Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘tech

The perfect laptop

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The laptop I have now is great, except it’s dreadful battery life

I’d quite like to buy a new laptop.

I am going to Hong Kong very soon and it’s a good place to buy tech.

I bought the laptop I currently use there two years ago. I like its portable form factor, touchscreen and excellent keyboard. A nice keyboard is a priority for me, as a writer.

It’s a Lenovo ideapad S210 Touch. It has a Core i3 processor, 4gb RAM, Windows 8.1, and a 500gb HDD. It cost about £325.

I sometimes open a dozen or more tabs in Chrome and occasionally edit photos and video. Its performance is fine and it has not let me down. Only one thing has been its bane. Woeful battery life.

If it’s not plugged in, it now lasts less than an hour on a charge.

I like to work in cafes, travel not infrequently, and sometimes I have to do some urgent copy-editing, and in those circumstances having a laptop where I don’t need to worry about having to find a power socket would be awesome.

My essentials for a laptop are great battery life and a good keyboard. Desirable would be an HD touchscreen, a light and small form, an SD card slot, and an SSD. The excellent placement of the scrolling buttons (I read a lot) are nice details my Lenovo has.

I’ve looked around a lot. And trying to find the perfect match has been nigh on impossible. The Macbook Pro, with its excellent screen and good battery life, is too heavy. The MacBook is very expensive with a disgusting keyboard.

The Macbook Air has good performance, stellar battery life, and the 11-inch is incredibly portable. I just wish the screen was better.

Windows alternatives are the Dell XPS, Lenovo Yoga 900, and the HP Spectre x360.

The HP is my choice from that list. But I am tempted by the Macbook Air 11-inch’s excellent battery life (which doesn’t deteriorate as fast as Windows laptops) and its extreme portability. I’ve also never had an Apple laptop so I am interested in looking over the OS wall. It’s just a crying shame Apple has not deemed to update the screen.

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Six Dream Gifts For A Freelance Journalist

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These are six things a freelance journalist rarely can afford, and so she or he would love to receive them as gifts. This summer why not treat your friendly freelancer to one of these items, any of which would make him or her very happy.

The Sony A7 II (left) is a full-frame camera like the Nikon D800 which it is pictured next to. A big selling point is its small size compared to DSLRs.

Sony a7R II, £2,063 (body only)

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Top 5 mobile phones for journalists

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Most productive

The stylus helps to frame the Note 4 as a productivity tool

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

The Note 4 has a large screen, a top-of-the-line processor to handle multitasking, a very capable camera, and, best of all, a multifunctional stylus with features journalists may find very handy.

The phone has two-day battery life and there is the option of expandable storage with a MicroSD card slot.

The larger screen, which is one of the sharpest and most vivid on the market, is an important feature. Web browsing, having multiple windows open (which the phone allows you to move around and resize), and typing out emails or memos, are all made easier when there’s extra screen space. The downside to this is the phone really has to be handled with two hands in use. But few other phones has the ability to act as a very portable computer as the Note 4 does.

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All the Technology I Use to Do Journalism

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The above photo collects all the gadgetry that I use for my journalism work:

  • Olympus digital voice recorder
  • LG G2 smartphone
  • Lenovo Ideapad S210 touchscreen laptop
  • Canon S120 digital camera

The Olympus dictaphone was bought in England after I lost my previous Olympus. It cost £65. It picks up voices very well – defined from background noise. It has a little built-in stand that raises it from a surface, and the ability to slow down audio which comes in handy when transcribing interviews. There are fancier voice recorders out there (Sony do nice expensive ones) but unless you’re looking to record broadcast quality interviews, the Olympus is a lovely piece of kit.

The LG G2 smartphone is a new addition. My previous mobile phone (pictured in the top left of the photo) was a £60 “Softbank” smartphone bought in Hong Kong two years ago. A budget smartphone from 2012 is pretty ancient technology now and was starting to seriously slow, so I bought the LG secondhand in Bangkok for the equivalent of £165. The processor inside it is the generation ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S4 but a step behind the latest S5. So it’s still blazingly quick, and the G2’s camera is a massive upgrade from the Softbank’s and the screen is also about 1,600 times better. I use smartphones to jot down memos and article ideas while on the move; as a kind of scanner (with the camera) and as a phone obvs.

The laptop I picked up in Hong Kong & I wrote about it previously.

The Canon S120 camera was bought in Beijing earlier this year for the equivalent of £256. It works very well. It powers on quickly, focuses quickly and the best thing about it is that it’s incredibly small and unobtrusive. It also takes exceedingly good video. Photos I’ve taken using it have been published by The Telegraph and Aljazeera who paid me $450 for a photo gallery of shots I took in North Korea. I do also own a Canon 450D DSLR (which I used to take the above image) but I hardly use it these days. I didn’t take it to North Korea for instance because I knew it would be more conspicuous than a small compact camera and this would have a greater effect on the behavior of North Korean civilians, and because I knew that fiddling around with the DSLR would cause me to miss shots when the Canon S120 would make me a much more agile photographer.

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I’m pretty happy with the equipment I have. The total cost is much less than a grand. Sure it’d be nice to have a Surface Pro 3 which has much better battery life than my current laptop (I like to work in cafes). And perhaps an iPad – for magazine subscriptions – and as a backup browser screen for reference purposes. But they are not essential. Upgrades would be a Samsung Galaxy Note 3: I love the stylus that comes with it; its features are very useful for a freelance journalist. And a Canon EOS M which is a camera slightly larger than the Canon S120 but with picture quality equal to DSLRs.

But I do not like to upgrade quickly. It’s a waste of money that could be spent on travel or experiences or stories. And in the next couple years everything will be that much better again. So don’t obsess about your kit, think instead about how to make the most of it.

Top 5 Laptops for Journalists (who like to work in cafes, travel, and write)

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In Beijing, from where I freelance, I often like to sit in cafes to work. The coffee is a good accompaniment and there’s a better chance of random interactions, which I like. To go to these cafes, I used to lug around a heavy, chunky laptop that I’d had since 2009. The £400 Novatech laptop (a British brand and a university gift) powered me through uni, plus a year and a half in Beijing.

Unfortunately, it died when it suffered a big knock, and so I replaced it with this:

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The laptop I own: the Lenovo Ideapad S210

Best affordable all-rounder

Lenovo Ideapad S210 Touch

It is small, light and very portable, about the same size as an 11-inch Macbook Air. It has an Intel Core i3 processor (which is fine for my needs), a touchscreen, runs Windows 8, and it was a bargain when I bought it in Hong Kong in January for around £318. The laptop has one major flaw however and that is a very short battery life. It lasts about three hours meaning I never can forget to bring its battery charger if I bring it out, which is an obstacle to the pick-up-anywhere-and-write mentality I value.

But, it does have a terrific keyboard. The little thing is great to write on, and how it feels typing out each letter and getting into a groove is a criterion on which I place unequal importance. Writing for a living is an inestimable joy and anything I can do to accentuate that I will. Therefore, this list will place a disproportionate weight on the typing experience.

 

Best battery life

Macbook Air 13-inch

I am reluctant to list this laptop. It’s easy to move around of course, being so thin and light. The trackpad is the best you can find. The battery life with 13+ hours is also class leading, so you don’t need to look for power sockets in a cafe every time, which is what I need to do.

For clearer text the screen resolution needs to be bumped up – the Macbook Pro’s retina screen is a clear improvement – which helps the eyes when you do as much reading as I do. But this is not the worst thing. No, the Macbook Air, and someone needs to say this, has perhaps the horriblest, most horrendous keyboard to ever grace such a costly machine. The Macbook Pro is better, but its slimmer brother has keys that are flat, squelchy and unresponsive. It’s like typing on a potato.

I would not say no if some kind stranger pressed one into my hands, but I would find no additional satisfaction from writing on a Macbook Air.

Budget alternative: Get an iPad and a third-party keyboard dock. Download the Microsoft Word app for further writing productivity, or alternatively just use a free writing app and send it to yourself via email. The iPad Air also has great battery life and doubles up as a fantastic way to subscribe to magazines etc, especially when you’re freelancing from overseas.

 

Most fun and portable

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Most fun? What does that mean? It’s not really a metric tech sites can measure in their laptop reviews. And yet, I think the Surface Pro, which is a laptop in tablet form, is quite a fun little computer. It’s thinner than a Macbook Air and lighter.

In order to do any serious work, you’ll have to buy the separately sold keyboard attachment. They come in two types. One is touch responsive, meaning you’ll have to hammer on a flat piece of plastic with no buttons, or the other one which does have buttons. The latter keyboard is not great – it’s somewhat flimsy but I think it works fine enough, almost a novelty pleasure.

I like the Surface Pro because it’s a sleek tablet, with all the power of a laptop, and you can put it together like a writing transformer. Just taking it out of a bag, setting it up and magnetically attaching its keyboard is a cool experience. I realize how geeky and boyish that sounds.

Budget alternative: The Asus Transformer Book T100. A tablet that comes with a keyboard dock for a very cheap price. It runs Windows 8.1, comes with Microsoft Office installed and a processor that is not too bad. The keyboard dock is cramped and not that fun to use however.

A great Windows laptop, with a fantastic keyboard

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro

Lenovo is famous for the extra effort they put into keyboard design, and you’ll find superior keyboards across their range. Their ThinkPad line is especially well known for keyboards that resemble desktop typing with high, raised keys that provide excellent tactile feedback. The Yoga 2 Pro is an ultrabook with an HD touchscreen, a processor more than able to handle photo and video editing, and a neat trick of being able to fold over its body to become a tablet. Typing is fast, smooth and groovy.

Budget alternative: The Yoga 2 (without the “Pro” suffix) costs £400 to £700, depending what size you choose, otherwise the aforementioned Ideapad S210 Touch is a good bet although it is hard to find.

My favourite keyboard, and a killer machine 

Dell XPS 13

This is a premium ultrabook with top-end specs. It looks great, is as thin as a Macbook Air but looks sturdier and more robust. Although the battery life could be improved (only about 6 hours), it does feature a higher resolution screen than Macbook Airs, meaning reading text is easier on the eyes.

This is an expensive machine, indeed the costliest on this list, but I’ll pay it to use that magnificent keyboard. The keys are wider and fatter, each click giving out robust feedback. The font of every letter demands to be hammered with vigour; powered by whisky and tobacco.

Typing on this thing is addictive, as if every hit is a small smack of satisfaction. For us modern writers, we will never get into the mechanical groove of typing on a typewriter like Jack Kerouac or Ernest Hemingway or even Hunter S Thompson. For me this keyboard provides a semblance of the same thrill.

Wishlist: 4 gadgets I’d love to do journalism with

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1. iPhone 5S, £549 (32GB)

Why? Because it’s pretty much all you need to do journalism – it browses the internet, sends emails, makes calls, records audio, takes fantastic photos and records incredible video. It’s a media production machine. I’ve heard of at least one freelancer who wrote entire features for almost an entire year using just an iPhone (more on that in a future blog).

The best thing about it is the quality of the images it can make. More than that, it’s the ease and convenience of it that puts it head and shoulders above everything else.

iPhone photos have graced the likes of Time magazine (front cover!), New York Times and much else besides. Conflict photographer Ben Lowy uses it almost exclusively and he’s covered Afghanistan, Libya and the Arab Spring.

Videojournalism? Guardian reporter Adam Gabbatt uses an iPhone to make short video reports which you can see here and here. The Guardian’s SE Asia correspondent Kate Hodal interviewed Suboi, Vietnam’s first mainstream female rapper: “I interviewed her and she gave me an exclusive freestyle, which I caught on my iPhone and then uploaded to our editors in London”.

If you are going to make a video report however, do invest in an external mic – that is extremely important. You want decent video and audio. Some sort of tripod/monopod for it would be very handy too.

2. Surface RT, £279 (with touch cover £319)

The Microsoft Surface RT is a great productivity tool for journalists. It is much lighter than most laptops, coming in at 676 grams (the Macbook Air in contrast weighs 1.3kg), and has a battery life of 8 hours. Why get this tablet rather than an iPad? Two words: Microsoft Office. Apart from being cheaper than an iPad, the Surface RT unlike all other tablets has Microsoft Word. You’ll want the optional touch/type covers – which click in magnetically – to do any serious typing work.

Yes it doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of apps Apple and Android tablets have, but so what. They are distractions you don’t need. You have the internet, email and Word (plus a front-facing camera for Skype calls) – what more do you need as a journo? You have a smartphone anyway for those apps. Another benefit is that you can split the screen in half – so on one side you can browse the web, while the other is on Word for example.

There are two Surface machines. The RT, pictured above, is the cheaper, lighter and smaller version, and runs a custom RT operating system. The Surface Pro is much more powerful (on a par with high-end ultrabooks), much heavier and runs Windows 8, meaning you can install any/all programs you currently run on a normal laptop. Most gadget reviewers say get the Pro, but I prefer the simplicity of the RT and of course it’s a lot lighter and much less pricey.

UPDATE: The Surface 2, an update to the RT, is to be released later this month. It’ll feature an upgraded processor, screen, back and front cameras and a kickstand that is more adjustable. The Surface 2 will retail for £70 more than the RT, at £349 (for the 32GB version).

Panasonic GH3 – a much better choice than a Canon 5D Mk 3, especially for video.

3. Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3, £1299 (including 14-140mm lens)

This digital camera takes higher-quality videos than a Canon 5D Mk3. And it is well over £1000 cheaper. Here’s an excerpt from DPreview.com’s review of the camera: “The enthusiastic and largely unanticipated response to the GH2’s movie capabilities by working videographers (Google ‘GH2 video hack’ to get an idea for how keenly its capabilities are being exploited) has meant that Panasonic must now also consider that its camera is being integrated into professional video rigs”.

Needless to say it also produces great photos, and for video there is simply no equal. The sensor inside the camera will be much larger than most dedicated video cameras. And while it won’t quite be able to beat the Canon 5Ds for low-light capability, it does have better video features, frame-rate options and better detail at 1080p HD levels.

For the aspiring video journalist interested in producing films with professional-level picture quality, look no further.


4. Moleskine notebook, £9.41 (240 pages, 13x21cm)

Not exactly a gadget but for someone whose profession is the creation of words, the pleasure of putting pen on paper should still be paramount. I bought my first pocket-sized moleskine last year and I’ve loved the aesthetic, the pages are crisp and a joy to write in. The dimensions are perfect and the pocket in the back is great for storing business cards and cuttings. I recently purchased the larger moleskin (pictured) and I have to say I like it even more. A4-sized notebooks still have a place in my stationary, particularly for taking telephone and face-to-face interview notes, as well as for diagramming article structure plans. But for the simple pleasure of writing and jotting down ideas, the larger moleskin has perfect weight and dimensions.

As design critic and writer Stephen Bayley said in a 2012 article entitled ‘The joy of Moleskine notebooks’: “there aren’t many things you can buy for £10 that are the best of their kind. I buy them compulsively. It makes you think you are just about to write, for once, something brilliant.”