Check out the travel section – #rsts11travel has more coming this week!

You’re tuned to rsts11, the tech blog from Robert Novak (Est. 2011). If you’d like to turn to the new travel section, visit rsts11travel.com and see what we’re writing about over there.

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Coming in the next week or two will be a two-part mobile power piece as well as a slightly more detailed hotel review from your host’s birthday escape. Unfortunately, no pina coladas, but fortunately, no getting caught in the rain either.

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rsts11 will continue to roll out tech content,including some hardware reviews and homelab / POHO build travelogues, a bit of big data, and some more economy power-networking options.

Thanks for your support!

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Another look at mobile workflow – iPad Air keyboard cases

I have a bad habit of buying lots of accessories for an electronic device I’ll have for a year or so, and then they pile up because people don’t want to buy them with the old device. This is usually the case with mobile phones and laptops, but it also comes up with tablets. I have three keyboard cases and at least three regular cases for my iPad 3rd gen, including a Hello Kitty keyboard.

During a particularly nifty Target promo around their Cartwheel app, I got a 15% discount off any electronic device over a two day period. This included iPads, and since my 16GB 3rd gen iPad was full, I got a 64GB Air at nearly 20% off (with redcard discount). Then I went about looking for a case.

I need a case, just in case, you know

An article someone pointed me toward said the Case Crown Omni was the best on the market. I bought it to use while I searched for a keyboard case that would work. I don’t have a lot to say about it except that it was indeed a good case, better than any I found at local retail in a few days of looking.

Among the recommendations that came in was one from Kieran Hannon, the CMO of Belkin (who also own the Linksys brand, in case you’ve been under a WRT54G for the past year).

He unsurprisingly recommended his firm’s “Qode” (pronounced as “Code”) line of keyboard cases, with the top-of-the-range Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case being well rated (albeit a bit pricey at $130). There’s also a Slim Style model (msrp $80) with a kickstand on the iPad holder, and a Thin Type model (msrp $100) that works as a stand when in use and clips over the iPad when not in use.

61gBQETEYkL._SL1500_[1]As an aside, the Belkin product I use the most (up until now, at least) is their swivel power adapter with USB and AC outlets. The SurgePlus model is the current one, with 2.1A charging on USB. I suspect the 3-4 of them I have are old enough to be the 1A versions (time to upgrade!). Great for travel, especially if you’re at an event where they think one power outlet per table is generous.

The Belkin Slim Style

I bought a Slim Style at Target, marked down from $80 to $71 and further discounted 5% via redcard (I think this was after the Cartwheel deal). I used it for a day or so before mentioning on Twitter that it was nice, but the kickstand design wasn’t very lap friendly. This is what you could call the Surface Dilemma, after Microsoft’s almost-there laptop-replacement tablet which hasn’t yet wowed everyone with its lap-friendliness.

71Swm5JrNTL._SL1500_[1]

My assessment of the Slim Style was that, on a desktop (or probably even on a roomier airline tray table), it would be good. The keyboard and its layout felt reasonable, and I felt it protected the iPad well enough that I could just drop it into my laptop bag without fear.

But I returned it, because of the lapability factor, and mentioned this on Twitter.

The @belkincares account asked if they could help, and were very courteous even though they (luckily) couldn’t make my lap resemble a tabletop more. I’ve had a few good exchanges with @belkincares over the past year or so, from stacking cable inquiries around their older KVMs to some arcane questions about the wireless bridge line.

This keyboard case goes to ULTIMATE

About a week later, Belkin had generously provided a Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case for me to try out at no cost.  I plugged it in to charge and then started using it the next morning.

The Belkin Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case

The Belkin Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case in use

The Qode Ultimate has a more contained layout, in that rather than a kickstand, the iPad shell magnetically “sticks” to the keyboard shell. It has three positions, as with the Slim Style, but they’re within the footprint of the keyboard, and thus much more convenient on the lap or on a tray table.

ipad-qode-shellThe keyboard shell is sort of a dark blue “aircraft-grade aluminum alloy” that I didn’t recognize as blue at first. It does pick up fingerprints and the occasional light scratch, but I only notice that when getting the iPad out or putting it away, since this part is on the bottom when in use, and also hidden when you’re using it in “reading mode” (i.e. folded back).

The iPad shell piece is black plastic with a leatherish inset that incorporates the kickstand “hinge.” The Belkin logo is on the “front” (i.e. bottom of the keyboard) and the Belkin name is on the leatherish hinge section and on the front of the keyboard.

The keyboard turns itself off unless the iPad is “connected” to one of the three kickstand positions. So if you flip it back so that the keyboard is behind the screen, it’s automatically powered off. Same with closing it up; the keyboard is off and the battery life is extended.

For some reason, Belkin have swapped two of the keys on their keyboards. I believe the Slim Style and Thin Style place the colon/semicolon key between “L” and “Enter” whereas the Ultimate places the quote key there. In each case the other key is to the right of the space bar.

Kensington to the semicolon’s rescue?

I’m slowly getting used to the keyboard layout. It’s very typeable except when I need a semicolon or a colon. However, I decided that if I was going to write a review, it would be good to make sure that I liked the Belkin keyboard case for reasons other than it being given to me at no cost.

So I picked up a Kensington KeyFolio Exact case, which I found on clearance at Marshall’s for $40. It includes a Google Drive offer (which is apparently processed manually by Kensington, as I haven’t received the code for the offer in the past week), so it was an inexpensive experiment.

The KeyFolio is bulkier, with a detachable bluetooth keyboard, a stylus holder in the hinge, a wider range of color options, and a lower price if you’re going to buy it at retail.

The Kensington Exact and Belkin Qode Ultimate keyboards

The Kensington Exact and Belkin Qode Ultimate keyboards

I found that the keyboard itself was brilliant, managing to fit both the semicolon and the quote key between “L” and Enter by making the keys a little bit smaller. And since the Kensington had a fixed “kickstand” mounting point in the case closer to the hinge, they had room to put separate number and function key rows on the keyboard. The Belkin Slim Style also does this, since it has most of the surface area to spend on keyboard real estate. And I actually found myself using the function keys on the Kensington, which I hadn’t done on the Belkin.

(Above photo is of the actual keyboards, Kensington Keyfolio Exact on the top and Belkin Qode Ultimate on the bottom.)

I used the Kensington for just short of a week, and while I loved the keyboard and almost got used to the stand layout, I found I had to go back to the Belkin Qode Ultimate. Why?

I preferred the Qode Ultimate’s ease of turning off the keyboard, the lightness and grace of the entire case, and its turning off the iPad screen and locking it when I closed the case.

I expect I will hold onto the Kensington in case someone I know needs a super-cheap case for their Air and doesn’t need lapability. I am tempted to try the Thin Style just to see how that style of keyboard feels as a case. But the iPad is back in my Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case, just in time to head off for a company sales meeting out of town next week. And maybe I’ll have to write with fewer semicolons.

Summary:

All keyboards tested charge with standard micro-USB cables (included), and paired very easily with the iPad Air via Bluetooth. Battery times are based on the manufacturer’s website or packaging (YMMV of course). Prices found on 8/22/2014 online.

Belkin Qode Slim Style keyboard case – $34 at Belkin or Amazon.

Good design, great keyboard, excellent value for the cost, but suboptimal for lap work.
2.5 days working time, 60 days standby time

Kensington KeyFolio Exact keyboard case – $29-39 at Amazon, $40 at Marshall’s, includes a 65GB 1 year Google Drive credit (~$15 value)

Great keyboard, kickstand design could use some work, doesn’t seem to lock the screen when closed.
40 days working time, 180 days standby time

Belkin Qode Ultimate keyboard case – $129 at Belkin, around $90 at Amazon.

Slim and sturdy case, very lap-friendly, no dedicated function key row, semicolon key is on the bottom row.
11 days working time, 180 days standby time

The final word:

The Qode Ultimate turns your iPad into a laptop, although it comes at a premium (which I feel is worth it). The Qode Slim Style and Kensington KeyFolio are good keyboards for tabletop use, and come in at a lower price.

Disclosure: Thanks to Kieran Hannon and Belkin for providing the Belkin Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case at no charge to me. Other than a twitter inquiry of “and the verdict?” they did not require or request a review, blog post, or any other consideration.

Brain power and device power for your holiday weekend and beyond

As some of you know, I’ve recently moved across town (why did I want my own yard again?) and flipped my commute from northwest to east-northeast by way of joining Cisco Systems. I will still be blogging here, and possibly more on other sites (like the Perspectives Blog at Cisco) but it’s been a period of resettling lately.

I do want to bring a couple of promotions to your attention… things I like and want to share (see disclosure below).

Packt Publishing $10 for 10th Anniversary

First, if you’re heading into the holiday weekend and looking for some development reading, Packt Publishing is celebrating their 10th anniversary with a $10 deal on all of their eBooks and videos through July 5 (Saturday).

Packt is a smaller publisher of tech materials… they engage writers from the community and bring out books on new and updated topics a bit (or sometimes a lot) faster than the larger and more official tech presses. They cover a broad range of topics and most likely have something you’ll enjoy reading. And if you have unique expertise on your social media or LinkedIn profile, you may hear from them about writing and reviewing opportunities as well.

One of the books they released recently that I’ve been looking forward to is Implementing Cisco UCS Solutions. There is a reliable rumor that Cisco Press is coming out with an updated official UCS tome in the next year (the previous version is about 4 years old now), but in the meantime, you may find this book useful for learning in more detail about Cisco UCS.

So check out this link and see if they have anything you like. The deal goes through Saturday, and their eBooks are DRM-free so you can read them almost anywhere (maybe not your 90s Nokia phone, but hey) and even print from them if you like.

PowerQube Mini portable power strip and charger

Second, for those of you who travel, or like unique outlet strips… take a look at the PowerQube Mini that’s on Kickstarter for the next week.

pqmaxi

About a year ago, these folks from Indianapolis came out with the original PowerQube. This is a stylish power cube (in the 2d sense, it’s an inch or so tall) with six regular AC outlets and three full power USB charging ports. The PowerQube has integrated electronics letting it send the right power to your devices, whether a little rechargeable speaker that needs 300mA or your iPad or Transformer T100 that wants the heat of a thousand suns. Or 2A. Whichever seems more practical.

I backed the project and got one of the white PowerQubes for $30. It’s a little bit big for solo travel, although I’d bring it with me if I were spending a weekend or a week in a vacation home. And as far as home use, well, it powers my home office desk, and I’m going to get another to power the home network from.

You can find the original PowerQube at Fry’s for $69.95, or order one from Amazon for $59.95. But if you compare what I paid for my Kickstarter model, with the retail price, you may be thinking “how can I get in on this kind of deal?”

pqmini-ac

Well, that’s where the PowerQube Mini Kickstarter comes in. The Mini is a lot smaller, with two AC outlets and three full-power smart USB ports. It also has a detachable IEC power cord, so you could hang this off an underused datacenter PDU or just replace the cord if you need shorter or longer drops.

pqmini-usbIf you pledge, and if they make the goal, you can get one Mini for $35 (estimated shipment is September 2014). I went for the silver bundle to get 3 of the Minis at $100 total. But they’d appreciate the support at any level, and I think a lot of my readers would benefit from something like this.

But wait, you’ll get a charge out of this…

Ever wonder what you’re plugging into when you use a public charger? Feel a little paranoid at trade shows or airports but your phone is at 5% and you can’t put it in B&W mode like the new Samsungs?

It turns out there are some unique cables out there that don’t have data connectivity at all. They bridge the lines so you get as much power as your phone or tablet can handle, which means pretty much no risk of having your data accessed surreptitiously, and your phone or tablet may charge in half the time to boot.

I’ve recently stocked up on PortaPow cables from Amazon. PortaPow is a UK company that uses what they call the “Dumb USB specification” to provide charge-only cables in various lengths for MicroUSB devices.

Got an iDevice? Get the MicroUSB to Lightning (or 30pin) adapter from Apple and use it with this. Alternately, PortaPow has a Fast Charge USB Adapter (some people call it a USB Condom) that you put between the source and your existing USB charge cable. Apparently you need the Apple version to get 2A charge through the adapter; I would expect either to work with Android and other standard USB devices.

There are other brands, including Mediabridge (I have three of their cables to test with as well), and if you look for “fast charge usb” you should find others as well. But most of my experience, since buying an ASUS Transformer T100TA with its quirky USB charge requirements, has been with PortaPow, so that’s what I recommend.

So where do we go from here?

I recommend a safe and relaxing weekend of course. That’s my goal as well. Happy Fourth of July to all of you who observe a calendar, whether it’s a holiday or not.

But check out the links above and see if any of this can help with your brain power and device power needs.

Disclosures:

I’ve bought some PacktPub books on my own, and received others on promotion. I will be getting a promo copy or two of their books for this post and related social media excursions.

My PowerQube was purchased through generally available channels (Kickstarter) with my own money, and my pledge for the Mini is out of my own pocket as well, although they may provide promotional consideration in the future.

And the fast-charging USB cables are not a promotion of any sort; I’ve paid out of my own pocket for the dozen or so I have from PortaPow and MediaBridge and others, and I’ll probably buy more since (like scissors and tape) they tend to disappear.

In Praise Of Microsoft Store, or, To QHD And Back Again (Another Laptop Journey)

There are two pieces of information that will inform this article, and I’ll get them out there first.

One, I’m not a Microsoft fanboy. My favorite MS products are still the 16KB expansion card for the Apple ][+ and a selection of their keyboard and mouse options. I liked Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows 7, and when each was current it was my daily driver OS for the most part. But I’m usually no more likely to advocate them than I am any other jumbo company.

Two, I probably buy more laptops than you do. As in, personally purchasing out of my own pocket (not IT department purchases). Probably twenty in the last 14 months. These ranged from old HP “thin client” laptops to play with, to my current daily driver, the ASUS Zenbook UX32VD I talked about in my Pitfalls blog post last August (more toward the cheaper side of course). I’ve agonized over details of some (like the Zenbook) and just thrown the cash down on others (like the thin clients or some other cheaper ones). So I’ve been through the process before.

You already want another laptop? And what’s QHD?

So I’ve been thinking about upgrading the daily driver role again. I went from a very heavy but very powerful Sony VAIO with 16GB ram, 4c/8t, 1080p display, USB3… to the Zenbook with 10GB ram, 2c/4t, 1080p display, USB3, and about half the mass/weight. But I’d like to get that memory back up there, and add some real estate, and get rid of the proprietary third display connector while keeping discrete graphics. Getting a 1920×1200 (WUXGA+) display requires 17″ LCD and/or Core2 processor, neither of which is optimal, so I have to look larger. I did pick up a 1920×1200 Macbook Pro last year, but it’s limited to 6-8GB of RAM and has a Core 2 processor.

QHD, for those among you not familiar, is “quad high definition,” generally 2560×1440, WQHD, or 4x 720p. There’s WQXGA+, which is 3200×1800, which also gets called QHD or QHD+, which is 4x 1600×900. Don’t confuse this with lower-case-q qHD, which is a 960×540 standard, a quarter of 1080p resolution. I’m okay with 2560×1440 or 3200×1800 or anything in that range, to be honest.

QHD? Could you spell that?

As an aside, I go to Fry’s a couple of times a week, as I live a mile from one store and work 3 blocks from another, so I just do. One time I wandered around looking at laptops and one of the helpful but useless sales associates asked if he could help. “Yes,” I said, “I’m looking for a QHD laptop, you know, 2600×1800 or so resolution?” He scrambled for a piece of paper to write on, asking me to spell Q-H-D, and then handing me off to another sales associate who told me what I’d already discovered–they didn’t carry any such devices.

So I’ve been browsing the web every so often, searching eBay for Precision M6500 (17″ 1920×1200 with 32GB capacity and first gen i7 processors), looking at other retailers when I’m in their laptop sections, and pondering what to do when the urge to upgrade finally takes over. I don’t really have to explain the decision to my significant other, although she wonders why I need a new laptop in less than five years.

The first three I found online were

  • Fujitsu Lifebook u904, an i7-4600U with 14″ 3200×1800 display, 10GB max RAM like my current ultrabook, 802.11abgn; $2154 with 4GB RAM from shopfujitsu.com.
  • Dell XPS15 6842sLV, which has an i7-4702HQ, 15.6″ 3200×1880  display, 802.11ac, and 16GB max RAM; $1766 used with 16GB RAM from Amazon.com
  • IBMLenovo Thinkpad W540 with i7-4700MQ, 15.5″ 2880×1620, 802.11ac, and support for 32GB on the quad-core models. $1830 with 16GB from lenovo.com

Yeah, that’s kinda pricy, but I’m looking for what turns out to be workstation-class hardware, not pure 720p ultrabook.

I suspect I’d do nicely with either of the 15″ displays, but as you might guess, I’m nervous about buying into a product line I’ve never touched or seen in person, especially when it’d set me back $2000.

So I just kept looking, and asked around on Twitter about any Bay Area retail or showcase options. Jake Ludington came up with a good suggestion, just about the time Google found a hint to the same effect.

So, having had an uneventful morning, I headed out to the Microsoft retail store at Valley Fair.

Microsoft Store? What’chu talking about, Willis?

Here’s where I used to be a little bit critical, and some of my friends downright ridiculed the idea. Apple has their retail thing down cold pretty much after 13 years… you can find Apple Stores all over the place and go in and see what they want you to buy.  You can talk to a person whose boss has declared him or her a “Genius(tm),” in much the same sense as some companies declare all their managers “Leaders(tm).” And you can buy one of their preconfigured options for a laptop.

Microsoft started opening up their own retail stores almost five years ago. They’re not quite the same, as Microsoft doesn’t manufacture/brand a whole lot of systems. So instead of the company’s hardware, software, and blessed accessories, you get a lot more partner products. For example, alongside the Surface tablet line you’ll see Nokia and Dell tablets. Next row over, you’ll find laptops and ultrabooks and convertibles from Samsung, Acer, Dell, HP, ASUS, and probably some I forgot about. There’s a corner for XBox (including Disney Infinity), a corner for accessories and gadgets, and a display section for Windows Phone. And you’ll find “Technical Advisors” available to help you… a bit more down-to-earth ranking, I’d say. 

Those of you who were in San Francisco around the turn of the century may remember the Microsoft store on the second floor at Metreon, and the XBox Store on the first floor. It’s like that, but combined and a lot more focused, and there are 60+ of them in North America.

Some people joke that the Apple Store is filled to the gills with customers, whereas the Microsoft Store has 3-5 sales associates for each customer. That was probably true five years ago. But I’d guess the buying-customer to browsing-customer ratio is higher under the four-colored logo. It’s seemed that way each time I’ve been in the Microsoft Store.

So how’d your visit go?

It was actually pretty good. The store has tables set up like the Apple Store, with a couple of demo products on either side. There are stools for you to sit on while you try out the devices, which is a nice touch… unless you use a standing desk you won’t get a feel for the keyboard and display without sitting down and relaxing a bit.

The labeling of the laptops was concise and easily compared. Some models had multiple sample devices out. I tried four models that mostly met my requirements:

  • Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus, a 13.3″ i5 with 8GB RAM/128GB SSD and 802.11n for $1449. The i7 with 256GB SSD is listed on their site for $1599.
  • Acer Aspire S7, a 13.3″ i7 with 8GB RAM/256GB SSD and 802.11n for $1499
  • Dell XPS 15, a 15.6″ i7 with 16GB RAM/512GB SSD and 802.11ac for $2299
  • HP Envy Touch 14, a 14.0″ i5 with 8GB RAM/500GB SATA and 802.11ac as well as 200MB/mo free mobile broadband, for $899

(The links above are to approximate analogues on Amazon; there are a lot of configurations and they don’t always match with what’s in retail locations or microsoftstore.com.)

The machines were all logged in to a regular user account (Device Manager warned me about this on each system), wireless was working, and I was able to check out the details without sales reps acting like I was trying to stick my tongue in the USB ports.

I probably could’ve stayed longer, and there was one idle sales rep of about half a dozen who was available should I have any questions. However, I was fully aware that I wouldn’t be making a purchase today. Even if I were, I’d have done my own research (probably on one one of the sample laptops) before engaging the staff, but they seemed friendly and reachable despite my not befriending or reaching for them.

So I just got the stand-out details tapped into my Evernote client on Android, and even disqualified one of the machines because it had a very weird keyboard (the Aspire S7 has some weird keyboard features including Caps Lock sharing its traditional space with the backtick/tilde key)

Then I wandered around looking at what else was available. There was a Surface Music Kit cover on display which, while not set up with the app, looked pretty cool. Lots of tablets were present, including my 2-in-1 ASUS T100TA and the Dell Venue 8 (Pro, I think).  The staff were smiling but not creepily so, and thanked me for visiting when I left to find some caffeine.

So where do you go from here?

Well… as I mentioned, I am not buying just yet. So I have some time for absurd amounts of research, review-reading, comparison shopping, maybe even looking into fan/rumor sites to see what’s coming out in the next four weeks.

I may head back in to look into any other interests or concerns I have during the research phase; it seems like the odds of the model systems being functional and available are higher there than at most consumer electronics stores I visit (hi Best Buy, Fry’s). And I can give the sales associates a chance to show their chops in terms of customer experience with the QHD laptops.

But assuming the prices aren’t that different from competitors and the specs I want are available, I’d be happy to head back to the Microsoft Store to buy my next laptop.

If you’ve had an experience buying a laptop at a Microsoft Store, or have recommendations or warnings about QHD/WQHD/QHD+ display laptops, feel free to chime in on the comments below. I’m especially interested in anything with 32GB memory capacity, and I’ll be digging deeper into specs in the near future.  I’ll keep you posted as my search progresses.

Disclaimer: I’ve received no consideration or influence from Microsoft on this post. I’ve not yet spent even a penny at a Microsoft Store. Although I wouldn’t turn down promo codes or coupons of course.

Found Out There – 2013-02-03

I’m going to try to push myself toward blogging more by adding an every-two-weeks (or every week) list of interesting links I came up with over the past so long.

I don’t have ads on my site, partly because nobody’s begged me to take their money, and partly because I think the clean look is more enjoyable and requires less maintenance and tracking.

But if you’d like to help my geek gadget (and caffeine) habit, feel free to shop through my Amazon.com affiliate link or use the links on the lower right side of this page. I also occasionally put things in my Amazon aStore, and link to them here. Buying those things (or anything through those links) also gets me a few bucks that can go toward a pound of loose-leaf tea or a new hybrid hard drive. Thanks in advance for those of you who choose to do this.

So here are my interesting links for the week ending 2013-02-03.

Gratuitous self-links:

Other things I’ve found of interest:

What did you find this week, that you think I should be reading?