On Tablets – or the DA

While I have been focussing on mobile, exspecially pocketable computing during the last years, watching what was happening in the wide range from smartphones to subnotebooks, i almost ignored tablets.
Lately tablets have become popular again, at least I feel like that. While TabletPCs only attracted a few and convertibles always were to bulky or expensive in comparison to classical laptops for the most of us, we are facing an armada of new tablets. Ok, most of them are rumors, and others won´ t make it to market – but some will; Apple is said to work on a tablet device, Microsoft might be, many MIDs are using a small tablet like form factor, PixelQi stated that they work on a tablet as well. And I have to mention the CrunchPAD.

Time for my personal tablet vision!

As always, what I will try to point out is inspired by my personal needs. And my personal needs are inspired by what I do. So what do I do? I listen to lots of lectures at university, taking notes on blank or dotted paper. Lots of notes. About 50 – 100 pages a week or so. As you may imagine piles of paper clutter my room. And to be frank: I hate that.

I have been trying many things during the last years, like doing my writings on a netbook or using my cellphones microphone to record the lectures. In fact, I got back to paper, as it works best for me – it is just more convenient to draw and underline important things, to make annotations…

But then there are these piles of paper, again. I learned how to order them, but it takes time, lots of time. And time is money.

Tablets. Most of them seem to be aimed at internet use, and yes, unless you want to write texts and just like to surf around, they may be quite handy at that task – but rethink: Tablets are relatively thin. There are such things as digitizers. Wouldn´ t a tablet and a digitizer make a nice pen and paper replacement? I suppose so.

Hardware. Well, tablets like I would like to see them, don´ t have to be more performant than your workstation is. Of course not – something between the application performance of a high end smarthone and a CULV powered subnotebook should be just fine (sounds like ARM Cortex A8..) ; battery life (preferably all day (8 hours +))and size (thickness (not more than 2 centimeters) is more important than performance on these. Screen. Well, I always liked the OLPCs screen technology, and as PixelQi even managed to improve that, this would be the favourite choice. Touch, of course. Preferably multi touch. And a digitizer, to have a pen.
Screen size? Well, i am not sure – something between 7 (nice to carry) and 12 inch (more size for drawings). And the rest? Wireless connectivity is a must, USB (OTG) always nice, (µ)SD great for storage, a microphone, loudspeaker, integrated microphone/headphone jack, a video port for presentations.

Software. I don´ t really care about the software (though i prefer free software), as long as there is a mode to use it as pen and paper as easy and distraction free as possible.
Then, of course, this “paper mode” should have features like handwriting recognition – well, this sentence is about to become too long, so I´ ll try to list things up:
– archive, calendar-sensitive (e.g. attribute the note to a certain meeting)
– tagging by underlining
– ablility to show pdf (or other docs in the “background” (annotation mode)
Of course there are other nice to haves I would like to see, e.g. Text To Speech and Voice Recognition – to make the lack of a keyboard less of a problem, to make this device a real productive one. Collaboration features, of course…

That´ s why I would call it DA (Digital Assistant) ;)

BTW: There is one product announced today that at least comes close (speaking of hardware), a 10.4” tablet by MOTO.

Looking for a new laptop

Though I found an ebay seller, that offers the SmartV5 MID, I am afraid I cannot grab one for an early review, as I think a new laptop is more urgent – my current one, a HP Compaq nx6325 is over three years old now and it was a low end offer back then (at least mine with its Sempron CPU).

Before I had a look at the notebook market, I made a list of what I would like to have. At first I want a non glossy non 16:9 display, preferably high resolution (being fed up with XGA), and would prefer a non glossy casing as well – I hate to look at fingerprints all the time. Besides this, before we talk about the insides, I would like a well built laptop, looking rather classic, something alike Thinkpads or older MacBook Pros. The insides – dual core, preferably a recent chipset, graphic performance is nothing I really care about (I rather care about good loudspeakers as I am used to my HPs Altec Lansing Speakers), so integrated graphics would be fine, loads of ram and a big enough hard drive (200GB at least), and that machine should be able to last more than 3 hours on battery and not cost a fortune.

Well, turns out that the insides aren´t the problem at all – e.g. there is a variant of the Lenovo Thinkpad SL500 that would fit my needs almost perfectly, though it is said to be less sturdy than the more expensive Thinkpad offers – but then, it turns out that it does not run Linux that well – ACPI implementation appears to be rather bad and some other issues – as Linux is my primary OS it is a no go.

Then there are some Acer Travelmates, but actually I find them all ugly besides the Timeline series – and as I have to look at that device almost every single day for about 2 years, ugly devices are a no go. The Timeline ones are nice, but they don´t contain a DVD drive besides the 15,6 inch one (I admit that I rarely need such a drive, but I need it often enough that no external drive would be annoying (especially in use at home, as it is one more thing you are supposed to have on or near to your desk)) – which has something i want to avoid, as this one has a none centered keyboard due to additional number keys i never even use on desktop keyboards, then 1,4GHz dual core does not sound that fast (and my next notebook is about to last for years on my desk) and a 1366 x 768 pixel resolution at 15,6 inch is just disappointing.

Then there is the brand name which is printed on my current laptop, HP – I could of course go on using them, maybe again an AMD offering (though Intel is quite ahead). Their new HP ProBook 6545b will be available in Germany soon, but.. the keyboard. Really, I don´t want those number keys, rather a better sound system or something like that. Besides I would have to go with 1600×900 pixel resolution, which won´t be that affordable.

After all, the offerings on the market are that disappointing, that I have started to think of buying a early 2008 MacBook Pro – I always loved their design, even back when there where Powerbooks – and now I am watching ebay every day. After all, they have an ok screen resolution, are non glossy and certainly well built. And running 3 operating systems would be nice, wouldn´t it?

Qi Hardware – a new approach to open design hardware

While Openmoko is still some kind of starving and one doesn´ t hear much about what they´ re doing – I guess they are just working on getting Project B – which is about to save the company – ready at minimal ressources – some layed off Openmoko employees started some new company which is about to offer copyleft hardware designed to run opensource software. This company is called Qi Hardware, is based in San Francisco, California, R&D takes or will take place in Taiwan, while manufacturing is done in China – and of course this company will try to offer their products worldwide.

The first device announced and soon to be delivered (this fall) will be called the Ben NanoNote™, and well, when I saw the specs I was more than dissapointed. A weirdo Ingenic XBurst (MIPS+ X ;) ) SoC (like in these cheapo EeePC knockoffs like the Letux 400, with as far as I know not that good Linux Support) and just 32MB of Ram, which isn´ t much these times, a 3” but only QVGA display, no WiFi, no GSM, not even Bluetooth – Ok, there are some ways to use such hardware, e.g. as an OpenSource Media player using software like Rockbox (which I liked a lot on my old EZX phones now sold or broken) or as an offline Wikipedia gadget – but besides this are all things I already have devices for, the plan of Qi Hardware is to supply these devices with a plain Linux kernel and nothing else, and to do a slow, but noticable development, listening to community wishes.
And as the hardware turns out rather weak right now, some even calling it “vintage hardware” while it is meant to be copyleft hardware, there are lots of wishes, and guess what people want that device to be: more powerful (with a newer Ingenic SoC (though some would rather prefer some fast ARM SoC (e.g. TI OMAP 3) and plenty of RAM), a higher resolution display, WiFi or even more connectivity options and of course, USB Host (I personally would add a touchscreen or at least some kind of touchpoint or touchpad to control a mouse). And yes, I believe that adding hardware in some way, or offering a modular approach to do so (I´d prefer a second SD slot (at best non-µSD), being SDIO compatible and USB Host mode for now) is something they have to offer as Open Design Hardware will make people ask for easy ways to add some stuff to the basic package they´ve purchased – and on the other hand in times where cloud computing is a big term in the industry and thus gets more and more into the head of the customers “no connectivity” is a “no go”.
But let me get back to what i see now, as I kind of like the hardware of the Ben NanoNote™, as it is a minimalistic approach and has a keyboard (as a writer addicted to gadgets I love small things with hardware keyboards, and concerning the Bens keyboard the only thing I worry about is the small space key). What I also like is the decision of Qi Hardware just to offer a kernel on the software side – if they manage to grow a community, devices might be shipped by resellers with some kind of distribution rather soon, ready for end users – but after all that bad experience with software development (== building a distribution) at Openmoko, this seems to be a wise decision.

What we will have to see is how Qi Hardware will be able to fullfill the hardware feature demands of the community – there are many people around that care more about hardware features than about openess, and hey, this being a world where selling more is certainly better, Qi Hardware should try to get the attention of some of these girls and guys, too, as money is needed to survive.
I certainly like the approach of Qi Hardware and wish them all the best and i am excited how things will go on…

Make sure to read the Linux.com article on Qi Hardware as well..

Thoughts on case design (GTA03 related)

After I mentionned the Openmoko GTA03 in my last post, i had to watch out, what this device would look like. I didn’t found much, no pictures but an old one from an old video i remembered, though I have been searching a short while, but after a while, I decided think of a case which i would like.

First of all, a case has to match usage scenarios. Thinking of the case design of GTA01 and GTA02 (“FreeRunner”), they were in some cases horrible: Touchscreen devices, but no place to put your touchpen – in a way you could call this “mission failed”.

Now, let´ s think about what the GTA03 is. It is a device, which will be mainly bought by hackers and people, that need a open base for a hobby- scientific- whatever project.
Almost nobody would recommend an OpenMoko phone to somebody that just needs a phone for occasionally calls and SMS. And nobody would recommend this phone for his grandma.

Anyway, as the software stacks become not just more and more numerous, but more stable and reliable, OpenMoko’s devices become more interesting for (advanced) users that like the idea of free software. The rounded design of GTA01 and GTA02 has been critized, so it should be kept and replaced by one with harder corners.

I found a mailing list discussion in which someone proposed some options:
1. touchscreen without keys
2. non touchscreen qwerty
3. touchscreen with qwerty

I would opt for option one, as I think that a keyboard costs a lot, means (exspecially if the phone isn’t candybar but slider) much more complex engineering and localization. No matter how much I love my Samsung SGH-i780s keyboard – it isn’t worth it. If you consider the usage scenarios, a keyboard might be nice, nontheless. Writing (not only, but mainly) on the walk is much easier with a physical keyboard. And if consider additionally, that OpenMokos devices are claimed to be very little computers, a keyboard makes this much more real (keep in mind that GTA03 will contain a more powerful SoC). But does this mean, that the keyboard has to be there all the time?

No, as GTA03 will certainly feature (as GTA01 and GTA02 do) an USB port, which isn’t just client, but host, too, I’d say an openly documented expansion system which ‘d make it possible to plug additional hardware directly to the GTA03 without making mechanical forces harm the USB port would be THE solution. Imagine a little keyboard you just plug to your GTA03 – of course, this might mean to carry one additional thing (but it doesn’t have to be like that, imagine a clamshell like concept (you could do that with this funny hole in the released OpenMoko devices as well, btw) – wouldn’t it be great?