Monday, May 30, 2016

Asus Chromebook Flip

 by Tony Thomas

Since it has been announced that Android apps are coming to the Chromebook this fall, I thought I would celebrate by picking up a Chromebook Flip 2GB.  Although this machine is very similar to my Rockchip-based Asus Chromebook C201, the Flip offers a a lot of additional functionality.  

First of all, the Flip will be one of the first devices to support Android during the alpha and beta test phases which should be launching soon.  So, that will give me the ability to test Android on ChromeOS as soon as it is launched.

Secondly, it is a very light and compact device with a 10.1" touchscreen is capable of double-duty as a small notebook and a capable tablet.  Additionally, you can flip the keyboard under and use it to watch You Tube, videos, movies or even use it for tabletop presentations.  The addition of the touchscreen with pinch-to-zoom and the 360 degree hinge is really a game-changer.

It has a great (although smallish) keyboard, two USB 2 ports, a micro-SD card slot, a micro-HDMI jack and a combo mic/heaphone jack.  Power is supplied by an Asus power brick with the same custom connector used on the C201.  Battery life is excellent at around 9 hours.

Using the Flip

The Flip has a very similar feel to my C201 and it uses the same chip and memory. The Rockchip Quad-Core ARM Cortex A17 (RK3288C) processor with Mali graphics core is up to the task and the Flip runs very fast despite only having 2GB of RAM and a 16GB SSD.   (There is also a 4GB version for those who need more memory for multitasking.)  The keyboard has a decent amount of travel, making it a joy to type on.  The trackpad is smooth and responsive.  The Octane score at circa 7000 is slow compared to most Intel-equipped Chromebooks but is adequate for this kind of hybrid.  A faster CPU usually requires more cooling and battery power (adding weight) and reduces the operating time. 

The touchscreen is very useful on this device as it allows for pinch-and-zoom and when it is flipped to tablet mode, an onscreen keyboard is automatically enabled.  Very slick!  When using it in tablet mode, you need to hold it do that your fingers are not in contact with the keyboard.  Even though the keyboard is inactive in tablet mode, it makes for a strange experience if you press the keys while in that mode.   The fit and feel of the all-aluminum body is superb making it look and feel like a much more expensive device.   The MacBook Air comes to mind.

The audio quality of the speakers is decent and the screen is very sharp when used at the recommended 1280 x 800 resolution.  The front HD camera is adequate for web chats but not much else.  There is no rear camera.

Triple Threat

I installed Ubuntu on the Flip using Crouton and can easily switch between ChromeOS and Ubuntu in real time using a key command.  Having a Linux distro available provides enhanced offline functionality and the ability to run powerful programs like Libre Office,  Gimp, Inkscape, Filezilla, etc.  As soon as this machine has the ability to run all of the Android apps on the Google Play store, it will be a real triple threat!

I believe that devices like the Asus Flip will become much more common as the Chrome/Android marriage comes to fruition.  I expect to see devices with more memory, more storage and even longer battery life.   If you want to get into the game early, the Asus Flip may be a good option.

The Flip has a great keyboard and trackpad

Flip in video viewing/presentation mode

Flip in tablet mode (vertical)

Flip running Ubuntu via Crouton

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Neverware CloudReady

by Tony Thomas

I have an old Thinkpad T43 around and decided to try Neverware's CloudReady OS on it.  If you have never heard of it, CloudReady is a free solution that essentially turns an old computer into a ChromeOS machine (it actually runs ChromiumOS, the open source version of ChromeOS).  

While the product is primarily aimed at the business and education markets with annual licenses of $25-49 with Google Management Console and technical support, the free version is great for the casual user even though no technical support is provided.

Installation is pretty straightforward. You download a 600MB zip file to a computer and then use the Chromebook Recovery Tool from the Chrome Web store to write it to a 8 GB or larger USB thumb-drive.  There are 32 and 64-bit versions of the file, so you just select the one that will support your machine.  

Then, you just boot the computer with the USB thumb-drive you created.  You can test drive CloudReady OS without installing it on the machine.  If you like it, you can install it.  Just be warned that it will overwrite everything on your hard disk.

You even have the option to dual-boot it with Windows on selected newer computers.  The list of CloudReady certified computers is available here.  Most of them are business-class notebooks that can be picked up very inexpensively (from under $100 to $200) on eBay.  Some Apple MacBooks and old netbooks are also on the list. 

It worked wonderfully on my T61 with CoreDuo processor and 320GB hard drive with 2GB of memory.   Even though it books up a bit more slowly than a typical Chromebook, it is speedy and offers a much more disk storage.

If you want to make your own cheap and very fast Chromebook, this is the solution you need!

Neverware Web Site

Friday, May 20, 2016

I Don't Get It, Google!

by Tony Thomas

I don't get it, Google!

ChromeOS and Chromebooks have been pretty much ignored at two Google I/O developers conferences in a row!

Coincidentally, it has just been reported that Chromebook sales have topped MacBook sales for the first time ever:

Millions of units are still being sold, but Google doesn't seem to be interested.  News that Google Chrome will soon be able to run millions of Android apps was buried in a day 2 breakout session and not included in the keynote!

Chromebook advertising has all but disappeared.  Rumors that Chromebooks are a dead platform have not been squashed.  The Android/Chrome merger rumors have not been clarified.  Yet, manufacturers are still coming out with new machines.  What is going on?  Where is the ChromeOS love?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Kindle Fire 7 Review (Fifth Generation - 2015)

by Tony Thomas

The Kindle Fire 7 is a new tablet from Amazon at a very low price. I only paid $49 for mine. 

What kind of tablet do you get for such a paltry sum, you may be asking?  Well, it's not going to set any speed records and it isn't the sharpest screen that I have ever seen. But it only lists for $49!

Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of the new Kindle Fire 7 tablet.

First, the advantages:

1. Very Low Cost. $49 is a hard price to beat.  And when you buy a six-pack, you get one free!

2. Good Performance for the Price: It is solid, works well and I didn't find any major bugs.

3. Great Content Consumption Device:  That is where the Fire 7 shines. Reading books, watching movies, listening to music (use headphones), light gaming, checking e-mail, shopping and web browsing are its strengths.

4. Perfect for Amazon Prime User:  If you paid for an Amazon Prime subscription, this tablet will let you binge on the full-range of Amazon content.

5. Decent Battery Life:  About 7 hours. Not great, but not too shabby.

6. Very Durable and Well-Built:  I have seen impressive drop tests on You Tube. It seems like it will take abuse better than most tablets.

7. Well Designed UI:  Very simple to use and better than the old Fire carousel.

8. SD Card Slot:  Since it only has 8GB of storage, you will need it if you want to watch movies. A nice touch at this price point.

9. Pocketable:  Bigger than a smartphone. Smaller than most tablets.

Now, the disadvantages:

1. Limited Onboard Storage:  Only 8GB, but only 5 GB is usable.  This is meant to be a web device so it is an acceptable limitation.  I still would have preferred 16GB.

2. Medium Screen Resolution:   No retina display here (1024 x 600 @ 171 dpi). More like a typical notebook computer display. I had no problem reading on it, however.

3. No Google Apps:  If you are an avid Googler, you may feel deprived. The good news is that you can still get your G-Mail and use Google search in the browser. But the only way to access You Tube is through the browser.

4. Limited Apps on the Amazon App Store: No access to Google Play. Thankfully, most of the "big hitters" are available on their app store and the included apps are functional and well-designed.

5. Mono Speaker: And the sound isn't that great. Pack some earbuds.

6. Limited Productivity Potential: You can cobble together enough apps to get some things done. I installed Evernote and Wunderlist, for example. DropBox isn't on the Amazon app store but I was able to download it from their web site and side-load it. (Yes, you can side-load most Android apps.)

7. Thicker and Heavier than Most Tablets:  Not super slim like the latest iPad. Not annoyingly thick and heavy, though. More like a tablet from 5 years ago.

8. Proprietary OS:  Fire OS5 "Bellini".  Basically Android Lollipop with the Google removed.

9. Poor Quality Cameras: Low-resolution front and rear.  Better than nothing and they will do in a pinch if you have a lot of light.

10. Screen is a Fingerprint Magnet:  Be prepared to clean it often.

11. Slippery Back:  Plan on getting a case.

12. Limited Screen Real Estate:  After all, it is only 7".

13. No Voice Commands:  I use Siri and "OK Google" a lot and I really miss them when using the Kindle 7.

What else can I say? It is a $50 tablet and a real bargain for the price. It is cheap enough to be easy to replace if you lose it or break it.  You really can't go wrong!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Xara Designer Pro 11

by Tony Thomas

Xara Designer Pro 11 combines all the features of its other design programs into one, easy-to-use package for the professional graphics designer.  

It is one program that can really do it all including page layout and design, photo editing, website design, and vector-based graphics illustration.  Its simple WYSIWYG interface makes it easy for you to turn your ideas into beautiful graphics in just a few minutes.

Taking a look around the program, I found that it has a full range of features to accomplish almost any graphics or web-design task.  It has an impressive array of import and export options as well as full print support including the ability to do four-color separations.  
If you have ever used any Xara product before, you will have no problem getting around its interface.  It is a beautifully designed and very easy to navigate.

New features include:

  • Functionality that allows you  to stretch the background to fill the entire web page, either horizontally or vertically.
  • The ability to sync documents with Dropbox or Google Drive.
  • New brush options including "art brushes" and "scatter brushes".
  • "Sticky objects" that remain in place while the page scrolls underneath.
  • A variety of new text enhancements including a background color option, font replacement throughout a document, "an update style to match" function, a hyphenation tool, auto-correct/abbreviation expansion, updated Google fonts, and more.
  • New animation options that allow you to animate on mouse over, on click and the ability to slide or fade objects as you scroll down a page.
  • New Blend modes and transparency types.
  • Liquify shape editing tools.
  • Secure FTP publishing options with support for both SFTP and FTPS.

As someone who has depended Xara tools for almost 20 years, I can tell you that they offer some of the most powerful graphic tools you can find at a reasonable cost.  Xara Designer Pro 11 is no exception.  If you are a graphic design professional, it may be the only tool that you ever need.  Take it for a test drive!

For more information:

Thanks to Xara for providing a review copy of this program.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Xara Photo & Graphics Designer 11

by Tony Thomas

I had a chance to check out the latest version of Xara Photo & Graphic Designer (Version 11) over the last week or so. As I expected, I was welcomed by the sleek and comfortable interface that I have come to know quite well.

Coincidentally, I had a cover to design for my new book: "How to Find a Job Fast: Job Search Techniques for the 21st Century" and I knew that Xara 11 would be the perfect tool for the job. I imported a picture I had taken and came up with a finished layout in about 15 or 20 minutes flat. No other tool that I am familiar with can produce such stunning results that quickly (See cover below).

Version 11 has a number of new features:

  • New Blend Modes and Transparency Types
  • Auto Correct and Abbreviation Expansion
  • Liquify Shape Editing Tools
  • Other Text Enhancements
  • PDF Import
  • Document Sync with Google Drive and DropBox
  • New Templates and Brush Designs
  • Retina Support for Web Graphics
  • Bonus Software
As usual, Xara Photo and Graphic Designer provides an incredible amount of bang for the buck. At $89.99, it really is a no brainer.

Cover I Designed With Xara 11

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Xara Web Designer 11 Premium

by Tony Thomas

Well, the folks at Xara finally turned it up to 11!  With the introduction of version 11 of their Web Designer program, they have taken an already solid program up another full notch.

The first question that anyone would probably ask is: Who needs a web design program in the age of cookie cutter web site creation tools?  The answer should be obvious. Anyone who desires to produce websites that stand out from the rest of the pack.  

While anyone can produce a simple website with very little time or effort these days using online web authoring tools, if you want to produce a website to customize to your heart's content,  look no further that Xara Web Designer 11 Premium.

New features in Web Designer 11 Premium include:

Sticky Objects: These are objects that stay put as the user scrolls to other parts of a page.

Text Handling Enhancements: Enhancements include custom abbreviation expansion, automatic URL creation, a text background color option for highlighting words, and much more.

New Object Animation Features: New features include animate on mouse-over, animate on click and animate on reveal.

Document Sync with Google Drive and Drop Box: This is a welcome feature for those working on multiple computers.  Older versions of files are also saved and can be reverted to easily.

Slideshow Widget: You can create slideshows using TaskPilot.

New Templates: To get you going quickly, there are more than 30 new general website themes, including mobile variants.

TaskPilot "Website M" Hosting: 12 months (2GB of storage and one domain name) included free.  

Other Features: They include SFTP and FTPS secure upload options, PDF import, Word import improvements and export support for Apple Retina files.

In use, the program maintains its clean and ergonomic interface.  If you have used previous versions of the program, you will be up and running with little time or trouble.  As someone who has used Xara for almost 20 years, just about all the features are programmed into my head.  Xara products have become my "go to" graphics tools.

Web Designer 11 Premium sells for a very affordable $99.99 US.  A slimmed-down regular version is only $49.99 US.

For More Information:

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Anker 5 Port 40 Watt Charger

by Tony Thomas

I have heard about Anker for a little while from their ubiquitous ads on Facebook and looked longingly at their line of  attractive USB chargers.

Since I have been suffering from a bad case of "wallwart-itis" lately, I thought I would give one a try.  Any device that helps clean up the inevitable cable mess of a technophile is certainly welcome.

The 5 port unit I selected can supply 40 watts of power at 5 volts for 8 amps total.  That is enough power for a few tablets, a newer phone and a few other small devices like cameras.  

Anker chargers use "Power IQ" which enables them to figure out the charging requirements of each device and reportedly provide a quicker charge than most power bricks.  

After using it for about a week, I can say that I am really pleased with this device and think it is a good addition for anyone who has too many devices and not enough outlets.

More information from: 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Asus C201 Chromebook Review

by Tony Thomas

I recently added the new Asus C201 Chromebook to my arsenal.  It is an 11.6" Chromebook with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage that is available for as little as $160\.  It uses the new Rockchip 3288-C ARM A17 quad-core SoC (system on a chip).

Key Features:

1. Price:  At $160, it is a no brainer.  It is almost disposable.  You can't even buy a decent tablet for that price these days.  
2. Between 10 and 13 Hours of Battery Life:  That is an amazing amount of battery life! 
3. Nice Sharp Screen: It is reflective, so it looks sharper.  And viewing angles aren't bad.
4. Weight: At only 2.2 lbs, it is light enough to carry everywhere.
5. Ports: It has 2 USB 2.0 ports, a micro HDMI, micro SD card slot and headphone jack.
6. Slim profile: It is not only small, it is nice and sleek as well.
7. Camera: It has1.3 MP webcam.
8. Graphics: It uses Mali-T764 integrated graphics.
9. Audio: It has speakers and a microphone
10. Scores: Octane = 6861 Sunspider = 617.8 ms

I have been using this as my road notebook for the past few weeks.  Performance has been great and it seems to be a pretty solid.  I am very pleased with it!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Calmly Writer for ChromeOS Review

by Tony Thomas

Calmly Writer is an immersive writing environment for Chrome with a strange name. It even works off line on the Chromebook since it is a standalone Chrome app. (Yea!) It is the only Chrome app that I paid money for ($2.99) and it is well worth the price, in my opinion.

Features include the ability to save files Plain Text, HMTL, Markdown, or a proprietary Calmly file. You can also open all of those file formats plus Microsoft Word DOCX. It also includes minimal formatting features like three levels of headers, bold, italic, links, curly quotes and numbered and bulleted lists. It also has the ability to print documents plus you can insert pictures.

Missing is the ability to precisely set margins, indents or center text. That is fair because it is not meant to replace a word processor or DTP program. It is an app that focuses on creating text, not formatting it.

Its full screen mode makes everything go away but your text (true immersion), focus mode blurs everything but the paragraph you are working on, and dark mode reverses the text. Other preferences include the ability to set narrow, wide or medium text width, select between two fonts (I would love to have more), change font size (three options), add space between paragraphs, and enable smart punctuation.

As a writer, I also like the fact that it shows word count, character count and reading time in the options side bar. I look forward to continued development of this app and hope it signals a trend towards more powerful and capable Chrome apps in the future.

For more information:

Free online version: