My Best Tech Buys of 2014

It’s fair to say I love technology and I love gadgets, but when it comes to spending money on them, I’m often just a bit too sensible to buy anything really outlandish. This, then, isn’t going to be a best-of list littered with expensive toys, but the instead the tech items I’ve bought this year that have been genuinely useful and worth every penny. Let’s get started.

4. Moto G smartphone. My new phone really has to come in at number 4 on this list, simply because – much as I love it – a smartphone is an indulgence for me, not a necessity. It’s proved itself useful more than once, of course, but I could probably still get by without it. That said, the Moto G is a lovely piece of kit, solid, reliable and powerful enough for my relatively casual use. It’s a real budget buy as smartphones go, but it’s one of the best cheap phones out there.

3. Logitech wired gaming mouse. Perhaps this seems like a bit of a strange inclusion – it’s just a mouse, after all. However, when my previous wireless Logitech mouse started to wear out, I made the switch to a G400s, and I’ve not once regretted it. Whilst wireless mice are, in theory, a great idea, I’ve discovered that this wired version is much more reliable and much less hassle. If you’re going to be using a PC, after all, why use a gadget that requires batteries, which are both going to cost you extra money and be ultimately wasteful?

2. Netgear wireless range extender. Ok, this one isn’t very sexy, but it’s been an invaluable addition to our household. We have a very large house with very thick fire doors and even thicker stone walls, and had a string of complaints from guests about poor wi-fi reception. After taking just a couple of minutes to set up, our Netgear extender essentially provides a second wi-fi network, perfect for guest use upstairs. These things really are a must if you’re struggling with home wi-fi.

1. Hoover hand vacuum. And now we come to the least sexy of all. Yes, it’s a vacuum. Yes, that’s all it is, with no other bells and whistles attached. However, for someone who spends as much time cleaning as I do, this has been the single best piece of tech I’ve bought all year. After looking at far more expensive Dyson models (one of which cost an extra £70 for a plastic extension tube!), we went for a Hoover Jovis, which is both powerful and has a decent battery life (although it has truly terrible reviews online, so we’ll see how long it lasts!). Being able to quickly blast round the house with a hand vacuum before guests arrive saves us a huge amount of time, which is why it’s landed here, in the number 1 slot.

So, there are my alternative ‘buys of the year’. What tech items have you found invaluable in 2014 – and are they ones you didn’t even realise would be so indispensable before you bought them?

HP Pavilion Sleekbook 14 – A Quick Review

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I’d recently bought a new laptop, one just to be used for work purposes. Although I don’t usually go into much detail about new gadgets I’ve acquired (and there are a fair few gadgets floating around this house!), I thought now might be a good time to review this particular laptop – it’s only been on the market for a few weeks, and I had to take a bit of a gamble in buying it because I couldn’t find any online reviews. So, in order to help those who have been considering buying this machine – the HP Pavilion Sleekbook 14 – here are my thoughts.

Aesthetics: The Sleekbook is, as you’d expect given its name, fairly sleek. It’s thin, with attractively rounded edges that make it a bit different to the majority of similar laptops and ultrabooks I looked at. However, the glossy surfaces on both the laptop’s interior and exterior aren’t without issues: they pick up fingerprints quite easily, and attract dust as surely as a magnet attracts iron filings. Still, there’s a lot to like otherwise, in what’s generally a classy and understated design (although it would have been rather less understated if I’d managed to get the red version, which doesn’t seem to be available in the UK yet).

Screen: I dithered over screen sizes for a long time before buying this laptop, being unsure whether 14″ would make the machine too bulky. In actual fact though, it’s a very usable size – plenty large enough for a word processor or web browser not to look cramped, whilst keeping the laptop portable. The screen on the Sleekbook is also very clear and bright – amazingly so, when compared to my much larger desktop monitor. (When reading reviews, new laptops not coming with full HD screens seems to be a major bone of contention for many buyers. In my case, it made zero difference, as I’m pretty unconcerned about video quality and this is solely a work/writing machine anyway.)

Performance: The slightly better specs of the Sleekbook compared with similarly priced and sized laptops was one of the main reasons I bought it. With an Intel i3 processor and in-built SSD storage alongside a larger standard hard drive, it’s a reasonably fast and responsive machine, and stands up well against my more powerful (but older) gaming PC when browsing the web or writing. In layman’s terms, if you’re planning to use the Sleekbook for, say, blogging, making spreadsheets and listening to music, it’s plenty fast enough. If you’re planning to game or edit video, you might want to look elsewhere.

Battery life: It seems to be that, when considering a laptop manufacturer’s estimated battery life for any machine, you need to reduce it by about a third. The same seems to hold true for the Sleekbook – about 5 hours seems to be its average life, when running Scrivener, Spotify and Firefox at once, and with the screen brightness at about 50%. As a nice aside, this laptop has a removable battery, so if it starts to show its age and needs replacing, or if you just want to carry a fully-charged spare, your options are open. No sending the Sleekbook back to HP for a battery replacement, as you’d need to do with many modern laptops!

Keyboard: The quality of the keyboard was a big factor for me when choosing a laptop. Whilst I do sometimes miss the slight curve (which makes an amazing difference to how easy it is to use the the left-shift and number 2 with one hand – for speech marks on a UK keyboard) and more solid keys of my desktop keyboard, the Sleekbook stands up well. The keys are responsive, you can feel them depress when you hit them (the same can’t be said for some laptops I tested) and everything is both nicely spaced and not too small. My only complaint is the position of ‘delete’: small and right in the top corner!

Trackpad: I’ve been less impressed with the trackpad. Although the two distinct buttons work fine, I’ve found the pad itself tends to be either too sensitive, or completely ignores my touch. I’ll admit I’m slowly growing more used to it – and that I generally dislike laptop trackpads in general so was never inclined to be kind! – but I’ll still be buying a small mouse to carry when I’m taking the Sleekbook away from home.

Portability: I’ve covered size and battery life – both of which make the Sleekbook reasonably portable – which just leaves weight. I’ll admit, it’s heavier than I anticipated, but I suspect that’s because all the laptop reviews I’ve read have been American, weighing their machines in pounds (which I only use when baking!), so I really didn’t have anything to compare this laptop to. Suffice to say, I think you could quite easily carry the Sleekbook around with you for the day, but you might notice its weight after an hour or two (which I imagine is the same for all laptops, no matter how slim and light they claim to be).

Windows 8: This, unfortunately, is where the Sleekbook falls down for me. I always knew that buying a Windows 8 machine was a gamble, and it’s only half paid off. It’s clear that Win 8 is designed for touchscreens – without one, everything feels a bit spread out and inaccessible. Additionally, though a traditional desktop can be used, there’s no start menu, and I really do miss it. I have no doubt there’ll soon be a third-party add-on to provide a start menu, though, meaning the desktop will be much like Windows 7 (which I rather like), and the ‘Metro’ interface with its big, bright tiles will be more of a glorified screensaver (although admittedly one that shows you news, weather and handy email notifications). Also, there will hopefully soon be fixes to get Windows 8 to play better with Flash, which when not working, I’ve discovered, seems to crash half the webpages I visit!

Final notes: There’s a more complete list of specifications over at the John Lewis website, which seems to be one of very few places offering the Sleekbook in the UK at the moment. Incidentally, I bought the laptop in a John Lewis store, and was very impressed with the service there – quick, knowledgeable (the member of staff mentioned, as a comparison, the exact same Lenovo laptop I’d also been considering), with no attempt to get me to buy any expensive ‘added extras’ or extended warranties. Well done, John Lewis!

So, there’s my ‘short’ (yeah… not sure what happened there) review of the HP Pavilion Sleekbook 14. It’s certainly not comprehensive, but it covers everything I was concerned about when buying this laptop, and I hope it’ll help a few prospective buyers, too.

Back-Up Your Work!

You don’t have to frequent writing sites for long to come across someone who’s just lost their latest piece of work in a computer crash. On forums and blogs, Facebook and Twitter, there are plenty of people who’ve lost photos or music, films or ebooks, but when it’s your own work, and potentially something you’ve spent weeks or months on, that loss is even more catastrophic. Where I work, I’ve seen students in tears when they’ve discovered that they’ve saved their dissertation to the wrong folder before logging off, or the file has been corrupted, or they’ve left their USB stick in a computer and someone else has walked off with it.

Now, this is a particularly unglamorous side of the creative life, but just think about it for a minute. Imagine you’ve just lost a whole morning’s writing. Imagine you’ve lost the entire first draft of your novel. Imagine, even, that you’ve lost every single piece of writing you’ve saved on your computer, perhaps stretching back years. If, as a writer, that doesn’t make your blood run cold, then it’s likely nothing will.

It is, thankfully, incredibly easy to make sure these losses don’t happen, with just a little foresight and potentially a little money. You can save your work to a USB stick, to multiple computers, to external hard drives, to your email account. My personal favourite method, though, has been to sign up to not one but two cloud storage facilities, so that I can store my work on someone else’s secure servers, and ensure that even if every single computer, USB stick and hard drive I own is destroyed, I’ll still have access to everything I’ve ever written.

My first choice was Dropbox. Every piece of writing I create is saved into the Dropbox folder on my computer, and synced to their servers almost instantaneously. I’m using Dropbox’s free service, but have still found I’ve only used about 20% of that storage space with all my writing files. (As an aside, Scrivener recommends you don’t save its working files into Dropbox, so I instead create Scrivener back-ups twice a day or so, which are synced to Dropbox.)

I’m also currently using Crashplan. There a number of similar services available (Mozy and Carbonite seem to be two of the most popular) but Crashplan was my choice for its compatibility with external hard drives – where my huge collection of photos and music is saved – unlimited storage for a single PC and its general ease of use (namely allowing me to choose exactly which important folders I want to back-up, rather than attempting to sync every file and every preference from my computer).

So, there you go. It’s unglamorous, perhaps a little bit boring and might cost you $50 a year, but knowing your writing is backed-up, safe and secure from every possible disaster removes one unnecessary worry from the so many creative people saddle themselves with!

E-books, Piracy and the ‘To Be Read’ Pile

Like most writers and voracious readers in general, I have a fairly large pile of books waiting to be read: the ‘to be read’ pile referred to in the title. In my case, it takes up a single shelf on my bookcase, but is piled up any which way, unlike the meticulous arrangement of the rest of the shelves. Just looking at that shelf is enough to make me feel guilty. It’s the reason I haven’t bought any new books in months (feel my pain!). It’s the reason I finish books that are a bit boring and which I would otherwise take months over. I want to cut that pile down to size and I’m making a good effort to do so.

I also have a similarly large collection of books waiting on my e-reader, both fantasy novels and historical classics. That Classic Reads section I was hoping to start? All the books are on there, or on my computer waiting to be transferred across. And there’s the problem, the reason why I haven’t yet started Classic Reads as I’d promised. That particular collection of books is not stacked up haphazardly in my living room. They exist only in electronic form and as such are almost invisible. Looking at my Sony Reader doesn’t inspire the same guilt in me that looking at my bookshelf does.

I have no idea why this is. The content of the books is just the same, be they hard copy or electronic. There’s just something about seeing books piled up that triggers something in my brain. Their physicality makes me treat them differently and in fact give them precedence over the e-books.

It is, I suppose, a question of value. E-books appear transient and yes, invisible. This is perhaps why some people feel that pirating e-books is perfectly acceptable, though they would never dream of walking out of a bookshop with a paperback hidden under their coat. There are lots of factors involved in piracy, of course: e-book prices, ease, the lack of accountability (and I think the latter two are bigger factors, no matter what the pirates try to claim about the cost of e-books). But I think the lack of value that’s associated with e-books is also part of it.

I think, over time, e-books will come to be just as important as their physical counterparts. I think it’s already happened for the most part with music and to a lesser extent films – books just seem to be lagging behind. For my part, I’m going to try to remember all those e-books when I’m deciding what next to read. Just because they’re not cluttering up my living room doesn’t make them any less important.

E-books and the Middle Ground

In certain corners of the internet – okay, make that most of the internet – whenever the subject of a new Apple computing product comes up, comments always descend into the ‘Mac vs. PC’ discussion. It seems to me that a similar thing is starting to happen whenever e-books are discussed. The opinions of the commenters who appear fall into two, usually distinct, categories, as follows:

  1. E-books and e-readers are a great idea, allowing you to carry around hundreds of books, download new titles on the go, read with one hand whilst standing on a crowded train etc. etc. I love them so much that I’ll probably never buy a paper book again.
  2. Paper books have a feel that can never be replicated by e-books. They’re cheap, free of DRM, easy to share with friends and family and I like the look of them on my shelves. I love paper books and will continue to buy them. (Incidentally, these commenters tend to categorically hate e-books, whilst the first group don’t always hate paper books.)

I find myself reading these discussions in bemusement. Both sides make some good points and some that seem a bit worthless (how many readers really, genuinely need to carry hundreds of books around at once?). What I can’t understand, though, is why so few people are treading the middle ground. A few are, but not many. Where has this assumption come from that, when it comes to paper books and e-books we can only have one or the other?

In my own experience, I’ve found that both have their place. I use my e-reader for free classics (of which I’m, admittedly, not very well versed – yet) and for the occasional cheap bestseller. I also chose to only buy an e-reader when I’d collected enough e-books to justify the cost: to buy all the e-books I had on my hard drive (all obtained both for free and legally) would have cost more than the price of my basic Sony reader.

In other circumstances though, I tend to buy paper books. New releases by my favourite authors are usually bought in hardback, with paperback for the older books and second-hand books that I buy so many of. I do genuinely enjoy having shelves full of the fantasy/SF I’ve read (and might well re-read), but I don’t really feel the need to display paper copies of the classics (which I rarely re-read) when I could have got them for free electronically.

Now, there likely will come a time when books, like music, will go mainly electronic, with the paper copies reserved for collectors and the author’s biggest fans. However, I think worrying about which format you’re going to exclusively use is a bit premature at the moment and probably won’t be a necessary decision for many years to come. Instead, why not choose the middle ground and take advantage of both? It’s what and how much you’re reading that really matters, not what surface you read it off.

Initial Thoughts on my Sony Pocket E-reader

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to splash out with the last of my wages from my bookselling job and buy an e-reader. I’d wanted one for a while but had set myself a point I had to reach before I could get one: I had to have accumulated free e-books that would have cost more to buy in paperback than the cost of an e-reader.

I’m talking about completely legal free e-books here, for the record. It’s taken me between six months and a year to amass so many, from author websites, giveaways and particularly the Suvudu library. I also cheated a little bit – the price of all these books would probably come to about £100 and the e-reader was a little bit more than that.

Anyway, I want to talk a little bit about the device itself and what I’m making of it. It’s a Sony Pocket, one of the cheapest on the market from any manufacturer. Physically, I love the way it looks and feels – sleek and lightweight (a bit heavier than a small paperback, admittedly, but also lighter than a big hardback, so a very reasonable weight), with a slick metallic finish and a back that feels slightly velvety when you rest your fingers on it. There’s also the added advantage of being able to read and drink a cup of tea at the same time. You can hold the Pocket in one hand and still turn pages, something I could never manage with a paperback. (Okay, I know this sounds stupid, but I drink a lot of tea when I’m reading!)

Other advantages of the Pocket include its ability to read all the major e-formats (PDFs were a big concern for me and although changing the font size does alter their formatting sometimes, they are still easily readable on the device), its long battery life (I’m estimating about a month with my personal reading habits) and its ability to store multiple bookmarks on multiple books (mine’s keeping my place in four books at the moment!).

There are drawbacks, of course, so let’s get them out of the way. You don’t get to see the beautiful cover art or interior layouts of your books – pictures are all in black and white, whilst many free e-books don’t come with covers at all. An e-reader has to be recharged, although on current usage, I think the battery on the Pocket will last about a month for me, as I’ve said. Turning the pages isn’t instant: the screen flashes black before it clears, although this is something I’ve got used to. Most annoyingly, the device does occasionally freeze and have to be reset, which a physical book is clearly never going to do.

For me though, an e-reader has a very specific function, which outweighs all of these complaints. I use it to read free downloaded e-books and short stories, which I would never have read otherwise (I hate reading on a computer screen, which has meant that my consumption of short stories has been very low recently). I can try out authors I wouldn’t have tried any other way with only the cost of the initial outlay for the e-reader – a cost which has already been paid, no matter how many more e-books I acquire. When it comes to actually paying for books, I’ll still continue to buy physical copies, even if I read the first book in the series in electronic form.

Overall, the Sony Pocket is a nice little device, easy to use and much more practical than reading on a computer screen, if you’ve got a lot of electronic reading to do. E-readers obviously aren’t for everyone, but if you’ve got a use for one without having much money, the Pocket is a great low-price alternative that doesn’t limit you to reading one file format.