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.

MS’ Tablet Experience

Last week, I introduced “Tim,” a tablet running Windows 10. I’d like to talk about him more.

Specifically, I wanted to talk about a couple of areas where Microsoft’s concept of what we might call the “tablet experience” falls short.

Apple, Google, and Amazon have promoted the tablet as an “always on, always ready for you” device. Pick it up, unlock it, and you’re right back where you were when you last set it down. Even more, until recently all three didn’t require you to set a password in the initial setup. Even now, you’re not required to set any kind of lock, although you may have to dig a little to figure out how to go passwordless.

But Microsoft has gone in a different direction. Because the initial setup is identical to setting up a desktop system, you must set a password. Not a PIN, not a gesture. A password. Using an on-screen keyboard.

Once you complete the initial setup, you can add a PIN or a gesture*, but it’s an addition, not a replacement, and Windows will occasionally require the password instead of your preferred alternative.

* Microsoft has given us the “Picture password,” in which you draw on top of a picture you select. There’s an interesting, and very readable, article about the security of the technology at Sophos, but the gist is that they’re arguably more secure than a four digit PIN, but less secure than a six digit PIN or an Android-style gesture unlock. From a strictly practical perspective, I have to wonder how well a picture password set up in portrait mode will work in landscape mode or visa versa.

If you’re willing to accept the security risk, you can also set your device to log you in without a password and to not require a password to unlock. But a tablet is certainly more accessible to potential evildoers than a desktop system, and possibly more so than a laptop. That might tip the decision against auto-login. But even if you choose to take the risk, Windows will still occasionally request your PIN or password when you turn on the tablet.

I think that’s a bug. It’s too random for me to think Microsoft has designed Windows that way–it’ll sometimes go for days without requiring the PIN, then demand it on three successive unlocks–and frequently one of those three will ask for the password instead of the PIN. But whether it’s a bug or a feature, it still betrays a desktop-oriented focus: entering a password isn’t particularly onerous on a physical keyboard, so falling back to the more secure option regardless of the user’s preference isn’t a big deal.

And that, right there, is where Microsoft’s version of the tablet experience runs head-on into user expectations: in Windows 10, Microsoft has given us a much more “father knows best” design than ever before. Consider how upgrades are installed.

As I said earlier, users are conditioned to expect their tablets to give them an “always on” experience. When Google and Apple release updates, the user is in charge of installing them. Don’t want to go from iOS 15.6.1 to 15.6.2? Don’t install it. Don’t want the August Android patches? Don’t install ’em. But if you don’t want next Tuesday’s Windows updates, you’re out of luck. You may be able to delay installing them for a couple of days, but Windows will give them to you eventually. It’ll try to do the installation at a time when you’re not using the machine, but that’s not guaranteed*. Amazon also forces updates, but there’s a critical difference between Android and Windows.

* You can set a range of times during which Windows won’t install updates, but the range can’t be any longer than twelve hours. OK for desktops, where, even with the expansion of work hours you’re probably not sitting there for much more than twelve or thirteen hours at a stretch. Less good for laptops, where you’re likely to bring work home. Not good at all for tablets where you might pick it up for a couple of minutes almost any time.

Android was designed with the preservation of state in mind. Reboot your phone or tablet, and you’ll not only find the same apps running, but in most cases they’ll be in the same place: a web browser will be displaying the same page, for example. (iOS behaves similarly, though to my mind, not as thoroughly.) And Amazon’s Fire OS inherits that state preservation from Android.

Windows doesn’t worry about state; the onus is on individual developers to save state in their own software. Reboot and none of your programs are running. Launch them manually, and, unless the programmer has implemented state preservation on their own, you’re at a default screen.

So consider the experience: you pick up your Windows tablet to, say, check what time a movie is showing. In the worst case, you’re greeted with “Windows is preparing to install updates.” You wait while the updates are installed–a process that can take fifteen or twenty minutes, or more if it’s a Windows version upgrade–and then get your login screen. Enter your password and wait for the programs that run at login to load. Launch your browser and check the movie time–you did bookmark the theater’s page, so you don’t have to type the URL again, right? By the time you get through all of that, it’s probably too late to make the show.

To be clear, this isn’t a wrong design. But it prioritizes security over user expectations, and subordinates the user’s desires to Microsoft’s vision of how people will use their computer.

That may be acceptable in a desktop or laptop–as is so often the case, Your Mileage May Vary–but it’s not going to fly in the tablet space. Unless Microsoft loosens up a little and gives tablet users the always on experience the form factor demands, they’re never going to be more than a tiny niche player in that space.

New Toy

Will anyone out there be surprised to hear that I have a new gadget? I didn’t think so.

What you might not have expected is that it’s not an Android or iOS device; it’s a Windows tablet. Not a Surface. Microsoft is positioning those as more of a laptop with a detached keyboard, or at most, a two-in-one.

This is an honest-to-gosh tablet running Windows 10. To be precise, it’s a “NuVision TM800W610L*”.

* Quite a mouthful, that, and a real loser when it comes to advertising. Who’s going to walk into a store and say “Lemme see one a them TM800W610L tablet thingies”? It’s not much fun to type, either. For the sake of my fingers, I’ll call it “Tim”.

When they’re available–and it’s currently not in stock at the Microsoft Store–they normally sell for $149, but shortly before Christmas, Microsoft dropped that to $59. At that price, I couldn’t resist the chance to see what the Windows tablet experience is like.

To be blunt, the reviews of the first generation of Windows tablets were lousy. The hardware was generally underpowered and they were further crippled by being saddled with Windows 8. But Tim’s specs are more or less in line with low-end computers, and Windows 10 is much more usable than Windows 8.

Tim did not have the Windows 10 Anniversary edition installed when he arrived. So the first order of business after connecting him to the Wi-Fi was to wait through several Windows updates. That was the first stumbling point: Tim’s hard drive is only 32GB. By the time all of the updates were installed, he was down to a mere 1.5GB of free space. If you didn’t know, when major Windows updates are installed, the old version is kept around in case there are problems and you need to revert. Windows noticed the lack of space and helpfully suggested deleting the backup. I gave it the go-ahead, and wound up with a much more usable 10GB of free space.

Of course, after installing some software–Microsoft Office, LibreOffice, Firefox, a couple of games, an ebook reader,…–I’m back down to about 7GB. It’s tight. I picked up an SD card for my data files, and that smoothed out the experience significantly.

By default, Tim will run in Windows 10’s “Tablet Mode”. That means you get the Start Screen instead of the traditional desktop/start menu interface, and all programs will be forced to run maximized. It’s a sensible approach, mirroring the iOS and Android “one app at a time” UI, but there’s a bit of a catch.

I’m going to have to digress a little here.

It’s a truism bordering on clich√© (and I won’t address which side of the border it’s on) that the current generation of phones and tablets have as much computing power as a desktop computer from [insert date here, chosen to make your rhetorical point]. But part of the reason so many people feel compelled to make that point over and over is that because the portable gadgets use different UIs than desktops, we don’t really feel how powerful they are.

Holding Tim–0.6 pounds of computer–and seeing that familiar Windows interface on an eight inch screen, without a keyboard or mouse around, the truth hits you like a crowbar to the kneecaps. “This is a computer. Not a toy, not a single-purpose gadget, but a full-fledged computer.”

Which brings us back to that catch: it’s a computer. Running Windows. On an Intel CPU. That means you can install any of the zillions of Windows programs that have been written since, oh, 1995 or so. To some extent, that’s a good thing. The Windows App Store has a very limited selection of software compared to the Apple and Google stores. But the downside is that not all programs written before “programs” became “apps” play nicely with Tablet Mode.

Some don’t like running full-screen, and you wind up with a tiny window floating in the middle of a vast expanse of blank pixels. Some don’t recognize when they’re in the background and constantly demand attention with pop-ups.

The problem is compounded by NuVision’s decision to design the tablet with portrait mode in mind. Note the pictures in the link at the top of the post–they’re all vertically-oriented. The cameras are on one of the short edges. And the controls are on one of the long edges, where they’re most convenient when holding Tim with the cameras at the top.

Programs written with desktop–or laptop–computers in mind are designed on the assumption that the screen will be wider than it is tall. Maximizing them in portrait mode can make for an unusably skinny interface, with menus half-hidden behind “More” buttons and dialog boxes too wide to fit on the screen.

There’s also the matter of scaling.

NuVision has equipped Tim with an excellent 1200×1920 pixel screen. Squeezed into eight inches, that makes for very tiny pixels, which in turn makes for nigh-microscopic text and controls.

Microsoft’s solution–and, to be fair, it’s the same solution everyone else uses–is to combine multiple pixels into one, thus zooming in on the display. That makes text readable and buttons tappable, but it comes at the price of lowering the effective resolution.

By default, Tim comes set to display UI elements at 200%. That’s great for visibility, but in portrait mode it means the screen is effectively only 600 pixels wide. When was the last time you visited a website that was usable on a 600 pixel screen? No, mobile-optimized sites don’t count. Servers see Tim as a desktop computer and serve up the desktop site, not the mobile version. Nor is the problem limited to the web. Even the oldest of Windows programs assume a screen width of at least 640 pixels. Remember the days when a VGA 640×480 screen was awesome? I do–but it ain’t so spectacular nowadays.

Dial back the magnification to 150%. That makes the functional width 900 pixels, which is much more usable, but still large enough to read. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)

That’s a lot of negatives.

But honestly, now that I’ve used Tim for a month and gotten used to his quirks, I like him much more than I expected I would. I’ve been using him as my fulltime ebook reader, and it’s a pleasure to be able to open a book in an ebook editor and fix a broken tag that turns three paragraphs into italics.

I love being able to carry my current project along in my pocket, open it in the same program I’m using at home–not a web app, not a stripped down “mobile version,” but the very same software–and make changes while I wait. Sure, I could almost do that with a laptop, but none of my jackets have a pocket large enough for my laptop.

I wouldn’t want to write a novel on Tim, or even a short story. But the onscreen keyboard is good enough for adding a paragraph when I’ve got ten minutes, and with an external keyboard, I probably could manage a whole chapter in an emergency.

I’m not going to recommend everyone get a Windows tablet instead of an iPad or Samsung/Nexus/Whoever Android tablet. The current state of the art makes it a niche choice. But it’s a damn sight better than it used to be, and that niche is getting larger.