Why the PC has never been more important

16 03 2011
At the iPad 2 launch (you may have noticed it), Steve Jobs used the phrase “post-PC world”, suggesting that Apple’’s second-generation Tablet means the PC is no longer central to our lives.

Mac fans won’t want to hear this, but Apple’s idea is little more than a development of the ‘always-on, everywhere’ ideal as promoted for years by companies as disparate as Google, Microsoft and RIM (make your own jokes about Apple taking other people’s ideas, adding polish and walking away with the loot).

In his Apple iPad 2 speech, Jobs pushed a theory he first espoused the previous year, when he opined that PCs would become “like trucks”: useful for certain tasks, but not for everyone (even though every red-blooded male would like a truck). The inference is that Apple’s tablet makes the PC like Windows tablets of times gone by: very useful to very few. Ironic, right?

But is the PC going the way of the dodo? The contrarian in me points out that to use an iPad as intended, you need to sync it with iTunes – on a PC. But that’s a silly argument. Once it’s set up, you don’t really need to use iTunes with your iPad. A colleague recently failed to notice he’d mislaid his laptop for three days, so able was he to use his iPad for… well, everything but the kitchen sync.

Drop me a line and I’ll tell you *which* colleague…

It all boils down to semantics.

The iPad 2 and its rivals are simply the next generation of lightweight, portable computers. They’re PCs.

We’re at a point where you can do most things, most of the time from a portable device – provided that you have connectivity. But just because you can use a tablet or smartphone for all of your daily computing tasks, it doesn’t mean you’d want to.

Mobile devices are good at mobility, but they’re not better than a desktop PC or laptop at much apart from that. Sometimes greater processing power, a hardware keyboard and a large screen make for a better tool. Try composing a long email, editing a spreadsheet or touching up a high-res photo on a smartphone or tablet. You can do it, but I still think you’re more likely to use a well-specced laptop if one’s lying close by.

Consider some of the major advances in home and portable computing in the past 20 years: from Windows 95 to Google Search, push email on BlackBerry handsets, the prevalence of Wi-Fi, ubiquitous 3G… They all reduce the importance of a single, central PC to that of a data and communications hub. But they increase the number of devices from which we can access the data, and the number of ways in which we can communicate and create.

In defending the PC’s honour, my US colleague Jason Cross redefines the term ‘PC’ from ‘personal computer’ to ‘pervasive computing’. I don’t fully agree with his linguistic sophistry, but I take the point.

Far from a post-PC world, we’re living in an era of multiple PCs: connected companion devices of all shapes and sizes. The PC has never been more important, nor more diverse. The iPad is just one of them.

Sandy Bridge cock up shows just how important Intel is

16 02 2011

It won’t have escaped your notice that Intel‘s Sandy Bridge processor microarchitecture has made an impact. A glance at our PCs reviews will soon show that the performance of Sandy Bridge PCs is head and shoulders above the rest.

Alas, that’s not the whole story: within weeks of the Sandy Bridge launch, Intel announced it had found a design flaw in its 6-series ‘Cougar Point’ chipset, forcing a recall to be issued. You can find out exactly what happened, and what you should do if you intend to buy a PC, in our story: Intel Sandy Bridge recall: what you need to know.

Suffice to say it’s a $1bn mistake, and one that Intel will struggle to live down. It’ll take at least three years for the dust to settle but, perversely, the recall and its fallout illustrate perfectly the extent to which Intel now dominates the PC industry.

There’s nothing wrong with AMD, of course, and the growth of mobile computing means companies such as ARM grow ever more important. But Intel is the single most important hardware player in the PC market, and Sandy Bridge is a game-changing upgrade.

Even after Intel pulled forward its Cougar Point resupply date, the earliest OEM manufacturers will receive sufficient updated motherboards is late March. If vendors had decided not to sell PCs with the tainted chipsets, there’d be a six-week period where only outdated Intel systems or AMD PCs could be sold. At the same time, PC makers would have to recall all the laptops and PCs they’d flogged, replace the motherboards and ship them back. Intel may have to foot the bill in the end, but in the medium term this would be disastrous.

Given Intel’s market share and the slim profit margins OEM PC makers endure, only the biggest of the latter could survive such a crisis. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the existence of the independent UK computer industry was threatened by Intel’s simple design flaw.

Do the buying public care about the processor in their PC? Not directly, perhaps, but a UK reseller recently told me that it’s much harder to sell a PC that doesn’t bear Intel branding – largely because of the all-pervasive advertising it undertakes, and that five-note ear-worm its TV ads contain.

If I’m asked for buying advice I rarely recommend a PC model or brand, but point out what specifications to look for. In the current market, that generally means an Intel processor.

Windows 8 will run on system-on-a-chip and mobile ARM processors, as well as Intel and AMD chips. This is partly Microsoft‘s way of spreading the risk of having a single, over-influential hardware partner. Because, as that firm worked out a long time ago, the best way to make a fortune in the PC industry is not to make PCs, but to design the part of a PC the public will recognise and demand, every time.

See also: Latest Components/Upgrades reviews

Microsoft makes a bid for your living room

28 01 2011
In an otherwise underwhelming keynote speech at this year’s CES tradeshow, Microsoft made a play to control the biggest screen in the house.

The battle for the remote control is a staple of family life. Throw a games console into the mix and older family members can find themselves consigned to the spare room. But because the living room TV is the gateway to the digital home, today’s ‘gaming device’ is tomorrow’s gesture- and voice-controlled media centre.

Right now, tech-savvy people such as you and I find our information on the web and, along with a little BBC iPlayer, catch our entertainment from the tellybox. We access the services of Google, via the technology of BT and Virgin.

In the mobile world, Apple has more than its share of technophiles consuming media via iTunes, while Sky is the big beast of pay-for TV. Microsoft has fingers in most of these pies, but is master of only the window by which you access the web from your PC.  The boring bit, some might say.

But the mass market beast Microsoft has become no longer targets only techies – as Google Android and Apple iOS eat into the mobile computing space, it can’t afford to. In its generally underwhelming keynote speech at CES, Microsoft made little of PCs, a lot of the Xbox, and in particular it promoted Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 and Xbox live. And if you think ‘games consoles’ have no place in the pages of PC Advisor, consider this: in the first 60 days on sale, Microsoft sold more than 8 million Kinect sensors (it hoped to sell 5 million), and each month 30 million people access Xbox Live.

With a web-connected Xbox, Microsoft users will soon be able to experience thousands of movies and TV shows, as well as music, websites and even live sport (the latter as yet only in the US).  They can watch on demand, in the living room, on the biggest screen in the home. And they can chat to and see other Xbox Live users as they do so – all of which makes browsing the web on a PC seem quaint, and consigns the humble TV remote to the dustbin.

I’m no Microsoft fanboy, and I’m no gamer (I found I could access Love Film from my PlayStation 3 only through researching this piece), but this shift in Microsoft’s focus is interesting in the kind of people it can pull in to the digital home field.

I’ll illustrate: at a recent fancy dress party two of my friends (BA Baracus and a wizard) who live many miles apart seamlessly carried on the banter they indulge in nightly over Xbox Live. No surprise there, but both have in the past asked me for basic tech support (“do I need security software?”) and neither spends time on  what they would call a  ‘PC’. The idea of contacting a mate over VoIP would never occur – but they are doing it every evening (much to their spouses’ chagrin).

There are plenty of other options for accessing movies, games, TV and live sport, and myriad ways to communicate. But Microsoft alone has the potential to marry these together and, as we’ve seen with Apple iTunes, if you control access to content, you squeeze your rivals out of the hardware.

Xbox Live users weren’t looking for an entertainment hub, they wanted to chat to their mates whilst gaming. But if Microsoft can convert these and similar people to getting TV and movies through their ‘games console’, it will add the living room to the office it already dominates.


> Microsoft downloads, details and screenshots
> Buy Microsoft products

Opinion: can Google Chrome OS save the netbook?

13 12 2010

It feels like a generation ago that the Asus Eee PC 701 revolutionised portable computing. In fact, Asus revealed its 7in-screen Linux laptop in June 2007, making the netbook two years younger than the still fresh-feeling PlayStation 3.

Netbooks raced straight from concept to world domination – the Eee PC alone sold more than 300,000 units in four months, Windows XP was reprieved for netbook duty, and sales of Atom chips saw Intel’s market share grow in every quarter of 2008.

But the netbook’s reliance on lightweight operating systems proved its undoing. Microsoft allowed manufacturers to use XP, but only through gritted teeth. In setting the rules to do so it locked down the specification. As a consequence, even when using Windows 7 the netbook remains in stasis: Intel Atom chip, 1GB RAM, 10in screen. Boring.

That netbooks have similar computing power to a 2001 desktop PC was once a boast. As the world has moved on, it’s become a damning criticism. With small screens and keyboards, netbooks are brilliant at nothing but being cheap. Next to tablets and smartphones they look clunky.

Of course, netbooks don’t come only with Windows. Manufacturers who choose to avoid Microsoft software can develop the form factor to their hearts’ content. But PCs have to sell: and a laptop without a Windows logo doesn’t appeal to the masses (unless it’s a Mac, and Apple has avoided netbooks like a dog avoids a bath).

Linux is a good option, but without a public-friendly brand it will never be mainstream. Enter Google Chrome OS. Announced with fanfare in July 2009, Google’s cloud-based Linux OS was supposed to launch ‘late 2010’. You may have noticed that it didn’t.

But Google recently said Chrome OS laptops will hit the shelves in mid-2011. It thinks the internet and mobile computing are now sufficiently mature for the enterprise.

Designed to be always connected, Google has a test system – the Google CR-48 – that boots up in 60 seconds. From sleep it can resume operations instantly. All data is automatically encrypted. And all the action takes place on the web.

Google Chrome netbooks are designed to run software over a network, meaning they can utilise the web-development tools Google boffins have been perfecting for years. They aren’t reliant on Windows, and their lack of desktop software should mean they’re fast and secure.

“Why do I think this strategy will work?” says Google CEO Eric Schmidt, “Because of mobile computing.”

And that’s the crux. Using Google’s web smarts and mobile technology, Chrome OS could be about to breathe life back into the netbook.

See also:

Opinion: Who’s afraid of the Maverick Meerkat?

Opinion: An iPad for everyone, they’re just not all iPads

Opinion: the Windows upgrade cycle gives me face ache

Living with Linux: installing and using Ubuntu Netbook Edition

18 11 2010

Heard about Linux but never dared to give it a spin? You don’t have to, because I did – and here’s how I got on.

Between office, home and smartphone, there are multiple operating systems in my life: Microsoft Windows 7, Vista and XP on various PCs, OS X on my Mac, and Apple iOS on my iPhone. I’ve used multiple smartphone operating systems, and fear not one of them, but I’ve never before used a Linux OS.

I have, of course, heard of Linux, but it’s never been a direct part of my computing life. Colleagues have long espoused the virtues of open-source, but it’s always seemed too much of a faff – a hassle to download and install, and an unknown quantity in terms of compatibility. In short, Linux is for weirdos, or so I thought.

(Yes, I know that various devices in my house run off the Linux kernal, but that doesn’t count. If I don’t use it to surf the web, email or word process, I’m not interacting with the OS, okay? Okay.)

So much for ignorance. After one too many business trips spent waiting for my creaking XP netbook to tick over, and having perused the glowing reviews of Ubuntu’s latest – Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat – I decided to bite the bullet and give living with Linux a try. In this case, Ubuntu Netbook Edition.

I had nothing to lose, because my Asus Eee PC has two flash hard disks, one of which is taken up by the OS, and the other XP was unable to see. In fact, my netbook was rapidly becoming a notbook, and only Linux could save it.

Living with Linux: The install

Like driving around Spaghetti Junction, the Ubuntu install process is simple, but requires that you give it your full attention. Ubuntu is the most consumer of Linux distros, aimed at the mass market, so it makes sense that it’s easy to download and install. And it is, albeit with a caveat or two.

If you are a competent computer user, you’ll have no problem installing Ubuntu. You must first create a bootable USB drive with software downloads Ubuntu provides, and then install from the disk. There are many steps in the process, but they’re all explained clearly as you go.

We had one false start when, having created the bootable USB drive, we inserted it in the netbook’s lefthand USB port and set the Bios to boot first from it. Did you know that you can’t boot a PC from its lefthand USB port? No, me either. But some light Googling introduced us to this gem of a fact, and the rest of the install process was a snip.

We chose to write over the existing XP install, but it’s straightforward to create a separate Linux partition, and retain the original operating system.

Living with Linux: Ubuntu in action

To fully experience the Ubuntu way of computing, I jettisoned all other digitalia, and went on a business trip armed only with my freshly Linuxed laptop. First impressions: it’s fast. Fast, fast, fast. Clearly, Windows XP was not written for Atom-powered netbooks, but the difference is breath-taking.

It’s also a stable OS – not once in a day or so of active use did the Eee PC freeze or crash. And the user learning curve is non-existant.

Ubuntu is so honed for the consumer space that it is beyond simple to use. Big colourful icons guide you to applications by function: web, music, office, email and so on. Files and folders are stored under an icon called, well, ‘Files & Folders’. In fact, if anything it may be too simple. We wanted to hunt around to find the missing hard drive, but couldn’t find a way of getting above the GUI. This is an OS built for users of all abilities.

The default applications are nothing to be afraid of either: you’ve used Firefox, I’m sure, and if you’re familar with MS Word, OpenOffice Writer is your friend.

Evolution mail is nothing to write home about as an email client, but it is very easy to set up and straightforward to use, as is the Empathy Instant Messaging client. Indeed, all the default applications are easy for Windows or Mac OS X users to pick up. There’s also a whole lot more software to be had via the Software Centre – an app store of open source goodies, accessible from the OS.

I merrily wrote, edited and emailed, all day long, and never really came up against any problems. Working principally in OpenOffice, I was able to edit and share multiple Word and Notepad documents without missing a step.

Living with Linux: Conclusions

There’s no way I’d revert to XP now, because Ubuntu does everything I need my netbook to do in roughly half the time. It’s quick, as stable as any OS I’ve used, and incredibly simple to use. In fact, it may even be too simple. I’m no Command Line hacker, but I’d like to be able to get above the GUI in order to dig around and find my missing hard disk.

And the interface is a little like computing with stabilisers on – far from the hobbyist, jargon-filled morrass I was expecting, this particular flavour of Linux is, in fact, a little too straightforward.

Compatibility has not been a problem, but it would be, I think, if I chose to use Ubuntu for my main PC. It’s all very well editing important documents in OpenOffice, but I still want to be able to create files in the formats my colleagues use.

Although I’m unlikely to move over to Linux lock stock and barrel, I’m more than impressed with Ubuntu. If you have an older PC in need of a speed boost, you may well be too.

See also:

An iPad for everyone, they’re just not all iPads

18 11 2010

Apple’s iPad is a success. The speed with which Apple flogged a million units of its sugar-coated 9.7in tablet PC was unprecedented, and anyone who’s visited a US hotel recently will have thrilled at the site of business titans hanging around the lobby to get online. (Note to hoteliers: the iPad has no ethernet port. Give the rooms wireless.)

The biggest sign that Apple has a winner is when punters start using its product names as generic names. Just as every digital audio player is referred to as an ‘iPod’, I can’t be the only person who has been asked what brand my iPhone is.

No one talks about ‘tablet’ or ‘slate’ PCs – they’re iPads, even though alternatives are arriving. Take the Samsung Galaxy Tab, Samsung’s 7in tablet that’s also a smartphone (of sorts).

Samsung has form here. The Galaxy S is the handset that, in the US at least, came closest to knocking the iPhone off its ‘most desirable gadget’ perch. Combining Samsung’s trademark beautiful screen with Google Android, the Galaxy S is a bona fide success. So the Tab will be too, right?

I’ll leave the rational Samsung Galaxy Tab review to my more rational colleagues; but I’m not tempted for two reasons. Price is one: despite being smaller than the iPad, the Tab costs more. And while its portability is good, a 7in device isn’t small enough to fit into a pocket. It should be cheaper.

Add in the fact that I’ve invested a fortune in iTunes over the years, and the old iPod-alternative argument applies: I’m locked into Apple’s ecosystem, so your device has to be better and cheaper.

Which leads to reason two: the Tab doesn’t look like a better device. Two out of every three people I showed it to lifted it to their ears and shouted “Hello! I’m on the train!” Far from being a desirable gadget, the Tab resembles a PDA from a decade ago.

But don’t trust a journalist, ask a retailer: they live and die by judgments of products. “While the Samsung Galaxy Tab is a capable device, it lacks the sophistication of the iPad, which is why it will struggle to compete at the current asking price,” says Brian Trevaskiss of More Computers.

But, he adds, things could change: “The next revisions of the Android platform and tablet devices could well be a different story,” he says.

The Galaxy Tab is far from the only tablet in town. With upcoming products from a plethora of big-name manufacturers, there’ll be a tablet for every budget. And once you’ve used a tablet PC, sofa-surfing on a laptop feels like browsing cave paintings.

The bad news is you may need to buy a new device. The good? Christmas is coming and Santa may provide.

Who’s afraid of the Maverick Meerkat?

28 10 2010

You may have heard this before, but the latest release of Ubuntu – Maverick Meerkat – shows that Linux is ready for the prime time. The reason? The unifying nature of the web.

The mobile market is a mess. A melange of different platforms supporting a diaspora of handsets on a plethora of networks. Throw in the variety of contract choices and you don’t so much buy a phone as fill in a questionnaire.

But mobile is the future of computing. Take the web: browsing patterns have changed significantly for the first time in a decade or so as the mobile web matures and people view their favourite sites early in the morning and late at night. Ditto e-commerce: mobile web access means online stores now make sales 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

And as smartphones proliferate, applications drive innovation. Basic apps are simple to build, and the fragmented, immature nature of the market means that there’s a great wedge of market share up for grabs. There’s gold in them thar cells.

Compare mobile with the more staid desktop- and laptop-computing world and the reverse is true. By and large, everyone who wants a PC has one. From the technology Wild West of the 1980s has emerged a classic US-style market: one dominant, stable giant (Microsoft), and a boutique, high-end competitor (Apple).

But there is a third wheel. Linux. Since Linus Torvalds wrote the Linux kernel in the early 90s, open-source fans have loudly espoused its proficiency and security. Each successive release of Ubuntu, for instance, leads to claims that Linux is “ready for prime time”. And each successive release on the desktop has failed to live up to the hype. So far.

The problem has principally been one of compatibility. If the rest of the world is using Windows, hard- and software manufacturers will build their products for that system. Where Apple mavens and their wallets are catered for, freeloading Linux users had to be sufficiently technical to get around compatibility issues, meaning they had to be technically adept. Not your average user.

Which is a shame. For a good while now, Ubuntu in particular has been stable, feature-filled and, you know, proper. It works, and it works well. As our Maverick Meerkat review will show, there’s nothing to fear in Linux. Plus: it’s free and – due in part to its smaller market share – it’s more secure than Windows.

These days, the web is a greater unifying tool than any operating system for computing devices. If the ultra-bitty world of the mobile phone can hang together via the internet, there’s no longer a need to avoid Linux. With Ubuntu, you’ll find that most hardware peripherals work perfectly well, and for those that don’t you can quickly research a fix.

Is Linux about to take over? Not a chance. But it is now a viable alternative, for everyone. And when you factor in the savings it can offer, that has to be a good thing.

Related articles:

Google: friendly giant or benevolent despot?

Opinion: why Windows Phone 7 has to succeed

Opinion: the Windows upgrade cycle gives me face ache