29 May 2013

Life With A Chromebook, Six Months Later.

It’s interesting to look back just six months when I was pondering a whole load of options for a new computer. I settled on a Samsung Chromebook, keeping my 4 or 5 year old Windows XP PC for whatever that wouldn’t do.

I had looked at all the things I did and the software I used to do them, concluding that there was an on-line version of something that would suffice for all but a few activities. Let’s see how I’ve fared.

By far the most activity has been e-mail and communication - more than I’d expected after meeting someone abroad! GMail has been great and, whilst working fast and furiously on the Chromebook, it was also much improved in operation and appearance on my Sony Xperia phone. The Chromebook handled all attachments too that I could throw at it.

Google Drive provided all that I needed to view and save documents and to create fairly straightforward ones. However, there are some shortcomings when it comes to more advanced things like removing headers and footers from a first page. That was surprising as other quite complicated tasks could be managed but not anything like sections.

Sheets are Google’s answer to Microsoft’s Excel and they have worked just great for years. I publish a chart each week that entails copying 100 items in bulk from a web page and pasting that into a spreadsheet. I was delighted to find that Google’s product accepted the data and arranged it in cells, saving me a huge amount of work. Formulae, including quite advanced ones, work seamlessly and I feel quite at home there. Deleting several rows usually throws up an ‘Ooops’ message every so often but I find it always works next time. Perhaps with 600+ rows to handle there is some delay in the server doing its best to preserve versions in case I want to restore data wrongly deleted!

I then publish a small section of the sheet that displays the Top 20 after applying some formulae. Taking a screenshot is simple and it’s filed automatically. Opening the file, there is a basic but efficient editing tool where I can crop the screenshot, save it and it’s ready to go on Google+.

I also do quite a few charts and graphs which Google Sheets present really well, especially in live on-line form where users can click lines or columns and get additional information. Not only are the charts more informative than Excel’s standard fare but also they are a refreshing change of style and even colour to the ubiquitous shades and style of Excel. Yes, I know you can change Excel in a million ways but it takes time! My only criticism is that it can be a bit clunky sometimes, using code to change the data being used for the charts - especially awkward when you want to skip some columns or rows!

I have also been using Google Slides a lot. They’re Presentations by another name now. I find them a really smart way to present information on web pages, using mini embedded sets of slides to do so. I don’t know how I could do this with PowerPoint. I also use Slides for actual presentations too. The themes are very basic and are early dreadful Google in style (as for Forms!) I suppose someone will get round to changing them eventually but it does encourage one to use white slides with simple black text and that, my friends, is no bad idea!

For images, as I have written elsewhere, life with Google can be confusing. Good. But confusing. I often need to edit images and add text on-line which is quite a simple operation using the newish Picnik-influenced interface for what I need to do in that respect. Anything more, though, and life can get tricky. Picasa is superb for image edits of almost every type I need but I can only do that off-line and not on the Chromebook.

On-line, if you view an album of your Picasa uploaded pictures you will be taken to Google+ Albums. If you spot it quickly enough, there is a highlighted line of text where you can return to Picasa Web Albums. It looks very much as if the latter is doomed and Google+ Albums will be the sole place to go. For now, though, you have different editing tools and processes depending upon where you are! None are like the off-line Picasa tools which are so good. You can elect to edit in Picasa and download the image and then upload it again but I found that even more confusing and, of course, that needed to be on the PC as there is no local Picasa on a Chromebook.

There are several on-line editing tools outside Google that I shall examine sometime but, because of other reasons, I do all my image work (apart from the quick edit and text addition mentioned) on the PC. The main reason is that I take loads of pictures and would by now have filled up the tiny bit of storage space on the Chromebook - assuming that I could actually have connected it to my camera (or vice versa I suppose that should be). A new Panasonic Lumix uses a huge 64GB XC card and Chrome OS can’t read it! In fact, I had to get a special download for Windows XP to enable it to be read on the PC. I guess Google will eventually update Chrome OS but I don’t think they have yet. So photos go to the large PC hard drive and there I have all the facilities I need. The main one, though, is Picasa, with uploads to Google+ or Picasa Web Albums and thence to the world.

I have many blogs and write lots of articles for which Google’s Blogger has been more than satisfactory to date. I also like the way you can share new posts on Google+ too, directing each blog to the appropriate Google+ profile.

As I have mentioned, Google+ has been the place that I choose to post things first or to link blog posts from. Until recently there was a useful add-in to Google+ that made sharing posts to Facebook and Twitter quite easy. That appears to have disappeared following a change in the presentation of posts in Google+ so I am resorting to copying and pasting links at the moment. I am sure, however, that It will not be long before someone comes up with a sharing facility again if, indeed, they haven’t already!

Music with the Chromebook is fine provided it’s on-line! I use Amazon’s Cloud Player, Rdio and may start trying Google Player too but the others work fine. The speakers are nothing special though so, as it is seldom that I need music on the move, I use the PC anyway. BBC’s iPlayer and websites offering live programmes of all sorts, including regular channels work well and I can watch TV or recordings anywhere with an internet connection.

For Twitter, one of the few non-Google products I use nowadays, the excellent Tweetdeck app does exactly what I want, enabling simple posting as whichever of three profiles I require.

The other non-Google software, and the main area where I cannot use the Chromebook, are web design tools - the design and editing tools like Serif DrawPlus and PhotoPlus and their WebPlus product as well as Dreamweaver.

I am starting to use Wix more, and more effectively too, and Google’s Blogger can create some very attractive and simple sites on-line. However, most clients’ requirements still seem to need the off-line tools and that remains beyond what I can do with the Chromebook. To be honest, though, I wouldn’t expect to move from my PC for that sort fo work where a mouse or tablet is far more accurate and satisfying to use than fingers on a shiny trackpad!

So I am giving the Chromebook lots of good reviews. The keyboard is a delight to use, the battery lasts for hours and hours - easily meeting the specified 6 or 7 hours for me - and it is light and, of course, just starts without fuss or waiting. These features still impress me even now.

I need to figure out how to tether it to my phone so I can use it when on the move as more often than not I am not finding a connection and the phone seems able to find spots that this doesn’t! It can be frustrating when you want to show someone something - a document or photo or web site - but without an internet connection you can’t! There is something about off-line documents or mail I must investigate. There may be an answer but I reckon a phone connection may be the key. More about that another day.

What has surprised me is just how little I use non-Google apps or software now. That isn’t just the Chromebook’s influence but simply the fact that the products are getting better all the time and everything (except Picasa-G+) works well together.

Another factor in making on-line activity easier has been the installation of Jelly Bean on my Sony Xperia mobile. This has made internet use much faster and communication simple with new attractive interfaces for Google’s Hangouts. The ability to view sites and search quickly diminishes the need to consult a laptop or PC.

I do still fancy a Nexus tablet though! Not that this will in any way enhance anything I do. But I still want one. I just tell myself that all this time waiting will result in a much smarter version being available as and when I do succumb to temptation.

That reminds me, I must sell that Asus EeePC that I just fancied in 2007 and hardly ever used after the first week.

24 May 2013

Microsoft's Word App

We've had Office 365 for ages and its web versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint (and, yes OneNote, if you insist) but it is only recently that Microsoft have promoted these. They now call them their Word app (and presumably Excel app etc.)

Google really have led the way in this respect with their Docs getting better and better and considerable integration of Drive in Chrome. Microsoft have done a lot to try to keep up, including an Excel Survey app which I have only just noticed! That may rival the very effective and useful Google Forms, I'll have to review that later.

I thought I would have a quick look to see just how close Microsoft had got to something that really does rival Google.

Accessing your SkyDrive is easy enough, and your folder f documents is displayed. There's a strange-looking symbol for PDF documents. I opened a new Word App document and pasted in some content from a document I had in G Drive. The images didn't come with the paste but the text layout was OK and there are a reasonable number of styles and formatting options in the familiar-ish ribbon.

I chose that particular document because I wanted to remove a footer from the front page which I couldn't do in Google Docs. Hmmm. In Microsoft's Word app you can't even add a footer, never mind what I was trying to do! So I am afraid that's as far as I went. It will need to be more advanced if it is to be a real challenge and not just a place where people who haven't got a Google account go to create simple documents.

Excel looks more powerful but I really can't at this time recommend a move away from Google Docs which are getting better every week.

Something that Microsoft do give you, though, that I spotted is a link to your folder. I suppose Google do provide a url you can copy but here is an embedded blue box! Absolutely no way to change the security for individual items but never mind. And they do warn you about that. So it's pretty useless but quite pretty.

You'll see items there from 7 years ago when I first started experimenting. Gosh, was it that long ago! You'll also see that I have done nothing since.

The necessity to use docx may annoy some who still like Office2003 and there is only Download as a Word document as an option. All a bit restrictive. But more familiar to many and a port in a storm, I guess.