It's been an interesting day on the interwebs for ways to experience computing in an every day setting.
First Microsoft officially announced Surface Computing (which I can see being the beginning of something amazing), then Palm announced the Foleo which while it's an interesting idea inspired Wired to detail some very good alternatives that don't cost much more and put a heck of a lot more computing power in your hand.
In the last few days we've also seen a lot of talk about flexible displays and dynamic keyboards.
All in all it adds up to lots of gadgets, lots of creativity and hopefully a bright new computing future.
But it got me thinking... what would my ideal mobile computing solution be, and what's my next laptop going to look like.
The next laptop is probably easier to answer given it's not going to involve any paradigm shifting technology to deliver.
Currently I'm using a Sony Vaio SZ390P. It's the latest in a long line of laptops* that I've lugged around with me. It's not terrible but between Sonys inability to care and Vistas hardware related tantrums it's also far from perfect. Over the years though there have been some neat features that I wish could be combined into one unit that I could be happy with
- Good size/weight ratio. I think 15" is about right. 17" get's to be unusable on a plane, but 12" makes you squint.
- Performance. I don't want to care who makes the chip, or how it's rated, or how many gigabytes of RAM it has. I just want it to work so the operating system and apps are as near to invisible in my perception as possible.
- Battery life. It's a laptop. I should be able to use it on the go, all day (real all day) without having to stop services, shut things down and panic because I didn't bring a whole life support systems of cables and chargers.
- Storage. Give me a big enough hard drive. Doesn't need to be terrabytes (ideally by the time I get this someone will have worked out a decent sync/replication solution so I can use the network at work and home and in the cloud as a virtual hard drive)
- Removable Media. Support lots of them. 95% of the time I don't need to carry around the DVD player but make sure I can boot from flash drives or attach to a DVD drive on the network to install software. I don't know if my next camera will use SD, xD, miniSD, microSD, MemoryStick, MemoryStickDuo, CF (type I or II), something magic using an ExpressCard slot or whatever. Ideally the camera (and every other peripheral) will connect (and recharge) using a standard USB 2.0 mini cable so I won't care... but just in case make sure I can attach a reliable, quick memory reader (though if it's built in and I don't have to carry it around just in case I'll be happier)
- Decent keyboard. Real keys that move properly, and enough of them. Don't make me use obscure arcane Fn/Alt/Shift combos to do something obvious like Delete (Apple BootCamp - I'm looking at you now) and coupled with that a decent tracking device that's not too sensitive that the mouse jumps around all the time but that is responsible enough that when I want to move the mouse or click somewhere it works. If it can avoid giving me carpel tunnel syndrome at the same time (so I don't have to lug around a separate keyboard and mouse) that would be great. Ambient condition aware illumination for the keys would also be very welcome - makes it so much easier to use in a darkened room. A combination of the Apple solution with timeout and the Microsoft proximity sensor would be great.
- Media Keys. Play|Pause, Fwd/Rwd, Stop, Vol+/-, Mute, properly mapped so I can use them in Windows Media Player, iTunes, Songbird, Pandora or whatever I want. Reliably. Especially the volume ones. If I can use it as a Zune without having to power the whole machine up that's a real bonus. I really like the idea of the MacbookPro remote control but make sure I can slot it into the case and use it there (while it charges) and use it from across the room.
- Webcam with decent resolution, a driver that can cope with backlight and general poor ambient condition and for video calls ideally some face tracking software to at least try to keep me in frame so I don't have to bolt myself to my chair.
- Secure fingerprint reader and/or other biometrics (face recognition?) - something that IT will be happy to have used, not worried that someone with a jelly bean will be able to break.
- Plugs and connections. I'm usually WiFi connected so make sure it's reliable and works with the full alphabet soup of ABG and N, and Bluetooth 2.0. Of course, every now and then I'll need to connect to a wired ethernet so make sure I don't need a multitool to get the cover off (or back on). I also want decent outputs. VGA (d-sub), DVI, HDMI, S-Video/RCA. It might be mobile but that means I might want to watch a movie from my laptop on a hotel TV rather than squinting at the 15" screen... (referring back to media keys from above... in this scenario hopefully Joost or whatever media app I'm using will support the remote keypress because they're standard and published right...)
- Touchscreen. It's a personal thing but I like being able to reach out and touch some things. Going from my K-Jam to the PC seems retrograde because I can't push on-screen buttons! The problem with most TabletPCs now-a-days is that they're underpowered and overpriced compared to their clamshell cousins (and only the Origami class UMPC machines get to run the Origami experience which IMO is a real shame)
- An Operating System and driver stack that works. 100% reliably. No Blue Screen of Death because of a USB device being plugged in. No problems sleeping, suspending or hibernating - it should be instant and invisible to the user. Vista is really good (ironically the best sleep performance I've seen is on a MacbookPro) and almost at the OSX level of never having to care (and Vista does give me a bit more control). Docking and undocking (I like docking stations. not having to plug/unplug a dozen cables every time I sit down is great) should be totally seamless so I can shut the lid and undock as safely as pressing the undock button, waiting while it does some magic then selecting sleep from a menu. Require no more thought than my phone.
- Indestructible. It doesn't need to survive an explosion but the day to day knocks and drops and spills that a laptop living with someone who's in and out of TSA queues at airports, works in cafes, has a dog and daughter running around at home...
- No flashing lights. When I'm not using the machine I want all the lights to go out. Keyboard, Mouse, Power, whatever. If I'm in a hotel room and can't sleep because the thing keeps winking at me and lighting up the room I'm going to take a roll of duct tape to it. If you're going to have a glowing logo (Apple) or internal lighting (Dell XPS) let me change the color and brightness (including an off option) through a simple software app. The former stops me annoying people, the latter to save some battery ergs.
It's a fairly long list but pretty much all these things exist today. It's just getting the combination right that seems to be the challenge. My T27GP had great media keys, the Macs have perfect power management, the Thinkpads were robust. Mac and Asus (and others) have media remotes, there are plenty of docking station solutions... I just want someone to line the pieces up and then work on making sure all their Vista drivers are rock solid.
Then I've just got to work on finding the seamless LAN/Cloud storage solution that's smart enough to make sure I've got what I want where I want when I need it.
Oh, and my perfect mobile solution... pretty much as above but ideally in a smaller form factor for managing email and reading on the bus, but unfolds/unfurls to do real work in a cafe and docks at home/office to a smart base station that gives me all the computing power and screen real-estate I can ask for. Ideally paired with a minimalist clamshell phone handset (and an elegant SPOT watch) working in perfect harmony to give me simple voice calling and messaging everywhere I go.
Vaio SZ390P, 15" and 17" MacBookPros (sadly loaners, gone back to their owner), Vaio T27GP (Still using), 12" RevA Powerbook (on my daughters desk), Vaio C1MT (PictureBook, still using), Compaq E500, Compaq Presario, IBM ThinkPad (about 3 of those), IBM P75 and P70, Toshiba T6400