Acer’s newest Chromebox packs more power, 4k video support

When you think of using a computer with a 4k video monitor, a Chromebox probably doesn’t come to mind. After all, those little boxes are just wimpy little browsers, right? Acer is out to prove that thought wrong by adding an Intel Core i3 option to its Chromebox CXI series.

Acer Chromebox CXI Top Angle View

The company announced the new chip choice on Thursday, with a starting suggested price of $349.99. That gets you a box capable of running [company]Google[/company] Chrome OS with support for up to 3840 x 2160 resolution. Along with the 1.9GHz Core i3 4030U dual-core processor, you’ll get 16GB of on-board flash storage and your choice of either 4 or 8GB of memory; the latter choice raises the cost to $399.99.

Given the recent Superfish scandal, I’m not surprised Acer made note of the security features built into its new Chromebox:

Multiple layers of security encompass data encryption and verified boot to safeguard the CXI against online threats, malware and viruses. User and system files are stored on separate partitions that secure data and simplify restoration from a backup. The Chromebox’s TPM 1.2 chip encrypts and protects individual user’s data by generating and storing secure cryptographic keys. In addition, individual accounts keep data safe when the device is used by multiple users.

Previously, Acer offered much lower-costing Chromeboxes: You could pick one up for as little as $179.99.

But at that price, you’re getting an older 1.4GHz Intel Celeron chip inside. Granted, Chrome OS runs pretty well on limited hardware — there are some models that use chips typically reserved for smartphones and tablets — however, the extra horsepower and memory in the new Acer Chromebox CXI models would be welcome for video playback having more open tabs or apps, particularly if you have a 4k resolution monitor for your Chromebox.

 

 

Why Lenovo’s ThinkPad button U-turn is a sign of strength

Lenovo has refreshed much of its ThinkPad range, including ultrabooks such as the X1 Carbon and the X250 (replacing the X240), with two significant changes: the addition of Intel’s Broadwell fifth-generation Core-series processors, and the reintroduction of real buttons for the trackpoint system.

Both make it likely that I will be buying another ThinkPad this year, and the button move in particular is something I see as being indicative of [company]Lenovo[/company]’s current strength in the laptop market — and its willingness to listen.

Let’s get Broadwell out the way first, before moving onto the main course. Broadwell marks [company]Intel[/company]’s shift to the 14-nanometer manufacturing process, which means much better power efficiency and slightly better performance than could be found in the Haswell-toting X240 and the 2014 version of the X1 Carbon. A more significant performance boost should come with the sixth-gen Skylake processors that are scheduled to appear later this year — Broadwell was heavily delayed – but Intel is likely to introduce the beefier desktop variants of Skylake first, so as not to dissuade people from buying Broadwell-equipped notebooks now. Either way, as someone who hates hunting for power sockets at airports and conferences, battery life is more important to me than future performance gains.

But it’s the trackpoint buttons that are the real selling point here. The trackpoint system is integral to any ThinkPad and, while it may appear archaic to those who haven’t spent time with one, it really is a joy to use once you’ve gotten used to it (variations on the theme can also be found in certain business laptops from [company]HP[/company], [company]Fujitsu[/company], [company]Toshiba[/company], [company]Samsung[/company] and [company]Dell[/company].) The little red pointing stick is a hugely ergonomic way to move the cursor over extended periods of time, particularly in combination with the three thumb buttons below, which lie above the trackpad and perform the same functions as the left and right mouse button and (in combination with the pointing stick) the mouse’s scrolling wheel.

However, the X240 and the last version of the X1 Carbon integrated these buttons into the top of the touchpad itself, just as the touchpad’s other left/right-click buttons are integrated into the bottom. When Lenovo did that, the ThinkPad faithful went ballistic – check out the whining in this forum thread and the tinge of sadness in just about every otherwise-positive review of the X240 and 2014 X1 Carbon. The new-style buttons did not have the tactile feedback of their traditional predecessors, and some just found the new touchpad buggy in practice.

Trackpoint buttons on the 2014 version of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (above) and the 2015 version (below)

Trackpoint buttons on the 2014 version of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (above) and the 2015 version (below)

I suspect that Lenovo’s decision to do a U-turn on its button design comes down to two things. Firstly, ThinkPads are popular in the enterprise, and having businesses reject a model in bulk (as some posts in that forum thread suggest happened) just won’t do. Volume customers have loud voices. Secondly, though, Lenovo is the top PC manufacturer in the world and, with its IdeaPad Yoga range, the strongest manufacturer in the world of PC-tablet hybrids – a largely consumer proposition, with features such as “tent mode” being geared toward media consumption and taking full advantage of the touchscreen UI redesign introduced in Windows 8.

ThinkPads are devices for production. They’re made for typists whose hands are constantly on the keyboard – and let’s face it, apart from the need to run certain relatively specialized kinds of software, the reason people still turn to laptops rather than tablets is the keyboard. So Lenovo is winning in the sometimes-tablet-sometimes-laptop market, and it has the strongest brand and most die-hard following in the hardcore-typist market.

If last year’s ThinkPads were an attempt to make the venerable line look less geeky and more consumer-friendly, it turned out there was no need to do so. The company can afford to let ThinkPads be ThinkPads, and let deep-pocketed customers turned off by the ThinkPad geek factor buy IdeaPad Yoga Pros instead. And if anyone really needs a ThinkPad Yoga, well, that exists too – though it hasn’t seen a Broadwell refresh yet.

In short, Lenovo is in the position to usefully service a variety of larger and smaller niches, and that’s a good place to be. My trusty 2011 ThinkPad E420s, on which I am typing right now, is starting to show its age. Depending on whether [company]Apple[/company] does something outrageously special this year with the MacBook range (and assuming that Windows 10 represents a improvement over the thoroughly irritating Windows 8, which it surely must), this professional typist is rather grateful to Lenovo for thinking of his ilk.

Looks like AWS is ready to roll out spiffy new Intel C4 instances

New, muscular Intel Haswell-based C4 instances are now available to the masses — or will be soon– depending on whether an Amazon Web Services blog post that went up, then came down, on Friday morning is accurate.

From the post:

The new C4 instances are based on the Intel Xeon E5-2666 v3 (code name Haswell) processor. This custom processor, optimized for EC2, runs at a base speed of 2.9 GHz, and can achieve clock speeds as high as 3.5 GHz with Turbo Boost. These instances are designed to deliver the highest level of processor performance on EC2.

The new EC2 lineup  was “pre-announced” by Intel GM and VP Diane Bryant at AWS Re:invent in November. At that time, however, neither Bryant nor Amazon CTO Werner Vogels provided much detail about the C4 instances, saying only that [company]Intel[/company] and [company]Amazon[/company] collaborated on design to make sure the chip was optimized for AWS use. I’ve asked AWS for comment and will update this as needed. The pricing disclosed on the blog post is as follows:

 

aws c4 instance pricing

The fact that [company]Amazon[/company], which used to announce things only when they were ready to roll, has taken to pre-announcing products, shows just how much the company has evolved into an IT provider in the mold of [company]Microsoft[/company], which was famous for introducing products early. Of course, the lag time in cloud is a fraction of what it was in the client-server era, so an announcement in mid-November for delivery in early January — if the disappearing post is accurate — really isn’t so bad.

No, Google didn’t say the Chromebook Pixel won’t see a refresh

Alongside new Chromebooks announced this week came reports that Google’s Chromebook Pixel wouldn’t be repeated, indicating the device won’t get refreshed with new Intel chips. It turns out, that’s not necessarily the case; good news for Pixel fans.