Microsoft Improving Touch Mode in Windows 10, Leaked Build Tips

 

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Microsoft appears set to be revamping the Windows 10 touch mode, which was introduced alongside the Continuum feature for hybrid devices with the January Technical Preview , as per a new leaked build.

Build 10056 of the Windows 10 Technical Preview for desktops, laptops and tablets surfaced on the Web last week showcasing several touch-friendly improvements and upgrades in Windows 10. The Verge, which got hold of the leaked build, notes that the tablet mode now removes all the apps from task bar, leaving users with access to the Start Screen, virtual desktops, and the Cortana voice-based digital assistant only.

The new UI is said to be similar to the touch version of Windows 8.1 OS. However, the Charms bar has now been replaced with a notification centre with easy access to settings and notification. The build also shows recent apps when swiped on screen from left, while giving a full screen view of the Live Tiles and apps when accessing the Start Screen. Also, a new animation has been introduced for the Start Screen, which overlays on the desktop wallpaper.

The apps when launched take up the entire screen without congesting the taskbar. Some of the other changes mentioned in the leaked Microsoft Windows 10 build are black notifications centre, dark-themed UI elements, a new Recycle Bin, resizing of Start Menu and switch transparency on/off, as well as options to change the colour of the UI. Microsoft is yet to officially roll out the build to Windows Insider testers.

Over the weekend, Microsoft rolled out the second build (10051) of the Windows 10Technical Preview for phones. The highlight of the build is the inclusion of an early version of Microsoft’s Spartan browser for phones, along with a number of other features.

Bodacious Bodhi Broadens Linux Desktop

Bodhi Linux 3.0.0 RC3’s implementation of the Enlightenment desktop, makes an awesome desktop computing platform for office or home.

Bodhi is one of only a handful of Linux distros embracing the Enlightenmentenvironment. Its developers call Bodhi the Enlightened Linux Distribution.

Beware if you try it: Bodhi Linux could easily become your favorite Linux distro.

That accolade does not come easily from me. I have become very attached to the latest Linux Mint release running the Cinnamon desktop. As flexible and feature rich as Cinnamon has become, Enlightenment exceeds it by leaps and bounds.

Enlightenment takes a bit of adjusting to, however. It has a learning curve and a customization path that renders it not so out-of-the-box ready. But you get a configuration fine tuned to your computing needs without the bloat of never-used applications.

Linux Picks and Pans highlighted the Enlightenment desktop in a special review last year that looked at the fledgling implementation of Enlightenment in four new distros, including an early Bodhi release. This year I spent some time since its February 5 release working with this alternative desktop environment.

The current release is marked by the recent return to the project of one of Bodhi’s major developers, Jeff Hoogland. The first stable release for the third major update to the Bodhi Linux operating system, version 3.0.0 was released on February 17.

Enlightenment Primer

Enlightenment is a Compositing Window Manager and Desktop Shell. It is radically different from other lightweight interface shells such as Xfce and LXDE.

Enlightenment is lightweight, so it runs of lots of legacy desktops and laptops. It is also very customizable. It is adaptable for small mobile devices as well as multicore desktops…the primary development environment.

This desktop environment offers a basic core design. Its design is tweaked and integrated differently depending on which supporting Linux distro you use. Bodhi Linux developers are leaders in how far the tweaking goes.

Enlightenment’s menu pops up from any point of the desktop with a left-button click of the mouse, instead of being in a single place. A more traditional menu button is also present on the Bodhi panel bar. This bar can be on any edge of the screen depending on the selected theme.

Bodhi Basics

Bodhi Linux is based on Ubuntu 12.04 and Enlightenment 17.04. It uses a modular structure that provides a high level of customization and choices of themes. Bodhi’s philosophy is built around minimalism and user choice.

The default Bodhi system is light. Its only pre-installed applications are the Midori web browser, Terminology (Bodhi’s terminal application), EFM (Enlightenment File Manager), and the Leafpad text editor.

Bodhi Linux system tools

Bodhi Linux’s system tools and default applications are very different from more standard desktop environments.

More software is available from the AppCenter, a web-based software installation tool. The developers contend it is easier and better for users to build the system their way from the start. That trumps having to remove all the unwanted apps and install the desired ones.

Why the Midori browser over more popular options, like Firefox, Chromium or Google Chrome? Midori is central to the modular design of Bodhi Linux. The Midori browser is very lightweight yet functional. It installs applications directly from the Bodhi Linux AppCenter, a feature that some other browsers lack.

The EFM is tweaked to work within Bodhi Linux to add files and launchers to the desktop by moving the desired files and launchers into the desktop folder that’s located in the home directory.

You can opt out of displaying desktop icons at:
Main Menu>Settings>All>Files>File Manager under the Display tab.

But you can add other file managers and designate other default applications for more traditional functionality by going to:
Main Menu>Settings>All>Apps>Default Applications.

Modular Methodology

The AppCenter is one of the software building blocks. The Bodhi repository has many common applications the developers consider the “best of breed” applications for each particular category. It also provides several application-sets (meta-packages) that provide common applications and/or are chosen to meet a particular use case.

Another building block is the system updater process. There are multiple methods to achieve this, but the simplest method is to open the Terminology application, located in Main Menu>Applications>System Tools, and running these commands:

[] sudo apt-get update[] sudo apt-get -y dist-upgrade

The third modular software building block is the Synaptic Package Manager, common to all Debian GNU/Linux based distributions. It is installed in Bodhi Linux by default.

To access it, go to Main Menu>Applications>Preferences>Synaptic Package Manager. This provides access to all of the applications in the Bodhi Linux and Ubuntu 12.04 repositories.

Using Bodhi

Bodhi Linux and the Enlightenment desktop bring elegance that makes using Linux a new experience. Bodhi has an easy-to-use workplace switcher on the desktop; and it is effortless to place gadgets on the desktop.

However, the system tools are very different from more standard desktop environments. And the few pre-installed applications are different from the stock apps used in the other distros.

Bodhi offers five profile configurations.

  • Bare is a minimal setup with very little loaded. This is an advanced feature for setting up your own custom Enlightenment configuration.
  • Compositing is a vertical setup with flashy effects.
  • Desktop is a basic setup suitable for most desktop configurations with a menu, taskbar, systray and clock along the top.
  • Fancy is an alternative setup with more artistic layout.
  • Laptop/Netbook is a basic setup for most laptop/netbook configurations with a menu, taskbar, systray, power monitor, clock along the top and a CPU scaler.

Bodhi Linux has six themes. These range from two-tone gray or black, to a few multi-color options, or light blue.

Bodhi Linux Enlightenment desktop

Bodhi Linux’s use of Enlightenment serves up a different user experience on the desktop.

The biggest problem that I had with Bodhi Linux was getting it to access the wireless connection. Hard-wired Internet worked fine on both my desktop and laptop computers. But none of my cadre of mobile gear was able to connect to my various wireless hardware components. I could not find any driver solutions or instructions on getting wireless to work. Obviously, this is one large potential drawback if you want to take your Bodhi Linux with you.

Bottom Line

The Enlightenment experience is not for all Linux users, especially those who are less skilled. I am impressed with Bodhi’s integration of the Enlightenment desktop. It is far ahead of what other distros are doing with this modern environment.

The user interface, however, is not intuitive. Experienced Linux users will figure out the differences and adapt quickly. Newcomers to Linux should expect lots of frustration in trial-and- error sessions to make any headway.

The Midori browser loads a help file by default with wiki-like links to some start-up information. That file is part of the installation content. At least new users can access the quick start guide and FAQ topics if they are not able to access a wireless Internet connection.

IBM Aims to Harness Internet of Things

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IBM on Tuesday announced it will spend US$3 billion over a four-year period on a new Internet of Things unit involving thousands of consultants, developers and research staff. The company intends to establish an IoT Cloud Open Platform for Industries, which will extract data for business intelligence, and set up a Bluemix IoT Zone, which will help leverage that data for app design.

This broader platform will allow IBM to offer many types of customized solutions — to aid businesses and government agencies in partnering with local municipalities around the U.S. for its Smarter Planet, Smarter Cities initiative, for example.

Smarter Cities

One big goal of IBM’s new IoT drive is to help cities better manage resources and compete in a modern, data-centric world. IBM currently is helping communities like Miami-Dade County and Rochester, Minnesota, to use IoT data for water management, crime and traffic analysis, and the design of energy-efficient housing. Other municipal partners include Dublin and Montpellier, France.

The Smarter Cities program helps to show what IBM is uniquely positioned to do with the Internet of Things, noted IBM Distinguished Engineer Sam Adams.

“We have a lot of experience in a lot of different industries,” he told the E-Commerce Times, calling the company’s platform of services an “end-to-end solution” for managing IoT data.

How’s the Weather?

As for its commercial partnerships, one of the biggest new plans in the making aims to help provide better answers to that critical question: What’s the weather going to be like today?

Along with the new IoT unit, IBM announced a partnership with The Weather Company to use more than 100,000 weather sensors, and far greater numbers of IoT sources like phones, cars and airplanes, to get more weather information to businesses when they need it most.

Nor is the weather project the only big commercial contract for IBM clients. Whirlpool uses IBM services for the IoT analysis of maintenance status on some appliances, and various companies like Continental, Pratt & Whitney and Silverhook Powerboats already use these services for getting IoT data out of vehicles.

In any program as broad and comprehensive as IBM’s, said Adams, there will be roadblocks along the way — for example, in dealing with proprietary data formats, or working out which parties will own which data sets.

“In the race to take advantage of the technology, there are a lot of barriers,” he said, noting that IBM already does a lot of “heavy lifting” in serving its clients.

With the IoT, “a lot of what we’ll be doing is pulling the pieces together,” Adams said.

Another challenge will be making IoT data useful in real time, or close to real time, he said, which can be done either by streaming it in real time to a cloud ecosystem, or by analyzing it closer to a device using a cloud gateway, for example.

A New Marketplace

How will this sort of muscular data handling affect businesses and consumers?

There will be advantages and drawbacks, Adams noted. While more use of IoT will provide a cornucopia of new options for both companies and shoppers, some of the issues with the technology will be related to privacy, an area of great importance to IBM.

“We’re very active on that front,” Adams said.

There will be a wealth of positives down the road resulting from new methods of handling IoT data, said Dan Miklovic, principal analyst at LNS Research.

“The IoT is attracting investment from virtually every major hardware and software company today.” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“Businesses stand to benefit from IoT by improving the availability of their production equipment, increasing the quality of their products, and increasing safety in the workplace,” Miklovic continued, “because they have more information about what is going on in their factories. IBM’s investment will just drive faster development of new tools and drive costs down.”

IBM can offer businesses some “proof points” in this type of investment, he noted, and help them create a better road map toward gleaning meaningful information from the data generated by IP-connected appliances and devices.

Google Goes Crazy for Chromebooks

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Google on Tuesday announced two new budget-busting Chromebook computers, a tablet/notebook convertible with a full swivel screen, and a Chrome computer-on-a-stick.

The Haier Chromebook 11 (pictured above) and the Hisense Chromebook both are available for preorder for US$149.

The Asus Chromebook Flip will hit the market this spring with a $249 price tag.

The Chromebit — also from Asus — will be available this summer for less than $100.

“The price/performance of Chromebooks is becoming so compelling that they could and should put increasing pressure on lower-end PCs and laptops,” Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told LinuxInsider.

Chromebook Specs

Both the Haier Chromebook 11 and the Hisense Chromebook sport 11.6-inch 1366×768 displays. They come with 16 GB of eMMC storage and 2 GB of DDR3L memory.

The Haier Chromebook 11 is powered by a Rockchip RK3288 System on a Chip with four Cortex A17 cores. It produces a top-end frequency of 1.8 GHz and uses a 600-MHz ARM Mali-T764 GPU. Its battery can last up to 10 hours. It’s available from Amazon.

The Hisense Chromebook also is powered by a Rockchip RK3288 SoC with a maximum frequency of 2.5 GHz. The expected battery life is up to 8.5 hours. It will be sold by Walmart.

“I think the move to even lower-end Rockchip-based Chromebooks is in preparation for incoming offerings from Microsoft,” speculated Andrew Bernstein, project manager at the Demski Group.

Microsoft’s offerings “will be proved similar to current Chromebooks,” he told LinuxInsider, and “will not be able to compete.”

Convertible Computing

The Asus Chromebook C201 Flip has a 10-inch touchscreen and an all-metal form factor with typical Chromebook internals. It’s 15mm thin and weighs less than 2 pounds.

The screen is hinged, so it swivels a full 360 degrees. That lets users compute with the keyboard in a traditional clamshell format or use it as a tablet, with the keyboard serving as a stand.

Asus Chromebook10

The Chromebook Flip could play well in the market.

“Softening sales suggest that the iFad around tablets is waning, and that people want more functional devices,” said King. “The Flip is attempting to exploit the popularity of convertible laptops/ultrabooks, and it could do pretty well there.”

Sticking With Chrome

Google’s existing Chromecast dongle will gain a cousin sometime this summer with the arrival of the Chromebit.

It reportedly has nearly all the components of Google’s Chrome OS in a device about the size of a small candy bar.

Asus Chromesticks

Inside the stick are 2 GB of RAM, Rockchip’s 3288 processor and 16 GB of storage. It has an HDMI port so it can plug into a TV screen or other display device. Its USB port provides a connection to a keyboard or a mouse. Another connection option is the onboard Bluetooth.

“The Chromebit is more of an experiment than something with a practical application. It is supposed to encourage other OEMS to experiment more with Chrome OS,” said the Demski Group’s Bernstein.

The Chromebit is similar to the Wyse Cloud Connect solution that Dell launched last year. It targets some of the same markets and use cases — digital signage, mobile workers — that are in Dell’s sights, noted King.

However, “the Chromebit does not offer to wireless the security capabilities that make the Wyse Cloud Connect a valuable business solution,” he pointed out. “Without similar features, I can not see the Chromebit making much of an impact outside consumer applications.”

Concept Play

A primary advantage of bringing more Chromebook models to market is that the more vendor participants there are, the more competitive prices and features should become. That has a downside, however, King suggested.

Since the vast majority of Chromebooks are low cost/low margin products, there is not a lot of incentive for vendors to stay in the market. That could result in customers holding the bag if their vendor of choice decides to walk away.

Building Business

The expansion of the Chromebook line of computers reflects the continuing commoditization of computing hardware, according to King.

Traditional Chromebook computer models are certainly suitable for the changing needs and choices of some consumers and business users. For years, a significant divide has existed between a majority of consumers and workers who pursue only basic computing tasks, and smaller numbers who truly require higher levels of performance and quality of experience, he noted.

“The fact is that it is getting cheaper and cheaper to build devices capable of supporting acceptable levels of compute performance for common tasks. That is a great development, especially for cash-strapped schools and consumers, and developing economies,” King said, “and a reason that Chromebooks are doing so well in those markets.”

Microsoft’s Project Spartan: Lean and mean, makes its debut in Windows 10

As promised, Microsoft has been picking up the pace on its Windows 10 Technical Preview builds — with number 10049 launched this week. Foremost among its changes is the first public appearance of Microsoft’s completely-new browser, codenamed Project Spartan. It is designed to be leaner and faster than the aging Internet Explorer it replaces. Spartan’s interface is cleaner, mimicking the simplicity of Google’s Chrome. However, Spartan also packs some new features that are intriguing.

Spartan’s Edge replaces IEs’ Trident rendering engine

Project Spartan compared with Inernet Explorer 11The heart of Spartan is a new rendering engine, nicknamed Edge. It is designed to be much faster than IE’s dated Trident renderer. So far, benchmarks have validated Edge is already as fast or faster than Trident — even in the preview version. Using the two browsers side by side, it does seem like many complex pages load more quickly and cleanly with Spartan and Edge, although it is very hard to control for all the variables, including caching and the OS itself. Clearly one of the major goals for Microsoft is to stop people from deciding they need to load Chrome to get good Web performance. Another goal is to ship a browser that is as effective on small portable devices as it is on the desktop. In an extended browsing session, I didn’t find any sites that gave Spartan trouble, so that is a good sign.

Spartan is even simpler than Chrome

Spartan — at least in its current form — has even less options and clutter than Chrome. By default the interface consists of a multi-purpose address-and-search bar combined with glyphs for common commands, all located above the Web page content. This delivers on Joe Belfiore’s promise that the new browser would feature the Web content and not the browser UI. This is particularly helpful on low-resolutions screens — which make sense since Spartan is designed to run across all Windows 10 devices. On the high-resolution displays typical of most current desktops it is less important, but it is still nice not to have to fight through layers of clutter to interact with a page.

Page markup is a gamble by Microsoft

Annotating web pages is easy with Spartan

Microsoft is doubling down on its expertise in inking — and the active stylus of its Surface tablets — by making it simple to take notes and highlight text on Web pages. While a stylus isn’t essential to perform these actions, it is certainly helpful. Personally, I love using a stylus with tablets and computers, and like the idea of scribbling on Web pages. Realistically though, I’m not sure this feature will see much use.

Spartan’s settings are worth visiting

By default, Spartan does not block any cookies, or send do-not-track requests. So you may want to visit its settings and change the defaults. At the same time you’ll notice that Spartan has a full-fledged developer window, much like Firebug or the developer capabilities built-in to Chrome. You can also re-enable your Favorites bar from IE. All in all, Spartan has a lot of promise as a replacement for the browser many people have grown weary of.

Best laptops for photo editing: Retina is important, but it’s not everything

Apple MacBook Pro 13 and 15

Photo editing pushes laptop capabilities right to the very edge. Top-quality work demands a high-resolution, color-accurate display, and a fast processor. But the rigors of traveling with photo gear plus a computer make small, lightweight machines with long battery lives a real plus. Similarly, storing thousands of high-resolutions calls for a large hard drive, while peak performance is only possible with an SSD. When we last looked at the best options in the market in 2013, there were some clear leaders. We’ve updated our list, with some of the champions returning in updated versions, and a few newcomers elbowing their way onto the list.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the best laptops for photo editing, but if you are in the market, one of these is likely to suit your needs.

Apple Macbook Pro 15-inch with Retina display

  • Price: $1999 and up (15-inch)

Our 2013 first choice continues to be the most popular among professional photographers.

The Apple MacBook Pro 15 is still the most popular laptop among professional photographersFor photographers, the best reason to consider a MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina display is that you’ll get one of the best displays available in a well-built chassis. Unlike other brands that are always fiddling with their display quality and suppliers — making comparison shopping difficult — Apple has been relentless about improving the color gamut and fidelity of its laptop displays, while improving resolution. The MacBook Pro’sRetina display is as good as it gets for looking at and editing photos.

The quad-core Intel Core i7 featured in the 15-inch model provides plenty of horsepower for editing, and the integrated SSD does the same for the OS. The 2.2GHz model features a 256GB SSD, but serious photographers will probably want to spend the additional $500 for the 2.5GHz CPU, discrete Nvidia graphics, and 512GB SSD — bringing the price tag up to $2500. Perhaps the only downside is that the SSD — at a maximum of 512GB — may not be large enough for all your images, so expect to have to add an external hard drive for large projects. Many pros who use the MBP travel with a pair of Thunderbolt external hard drives, one for storing images and another as a backup.

If portability is a priority, then the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (the lightest laptop we found that supports 16GB of RAM) is also excellent, but editing tools like Photoshop and Lightroom will be fairly cramped on the smaller display. I hesitate to recommend the newest MacBook because of its lack of ports.

Dell XPS 15

  • Price: $1600 and up

My personal choice, the Dell XPS 15, has been updated with an even more sleek and higher-performance model, with better battery life and a touch screen. Pound for pound, the XPS 15 is now a match for Apple’s MacBook Pro 15. The only thing holding it back is Windows. Even Windows 8.1 with the latest version of Adobe’s tools can’t match Apple’s power management, and fumbles high-resolution support.

Dell continues to improve the XPS 15 and it is now a match for the MacBook Pro 15 Retina modelMy XPS 15 is the second machine I’ve ever bought from Dell — with my old XPS 15 being the first. Having used the new one all over the world for over a year as a professional photographer and tech journalist, I’m really happy I spent the money upgrading to the newest model. It’s lighter, sleeker, features improved battery life, and has an even better display –including touch which comes in surprisingly handy. The upgraded 2.2GHz fourth-generation quad-core Core i7 chip and Nvidia graphics card chew through large image editing projects almost like a desktop. The new model can be ordered with up to 16GB of RAM, and either a 1TB hard drive or 512GB SSD — with fully-loaded versions running about $2,500, competitive with similarly-kitted MacBook Pro models. The only trick is to realize that if you get the version with the discrete Nvidia GPU, it comes with a larger battery that takes up the space normally occupied by the main hard drive. That means you’re limited to an mSATA SSD. By default that caps your drive size, but I replaced the smallish SSD in my unit with a 1TB model so I have plenty of room.

The XPS 15 has plenty of connectivity options, including three USB 3.0 ports and an SD card slot. For video it has HDMI and mini DisplayPort. However, Dell has dropped the VGA connector and Ethernet, so make sure and carry adapters if you do a lot of presentations on legacy projectors or need a hard-wired Ethernet connection. Battery life is improved over previous versions, but still isn’t as good as Apple’s. If I’m not running any applications that use the GPU, I can get at least 4 hours — 5 or 6 if I try to conserve. Fire up Photoshop, Lightroom, or any other application that uses the GPU and battery life is nearly halved. In fairness, those applications have a similar impact on MacBook battery life.

The Dell has also got great sound, so good that I often don’t carry my portable speakers for when I do slideshows in small venues. The backlit keyboard is a joy to type on, and the machine has been rock solid. I’ve got Windows 8.1 on it now, which takes good advantage of the touch screen. If you have MacBook Pro envy, but want to run Windows, the Dell XPS 15 is your best bet. Both machines are about 4.5 pounds, with Retina-quality displays, great design, and high-price tags to match.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

  • Price: $799 and up

The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is a new contender for a lightweight photo editing travel solutionMicrosoft has been trying to convince us for several years that its Surface Pro tablets can do it all — provide a great tablet interface on a fully-capable laptop. While the Surface Pro 3 is still too heavy to make it a great handheld tablet, the excellent active stylus from N-trig, combined with a much larger color gamut display and a kickstand that accommodates tablet-style use make it an excellent choice for photographers on the road.

The SP3’s strengths start with the display. At 2160 x 1440 pixels, it has plenty of resolution for its 12-inch screen size, and covers a best-in-class 97 percent of the sRGB color gamut. It is not the brightest display in a lightweight laptop, but for photographers the addition of an excellent, pressure-sensitive, active stylus should more than compensate for that. The unit is available with a choice of i3, i5, or i7 CPUs — with an i5 or i7 recommended if you are going to do a lot of photo editing.

For Windows users who want a sub-2-pound device they can take on the road to do photo editing, the only stumbling block in picking an SP3 may be the price tag. The i7 version with a 512GB SSD and 8GB of RAM will set you back about $2K. Remember that you also won’t get anywhere near the claimed 9-hour battery life once you fire up a power-hungry application like Photoshop or Lightroom. As with most ultra-portables, you also give up expansion capability. You’ll need to live with the SSD and RAM that comes with the unit, although it does offer a microSD slot, as well as a mini DisplayPort and a USB 3 port for expansion. When I take one on the road, I use it with a Bluetooth mouse, freeing up the USB port for a card reader.

Alienware 17

  • Price: $1499 and up

If you need all the performance of a desktop the Alienware 17 may be what you're looking for in a laptopLarge-screen laptops are getting harder to find, but if performance is your highest priority, and you can live with a large, heavy machine, the Alienware 17 delivers desktop-replacement graphics speed from an amazing array of discrete GPU options combined with a 17.3-inch anti-glare 1080p display. The unit houses a top of the line 2.8GHz fourth-generation Core i7 processor and can be purchased with 16GB of RAM. Almost unique among laptops, there are also some possibilities for overclocking the CPU.

Dual drive bays allow for both a high-performance SSD and large-capacity traditional hard drive. All this capability does come with some costs. The unit can price out at nearly $3K fully configured, and at 8.3 pounds, it is one of the heaviest laptops on the market. Photographers who also need high-performance video editing or 3D effects will appreciate the unit’s massive graphics performance the most. The 1080p display is starting to pale compared to higher-resolution alternatives, however the 17-inch size helps make it easy to see icons and menus.

It used to be that there were 17-inch laptops aimed at multimedia professionals, like the MacBook Pro 17, and Dell XPS 17, but now large-screen lovers may have to look at massive “gaming” laptops like this one or the models from Razer. If video editing has become a big part of your workflow as a photographer, you should also read our article on the Best laptops for video editing.

Asus Zenbook UX301

  • Price: $1799 and up

The Asus UX301LA is a sleek  Windows alternative to an 13-inch MBPSince our last round-up, the Asus Zenbook UX301 has been updated, and provides a solid Windows alternative to the MacBook Pro 13. It is an effective laptop for performance-hungry road warriors who want a sleek ultrabook. Featuring a 13.3-inch multi-touch display at resolutions ranging from 1080p up to a Retina-esque 2560×1440 pixels (1920×1080 is available as well), and processor options up to an i7, the only place where it falls a little short is its maximum 8GB of RAM.

Originally called the Zenbook Infinity, the UX301 ships with Intel’s integrated graphics. For buyers that want to go all out the UX is available with a 512GB RAID0 SSD array that will offer more than sufficient storage and serious throughput. At 2.6 pounds, this lightweight performer also gets high marks for its roomy, backlit keyboard and range of options.

Don’t fret if we missed your photo editing favorite

It was hard to pick out just a few machines from the dozens of excellent laptop models out there. For many, apparently small features like backlit keyboards, multiple USB 3.0 ports, choice of DisplayPort, HDMI, or VGA output, or battery life can easily change which model is right for your particular needs. This is especially true with Windows Ultrabooks — with literally dozens of very similar models crowding the sub-four-pound SSD-powered Windows laptop space. Unfortunately, laptop makers seem to be making it increasingly difficult to compare the actual specifications for their units, and often completely neglect to state maximum RAM capacity, base CPU speed (they seem to like bragging about the higher Turbo Boost speed instead), or drive RPMs. Hopefully, though, the models we’ve described can serve as a baseline for your shopping so you’ll know what’s available and what some of your alternatives are.

Raspberry Pi 2 laptop coming with Pi-Top assembly kit

pitop 1

Do you want a Raspberry Pi 2 laptop? A new hardware kit coming from Pi-Top will help you build one at home in a matter of minutes.

The popular $35 Raspberry Pi 2 is an uncased computer that is already being used in drones, robots, gadgets, tablets and even desktops. The otherwise stationary computer can be transformed into a laptop even by beginners with no hardware assembly experience.

The full Pi-Top kit includes a 13.3-inch screen, battery, trackpad, mousepad, laptop casings and Raspberry Pi 2, which would serve as the main motherboard. Users will be able to run a full Linux-based operating system and surf the Web, check email and run productivity software.

The laptop will be able to provide around eight hours of battery life, Jesse Lozano, Pi-Top co-founder and CEO, said in an email.

pitop 2
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The Pi-Top kit will ship in May, Lozano said. The kit can be ordered for $299.99 with the Raspberry Pi 2, and for $264.99 without the board. The company has already shown working units of the Pi-Top, and Eben Upton, founder of Raspberry Pi Foundation, has used a Pi-Top machine.

The Raspberry Pi 2 was introduced two months ago as a successor to the original Raspberry Pi, which has sold more than 4 million units. The Pi has developed a cult following among do-it-yourselfers, and the Pi-Top kit could extend the board’s appeal to regular laptop users.

It could also appeal to existing Raspberry Pi 2 users, who currently need to attach a keyboard and monitor to use the computer. Right out of the box, Pi-Top will provide those components in a single chassis. But at $265, it is an expensive Raspberry Pi 2 case.

Pi-Top was announced late last year, and raised $176,746 from a successful Indiegogo campaign. It was originally due to ship with the original 3-year-old Raspberry Pi board, which wasn’t viewed as a PC replacement due to slow performance. But the Raspberry Pi 2 is six times faster than its predecessor and sports more memory, making it more feasible for use as an everyday laptop.

The Raspberry Pi 2 has a quad-core ARM Cortex A7 CPU, which is part of many low-cost smartphones. It also has a Broadcom VideoCore IV graphics processor, which will be able to render 1080p video. Additionally, it has four USB ports, an HDMI outlet, an ethernet slot, microSD slot for storage and GPIO pins. The Pi-Top chassis will allow access to the many Raspberry Pi 2 ports, which will be accessible by pulling out a removable pane

New Chromebooks and Chromebit stick start at $100 thanks to lower-power chips

Haier Chromebook

The secret behind these low-cost Chromebooks is the RK3288, a very inexpensive ARM processor from Rockchip, a Chinese chip maker that’s little known outside of industry circles.

The Rockchip RK3288 is one of the first chips based on the quad-core ARM Cortex-A17 architecture, which was launched in mid-2014. Because the chip can draw as little as 3 watts of power, the Chromebooks based on it are designed without fans, and can last all day on a single charge—up to 13 hours in the Asus Chromebook Flip, according to Gayathri Rajan, director of product management at Google.

The story behind the story: The essential Chromebook concept relies on the premise that a huge cross-section of users will be happy with “good enough” computing, especially at rock-bottom prices. The systems aren’t powerful enough to play hardcore games and Windows applications, but they’re “good enough” to browse the web and tap into Google’s extensive suite of cloud services—Gmail, Drive, Maps, and so on.

However, you could argue that with fewer than 25 million Chromebook sales last year (opposed to more than 302 million PC sales), Google still has work to do. And thus today’s announcement. Google and its partners are lowering prices further while chasing the one commodity laptop users value most: battery life.

At their heart, they’re all the same

The basic hardware specs of the Asus Chromebook Flip, the two Chromebooks from Haier and HiSense, and the Chromebit Chromebook-on-a-stick are all nearly identical. You get the aforementioned Rockchip chip, 2GB of storage, and a 16GB SSD.

“Our general belief is that you can’t get to lower-priced devices by just dropping specs,” Sengupta said. “Users see through that. But if you keep the performance bar the same, but bring the price down, that’s really how you need to go through it.”

Many consumers might not familiar with Hisense, but the Chinese manufacturer has forged a solid relationship with Walmart, which sells its low-cost televisions and other electronics. Haier, meanwhile, is better known for washing machines and other appliances. Both the black Hisense Chromebook and the white Haier Chromebook—not the most poetic of names—will go on sale today at Walmart.com and Amazon, respectively, for an identical price of $149.

hisense chromebook frontGORDON MAH UNG
The Hisense Chromebook and its Rockchip CPU should sell for $149.

The Hisense Chromebook measures 11.7 inches by 8.8 inches by 0.6 inch, and weighs 3.3 pounds. Neither Hisense nor Google released the resolution of its 11.6-inch display, but it certainly looks more like the washed-out matte display of other cheapo Chromebooks than the utterly beautiful 2560×1700 display of the Chromebook Pixel. The Hisense Chromebook includes a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a 720p front-facing camera, a microSD card reader, an HDMI connector, 802.11ac Bluetooth 4.0, and a mic/headphone combo port.

The Haier Chromebook is slightly smaller, measuring 11.4 inches by 8.1 inches by 0.71 inch, and weighs 2.54 pounds. Otherwise, the specs are the same as the Hisense model. Recognizing the Chromebook’s influence in education—where Chromebooks outsell all other computing devices, according to Google director of product management Rajen Sheth—Haier also plans a ruggedized version with a spill-proof keyboard and an actual drain hole for milk or juice to flow through.

The one notable difference between the two new models is battery life: the Hisense Chromebook is rated at up to 8.5 hours of battery life, while the Haier Chromebook promises 10 hours.

The Chromebit: a Chromebook on a stick

The Asus Chromebit shows off exactly how compact a low-cost computing device can be.

The Chromebit looks very similar to the Chromecast, Google’s entertainment-oriented thumb computer that includes an HDMI connector to plug into a monitor or TV, a microUSB connector for power, wireless capability, and a processor—and that’s about it. With the Chromebit, Asus has added a full-size USB connector for plugging in a USB hub, along with the hardware found inside the two new Chromebooks from Haier and Hisense. Google hasn’t disclosed the exact price, but said the Chromebit will be less than $100.

chromebit stick cropped

With a Chromebit, you don’t even need a notebook or netbook—you just slip the stick into the HDMI port of a display at home, work, or an Internet cafe.

“Think of the different use cases,” Sengupta said. “Think of an Internet cafe, where you have a monitor, you have a keyboard, and mouse, [but] you’re stuck with an old desktop. It’s probably never been updated, pretty insecure. Think of a school lab, all the peripherals, but stuck to a desktop. Now you can replace that.”

The Chromebit doesn’t appear to be a truly novel idea, but rather a nice effort on the part of Google to market an existing concept. CNX Software reported on a similar device running Android last year, while Rockchip’s own Wikipedia page lists a similar “mini PC” from Tronsmart. Dell showed off a prototype, known as ”Project Ophelia,” in 2013, and this later turned into an Android-powered computing stick for about $100

Meet the Asus Chromebook Flip, a $249 Chrome OS tablet with a 360-degree hinge

asus chromebook flip both modes croppedOn Tuesday, Google announced the $249 Asus Chromebook Flip. As the first mainstream Chrome device to offer a 360-degree hinge, the Flip can function as a tablet as well as a laptop. (Lenovo was first to offer a Chrome OS convertible with its ThinkPad Yoga 11e last year, but that model was meant primarily for education, and was chunkier and pricier that most people would like.)

By the time the Chromebook Flip ships—in six to eight weeks, Google says—Google will also release version 42 of Chrome OS, with updates to improve the touch experience. Google says highlights will include the ability to flip the display image, an onscreen keyboard, handwriting recognition, and “full offline capabilities.”

What this means for you: The Asus Chromebook Flip marks a big evolutionary step for an ecosystem that’s already on a roll. In the past two years, Chromebook manufacturers have branched out from their primitive, plasticky beginnings, introducing models with bigger displays, touchscreens, and faster chips.

Google manufacturers its own stunning flagship, the Chromebook Pixel, now in its second generation. But until the Flip, there’s never been a mainstream convertible that’s designed for express use as a tablet. As the Chrome OS platform receives better app support as well, users have fewer and fewer reasons to care whether a system is based on Windows, Mac, or Chrome.

asus chromebook flip tablet left side portsIMAGE: MELISSA RIOFRIO
The Asus Chromebook Flip, shown here in tablet mode, offers two USB 3.0 ports, a mini-HDMI port, and an SD card slot, plus an audio jack.

Dressed to impress

The Chromebook Flip, with its 10.1-inch display, is smaller than most Chromebooks, which have displays measuring 11.6 inches and up. You might forgive the loss of real estate given that the display uses the superior IPS technology, and its resolution is full HD (1366×768 pixels).

An all-metal chassis gives the Chromebook Flip the promise of durability, and yet the device is light—less than 2 pounds, Google says.

asus chromebook flip easel right side ports

The Chromebook Flip squeezed an adequate supply of connectivity into its slender profile. On one side, you’ll see two USB 2.0 ports, an SD card slot, HDMI, and an audio jack. On the other, you’ll see power and volume buttons, plus the DC power port.

Under the hood you’ll find 2GB of RAM and the Rockchip 3288 CPU. Rockchip, a new partner for Google, brings less expensive, more power-efficient CPUs to the Chromebook lineup. Google also announced new Chromebooks from Haier and Hisense with the same chip. Benchmarks from our hands-on with the new Hisense Chromebook indicate that this processor holds up well compared to older ARM chips.

Google is serious about battling Windows and Mac laptops for computing dominance. Google vice president Caesar Sengupta told us that the Asus Chromebook Flip is just one of 10 new Chromebook models coming out in the next couple of months. The Chrome ecosystem is looking lively and interesting, in a way that should worry both the Windows and Mac ecosystems. Stay tuned for a Chromebook Flip review when the convertible ships in late Spring

Hands on: The $149 Hisense Chromebook succeeds at being incredibly affordable

hisense chromebook front

The Hisense Chromebook—announced Tuesday morning and available now at Walmart.com—costs just $149. And that super-low price is probably its most remarkable feature. This model, along with the Haier Chromebook also announced today, sets a new standard for affordable computers in this age of more expensive Windows laptops, and even pricier Macs.

We could easily criticize this Chromebook for everything it doesn’t have for $149, but we can’t ignore the benefit of that price point for people or schools on a tight budget. Think about it this way: The minimum wage in San Francisco (where PCWorld is based) is currently $11.05. Someone working for that wage would have to work about 15 hours (based on gross pay, and assuming sales tax) to afford the $149 Hisense Chromebook. That already seems like a lot, doesn’t it?

hisense chromebook starboard

If the Hisense Chromebook didn’t exist, however, that person would have to work about 20 hours to afford a $200-range Chromebook (or HP Stream 11, the Windows-based rival). And that labor penalty scales evenly for more expensive machines. Now you see why a $149 laptop could fly off the shelves at Walmart. At $149, these machines are relatively disposable as well—a consideration for parents who want something their kids can destroy with minimal fiscal impact.

Considering the price, the Hisense Chromebook is a decent machine. It’s not in the least bit flashy, with its textured, matte-plastic chassis. The bezel around the 11.6-inch display is thick, but that may be part of the reason why the lid feels so sturdy.

hisense chromebook port

The display quality is nothing special—a common drawback among low-end Chromebooks. But the video playback quality is surprisingly good. We could play an action movie at full-screen with only very occasional hiccups. (The GPU is a Rockchip Mali 760 quad core). The viewing angles are limited, however, and brightness maxes out at 200 nits. The speakers are the usual tinny sort you find in most laptops.

The base of the Hisense Chromebook feels rock-solid. The metal plate covering the wrist area around the trackpad probably contributes to that, but the cold metal feels uncomfortable.

hisense chromebook keyboard detail

The keyboard is adequate, but it’s the cheapest-feeling part of the Hisense Chromebook. Its hard-plastic keys feel second-rate. The slightly springy travel compensates a little bit, but the entire keyboard area bends a bit while typing.

Connectivity features include 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Ports include one HDMI, two USB 2.0, and audio, plus an SD Card reader.

The Rockchip CPU: Balancing cost and performance

Now let’s dive into the Rockchip RK3288 CPU that contributes to the Hisense Chromebook’s low price. For comparative testing, we updated the Hisense Chromebook to the latest stable build of Chrome OS, and installed that same build on our Chromebook test stable, which includes the Google Pixel, the Acer Chromebook 13 and Chromebook 15, and the Toshiba Chromebook 2.

For comparative performance testing, we also included Google’s new Pixel, which we’re calling Pixel 2 in our chart to make it easier to read. [Note: We didn’t get a chance to update the Pixel 2 to the latest OS, so we’re reusing previous results. The Pixels are much higher-end, but we’ve included the results for reference.]

hisense chromebook google octane

In general, the quad-core Cortex A17 architecture used in the new Hisense Chromebook is somewhat competitive with Intel’s budget Celeron N2840, which powers the vast majority of new Chromebook models. In other tests, though, the extreme budget roots of the Hisense’s RK3288 chip are apparent.

Google’s own Octane V2 test, which measures JavaScript performance, pegs the Rockchip as just slightly slower than the Atom-powered Toshiba Chromebook 2 and its Celeron N2840, as well as Acer’s Chromebook 13 and its Tegra K1 chip. That tells us the new Hisense Chromebook should offer fair performance for the vast majority of what people do in a browser.

hisense chromebook browsermark

That assessment is backed up by Rightware’s BrowserMark 2.1 test, which also includes testing of JavaScript as well as CSS, DOM and graphics tests. Again, that’s not bad for a chip that’s usually associated with rock-bottom performance.

hisense chromebook kraken

Mozilla Kraken 1.1, however, exposes some shortcomings in the Rockchip part. The test is also a JavaScript test, and uses some aspects of the popular SunSpider benchmark. There’s audio processing, image filtering, and cryptographic tests in the test, and the RK3288 falls far behind the Nvidia Tegra K1 and the Celeron N2840.

hisense chromebook cr xprt

We’re seeing the same dead-last performance in Principled Technologies CrXPRT-2015 test. There’s a lot of HTML5 and JavaScript, as well as encryption and WebGL used in the simulated apps that test photo editing, face detection, offline note taking and even a DNA sequence analysis. Intel’s little Bay Trail-based Celeron pounds the Rockchip. Badly.

Battery life, we’re still testing. Google specifies 8.5 hours, but we got only 6.22 hours in our rundown test. The disparity’s big enough to recheck, and we’ll keep you posted.

Overall performance of the Hisense Chromebook isn’t bad, especially compared to older ARM-based Chromebooks (Acer’s Tegra K1 is not included in that group). Compared to the vast majority of budget Chromebooks, which are Intel Atom/Bay Trail-based, it offers somewhat competitive performance in many areas.