Thursday, February 28, 2013

Netbook, Ultrabook, and Macbook Air Alternatives

With the end/widespread production of netbooks options have become limited for those who require similar functionality at a similar price point. I've recently been investigating some of the options that are still available and aren't quite willing to move towards far more expensive Ultrabooks and ultralight notebooks. An obvious option includes working with whatever netbooks that are still being manufactured. Some of the locally available options include Acer, Samsung, and Toshiba. Ironically, Asus netbooks (the original creators of this product category) aren't easily obtainable (One thing I've found interesting has been the evolution in the design of netbooks. Clearly, the original netbooks were highly limited but I noticed a gradual evolution of these devices over time such that many of the original flaws were ironed out (poor keyboard design, small/slow primary storage options, etc...). However, of late I've discovered significant flaws in the design of these devices that makes them difficult to justify even at their low price point.

Among them are clear deficiencies in thermodynamic management (ventilation design and fan efficiency/noise), issues with hard drive choice (some drives are notorious for noise problems and yet they are still chosen for mass production), upgradeability (many of them quite simply aren't able to be easily upgraded (hard drive and somtimes RAM) without voiding the warranty (they often use locking mechanisms that that will break upon opening them), power consumption (reaching silly levels given the size of the devices), build quality (I think they've gotten progressively worse over time), weight (it used to be that the best netbooks were about 1.1KG but they're now approaching 1.5KG) and durability (plastic only works so well. Even some of the more expensive Toshiba R/M series based laptops suffer from issues because they haven't given enough through towards materials engineering).

Other alternative options include:
- used ultralight notebooks (premium options such as those from Lenovo, Toshiba, Sony, and others)
- cheaper ultrabooks (often expensive, come at the cost of build quality, battery life, and so on). Includes branded as well as generic options via various eCommerce websites
- tablets, so called tablet hybrids, and smartphones (often expensive, aren't as flexible (especially with regards to application support), and have poor battery life and keyboards or no keyboards at all)

However, of late there are seems to be a re-interpretation of the netbook class among some manufacturers. Price point and weight are a fraction higher than that of netbooks (though the same if you can get them on sale especially in light of the deployment of Windows 8), but so are screen sizes, keyboards (they still have some issues particularly with layout such as the sizing of the arrow keys, and often battery life. Each has their own idiosynchrocies but I've found the following to be worthwhile exploring:
- Asus 1225 series (enlarged 'Seashell' series)
- HP DM1 series (enlarged 'Mini' series)
- MSI Wind series (various designations/models but they seem to be similar in size/configuration to the 'Macbook Air' but aren't widely available locally).
- Acer A0725 series (enlarged 'AOD' series)

Since they are often enlarged netbook platforms, they still exhibit many of the same weaknesses of existing netbooks. Namely, the inability to upgrade (though you are often able to overcome the 2GB limit inherent to the standard netbook platform) without voiding your warranty, poor screens, performance (similar Intel/AMD chips are used) and thermodynamic design, and compatibility issues. 

If you do some digging you'll notice that the A0725 and DM1 series both have interesting bottom panel designs. They both have bottom panels that come apart in a single section. The A0725 seems to use a single screw while the DM1 uses an innovative latch (doubles as a means of holding the battery in place) system that allows for easy upgrades. Structural integrity and build quality issues seem to have been compromised to achieve this. Nonetheless, not a bad compromise for this price range. The 1225 series has many of the same flaws as 'the Seashell' series. Beauty, thermodynamic design, and the desire for higher margins comes at the price of ease of upgrade (look at the F-35/JSF program for a good guide on how to design/create easily upgradeable systems, and other build compromises. The most annoying thing about many of the keyboards out there is that there is clearly more than enough room to create a good keyboard on many laptops provided some thought is put into it. I'd take a ergonomic/useable keyboard over an aesthetically pleasing design any time.

Working with Office files on Android platform.

Fanless designs becoming more commonplace. Should make for some extremely interesting and less compromised/more optimal designs in future. Obviously, not too many options in the marketplace though and where there are they are difficult to procure locally.

Linux/Android on a few hybrid tablet/netbook class devices.

Power consumption/performance comparison between low power/mobile solutions from Intel and AMD. Obvious issue is driver support when switching from Intel to AMD platform though. Have observed some anomalies myself while working with AMD platform. More investigation required but believe that even if AMD is just as solid as Intel option, driver/software support may be enough to make a difference in the marketplace for AMD.

I often use plastic packaging (thin enough to open a package but not thard enough to break it) of from other products to open sensitive equipment without damaging the casing but apparently a gap guage adjuster works just as well.

For those of us who are simply interested in the Windows 8 interface but don't necessarily want to install/purchase it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Laptop Thermal Design, Convergence, and More Security Analysis

If you've ever used any laptop/netbook you'll realise a lot of compromises need to be made to achieve a balance of power, portability, durability, and longevity. One of the big issues is heat dissipation. For instance, running a fan can result in significantly higher power requirements. If you're curious one experiment I came across said that shifting more air via a larger fan was more efficient and quieter than a series of smaller fans.).

Recently, the thermal pad (it feels like a silicon/rubber compound) dried out on my Asus 1015 series EeePC which led to higher than average temperatures and ultimately permature shutdown. The interesting thing about the design is that the CPU is placed almost directly over RAM chip socket. Moreover, foil is then used as another supposed heat dissipation mechanism on the inside the RAM cover. The obvious issue is if the fan/heatsink combination on the CPU is not working properly this combination results in a 'heat sandwich'.

If you're curious, I've used copper shims, coins, and even foil in combination with standard thermal paste as a means of replacing thermal pads if I couldn't find a replacement. Be sure to cut to size if the material is somewhat malleable though particularly if there are components on top of the chip which may cause a short (can lead to non startup of your machine and can often be difficult to diagnose if you've been roaming around the whole board) or other problems.

One of the things I examined in the 'Convergence' report was pricing differences between local retailers and overseas options, the premium that people were willing to pay for locally purchased goods, and whether or not prices would eventually converge regionally/internationally. Clearly, there is some work with regards to suppliers/channels and a Federal Government enquiry as well. It's going to be interesting whether things will change and how long they will take given the smaller size of the Australian market.,why-the-it-price-inquiry-summons-may-not-mean-answers.aspx

Raytheon have been playing around with concepts similar to social networking OSINT (aware that FBI/DHS/NSA may have been working on similar technologies as well) and 'Algorithmic Masking' concepts outlined in 'Convergence' report.

Continuing work on 'Cybersecurity' report (Hope to finish soon. It's 871+ pages/229K+ words now though I think I should be able to cut down a lot). Been interesting just how much difficulty a lot of cutting edge projects have run into, in particular the JSF program.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

News Websites

Google News and other news aggregators work but sometimes they don't pick up everything that you may be interested in (though an alert service can sometimes help). Here is a list of some interesting local and foreign news websites. This list will be updated over time.