22 December 2016

My ‘Obsolete’ Tech

TypewriterThe other day I read an article by Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View, entitled Tech Upgrades Just Aren’t That Great Anymore.  In the article, she explains how she came to replace her four-year-old Macbook Pro with a nearly identical Macbook that is – shock, horrornot quite the newest model available!  How could a self-confessed hardcore power user (and gamer) possibly have reached this point?

However, the article made me feel much better about my own tech choices.  As I read, it dawned on me that I had unconsciously arrived at the same conclusion as McArdle about two years ago.  The fact is that even users who demand a lot from their tech just no longer need the latest hardware.  For a number of years now it has been possible to buy a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet with all the processing speed and memory required to do everything you need from them for years to come. 

As McArdle rightly points out, the upgrade cycle is no longer delivering improvements in processor speed and memory.  Instead, what we get is improvement in physical, rather than technical, specifications.  The new generation of devices is thinner and lighter than ever before, but processors are, at most, only marginally faster.  Indeed, in some respects tech specs are going backwards.  McArdle notes the loss of USB and SD ports, memory expansion options, and keyboard quality, all sacrificed in the race to deliver the thinnest devices ever seen.

The problem with trying to improve technical specs is power.  And the problem with power in portable devices is twofold – battery capacity and heat.  I cannot help wondering whether the inevitable consequence of trying to push all of the boundaries – performance, size/weight and battery capacity – in a single device is the debacle that was the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

I am pleased to say, however, that I do not own any device that is likely to catch fire.  Given that everything I own and use daily is at least two years old, if any of it was going to spontaneously combust then it would probably have done so by now!  So in a world of ever-more-incremental upgrades, just how obsolescent is my tech?

PC

The PC on which I am writing this article is a Hewlett-Packard ENVY 17 ‘laptop’ (though I use the word advisedly, since it weighs over 2 kg and just fits in the largest computer backpack I could find).  It has an Intel Core i7-4700MQ CPU, with a base frequency of 2.40 GHz and 4 cores/8 threads (most operating systems manage this essentially as an 8 CPU multiprocessor system).  This CPU provides Intel HD graphics onboard, however the machine also has an nVidia GeForce GT 740M graphics processor.  It has 16 GB RAM, two 1TB hard disk drives (which is just silly, really), and a 17” full HD (1920x1080) display.  It falls more into the category of ‘luggable desktop’ than laptop, which is what I was looking for at the time I bought it.  Amazingly, on sale over three years ago all of this cost me under A$1400.

Despite its hefty specs, the HP ENVY is quite workable as a portable PC.  Not going for the ultimate in thinness means that it has a battery with capacity to match its hardware and, with a few advanced power management tweaks (e.g. disabling a couple of processor cores when not connected to mains power) I can squeeze about eight hours of battery life out of it.  It remains speedy and responsive (other than start-up time, which would be much improved by replacing one of the hard drives with a solid-state drive) and runs Windows 10 and all the software I use very comfortably (including multiple browser windows across multiple desktops, with sometimes dozens of tabs open at once).

Tablet

The HP is not, however, the kind of laptop you can just grab and throw in a briefcase or bag on the way out of the door, or conveniently take to a meeting.  That is where my Sony Xperia Tablet Z comes in.  This is the original Sony Xperia tablet (the current model is the Z4) and, like the HP I have had it for just over three years.  I bought it to replace my original Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (yes, the same one that Apple temporarily had blocked from sale in Australia) after I dropped it and cracked the screen.  I loved the Galaxy Tab at first, but had grown to hate its bloated (and buggy) TouchWiz interface, and Samsung’s lack of ongoing updates and support.  By contrast, I loved the Sony tablet from the first time I powered it up, and I still do.  I would buy another in an instant – although at this stage there does not appear to be any reason for me to upgrade.

I recently gave the Xperia a new lease on life by purchasing a Bluetooth keyboard cover for it.  My motivation was Microsoft Office 365.  Since leaving my job at Watermark I no longer have access to software through work (and we were still on Office 2010 anyway) and so, for the first time in many years, I actually paid for a Microsoft Office upgrade with my own money.  And I took the plunge and went for the subscription model, giving me all of the benefits of an online account, including licenses for the full Android Office 365 apps which are, frankly, brilliant.  With a half-decent keyboard, high-quality Office apps, Chrome browser and the Gmail app (although I also have the Outlook app with Office) the Xperia tablet now does everything I need from a genuinely portable computer.  And if there is something it cannot do, well I always have the option of logging in to the HP from anywhere using Google’s Chrome Remote Desktop.

I admit that after three years the Xperia tablet was starting to get a little sluggish, so I went through and uninstalled all of the accumulated apps that I no longer use, and disabled all of the built-in apps that I have never used and – lo and behold – it is snappy and responsive again, just like new!  Sorry, Sony, but you have done such a good job with this device that you may not be seeing any more money from me for a couple more years!

Smartphone

Which brings me to my phone.  For many years I held off on buying a smartphone.  I do not buy devices on plans.  I want to know what my phone really costs, and I want to find a voice and data plan that actually meets my needs at a good price.  So while I was using a tablet for internet access on-the-go, I could not justify the cost of replacing my trusty old Nokia feature phone with a smartphone that I would still mainly use for calls only.  But two years ago it became apparent that the Nokia was overdue for retirement. 

So, while many consumers were going up in size, to larger phones and ‘phablets’, I went the other way and splashed out on the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact.  It was an obvious choice, given how happy I was with the Xperia Tablet and that I wanted to stick with something that, like my old Nokia, would slip easily into any pocket.  Aside from screen size and resolution, the Z3 has pretty much the same specs (i.e. processor and memory) as the original Tablet Z, so it would clearly run all my favourite apps comfortably.  It also has a good camera (though this is not a big selling point for me) and great battery life (I still only charge it every second night, although the battery is starting to show some signs of aging).  And, like the tablet, it is well-made, and well-supported by Sony.  So this is yet another device that I do not see myself upgrading in the foreseeable future.

Other Aging Devices

The phone, tablet and PC are my main daily workhorses, but they are not my only aging tech.  I also have an old Dell Vostro desktop PC.  I cannot remember exactly when I bought this, it was so long ago, but it runs Windows Vista, and always has done.  It still provides printing and scanning services on my home network, as well as being our primary digital video recorder via a TV tuner card and Windows Media Center.  Despite the bad press Vista received over the years (much of it deserved) this system is now as solid as a rock (at least it has been since it suffered a hard disk failure, and I installed a server-grade unit as a replacement).  And my early-model Xbox 360 still sits by the TV as a Media Center Extender for remote access to the PC.  A classic case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’!

I have a three year old Kindle Paperwhite that is also not in line for an upgrade.  And I am still using my positively ancient Canon EOS 350D DSLR camera, which I have had since January 2006.  Sure it may have only an 8 megapixel sensor, but those are high-quality Canon pixels, and it is still a good camera!  And people are finally figuring out that, when it comes to megapixels, more is not necessarily better.  The biggest issue with the camera is that Canon no longer supports any compatible PC drivers or other software.  My current solution to that problem, however, is a story for another day.

Now It’s About the Software

To sum up, then, I have not bought a single tech product in the past four years that does not continue to meet my needs now and into the foreseeable future.  Better yet, I have managed to equip myself with devices that I genuinely enjoy using, and which have exceeded my (admittedly jaded) expectations in many ways.

I think this is partly because I have eschewed the notion that there might be one magical product out there that will do everything.  A super slim and light laptop would not effectively replace either my HP Envy as a PC, or my Xperia tablet as an ultra-portable device.  It would, in fact, be an expensive compromise that would probably frustrate me by not being quite the right tool for any job.

It is also partly because the slowing growth in processor speed and memory size means that we no longer need to upgrade our hardware just to be able to run the latest software.  Finally, our devices have exceeded the ability of software developers to bloat products beyond the capacity of the previous generation of hardware to actually run them!  And that means that software, rather than the underlying hardware, becomes the primary factor in determining how useful our devices are.

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