IRL: The stuff Engadget editors are using... in real life

Hi, guys! Welcome to IRL, a brand new feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life. One of the reasons we started this column is that we don't necessarily stop evaluating products once we slap on a numbered rating and publish some 3,000 words worth of impressions. This is a dilemma all gadget reviewers wrestle with, really. It's one thing to test a product for a week and report back on benchmark results and battery life, but it's another thing entirely to live with it. Sometimes, there are things we didn't get to test. And if you play with something long enough, the Honeymoon always comes to an end. No exceptions.

We still see reviews as a snapshot in time -- our job, after all, is to size up the products folks might be thinking of buying today, and it's not fair to stay mum while we wait for companies to tweak products they had no business shipping half-baked in the first place. But we don't think the conversation should end with the review. You guys already get to sound off on the things you own in the "How would you change?" column. Consider this our turn.

Netflix on Chrome OS

Since this series is partly about revisiting products that perhaps weren't done growing, let's kick it off with the Series 5 -- aka, the first Chromebook to hit the market. What made this product so challenging to review is that on the one hand, people wanted to know if they should buy it straight away. On the other, it was, by design, an unfinished product. As obvious as it was that Chrome OS was immature, it was equally clear that Google was planning on rolling out updates. Yes, it was maddening not to have offline support out of the box, but I still earnestly believe the company is aware of such shortcomings, and isn't going to just let the OS stand as is.

Well, here we are. Last month, Chrome OS got VPN and (huzzah!) Netflix support. The funny thing is, I sat down prepared to write a few paragraphs about what it's like streaming movies on my Series 5. What can I say, though? It's just like using Netflix in Chrome, or any browser, really. I will say that that bright, matte display I loved so much the first time around suddenly became even more useful. Remember that without Netflix support, I was mostly using the screen for checking email, web browsing, chatting and watching "Best Cry Ever" approximately eighteen times. Leaning back and watching Mad Men reminded me what an excellent display this is (especially for a $500 system!), and I do hope it'll make a cameo in more Samsung laptops. As for movies, they looked smooth when I streamed them over WiFi, and actually held up better than I thought when I switched to the built-in Verizon Wireless connection. As you can imagine, though, I encountered some hiccups, and quickly ditched 3G for WiFi.

And while I'm on the subject of things I didn't delve into in my original review, let's talk updates. Availing myself of Netflix support was intuitive enough: just to go to the settings menu, select "About Chrome OS" and click the box that says "Check for update." Once I did, it told me what I already knew -- that an update was available -- and promptly began downloading it. The next time I had to click anything, it was to restart the computers the changes could take effect. That's simple enough; it was nice that for the most part I was able to dispense with clicking through dialog boxes while the OS just did its thing. Still, why did I have to dig for the update manually? My security software downloads updates of its own accord. When I use Windows, I have it set to download updates automatically (my Mac presents me with a pop-up alert). Google tells me my machine should have updated itself, but in this case, that didn't happen. Frankly, I don't care so much if Chrome OS asks me for permission or just goes ahead and brings itself up to date; I'd just rather the onus not be on me.

But I digress. All told, Netflix support is a welcome (and unsurprising) update. Now, can we get some offline action up in here?

-- Dana Wollman

Acer Iconia Tab A500 in coach

Now why, one might wonder, would someone choose to take a slice of Honeycomb from Acer along on a flight when one could instead take the thinner, lighter, juicier Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1? The answer, my friends, was sitting down there on the bottom of the thing: a full USB port that got me thinking. Hey, I haven't used that Atek travel keyboard in awhile. Let's leave the Lenovo home for this flight and try living in a post-PC world. Also, Darren still has the Tab, so for better or worse this was my only choice.

Sure enough, the A500 works like a charm, chatting with the keyboard like the two were meant for each other -- except that I can't hit Ctrl + Backspace to delete whole words. I'm beginning to see some of the appeal of working with a tablet and a keyboard, rather than a laptop -- it's certainly lighter, takes up less space in my bag, the battery life is great and instant-on everything is always nice -- but now that I'm actually here typing I'd still rather have my laptop. And, when using it as just a tablet, I can't help but think I'd rather have the Galaxy Tab. The Acer's a nice piece of hardware, sophisticated and serious looking, with battery more than adequate to manage my musings from 7B, but the off-angle contrast on the screen disappoints, and finding a good way to situate the thing next to the keyboard is something of a challenge.

-- Tim Stevens

About that 11-inch Air...

The nature of tech blogging -- for me, at least -- means being constantly ready to get online, and for that I tether over 3G -- the carrier-legal way. Initially, I went with a 3G-enabled tablet, which actually wasn't all that terrible -- until I needed to get work done, that is. After a few months of pecking at an onscreen keyboard and shifting between full screen apps, I wanted to pull my hair out. Thankfully, this was around the time Apple introduced its beefed-up MacBook Airs. This latest suite of ultraportables from Cupertino have received fairly glowing reviews, but I've taken note that many -- including ours -- focused on the 13-inch model and not the 11-incher. I've been using one of these ultra-tiny devices while commuting for the past few weeks, and wanted to briefly delve into some key things I've noted. Surprisingly, it's got nothing to do with the lack of an on-board SD card slot (which hasn't caused me much grief, by the way), but more the screen itself.

There's much to be said about the form factor. My main laptop is a 2010 15-inch MacBook Pro with Core i7 decked out with a 1680 x 1050, anti-glare display in the usual 16:10 aspect ratio. The 11-inch Air's 1366 x 768 resolution is nothing to scoff at, although the 16:9 orientation does appear a tad vertically challenged. When it comes to working in a cramped bus seat, however, I find the extra bit of scrolling a fair trade-off -- not least because of the functionality OS X Lion brings. For one, I usually have room to position the screen without hitting the backrest in front of me, and with Lion's multiple desktops I can easily simulate my usual dual-screen desk setup. The only issue I've come across with real estate is that certain overlay windows in web browsers get chopped at the bottom when there's no option to scroll. Trapped!

My major qualm is with the 11-inch's screen hinge -- sure, you can easily open it with a single digit and the level of torque feels acceptable, but any minor bump sends it flying all the way back. The Air's otherwise a particularly travel-friendly gadget, to say the least, so I'm amazed that I constantly need to reposition the screen if I don't feel like having it at full tilt. Furthermore, even though they add just a paltry few ounces, cases like the Speck SeeThru only exaggerate the weight distribution, which is disappointing for an OCD overly protective gadget lover like myself. Oh, and closing the screen doesn't make any sort of satisfying magnetic clunk that I've come to expect on Apple's larger laptop offerings. So, I guess you could say I'm just being ultra picky about my ultraportable, but if my main issue stems from screen hinge and some magnets, I'd have to say that overall the Air has so far proven itself as one slick device. Now, if only it had on-board 3G...

-- Joe Pollicino

One e-reader to rule them all

There are four or five e-readers cluttering my workspace at present, but only one has graduated from the testing phase to full-time post-work accessory. I've still got too many unread paperbacks cluttering my apartment at present to make a full-time commitment to the device, but Barnes & Noble's touchscreen Nook has earned itself a permanent spot in my messenger bag. The more I use it, the more apparent it becomes that the company has really hit upon the perfect size for this kind of device. The Nook is thin and light, without sacrificing any screen real estate. It fits perfectly in the hand and hardly takes up space in my bag.

I don't miss the keys much, either -- in fact, I don't type on the thing unless I'm looking for a book in the store. The social functionality is wasted on me. The whole going two months without a charge thing was a bit overstated, it turns out -- I've had to charge it a bit more than I'd anticipated. As for the software itself, I've had to do a few hard reboots after having the Nook freeze on its own screen saver, but still, nothing too earth-shattering.

-- Brian Heater