May 2010


The first time I unboxed the HP ProBook 4321s, I immediately noticed how ‘boxy’ the form factor of this particular laptop. At 2.2 kg (2.7 kg with charger), this is not a travel friendly laptop. I can see myself hauling this on one of those executive laptop bags on wheels designed primarily for those preferring to carry a 15” or 17” laptop.

The HP ProBook uses a 13.3” LED screen with backlight with a resolution of 1366×768 pixels. The screen brightness and energy efficiency is very good. HP was right to avoid using glossy glass panel that essentially produces more glare making it very difficult to use outdoors.

As a business laptop, the 4321s comes standard with stereo speakers, built-in mic, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, GigE port, Bluetooth. 2MP web camera, 56k modem, three USB ports and a combo e-SATA/USB port, HDMI and standard VGA outputs, an ExpressCard slot, and a media card reader. Almost everything you’d want from a business laptop.

HP picked up a few things from the competition (which is a good thing – why reinvent the wheel?). The keyboard follows the growing popularity of Chiclet-like keyboards (Sony and Apple resurrected what was once upon a time the most loathed keyboard design). HP also made the keyboard spill resistant.

WHAT I LIKE

The use of brushed metal chassis may be in line with giving this series a business feel but I’d recommend wearing gloves when handling the case as it’s a fingerprint magnet. HP included a bevy of software to help maximize the use of this laptop, including a three different security options: customized security code, fingerprint and face recognition.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

One of the few things I disliked about the Lenovo Thinkpad X200 is the lack of a trackpad. The successor, the X201s may have included a trackpad but the size makes it utterly useless to comfortably work with. HP provided a slightly more generous ClickPad with gestures support but I found the overall experience so difficult that I put out my trusty Logitech mouse to use throughout the duration of the review. If you have a chance, try it out first before making your decision to buy. Navigation is an important aspect of the overall experience so if the ClickPad doesn’t work for you, you might want to look at another model. I was surprised that my daughter shared her dislike for the ProBook 4321s’ clickpad.

The left-half of the base of the laptop can get really hot. So be wary about setting this on your laptop for longer than a few minutes. It can get really uncomfortable very quickly.

The ProBook comes with a 90-watt charger. This is a big chucky brick that dwarfs the 65W adapter that came with my Lenovo Thinkpad X201s. Both heat very quickly when plugged in so I can’t, for the life of me, understand why HP would want to throw in a brick for the charger. For the record, the ProBook I am reviewing uses a Core i3 processor whereas the Thinkpad X201 comes with a Core i7 processor. So tell me why the ProBook requires a 90-watt charger while the more powerful Thinkpad only needs a 65-watt charger to power it?

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Wikipedia defines a couch potato as a slang term for a person who spends most of his or her free time sitting or lying on a couch. You can read more about the history of the term here. The modern home has an average of one TV, a VCR, stereo, and a DVD player. And with the convergence of broadband, TV and computing, the multimedia home entertainment system is gaining ground. In all of this convenience lives one constant – the remote. Each appliance comes with a specially built remote that showcases the basic and unique features of the appliance.

But all good things must come to an end. The most used appliance naturally means higher wear and tear on the remote control. In my case, the remote for the TV in the living room is due for a replacement… and because it’s a really old model, a replacement remote is expensive.

For a couple of years now I’ve been thinking about replacing all the remotes with one universal remote control. It just made sense, why keep five or more controls if you can have one that does everything? Most remotes use infrared to control the appliance.

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, founded CL 9. to create a remote control that could operate multiple electronic devices. The CORE unit (Controller Of Remote Equipment) was unique in that it could ‘learn’ remote signals from different devices. It had the ability to perform specific or multiple functions at various times with its built-in clock. It was the first remote control that could be linked to a computer and loaded with updated software code as needed.

Which brings me to our review of the week – the Logitech Harmony 900. This unit comes from a long line of Harmony universal remote controls offered by Logitech.

The build of the Harmony 900 is solid. Charging is almost child-proof. But everything else after that is something else.

The box includes the Harmony 900, a charger cradle, two chargers, a central RF to IR blaster, and with two mini IR blasters. This is a radio frequency (RF) device. The blasters are meant to be used where the appliances to be controlled are behind a cabinet. Setup is a simple plug the master blaster (reminds me of the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome character – Master Blaster) and the two mini blasters. The complicated technology of synching these blasters to the remote itself is all done by the software.

Speaking of software, all the intelligence that goes into the Harmony 900 is by way of software… the Logitech Harmony Remote Software (currently version 7.7.0). The Remote unit itself is very solid to the feel. It feels like one of those weapons common to Sci-Fi flicks. I’m not going to do an exhaustive recap of the process I went through to test this unit. I tested it on two different systems. One is a simple Sharp TV-vcr console. The more complex system included a Panasonic 29″ TV hooked up to a cable TV decorder, and a Pioneer DVD player-recorder.

The product manager for the Logitech Harmony series told me it took him a couple of hours to make the proper setup. To be honest, two days of trying to get my Sharp TV to recognize the remote was frustrating the ‘hell’ out of me.

Suffice to say that it was only when I had the technical support person walk me through the process that I began to realize just how tedious it is to teach the Harmony 900 how a particular remote control controls an appliance. For the Sharp TV-vcr, it took us all of an hour to get the basics done right. Thereafter it took me another hour to teach the Harmony 900 additional features of the TV-vcr that were controlled by its proprietary remote. (more…)

Some months back I spoke to a senior executive discussing about their product strategy. At one point in the discussion, he quoted an old Arabian Proverb: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. It is his interpretation of how partnerships are created in the business world. What scares me is that I understood what he meant and see its practical applications.

A week ago I wrote about SAP’s acquisition of Sybase and its implication to the software arms race. I follow this rant with a twist that comes in the form of new partnerships that are shaping up, not directly as a result of SAP’s acquisition, but as a progression of what’s been happening in the IT industry over the last five years.

And it begins with an interesting article written by Gavin Clarke (the UK Register) around the budding relationship between SAP and HP, as they go after Oracle in a more concerted effort. For HP, its because Oracle dumped its technology (Exadata 1) in favor of Sun (Exadata 2), following Oracle’s acquisition last year of Scott McNealy’s company. And to think that at the 2009 Oracle OpenWorld there was scant anonymity between HP and Oracle despite the Sun relationship.

So with all the knowledge gained from the first Exadata, HP brings a lot of knowledge to bear. Still I think the new SAP appliance will have a tough time competing with the Oracle product (now on Gen 2). SAP will likely integrate its expertise around in-memory architecture (NetWeaver Business Warehouse Accelerator) to market a “powerful calculation engine” for data modeling applications.

SAP Co-CEO  Bill McDermott told Informationweek’s Doug Henschen that SAP had briefed partners including IBM, HP, EMC and Cisco on its plans. Partners are eager to embrace the innovation, he said, and said they will find opportunities to build new products and services around the engine.

Granted that HP, IBM and EMC are interested in building an appliance to compete with the Exadata (with HP having a leg-up at this point in time), at this point IBM would be in the best position given that it has a strong database business, has a captive “mainframe” market, and the resources to spend on R&D. All this without necessarily working with SAP assuming that the German software giant will want to push its Sybase database as part of the bundle. HP may be more interested in this although it would hurt its relationship with Oracle big time (we’ve seen this with HP’s relationship with Cisco).

Speaking of which, a Cisco-EMC-SAP triumvirate may present the best opportunity to run against Oracle.

For the moment, Oracle has the upper hand, having created an opportunity with the Exadata and the rest of the industry is playing catch-up. Larry Ellison is having a ball.

SAP [7] agreed to buy Sybase [8] for US$5.8 billion further accelerating the software arms race that appears to have no end in sight. The acquistion is just a tad bit shy from the German software giant’s 2007 acquisition of Business Objects [9] for US$ 6.78 billion.

The Sybase acquisition gives SAP two things: a database of its own, and a foothold into the mobile marketplace by way of Sybase 365.

For years SAP has been content on selling its ERP applications to interested Oracle [10] database customers. The co-opetition scenario benefited both companies as it allowed them to ride on each other’s brands to grow their business. Ray Wang, an analyst with Altimeter Group [11], estimates that SAP sells about US$1 billion of Oracle databases annually. With the Sybase acquisition expect that number to come down a bit in the long term as the German giant uses its size to sway customers away from Oracle.

But not everyone thinks SAP can dance their way around the Oracle strangledhold on customers. WSJ quoted Peter Goldmacher, an analyst with Cowen & Co [12]., said the deal seems to be a desperate move by SAP. “Their business is terrible,” he said. “They’ve been out-executed at every turn by Oracle.” Goldmacher said he believes SAP will have a hard time convincing customers to move from Oracle database software to Sybase offerings.

IBM [13] benefited on this as well but mostly through its systems business and middleware offering. But with Oracle beefing up its middleware stack and offering a single-box solution, IBM should start feeling the pinch from the Oracle Exadata offering. The selling point for many business executives is still faster, better and cheaper – all the elements you will find in the Oracle Exadata product brochure.

The Sybase365 [14] business should be an interesting new field for SAP as it is aimed squarely at the mobile market – an area many analysts agree should get very hot very fast, not only in the consumer space but in the enterprise arena as well.

IBM CEO Samuel Palmisano is quoted on Wall Street Journal as indicating software is the top priority [15] for Big Blue. Palmisano is aiming to have software account for about half of the company’s pre-tax profit by 2015. IBM has spent US$13 billion over a period of seven years acquiring a total of 57 software companies.

One particular area on Palmisano’s analytics. Itself a broad segment of the software industry although around the area of business intelligence and analytics, there is only one vendor left standing by itself – SAS [16].

Wang believes that this acquisition is good for SAP [17]. It allows the vendor to prepare for the next generation of applications that are heavy into mobile and cloud technologies.

At the same time, the Sybase acquisition gives it better access into the financial services and public sector markets. The bonus for SAP is China. Sybase has a strong presence in that market.

M&A, a gentler way of saying takeover, continues to be the norm. I’m not seeing any changes to this strategy anytime. It is the goal of many a small or mid-sized niche software vendors to get rich quick by being acquired and retiring to the Bahamas.

Which leaves me to wonder, what is Microsoft [18] doing?

Last week I had the fortunate experience of staying at two hotels in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Both were new stays for me. The first night I stayed at the Westin Kuala Lumpur. Classed as five-star, the Westin has all the physical (hardware attributes) of a standard five-star class hotel. From marble floorings, high ceiling foyer, elegant decoration, classy restaurants and bars, the Westin shouts ‘I am a five-star hotel!’.

I didn’t get a chance to visit the business center, gym and pool area but if the lobby and guests rooms are any indicators, I am sure I would not be disappointed. The elevators were sufficiently lit and used key cards to access guest floors. A distinct feature of old hotels are corridor carpets that either smell like old antique or an unkempt zoo.

Thankfully the Westin had none of that. I was given a room on the executive floor so my experience may be a bit better than the average guest but nonetheless the room was clean, sufficiently Spartan to with just a couple of black and white paintings to give it a bit of character.

Almost everything was as it should be. There was a small desk with a halogen lamp to work with. Wired Internet connection is stable. The phone system worked as it should. A single seater sofa comes with a floor-stand lamp if you fancy reading with your legs up. A small round marble table stands ready to hold your favorite book, magazine or paper. The bed was flanked by two independent wall-mounted lights. And a digital clock with alarm sat quietly on one of the side tables.

The 20” TV is of the tube variety (ancient but nonetheless efficiently) and sat on a two-drawer cabinet that should hold most of your clothes. Channels are limited but who stays in a hotel to watch TV these days? Ok, those with children do. There was small bar with the usual amenities expected of any hotel. The in-room safe was inside a cabinet where you can also hang your cloths.

The washroom may seem small for a five-star hotel but it included a shower enclosure, and a bath tub. I was very pleased that the Westin chose to enclose the toilet itself. This gives a bit more privacy in the event you have more than one person occupying the room.

My favorite at the Westin was the pillow. I don’t know what it was but definitely I’d like to get one. My wife would have loved the floor-to-ceiling mirror across from the bathroom. It is very simple but functional.

The only real complaint about the guest room was that the air conditioner vents were pointed to the table. I kept switching the air conditioner on and off while I was working on the desk. The cold breeze gave me a headache. Unfortunately there was no way control the direction of the air.

My last observation is reserved for the restaurant where I had breakfast. While there is nothing special about the tables and chairs, what was unusual was the way they set things up. Food is spread over a large space of real estate. The first time I sat I thought the restaurant had a tiny selection of food for guests. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there were more choices for guests. In fact there was a room dedicated for bread and pastry lovers. The selection is a cut above those I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying at similarly classed hotels. There was also a large bar for the fruit juices. (more…)