Sep 062014

The last post discussed the details of building a new desktop, a definite anachronism in this time when people get more excited about the computing capabilities of watches. While a traditional desktop continues to serve my primary computing needs better than any of the emerging pieces of technology, I recognize that’s because my needs are unique – not because the world has it wrong!

A case in point was a recent visit by my sister-in-law, Aimee.  Her previous phone was dead, her netbook was archaic, and the machine in her family home in Taiwan is memorable to me mainly because it will literally shock you if you touch it.  Good thing Taiwan uses 110v power, not 220v like many other Asian countries!  Did I build her a custom, relatively high end Windows desktop?  No, certainly not. Instead, we sent her back home with a smartphone, a laptop, and a desktop – all for a little over $600:

It’s truly incredible to live in a time when this much capability can be had so inexpensively.   It wasn’t all that long ago that a single component of your computer – perhaps the CPU, or the memory, or even the hard disk drive if you got something big – could cost as much as all three of the above combined.

Acer C720P (11.6″, Touch, 2GB) – $280

Chromebooks may not yet run Starcraft or Lightroom, but if you live on the web, they provide pretty much everything you need.  I got a couple of the original Samsung Chromebooks back in 2011 (one for Valerie, one for my mom), and while they occasionally want a Microsoft Office feature they got used to over a decade or two of use, both machines are still going strong. In fact, they’re more capable than when I got them due to updates, but perhaps most importantly, I haven’t had to provide a bunch of tech support, and I don’t worry that spyware is actively stealing information from them. Of course, I work on the Chrome team, so I’m incredibly biased here :).

The baseline C720 is only $240, and was actually what we’d planned on, but Aimee wanted white, and the only model that shipped immediately in white with the C720P, which adds touch capability for $40. Ironically, this was a blessing in disguise. Touch on a laptop has never appealed to me; you need to take your fingers off the keyboard, and you get fingerprints all over the screen. What I didn’t count on was that touch appealed to Aimee – a lot. In fact, I don’t even think she noticed the difference between Chrome and Windows as much as she noticed the difference between touch and non-touch.

It’d be nice if the 2GB of memory was user-upgradeable to 4GB, but sadly the components are a little too integrated for that. But for Aimee’s use, I doubt this will make a difference.



Asus Chromebox – $180

My father-in-law still primarily uses desktops, and I’m certainly not going to object to that. If you don’t need portability, I feel like there’s no substitute for a full-sized keyboard, a decent mouse, and a reasonably sized monitor that’s big enough to really show whatever content you’re looking at. And while I spent north of $1200 to replace my desktop computer, astonishingly, if you don’t “need” a 3.5GHz quad core processor, or 32GB of memory, or a 512MB SSD, a mere 15% of that cost buys you a full capable Chromebox.

I am also fairly certain that the Chromebox will not administer electric shocks when touched. The fact that it’s case is entirely plastic will likely do a good job of ensuring this.

Unlike the Acer C720P, the RAM in the Asus Chromebox is definitely user upgradeable (though I did not check if this has any warranty implications). The 2GB version shipped with a single stick of RAM and two slots; it was straightforward to add another 2GB for a total of 4GB. The only thing tricky is figuring out that what you need is a 2GB PC3-12800 204-pin SODIMM (though it’s not quite as bad as sorting through near-infinite options for desktop memory at different performance levels).

Motorola Moto G Play Edition (16GB) – $200

During the last few years, the evolution of smartphones was breathtaking and paralleled the earlier PC years, where each year raised the performance bar in such a significant way that you felt compelled to upgrade every couple of years or so. In no small part, both with smartphones and the PCs of long ago, that’s because the experience was massively stifled by hardware capabilities at the time. Where you used to turn your PC on, and then go get a snack while you waited for it to boot, you used to do the same just trying to load a web page on early smartphones (especially before 3G/LTE became prevalent).

The truth is that in 2014, even mid-end phones are now entirely adequate for pretty much anything you want to do (except perhaps for the tiny fraction of smartphone games that will fully utilize a high-end GPU). While Apple, Samsung, and others will undoubtedly continue to push their latest and greatest new models each year, the improvements barely matter anymore.  Going from 480 x 800 WVGA screens in 2011 (which were definitely pixelated) to  720p (720 x 1280) “HD” screens in 2012 was breathtaking.  By contrast, the transition last year to 1080p “Full HD” flagship phones – giving you the same 1920 x 1080 resolution you’ll probably find on your 50″ HDTV – was mostly unnecessary and not noticeable to many people. The emergence this year of even crazier resolutions, like the 2560 x 1440 resolution on the Galaxy Note 4, is a sign that we’ve clearly gone too far.

Fortunately, that made it possible to pick up a really solid mid-end phone, the Moto G, for a buck less than $200 – unlocked, with no contract, and with a pure Android experience. It’s a great phone that should be a revolutionary upgrade over the HTC myTouch Slide “4G” that it replaces. I’m also pretty happy with the picture I managed to take of it:

While the original budget of $620 for a smartphone, laptop, and desktop replacement was bumped up by $40 for touch and $20 for an additional 2GB of RAM, this trio was still comfortable under $700. I’m still amazed by how much of a steal that feels like.

 Posted by at 8:46 am

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