An evening with Sony, at their 2014 consumer electronics product preview

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself heading to Brooklands, site of the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, except that the purpose of my visit was not to experience any form of motor sport, but to spend an evening with Sony, at their UK headquarters, taking a look at the consumer electronics products that the Japanese giant is bringing to market in 2014.

Working for another Japanese technology giant, as I do, it’s easy to forget just how big Sony is in the consumer electronics space.  Happily, in the UK, we don’t really compete (except maybe around PCs – and even then we focus on different markets). As news since my visit suggests that Sony is looking to dispose of its Vaio PC business and transform the TV business into a wholly owned subsidiary (perhaps to resolve the issue of the innovators’ dilemma?), I’m happy that I could learn about the sound and vision, photography and computing devices that Sony is bringing to market this year without any conflict of interest.  And Sony started the evening off by telling us how they are concentrating on the user experience – on the best picture and sound quality – be that for televisions, cameras, projectors or other digital devices.

TV – forget 3D – 4K is where it’s at

It has to be said that Sony’s 4K TVs are stunning.  I first saw 4K Ultra HD images whilst visiting The Design Museum late last year and my trip to Brooklands re-enforced my view – whether it’s for watching films or sport.  Quite how I’ll be able to receive a 4K signal at my house is another issue (I have “up to 8Mbps” ADSL2) and whilst I like the idea of a 65″ TV, our living room is not really large enough… but hey! (It should be noted that Sony’s X-Reality processing engine can upscale some content too).

Sony X9Sony explained some of the technologies that their mid-high end 2014 TVs feature and it’s clear that it’s no longer just about being “super slim”.  The quest for enhanced picture and sound quality includes a range of technologies such as:

  • X-Reality PRO image enhancement for increased realism, texture and a more refined output
  • Triluminos imaging (launched last year – but now with increased colour range and much improved viewing angle – as shown in this image from Sony with, from left to right,  a 2013 Sony TV, a 2014 Sony TV and a Samsung TV)
  • X-tended Dynamic Range – improved brightness, whilst retaining detail and colour.
  • Long duct speakers with a new wedge shape to increase speaker capacity and sound quality – including software to adjust the settings depending on whether the panel is wall or table mounted (wall-mounted units use the wall for reverberation – I pity the neighbours!)
  • Front mounted speakers on some models for better sound direction, a magnetic fluid system as coolant and conductor for efficient sound transfer – and an RF-connected subwoofer option for those who don’t want a 5.1 system.
  • ClearAudio+ sound processing, to separate dialogue from sound effects, reduce/increase sports commentary volume, or provide virtual surround sound.

And, when one Sony representative was asked a question about the future of 3D TV:

“Our focus is 4K”

I think that says it all really (the 3D glasses for my TV have never come out of their box)!

Smart viewing

I have a mid-range Samsung TV, which, on the whole I’ve been very pleased with but I do have to admit that the SmartHub is a little less smart than I would like at times. Clearly Sony seems Samsung as a leading competitor (their competitor comparison units are all Samsungs!) and, from what I saw of the developments in Sony’s Bravia software, it seems that they have a much better user interface – and an interesting approach to control with their “One-Flick”gesture-based remote (a standard remote is provided too). Whilst some of the apps seem a little gimmicky (e.g. “Football mode” for “less ghosting and more immersive viewing” because of Sony’s tie up with the 2014 World Cup), the usuals are there too (iPlayer, etc.) as well as Sony’s Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services.

The features I found most interesting were Social Viewing (integrating social media use with television-watching, albeit with some issues around content filtering) and Photo share (using the TV as a hub to share images between devices, scanning a QR code or using NFC to connect, with no app required).

As for the full range of 2014 Sony TVs, rather than rely on my notes being correct, why not get it straight from the horses’ mouth, as it were.

Getting connected

I also had some time to spend in Sony’s “network room” and whilst I have to say I was pretty impressed with the range of Vaio laptops in touch and non-touch forms (including the lightest ultrabook in Europe), all with NFC and some featuring ClearAudio+ (which really made a difference using the PC speakers), the potential sale of Sony’s PC business and my own professional IT links made these no more than a “ooo – that’s nice” view…

There were Xperia phones and tablets too but the real items I found of interest were the wearables – a Smartband that pairs with an Android phone for “life logging” and the SmartWatch 2 which acts as a remote screen for an Android phone, but also runs some of its own apps.  Wearables are big right now and I find this a particularly exciting market – it will be interesting to see how Sony’s devices take off…

 

Digital imaging (and a date for my diary)

A few years ago, Sony bought Konica-Minolta’s digital imaging business and they’ve clearly used it to good effect, expanding the Sony range to cover everything from digital compacts to high-end DSLRs (and of course expanding their own range of digital still and video cameras).  As a Nikon DSLR-shooter, I found the range confusing, with seemingly competing models using two different lens mount systems:

  • The A-mount is effectively the old Konica-Minolta system.
  • The E-mount is used by the modern, small form factor cameras.

Thankfully there are converters available, which means A-mount E-mount users can use adapters for Nikon and Canon lenses.  I guess I’m a bit of a Luddite too – I like a solid full-frame DSLR with high quality (often heavy) glass up front and am unconvinced by the new ranges of small cameras with interchangeable lenses (possibly because I got burned by Minolta in the late-1990s with an interchangeable lens APS film camera!).  Having said that, I increasingly find myself using the camera in my pocket (my phone) and it was interesting to see how Sony is enhancing the user experience with seamless integration between devices, including built-in NFC and Wi-Fi communications, together with iOS and Android PlayMemories apps for a range of photography uses).  I was also impressed to see that Sony is really moving ahead with behind full-frame cameras – be that the DSC-RX1, the prosumer ?7/7R or the ?99. Indeed I’d be happy to have an RX1 as my carry-everywhere camera (albeit a rather pricey one!)

On the video front, Sony has always been a leader and I was impressed to see both the NEX-VG900 full-frame interchangeable lens camcorder and the AX100 – a 4K Handycam targeted at home film-makers, using a 1″ sensor and class 10 SD card storage (that reminds me, I really should find a way to stream all of the raw footage off my collection of DV tapes onto a disk somewhere!).

Oh yes, and that date for my diary? Sony sponsors the World Photography Awards, and the 2014 exhibition will take place at Somerset House in London from 1-18 May.

Wall of sound

The last demonstration of the evening was focused on audio.  I didn’t check out the high resolution audio systems (although I heard others doing so, and they certainly sounded good) – I was interested in something portable – like the Bluetooth and NFC SRS-BTS50 or the higher-end SRS-X5 unit.  After all, when all you’re playing is compressed MP3 files, or music streamed from Spotify, it’s amazing how good it can sound on a small speaker setup. Then there were earphones, modern Walkman digital music players (I didn’t know that brand still existed but it seems you can get everything from a USB stick to an iPod competitor and even an MP3 Walkman built into a set of headphones!), clock radios, docking stations, DAB radios, all in one Hi-Fi systems – the works.

<tl;dr>

I’m pretty impressed with Sony’s consumer electronics plans for 2014.  Sure, what geek wouldn’t be interested in huge super-high definition TVs, some smart PCs and wearable tech, a selection of imaging devices that meet the needs of most, if not all, consumers and some seriously big sounds. But it’s more than that.  Maybe I drank the Sony Kool-Aid but I really did leave with the distinct impression that Sony is out to create a user experience that transcends devices and simply delivers the best picture and sound quality.  If I didn’t already have a Samsung Smart TV, Apple and Samsung phones, a Lenovo PC, Nikon cameras and an Xbox 360, I might well be persuaded to make my next consumer electronics purchase one from Sony…

[Update 19 Feb 2014: corrected statement re: adapters for third party lenses with Sony cameras]

Hardware lineup for 2014

For the last few years, I’ve written a post about my “hardware lineup” – the tech I use pretty much every day (2011, 2012, and 2013). This year, Dan Delaney reminded me when he borrowed the idea (and I originally stole it from someone else…) so here’s the belated 2014 line-up…

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

I’m still enjoying my current company car even as it approaches its 2 year anniversary and am actively working to keep the mileage down as I may buy it at the end of the lease. Whilst I might be able to get a deal on a second hand Q7 or Toureg, this was specced up the way I wanted it  including a retractable towbar and I’m more than happy. Verdict 8/10. Hold (tied into a 3-year lease).

Phones: Apple iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini

Windows Phone 7.8 was a disappointment and the lack of apps for the Windows Phone platform means I’ve gone back to iOS for my personal phone (second-hand from the SmartfoneStore), although I hope to jailbreak it to get some of the features that are missing for me in iOS 7. Meanwhile, my company iPhone 3GS has been replaced with an Android model (the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini), which is infuriating in many ways but at least lets me get experience of working with the other dominant mobile platform. (iPhone) Verdict 7/10. Hold – something new is too expensive. (Galaxy Mini) Verdict 5/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadMy iPad never replaced a laptop as a primary computer but it’s still great as a Kindle, for catching up on social media content, and for casual gaming (read, occasional babysitter and childrens’ amusement on long car journeys). I was disappointed to have to pay to replace it after the screen developed a fault, but there’s no reason to trade up yet, especially since we bought a touch PC for the family (read on). If anything, I might consider a smaller tablet (maybe a Google Nexus 7 or a Tesco Hudl). Verdict 5/10. Hold, although it’s getting old now.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook P702 (Intel Core i5 3210M 2.5GHz, 8GB RAM, 320GB hard disk)

This PC is my main computing device and is a small form-factor replacement for the previous Lifebook I used.  I like it, but a BYOC scheme would be more likely to leave me buying a competitor’s PC. Just as well we only have CYOD! Verdict 7/10. Still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work but not holding my breath.

Family PC: Lenovo Flex 15 (Intel Core i5 4200U 1.6GHz, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard disk)

Lenovo Flex 15When it eventually arrived, I set this PC up with Windows 8.1, Office 2013 and an account for everyone in the family.  It’s been a huge hit – the kids love it and I find it really useful to have a PC in the kitchen/family room.  I’m glad I held out for a touch screen – Windows 8 is so much better with Touch – but I should possibly have got something with a bit more memory… Verdict 8/10. A bit underpowered but a good balance between price and form factor.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Rarely taken out of the drawer – only used when I want to play with Linux (Ubuntu) or upload some new code to the Arduino. Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100Although I’ve fallen out of love with photography, I’m sure I’ll get back on the wagon some time. A full-frame DSLR is still my favourite format and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.  Newer bodies offer video but I don’t miss that, and the low light performance on the D700 is pretty good. The P7100 continues to function as my carry-everywhere camera (it lives in the car), offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like and I increasingly tolerate using the iPhone instead (poor camera, but always with me). (D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold. (P7100) Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)My MacBook is getting old and, although I upgraded to a 750GB disk, I’m struggling with disk space whilst 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive. Still too expensive to replace, but as long as I’m not doing much photography, this will last a while longer… Verdict 4/10. Hold.

Media: Samsung UE37ES6300 Smart TV

Samsung UE37ES6300Our late-2012 technology purchase, this replaced an aging (c1998) Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT and Internet-connected television is now an integral part of my family’s media consumption habit with my children watching more iPlayer content than live.  The software is a little “buggy” but it does the job – as a half decent TV it’s more than adequate and I’m thinking of getting a 22″ version for the den (when we build one…) Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, iPhone 4S, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers, Samsung UE37ES6300) Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year and I still haven’t re-ripped my CDs after the NAS failure a couple of years ago (although the Dell server I bought a few years ago has come out of retirement in preparation for that task). We bought a Yamaha PSR E-343 music keyboard for my son this Christmas so this PC may be brought back to life with Garage Band or as a media server as it takes up almost no space at all. Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should but my sons make more and more use of it, and bought me a copy of FIFA 2014 for Christmas, so the Xbox is starting to get a lot more use. No plans to replace it with a newer model though. Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Raspberry Pi, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, various USB HDDs

The Raspberry Pi has replaced my atom-based infrastructure PC, whilst one ReadyNAS is used to back up my work and the other has still not been recovered from its multiple disk failure a couple of years ago.  I still need to consolidate the various USB hard drives onto the  3GB Seagate Backup Plus Desktop drive and sort out the various cloud-based services that I use. (Raspberry Pi) Verdict 10/10. What’s not to like about a computer that costs just £25? (ReadyNAS Duo) Verdict 5/10. RAID failures mean I’ve lost confidence.

Other tech: Arduino Uno, Canon ImageFormula P-215 document scanner

I’m still occasionally playing around with electronics using an Arduino – although I need to do more with this. I’m also slowly regaining control over my filing using the document scanner (and it’s very cathartic shredding old documents!) (Arduino Uno) Verdict 10/10. Inexpensive, with loads of scope for electronic prototyping and a thriving community for support. (Canon P-215) Verdict 9/10. Impressive scanner, although a little on the expensive side.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostatLego Mindstorms

Just as last year, I still have my eyes on home automation and tech toys but budgets (and other hobbies) mean they are unlikely to become real for a while yet.  A smart watch is a possibility too… just waiting for the right one…

Could low cost tablets actually knock the iPad off its perch?

Last weekend, my family went on a theatre trip to the Pantomime.  After Snow White had been rescued from her slumber by a charming prince, there was a short interlude whilst “Herbert the henchman” invited children with “golden tickets” onto the stage.  Asking one six-year-old what she had received for Christmas, she said “A Hudl“.

The bemused actor had not heard of a Hudl before and she went on to explain “it’s like an iPad, but without the button”.

Aside from amusing me that the Tesco device might actually have a name that could catch on with consumers (cf. the Kindle Fire HD that my kids referred to as “an iPad Kindle”), this got me thinking.  Could the low cost tablets from Tesco, Argos, et al be about to shake the iPad off it’s perch? I was reading a Which report over Christmas which lauded the iPad Mini as a great small form factor tablet but it’s expensive. Meanwhile even my Mum has bought a £100 Acer tablet (I wish she’d spoken to me first but, never mind).

My father-in-law was amazed that six-year-olds would be given a tablet but I highlighted that, at £120 (or as low as £60 with Clubcard vouchers) it was a consumable device – and that’s the beauty. It doesn’t have to be great, just good enough and cheap.  After all, my very expensive 64GB 3G first generation iPad was thrown on the scrap-heap by Apple with a lack of OS updates etc. after about 2 years.  Why spend £700 when I can spend far less and upgrade more frequently? The Google Nexus may be technically superior but buying a £120 tablet is very low risk.

Let me be clear: Apple has some great premium products – but with mass market acceptance of Android they have a problem. Whilst some of my friends have purchased iPad Minis for the family (one Christmas day Facebook update read “Operation iPad Mini declared a success – never seen the children so quiet”), how many more will go for the low cost option from the supermarket?

Hardware lineup for 2013

For the last couple of years, I’ve written a post about my “hardware lineup” – the tech I use pretty much every day (2011, 2012) and I thought I’d continue the theme as we enter 2013.

In these times of austerity, there’s not a lot of scope for new geek toys (some more camera lenses would be great, as would a new MacBook) but there’s no harm in a bit of aspiration, and it’s always interesting to take a look back and see how I thought things would work out and how that compares with reality.

So here’s the tech that I expect my life will revolve around this year…

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

My company car was replaced in April (a nice 40th birthday present) and the Volkswagen Tiguan I drive will be with me for at least 3 years. Whilst there are plenty of more capabile 4x4s and the space afforded by a 7-seater might be nice at times, “the Tig” has been great – my family all love the high riding position, my wife is happy swapping between this and her Golf (she should be – they are practically the same underneath the covers!) and, whilst I miss some of the refinement of my Audi, I get a lot more for my money with the Volkswagen.  Putting a retractable towbar on this car has created new possibilities too, allowing me to use a 4-bike towbar-attached carrier for family cycle trips.

Verdict 8/10. Hold (tied into a 3-year lease).

Phones: Nokia Lumia 800 and Apple iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3GSNokia Lumia 800My initial enthusiasm for the Nokia Lumia 800 waned considerably, after Microsoft announced its Windows Phone 8 plans and the handset lost 60% of its value overnight.  That means I won’t be trading it in for a new model any time soon and, depending on whether Windows Phone 7.8 ever makes it out of the door, I might consider looking at options to run Android on the (rather nice) hardware instead.  Still, at least we got an update a few months ago that, finally, enables Internet Sharing on Lumias (Windows Phone 7.5 supported this capability, but the Lumia 800 firmware did not).

I still have an iPhone 3GS provided by my employer (and my iPad) to fall back on when apps are not available for Windows Phone (i.e. most of the time) and, whilst I’m unlikely to get another smartphone from the company, I am considering a second-hand 4S to replace this as the 3GS is getting a bit long in the tooth now…

(Lumia) Verdict 5/10. Hold, under duress.
(iPhone) Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadMy iPad never replaced a laptop as a primary computer but it’s still great as a Kindle, for catching up on social media content, and for casual gaming (read, occasional babysitter and childrens’ amusement on long car journeys). I was disappointed to have to pay to replace it after the screen developed a fault, but there’s no reason to trade up yet and there’s still nothing that comes close to the iPad from a media tablet perspective (except newer iPads).

If anything, I might consider a smaller tablet (maybe a Google Nexus 7 or an Amazon Kindle Fire) but and Apple’s decision to stick with a 4:3 screen ratio on the iPad Mini means I have little interest in that form factor (it’s almost the same hardware as my current iPad, albeit in a smaller package). If I were to get a new tablet, it’s more likely to be something that could really be a laptop replacement – perhaps a Microsoft Surface Pro? We’ll see…

Verdict 7/10. Hold, although it’s getting old now.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220This PC is my main computing device. I’d love a ThinkPad, but the Lifebook is a perfectly capable, solid, well-built notebook PC, although I frequently find myself running out of memory with the number of tabs I have open in a typical browsing session! A recent hard disk failure meant my free space dropped (my 250GB drive was replaced with a 160GB one) but it’s due for replacement soon.

I’ll be looking for a smaller form-factor device to reduce the weight of my work-bag – at least until BYOC becomes a possibility (an ultrabook, Surface Pro, or a MacBook Air would be nice, but not available to me on the company’s catalogue).

Verdict 6/10. Unlikely to be with me for much longer now, although still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Yet again, this device has hardly seen the light of day. Usurped by the iPad, it now runs Ubuntu and is only ever used for tech projects (e.g. uploading software to my Arduino). My kids have one too but even they are frustrated by the small screen and tend to use my wife’s notebook PC instead.

Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100I still love my DSLR and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.  Newer bodies offer video but I don’t miss that, and the low light performance on the D700 is pretty good, even 2 years after launch.

The P7100 continues to function as my carry-everywhere camera (it lives in the car), offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like.

(D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold.
(P7100) Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)My MacBook is getting old and, although I upgraded to a 750GB disk, I’m struggling with disk space whilst 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive.

Still too expensive to replace, I think this will last another year, at least…

Verdict 4/10. Hold.

Media: Samsung UE37ES6300 Smart TV

Samsung UE37ES6300My most recent technology purchase, this replaced an aging (c1998) Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT and has given us back a lot of space in the living room! I’ve been really impressed with the Smart TV functionality (more on that over the next few days) and Internet-connected television is now an integral part of my media consumption habit.

In time, it may be joined by a sound bar (to improve the experience when watching films) but at the moment the TV’s built in speakers will have to make do.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, Lumia 800, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers, Samsung UE37ES6300)

Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year – except for the addition of a Smart TV – and I still haven’t re-ripped my CDs after the NAS failure a couple of years ago. I still haven’t bought the music keyboard and this PC’s role as a multimedia PC for the office with Spotify, iPlayer, etc. has been replaced by a Smart TV in the living room.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs but it may be brought back to life as a media server as it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should to make full use of it but the arrival of BBC iPlayer and the death of our DVD player promoted the Xbox to be our living room  media centre, at least until the Smart TV arrived (and the two still complement each other). My sons are reaching the age where they play games too now, so the Xbox is starting to get a lot more use.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, various USB HDDs

The Atom-based PC still provides infrastructure services for the home, whilst one ReadyNAS is used to back up my work and the other has still not been recovered from its multiple disk failure a couple of years ago. I recently bought a 3GB Seagate Backup Plus Desktop drive to replace an assortment of smaller USB hard disks and am preparing to supplement this with suitable cloud storage as we become more and more reliant on our digital assets.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

New toys from 2012: Arduino Uno, Raspberry Pi, Canon ImageFormula P-215 document scanner

At the end of my 2012 post, I mentioned a few potential purchases and I did pick up one of the first Raspberry Pi computers, which is a fantastic hobby/educational machine to use with or without my children.  I also started to play around with electronics using an Arduino – which is great fun – and I hope to be doing more with both of them this year (more Raspberry Pi postsmore Arduino posts).

I’m slowly regaining control over my filing with the aid of a dedicated document scanner. It doesn’t matter to me that it’s portable, but the fast duplex scanning to PDF and multiple sheet handling (with very few mis-feeds) is a huge step forward compared with the all-in-one printer/scanner/copier I have in my home office.  Mine was an “Amazon Warehouse Deals” purchase (which saved me a few pounds) and the advertised condition suggested it may have a scratch or two but it seems to be in perfect condition to me. It will certainly be a big part of my push to digitise much of my paperwork this year.

(Raspberry Pi) Verdict 10/10. What’s not to like about a computer that costs just £25?
(Arduino Uno) Verdict 10/10. Inexpensive, with loads of scope for electronic prototyping and a thriving community for support.
(Canon P-215) Verdict 9/10. Impressive scanner, although a little on the expensive side.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostat, Romotive Robot, Lego Mindstorms

Of course, as a geek, I have my eye on a whole host of potential purchases and these were two that took my fancy in last year’s post, plus one more that I’ve had my eye on for a while (may be something for the kids to get and Dad to play with?).  In all honesty, I’m not sure that I’ll be buying much at all this year, but anything I do is likely to be in the general electronics, robotics and home automation field.

Hardware lineup for 2012

Last year I wrote a post about my “hardware lineup” – i.e. the tech I use almost every day so I thought I should really do the same for 2012.  Much of it’s still the same but there are some changes – it will be interesting to take a look in retrospect next year and see how my plans for 2012 have worked out. So, here’s the tech that I expect my life will revolve around this year.

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

My company car is due for replacement in the spring and I’ve ordered a Volkswagen Tiguan to drive for the next 3 years. I really like the Audi A4 Avant that I drive at the moment but it’s recently had a lot of money spent on it (new clutch and major service costing over £2,500 – thankfully not paid by me) and I’m not sure that a three-year-old car with 60,000 miles on the clock is  worth the money the lease company wants for me to take it on…

Due to price increases, another A4 with the same spec will cost me quite a lot more each month and, whilst the Tiguan is a little smaller, it’s also more practical (I looked at the Q3 too – but it’s “fugly”, overpriced and there is limited engine choice at the moment). With my growing family the addition of a towbar should allow me to take 4 bikes around on a carrier without scratching the car too.

Verdict who knows – it’s not been delivered yet!

Phones: Nokia Lumia 800 and Apple iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3GSNokia Lumia 800I recently joined the 1.5% and jumped into the Windows Phone market. I like it – and want the platform to succeed – but really feel Microsoft has a long way to go. Thankfully I still have an iPhone 3GS provided by my employer (and my iPad) to fall back on when apps are not available or when the Lumia is just too infuriating…

It was a risk buying the Nokia Lumia but the hardware is lovely, the software will improve, and it was a major investment so, realistically, it’s likely to remain with me for the next 2 years! Meanwhile, I’m still hoping to get myself an iPhone 4 or 4S to replace the 3GS but the chances are best described as slim.

(Lumia) Verdict 7/10. Hold.
(iPhone) Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadNo change here – the iPad is my media tablet of choice and no-one else even comes close. I may be tempted by an Amazon Fire or the new (rumoured) baby iPad but at the time of writing this device is still great for occasional surfing, a bit of TV catchup, and social media on the move.  It’s also great for the kids to play games and catch up on vital episodes of childrens’ television programmes that they missed (using BBC iPlayer)!

Verdict 8/10. Hold.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220I’m still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work, but this PC is my main computing device. I’d love a ThinkPad, but the Lifebook is a perfectly capable, solid, well-built notebook PC, although I frequently find myself running out of memory with the number of tabs I have open in a typical browsing session!

When it comes up for replacement, I’ll see if I can blag something smaller (really need to be a grade more senior for that) and reduce the weight of my work-bag…

Verdict 6/10. Holding out for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Netbook, schmetbook. I hardly used this in 2011. I did install Ubuntu 11.04 on it and have a couple of blog posts to write before I use it to play with Windows 8. I bought the S10e for Windows 7 testing 3 years ago so it owes me nothing but the netbook form factor has been usurped by tablets and low-cost notebooks. My kids have one too but even they are frustrated by the small screen and tend to use my wife’s notebook PC instead

Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100I still love my DSLR and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.

The P7100 joined me this year as a device to carry everywhere and it’s been pretty good, offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like.

(D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold.
(P7100) Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)This MacBook needs to last a while longer before I can justify its replacement but I did upgrade the hard disk in 2011 and it may get another upgrade this year. 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive. I’d better get saving for something new in 2013…

Verdict 5/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, Lumia 800, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers)

Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year – although both disks in one of my NASs failed and I need to re-rip my CDs for my music library (iTunes had already done a good job of mangling it). I still haven’t bought the music keyboard (maybe this year) but it’s lasting well as my multimedia PC for the office with Spotify, iPlayer, etc.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs, but it’s more than up to this kind of work and it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should to make full use of it (although I am enjoying my latest purchase: Lego Pirates of the Caribbean). Hopefully the next few months will finally see iPlayer land on the Xbox at which point it will become a really useful media centre for the living room (it works with my aging SD TV).

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo

My Dell PowerEdge 840 has been retired to save energy (although it could still be wheeled out for any virtual machine workloads to test infrastructure scenarios) and, as I already mentioned, one of my ReadyNASs has suffered a multiple disk failure (waiting for me to sort out some warranty replacement disks) but, once recovered, these machines will remain as the mainstay of my computing infrastructure. Cloud storage for my photos is still too expensive so I’m likely to add another NAS at a family member’s house to maintain an off-site backup.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostat, Romotive Robot, Raspberry Pi

These have taken my fancy and I’m seriously considering them all in 2012. Only time will tell what I buy (and when) but I’m sure you’ll hear about my exploits on the blog!

First signs of a tablet strategy at Microsoft

I’ve been pretty critical of Microsoft’s tablet strategy. As recently as last October they didn’t appear to have one and Steve Ballmer publicly ridiculed customers using a competitor devices. Whenever I mentioned this, the ‘softies would switch into sales mode and say something like “oh but we’re the software company, we don’t make devices” to which I’d point out that they do have a mobile operating system (Windows Phone 7), and an application store, but that they don’t allow OEMs to use it on a tablet form factor.

But it seems that things are changing in Redmond. Or in Reading at least.

Ballmer got a kicking from the board (deservedly so) for his inability to develop Microsoft’s share of the mobile market and it seems that Redmond is open to ideas from elsewhere in the company to develop a compelling Windows-based tablet offering. A few days ago, I got the chance to sit down with one of the Slate vTeam in the UK subsidiary to discuss Microsoft’s tablet (they prefer “slate”) strategy and it seems that there is some progress being made.

Whilst Windows 8 (or Windows vNext as Microsoft prefer to refer to it) was not up for discussion, Microsoft’s Jamie Burgess was happy to discuss the work that Microsoft is doing around slates that run Windows 7.  Ballmer alluded to work with OEMs in his “big buttons” speech and there are a number of devices hitting the market now which attempt to overcome the limitations of Microsoft’s platform. The biggest limitation is the poor touch interface provided by the operating system itself (with issues that are far more fundamental than just “big buttons”).  There seems little doubt that the next version of Windows will have better slate support but we won’t see that until at least 2012 – and what about the current crop of Windows 7-based devices?

[At this point I need to declare a potential conflict of interest – I work for Fujitsu, although this is my personal blog and nothing written here should be interpreted as representing the views of my employer. For what it’s worth, I have been just as critical of Windows slates when talking to Fujitsu Product Managers but, based on a recent demonstration of a pre-production model, I do actually believe that they have done a good job with the Stylistic Q550, especially when considering the current state of Windows Touch]

Need to do “something”

Microsoft has realised that doing nothing about slates does not win market share – in fact it loses mind share – every iPad sold helps Apple to grow because people start using iTunes, then they buy into other parts of the Apple ecosystem (maybe a Mac), etc.

Noting that every enterprise user is also a consumer, Microsoft believes enterprise slates will sneak back into the home, rather than consumer devices becoming commonplace in the enterprise. That sounds like marketing spin to me, but they do have a point that there is a big difference between a CIO who wants to use his iPad at work and that same CIO saying that he wants 50,000 of those devices deployed across the organisation.

Maybe it was because I was talking to the UK subsidiary, rather than “Corp” but Microsoft actually seems to acknowledge that Apple is currently leading on tablet adoption. Given their current position in the market, Microsoft’s strategy is to leverage its strength from the PC marketplace – the partner ecosystem. Jamie Burgess told me how they are working to bring together Independent Software Vendors (ISVs), System Integrators (SIs) and device manufacturers (OEMs) to create “great applications” running on “great devices” and deployed by “great partners”, comparing this with the relatively low enterprise maturity of Apple and their resellers.

Addressing enterprise readiness

I could write a whole post on the issues that Google has (even if they don’t yet know it) with Android: device proliferation is a wonderful thing, until you have to code for the lowest common denominator (just ask Microsoft, with Windows Mobile – and, to some extent with Windows too!) and Google is now under attack for its lack of openness in an open-source product. But the big issue for the enterprise is security – and I have to agree with Microsoft on this: neither Apple nor Google seem to have got that covered. Here are some examples:

  • Encryption is only as strong as its weakest link – root access to devices (such as jailbroken iPhones) is pretty significant (6 minutes to break into an encrypted device) and Apple has shown time and time again that it is unable to address this, whilst Google sees this level of access to Android devices as part of its success model.
  • And what if I lose my mobile device? USB attached drives provide a great analogy in that encryption (e.g. Microsoft BitLocker) is a great insurance policy – you don’t think you really need it until a device goes missing and you realise that no-one can get into it anyway – then you breathe a big sigh of relief.

After security we need to think about management and support:

  • Android 3 and iOS have limited support for device lock down whilst a Windows device has thousands of group policy settings. Sure, group policy is a nightmare in itself, but it is at least proven in the enterprise.
  • Then there’s remote support – I can take screenshots on my iPad, but I can’t capture video and send it to a support technician to show them an application issue that they are having trouble replicating – Windows 7’s problem steps recorder allows me to do this.
  • There is no support for multiple users, so I can’t lock a device down for end users, but open up access for administrators to support the device – or indeed allow a device to be shared between users in any way that provides accountability.

Windows 7 has its problems too: it’s a general purpose operating system, that’s not designed to run on mobile hardware; it lacks the ability to instantly resume from standby; and touch support (particularly the soft keyboard) is terrible (unless an application is written specifically to use touch) Even so, when you consider its suitability for enterprise use, it’s clear that Windows does have some advantages.

Ironically, Microsoft also cites a lack of file system access as restricting the options for collaboration using an iOS device. Going back to the point about security only being as strong as the weakest link, I’d say that restricting access to the file system is a good thing (if only there weren’t the jailbreak issues at a lower level!). Admittedly, it does present some challenges for users but applications such as Dropbox help me over that as I can store data within the app, such as presentations for offline playback.

The Windows Optimised Desktop

At this point, Jamie came back to the Windows Optimised Desktop message – he sees Windows’ strength as:

“The ability for any user to connect using any endpoint at any time of day to do their day job successfully but be managed, maintained and secured on the back end.”

[Jamie Burgess: Partner Technology Advisor for Optimised Desktop, Microsoft UK]

OK. That’s fine – but that doesn’t mean I need the same operating system and applications on all devices – just access to my data using common formats and appropriate apps. For example, I don’t need Microsoft Office on a device that is primarily used for content consumption – but I do need an app that can access my Microsoft Office data.  Public, private and hybrid clouds should provide the data access – and platform security measures should allow me to protect that data in transit and at rest.  Windows works (sort of) but it’s hardly optimal.

At this point, I return to Windows Touch – even Microsoft acknowledges the fact that the Windows UI does not work with fat fingers (try touching the close button in the top-right corner of the screen) and some device manufacturers have had to offer both stylus and touch input (potentially useful) with their own skin on top of Windows. Microsoft won’t tell me what’s coming on Windows 8 but they do have a Windows Product Scout microsite that’s designed to help people find applications for their PC – including Apps for Slate PCs on the “featured this week” list. That’s a step towards matching apps with devices but it doesn’t answer the enterprise application store question – for that I think we will have to wait for Windows “vNext”. For 2011 at least, the message is that App-V can be used to deploy an application to Windows PCs and slates alike and to update it centrally (which is fine, if I have the necessary licensing arrangements to obtain App-V).

Hidden costs? And are we really in the post-PC era?

Looking at costs, I’ll start with the device and the only Windows slate I’ve heard pricing for is around £700-800. That’s slightly more than a comparable iPad but with also some features that help secure the device for use with enterprise data (fingerprint reader, TPM chip, solid state encrypted disk, etc.).

Whilst there is undoubtedly a question to answer about supporting non-Microsoft devices too, the benefits of using a Windows slate hinge on it being a viable PC replacement.  I’m not sure that really is the case.

I still need to license the same Windows applications (and security software, and management agents) that I use in the rest of the enterprise. I’ll admit that most enterprises already have Active Directory and systems management tools that are geared up to supporting a Windows device but I’m not convinced that the TCO is lower (most of my support calls are related to apps running on Windows or in a browser).

An iPad needs a PC (or a Mac!) to sync with via iTunes and the enterprise deployment is a little, how can I put it? Primitive! (in that there are a number of constraints and hoops to jump through.) A BlackBerry Playbook still needs a BlackBerry handset and I’m sure there are constraints with other platforms too. I really don’t believe that the post PC era is here (yet) – for that we’ll need a little more innovation in the mobile device space. For now, that means that slates present additional cost and I’m far more likely to allow a consumer owned and supported device, for certain scenarios with appropriate risk mitigation, than I am to increase my own “desktop” problem.

In conclusion

I still believe that Windows Phone 7, with the addition of suitable enterprise controls for management and maintenance, would be a better slate solution. It’s interesting that, rather than playing a game of chicken and egg as Apple has with Jailbreakers, Microsoft worked with the guys who unlocked their platform, presumably to close the holes and secure the operating system. Allowing Windows Phone to run on a wider range of devices (based on a consistent platform specification, as the current smartphones are) would not present the issues of form factor that Windows Mobile and Android suffer from (too many variations of hardware capability) – in fact the best apps for iOS present themselves differently according to whether they are running on an iPhone or an iPad.

So, is Microsoft dead in the tablet space? Probably not! Do they have a strategy? Quite possibly – what I’ve seen will help them through the period until Windows “vNext” availability, but as they’re not talking about what that platform will offer, it’s difficult to say whether their current strategy makes sense as anything more than a stopgap (although it is certainly intended as an on ramp for Windows “vNext”). It seems to me that the need to protect Windows market share is, yet again, preventing the company from moving forward at the pace it needs to, but the first step to recovery is recognising that there is a problem – and they do at least seem to have taken that on board.

What might “Windows 8” (or “Windows Next”) bring for tablets/slates?

Once upon a time, Microsoft used to share information about developments in new versions of Windows with customers and partners. Then came Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn), a project fraught with difficulties, and there was much consternation about cancelled functionality.  So, for the next release (codenamed, and later released as, Windows 7, even though it’s only 6.1), Microsoft kept quiet, before shipping a very public beta and asking people for feedback, long after all the key decisions had been made!

“Windows 8” looks to continue in the same vein – except that Microsoft won’t even tell us a codename – only making vague references to “the next version of Windows” or “Windows Next”. So, it’s hardly surprising that the tech media is trying to glean information about what the next release of Windows may have in store.  And, as an MVP and an employee of a major global systems integrator (but speaking for myself of course – my views are personal and should not be interpreted as a statement on behalf of my employer), I can tell you it’s not just technology journalists and bloggers that want to know – I want to be able to talk to customers about roadmaps but Microsoft is keeping schtum.

So, when journalist, author, ZDNet blogger and long-time Microsoft commentator, Mary Jo Foley ran a webcast this afternoon looking at Microsoft’s strategy for tablets/slates “Windows 8”, I tuned in.  Of course, it was nothing that Mary Jo hadn’t already written about – and it was purely speculative (albeit based on some good sources) but it’s the best we have to go on right now about what might be coming – and a good summary of the current situation.

The following are my notes from the webcast.  I may well look back in a year or so and laugh at how wrong we were (as I did with my tweets about the iPad from late-January 2010!) but I have a feeling that most, if not all, of this will come true.

It was interesting to see what people think about the market for slates/tablets.  Based on a poll taken during the call: 13% think that Apple owns the market [as of now, they do – but that could still change]; 8% think it’s overrated and will slip away like netbooks [unlikely – have you seen the sales figures for the iPad?]; 22% think the market is in its infancy and will hurt PC sales [definitely nascent; but I generally see slates as additive, rather than alternatives to PCs]; and the vast majority (57%) think the market is in its infancy but that there is room for Android and Windows “pads”.  Based on those figures (which are far from scientific, and likely to be skewed in Microsoft’s favour given Mary Jo’s readership) Microsoft has not completely lost its chance to ship a decent tablet but it’s clear there is still a lot of work to do – and a lot of unknowns.

So what about Windows 7 slates? It’s difficult for me to comment on this, for professional reasons (although I have previously written about how Steve Ballmer told me what to do with my iPad) but Mary Jo Foley is not a fan. She sees some interesting designs, but considers them to be generally pricey, not portable enough, with poor battery life and not true iPad competitors. [For what it’s worth, I can’t argue with any of that.]

And what’s the difference between a slate and tablet? Not a lot.  Microsoft likes to talk about tablets – they see a stylus as a differentiator but the two terms are used interchangably by analysts and media – like notebooks and laptops (or twenty-eleven and two-thousand-and-eleven).

On Windows 8, Microsoft has said nothing – although they have spoken of “the next version of Windows”.  That could be Windows 8, or it could be something else (Windows Compact Embedded?) but is really likely to be a successor to Windows 7.

Microsoft has accidentally leaked information about “Windows Next” in job advertisements, blog posts, leaked slides from confidential presentations to OEMs. Some of the information gleaned includes references to identifying modern form factors to target and optimise for:

  • Lap PC
  • Workhorse PC
  • Family Hub PC

The second and third categories are familiar – and the first sounds/looks like a slate [albeit with a terrible lable].

There is a view that “Lap PCs” are about consumption (I think there is scope for some content creation – I certainly write on my iPad) but some differentiators might include more built in sensors (facial recognition to log in; ambient sensor to detect that the user is not there and hibernate/shutdown) as well as apps to integrate with home automation – but remember we’re likely to see at least one [maybe two] iteration(s) of the iPad before any of this comes to market.

Whilst we don’t know what “Windows Next” is, assuming it is a replacement for Windows 7, we can expect to see it within 24-36 months after Windows 7 shipped (so 2012) and it will run on x86, ARM and Intel/AMD system-on-a-chip (SoC) architectures.

Microsoft has said nothing official about RTM dates/betas, etc. but Mary Jo Foley believes milestone build 1 (M1) was released within Microsoft in September 2010 with M2 due this month and M3 around July/August.  After that, we might see A public test build in September (at PDC?) with a beta in 2012, and release in summer 2012?  There are some question marks around which architecture(s) may ship first, as well as whether it will be all 64-bit [I think it should be, but expect a 32-bit version to be available, at least for some SKUs].

It looks like there might be some interesting features for tablets/slates too:

  • Jupiter looks to be an application development model/framework that provides a XAML layer on top of Windows, maybe with its roots in version 5 of the Microsoft.NET Framework, for seamless creation of apps that are optimised for the tablet/slate experience.
  • MoSH may be a Modern SHell – an alternative user interface for Windows on slates/tablets – maybe using the Metro style we’ve seen in the Zune and Windows Phone software [let’s hope so].

Microsoft would like there to be “one Windows” but there isn’t and it’s only natural to ask if “Windows Next” will be the only slate operating system? We can expect to see version 7 of Windows Embedded Compact (definitely for data consumption only) released around April/May 2011, but there is also a chance of Windows Phone on tablets, despite Microsoft statements to the contrary [I think it could be be a great solution – although Mary Jo Foley notes that Windows is more mature and more stable than Windows Phone 7].

Can Microsoft win back iPad users? Well, maybe some of them – many of us are iPad users because there is simply nothing better in the market. Perhaps a Windows tablet could be good – but I for one would take some convincing – and it wouldn’t be running Windows 7 (and, from what I’ve seen of Google Android “Honeycomb”, it’s not really a step forward from current Apple iOS functionality either).  The real questions are around applications and access to data – and only time will tell what Microsoft has in store (excuse the pun) or what effect the revamped Android Marketplace will have.

For now, Mary Jo’s big unknowns are:

  • What will Windows slates do to address the issues of weight/cost/battery life? A tablet needs to be lightweight with a 10 hour battery life (as a minimum) [and to compete on value with the existing market leader].
  • Will Microsoft lock down the slate chassis specifications (as they did for Windows Phone 7), providing a common ground for applications?
  • Will the Metro user interface appear on a “WinPad”?
  • What about the Windows Application store? What apps will it have? Where from? Written by whom?
  • Will any of the Courier concepts re-emerge?

[Update 3 February 2011: Paul Thurrott also looks at Windows 8 rumours, among other things, prompting Jamie Thomson to ask another good question: Will Microsoft allow enterprises to run their own internal application stores?]

For now, we don’t really know the answers – I’m hopefully that things will fall into place towards the end of 2011 but the longer Microsoft has nothing, whilst Apple ships significant quantities of iPads (and “iPad 2″s), the larger the gap becomes, and the further Apple encroaches into Microsoft’s enterprise heartland.

Tablets: How will they impact your enterprise IT?

It seems that last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) can be summed up with one word:

“Tablet”.

Even though Steve Ballmer, CEO at Microsoft, demonstrated an HP “slate” running Windows in last year’s CES keynote, Apple managed to steal Microsoft’s thunder with the iPad and this year’s show saw just about every PC manufacturer (and Fujitsu is no exception) preparing to launch their own model(s).

Tablet computers aren’t new but Apple’s iPad has revitalised the market – I recently wrote about this when I examined the potential impact on desktop managed service – and one report I read suggested that there were over 80 tablets launched at CES!

For many years, CIOs have been standardising end-user computing environments on Intel x86 hardware and Windows operating systems, with appropriate levels of lockdown and control which makes it all the more interesting to see the variation in hardware, form factor and operating system in these new devices.

Our IT departments will struggle to support this plethora of devices yet IT consumerisation will force us to. But this isn’t a new phenomenon – ten years ago I was working in an organisation which was trying to standardise on Windows CE devices as they provided the best application support platform for the business, whilst the execs were asking for BlackBerrys so they could access e-mail on the move.

Guess what happened? We ended up with both.

And that’s what will happen with next-generation tablets, just as for smartphones. To some extent, it’s true for PCs too – the hardware and the operating system have become commoditised – and our task is to ensure that we can present the right data and the right applications to the right people, at the right time, on the right device.

Which brings back around me to my opening point: tablets featured heavily at CES but tablets are just one part of the IT mix. Will your organisation be supporting their use in the enterprise? And do you see them as serious business devices, or are they really just executive toys?

[This post originally appeared on the Fujitsu UK and Ireland CTO Blog.]

Hardware lineup for 2011

This is a bit of a copycat post really but I saw Mike Taulty and Phil Winstanley‘s hardware lineups and thought it was a good idea. So, here it is, a summary of the technology I use pretty much every day and how I see that changing this year.

Car: Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI 170 S-Line

Audi A4 Avant 20 TDI 170 S-LineMy wife and I have been Volkswagen fans for a few years now (we find them to be good, solid, reliable cars that hold their value well) so, a couple of years ago, when I heard that Volkswagen and Audi were being added to our company car scheme, I held back on replacing my previous vehicle in order to take advantage. I did consider getting a Passat but the A4 (although smaller) had a newer generation of engine and lower emissions, so it didn’t actually cost much more in tax/monthly lease costs.

After a year or so, I’m normally bored/infuriated with my company cars but I still really enjoy my A4 – so much so that I will consider purchasing this one at the end of its lease next year. My only reservations are that I would really like something larger, sometimes a little more power would be nice (although this has 170PS, which is pretty good for a 2 litre diesel) and I do sometimes think that the money I contribute to the car might be better spent on reducing the mortgage (I add some of my salary to lease a better car than my grade entitles me to).

Either way, it’s on lease until I hit 3 years or 60,000 miles, so it’s a keeper for 2011.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Phone: Apple iPhone 3GS 16GB

Apple iPhone 3GSI actually have two phones (personal and work SIMs) but my personal needs are pretty basic (a feature phone with Bluetooth connectivity for hands free operation in the car) and I recycled my iPhone 3G when I was given a 3GS to use for work.

After having owned iPhones for a few years now (this is my third one), I don’t feel that the platform, which was once revolutionary, has kept pace and it now feels dated. As a result, I’m tempted by an Android or Windows Phone 7 device but neither of these platforms is currently supported for connection my corporate e-mail service.

The main advantages of this device for me are the apps and the Bluetooth connectivity to the car (although I needed to buy a cable for media access). I use Spotify and Runkeeper when I’m running but there are a whole host of apps to help me when I’m out and about with work (National Rail Enquiries, etc.) and, of course, it lets me triage my bulging mailbox and manage my calendar when I’m on the move. Unfortunately, the camera is awful and it’s not much use as a phone either, but it does the job.

I could get an iPhone 4 (or 5 this summer?) but I’d say it’s pretty unlikely, unless something happened to this one and I was forced to replace it.

Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadAfter several weeks (maybe months) of thinking “do I? don’t I?”, I bought an iPad last year and I use it extensively. Perhaps it’s a bit worrying that I take it to bed with me at night (I often catch up on Twitter before going to sleep, or use it as an e-book reader) but the “instant on” and long battery life make this device stand out from the competition when I’m out and about.

2011 will be an interesting year for tablets – at CES they were all over the place but I’ve been pretty vocal (both on this blog, and on Twitter) about my views on Windows as a tablet operating system and many of the Android devices are lacking something – Android 3 (Gingerbread [correction] Honeycomb) should change that. One possible alternative is Lenovo’s convertible notebook/tablet which runs Windows but features a slide out screen that functions as an Android tablet (very innovative).

I may upgrade to an iPad 2, if I can get a good resale price for my first generation iPad, but even Apple’s puritanical anti-Adobe Flash stand (which means many websites are unavailable to me) is not enough to make me move away from this device in 2011.

Verdict 8/10. Hold.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220My personal preference for notebook PCs is a ThinkPad – I liked them when they were manufactured by IBM and Lenovo seem to have retained the overall quality associated with the brand – but, given who pays my salary, it’s no surprise that I use a Fujitsu notebook PC. Mine’s a couple of years old now and so it’s branded Fujitsu-Siemens but it’s the same model that was sold under the Fujitsu name outside Europe. It’s a solid, well-built notebook PC and I have enough CPU, memory and disk to run Windows 7 (x64) well.

Unfortunately it’s crippled with some awful full disk encryption software (I won’t name the vendor but I’d rather be using the built-in BitLocker capabilities which I feel are better integrated and less obtrusive) and, even though the chipset supports Intel vPro/AMT (to install the Citrix XenClient hypervisor), the BIOS won’t allow me to activate the VT-d features. As a result, I have to run separate machines for some of my technical testing (I’m doing far less of that at work anyway these days) and to meet my personal (i.e. non-work) computing requirements.

My hope is that we’ll introduce a bring your own computer (BYOC) scheme at work and I can rationalise things but, if not, it’ll be another two years before I can order a replacement and this will soldier on for a while yet.

Verdict 6/10. Holding out for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10In its day, my netbook was great. It’s small, light, can be used on the train when the seatback tables are too small for a normal laptop and I used mine extensively for personal computing whilst working away from home. It was a bit slow (on file transfers) but it does the job – and the small keyboard is ideal for my young children (although even they could do with a larger screen resolution).

Nowadays my netbook it sits on the shelf, unloved, replaced by my iPad. It was inexpensive and, ultimately, consumable.

Verdict 2/10. Sell, or more likely use it to geek out and play with Linux.

Digital Camera: Nikon D700

Nikon D700After a series of Minoltas in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve had Nikon cameras for several years now, having owned an F90x, a D70 and now a D700. I also use my wife’s D40 from time to time and we have a Canon Ixus 70 too (my son has adopted that). With a sizeable investment in Nikon lenses, etc., I can’t see myself changing brands again – although some of my glass could do with an upgrade, and I’d like an external flash unit.

The D700 gives me a lot of flexibility and has a high enough pixel count, with minimal noise and good low-light performance. It’s a professional-grade DSLR and a bit heavy for some people (I like the weight). It’s also too valuable for some trips (which is when I use the D40) but I always miss the flexibility and functionality that the D700 body provides. Maybe sometimes I think some video capabilities would be nice but I won’t be changing it yet.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 320GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)It’s been three years since I bought my MacBook and, much as I’d like one of the current range of MacBook Pros it’ll be a while before I replace it because they are so expensive! In fairness, it’s doing it’s job well – as soon as I bought it I ungraded the hard disk and memory, and whilst the the CPU is nt as fast as a modern Core i5 or i7, it’s not that slow either.

For a machine that was not exactly inexpensive, I’ve been disappointed with the build quality (it’s had two new keyboard top covers and a replacement battery) but Apple’s customer service meant that all were replaced under warranty (I wouldn’t fancy my chances at getting a new battery from many other PC OEMs).

I use this machine exclusively for photography and the Mac OS suits me well for this. It’s not “better” than Windows, just “different” and, whilst some people would consider me to be a Microsoft fanboi and an iHater, the list of kit on this page might say otherwise. I like to consider myself to have objective views that cut through the Redmond or Cupertino rhetoric!

So, back to the Mac – I may dive into Photoshop from time to time but Adobe Lightroom, Flickr Uploadr, VueScan and a few specialist utilities like Sofortbild are my main tools. I need to sweat this asset for a while longer before I can replace it.

Verdict 5/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers)

Apple Mac MiniMy Mac Mini was the first Intel Mac I bought (I had one of the original iMacs but that’s long gone) and it’s proved to be a great little machine. It was replaced by the MacBook but has variously been used in Windows and Mac OS X forms as a home media PC. These days it’s just used for iTunes and Spotify, but I plan to buy a keyboard to have a play with Garage Band too.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs, but it’s more than up to this kind of work and it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI’m not a gamer – I sold my Playstation a few years ago because the driving games that I enjoyed made me feel ill! Even so, I was blown away by the Xbox with Kinect when I saw it last month. I bought myself a 250GB model and now Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports have become family favourites (with a bit of Dance Central thrown in!). I can’t see myself getting into first person shooters, but I can see us doing more and more with the Xbox, particularly if I can use the Connect 360 application to hook into my media library. The final piece of the jigsaw would be BBC iPlayer on Xbox – but that looks unlikely to come to fruition.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, Dell PowerEdge 840, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo

As my work becomes less technical, I no longer run a full network infrastructure at home (I don’t find myself building quite so many virtual machines either) so I moved the main infrastructure roles (Active Directory, DHCP, DNS, TFTP, etc.) to a low-power server based on an Intel Atom CPU. I still have my PowerEdge 840 for the occasions when I do need to run up a test environment but it’s really just gathering dust. Storage is provided by a couple of Netgear ReadyNAS devices and it’s likely that I’ll upgrade the disks and then move one to a family member’s house, remote syncing to provide an off-site backup solution (instead of a variety of external USB drives).

Verdict 6/10. Hold (perhaps sell the server, but more likely to leave it under the desk…).

How Steve Ballmer told me what to do with my iPad!

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to see Steve Ballmer speak to two audiences, first at Microsoft’s Partner Briefing on transitioning to the cloud (#pbbcloud) and then at the UK TechDays Special Event on the future of cloud development (#uktechdays).

I’m sorry I didn’t catch the name of the guy who asked Mr Ballmer a question about Windows tablets in the TechDays question and answer session, but I was certainly very interested to hear the Microsoft CEO’s reaction:

Question: “We haven’t had a Windows tablet come out yet […] we do see the prototypes coming out all the time but I do remember you saying that it’s going to run full Windows 7. […] are we going to have like a tablet version of Windows Phone 7 or a tablet of Windows Embedded 7 coming out? […] To me, although [Windows 7] is touch enabled, I don’t think it’s great for a small 7″, 9″ device.”

Mr Ballmer’s response: “Yeah, what you’ll see over the course of the next year is us doing more and more work with our hardware partners creating hardware-software optimisations with Windows 7 and with Windows 7 Media Center […] Media Center is big and, when people say ‘hey, we could optimise more for clients’ I think what they generally mean is ‘Big Buttons’.  Big Buttons that’s, I think, a codeword for Big Buttons and Media Center is Big Buttons not Little Buttons. I’m not trying to trivialise that – it’s a real issue.

We’re not going to do a revamp of Windows 7 over the course of the next year for that purpose.  Whether we should, or we shouldn’t, we’ve put all our energy around doing a great job on that and other issues in the next version of Windows so we will do optimisations to have devices that look really good, that run Windows, that are very good for touch applications which we will encourage people to write. We will do things that improve – it turns out that if we just optimise settings and the configuration of Windows it can be a lot more usable through touch, even on today’s systems – we’re doing that work with the OEMs. We’re doing work with the OEMs to make sure that they treat ink also as a first class citizen.  None of our competitors products actually do a very good [job]. I saw a poor guy in a speech I did out down the hall, he had one of our competitors’ devices and he was sitting there crouched over with this thing on his knees, bent and there’s no keyboard – and he was in torture using that poor non-Windows slate device [audience laughs].

And for some of you, [you] do the same but I think we can make life a little simpler for people, if we do the right job.  Can we do better by optimising – yep – guy’s got one at the back – you can bend over too, I’ll tell ya!  [audience laughs]

The truth of the matter is the laptop weighs less – you can set it on your lap, it doesn’t weigh anything at that point and then you can type.  I’m not trying to say there’s not a place for touch-optimised slate-based devices, obviously we have shown enthusiasm about that before but you’ll see some optimisations coming in the course of the next year and some of the devices that convert, that have a keyboard, that flip around – I think some of those will be also pretty useful for people in the course of the next year.”

[I’ve tried to get the text word-perfect here but I was at the back of the room and the audio recording was not fantastic… this is certainly what it sounds like to me].

The thing is, I was that “non-Windows slate device” user down the hall (and I was the guy at the back of the room when he said this) and the only reason I was in “torture” (which, of course, was a slight overdramatisation for comedy effect) was that I was squashed into a row of seats between two other guys and I was bending forward so that we weren’t sitting there with shoulders pressed together like sardines in a tin can.  I was also juggling a camera (on my Nokia phone), a voice recorder (on my iPhone) and taking notes/tweeting on the iPad whilst listening to Mr Ballmer.  Ironically, the reason I took my iPad to the event was that my Windows devices are so bad for portability (to be honest, so is my MacBook – this is not about Windows but about the device form factor).  My netbook has to be coaxed through the day with Wi-Fi switched off in order to get more than a few hours out of the battery; my 15″ laptop only goes 2-3 hours between charges (newer models may be better, but I can’t change laptops at the drop of a hat); meanwhile, I find the iPad easy enough to type on in landscape mode, it turns on/off instantly and, after 8 hours taking notes and tweeting yesterday, it still had an indicated battery charge of 55%.  If Microsoft produced a slate that did that, I would have been using it but they don’t and, based on what Ballmer had to say yesterday, it may be some time before they finally “get it” (I wrote last month about what I think Microsoft needs to do to keep Windows relevant in the mobile computing space).

As Mary Jo Foley wrote yesterday, this year’s Windows 7 slates won’t be under my Christmas tree.