Getting Into the Cloud? Tablets, Netbooks, and Dropbox

Posted on Posted in Advice, Technology & Products

 

 

Introduction

With so many new computer-related buying options, many consumers aren’t sure what they need. In the process for trying to decide, they might be needlessly complicating their lives and over-spending. Instead, a bit of critical thinking could help most consumers to avoid unnecessary expenses and future technical hassles.

What is the ‘Cloud?’

The ‘cloud’ is simply a term for storing your files or data somewhere on the internet. If you’ve purchased music from iTunes or eBooks from Amazon and then accessed that media from multiple devices, you’ve taken advantage of the ‘cloud.’ More and more people also back up files, such as photos or documents, to the internet and such activity could also be referred to as using the cloud.

Google Docs

Since most of my wife’s documentation needs are limited to either simple documents or spreadsheets, she often uses the cloud-based Google Documents for easily accessing documents from home or work or a friend’s home that might have internet access.

Unfortunately, anyone planning to perform complicated tasks in Excel might be frustrated at the lack of basic features in Google Docs. If Google Docs was more-developed, it would be easier to recommend that service to more people, but right now it is hard for many to function without the richer features found in Microsoft Office.

In the end, Google Docs is great for collaboration on basic tasks and sharing text documents, but not for very intensive work. Although, I do expect its available features to continue to expand as time goes on.

Dropbox

As I said, I more-frequently still use the standard Microsoft Office applications, but then share them amongst other devices or computers via the program Dropbox. Dropbox lets users perform free file syncing between file folders multiple machines or via a web browser. It starts new users out at 2 gigabytes for free file storage space and are rather inexpensive for sizes beyond that, if you want to back up and sync music, pictures, etc.

Synchronizing files between computers or mobile devices with Dropbox installed on it is seamless – very similar to Mac’s iCloud, but without limiting a user to Apple equipment. Dropbox is available on Macs and Windows and even mobile devices, such as iPhones or iPads.

Users can also share folders in their Dropbox with friends who are also Dropbox users. I’ve had situations where I was able to collaborate with friends around the world, all using different types of computers, simply by use of a shared folder on Dropbox.

I’ve used Dropbox software for a couple of years now and it is flawlessly reliable.

Tablets

Tablets are obviously the hot consumer technical item right now. They will undoubtedly continue to make strides in user adoption and, within a few years, will be ubiquitous.

That said, few consumers should think very hard about what they expect to use a table for before buying one. Tablet demonstrations and commercials look great, but then people purchase a tablet and some of the inherent limitations of such devices start to become apparent.

After spending quite a bit of time with my iPod Touch and also my work iPad, I’ve found that both are great for consuming things. This means reading, watching videos, or listening to music. Any real tasks on either, such as writing significant e-mail replies, are pretty limiting without an external keyboard accessory.

The iPad would make sense to me at a $300 price point, but it is hard sell for me at $500-$600. At $200, the Amazon Fire has a nice price and size to it. It is easier to put in a jacket pocket than the larger iPad and people forget how heavy the iPad is due to the screen’s weight. That said, the Amazon Fire is a relatively new product and needs additional update releases to be further refined.

Also, keep in mind that many online streaming video sites still use Adobe Flash and iPads can’t play those videos. Video sites such as You Tube and Vimeo are switching to new internet video standard that are iPad-friendly, but we’re still another 1-2 years away from many other video sites making that transition.

Apple’s latest iPad release was a bit of a leap forward, but it still wasn’t perfect yet. Microsoft’s Windows 8 will have a tablet mode that is already getting rave reviews, but expect Apple to copy any new innovations.  Also, expect Apple to merge the Mac desktop/laptop operating system with the one used on iPhones and iPads, further simplifying interactions between their devices. Again though, these changes are still some time away.

In general, it is best to hold off a bit longer on tablets unless one has a significant amount of disposable income.

 

Netbooks

Netbooks have been around for several years and they are not necessarily a strong alternative to a tablet for tasks such as reading or watching videos. However, they are an alternative in that they offer the ability to adequately do those things and still be more productive in situations where someone might be frequently ‘on the go.’ Their low cost makes them particularly attractive as a secondary ‘travel ‘computer.

My wife uses my IBM Ideapad netbook for daily computing and I still take it on personal trips because it is so handy/small – it actually fits in a pocket in my camera bag. She uses it for all the casual things that someone might use an iPad for and, since she has small hands, the netbook’s small keyboard actually fits her just fine. I have a harder time typing on a netbook keyboard due to having large hands, but it is still much better on vacations than typing e-mails on a tablet.

Our netbook uses Ubuntu Linux as the operating system, which is free, very secure, and generally easy to use. One limitation is that it can’t run most Windows or Mac programs, but I’ve put a special program on it to use a Windows version of Microsoft Office. The netbook also has a camera card reader built into it and a good-sized hard drive on it for taking backups of digital pictures while on trips. Since I never totally trust a camera’s memory card, this gives me a lot of peace of mind.

A good netbook runs around $300 and most come with a standard copy of Windows included, the newer versions of which are a solid product. Despite what the Microsoft-haters might say, modern Windows is very secure and has great performance. I like Macs just fine, but they don’t have many computer options in the sub-$900 range and it’s hard to justify their extra cost unless you have particular reasons for owning their products. I did research on it for a friend recently and we found that most Macs run about $400 more than a comparable Windows-based computer.

Google has pushed their more cloud-centric Chrome OS netbooks in the past few months. The problem with the Chrome OS-based netbooks is that they are still being refined and assume a continuous internet connection for use. As of right now, Chrome OS-based netbooks don’t have many advantages over a standard Windows or Linux-based netbook.

Laptops/Ultrabooks

If one is already thinking of buying a tablet in the $500-$700 range, be advised that many standard laptops now fall into that pricing level. These laptops would have more computing power than a tablet and also have a full keyboard and large screen.

Further, those looking for portability would want to check into ‘ultrabook’ options. There may not be a vast selection at that price level, but the same larger screen and full keyboard can be found on laptops that are designed to have a thinner profile.

Conclusions

I use my wife to test out new technical conveniences, since I’ve striven to simplify and streamline our tech lives. She often gives me a hard time about wasting time on computer-related tasks, so I’ve been pushed to make our digital lives more efficient and reliable. In general, we end up using what makes sense for a given task and try to be as brand agnostic as possible. With that philosophy in mind, we’ve arrived at the current configuration:

  • Home Computer/Media Center: An older laptop hooked up to a large monitor that uses Ubuntu Linux as its primary operating system. I do have it set up to also allow me to run Windows so that I can periodically use particular photo or video editing programs on it.
  • Netbook: My wife’s primary computer, it also using Ubuntu Linux as its operating system. It is set up similarly to the media center laptop.
  • Laptop: Provided by my employer, this uses Windows.
  • iPad: Provided by my employer, this uses the Mac iOS software; used primarily for reading or work-related tasks.
  • iPod Touch: My personal device, this also uses the Mac iOS software; used primarily for reading or quickly checking e-mail.

That setup is quite a bit to keep track of computer-wise, but Dropbox does an amazing job of stripping away the hassles of working between so many machines. Having my files automatically sync between those many devices keeps me on-task and not having to waste time moving things between computers.

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