Not That Simple

To those of you celebrating the Fourth of July and what remains of our civil liberties, happy holidays. Stay safe and sane.

I thought I’d give you a bit of a tech post for the occasion, because what could be more American than spending money on electronics? Remember, most retailers are having holiday sales through the weekend.

Note: I have not been paid for any of the comments below, nor will I receive any benefit should you run out and buy anything on my recommendation. That said, if the various manufacturers mentioned want to toss piles of cash in my direction, I’ll be happy to accept.

As you may have gathered, I did not wind up crushed beneath a pile of USB-C hubs and docking stations. As it turned out, my first test subject proved adequate to the task. You may recall that the goal was to connect two monitors, one with a VGA input and one with a DVI input to a thoroughly modern laptop which has only a single USB-C port.

I chose to begin my search with the j5create JCD381.

Note the symmetrical layout: two HDMI ports on the left, two USB 3.1 ports on the right, balanced around the network port. Symmetry may not be important in a device’s functionality, but it is aesthetically pleasing. There’s also a USB-C input on the end next to the cable. As that leaves the end unsymmetrical, I’ve chosen not to show it here.

The big selling point for the JCD381–aside from its cheapness compared to similar, larger docks–was that none of the ads I saw warned against using HDMI-to-something-else converters.

And it works fine with my converters (more on that later). It does not, however, Just Work. It is necessary to install driver software for the computer to recognize the HDMI ports. And, in a reversion to the Days of Yore, it was even necessary to reboot the computer after installing the drivers. I may be a fan of tradition, but that was a little too retro for my tastes.

However, drivers installed and computer restarted, I plugged in the cable and darned if both screens didn’t light up. A quick trip to the display settings made the biggest monitor the primary, and presto! Word processor in front of me, email to my left, and system monitor and other low-priority attention grabbers on the smallest screen where I’ll have to make a conscious effort to see them.

The JCD381 isn’t perfect. (You’re not surprised to hear that, are you?) This is not the dock to choose if you’re running a Mac. There are multiple reports that even after installing the drivers, you won’t be able to have different outputs on the two HDMI connectors. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of those reports, but they’re pervasive enough that I wouldn’t take the chance.

More significant to Windows users, the dock lacks an audio/headphone jack. That would have been handy and including one could have fixed the lack of symmetry on the cable end.

That, however, is a quick and cheap fix if you’re converting one of the outputs to VGA. Behold!

This is the Rankie HDMI-to-VGA adapter. Micro-USB port on the left to power it (and yes, it comes with an appropriate cable) and audio on the right. Eight bucks from that well-known purveyor of fine (and not-so-fine) goods whose name begins with an A.

Sure, I could have saved the eight dollars and just plugged my speakers into the computer’s headphone jack, but that would have meant an extra plug or unplug every time I moved the machine. Well worth the octodollar to have everything on a single cable.

There are other issues.

The USB-C input on the j5create box is a bit loose. If I accidentally move the dock when plugging or unplugging it, it can disconnect the power. Annoying, but not fatal, and I could probably find a way to anchor the plug more securely in the dock.

The dock does get hot in use. Not burn-your-fingers-and-set-the-desk-on-fire hot, but significantly toasty. Make sure it’s well-ventilated.

And, finally, the computer has lost track of the network port a couple of times. I’m still troubleshooting that one, but I suspect the problem is at the computer end–either a driver issue or a Windows bug–rather than with the hardware. Since the computer automatically falls back to Wi-Fi, I hardly notice. And the port comes back to life the next time I reboot the computer, so it’s not that big a deal. I’ll find a fix eventually, but it’s not affecting my quality of life right now.

So there you have it. Maybe not quite so simple that only a child can do it after all.

It’s So Simple…

Oh, yeah. It’s Thursday, isn’t it? Sorry about that. Got distracted by the Internet.

Actually, what distracted me was trying to figure out how to rearrange my computers. I’m trying to change my setup to make it easier to switch between working at home and working elsewhere. There were a number of reasons why I didn’t get much writing done in Sedalia–starting with the music, of course–and one of them was just the simple disruption of not being at my usual computer with all my usual tools.

The answer seems simple: set up my portable machine as my main writing machine.

But wait. This is computers. It’s against the law for anything computer related to be simple.

Or, in the words of Tom Lehrer, “It’s so simple / So very simple / That only a child can do it.” Anyone got a child I can borrow?

If I’m working at home, I don’t want to use the comparatively small laptop screen. I want the big screens on my desk. Yes, plural. (A hint for the budget-minded: at any given price point, two medium-sized monitors give you more screen real estate than one big monitor.)

I like to have the document I’m working on directly in front of me on one screen. Then I put my research web browser on the same screen, but off to the side where it’s handy for looking things up at a moment’s notice*. And then I shove my email onto the second screen, where it’s out of my peripheral vision; that way it doesn’t constantly distract me, but it’s running, so it can use audio alerts to get my attention for important messages.

* Most recent mid-paragraph search: how much space would twenty pounds of gold take up? Hey, it’s an important plot point. I couldn’t leave it to fill in later, right?

Sure, there will be compromises in doing all that on the road. But I work at home more than anywhere else, so the goal is to tune the home experience for maximum efficiency, then scale it down for traveling.

The big gotcha, though, is that laptops aren’t really designed to connect to multiple external monitors. “Hey,” the manufacturers say, “it’s got a built-in screen and an HDMI port. That’s plenty.”

Not in my universe.

My laptop doesn’t even have an HDMI port. What it does have is a USB-C port and there are zillions of USB-C docking stations. Many of them even have multiple video outputs.

And that’s where I got distracted.

The most common combinations of ports are two HDMI or two DisplayPort. Next most common are one of each. VGA? Not so common. DVI? Hen’s teeth.

You know what’s coming, right?

My monitors are so amazingly outdated that they don’t have either HDMI or DisplayPort inputs. VGA and DVI all the way.

Which has never been a problem before. Every desktop computer I’ve owned for the past decade or more has had DVI outputs. HDMI-to-VGA and HDMI-to-DVI adapters are cheap and effective.

Every single docking station I’ve looked at has had warnings against using adapters. “They may not work” is the usual phrasing. That’s tech-speak for “It probably won’t work, but we want you to buy the product, so we’ll cover our posteriors with a maybe.”

I found one line of docking stations that have one DP, one HDMI, and one VGA output. I figured I could go VGA-to-VGA on one monitor and take my chances with an adapter for the other.

Then I saw the small print: if you use the VGA output, the DP and HDMI are disabled. Seriously!

I refuse to buy new monitors for this project. The ones I’ve got work perfectly well.

So, if you don’t hear from me or that kid you loaned me for a while, assume that we’re buried beneath an enormous pile of docking stations and video adapters, fruits of the search for the one magic combination does something mindbogglingly easy.

Loose Ends 1

The end of the year is approaching–hopefully you were already aware of that–so I thought I’d close out a couple of open issues before the calendar turns over.

I’ve talked about Amazon’s $50 tablet a couple of times, most recently in September, when I said the thing might actually be more useful than expected. Apparently a lot of people agreed with me. Amazon dropped the price to $35 as one of their Black Friday deals, and they sold a heck of a lot of them. I don’t know how many, but they quickly went into backorder status. People who bought them Friday evening received them just in time for Christmas.

I’m speaking as a recipient, not a purchaser here, by the way. Yes, there was a Fire under our tree this year (sorry). Many thanks to Maggie for the gift.

After four days of playing with it, I’m actually impressed.

Yes, it’s made of plastic, but it doesn’t feel cheap. It’s quite solid, no creaks or flexes. That solidity does come at a price; it’s heavier than I expected, but that’s a reasonable tradeoff. It’s still light enough to hold one-handed for extended periods.

As expected, the speaker sucks. There’s no bass, and the sound distorts at even moderate volume. But nobody in their right mind would use a tablet’s built-in speakers anyway. Plug in headphones or external speakers, and the sound is perfectly acceptable.

The 1024×600 resolution is, well, odd. Held vertically, it looks skinny; horizontally it feels like sitting in the last row of a very big movie theater. That makes video something of a peculiar experience. The Fire plays video surprisingly well, at least in my limited tests, but the aspect ratio doesn’t quite fit either standard or high definition content. The distortion isn’t horrible, but it’s noticeable if you look for it. On the other hand, the tablet is light enough that you can hold it close to your face, making the seven inch screen much less of an issue. It’s still too small to completely fill your visual field, but if you don’t insist on your TV shows being immersive experiences, it’s quite adequate.

I expected the size and resolution would make for a decent reading experience, and I was right. I’m pleased enough that I’m making it my primary reader. It’s much more comfortable to hold for a couple of hours at a time than my nine-inch Nexus and the display is crisp enough that I’m not worried about eye strain. And it’s small enough to make it easy to slip into a pocket and take it along for BART reading.

There are some negatives. For one thing, the screen is a fingerprint magnet. Keep a lint-free cloth handy because you’ll be wiping the screen every couple of days. For another, it can be quite sluggish when switching between apps. Once I’m into an app, it’s usually fine, but I’ve had several five second waits while the tablet frees up memory.

And there are some quirks around the way the device handles user profiles. You can have two “adult” accounts and several “child” accounts, but only the first adult account can use system-level controls. That makes the second adult essentially a child, only with no age-based restrictions on content. It’s unlikely to be a problem for most users, but it’s something to keep in mind when you first set up the device–the first adult account should probably be the person who will be using the tablet most.

The biggest problem, though, is Amazon’s walled garden. I expected there would be some issues in that regard, but the details have tripped me a couple of times. Remember that SD card slot? It’s there, and it works, but Amazon seems to have made it very difficult for third-party apps to use it. Moving your music and video to SD is straightforward, but Amazon explicitly blocks you from moving other media types–including books–to SD. They prefer you to keep anything other than music and video on the internal memory and shuffle it off to cloud storage when you run short of space.

Third-party apps, as far as I can tell, only get read access to the SD card. Since this is my first Amazon device, most of my books are in epub format, which Amazon’s reader doesn’t handle. So I use a third-party reader–the same one I’ve used for a couple of years on my Nexii. I’ve had to load my books by putting the card in my computer. It works, but it’s a little cumbersome.

Bottom line: I like it. It’s well worth the $50 price tag. But be aware of the limitations. This is emphatically not a do-everything device.

More loose ends Thursday. See you then!

Fire Sale

The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon will be releasing a $50 tablet “in time for the holidays”.

Multiple tech sites are picking up on the story and asking the question “Would you buy a $50 tablet?” I think that’s the wrong question. The right question is “Would you buy a $50 tablet from Amazon?”

Let’s talk about that a bit.

This is Amazon, the company that is perfectly willing to take a loss on hardware because they know they can make up for it in software. In the case of tablets, that “software” isn’t apps, it’s books, movies, and music. As best I can tell (keeping in mind that I don’t own an Amazon device), each new version of their customized version of Android makes it just a little harder to bring your own media in from outside the Amazon ecosystem. I don’t see the version they ship on this new tablet being any exception to that rule.

Then there’s the tablet itself. The WSJ says it’s going to have a six-inch screen. That’s phablet territory, and a size that manufacturers have concluded doesn’t work for tablets. Heck, it’s getting harder and harder to find seven-inch tablets (my preferred size) outside the bargain bin. That aside, the media experience on a six-inch screen isn’t great. Music is OK–as millions of iPod users will tell you, a screen isn’t really necessary for a purely-audio experience–but video is iffy. Even on a seven-inch screen, video is eye-squintingly small; as best I can tell from forum comments, video is the main driver in making phablets ever-larger. As for books, for all but those with excellent vision, a six-inch screen will mean either tiny print, or frequent page turns. Neither is a desirable user experience.

So would you buy a $50 tablet strictly for audio? Would it change your opinion if you knew that it only had a single monophonic speaker? Mono isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for an audio device–witness the popularity of Sonos’ Play:One and Play:Three devices, both of which are monophonic. But the Sonos gadgets have much higher-quality speakers than anything that could fit in a tablet, even one selling for significantly more than $50, and they also offer the option of pairing two speakers for stereo. It seems unlikely that Amazon’s cheapie tablet would have a similar pairing capability.

One possibility would be that Amazon will position the tablet not so much for its own multimedia capabilities, but more as a glorified remote control for the Fire TV set-top box. But if you don’t already have a Fire TV, that’s another $40 on top of the $50 for the tablet. $90 is squarely in the same range as a Roku box or even an Apple TV–and Apple is expected to announce a new, more powerful version of the Apple TV tomorrow.

I don’t really see a market for Amazon’s little Fire tablet. Unless they have something really spectacular up their sleeve–and, based on the damp thud their Fire Phone made when it hit last year, I don’t think they do–I think the $50 tablet is going to be more of a wet match than a blowtorch when it comes to igniting sales.

Say What?

Sheer genius or sheer idiocy? (If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a few days, you can probably guess what the answer is…)

HP has announced the impending release (come September) of what I can only describe as a 21 inch Android tablet.


They’re calling it the “Slate 21”, and they’re pitching it as a combination of a multimedia station and a desktop computer. The specs are–except for the size–similar to the current crop of high-end Android phones: 1920×1080 screen, Tegra 4 processor, 8GB of storage (expandable via SD card), and so on. The price is similar, too: $399.

We need a name for this class of objects–somewhere between tablet and computer–I’ll propose “comlet” by analogy with “phablet” for something between a phone and a tablet, but I’m open to suggestions. This isn’t the first attempt to merge the two categories, but the previous attempts I’m aware of are essentially notebook/tablet combinations; this is the first I’ve seen that tries to do the trick with a desktop.

What makes it a desktop computer? According to HP, the addition of office software from KingSoft, enhanced drivers to allow the use of USB keyboards and USB hard drives, and the ability to print (if you have one of HP’s web-enabled printers).

What makes it a multimedia box? DTS sound and the ability to use standard wall mounts. (The puff piece linked in the previous paragraph also cites Wi-Fi Direct and BT 3.0, but I’m not clear how connectivity options qualify as multimedia features.)

I think this screams “novelty item”. It’s too big to lug around the house so your videos and music can move around with you – and that’s assuming it includes a battery: if it has to be plugged in, you might as well use the wall-mount option and leave it in… um… some room. It’s too small for the typical living room or bedroom, where you generally are sitting on the other side of the room. It might work in an office–21 inch monitors are reasonably common–but does anyone really want to sit in their office chair and watch a movie?

As for its utility as a desktop computer, I find it telling that the HP piece states that Splashtop2 will be pre-installed on the gadget. Splashtop is remote-access software, so you could use your comlet to work remotely on your PC or Mac from the comfort of your… um… office chair: right in front of the computer.

Yeah, OK, I can think of some niche uses for it. I could see it being useful in a dorm room or small apartment (though even there, you would get more flexibility with a low-end laptop and a small TV for about the same price).

This is one of those “Thank you for thinking outside the box, but…” ideas. I commend HP for trying something new, but unless they can come up with a more compelling purpose than “it’s never been done before”, I can’t see it catching on.

Now, if they built the same technology into a range of TVs–something that would work in a living room–they might have something worthwhile. Android makes a nice streaming media box, and building the ability to play videos and games on a truly giant screen, in the same way that DVD and Blu-Ray players have been built into TVs has some appeal. It looks like HP was thinking along those lines. Their promo piece does say “When you’re playing games, for example, imagine that you’re playing something like Angry Birds on a gian screen.” But 21 inches is only “giant” by comparison with a 5 inch phone; not what most people picture when they hear the word.