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Scott's Column
Anniversary Gift... Breville Grinder, UltraBook Laptops

November 1, 2011
By Scott Lewis

Introductory paragraph goes here.

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Anniversary Gift - The Story

I recently reached my 10 year anniversary working for my company. I received an email directing me to a web site where I could choose a gift.

I was excited. I remember choosing a pen set for my 5 year anniversary gift that was worth between $140-150. I still have that pen set and use the ballpoint pen from that set all the time.

If the 5 year gift was worth about $150, then the 10 year gift should be amazing. I went to the site and started looking at the gifts listed under the 10 year anniversaries. Unfortunately, they seemed not very high in value.

I looked at a couple of the watches. I thought maybe an elegant, super thin watch would be a nice gift to myself. When I looked up a couple of the watches on Amazon I could not find an exact match, but they seemed very close to watches in the $80 range.

I looked at some other gifts, ones that would be easier to find. Sure enough the binoculars they offered were in the $40-80 price range. And a set of walkie-talkies were $39 on Amazon.

Where were the gifts that compared to my $150 pen set?

I went to the 5 year section to see if I could find my pen set... or something close to it. Nothing. The items in the 5 year section looked pretty cheesy. I went to the 15 year section, and then to the 20 year gifts. There it is!!! I found my $150 pen set in the 20 year gift area... the exact same set I got for a 5 year anniversary... 5 years ago.

To get the same gift I got at 5 years... I would not have to put in 20 years of service. Talk about cheap. It might have been better off not getting the email. I am not sure I like knowing that they have cheapened the anniversary gift value so much. Maybe it would have been better not knowing and not received a gift.

Well, I made lemonade out of lemons. Actually espresso... I chose a Breville Coffee/Espresso grinder for my gift.

And that leads to...

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Anniversary Gift - Breville BCG450XL Conical Burr Grinder

All was not lost on the anniversary gift. Although I was hoping for an expensive gift that would be something I would not normally buy for myself... I made the best of it and picked this Breville grinder. You can see the model on Amazon here. It sells for $99.95. As it turns out this was the most expensive gift I looked up in the 10 year section.

But this is not about the gift anymore... this is about espresso!!!

How well does this device work. In a word... EXCELLENT!!!

It is a fairly simple device. The hopper on top of the device rotates to a wide range of grind settings. If you look closely at the picture you will see the white line is in the center of one of the labels. You don't have to pay attention to the labels, but they make it easy to go to the setting you want.

I set out to make espresso with some expensive Kona beans I bought in New Jersey on a recent trip. I set the machine to the center of the Espresso label on the hopper. I then rotated the hopper one notch to the left (courser) and then one notch to the right (finer). All three setting produces very pleasant espresso.

In fact, it was so close I could not tell... mainly because of temperature. By the time I had pulled the third shot... the first shot was cooled almost to room temperature. It was wonderful. But the second shot was warmer and still tasted good. The third shot was too hot to get a real taste for whether it was better or not.

In the end this is all good. If each of the three setting all produced excellent espresso then I don't need to know anything more than that. The beans I was using were at least 3 weeks old. I will to this test again with fresher beans later. Regardless I really did make lemonade out of lemons. This $100 grinder compliments my $80 espresso machine perfectly.

The next test was French Press coffee. I used two different kinds of beans... and had 5 cups of coffee in one lazy Sunday. This time I put the hopper in the center of the French Press label and left it there. All the coffee was wonderful. It all came out just a little sweet... without adding sweetener. And no bitterness.

Normally drinking caffeine does not effect me much... but that 5th cup must have pushed me over the edge... I tossed and turned in bed for two hours trying to go to sleep. Oops!

The Breville is actually quite simple. As you can see in the picture there are two controls. A timer dial and a button. Set the timer to anywhere from 10 - 30 seconds and push the button. It will grind away for that many second. If you want to stop it short... pressing the button while it is grinding will stop it.

That is all there is to it. As stated above... you adjust the grind by turning the hopper. It couldn't be any simpler.

However all is not perfect in the world of Breville. Grounds come out in the little bin in the lower left. This works quite well. I have not experienced much issue with static cling. Just a slight residue on the sides of the cup that should be wiped down with a cloth when you are done.

The biggest flaw to this entire grinder is the hopper. It is open at the bottom. Granted it would have to be open so the beans could drop into the grinder. But it is completely open. If you pick up the hopper the remaining beans spill all over the place. So you have to grind all the beans you put into it... at that time. You can't just dump a bunch beans in... grind some and put the beans you don't use back. Oops!

For some there is one other thing missing... a timer. I personally don't think it is necessary, but if you are using this for coffee some people might prefer that it grind the beans in the morning for you. Since it only take a few second I don't see how this would matter. But I mention it because I have heard of grinders with timers.

Overall I am very pleased with the grinder. I suspect that if I get serious about espresso I will outgrow this grinder... just as I will outgrow my $80 espresso machine. In the mean time I know that I am making espresso that is as good as most coffee shops.

Now I just need to work on the dairy part... as my DeLonghi EC155 does not do a good job of making micro foamed steamed milk.

I expect to be drinking more espresso & more coffee now that I don't need to use my hand grinder. With the hand grinder it was such a chore to grind the beans to an espresso level that I would only do it in large batches. Now I can do it for a single shot if I want... in no time at all. As for French Press coffee... it is so easy I expect to start drinking a cup of coffee before going to work... rather than drinking coffee they serve at work.

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UltraBook Laptops

As you know... I am (was) looking at thin & light laptops. My top two contenders were the Toshiba R835 and the Lenovo T420i. The Toshiba had a huge advantage in weight at 3.2 lbs, which the Lenovo had a 1600 x 900 resolution 14 inch screen. Both are highly regarded for battery life as well.

Two month later and we are seeing the first handful of laptops around Intel's self named UltraBook category of notebook computers. I don't know if Intel will succeed in pushing a new type of laptop on us with this UltraBook name, but I do like what the end result is supposed to be.

For all intents and purposes, Intel is trying to get traction for a class of computer that is essential a MacBook Air for Windows. And there lies the beauty for me... as I consider the MacBook Air the benchmark for a laptop for myself.

If the MacBook Air wasn't so expensive... and ran Windows natively... I would buy one. Yes, you can dual boot Macs with Boot Camp. But that adds to the cost since you still have to buy a license for Windows, and you then have a laptop with all the wrong keys. Option Key instead of Alt Key. Or is that Option Key Windows Key. Command Key instead of Control Key. And let's not forget... the reason the MacBook Air gets best in class battery life is because of the integration of the hardware with the Mac ODX operating system.

I would almost consider getting a MacBook Air anyway... and doing the dual boot. But why should I have to pay Apple the Apple Tax of a more expensive machine... just to run another OS on it. And with the 128 GB Solid State Drive (SSD) there might not be enough room for all I need a laptop for. The project I was working on (yes, was) had me migrating data from a FoxPro database environment to SQL Server, and programming in Visual Studio 2010. That is a lot to squeeze into a partitioned 128 GB SSD.

So... what I really want is an UltraBook. Feel free to read the Wikipedia page on the UltraBook to better understand the specifics.

The project has been put on hold indefinitely. This give me a little more time to find the perfect laptop... er, I mean... UltraBook. I do have two requirements for an UltraBook:

1) Allow me to bring all my code, development tools and data to New York. I should be able to work on The Project while in New York as well as in San Antonio.

2) Be a reasonable replacement for a tablet.

I previously thought I would get a tablet instead of a laptop. Now a laptop is more needed than a tablet. If I do get a laptop I want to make sure it can be used like a tablet when not doing development work. What features does a laptop need so I can forget about a tablet?

Light weight, instant on and long battery life are the big requirements. If I get a laptop I want it to be as light as a MacBook Air, and be able to wake from sleep mode as fast as possible. When I am not using the laptop for trips to New York, it will sit on my coffee table and must be ready to go the instant I want to look something up on the web... while watching TV.

Let's see what the manufacturers have, or almost have. I am writing this in October...and these UltraBooks are literally hitting the market as I type this. Some of this will be accurate, and some will need to wait until we see more products actually ship.

Here are the UltraBooks I am looking at:

Toshiba Z830
Lenovo U300s
Acer Aspire S3
Asus UX31

On a side note... Lenovo and Samsung have some new laptops that come close to the UltraBook specs, but are a little thicker, a little heavier, have high resolution 14" screens while appearing to have slot loading optical drives and standard hard drives (instead of SSD).

Lenovo S400 ()
Samsung Series 7 ()

I was in Best Buy this past weekend... and I also saw a Samsung Series 9 priced at $1,199. I had previously written that off due to its original price of $1,800. But if the Series 9 is going to get price competitive with this newer generation of UltraBooks, I will have to look into it some more.

Let's look at the UltraBooks in some detail:

Acer Aspire S3 (Reviews from LAPTOPMAG & CNet)

I have to say, I was initially impressed with the looks of this laptop. At first glance it really did look like a MacBook Air look-a-like. Acer is the only manufacturer (that I know of) that met Intel's challenge of bring their UltraBook to market under $1,000. The Aspire S3 is priced at $899. Acer took a couple of shortcuts to get to this price point.

The biggest difference for Acer is the use of a small 20 GB SSD in combination with a 320 GB standard hard drive. This gives the best of both worlds. You get the advantage of fast boot/resume times from the SSD which holds the OS and the save state information when the laptop is in sleep mode. Plus you get the benefits of significantly more storage with the larger HDD. Acer also left out a USB 3.0 & an Ethernet jack from its UltraBook.

The Acer is built partly from aluminum and partly from plastic. It looses some of that MacBook Airness by doing this. They also left out a backlit keyboard... something I kind of like.

The real issue with the Acer Aspire S3 turns out to be battery life. I have read two reviews on this model and both dinged it for poor battery life. At about 4 hours that is a lot lower than the MacBook Air. And since Toshiba's non-UltraBook R835 is about 3 lbs & gets over 7 hours... it makes the Acer look like it is playing second fiddle. But there is the price.

Asus UX31 (Reviews from LAPTOPMAG & CNet)

The Asus may be the UltraBook to beat. It came out a day or so apart from the Acer (Lenovo released theirs later in October, and Toshiba is supposed to follow up in November... as you read this). The biggest thing going for the Asus UX31 is a 1600 x 900 screen. This is huge for me. I find 1366 x 768 to be cramped when working in Visual Studio.

Asus considers its UltraBook a premium product, so the UX31 is hardly a bargain. Priced at $1,099 it is very close to the cost of a MacBook Air. Personally, I have never used an Asus laptop. I have used their motherboards in the past, but an entire laptop is something different. It does give me a tiny bit of pause.

For the extra expensive over the Acer, you get a 128 GB SSD and USB 3.0 in the Asus in addition to the high resolution display, full metal construction and an SD card slot. The Asus is lacking a backlit keyboard, but does include a USB-to-Ethernet adapter.

LAPTOPMAG gave the UX31 3.5 out of 5 stars... trailing it behind its review of the MacBook Air which that gave a perfect 5 out of 5 stars.

Lenovo U300s (Review from CNet)

That last to come out (until Toshiba releases the Z830) is the Lenovo U300s. I must say... I am mildly disappointed. They priced this at $1,195. This is $100 more than the Asus UX31, but does not get a high resolution screen. For only $100 less than a MacBook Air you still only get 1366 x 768. That is disappointing.

Overall, the Lenovo is probably the best laptop here. It's keyboard gets raves, as does its touchpad. And it probably has the build quality to go up against the MacBook Air. You could look at it this way... you get USB 3.0 & HDMI that the MacBook Air does not have with a discount of $100. At this price I think it might be better to just get the MacBook Air and use Boot Camp to dual boot it into Windows for my development work. I just don't know if 128 GB is large enough to do that.

I was really hoping to see some good battery life at this price range. The Lenovo did beat out the Acer Aspire S3 by about an hour on CNet's battery test with 5 hours and 14 minutes. But this is still over an hour short of a MacBook Air. And almost two hours shorter than the Toshiba Protégé R835 -- a Non-UltraBook laptop that weighs only 3.2 pounds.

Both the Lenovo and Acer UltraBooks received 4 out of 5 stars from CNet, but neither captured their Editor's Choice award... like the Toshiba R835 did.

Noticeably absent in the Lenovo U300s -- especially at this price -- is an SD card slot and an Ethernet jack.

Toshiba Z830 (No reviews yet)

As I write this I have very little to go on for the Toshiba Z830. Very little specs are available. Toshiba's web site does claim a weight of less than 2.5 pounds. That's light. It also mentions a 128 GB SSD. No mention of screen resolution, but I would be surprised if it was above 1366 x 768. I do believe the Toshiba has an Ethernet jack. I could not find any definitive information on price. Some say it will be under $1,000 and some say up to $1,350. We'll just have to wait and see what the final specs are and how much it will cost.

Wrap Up

My reason for getting a laptop has been put on hold, and I don't know when that will change. But I am going to keep my eye on this UltraBook category Intel is trying to push. I like the idea, even if the name may not get traction.

I have time to decide on an UltraBook. It also gives Intel a chance to get its next generation of mobile processors out there to make the UltraBooks more attractive. I look forward to that.

I'll have more for you next month when the Toshiba hits the streets.

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Conclusion

That's it for this month. With The Project on hold I don't know what I will be doing with that spare time. I'll think of something.

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