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.

Installing Nightingale music player on Ubuntu 13.04

Ever since the Songbird project concentrated its efforts to support only Windows and OS X, the Firefox-based music player has been absent from a Linux user’s world. However, the project is open source and a fork called Nightingale now fulfils the same needs. Intriguingly, it too is available for Windows for OS X users so I am left wondering why that overlap has happened. However, Songbird also is available as a web app and as an app on both Android and iOS while Nightingale sticks to being a desktop application.

To add it to Ubuntu, you need to set up a new repository. That can be done using the Software Centre but issuing a command in a terminal can be so much quicker and cleaner so here it is:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:nightingaleteam/nightingale-release

Apart from entering your password, there will be prompt to continue by pressing the carriage return key or cancelling with CTRL + C. For our purposes, it is the first action that’s needed and once that’s done the needful, you can execute the following command:

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install nightingale

This is in two parts: the first updates the repositories on your system and second actually installs the software. When that is complete, you are ready run Nightingale and, with the repository, staying up to date is not chore either. In fact, using the above commands brings another advantage and it is that they should in any Ubuntu derivatives such as Linux Mint.

All Change?

Could 2011 be remembered as the year when the desktop computing interface got a major overhaul? One part of this, Windows 8, won’t be with us until next year but there has been enough happening so far this year that has resulted in a lot of comment. With many if not all of the changes, it is possible to detect the influence of interfaces used on smartphones. After all, the carryover from Windows Phone 7 to the new Metro interface is unmistakeable.

Two developments in the Linux world have spawned a hell of an amount of comment: Canonical’s decision to develop Unity for Ubuntu and the arrival of GNOME 3. While there have been many complaints about the changes made in both, there must be a fair few folk who are just getting on with using them without complaint. Maybe there are many who even quietly like the new interfaces. While I am not so sure about Unity, I surprised myself by taking to GNOME Shell so much that I installed it on Linux Mint. It remains a work in progress as does Unity but it’ll be very interesting to see it mature. Perhaps a good number of the growing collection of GNOME Shell plugins could make it into the main codebase. If that were to happen, I could see it being welcomed by a good few folk.

There was little doubt that the changes in GNOME 3 looked daunting so Ubuntu’s taking a different approach is understandable until you come to realise how change that involves anyway. With GNOME 3 working so well for me, I feel disinclined to dally very much with Unity at all. In fact, I am writing these words on a Toshiba laptop running UGR, effectively Ubuntu running GNOME 3, and that could become my main home computing operating system in time.

For those who find these changes not to their taste, there are alternatives. Some Linux distributions are sticking with GNOME 2 as long as they can and there apparently has been some mention of a fork to keep a GNOME 2 interface available indefinitely. However, there are other possibilities such as LXDE and XFCE out there too. In fact, until GNOME 3 won me over, LXDE was coming to mind as a place of safety until I learned that Linux Mint was retaining its desktop identity. As always, there’s KDE too but I have never warmed to that for some reason.

The latest version of OS X, Lion, also included some changes inspired by iOS, the operating system that powers both the iPhone and iPad. However, while the current edition of PC Pro highlights some disgruntlement in professional circles regarding Apple’s direction, they do not seem to have aroused the kind of ire that has been abroad in the world of Linux. Is it because Linux users want to feel that they are in charge and that iMac and MacBook users are content to have decisions made for them so long as everything just works? Speaking for myself, the former description seems to fit me though having choices means that I can reject decisions that I do not like so much.

At the time of writing, the release of a developer preview of the next version of Windows has been generating a lot of attention. It also appears that changes are headed for the Windows user too. However, I get the sense that a more conservative interface option will be retained and that could be essential for avoiding the alienation of corporate users. After all, I cannot see the Metro interface gaining much favour in the working environment when so many of us have so much to do. Nevertheless, I plan to get my hands on the developer preview to have a look (the weekend proved too short for this). It will be very interesting to see how the next version of Windows develops and I plan to keep an eye on it as it does so.

It now looks as if many will have their work cut out if they are to avoid where desktop computing interfaces are going. Established paradigms are being questioned, particularly as a result of touch interfaces on smartphones and tablets. Wii and Kinect have involved other ways of interacting with computers too so there’s a lot of mileage in rethinking how we work with computers. So far, I have been able to deal with the changes in the world of Linux but I am left wondering at the changes that Microsoft is making. After Vista, they need to be careful and they know that. Maybe, they’ll be better at getting users through changes in computing interfaces than others but it’ll be very interesting to see what happens. Unlike open source community projects, they have the survival of a massive multinational at stake.

An avalanche of innovation?

It seems that, almost in spite of the uncertain times or maybe because of them, it feels like an era of change on the technology front. Computing is the domain of many of the postings on this blog and a hell of a lot seems to be going mobile at the moment. For a good while, I managed to stay clear of the attractions of smartphones until a change of job convinced me that having a BlackBerry was a good idea. Though the small size of the thing really places limitations on the sort of web surfing experience that you can have with it, you can keep an eye on the weather, news, traffic, bus and train times so long as the website in question is built for mobile browsing. Otherwise, it’s more of a nuisance than a patchy phone network (in the U.K., T-Mobile could do better on this score as I have discovered for myself; thankfully, a merger with the Orange network is coming next month).

Speaking of mobile websites, it almost feels as if a free for all has recurred for web designers. Just when the desktop or laptop computing situation had more or less stabilised, along come a whole pile of mobile phone platforms to make things interesting again. Familiar names like Opera, Safari, Firefox and even Internet Explorer are to be found popping up on handheld devices these days along with less familiar ones like Web ‘n’ Walk or BOLT. The operating system choices vary too with iOS, Android, Symbian, Windows and others all competing for attention. It is the sort of flowering of innovation that makes one wonder if a time will come when things begin to consolidate but it doesn’t look like that at the moment.

The transformation of mobile phones into handheld computers isn’t the only big change in computing with the traditional formats of desktop and laptop PC’s being flexed in all sorts of ways. First, there’s the appearance of netbooks and I have succumbed to the idea of owning an Asus Eee. Though you realise that these are not full size laptops, it still didn’t hit me how small these were until I owned one.  They are undeniably portable and tablets look even more interesting in the aftermath of Apple’s iPad. You may call them over-sized mobile photos but the idea of making a touchscreen do the work for you has made the concept fly for many. Even so, I cannot say that I’m overly tempted though I have said that before about other things.

Another area of interest for me is photography and it is around this time of year that all sorts of innovations are revealed to the public. It’s a long way from what we thought was the digital photography revolution when digital imaging sensors started to take the place of camera film in otherwise conventional compact and SLR cameras, making the former far more versatile than they used to be. Now, we have SLD cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony that eschew the reflex mirror and prism arrangement of an SLR using digital sensor and electronic viewfinders while offering the possibility of lens interchangeability and better quality than might be expected from such small cameras. In recent months, Sony has offered SLR-style cameras with translucent mirror technology instead of the conventional mirror that is flipped out of the way when a photographic image is captured.  Change doesn’t end there with movie making capabilities being part of the toolset of many a newly launch  compact, SLD and SLR camera. The pixel race also seems to have ended though increases still happen as with the Pentax K-5 and Canon EOS 60D (both otherwise conventional offerings that have caught my eye though so much comes on the market at this time of year that waiting is better for the bank balance).

The mention of digital photography brings to mind the subject of digital image processing and Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 is just announced after Photoshop CS5 appeared earlier this year. It almost feels as if a new version of Photoshop or its consumer cousin are released every year, causing me to skip releases when I don’t see the point. Elements 6 and 8 were such versions for me and I’ll be in no hurry to upgrade to 9 yet either though the prospect of using content aware filling to eradicate unwanted objects from images is tempting. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t stop anyone trying to exclude them in the first place. In fact, I may need to reduce the overall number of images that I collect in favour of bringing away only good ones. The outstanding question on this is can I slow down and calm my eagerness to bring at least one good image away from an outing by capturing anything that seems promising at the time. Some experimentation but being a little more choosy can  save work later on.

While back on the subject of software, I’ll voyage in to the world of the web before bringing these meanderings to a close. It almost feels as if there is web-based application following web-based application these days when Twitter and Facebook nearly have become household names and cloud computing is a phrase that turns up all over the place.  In fact, the former seems to have encouraged a whole swathe of applications all of itself. Applications written using technologies well used on the web must stuff many a mobile phone app store too and that brings me full circle for it is these that put so much functionality on our handsets with Java seemingly powering those I use on my BlackBerry. Them there’s spat between Apple and Adobe regarding the former’s support for Flash.

To close this mental amble, there may be technologies that didn’t come to mind while I was pondering this piece but they doubtless enliven the technological landscape too. However, what I have described is enough to take me back more than ten years ago when desktop computing and the world of the web were a lot more nascent than is the case today. Then, the changes that were ongoing felt a little exciting now that I look back on them and it does feel as if the same sort of thing is recurring though with things like phones creating the interest in place of new developments in desktop computing such as a new version of Window (though 7 was anticipated after Vista). Web designers may complain about a lack of standardisation and they’re not wrong but this may be an ear of technological change that in time may be remembered with its own fondness too.