Monday, November 26, 2012

Low Tech Acer Chromebook Unboxing + Review

The production values of this unboxing are fairly low I'm afraid. I was supposed to have a Nexus 4 by now but an ill timed call at work and Google's inability to anticipate demand have conspired to leave me with my stopgap $32 smart phone.  I took out my frustration about this by buying another Google product, the recently released Acer Chromebook C7. 

I was getting tired of hauling me first generation Alienware M11x around and for $230 including tax and shipping it seemed like the C7 might be a cost effective replacement.

The C7 comes with Chrome OS installed. I won't go into a lot of detail about Chrome OS other than to note that its basically a stripped down Linux distribution with a very simple window manager, the Google Chrome browser and one or two other apps. Its designed primarily to be used while online but does have some limited functionality as a stand alone computer. And now onto the unboxing...

The Unboxing

The guitar picks in the picture below obscure my address and provide some idea as to the size of the box the C7 arrives in.

In a video unboxing people generally show all sides of the box. I'm not sure why but pixels are cheap so here we go...

Below you'll see the battery on the left, the manual in the center and the power cord on the right. The computer is in the lid portion of the box. You can see the black screen cleaner cloth that also came with the Chromebook sitting on it. A screen cleaner is a nice touch in a system this cheap.

Below you can see the computer freed of its cardboard enclosure but still in the white inner sleeve that it ships in.

I'll mention here that you can click on any of these pictures if you want to see them in their full resolution low quality glory.

Below you can see the Chromebook coyly peeking out of its sleeve. The empty battery slot is visible. Acer claims 3.5 hours of battery life with this unit. Based on my limited real world testing I'd say that is a somewhat optimistic estimate but not far off. The cord and power supply are small enough to be easily carried around.

I'm not a big fan of glossy screens but this one isn't that bad compared to some I've seen. It does reflect the camera flash very well though as the next picture shows.

If you have a Google account and access to the Internet you can be up and running in a couple of minutes. Setup is quick and easy.

I didn't take careful notes but I think there were like three questions I had to answer to get logged in and started initially.

At this point I got tired of taking pictures and just started playing around with the C7.


This is my first experience with Chrome OS. So far it seems reasonably functional. I've used GMail for years and am fairly deeply invested in Google Docs and search, My preferred browser has been Chrome for a couple of years as well so the transition to Chrome OS wasn't difficult at all.

One complaint, I can't seem to make the right mouse click work for spell check in the browser. I know the right click is working because it triggers actions in other parts of the operating system. It sure would be nice to get spelling suggestions when words are highlighted. 

Unlike the previously announced Samsung Chromebook the Acer uses a Duel core Intel Celeron. This has upsides and downsides. Performance wise the Samsung  peppier. Battery wise though there is no contest with the Samsung providing two or more times the run time that the Acer manages. 

Another oddity of the Acer is the inclusion of a hard drive instead of a small SSD. This doesn't seem to impact performance much but likely contributes to the short battery life. On the plus side it is possible to install Ubuntu Linux on the C7, leave Chrome OS intact and still have a ton of space left for music, video and whatever else you want to take with you. You can't do that on the 16GB Solid state drive that comes with the Samsung.

When I installed Ubuntu Linux and booted up the C7 I found that the CPU appears to be running an 800MHz rather than the 1.1MHz it is rated for. This may be a battery preservation move if true. I observed this while plugged in or running off the battery. For the more technically inclined I typed

cat /proc/cpu

To get this information

The C7 comes with 2GB or main memory. This is OK, but with 4GB DDR3 going for around $20 shipped I plan on upgrading soon. One downside of my upgrade plan is that Acer has a sticker over the screw that needs to be removed to open the bottom plate that must be removed to swap the DIMM. The sticker informs me that my warranty will be voided if I remove it. This is annoying but makes sense given the price of this thing. Acer's margins are likely razor thin and their accountants no doubt know exactly how many extra pennies that warranty will cost them if they allow the unit to be opened up. Every one of those pennies takes away from Acer's profits. Putting that sticker on there helps them meet their $200 price point and still make what they consider to be a sufficient profit. Given that I'm OK with it.

After a week or so that sticker is coming off and I'm going to upgrade the memory. Most hardware either fails within a week or lasts until it is obsolete so the risk seems acceptable given the price.. Hopefully I won't regret that decision.

Hardware wise my only complaint so far is the keyboard. It is OK, but the Enter key is too far over and a bit small. The size of the keyboard is fine otherwise and the feel is decent if a bit soft and lacking in tactile feedback. I'm able to type about as fast and accurately as I normally can though.

The C7 plays 720p HD video fine but chokes a bit on 1080p HD when plugged into an external monitor. Note that Chrome OS doesn't support extending the desktop at this time, only mirroring so you have to turn off the built in display to get full resolution on the external monitor. This is a software limitation as extending the desktop worked fine in Ubuntu. Support for extending the desktop in Chrome OS is apparently imminent 

Its hard not to think "born again netbook" when looking at the C7 but that isn't a bad thing. Small affordable computers that get the job done fill a niche that needs to be served. Not everyone can or wants to spend $1000 or more on an easily transportable computer. 

The price of the C7 means there are some compromises but for casual to intermediate use cases its more that powerful enough. I can see this thing being a standard part of my mobile computing kit for the next couple of years. Getting 100GB of Google drive storage for free during that time is a nice bonus as well. Three plus hours of battery life is enough for casual use and something I'm willing to deal with given the price and the added flexibility the relatively large hard drive and Intel processor give me.

Overall I'm very happy with this purchase. The price is great, the build quality appears to be more than adequate and I suspect it'll make a pretty decent Linux laptop as well. 
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Monday, November 19, 2012

What is "Papa" John Schnatter really saying? (Short Take)

Papa John's CEO John Schnatter pushed one of my buttons recently and I'm not going to be able to relax until I've ranted a bit about it here. I am not going to comment on his politics or healthcare reform as they are tangential to my point and I don't generally talk politics here. I am going to question his honesty or sophistication though when it comes to pricing.

Schnatter's claim that he would have to raise prices to pay for healthcare related costs has gotten a lot of press. These kinds of claims generally do. The problem I have with them is that they make no sense.

I'll put it this way; the thing you'll hear the most in business school is that companies are supposed to enhance shareholder value. Lets imagine a world where healthcare reform does not exist. If Schnatter knew he could raise prices and gain additional revenue would he? If he's looking to enhance shareholder value than the answer to that question is fairly obvious.

Costs should never dictate pricing. In fact, costs shouldn't even figure into pricing though they do matter if you're trying to figure out if a new product will be economically viable or if an existing product can remain viable or become more profitable.

When people claim they are raising prices due to increased costs I suspect they are mostly being disingenuous, particularly when you're talking about somebody like Schnatter who runs a large well knows business. Not all small business owners are this sophisticated in their understanding of pricing and so long as the Walmart's of the world stay away they generally don't have to be.

What Schnatter is really saying if you read between the lines is "This is going to squeeze my margins and I'd rather be spending this money on things other than employee health care". Which is his right as a CEO but being that blunt wouldn't play well with employees or the public.
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Saturday, November 10, 2012

How Google';s Nexus 4 Made Me A Hypocrite

Image representing Android as depicted in Crun...

I've been in the market for a new phone for awhile now. I documented my purchase of a Palm Pre Plus in this BLOG a month or so back. The Pre was really cheap and provides me with an OK stopgap  but it wouldn't have been a good solution for me two years ago when it was released and it is downright primitive now.

I was really close to pulling the trigger on a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 a week or so back. I went as far as transferring our one current upgrades to my number and starting the checkout process. That is when I discovered that Verizon was going to force me out of my unlimited data plan. They offered me a two gigabyte plan for $10 less than I'm currently paying for unlimited data. I was not impressed and aborted the purchase.

I discovered later that Verizon has locked the boot PROM on the Note. This annoyed me as well since Verizon has a nasty habit of layering extra stuff on top of Android that degrades the user experience. I'm sure their marketing department thinks of this as "adding value" which is one of many reasons I'm not a fan of Verizon's marketing group. The Note is a big investment even with the subsidy, I shouldn't have to put up with this kind of malarkey.

But here in the US Verizon has the best network. There may be areas where this isn't the case but based on coverage maps and my own experience Verizon does a pretty good job. They aren't cheap though and they are anything but open. Even their LTE phones require CDMA right now which pretty much rules out any non  Verizon phone. Given the limited coverage of LTE that isn't a huge deal but as coverage expands I suspect Verizon will continue this practice. They clearly subscribe to the concept that the best customer is the one you have in a (figurative) straight jacket.

Enter the Nexus 4, Google's latest foray into smart phones; this time in partnership with LG.

The Nexus 4 is getting mixed reviews with many people praising the build quality but questioning the absence of LTE (4G).

I criticized the iPhone 4S over a year ago when it came out as a GSM/CDMA only phone. I'm going to make two justifications for my change of heart in regards to the Nexus 4. First LTE isn't expanding as quickly as I'd hoped. Even today its not much of a factor outside of major urban areas. My second justification is based on cost. The iPhone is an excellent and well respected product for many reasons but it isn't cheap. Unlocked iPhone 5's are not available yet but rumors point to them costing about 2x what the Nexus 4 does. I'm willing to sacrifice LTE for those kinds of savings. Its also the case that while GSM is "old" it is also much more open than LTE right now and more than fast enough for anything I'm planning on doing. It may take me a bit more time to blow through my monthly data plan on GSM but I can live with that since it would be only a tiny fraction of a month in either case if I were using either technology at peak bandwidth.

There are other things missing from the Nexus 4. Internal storage options are limited to 16GB and there is no expansion slot. The battery is not removable either which means you're living from charge to charge with no option to keep a spare around for those situations where you'll be away from power for an extended period of time. Those compromises would be annoying in a subsidized phone at this price or in an unlocked phone at twice the price but for $350 unlocked I'm thinking very seriously about the 16GB version. This would mean leaving Verizon since they don't support GSM but I'm more than OK with that at this point.

In the past I've criticized Apple for selling a phone that had a non removable battery, antiquated broadcast technology and no ability to expand storage. All of these "short comings" are present in the Nexus 4. As the title of this post says, wanting a Nexus 4 makes me a bit of a hypocrite given all that but it also shows that price matters. I'm a value shopper. I want good products and good prices and am willing to compromise on features if I feel like what I'm buying will satisfy my needs and the price is right.

Will I pull the trigger? I'll know on Tuesday when the Nexus 4 is available to order. $350 is a great price but its still a lot of money so I'm still waffling.

Image via CrunchBase
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