The Mobile World Congress, the annual international electronics showthat focuses on the mobile industry, is finally here. Almost every phone maker — only Apple avoids MWC, but they needed to amass billions in annual profits to escape its orbit — uses this week to formally announce their new flagship devices.Toa certain type of consumer, the end ofMWCmarks the beginning of month of anticipation that ends with a night camped out in front of a phone store, to becomethe first person to own the latest shiny-shiny.
Though I’m as keen as anyone to see the specs of thenew Samsung Galaxy phone (et al), I’m also pleased by a lovely coincidence: over the past few weeks,some newly released hardware has arrived in the office and they’re all just as exciting as anything that will come out of Mobile World Congress this week. But for a different reason:
Wait . . . what am I saying? This stuff ischeap. Suspiciously cheap. As in “What a great deal on this gold necklace! Butwhyare this little clumps of raw skin embedded in the links?” cheap. So cheap that in two of these three cases, I didn’t even bother to ask for a review loaner. When a computer costs $35 and a Windows tablet costs $59…geez, filling out the paperwork and then re-boxing it and shipping it back later on will cost me more than that, just in time and labor.
Raspberry Pi 2: 35 Damn Dollars
The original Raspberry Pi was designed from the ground up to teach schoolkids about computers. It’s a bare, Post-It-sized $35 Linux-basedcomputer that tries its best to beopen-sourcewherever it can.It’s probably the first popular computer in a quarter century thatthe user can totallycontrol.It keepsno secrets about itself from its owner.
Which is why the Pi was so quickly discovered and embraced byhobbyists. What does the Pi do? Whatever you want. It has four USB ports, HDMI, Ethernet, and anonboard microSD slot that serves asa boot drive. It’s powered by a standardmicroUSB connector. A header strip lets you buy and add — or even design and build — whatever additional hardware or accessories you want.
The Pi 2 receives one major upgrade from its immediate predecessor, but it’s a doozy: a quad-core CPU that promises six times greater performance. I’ve had my Pifor two weeks now and it seems to be the real deal.
That opens up the Pi to new possibilities.The previous Pi was weak when you tried to make it work like a desktop. You could install Ubuntu on it, it ran apps like LibreOffice and a web browser…but it started to vibrate a littleat those high speeds.
The Raspberry Pi 2has the power of a low-end PC and it can evencredibly be used like one. It’s kind of mind-blowing that $35 buys a computerthat’s this capable.
WinBookTW700: 59 Damn Dollars
Until recently, aveteran tech journalist would be pleased to see the phrase“sub-$100 tablet computer” on the news release for a new product.Normally, we would haveneededto carefully test a piece of hardware for days, likely wholeweeks, before conclusivelyprovingthat it’s a total piece of garbage. We wouldonly actually write about them ifanicely-turned, if meanspirited, linepopped into our heads and it seemed like a shame to waste it.(“The $89 DiscoTab 817 is incapable of giving any kind of pleasure to any kind of rational creature. If DiscoTech Inc. had made it out of chewtoy leather inside and out, it would have at least been fun for dogs to play with.Such a thing wouldalso stream Netflix with fewer freezes than I experienced…”)
I’ve had the $59 TW700 tablet (a US-exclusive from Micro Center) for a couple of days. Please don’t run out and buy it until I’ve wrapped up my testing, but the fact that Iactually see the need to continue testing it after the first hour is a serious achievement. It appears to be a well-made, for-real 7″ Windows 8.1 color tablet that runs both Modern (multitouch) and desktop apps.
I stress again that this is way too soon for me to recommend it to anybody. I’m merely sharing some data points: within twohours after setting up the WinBook, it was connected to a keyboard, mouse, and an HDMI monitor, it was running the Windows version of the same Mac desktop app I use for all of my columns, and all of my Mac’s project files had been synced to its internal storage and back to my Mac via Dropbox, just like all of the other computers on my network. I had begun this session simply as a test drive, but being in front of a keyboard and screen with theScrivenerappopen in front of me triggered a Pavlovian response in my brain, and I wound up doing a couple of hours of actual writing.
On a PCthat cost fifty nine bucksand was also a pocketable tablet!
Motorola Moto G and Moto E (179 and 149 damn dollars)
And we’re back to phones. In the US, $200 phones are affordable only because they’re heavily subsidized by carriers. They typically cost between $650 and $800 if you’re not locked into a two-year service contract. There are plenty of advantages of having an unlocked, take-it-to-any carrier phone and by comparison-shopping voice and data plans you can oftenrecover all of those extra costs well before those two years would be up.
But let’s not overlook the fact that there are plenty of people who can’t get that two-year contract because of either bad credit history or no credit history. Many consumers would also rather not make a two-year commitment to an expensive plan, or just to one carrier. And then we must remind ourselves that phone prices aren’t subsidized all over the world.
This is why I regard Motorola’s low-costdevices as “important” phones. They’re just as interesting as the Galaxy Note 4 or the iPhone 6. Are they premium devices? No, but their specs are solid. The latest Moto E was just announced on Wednesday and I haven’t had a chance to handle it yet. But I have the Moto G in my library and there’s nothing chintzy about its construction or performance. For just $179 (Moto G) or $149 (for thehigh endMoto E) you own a phone outright that will work withalmost any carrier anywhere in the world. Or, hell, don’t even bother putting a SIM in it. Just use it as a media player that runs modern Android apps.
The Moto G and E serve as a reminder that premium phones arepremium phones.Just because the high-end devicesget all of the ad dollars and attention doesn’t mean that a phone with a 1024-core CPU and a display with such high definition that it lets youcan see straight into the soul of pure evil should be considered “normal.”
Fun At TheShallow End Of The Pool
The phrase “the race to the bottom” is often used by analysts to refer to the way thatintense competition can often lead to hardware makers undercutting each other on price. Thus, many people associate this phrase with cheap, shoddily-built, unreliable goods sold at disastrously-thin profit margins. The best place for a maker to be, they say, is in a premium marketplace where your product is heavily differentiated.
I’m a tech columnist, not a business analyst. I generally stick to questions like “how well does a thing work,” “does this represent a trend that I like,” “do I personally find this significant or interesting”…that sort of stuff.
Full columns on the Raspberry Pi 2, the WinBook 700, and the Moto E will arrive after proper testing and reflection. Until then, I’m thrilled by this ongoing evidence that cheap, well-made, useful hardware like these items exist and that there are companies eager to put something great in the hands of people without too much money to spend.
Even just talking about them creates some valuable insights. The conversationisn’t aboutcurved screens, sapphire covers, and the difference between “Champagne Gold” and “Rose Gold.” It forces us to talkabout what a device cando for us. A piece of technologyshould do more than just trigger our pleasure receptors, or help us to giveoff a vibe of status and sophistication. Technologyshouldhelp us get through the hard things in life more quickly, help us to enjoy the good things in life more deeply, and help us to explore alarger world and the greater parts of ourselves.
Plus, of course, there are so many people in the US and around the world who just flat-out can’t afford thestuff with top-of-the-line specs, or even the midpriced stuff. The fetishization of the premium marketoften makes it seems as ifthere’s a sign hanging on the door of theconsumer tech worldthat reads“Go be poor somewhere else.” That’s immensely troubling.
And when it comes to the relationship between kids and technology, there’s the simple power of get toown something outright instead of having to share it with siblings, parents, or classmates. A shared computer is like a fork in a kitchen drawer. It has no identity or particular importance. Give a kid a notebook or a tablet thatbelongs to them. They’ll put stickers on it and cover it with paint. They’ll customize the wallpaper. It becomes an extension of themselves and an means of expressing who they are. Andit’s always there for them.
Ashared device never can never do that. From that perspective, a $200 Chromebook can be much more powerful thaneven a $1500 premium notebook. If I had kids, I’d much rather that theygo to a school that had hundreds of Raspberry Pi 2s than a dozen high-end Macs or Windows PCs.
But I really love cheap tech because it underscores an important principle: technologyis supposed to improve and elevate everybody.
Otherwise,all of these phones, laptops, and other assorted beep-boops are just Beanie Babies: vectors for trendy, embarrassing consumerism. Only, you know, without the superiordurability.