This article is about trying to simplify the amount of technology people have to deal with. I give you my story and conclusions, and from that, try to induce what may be best for others as well.
Power users, particularly me, although we like to try out new tech to find new and useful tools, can be overwhelmed with the number of choices available, and try to find the best ecosystem(s) to belong to. These include free and open source ecosystems like Linux and Android custom ROMs, and commercial ecosystems like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Samsung.
Factors in choosing an ecosystem involve both software and hardware considerations. Software considerations include the programs/apps you want to run, and the operating system (OS) that you prefer. Hardware considerations include choosing from phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops.
This article looks at some of these considerations, from a consumer and/or power user's perspective. I mention “some of these consideratinos”, because there will be completely different priorities when it comes to anyone's selections. I don't intend to cover all, but think my insights may be useful to you.
Update: After writing this article, I began looking for related articles. I searched Google for “phones tablets laptop desktop”, and found the following:
I got a new phone recently, a Samsung Note 9, used from ebay for $570 (a new unlocked phone direct from Samsung's website would have been $800). I think the ebay phone was actually new, because it still had the plastic strips around the edges of the phone, but it did have a scratch on the fingerprint scanner (which seems to work fine despite it).
I'd been considering the overall picture in terms of what hardware I want to own, and with this purchase, I was motivated to write. Buying new hardware is a mix of excitement and dread. Most of the time, just dread, as there is a time investment upon getting a new device that I'd rather spend on something else. New hardware usually doesn't bring that much in terms of new features, so I postpone new purchases as much as possible.
Sometimes I am drawn to buying new hardware because there are significant features added. An example would be the new folding phones that are coming out. I am wary of the durability of these displays. Wired magazine says to hold out for real glass, instead of the polymers that are currently being used. Also, I think I may actually prefer the simplicity of a nonfolding device. I guess I won't know for certain until I have tried both, but I'm not willing to spend double the price for a folding phone to find out.
This time, I was forced to buy a new phone for two reasons. Firstly, the reception on the Samsung Note 3 was starting to be less. Perhaps that's because my carrier, I imagine like most carriers, since the updates originate from the manufacturer, stops providing radio firmware updates to dated phones. I believe the April 2017 update will be the last for the Note 3. Also, my carrier, T-mobile, bought new frequency bands in 2017, and my Note 3 doesn't have the hardware to support those bands. In fact, only the phones they sold in 2018 support the new bands, so their 2017 phones won't connect to their new bands, like the Samsung Note 8.
Another reason is that the Android OS on my Note 3 is Android KitKat. I could have upgraded to Lollipop, but rather than work on that, I opted for a new phone. Because KitKat is antiquated, most developed software at the Play Store stopped supporting it. Update: Thanks to SlimRoms, I could upgrade the phone to Marshmallow or Nougat. The meager KitKat to Lollipop update is what's offered by Samsung.
What do I think of my new phone? My favorite phone thus far was my Samsung Note 1, running Gingerbread. Its Android version had the best “phone” user interface. Newer Android seems more like a desktop OS. You don't want a desktop OS on a phone, unless you are going to use a keyboard and mouse. KitKat left behind the hardware menu button on phones, and also persuaded developers from having a menu pop-up after long pressing an item (aka context menu). Instead of the phone's hardware menu button, you have to aim your finger to a hard-to reach 3-dash-icon. The icon is located on a top bar that takes up unnecessary space on the screen. Here's an article of outcry. The top bar with the 3-dash-menu button, and the lack of a long press context menu, reminds me of iPhone's iOS. Google chose to go with inferiority. Google used to be a golden child. I think they used to be a company dominated by software developers, and have since become dominated by the marketing department.
Operating systems come and go, and each time I am forced to adopt a new one. I spend countless hours customizing it and accumulating a software library of programs. Just when I have it working smoothly and just the way I want, it becomes outdated, and/or is no longer supported by new hardware.
This has been true for me with Windows, and now for Android. I moved from Win98 to WinXP, and temporarily to Win7 (decided to stick with WinXP until I could hopefully get out of the Windows ecosystem). Windows used to strive for backwards compatibility. In Android, hardware, applications and customizations become outdated at a faster rate.
One reason why this may be, is that Microsoft and Google want you to give up your software, and move to the cloud. But in the cloud, software will change periodically as well, as they modify or recreate web programs, or leave them behind.
This is why I give hope for Linux. It has staying power. Your tools and customizations won't become outdated as quickly because it's written by developers without a marketing department. For the same reason, the technical knowledge you gain also lasts longer. How stuff works under the hood is available to you, unlike with proprietary software like Windows OS.
As for my laptop, the hardware can only run 32 bit software. Google ended support for the Linux version of Chrome 32 bit, on March 2016. Although I could install Windows 7 on my machine to run the 32 bit Windows version of Chrome. That's really unfair.
Written in April 2013:
“If Apple were in the car business, it would be selling a car without a top for sunny days, and a second, much larger car with a roof for cloudy days, because they’d want to sell you two cars.” I have a large phone that is good enough as a tablet. Apart from that, I just want my 17“ laptop (which I use both as laptop, and desktop by plugging in KVM: keyboard, monitor-video, and mouse.
Written in May 2013:
I've started using Windows 7 (on the same laptop, I can boot into XP, 7, or Linux). I remember when I started using Windows XP instead of Windows 98, I had the same impression:
Wow! It does the same things as the previous version of Windows, but more slowly!
Written in the present (April 2019):
I have been wanting to move away from Windows. Originally I wanted to move to Linux, and still may end up there. One downside to Linux is that there is less hardware support, since manufacturers don't care about Linux. It's not impossible though, and I have run Linux on my laptop before with ease and without any lack of drivers. This is due to all the Linux volunteers that mostly code for free. It's best if you have a laptop that's a few years old, so that Linux has caught up with it.
I've also run Linux on my phone, in the form of a custom android rom from slimroms.org. However, for the phone I just got, the Samsung Note 9 SM-N960U (originally programmed for sprint, but same hardware as the US unlocked version), there is no SlimRom yet. Rather than flashing a custom Rom to this new phone, I should try what came with it (Samsung TouchWiz). Services are becoming a lot more integrated, and the custom roms may not be offering everything that Samsung can offer. Other examples of integrated services, are the ecosystems provided by Google and Apple.
Apple strives for hardware and software integration, streamlined to work together to provide the best customer experience. However, you pay a price, and to some extent, you have reduced choices. You have less ability to customize how things work (parallel example with web browsers).
What do custom ROM's offer? Read here. At the moment 20190415, the note 9 snapdragon custom rom offered at XDA is basically stock, unless you'd like a custom audio driver. What I like about SlimRoms, is that their goal is to keep the phone running snappy and responsive: “Our main goal is to offer users a slimmed down but still feature rich alternative to other android operating systems”. With a new phone, with the latest processor, this isn't a problem. But as new software comes out, it requires more cpu and memory. Software bloat is the antithesis of Moore's law, and thus Wirth's Law was born.
On SlimRom, I also got the added benefit of identifying to websites as a tablet. I don't know about you, but I can't stand the phone versions of websites, and always use the web browser option to request the desktop site. Unfortunately, many websites don't comply, and still dish out mobile versions despite your request. That is, unless you manage to make the website think that your device is not a phone. SlimRom does this for you. I think this is done by editing the system file named build.prop (for which you need root access).
In the arena of desktop operating systems, what has been true in the past is that there were more choices for software in the Windows ecosystem than MacOS (previously OS X). I'm not sure that's true anymore. In the present, there is much less focus on software development for Windows. There is Android now. There is iOS. Even though Apple does not have the overall market share (see below), they do have a client base with money. Software developers pay attention to this potential income. Another factor, is that you'd want to pay attention to what people use in your country. Apple has the highest market usage in the USA.
I have a library of windows software I still want to run, and I could try using Wine under linux, but rather than try, I just kept using Windows. Particularly because a number of windows programs I have are shell extensions, which add functionality to the Windows OS. Reproducing these on Linux would require extensive searches for the linux counterparts, or hiring a programmer if none exist. I don't want to put in the effort the way I used to. I like the results, but it consumes too much of my time.
The question arises, however, what my hardware will be. Do I want to have both a phone and a laptop? It's always good to have an extra system, for when something doesn't work, you can try it with the other. I'm interested in using my phone as a desktop computer, but I'd still keep my existing laptop.
The ability to use a phone as a desktop computer has been around a while, at least since 2012. Just like using a laptop as a desktop, it requires a keyboard, monitor-video, and mouse (KVM). One guy reported his experience with only his phone and a bluetooth keyboard, and using whatever display he came across in his travels. That's the very lightest combination!
I could carry around a ~21” monitor in my backpack, much larger than the typical one on a laptop, and could be worth the extra weight. I don't like the “portable” monitors available, because they don't have a stand to place the monitor closer to eye level. I was hoping for better ergonomics. This HP monitor looks ergonomic, but I wonder if mounting and removing the stand would be too arduous, requiring a screwdriver. I would be willing to put up with that, but it's not ideal. Also, the weight is 2.4 kg / 5.4 lbs. That's the weight of a current 17" laptop! Also, you have to plug the non-portable monitor into a wall socket.
The portable monitors are USB powered, and they are lighter, coming in around 1.8lbs for a 15.6“ and 2.8 lbs for a 17”. Add to that a USB power bank, that you could possibly attach to the monitor, and the weight is getting closer to that of a laptop. The AOC 17“ portable monitor uses 7 watts of power, so you need 5600mah to power it for 4 hours. Add some juice to charge your phone simultaneously, and you're looking at a 10,000mah battery, since some power is lost in delivery. This battery would weigh 7 ounces. That's 3.25 lbs for the 17” portable monitor and power bank.
So the phone and 21“ monitor are better in terms of screen size and ergonomics, but downside is less portability because you need to find an outlet. A phone and portable monitor are less weight, about 2 lbs less than a laptop, but less portable in a sense, because of the cabling involved. It's clumsier to pull out your phone and monitor and keyboard, than to pull out your laptop. Also, you can't use all that on your lap, like you can a laptop. Sometimes you're trying to be productive in an area that only has a chair available.
Here's an idea for ergonomics: you can use a stand for your laptop, that will hold the screen towards eye level. So depending on the traveling that you are doing, it is my opinion that the best combinations are:
1) Your phone and a keyboard + mouse (using whatever TV or monitor you come across)
2) Your phone, laptop, laptop stand, and keyboard + mouse
Ideally, everything would be wireless. However, the throughput of a video connection is unwieldy for current wireless technology. Note someone's solution here. Although this person connected his phone to a laptop rather than a monitor, the configuration is the same. Update: Chromecast can transmit 4K resolution. But there is a difference between Chromecast and “wireless HDMI” (or DisplayPort). “The chips that convert HDMI into a stream that can be sent over WiFi are relatively large and power hungry”. Also there is quality loss and latency as data compression is required, in sending over wifi. More details here. The conclusion is still the same: it's not worthwhile for the video connection to be wireless.
The mouse can be super tiny for better portability. I always hold mice with fingertips, and don't need a palm rest. I like having a full array of buttons: left, right, scroll wheel that also acts as a middle button, and back/forward thumb buttons.
There are folding keyboards that seem to be the lightest and least space-consuming of the portable keyboards, but make sure they have dedicated function and esc keys. You might want a full size bluetooth keyboard (none of which are folding), if you can't give up the added functionality. Some folding keyboards offer an ergonomic fold, but the downside is that one handed ctrl+key operations for the opposite side are a long reach.
The idea to use the phone as a full computer while traveling is all about having less to carry. However, another benefit is having the ability to work on Android apps with a keyboard and mouse. This ability can also be accomplished by using an Android emulator on a desktop OS, but the emulator, like running Wine on Linux, can sometimes be finicky or slow.
Let me back up, and take a look at an even bigger picture (like I did in 2013). Having two devices can be a drag. Devices with different operating systems will require greater effort from the user, in setting them up and maintaining them. Even if they have the same operating system, they still both require maintenance, in the same way of owning two of the same car.
While there are all types of services to set up sync, so you have the same information on all/both devices, you have to set up those services.
I can see there are people who only use a web browser. For them, if they use Chrome web browser, and set up Chrome sync through Google, everything will be the same on both systems. Google can sync all the bookmarks, history, open tabs, autofill, passwords, themes, addons/extensions, and web browser settings. If they are using a Chromebook instead of Windows or MacOS, there will be even more integration, since it's all Google.
However, for users with more needs, web browser sync between devices isn't all of it. There will be a lack of integration because it's two different operating systems on two computers. They end up with files in two places, their clipboards aren't synchronized, they have twice the amount programs to install, twice the amount of settings to customize, and twice the amount of updates. They may be using two programs concurrently, except one is on their phone, and the other on their laptop. That can be fine, if the output from one program isn't needed in the other device.
File sync services can be reliable, but they are a point of failure. They require an internet connection, and cellular internet doesn't reach everywhere. I've had trouble with sync services, because I have too many files. Sync requires that files be encrypted before sending, and decrypted upon receiving, which taxes the CPU and the battery. If both devices are in proximity, Samba or bluetooth can provide direct file sharing between them without an internet connection, but the process is not completely automated. I've even set up VNC or Teamviewer to access my laptop remotely from my phone. Is all this overhead worth it? Wouldn't it be easier to only have the one device, your phone? To use the phone as a desktop by connecting a portable monitor, and using a bluetooth keyboard and mouse?
Providers are striving to make syncing everything between devices as easy as possible, but there is not complete integration, to where you can move from one device to another, and find every tool you use on either device. It would help if both had very similar or identical operating systems. It would also be nice, if the operating system weren't in an accelerated state of change driven by a marketing department.
The Android ecosystem has grown to where a person, especially one with no ties to previous operating systems, could find all the apps they need. For most people, it isn't worth having two systems to keep up with. They can make due with just their phone, connecting to KVM when they're home or wherever. Is the extra utility of a separate laptop worth the added cost and time to maintain a separate system? I would say, probably not. It's like having a car in NYC, where public transportation is more convenient to get around. You really like the car, but it's a pain to keep.
Looking at Statcounter data, Windows is steadily losing ground to both MacOS, and to ChromeOS in the desktop scene. Especially in the United States. I wouldn't be surprised if in a couple of years, ChromeOS has the same market share as MacOS. Why? Because just like Microsoft, Google is pushing their ChromeOS onto school children by lobbying districts to buy their hardware (read this long ago, need to pull up a source). I don't think Apple does that, because they would need rich school districts that could afford their expensive hardware (needs verification).
If I update my laptop to Windows 7 now, it looks like I could get 3 more years out of it before software development will no longer support it's 32-bitness or meager 3GB of memory. Then I can take another look at how things are coming along. I may upgrade my laptop from a 2006 Macbook Pro to a 2011 Macbook Pro if by some miracle Windows 7 won't die.