Category Archives: Hardware

How Much Power Does Your PC Use?

I can’t say I’ve ever worried too much about how much power my PC uses. I care about battery life on a laptop and like laptops that use a lower wattage transformer because it’s smaller and lighter. Power to servers only mattered as far as “do we have it” and making sure the appropriate 110v/220V outlet was available. For the most part power consumption is a cost of doing business.

I only paid any attention to it recently because I was curious about the efficiency of the Ivy Bridge CPU’s and wanted to compare my brand new I7 workstation with my old machine. Turns out the old machine used 145 watts at idle. The new one? My test meter shows it bouncing between 47 and 52 watts at idle. A nice savings, though as I mentioned in my series of posts about the build I don’t expect it to add up to a lot – but every little bit helps. Note also that sleep mode is less than 1 watt on the new machine.

I then ran across this post on AnandTech about their recent server upgrades and the resulting power savings. It’s impressive. I doubt it justifies a server refresh just based on the power savings, but if you combine that with using fewer U’s of rack space and more processing power, that gets more interesting.

Building My Next Workstation–Part 6 (The End)

Let’s start with a quick review of the pieces and what I paid:

Item Cost
Antec P280 Case $90 (may be higher now)
ASUS P8Z77-V LK Motherboard $120
Corsair 500W Power Supply $50 (400w would have been plenty)
Intel I7 3770-K $320 (have seen as low at $299)
Samsung 840 250G SSD $190
WD 1TB 7200 HD $80
32G Kingston DDR3-1600 $200
Bluetooth v4 Dongle $15
DVD Drive $0 (had an extra, figure $30 new)
Total $1065

All of those are not including sales tax and no attempt to buy anything on sale.

Looking at the list and the prices I paid it’s easy to figure out where to adjust your spend to fit your budget. I think that helps a lot if you’re debating buy vs build.  So where could you cut corners?

  • Case. You can get cases as low as $30, decent ones start at $50. That’s assuming you can’t re-use the one you have. If noise matters, spend more like I did. The cases with the fans in the side are noisier no matter quiet the fan.
  • Power Supply. You could go down to 400w easily and I’ve seen good quality ones as low as $32 on sale. It’s worth buying a good quality one, not the place to save dollars by going ultra cheap.
  • Motherboard. Can’t go much cheaper other than the occasional rebate offer. Don’t get anything other than a Z77 board.
  • CPU. If it’s for content consumption only you can get an I3 and save $200. The I5 is the lowest you can go if you want to run VM’s and it’s $100 less than the I7. (I7=$320, I5-$220, I3-$120.  I’d say do the I5 if you need to cut corners. get the Ivy Bridge, not the Sandy Bridge chip for the power savings.
  • Memory. Start with 8G in a single stick. Don’t buy smaller sticks that will be throw aways. You can save $150 by just doing 8G and that is plenty to run a main session and a couple smaller VM’s, and you can always add more later one stick at a time.
  • Drives. Consider if you can’t just re-use one you have first. If not, I’d do either the SSD or the 1TB drive. I use a 256G SSD in my laptop and it runs OSX, Windows  in a VM, plus another couple small/disposable VM’s. It’s not a ton of room but its enough. Save at least $80 by only buying one drive now.
  • Bluetooth. Optional
  • DVD. Optional? Easy to add later.

If you went with a $60 case (save $30),a $40 power supply (save $10),the I5 (save $100, 8G (save $150), and an $80 1TB drive (save $190 with out the SSD) you’d save quite a bit: $480. That’s not as low as you go for a working PC (think Raspbery PI!), but it’s realistic pricing for a modern PC with up to date components.

Was it worth the effort? It was maybe 30 hours total, lots of reading. If you went to Amazon (or NewEgg, or TigerDirect) and ordered it all in one batch you’d spend an hour, then probably 2 hours to unbox and assemble – less if you’ve done it before. That’s not a lot of labor. The direct learning (re-learning/updating) was useful by itself, finding good knowledge sites is a win, and then there are the unexpected lessons – how much I appreciate quiet for example, and the lessons not yet explored – digging into Intel vPro for remote access to the machine. There is also the intangible part…I built this, it’s mine, and I think I’ll be more likely to do upgrades instead of buying again in a few years.

How is this machine different than you would get from Dell or Lenovo or HP? No support line, you have to deal with the vendor on any warranty issues. No crapware installed. You get to pick the OS. You have to invest three hours to order the pieces and assemble it, plus another half an hour to install whatever OS you prefer. The components will be at least as good as and in most cases better than what you get order it as a package. The cabling will not be as neat, but it will still work.

Should you build? For a machine for you, absolutely. If you shop smart you may find something close on sale or outlet sale that will save you effort, but it still won’t be as good in my view. For your parents/family/others? I’d vote no on that, because it makes you the support line – send them to whatever online retailer you like best and let it go.

That wraps up what has been a fun if moderately expensive project. I think my next project will be building or buying a NAS, something I’ve put off too long.

Building My Next Workstation–Part 5

With the motherboard and CPU installed I was ready to add the final and perhaps easiest parts to the build. I started with a DVD drive. In practice I almost never use DVD’s any more, preferring to mount ISO files as drives (which also means I can keep them all right there on the machine, never have to go looking), but in practice it always seems like I have the occasional need to get drivers for some new device. DVD drives new are about $30, I had one I had scavenged from another machine that I used, “saving” the $30. When I went digging through the Rubbermaid container I use for all my assorted PC parts I found 2 more DVD drives with IDE instead of SATA, reminding me that IDE is pretty close to gone. The new motherboard doesn’t have a IDE connector at all. Installing it was no more than few minutes work.

Next was memory. I was ready to go earlier than expected and eager to try the machine out, so I bought a single 8G stick of Kingston HyperBlu at the local TigerDirect for about $45. It is DDR3-1600 and that gave me pause, I knew the board could handle a higher clock rate, but decided that worst case I’d use it someplace else (more on that in a minute). Installing the memory was also easy, again it was nice to have plenty of room to work.

On the same trip I picked up a Samsung 840 250G SSD and a Western Digital 1 TB drive. My initial plan – which may or may not survive real world use – is to load the SSD with development tools and boot to that when I need that environment. The 1TB drive will be for working with whatever else I want to set up and tear down. I’m thinking to add one more drive for the above mentioned ISO’s, but I’m also contemplating buying or building a NAS and just hosting it there.  SSD’s are a tricky buy,there is quite a range of price to performance,I found that Toms Hardware publishes a monthly list that makes it easy to decide. The 840 (not the 840 Pro) is on the low end of the top tier, plenty good enough for now.

Mounting both drives was easy. There are dedicated friction fit slots for 2.5” drives, then the caddy for the 3.5 HD takes four screws to hold the drive to the caddy and then it slides in nicely. I also had the old drive from my previous machine that I wanted to add for the short term until I finish up. Cabling them was more effort than expected. The power cables are only so long and I ended up having to move the SSD so I could get all 3 connected. If you’re going to have more than 2-3 devices you’ll want to order a couple extenders and splitters for the SATA power plugs.

With all that in place, I booted up to my old drive with no issue at all, and still quiet, very quiet. I’ve left it all running for a week just to see if anything breaks – so far all is good.

That left me short 24G short of the planned 32G of memory. I did some more reading and found a nice article that did far most testing than I have patience for as far as memory speed and based on that decided that the Kingston I had was fine and ordered 3 more 8G sticks from Amazon, for a total of about $200 for the 32G total.

I’ve omitted for now a card reader. I did order a Bluetooth dongle (the v4 model) because I’ll use it here and there. I ordered a Logictech M510 mouse to replace my old MS mouse that has a tethered dongle. I’ve always like the MS larger mice, but it seems like most are notebook size now, too small in my opinion for all day use. I had hoped to get a mouse that used Bluetooth instead of a proprietary dongle, but couldn’t find one I liked. We’ll see if I like the 510. I also ordered a replacement for the cheap but serviceable Dell keyboard I had been using – a CM Storm Quickfire with Cherry Brown switches (true mechanical switches instead of the rubber domes used on most cheaper keyboards). It is, so far, pleasantly solid feeling. It doesn’t have the separate number pad on the right, which makes it feel small even though it the keys and small are full sized. Wait and see if that $75 expense was worthwhile (and you can spend more for mechanicals, but not less)

I’ll wrap this up tomorrow with a post showing the final configuration and costs and some thoughts about the effort involved and some places where you could opt to spend less (because you can always pend more).

Building My Next Workstation–Part 4

Reading about the motherboard choices took a while. Because I had already decided on a CPU, the Intel I7 I at least had an initial filter. If you’re shopping for one today you want a board that has the Z77 chipset with an LGA 1155 socket – easy to spot on the box when you’re shopping. You also need to know the form factor that your case will hold, for me it was ATX.

Those boards will support an Intel I3, I5, or I7 processor, costing basically $100, $200, or $300 respectively. I’d consider the I3 for a minor browsing/consuming type machine and some games, I5 will do most of what you will want, I7 has it all. The nice part is you can always replace the CPU later if you need to save cash now, maybe even to a bigger and better CPU than is currently available. The LGA 1155 socket has been around for a while so that could happen.

Prices on these range from $90 to about $300. Most support four sticks of RAM with a max capacity of 32G. I wanted one that had some USB 3 ports and 6G SATA, after that it was hard to tell. Did I want Thunderbolt? Onboard wifi? Some support overclocking,or support it better than others. Some have better support for gaming graphics cards. In the end I decided to buy on the low end and see,worst case I’d re-sell it or repurpose it. The reviews of the Asus P8Z77 series were good, but they have 10 variations. I bought the P8Z77-V LX at TigerDirect for $119. No Thunderbolt, wifi, or bluetooth.

I also bought the I7 while I was in the store. It comes in a couple minor variations, the one I wanted was the “k” model, the one that can be overclocked. No immediate plans to do so, but it’s an area I’ve never explored and by getting the right chip I can do it if/when I want to. I bought it locally at TigerDirect for $319, naturally the following week it was $299.

Installing the motherboard was straight forward, screws came with the case – download the manual to avoid the 5 minutes I spent figuring out which screws were which, good diagram in the manual. What turned out to be harder was getting the cheap metal flashing in place around the ports on the back of the machine. It just presses into place, except not quite in my case. I had to squeeze one end a bit with pliers to get it to fit. That has to go in before you fasten the motherboard and was really the only aggravating part.

Once fastened I connected the big motherboard power cable and the one for CPU power, no problem, easy to figure out from clearly marked cables and clear diagram in the manual. Then a connector for the fan. The case has more cables that then get connected to the board; on/off switch, USB and audio ports. Those went quickly too. The case I bought (Antec P280) has space behind the board to route cables and I did some of that, but I didn’t fasten anything down, thinking to wait until I’m done and sure I have everything where I want it.

Last thing for this session was the CPU. It comes in what seems like a big box, about 3” square, but the CPU is tiny, half dollar sized and the rest is a big fan and heat sink. Putting the CPU in is easy, it’s notched so you can’t get it wrong, and the pins are in the board rather than the CPU. Once in there is a lever that you have to push down on pretty hard to lock it in place. The heat sink then connects into four holes around it, snapped right in. Connected power to that fan as well.

Plugged the power in and turned it on, seemed to work fine the first time, though couldn’t do much without memory and storage. The interesting part was that with the case closed, I could not hear it running. Dead silent. I liked that more than I thought I would, and by comparison my old machine sounded like a chain saw – a very noticeable difference.

Building My Next Workstation–Part 3

With a case ordered and a CPU in mind I decided to focus on the power supply next. Remember that the better cases come with fans but not with a power supply (and in general that’s good, you want to pick you own).

As I did the reading I found it’s more complicated than it seems. Ideally you know what the power demand is before you buy. Too small and you’ll end up having to buy again, too big and you waste money (and maybe power, it depends). Knowing how much power means figuring out the whole inventory, which I wasn’t quite ready to do (perhaps illogically).

I can tell you that the I7 I planned to get was going to need a max of about 80 watts. After that the biggest consumer of power tends to be the add-in graphics card. Drives and fans use some, but not nearly as much. That’s a generalization, but I think a fair one. The lower end of the power scale is usually in the 400w range and that seemed about right, so I started reading those reviews.

I learned that good power supplies are rated as 80 Plus, meaning they are 80% or more efficient at various points between 20 and 100% utilization. There are grades above that, but for this build I didn’t think it made sense – it may start to if you’re running a 1000w or higher (1 kilo-watt hour per hour) system 24×7, or if your energy costs are higher than mine (I think around .08/kwh).

All of them come with the basic cables to power the motherboard, CPU,a fan,and a couple SATA drives, and probably one PCI Express cable for graphics cards that need more power than it can get from the slot. Bigger power supplies come with more cables, which you then have to manage – as in organize and push out of the way. Top end devices have modular plugs so you can only use the cables you need.

If you want to learn more, try here and here.

I started with the Corsair 430, an 80 Plus model. Unboxing it I was struck by how nice it was. All the cables are enclosed in braided sleeves and the whole thing felt solid. Installing in the case was easy enough, four screws that go through the back of the case (and come in the box). The case has a bottom air vent just for the power supply, including a slide out air filter which seems like a nice feature. The cables are clearly labeled too.

Powering it up with no load it was quiet. Very quiet. So far so good.

Later I ended up trading up to a 500w model only because it was on sale and I wanted to replace the power supply on my old machine. The 500w one came with two PCI-E cables, neither of which I’m using so far.

I spent about $40 for each of them, and there are several competitors that are priced in the same range. If you’re not going to use a big dog graphics card the 400w size works fine, no reason to tie up money that you can use for something else. Replacing it later – which I went through when I changed to the 500w – was less than 10 minutes, easy work provided the case gives you some room to work.

Building My Next Workstation–Part 2

Building a computer, at least in the beginning, feels like something you have to do holistically and at the same time like a chicken and the egg scenario. For example, what size power supply you buy depends on what you’re going to use for your video card. Not all video cards fit in all cases. Motherboards are tied to processors. The case might dictate the motherboard, or vice versa.

Early Decision points:

  • Which processor vendor, and preferably what CPU
  • If case size matters
  • Will you use the onboard video, and if not, will the video card require extra power/cooling

For me the first one was easy, it was going to be the Intel I7 chip, which seems to be the current top of the heap in the price/power equation. Case size I knew I didn’t want a super small machine, better to have some room to work when I wanted to make changes, so anything in the mid-size range would be fine,which in turn means most components would fit fine. The last one was tough. I’m not gaming now,I think the onboard video supported by the I7 will do fine as long as I only need two monitors, and I’d rather not spend money/power every month driving something I don’t need. But I don’t know. I decided to try to plan for enough power to drive one, make sure I had the slot.

So with those points in mind, it was easy to confirm that I wanted to go with an ATX motherboard. ATX for our purposes defining size (there is also micro-ATX, and seems to be some that are a bit larger than ATX). Rather than pick the motherboard then, I just used that to drive what seemed like the first piece I needed, the case.

My old machine used the Apevia X-Jupiter Jr. 420 Watts Case. A decent case, one with the window on the side and some LCD lighting for bling. This time I was agnostic on the bling. I wanted something sturdy, tool-less, quiet, and maybe – under stated, not a gamer rig. At the end of the day it’s a container, I  want it to work, and ideally it would look nice (even though my kids will probably soon cover it with various stickers). I wanted one with a couple of USB 3 ports too.

I spent a few hours browsing Amazon, AnandTech, Tomshardware, a few others, looking at pictures, reading reviews, trying to get a feel for how much to spend. The price range is $30 to $200 or so. I wasn’t opposed to spending $200 for something I could re-use in a few years (the Apevia case still works fine, supports the ATX motherboard). What turned out to be helpful was going to my local TigerDirect store to look at their selection of cases so I could reconcile them to the reviews.

The $30 cases are junk. They will work, but it’s not tool-free, it is sharp edges, and they just feel cheap. Starting at $50 I think they are usable, my view of the sweet spot was the $80-$110 range. All the ones I saw in person or read reviews seemed good quality in that range. Keep in mind that is the price for the case only, you have to buy a separate power supply.

I ended up picking the Antec p280. It was designed to be a quiet case, had a front door that in general I don’t like but was relieved so I could hit the power button with opening it, and the door would open all the way around if I wanted to leave it open. $90 when I ordered it, $110 today as I write this. When the box arrived it was a big box, and it’s a big case, so much that I left it on the table for a day contemplating if I wanted to send it back. It’s a mid-tower plus, 22” tall. Decided to press on and if in the end I don’t like it, I’ll order something else.

So far I think my advice is economize if you must, but this feels like a good place to spend some discretionary money over what you have to spend. When I get to the end of the journey I’m going to show my configuration with the spend and lay out places where you might spend less (because you can always spend more).

Building My Next Workstation–Part 1

It’s been four years – maybe more – since I last bought a workstation to use for development and lab work. It’s served me well since then, hasn’t changed much, but is slow by the standards of what I use today even in my laptop. When I bought the last one it was to host one main environment and a VM or two. The VM’s changed a lot, the base OS and config did not, and I think that has been a mistake. I need to treat it as something that can wiped at any time and all of it rebuilt as needed.

The last machine I bought from CyberPowerPC. If you think Dell allows you to customize a PC you’ll be either intrigued or aggravated with the amount of customization you can do there (also on IBuyPower.com). You can pick the case, the motherboard, the processor, and just about everything else. The prices are not bad (though not cheap) and you get it delivered to you ready to go. I like these sites because I get more options, but also because I can opt out of buying the OS license which I already have via my MSDN subscription.

As useful as those sites are, this time I’m planning to build from scratch. Why? There are a handful of things that drove the decision:

  • I’ve never built one from the ground up. Over the years I’ve replaced every kind of part a PC has, but I’ve never had to do the homework to see what kind of cost/benefit is there on various pieces and I’ve never cabled one.
  • I’ve been reading CPU Magazine for a couple of years from now. It’s mostly gamer/super power user oriented, hard to not get workstation lust from reading it. It’s free online,but you can also get free print copies from TigerDirect (Compusa) stores.
  • I’m hoping that putting all the pieces together will interest my kids,though I think they care more about what it does than how it works right now.

Over the next couple weeks I’m going to write about the research and purchases that lead to the final machine and try to wind up with a recipe you can follow, or at least a baseline you can use to figure out if its worth your time to build vs checking the boxes on a configurator menu.

My guess is I’ll make some mistakes along the way. I’m writing that now so I can remember it when I make a mistake that costs me some money!

My $200 Oops

My Nexus 7 tablet has grown on me, though I think it’s more about having a dedicated tablet than the hardware. I’ve never been a big fan of cases for devices, they seem to throw away the lightness of the form factor that we pass extra for, and without any case I can slip the Nexus in my pocket (Dockers most days these days, sadly) when I head out to lunch. That means no kickstand for reading at lunch – usually I read some, then eat some, then repeat, and having to hold the tablet for half an hour is no big deal.

Things were going well until I put the Nexus on my dresser while I changed clothes. It promptly slid off the small stack of clean clothes it was sitting on and smacked hard on the floor. Picked it up, glass thoroughly cracked, but still working. Working except for the touch screen that is, making it useless for anything except continuing to wake up me up each morning with the alarm I had set until the battery ran down.

Local repair cost was in the $150 range, didn’t see anything much cheaper online. I looked at iFixit.com and contemplated a DIY fix,decided that was a coin toss given how my DIY projects often go. That left me with the option of doing without or buying a new one. Now I’m the owner of another Nexus 7. Office Depot offered to sell me a protection plan for $80,I declined (again), and will take my chances (again). The broken one sits on the shelf until the price of repair (or repair parts) declines or I get tired of looking at it and throw it in the trash.

I did bend and put a case on it this time. It’s ok, not great. I don’t want a case, screen protector, etc. I want the device to hold up out of the box. Of course I’d also rather not buy another one due to breakage. I’ll see how the case goes.

Trying the Nest Thermostat

I’ve had the Nest Thermostat on my wish list for a while. It has looked like an interesting bit of technology, just hard to justify the $249 price. This past week the little plastic nub that changes from AC to heat broke on my not-exactly-high-tech thermostat, so I decided to splurge and try the Nest. I still can’t justify the price in terms of what I might save on energy, this is just trying something new.

I checked the price online, $249 at Amazon, the same at Best Buy. I like shopping local when I can so off to Best Buy where they had a nice demo of it set up so you could twist the dial to get a feel for how it worked. Looked good and ended up getting a $20 Best Buy gift card as part of some promotion, so a net of $229 for the thermostat.

The packaging for the product is first class, which I guess you expect given the price yet is still nice to see – you can see the Apple influence here. Everything you need is in the box.  I read the directions, took pictures of the wiring of the existing thermostat and then labeled them using the included wire labels. Removed two screws to take the old one off, then mounted the cover plate to hide the larger than Next hole in the wall and the Nest base that goes on that. The Nest has tiny bubble level so you can get it straight and there is a Nest branded screwdriver in the box with both standard and Phillips head, though I used my impact driver to push the two mounting screws directly into the drywall.

Next step is to push the wires into the holders on the Nest. The wires where just a tiny bit shorter than I would have liked making it hard to move them with my fingers, but a pair of needle nosed pliers and some careful arranging made everything fit. The way the connectors work you can easily and clearly see if the wire is connected solidly. I had to guess on a couple letters – I had an “R” wire,did that go to RC or RH? The old one had a jumper wire that the Nest manual said I didn’t need,so I put it aside, thinking I should have done this project on Sunday night instead of Saturday night so I could get next day help if needed.

Thirty minutes about to get to that point. The UI control just plugs in, turned the power on, and it detected my wifi network right away. The UI is a dial plus push to click, so to enter the password you twirl the dial – which feels solid, not twitchy – to each letter, click, go to next letter, and so on. My network uses mixed case plus numbers and I had no problem getting it entered. As soon as it connected it started downloading an update that took what seemed like a minute, then put up a message that it was restarting. It did, then restarted again.

It then prompted me for a few more answers about the type of cooling system, if I was a professional installer (I should have looked to see what options were under that), the local zip code, and an option for heat pumps where one choice was “don’t know” which I clicked. Maybe five minutes to get through the config and then it was ready. I set it to cool and hear the fan kick right on, good! Well, good except it was blowing hot air instead of cool. I hit the web and found an entry on their site suggesting that I change the heat pump configuration on the thermostat from “O” to “B”, which I did, and promptly got cool air. It was 8 pm and I decided to put off testing the heat until the next morning.

I then created an account on the Nest site and right away it detected an Nest device on the network. To link the account to the device I had to go click a prompt on the thermostat, plus click a confirmation link via email, and then I was in. I can set the thermostat via the browser, see the current temp, and even review the wiring diagram.

It’s nicely done through out. If you turn the dial so that the AC stops and then turn it back so that it should come on it shows a timer of how long until it restarts the compressor. You can set a schedule or let it learn – we’ll try the latter and see what happens. It stays dark unless it detects motion in front of it. At eye-level for me my 6 year old daughter doesn’t activate it when she walks by.

My wife was skeptical about $250 for a thermostat, but definitely changed her mind once she saw it and used it. Maybe it will save energy day to day, but the biggest place we see it helping us is when we’re gone for a few days. Here in Florida if we push the temp up to 80 in the summer it can take hours to cool down when we get home – not pleasant. We’ll get a lot of use out of it just adjusting the temp when we’re a few hours from being back home.

I think my only concern – minor at this point – is security. Part of it just the aggravation factor if the online account was compromised, or further back in their data stack, wouldn’t be fun to have someone changing the temperature randomly, but it would largely be a nuisance unless you weren’t at home and they either kept it running continuously or kept it from running to perhaps damage plants/pets during really cold weather. I can live with that minor risk. The other part is I’m not sure how the communication works from thermostat to web site. Either way I’ve put a device on my network that can get updates remotely and can see local traffic. I could turn the wifi piece off, but it’s a nice bit of functionality, so for now I’ll live with that risk too. As the world does more home automation, especially with remote management, we’re going to have to worry about this stuff more, ranging from maybe requiring vendors to meet some to be defined security standard to running them on a “home automation” network separate from our other devices.

So far I’m impressed with it, we’ll see how it goes. If you’re thinking of getting one I’d suggest pulling the cover on your current thermostat and identifying all the wire codes in use, figure out before you buy if you have any issues though I think most will work just fine

Phones, Tablets, and Even Windows 8

Last year I purchased two Kindle Fires for the family to use. The UI could be just a little bit/slow twitchy at times, but never so much to make you put the device down.  Looking at the usage over a year it was mostly games mostly played by kids followed by movies from Amazon Prime. Great travel/meal distractions to keep them quiet and engaged. Overall they worked out fine and a decent value at $200 each. Back to those in a minute.

Mid year I purchased an iPad for my wife. None of the UI twitchiness we saw in the Kindle, very very responsive. The kids like it because it has a few games that aren’t on the Kindle, but seem to like the Kindle form factor better. My wife prefers using a laptop or her iPhone, the iPad being more suitable for desk/lap use than reading/solitaire at bed time.

This year I watched the Kindle Fire v2 emerge with better tech specs, and the HD version with a camera and a few other upgrades. I bought one to see what we thought, because we also debated getting the iPad mini. The HD was a hit at home, though I think it’s slightly wider form factor is too wide – kids don’t hold it with one hand so doesn’t matter to them. There ended up being two factors for us; cost ($200 vs $329, and Amazon content vs Apple). I just didn’t see enough difference in the mini iPad to justify the extra spend. That’s for me, and that’s also looking at content – Amazon works for us. So, after a non-technical and probably non-objective comparison we now have 2 HD’s, the old Kindle Fires handed off to to Mom for various kids to use when they visit her.

Couple other notes. The Kindles have an HDMI out,kids love plugging in to play games/watch video on the big screen,even if with a 6 foot cable tethering them. You can also get a season of A-Team for $5 and I don’t know if life gets better than trying to explain Hannibal being Hannibal. I haven’t tried yet but Amazon also has a new program coming just for kids that gives them their own login and a special set of content, plus time limits and still better parental controls (which are decent on the v2’s already).

Back to the content for a minute, both Apple and Amazon want you to use their stack and they don’t make it easy to mix and match, often in small ways. For example on the Kindle you can “borrow” one book a month if you’re a Prime member – can’t do that using the Kindle reader on any other platform. If you’re not technical or not interested in driving outside the lines you’ll live within the stack, and I suspect largely be happy with it, as long as you’re only using one stack!

I also wanted to get a dedicated tablet for me to use. I debated the Kindle Fire v2 because its not quite as wide, but a friend convinced me to try the Nexus 7 instead. It’s yet another stack, Google everything instead of Amazon or Apple. It’s interesting to run stock Android and see the similarities/differences to the Android on my Droid Maxx – not that many, but a few, and a few more compared to the customized Android on the Kindles. Having used it for a few weeks I like the form factor – easier to read than my phone, comfortable to hold. I don’t miss the Amazon stack, so far at least – book reading works just fine from Amazon and that’s the biggest piece I need.

Next we replaced my wife’s laptop with an Acer V5 Touch running Windows 8. The reviews were so-so, but she wanted to try it anyway. At $600 you get less than 2 hours battery life which didn’t matter because it’s a ‘use at home’ device, Windows 8, and a touch screen. I tried Windows 8 more than a year ago and was less than thrilled, so I bought this expecting in a few days I’d be reloading it with Windows 7. Having a touch screen does change things. I look over to see her type and then swipe, other times one hand is steadying the display while she swipes more. That part is logical of course, we know that from the iPhone forward plus watching any new computer user touch the monitor expecting something to happen – now it does. She couldn’t find Control Panel, took me a couple minutes to find it. The change from tiled Desktop to plain ole Windows is still jarring to me, and I suspect to everyone else. The tiles are interesting, I don’t know if compelling. If you’re reading this I’d tell you the Acer is fine for family, not the one you want for you.

Here is how my family uses devices these days:

  • Kids: Old iPhones as iPods used mostly for music, Kindle Fire HD for games/video, PC with Windows 7 for browsing, Windows games. Amazon for content.
  • Wife: iPhone for music/games/browsing, a seldom used iPad, Windows 8 laptop for browsing/shopping. Apple for content
  • Me: Droid Maxx for basics, Nexus 7 for reading/misc, Mac Air for work/writing (with Win 7 on Parallels). Amazon for content

The small/medium/large device format seems to work for me, so far. I wonder if I’ll care less about the phone features over time if I use the Nexus for more day to day stuff. Mostly the laptop and Nexus are in my backpack and go everywhere with me, sometimes I’ll take the Nexus along if we go to dinner and are talking/shopping/looking at something. Do I need three devices? Does anyone? I don’t know yet.

I have to think Apple will bring touch screen to the Mac Air soon, I’m surprised they haven’t already. Windows 8/Surface? Price + Content is how you win, so far they don’t seem to hit either. I’m not anti-Microsoft, I just don’t think they sell anything that draws me. Apple has Itunes, Amazon has well, Amazon, Microsoft has ?

Looking into 2013 I’m curious to see how the market evolves. Ultrabooks seem obvious, yet also seem to struggle to get market share. I see a lot of people using iPad with bluetooth keyboards and I think that model will grow. I’d like to see the bezel shrink on the tablets, reducing the form factor without reducing the functionality. I think Amazon has the best strategy so far and they are playing to the family angle – very smart.