I am just a normal person, but after spending a lot of time searching for product reviews online, I realized there aren't enough reviews from people who actually use products in their daily lives. I decided I would make reviews that I hope are helpful to others who are searching. Feel free to leave comments, but please make sure they are useful, and don't flame other people's comments. To see how I rate each product I will review, please see Rating Breakdown.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chrome OS - Google CR-48 Notebook

The Good: Chrome OS is a light operating system that boots very quickly, has high security, and gives quick and easy access to all of the Google sites and tools that Google account users use on a regular basis. The whole internet is accessible.

The Bad: People expecting a full operating system experience may be a little disappointed.

  • Overall Experience: 10
  • Features: 8
  • User-Friendliness: 8
  • Style: 10
  • Quality: 10
  • Value: n/a
  • Total: 9.2
To see how I rate each category please click Rating Breakdown

In the Box:

Google CR-48 Notebook
AC Power Adapter
Quick Start Instruction Card

See the full review after the photos:

Special Notes: First and foremost, this review will be judging Chrome OS, with minor comments about the actual notebook, since it is designed merely as test hardware. The real story is Chrome OS. Also, the review is in regards to how well Chrome OS fulfills its intended purpose. It is designed as a secondary computer. Not a main machine. I make that point because currently the idea of Chrome OS is not intended to replace a normal home computer, but to be a companion to it. To learn more about the purpose of Chrome OS please see the Chrome OS website. As a partial disclosure, Google provided me with the laptop to be a pre-release tester, so I did not pay for the hardware or software, however I am not a Google employee or affiliate with Google in any way.

Overview: Chrome OS is a new operating system designed for people who do most of their computing online. It is designed to be fast and secure. My Google CR-48 laptop boots to the sign-in screen in about 14 seconds, and from there, it's about 12 seconds to have the computer completely loaded. This is much faster than any Windows machine on the market. The CR-48 also has an air card with Verizon data service, so it can connect to the internet almost anywhere. Because of the connected nature of the operating system, Chrome OS is nearly useless without an internet connection.

Getting set up with the Chrome OS is a simple process for people with Google accounts. You simply sign in with your account credentials. If you have the Chrome browser on another machine with browser sync, it automatically pulls in your saved settings. When I logged in the first time I had all my bookmarks and extensions within seconds of logging on. That is one of the major points of the Chrome OS. Your data is stored online, in the cloud. If you lose your machine, or have problems with it, you will not lose data. Also, if you sign into a new machine all your data and settings are readily available. This is a huge bonus for someone like me who is concerned about data retention in case of hardware failure. Chrome OS is designed so that you won't save any data on the local hard drive, so a hard drive crash would not compromise the data.

Overall Experience: Using Chrome OS has been a pleasant experience. My wife and I used to turn our desktop on every day without fail, but with the laptop around we skip days frequently. It's just so easy to use Chrome OS to do most of what we do on the computer. Right now, the CR-48/Chrome OS is not set up for file transfers from a memory card or USB drive. I've read that it will be available in the future. That has been the biggest downside so far. I can't upload pictures to my Picasa account yet, so although I planned to do this whole review on the new laptop, I have to rely on my desktop to get the pictures to Picasa before I can use them.

I have really enjoyed using Chrome OS. It runs fast, and has many small details that make the experience better. One example is that the monitor automatically dims or brightens depending on the amount of light in the room. Although the keyboard shortcuts took a little time to figure out, they are intuitive overall, and I can do everything I need to quickly.

Features: Features are an interesting concept to talk about for software. Chrome OS uses apps and extensions to improve the user experience. This would be the best evaluation of features in my opinion. In that case the OS has a lot of features. Apps offer functionality that was previously found in software packages for Windows (or Apple, Linux, etc...) machines. Right now the selection of apps is relatively light, hence a slightly lower score, but as with all app sites, the selection grows continuously. There are games, photo/video editors, utilities, and other types of apps. I use the extensions more. There are a wide variety. I use extensions to check my gmail and google voice accounts, as a calculator, and to perform browser functions such as relocating images from the default left of the screen to the center. Chrome OS has a lot of features built in, and the feature set grows daily.

People who don't currently use Google products may consider the features lacking. Most of the apps and extensions center around Google products. On the other hand, if someone isn't a user of Google products, Chrome OS may not be for them.

User-Friendliness: This is a bit of a mixed bag. For me, Chrome OS is very user friendly, and should be for most people. There are not a lot of tweaks, which makes it easy to use, but less customizable for users of more advanced features. I would like a few more options such as automatically launching certain apps (for example Google Talk) on every startup, but that is not available. People who expect a computer to act like their current computer will be faced with a little bit of a learning curve since their daily tasks will have to migrate from the common software suites (like Microsoft Office) to online tools like Google Docs or Office Live. As I've used both of those online suites, it has not been a difficult adjustment for me, but I could see it being difficult for others.

Style: Like features, style becomes a vague concept with software. I love the style of the CR-48 laptop, but that may be irrelevant to the actual laptops released by other manufacturers. As far as Chrome OS, the style after login, is identical to the Chrome internet browser, but with battery life and wireless internet signal indicators. There are thousands of themes to add a color scheme and skins to the look of the OS. Overall the style of the OS is simple and functional, and appeals to my tastes.

Quality: Probably the best way to discuss quality of Chrome OS is in terms of security and stability. I haven't had long to monitor the security, but according to Google, the OS is immune to all or at least most current security threats since it will not allow files to execute on the hard drive. As far as stability I have not had a major crash, and because of the way Chrome handles processes, when I've had a minor process (like shockwave) crash, it is contained within just one tab, and is quickly corrected by loading a new tab. Even so, I can only recall one tab crashing in the couple of weeks I've used the CR-48.

Value: I've omitted value from the score for this post for two reasons. First of all, I didn't buy the laptop (nor can it be purchased). Second, pricing for Chrome OS and the corresponding laptops is unknown since they are not ready for release.

Final Thoughts: For living room or mobile computing Chrome OS does a great job, even in its current beta form. As more options are made available, like file transfers from memory cards and USB drives, the operating system will become an even more useful daily tool that could replace most of the functions done on normal laptops and desktops. Since beginning use of Chrome OS I have had very few reasons to sit at my desktop to do my normal computer activities.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

lafuma Trek Jr. Kids Sleeping Bag

The Good: The lafuma Trek Jr. is a warm bag for children who are ready to enjoy camping. It is a quality bag rated for temperatures as low as 30 degrees.

The Bad: The head opening is too small for a normal size pillow (not really bad, but the only thing that comes close).

  • Overall Experience: 10
  • Features: 10
  • User-Friendliness: 10
  • Style: 10
  • Quality: 10
  • Value: 10
  • Total: 10
To see how I rate each category please click Rating Breakdown

In the Box:

Children's Sleeping Bag
Stuff Sack
Warranty Card

Overview: When we decided camping could be a fun family activity, we also decided that the best way to make it fun would be to have good gear that would keep us comfortable, warm, and dry. Most important was keeping our kids warm. We considered the idea of using the sleepover type of bag and supplementing it with blankets, but in the end decided that we'd rather be over-prepared. We can always zip the bag open a little if it turns out to be a warm night. I was glad I decided on the mummy bag. My almost 3 year old wiggled out of this one a little so I can only imagine what would have happened with a lightweight sleeping bag. He probably would have been at the far end of the tent and freezing.

Overall Experience: This mummy bag is certainly worth every penny. It is compact and a good size for kids. It kept my son warm...except for the hand that he pulled out of the bag, but I can't blame the bag for that. He was really excited to have his own sleeping bag, so I guess that's a bonus. I had absolutely no complaints about this bag, hence the perfect rating.

Features: The one feature that stands out on this bag is so simple it seems obvious, but I don't think all bags have it; the Velcro flap over the zipper. It is just at the top to cover the zipper when the bag is closed. I just think it's a simple, but great way to ensure that the child inside doesn't kick open the bag and freeze the rest of the night. It worked great. As I said, my son got his hand out, but he's a pretty wiggly sleeper, so it was nice that the bag kept him relatively contained. The head cover is too small for a standard pillow, but that is simply because it is a child's bag, and the head cover needs to wrap around the head. It didn't lose any points for this, I just mention it so you can make sure you have a smaller pillow if you get this bag.

User-Friendliness: This is one thing that actually surprised me about this sleeping bag. Seeing how small the stuff sack is and how "big" the bag is brought back flashbacks of my youth and trying to shove a mummy bag into a sack that just didn't seem big enough. What surprised me was how easy it actually was to pack the bag. If you fold it in half and roll it up tight it will slide right into the stuff sack without a problem. My wife and I both did it easily. I was very happy about that. I don't want to wrestle with the sleeping bag every time we go camping.

Style: I really like the color scheme of these bags. I also saw a red and black version that looked just as good. I suppose style doesn't keep you warm, but the bag looks really nice. There are plenty of plain solid color mummy bags, so this one seems like a nice, fresh design.

Quality: After getting up close to inspect this bag I was immediately impressed by the quality. The materials are excellent and the stitching is very well done.There are no loose strings and the zipper is thick and durable. My impression is that this bag is going to hold up through a lot of use and for many years.

Value: I purchased this bag for $30. I think MSRP is $39, so it was a little bit of a discount. At $30 it's $10-15 more than a slumber party bag. If you plan on camping in even semi-cold conditions I would say it's worth it. I don't know that you'd find a bag much cheaper that is such high quality and rated to a relatively low temperature.

Final Thoughts: I am very pleased with this sleeping bag. I was a little hesitant to pay more money rather than just piling up blankets, but I am much more satisfied knowing that my son won't easily kick off his sleeping bag. I would (and probably will when my next son is older) buy this bag again. It is well worth the money.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Transcend RDM2 USB Memory Card Reader

The Good: Compact, simple reader that takes a variety of memory cards.

The Bad: The SD slot can be a bit tricky.

  • Overall Experience: 9
  • Features: 9
  • User-Friendliness: 9
  • Style: 8
  • Quality: 8
  • Value: 9
  • Total: 8.7

To see how I rate each category please click Rating Breakdown

In The Box:

Card Reader
USB cable
Instruction sheet and CD-Rom

Manufacturer's Website: Transcend

Overview: The Transcend RDM2 is a pretty basic USB memory card reader. The nice thing about it is being able to plug memory cards directly into your computer rather than searching for the cable to connect your camera, PDA, or whatever device happens to hold the memory. This model accepts the following types of memory cards: SD, MicroSD, MiniSD, Compact Flash I and II, CF Microdrives, a variety of MMC cards, Sony Memory Sticks, and xD. I mostly use the SD and microSD slots, but I have had a compact flash card in it also. It is a simple device that says it will transfer at 480 MB per second. I have a built in card reader on my computer, but found it was extremely small. In my own "non-scientific" tests, this card reader was about 4 times faster than the built in reader. I learned my lesson...I won't pay extra for the built in card reader next time. It's worth the extra speed to have the external reader. Although Transcend no longer lists this particular model on their website, there is a model called the RDM5, which is practically identical except for the case color.

Overall Experience: This has been very easy to use. It has only one main downfall. The first is that the SD slot seems to stick a little. It's not a huge problem, you just have to make sure you have the card lined up just right to get it to slide in easily. I have consistently seen fast transfer rates and I have never had it fail (unlike the very cheap no-name one that came in my camera bundle...it failed after one use).

Features: As far as features go, it would mostly be the speed, which as I said before is much faster than the built in reader in my computer. The other is the variety of memory cards it accepts. That's pretty standard on card readers. It would be pointless to buy a different device for every kind of card you may own. There are some card readers that are faster and accept a few more types of cards.

User-Friendliness: This Card reader has been very easy to use. It was as simple as plugging it in, inserting a card, and finding the correct drive on the My Computer screen (Windows users...don't know for Mac) That can be the difficult part since it will show 6 or 7 new drives representing the slots on the reader. I named the drives I used to make it easier. For example one drive is now called "SD Card."

Style: Overall I like the look of this card reader. The reason it loses points is I feel like it could be a little smaller, or at least put all of the slots on one side so I don't have to turn it to plug in different cards. This is probably a personal preference, but I would prefer if all of the slots pointed to the front.

Quality: The Transcend RDM2 loses quality points because of the sticky SD slot. There is no reason it should be difficult to slide my card in. My camera, phone, and PDA have no problem sliding cards into them. I don't know what causes the problem, but I'm sure it doesn't have to be that way. Perhaps not all of the readers do this, but in my opinion none of them should.

Value: This card reader is a good value. I purchased mine for $14 (which is MSRP) plus shipping. I considered some that were rated faster, but they were more than twice the price. This reader is plenty fast for transferring a couple gig of pictures or files, so I don't feel it would be worth it to pay twice as much for a faster one.

Final Thoughts: The RDM2 card reader is a good value. It's very simple and works correctly every time I use it. I wish it didn't have the problem with the SD card slot. It would have rated a little higher if the cards slid in without problems. For the money, I wouldn't hesitate to buy the same one again. As I said before, I would definitely pass on the built-in readers for my future computers. Although it's nice to avoid one more cable, the speed is far too slow.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cabela's Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad

The Good: Very Easy to set up and quite comfortable for those who don't think camping requires rocks destroying their back all night.

The Bad: They may be too large for someone who is looking to hike to their camping spot.

  • Overall Experience: 10
  • Features: 10
  • User-Friendliness: 10
  • Style: 8
  • Quality: 9
  • Value: 10
  • Total: 9.5

To see how I rate each category please click Rating Breakdown

In The Box:

Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad
Stuff Sack
Patch Kit

Manufacturer's Website: Cabela's

Overview: Self-inflating sleeping pads are designed to be a relatively compact way to create a comfortable sleeping surface for camping. They are easier to set up and more compact than air mattresses and they don't require a pump. They are larger than the basic foam sleeping pads used by more intense outdoorsmen. I own two of these pads, one for my wife and one for myself. Initially these pads required me to blow air into them to "break them in." It was quite easy and took less than ten minutes for both. After that they inflate automatically when the straps are removed and the valve is opened. It is a matter of a few minutes to have the pads ready to sleep on.

Overall Experience: About a year ago my wife and I swore off camping after having 2 air mattresses fail miserably at keeping us comfortable. They both deflated during the night leaving our butts grinding the rocks on the ground. It was a miserable experience that we pledged to never repeat. Now a year later we are back in the camping mindset, but decided that we needed a better mattress for camping. When we saw the self-inflating pads at Cabela's we immediately saw the advantages that they could have over an air mattress. Our biggest concern was whether something so thin could be sufficiently comfortable. Originally we were looking at name-brand pads that seemed comfortable when we tested them. Then my wife stumbled upon the Cabela's brand pads. I am glad she did. They are thicker, more comfortable, and less expensive. We ended up getting a much larger pad for the same price as the smaller name-brand pad. After taking them camping I couldn't be more pleased. The setup was incredibly easy...It almost hurt to see two sets of friends struggle with air mattresses...pumps need power after all. The comfort exceeded my expectations also. I didn't have an achy back or neck in the morning. I don't know if that diminishes the camping experience, but I appreciated feeling so nice. Putting them away is easy enough, but slightly easier if you have two people.

Features: There aren't many so-called features on something as simple as these, but I would consider the main feature to be the self-inflation. It worked seamlessly; no hitches whatsoever. Remove the straps, open the valve, and over the next few minutes the bag will unroll and inflate. Close the valve and you are ready to put your bag on it and sleep.

User-Friendliness: I guess the features section explained the user-friendliness as well. Really it takes almost no effort to use or pack these pads. They slide easily into the stuff sack, so there is no frustration like the mummy bag that seems like it will never get back into its sack.

Style: Style isn't terribly important for these pads. You won't show off the sweet lines to your friends. However I did deduct two points mostly because the name brand pads had nicer colors and textures. To me it doesn't matter much since it will be under my sleeping bag, out of sight, but some people might want something a little flashier.

Quality: The overall quality if these pads is excellent. The material seems to be durable and able to resist a reasonable amount of poking and scraping. The only reason it loses a point is because of the finish work around the edges. It looks like the edges were just cut and not treated. I don't know if this will be an issue, but I think it may fray slightly. It won't affect the pad in the long run because they are sewn further in from the edge, but I'd prefer if the edge had been folded and sewn to prevent frays.

Value: Comparing this pad to the more expensive pads, I think it is a great value. MSRP is between $39.99 and $59.99 depending on the size. I bought the large pads for $59.99 each. This is the same price as the regular size pads in the name-brand. The Cabela's large pad is five inches wider and a few inches longer. I could have got away with the regular size Cabela's pads, but they were out of stock and we were in a bit of a hurry to get them...otherwise they would have ordered them for us.

Final Thoughts: If you want to camp comfortably without the hassle of an air mattress you should definitely buy this pad. I've seen far too many air mattresses with leaks to ever consider one for myself. This is an excellent alternative. A side note about Cabela's: the Cabela's brand products I have purchased have always been excellent quality. They also excel at customer service. We are fortunate to have an actual store nearby and I have been consistently impressed each time I am there...plus the wildlife scenes in the store make a great day trip for the kids (and adults).