Category Archives: Hardware Reviews

Another hardware review: Dell XPS 18 Tablet

After getting a new job as an indie video game developer with Cloudhead Games, I found myself in a first-world-problem situation where I needed an additional workstation display devoted primarily to communications and documentation. Since I didn’t have any more display ports available on my workstation, I decided to shop around for a Windows 8 tablet that I could also use as a replacement for my 2 year old XPS 15 notebook.

I ended up with a Dell XPS 18 all-in-one. It comes with a wireless keyboard, mouse, and an articulated stand. The tablet also has a pair of fold-out legs on the back, which allows it to stand by itself in 2 different ways.

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On the surface, an 1080p tablet with an 18.4″ screen that clocks in at 5 pounds sounds like an absurd novelty. Dell goes out of its way to call it an all-in-one that happens to be really portable, rather than suggest that it be used in the same way as smaller tablets. They’re right–unless your bulging, spinach-powered forearms make full-grown silverback gorillas take up kettlebells out of a sudden sense of inadequacy, you’re not going to be curling up on the sofa to read 1500-page ebooks on this thing.

I didn’t personally find the weight to be that much of an issue, though. It weighs nearly 2 pounds less than my dearly departed Gateway CX2720 convertible that the XPS 15 notebook replaced 2 years ago, and is also nearly a pound lighter than the XPS 15 notebook. I was used to spending significant amounts of time working with the 7-pound CX2720 in tablet mode, so I guess that skews my perception of the XPS 18’s weight a bit towards the positive side.

I opted for the midrange Core i5 configuration with 8GB of RAM. The lower end Pentium and Core i3 configurations are probably more than plenty for just Skype and Internet browsing alone, but I also wanted it to be usable for other stuff like my papercraft projects and web design.

Here are a couple shots of it integrated into my video game development workstation as an accessory display:

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In this setup, I use Input Director to configure the XPS 18 as a slave system so I can use the big workstation’s peripherals with it, and it feels pretty much exactly like a simple accessory display.

When not working on video games, it gets parked on the stand and acts as a normal PC:

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I’ve also taken it out of the office and used it as a Netflix machine. It’s awesome at that particular task. It’s a little too clumsy for ebook reading, since the size of the screen means most small-format ebooks show up in a 2-pages-facing layout. I haven’t tried this yet, but I bet it’d work better for magazines, comics, and other full-color text/graphics documents.

Windows 8 is a little weird, like it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a touch-centric OS or a desktop OS. It does both fairly well, but the blending of both interfaces needs some work. Some things require more clicks and swipes to accomplish in Windows 8 than in previous versions, and some things aren’t as readily intuitive as Microsoft would like.

In what strikes me as a misguided effort to encourage people to use the Modern user interface, they removed the Start orb from the desktop interface. I think they should have kept the Start button and the Start menu in the desktop interface, but whatever. Stardock sells Start8, a $4.99 start button replacement app that blends in nicely and emulates the classical Start menu behavior, and this goes a fair way towards improving the desktop experience.

Once I figured out how the Modern apps were supposed to work (I had some trouble with Skype at first, and couldn’t figure out how to snap 2 apps together without a visit to Google), I found that I actually liked the Modern apps just fine when using it as a tablet or touchscreen. I’m still a bit ambivalent about Windows 8 in general, but I’m keeping an open mind.

I’m currently still loading my papercraft and web design software on the thing. I’m looking forward to seeing how it handles those jobs–the much larger screen and the increased RAM should come in pretty handy in Photoshop and Carrara.

Stop motion animation test

I wanted to test out the Stop Motion Studio app for iOS along with my new micro tripod and smartphone mount, so I shot a cheesy 4 second, 75 frame film starring a random 28mm figure, a random paper model for background ambience, and a stray cat hair.

I wanted to see if any of the problems I was worried about would crop up. For example, things like the white balance and exposure changing from frame to frame, or focus/depth of field issues. I wanted white balance and exposure to remain consistent across all of the frames, and I wanted to lock the focus as well.

Fortunately, the app has manual controls for those things, so I proceeded to test the onion skinning functionality, which shows your current frame superimposed over the previous frame. Without that feature, I’d have had a much harder time moving things around.

I think I would get better results with larger characters and props, so I’m planning to experiment with that later on.

Joby Gorillapod Micro and Grip-Tight

My latest Amazon order showed up today. In it were 2 accessories for my iPod Touch, on which I’m actually composing this post. 😀

I got a Joby Gorillapod Micro tripod and the Grip-Tight adapter that allows a smartphone to be mounted on a tripod.

 

Put together, this is how they look:

 

The whole thing collapses into something you can hang from a keychain:

 

 

Edit: Here’s a shot of it with the iPod mounted, taken with Mrs E’s Nikon camera:

 

 

Pretty nifty. I came across them when searching for something I could use as a stand for my iPod when making video relay calls, since I’d like to be able to sign to the video interpreter with both hands. Holding it with one hand and half-signing with the other is a bit awkward, and arm’s length isn’t enough to get all of my face and hands in the frame.

As a bonus, it’s great for watching videos without having to hold the device, and I can stand it up in the kitchen with a recipe onscreen. I can also use it for hands-free Skype or FaceTime calls if needed.

The Grip-Tight mount fits on any tripod, so you could put your smartphone on a full-size tripod for video or stills. The low profile of the Gorillapod Micro is an interesting side bonus for miniature photography and stop-motion animation, letting you get down close to figure level.

I tried it out on a couple of models and a 28mm figure:

 

 

 

The iPod camera isn’t particularly fabulous, but it takes fairly decent video and stills that are adequate for casual use–posting on blogs or social networks, for example.

When I have a chance, I’m gonna put the tripod/mount through another round of testing, this time with some stop-motion video.

Things sure have come a long way…

I spent a lot of time over Thanksgiving shooting family videos and taking photos with a fifth-generation iPod Touch, and it was a remarkable experience. Smartphones, tablets, media players–they’re all becoming cheaper and more capable every year. I’m a little light-headed trying to imagine where they’ll be 10 or 20 years from now.

In 1996, my computer was an IBM Aptiva 2159-S90. It cost me $2800, and it had a 200MHz processor, 32MB of EDO RAM, a 3.2GB hard drive, and a 56k modem. It had a CRT monitor and shipped with a recommended display resolution of 800×600. It ran Windows 95.

My digital camera at that time was an Epson PhotoPC 500 that cost me around $500 and had a whopping 640x480px resolution. It had 2MB of internal storage for photos, and it weighed almost three-quarters of a pound.

My camcorder at that time was a huge and heavy shoulder beast that used full size VHS tapes, could shoot up to 3 hours of video on one battery, and had a foam-filled rigid carrying case for transport. I don’t remember exactly how much it cost, but it was several hundred dollars at least.

16 years later, I have a $300 media player that fits in my pocket and weighs less than 4 ounces. It has a 1GHz dual core processor, 512MB of DDR2 RAM, a 1.2MP/720p front camera, a 5MP/1080p rear camera, 32GB of flash memory, a 1136×640 display with 326 pixels per inch, wireless and Bluetooth, and several hours of battery power. It does everything that all of the older devices mentioned above do, does every single thing better, and does more to boot.

It’s just incredible. I’m never going to complain about the lack of personal jetpacks and nuclear-powered flying cars again.

Review: Kindle Fire HD

In September, I purchased a 7″ Kindle Fire HD. This is my review of the device. You can jump down to the TL;DR conclusion here.

Why I bought it

It was originally supposed to be a sort of “phone appliance” for me, with ebooks and streaming movies from Netflix being the other primary uses. Being deaf, most of my telephone calls happen over VOIP, using a video relay service. A video relay call is sort of like a FaceTime or Skype video chat between me and a video interpreter, who speaks for me and signs for the hearing party who I’m calling.

The 2 video relay services I use, Purple and Convo, both have Android and iOS apps for the purpose. With the video-heavy uses in mind, I had also purchased a Targus leather cover that could be folded up into a stand.

Hardware Observations

The Kindle Fire HD feels like a solid, rugged slab of hardware. Fit and finish are very good, and it didn’t feel like a cheap plastic toy like I was afraid it would. It has a definite heft to it, and is heavy enough that it’s a little tiring to use as an ebook reader unless you rest it on a flat surface or support the arm holding it. I was glad I sprung for the cover, because being able to set it up as a stand allowed me to give my arms a rest while making Skype video calls or watching Netflix movies.

The screen had very pleasing color, sharpness, and brightness. At something like 216 pixels per inch, text is very sharp and clear even at small font sizes. The aspect ratio is ideal for movies and HD video, with minimal to no letterboxing. In portrait orientation, the aspect ratio works nicely for ebooks–the effect is sort of like reading a trade paperback (8.5″ tall by 5.5″ wide). No complaints there.

I’m told the sound from the stereo speakers was rather nice, not tinny or weak.

The HDMI output works well. I bought a Mediabridge HDMI cable and plugged it into our living room TV, and it does pretty much what it says on the tin.

Software Observations

I’m a bit ambivalent about the operating system. Amazon chose to use a modified version of Android, and added some Amazon-centric features to it. Rather than locking down the tablet completely and forbidding installation of third-party apps, Amazon allows you to enable third-party app installs through a configuration menu. However, this isn’t as awesome as it sounds, for reasons I’ll cover in a minute.

Some of the most apparent changes, from the perspective of someone used to a normal Android experience, are the lock screen advertisements, the carousel, and the lack of a conventional app icon grid. The lock screen ads are not very intrusive, and I didn’t mind them at all. The carousel is basically a row of giant icons showing your most recently accessed apps, ebooks, and whatnot. It’s kind of cute at first, but can get on your nerves a little at times.

In portrait orientation, there’s a row of purchase recommendations below the carousel. It’s sort of like a “related products” feature on a shopping cart, and the gamut ranges from surprisingly helpful to downright annoying. You can allegedly disable these recommendations in one of the configuration screens.

Above the carousel, there’s a row of text links for books, movies, apps, and stuff like that. Clicking on those will take you to a different screen. It’s fairly intuitive and logical, and makes the Kindle Fire HD easy to get to grips with for new users. There’s a heavy emphasis on the Amazon ecosystem all through the user interface. It’s almost like it wants to be a pipeline between your wallet and Amazon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–it can be pretty awesome if you’ve got a lot of Amazon movies, music, and books, in which case you’ve got a wonderful device for taking it all with you wherever you go.

The onscreen keyboard is something that I both love and hate at the same time. I like that it’s big enough to type on, but I don’t like the lack of arrow keys for moving the cursor. I don’t like that the back arrow that takes you out of an app is right next to the keyboard and right about where you’d expect the backspace key to be–several times, I’ve accidentally backed out of an app when trying to backspace in an email or a note. I didn’t like the nonstandard key layout, and found myself wishing they’d put a row of numbers above the keys. You do get used to it after a little while, though.

Apps and Games

My experience with the Amazon app store was somewhat underwhelming. Remember the third party app support I mentioned earlier? There’s no support for Google’s app store, so you’re limited to places like GetJar where you can get free apps that may or may not work on the Kindle Fire HD. Usually, you can tell when an app won’t work with the Kindle Fire HD–GetJar simply doesn’t download it and hangs at that screen. If you’re feeling brave, you can access other third party app stores, but disappointment was the usual outcome for me.

If you resign yourself to sticking with the Amazon app store, the pickings are a bit slim. There’s a huge number of useless, half-baked apps. Out of what’s left, the good stuff is frequently only available on Google’s app store, leaving the Amazon app store looking somewhat like a desolate wasteland of afterthoughts and sloppy seconds. I had no luck getting the Purple or Convo video relay apps to work on the Kindle Fire HD. I also downloaded a shocking number of useful-sounding apps that turned out to be a total waste of time.

Notably absent are the big Google apps. No Gmail, no Chrome, none of that. This isn’t necessarily something to hold against the Kindle Fire HD, but it’s a little disconcerting and inconvenient if, like me, you’re a heavy user of Google’s stuff.

There were a handful of gems, however. The Netflix app worked great. The Dolphin browser was an acceptable upgrade over the native Silk browser, but required a trip to GetJar to install. Splashtop Remote was a fun way to remotely access my computer, but the novelty considerably outstripped the practical benefits. I found a mobile banking app that worked. The Skype and Twitter apps both worked fine. The included email app is…adequate, I guess, but more than once I found myself going straight to the computer to compose lengthy emails.

Games were a positive experience overall–once I started loading it up with stuff like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Plants vs Zombies, Asphalt 7, and a bunch of the little time management games that Mrs E loves, it put the device into a whole new light. It’s actually not a bad little casual gaming tablet at all. Mrs E started using it for playing games frequently, which came as something of a relief to me because I was starting to worry that I’d basically paid $200 plus tax for a 7″ Netflix appliance.

Battery life is okay. Amazon claims 11 hours. In practice, it’s closer to six or seven hours unless you turn off wi-fi and avoid anything processor-intensive. Standby time with wi-fi turned off is pretty good. It comes with an USB cable for recharging, but you really should get the separate $20 AC adapter if you want to fully charge it before you die of old age. I like the AC adapter, it’s a slickly designed item that’s got an almost Apple-like feel to it. It can also charge previous generations of Kindle as well as some other devices–I was able to use it to recharge an iPod Touch and a mobile hotspot as well as my old e-ink Kindle reader.

Accessibility

Since Amazon didn’t add support for subtitles/captions to the native video player and the vast majority of their video library is not captioned or subtitled, the only Amazon digital content that has any measurable value to me as a deaf person are ebooks and apps.

Currently, the only way to view subtitled/captioned content on the Kindle Fire HD is through the Netflix app.

The HDMI output does not pass along subtitle/caption data either.

Conclusion

After roughly a month and a half, I decided it just wasn’t the right tablet for me. I like it a lot, but it’s simply not a particularly deaf-friendly tablet. The fact that my wife took so readily to it made me feel better about kicking it to the metaphorical curb, and I bought a fifth-generation iPod Touch to replace it. I’ll be reviewing that later on in the month.

My verdict: The ideal customer for the Kindle Fire HD is someone who already has a lot of money invested in Amazon music, videos, audiobooks, and ebooks, and who wants one device for managing and consuming that content. If that’s not you or that idea doesn’t appeal to you, you’re probably better off getting a regular Android tablet like the Nexus 7, or an iOS device like the iPad, iPad Mini, or iPod Touch.