Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Crazy about keyboards

People sometimes think I am obsessed with keyboards because I have strong views about them. So, let me put my views up front.

I like good keyboards.

I have always liked Thinkpad/Lenovo keyboards. And I typically use an external keyboard even with a laptop when in my office - the reason: I am a big fan of ergonomic keyboards such as the Microsoft ergonomic keyboard. It's the one with the hump in the middle so your hands are turned slightly up in the center, and even more importantly, it has a raised wrist rest.

Along with my ergonomic keyboards, I like my vertical mouse. It's a traditional mouse rotated 90 degrees so your wrist is not twisted. I learned about it from a programmers whose RSI was so bad, he had to give up programming.

More recently, I have purchased the rather elegant Logitech keyboard for Acer Android tablet. It's not a great keyboard in the sense that the Microsoft ergonomic keyboard is. But it is dramatically better than typing on the glass of a tablet. It's softer on the fingertips. It's faster. And even more importantly, it uses its case as a stand, so suddently you have low cost laptop for taking notes in meetings. Combine the keyboard, the case as stand with a $14 stylus and you have quite a useful little device. In many ways more useful than a tablet.

And because the distance between your torso and the tablet is short, there is little sense of having to over reach with the stylus. The whole combination works well. I even use the stylus on the keyboard and have gotten accustomed to using it my phone when the stylus is easily available.

You can, of course, pick up the tablet and use it with your fingers or the stylus, but those who I have influenced to add these apparently needless accessories (there is also a version for iPad), have had, as I have had, the sudden and unexpected realization of how much more useful they become.

It perhaps also explains the popularity of the ASUS Transformer which combines the form factor of a notebook with the detachable tablet.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How good is TV without a cable subscription?

With lowered disposable income, many Americans are looking at ways of cutting their monthly expenses. Examples include:
1. Substituting Skype for long distance costs.
2. Cancelling land lines and using a cell phone as the only carrier based service.
3. Substituting WiFi whenever possible for 3G services to minimize the use of data plans.
4. Using fixed cost services such as Netflix rather than variable cost rental of movies.
But one important area, as measured by the amount of time, people spend watching TV is the cable bill.
So, over the past two months I have been experimenting with alternative approaches to cable. The big message is that I have been surprised at how little I miss cable TV and how many alternative ways of accessing programming exist.
The most useful services and web sites that I have found are as follows:
1. upgrading to Hulu Plus gives you access to more TV, but the free service is till invaluable.
2. at around $8 a month for streaming, it's an absolute bargain. While it does not have everything, it remain a superb value.
3. Over the past year, the major network sites have also become a useful source of free programming:,,, to list just the major sites. While they are a bit erratic in what they make available on-line and their user interface can be sometimes a little confusing, most recent shows can be viewed on demand.
4. Specialty channels:  these vary more widely in their offering, but typically recent shows can be found on sites like (e.g. Masterpiece Mystery), and other specialty channels such as
5. Sports is a more difficult area and perhaps the one area that holds back many sports-crazy viewers from cutting the cord. But even here there is hope: ESPN3 provides sports, often delayed relatively to the event by 24 hours.
6. Amazon Prime is probably justifiable if you order goods from Amazon, and so the access to thousands of movies and TV shows is a relative bargain as a result. However, Amazon does tend to duplicate what is available from Netflix and Hulu Plus so the increase in choice is not large.
7. Rentable streamable TV shows from e.g. Amazon or iTunes. I have not found it necessary to pay for shows as the availability from subscription or free resources is so rich.
8. Proxy servers: there are a number of proxy servers that allow you to access shows in other countries, e.g. the UK. These are typically free or low cost services. But typically you have to have a severe addiction to a show you cannot obtain easily in North America. M15, Dr. Who and Torchwood seem to be shows that have inspired their fans to expand their sourcing.
9. A Roku box is a relatively painless way of using WiFi to hook up most Internet delivered shows to your TV, but the most reliable way, better than Roku, tablets, WiFi enabled DVD players remains a general purpose computer hooked up to your TV.
10. I have not tested the usefulness of game players such as Xbox or the Sony Playstation for streaming video yet.
So, the conclusion is that having no cable is no impediment to watching most TV. But you still may have to have a physical DVD rental service on Netflix or at the shrinking number of movie rental stores to see premium programming from HBO. And you will have to wait a season.
Perhaps the biggest challenges is that it is more complex to figure out where and when a show is available, given the leads and lags, and changing policies of networks. For that a service such as becomes useful.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Ultrabooks and the Shifting Value Added in Laptops

The most interesting thing about an ultrabook is not that it will finally provide an instant on feature - matching the major advantage of a tablet. What I find particularly interesting is that an ultrabook's value added profile looks very different than past laptops.

Consider the following costs:

Intel has three processors commonly used in the latest processors: the Core i3, i5 and i7. The least expensive versions of these processors are listed at $127, $184 and $294 as of November 14, 2011.
( While there exist faster processors, there's a good argument that putting your money into a solid state drive or SSD will produce better performance for most people.

Ultrabooks are specified to have an instant on capability. While hybrid SSDs can be used to cache regular hard drives to lower the cost of instant on capabilities, the evolution is towards pure SSD devices. If we take a typical SSD sold today as likely in the 120 gigabyte range, we have the interesting situation that the cost of an Intel SSD is around $295. And of course, if you try to match a more typical storage capacity of laptop, you can easily spend $550 to get the storage up to 300 gigabyte.

Now clearly, the price of ultrabooks has to come down for them to more attractive to buyers, but we can expect a classic experience curve to drive costs down.

In other words, while the world sees Intel as a microprocessor company, in terms of value added, Intel has moved to capture even more value in the storage subsystem at least in the leading edge category of ultrabooks.

Now, traditional hard drives are not going to disappear. On a cost per gigabyte basis SSDs cannot compete with traditional hard drives. But given that Intel has had a hard time of diversification in the past, it's interesting to see how they are attempting capture more value in laptops.

And of course, AMD has been going down the same road of increasing its value added and share of components with its purchase of the graphics company ATI.

As usual in tight margin businesses, vertical integration looks attractive.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A Cool Steampunk App for the iPhone

Yesterday, I downloaded one of the coolest apps for my iPhone. The 99 cent Farnsworth communicator app provides a 19th century interface on a video communicator. Right now it only provides video and audio messaging, not video communications as the characters in the show, Warehouse 13 obtain.

Perhaps the coolest part is the notification. It seems the antithesis of sounds chosen by modern phones.