Should We Save the Optical Drive?

disc drivesIt’s nothing new to hear that Apple’s latest MacBook models come without a disc drive. They’re sleeker and thinner, and leaving out the “dated” technology allowed the company to pack in more features in less computer. They first did it with the MacBook Air in 2008, and with soaring sales, it’s likely the company didn’t see much of a draw back.

And because few people actually need their disc drive on a regular basis, computer engineers argue that the change is simply moving with the times. Games and CDs now come with digital download capabilities, and most software and entertainment can now be purchased completely online. As for CD lovers, audio book nerds, or vintage game players, a simple attachment can help cross this technological jump.

But what about the rest of computer companies? For now, most full-size laptops are still including a disc drive, but that isn’t the case for ultrabooks or tablets, which are being used more frequently as full-time computer substitutes. Due to both cost efficiency and technology trends, more and more people are finding it’s better to leave the drive behind. Custom models can still be ordered to include it, but not without a hefty price tag. And within only a few years, older models that still host the slot will become outdated, eliminating the pre-made option as well.

In time, it looks as though the disc drive may be almost completely extinct.

What We Lose

Without the ability to physically hold our own copy of music, movies, software, etc., a great deal can be lost. Digital copies are difficult, if not impossible, to lend to others because of DRM. Many downloads are given a one-click lifespan, meaning if a connection is lost or there’s a technical difficulty, you’re usually on the phone with customer support. And once you upgrade to a new device, replacing all your programs becomes a huge headache.

Even with completely legal tensions in mind (no illegal copies, etc.), losing the disc itself takes away a multitude of freedoms. Another issue comes with price, as few digital copies account for much of a discount. Despite not spending funds on physical materials, sales companies offer only a small price difference between their digital and in-person products. If you’re going to take away our ability to lend, can’t we at least save some cash?

Time will tell what’s really in store for our disc drives, and until then, we’ll be sure to borrow and share as many CDs as our drives will allow.

OLPC’s sci-fi inspired tech replaces human teachers with software

The wise sage, Derek Zoolander, once asked: “How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read if they can’t even fit inside the building?”

Depending on the context, that might be a fair question, but let’s extend it further. What if there is no school building? Or even a teacher?

For millions of the world’s poorest children, lack of access to schools and teaching staff is an unfortunate reality and has been one of the most difficult problems facing educational non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Much effort has gone into expanding the educational systems in many developing countries but scattered populations, lack of infrastructure, and teacher shortages remain significant hurdles.

A new approach

Children using OLPC's XO laptop
Children using OLPC’s XO laptop – Image Credit: OLPC

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization has been working for the last several years to put low-cost tablets and laptops into the classrooms of developing countries. Recently they began an experiment to see if they could solve the lack of classroom/teacher problem.

Instead of bringing their tablets into an existing school and training a facilitator on how to work them into their curriculum, OLPC technicians drove to a remote village and dropped off sealed boxes of tablets to see what the children there, who had never even seen writing, could figure out on their own. It seems like a crazy idea, but even crazier… it worked.

From MIT’s Technology Review:

I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android.” – Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OLPC

Software from the future

The teaching software responsible for helping the students was the product of OLPC’s Project Nell. Inspired by Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”, OLPC developer, Dr. C. Scott Ananian went to work creating applications that mimicked some of the functionality of “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”, an AI-powered book-device that provided an education to Stephenson’s protagonist, Nell, through the use of stories.

A couple of the apps, Nell’s Balloons and Nell’s Colors, can be demoed on Dr. Ananian’s GitHub repository. Playing through a few minutes of Nell’s Balloons, it’s interesting to watch how the app rapidly presents concepts and builds upon each of the lessons it presents to students. A large amount of cleverness seems to have gone into the app’s creation.

Starting slow with matching colors
Starting slow with matching colors

Having deployed numerous computer labs and learning software packages in schools during my career, I found that the Project Nell apps, while simple on the surface, seem to surpass many of the expensive, commercial learning applications that are popular in U.S. schools.

Just the beginning

It’s still too early to know how OLPC’s new tactic will compare to traditional classroom instruction. More trials are planned and refinement of the Project Nell software continues based on feedback from the initial experiment.

Despite the uncertainty and need for further testing, it’s hard to imagine this as anything but progress towards addressing the classroom/teacher problem. It may ultimately turn out to be just a “better than nothing” solution, but for children who wouldn’t otherwise have any opportunity for an education, it seems like a good place to start.

How to make a DIY laptop stand for $8

A laptop stand is a great thing to have if you’re working at a desk. It not only allows your laptop to breath more easily and run cooler (since it’s propped up), but it also makes your setup more ergonomic by having your laptop’s display at eye level.

You can buy laptop stands pretty much anywhere, and they come in all different shapes and sizes. However, they’re pretty expensive — one of my favorite laptop stands is the Griffin Elevator, which rings in at a cost of almost $35 on Amazon.

I wanted to see if I could make my own laptop stand that closely models the Griffin Elevator, but build it for the fraction of the cost, and I believe I have succeeded greatly. Here’s how to do it.


  • 10-foot length of 1/2-inch PVC pipe – $1.49 (Sometimes you can find 5-foot lengths, but 10 feet is the better deal. Plus, you can use the leftover for other DIY projects!)
  • Six 1/2-inch PVC elbow joints – $2.76
  • Two 1/2-inch PVC end caps – $0.52
  • Kitchen drawer & shelf grip liner – $3.23

Total Cost: $8.00


Putting this PVC laptop stand together is straightforward and easy, and there’s no pre-determined measurements that you need to follow, since all laptops are sized differently. All you need to do is cut your PVC pipe into seven different lengths. One of the pipes should be roughly the length of your laptop, four of them should be roughly the width of your laptop, and the other two determine the height of your stand, which is completely up to you.

After you have your seven lengths of PVC pipe, it’s time to start assembly. Simply just attach the pipes to the joints. Refer to the photo above as a guide. If you want to make the stand really sturdy, you can glue the pipes and joints together with some PVC cement.

After you’ve assembled the stand, ideally you want to add some kitchen drawer grip liner to the base and at the top. This stabilizes the stand and keeps it from sliding around. It also prevents the laptop from accidentally sliding off the stand easily. Cut out small squares of grip liner and glue them on (pictured above) using some super glue or any other glue you have lying around.

You’re done! That was all there was to it. It’s arguably the best DIY project that I’ve ever done because it’s quick, simple, useful, and it hardly cost anything.

Apple’s Natural Scrolling Feature Catches On

Apple’s introduction of “natural scrolling” with OS X Lion was a controversial move. Apple effectively decided that computer users had for years been scrolling the wrong way around. They changed things so that, by default, OS X Lion users would “push” content up to move it up the screen, and “pull” it down to move it downwards – the same way that everyone scrolls on popular iOS devices.

It’s hard to argue with the logic, but Apple clearly realised that some people would find it hard to change a lifelong habit. They presented Lion users with the option to change things back to the old way via OS X’s System Preferences.

I have to admit that I am of those stubborn old-fashioned users. I gave it a day, but having scrolled the traditional way for near-on twenty years, I was quite happy with the way things were.

The other day I was surfing the Web on my iPhone and I remembered that I could reconfigure my Mac to scroll in the same way. I changed it to “natural” for a while, but, once again, I struggled to get used to the change – even though it does feel perfectly natural on my iPhone. It wasn’t long before I again reverted back to the “unnatural” configuration.

This got me thinking. I wondered whether natural scrolling on a Mac had caught on with the masses – so I made it my business to find out.

Apple's Natural Scrolling
Apple's Natural Scrolling

I asked the question on a popular Mac forum and collated the results.

From my mini survey, I ascertained that while most people acknowledged that there had been a learning curve, 71% of the responders now use natural scrolling on their Macs. It’s perhaps worth adjusting the figure downwards slightly as Mac forum members are likely to be enthusiasts, but even with this adjustment, the indication is that people have largely taken to Apple’s new way of doing things.

The people not adapting to natural scrolling all gave similar reasons. Some simply preferred the old-fashioned way, and others commented that while the natural scrolling feels natural on a track pad, it feels wrong with a mouse wheel. Others (and I count myself in this camp) also use Windows computers regularly, and have difficulties switching back and forth.

The results of this (admittedly rather small) survey seem to suggest that Apple got it right with natural scrolling, and proves that Mac users aren’t resistant to significant change. I, however, will be sticking with the way things were. I’m old school.

[poll id=”11″]

Are Macs really overpriced? The PC-Mac price gap is shrinking

I recently switched over to a MacBook Pro after being a PC guy my entire life. Before my MacBook, I had only custom-built Windows machines in my possession. A lot of my close PC friends couldn’t believe  that I shelled out so much money for an “overpriced” computer. However, to my discovery, the large price gap that exists between a PC and a Mac has been shrinking and I believe it’s still going to shrink to the point where PCs and Macs will cost the same or at least very close to the same, especially because of where the industry is heading.

It wasn’t long ago when you could find a MacBook that was priced at an easy $1,300 and a comparable Windows laptop that cost half that. However, that was then and it’s 2012 now. Things have changed drastically.

Let’s start with a normal 15-inch laptop:

Obviously I’m not making much of a case here. The HP has more RAM and better graphics with a lower price tag. However, the price gap isn’t greatly significant.

Let’s look at all-in-one machines next:

This is a little better, but the HP Omni has better graphics and twice the HDD, but the difference in price is very small.

Now here’s where it gets very interesting. Let’s look at some thin-and-light laptops:

The Samsung has a slower processor and is the same price as the MacBook Air.

Let’s now move up to a bigger screen, thus more room for a faster machine:

Almost identical specs, but the Lenovo is $200 more than the MacBook Air.

Interesting, huh? Ultrabooks are the same price (sometimes more) as the MacBook Air, and this is where the industry is going. Expect to see thin-and-light laptops make a huge impact, and unless PC manufacturers can find cheaper ways to manufacture them, the price gap between PCs and Macs will only shrink.

Note: All prices and configurations were taken from the manufacturers’ own websites.

CES 2012: Day 3 Recap – Qualcomm, Viewsonic, and Intel

Day number three of CES 2012 was definitely less hectic and more manageable, but today was the opening of the CES show floor where companies were unveiling and showing off all of their new toys at their respective booths. However, we did have some very notable companies stand up to deliver keynotes, including chip makers Intel and Qualcomm.


Image Credit: Engadget

Qualcomm’s GameCommand gaming aggregator app was announced back in November, but the company is finally releasing it today. GameCommand puts all of Android Market’s games in one place (that way user don’t have to go searching around) and also offers some exclusive games that aren’t available in the Android Market, including titles that were built using Qualcomm’s GamePack optimizing program.

The company also rolled out a new Snapdragon processor built for smart TVs and set-top boxes. The Snapdragon S4 MPQ8064 is a quad-core processor that clocks in at 1.5GHz and it will available in Lenovo’s upcoming K91 smart TV. The CPU also has Adreno 320 graphics and WiFi connectivity. No word yet on when the CPU or the K91 will hit the market.


Viewsonic has launched two new tablets, the ViewPad 10pi and ViewPad 10e. They both run Android 2.3, which is kind of a bummer, but the 10pi is able to dual-boot with Windows 7. The 10pi boasts an Intel Oak Trail z670 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 64GB SSD and a 10.1-inch 1280×800 IPS display. There’s also a microSD slot and a couple of USB ports. A 3 megapixel main camera graces the back, while a 1.3 megapixel webcam sits on the front. All of this is stuffed into a form factor that’s 18mm thick and weighing around 29 ounces.

The 10e is a little less powerful with a 1GHz Cortex A8 processor, 512MB of RAM and 4GB internal storage. Both models will be available in the U.S. and will sell for $399 on Amazon.


Image Credit: Phandroid

Intel is now officially getting into the smartphone market. The company has announced the Atom Z2460, which is a 32nm processor clocked at 1.6GHz. Lenovo and Motorola will be releasing phones with Intel’s new chip. Lenovo has already come up with theirs — the K800, which is still a mystery as far as details, but it does have a 4.5-inch 720p display and will only be available in China for the time being. As Motorola, they say that they’ll have Intel smartphones out by the second half of this year.

Intel is also working on putting their chips into Windows 8 tablets in the form of 32nm Clover Trail SoC (System on a Chip). Details on that are scarce so far.

Other Fun Stuff

– Razer unveiled a new version of the Naga mouse. It’s called the Naga Hex — only six thumb buttons in the shape of a hexagon.  It’ll cost you $80 and will begin shipping later this month.

– Adobe has given the green light to a free public beta of Lightroom 4.

– Mercedes Benz has announced in-car Facebook integration for those who crave Facebooking and driving.

Stay tuned to Techerator for more CES updates this week!

CES 2012: Day 2 Recap – LG, Samsung, Vizio, and Microsoft

The second day of CES-ness is now behind us and wow, was it a busy one! Numerous companies held their press events today, including Microsoft, which hosted the opening keynote for this year’s CES. To say the least, tons of stuff happened. Since I won’t cover everything (that would literally be like writing a book) and to save your sanity, I’m just going to go over the bigger highlights of the day that matter.


Image Credit: VentureBeat

LG introduced its 2012 lineup of HDTVs and they don’t seem to disappoint. More than half of them are either 3D capable or Smart TVs. LG’s Cinema 3D Smart TVs range from 55-inches to a whopping 84-inches. The 84-inch model packs an “Ultra High Definition” (UHD) display that squeezes 8 million pixels with a 3840×2160 resolution. It’s only 28mm thick and has a tiny 1mm bezel.

LG also announced their new flagship phone, the Spectrum. It features a 1.5GHz dual-core processor covered up by a massive 4.5-inch 1280×720 IPS LCD screen, giving it a ppi of 329 — better than the iPhone’s Retina Display. It also has 1GB of memory and 4GB of internal storage. LG will be releasing the Spectrum exclusively on Verizon on January 19 for $200 on-contract.


The Galaxy Note has officially been announced, even though we knew it was coming of course. It boasts a whopping 5.3-inch screen with a 1280×800 AMOLED display, making it a half-phone, half-tablet. It has AT&T’s 4G LTE built-in and rocks a 1.5GHz dual-core processor. AT&T hasn’t said when it will be available, but if color selection means anything to you, the Note will come in “carbon blue” and “ceramic white.”

Samsung also unveiled its Smart 3DTV lineup, and they’re nothing short of crazy. The TVs support voice control, motion control and face recognition. They also run on SoC (System on a Chip) kits that users can upgrade starting in 2013 when Samsung releases upgrade kits. Samsung says that this allows the user to upgrade their television without actually having to replace the entire unit.


Vizio, long-time maker of HDTVs, has now entered into the PC and tablet market with an all-in-one machine, three laptops and a tablet. The all-in-one PC is still somewhat of an unknown as far as specs, but the company’s YouTube channel goes over the products a bit. As far as the laptops, they’ll come in three different sizes: 13-inch, 15-inch and “full-size.” Just like the all-in-one, specs are hard to come by at this point.

Vizio’s tablet is a 10.1-inch model that they’re calling the M-series. It’s also apparently powered by an unannounced processor, so they’re not able to talk details just yet, but all of these new products by Vizio are due out this Spring/Summer.


Microsoft actually didn’t have much to announce for the first time. CEO Steve Ballmer and company mostly discussed already talked-about subjects, including topics about the Xbox 360, Windows 8 and Windows Phone. However, there were a couple of new things.

Nokia and Microsoft announced the latest Nokia Windows Phone, the Lumia 900. It’s a 4G LTE phone with a 4.3-inch AMOLED display. It runs on a single-core 1.4GHz Qualcomm CPU and 512MB of RAM. It’ll be arriving within the next couple of months exclusive to AT&T. The Lumia 800 will also be coming to the U.S. unlocked within the next few months, Ballmer says.

Microsoft also unveiled the Windows Store, which is the equivalent to the Android Market or the iTunes App Store, but for Windows devices. It’ll be available on Windows 8, as well as Windows Phone in the future.

Lastly, Ballmer mentioned that Kinect is coming to Windows February 1st.

Bonus: Microsoft partnered with ZeptoLab to bring a HTML5 version of Cut the Rope directly to the browser. Anyone with a computer can play the game. If you’ve never played it before, do it now!

Other Fun Stuff

– Netflix has announced availability in the UK (£5.99/month) and Ireland (£6.99/month).

– microUSB 3.0 is coming to smartphones and tablets near you as early as late this year.

– The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is coming to Sprint.

– The HTC Titan II, the first LTE Windows Phone, will be hitting AT&T.

– Asus’s Transformer Prime tablet hybrid will be getting Ice Cream Sandwich.

Stay tuned to Techerator throughout the week to get more details from inside CES 2012!