Thursday, 31 May 2012

The best advice on how to study comes from those who are studying

I have just been perusing the blog written by @MAmanda87. She is a student of the Open University and has been interviewing fellow OU students and asking about their experiences.  As a former OU student myself, and a lecturer currently working alongside the OUVS, I have always had a love for the OU so it is heart-warming to see just how positive these experiences are.  Perhaps the most interesting thing though, is the tips and advice given by the students.

I have always felt that the best way to advise students about their studies is to let other students do the advising.  As a tutor it can sometimes feel as though there is a disconnect between myself and my students - an kind of sub-textual understanding that although any advice I might give is welcome, that I am not really 'one of them'.  I remember (back in the days when I was young and relatively healthy) going into my local  weights gym. I'm not talking about those fancy places with giant video screens and a sauna.  No, these are places piled high with the dust and rust of the ages, where everyone knows who Bill Kazmaier is, and everyone has some friendly advice on how wide your grip should be when deadlifting 100k.

'Kaz' - the inspiration of many sweaty men

Of course, the advice you got in these places was of varying usefulness.  I happened to go to a gym where a guy called Mike Jospeh also trained. Mike was a World Record-Breaking weightlifter, and a thoroughly nice bloke who was always willing to give advice to newcomers to the gym.  That advice was invariably good, but somehow the fact that the man giving it had biceps the size of dinner plates made you feel rather as though he didn't really belong to the world of a wee skinny guy who got exhausted just loading up the bar.

There is a problem when trying to advise students about how to manage their studies, that this same sense of 'difference' means that the advice is never seen as viable, or realistic. Rather like walking into a gym for the first time and being told to do a 'warm-up' with a 50k barbell, there is sometimes a sense of 'well, that's alright for you to say because you've doing this thing for years!'

So what is the solution?  Well, @MAmanda87 's blog for a start.  Students supporting each other with advice means that the advice might be seen as more realistic. And let's be honest, it probably is.

So, for example, focusing on organizational skills seems to be the most common advice of those interviewed.  Three of the students interviewed by Michelle highlight organization skills as being important.  @idbuypens advises that students should "[s]tay organized", and suggests that this can be done by sticking to "your study schedule".  @geekgirl77 says the same thing, suggesting "[s]et yourself a fairly conservative study timetable and stick to it, it’s the best way to minimise stress.  The same advice about a conservative timetable is offered by @_Carly_Jayne, who argues that students should stay "a week ahead of the checklist in case something unexpected interrupts your study".

 The second most common advice focuses on personal approaches to study. @idbuypens focuses on a goal-oriented approach to study, and suggests that students always "keep in mind WHY you’re studying, the end goal that makes it worthwhile, be it career, personal satisfaction, whatever - know your reason". This, she suggests, is particularly important for "when the mid-term blues inevitably strike".  @_Carly_Jayne focuses on a positive attitude.  "If you don’t love what you’re doing" she points out, "struggling through chapters and writing assignments will be so much harder than necessary". Perhaps this means that students should try to maintain an almost bloody-minded determination to enjoy what they are doing (even if they don't). For @simply_hayley, determination itself is a key factor. "If its your dream then do it" she says. "Don’t let the hurdles you put up stop you"

 Another useful piece of advice offered comes from @idbuypens about making the most of resources. "Take the time to learn how to use the databases early on", she urges, "they’re a gold mine when it comes to writing".  This is certainly a point which I have struggled to get across to my students. As resources become increasingly electronic a common problem is that students either don't know how to access them, or simply find doing a Google-search easier.  However, if you do (as @idbuypens suggests) take the time to familiarize yourself with online journals and etexts then you will very quickly be glad that you did:  It will save you time in the future, and almost certainly improve the standard of your work.

A slightly more unexpected piece of advice is offered by @SammiLoobas: I have honestly found that social networking can be a life saver! Facebook, Twitter, just find other OU students, bounce ideas off each other, get someone elses view."   I imagine this is a form of advice which is only going to become more common, but of course it shouldn't be offered without a certain health warning.  Last week I was exploring some time management software, and one of them used data from my working to identify those online activities which are the most productive, and those which are the most distracting.  Twitter came top in both.  Social networks can (they really can!) be hugely productive, but can also be hugely distracting.  If you will forgive the irony, I will just offer a bit of my own advice here: If you want to use social networks for your study, set up an account which is only for your study.  Don't mix a personal and a study Facebook account, because then you are not just getting peer support from other students but you are also being tempted to find out what your mates were up to last night, or what new tricks your baby cousin is performing.

I look forward to more tips from Michelle's blog, and hope it encourages more students to do the same!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Dustman and the Cat's Scratching Post

A wee story, written on a train after seeing a scratching post out by the bins yet again.  I'm sure there is an analogy in there somewhere...

A cats scratching post sat in the road and stared at the dustman.  It was a proud scratching post.  It had sat proudly in a pet-shop window for barely a month before it had been adopted and made to serve the scratching needs of a somewhat cantankerous moggy over a period of five months.

To be honest, this was not its finest hour: A battle of wills between itself, and the Dustman.

For three consecutive weeks, the scratching post had gone out onto the road, and sat next to the bins awaiting collection.  And for three consecutive weeks, the Dustman has stuck to his guns and refused to take it.  The scratching post was beginning to take this personally. Why would the Dustman not take it?  Did the Dustman find it in some way objectionable?  This was simply not fair.  All the other rubbish got taken to the tip and incinerated - why was the scratching post being left out?

After three failed attempts, along came another Thursday morning - and here was the scratching post again.  Round four.

‘You shall take me into your lorry’. Said the scratching post, with an air of determination which is not often seen in a scratching post.

‘I won’t’. Said the Dustman.

‘And why not, may I ask?’ said the scratching post (which was occasionally prone to bouts of superciliousness).

‘You are not rubbish’.  Said the Dustman.

This posed something of a logical conundrum for the scratching post.  After all, as a proud scratching post it was inclined to agree the premise that it was ‘not rubbish’.  But this would defeat its own argument.

‘Define rubbish' said the scratching post.

The Dustman thought for a moment.

'General household waste, which can serve no useful purpose to the people of the household and has no function any more'.

'Waste', declared the scratching post, triumphantly 'is an excess.  It is what remains after the usefulness of a thing has expired.  An orange skin is useful to protect an orange.  When the orange is eaten, the skin is surplus to requirements - and therefore waste.  I am in exactly the same position.'

'In what way' said the Dustman, thoughtfully, 'are you exactly the same as an orange?  A scratching post is not a piece of fruit.'

'My purpose in life was dependent on the needs of the cat for which I was provided. Those are now gone, due to the purchase of a clawing machine from Pets R Us, and I am therefore as much a surplus to requirement as an orange skin from an eaten orange'.

'Fine'. Sighed the Dustman, as he picked up the scratching post and threw it into the back of his lorry.

It was only later, as the flames licked round and consumed it, that the scratching post wondered whether there really was no more to its existence than just five months of scratching. Whether there could not have been more.

The Dustman himself continued on his rounds, occasionally shaking his head at a world where good things treated as rubbish can be so easily persuaded.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

I need a new laptop, pt. 4: Operating System

The question of operating systems is an awkward one to address, partly because there are many people who do not really know what an operating system is (and it is very difficult to explain), and partly because advice about operating systems is usually given by people who have a strong, passionate and evangelical love for one of them in particular.  In view of this, I should put my cards on the table right now and explain my own personal preference - but instead I will do this at the end, and perhaps you can tell me whether you were able to predict it.

What is an operating system?

This heading is really to allow those who already know this bit, to move smoothly on to the next section.  In order to explain what an operating system is, I am going to need the help of your imaginations while I construct a wee analogy...

Imagine an empty room.  Nothing in it at all.  Bare walls.  Not even a floor - just some rafters which look down on the plumbing pipes below.  For the purposes of this analogy, this room is your computer.  Now the problem here is that because the room is empty, there is not really much you can do with it.  You can't watch telly in it, you can't sleep in it, you can't make a cup of tea in it.  Hopefully it will have the sockets which mean you can plug a kettle in somewhere, but on the whole pretty useless.

Now imagine if we wanted to turn this room into something we can feel comfortable in, use to sit in, to watch telly in, to drink tea in and to work in.  All of these functions require certain pieces of equipment.  We would need chairs, a television, a table, some lights, etc..  These pieces of equipment are like pieces of software on our computers.  For example, I if I wanted to be able to write a letter on a computer the piece of equipment I would use might be Microsoft Word.  If I wanted to browse the internet, I might use Google Chrome.  These applications are tools for specific tasks - and I bring into my computer (room) whichever ones I need.

However, if we think again about our empty room, we cannot bring any furniture into the room until we have first built a floor for them to sit on.  We might floor the room with expensive wood, or with a nice soft carpet - but the floor is essential if we want to bring anything else into the room.  Now for the purposes of this analogy, the floor is our operating system.

The operating system is a piece of software on which all our other programs sit.  It is the base which determines how we move from one program to another.  It determines how we connect to the internet, how our files are saved and how they are stored.  It determines how we can make things work just the way we want them to.

There are three main types of operating system:

Microsoft Windows.

By far the most common operating system on computers, and statistically the one you are most likely to be familiar with.  Windows is where Microsoft has traditionally made its money, and even now if you go anywhere are try and buy a computer, Windows is likely to be the operating system installed on it.  For some years Microsoft suffered from two things: Firstly, everone used them.  Secondly, nobody liked them.

The first was a problem because when you achieve the kind of market domination Windows had for most of the last few decades, then there is little incentive to actually try and produce something good.  Windows Vista was a classic example of this.  As an operating system is was actually very innovative.  It was clever, used sophisticated new base coding, and was pretty much one of the most horrible operating systems to have ever emerged from the primeval sludge of beta testing.  It was complicated.  Nobody really understood how it worked - although this was not often a problem because it rarely worked.

Of course, this was never really a huge problem for Microsoft, because so many computers were sold with Vista pre-installed that within a year of its release it had already sold over 60 million copies.  Who was going to argue that they were doing anything wrong?  Even today, Windows hold over 80% of the operating system market.

Which is why nobody liked them.  Microsoft was so huge as a company, that it often felt to people as though Bill Gates was actually the real leader of the free world.  Windows systems became public enemy no. 1, especially with hackers and designers of those nasty viruses and bugs which mess up your systems, delete your files and steal your credit card details.

When, in 1998 the US courts filed against Microsoft for anti-competetiveness, there was general rejoicing as we saw Gates squirm in his seat, and as the court declared the decision the the Microsoft empire be broken up.  It was like the Leveson enquiry and the fall of the Roman Empire in one.  Just look at the rather delicious video of one protest as Gates arrived at an EU anti-trust hearing in Belgium:

(Incidentally, one of the funniest things in this video is the new reporter describing with such outraged sincerity a man with a custard pie as one of a 'hit squad'.  Considering the fact that the guy was predictably jumped on by about 7 full-trained bodyguards, I would hardly call the act 'cowardly' either.  Wonder who was paying his salary at the time, eh?!)

But things have changed.  Micosoft may still have the lion share of the operating system market - but that number is falling.  In 2009, Microsoft was the undisputed champion of technology companies but since then they have been falling behind.  The irony is that following the execrable Vista, Micosoft followed up with the much more polished and user-freindly Windows 7.

Windows 7 is a very good operating system.  Easy to use, and for most people very familiar.  There is also likely to be a good change it will already be on your computer when you buy it anyway.

Apple OSX

If Microsoft was Rupert Murdoch and Julius Caesar in one, the Apple has always been thought of as Leonardo da Vinci.  Apple computers have always been beautiful.  They have traditionally focused on design, flair and innovation, wrapped in a bubble of user-freindliness which makes their computers often quite joyous to use.

The late-departed Steve Jobs oversaw the radical turn-around of Apple's fortunes, when for a time it looked like Microsoft had effectively muscled them out of business.  Jobs focused on those aspects of usability and design which Microsoft had started to ignore.  For dedicated Mac-users, it felt like a kind of hippy insurrection.  With Bill Gates on the one side talking about market shares and algorythms, it was actually rather trippy to be hearing Steve Jobs talking about beauty, creativity and imagination.

Of course it was always more than this.  Apple's operating systems were wrapped in beautiful design, but as pieces of technology they were fearsomely impressive.  They were stable, efficient and fast.  And what was more, because Apple were seen as a hippy insurrection even those dastardly hackers and virus designers did not have the heart to attack them - so they were very safe.

This, too, has changed - almost without our noticing it.  When Microsoft lost the title of World's Biggest Tech Company in 2009, they lost it to Apple.  And Apple still have it.  It is one of the most profitable companies in the world.  Steve Jobs was (until his recent death) now the richest man in the Silicon Valley, while Bill Gates had retired and was spending all his time and money trying to make the world a better place.

It is therefore rather to their credit that unlike Microsoft they have not let this success diminish the standards they set themselves.  I defy anyone to spend ten minutes playing with an iPad and not to be slightly in awe at just how beautifully the thing works.

But here is the problem.  Apple's operating systems can only be found on Apple machines.  If you have the cash, then good for you - you can get it.  However, if you think that the cheapest new Apple laptop will probably set you back about 800 quid, and you can buy a laptop with Windows from as little as 300, you can understand perhaps why OSX is still a long way from challenging Windows 7.  OSX has lost its protection as well.  It's increased market share has made it an attractive target for hackers and those who create viruses - and while Microsoft has had many years to develop defences against this kind of thing, it is relatively new for Apple and there is a sense that they have not really caught up with the trend yet.

One final thing has changed though.  It used to be the case that people who loved Apple systems still had to run a Windows system as well, because many of the programs which they wanted to use would only run on Windows.  Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint once only worked on a Windows operating system.  This is no longer true.  Indeed, most mainstream programs are readily available for both Windows and Mac systems - and they are not even three times more expensive, either.


Linux is an operating system which was designed by an idealist named Linus Torvalds.  Torvalds felt that knowledge should be free, and so should software - so Linux is an entirely free operating system.  Even if you have bought a computer with Windows already installed on it, the prince of Windows is factored in somehow and has probably added another 50 quid or so to the price.

The basic structure of Linux systems is freely available for anyone to change or much about with, and there are many groups of programmers who have done this and designed their own operating systems based on Linux.  These variations of Linux are knows as 'distributions', and following the principles of Linux they are all 'open source' too (which basically means they are free).  So Linux itself is not really one operating system, it is many.  Each distribution of Linux meets specific purposes.  For example, Ubuntu and Mint (two of the most popular versions) are designed to be freindly and intuitive versions which most Windows or OSX users could quickly and easily get comfortable with.  Debian is a dependable version for those who don't like things to change too often.  Fedora is aimed a little more at technology businesses.

More recently, Linux-based programming has been used by Google to develop the Android mobile phone operating system - which is now by far the most successful Linux brand, and suggests that the future for Linux-based systems is arguably rosier than ever.

The benefits of a Linux system, apart from the fact that it is free, is that you can really customise it any way you want.  Want it to work like OSX?   Fine.  Want it to look like Vista?  Done.  A Linux system will usually have access to a vast repository of free software which pretty much covers anything you might want a computer to do.  There are free versions of Microsoft Office.  Free versions of Photoshop, Illustrator, video editors, etc..  It is actually extremely efficient as well.  A Linux system can usually handle tasks with surprising speed, and if you were to replace a Windows system with Ubuntu you are likely to be startled by just how much disc space you have freed up.  Finally, you will never need to worry about hackers or viruses.  This is partly because the design of the system itself makes it impossible for anyone (even yourself) to make serious changes to your system without permission.  It is also partly because Linux is both ideologically and commerically not a viable concern for people who want design viruses.

The problem with a Linux system is that it does not always work fresh out of the box.  You might find that you need to do a little tinkering to get it to work.  If you don't mind that, it can be a terrific option - particularly if you are setting up on a computer which has not already got an operating system pre-installed.

You can find an excellent guide to the main Linux distributions at the DistroWatch website.  It is Ubuntu - the preferred choice of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory) which has traditionally been the most popular distribution (although Mint is fast on its heels). 


To be honest, for most people there are only two choices.  You are either going to buy an Apple computer with OSX pre-installed, or another laptop with Windows pre-installed.  Until recently some companies, like Dell, offered laptops with Ubuntu pre-installed - but they don't any more.  You have to go searching overseas for bespoke companies like System76 if you want to find machines custom-desinged for Linux, and their shipping costs immediately override any cost benefits from using Linux in the first place.

[ADDITION: Dell are to start offering laptops with Ubuntu pre-installed again!No real details yet, but for modest (i.e. not particularly techie) users like myself, this is like hearing that the Stone Roses have re-formed.  Which, by the way, they have.]

Between OSX and Windows the decision is really one of cost.  As I have already mentioned, my budget is limited - and realistically this means Windoes is my only option.  However... I am going to change the rules a little bit.

I wonder if anyone noticed my own operating system allegiance?  I am, of course, a Linux Ubuntu user.  I love Linux both because of how I can make it work, and because of what it stands for.  It has not been an untroubled relationship - Linux and I have had some significant fights over issues like wireless connections and touchpad drivers, but somehow this has just made me feel more invested in the Linux brand.

Try as I might, I simply cannot find anywhere that sells computers without Windows pre-installed - and if I have a copy of Windows anyway it would be wasteful to simply delete it.  So, my plan is to 'dual boot'.  All this really means is that I can run two different operating systems on the same machine.  When I start up my computer, I will have the option of using either the pre-installed Windows or Ubuntu.  There are plenty of guides online which can show you how to do this (like the one from Lifehacker), and in many ways it is the best option because it even gives you a change to try out a different operating system if you are not sure.

Another alternative is a piece of software called Virtualbox, which enables you to run a different operating system from a window inside another one.  It is kind of like opening up a browser window, and seeing an entirely different operating system working inside it.

I do encourage that people at least give Linux a shot.  There is a myth that you need to be a real tecchie nerd to be able to use it - but in truth I'm not sure I would describe myself as one of those, and I have freinds who are complete techno-phobes and have been using Ubuntu blissfully for many years without a hitch.

My laptop has died. How do I choose a new one?
I need a new laptop, pt. 1: What do I use it for?

I need a new laptop, pt. 2: Size and Weight
I need a new laptop, pt. 3: Brand

I need a new laptop, pt. 3: Brand

The issue of the particular brand of laptop which you use has actually become far less of an issue in recent years.  When considering what kind of new television to buy, or what kind of fridge, you can generally assume than some brands are going to be more reliable than others. With computers though, the issue if often far more to do with who makes the little bits that go inside the computer, than who makes the computer itself.

For example, you could take a laptop made by Sony and a laptop made by Acer. You are more likely to have heard of Sony and to assume, therefore, that the brand must be a more reliable one.  However, you might subsequently find that the Acer has a graphics card made by NVidia, an Intel Ivy Bridge processor and 8GB RAM, while the Sony has an Intel graphics card, an Intel Celeron processor and 2GB RAM.  Most people should not really be expected to know what all of this means, but actually what these internal components do mean is that the Acer is a better machine - even though you may not have heard of them.

In the same way, the variations between different models offered by the same companies are so wide that the build quality of one model may not mean that you can expect the same build quality from all machines of the same make.  For example, in a recent test by Laptop magazine, the highly respected Dell came 3rd for the quality of their laptop keyboards - which would doubtless come as a surprise to anyone using a Dell Inspiron 15R which, despite being impressive in almost every other area, has a keyboard which feels like Rolf Harris' wobbleboard...

(By the way, you've got to be impressed that I somehow managed to work Rolf Harris into a blog about laptop computers)

This is not to suggest that the brand of laptop is not important, but things need to be kept a little in perspective.  For example, tech support is of huge significance for many.  If you want the assurance that if something goes wrong with your computer, that you will be able to speak to someone who knows what they are doing and is actually interested in helping you, then brands like Apple or Lenovo are for you.  An Advent machine (made by the PC World, whose customer support record is appalling) or an Acer (which came last in the Laptop magazine tests for tech support) might not be.

The one exception to all of this advice is Apple. Apple is a little bit different from the main herd of laptop manufacturers, because their computers are constructed exclusively by them, and sold by a tightly controlled number of distributors.  This means that you tend to find much more consistency in terms of what Apple laptops have to offer, and the limited range of machines which Apple offer means that build quality is consistent as well.  Apple always seem to come out top of most laptop polls, tests and surveys (here is another one) - and the simple reason for this is that they are the benchmark of quality against which all other machines are measured. They are the Rolls Royce of the laptop world - beautifully built, with the highest quality components.  The quality of components in an Apple means that it even becomes difficult to measure them against other machines.  An Apple laptop sporting an i3 processor, is still likely to perform much better than a Sony with an i7.

The problem with Apple is that their Rolls Royce computers come with Rolls Royce prices.  A high level machine is likely to set you back around 1500 quid by the time you have added on all the necessary extras.  For myself, I have already set my upper limit price-wise at about a third of this - so for all their beauty and sophistication, Apple's are out and I will content myself with going 'ooo' every now and then when I see one.  A bit like when a Ferrari drives past.

So overall then, the laptop brand is far less of an issue than we sometimes think it is.  If you are in doubt about any particular brand, then just run an internet search or look up some of the excellent tech review sites which are available - here are a few of my favourites:

More significantly though, do try and make sure that once you have shortlisted some laptops which meet your needs that you try and get into a store and have a little bash on them.

The connectivity issue

 This is a hidden aspect of laptop choice, which is actually one of the most important.  On any machine, you will find a whole array of strange-looking sockets along the sides and the back.  What these sockets are, can often determine what you can do with the machine. Here are some of the more common sockets you might want to look for:

  • USB: We are now comfortably at a stage where I can pretty much assume everyone knows what a USB is.  It is where you plug in your memory sticks, and most external devices (like an external mouse) will be USB. Of course, things are never entirely that simple as we now have USB 2.0 and USB 3.0, and some now even called 'SS' (which means 'super speed').  This generally doesn't make all that much difference - the main thing you might notice is that if you have a USB 3.0 socket, and a USB 3.0 memory stick, that copying files accross from the stick to the computer will be a little bit faster.  'SS' sockets are faster still.  This can be very useful.  In terms of USB sockets, by far the more impotant thing to check is how many are there?  If you want to plug in an external mouse, and a couple of memory sticks, then you will be needing at least 3. Want to plug in your mobile phone as well?  Now you need 4.  Of course you could just buy a USB hub - which is rather like a four-plug extension - but this can be unreliable, while adding another piece of kit you have to lug around reduces further the portability of the machine.  Think carefully about what you might want to plug into USB ports, and make sure there are enough sockets on your chosen machine to do so!

  • HDMI: Much is made of HDMI sockets on laptops where they appear.  It is often a significant part of the marketing, as in 'hey! Buy this one! It has HDMI!'.  What does it mean though?  Well, actually all it really means is that you can plug your machine directly into your TV (assuming, that is, that your TV has an HDMI socket). Is this something you need to do? Probably not. It can be nice if you want to watch your digital videos or if you want to watch BBC iPlayer and don't have it already on your TV - but let's be honest, this is unlikely to be a deal-breaker for most of us.

  • Headphones: This is one of the ones which is now so common that is often forgotten, but apart from the USB sockets the headphone socket is the one which is likely to get used the most. Yes, you can buy fancy USB headphones, but if you have bought a nice pear of earphones to listen to on the train, then when you arrive at your destination and want to plug into your laptop you are likely to want to keep using the same headphones.  It is worth checking, just to make sure, that your chosen machine has one of these.

  • Microphone: Another one which can often be forgotten.  The ability to plug in an external mic can be really useful.  Inbuilt microphones are often not the best, and Skype or video calls can often be a lot more comfortable if you don't have to yell into the pin-prick hole built into your machine from about 2 inches away.  If your laptop does not even have an in-built mic, then this becomes an even more important issue.

  • SD Cards: This is the socket which cleverly accomodates most of the types of little memory cards which you plug into your camera's and mobile phones.  Having this socket can be useful, but don't forget that most devices like phones or cameras tend to come with a USB cable as well. I have always though these card sockets were great. I have yet to actually need to use one.

There are countless other sockets and plugs which you may find on your machines.  Again, it is something which sales assistants like to imprssively rattle off: 'Oh, this machine has three SS USB ports, two HDMI sockets, S-video, SD Reader, etc. etc.' As the customer, you are expected to go 'ooo - ok, I'll have that one then'.  It is, as always, far better to know what you need - and what you may not need.

What to look for when checking out a laptop in store

I remember once needing to go into a hardware store looking for a small part of our kitchen tap, which had broken off.  My lack of DIY expertise was wrapped around me like a glowing coat of shame.  Like wearing a Glasgow Celtic shirt at Ibrox.  Often, when you go into a computer shop, or a mobile phone shop, the one thing you are desperately hoping is that oneof the sales team will not notice you, and that you will not have to wear that expression of puzzled and desperate bemusement which will inevitably result in their first question about whether you prefer machines with Vista or OSX.

The best way to avoid this, and to avoid being sold anything you don't want by expert sales folks, is to go in knowing exactly what you need to find out.  This means you can go in confidently - which is an immediate deterrant for salespeople who prefer to tell folks what they need.

Before you go, do your homework.  Make sure you know exactly what you need from the design of a machine.  Do you need an in-built webcam and microphone?  Do you need an HDMI port?  Hopefully you will have checked out the reviews of some machines and have a shortlist of models which suit your purposes. So, armed with your list of shortlisted laptops and requirements, you can go into a store knowing exactly what you are looking for.  Remember that you may well not find the exact same model you need, but you can still look for laptops which are made by the same people, or which are part of the same series.

Once you have found them, here are some tests which you can perform:

  • Feel the weight of them - imagine picking it up and carrying it around with you, or sitting for hours with it on your lap.

  • Type random things on the keyboard - Remember that most things on a keyboard you can get used to, so don't worry too much it it feels imperfect. However, think about how cramped your fingers are on the keyboard. Is there a separate number pad - and if not, do you need one? Is the keyboard back-lit? Do you need it to be?

  • Take a careful look at the trackpad - the little touch-sensitive mouse pad in front of the keyboard.  Move it around on the screen. Is the pad big enough for you? One of the most common design flaws in a laptop is in the touchpad.  Some are so close to the keys, and so big, that you can end up inadvertantly moving the cursor every time you go from the mouse to the keyboard.  This is something to look out for. Avent have a peculiar tendency as well to situate the mouse buttons just a little bit further from the trackpad than most other brands, and this can be an irritation.  Finally, check the materials. Rubberised buttons or keys just means they will disintegrate fast.

  • Look at the screen and see whether its reflective surface bothers you and whether you can still see it from an angle. Don't just look at the screen head-on, but move from side to side and up/down and check where you lose the ability to tell what is on the screen. You will probably find that if you have a laptop screen that can only be comfortably seen when you are right in front of it, and when it is angled perfectly, than you will soon become frustrated by it.  Think about the screen angle as well.  Is the hinge tight?  Can you imagine it getting loose and flopping down?  Does the screen angle back far enough?

  • Look carefully at the buttons and the plugs.  Is there anything which looks like it could get knocked off or broken easily?  Make sure that it has enough USB ports to cover your memory stick, phone, external mouse, etc.. It is preferable if these ports are on both sides of the machine.  If you have your USB mouse on the right, and a memory stick on the right as well, you can end up knocking the memory stick periodically with your hand - which is a nuisance.

In all of these things, the main point is that you think carefully about what it will be like to use the machine - and use it a lot.  What ar the unfamiliar things about it which you might get used to?  What is just going to get increasingly irritating?

My Laptop has died. How do I choose a new one?
I need a new laptop, pt. 1: What do I use it for?
I need a new laptop, pt. 2: Size and Weight

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Doctor Who, new series preview

My regression back to childhood has just accelerated. Every rational bone in by body is reacting against the boyish enthusiasm this trailer is creating..., nuts. Who needs rational?

I need a new laptop, pt. 2: Size and Weight

Laptops can be bad for you

If you have decided that you needs a laptop, then presumably it is because you intend to carry it around.  Size and weight become a significant issue here because any benefit of a nice chunky laptop may well be overcome by the disadvantages of back pain if you are not careful. A small and light machine certainly sounds preferable to long-term injury - but remember that you may well be using the machine for long periods of time. Hunching over a tiny laptop and squinting for hours on end at a reduced screen can cause as many (if not more) health problems than lugging a monster around.  Research by UNISON found that 61% of laptop-users asked suffered from backpain, 60% suffered from neck pain and 68% suffered from eyestrain. 55% found laptop computers heavy, but not much can be made from this as doubtless as many would find the Sunday Times heavy if they had to carry it on their shoulder for 45 minutes every day.

The NHS seem to be putting a lot of focus on laptop computers as an increasing source of medical complaints.  The Solihul Care Trust site offers a good example of this, as guidance on using laptop computers takes up nearly half of its page on 'back care'.

My previous HP Compaq 6715b weighed 2.7kg. Before that I was using an Apple iBook G3 (back in the days when they were so cool they even appeared in films like Legally Blonde), which weighed 3kg.

(laptops-from-legally-blonde, 2011)

Both of these machines were well under the 4kg which the NHS warns about, and I can't say that I experienced any real problems carrying them for the daily 3hr commute I enjoyed during the time I was using them. I suppose I should contextualise this though, by saying that during this time I was going to the gym twice a week so fitness levels may have had an effect. As age catches up with me and fitness falls behind, the combinations of textbooks and laptops which clutter up my bags are definately taking more of a toll.

One thing I have learned is to avoid using a shoulder bag. The uneven distribution of weight can put pressure on the back, which makes a backpack which evenly distributes the weight much better for you.  Mind, I pretend to having absolutely no medical knowledge whatsoever. I got this from the McKinley Health Centre at the University of Illinois - and presume they know what they are talking about. Certainly by back has felt a lot more comfortable with the Complete Works of Shakespeare next to my laptop since investing in a decent backpack, so a laptop of a similar weight to the ones I have already used would be perfectly acceptable.

The laptop / netbook / ultrabook / tablet condudrum

(Notebook, Netbook, Ultrabook or Tablet?, 2012)

So, weight is an issue - but with a little care it needn't be a major one.

This is important because the market is currently filling with a range of choices about different kinds of laptop you can buy. A few years ago, a range of laptops emerged under the name of 'netbooks'. These nifty little machines were focused primarily on those people who needed to access the internet on the move. They were cheap, light and small. Very small. A 10 inch screen is about the norm for a netbook.

Things became more complicated when Apple launched its groundbreaking 'tablet', the iPad. The iPad was effectively an iPhone with a big screen and more power, both of which meant that you could do a lot more with it. The absence of a keyboard, the lightness of the machine, and the stylish looks made it an instant hit.The problem was, many people went out and bought an iPad thinking it could replace their laptop. It couldn't of course. Laptops are deisgned as a platform for a range of specific programmes - like Microsoft Word - which the iPad could only ever thinly approximate. This wasn't a problem with the iPad. It's just that the iPad was trying to offer users something different (something best explained in this excellent blog by Christopher Scott Barr). What it offered has proved successful enough to spawn a whole catalogue of imatation 'tablet's from some of the biggest names in the tech industry.

Inevitably though, a new breed of laptop has emerged which has attempted to merge the strenghts of the tablet with the functionality of the laptop. These machines are commonly referred to as 'ultrabooks'. Looking like wafer-thin laptops, these machines are light, powerful and flexible. The downside is they cost a bomb, and many (like the Macbook Air) are heavily dependent on the same web connectivity which underpins the tablets.

The practical choice (or, the gadget-envy trap)

Let's be honest here. How many of us are really totally immune to gadget-envy? Someone on the train is watching Harry Potter in glorious HD on new the iPad 3. In PC World you see a budget laptop looking like a 1980s mobile phone next to the sleek, space-ship design of the latest Asus ultrabook. Eyes tend to glaze over. A mist of hypnotic awe fills the air, and suddenly a decimal point here or there in the price seems meaningless.

Doubtless in a computer store showroom, you will be bombarded with videos of the latest wonder-gadgets doing the most amazing things, and sales staff will express their astomishment that humanity had somehow managed to survive all this time without the Sony Viao T13 ultrabook.

But let's be realistic. If you have so much cash that you could afford to buy a 5 bedroom house when there are only two of you, or you would think nothing of buying a Range Rover in order to take you to the local corner shop, then fine - get the shiniest thing you see and good luck to you. For the rest of us, don't be duped into spending money you don't have on something you don't need (which, incidentally, is a paraphrase from the 1999 film Fight Club - if Brad Pitt said it, it must be true).

For example, despite all the 'oos' and 'aahs' I emit when looking at a gorgeous piece of new tech, I am going to go for a standard laptop - and here's why: I am not the world's biggest fan of Microsoft Office. Quite the opposite. However, the realities of my work mean that I often end up needing to use Word, Excel or PowerPoint for the sake of compatability - all of which would be difficult on a shiny tablet. At the same time, I tend to spend a great deal of time working on my laptop, and the thought of squinting at a 10 inch screen for 6 hours sounds both frustrating and hazardous. My budget certainly does not stretch to a high-end ultrabook, but even if it did I could not say that I would use the additional performance of such a machine, and while it would be nice to have a light machine I am not particularly willing for fork out an extra £600 just to lose a kilo.

Size: Is bigger, better?

One final consideration then. Size. Sometimes you might be looking at a bunch of laptops on a website and see one which looks both impressive and cheap. Trouble is, when it arrives you discover it is screen is tiny and the keybaord is cramped. The photos of laptops which appear on websites makes them all look the same size, when in reality the size differences can be huge.

The screen size is the vital information here.  A screen size of 13 inch is on the smallest end of the scale for a laptop. The 'desktop replacement' style can have a screen size that goes up to 17 and 20 inches. Of course, the bigger the screen, the heavier the machine. There are advantages to a bigger screen though: working for long periods of time on a small screen can result in eyestrain. A bigger screen means you can work comfortably with documents side-by-side, and if you wanted to use your laptop for multimedia as well (i.e. watching films) then the bigger the screen the better the experience. There is a price factor as well. In general, the bigger the screen the higher the price - although this chart from John Lamansky does suggest that for PCs the difference is not significant until you get into the territory of really big screens:

(Prices as of June 2011 - data from John Lamansky)

Remember, as well, that you are going to have to carry this computer around.  A 20 inch laptop might sound ideal, but imagine trying to fit it into your bag. Or trying to take it out in order to do some work on a crowded train.

Ultimately it is a question of finding a screen which balances size and practicality. Certainly it is worth going into a showroom and looking at different machines to get a feel for the differences between a 14 inch and a 17 inch. If you can manage it without setting off an alarm, try typing onto the keyboard as well so that you can get a feel for the size of the keyboard, and the spacing of the keys. If you find the keys marginally further appart or closer together than you would like, then this is probably something you could get ued to. If you find you have no idea what keys you are pressing at any time, then maybe look for something more familiar.

Personally, I am going to be looking for something around 14 to 15 inches. The amount of time I spend using my laptop means that I am happy to err towards a slightly bigger and heavier machine if it means greater levels of comfort while using it - but anything bigger and I am sure I would end up grumbling about it later.  A 14 to 15 inch machine means that the laptop will easily fit into the bag I currently use as well (a 17 inch machine would mean I needed a new bag, while a 16 inch machine would involve a wrestling match every time I wanted to put the thing away), and the keyboard size will be approximately the same as the ones I have already been using.

My Laptop has died. How do I choose a new one?
I need a new laptop, pt. 1: What do I use it for?

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

I need a new laptop, pt. 1: What do I use it for?

Right. This is the first part of a short series examining all the laborious and tedious decisions which have to be made when buying a new computer (see the first blog on this here).

If I want to make sure I am not spending money for technology which I am never going to make the most of, I need to think carefully about what I use computers for.  This is not necessarily quite as straightforward an issue as it has been in the past.  When I started out in education, PowerPoint was about as radical as multimedia in the classroom got.  Now though, what was once expected in a few template slides is now expected in video, audio, image, animation and interaction.  In other words, common computing tasks are much more system intensive than they used to be.  They are, as well, much more varied.  There was a time when if you wanted to edit a photo, you would have pretty much had no choice but to invest in expensive software like Photoshop.  Now, there any countless alternative options which are designed to meet the needs of varying levels of expertise - from the professional designing a nationwide poster campaign, to the amateur wanting to transplant Brian May's hairstyle onto a photo of their Mum for a laugh.

There is a significant longevity issue as well: Deciding how you can best future-proof your computer against becoming redundant too quickly.  Again, in the past this has usually been a question of ensuring that your computer has enough space capacity to deal with the various software upgrades which occur in the future.  There was no point buying a computer with exactly the right capacity to cope with Windows XP when you knew that in a year or so the system upgrades would mean you needed to upgrade your machine again.

Now though, the capacity of a machine in terms of memory space is less of an issue. We are becoming more dependent on the internet to both store our files, and run our programmes (see Simon Brisson and Mary Branston's article on ZDNetUK).  This means that the speed of a computer and its internet capacity are likely to be more of an issue in terms of future-proofing your computer.

My own computer needs are relatively basic. I spend a great deal of time writing and designing presentations, and often what I write / present involves a lot of formatting of pictures. So I often use word processing programmes, presentation programmes and photo editing software (which has the added benefit that I can use the same software to edit family photos as well as things for work).

Like many people working in education, I am becoming increasingly dependent on multimedia, and this makes video editing an important aspect of my work. This is something which can sound impressive, but it really isn’t.  I’m certainly not trying to compete with Pixar or anything like that.  The most I need is something which can extract clips from documentaries; link, cut and paste video sections; or add annotations.  Basic Open Source (i.e. free) programmes like OpenShot (for video) and Audacity (for audio) have served my needs perfectly well up to now.

A laptop is preferable to a desktop computer, because much of my work is done in libraries or (whenever possible) salubrious coffee shops.  Even if this were not the case though, the era of the desktop computer certainly seems to be nearing its end, and unless you have the luxury of a dedicated office in the home the ability to move from room to room seems to be a given.  Some laptop computers now are even classified ‘desktop replacements’.  Generally all this means is that it is a laptop with a big screen – but again, more on this later.  The extent to which I am dependent on the internet means that wifi is essential too.

So, to summarise.  I need a laptop, so I can work on the move.  It needs to be powerful enough to drive some video software, but not so powerful that I am spending money on capacity I will not be using.  It needs to be able to connect to the internet wirelessly.

To find something that meets these needs, I need to consider the following areas:

  • Screen size,
  • weight,
  • manufacturer,
  • operating system and applications,
  • memory size and processor.

I will be attempting to cover each of these areas in future blogs!

My Laptop has died. How do I choose a new one?

I’ll tell you why you should vote for me

I’m a better person than you. Harsh, I know, but true. Just look at my suit, my cufflinks, hair, my Bertie Wooster aristocratic air, m...