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SONY beats Apple (and Samsung is too late)

Sometimes time makes a decision for you.  This happened to me today.  I needed a notebook.  Now.  My ageing Acer netbook (Aspire TimelineX, a 1st generation Intel Core ULV) has served me well for almost three years, but it will not last much longer: a battery charge does not last as long as it used to; the fan makes screeching noises; the intense use has taken its toll on the cheap case: the rubber feet have gone and the plastic is cracked.  While I have a solid track record of keeping notebooks running past their expected life using only a Swiss Army Knife, I can’t afford downtime in the coming months.  Time for a new notebook.

It’s a good time to be in the market for a notebook.  Last month Intel released Haswell, the 4th generation Intel Core that promises big efficiency gains (i.e. longer battery life) and better graphic performance.  Manufacturers have followed suit, refreshing their line-up and presenting their new models, sometimes with big fanfare. There are a few good trends: the race to the bottom of the last five years is over. Quality products are no longer a rare sighting. Solid State Drive (SSD) technology is gaining acceptance. Gone are the days of the low resolution 1366×768 “HD” displays. FullHD 1920×1080 is the standard (I would prefer a more productivity-oriented aspect ratio such as 16:10, or, even better, Google’s Chromebook Pixel 3:2) and higher density displays are becoming common, mimicking Apple’s Retina display. Touch technology has unleashed designer’s creativity with tablets and hybrid form factors, but I decided to stay with a tried and tested ultrabook.

So which ultrabook did I buy?  I started with a visit at the local computer stores.  Best Buy had the best choice, but the only Haswell-based models in stock were the new Apple MacBook Air in 11″ and 13″ sizes; and SONY’s Vaio Pro 13. At this time, the choice between Apple and SONY is easy: SONY wins.  The MacBook Air has come in age and the refresh did not address its weaknesses: low display resolution (1440×900 and 1366×768 for the 13″ and 11″, vs. 1920×1080 for all SONY’s models) and no touch.  Apple is falling behind.  Its only questionable advantage  is the use of higher-end Intel CPUs  (Core i5-4250U and i7-4650U vs. the i5-4200U and i7-4600U generally used by the competition).  The difference: better graphics performance (Intel HD5000 vs. Intel HD4400) at an added price of $50. Unless you are a gamer, the difference is much less important than the difference in display resolution.

Online the choice was a little bit wider.  On its shop, SONY offered an 11″ version of the Pro, but the Canadian site does not sell an 8GB RAM model (lucky Americans; when will these companies with global supply chains stop the ridiculous geographic discrimination?).  Although the 11″ form factor is my favourite, 8GB RAM are a necessity.  The 4GB RAM on my old netbook are used to capacity, even if I switched to a spartan LXDE desktop).  SONY also offered a convertible tablet, the Vaio Duo, with similar specifications and slightly more expensive.  I think that such hybrids are too heavy for a tablet and too akward for a notebook.  Probably one day one designer will crack the secret for the new form factor (maybe at Apple?), but until then I need to be productive and use the keyboard extensively on the road.  I’ll buy an Android tablet for media consumption (although, I have tried and returned a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 half a year ago because it did not really feel “complete” to me).

The only other ultrabook meeting my requirements (FullHD or higher resolution, max. 13″, 8GB RAM, 128GB SDD, 4th generation Intel Core) and immediately available was Acer’s S7, with very similar specifications to the SONY and $150 more expensive (before SONY’s $100 discount coupon — enter the code SONYCJP at checkout, it worked for me today and I heard it is valid throughout August 31, 2013, but it may not work by the time you try it).  Web reports say that Acer has improved its build quality over the past two years, but I will believe it when I actually touch and see it.  The 3rd generation S7 model on display at Best Buy did not convince me.  Other manufacturers have announced their plans or even shown their Haswell-based lineups, but they have not trickled down the distribution channel yet.

I really wanted a higher density display.  At home I dock my 1366×768 Acer to a 1920×1200 display and I use both.  On the road I feel restricted by 1366×768 and I estimate that I will get along OK with 1920×1080.  Just OK.  Web reports talk of an Acer S7 model with a QHD+ 2560×1400 display.  That’s MacBook Pro Retina territory.  No trace of it in Canada.  The one I would have really wanted to try is Samsung’s 3200×1800 in the much publicized Ativ Book 9 Plus, traditional clamshell, or the more adventurous convertible sibling Ativ Q.  While the many reports are promising, there was no pricing or estimated availability.  At first I thought I could wait a week or two.  Then I looked at my schedule for the next five months and I realized that I will need time to make the notebook productive: decrapify and shrink the Windows partition; install a Linux variation; iron out the inevitable hardware compatibility issues.  Decision made.  I ordered a  SONY Vaio Pro 13.  I have not owned a SONY Vaio since an SR7K, back in 1999, that died an undeserving death inside a transatlantic container in 2003 after an adventurous life that has taken it to high mountain peaks in winter and diving boat expeditions in summer.  The SONY Vaio Pro 13 will be my first notebook with a decent display resolution since 2005 (HP nc6120 with a 1400×1050 SXGA+).  Can’t wait to try it!

Good Video Tutorials Are Rare

I love the short and sweet tutorials, those concise how-tos that go straight to the point without wasting my time with eye candy; bells and whistles; or whatever the tutor is trying to do to impress the audience.  This week I bumped into two video tutorials.  They are both Mac related and they are both on Youtube.  The similarities end there.  You can guess which one I found very useful and which one I felt was a waste of my time:



The first week of the break is gone.  I baked a few cookies with my son.  No time to even attempt to break the quantity record of 60 eggs from last year.  Indeed, we only managed one batch.  I had forgotten to buy butter, so no Milanais.  The first an only batch of cinnamon stars ended up being too liquid.  Only the Brunsli and Chraebeli met the quality standard to be taken on the family trip.

After driving a full day, 1000 Km to the North-East I was reminded of what real winter is.

Snow covered car and a day to fiddle with another holiday project:  Snow Leopard inside Virtual Box on the Acer Aspire Timeline X 1830T – stepping stone for an even more ambitious one.

Last Nail in the Coffin?

Apple under the Shower With the release of Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, Apple is the last major operating system maker to jump on the 64-bit train. Apple’s marketers shamelessly hype as a “next generation technology” what has been available to Windows users since 2005 and to Linux users since 2001.

Another technology that is hyped with the release of Snow Leopard is QuickTime X: “another leap forward”. Actually it is a significant step backward: support for QuickTimeVR has been dropped.

QuickTimeVR, introduced by Apple in 1994, was a ground-breaking technology to display and interact with 360° panoramas. Apple stopped development years ago and QTVR has lingered within QuickTime. In the meantime other technologies surpassed it, but it is still important because of the sheer quantity of unique legacy content entrusted to this format.

Now Apple is dropping QTVR. There are instructions to install an older version of QuickTime 7 on Snow Leopard, but by default content that has been entrusted by thousands of authors to Apple’s format for virtual reality panoramas is doomed to become obsolete. How long will the legacy last?

Apple is leaving in the rain thousands of media makers and millions of users. It is condemning to oblivion a lot of original and unique content. Multimedia CDs and DVDs; online content such as the Sydney Opera House Virtual Tour, anno 2002 one of the pioneering examples of this back then nascent art.

Content that has been authored for QuickTime VR will get lost and forgotten. But is it really Apple’s fault? I don’t think so. While it is inconvenient, authors and publishers who have kept their source images can re-author them for modern and supported technologies. And archiving is the author’s and publisher’s responsibility. Even better: don’t entrust your documents and media to proprietary format. Even if QTVR is very well documented, it is closed and there are no incentives to keep it alive, even if authors need it.

Free, open formats don’t suffer this risk. They will always be readable and playable as long as the code is available and there are users interested. A migration path to future format is likely to be available. I am sure plenty of authors who have their media in QTVR format would be interested. The right thing for Apple to do now is to release QTVR under an Open Source license and let the users community do the rest, instead of taking so much irreplaceable content into the QTVR grave.

This is a prime example that shows the risk of entrusting your content to a proprietary format. It’s like keeping betamax tapes and waiting for the player to break.

The Ergonomics Of Panoramic Interactions Continued

TouchShield SlideBruno’s comment about touch-screens got me thinking. While most users still interface with the computer via mouse, keyboard and a one-way display, things are going to change fast in the coming years. The old KVM (Keyboard/Video/Mouse) user interface is being replaced by more powerful and natural tools. The point&click / drag&drop metaphors popularized by Apple’s Macintosh since 1984 after the invention of the ball mouse at the Xerox Parc are due for an update. Ever smaller and powerful mobile devices, accelerometers, touch screens, 3D screens. How will they interface between the user and the VR Panorama?

The solutions I have observed so far simply hard wire the behavior of these new devices to the mouse. This is no different than my 1998 Wacom Tablet (which still works!). The simulation of the mouse limits the interaction designer to define the device in relationship to mouse behavior and either mimic it or its inverse.  After half a century it is time to break those limits; to look at the interactions anew and to design device/context specific metaphores; to mold the intearction around the human. I see a combination of relevant factors, including the device’s physical characteristics and the context in which it is used. A touch-screen on a desktop requires a different metaphore than one on a smartphone. And what to do when two competing input devices with conflicting metaphores are attached, such as an accelerometer (3D mouse) and a touch-screen?

For the desktop touch-screen and for the laptop touch-screen I tend to agree with Bruno that the Google StreetView metaphore is the way to go, at least until the computer can discern if the index finger is at a nearly perpendicular angle and fully straightened as in a pointing; or it has a smaller angle and a slightly more curved posture as in a natural dragging movement.

Things become more touchy (pun intended) with mobile devices which typically have an accelerometer and a touch-screen. Which one should drive the VR panorama interaction and how? To me the most natural would be to use the accelerometer and point the iPhone in the direction I want to see, but in some situation such explicit movements are embarassing, unconvenient, inappropriate, or all of the above; and the more discreet dragging by finger on the touch-screen is the right way to go.

Whichever it is, I think modern panoramic viewer should make provisions to accommodate both behaviors – dragging and pointing. Ideally the system would tell the VR player in what context it is playing and the VR player would adapt, using an appropriate metaphores. Currently the browser only let the VR player assume the presence of a pointing device, and the devices all interface by mimicking the mouse. In the current situation making the mouse behavior a parameter, as implemented in the KRpano viewer, is the best thing to do. When a reliable detection mechanism can tell the player what device is attached, the choice may be automated.

I look forward to see the results of León’s Google Summer of Code project adding QTVR playback and Wiimote interaction capabilities to the VLC media player. In the meantime I got help from the Liquidware guys in my still unsuccessful attempts to make their Antipasto Arduino IDE work on my Ubuntu notebook. The TouchShield Slide touch-screen rocks and I am keen to toy on new interfaces with it.

The Ergonomics Of Panoramic Interactions

Apple under the ShowerGoogle StreetView has contributed immensly to the popularity of virtual reality (VR). Kudos to them. They keep adding smart and complex navigation improvements. When will they realize that the single most effective and easy to implement improvement to StreetView’s navigation would be to invert the movement of the mouse? To the vast majority of humans it is more intuitive to move the mouse to the point of interest. With StreetView today it is the other way around: to look up you have to drag the mouse down and to look right you have to drag it to the left. In the past decade Apple understood the ergonomics very well and established the best practice with QuickTimeVR, the ancestor technology underlying VR interaction. The vast majority of panorama viewers use this intuitive way of navigating the panorama. Why not StreetView?

What Do Hugin and the iPhone have in Common?

Apple under the Shower Both can be used in the panorama making process. In the end it is not the choice of tools that matters, but their creative use. David Haberthür shows an original and effective way to take panoramas with the iPhone and Hugin, using less than one minute of his girlfriend valuable time on the ski slopes.