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.

Pondering travel device consolidation using an Apple iPad Pro 12.9″

It was a change of job in 2010 that got me interested in using devices with internet connectivity on the go. Until then, the attraction of smartphones had not been strong but I got myself a Blackberry on a pay as you go contract but the entry device was painfully slow and the connectivity was 2G. It was a very sluggish start.

It was supplemented by an Asus eeePC that I connected to the internet using broadband dongles and a WiFi hub. This cumbersome arrangement did not work well on short journeys and the variability of mobile network reception even meant that longer journeys were not all that successful either. Usage in hotels and guesthouses though went better and that has meant that the miniature laptop came with me on many a journey.

In time, I moved away from broadband dongles to using smartphones as WiFi hubs and that largely is how I work with laptops and tablets away from home unless there is hotel WiFi available. Even trips overseas have seen me operate in much the same manner.

One feature is that we seem to carry quite a number of different gadgets with us at a time and that can cause inconvenience when going through airport security since they want to screen each device separately. When you are carrying a laptop, a tablet, a phone and a camera, it does take time to organise yourself and you can meet impatient staff as I found recently when returning from Oslo. Checking in whatever you can as hold luggage helps to get around at least some of the nuisance and it might be time for the use of better machinery to cut down on having to screen everything separately.

When you come away after an embarrassing episode as I once did, the attractions of consolidating devices start to become plain. In fact, most probably could get with having just their phone. It is when you take activities like photography more seriously that the gadget count increases. After all, the main reason a laptop comes on trips beyond Britain and Ireland at all is to back up photos from my camera in case an SD card fails.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9″

Parking that thought for a while, let’s go back to March this year when temptation overcame what should have been a period of personal restraint. The result was that a 32 GB 12.9″ Apple iPad Pro came into my possession along with an Apple Pencil and a Logitech CREATE Backlit Keyboard Case. It should have done so but the size of the screen did not strike me until I got it home from the Apple store and that was one of the main attractions because maps can be shown with a greater field of view in a variety of apps, a big selling point for a hiker with a liking for maps who wants more than anything from Apple, Google or even Bing. The precision of the Pencil is another boon that makes surfing the website so much easier and the solid connection between the case and the iPad means that keyboard usage is less fiddly than it would if it used Bluetooth. Having tried them with the BBC iPlayer app, I can confirm that the sound from the speakers is better than any other mobile device that I have used.

Already, it has come with me on trips around England and Scotland. These weekend trips saw me leave the Asus eeePC stay at home when it normally might have come with me and taking just a single device along with a camera or two had its uses too. The screen is large for reading on a train but I find that it works just as well so long as you have enough space. Otherwise, combining use of a suite of apps with recourse to the web does much of the information seeking needed while on a trip away and I was not found wanting. Battery life is good too, which helps.

Those trips allowed for a little light hotel room blog post editing too and the iPad Pro did what was needed though the ergonomics of reaching for the screen with the Pencil meant that meant that my arm was held aloft more than was ideal. Another thing that raised questions in my mind is the appearance of word suggestions at the bottom of the screen as if this were a mobile phone since I wondered if these were more of a hindrance than a help given that I just fancied typing and not pointing at the screen to complete words. Copying and pasting works too but I have found the screen-based version a little clunky so I must see if the keyboard one works just as well though the keyboard set up is typical of a Mac so that affects word selection. You need to use the OPTION key in the keyboard shortcut that you use for this and not COMMAND or CONTROL as you might do on a PC.

Transcend JetDrive Go 300

Even with these eccentricities, I was left wondering if it had any utility when it came to backing up photos from digital cameras and there is an SD card adapter that makes this possible. A failure of foresight on my part meant that the 32 GB capacity now is an obvious limitation but I think I might have hit on a possible solution that does not need upload to an iCloud account. It involves clearing off the photos onto a 128 GB Transcend JetDrive Go 300 so they do not clog up the iPad Pro’s storage. That the device has both Lightning and USB connectivity means that you can plug it into a laptop or desktop PC afterwards too. If that were to work as I would hope, then the laptop/tablet combination that I have been using for all overseas trips could be replaced  to allow a weight reduction as well as cutting the hassle at airport security.

Trips to Ireland still may see my sticking with a tried and tested combination though because I often have needed to do some printing while over there. While I have been able to print a test document from an iPad Mini on my home network-connected printer, not every model supports this and that for NFC or AirPrint is not universal either. If this were not an obstacle, apps like Pages, Numbers and Keynote could have their uses for business-related work and there are web-based offerings from Google, Microsoft and others too.

In conclusion, I have found the my iPad Pro does so much of what I need on a trip away that retiring the laptop/tablet combination for most of these is not as outrageous as it once would have seemed. In some ways, iOS has a way to go yet before it could take over from MacOS but it remains in development so it will be interesting see what happens next. All the while, hybrid devices running Windows 10 are becoming more pervasive and that might provide Apple with the encouragement that it needs.

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.

Widely differing approaches

The computer on which I am writing these words is running Linux Mint with the Cinnamon desktop environment, a fork of GNOME Shell. This looks as if it is going to be the default face of GNOME 3 in the next version of Linux Mint with the MGSE dressing up of GNOME Shell looking more and more like an interim measure until something more consistent was available. Some complained that what was delivered in version 12 of the distribution was a sort of greatest hits selection but I reckon that bets were being hedged by the project team.

Impressions of what’s coming

By default, you get a single panel at the bottom of your screen with everything you need in there. However, it is possible to change the layout so that the panel is at the top or there are two panels, one at the top and the other at the bottom. So far, there is no means of configuring which panel applet goes where as was the case in Linux Mint 11 and its predecessors. However, the default placements are very sensible so I have no cause for complaint at this point.

Just because you cannot place applets doesn’t mean that there is no configurability though. Cinnamon is extensible and you can change the way that time is displayed in the clock as well as enabling additional applets. It also is possible to control visual effects such as the way new application windows pop up on a screen.

GNOME 3 is there underneath all of this though there’s no sign of the application dashboard of GNOME Shell. The continually expanding number of slots in the workspace launcher is one sign as is the enabling of a hotspot at the top right hand corner by default. This brings up an overview screen showing what application windows are open in a workspace. The new Mint menu even gets the ability to search through installed applications together with the ability to browser through what what’s available.

In summary, Cinnamon already looks good though a little polish and extra configuration options wouldn’t go amiss. An example of the former is the placement of desktop numbers in the workspace switcher and I already have discussed the latter.  It does appear that the Linux Mint approach to desktop environments is taking shape with a far more conventional feel that the likes of Unity or GNOME Shell. Just as Cinnamon has become available in openSUSE, I can see it gracing LMDE too whenever Debian gets to moving over to GNOME 3 as must be inevitable now unless they take another approach such as MATE.

In comparison with revolution

While Linux Mint are choosing convention and streamlining GNOME to their own designs, it seems that Ubuntu’s Unity is getting ever more experimental as the time when Ubuntu simply evolved from one release to the next becomes an increasingly more distant memory. The latest development is the announcement that application menus could get replaced by a heads up display (HUD) instead. That would be yet another change made by what increasingly looks like a top down leadership reminiscent of what exists at Apple. While it is good to have innovation, you have to ask where users fit in all of this but Linux Mint already has gained from what has been done so far and may gain more again. Still, seeing what happens to the Ubuntu sounds like an interesting pastime though I’m not sure that I’d be depending on the default spin of this distro as my sole operating system right now. Also, changing the interface every few months wouldn’t work in a corporate environment at all so you have to wonder where Mark Shuttleworth is driving all this though Microsoft is engaging in a bit of experimentation of its own. We are living in interesting times for the computer desktop and it’s just as well that there are safe havens like Linux Mint too. Watching from afar sounds safer.