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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review - Acer C720

I’ve had my Chromebook for a month.

As is customary; I decided to write my own thoughts and views on how this has changed the way I work online.

I have an Acer C720, currently running (at the time of writing) version 39.0.2171.96 (64-bit) Platform 6310.68.0 (Official Build) stable-channel peppy - Firmware Google_Peppy.4389.89.0.  There - that’s the techy bit out of the way.

I’ve already written about my decision to move from Windows to ChromeOS; so now I’m giving my further review of the Chromebook itself along with the overall experience.


The Acer C720 is a tiny machine.  It’s extremely lightweight, the gun-metal grey of the body giving it a business/professional outlook.  The casing is made of plastic, which obviously helps with keeping the weight down.  The battery is advertised as lasting “all day” - which in Acer speak is 8.5 hours.  In fairness, this is about right, and I've been very impressed with the fact I can work without being connected to the wall - something I always had to do with my laptop.

The dual-core 1.4Ghz Intel processor, along with 2Gb RAM is well up to the job of keeping the Chromebook motoring - I haven’t experienced any lag with multiple tabs being open.
The 11.6” screen (1366 x 768) isn't bad, but it’s not the best.  Personally, I wasn't looking for an HD, retina-style display.  

I wanted something I can work with, to write documents (and blogs) watch occasional YouTube videos and run my business (using Google Docs).
On the other hand, the speakers, situated under the base, are not bad at all.  They’re loud enough, and whilst a music aficionado might baulk at the quality; they’re fine for me.

The only real negative is the webcam - which is a stretch to call it that.  It will do the job as far as Hangouts go (remember, there is no Skype on a Chromebook. Yet!)  My advice is to make sure you have plenty of light, otherwise there is ghosting and poor quality of image and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Finally - the external ports.  There is an HDMI interface, two USB ports (one of which is USB3 compatible) and an SD card slot.  Not forgetting the mic/headphone socket.  It’s wireless only - there’s nowhere to plug in an ethernet cable.

That’s all there is to it.  The keyboard is a standard QWERTY layout, with some Chromebook specific changes.  The top row is dedicated to shortcuts.  There is no Caps Lock key (this is now a search button) and there is no Delete key.  There ARE plenty of shortcuts that you’ll come to know and love, to achieve all the above.


Once out of the box, and switched on, the only thing you need to do is enter your Google password (after logging on to the wireless network).  All your Google settings will be synchronised; so when you fire up the browser your bookmarks and extensions are all present and correct.

You’re ready to go.

The main desktop screen is devoid of any icons, apart from those in the tray at the bottom.  You can pin more if you want to create shortcuts, but that’s it.
On the far left is the Apps icon, from which you can launch the apps you need.  Remember, in the majority of cases these will open the browser.  Whilst a few can launch offline (and more are coming available all the time), the Chromebook is designed to be connected.

I have used it offline in a number of scenarios, and found it to be most acceptable.  Once re-connected, data is sync’d and all is good.

For office-style documents, you have Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and more, to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations etc.  All these are stored in Google Drive - which is ideal for sharing and collaboration.

There’s Hangouts for video calling.  You can download Gmail Offline (so you can access your email and compose new email when offline).  It’s a shame it’s a standalone app, but it works well when needed.

There is a rudimentary file management; however, since 99% of your work will be in the cloud, there’s little need for storing locally, in the 16Gb SSD. Bear in mind, you can plug in an external drive if you absolutely have to.

The Web Store has a plethora of apps and extensions to the Chrome browser, to make your Chromebook your own.

As for peripherals - I have a Cloud enabled printer, which I can access via the IP address to use the scan function (although I can only scan one page at a time, not a complete document.  This isn't a show-stopper, but would be nice).  I have discovered the ability to scan multiple pages using my HTC One m8, via the Google Drive app - so that has helped.

I do have a wireless mouse, which works; but for some reason, I’m quite happy with the trackpad; using multi-touch for scrolling, right click etc.

The question is… have I missed my Windows laptop?
Have I managed to work both for business and pleasure using only a Chromebook?

The answer is a resounding YES.  I no longer need to be bound by Microsoft.  I don’t need MS Office, and I have received a couple of ChromeOS updates since I bought it, and they were done quietly, in the background.  No fuss. Future updates also come at no cost!

So again, to all those of you who can’t decide if this is the answer… if you're looking for a low cost approach to computing, with a battery that will free you from the wall, then this could well be what you need.

I love it...

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Travel : The Train Way

When I read other peoples’ blogs, they are usually centred around a single subject; 

  • keeping fit... 
  • food and cooking 
  • technology
  • travel
  • hobbies

The thing is, I have such a varied range of interests; none of which include running or cooking (unless I’m eating it!).  From previous posts, you'll know that I like technology; and I also enjoy reading. Another interest is travelling.

Mind you, this post isn't about travelling of the romantic, off to the sun type. No. This is about train travel of the ordinary kind.  

I have recently been making weekly trips from Manchester to London, courtesy of Virgin Trains.  It usually involves an early start from Piccadilly, with a late return.  So, I thought I’d regale you with stories of my journey.

It all started early on Monday morning, as I pulled into the car park at Piccadilly Station.  The walk to the station was uneventful; if a bit wet and windy; the concourse was particularly quiet; it really is quite romantic at silly o’clock!

The shops were open; WHSmiths were doing a roaring trade in the daily papers; stationery and lunch.  At the other end of the ‘Mall’ (yes, they call it a mall!) Sainsbury’s was doing brisk trade in all sorts of groceries, drink and lunch meal deals.

In between, Starbucks had a queue, which I joined to buy my treat of a skinny latté.  This always makes me chuckle to myself.  A latté with skimmed milk, into which I pour a tablespoon of sugar!  Coffee in hand, I head out to the train.  There’s always about two or three Virgin Trains ready and waiting, such is the frequency of the service to the capital.

It’s just over a two hour journey, but I like to get a table seat, so I can power on my laptop - not to work you understand.  I have films to watch; and sometimes I even download programmes from the BBC iPlayer, to catch up.  However, I inevitably end up dozing off for half an hour or so.

The service is usually quite busy, and by the time we've left Crewe, for the non-stop journey to London, there’s not a  seat available.  Occasionally, the service is empty, and I wonder why there are 11 coaches at all, when three would do!

The on-board announcements are a source of amusement; especially the new ones being trialled.  I even took to sending tweets to @virgintrains to complain.  As usual, they were quick to respond - they have a top social media team…

Nine times out of 10 the journey is uninterrupted; and we make swift progress to Euston. On occasion we can be delayed due to points problems; and this gets me to thinking that really, when you consider the volume of trains running, and the relatively small and very ancient infrastructure, how well train services are run.

I know we like to bash them; but we’re British.  We bash anything that doesn't work 100% of the time.  We are unforgiving in expressing discontent at the slightest problem; but all things considered, most of the time, the trains run on time; and in the case of Virgin, with friendly and pleasant staff.

The arrival into Euston is greeted with another “bing bong” as we are reminded to take all our belongings with us.  This also makes me chuckle - I couldn't possibly carry all my belongings, but I’ll take the bag I brought on with me!!

Joining the cattle market that is Euston is not pleasant.  Trying to cut across swathes of waiting passengers; staring blankly, almost robot-like at the departures board, waiting to see which platform their train will be leaving from, and whilst trying not to crash into other commuters all converging on the single escalator to the tube, makes for a fraught few minutes.

Then there is the sheer volume of people all heading underground, to jump into metal tubes to whizz them around the subterranean train set.  Another feat of engineering, that started in 1863, that continues to amaze; but not when crammed in like sardines.

Finally; fresh air again, and a short walk to the office; for a day in a stuffy room; before repeating the journey in reverse.

In fact, the reverse trip is during rush hour; which just means there are more people crammed into the confined space; and more people to jostle, push and barge, waiting to see which platform their train will be.  This time, I'm amongst them!

The train journey home is less busy, and during the winter, in complete darkness.  No, not the carriages, but the outside world just isn't there.  The odd light flashes by; but for the motion of the train, you wouldn't know we were moving.

What’s my conclusion to all this?  Don’t get me wrong; I like going to London; I'm just glad I don’t do it every day.  The journey may be relaxing; but the hustle, bustle, up and down the escalators, pushing and shoving is something that is to be experienced on a less frequent basis.

Friday, December 19, 2014

New Tech - Episode Four

I've only had my Chromebook for a couple of weeks; but I'd never look back...

Here's my story so far...


I bought an Amazon Fire TV; switched to Android, with my HTC One M8 and bought a Chromecast.
The next purchase was a must have; to consolidate the Android/Google goodness.

I bought a Chromebook…

It's dinky, light-weight, and following trials of only using web-based applications, this has replaced my Samsung laptop.

As many have done, I thought I’d share my thoughts and reasons for moving from Windows to Chromebook; as well as give a short review of the Acer C720.

First things first… why move?

Windows has been my mainstay since day one (I’ve never been a MacPerson) so I’ve been very used to doing things their way.  Using Word, Excel, PowerPoint - all the usual.

Then along came Chrome; the browser.  I was an early adopter, got stuck straight in and never looked back (Internet Explorer what???) 

However, with Windows comes great responsibility… and cost.  Upgrades involve either buying a new laptop / desktop, or paying for the software designed to run on a machine far superior to the one you have!

Then there’s the applications.  Most of them cost serious money; others less so, but for a trade-off.  Not including anti-virus; which is a must on Windows.

All in all; running a Windows based machine is not a cheap experience; and now so many apps have good web presence, it seemed the time for change had come.

Not one for Apple (I don’t agree with their walled garden approach) the other alternative was a Chromebook.

Really! What took me so long?  I have been working in “the cloud” for a while; testing various apps using their web versions, to see how I got on.  I even wrote an article just over a year ago about Living The Online Life. It just took me a little longer to make the jump.

All I can say is that I am very pleased I have.  This Acer C720 is truly terrific.  It might not be the best in terms of spec; I have the 2Gb version, the screen isn’t exactly a retina display, but I don’t need that.  I open it up, and in less than a couple of seconds I’m off and running.  

I have 1Tb of storage, courtesy of an offer with Google, and it’s so portable I don’t even need a tablet!
Yes, it feels a little plasticky and the camera isn’t the greatest (I haven’t used it yet anyway) but it cost me less than £160…. yes, you read that right.  On sale at £180 with a further £20 voucher offer by the retailer, it cost me £160….

With my account sync’d across all devices, my bookmarks appeared, my apps appeared and it runs just beautifully.  I had a little trouble connecting with Google Cloud Print - but that was resolved by resetting the printer back to factory settings and registering it again.

My only gripe is with scanning.  It appears that I can only scan one page at a time, saved as individual files; rather than scanning a document as a whole.  Maybe it’s out there and I’ve still to find it - but it’s not a showstopper.

There’s a 16Gb solid state drive, for the small amount of memory you might need; a card-reader for SD card expansion, a couple of USB ports for plugging in an external drive and there's a headphone / microphone socket and webcam.

The ChromeOS software updates automatically, in the background.  You won’t even notice.
Those updates are free!  There’s virtually no chance of a virus; so no anti-virus required locally.

If you’re reading this, thinking about whether to get a Chromebook, then think no more.  If you appreciate that it’s designed to work with cloud-based services (and let’s face it, you rarely use your tablet unless it’s connected) then you’ll get along fine.

Having said that; there are a number of apps that allow you to work offline.  Google Drive is a prime example - I’m writing this on Docs, whilst sitting on the train.  You can also sync Gmail to work offline too (with a separate app).

Am I pleased to have moved away from my huge, heavy Samsung laptop, that takes ages to boot and is sluggish in performance?  You bet I am.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Monday, December 15, 2014

New Tech - Episode Three

My third new piece of tech is something that I've been considering for a while, but it was only recently I decided to through caution to the wind (and £20 to Amazon) and buy a Chromecast.

This little dongle plugs directly into the HDMI socket on the television, and then, as the name suggests, you can "cast" pictures, music, video and websites, on to the big screen.

It's pretty much as simple as plug in, log into wi-fi and then cast whatever you want to watch.

Want to share a YouTube video with everyone in the room? Cast it
Share a photo album with everyone in the room? Cast it.
Watch a Netflix film on your bigger screen? Cast it.
Fancy some music?  You guessed it...

There's a whole host of possibilities.

How about showing a presentation from Google Drive?  With the Google Cast extension in your Chrome browser, you can cast tabs too - so using the Chromecast in a business environment is also a possibility.

Over the festive period there are also offers galore; including a free movie, 90 days of Google Play, and £15 of credit for the Google Play Store.... I've already got my money back, and more.

Have you got a Chromecast?  What do YOU think?

Friday, December 12, 2014

New Tech - Episode Two

In part two of my "new tech" acquisitions, I move to Android...

For those that have read previous posts, you'll know that I have been an advocate of BlackBerry for a number of years.  From the Curve, to the Torch, then the 9900 and the Z10 - I have been a staunch supporter of 'the underdog'.

However, the services and features that I needed aren't available to use on BlackBerry - namely those of Google.  I couldn't access Google Drive, or Gmail (not that I really needed to, because of the hub) or any other services.

This was having a serious impact on my productivity, so; time to change.

After much deliberation (and a poll on Google+) I decided to go for the HTC One m8.  A decision born out of the need for a large screen and as close to native Android as possible.  I had looked at Samsung, but was put off by the sheer amount of bloatware that is bundled on the phone.

It's not the lightest phone on the market, but for me, the HTC offers sleek lines, a nice large screen, high-end processor and enough RAM to keep the phone moving; along with a battery that gets me through the day.

In fact, the battery is one of the most impressive aspects.

Tie this in with access to Amazon Prime, and I can view programmes here too.

The move to Android hasn't been simple.  In fact, it was a surprisingly steep learning curve, when moving from BlackBerry.  The integrated hub is the feature I miss the most; and having to move between messaging apps to read and reply isn't ideal.  Plus, the near endless ways in which to personalise the phone is almost mind-boggling.

I'm still learning.

However, on balance, this was the correct move for me.  I have a phone that allows me to access and edit my documents and spreadsheet; and keep them sync'd in one place - Google Drive.
I use Google Inbox (that's another story), Evernote, Google Keep and Google+.
I also like that my photos are automatically backed up; when I connect to wi-fi.

I'll keep you posted on my life with HTC, but so far, it's a happy one.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

New Tech - Episode One

Its been a new tech kind of time.

Over the last few weeks I have acquired some new technology, to either enhance viewing pleasure or become more productive...

  • I started with an Amazon Fire TV
  • Followed by an htc ONE m8
  • Closely followed by a Chromecast
  • Finally, an Acer C720 Chromebook

So, I thought to myself, let's not keep it all to myself.  I decided to dig in, explain my reasoning, and even write a short review on each of the devices.

Let's start with the Amazon Fire TV.

As an Amazon Prime member, and since I had been watching their Prime service since day one, it made logical sense to buy the box (and save plugging my laptop into the TV each time I wanted to watch something).

There's been heavy debate about Amazon v Netflix; but since I have already invested in Prime, I wasn't going to pay another monthly fee.  Also; the offering by Amazon has improved greatly, with some top shows and films.

Without wishing to repeat all previous reviews, I'll just say this is a well made, high spec box, with a Bluetooth remote (so the box can be out of sight) and rather clever voice controlled search (which, currently, only searches Amazon content).
The interface is pretty user friendly; although there is room for improvement (it's not always easy to see where you are in the navigation).

It's important to bear in mind that these boxes are not the money-spinner for Amazon; they sell them at cost.  The business model is to get you hooked into the Amazon ecosystem and to spend your money there!!

What about content?  Is there anything to spend your money on?

Amazon have invested heavily in their Studios venture, with some wonderful new shows; and using their audience to decide on the future of these shows, via their Amazon Pilots. This means, as a viewer I see some great new content, and can provide feedback which contributes to decisions.

A couple of examples are Bosch (police drama based on the books by Michael Connelly), and Transparent (a unique comedy/drama by Jill Soloway).
The beauty of this kind of TV is that they can decide to release whole series in one go; like Alpha House, or weekly, such as what they did with Extant.  Another two great shows from Amazon Studios.

This may sound like an advert for Amazon; and let's face it, what they do, they do well (except the phone; that was a mistake in my view).  Whilst there may be the Amazon bashers out there; there's no denying their proposition.

Some of you may be wondering why I haven't mentioned Apple?  Well, I do own an Apple TV; but haven't used it in months.  I don't use iTunes any more, or purchase Apple content, and there's nothing to just 'watch' - unless you fixate on YouTube, Vevo etc.  It certainly isn't my "go to" service.  And I totally disagree with the "lock in" to the Apple ecosystem!

So; that concludes my first new piece of tech, bought recently.  Do you have any thoughts about which streaming media service you use?

Next is my move to Android... 

Friday, January 10, 2014

It's Elementary....

This weekend, we will see the final episode in the current series of Sherlock, on BBC1.

I love this series.  In true, BBC style, it has very high production values, is well shot; the stories are great (even if there are glaring plot holes) and the acting is sublime.

I take my (deerstalker) hat off to Benedict Cumberbatch, for his portrayal of the famous detective, and Martin Freeman is excellent as his sidekick, Watson.

With the third series wrapping up; and with the announcement that there are plans for a forth and fifth series, I thought I'd ask the question - modern or historical?

There's been a sort of renaissance with Sherlock Holmes, as not only have the Beeb done their bit; but Hollywood has also got involved; albeit with the historical setting and costume.

Robert Downey Jnr (he who wears an Iron suit) along with Jude Law, resurrected the character in a couple of big screen outings.  Now, these were great fun, lots of bang for your buck, with the wit and charm all included.  But - is this better than the high-brow, clever scripting of the Sherlock we've been watching on television?

Is it better, or just different?  Maybe they're both as good as each other, but to be taken with different points of view.

The dark, mystical, on-the-spectrum character; played by Cumberbatch, or the frivolous, comical and less serious version; as played by Downey Jnr?

Personally; I prefer the television version, for no other reason than it is just brilliantly written, acted, directed and produced; and there is depth of character and light humour in equal measure.  What more can you ask for on a cold, dark, winter night.

Here's the trailer for "His Last Vow" - Sunday 8:30pm on BBC 1

Now, dear reader.  It's over to you...


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