Android Tablets: More to the story than low prices

To start, I want to clarify that all of my personal use devices are Android-based. I have to say this because I am about to say some negative things about deploying low-cost Android devices in schools. I assure you that I neither hate Android, nor do I love iOS. There are things about both that I like, and there are plenty of things about iOS that drive me crazy as well.

This post is about making sure you know what you're getting yourself into when you decide to try Android in the classroom, especially in light of Google's new education initiative with its Nexus 7 tablet.

There are plenty of things to be excited about when it comes to the Nexus line of devices. They have very good specifications, and are generally the first devices to be upgraded to the newest version of Android. They always run "stock Android", which means you don't have to worry about losing some neat feature if you switch between Samsung, HTC, LG, or Sony (or feel like to have to commit to one manufacturer repeatedly to ensure you keep that feature). They also tend to be quite a bit cheaper than Apple's offerings.

Acquisition

Google does not actually make any of the Nexus devices. Device manufacturing has been contracted out to various companies including Samsung, LG, and Asus. The first problem is that Google does not have direct control over the supply of their Nexus devices. This has lead to supply issues, especially for new devices. It also lead to some quality control issues with the original Nexus 7 tablet.

As for the low cost of the devices, purchasing devices directly from Google Play will incur additional shipping charges. You can get the Nexus devices from several retailers, but they typically charge slightly more than the price seen on Google Play. It is also unlikely you will be able to walk in to a local Best Buy and walk out with an entire class set of tablets. I'm not sure that's how you want to make your institutional purchases anyway. It is also not possible to purchase devices from the Play store using a purchase order. Regardless of how you go about buying the tablets, the Google advertised price isn't the price you'll pay.

Deployment

Apple has had a Volume Purchase Plan in place in the US for a while now, and it spread to many other countries about a year ago. The VPP lets you purchase iOS apps in bulk at a discount (50% for 20 or more licenses). iOS 7 even introduced new ways to keep control over the licenses you purchase, allowing you to grant a license to a user and then later revoke it in order to grant it to another user.

Although Google's recent announcement includes bulk purchases via purchase order, there are very few details. It does not appear that there is a discount, nor does it seem there is the same level of control over the deployed licenses.

Updates

Although Nexus devices receive the latest updates first, that does not mean that all Nexus devices will get the newest version of Android. The Galaxy Nexus phone from two years ago will not receive the latest Android 4.4 update (officially, anyway). There is a pretty detailed summary of the update status for various devices here.

Even on devices that do qualify for the latest update, you have little control over when your devices will actually have access to the update. The updates are pushed out to devices at random times. Although there is a mechanism to manually check for the update, it won't give you access to the update sooner. It just means that you might see the update before the scheduled automatic check. There is an explanation of the process here. Google does post device images, but even these are typically available after some devices will have already received the update.

For major updates, beta versions of iOS are available well in advance. These can be useful to IT administrators who are tasked with supporting the devices and training users. With Android, it is quite likely that end users would receive an update before the IT staff.

Maintenance and Repair

As previously mentioned, Google does not actually make the Nexus devices. This leaves you at the mercy of the service centers of the manufacturer, and generally speaking the service is pretty bad. Turn-around times are typically over a week, and in one personal case, it took over three weeks to get a repaired device returned (after the second repair).

Conclusion

As I mentioned, there are plenty of things to like about Android and the Nexus line of devices. Android 4.2 and higher introduced multi-user capabilities that make Android great for shared tablets in a classroom. The app store has been improving in both the number and quality of the apps. It really doesn't hurt that the Nexus devices offer some amazing specifications for the price, even if the price is slightly higher than Google says it is.

I want to be clear that I am not trying to tell anyone to not go with Android tablets for the classroom. I am just trying to make sure you know what you are getting yourself into.

Abondoning Twitter

I really struggle to understand why people still use Twitter. Every time I mention my frustrations with Twitter someone will get defensive, or try to "help" resolve my particular complaint. Those who get defensive try to explain why Twitter is the place you have to be, and those who try to resolve my issues invariably are using some workaround to overcome an acknowledged shortcoming. I will admit this now. I am going to try to convince you that you don't have to be on Twitter and that Google+ doesn't require all the workarounds Twitter does.

If you've ever defended Twitter, you have heard this before. 140 characters is too limited. It is sometimes possible to express a thought in such a limited way, but when it's not enough (which is often) you have to spend time figuring out how to make it fit. Do you go back and edit the phrasing of the thought or idea? Do you split it into separate tweets? Do you blog it and link to it? There are indeed solutions and workarounds, but no matter the solution, you could have already posted your thought on Google+ and moved on.

Primarily because of the 140 character limit, nearly every tweet includes (or is) a link. Including a link eats into your 140 characters making it difficult to even adequately describe what you're linking to. This has actually enabled spamming and the spread of viruses using hacked Twitter accounts. It's not uncommon to see tweets like "Check this out!" with a link. Given the limited nature of tweets, that could very well be a legitimate tweet, even from someone you trust. If you link to another page in Google+ the default behaviour is to include a small image and text clip from the linked page, which helps you figure out if you want to follow the link or not.

Links in Twitter aren't too bad to deal with on a computer, but on mobile devices the Twitter app has to load up the web browser app. You then have to use whatever multitasking feature exists on your mobile device to switch back to Twitter after checking out the link.

So, the 140 character limit doesn't really exist, but it exists enough for it to be a pain. It doesn't reduce data requirements, because you will need to have Internet access to see what the tweet is really about. If anything, Twitter will cause you to use more data because you will constantly be downloading full web pages. The 140 characters may have worked for SMS forwarding to your phone in the past, but that just isn't realistic any more.

One of my biggest pet peeves with Twitter is conversations. These can take the form of people sending tweets back and forth without using direct messaging (either because they don't know how to DM or are just too lazy to be bothered), or people using hashtags to participate in some twisted form of an online event. This leads to posts that followers have to "figure out". Conversations and events are forced on to the interface, and it shows. Use Google+, and an entire conversation can happen in posts directly under the original post. Events can be (and are) done using a Hangout or Hangout on Air which are well integrated into Google+.

It has been recommended that professionals should create two Twitter accounts. One is used for professional purposes, while the other is used for personal sharing. In Google+ you create Circles, and you choose which circles see each of your posts. The ability to direct posts to specific people or groups of people is integrated in the interface, so you don't have to create multiple accounts. You can make your professional posts public, while keeping your personal posts personal.

I constantly hear that there is more "going on" or "being shared" on Twitter than on Google+. While I do believe that to be somewhat true, there is still a lot happening on Google+. I suspect that some of the perception of Google+ not having as much comes from the built-in ability to be selective as to who sees your posts. On Twitter, people see everything you post, whether they are interested or not. As an example, there are people on Twitter I have followed for their expertise in implementing technology in education. I really don't care about their fitness routine or goals, their preference of vehicle, or any other topic other than educational technology.

The other way to get more out of Google+ is to join Communities. You will see far more posts if you join a Community, and you are more likely to discover interesting people on your own when you see someone sharing good, relevant information on a regular basis to the Community.

One oft-recommended solution to solve Twitters problems and shortcomings is to use 3rd party apps. That is simply ridiculous. I do not have to search for and install apps to get Google+ to do what I want it to do. I don't have to worry about keeping multiple 3rd party apps up to date, or worry that they might get broken by API changes or some "token limit".

So you can keep figuring out ways to make Twitter work, or you can just use Google+.

Wireless Display Testing - New Hope for Miracast

Well, I received my Nexus 5 this week and thought I would see if the supposed Miracast changes in Android 4.4 would help the Miracast situation at all.

I was running firmware 2.4.19 on the Netgear PTV3000 and my first connection attempt did not work any better than previous attempts. I checked the Netgear support site and noticed they had a newer firmware version (2.4.26). With little hope, I downloaded and installed the new firmware and tried connecting again.

It took a while to establish the connection, but to my complete surprise it worked! The video frame rate is quite smooth and the audio was clear. There was one audio stutter during my testing, but it was very brief.

With the Nexus 5 working, I decided to try the Nexus 7 (2013) again. It's working too! So it doesn't appear to be the Android 4.4 update that addressed the issues, but rather the firmware update to the Netgear PTV3000.

There is another Android tablet that I have been using for a couple of weeks that is running Android 4.2 and it works as well. That makes 4 separate devices, running Windows 8.1, Android 4.2, 4.3, and 4.4, that can all connect to the PTV3000 using Miracast.

I had not tested the ScreenBeam Kit in a while so I checked the support site and found new firmware for it (version 1.1.1.0 from November 4). Sure enough, it works! The Nexus 5, Nexus 7, Android 4.2 tablet, and Windows 8.1 laptop were all able to connect to the ScreenBeam just fine.

I will try to post some video in the near future showing how well the various combinations work, but it finally looks like Miracast is a usable technology. With Google locking down Chromecast, one of these adapters might actually be the best choice for wirelessly displaying your media.

ScreenBeam Kit - Firmware 1.1.1.0

Netgear PTV3000 - Firmware 2.4.26

Update: Here is some video of the various devices connecting to the Netgear PTV3000.


Update 2: I wanted to repeat the testing with the ScreenBeam, but there were scheduling issues in the room I used before (I wanted to use the same projector to ensure there weren't latency differences from another HDMI device), and then my Nexus 7 stopped responding to touch.

Subjectively, the ScreenBeam performs just as well as the PTV3000. Also, there isn't a noticeable latency difference when I used my TV at home with either device. I would definitely recommend the PTV3000 over the ScreenBeam because it performs just as well, it's smaller, and it uses a standard mini-USB connector for power. I have no problem powering it from the USB port on my television. The ScreenBeam gets warmer during operation and will be more of a hassle if you lose its power adapter.

Wireless Display Testing - Miracast and Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 released last week. I knew that it was to include Miracast support, so I was pretty eager to see if it would work any better (and by "better", I mean "at all") than Miracast for the Nexus 7. I was also hoping that it would work so I would no longer have to use outdated drivers just to have Intel WiDi working on my laptop.

I installed the current Intel Windows 8 WiFi driver and the brand new Windows 8.1 Intel display driver, then connected to my Netgear PTV3000. I haven't been able to test extensively, but so far it actually seems to be working! It works OK, but it is still not as good as AirPlay. Video was fairly smooth, but the audio would occasionally stutter.

To get it working, make sure your Miracast receiver is connected to your television/projector and ready for connections. Bring up the "Charms bar" (move mouse to top right corner of the screen), select "Devices"  (or Windows Key+K), select "Project", and click "Add a wireless display". After selecting your receiver, you will be prompted for a PIN that should be displayed on your television/projector. You only need to go through this full process the first time.

To connect/disconnect/configure a wireless display after the first setup, use Windows Key + K and click "Project".

Wireless Display Testing - Miracast and the Nexus 7 (2013)

Note: Please read the new blog entry on Miracast. Things have changed quite a bit since this blog entry. I am leaving this blog entry simply for reference.

This has taken quite a bit longer to get to than I planned. To say it has been a busy summer would be an understatement, but I won't go into that. :)

A few weeks ago I received my new Nexus 7 (2013) and immediately started playing around with Miracast. To say I'm disappointed would also be an understatement.

I had high hopes for Miracast, the open wireless video standard. I have been quite critical of Apple's AirPlay technology. First it's a proprietary protocol, and second it's difficult to get it working on many school (non-personal) wireless networks. The Miracast protocol uses a direct device-to-device wireless network which should (and does) solve the networking issue. Considering it doesn't have to pipe its traffic through a wireless access point, it should also be lower latency and higher quality. It is definitely not either.

I'm getting ahead of myself because I haven't even talked about how challenging it was getting the Nexus 7 to connect to the Netgear PTV3000 and ScreenBeam. It took several tries, rebooting both the receiver and the Nexus 7, to get Miracast to finally work. After those several tries I decided to record a video showing what was (and what was not) happening, and of course it worked. Sort of.

The resulting mirroring wasn't just choppy. At it's best, it had a low frame rate. It would constantly suffer from artifacts, audio stuttering, and somewhat regularly the video would just freeze for a few seconds.

All of these issues were present when testing either Miracast receiver. Neither the PTV3000 nor the ScreenBeam performed well. The conditions were pretty much ideal. It was summer at a school, so there wasn't a lot of wireless network traffic. Occasionally my devices can pick up a neighbour's WiFi, but even when it does the signal is extremely weak. There honestly wasn't any reason why the setup should not have performed perfectly. Using AirPlay to connect my iPad to my laptop running AirServer, the video was quite smooth, so I cannot think of any reason why Miracast wouldn't work at least as well.

I have a feeling Chromecast came about because Google was equally frustrated with Miracast.

Wireless Display Testing - Intel WiDi

WiDi is Intel's proprietary protocol for wireless audio and video. WiDi was released in 2010, a year before AirPlay included mirroring support, and two years before the first Miracast devices were available. At first it was limited to 720p, but is now able to stream 1080p with 5.1 audio. Additionally, as of WiDi 3.5 it is compatible with Miracast, and supports USB over wireless. In theory a WiDi receiver could be connected to an HDMI television or projector and a USB device.

The USB support was definitely intriguing. One scenario I considered was using a media center remote to control a video on the computer using a USB infra-red receiver located near the display. The other scenario I thought about was connecting an interactive whiteboard in a classroom. I imagine there would be many teachers happy to not have to worry about the computer needing to be located close to the interactive board. Unfortunately it does not seem that there are any receivers that support WiDi's USB over wireless feature. 

Although WiDi has been around for three years, and has had several major version upgrades, getting it working was far from easy. Compared to AirPlay, it is just downright frustrating and I'm not surprised that few people I know have ever used it. I tried using WiDi "out of the box" on two separate laptops (a Windows 7 based Dell and a Windows 8 based Lenovo), and neither would work. In both cases the WiDi software would detect the receivers, but never successfully connect. The installation instructions for WiDi direct you to install the newest Intel video driver, then the Intel wireless chipset driver, and finally the Intel WiDi software, of course with restarts after each step.

I started with the Windows 8 laptop (my personal laptop). Even after following the prescribed steps, WiDi still would not make the final connection to the receiver. Some searching finally lead me to a page directing me to use the Windows 7 wireless drivers for Windows 8. Sure enough this worked.

Oddly, I did not get WiDi working on the Windows 7 laptop. I tried a couple of different versions of the WiDi software and then gave up. I wasn't about to waste even more time trying to get another laptop working. The following video shows what happens on this laptop when trying to connect to a receiver.


video


When connecting to a receiver for the first time, the display will show an 8 digit number that you type into the WiDi software. This pairs the laptop to the receiver. Subsequent connections to the receiver are as simple as AirPlay. All you have to do is run the WiDi software, choose a receiver, and click Connect. You can even choose to have WiDi connect automatically to a paired receiver when the software is run.

Next I'll look at the two WiDi receivers I have available to test, the Actiontec ScreenBeam and the Netgear Push2TV-3000.

Actiontec ScreenBeam Kit

The Actiontec ScreenBeam Kit includes a receiver compatible with WiDi and Miracast, and a proprietary USB transmitter that can be used with Windows laptops that are not WiDi compatible. I managed to get the kit for $63 on sale, so it is a pretty good deal if you need the transmitter.


As you can see in the photo, there is a USB port on side of the receiver. I hoped that it might support USB over wireless, but it seems the port is just for firmware updates. The receiver is powered by a non-USB source, so you will always need access to a plug and be sure to have the adapter with you. An HDMI port and pinhole reset button are next to the power connection, and there is a single status LED on the top. At 77mm x 73mm x 17mm it is quite a bit smaller than an Apple TV, but quite a bit larger than the Netgear Push2TV-3000. The silver printing on the front and top, and the silver ringed vent on the top make this device much more noticeable than both the Apple TV and P2TV-3000.

In use, the ScreenBeam seemed to have slightly lower latency than the Netgear Push2TV-3000, but suffered more graphical and audio glitches. It also was quite warm to the touch, bordering on hot after using it for a few minutes. This was surprising considering it seems to be well vented.

To get started, just plug in the power and HDMI connections, and make sure the display is set to the correct HDMI input.


video


video

Netgear Push2TV 3000

The Push2TV 3000 (P2TV) is a very small and light WiDi and Miracast receiver that is available for $60 US. It weighs in at 48 grams and is roughly the size of a credit card (obviously thicker). Much like the Apple TV, it has a very basic, clean look with a glossy black finish. It can easily go unnoticed just sitting on my television's base. There is a single white LED on the front. The back has a mini-USB port for power, a full-size HDMI port, and a recessed reset button. There is a nearly-flush button on the side that is barely noticeable. The button was originally used to switch between WiDi and Miracast mode, but firmware updates removed the need to manually switch between modes. Now the button is used to put the P2TV into firmware update mode.

Netgear Push2TV 3000

The P2TV had no problem being powered by the USB port on my television. Although I would recommend having a USB power adapter with you if travelling with the P2TV, it's nice to know that it can be powered so easily. As with the ScreenBeam, to get started just plug in the USB power, connect to the HDMI port of your display, and make sure your display is switched to the appropriate HDMI input.

Watch the videos below to see how to connect to the P2TV from Windows using WiDi, and to get an idea of the video performance. Note that I had previously connected to the P2TV and configured it to automatically connect.


video


video

Conclusion

It is hard to believe that WiDi is a technology that has been around for three years. WiDi installation was far from user friendly, and I'm guessing that many WiDi receivers are unjustly returned to stores as "defective".

WiDi is only available on laptops with newer Intel processors, Intel network chips, and Intel graphics. There are reports that Windows 8.1 will include Miracast support, and that it will be a free upgrade for Windows 8 users. Miracast support directly in Windows would open up compatibility with far more hardware configurations, and make WiDi redundant.

As for the two tested WiDi receivers, I would definitely choose the Netgear P2TV-3000. It is smaller, easier to power, slightly cheaper, stays cooler, and seems to have better image and audio quality at the expense of slightly higher latency. The ScreenBeam kit does include a USB transmitter if you want to use wireless video on a computer that does not support WiDi, but that seems to be its only advantage.

I will be testing these two receivers again in the near future with a Miracast-capable Android device.

Conference Adventures - CANHEIT 2013

CANHEIT is a conference for Canadian Higher Ed IT folks and was held in Ottawa, Ontario earlier this month. It was my first CANHEIT, and it was quite different from most of the educational technology conferences I normally attend. I definitely see value in events where people with so much in common can gather to share ideas and look for solutions to problems that their peers also have or have had. Unfortunately, CANHEIT is heavy on the "IT" and light on the "HE".

Many sessions at CANHEIT 2013 focused on the centralization of IT services. The theory is that a single, centralized support team can satisfy the needs of the entire university. By centralizing services, duplication of work is eliminated, therefore costs are reduced. Faculties and departments negotiate terms of service, and perhaps have someone from Central ITS designated as project manager.

The first problem is the belief that there is a duplication of services. It would appear that Central IT leaders don't understand that departmental IT staff are working on solutions specific to their own faculty/department. The second problem is that while there may be a designated project manager, that does not mean they are a dedicated project manager. The project manager will often be assigned to multiple departments and faculties. Finally, when talking about "terms of service" it often refers to simple services like printing or software problems. Larger projects are put in a central queue, and the project manager may actually recommend that specialized or urgent projects be contracted out.

CANHEIT also served to highlight that there is a significant disconnect between IT staff, faculty, and students. In one classroom oriented session led by a faculty member, the presenter explained that he developed his own project because he knew if he didn't, "some jackass in IT would do it and screw it up". Few sessions were actually about services that support or improve teaching and learning. There was little discussion around what faculty are trying to do in their classrooms and what could be done to support them.

Little annoyances with Windows 8

I've already expressed my displeasure with Windows 8, but the little annoyances just never seem to stop.

One of the only things that I don't mind working full-screen in the new Window 8 way (and I do mean "Window") is the media player. That is until an update. After updating, a message "Sign in" would permanently appear in the top right corner. It could not simply be "canceled" to make it disappear. I had to go through the steps to create an Xbox music account to make the message go away.

I know that I could seek out other media players, but this is exactly the type of stuff Mac users make fun of Windows user about. I just want basic things to work. I don't want to spend time trying to find a media player that doesn't piss me off, or to create an account I'm never going to use just to be able to use the included media player without an annoying message on the screen.

Another annoyance perhaps isn't completely Microsoft's fault (but I'm sure they deserve some of the blame for it) is the broken Intel WiDi in Windows 8. Intel's Wireless Display won't work with the Windows 8 drivers. You actually have to use Windows 7 network drivers to get it to work. It's hard to believe that the driver model changed so drastically between versions 7 and 8 that a manufacturer as big as Intel can't get a feature to work, but clearly that is the case.

I'm not quite done yet. The bluetooth controls for Windows 8 are ridiculous in that they aren't "controls" at all. Double-clicking the bluetooth icon opens up the device panel listing all devices (not just the bluetooth ones). You can click on a bluetooth device in the list, but it doesn't actually do anything other than a press animation. You can't right-click on it to tell Windows to connect to or disconnect from the device, or control the bluetooth options for the device in any way.

Several times I've thought to myself, "Did anybody at Microsoft actually use Windows 8 before releasing it?"

Getting AirPlay to work in the classroom

I've talked about AirPlay in previous posts about wireless display technology. It works great in your home, and Apple really wants you to use it in the classroom. Unfortunately, the AirPlay protocol doesn't work that well on networks designed to support hundreds (or thousands) of wireless devices. Apple has workarounds that may or may not be implemented by your school's or board's IT staff. If not, there are still ways to get things working in your classroom, and maybe even for less money than you think.

Note that the following won't work for everybody, but hopefully it can help some people. This was my poster session topic at CONNECT 2013, and I know that it helped at least a couple of people.

Getting Connected

The first step in solving the AirPlay problem is getting all of your devices on a network that is a little more personal. There are a few options.

Bring your own router

If you can get away with plugging a wireless router into your network, this might be a good way to go.

Tether to a Smartphone

If you have a smartphone that can act as a wireless hotspot, you can use it to connect all of your devices together. If possible, you might want to disable your data connection to avoid an out of control wireless bill. Disabling your data does mean that none of your devices will be able to access the Internet, but AirPlay should work fine.

Internet Connection Sharing

If you already have a computer (Mac or PC) in your classroom that is connected to a wired network, you can take advantage of the Internet Connection Sharing feature built into the operating system.

On a Mac, click the Apple menu, then System Preferences, and look for Sharing. Check the box next to "Internet" and share the connection from your "Built-in Ethernet" to "Airport". Click the Airport button to choose settings for your hotspot.

The built-in feature of Windows involves more steps. Alternatively, just download Virtual Router, a free program that simplifies the entire process on Windows. Also, Windows laptops based on newer Intel Centrino platforms can actually share a wireless connection to other wireless devices.

Once you have your hotspot set up, just connect all of your devices to the hotspot and you shouldn't have any problem getting AirPlay working.

Using what you've already got

You're probably used to using an Apple TV to show videos from your iOS devices, but if you already have a computer connected to a projector it is a pain switching video cables or sources. Well, you don't have to.

Check out AirServer or Reflector. Both programs are available for Mac or PC, and make your computer look like an Apple TV to your iOS devices. There are some great reasons to use these instead of an Apple TV.
  1. You don't have to switch video sources. Your computer is already connected to your projector.
  2. You can display multiple iOS device screens simultaneously. Although the programs support more than 2 devices, things start to get sluggish with 3, and downright choppy with 4 or more (I've had up to 5). Displaying multiple devices is a great way to compare student work from iPads.
  3. They are a LOT cheaper. AirServer is $15 and can be installed on up to 5 computers (although you can't mix and match Windows and Mac from the single $15 purchase). Reflector is $13 per computer, or $55 for 5 computers. Reflector does have an extra feature that lets you record the video from your iOS devices.
I personally chose AirServer. I don't need to record the videos, and it is cheaper. If I decide I want to record the videos I can always use the SMART Screen Recorder (free if you have a SMART Board and SMART Notebook installed).

Conference Adventures - CONNECT 2013 Poster Session

I have never presented at a conference. I guess I still haven't really, but I did lead a poster session at CONNECT 2013. Although there weren't many visitors to my space, it was very interactive and quite rewarding. My session was about using AirPlay in the classroom, something that is rarely as easy as setting up an Apple TV at home. I will cover my own discoveries and solutions in another post, and hopefully it will help others as well.

After describing the problem and walking through the steps for my solution, I was told it addressed the very problem a school had been struggling with for a long time. In fact, it offered up even more than simply getting AirPlay to work from a single iPad.

There were a lot of things to like about CONNECT, but helping a teacher solve an annoying problem felt great.

Conference adventures

CONNECT 2013 was an amazing experience, although it was tiring. I can only imagine what it was like for the folks from the District School Board of Niagara who also had UGC on the weekend before.

Although I will share more about my experiences related to educational technology at the conference, the first thing I want to talk about is shoes. That's right. Shoes.

I knew I would be on my feet a LOT, and that some of the events during the conference would require me to be dressed more formally. I really did not want to wear dress shoes all day, nor did I want to have to carry around and worry about an extra pair of shoes.

I went shopping last week and bought some Clarks' Pickerton black leather slip-on shoes. They are incredibly light, very comfortable, and just formal enough for some daytime meetings and luncheons. That reads a lot like an ad, but considering just how many hours I was on my feet from Sunday to Tuesday, I am amazed that my feet are not killing me today.

Wireless display done right... and wrong

I have experimented with a variety of wireless display gadgets over the years. About 15 years ago I purchased a kit that included a transmitter and receiver for RCA video, allowing me to watch DVD movies from the brand new DVD drive in my computer without running a bunch of cables across the room. I have been looking for something that works as well as this did ever since.

In June 2011, Apple announced AirPlay mirroring. At first glance, this is wireless display technology done right. For most people, it just plain works. Plug in an Apple TV, get it on your wireless network, and then just search for it on an Apple device capable of mirroring. It really is that simple. Well, except for when it's not.

The first problem with AirPlay is that it is exclusively for Apple devices. For many educators, that's not really a big deal. I'm sure there are countless teachers who are completely within Apple's walled garden. The second problem (and yes, regardless of how Apple wants to spin it, it is a problem) is that the whole device discovery falls apart when used on a network that is designed to support more than just a couple hundred devices (like the networks typically used in schools). You can have your iOS device and Apple TV on the same network, but no matter how hard you try, sometimes they just can't see each other. There are workarounds out there, but they depend on supported IT infrastructure and configuration by IT staff. I'm sure many educators have already blamed their IT staff for not "working with Apple" to get AirPlay working. Let me be clear here. Apple is to blame. They wanted to beat the WiFi Alliance to the punch and rushed out a protocol that was not well thought out.

In January 2011, the WiFi Alliance announced WiFi Direct Display. WiFi Direct Display would show up in various news articles over the course of nearly two years (including being rebranded as Miracast) before any devices based on the standard would be available.

Miracast does not depend on your existing wireless connection. A Miracast transmitter and receiver setup a completely separate WiFi connection using an existing method known as WiFi Direct (thus the original name of WiFi Direct Display). This is truly where Apple went wrong with AirPlay.

So, Miracast is wireless display done right, right? Well, maybe.

Google announced Miracast as a feature of Android 4.2. This was wonderful news, although it was quickly discovered that even one of Google's newest tablets, the Nexus 7, doesn't support Miracast despite running Android 4.2. Even now, many months since the release of Android 4.2, only a handful of devices are actually available that have Miracast capability. None of the devices that I have access to fall into that category.

Intel obviously thinks Miracast is the way to go. With version 3.5 of WiDi, Intel has added Miracast compatibility. I do have a laptop that supports WiDi 3.5, so I picked up the Netgear P2TV-3000, a Miracast receiver. After installing all the right drivers in the prescribed order, I had absolutely no luck getting it to work. After several hours of trying various installation and connection options and methods, I stumbled on a page that had the answer. I had to uninstall the Windows 8 Intel WiFi drivers (from my Windows 8 laptop), and install the Windows 7 drivers. Sure enough, this worked (even though it shows an error every time it connects). While I was happy to have it working, I doubt that most people that walk into a Best Buy to purchase the P2TV-3000 would actually go through all of this hassle.

I suppose what I find most remarkable is that there really shouldn't be anything particularly challenging with implementing an open wireless display standard that works. Device discovery and pairing protocols have been used for decades. Encryption protocols have also been around for a very long time. Audio and video encoding and decoding have been hardware accelerated for a few years now, even on handheld devices. These are the pieces, and yet everything still seems to be a struggle, and it feels like it's just one software update away from getting broken.

How strange is it that the wireless transmitter and receiver from 15 years ago is by far easier to setup, and more reliable than anything we have now?

New Windows 8 Laptop - Part III

So, after considering buying a Mac laptop, I decided to stick with Windows one more time, even though it meant switching to Windows 8. I tried out the Windows 8 pre-release on a virtual machine last summer. The forced tablet interface on the desktop was just too painful to deal with when my real machine was running a perfectly good Windows 7 install, so eventually I just ended up deleting the Windows 8 virtual machine.

There are a number of reviews and opinions of Windows 8 out there. There are two points of view in particular that I connected with. One is Philip Greenspun's blog posting and this article by Jakob Nielson. The second article sums up much of the experience by saying that "Windows" is now a misnomer and should be called "Microsoft Window". Indeed, many of the tasks I try to perform, like reviewing a PDF or looking at an image, will switch to a full-screen only view of the content. If I'm doing something else, say like editing a blog entry, and I want to reference content from a PDF, I cannot view them side-by-side on the screen. I have to switch back and forth between the PDF and editing the blog.

Probably the most frustrating thing is that the "old Windows" is still in there, and many programs (like Chrome) will flip you back to the familiar Windows Desktop mode. I say that it's frustrating because you can't have that as your default environment, and triggering simple tasks (once again, like viewing a PDF) will flip you back into the new tablet-style interface. You then have to use awkward gestures or keyboard shortcuts to get back to whatever it was you were doing on the traditional desktop.

One other application now under Microsoft's care is Skype. The Y580 actually included a Skype Premium account, which is nice. Unfortunately, the version of Skype for Windows 8 is far less usable than the version you find on virtually every other platform. As an example, you cannot edit the name of a contact in Skype for Windows 8. The solution? Use "Skype for Windows Desktop". I can do this incredibly simple task on my two-and-a-half year old Android phone, but somehow this wasn't viewed as important for Skype for Windows 8.

Not everything about Windows 8 is terrible. There are some great technical changes that do improve some aspects of Windows, particularly performance-wise. Start-up time with an SSD as the boot drive is incredible. I am not exaggerating when I say that Windows cold-boots faster than my Nexus 7 or 3rd-gen iPad. I was stunned. I know that in the long-term Windows has a habit of taking longer and longer to boot as new applications push their way into the startup process. I have already installed some applications that do that, but my total boot time from off to "desktop" is less than 15 seconds. If the laptop is just in sleep mode, it is virtually instant-on, just like my tablets. Sadly, these improvements are over-shadowed by the poor user interface experience.

Overall, I am trying to adapt to the new Windows. So far it hasn't interfered too much with what I do with my computer on a regular basis. I will also not fault the Lenovo Y580 for Windows' shortcomings. It is a great laptop that plays my games very well, manages virtual machines with ease, converts videos faster than my old desktop, and has a really nice display.

And if Windows 8 really gets to me, at least I have the option of looking at Linux, or maybe even trying to use the Y580 as a Hacintosh.

New Windows 8 Laptop - Part II

In the previous post, I mentioned the shortcomings of the Lenovo Y580 Windows 8 laptop, but didn't go into detail. There were a few issues, almost exclusively software related. To start, I will talk about the hardware because finding something negative to say about the Y580 from a hardware perspective is difficult.

There are only two things that immediately come to mind. The first is that the Y580 does not have a Thunderbolt port. While this isn't an issue right now, it would be nice to have the port for potential expandability down the road. I have not yet found any Thunderbolt accessories that interest me in the least. Most Thunderbolt devices right now seem to be monitors or external storage. The Y580 has a really nice 1080p display and an HDMI port, so a Thunderbolt display is irrelevant. It also has three USB 3.0 ports, so fast external storage isn't a problem either.

The second issue with the hardware is the weight. The Y580 has impressive hardware, but weighs in around the 6 pound mark (about 2.8Kg). I am not a small person, nor did I buy this laptop to constantly carry around, so this is a non-issue for me, but could make a big difference for others.

The only other remotely negative thing I have to say at this point is that the brushed aluminum design is a fingerprint magnet. Everything else about it seems okay so far. It doesn't feel remotely fragile. The display is fantastic. It was unbelievably easy to get access to the RAM, hard drive, and mSATA port. The backlit keyboard is good. I wish the left Shift key was longer, and that the shape and placement of the Enter and backslash keys were slightly different, but I know that's more of a personal preference thing.

Overall, I am very happy with the hardware. The software, both from Lenovo and from Microsoft, is where the Y580 stumbles, and will require some patience.

I'll start with Lenovo's software decisions. First, there are no recovery disks included. You have to purchase them for $60. Apparently it used to be possible to burn your own recovery disks, but that feature isn't there anymore. The installed hard drive does have a separate 40GB partition with all of the device drivers, and a folder named "Applications", but in that folder you only find the highly undesirable McAfee anti-virus install. The one pre-installed application that would be very useful but isn't on that partition is PowerDVD BR. That is the software that enables playback of Blu-Ray disks.

Lenovo also includes a utility called OneKey Recovery (OKR). This tool can be used to make a backup of your system to restore later. This sounds useful, but is ultimately quite useless. You cannot use it to restore your system to a new drive (like an SSD). In fact, even if you decide to re-partition the installed drive to get rid of the previously mentioned 40GB drivers/applications partition, you will completely break OKR. There is a dedicated button next to the power button to get quick access to the system BIOS and to OKR, but even that functionality gets broken if you make any changes to the layout of the hard drive.

The best advice to using an SSD along with the installed hard drive is to install Windows fresh on the SSD, and simply reformat the 950GB system partition on the hard drive (reformat only, do not delete the partition). Unfortunately, re-installing Windows means losing PowerDVD BR and other pre-installed applications. There are a number of complaints about this on the Lenovo forums. It also means searching online for a Windows 8 ISO in order to install Windows on the SSD. The reason for keeping the partition layout on the hard drive is so that the OKR hardware button continues to work, giving you quick access to the system BIOS. If you have an external drive, you could use OKR to make a backup of the system before you format the 950GB partition, just in case you ever want to restore the laptop back to factory default.

I'm not sure why Lenovo felt the need for OKR when Windows has built-in functionality for making system backups, and I'm not sure why Lenovo doesn't put all of the application installs on that 40GB partition. Throw in a Windows 8 install disk, and I would have had just as much difficulty finding issues on the software side as I did with the hardware. A couple of very minor changes can significantly improve the user experience here, and reduce the number of complaints on the forums.

Finally, we get to the Microsoft side of the software issues. I think I'll save that for another post.

New Windows 8 Laptop - Part I

So I recently decided to replace my home desktop system with a laptop.

My home desktop was also a media center PC, and it had worked quite well for a couple of years. Unfortunately, the cable company made some changes to their analog service, and my PC was only tuning in up to channel 30. I tried a few methods to get my PC to record the digital channels, but none of the information I found seemed to work.

Ultimately, it was just easier to get a digital DVR from the cable company and retire my media center PC. I had already been thinking about switching to a laptop for some time, so I started researching my options.

My home systems have always been Windows-based. Windows 8 had recently been released. I had tested out the pre-release on a virtual machine, and even read a few reviews and opinions. It really wasn't looking promising for Windows 8. The user interface was going to be a significant change from previous versions, and for the first time in my life I looked at switching to Apple. Honestly, it seemed as though switching to OSX would actually be easier than switching to Windows 8.

After looking at the MacBook Pro options, I discovered the "Apple Tax" was alive and well. In fact, it seems like it's higher than ever before. I was eyeing the 15" MacBook Pro. The Retina model starts at $2200! Ouch! I looked at the regular 15" model with the optional high-res (1680x1050) screen. Even that starts at $1800. Configuring it the way I wanted pushed it up over $2500 (8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, and a VGA adapter).

Needless to say, I started looking at my Windows options. After some digging, I came across the Dell Inspiron 15R Special Edition, a laptop with a powerful processor and a 15" 1080p display. I wasn't too sure about the video chip (Radeon 7730M), but otherwise things looked quite good. While reading reviews of that model I saw a reference to the Lenovo Y580. Some research into that model revealed a machine with good reviews, good specs, and a good price.

The Y580 has the Intel Core i7 quad-core processor, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB 5400rpm hard drive, Nvidia GTX660M 2GB video chip, Blu-ray drive, HDMI and VGA, bluetooth, and more. It is also very easy to open up to access the hard drive, add RAM, and even add a mSATA SSD. Just a few days before Christmas, the price went down to $950! I added a blue Lenovo laptop bag to the order for another $35. A couple weeks later, I found a Crucial M4 256GB mSATA SSD for $180. I even ordered 16GB of high-speed RAM for $60. The total price, including taxes, for everything was less than $1400!

I know that someone will get defensive about build quality or other aspects of the MacBook, but honestly, I'm getting a laptop with better specs for over $1000 less! I don't know about you, but I can forgive some shortcomings for $1100, and in the next part I will endeavour to be honest about those shortcomings. Also, I have already shared my own opinion about the tired, age-old Mac vs PC argument.