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02.20.09

cute

I HAD INTENDED to get an entry up yesterday, but before the morning was over I could feel the heavy curtain of a blue funk descending, a thick and smothering fog that sucks the air out of your day and mires you in a Sargasso sea of motivational fatigue. I've been prey to these doldrums before, and my biggest fear since losing my job is sticking fast to one and losing days, even weeks, to a morale-crushing blue funk.

I'd spent the morning finishing off a book proposal - work that always leaves me feeling anxious - but what probably kicked me over the stump was realizing that I'd screwed up my schedule and missed a trip to Apple Canada HQ for a chat with the iLife team that had actually been booked for the previous day. I'd charged my iPod Touch, my phone and my Zune (how's that for technological redundancy, not to mention brand diversity?) in anticipation of an hours-long trek on public transit to Markham, and I'd bolloxed up the days.

The rest of the day dissolved into a general aimlessness after that, and I tried to salvage it with another trip out to the local wifi-equipped cafes with a laptop HP lent me for review before I was laid off. Reviewing tech gear was one of my favorite jobs at the paper, albeit one that had been cut from a weekly to an occasional one, and what man isn't a bit gadget-obsessed? With that in mind, I'm planning to review what was left in my hands after the job left me, if only as a kindness to the publicists who sent me all this stuff, and as an experiement of sorts in just how I'd write about tech stuff without the 150-200 word constraints imposed by the paper.

The funk dissipated a bit after the sun went down, after a sudden Instalanche, and the gargantuan generosity of the reader from Arizona who put $50 Canadian in my PayPal tip jar - a deep and heartfelt thank you, sir, especially in light of the fact that I no longer have a health plan, and am in desperate need of new eyeglasses.


gizmosPINK TECH: That's the name I gave it, while soliciting loaners from various publicists and electronics companies in advance of a Valentine's Day supplement that I was laid off before I could write. I'm still sort of thrilled that such a thing exists, as I'm old enough now to remember a time when consumer technology more complicated than a Walkman tended to come in either beige or a hue-less charcoal shade that came off like a colour too insipid to be black.

Many years ago, I stood in Apple Canada's main office, far out in the city's distant suburbs, where a PR person reached down with a flourish and whisked a silky cloth away to show me the first iMac, in saucy Bondi blue with the hockey puck mouse that's still marvelled at today as such an audacious crime against ergonomics. I was a freelance writer, working on a piece for a lifestyle magazine that was essentially a rant about why the design of computers was so forthrightly dull.

The CRT still ruled the desktop back then, and almost without exception every computer came in an off-white hue that sunlight would rapidly infuse with a yellow blush that evoked a weak, post-beer binge urination. Acer was offering a range of computers in the aforementioned halfhearted gray, and they looked positively stylish in a market where finish ranged from ecru to buff and back again.

The iMac was a style revolution, but it was too late for me, as I'd already purchased my first machine - an off-brand Korean laptop running Windows 95 with a malfunctioning battery that ensured it would never leave my desk for the length of its service. It was more than I could afford, but I had to have it as my editors and clients were starting to regard my insistence on hand-delivering copy freshly pulled from my 1930s vintage Remington typewriter as less of a luddite eccentricity and more of a sign of hopelessness unbecoming in someone under 40.

I did feel clever at having avoided overwhelming my scant desk space with a CRT, tower and keyboard, even though no amount of RAM upgrades could keep my poor, underpowered laptop from spluttering and choking on every new Java standard or flash animation. It was finally replaced with an IBM desktop with a flat panel monitor that cost as much as the tower, which was replaced again by an HP Pavillion two years ago, just after a new milestone was reached and notebooks outsold desktops for the first time in 2005.

During the home electronics boom that happened over that decade, cellphones went from bulky bricks that drained their battery while straining to find and maintain a connection to sleek little marvels of electronic origami that were practically given away by service providers and get swapped out and upgraded annually by the trend-conscious. Phones and even mp3 players now have computing power that makes our first home computers - bought at prices many times the cost of these pocket-sized gadgets - look primitive. And all the while, electronics manufacturers are producing phones, PMPs, cameras and peripherals in an ever-increasing variety of colours and finishes. At the risk of sounding like a breathless oldster, it's been marvellous to witness.

With the exception of high-priced gaming rigs, desktops remain aesthetically unremarkable, and will probably remain so as their market share decreases, while laptops have taken a long time to break out of a stylistic lockstep that's seen them move, herdlike, from charcoal to black to white to metallic silver. After false starts that included customizable inserts that inevitably looked chintzy, manufacturers are finally offering laptops in ranges of colours (usually in the low end up their product line,) or special models whose finish is meant to signal its specialty and demographic target.

There's the Toshiba Qosmio X300 line, which signals its gaming pedigree by being tricked out with multiple LEDs and a custom car flame job that mostly evokes a Hot Wheels car. On the other end of the scale, there's something like HP's Vivienne Tam Mini 1000 netbook, which has been my constant companion on a tour of my neighbourhood's wifi cafes for the past few weeks.

It's either a mini notebook or a netbook, depending on who's talking about it, and if you've ever had your hands on one of HP's regular Mini 1000s, you'll know what it is - a small, but not cramped, low-powered notebook with a 10" LED screen running Windows XP. It's powered by an Intel Atom chip, comes with a 60GB hard drive and a 1GB stick of RAM that you can expand with an extra GB. Don't try running a full, up-to-date version of Photoshop or Final Cut Pro on it, but it'll be happy browsing the web, picking up e-mail, composing essays, spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations (it comes with MS Works, but not Office,) or playing video (but not DVDs - no room for an optical drive, you see.)

I'm a big fan of netbooks, and the HP Mini in general. Most people don't need a full-featured laptop for everyday computing tasks, and in an age of downloads, disc drives are rapidly going the way of the 3.5" floppy. The HP Mini is probably the nicest netbook on the market, mostly thanks to that extra inch or two in width (depending on which competitor you compare it to,) which translates into a keyboard that doesn't cramp your fingers tightly together or move vital edge-placed keys like the control, shift and backspace to some unaccustomed new spot where your fingers don't normally reach.

The Tam edition tarts up the Mini by stuffing the electronic guts into a glossy red plastic that mimics lacquered paint, and splashes a lovely floral motif in pink, lavender, cerise and yellow on the top, a design picked up in the preset wallpaper but in a muted red monochrome. The packaging is so well-integrated that you wish HP could have replaced the standard XP startup tone with, say, a snatch of notes on a pipa or liuqin, or a sample from the Peking Opera.

Accessories are limited to a red satin bag that emphasizes the Tam Mini's clutch-like dimensions. Peripheral and accessory manufacturers like Belkin have already jumped into the netbook case market, producing pretty carrying bags in quilted plum or two tone pink and purple, but be warned - the Tam Mini is exactly one inch too wide to fit most of these cases.

---

I am a six foot tall, 225 lb. man with close-cropped balding hair and a grizzled goatee, and quite in spite of my generally bohemian and unathletic lifestyle, I resemble a former college football player gone to seed. I do not look like a man who should be carrying a bright red, floral-themed netbook into a coffee shop to sip my latte and surf right-wing blogs and music download sites.

Which is why I staked out my table at the front of my local wifi cafes like a man picking a fight - I wanted to see if anyone would look askance, or make some mocking comment on my little device, which resembles a lady's compact crossed with a bento box more than a computer, going by the range of laptops on display at my neighbourhood cafes. (From one daily sampling: Dell, MacBook, MacBook Pro, Dell, white plastic MacBook, iBook, HP Pavillion, MacBook.)

On one day I sat down close to a burly fellow intent on his Dell, hoping for at least a quizzical glance. On another, I couldn't help but think that the stylish young woman with her mane of glossy dreadlocks and artfully tied Hermes scarf might have found my Tam Mini more to her taste, unless she was doing Autocad on her MacBook Pro.

It took me a few days to realize that the only person made uncomfortable by my pretty little netbook was me, especially as etiquette for wifi parasites in cafes nowadays dictates almost total concentration on the screen, a self-made isolation aided by earphones screwed tightly into the skull to drown out the cafe muzak. No one bothers to scrutinize the room except when searching for an empty table to colonize into their temporary office, except for someone like me, feeling self-conscious with his girly laptop and looking for a reaction.

It was inevitable that I'd start feeling defensive, I guess. I'd bonded a little with this comely little piece of technology; its modest capabilities seemed fetchingly demure by now, though it was hard to deny its forthright sense of style, which seemed outsized but hardly slatternly. It reminded me of the '80s - the last time that girls and women looked both cute and sexy, in this old man's opinion. So what if people looked at me funny for sporting a stylish bit of tech - WHY CAN'T A MAN HAVE A CUTE LAPTOP?

The wifi at the hip new place around the corner was giving me trouble, so I headed down the street to a more modest place where I'd never had a problem getting a connection. I found a table easily - the new place has been hoovering up afternoon cafe wifi parasites with a vengeance, iffy wifi notwithstanding - and ordered a latte and a cookie. I'd just settled into my seat and was logging onto the network when the waitress arrived.

"My, what a cute little laptop," she said, no hint of mockery in her voice.

I wasn't prepared, and mumble something about "testing it out" along with some other excuses. She smiled and left me to my blog surfing and - thought she couldn't have known it - a sense of shame at my inability to be man enough to be proud of my cute laptop. It's a good thing I'm sending it back next week.

---

I had another piece of pink tech left with me after the lay-off - Samsung's Cleo phone, a squarish clamshell with a little square screen on the lid and a full QWERTY keyboard, a 1.3GB phone and an mp3 player expandable up to 8GB with stereo bluetooth. It comes in three colours, including pink and champagne, and all feature a tone-on-tone floral pattern.

It's a fashion phone, but the wide clamshell makes for a keypad much roomier than you'd find on any phone but the heftiest Blackberry. The design brings to mind the sorts of makeup compacts my mother and sister had rattling around their makeup drawers in the early '70s, which is apparently the era to be evoking these days. (In our zeal, we seem to be bringing back economic meltdowns and a reprise of malaise as well, God help us.)

It's a dear little thing, but I'm starting to have my doubts lately about any phone that isn't based around either the iPhone touchscreen icon menu or a Windows mobile OS; along with unstandardized charging cables, I think consumers are getting more impatient with having to learn to navigate their phones every time they switch or upgrade. Just as the Mac OS and Windows have come to resemble each other more closely with every new version (Windows basically aping the previous generation Mac OS, basically, but not inevitably,) I think cellphone software has to start to move toward a common architecture - but I digress.

As for the Samsung Cleo, I liked goofing around with it at home but, no - I didn't have the balls to take it outside and risk being seen flipping it open and taking a call. My manhood, such as it is, just wasn't up to the challenge.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved
WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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