Saturday, February 16, 2013

My Device Family Tree

How many do YOU own ...?

For a long while now I've had multiple computers in my household, most of them mine. But until recently they were always some form of desktop or laptop connected through a router. Now I find I've accumulated a family of devices, each one smaller than the last, that seem to specialize in the jobs that each does best. They all feed from the same pool of online files and services, but each fills a niche based on the size of images it can display and the level of operating system it runs.

The Dell desktop with its 22" screen is still my platform of choice for web development. I can boot it into LinuxMint or Windows 7, and the ample display size is great for keeping multiple windows open. It has enough horsepower to run Windows XP in a virtual machine with VirtualBox while simultaneously playing music and browsing the Internet. For spreadsheets, document formatting, web pages, graphic design, and games, this is the place to be. It's a year and a half old with "only" a dual core processor, but 8 gigs of RAM keeps it going smooth as silk.

Next up is its little brother, an Acer netbook, which shows how much can be crammed into a much smaller package. This also boots my choice of LinuxMint or Windows 8 (I know, but I had to put it somewhere), and offers a more comfy way to answer email and do writing while ensconced on the couch. The 10" screen is easy to read while still compact, and the whole package weighs in at just 2 pounds, probably less than the power supply on the Dell. It also sports a dual core chip, though its 2 gigs of memory is only adequate, and graphics are just meh -- OK for games as long as they don't require 3D acceleration. Tiny and underpowered as it is, this gadget still outperforms the desktop system I had 10 years ago, and does it on batteries.

The newest size slot belongs to the Nexus 7 tablet, which is doing its best to displace my now archaic Sony as my ebook reader of choice. There is still something comforting about the solid e-paper display of the Sony and a battery that lasts for weeks instead of draining while you watch. But when it comes to magazines and news feeds like Flipboard, not to mention Facebook and Google+ updates, not to mention Youtube and Netflix, it's pretty clear where the future lies. We just have to trust that in the fullness of time Modern Science will deliver a combination of screen and battery technology that will give us the best of both worlds.

And when deciding whether to use the netbook or tablet, it's easy: am I going to be typing or reading? For us inveterate touch typists there is no substitute for real keys. I've tried a bluetooth keyboard with the Nexus and it feels OK, but if I'm going to put the keyboard on my lap where do I put the tablet? The netbook is a typewriter, amplified. And the tablet is a book, electrified. Simple as that.

"But don't forget me!" says my Android phone. (It's an HTC Vivid running 4.0.) After all, the phone started all this by showing me how much could be done in the tiniest of packages. It's my second one, but this is the one with a big enough screen and adequate resources to let me read books and watch movies. True, the 4.5" screen is kind of tight for those things, but I always have it with me in my pocket and it's always ready to whip out and go to work.

Now it seems as if the Nexus tablet is just a grown up version of the phone. It still runs Android with its wealth of apps and beautiful integration with Google's wide world of services, but now with a form factor that feels like a book and performs like a personal TV. Dare we imagine that a desktop version is in our futures? Rumor has it that Google is about to merge Android with its Chrome operating system to put the final desktop nail in the Microsoft coffin. Or if you don't care for that scenario, how about integrating a tablet with your home entertainment system? It can be done even now if you can assemble all the bits and pieces, but it's easy to imagine it becoming a seamless standard.

On the other end of the scale, we're about to see even smaller devices coming online. Pebble and Apple will be selling smart watches that we can expect to take on more and more of the things phones are doing. So instead of pocketing them we'll be wearing them. And then there's Google Glass which is pioneering the kinds of user interface we will need when the devices grow too small for a touchpad. The lower limit, it seems, has yet to be reached. And the upper one, too.

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