Viable Personal Computing

I am about to go off to university this year in Norwich for a fresh start in life and a chance to improve my chances. One of those things that come to use everywhere we start university is our technology. I have had this Dell Inspiron 13 2-in1 for eight months now and I have had a good run with it and it is starting to look a little tired for me. Most students are still using laptops for all their assignments, essays, social media, entertainment and school software. Some students are now defecting to tablets which have a limited capacity for memory and require external storage, but they make great travel companions and are the preferred choice of mobile computer despite being impractical for productivity. Recently I have been reconsidering the viability of the personal computer in my life. I have a Nokia Lumia 735 mobile smartphone and this laptop with Windows 8.1 (soon to be upgraded to Windows 10). I used to have an iPad mini, which I later sold off because the 16 GB memory of the device made it limited to my needs. I am already considering buying a cellular iPad mini 32 GB in future, so that I will have access to my iTunes apps. There is now three categories of mobile computer that people have their lives: phone, tablet and laptop. What do we actually use these things for? Do we really need all three?

Mobile Phone

When we first started using mobile phones in 1980s they were an accessory for the yuppies and the corporate business people. They were famous for being the size of a brick and looked like a fashioned fad we thought would never catch on. After all what would an ordinary person what with a mobile phone? We had enough fun talking and hanging out with each other and didn’t have to worry about being constantly connected. Eventually mobile telecommunications became a necessity in life as we became more dependent on being connected to other people around the world when the internet was switched on to the public in 1990. Technology companies started making cheaper more compact and advance mobile phones that did more than make calls for you. When mobile broadband data arrived on the market in the mid-2000s mobile phones really became that extension of your own personal being and tapped you into the worldwide web of connectivity. It was such a fast paced development in technology back then that I don’t think I can recall when mobile broadband finally got in my life. I got my first mobile phone in 2007, my first mobile touchscreen smartphone in 2010 and my first mobile broadband in 2012.

The most common mobile phone that everyone has these days is the touchscreen smartphone. A mobile phone, a pocket computer, a personal media player, a satnav, an address book, an internet communicator and several other features. All this stems from the famous mobile phone of our generation: the Apple iPhone released in 2007. Before the iPhone came along smartphones like the Blackberry, which had the lion’s share of the market at the time, had physical keyboards for user interaction. That is probably straightforward for a mobile computer but there is a limit to what you can perform on the phone restricting you to a keyboard and cursor user input. The iPhone’s touchscreen controls showed that there was no limit to any type of application to the device and it could work as a miracle device that cemented the mobile phone’s place in modern society. I use my phone for staying in touch with my friends, browsing the web, social media, checking the weather, music, email, playing games, tracking my fitness routine and making quick shopping trips on amazon.

Nowadays we can’t get by without mobile phones and they are pretty much everyone’s personal digital must have. They are a tool for our imagination from our hearts and minds in a way that humanises technology. They have application software, better known as apps, which have made a useful and lasting impact on our lives. Some of the most useful apps are not just the games and social media apps that started off as websites, they are the functions of our work and personal activities. Fitness apps like Runtastic use the phone’s satnav and web connection to record the distance and route you’ve run and with a fitness band you can also monitor your heart rate and calories burned. Then there’s some apps that I use in my science and maths studies which contain equations and facts about trigonometry, the periodic table, circuit designs and lenses. Since phones have cameras and have made disposable cameras and point and shoot cameras head for obsolescence there is also a wide selection of photo editing apps that allow you to be creative with your shots.

I am a Windows phone user and that is a phone that has entered the phone market rather late. The Microsoft phone has around 300’000 apps compared to 1.4 million for iOS and the same number for Android. Now when we choose the phone we want we often think too much about the hardware and the abilities of the phone itself. Spare a thought if you will for the software that runs inside the machine. It’s the lifeblood of the gadgets that we use and they depend on it for it’s usefulness. Without it that plastic and metal slab we carry in our pockets is just a waste. Now the software is the real reason that makes us buy into these machines because they allow the phones, tablets and PCs to do all a manner of wonderful things for us. It allows us to become one with the machines to tap our imagination into electronic wizardry. From that we conduct a piece of music, art, literature, engineering, science or performance that we generate from out great minds. A writer will use a word processor like Microsoft Word to write his novel, poem or script. A statistician can compile data into Microsoft Excel to show the outcome of athletes from the Olympic Games. A photographer or a graphic designer can use a photographic manipulation software like Adobe Photoshop to turn their photographs into magnificent works of art or produce eye catching advertising posters. People’s choice in their gadget’s software and operating system can define what type of customer they are. iPhone users are artistic, rich, attractive, business savvy and well-travelled. Android users are creative, sporty, practical and media consuming. Windows phone users like myself are casual, productive, business savvy, geeky and well-travelled.

We need them as tools for our day to lives and we use them more often for the apps and internet usage than actually making calls and texts. Some of us even use phones to watch TV and films, which can be quite uncomfortable on a device with a screen usually between 3.8 – 5 inches. Some technology companies have taken this issue up by introducing a new form factor which came out a few years ago. This type of phone is called the phablet, an amalgamation of phone and tablet: phablet. These have got screen between 5 – 7 inches and they are quite flimsy and bulky that you need a messenger bag to carry them around. Personally I think they look silly for a phone as they look like a ‘flat-brick’. A large 1980s style brick phone that’s been squashed. However I wouldn’t write them off entirely as phablets are becoming a substitute for tablets. Recent research found that the larger the phone, people are less likely to use a tablet. Apparently the size of the device also plays a crucial factor in their consumption. iPhone 5s users will turn to their iPads 45% of the time, while iPhone 6+ users will turn to their iPads only 20% of the time. The bigger your phone’s screen size the more time will spend using it. This has had a knock on effect on the tablet industry where the demand has been made to try and create tablets that can effectively replace small screen laptops. As for the mobile phone industry many new innovations are being added to these devices every year and it looks like they are effectively a natural extension of our own being.

Tablets

The tablet was popularised into the mainstream by the iPad in 2010. At first glance it looks like an oversized iPhone and there is an interesting connection in it’s development where it was side-lined to make way for an emerging market. Tablets are not all that new, they have been conceptualised in science fiction. One of them was in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the astronauts watch the news on a device called the NewsPad and the most famous one for me is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the novel and TV series of the same name. Microsoft unveiled a prototype tablet at a technology conference in 2000, before that there was another device which Apple had released called the Newton in 1993. The Newton was a personal digital assistant (PDA) which acted like a handheld computer for business users. Using it’s LCD and stylus you could use it for basic office functions like word processing and accounting. In 2002 Microsoft started to invest in developing tablet computers with PC style functions using a stylus instead of a mouse. However these were only usable by business users and they were clunky to use as PC substitutes and they didn’t perform very well. Their software was bulky and they couldn’t handle the demands of ordinary consumers if they even tried to market them to casual computer users.

Now there was an opportunity that Microsoft could have taken to make them for ordinary people but they were using the wrong system. In the early 2000s when mobile phone ownership was increasing mobile internet was starting to come of age and Wi-Fi has just been invented. Steve Jobs at Apple saw the potential for this to bring in a new type of computer that he had a vision for in a speech in 1983 for the company:

…strategy is really simple. What we want to do is we want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes … and we really want to do it with a radio link in it so you don’t have to hook up to anything and you’re in communication with all of these larger databases and other computers.

And this led to the development of the iPad. But there was a twist of fate for the tablet in favor of the phone. Jobs saw the end result and realized a potential for this tablet in a different form factor. So Apple decided to temporarily shelve the tablet project and take the technology and turn it into a phone – the iPhone. Apple let the iPhone build the market for the apps and the touchscreen technology and once it achieved maturity they unveiled iPad three years later. So basically the tablet is a touchscreen computer engineered around a mobile phone system architecture. A system architecture refers to the way in which the electronic components of the machine is engineered to work together to process the data.

For mobile like tablets and smartphones the system architecture requires a low power consuming microprocessor so that it doesn’t glow so hot that it needs a fan to keep it cool like in a PC. This allows it to work for hours at a time and left switched on for as long as the battery lasts. Some technology companies seek to mimic the performance of PCs by creating tablets that have the same specifications as PCs. To do this they must be able to perform to the standardized 64 bit system. You might have seen 64 bit listed in product details and in case you are still wondering what that is, it refers to the number of bits of data that the computer processes with every clock cycle on the processor which is measured in MHz (or GHz) that’s millions of cycles per second. My computer has a 1.70 GHz processor which means that it can generate 1.7 billion units of data per second passing between the components and the processor at the rate of 64 bits of data per cycle. For a 64 bit operating system like iOS 8 or Windows 8.1 that can handle a large amount of data for a given task. Tasks on tablets however are more for playing rather than working. Besides typing on touchscreens isn’t very comfortable, in the long term your fingertips get sprained. That’s why people who use their tablets for work use detachable keyboards.

The joy of a tablet is paramount. It brings you to an extreme form of mobile computing where smartphones and laptops are limited. They led to an explosion in the sales of e-books, magazines and newspapers. Amazon already had launched an e-reader called the Kindle to allow for the development of e-books when they first came onto the market. The launch of the iPad made them improve the Kindle and Amazon soon launched a tablet version of the Kindle. We can also use tablets to watch catch-up TV shows and play touchscreen games just like on a smartphone but with a larger screen and even use them to make video calls. Just like what you can do on a touchscreen smartphone. With tablets and phones performing the same functions it looks like you’ve got a choice of having one or two machines. The size of these machines is the key to your needs. If you are always on the go and need to take your computer with you then have a phone and tablet. The bigger your phone’s screen, the more time you’ll spend reading and watching on it. Meaning that you can leave your second device at home. A typical example of this is an iPhone 6 plus and a MacBook for an Apple user and a Sony Xperia smartphone and a HP laptop for a PC user. At the moment sales of iPads are currently declining and the Android operating system has now taken the lion’s share of both the tablet and smartphone market. It looks like the tablet has reached a point where it’s original purpose as a supersized mobile phone is being taken over by phablets.

At one point it as believed that tablets became so popular that they would replace laptops. However despite their mainstream status they have got all the practical abilities of an oversized smartphone. Although tablets are quite useful for taking the place of a heavy bulky laptop they can only be useful for media consumption, gaming and light photography uses. They are not good at playing the part of a workforce machine. They have only as much as 16 – 128 GB of memory in them compared to just 500 – 1000 GB on a laptop. So why don’t we move onto laptops.

Laptop

Laptops have been around since the home computer revolution in the 1980s. Like mobile phones they took quite a long while to mature and be acceptable to common users like their desktop counterparts. The first laptops were not even called laptops at all, they were marketed as ‘portable computers’. These early machines were anything but portable by even today’s standards. They were like electronic typewriters with all the abilities of a desktop. The first successful portable computer was the Osbourne 1 which came out in April 1981. It was a big beast of a machine that looked like an upturned flower stand with a keyboard for a lid. It had a 5 inch screen, 4 floppy disk drives, 64 kb of memory, a detachable keyboard top that doubled as the case’s lid and cost under $2000. It might not sound like much but it was a leap forward in personal computing for some. Even though you had to lug around it like a suitcase that weighed 23.5 lb (10.7 kg).

It’s a bit hard to determine who actually invented the first laptop. The word laptop was formed from a way to describe a desktop computer that could be used in your lap. Desktops are familiar with us as personal computers that fit on a desk and perform working functions with productive and gaming software. A laptop can do all this in your lap providing it has a good battery and is in a shape and form that makes it easy to use to carry around with you in a bag. The first laptop to use the modern flip or clamshell design was the Grid Compass 1101 in 1983. It had an Intel 8086 processor, 340 kb of memory and a small electroluminescent display. This was specialized a device that was snapped up by the government as their preferred choice of mobile computer. It was this baby that started the trend of mobile computing and many others soon followed suit. The first portable computer to be marketed as a ‘laptop’ was the Gavilan SC in the same year and it was also one of the first portables to use Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system. It had a small LCD display, 64 kb of memory and a floppy disk drive in a 4 kg case. This was the start of a new market that was still only undeveloped.

Nowadays with the laptops we have I think it’s time we left the history lesson and see how laptops have been useful to our lives. When the World Wide Web came into being people started to use laptops more often as they could. At the turn of the century laptop ownership outflanked desktop users and this was the time when computers started to become more personal. Up at that point PCs were starting to become a modern day commodity in everyone’s home. It wasn’t just a computer in every home in Britain anymore, it was a computer for every person. Personal computers were now being used on the go to take with you or to use anywhere you could in the home. They had internal modems for internet connectivity, improved battery life, HD displays, webcams, faster boot up times and they had USB ports for plugging in external devices like cameras, optical drives, external memory drives and other fancy add ons. The power of extreme sophisticated technology had reached out to ordinary unlike ever before. And of course they get considerably cheaper by the year.

I remember my first laptop, a Dell Inspiron 1300 which I bought in 2006. It became a tool and entertainment machine for my every needs that would become a mainstream device for all my creative works and travel companion. However I have to say with the 15.4 inch display screen it wasn’t as portable as I needed it to be. It was part of a standardized system of two distinct types of laptop at the time. Desktop Replacements that could be used as a substitute for a conventional desktop that you could use in any room of your home. These had a screen size of about 15 – 17 inches. The other is more for people on the go known as an ultraportable laptop, which had a screen size of about 11 – 13 inches. There was also a third category that was around for brief time before the tablet revolution called netbooks, these were small ultraportable laptops running PC operating systems with a very good battery life and a 10 inch screen. When Microsoft created their own tablet style Windows 8 in 2012 the laptop took on another form. The last Windows 7 computer that I had took up to five minutes just to boot up from start using it’s traditional PC operating system. Windows 8 is able to boot up in a matter of seconds just like a tablet. And of course let’s not forget the Google created Chromebooks, which also have great portability and long lasting batteries. Apple is still running it’s product line of Mac Books as it always has without trying to emulate Microsoft’s ecosystem. Laptops are now able to perform the functions of a tablet as well. The popularity of touchscreen technology has even created hybrid laptops that can be used like tablets and in some cases tablets with physical keyboards that either detach from the tablet itself or by a 360 degree hinge that rotates the screen all the way around.

Conclusion

All these forms of computing and with the way my activities go I have started to reconsider the viability of my ideal computer. Two years ago I bought my first Windows 8 computer, a Lenovo Flex 14. I wasn’t ready to give up laptops at the time and I didn’t want a desktop. It worked out quite well for a while but as I realized I wasn’t realizing the right machine for me. I started to enjoy long distance train travels which meant that I had to rely on my iPad mini for mobile computing and it wasn’t useful for my needs very much. But still I carried my laptop around even if it wasn’t all that mobile for this sort of active lifestyle. I needed a proper tablet that could replace my laptop or an ultraportable laptop. Besides since I’ve taken up archery and other outdoor hobbies as well as electronic talents I have come to realize that I no longer have any need for a proper laptop in my life anymore. I currently have a Dell Inspiron 1300, a 2 in 1 that isn’t even for me anymore. I really would like to invest in a Surface Pro 3, it’s a hotly magnificent machine that has been billed as ‘the tablet that can replace you laptop’. There’s more to it than that, it features an electronic pen that behaves like a mouse that has been fit into a stylus. The Surface Pro 3 has got all the features and functions that can rival a Mac Book Air, which is a preferred choice of PC for university students. I however am a Microsoft maniac and I always go in search of a personal computer that can do more than a Mac at an affordable price. I’m going to wait until October 2015 to see if the rumors for the Surface Pro 4 appear. I always prefer to keep my options open. That way I can be ready to snap something up at a bargain price.

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