An Artists Review of the Google Pixelbook

When I was trying to decide whether or not to buy Google’s Pixelbook, the final factor for me was the artist’s experience. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an artist’s review of the device, so I decided to buy it and try it.

History

I’m pretty firmly into Chrome OS for everything, and I wondered how well the Pixelbook’s pen and Android apps could satisfy my digital illustration needs. Previously, I’ve used a Wacom Intuos board, and then a Surface Pro for direct-to-screen illustration. I’ve not used any of the apps or the pencil on the iPad Pro. Why not? I’m not a fan of the pure tablet format, and wouldn’t have much use for the iPad beyond art, so it’s not something I would spend money on. I write a lot, and wanted a backlit keyboard and UHD/4K screen, so the Pixelbook was already looking pretty good to me. Because of where I work (Google), I’d already seen a few in person, and they are gorgeous.

I’m not a professional artist, but I have been in the past. I was a production artist for years, worked in print production, and did fine art and animation for a while. Years ago, a project that I helped with ended up being included in a MoMA exhibit. The point is that I’m nothing near a full-time working artist, but I’m also not a complete derelict who has zero experience, so adjust your expectations of this review accordingly.

So, is it usable?

Absolutely. The Pixelbook is optimized for a handful of art apps, most notably Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, Infinite Painter and ArtRage. I tried all three, and didn’t bother with the note-taking apps because I don’t care about taking notes. The apps were all extremely responsive. I experienced no perceptible lag when drawing. I’ve used ArtRage before, and I like it for what it does, but after trying all three apps I settled on Sketchbook Pro. I didn’t put Adobe’s Photoshop Sketch app in here because when I tried it, I experienced a fair amount of lag.

The nice thing about the Android versions of these apps is that they are much less expensive than the Windows/MacOS versions. They seem to have a little less functionality, but not much. Each also has a free trial, which is usually just a severely reduced tool set. I paid the $5 for the Sketchbook Pro upgrade. One downside of the Android version of Sketchbook is that you can’t import external brushes. Hopefully this is changed in a future version, because it was annoying reading about people’s cool brush sets and not being able to use them.

Everything seemed as sensitive and responsive as my older Wacom setup, and because it’s all on a touchscreen, you can do things like grab the canvas with two fingers on the screen and zoom in/out and rotate at will. It’s far more like working on, for example, a sheet of paper. In a purely subjective judgment, I found the actual drawing experience better on the Pixelbook than on my Surface Pro.

One thing I did miss from my Intuos days was the feel of the board itself. With the Pixelbook, just like the iPad Pro or Surface Pro, you’re drawing on glass, and you can tell. There is no texture to it. You forget about it after a while, but still, it’s a thing.

The one thing I’m still missing on Android

I’m okay with the raster illustration tool set on Android. It’s not spectacular, but I think it’s serviceable. As far as the illustration pipeline goes though, I’m still missing one crucial piece. While many of the illustration apps have some limited ability to adjust colors for an entire layer, it’s just that — limited. A strong part of my illustration pipeline is to take my finished-but-still-layered work into Photoshop and tune it layer by layer. Maybe I’ll sharpen or lens blur some things, or maybe I’ll do some masking and spot color adjustments. Coming from a print production background, Photoshop’s color adjustment tools are an old and good friend. Sometimes, I’ll also pull pieces of an illustration into the Liquefy tool to adjust proportions after the fact.

As of now, there is nothing on Android that supports that level of control. I was hoping that Lightroom CC Mobile would allow you to apply its relative power to layered PSD files, but it doesn’t.

Sadly then, I’m not 100% removed from the traditional desktop OSs. Sigh.

The pen

The Pixelbook Pen is an additional $100. There’s nothing outstanding about it, so I’ll just do the gripes:

  1. It requires a battery, which adds weight.
  2. The body is metal, so even for apps that support “erase with the butt” you’re putting metal against your screen. Not all apps support it anyway.
  3. There is only one button on it, and it launches the Google Assistant. You can’t reprogram it. From the artists’ perspective, it’s a huge waste.
  4. You can’t change nibs like you can on a Wacom stylus.

Other than that, it does its job. My hand doesn’t get tired holding it. It functions well. I noticed no degradation from a pressure or tilt perspective against my old Wacom setup.

Here are a handful of things that I’ve done with it so far (I think that two were Sketchbook and one was ArtRage):

And then here’s something I started, and due to OS resets I lost šŸ™

Conclusion

Unless you’reĀ really into premium device design, there’s not much to recommend the Pixelbook over, say the Samsung Chromebook Pro. It has the same res screen, more or less the same specs and features.

However, and this is a big however, if you actually want to do digital art, I’d say thatĀ as long as you’re good with the illustration offerings on Android, the Pixelbook + Pen is worth the extra cash.

 

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

Using Calibre on a Chromebook for Indie Publishing

In a previous post, I talked about my love for Chrome OS and Chromebooks in general. This past week, I completed my move onto 100% Chrome OS for my self-publishing pipeline. The last barrier to doing this was a reliable and controllable way to generate .mobi files for Amazon’s Kindle platform. The feature isn’t generally available just yet, but if you’re interested in doing this, here’s a brief tutorial on how to make it happen early!

  1. You need a supported Chromebook. Right now, it’s only on the Pixelbook. This is expected to change as support is expanded. Most likely, these instructions will stay the same for new supported devices.
  2. Switch to the DEV channel on your Chromebook:
    1. Go to Chrome’s Settings panel, hit the upper-left hamburger menu and choose “About Chrome OS” at the bottom.
    2. Click “Detailed build information”.
    3. Click the “CHANGE CHANNEL” button in the “Channel” item.
    4. Choose “Developer – Unstable” from the Channel dialog and confirm your choice.
    5. Back on the “About Chrome OS” panel, there will be a button to “RESTART” your Chromebook. Once it downloads the DEV channel update, it will restart.
    6. Doing this will NOT wipe your Chromebook šŸ˜€ So no worries there!
  3. Tell your Chromebook to enable the experimental feature:
    1. Navigate to this URLĀ chrome://flags/#enable-experimental-crostini-ui
    2. Find the flag called “Experimental Crostini UI”
    3. Change the setting to the right of it from Default to Enabled
    4. Once again, you’ll have to restart your Chromebook
  4. Launch the Linux environment:
    1. Go into Chrome Settings
    2. There should be a “Linux (Beta)”section. Turn it on. It will do a download, then launch a terminal window. This is your new full Linux terminal!
  5. Install and run Calibre. Calibre’s website recommends a direct download and install, so we’ll do that.
    1. You’ll need the “wget” utility first. To install it, type:
      sudo apt-get install wget
    2. Calibre’s website has a command line to do its installation, but I found it didn’t work perfectly. Here’s one that worked for me:
      sudo wget -nv -O- https://download.calibre-ebook.com/linux-installer.sh | sudo sh /dev/stdin
    3. A bunch of stuff will download and install. When it’s finished, you can run it by simply typing calibre on the command line
    4. Calibre should make an application window, and you’re good to go!

In order to make files accessible to Linux applications (at least for now), there’s a new item in Chrome’s file browser called “Linux”. It shows up next to the “Downloads” and “Drive” entries. You can drag and drop your files there, and they will end up in the default directory that your Linux apps can access. This part is a little clunky, and I expect that it will change in the future for a smoother user experience.

Kudos to the Linux-on-Chrome OS team — this is a great feature. As someone who went from Windows to desktop Linux to Mac then to Chrome OS, this is an exciting development.

Cheers

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

ChromeOS, Linux Applications, and Indie Writers

I’ve been using ChromeOS for years (i.e. Chromebooks). In January I bought a Pixelbook, and it is easily the nicest computer of any variety (laptop, mobile, etc.) that I’ve ever personally owned. Until last month, I still had to have a Mac around to do a few things, but I believe those days are over. Google has announced that they are rolling out support on Chromebooks for Linux applications.

For the independent writer and publisher, this is an amazing advance. One of the most critical tools that we need during the publication process is a way to curate the creation of .mobi files — Amazon Kindle’s native publication format. Amazon will do it for you, but their auto-conversion leaves a lot to be desired. The main tool that indie writers use to control this themselves is called Calibre. It’s an open source document converter that creates .mobi files, and provides a really nice tool set for dealing them.

You need a Mac, Windows and Linux machine to run it. But now, you can do it right on a Chromebook. I just got it working on my Pixelbook yesterday and produced a beta-reader .mobi ofĀ A Walk in the Park, With Monsters. It’s great to know that I can now use ChromeOS for my entire publication pipeline!

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

New tools: 2013 Chromebook Pixel and 4k monitor

At work, I’m nearing the end of my second year with a 15″ Macbook Pro. I love the high def screen enough that I feel a little pain even when I’m working on my dual (but standard def) 24″ monitors for my desktop workstation. It holds true at home too, where I do my writing. Up until yesterday I was using a Dell 13 Chromebook docked into a nice backlit Logitech keyboard, old-school Logitech Wingman trackball and a 29″ standard def monitor.

And when I undock that Dell 13? The screen size and resolution areĀ more than a little painful. It’s rough. It’s a great little Chromebook, and has served me well for almost four years, butĀ that Macbook Pro has spoiled me.

About a year ago, I decided that I wanted to move to a 4k monitor for my home workstation, which was a pretty beefy Linux box running Xubuntu. The problem was that I didn’t want to go through the rigors of getting a 4k video card that would work with my system (bus issues) and then deal with what was less than stellar support for 4k on desktop Linux. At about that time, the wireless died in the system and after several hilariously frustrating attempts to get it working, I decided to just bag it and start docking my Chromebook.

It turned out to be a really good experience.

So, a couple of months ago, I started looking for a Chromebook that would capably drive a 4k monitor. There aren’t a lot. In fact, there is only one. The HP Chromebook 13. Reviews on it were mixed, and with the high def screen option, it was over $500. One of my friends told me that he’d bought one, didn’t like the build quality and returned it. He’s a maniac when it comes to devices, and I trust him. So the HP 13 was out.

The Samsung Chromebook Pro is coming out sometime soon, and it has a high def display. This same device-hungry friend as the Plus model and really likes it. I tried it. It’s fine. The Pro will cost around $600, and it pained me to pay that for a Chromebook.

Of course, the flagship of all Chromebooks is the Chromebook Pixel, Google’s Own Special Computer. There was a model made in 2013, and an update in 2015. They’re expensive ($1200+). Superior build quality. Amazing (backlit!) keyboards. High def screens.

Because I work at Google, I was hoping we had some kind of “buy the 2015 remainders because we don’t sell them any longer” program, but alas we don’t. I started digging around the internets, and learned that you can buy 2013 Chromebook Pixels, New-In-Box, for around $340. How are they still new? No idea. But they are.

I found a site (blinq.com) that carried them. They were a Google Trusted Store, and had a “return within 30 days even if you just don’t like it with no restock fee” policy, so it seemed about zero risk to order one.

So I did.

I’m now set up with a new 2013 Chromebook Pixel, driving a Samsung 4k display over the Pixel’s mini DisplayPort. I have the Pixel pushing somewhere between 1080p and 4k to the monitor, and it looks fantastic.

So if you’re in the market for a Chromebook and your top two requirements are high def display and backlit keyboard, this can be had (along with the superior build quality) for around $350 in the 2013 Chromebook Pixel!

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

Writing Software and Writing a Novel: Magic

This morning, I was struck by one of the similarities between working on both a well thought-out software project and a well thought-out novel, and why it feels like magic.

When you’re designing a piece of software (I mean the information design and architecture, not the visual design), you can’t foresee every possible implication and use of it. You can take a guess.Ā But at some point, you have to apply what you know as well as you can, trust the process that got you this far, and just write the thing. You’ll encounter problems along the way, little details that you didn’t consider, but you’ll work your way through it. Then, you launch.

Here’s a practical example. At work, I wrote a task management system, because the ones we had available didn’t meet my needs, and we weren’t allowed to use popular third party systems. Now, about a year later, about 1,000 Googlers use my software to manage their projects and day-to-day tasks. They think of ways of using the software that I never considered. They have needs that the original design didn’t take into account. They show up at my digital doorstep asking for features that will help them do a better job.

Here’s where the magic happens.

Quite often, I’m able to go into the existing software and add the feature with very little work. Here’s this problem I had never considered (I need the software to do something it doesn’t do), and yet the solution presents itselfĀ as soon as I look at it, nestled nicely within the original architecture and design. I write it, and launch a new version. The software is better than it was before, and it’s because of a collision between good design and the real world. When that happens, it feels like magic.

What it actually is though, is a good original design.

How does this relate to writing a novel?

Well, right now I’m in the synopsis stage, where I write a fairly detailed synopsis of each chapter, following the story beat cards that I detailedĀ Writing a Novel: Part 1.5Ā post last time. As I add detail at this level, and later on when I go to write the actual book, problems pop up. Things I hadn’t considered at the story beat level. Somehow, almost like magic, those problems resolve themselves. And when they resolve themselves, it’s in ways that actually make the story stronger. The feeling is exactly like the “new feature” feeling when writing software.

When either happens, it’s a rush. Like you won something.

Like magic.

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

“AI” Chat Bots

The Loebner Prize gives an award every year to what they think is the best chat bot. This is actually a really hard problem, and there are some assumptions bundled into it as to what an ideal AI chatbot would be.

Here’s the winnerĀ from 2013: Mitsuku (ignore the creepy manga girl drawing – yeesh)

If you play around with it for even a little, you can tell you’re not talking to a person.

What I wonder though is why that’s the goal. I mean, I get it. People are fascinated with creating a general purpose conversational AI. Clearly. There’s one in my book. But let’s say that someone builds that.

What good is it? Wow, now I can have the same inane chats with a computer that I could have with a real person. Yay.

The value in conversational AI is purely as an interface to other things. Maybe it’s a help database. Maybe it’s an imperturbable, wildly scale-able triage system for 911 or other emergency calls. Maybe it’s the interface to magical gun.

But once you start thinking about the needs of those individual systems, it turns out that you don’t necessarily need a fully capable AI that can hold generalized conversations. The linguistic and subject domains of each of these problems is much, much smaller than the general case.

My guess is that we’ll get virtual customer service reps that are mistakable for humans long before we get a generalized system, due to the magnitude of the conversational domains. Of course, if someone does build a true generalized system, it could be leveraged for everything. I just don’t think that’s going to happen first. And, if one (or more) groups build ones that solve for the monetizable use cases, it’s going to put a serious damped on further research into the general case.

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

On what it feels like to code

What’s it like to code? It’s very, very much like Lincoln describes in the book. When you’re cruising, you’re really in a different state of mind. Hungry? Tired? Doesn’t matter. You won’t notice. You know what the whole structure of the thing is going to be, and it can only come out through your fingers on the keyboard. If there were a direct mental interface, the code would just show up, but since there isn’t, you have to force it through your hands.

It’s fun. It’s awesome.

Of course, those are the good times, when you’re jazzed about a project and no one is beating down your door to fix a bunch of miserable bugs and make your delivery deadlines. That stuff happens too, and when it does, it’s just work. But then again, lots of stuff are “just work.” So it’s okay.

But when it’s good, and your brain is firing like a Phaeton’s W12, it’s like magic šŸ˜‰

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

Good docs/Bad docs

As I’ve just set up WordPress for this blog, the first I’ve messed with WP in a long time, I got to pick a theme. The themes are all configurable. Some of them even have docs!!

Well, they sort of do. But mostly they’re push-button docs. A feature appears in the Customize controls called something like “Hero Upper Standard Widget”. It has some options. One of those might be called “Enable widget”. If you go to the docs for the theme, inevitably, they say something like “To enable the Hero Upper Standard Widget, choose the Enable widget option from the options menu.”

That’s it.

No explanation of what the hell a Hero Upper Standard Widget is, let alone what might be a good use for one.

So many docs across software in general fail to provide context. They fail to provide a pathway for learning to think. They assume too much, then only give you rote directions for accomplishing the one shining path the author envisioned.

Instead, try providing context first (What’s a Hero Upper Standard Widget), teach a little about it, andĀ then you can give your step-by-step instructions with commentary that reinforces the context and knowledge. Provide positive and negative use cases (eg. “You can use a HUSW to display content that should always remain at the top of your page, even when the user clicks a sidebar item.” and “Don’t use one if you just want a header image. See the Header Image section instead.”)

Your users will be a lot happier.

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

AngularJS and Angular Material

For the last several months at work, I’ve been building front ends using the angularjs material design libraries. They make it comparatively simple to build great looking front ends while maintaining the superior division of concerns that I feel is one of angular’s strengths.

If you build front ends and haven’t checked out this great framework (angularjs) or the angular material design components, you owe it to yourself to spend a weekend with it:

https://material.angularjs.org/latest/

I’ve found that the CSS around the components is build nicely enough that you can layer your own custom stuff on top of it without too much difficulty. That’s always my main gripe with frameworks and pre-built things. They’re great as long as you stay within their boundaries, but as soon as you put one toe outside the borders it’s kind of a nightmare extending things. Not so with this stuff.

If you’re a front-end dev and want to tryĀ angularjs, don’t start with the official docs. They’re kind of crap, imho. Start here instead. It’s the best quickstart I’ve seen for angularjs:

http://www.ng-newsletter.com/posts/beginner2expert-how_to_start.html

Cheers

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)