Holidaying and photography

Posted on 9 January 2016, 13:02

Unless you’re happy to tote a ton of IT equipment with you when you head off on holiday (I’m surely not), it can be surprisingly challenging to come up with a solution that allows a photographer to take all the (Raw) pictures he wants to take, unfettered by concerns about running out of storage.

Ideally he wants to be able to review and cull each day’s efforts too.

Yes, this is all doable if you take (say) a Windows laptop along, but these are usually relatively heavy and bulky; and often expensive – certainly, the less heavy and bulky they are, the more expensive they’re likely to be.

Pretty hefty chargers/power supplies, too.

Although they’ll do the job, this is not an ideal solution if you’re trying to travel light.

Last year I settled on what seemed like a pretty good alternative: a Samsung Tab Pro 10.1 tablet (expanding on an idea I first wrote about at the end of this piece) – but although the Samsung tab has a glorious screen, it still felt like a “kludge”:

Android doesn’t support Raw files natively, and the Android apps that do are faffy, slow, unintuitive and functionally limited;

Transferring Raws around is resource/power intensive, so tablets need to be connected to the mains if you’re moving a lot of files;

It’s not possible to transfer files from card reader via the tablet straight onto external storage – there’s only one USB port, so it has to be USB card reader to in-tablet storage, then in-tablet storage to external USB storage;

Although the tablet will happily write to a USB stick, it won’t power/write to an external HDD;

Even now, most tablets are USB 2 only. Having used USB 3.0 on my desktop for a while now, it’s a significant benefit that I want away from home too.

So a tablet works, but it’s not a great experience. In short, it’s a bloody chore.

OK, back to my Windows lappy then?

Not necessarily…

Santa surprised me this year by putting an Acer Chromebook 13 in my stocking. I must’ve been a good lad..!

Acer Chromebook 13

Now, I’ve long liked the idea of Chromebooks: yes, they’re relatively cheap, and relatively under-specced compared with any half-useful Win lappy – but that’s not a meaningful comparison.

As many of you will already know, they don’t need to be full of high power hardware. Most of what you’ll do with a Chromebook happens online (which – let’s be honest – is where most of us spend our time on computers these days) so tons of processing grunt and storage is not a necessity in order to have a very snappy and satisfying experience.

And in a very important sense, Chromebooks are still “proper” bits of kit from a photography point of view…

To explain. I’ve never expected to seriously convert/process files when on holiday – a key reason why it was easy to let go of the idea of taking my Win lappy with me – but as I explain above, the Android tablet solution really ain’t pretty.

I’m amazed that I’m able to say this, but the Chromebook fixes everything…

Firstly, it has two full-sized USB 3.0 ports. That means I can plug my small USB 3 card reader into one; a high-capacity USB 3 stick into the other; and transfer straight through from one to the other in a single operation, at USB 3.0 speeds.

It plays perfectly happily with my USB 3 external HDD too.

Secondly, my CR2s are recognised natively by Chrome OS – both by the file system (which is more than I could originally say for Windows Explorer in Win 7 or in Win 8.1!) and by the built-in file viewer app. So no having to thrash around trying to find a third party solution, and no problems with reviewing and culling files.

CR2s in the Chromebook’s file system

How its file viewer looks

The Chromebook 13 (which is full HD, incidentally) has a ten hour+ battery life – no chance of the battery flaking out mid transfer; and therefore no need to have it powered up at the mains when transferring. (This isn’t a show-stopper, but it does make life a bit easier).

As to the screen: yes it’s “only” a TN screen, rather than an I-PS screen: but I can only assume that TN technology has improved since I last looked at it, because although it’s not as good as a good I-PS, it’s really not bad at all. Sharp, and plenty bright, in no way does it diminish the overall user experience, and I’d stopped thinking about it by day 2 of ownership.

Yes, you have to be a bit more careful about viewing angles; and yes, it could probably be a bit more contrasty and saturated (neither of which are adjustable in Chrome OS right now). But it’s fine.

This is a screen capture of the Chromebook’s desktop, exactly “as is” apart from resizing, and it looks as good on the Chromebook as it does on my PC’s calibrated “serious” LG I-PS monitor. Colours are more accurate and richer on the LG, but they’re still “thereabouts” on the Chromebook:

My Chromebook’s desktop (One of my Arctic tern pictures as wallpaper).

13.3 inches turns out to be a nice compromise between usability and portability, too.

Accepting that I’m not going to be converting/editing images on it, the single biggest “user impression” I get from it is that it’s just like using any other laptop. I’ve got my favourite Chrome apps set up on the “Shelf” (Chrome OS’ equivalent of the Windows Taskbar – I don’t use Desktop icons on my Windows machines, so my own Windows Desktop looks much like this) and it feels little different, in use, to what I’m used to in Windows.

Except that this thing weighs not much more than 3lbs (for context, that’s only a few ounces more than the combined weight of my Samsung tablet, Targus case and separate Bluetooth keyboard), and its charger/power supply is tiny compared with the bricks that came with every Windows laptop I’ve owned – far more “Mars Bar” than “brick”...

Being fanless – the Nvidia Tegra K1 quad-core chip is designed to run cool so that mobile devices using it don’t need fans – the Chromebook is completely silent, and slimmer than any Win laptop you’ll find for anything like the price.

It only comes with 16gb of built-in storage (some of which is eaten up by the OS), so I’ve put a 128gb SD card (note – it takes full, not micro – SD cards) in, which is more than I’ll need for any normal use. It’ll also take a lot of CR2s, of course…

The 4gb of RAM means it’d probably burst into flames before RAM ever became a processing bottleneck – it really is very responsive.

And despite the “everything online” model, it’ll happily play any videos, view images, play music etc. that you’ve stuck onto your removable media, while you’re offline.

With Google Docs you can also word-process, use spreadsheets etc. offline – no compatibility issues, either.

And it’d probably be a very useful alternative to a dedicated E-Book reader, too – E-Book software for Chromebooks is easy to find, and the battery life will take it.

Oh – it’s got a better keyboard than any of my Windows laptops, as well. And although the body is only plastic, it’s well put together: solid, good looking and robust-feeling. No creaking and flexing here.

All in a unit only slightly bigger than a sheet of A4.

I’m not trying too hard to hide the fact that – for my purposes – I’m chuffed to bits by this thing!

It might not be for everyone. I get that: but having thought objectively about what I want from my IT when I’m on holiday, it has become clear that a Chromebook is an ideal solution for me. I don’t need to convert/process camera files, and everything else I want a computer for comes easily to this little thing – including word processing, spreadsheets and the like.

I’ve had to compromise a little bit around emails: I’ve yet to find a standalone Chromebook app that will work with POP3 accounts; but it’s easy to set up Gmail to pick up POP3 emails too – so that’s what I’ve done.

It’s not as if there’s a steep learning curve to using a Chromebook.

Every Windows PC or laptop I’ve owned (a number approaching double figures) has come with an enormous heap of manuals; quick-start guides; software CDs; instructions on where to download up-to-date drivers; links to online help; and so on. The packaging is usually twice the size it’d otherwise need to be, just to accommodate all of this stuff.

When the Chromebook arrived last weekend, I was handed (in one hand, mind!) a single flat cardboard box (practically an envelope), just big enough for the computer and its power unit.

The entire “set-up guide” for the Chromebook consisted of a single printed page which basically said “turn it on, log on to your wi-fi network and log in to your Google account“!

Chromebooks’ start-up behaviour becomes addictive too: from a closed-down machine to booted up, five seconds; from closed-down to doing stuff (that is, initial boot-up plus connecting to wi-fi and entering/validation of my Google account password), under fifteen seconds.

From sleep mode to doing stuff – less than three seconds.

A closing thought: we’re still in Chrome OS’ early days, so I’ve no doubt that before long I will be able (say) to adjust the screen’s contrast and saturation; and run more stuff offline than is currently possible – I see things getting a lot better yet.

Maybe I’ll even eventually be able to charge the thing via USB, tablet-stylee – that’s one thing I would really like to see, but which Chromebooks don’t support.

That said – the battery charges really quickly.

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