Last month’s CES show made it clear that laptops are set to make a comeback this year, after taking the backseat to tablets for much of 2011. Ultrabooks, extremely thin and light laptops whose style is matched pound for pound by computing power, are just starting to hit the market and creating a good deal of buzz. Over 50 of them were on display at the Vegas trade show, many being unveiled for the first time. If you’re looking to replace your laptop this year, read on for some expert recommendations.
HP Envy 14 Spectre
CNet put this on top of its list for computers and hardware, not least because of its NFC support (for making mobile payments, among other things) and great audio features. They’re far from groundbreaking, but they’re noticeably lacking in the competition. Its supposed selling point is the shiny glass lid, although it can be a turnoff for more mobile users looking for a rugged construction.
Dell XPS 13
For this impressive business laptop, Dell took the sleek profile of the MacBook Air and added the look and feel of its Latitude series. This sets it apart visually from previous models in the XPS line, along with its large, easy-to-use track pad and sturdy Gorilla Glass-covered screen. Technically it’s still a business laptop, although the lines are starting to blur. In any case, at about two-thirds the price of the HP above, it’s a pretty good deal for casual computing.
Acer Aspire S5
At just 15mm thick and under 3 lbs., the Aspire S5 is one of the thinnest and lightest laptops on the market, at least so far. The exterior is magnesium alloy with an Onyx Black finish, adding to its smooth, no-nonsense look. The USB, HDMI, and Thunderbolt ports are hidden away at the back and protected by a port door, which could be great for protection but make connecting peripherals a little complicated.
Samsung Series 9
One of the first touch-screen laptops to hit the shelves, the Samsung Series 9 first appeared in 2011 as an ultrathin laptop that was, as onlookers called it, the closest one could get to a MacBook Air. The updated version was unveiled last month, retaining the skinny 13-inch profile and the fixing some of the obvious creases. An improved trackpad, better display, and lighter construction promise to make it one of the biggest sellers of the year.
Kobo, the company burst out of the Amazon Kindle’s shadow in 2010, has released a follow-up to its hugely popular (and affordable) e-reader. Quite expectedly, much was expected of the Kobo Vox from the minute it was first announced. And it does deliver, although a number of fans have been left wanting.
The Vox retains its minimalist design and shiny black exterior, with colour options for the quilted back panel including pink, blue, and lime green. But all that sleekness covers up its actual bulk–at over 400 grams, it’s more than twice as heavy as the eReader Touch. The makers also opted for a misty, dirt-prone and cheap-looking plastic screen that all but shows the LED diodes if you look close enough.
What it has going for it is the colour screen and a handful of added features that come in pretty handy. Each unit comes with several built-in apps, including Zinio, which allows you to subscribe to and read magazines, and PressReaders, which does the same for newspapers. There’s also a dictionary app as well as your usuals: Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, YouTube, and an internet browser.
Needless to say, there’s an e-library with a link to Kobo’s bookstore, as well as Reading Life. One cool feature is that you can select a quote you like from a book and share it with friends. And although it runs on Android, it doesn’t come with the official Market application, so you’ll have to buy your apps from a third-party platform, GetApps.
The Vox has stopped supporting comic book formats such as CBZ and CBR, which is strange considering the device has just come out in colour. PDF files, Adobe Digital Edition, and other third-party formats are also unsupported, although they were in the previous version. And since there’s no file manager feature, installing a separate e-reader would be rather complicated (although possible).
Overall, though, the Vox is a pretty good e-reader, and the colour viewer makes for a much better reading experience when it comes to magazines, children’s books, and comics if you can find a way to open them. You also get features on Reading Life that aren’t on the Touch, most notably Social Reading, where you can see readers’ comments and ratings. For its price, the Kobo Vox may be a bit steep considering it looks like a hasty release, but it may be worth waiting for some tweaks and upgrades down the line.
Everyone’s got a similar story: the excitement over getting a new iPad is dampened only by the fact that you don’t know what to do with it. That’s what apps are for. Some people know long beforehand what apps they want, but many end up navigating the app store for hours not knowing which ones are worth their time. There’s no single answer, of course: every iPad user has his needs and preferences. But if you’re not sure where to start, here’s a quick guide to help you out.
Internet and browsing
Worried about busting your download limits? Use Instapaper to save offline copies of web pages for later reading. If you’re one of those people who open the same websites every morning, put them all together with Flipboard–it stacks all your favourite websites into your own customized digital mag.
News and entertainment
Sunday TV guides are a thing of the past with the OzTV for iPad–it offers free listings for all Australian channels, along with show information and a search and save feature. Tired of waiting for the morning paper? Stay on top of current events with the SBS and BBC News apps–features include customizable content and up-to-date video reports.
The Kindle reader has saved university students thousands of dollars and freed up miles of bookcase space, and it continues to work its magic with its iPad version. Use it to buy and store your favourite books in one tap. If you don’t plan on buying books online, Goodreads is a great alternative–you can use it to organize and share with fellow readers.
Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and other social networks all have considerable presence in the iPad market, to no one’s big surprise. The Facebook app is especially well-received; the experience offers pretty much everything you would find on the computer version. IM Pro allows you to access all your instant messaging accounts in one place, making it easier to stay in touch on the go.
Surprisingly, the iPad doesn’t have a calculator function, something they’ll probably fix in future versions. In the meantime, there’s a load of alternatives, such as the free Calculator++ app. The eye-candy interface comes complete with scientific and trigonometric functions. At the end of the day, make sure you wake up on time with Night Stand, a clock app that doubles as a nighttime display and alarm clock.
At the turn of the century, experts were all but certain that we’d be paying with our mobile phones by 2011. But the year came and went, and although we’ve worked, played, watched movies, taken photos and listened to music on our handsets, mobile payments have yet to take off.
To be sure, we’ve gone leaps and bounds in that direction. The biggest step the industry has taken was Near Field Communication (NFC), a way for mobile phones to interact with point-of-sale systems and connect to bank networks. Users can load up money on “mobile wallets,” linking their phone and bank accounts and essentially eliminating the need for cash. For the most part, the switch has been hampered by a slew of security issues and the resulting lack of interest from smartphone manufacturers.
For example, Apple’s latest offering, the iPhone 4S, did not incorporate NFC technology as many had expected. With the tech market heavily dependent on trendsetters, it’s safe to assume that any new feature will catch on when market leader Apple decides to use it–and the next iPhone probably won’t come until much later in the year.
But what goes on in the Apple boardroom isn’t all that defines mobile payments. Other major players are hot on the trails of NFC; for instance, Google launched Google Wallet and will soon find itself pitted against mobile phone carriers with more than enough resources and motivation to invest in the technology. Even tech start-ups are joining the game: a small company in Redwood, California is working on an open-source NFC platform that’s free for anyone, from independent app developers to banks and phone providers.
A more tangible obstacle is the lack of infrastructure to support NFC payments. About 85% of purchases are still being made with cash, despite the millions of credit cards currently in circulation (the financial crisis has been a major factor). Until more institutions start accepting mobile phone payments, it may be a while before you can pay for your lunch with a wave of your iPhone.
Nonetheless, 2012 is set to be a big year not just for mobile payments, but for NFC technology in particular. Besides faster shopping, it allows for easier access to everything from classrooms and library books to advertising messages from retailers. So even if you’re still paying with your credit card in December, it’s likely that mobile payments will already have changed the way you shop.
The thing about Android apps is there are rarely trial versions. If you want to check something out, your only option is to download the app and play around with it. There are two issues here: first, you don’t want to bog down your phone with memory-hungry apps, and second, if you pay for an app that you don’t end up liking, you don’t get a refund.
BlueStacks, a relatively new software outfit, has come up with a solution that allows you to run Android apps on your PC. Their eponymous program has made it possible for app developers to offer test runs on their websites, and for users to manage their data from phone to PC. Game enthusiasts are now also able to play their games on larger screens.
The program is basically a virtual operating system incorporating Android’s features and user interface, but made to run on the PC. That means it uses your computer’s processor, Internet connection, sound card, and other resources, including your mouse and keyboard. When it’s open, it runs in the background and is able to store, play, and even download apps. You can buy apps through BlueStacks using your Facebook account; you have to subscribe to updates to see which apps are available by the day.
You can also sync the program to your phone (the same way you sync your iPod to iTunes) using Cloud Connect, a free app from the same company. It’s meant to be installed on your phone and is easy to find on the Android Market. BlueStacks will provide a 9-digit pin which you will have to enter on your phone, allowing phone and PC to recognize each other. All you have to do is select apps from either BlueStacks or your phone and choose the Sync option–the two will connect using your internet connection.
So what’s the catch? Since it’s a relatively new program, BlueStacks isn’t able to run all apps. This can be due to hardware incompatibility or wireless network requirements, but the biggest hurdle is licensing: the free version of BlueStacks can only hold 26 apps at a time. The pro version, which is expected to come out soon, will be able to hold more apps, although there’s no word on how much (or whether there’s a limit). Nonetheless, it’s a useful app whether you’re an avid gamer, a mobile businessman or just someone with one too many gizmos.