It’s That Time Again

If you were expecting some commentary on the state of the world, sorry. I got nothing for you today. No insights that hundreds of other people haven’t already broadcast. All I can say is that I don’t think the current unrest is the end of America, nor do I think it’s a minor blip that will quickly be forgotten. The truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere between.

And right now, I’m doing my best to stay safe and healthy, and getting on with my life.

Which, at the moment, includes babbling about my latest toy.

Looking back into my archive, I see that five and a half years ago, I shared some thoughts about my new Nexus 9 tablet. That nine-inch wonder replaced my defunct Nexus 7.

At the time, I said that I had some qualms, mostly around the size and weight of the device. It was too heavy to use in transit, a bit too large for comfortable reading, and perhaps a smidgen too small for comfortably watching videos.

As it turned out, I was right about the first two, and wrong about the third. When I was able to move my reading to another device–at various times, the Amazon Fire tablet, the Windows tablet, and the ebook reader–I didn’t hesitate. But video was just fine on the Nexus, and I often watched ballgames on it. And the size–that inch or so smaller than the iPad–made it quite comfortable for the card and word games I favor.

Jump ahead to today and the Nexus is on the decline. The screen is still fine and the weight hasn’t changed, but the battery is losing capacity rapidly. As recently as the beginning of the year, I could get four or five days of use on a charge. Now I have to charge it nearly every night.

Regrettably, I couldn’t find any Android tablets that appealed to me. Amazon’s Fire tablets are too, well, Amazon. The Amazon store is front and center, and their app store is small and in some cases out of date*. Samsung’s tablets are reasonably solid contenders, but I’m no happier with the add-on software they supply than I was back in 2015. And most of the other offerings are no-name, low-end devices that give the impression that they’ll fall apart or drop dead right after the warranty runs out.

* Yes, you can put the Google Play app on them and gain access to the full variety of apps available through Google, but the process is kind of a pain, and having two app stores on the device can get confusing–they sometimes try to update each other’s apps with mixed results.

So I went in a partly different direction: I got a Chrome OS tablet.

I say “partly” because most Chrome OS devices let you install Android apps. I figured that would let me keep using my must-have apps while investigating Chrome-native alternatives. It was a nice theory, and honestly, it’s mostly worked out that way.

The device I got is the Lenovo Duet. It’s a ten-inch tablet–which means it’s roughly the size of my old iPad Air (though the screen is larger, thanks to its smaller bezels)–and it weighs about the same as the Nexus. Assuming I don’t use the case. Lenovo does supply a case: a back cover that attaches magnetically and provides a kickstand support similar to Microsoft’s Surface Go and a separate front cover/keyboard that also attaches magnetically. Adding the cover and keyboard doubles the weight of the device.

Speaking of the Surface Go, the Duet is roughly the same size and weight as the Go. So why didn’t I just get another Go? Well, cost for one. The Duet is about half the price of the cheapest Go. And much as I like my Go–it’s still my main machine–several of my must-have Android apps have no Windows equivalents. That makes it a less-than-optimal Android alternative.

Let me get this out of the way up front: overall, I’m pleased with the Duet.

That said, there are some issues.

First and foremost, the user experience is inconsistent. For example, Chrome OS apps have access to the entire file system: everything on the device’s storage (including the Android app space and the Linux storage), the Google Drive space, and any other cloud storage options you have. However, Android apps can only access the Android space on the local drive. Any cloud access has to be provided by the apps themselves. Linux programs are slightly better off: you can give it access to specific folders in the Chrome OS space, but even there you’re limited to the local storage–even giving access to the Google Drive space is iffy.

Speaking of cloud storage, while Google gives Google Drive first class support, that’s as far as they go. Chrome OS includes the ability to connect to shared drives on your local network (say, your Windows computer), but as noted above, you can’t access those drives via Android or Linux. As for other storage options, you’re at the mercy of third parties. The Dropbox software, for example, is provided by an independent developer, not affiliated with either Google or Dropbox. OneDrive access comes from Microsoft, but for reasons of their own, it’s read-only. In neither case does it work for Android apps (of course), requiring you to also install the Android version of the software to gain access to those cloud storage locations if you need them in your apps.

The inconsistencies go further. Some Android apps and Linux programs are recognized as being associated with particular file types (for example, the Android version of the VLC media player is recognized as supporting mp4 videos). Other programs are not–and there’s nothing like the Windows “Open with” functionality that allows you to use a program that wasn’t automatically recognized.

Here’s a good one: If you have a keyboard connected, Chrome OS supports multiple desktops, so you can group related programs together and switch between the groups easily. Once you disconnect the keyboard, you can still use your existing desktops, but once you close a desktop, it’s gone. Close all of them and you lose the multiple desktop functionality until you reconnect the keyboard.

Other quirks: many Linux programs are unusable without the keyboard and trackpad because they don’t recognize screen taps*, and support for the on-screen keyboard is limited.

* This may have something to do with the way screen size is reported. The display is actually 1920×1200, but some programs see it as 3413×2133. I suspect this has something to do with making onscreen buttons large enough to tap, but it may be confusing Linux programs that don’t support high pixel densities.

Most–I’m tempted to say all–Android devices allow you to flip a switch in the settings so that you can install apps that don’t come from Google’s app store. This is handy if you want to install an older version of an app or, for whatever reason, the app isn’t available through Google. On the Duet–I can’t speak for other Chrome OS devices–in order to install third-party apps, you have to put the tablet in Developer mode, which makes it awkward to boot the device without a keyboard and may have other side effects.

One odd omission: there’s no support for widgets, so you can’t put programs on your desktop. That’s an excellent bit of Android functionality–so good that Apple is starting to move in the same direction with iPadOS–that would make Chrome OS much more attractive.

I know this all sounds grim, but as I said, on the whole, I like the Duet.

The screen looks good. And, while it’s too large for comfortable ebook reading, it’s an excellent size for reading comics. And there’s a nice split-screen function; if we ever get baseball again, I’ll be able to show the games in the top half of the screen and run an ebook reader app in the lower half–multitasking at its finest.

The sound quality is decent, and I was able to connect Bluetooth headphones without trouble.

The Chrome OS app selection is limited, but most of the Android apps I used on the Nexus work fine on the Duet. The one major omission–the app that controls the MeezerCam–still works fine on my phones and my iPad.

The keyboard is a bit too small for long bouts of typing, but it certainly gets the job done. In a pinch, I could write on it. And the Duet runs Word well, both the web-based Office 365 version (pardon me, “Microsoft 365”) and the Android app. And if I had to write something longer on the Duet, I could plug a full-sized keyboard into the USB port.

I like the Duet. But I can see where a few changes could easily turn like into love.

Google I/O 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I hit the high points of Apple’s WWDC keynote. In the interest of fairness and equal time, here’s a look at the early announcements from Google I/O.

If there’s a unifying theme of Google’s announcements this year, it’s “unification.” A platform for wearable devices (currently a codeword for “watches”) that ties the watch to a phone with shared notifications and alerts; a platform for cars that essentially allows your phone to display information and apps on a dashboard screen; a single card-based design* across all platforms; an “Android TV”; the ability to use a watch as a security fob for a phone or tablet; Android apps running in Chrome OS; cross-platform cloud APIs allowing status to be seamlessly moved among Android, iOS, and desktop applications; mirror any (recent) Android device to Chromecast; health APIs to integrate health data across apps; everything is voice activated and context-aware. I’ve probably missed a few, but you get the idea.

* Does anyone else remember Palm’s card-based UI for PalmOS (later WebOS)? Everything old is new again…

We did see previews of the next version of Android, and we’ll see many more over the next few months. Google is releasing a developers’ preview of the so-called “L release” today, ahead of the public release this fall. We still don’t know the most important piece of information about the release: the food name. Speculation is rampant, with “Lollipop” the leading candidate, but Google remains quiet on the subject, fueling speculation about the possibility of another corporate tie-in. “Laffy Taffy,” anyone? (I hope Google does do a few more corporate tie-ins. I’d love to see Android 7 hit the market in 2016 under the name “Nerds”.)

So everything Google touches can talk to everything else Google touches. They look the same, they talk the same language. For good or bad, this sounds like Apple’s tightly integrated, similar-appearance infrastructure. Google’s variation on the theme relies on third parties for most of the hardware, but the core is the same: once you buy one Google device, it’s much easier for your next device to also be Google.

As with Apple, WWDC announcements, Google has a lot of evolution going on, but nothing truly revolutionary.

The revolution is happening outside of Moscone Center. As it happens, I was in San Francisco yesterday, and happened to go past Moscone shortly before the keynote. Here’s what was happening:

That’s right. You know it’s a serious protest when there’s a brass band! (Ars is reporting that a couple of protesters even managed to briefly interrupt the keynote.)

Apparently Google is solely responsible for San Francisco’s apartment evictions and the world-wide inability of non-tech workers to earn a living wage. According to a flier* the protesters were handing out, and to the bits of the loudspeaker-delivered speech I heard, Google has an obligation to increase wages for employees of other companies, support tenant rights, and (my favorite) “End all tax avoidance schemes.”

* The flier is a bit of a WQTS moment, by the way. The illustration is poorly centered, and three of the five sentences include grammatical errors. My favorite: “Do you have an idea for an app that would alleviate the imbalances in Silicon Valley or have other thoughts to share?” Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody could write an app that would have thoughts to share?

Guys, Google may be big, but they aren’t that big, and they really have no moral, ethical, or legal obligation to solve all of the world’s problems.

Even if they did, do you really want to live in a world where Google is responsible for setting fare wages and policing housing markets? I don’t, and I’d be surprised if the protesters would either.