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Cloudy Days and Connected Nights.
I am just back from a two week business trip and working two big shows: SHOT in Vegas (Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trades…the largest show for gunshops and outdoor retailers in the world) and the Space Coast Birding and Nature Festival in Titusville, Florida.
Of course I took my Archos along. You might remember that one of the primary reasons I bought the Archos tablet was to be able to quickly show folks images and video taken with our ZEISS products (in real life, I am the Birding and Observation Product Specialist for Carl Zeiss Sports Optics). I showed hundreds of people who were interested in photography through the spotting scopes, examples of stills and video at both shows, using Quickpic (which I highly recommend). Quickpic catalogs folders containing both stills and video. It displays thumbnails of the folders with example pics on them, and then, when you open a folder, a index of thumbnails for the contents. Touching one opens it in full screen, with tap to zoom for detailed looks. And it is fast! without the clutter (and, in my experience, instability) of the stock gallery app. It creates thumbnails for all your videos too, and, when you touch one, calls the video player to play it. All very slick. (Quickpics has had several updates, each of which has added new functionality, since I downloaded the first version…it just keeps getting better!) And the screen on the Archos is high enough resolution and of high enough quality to make an impression. I was just careful to make sure the screen was angled correctly for the audience. The Archos made demonstrating the photo capabilities of the spotting scopes both easy and fun!
The trip also gave me a chance to test the wifi capabilities of the A101it in the wild, away from my home router. It connected easily to any network I encountered, and worked amazingly well with my Virgin Mobile Mifi. The only difficulty I encountered was that, while it connected properly to the wifi routers at both hotels I stayed at, and showed a strong signal, neither Dolphin or the stock browser could resolve a url after connection. They called the authorization page, and allowed me to log in…then nothing. Strangely, while in this state, my email and twitter apps occasionally updated, and random web pages would resolve and partially load, so I know there was at least some internet access. I came to the conclusion that the name server the hotels were using was not Android friendly, and was somehow blocking or generating an error when an android device tried to access it. It is especially odd, since airport wifi, which uses a similar authorization scheme, worked just fine. [Ed Note: after another trip, it becomes ever more likely that the issue is the nameservers some hotels use. I was able to connect and browse in two different hotels in VA this past week, and had no problems with airport wifi at several different airports as well.]
I might mention that Archos released a firmware upgrade while I was traveling, and I had great adventures trying to install it over my Virgin Mobile Mifi…but eventually got it to work. Unfortunately I am among the as yet unknown minority who suffered USB host failure as a result of the upgrade. I have reinstalled the firmware, reset Android, and completely reformatted the A101 and installed firmware from scratch…but nothing has revived the USB host. I am waiting to hear from Archos as to whether they think this is a firmware issue or a hardware issue. Personally, I suspect the USB driver gets corrupted during the upgrade, and that it is not stored where a reformat wipes it (it could not be, since you need USB to reinstall your firmware after a reformat). At any rate, I am hoping Archos finds a fix for this asap…I don’t use my USB host port much, but I want it to work. [Ed Note: they issued an RMA for my A101 but I am reluctant to send it in as everything but the USB Host is working better than ever before.] Other than that the new firmware seems a genuine improvement, with the whole machine just seeming smoother and more responsive. (The upgrade broke downloads in Dolphin but Archos rushed out a new Firmware version, 2.1.04, released 1/2/2011 that fixes Dolphin and a handful of other apps that had problems under 2.1.03.)
My NewMP3Tech case with my stand modification, by the way, worked great. Of course I never dropped the Archos, but I felt safe and secure, and a touch elegant…and that’s half the battle!
After several weeks of intense use now, I am finding that I prefer to do social media stuff on the tablet over the iPhone, even when it means digging out my MiFi and booting it. TweetCaster Premium is an exceptionally fine Twitter client, and allows posting to Facebook as well, and I use the web interface in Dolphin for Facebook. And there is, of course, no comparison when browsing the web or googling essential info…with Dolphin HD as a browser, set to Desktop mode, the web becomes as accessible on the tablet as it is on my laptop…and flipping open the Archos in an airport is way easier than booting up the laptop! (And somehow more fun too.)
And yes, if I had a $ for everyone who asked if it was an iPad, I could buy another Archos 101
In my brief review of the NewMp3Tech folio case for the A101it, I mentioned that the stand, while not very functional as is, had potential for an interesting modification. Here it is.
If you bend the front cover of the case the wrong way so the short flap lays flat against the back of the case, and the long flap points down toward the table, you will see where I am going with this.
Simple as that. You can attach the Velcro strips to the patches when the case is closed for transport, along the long edge of the case, or simply tuck them somewhere safe.
In my humble opinion, this mod turns what is an okay folio case with a marginal stand implementation, into a truly functional travel companion. But that’s just me.
I am wondering if this same sea-change that is happening in my life is happening in others, or is about to?
When the first Netbooks arrived on the scene in 2007, I was an early adopter. I had an EEE PC while they were still 7 inch screens and Linux was still the only OS. The combination of affordability, portability, and functionality was irresistible for me, especially as one who spends 170 days a year on the road. I have moved to a 8.9 inch Windows XP machine with a 16G SSD (Asus EEE PC 900XP), then, when that died a catastrophic death on business trip, to an 8.9 inch Atom machine with hard drive (Acer Aspire One), then, when I felt the need for more graphics ability, to an 11.1 inch machine with a dual core Pentium chip and integrated graphics (Acer Timeline 1810TZ)…seeking, always, that happy, that perfect, balance of portability and power.
Along the way, I bought into the whole iPod Touch, and then, iPhone thing…with the iPhone 4 (my second iPhone) finally becoming what I consider the best pocket sized, always connected, cloud portal and e-social interaction device yet conceived of. Twitter and Facebook, email and text, don’t get any better than on the iPhone (imho), and it plays music and makes phone calls too (not to mention being an instant pocket reference on birds, mammals, mushrooms, holy Scripture, wildflowers, or whatever else takes your fancy…as well as my always-with-me travel guide, itinerary and calendar organizer, and GPS.)
With the Netbook to take care of my photography and video, and more heavy duty web surfing (and the occasional ppt for work), and the iPhone to take care of all social business, I was, I thought, pretty well set.
Then I got more heavily into video…HD video…capturing and editing. The Acer Timeline was supposed to handle that, and, for a year I made it work, but it was not easy. This fall I began eyeing the Core i machines, but at that level, though I could still buy the Netbook from-factor, the affordability element was gone, gone, gone. I found that for the same price as a hopped up Netbook, I could buy a 13 inch laptop with a Core i processor twice as fast, and both the integrated Intel graphics and a dedicated GPU and accelerator (and an optical drive).
At the same time, I began to look at tablets. I had had an iPad to work with for several weeks on and off, but I knew that the affordability and functionality equation was not there for me…especially as an iPhone user. I just needed a device to carry to my shows and workshops that would let me find and show my pics and videos quickly and easily, on a considerably larger screen than the iPhone, but with that same degree of ease when compared to my netbook. It had to be something I could easily hold in my hands and even put in the hands of viewers.
There are lots of Android tablets out there today (and will be lots more announced and demoed next week at CES) but they are either 1) cheap, somewhat junky, marginally functional and totally without support of any kind, or 2) just as expensive as an iPad (or mostly as expensive as an iPad). Certainly I was not willing to invest a lot (especially when looking at laptops at the same time) on a device I was not sure I really needed or could (would) use.
The one exception to the current Android Tablet equation is the new Generation 8 (gen8) Internet Tablets from Archos: Fully supported by a real company with a decent track record, fully upgradable to new versions of Android (already upgraded twice since introduction), and under $300…exactly the price point that has been most effective for Netbooks, and a price I could afford, not exactly on a whim, but certainly as a calculated risk.
If you read my review you know I took a chance on the 10.1 inch Archos, and that, so far, I am both impressed and happy. It is a lot of fun. It does what I expected it to do, a lot of things I had only hoped for, and a few things I had not even thought of. And it is the right price. There will be better tablets in a year…of course there will…but, I predict, not better values.
And, what you don’t know yet (unless you read the fine print under my photo up there in the corner of the blog) is that I bought a 13 inch Asus U30JC, with a Core i3 processor running at over 2 ghz, Intel HD graphics, and a dedicated NVidia graphics accelerator. It is a compromise on both affordability and portability, but it is everything I could have hoped for in functionality. On the affordable front, it is still well under $1000, which is a good value for a machine with this kind of power. On the portable front, while it is indeed larger and heavier than my Acer Timeline, once it is in the pack and on my back as I travel, there is not much difference at all. And you should see it whip through HD video with Sony Vegas Studio HD! On the photography front, even processor hogs like Photomatix Pro HDR run at double the speed they did on the Timeline. Overall, I like it. Overall, in fact, I love it!
The only issue I have is that I am not, after all this, a Netbook user anymore. This is, after all, Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights you are reading. The tablet, I can already see, is going to take over about 90% of the non-photo/video work (play?) that I used to do on my Netbook, and it will do it with considerably more grace and fun. There is nothing to compare to a multi-touch interface for making the most mundane tasks fun. Twitter? Facebook? A blast. I can even do emergency photo editing on it PicSayPro, and read my Kindle books. How cool is that!
And as a photo and video viewer, it is simply brilliant!
In a very real sense, with a laptop for power applications, a tablet for fun, and an iPhone for connectedness (and fun), I no longer need a Netbook. I have a little Virgin Mobile MiFi that I used with my netbook at need, so even for connected fun I am set to go with the tablet.
True, I am up one machine on my total machine count, since I used to use the Netbook for both my photo/video work and fun, but the increased functionality of the laptop, and the increased fun factor of the tablet, imho, more than make up for it.
And I have already figured out that I can slip the tablet between the zip apart halves of my TSA Friendly laptop backpack where it will be easy to deal with at security on my next trip, and it will actually add practically nothing to my road-load or fuss.
Point? I, personally, would never have gotten to the tablet without passing through the netbook and iPhone phase. I don’t see myself giving up the iPhone (or some equivalent) in the foreseeable future, but with the tablet, I can easily give up the netbook.
I have a feeling that folks just entering this wonderful world of connected, cloud-centric, mobile technology may just skip the netbook phase altogether, and never miss it.
The one critical factor in success for tablets is, as I see it, price! If tablets are going to be the new netbooks, they need to hit the same magic price-point…the value point where affordability, portability, and functionality meet in happy harmony: and that is…
No more. No less. If main-line manufactures want to create another netbook boom, only this time with tablets, they are going to have to keep them right around $300. Archos has, arguably, proved it can be done. Tablets at $400 and $500 and $600 are just not going to do it. Apple might get away with it, but Acer, Asus, HP, and Dell will not. At $400 and up, they will take a little market share from Apple. At $300 they will create a whole new industry, as netbooks did. Simple.
It is perhaps unfortunate for the tablet world that the first successful tablet out was from Apple. Apple devices always set a high performance and polish bar…and come in at a relatively high price. Once that performance level becomes the standard, and that price accepted in the market as what you pay for that performance, then it is next to impossible for other manufacturers to compete a lower price points while matching the performance, let alone the polish. Look at the iPod. Look at the iPhone.
Netbooks had the advantage of being introduced by what were, at the time, relatively unknown players in the US computer market. Oh sure, both Asus and Acer had lots of laptops out, but, honestly, they would not have been on many peoples’ short list of top laptop makers…before netbooks. Because they came from scrappy companies looking for quick market share, the EEE PC and Aspire One established both performance and price standards that were highly aggressive…and which keep the affordable in the Netbook equation even today.
Not so tablets. Apple has seen to that.
So, are Tablets the new Netbooks? Maybe. If the makers are smart enough, efficient enough, and aggressive enough. Maybe just.
What do you think: Cloudy Days and Tablet Nights? Nah. Maybe: Cloudy Days and Connected Nights!
Since I got my A101, I have had my eye out for something to carry it in. I bought a 10 inch laptop sleeve. It is about the right length but the two inches and more of extra height kind of bothers me. It is not an attractive fit. I bought the “custom” case for the Veiwsonic G Tablet (which is actually, once you open the wrapping, just a CaseLogic 10 inch laptop sleeve). I have looked at CD cases, and every laptop sleeve I can find within 20 miles of home. I check on Amazon daily. Eventually someone out there will come out with a nice folio style case, similar to the ones for the Amazon Kindles…that is what I really want.
Still, this morning, while picking up a hanger kit for my wife’s new painting (Christmas gift) at WalMart, I happened to be walking through the luggage aisle and saw this little zippered bag hanging up. It caught my eye because it was, oddly, the right proportions for the A101. A quick check of the dimensions confirmed that it was actually a close fit. The material is a woven nylon, similar to what soft-side luggage is covered with. It was only $2.97 so I picked it up. And then, as I continued to browse the aisles, I began to wonder what I could line it with for added protection. I found these Peel and Stick Foam sheets in the Crafts Section. They are designed for making puppets. $3.47 for 6 sheets. Self adhesive, about an eight of an inch of relatively firm foam in bright colors. Worth a try. So, without further ado, here is how to transform $5.50 in materials from WalMart into a somewhat functional, custom DIY Archos A101 sleeve.
And there you have it. DIY.
Lexerd Anti-Glare Screen Protector
I ordered a Lexerd True-View Anti-glare Screen Protector for my Archos 101 directly from Lexerd through Amazon.com. It is one of the more expensive screen protectors out there ($30), and I was, admittedly, hesitant to order it…but it was the only one that I could find (at the time) that claimed anti-glare properties. If you own, or have tried, an Archos 101 you know why that might be attractive.
The protector came in due course and I installed it. It was easy (especially compared to some iPhone protectors I have wrestled with). Lexerd provides two little finger tip thingies (a bit like uninflected balloons) that go over the first finger and thumb of the hand you handle the protector with, and it appears to adhere mostly by surface tension. It is slightly smaller than the screen of the 101, which actually makes it a lot easier to get on. And, since there is no adhesive, you can pick up the leading edge to work bubbles out from under until you have it just about perfect. You can even lift the whole thing off to start over if you have to.
Once installed, you will see an immediate difference. While the screen is still slightly reflective, reflections are definitely muted to the point where they are unlikely to be distracting in most lights. Once the 101 is fired up, the protector disappears, except for a noticeable increase in apparent contrast. The difference is somewhat apparent looking at the home screen, but it does wonders when viewing photos or videos. It does add some graininess to large areas of solid color, like the blue sky, and it is possible that smaller text sizes are not quite as sharp. You will have to decide if it is worth it for the overall improvement in the view.
It does not interfere with touch at all. It is silky smooth under the fingers. It still picks up its share of finger grease and smudge, but perhaps a bit less than the naked screen. It is easy to clean with a static free wipe or a lens cloth.
Since ordering the Lexerd, I have found another source of “anti-glare” protectors, at NewMp3Technology.com. NewMp3Technology seems to be an excellent early adopter source for Archos accessories. They have, as of this writing, the only custom fitted folio case for the A101it that I have been able to find. More on that below. They also list an anti-glare screen protector for about 1/3 of what the Lexerd sells for…and certainly when the Lexard wears out I may try one from NewMp3Tech.
NewMp3Technology Genuine Leather case for Archos A101it with Stand.
I have looked around for possible carrying solutions for the Archos, and even made my own little sleeve, but I am totally spoiled by the Leather Case for the Kindle. The Kindle case is both elegant and functional. I love carrying it.
The only thing remotely like it I have been able to find is the NewMp3Tech leather case. At $40, it is, as such things go, actually reasonable (same price as the Kindle case), and after much debate, with an extensive trip afield coming up fast, I went ahead and ordered one. It came in due course and I have been using it for a few days now.
It pretty much meets my expectations, though it could be improved greatly with just a bit more effort.
Plus: 1) well made, elegant looking and feeling, 2) when closed offers adequate protection for the back and screen during transport, 3) only adds reasonable bulk and substance to what is, or can be, a somewhat fragile feeling machine. This is good.
Minus: 1) stand function is lame. Wrong angle for any imaginable use and not totally secure in use. There is no way to adjust for optimum viewing angle much less for comfortable typing. 2) Little or no protection for the edges of the A101. A drop would not be recommended. When carrying outside my laptop backpack, I will still need some kind of protective case for the occasional bump…or, heaven forbid…actual drop. (Fortunately I snagged one of those $5.99 Neoprene ViewSonic G cases from Sears while they had them).
Needed improvements. 1) Simply extending the leather covers 1/4 inch on all sides (like the Kindle cover) so the leather would take the impact of a bump or drop instead of the edge of the machine, would make this a much more functional and secure case. 2) if you bend the cover the “wrong way” behind the machine, it has the makings of an excellent stand. I will work on a modification and take some pics when it is ready.
So, the NewMp3Tech case is a good enough for now solution, but I expect (hope) to see better.
USB Charging Cable (NewMp3Tech)
One of the drawbacks of the A101it (and 70it), when compared to the other gen8 models, is the need for a separate charger to provide the extra amps needed to for a reasonably quick charge of the large batteries. It is the same situation new iPad owners faced when that machine came out. Standard USB is only 1.1 amps. The A101it requires 2 amps for a decent charge (the iPad likes 2.1), and the folks at Archos must have figured, “why confuse people and have them plugging into standard USB and taking forever to charge”. Therefore the separate adapter and power port. Still, carrying an extra adapter these days, especially one with blades that do not fold or retract, is less than ideal. I already have a bag of adapters and chargers that takes up a fairly large corner of my luggage.
So, when I saw the USB Charging Cable for the A101it on the NewMp3Tech site while ordering my case, of course I had to have one. It was only $10. This little guy has a standard USB plug at one end and a plug to match the Archos power port on the other. Simple. Well…almost. Standard USB is still only 1.1 amps, and it would take a long time to fully charge the Archos while plugged into a USB port or standard wall charger. Overnight with the Archos powered down and plugged into a live USB block, the charge came up from less than 50% to more than 70%, so it is charging…just not very fast. On the other hand, several companies make USB chargers specifically designed for the higher demands of the iPad (the Griffin PowerBlock seems to be among the best).
Plug your Archos USB Charging Cable into one of those, and it should charge just as well, and just as fast, as the supplied charger. I will let you know as soon as I can locate a Griffin PowerBlock
[Ed. Note: Having found a Griffin PowerBlock at our local Best Buy last night I can now testify that it does indeed charge the A101it, but that for some reason, it does not bring the charge above 75% even on an overnight charge with the A101it powered off. I would say you could expect similar performance from any USB charger that is designed for the iPad! So, I will carrying the Archos charger for the duration and using the NewMp3Tech cable strictly for emergencies.]
Just a short to note to report on my first experiences with the Archos 101 in public, in my intended natural habitat…showing videos and pics to friends, family, and anyone else who will stand or sit still long enough. It works! I propped it up on a table and connected to an inexpensive external speaker system through Bluetooth and my in-laws got to see my daughter Kelia’s Concerto Festival submission video, and later I sat with my father-in-law and two nephews and showed recent photographs and videos from my travels. Like I said, it worked well. No one claimed they could not see the screen, and it was way easier, and more fun, than flipping through an album or hooking up to the TV. SmugFolio did an excellent job…I was able to show my work without an internet connection at all.
So, beyond the fun I am having playing with the thing, it looks like it may just fulfill its original intention! This is good.
And, for those still hung up on viewing angles of the screen, here are some unretouched, natural-light photos. 1) About 30° below perpendicular, 2) About 20° above perpendicular, and 3) about 60° to the side.
I consider these the limits of usability. Only you can say if this level of performance meets your needs.