2.5 and 3 kg while my Apple iPad Mini 2 comes in at 764 grams. My 12.9″ iPad Pro with its Logitech keyboard weighs between these at 110 to 1200 grams. The idea of consolidating computing devices for travel has been discussed on here before now and the main thing stopping my just going with the iPad Pro was the viewing of photos without filling up its 32 GB of storage space.

Since then, I just may have found a workaround and it is another gadget, this time weighing only a few hundred grams: a 1 TB WD My Passport Wireless portable hard drive. Aside from having a SD card slot that allows the automatic backup of photos, it also can connect with tablets and phones using WiFi broadband.

WD My Passport Wireless

It is the WD My Cloud app that makes the connections to mobile devices useful and it works smoothly on iOS and Android devices too. Nevertheless, there is more functionality on the latter ones such as DNG file support and an added slide show feature that works with JPEG files. Both of these are invaluable for viewing photos and I feel a little short-changed that they are not available on iOS. Hopefully, that will get resolved sooner rather than later.

Thankfully, my Pentax K5 II DSLR camera can be persuaded to save DNG and JPEG files simultaneously so that they can be viewed full screen on both types of devices without having to transfer them onto the tablet first as you would with Apple’s SD card reader. Usefully, that gets around my oversight in buying iPads with only 32 GB of storage each. That now looks like a false economy given what I am trying now.

Such is the weight difference, just taking along my Apple iPad Pro and the WD device will save around 1 kg and there is less fuss at airport security screening too. While my HTC phone would suffice for seeing photos as slide shows, I am wondering if my battered Google Nexus 9 could come too. The only dilemma then would be how to pack things since I am not sure how a large iPad screen would seem to cabin crew or other passengers during take off and landing. That makes using the Nexus 9 onboard more of a proposition and the iPad might go into the hold luggage to make life a little easier. Still, that choice is a minor concern now that I can try travelling overseas without a laptop to see how I get along.

Thoughts on eBooks

In recent months, I have been doing a clear out of paper books in case the recent European Union referendum result in the U.K. affects my ability to stay there since I am an Irish citizen. In my two decades here, I have not felt as much uncertainty and lack of belonging as I do now. It is as if life wants to become difficult for a while.

What made the clearance easier was that there was of making sure that the books were re-used and eBooks replaced anything that I would wanted to keep. However, what I had not realised is that demand for eBooks has flatlined, something that only became apparent in recent article in PC Pro article penned by Stuart Turton. He had all sorts of suggestions about how to liven up the medium but I have some of my own.

Niall Benvie also broached the subject from the point of view of photographic display in an article for Outdoor Photography because most are looking at photos on their smartphones and that often reduces the quality of what they see. Having a partiality to photo books, it remains the one class of books that I am more likely to have in paper form, even I have an Apple iPad Pro (the original 12.9 inch version) and am using it to write these very words. There also is the six year old 24 inch Iiyama screen that I use with my home PC.

The two apps with which I have had experience are Google Play Books and Amazon Kindle, both of which I have used on both iOS and Android while I use the Windows app for the latter too. Both apps are simple and work effectively until you end up with something of a collection. Then, shortcomings become apparent.

Search functionality is something that can be hidden away on menus and that is why I missed it for so long. For example, Amazon’s Kindle supports puts the search box in a prominent place on iOS but hides the same function in menus on its Android or Windows incarnations. Google Play Books consistently does the latter from what I have seen and it would do no harm to have a search box on the library screen since menus and touchscreen devices do not mix as well. The ability to search within a book is similarly afflicted so this also needs moving to a more prominent place and is really handy for guidebooks or other more technical textbooks.

The ability to organise a collection appears to be another missed opportunity. The closest that I have seen so far are the Cloud and Device screens on Amazon’s Kindle app but even this is not ideal. Having the ability to select some books as favourites would help as would hiding others from the library screen would be an improvement. Having the ability to re-sell unwanted eBooks would be another worthwhile addition because you do just that with paper books.

When I started on this piece, I reached the conclusion the eBooks too closely mimicked libraries of paper books. Now, I am not so sure. It appears to me that the format is failing to take full advantage of its digital form and that might have been what Turton was trying to evoke but the examples that he used did not appeal to me. Also, we could do with more organisation functionality in apps and the ability to resell could be another opportunity. Instead, we appear to be getting digital libraries and there are times when a personal collection is best.

All the while, paper books are being packaged in ever more attractive ways and there always will be some that look better in paper form than in digital formats and that still applies to those with glossy appealing photos. Paper books almost feel like gift items these days and you cannot fault the ability to browse them by flicking through the pages with your hands.

Upgrading a 2012 Google Nexus 7 to Android 5.0

Today, I was lured into upgrading my 2012 Google (ASUS) Nexus 7 to the final version of Android 5.0 (also known as Lollipop) by an icon in the device’s top panel. Initially, it felt as it was working OK but a certain sluggish could not be overlooked and there have been complaints about this with some questioning the sense of what Google have done. However, there would have been comments about grandfathering the device if they had not left us have the latest release of Android so there was no victory either way. We humans are fickle creatures and there is an example of exactly that in a well observed double-ended short story by the Irish writer Maura Laverty.

My impressions of how the upgrade had lumbered the tablet had me wondering about replacing the thing with either an Apple iPad Mini 2 or a Google (HTC) Nexus 9 but a much less expensive option came to mind: doing a full factory reset of the device using its recovery mode. That may sound drastic but much of what I had on there was in the cloud anyway so there was nothing to lose. So these are the instructions from Google themselves and I will leave you to use them at your own risk:

  1. If your tablet is on, turn it off.
  2. Press and hold the Volume Down button, then press and hold the Power button at the same time until the tablet turns on. You’ll see the word “Start” with an arrow around it.
  3. Press the Volume Down button twice to highlight “Recovery mode”.
  4. Press the Power button to start Recovery mode. You’ll see an image of an Android robot with a red exclamation mark and the words “No command.”
  5. While holding down the Power button, press the Volume Up button.
  6. Use the volume buttons to scroll to “wipe data/factory reset,” then press the Power button to select it.
  7. Scroll down to “Yes -- erase all user data,” then press the Power button to select it.

Note: If your tablet becomes unresponsive at any point during these steps, you can restart it by holding down the Power button for several seconds.

Once that was completed and the tablet restarted, the set-up routine began and took around an hour to reinstate the various apps that had been lost by the rest. Much of that was down to the time taken for re-installation rather than that taken by the actual downloads themselves over a wired broadband connection. The wait was worth it because the Nexus 7 feels more responsive again. While there times when little lags are noticeable, they are nothing next to the slowdown that I had witnessed before the rest. It might have been a better option than attempting to return to Android 4.4.4 using a factory image, which was another option that I was considering. So long as there is no deterioration in speed, the effort expended to do a reset will have been worthwhile.

Piggybacking an Android Wi-Fi device off your Windows PC’s internet connection

One of the disadvantages of my Google/Asus Nexus 7 is that it needs a Wi-Fi connection to use. Most of the time this is not a problem since I also have a Huawei mobile WiFi hub from T-Mobile and this seems to work just about anywhere in the U.K. Away from the U.K. though, it won’t work because roaming is not switched on for it and that may be no bad thing with the fees that could introduce. My HTC Desire S could deputise but I need to watch costs with that too.

There’s also the factor of download caps and those apply both to the Huawei and to the HTC. Recently, I added Anquet‘s Outdoor Map Navigator (OMN) to my Nexus 7 through the Google Play store for a fee of £7 and that allows access to any walking maps that I have bought from Anquet. However, those are large downloads so the caps start to come into play. Frugality would help but I began to look at other possibilities that make use of a laptop’s Wi-Fi functionality.

Looking on the web, I found two options for this that work on Windows 7 (8 should be OK too): Connectify Hotspot and Virtual Router Manager. The first of these is commercial software but there is a Lite edition for those wanting to try it out; that it is not a time limited demo is not something that I can confirm though that did not seem to be the case since it looked as if only features were missing from it that you’d get if you paid for the Pro variant. The second option is an open source one and is free of charge apart from an invitation to donate to the project.

Though online tutorials show the usage of either of these to be straightforward, my experiences were not all that positive at the outset. In fact, there was something that I needed to do and that is why this post has come to exist at all. That happened even after the restart that Conectify Hotspot needed as part of its installation; it runs as a system service so that’s why the restart was needed. In fact, it was Virtual Router Manager that told me what the issue was and it needed no reboot. Neither did it cause network disconnection of a laptop like the Connectify offering did on me and that was the cause of its ejection from that system; limitations in favour of its paid addition aside, it may have the snazzier interface but I’ll take effective simplicity any day.

Using Virtual Router Manager turns out to be simple enough. It needs a network name (also known as an SSID), a password to restrict who accesses the network and the internet connection to be shared. In my case, the was Local Area Connection on the drop down list. With all the required information entered,  I was ready to start the router using the Start Network Router button. The text on this changes to Stop Network Router when the hub is operational or at least it should have done for me on the first time that I ran it. What I got instead was the following message:

The group or resource is not in the correct state to perform the requested operation.

The above may not say all that much but it becomes more than ample information if you enter it into the likes of Google. Behind the scenes, Virtual Router Manager is using native Windows functionality is create a WiFi hub from a PC and it appears to be the Microsoft Virtual Wi-Fi Miniport Adapter from what I have seen. When I tried setting up an adhoc Wi-Fi network from a laptop to the Nexus 7 using Windows’ own network set up capability via its Control Panel, it didn’t do what I needed so there might be something that third party software can do. So, the interesting thing about the solution to my Virtual Router Manager problem was that it needed me to delve into the innards of Windows a little.

Firstly, there’s running Command Prompt (All Programs > Accessories) from the Start Menu with Administrator privileges. It helps here if the account with which you log into Windows is in the Administrators group since all you have  to do then is right click on the Start Menu entry and choose Run as administrator entry in the pop-up context menu. With a command line window now open, you then need to issue the following command:

netsh wlan set hostednetwork mode=allow ssid=[network name] key=[password] keyUsage=persistent

When that had done its thing, Virtual Router Manager worked without a hitch though it did turn itself after a while and that may be no bad thing from the security standpoint. On the Android side, it was a matter of going in Settings > Wi-Fi and choose the new network that have been creating on the laptop. This sort of thing may apply to other types of tablet (Dare I mention iPads?) so you could connect anything to the hub without needing to do any more on the Windows side.

For those wanting to know what’s going on behind the scenes on Windows, there’s a useful tutorial on Instructables that shows what third party software is saving you from having to do. Even if I never go down the more DIY route, I probably have saved myself having to buy a mobile Wi-Fi hub for any trips to Éire. For now, the Irish 3G dongle that I already have should be enough.