Tablet vs. Laptop: Pros and Cons of Replacing a Laptop with a Tablet

I remember when I started using Apple’s first iPad in 2010; I realized that this was the future of computing. It was a small, thin, (relatively) light device that allowed me to perform many of the tasks that I performed. No more mouse or trackpad, and no more keyboard; the keyboard was on the display itself, but only when I needed it. I could use it anywhere, in any position, even lying down in bed. But could a tablet replace a laptop?

When you’re on the road, you need to bring one or several computing devices with you. Your smartphone may not be sufficient for the work you need to accomplish, so you probably also bring a laptop on your journeys. But, with the power and flexibility of today’s tablets, do you really need a laptop? Can you do all or most of the work you need with a tablet? In this article, we look at the pros and cons of replacing a laptop with a tablet.

Read the rest of the article on The Startup Finance Blog.

No, Every Kid Should Not Learn to Code

Apple has announced another series of “Hour of Code” workshops it some of its retail stores, doubling down on the idea that every child should learn to code. Many people roll out this idea that all kids should be taught to code, but it’s simply wrong.

Sure, learning to program computers and create apps is a useful skill, but coding isn’t for everyone. A good app has code, but it also has intuitive design. Why isn’t Apple running “Hour of Design” workshops for kids? As the arts are essentially absent from education these days, kids aren’t learning about these skills, and only learning to code is only one element of the creation of apps.

While learning to code is useful for skills such as logic and reasoning, only some people have the mindset for this type of thinking. Suggesting that it is essential is leading more and more kids to be pushed in a way that might not suit them.

Teach kids lots of things, but give them more options. I’m surprised that Apple, who truly does care about design, doesn’t broaden their focus. They’d sell just as many iPads – perhaps more – to kids who want to learn creative skills.

Who’d Have Thought that Microsoft Would Come Up with a Good Desktop Computer Design?

Microsoft yesterday introduced their new desktop computer, the Surface Studio. With a 28″ display that has only slim bezels, the device looks very nice. Unlike the iMac, which has very wide bezels (about one inch on the top and sides, and about three and a half inches on the bottom), the Surface Studio display seems to float in the air. Some of my colleagues have said that the two arms holding up the display are “ugly,” but they don’t bother me. Another friend said the base – which houses much of the computer’s innards – is ugly, but that doesn’t bother me either. It both holds the guts of the computer, and stabilizes it.

Surface studio

It’s interesting to see that Microsoft is not only coming out with an innovative design for a desktop computer, but that they’re targeting creative pros, which Apple has all but ignored in recent years. (To be fair, Apple is announcing new Macs later today, and one can hope for some changes to high-end Macs, but I honestly don’t expect much other than updated laptops.)

If you look at the current iMac, you’ll notice that the design has hardly changed in twelve years. The first iMac in this form factor was the iMac G5, released in August 2004. I had one of those for a couple of years, and I liked it a lot. It was innovative for it time, much better than the previous iMac with the hemispherical base. While Apple has improved the guts of the iMac, and notably its display, that form factor – a display mounted on a curved aluminum stand – hasn’t changed. There aren’t a lot of ways to change this, but reducing the overall size of the computer by shrinking the bezels would be a good start; I find my 27″ iMac to be quite imposing, and shaving off a few inches in width and height would make it less so. (I’ve even been considering switching to a 20″ iMac for this reason.)

The real innovation in the Surface Studio is its ability to fold down to a 20 degree angle. I don’t do any graphics work, but I can see how that would be interesting to designers and other graphics professionals. Frankly, I would like to have that to edit text; I like to change positions in my work, and not be locked into sitting the same way all the time. Having a display that folds down would allow me to look at some of my work differently. Also, the 3:2 aspect ratio is interesting; it’s not that different from Apple’s 16:10 aspect ratio, but I don’t need the width; I don’t watch movies on my iMac. Most of my work is with text, hence I would benefit from more height and less width.

The problem with the Surface Studio is, of course, its price. At $3,000, it’s a pretty expensive animal. And it’s not that it’s especially fast, or comes with the best innards. It’s not available with an SSD, and the base model only includes 8 GB RAM. The top-of-the-line model with a 2 TB hybrid drive, the faster processor and GPU, and 32 GB RAM costs a whopping $4,199. (Susie Ochs over at Macworld has a good comparison of the specs of this new Microsoft computer and the current iMac.)

It’s not for me – after all, it runs Windows – but I’m impressed by the design and new functionality. I hope this is enough to awaken Apple, who has been selling the same type of iMac for a dozen years. Making it a bit thinner doesn’t change the overall form factor, and it is perhaps time for Apple to take the lead in new design again.

It’s interesting that it’s Microsoft of all companies that comes out with a computer that looks more modern than a Mac.

The Data Storage Conundrum

We all need to store data: our documents, photos, music files, video files, and more. As time goes on, we have more and more data to store. In addition, we need to backup all that data. I have often said that is not a question of whether a hard drive will die, but when it will.

As such, developing a strategy for storing data can be complicated. You have data on your computer, and if you have a large music and/or video library, you most likely ha additional data on an external hard drive. In addition, you need backups for all that data. The best backup strategy includes multiple backups: one or more Time Machine backups, clones of your startup drive, and redundant backups of your media. Because never forget that one back up isn’t enough: you should always have at least two, in case you lose your original data and you find that your backup is corrupted.

I have a 27″ iMac with a 256 GB internal SSD, and a 4 TB external drive for my media. I also have an additional 2 TB drive for other data: software installers, archives, and other miscellaneous files.

I use two Time Machine drives to back up my startup drive and my music library. I have two redundant backups for my media drive; this means that my music files are backed up both by Time Machine and these redundant backups. My video files, mostly rips of DVDs and Blu-rays that I own, are only backed up twice. As for that extra 2 TB drive, it, too, has double backups.

All this comes at a price. I have lots of hard drives. I have a total of five units, four of which each hold two hard drives. Two of these units are connected to my Mac by a Thunderbolt, and the other three are USB-3 drives.

I would love to simplify this. I would love to have, say, one unit to store all my data, and another unit to back it up. But it’s not that simple. I’m not comfortable with a RAID unit, because the data is not recoverable unless the hard drives are in the exact same RAID unit. In addition, RAID units are noisy. Since they have so many drives, and processors, they need fans. All of the hard drive units I have are fanless, and the only noise they make is that the hard drives spinning. My drives in the shelf unit with boxes in front of them to dampen the noise.

You can buy enclosures that hold multiple drives and don’t use RAID, or configure a RAID unit as JBOD, or “just a bunch of drives.” In that case, each drive appears as a single drive on your computer, whereas a RAID unit shows all of the storage as if it were one drive. But these devices have the same problem: they have fans, and they are noisy.

Another option is using network drives. They would allow me to use either a RAID unit or a multiple-drive enclosure in a location other than my office. However, the limitation of network speed would be problematic at times. Gigabit ethernet may sound fast, but when you’re copying a lot of files, it’s not. Both Thunderbolt and USB-3 are much faster. As such, any device that is connected to a computer will copy files more quickly. This isn’t a big problem for, say, incremental backups, where only new or changed files get copied. If these happen over the network in the background, it doesn’t slow much down, and since these generally run at night (with the exception of Time Machine backups), I wouldn’t notice them anyway. But when you do need access to large files, it is slow. In addition, I would have to run an ethernet cable into another room, because Wi-Fi isn’t fast enough.

So what’s the solution? For now, I haven’t found an ideal solution. Perhaps larger hard drives will make all of this easier: instead of meeting, saying, two 4 TB drives, one 8 TB drive would be enough. So I could cut the number of drives I use in half. But I still need at least two separate drives for Time Machine backups, and at least two separate drives to backup my media files. So I’m not even sure that larger drives will make that much of a difference. Because of the fragility of hard drives, storing data really is a conundrum.

HP’s new logo is the awesome one it never used

HP is launching a global brand offensive today with the ultra-thin Spectre 13 laptop, and one of the subtler changes the company is making is to its logo. Where last year’s Spectre x360 had the full “Hewlett-Packard” written out, the new 13-inch model has just four minimalist slashes making up the “HP” wordmark. HP says it’ll be using this logo solely on its premium laptops.

Hp logo

I can see why designers may like this logo, but if I didn’t know it was HP, and saw it in the wild, I wouldn’t know what it’s supposed to be. I wonder about the logic of using a logo that is so unrecognizable. If they’re only using it on “premium laptops,” then the users will know what it means, but when other people see those laptops, will they think it’s some kind of symbol from Star Wars or something? Or will they equate it with James Bond, when they learn that the laptop model is the “Spectre?”

Source: HP’s new logo is the awesome one it never used | The Verge

Amazon to Ban the Sale of Dangerous USB-C Cables

Amazon is banning the sale of USB-C cables that don’t meet specifications. As Ars Technica reports:

Amazon has added shoddy and non-standards-compliant USB Type-C cables and adapters to its list of restricted products. This means that third-party marketplace sellers can no longer sell USB Type-C products that aren’t compliant with relevant USB standards.

USB-C cables are required to use the 12″ MacBook, as well as some Google Chromebook devices. As I previously reported, a Google employee has been testing cables and reviewing them on Amazon, highlighting which ones are compliant, and he even had one fry his laptop.

What I would like to know is how Amazon is going to certify these cables? If I buy one sold on Amazon, and it still damages my MacBook, can I claim redress from Amazon? It’s a good thing that Amazon is being more stringent, but unless they can guarantee the the cables sold on their site are safe, I’ll still hesitate.

Computer Beats World Champion at Go, Three Games in a Row

As The Verge reports:

Virtuoso Go-playing AI AlphaGo has secured victory against 18-time world champion Lee Se-dol by winning the third straight game of a five-game match in Seoul. AlphaGo is now 3-0 up in the series, but there’s no mercy rule here — the remaining games on Sunday and Tuesday will still be played out. AlphaGo is a program developed by DeepMind, a British AI company acquired by Google two years ago.

I’ve been playing go off and on for nearly 40 years, so I understand the implications of this. While people have gotten used to the fact that computers and apps can beat the best chess players, they generally have no idea of the complexity of go.

Go is in incredibly complicated game. Because there are so many points on the board (361), there are this many legal positions for a game:

208,168,199,381,979,984,699,478,633,344,862,770,286,522,453,884,530,548,425,639,456,820,927,419,612,738,015,378,525,648,451,698,519,643,907,259,916,015,628,128,546,089,888,314,427,129,715,319,317,557,736,620,397,247,064,840,935

(This means positions where stones are allowed to play according to the rules. And I’ve added line breaks so the number doesn’t stretch out off the side of the page.)

What’s interesting about AlphaGo’s performance is not just that it won, but that it played some “creative” moves. In the second game, the AI played a move that all those watching and commenting on the game found to be brilliant.

Go is full of patterns and moves that are considered to be correct, and others that aren’t. Humans generally limit themselves in the moves they play, because of the weight of experience and tradition. But an AI won’t consider what the greats of go played, they’ll play the moves that are the most effective. They’ll eventually introduce new moves that humans haven’t considered, or play moves that humans considered to be incorrect (not wrong, just not optimal).

Take, for example, the “new fuseki” movement in go. (Fuskeki means opening.) In the 1930s, go players, notably including Go Seigen and Kitani Minoru, started playing radically different openings from what was traditional, changing the nature of the game. They experimented with different ways of playing, discarded what didn’t work, and developed a new range of opening strategies. It’s only because they questioned what was traditional that they were able to change the game so much.

An AI does the same thing. It “knows” a corpus of tens of thousands of games, but it can still be free of the limitations that humans have, and try out any new move that seems more effective. Over time, this AI, and others, will lead to changes in the way go is played.

The importance of what AlphaGo did isn’t limited to just go, of course. It shows that AI has made great strides in recent years, and presages many more to come.

Update: Lee Sedol won the fourth game.

Dodgy USB Type-C cable fries vigilante engineer’s $1,000 laptop

“Benson Leung’s good intentions have finally caught up with him. The Google engineer who launched a crusade against bad USB-C cables in late 2015 just uncovered another sub-standard USB-C cable–and this time it’s cost him a $1,000 laptop.

The Google engineer recently tested Surjtech’s 3M USB 3.1 Type-C to standard Type-A USB 3.0 adapter cable, but those tests didn’t get very far at all. Leung said that as soon as he connected the cable to his Chromebook Pixel, via a small USB power delivery (PD) analyzer, both the PD and his laptop ceased working properly.”

I recently wrote about Leung and his reviews. What I wonder, reading the above, is what the company’s liability is. Clearly if the cable caused the demise of a computer, Leung should be able to get the value of his laptop from them.

But this leads to an even broader question. If the USB-C specification is such that a bad cable can fry a computer, it seems that this is not a cable that should be used. This worries me, since I own a 12″ MacBook. I bought two Apple adapters, but if, in a pinch, I needed another cable to charge my MacBook, I’d be very worried that I might not be able to find one that meets the specifications. I have never had any computer or electronic device where it was possible that a cable sold as being the right type might actually cause damage to it.

Source: Dodgy USB Type-C cable fries vigilante engineer’s $1,000 laptop | Macworld

Go and Artificial Intelligence: Google’s AlphaGo Beats European Champion

Go is a board game, originally from Asia, that is played on a board with 19 x 19 lines. Two players take turns placing stones (one player gets white, the other black) on the intersections of the lines. The goal is to create a territory; the space delimited by your stones. At the end of the game, you count up the points (intersections) in your territory, and add any stones you have captured (you can capture stones by surrounding them, and removing them from the board). The person with the highest score wins.

Go is in incredibly complicated game. Because there are so many points on the board (361), there are this many legal positions for a game:

208168199381979984699478633344862770286522453884530548425
639456820927419612738015378525648451698519643907259916015
628128546089888314427129715319317557736620397247064840935

(This means positions where stones are allowed to play according to the rules. And I’ve added line breaks so the number doesn’t stretch out off the side of the page.)

It’s very hard to write an AI for go. While chess is relatively easy to beat, because there are only 64 squares, and the game is much simpler, go has long been hard to solve.

Fan HuiGoogle’s AlphaGo project has made a brilliant breakthrough recently, defeating Fan Hui, the European champion 5 games to 0. The Google page explains how complicated it was to develop their AI:

But as simple as the rules are, Go is a game of profound complexity. The search space in Go is vast — more than a googol times larger than chess (a number greater than there are atoms in the universe!). As a result, traditional “brute force” AI methods — which construct a search tree over all possible sequences of moves — don’t have a chance in Go. To date, computers have played Go only as well as amateurs. Experts predicted it would be at least another 10 years until a computer could beat one of the world’s elite group of Go professionals.

Go requires a different form of AI from chess. Again, here’s how Google explains it:

AlphaGo’s search algorithm is much more human-like than previous approaches. For example, when Deep Blue played chess, it searched by brute force over thousands of times more positions than AlphaGo. Instead, AlphaGo looks ahead by playing out the remainder of the game in its imagination, many times over – a technique known as Monte-Carlo tree search. But unlike previous Monte-Carlo programs, AlphaGo uses deep neural networks to guide its search. During each simulated game, the policy network suggests intelligent moves to play, while the value network astutely evaluates the position that is reached. Finally, AlphaGo chooses the move that is most successful in simulation.

Go AIs have used the Monte Carlo approach for a while now, but never on this scale.

There is a bit of hubris in Google’s presentation of this event:

We are thrilled to have mastered Go and thus achieved one of the grand challenges of AI.

It’s fair to say that they’ve done very well, but “mastered;” not quite. AlphaGo plans to take on Lee Sedol, the leading go player in the world, in March, to see if that claim is true.

4512

Anders Kierulf, developer of go software, has written an article about AlphaGo vs Fan Hui, and also about the coming match against Lee Sedol. Anders’ conclusions are interesting:

  • Fan Hui made a number of mistakes that Lee Sedol is unlikely to make.
  • While AlphaGo played very well, it did make some mistakes in those five games. Also, Fan Hui did win two unofficial games against AlphaGo (sadly unpublished).
  • AlphaGo’s reading (looking ahead many moves to determine whether a plan will work or not) is very strong.
  • AlphaGo sometimes mimics the play of professional players and follows standard patterns that may not be optimal in that specific situation. Professional players are more creative and will vary their play more based on subtle differences in other parts of the board.
  • AlphaGo may not have a nuanced enough understanding of the value of sente (having the initiative).
  • AlphaGo doesn’t show deep understanding of why a move is played, or the far-reaching effects of a move.

And he points out what we don’t know about AlphaGo:

Ko was only played once; AlphaGo did well, but we don’t know how it will do in a complex, protracted ko fight. We don’t know how it will do when the fighting gets more complex. We don’t know how it will do when the board is more fluid and multiple local positions are left unresolved.

You can download a PDF from the British Go Journal with the game records and some commentary on the games, or see Anders Kierulf’s article for links to other commentaries. This program is clearly very strong, and will undoubtedly get better, but can it truly reproduce the creativity and intuition of top human players? Or is that a few more years away?

Do you want to learn how to play go? Check out Anders Kierulf’s SmartGo apps, which let you play games, save and analyze game records, and read go books on iOS devices. Read this Macworld article I wrote about a year ago about those and some other apps. I really hope that Google makes a limited version of this AI available so go players can try it out. Naturally, such a version wouldn’t be as strong – part of the strength of an AI is its ability to use a large number of processors – but it would be great to have a go app to play against that is good enough to help people learn to play better.

PC Sales Drop, but Is PC Usage Dropping?

Re/Code reports:

If you needed any further hint that the personal computer is looking more like the 21st century equivalent of the buggy whip each day, the two big research houses who track that industry, IDC and Gartner, reported their results for the year just ended, and the news was not good.

The article then says:

Overall sales dropped below the 300 million unit mark for the first time since 2008. That’s an important psychological barrier. For years in the face of declines, PC company execs have held fast to the belief that consumers and businesses would continue to buy about 300 million units a year…

Some pundits will say that tablets and smartphones are replacing PCs, but I don’t think this is the only explanation. Sure, for home users, a tablet makes a lot more sense. But the vast majority of PCs are sold to businesses.

I think what is happening is that PCs are simply lasting longer. We no longer care about processor speed; any PC you buy these days is fast enough for most business applications, and as these apps are updated, they rarely require faster processors. The only areas where this is the case is graphics, video, and high-end science apps, which are a small percentage of the PCs used in business. Also, RAM and hard drives are cheap, so if PCs need a boost in those areas, it’s cost-effective to do so.

The vast majority of business computers are beige boxes on desks, used to read email, browse the web, access a company’s intranet, create PowerPoint presentations, and tweak Word and Excel documents. In recent years, we’ve reached a plateau, where we no longer find that last year’s computer is too slow to use new versions of productivity apps. And we’ve probably also gotten to the stage where components last longer, so any given PC has a longer life than, say, ten years ago.

Yes, PC sales are dropping, and may continue to do so for a while, but it doesn’t mean that PC use (in business at least) has dropped.