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David Chandler's Journal of Java Web and Mobile Development

  • David M. Chandler


    Web app developer since 1994 and Google Cloud Platform Instructor now residing in Colorado. Besides tech, I enjoy landscape photography and share my work at ColoradoPhoto.gallery.

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Chrome 83 new feature might “break” some Web apps temporarily

Posted by David Chandler on June 16, 2020

Chrome m83 includes a new feature to block third-party cookies by default in Incognito windows (https://venturebeat.com/2020/05/19/google-chrome-83/). This is no doubt a good thing for browser security; however, it’s a problem for some apps like bigquerygeoviz that may rely on services from other domains (in this case, bigquerygeoviz is hosted at appspot.com but is making API calls to google.com). Only workaround for now is to turn the setting off when you launch an incognito window, like this:

Many technical trainers like myself use incognito windows for demos and keeping numerous credentials separate, so we may have to get used to changing this setting for a while.

Posted in Google Cloud Platform | Leave a Comment »

Google Cloud extends free Qwiklabs and Pluralsight in May

Posted by David Chandler on May 1, 2020

Google Cloud has extended several free training offers for May, including another 30 free days of Qwiklabs. We use Qwiklabs in all the courses that I teach. They are an excellent way to get hands on with Google Cloud Platform, and Google has made the entire self-paced labs catalog (over 400 labs) available for free this May. If you have some time for learning new things this month, I strongly encourage you to take advantage of this offer!

Posted in Google Cloud Platform | Leave a Comment »

Creating a COVID-19 data pipeline and dashboard with Google Cloud Platform

Posted by David Chandler on April 29, 2020

I’ve created a pipeline and dashboard using Google BigQuery and related tools (GeoViz and DataStudio) to daily import the NYT dataset for each county. This pipeline and dashboard cost literally less than a penny per month to operate in Google Cloud. You can find complete instructions in the GoogleCloudPlatform github repo, or just link directly to my COVID-19 US dashboard to explore the data.

Posted in Google Cloud Platform | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Hoarding has real consequences

Posted by David Chandler on April 15, 2020

I’ve used bigquerygeoviz and the county by county dataset from NYT to create a map of coronavirus in the US as of Apr 13 adjusted for population (cases per million county residents publicly available in Google BigQuery).

Because it’s adjusted for population, it lets us see some interesting things:

  • NYC and Louisiana are hit hard, as we know.
  • Los Angeles and Miami, despite having a large number of cases, are actually not hot spots when considering the population.
  • A couple Colorado mountain counties with relatively small year round population have a large number of cases due to the ski resorts (now shut down). Ditto for Blaine, Idaho, near Sun Valley ski resort, which hosted a large wedding from Seattle in February before anyone realized the risk.

But what’s going on in Albany, GA, with more cases per person even than congested Atlanta? According to a WSJ article, health authorities trace it back to a funeral in early March. However, the article also notes that Albany, GA is home to P&G’s second largest plant making, you guessed it, toilet paper. The folks in Albany have had to ramp up production 20% even while every day learning that someone nearby has fallen ill or died of COVID-19. “Mr. Patterson, the P&G plant veteran, said the hardest thing is having to maintain distance from friends and family who are struggling.”

Am I suggesting that hoarding toilet paper caused the outbreak in Albany, GA? No! And as the WSJ notes, people ARE consuming more toilet paper at home (vs. work, which typically uses a different grade of TP) so some of the increase in demand is legitimate. Ditto for groceries, demand for which is up 2x in NYC according to another recent WSJ story. But I think it does illustrate that there are real people whose real lives and families are on the line while they keep working so we can have nice things. Healthcare workers (bless you all!), grocery store stockers, delivery people, and yes, even toilet paper makers, are risking their health every day for all of our sakes.

Let’s take it easy on them.

Posted in Economics | Leave a Comment »

How to teach an effective virtual class

Posted by David Chandler on March 23, 2020

Disclaimer 1: These opinions are my own, not those of my employer. As a technical trainer for Google Cloud Platform, I have taught both in-person and virtual classes for years and wish to offer my experience.

Disclaimer 2: Sorry this is so late. Much of the equipment I recommend is probably out of stock for the same reason that you are likely reading this post now.

TL;DR

  • Turn on your camera, especially when starting class.
  • Have students mute themselves unless they’re speaking.
  • Present one window at a time or a second screen in lower resolution.
  • Use chat and quiz tools to engage students!
  • Join the meeting with a tablet to share drawings.
  • You can record your live class and share it with students after.
  • Keep it live. No webinars!

Lots of folks are working and learning from home these days, so I’m offering a few pointers and best practices to help your calls run smoother and more efficiently, ranging from etiquette to equipment to tips for popular software (Zoom and Google Hangouts Meet, which is free for schools through July 1, 2020). Hangouts is 100% Web-based so you can run it on any operating system, including Android and iPhone applications. Zoom requires a download for Mac, Windows, and Linux, but can also run on Android and iOS as well as a Web browser so it works fine on ChromeOS, too. Zoom has extra tools designed specifically for virtual classrooms.

Etiquette

First things first, students: always mute your microphone if you are not speaking. No one needs to hear your dog barking or your baby brother crying. Even if you have no background noise, any unmuted microphone can produce echo for everyone on the call, even with a headset. Here’s how to mute yourself:

In Zoom, click the microphone button in the lower left corner or press Alt+A. To mute your video (turn off your camera), use the Stop Video button or press Alt+V on the keyboard.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 11.22.50 AM

In Hangouts, mouse over the bottom part of the window and click the microphone that appears on the left. Or click anywhere in the window and press Ctrl+D. To mute your camera, use the icon on the right or press Ctrl+E. Don’t click the red button in the middle. It looks attractive, but it will end your call.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 11.46.16 AM

Should you leave your camera on? The teacher decides. As a technical trainer myself, I like to see a few faces in order to help make that personal classroom connection instead of talking to my screen. For the same reason, I always leave my own camera on when presenting. However, video does take up more Internet bandwidth for everyone, so you may need to turn your camera off. As a teacher, I often ask everyone to turn ON their camera when first joining the call or when asking live questions.

Tips for teachers

In Zoom, there is a Mute All button on the participants panel. Use this to turn off everyone’s microphone at once. Or press Alt+M.

Hangouts doesn’t have a Mute All button, but any participant can mute any other, so you can ask students to help out by muting anyone who is making noise while you’re teaching. Click the People panel in the upper right to see who is making noise.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 10.00.59 AM

This shows that I am muted. If the red microphone doesn’t appear for a participant who is making noise, use the drop-down arrow to the right of their name, then click the mute microphone button in the middle. Again, any participant can mute any other, but only participants can UNmute themselves, so they might be surprised if they want to talk later and find that someone has muted them. You might want to ask everyone to practice muting and unmuting on the first call so there are fewer surprises and delays later on.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 10.03.32 AM

Screen sharing

Using Zoom or Hangouts, anyone can share their screen with all participants. Here’s how:

In Zoom, click the Share screen button at the bottom of the window.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 11.23.16 AM

You can then choose to share your whole desktop or only one application (window).

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 11.24.17 AM

See notes below on which to choose.

In Hangouts, mouse over the lower right of the window. The Present Now button appears.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 10.17.17 AM

You can then choose to present a whole screen or just one window.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 10.19.52 AM

If you have one screen, I recommend to share only a window for a couple reasons:

  1. It’s more polished. Students don’t need to see everything on your screen, and it gives you the freedom to move the window and use other windows on your screen without changing their view at all. I try to keep everything that I want to present in a separate window for this purpose. In Chrome, you can use Ctrl+N to open a new browser window. Do this ahead of time and load your content, then present only that window.
  2. It saves bandwidth. A window has fewer pixels than your entire screen. I use a Chrome extension called Window Resizer to set my shared browser window size to 1440×900. That way, students with a full HD screen can see my whole browser window without shrinkage and still see the side panels like People and Chat for the call.

If you have two screens, you can present your entire second screen for the most polished look. This way, you can put your windows in full screen mode so students won’t see any window trim, bookmarks, etc. To share something new, simply open it on your main screen, then drag it over to your second screen to share it with others.

Pro tips for presenters

  1. If you’re using a second screen, set the video resolution on the screen you are going to present to HD resolution (1280×720) or something close to it. This saves network bandwidth and ensures that your content will fit on students’ screens, as well. You can set display resolution in your operating system’s control panel.
  2. On MacOS, when presenting your entire screen, use multiple desktop workspaces and the four-finger swipe gesture to switch between them. This lets you easily switch between different types of content like a full-screen presentation in Google Slides and a separate browser window for demos.
  3. In ChromeOS, swipe down with three fingers to seamlessly choose another window to present.

Recording

Both Zoom and Hangouts Meet allow you to record meetings. As long as your account administrator allows it, you’ll see a record button or menu option to start recording. After you close the meeting, you’ll get an email with a link to the recording that you can share with students. The recording captures just what any student sees: audio and video (including unmuted students), and the screen you present. This is an easy way to share each class with any students who may have missed it, and is in fact one of the great benefits of virtual classes.

Equipment

Internet connection

To watch a video call, you really need only 2-3 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and upload speed doesn’t matter. However, to present, you need at least 2Mbps upload speed, and 5Mbps is recommended to send HD quality video without noticeable lag. Many DSL (phone company) connections cannot offer even 2Mbps upload speed, and even then the video you transmit will be a little choppy. Cable services typically do offer at least 2Mbps upload. If you’re presenting only slides with audio (no camera), you can get by with 2Mbps upload, but for a face-to-face meeting with minimum lag, you’ll want more upload bandwidth.

Audio

In order to maintain the best audio quality for everyone, an excellent and reasonably priced (~$25) option is a wired USB headset with built-in microphone. I have used the Logitech H340 for years and can wear it comfortably all day if necessary, though I prefer not to be chained to my desk that way. Wireless (Bluetooth) headsets are also an option for shorter calls, but the batteries typically don’t last for a whole day of teaching.

Alternatively, you can use a standalone USB microphone, but beware that the microphone should be somewhat directional and not pointing at your speakers or you will create echo and possibly even screeching feedback on the call. I’ve had very good success with the ~$50 Blue Snowball mic. There are more expensive options, but in my opinion, you don’t need to spend a penny more on conference calls unless you’re trying to record broadcast quality. On many laptops, the built-in microphone quality is actually fine.

Video

Your built-in Webcam is fine. Most videoconferencing systems only transmit video at 720 pixels resolution max, so there is no need for a full HD webcam. If your computer doesn’t have a webcam, any USB webcam will do. I use a pretty old Logitech C615 which cost me less than $35. It has a clever mounting system that lets it sit atop practically any screen.

Computer

Videoconferencing software can tax your computer’s processor, so the beefier the better. As a student, even the cheapest Celeron processor will be fine, but for presenters, a more powerful processor is recommended. Otherwise, if you are sending video and sharing your screen, your computer may feel a little sluggish. I’ve presented via Google Hangouts with a 2015 MacBook Pro dual core i7 and my browser demos were super sluggish. With a 2019 Acer Chromebox having a quad-core i7 and 16GB RAM, I have no delays at all. My sense is that Zoom is easier on most CPUs than Google Hangouts.

Tools for teachers

Chat

Zoom and Hangouts both offer a chat panel where anyone can post to everyone in the call. In addition to the group chat, Zoom also allows students to communicate privately with the teacher and vice versa, which is often handy to preserve privacy of questions.

The chat panel is an easy and useful way to engage students. You can ask questions as well as encourage students to ask questions in chat. Here are a few ways to use chat effectively:

  1. I encourage students to ask questions in chat while I’m presenting, which is a great way for them to take note of something without interrupting. When I’m feeling game, I answer questions right away in the audio channel; otherwise, I wait until I’m finished presenting a section and then address questions.
  2. The chat panel is a great place to post Web links to related materials like a class document.
  3. Any time we take a break or are working on an activity, I post what we’re doing and when we’ll resume for students who may have stepped away for a minute.

Nonverbal tools

Zoom offers some great nonverbal tools for teaching. Students can raise a hand, answer yes/no, indicate they’ve stepped away for a moment, etc. You could ask, “Is everyone ready to move on?” and ask for a thumbs up/down, then see at a glance who’s ready (or whether anyone is paying attention!)

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 12.06.57 PM

To enable these tools in Zoom, see this support article.

Quizzes and polls

Quizzing students is a great way to engage students in virtual classes. My favorite tool is Google Forms, which is free with any Google account. To get started, find a tutorial online or use the official guide from Google. There is a Blank Quiz template which makes it easy. You can create a multiple choice or short answer quiz, then click the Send button to create a link that you share with students by posting it in chat. Students instantly see their score and the quiz creator can see all individual answers as well as a helpful summary grouped by question. I like to present the summary to students on the virtual call to foster further discussion.

You can use Google Forms for graded quizzes, too. Don’t forget to include a field on the quiz for the student’s name. The easiest way to reuse a graded quiz is simply to make a copy for each class. Choose the three dots menu next to the Send button, then “Make a copy.”  You’ll have to generate a new link for each copy using the Send button, but this way the answers and scores for each class will be kept separately.

If you don’t need to keep grades and want to reuse the quiz for each class, just click the three dots menu in the upper right, then select Delete all responses.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 12.55.28 PM

Zoom offers a built-in polling tool; however, you have to (re)create the poll in every call, whereas Google Forms are reusable and provide a richer summary, so that is my tool of choice for online quizzing.

Drawing / annotation

Math teachers, this section is for you! If you don’t have access to a tablet (or even if you do!), Desmos is a fantastic tool for graphing equations that will do all the drawing for you. With a tablet, you can easily share your own drawing or other handwriting with your students. All you need is a stylus and your favorite drawing app. You can host the call on your primary computer, then install the Zoom or Hangouts app on your tablet to join the call on your tablet also. Remember to mute the microphone on your tablet AND turn the tablet volume all the way down so you don’t get feedback between it and your main computer. Zoom and Hangouts both support Android devices and i-things. Draw in your favorite app and share the app window or your whole tablet screen using the Zoom or Hangouts app just like you do on your desktop.

For tablets, I’m a big fan of the ~ $300 Chromebook flip tablets like the ones I’ve written about previously. They run Android apps in addition to Chrome apps, so you have a wide choice of drawing tools like Google Drawings, Jamboard, Squid, and others. I’m told the default Notes app works great on iPads.

There are many options to annotate slides or Web pages, as well. Zoom lets you draw over any screen you are presenting. If you’re using Hangouts, you can save a PDF of your slides or Web pages and then open the PDF in an annotation tool and present that window. Chromebook flip tablets have a built-in PDF viewer with drawing tools, or you can opt for more sophisticated tools in an app like Xodo, which is my personal favorite. With Xodo and a stylus, you can enable a smart mode where you use your finger to advance the page and the stylus to draw on the page. It’s really smooth.

Class documents / resources

Google Docs is a convenient way to share a syllabus, FAQ, or other lists of resources with your class. If your school already uses GSuite for Education, it’s easy. Just create a Google Doc, then click the Share button and “Get shareable link”. You can paste the link into a group chat or email to share it with students. If your school doesn’t use GSuite for Education, you can still use Google Docs effectively. Create a doc in your personal Google (Gmail) account, then click the Share button and “Get shareable link” and copy it to your clipboard. The link contains a random identifier so that only people with the link will be able to view your document. To provide the link to students in a virtual class, simply paste it into the chat panel.

Google Classroom is another great tool for sharing resources and assignments for the duration of a class (as in a semester, not just one virtual session).

Parting thoughts

With a little practice, virtual teaching can be as rich or even richer than in-person classes. Your subtle sense of humor may not come through as well on video chat because the class isn’t as “live” with mics muted, but I find that in some environments, students are actually more likely to ask questions via chat than they are in-person. In addition, tools like quizzes allow the teacher to get a quick read on how everyone is doing, not just the few who answer questions in class.

In my own experience, it took a while to get used to virtual teaching. It’s still not my favorite; however, I welcome less travel and the opportunity to go for a bike ride at home before or after teaching. More importantly, virtual students who have never seen me teach in person have told me that my online classes have been among the best technical classes they’ve ever attended, so I’m encouraged that it is possible to deliver a high-quality learning experience online. Sometimes you have to present to your invisible friends. It might not feel like anyone is there, but if you regularly stop and ask for questions, there will surely be some. And if you’re a regular classroom teacher, go ahead and ask specific students for their input just like you would in class. That’s what microphones and cameras are for, and the technology works pretty well to create a sense of virtual presence.

One final tip: I start every online class with a slide that says “It’s a conversation, not a webinar.” I think it helps to let students know that you as the teacher are expecting an interactive class just like you would in person. If you welcome their questions, they are far more likely to engage.

Speaking of questions, I’m happy to answer any via the comments below.

Happy virtual teaching!

Posted in Teaching | 1 Comment »

Chromebook deals under $350 for Black Friday 2019

Posted by David Chandler on November 11, 2019

It’s that time again! The Best Buy Black Friday ad once again has some spectacular deals on Chromebooks for all types of users.

My favorite this year is the new HP Chromebook 2-in-1 14″ i3 8GB, a new flip tablet with some of the beefiest specs of any Chromebook. At the Black Friday price of only $349 (reg. $599), it is hands down the best value on the market for moderate to power users. I purchased it on a preview sale and the only thing I don’t love is the weight. It comes in a little heavy at 3.7 lbs., but the 14″ full HD screen and excellent sale price more than make up for it IMHO. The backlit keyboard is a pleasure with lots of key travel and more mechanical feel. It has 2 USB-C ports and 1 USB-A port so you don’t need an adapter for your USB security key or external mouse. The trackpad is smooth and responsive, and the full HD screen, while not the brightest or most saturated in color, is sharp and adequate even under bright lights. It’s built solid, so there is no annoying give when you rest your hands on the keyboard. 8GB RAM is plenty generous for a Chromebook, and like most modern Chromebooks, it runs Android and Linux apps, as well.

A close second is the ASUS C434 flip tablet, which is similarly equipped. It has a thinner bezel than the HP but square edges, which I don’t prefer, and I don’t like the tablet fold as much. Costco now (Dec 6) has the ASUS on sale for $399 (reg. $549) with Core m3 (not as fast as the i3) and 4GB RAM (vs. 8GB for the HP). It’s a great price for a very nice machine, but not as good a value as the Black Friday price on the HP. The ASUS C433 (Best Buy exclusive) is about $40 cheaper than the ASUS C434, but feels a little less solid next to the trackpad.

On the lower end, the Lenovo 2-in-1 is a good value at the Black Friday price of $179. The Acer Spin 11 is a little bulkier, but offers more solid construction and performance. Its cousin, the Acer R11, has served our family very well for years. The Spin 11 features an upgraded processor (Celeron 3350), USB-C ports in addition to USB-A, generous battery life (10 hrs), and front/rear cameras for tablet mode. At the Black Friday (and beyond) price of $219, it is an excellent value. The very similar Lenovo C340 11.6″ 2-in-1 is in the Costco Black Friday ad for $229, also a great value. It feels more solid than its predecessor. The Lenovo’s N4000 processor is slightly (~30%) more performant than the Acer’s N3350, but the Acer is more symmetrical in tablet mode. Also the Lenovo, being a new model, has a couple years longer support from ChromeOS. The Lenovo screen is slightly brighter and crisper than the Acer.

For the most budget conscious, the Samsung 11.6″ 4GB model (not a flip tablet) at $119 is an excellent value. The rubberized case seems like it’s built to withstand some abuse, making it a good first machine for younger students.

To summarize, my top three Chromebooks under $350 this Black Friday are:

  • $349 HP Chromebook 14″ 2-in-1 8GB
  • $219 Acer Spin 11 4GB (Best Buy model with dual camera for tablet mode)
  • $119 Samsung 11.6″ 4GB

Happy hunting!

Posted in PC Tech | 2 Comments »

Magic Trackpad 2 works with ChromeOS!

Posted by David Chandler on May 3, 2019

Last October, Chrome Unboxed reported that support for Apple’s Magic Trackpad 2 was in the Chrome dev channel. It’s now in Chrome stable as of v73, and I’ve verified it with several popular Chromebooks including the Acer R11, ASUS C302, and Pixelbook.

Works with KVM switches, too

Why would you want an external trackpad when Chromebooks already have pretty decent trackpads built-in? Answer: when you’re sharing an external keyboard and trackpad between two computers. The previous Magic Trackpad was Bluetooth- and Mac-only, and, like the current Magic Trackpad 2, can pair wirelessly with only one device at a time. This makes it impractical to switch between computers. The Magic Trackpad 2 introduces a great innovation–a cord! (who knew?)–that is ideal for KVM switches. The trackpad cord features a standard USB-A plug used by most KVM switches. The Magic Trackpad 2 automatically pairs via Bluetooth with my 2015 Macbook Pro and also works wired through an IOGear DisplayPort USB KVM switch with my Pixelbook. It’s smart enough to send movements over only one channel (wired or wireless) at a time.

IMG_20190502_160758

Guess which one is my work computer?

Why Magic Trackpad 2?

Mice bother me. Literally, they hurt my shoulder until I started switching mouse hands every other day to distribute the bodily wear. I’ve had much less trouble since using a trackpad. Plus, gestures are cool, and the Magic Trackpad 2 supports the four-finger gestures on the Mac and three-finger gestures on ChromeOS. Pinch zoom works in both. The Magic Trackpad 2 is huge, allowing me to move the pointer all the way across two displays with one motion. And it offers a definite “click” throughout the entire surface, with an additional level of “force click” that can be configured on the Mac (but not ChromeOS). Of course, tap-to-click works fine, too.

Kudos to Apple and the Chrome team for making this integration possible! It’s an ergonomic delight.

Posted in Ergonomics | 2 Comments »

In search of the perfect Chromebook on Black Friday

Posted by David Chandler on November 19, 2018

My family has been using Chromebooks for home and school for the last 5 years. There’s lots to like: super fast startup, no worries about viruses or backups, and they update automatically, which is super easy on me as my kids’ systems administrator. All the Google apps including Gmail now support offline use, and newer models can run Android apps and now even Linux apps (more below)! And of course, for basic computing from email and word processing to Facebook and Netflix, they’re cheap. As Black Friday approaches, I thought I’d highlight a few of my favorite models.

Most versatile around the house

The Acer R11 is my all-around favorite for home use. It has a great feel to it, solid and comfortable. I find the R11 on the kitchen counter serving up recipes, at the kitchen table answering emails, on the couch doing school work in Google Docs, and set up in tent mode in the living room for a video call over Hangouts or sharing photos with guests. The R11 doubles as a tablet which can run Android apps so you can download albums for offline listening using Google Play Music, read offline with Kindle, or explore a new area with Google Maps on a large screen in tablet mode. It has all the standard ports you’d expect (USB-A, HDMI, audio, SD card reader) so you don’t need adapters as with newer USB-C ports. Performance is reasonable for the Google apps and Web browsing. The available Celeron 3160 model is noticeably faster than the Celeron 3060, although both are decent when running productivity apps like Gmail and Kindle Reader. The R11 is small enough that you can fit it almost anywhere, and you can even find a $15 stylus on Amazon.com that works great on the touchscreen if you want to keep it clear of fingerprints. Costco had the 4 GB / 32 GB model with Celeron 3160 on sale for $199 a couple weeks ago, a really great value for a computer + Android tablet. Using the beta Linux apps support now available in Chrome 70, I even installed git, Java, maven, and IntelliJ on the R11. I would definitely not choose this as my primary machine for software development as an IDE like IntelliJ is very sluggish on the Celeron, but for text-based Linux tools, it’s more than adequate.

Best Buy currently has a similar model from Lenovo with an ARM-based chip (vs. Intel) on sale for $179. I have no personal experience with the Lenovo and its app compatibility, but the look and feel is great and the reviews are excellent.

Best traveler

The ASUS Chromebook C302 flip model, like the R11, runs Android apps (but not yet Linux, sadness). At just over two pounds, it travels lightly through airports on my back, and it’s thin enough to be quite comfortable as a tablet, as well. Its Intel Core m3 processor is quite a bit faster than the Celeron processors in low-end Chromebooks and handles most everyday tasks instantly. I really can’t imagine needing more power for anything but high-end games and software development. The backlit keyboard and sleek, silver design feels somewhat like a Macbook Air. I like the extra inch and a half of display over the Acer R11, but the R11 feels more durable because of its heavier textured plastic shell. For use on a desk or in my lap, the ASUS is my favorite. I was lucky to find an open box at Best Buy for $350, but they’re in the $450 range new.

Best movie screen under $300

The Acer Chromebook 15 (older model, not the latest) offers a large 15.6″ full HD display and excellent sound from the built-in speakers. It is heavy (almost 5 pounds!) and built like a tank, with durable fabric texture shell. It has all the same standard ports as the R11. The Celeron 3205U processor is more powerful than the N3160 on the Acer R11. Combined with a speedy Internet connection, my son uses it to remote in to a Windows machine in Google Cloud Platform to run Excel for business school. There is no noticeable lag. It is a great machine under $300 for students who don’t mind hauling it around. Unfortunately, the 3205U doesn’t yet run Linux apps. It does run Android apps even though it’s not a touchscreen.

For software developers

The biggest limitation of Chromebooks for developers has been the inability to install local developer tools. It’s been possible to run Linux on Chromebooks using dual boot or Crouton for a while, but this required switching to the ChromeOS dev channel, which does not have the stability or security of the stable channel. Now that Linux support (beta) has reached Chrome stable channel as of v69 (you’ll find the ability to enable Linux apps right by the Google Play option in Settings), it’s quite possible to install a typical Java developer stack on many Chromebooks. I’ve installed OpenJDK, maven, and IntelliJ on everything from the $199 Acer R11 to the $1,000+ Pixelbook. Older Celeron 30xx and 31xx processors are supported as well as the newer Core i3/i5/i7 chips and a handful of chips in the midrange–check the official Chromium page above.

Aside from the ultralight but spendy Pixelbook (BestBuy has the 8GB i5 model on sale for only $699 this week!), there is one midrange model great for developers, the Dell Chromebook 14, currently on sale for $499 at Best Buy. The display is stunning with vibrant color and resolution up to 2194 x 1234. The built-in sound is also surprisingly good, but the main attraction is the Core i3 processor, which is capable enough to run IntelliJ smoothly. It scores 34,600 on Octane v2, faster than my high-end Pixelbook with i7 processor (score 27k)!  It’s also a tablet, though a bit awkward for its size, and runs Android apps admirably. The provided stylus with built-in holder keeps the screen free of fingerprints and works well with pressure-sensitive drawing apps like Squid. The Dell Chromebook 14 weighs in at about twice the weight of a Pixelbook and is bulkier in shape, but I prefer the Dell’s wider display with thinner bezel. As long as I don’t have to wear it on my back too much, this is my “one Chromebook to rule them all.”

The $100 computer and one for Grandma, too

Lastly, I want to call out a couple deals in Best Buy’s Black Friday ad. The Samsung 11.6″ Chromebook with 2 GB RAM and 16 GB storage is only $99 this coming weekend. It’s a minimal machine, but certainly sufficient for Gmail, Google Docs, and Facebook. The 4GB model (preferred, as ChromeOS likes RAM) is only $129.

Older eyes will also appreciate several of Acer’s Chromebook 15 models that have 1366×768 resolution. While not as sharp as a full HD display, a large screen at lower resolution allows older eyes like mine to use the display at the default zoom level. And they’re cheap: this one is currently on sale for $169.

Happy deal hunting!

 

Posted in PC Tech | 2 Comments »

When frequent travel points (including United) ARE worth something

Posted by David Chandler on October 1, 2018

Having griped about United previously, I think it’s only fair to pass on the positives, as well. My wife, daughter, and I just got back from a trip to visit our son in college near Oklahoma City. We booked the trip on less than a week’s notice, found United award tickets to nearby Wichita, KS (where it was also cheaper for us to rendezvous with our daughter) for the minimum 20k miles, rented a car from National, and got a free upgrade to a RAV4 with my status (I love the Emerald Aisle, and although Wichita is too small to have one, they still gave me a choice of cars). I could have used free rental credits but decided to save them for a more expensive city later. We stayed two nights at Hyatt Regency Wichita using the minimum number of points and as a Hyatt Globalist, received parking and a very nice breakfast buffet with made-to-order omelet for free. As an aside, we were quite impressed with Wichita hospitality generally. Growing up in Kansas City, I generally believed Kansans were friendly. Even so, the folks at the Wichita Hyatt Regency, National Car Rental, United, and Hog Wild BBQ were especially helpful and friendly (and the BBQ was great).

Our return trip today was remarkably smooth. We got to the Wichita airport at 7:20am for an 8:25 flight. There was no traffic. National car return at the counter (haven’t done that for a while!) was the fastest ever, and they swapped my business credit card for personal credit card in <30s. United checked us and our bags (for free, Silver and up) in record time, there was literally no one in line at security, and the flight left on time. We sat in Premium Economy (book for free with Gold status up), which on the ERJ175 is quite roomy. They served coffee on board even though the flight was only an hour, and a friendly flight attendant presented my snack box on request with a sincere “thank you for being a Premier 1K member.” Our bags were waiting for us on the carrousel by the time we arrived. Back home in Denver, Canopy Airport Parking picked us up within 5 minutes. Indoor valet parking was free thanks to frequent parker points.

When it all works, it can be quite smooth, and I am thankful to be able to earn status and points on my employer’s nickel, then cash them in on my own. I find that travel points and status are not worth pursuing for their own sake–there are usually cheaper travel alternatives–but they do reduce the inconveniences of frequent business travel. And occasionally, they enable me to do things that otherwise would be prohibitively expensive or time-consuming, such as a last-minute trip to a smaller city with less competitive airfares.

On the whole, I’ve been very well treated as a frequent customer with United, Hyatt, Hilton, National, and Canopy. In my experience (50+ trips over the last couple years), most of the customer-facing people in these organizations truly value the customer and provide efficient service, and the rewards programs really are rewarding. Per my previous post, Premier 1K has not been as rewarding as I had hoped in terms of upgrades (certainly in part because I fly mostly congested hub routes). However, United rewards Gold members and up with the ability to book Premium Economy for free (including companions), which I tremendously appreciate, and I likewise appreciate free checked bags for the whole family when on vacation. Also the Premier 1K One Call number is great–I’ve never waited more than a minute to make or change a reservation, etc. On the whole, I expected to be burnt out from ~50% travel after a year, but after almost two years, I still mostly enjoy my travels. Major inconveniences have been rare and trips like this one have indeed made it worthwhile to maintain brand loyalty.

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Why United Premier 1K status is basically worthless

Posted by David Chandler on September 11, 2018

This post is a gripe, and a very intentional one. It’s no way to start blogging again after years of not writing. Nevertheless it needs to get indexed in Google so when people search for info on United status they can learn the hard truths before committing to United. These are things I wish I’d known.

I have been a Premier 1K flyer for a year now. I live in Denver and fly mostly to major United cities (SFO, Chicago, DC, Seattle). As a Premier 1K, I’m eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs). I’ve received 3 out of 70 some flights I have made, and those were only when not flying between hubs (OKC, anyone?). As a Premier 1K, I almost never get a complimentary upgrade when flying from Denver to a hub unless it’s Saturday at 6am. The official rules say that CPUs can be confirmed as early as 96 hours in advance. That has happened only twice. Usually I wait at the airport to find out I receive no upgrade. I’m often #1 on the upgrade list, but it doesn’t matter–they sell any remaining seats at the last minute via kiosk discount at checkin rather than give it to a Premier 1K.

I finished last year with 8 Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs). I thought this would allow me to upgrade any domestic flight in advance. Wrong again. Regional upgrades are  waitlisted, so you don’t know if you actually get your upgrade until an hour before the flight or even on the plane! Starting with 8 RPUs, I’ve tried to use them on my last 30 flights or so. So far, my upgrade has been confirmed only 3x using an RPU. So they’re pretty much worthless, too. United doesn’t open up the upgrade seats until a few days or even hours before the flight. If there is any chance somebody might buy the first class seat, they’re not going to let you have it with an upgrade. Which shows how much they really appreciate your business as a Premier flier with over 100k miles per year. They’ll give you the seat if it costs them exactly nothing.

Global upgrades (GPUs) are likewise near worthless. They are waitlisted until 4-6 days before the flight on the routes I fly, so I can’t know until it’s too late whether I have a lie-flat seat for those long-haul overnight trips. Worse, upgrades for an international flight with a connection are restricted by the domestic leg. So while Houston to Lima might have 9 upgrades available, Denver to Lima has only 2 available, even though the IAH-LIM leg is the very same flight. Maddening.

Premier 1Ks are supposed be able to get “instant upgrades” on Y-, B-, and even M-class fares. But guess what? When you read the fine print, instant upgrades are subject to capacity controls. And only eligible for domestic flights. That don’t have a lie-flat seat. And every time I’ve looked, the M-class fare is higher than the discount first-class fare. So this benefit, too, is a lie.

What about miles? Don’t Premier 1K members get better availability on MilleagePlus award tickets? Yes, and credit card members, and…? My experience is that you can almost never use the saver awards (25k miles) in advance to popular destinations. They seem to open them up at the last minute, so I have been able to use miles to attend a funeral, for example, which would have otherwise been an $800 ticket. But for vacation planning more than a couple weeks in advance, forget it. If you want a red-eye flight or multiple stops, sure, you can find those, and maybe even a relatively out-of-the-way place. I took my family to Toronto in June using miles and we really enjoyed the time, so maybe try to use your miles to Toronto.

In my experience, the only United benefit actually worth something is the ability to book Premium Economy seats for free at time of booking with Gold status, and this I do value greatly. If they ever take that away, I might as well fly Southwest. At least that way, I would get to choose the size of people I sit next to. Also it’s nice that Premier 1K members get Group 1 boarding so you don’t have to wait for your carryon on the other end. Otherwise, “priority” boarding is a joke. Groups 1 and 2 are typically more than half the plane in Denver.

There is one more Premier 1K benefit that’s worth a few pennies: you get a drink (alas, I don’t drink) and an overpriced snack box for free. Twice I got a hamburger, the rest of the time beef jerky or the variety box. It’s something, but not definitely not worth my airline loyalty.

The crazy thing is, United service hasn’t been that bad. The flight attendants are usually friendly. The Premium Economy seats allow me enough room to open my laptop, and on Airbus aircraft, they’re actually comfortable (Boeing not so much). Every third flight or so is delayed, but usually I still arrive the same day. And they’ve lost my bag only when I’ve checked it up front, but they always get it back to me within a couple days. I could actually tolerate these things. But the promise of benefits like RPUs and GPUs only to find out I can’t actually use them except at the last minute–that makes me feel I’ve been cheated every single time I book a ticket.

So forget about your upgrades, and enjoy your snack box.

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