Archive for the ‘Gadgets & Toys’ Category

Samsung and Wall-hugging

August 14th, 2014 No comments

Samsunggalaxys5AdIf you ask me, this new ad campaign by Samsung is not very well thought-through. I’ve done my share of “wall-hugging” (usually “pillar-hugging,” actually), and I can attest to the BS charge they are making.

First, my use of airport power outlets has chiefly been for my laptop, and unless Samsung has a laptop that can run for 10 hours in full use, then this looks kinda stupid.

While I do top off my iPhone and iPad while I’m charging my laptop, I have found it unnecessary for the past few years, as both devices’ batteries lasted quite nicely through the entire journey, even the 13-hours-plus trip back.

The people who usually use these outlets for smartphones nowadays tend to be people who forgot to charge their phones before leaving home, or wherever they came from—or are people who have been on the road for quite a while before getting to the airport. And that will include a fair number of Samsung users as well, long battery life or not.

Then there’s the alienation element; the ad is more or less mocking the viewer’s poor judgment, right in their face, in a publicly embarrassing fashion. You don’t win people over by ridiculing them. If I were sitting at a pillar like the one pictured with my iPhone, and a Samsung user saw me and smirked, I would not feel like switching to Samsung. I’d feel like they and their users were obnoxious assholes.

Not to mention the fact that this will be relevant for only a very short time, as airlines are installing power outlets in their fleets; this trip home, I am told that both my planes, outbound and inbound, will have them in economy. So, the whole airport power thing will be completely unnecessary.

And finally, let’s not forget that Samsung users will hardly be immune to low battery issues. When your battery runs longer, you tend to forego charging more often, and sometimes that leads to accidentally letting the charge run too low when you really need to use it.

And there is where Samsung has opened itself up to ridicule: all it will take is a photo of someone with a Samsung Galaxy S5 sitting at one of those outlets with the ad, and they’ll become a laughingstock. They could be mocked further by a caption that pointed out that the reason there was only one Samsung user there because so few people have Galaxy S5s…

Categories: Corporate World, Gadgets & Toys Tags:

Oh, Steve…

August 13th, 2014 1 comment

Steve Ballmer, in 2007, when the iPhone was introduced:

There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.

In a video interview, he said essentially the same thing, concluding, “Let’s see how the competition goes.” That seven years ago.

From a report on mobile devices released today:

net activation by platform: iOS=67&, Android=32%, Windows Phone=1%

And that’s for enterprise, traditionally a market dominated by Microsoft. In the video interview, Ballmer said it wouldn’t appeal to business customers “because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good email machine.”

Poor Ballmer; you’ve got this other Steve, Steve Jobs, who now is secure in his reputation as a tech visionary, while Ballmer’s claim to fame will probably be as “Monkey Boy.”

Categories: Gadgets & Toys, Technology Tags:

Japan’s Mac Tax

June 28th, 2014 3 comments

DriveThere’s a spiffy Mac accessory, a 128 GB SD card from Transcend that sticks into your SD slot and doesn’t stick out. I’d love to get it, as my 256 GB SSD is just too small for me.

The item costs $80 at Amazon in the U.S.

The same item in Amazon Japan costs $126. That’s priced down from $146 just a few weeks ago.

Both are sold and shipped by Amazon. They’re the exact same item.

I’ve encountered this repeatedly in Japan. Whenever I look for peripherals or accessories, anything labeled “for Mac” or which lists OS X compatibility is bound to be half again as expensive as similar PC-ready models, which most peripherals are marked as. I refuse to believe that creating OS X drivers for most basic peripherals (e.g., DVD drives, web cams, film scanners) is that hard—and in the case of the Transcend device, drivers are obviously not the issue.

Instead, it seems that Japanese sellers believe that people who buy Macs are willing to pay a premium. They may be right about a very small subset, and they may just be able to fool a larger subset into thinking they have no choice (and thus helping create the myth that Mac ownership is too expensive). But for the most part, it’s a stupid presumption, because that only applies to products which are, in fact, worthy of being labeled “premium,” which most of the overpriced stuff is not. The Transcend thing is a nice idea, but it’s just flash memory inside a frame; its main advantage is simply that it doesn’t stick out when it’s plugged in. That’s it.

The idea that I’d be willing to pay a $45 premium just because I use a Mac is asinine. I imagine that some people pay the higher price because they don’t know any better and think that’s the only option; a lot of Mac users, however, simply look around for the best price, and read customer reviews which tell if items not branded as Mac-compatible will actually work with a Mac. At worst, I’ll just wait until I go back to the U.S., by which time it might be even cheaper, or a 256 GB version might be priced competitively, which would be cool.

Until then, anyone wanting to sell me exorbitantly priced stuff can bite me.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys, Mac News Tags:

Surface Pro 3: Not Quite the Slam Dunk

June 21st, 2014 1 comment

Microsoft is still trying. Now out with the Surface 3, it’s trying to sell its muddled toaster-fridge with an array of contradictory comparisons.

It’s major tag line is, “The tablet that can replace your laptop.” Except, not really. The problem with the Surface is that it tries to be a tablet and a serious computer, but does so by sacrificing key elements of each form. A laptop is literally that—a computer you can use on your lap. By “computer,” I mean a fully-functional device in the sense that you can author on it easily. I am doing so right now, with my retina Macbook Pro on my lap. The Surface, however, has a keyboard which only really works reasonably if it’s on a table. In your lap, you would have to be uncomfortable, or else use the virtual keyboard—a wholly different experience which many people, including myself, are not comfortable with.

So, while the Surface may look like a laptop, it is actually a desktop-bound machine which can transform into a large, boxy tablet.

They make a big deal about the pen. The thing is, writing with a pen on a largish slab where brushing your hand against the touchscreen surface might lead to problems is, well, not exactly a premium experience. Much more to the point, why use a pen when I would rather be using a keyboard? Have you tried working on a computer by writing with a pen? One of the reasons I like using a keyboard is because I want to avoid writing by hand. I know some people will prefer the experience, but after actually doing it, how many really like that better? When you need to draw instead of write, your finger usually works well enough, and if not, good styluses are available for the iPad as well, usually for about $15.

It gets ridiculous when they run a comparison of the Surface 3 to a Macbook Air. Their 6-panel comparison is laughably slanted to favor the Surface. They lament the lack of a pen, and lo, the Macbook Air has no rear camera! Really? How about the fact that the Air has a Core i5 instead of the Surface’s i3, or has double the capacity in its SSD? The Surface’s only real advantage is its higher-resolution touchscreen display (the Air will probably match the resolution within the next year), meaning it could be a better choice if you value the display more than power, longevity, storage capacity, and form factor.

Not to mention, they cheat on cost and dimensions, rather blatantly. They ballyhoo the slender 9.1mm, 800g body for just $799… but everything on the page is in the context of using the keyboard, which adds to each of those: the thickness expands to 13.9mm, overall feeling thicker than a Macbook Air; the weight increases to 1095g, a tad more than a Macbook Air; and the cost, putatively $100 less than a Macbook Air, rises to $928 with the keyboard, topping the Air’s $899 price tag.

When they do own up to the added dimensions of the keyboard, they cheat again—comparing the 12“ Surface to a 13.3” Air, instead of the much closer match, the 11.6“ version. The language used is even funnier: ”Substantially thinner and lighter than MacBook Air—weighs 2.4 pounds with cover attached; 13-inch MacBook Air tips the scales at 2.96 pounds.“ Yes, that extra half-pound is what will kill you.

If, however, you match the Surface against the 11.6” Air, you’ll find that the Surface weighs 800g to the Air’s 1080g—but once again, that’s totally ignoring the Surface’s keyboard, which is stupid. Add the keyboard, and the Surface is 1095g, actually more than the Air. And those extra 15g will kill you!

Here is a chart showing a more rounded comparison:

SP3 iPad Air 64 11.6“ MB Air
Price $799 $699 $899
Price w/KB $928 $799* $899
Width (mm) 292 240 300
Height (mm) 201.3 169.5 192
Thickness (mm) 9.1 7.5 3 ~ 17
Thickness (mm) w/kb 13.9 13.9* 3 ~ 17
Weight 800g 469g 1080g
Weight w/kb 1095g 791g 1080g
Screen 12" 9.7" 11.6"
Resolution 2160 x 1440 2048 x 1536 1136 x 768
Pixels 3,110,400 3,145,728 872,448
Touch Yes Yes No
Battery 9 hrs 10 hrs 9 hrs
CPU Haswell i3 A7 Haswell i5
CPU Model 4020Y A7 4260U
CPU Benchmark 2278 2932* 3688
SSD 64 GB 64 GB 128 GB

For the iPad Air, I used the Logitech Ultrathin keyboard, which is an excellent accessory. Better than the Surface keyboard, it also acts as a stand, allowing you to use the tablet as a laptop, something the Surface fails at.

So, how do things round up? As usual, it depends on what is important to you. If you want something that runs full-blown Windows apps, can be used as a tablet, has a high-resolution touchscreen, and don’t mind all the disadvantages (of which there are many), then the Surface Pro could eke out ahead of your choices on the Apple side. However, that’s about the biggest overall advantage you can claim.

What are the disadvantages? The price depends on what you are comparing it against—you’ll pay more for the Surface than you would for the iPad or Macbook Air, especially if you have to spring for Office (iWork is free). You cannot use the Surface as a laptop, which for some is a huge down point. The CPU is relatively weak—even the iPad’s CPU is faster, and the Macbook Air and Pro perform far better. The storage on the Surface is half of what you would get on a Mac laptop. Upgrade the Surface to match CPU and storage with the Macbook Air, and the price jumps by $200, meaning that you just paid $230 extra for a higher-resolution touchscreen.

However, most importantly, there are the Surface’s trade-offs, which are completely ignored in the device’s positive reviews. By trying to be both a toaster and a fridge, it comes out being not-so-great at both. As a desktop, it is over-priced and under-powered. As a laptop, it sucks. And as a tablet, it is usable, but is a far inferior experience to something like the iPad Air. By getting the functionality of two extremes, you are sacrificing the performance and experience of both.

But let’s ignore all of that, and focus just on specs—which is what most non-Apple device makers do, and for a reason.

In the Surface vs. iPad matchup, the Surface can run full Windows apps, has 4GB of RAM to the iPad’s 1GB, and has a screen which is 2.3” larger. That’s it. That’s the total list of advantages.

In contrast, the iPad Air wins out in size (5cm smaller in width, 3cm in height, thinner by 0.2cm only without keyboard), weight (about 300g lighter), battery life (1 hour longer), and CPU power (the A7 SoC beats the mobile Haswell i3). All for $100 to $130 less. The touchscreen, screen resolution, and storage come to a wash.

So, if what you crave is something smaller and lighter, with a faster CPU and the ability to use it as a rudimentary laptop as well as a tablet, all for lower cost… well, the iPad easily beats the Surface.

But how about the Macbook Air? The comparison assumes that you do not need a tablet form—which a lot of people are happy with.

In this face-off, the price, weight, dimensions, battery life, and RAM memory are pretty much a wash. While the Surface could argue it has a thickness of 14mm vs. the Mac’s 17mm, that ignores the fact the the Macbook Air tapers down to 3mm, making it feel more slender overall. And if you always want a keyboard, the Air’s attached keyboard will be a huge advantage. Otherwise, the Air wins out in CPU power (60% faster) and storage (double the Surface’s). The Surface wins in only one area: a high-resolution touchscreen. However, if you don’t need a tablet form, the touchscreen is pretty much useless, making the high-resolution screen the only real advantage—one which will probably not last long, as the Air is certain to get a retina display before too long.

Even just looking at the specs only, the Surface does not perform all that impressively against the iPad or the Macbook Air.

It’s better as a laptop than the iPad Air, but it makes a crappy laptop—you really need a flat surface to put it on.

It’s better as a tablet than the Macbook Air, but it makes a crappy tablet; it’s big, heavy, thick, and boxy.

As a tablet, the iPad beats it hands-down. As a laptop, the Macbook Air beats it hands-down.

So really, it only is a better device if you absolutely need both form factors in one device, and are willing to suffer from the trade-offs. That’s what it comes down to. If you don’t mind those trade-offs, love Windows 8, and depend on games and business apps only on Windows, then the Surface definitely has an advantage, and you might well be very happy with it.

For the average user, however, Apple’s products will likely fit the bill much more often, and will give the user a much smoother ride.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:


March 31st, 2014 Comments off

Looking back in my “This Day Past Years” area, I note that I posted on a Toshiba battery announced in 2005. The press release touted a new Li-ion battery which “can recharge 80% of a battery’s energy capacity in only one minute.” Toshiba said that they would “bring the new rechargeable battery to commercial products in 2006.”

In 2008, they announced another breakthrough: a new, much-improved battery, this time a “Super Charge Ion” battery, which would “recharge to 90 percent capacity within 10 minutes.” Ummm… wait.

However, they also “said the technology is still a ways off from making its way into computers.”

Well, here we are, 2014. I still don’t have a battery that can charge to 90% in 10 minutes, or to 80% in one minute.

Maybe Toshiba will announce a new battery this year, which will charge to 100% in 20 minutes, but may not be released for another 10 years.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys, Technology Tags:

New Cell Phone

September 15th, 2013 4 comments

Got a giggle from reading a 10-year-old blog post about how I got a new cell phone.

I wrote about the “feature-rich” phones back then (relative to U.S. phones at least), and mentioned someone taking pictures of a nature spot with them. I can only imagine that they treasure their 144 x 120 pixel memories.

My other note in the post: how it took an expensive cable, hunted-down freeware, and hours of frustration to transfer the address book I had to enter on a PC to the phone. So difficult that I used it just the once.

From memory, I recall that most of the features were cyphers to me (it had three different kinds of “email,” I never figured out what they were), and I almost never used much except just the phone. Then, after a few years, the contacts for charging wore down so much that just recharging the phone was a mixture of enraging frustration and disappointing failure.

What I also recall is that I just wanted one thing, really: the ability to sync my address book with my phone. Just that would have made me a happy camper. And though I was able to, it cost a whole bunch and was so much trouble that I rarely repeated the process.

A little less than five years later, I got my first iPhone. You can guess how that changed things.

When I see people saying stupid crap like “Apple tried to patent the rectangle,” I get pissed off, because it is eminently clear that these people have completely forgotten how absolutely abysmal cell phones used to be before Apple changed the game.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys, iPhone Tags:

Microsoft At It Again

August 8th, 2013 2 comments

They now have a video ad explaining to consumers, who just don’t seem to get these things, how great the Surface is compared to the iPad:

Microsoft also uses the spot to summarize other iPad shortcomings that it has highlighted in previous ads, including the iPad’s lack of an integrated kickstand and keyboard, the absence of dedicated productivity software on the tablet, its poor multitasking capabilities, and its failure to offer expandable storage.

As I have stated many times before, Microsoft just cannot wrap its collective head around the fact that a handheld is not an authoring machine, but instead is a consumption device. All of the shortcomings listed above would be true for a full-powered computer, but is far less important for a device people want to have fun with. As evidenced by the fact that the iPad continues to dominate the market while Surface is crashing and burning.

Note the video again smacks the iPad for not having an “integrated” keyboard—but slyly gives all the Surface-advantageous specs on size and weight without the keyboard.

Good luck with that, Redmond.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:

Missing the Point

July 31st, 2013 1 comment

Saw one of those “Why Windows Tablets Rock and the iPad Sucks” kind of articles, and am always open to hearing arguments. One point not made very clear is that the article only refers to the higher-priced tablets, and not the Windows RT versions. Here’s the basic list—on Windows 8 tablets, you can:

  1. Create user accounts
  2. Use multiple external monitors
  3. Use any peripherals (e.g., external drives)
  4. Snap view (two apps side by side)
  5. Full-blown file manager (e.g., open folder windows)
  6. File encryption
  7. Pen support (for handwriting input)
  8. Bing news app
  9. Run any browser (IE used as an example)
  10. Run powerful software (e.g., Photoshop)

The very first impression when seeing this list is the same one you see all the time in relation to Microsoft and tablets: tablets are media consumption devices, not full-blown computers. This is not due to the limitation of the technology, it’s very simply a fact controlled by the device’s form. And this is why the iPad succeeded where Microsoft failed at every prior attempt to produce a tablet: Apple figured out what tablets are good for. Microsoft repeatedly tried to make full-blown computers in tablet form, and never (even now) figured out why they were failing. Apple, instead, looked at the form of the device, and came to the conclusion that people would not be using it like they would a full-blown computer—and so designed the iPad to be something that people would use in that form.

The author of the article also misunderstands that very fundamental principle. As a result, much of this list misses the point, ballyhooing features that are meaningless to most tablet users. Multiple monitors? What good is a portable device when you have it tethered to a monitor? And why would you need an external monitor in the first place? Run powerful software? Again, tablets are not authoring devices; most people who need Photoshop will immediately drop their tablets in favor of a desktop machine. What can be done on a tablet can be achieved by any number of drawing and photo-manipulation apps, all of them much cheaper than Photoshop. Not to mention—do you really want to spend $650 on Photoshop for your tablet?

Then we have “pen support.” Needless to say, Apple made a very wise choice in abandoning the pen. However, anyone who still clings to that can still get a stylus for the iPad, and yes, there are handwriting recognition apps for just a few bucks. But that’s not very tablety. Want to know what is? Voice recognition. Which iOS does extremely well. I use the dictation feature extensively, and it works great. Why the hell would I prefer a stylus I’d always be misplacing?

Furthermore, Windows 8, for all its tablet-friendliness, still runs apps designed for desktop use; too many apps will not run well on tablets. For that, you’ll need Windows RT—which loses many of the advantages listed here.

Some of these are just plain stupid. Run any browser? With Internet Explorer as your prime example? Here, the writer adds an almost sheepish aside, stating that “it’s nice to have options.” Well, iPad runs Chrome and Opera (mini) besides Safari, and has other third-party browsers to choose from, without having to resort to IE, so you have options there as well.

Another stupid list-filler? “Bing News App.” It’s exclusive to Windows! And file encryption? Meh. Maybe. But that’s pretty specific, and again, like with browsers and news apps, iOS has many options in the App Store you can easily access.

Multiple users could be nice, but only on a very low scale. You want your tablet to be available any time you want it—it’s not something you willingly share with others. How many people share cell phones? When it comes down to it, this is another feature misplaced on a tablet.

So, is the list completely stupid? Hardly. The “snap view” is a great feature, and it would be nice if Apple imitated Microsoft on that one, though it would not be too easy given the built-in resolution restraints for many apps—but it could be done.

Another good feature which Apple does not allow is file browsing; iOS apps are not shared between apps very well, and you cannot have a common repository of files arranged as you like them, opened by any app able to open them. The “Open in…” feature exists in iOS, but it is limited and (in my experience) buggy. However, one can make the argument that it is more secure, which leads to the point that a Windows 8 tablet is, overall, a lot less secure than an iPad.

Finally, the ability to use peripherals is a good point; in limiting file browsing, Apple has even cut off the use of external USB and flash devices, even when it makes specific connecters to allow for them to be accessed. I would love to just hook up my iPad to an external drive and swap files that way. Using iTunes to do so is cumbersome. Again, security is better, but that’s something that would be nice for the user to decide on their own.

What that boils down to though, is not a “10 reasons” list, but rather a “3 reasons” list—and one that could be easily torn to pieces if you were to argue both sides of the debate. Like, the fact that iOS comes free, but when Windows 9 (or whatever) comes out, you’ll have to pay for that.

One way to obviate the entire list? Point out that someone looking for the features listed above should get a Macbook Air. Which will also run Windows 8, if for some demented reason you wanted to. Though I would suggest Windows 7 instead.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:

A New Galaxy

March 15th, 2013 1 comment

OK, the Galaxy S IV has been announced.

Among the useful features:

  • Micro-SD expansion slot (Apple should have done this from the start but is way too controlling)
  • 13-megapixel rear-facing camera (nice, but we’re kind of reaching limits on micro-camera usability—not to mention costs in file size)
  • Samsung’s HomeSync 1TB data cloud (nice, but everyone has a cloud now, and there are private solutions if you need more space)
  • 5" 441 PPI Full HD Super AMOLED screen (hard to go wrong with a hi-def screen of that size)
  • An upgrade to its S-Voice digital assistant (could be good, if it’s done right)
  • IR blaster (can use as remote control for other devices)
  • S Health: health tracker (good for many people, not for all)
  • 2600mAh battery

That last point is a question mark; Samsung poured so many new things that could eat up battery life that a better battery may not be able to compensate for.

However, when you review the list, one fact kind of pops out: most of this is like before but only more so. Better screen, better camera, better battery. As Henry Ford once said, “a faster horse.” Some people might adore some features, but nothing seems to be a game-changer.

Samsung also touted a slew of new features which are less obvious as crowd-pleasers:

  • Add audio to photos: actually, I seem to recall having this feature on a digital camera I had years ago. I found it pretty useless.
  • dual-camera view to take photos with both of the front- and rear-facing cameras at the same time: ummm, why? That’s nice for video calls, though that feature has been around for a while. As for photos and movies, do you really want your own mug in a frame stuck into the photo or movie? What for?
  • “Eraser,” to cut people or things out of photos: perfect tool for the jilted girlfriend! Seriously, this might be useful at times (if it works well and is not too hard to use), but I cannot image using it often. I can imagine it leaving obvious artifacts which scream “photo alteration” though.
  • S Translator, which translates messages in nine languages, including French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish: Meh. I live in Japan, and probably wouldn’t use it too much. Not to mention, Western-to-Asian translation is usually so terrible as to be useless.

Then there are highly touted features that could present more problems than solutions:

  • “Smart Scroll”: tilt it up or down to scroll
  • “Air Gestures”: hover fingers above the handset to scroll
  • “Air View”: finger hover to see additional information
  • “Smart Pause”: pauses video if it realizes that the user is no longer watching what is currently playing on screen

These sound cool, but I have the feeling most people will eventually turn them off, or will want to before very long. “Smart Scroll” seems like something I would forever be cursing, like the iPhone’s “shake to undo.” “Air Gestures” is probably only useful if you have greasy fingers and don’t want to wipe them before touching the phone. Otherwise, actually using the touchscreen will afford greater control and precision. The potential for accidental scrolling seems way too high, and people who have used it report both oversensitivity and under-sensitivity.

“Air View” sounds like something that will mostly happen when you don’t want it to. And as for “Smart Pause,” there is, of course, the potential for it to work when you don’t want it to, or to not work when you do want it to. But more important is the question, do you want the feature at all? We do not often think about what our eyes are doing while a video is playing, but I’m willing to bet we look away more than we imagine, and do not want the video to stop when we do that.

So while there are some nifty features, nothing really jumps out and grabs you, and some things could even be a step backwards. I am reminded of the Japanese cell phones before the iPhone, which had tons of features… which you mostly could not or did not want to use. There would be cool-sounding bells and whistles which might make you buy the phone, but you would use them so infrequently that you would forget they were there, or be frustrated by having to learn the feature all over again when you want to use it.

The real question is, did Samsung look at the context of the whole user experience? That’s what Apple does: it tries (usually too hard) to create a smooth, seamless experience which makes everything feel natural and obvious. This often leaves the more controlling and techy amongst us to feel like we’re in a straitjacket, but for most users, it’s a good thing: just use it, be pleased with it, and otherwise forget it. With Samsung’s new features, it seems like so many things have the potential to get in the way of the user that one would have to carefully tune and adjust the thing to get it to work just so, and never perfectly.

That seems to be the consensus amongst reviewers. Gizmodo:

There has been a ton of hype and build-up to this device, and ultimately, it left us feeling cold. The S IV feels uninspired. There are small spec bumps from the previous generation and there’s a ton of software which will largely sit unused. There’s just no wow-factor here.

And ABC News:

The list of user interface innovations goes on, but they don’t amount to a coherent new way of interacting with the phone. Nor do they turn the phone into something that’s intelligently aware of what goes on around it. It’s more like Samsung is throwing a bunch of technologies into the phone to see what sticks. Sometimes, that’s how progress works, but consumers might not appreciate being guinea pigs.

We’ll see what the buying public thinks. My guess: Android users will mostly be happy with a new handset with some new features—exactly like iPhone users would be. But it probably will not make anyone who prefers an iPhone to suddenly start loving Samsung’s offerings.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:

I Want Everything I Have Coated with This Stuff

February 13th, 2013 2 comments

Pretty amazing

Of course, it remains to be seen if this stuff is for real. Does it wear out after three days? Does it really perform like the demo, or is it rigged in some way?

Infomercial in three, two….

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Say Hello to Zune Surface

December 1st, 2012 4 comments

Pricing for the Surface with Windows 8 just came out: $999 for the 128 GB version, but you have to add $120 or $130 for a keyboard. That comes out to $20 or $30 more than a Macbook Air. That is not a good price point to compete with the iPad.

That price is for a gadget that essentially is a Macbook Air with a detachable keyboard and a higher-resolution touchscreen—or, in less charitable terms, it’s a device that can’t figure out if it’s a laptop or a tablet, and does poorly at both.

As a laptop, it is less elegant / more clunky than the Air, though it has virtually identical specs save for the slightly smaller touchscreen with a higher resolution. Oh, and half the battery life.

SurfpadairThey make a big deal about the thickness being 14mm, which is thinner than the Air at its thickest (the Air ranges from 3mm to 17 mm)—but what they fail to mention is that with the keyboard, it’s thicker. The “Touch cover” (a keyboard with little tactile response) is 3 mm, putting the fully-outfitted Surface at 17 mm, or exactly as thick as the thickest part of the Macbook Air—but the Surface is the same thickness all over, making it bulkier the air. Choose the 6mm “Type Cover” for Surface (which most people will prefer), and it becomes much thicker and bulkier than the Air. The weight is “under two pounds,” but again, with the keyboard, that will inflate, probably making it about the same weight as the Macbook Air.

Which means that it’ll be like a blocky, inelegant Ultrabook, but probably too thick to qualify for that slim status.

As a tablet, it’s going to feel worse than an iPad—a lot bigger, heavier, and clunkier. It’s got about 5% more surface area than an iPad (it has a wider aspect ratio), and even without the keyboard is about 50% thicker.

However, the real problem here is that Microsoft is trying to create a new category of device without defining it. The Surface is not a tablet, nor is it a laptop or an “Ultrabook” (Macbook Air imitation). It’s a hybrid. It’s not trying to be anything new, it’s trying to be two older things at once. And that’s not a good idea, because it compares unfavorably to both things it’s trying to outclass in the contexts they both inhabit.

Microsoft is trying to make people think that you get the best of both worlds. The problem is, they’re trying to mash together a car and a bicycle and they’re not getting a motorcycle. They’re getting something more like a small car with bicycle wheels and pedals.

When people get a laptop, they expect the best power, comfort, and convenience with the lowest price tag. The Surface has power, but comfort? With the larger, blockier design? You can’t use the keyboard when you want to use it as a laptop. That sucks. There’s a kickstand, but that works only when you use it on a table, so it’s not really a laptop, but a portable desktop. The keyboard detaches, but is that really convenient? To have to carry that around as well, sticking it on and off? I got Apple’s iPad cover, but rarely use it because it comes off all the time in my bag.

When people get a tablet, they expect something light, thin, and fun to hold. The Surface is not that. It’s too big, too heavy, too blocky. They expect to consume, so all the apps designed for authoring really are not an advantage. Seen as a tablet, with what tablets are used for in mind, the Surface is not a very good one.

When Apple made the iPad, they didn’t think like focus-group- and spec-oriented salespeople giving uninspired orders to engineers. They didn’t just take a whole bunch of features and try to cram them into a case. Apple worked organically. They looked at the concept of a tablet, and carefully considered: how will people use this? How will it be held? If I had this device in my hands, what would be my natural inclination in terms of what I do with it? Apple concluded that, with a hand-held tablet, people would consume but not author so much. So they steered design and implementation towards that idea.

As a result, Apple succeeded brilliantly with the iPad where Microsoft had failed for a decade. It was the same with the Macbook Air; they didn’t just jump on the netbook bandwagon when it rolled around. They didn’t just make a clunky, $300 piece of crap. They waited until they got it just right—and now, the market in netbooks has transformed into the market of Macbook Air wannabes, or Ultrabooks.

The Surface ignores all of this. Microsoft didn’t think organically, they just crammed a whole bunch of stuff into a shell and tried to make it work as well as they could. What you have is a machine with nice specs, but is not designed for anything specific. It works poorly as a small laptop, and not so great as a tablet either. It does not have a niche, except for tech fanboys and people who jump at new devices.

In short, it’s classic Microsoft. Because Microsoft has a huge publicity engine and can lean on the sales side, they will sell a decent number. But it will not be a threat to the iPad, nor to the Macbook Air. I may be proven wrong in a few years, but I do not think so; I think the iPad and the Air will continue to dominate, and the Surface will just be a second-rate device that most people have heard about but don’t see very often. If the device does not become a hit in 3-4 years, Microsoft will quietly put it to sleep.

In short: it’s a Zune. Six years ago, I actually overestimated the Zune, figuring that, despite its crappiness, Microsoft would continue to improve and improve it. Well, they did, for at least a generation or two. But a few months after the Zune came out, the iPhone came out. I pronounced the Zune dead, and was right. Even Microsoft’s persistence and machinery could not save that bad idea from the new interface Apple had created.

I believe it won’t even take a new idea from Apple to kill the Surface; I think the Surface concept is fatally flawed from the start.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:

Microsoft and Hardware

October 11th, 2012 6 comments

Steve Ballmer:

With the Windows 8 launch on the horizon, Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer today outlined a future in which the company will dabble in software and hardware “to deliver a broad spectrum of Windows PCs, tablets and phones.”

Yes. Because their forays into creating hardware devices have been so successful in the past.

He continues:

Ultimately, Microsoft wants to deliver products that offer a seamless experience. “So right out of the box, a customer will get a stunning device that is connected to unique communications, productivity and entertainment services from Microsoft as well as access to great services, and applications from our partners and developers around the world,” Ballmer wrote.

Sounds nice. And so original, too. Too bad Apple never thought up anything like th—HEY, wait a minute!

Every time Microsoft has tried to copy Apple in making some new device or sales strategy outside of pure software, Microsoft has failed rather miserably. Heard much about Zunes lately? Been to a Microsoft Store? How many people who just can’t wait to get a new Surface tablet do you know? Or even have a Microsoft phone?

Naturally, Ballmer talked up Windows 8 as a way to achieve this goal. “Windows 8 unites the light, thin, and fun aspects of a tablet with the power of a PC,” he said.

All on the assumption that you can cram both into one unit. That people will accept a tablet, designed to be held in one or both hands, as a serious authoring device. Or will accept as a serious computer a device which is essentially a tablet with a bad keyboard, holding this to be superior in some way to a Macbook Air or Ultrabook.

It is, essentially, the exact same strategy they used when they tried to sell “tablets” which were really modded laptops, again and again, and failed each time, before Apple said, “a tablet is something you hold in your hand, and so is much better suited for consumption.” A strategy which worked where Microsoft’s failed, allowing Apple to now dominate the mobile market. So here comes Microsoft again, saying, “Hey, tablets are popular now! People are certain to buy our tablets-and-laptops-are-the-same-thing strategy this time!

Who knows. I could be wrong. Maybe with powerful enough chips, tablets acting like PCs will be all the rage. However, with Microsoft’s track record, something tells me not to have too much faith in their approach.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:

Samsung Galaxy S III and the iPhone 5

October 7th, 2012 2 comments

The Samsung Galaxy S III is currently at the #2 spot in smartphone sales in Japan, with the new iPhone 5 in the #1 spot. Admittedly, the iPhone 5 just came out, while the S III has been out since May.

On the other hand, the iPhone is counted as 6 different phones—once for each carrier (SoftBank and Au), and once for each capacity (16, 32, and 64 GB). That’s why, in addition to holding the #1 spot, the iPhone 5 also holds the #3, #5, #7, #8, and #10 spots as well—6 of the top 10 spots on the best-selling list. The reason this unbalanced reporting is done is to prevent the iPhone from always being #1; ironically, it still gets to the #1 spot, and with new model releases, dominates the whole top ten.

The Galaxy S III, despite having two capacities, is listed as a single phone, thus strengthening the relative position in the ratings compared to the iPhone. That is likely the reason why the Galaxy S III is shown as beating out the old iPhone 4S, which still occupies the #4 and #9 spots, in addition to the #16, #22, #48, and #59 spots. Were the iPhone 4S to be counted as one phone as the Galaxy S II is, it would almost certainly take over the #2 spot from Samsung’s model.

The Galaxy S II, similarly, has multiple carriers, also not divided, thus giving it an advantage against the iPhone 4S, which also is listed as six different models. The S II, however, despite being a newer phone than the iPhone 4S, is languishing at #41 on the list.

This gives me the opportunity to also mention the little war that’s been going on between the two manufacturers, a kind of mini Mac-PC war, with users battling it out.

Overall, the fighting is silly. Choose the phone you like, and enjoy it. That’s what I tell my students when we talk about operating systems; they ask which is better, and after listing the advantages and disadvantages of each system, I conclude by asking them simply, “Which do you like better? Which one feels more comfortable to you? Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the one you are using?” And then I point out that a lot of the determination is subjective, and is simply a matter of preference. The same holds for the cell phones.

What annoys me, however, is when people repeat Samsung’s pithy assertion that “Apple patented the rectangle.” A lot of trolls use it in discussions, and you know you have to ignore these pinheads. Nevertheless, it’s out there and should be addressed. Obviously, phones were already rectangles before the iPhone came out; to suggest that Apple’s innovations were so general and unworthy of note is laughable. Remember what “smartphones” were like before the iPhone? Probably you don’t; it’s easy to forget how hopelessly bad they were. Apple went over virtually every tiny little aspect of their design and function and remade them, most of these changes being significant—or at least significant enough for most cell phone makers to copy or imitate them.

Ironically, it was one of Samsung’s own documents that showed this up—a 126-point slide presentation showing how the iPhone’s design was better than Samsung’s S1, and how Samsung should copy Apple’s design decisions on each of these points. Here’s a representative slide:


Ironically, two of the points express how Samsung should copy the iPhone’s design, while a third notes that an effort should be made to avoid looking like they were copied. In short, copy the elements which make the iPhone stand out, then change the appearance enough so that it doesn’t look too blatant. Copy but don’t look like you’re copying. Little wonder Samsung lost in the U.S. case, and yet telling that it didn’t lose in Korea, not to mention elsewhere.

SamsungadAs a result, when one sees someone holding a cell phone nowadays, one often has to look carefully to determine whether it’s an iPhone or something else. Admittedly, the Galaxy S III is visually different to a greater degree, although I was chagrined and amused to discover that in my initial viewing of the ratings list I had mistaken the S III for another iPhone. Seriously.

Samsung also went on the offensive with an ad showing how much better the Galaxy S III is than the iPhone 5, at right (click for the full-size version). One may note that they used differently colored phones, and keep the iPhone off while the S III is on. I confused the two in the ratings list because both were black and shown activated. I don’t think it was a random choice to show them that way in this ad. It would have looked a lot worse for Samsung had they been side-by-side, both the same color, and both turned on.

The ad made these comparisons:


Samsung actually has some points here, but to a knowledgable observer, it’s clear that they’re not going for actual advantages, but instead are aiming to pad the list.

The screen is one point of difference, but is listed three times. The S III has a 4.8“ AMOLED screen at 1280 x 720, whereas the iPhone 5 has a 4” Retina screen at 1136 x 640. The final point—the resolution—is the only significant difference in most cases. People like big screens, but they also like small profiles. AMOLED gets you better contrasts and deeper blacks with lower power consumption, but Apple’s display has been rated as the best-quality in a broader range of points. And in the end, few will notice the difference in resolution. Advantage goes to the S III in most cases, but not by much.

Another three points are about the battery. The S III has more standby time. However, how many people let their phones remain idle for more than ten days? How many don’t recharge every day or two? Samsung brags about battery life in use; in some tests, the S III’s battery lasted longer, though nowhere near as much as advertised. These running times vary, and the advertised times are based on settings at minimum, which do not reflect real-world use. When the screens are set to maximum brightness and LTE is used, in fact, the iPhone 5 battery actually lasts longer than the S III. In normal use, the battery is more or less a wash. The only significant difference comes with the point Samsung moved to the end of the ad: replaceable batteries. If you find yourself forgetting to charge at night, or are such a heavy user that you run out of battery before you get home, this can be a huge difference (albeit a greater cost), but most people don’t need it. Advantage goes to the S III, but again, not by much.

The Samsung has 2 GB or RAM compared to 1 GB on the iPhone 5. An advantage, but then again, Android uses more RAM, making it more of a wash. Currently, the iPhone 5 runs perfectly well with the 1 GB, making the difference meaningless. However, in a few years, the new OS versions and software will tax that 1 GB. Advantage goes to the S III; by how much depends on the actual RAM requirements of software used. It should be noted that some variants of the S III only have 1 GB, however.

The real advantages of the S III are the removable battery, the ability to use SD storage in a meaningful way, and the larger screen, for those who like that and are willing to put up with the disadvantages involved (increased size and weight, less battery life). NFC is a possible advantage, depending on whether or not you can use it.

Some points are a wash; both do 4G LTE, both record 1080p video. The OS (iOS vs. Android) is a matter of preference.

Other points? Apple wins on weight and dimensions. You might note that Samsung “overlooked” the physical dimensions. The iPhone 5 is notably smaller in all three dimensions: 4.87 x 2.31 x 0.3 inches (123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6mm) for the iPhone 5, and 5.39 x 2.80 x 0.34 inches (137 x 71 x 8.6mm) for the S III. If you give the S III points for screen size, you have to give points to Apple for profile. Advantage goes to Apple, depending on preference.

Samsung’s ad also notes Siri, pitting it against Google’s “S Voice.” According to those who have used both, Siri wins hands-down.

Amusingly, Samsung touts their own “Standard micro-USB plug,” while calling Apple’s connecter “a totally different plug.” After having used it, I must say I love the fact that you can plug it in either way; I used to struggle with directionality a lot, and still do on the iPad. It’s a pain when you’re doing it just as you’re falling asleep, for example; it wakes you up. True, Apple is hogging all the revenue for the new connector, denying cheap copies to be sold for a while. But Samsung’s main charge, that it’s different, is bogus on the fact that Samsung has changed their own connectors more than a dozen times in the past 10 years; this is the first time Apple has change the plug in a decade. I would call this a wash.

After this in their ad, Samsung then proceeds to list 14 different features presumably unmatched by anything Apple has. As noted above, only two are significant: the NFC and the removable battery. Almost all the rest are specific features residing in a category which, if honestly compared with the iPhone, should allow for dozens more Apple features to be mentioned. I mean, really, “Tilt to Zoom”? “Turn Over to Mute”? Many of these are trivial at best.

How about iCloud built in? Shared photo streams? iMessage allowing texting to expand to other devices? Airplay video streaming? Find my iPhone? Apple’s VIP Mail feature, or “Do Not Disturb”? Facetime? These don’t count? Apple’s 700,000 apps don’t count? (OK, maybe 100,000 when you subtract fart apps. Ditto for Android, though.)

Then there’s security. Even with a jailbreak (which cancels out many of Android’s advantages), the iPhone is likely to be more secure.

Then there’s the hardware. Samsung uses plastic; Apple uses metal. I have never liked the cheap plastic feel of so many phones (including when Apple used it), and much prefer the more solid construction. Both use glass, but in drop tests, Apple fared far better than Samsung.

When I have been able to get my hands on an Android phone, I always test the touchscreen. Apple is noted for having the best sensitivity and fine control, and it shows. Relative to using the iPhone, I have trouble using screens of competing phones, and have seen the owners of these phones experiencing the same difficulty.

I have wanted to do a side-by-side with the S III, but ran into another difficulty: I couldn’t find anyone who had one. It made me wonder if it had come out already, but yes—it has been out since May.

And that’s what it really comes down to: preference. And back to: sales. See the ratings list I started this post with. Apple is hands-down the winner in terms of popularity.

One thing that I regularly do when I ride the train is to try to note cell phone use. In Japan, at least half the passengers are using them, or so it seems. When I do a count—how many are using the iPhone versus any other phone—I regularly come out with about the same result: about half the phones I see in use are iPhones. That’s versus every other maker combined.

In a country where the iPhone was supposed to be an abject failure, that’s saying something.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys, iPhone, Technology Tags:

The Difference Between K1 and K2

September 14th, 2012 Comments off

The iPhone is being criticized for not being mind-blowing; Timothy Lee of Forbes gives the rundown:

It has a faster processor, a bigger and brighter screen, supports LTE networking, and is thinner than its predecessors. It will doubtless prove to be a capable phone and a worthy competitor to the latest Android gear.

Still, judging from the Twitter chatter and early coverage by tech sites, what’s striking about the phone is what’s missing: a compelling story about what makes this phone better than its predecessor or distinguishes it from its competitors.

He then explains why:

Jobs instinctively understood that most customers don’t care about technical specs, they care about what you can do with a device’s raw hardware. Sometimes, if a new product had a particularly impressive technical improvement—as with the Retina Display—he’d come up with a whimsical brand name for the new feature and make that the focus of the presentation. But more often, his presentations would focus on small number of applications or characteristics, like Siri, that weren’t directly tied to any specific hardware upgrade but made the product dramatically more useful for ordinary consumers.

Had he been around, could Jobs have made the iPhone 5 sound more exciting? Maybe. Perhaps a focus on how much faster LTE is, like the old Mac-to-PC side-by-side presentations Jobs did showing a rendering process or something. Maybe Jobs could have made the new mapping technology a centerpiece.

But frankly, I doubt it. One of Apple’s disadvantages is that it is not competing against one company—Google and Android—it is competing against all other companies that make cell phones. It has to beat all of them out, and that’s an enormous task. Not only that, it has to beat all other phones combined. If one Android phone has features A and B, another has B and C, and yet another has C and D, the iPhone has to have A, B, C, D, and E to beat them. Not exactly a fair fight.

The biggest problem, I believe, is that we’re simply running out of features that knock our socks off. I noted this back in 2010 when the iPhone 4 came out:

One other thing that this makes me think of–there’s so much new stuff on this phone, what’s left to add to the next-gen iPhone a year from now? Seriously. It’ll be hard to make it much slimmer; doubtful they’ll up the screen resolution; no more cameras to add, or video functionality; no more wireless stuff to add that I can foresee. The iPhone 4 didn’t up the flash memory, nor did it add colors, so that could change, but those are relatively mundane “upgrades.” So, what could be added next year that could compare with this year? The iPhone 4 will be pretty damned hard to beat, even for Apple.

The 4S added Siri, but it’s not that easy to create iconic new technologies like that. The “S” upgrades are usually speed bumps anyway; the iPhone 5 was supposed to be one of those every-two-years major upgrades.

And that’s probably its biggest flaw: it didn’t live up to expectations. People have come to expect Apple to hit not just home runs, but grand slams every time. The iPhone is already such a good product, it’s progressively harder and harder to do even better.

This came more to light for me when a student in my class a few days ago asked if I was excited about it, and I gave my “Meh” response. but then they asked about switching from Android, and my response was much different. Students have handed me Androids in the past and I have played with them. They feel plastic and cheap. The touchscreen is less responsive. The interface is less intuitive. I know many people prefer Android, but the phones I have seen it on just feel inferior to Apple hardware and software.

From that perspective, it is my impression that the iPhone 5 is mind-blowing. I think you’re simply getting a much better product. However, coming from the heights of the iPhone 4S, it’s, well, also really good. But from that height, there just isn’t as much difference.

Another factor is Apple’s own popularity and how that has translated into leaks. iPhones in the past had some surprise. This one had zero. Nothing was unknown before the announcement. The taller profile and bigger screen had been known for a year or more, and parts leaks gave us a look at the entire exterior and much of the interior for at least a month in advance. We knew it was LTE from software clues. We knew about all the features in iOS6 already, including the panorama photo feature. The only things we did not know were some minor technical features, like the exact number of megapixels in the camera.

As a result, there was nothing that would surprise anyone who was paying attention.

Alas, a lot of this simply comes back to and down to perception. This was put rather cruelly to the test in this video:

Frankly, I hate videos like this. They play on people’s ignorance—which is the point, yes. But you know they edit out the people who either don’t see a change or who can easily spot that it’s not an iPhone 5. Worse, it plays on people’s desire to be on TV—some of the people in the video look like they’ve been asked to audition for an Apple commercial, and some perhaps think that this is exactly what they are doing.

Despite all that, Kimmel’s video has a point to make: people simply expect every new iPhone to be better, so they see it whether it is there or not. Basic human psychology. It doesn’t mean the new iPhone isn’t faster, thinner, lighter, and better—it just means these poor schlubs aren’t really equipped to tell the difference.

Anyways, I will probably go out and get my iPhone 5 pre-ordered today—SoftBank starts taking pre-orders from 4 p.m. For me, it’s not because I’ve gotta have it, it’s more because, well, frankly, it’s free and there’s no downside. If I thought the 5S or whatever will be out next year would be a quantum leap forward, I might wait, but there’s no special reason to think that. SoftBank subsidizes the entire price of the 16GB model in exchange for extending your contract another 2 years, which I would do with or without a new phone anyway, so I pay nothing extra for the hardware. Is essence, there’s no reason not to get a new phone. It would be turning down a free mini-computer, and while the 5 doesn’t blow me away, it is still a very, very nice product.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys, iPhone Tags:

The New iPad

March 18th, 2012 3 comments


It’s been a day and a half since I got the “New iPad” (which, hereafter, I will refer to as the “iPad 3,” as “New iPad” is subject to confusion). Unfortunately, that does not mean I have had much chance to play with it–I got it at 9:30 a.m. and immediately had to leave for work, which ran from about 11:00 to 8:00 yesterday. Today was our anniversary, so much of it was dinner and a show (much better, but not iPad-intensive, naturally!), much of the rest reserved for caring for Ponta and doing some work.

Nevertheless, I have already used it enough to get a few basic impressions.

First of all, at least some of my comparison is based on two years of daily use of the first iPad, pictured above; I have barely even held an iPad 2 for more than a few seconds, so the design was fairly novel for me. The difference was immediately apparent in details like the bezel being far less visible. The iPad 3 comes across as noticeably thinner and lighter, something which an iPad 2 user will likely not feel at all. As you can see as well, the colors on the iPad 3 are more saturated; what does not show as well in the photo above is the fact that the iPad3 also comes across as having a brighter screen.

But what about the iPad 3 itself? How does it perform, especially in light of expectations? Well, let’s start with the negatives.

Maybe it’s just the first run before a full recharge, or perhaps it’s only the machine I got (or my prior iPad was exceptional), but my impression is that the battery life sucks. I was expecting a stronger battery, not a weaker one. I recharged it last night, and have only used it for a short time this morning, and already the battery’s down to 90%. My old iPad 1, even with all-day use, never got as low a battery reading as the iPad 3 got yesterday. Keep in mind that I am using the WiFi version, so there is no 3G or LTE to suck the battery dry. Nor was I using any graphics-intense software–just normal, everyday apps. I took a handful of photos and maybe ten seconds of video, and did not watch any video at all.

So, what the hell? I’ll keep my eye on this as I use the iPad daily, but if this keeps up, then maybe I should consider taking it to the Genius Bar at Ginza and asking for a replacement. I know people who get iPhones with the same issue–my iPhone lasts more than all day on a single charge, but others report that their batteries drain within a few hours of off-and-on use.

Next, Siri is a notable omission in the new tablet–for what reason I can only guess at. Maybe Apple’s servers are overloading, or they want to sell more iPhones, but there should be no reason that they leave Siri off of the iPad. Again, what the hell. They do have dictation, but I had to dig through preferences to figure out how to activate it–it is not on by default. It also needs a live WiFi connection to work, and that’s not always available. For example, I wanted to try it out in class yesterday to get a transcript of what I taught, but I was not able to get WiFi in the classroom.

When I was able to try it out, it was fairly good when I intended to make a transcription; I didn’t get a chance to test it out under natural conditions. However, I did try to use it to transcribe a video clip–I held it up to the speakers on my Mac as an interview played.

Did it work? No, not really. At least, not at a practical level. Even not counting the lack of punctuation (you can speak it to make it appear, though), the transcription was pretty bad, requiring a ton of correction. Not as bad as transcribing by hand, but not a whole bunch better, either.

Another problem: the transcription only works in 40-second chunks, and does not reveal in real time. So, when you are transcribing, you see nothing but a blank screen, and then after two-thirds of a minute, it snaps off, waits for a few seconds, then shows what it got.

40 seconds in not nearly enough for most transcription needs; to do anything meaningful, you’ll be needing to constantly be stopping as you get interrupted by the end of the time limit (they could at least include a countdown!), then having to restart when you activate it, and then go back and edit out the sentences which were cut off. Certainly, this will be useless for transcribing stuff like class lectures. Currently, I can’t think of any use for it considering the time limit.

Finally, that hot corner everyone has been talking about? It’s for real, all right. Yesterday, in fact, it felt like a good half of the unit was warming up. It’ll be great in winter, but I can imagine getting sweaty palms in summer.

Okay, that’s the bad news. Now for the good stuff.

The hardware is definitely far better… than the iPad 1′s. Again, I have no iPad 2 experience to reference against. However, I have one game (Civ Rev) that gets stuttery at times on my old pad, and almost goes too fast on the new one. The speed bump–and maybe the 1 GB of RAM (compared to the iPad 1′s 256 MB)–is immediately noticeable to be. I am even considering dropping six bucks or so on one of those HD-graphics games, just to see what it looks like…

The screen is indeed really, really good. I don’t necessarily agree with the reviews saying it is “awesome” or “eye-popping,” but it is definitely noticeable, and is noticeably improved. Here are some photographs of the two screens, taken with my digital SLR, showing the difference as well as I can represent it.

First, here’s an icon–and immediately you can see a huge difference:

I1-Ic-Cu-01 I3-Ic-Cu-01

Text in iBooks is remarkably more clear; for fun, I even added the same text from the same book in its paper form:




The iPad 3 gives even a paper book a run for its money in terms of clarity and readability; only those who, for whatever reason, cannot tolerate a backlit screen will not find the iPad 3 a reasonable replacement. Here is a closer look:




Note that in the extreme closeup of the iPad 3, the pixels begin to become visible–but this is only due to the camera’s detail. Unless you have excellent vision, chances are you’ll see no more than the barest hint of pixels, and that only by bringing it right up to your face and straining a bit.

Here are comparisons with video, in this case, using the trailer from “Brave”





To be fair, the iPad 1 images use the 720p trailer, while the iPad 3 images use the 1080p version–but this is fair, since the iPad 1 cannot even load 1080p video (I tried), and 720p on the iPad 3 is less meaningful considering the available resolution.

One downside to the new screen: old stuff looks worse than before. While text in old apps displays sharply, and some graphics get smoothed out, some apps show marked pixellation when used full-screen. As someone noted, it’s kind of like watching old standard-definition TV shows on a new HD TV–the old stuff, which looked nice and sharp on an older TV, now looks really bad, as if it’s all out of focus. The effect is not quite as pronounced on the iPad, but it’s certainly something that stands out.

Other than that, everything about the new tablet feels excellent. Now that I have enough RAM to run it, iCloud works for me and is running on all my devices, finally. I don’t have to shut down and start up the device under iOS 5 like I did my old pad. As I mentioned above, the iPad 3′s screen comes across as brighter as well, with more saturated colors and slightly better contrasts. Compared to the iPad 1, the iPad 3′s look and feel are much superior–though the beveled edges take a bit of getting used to–it feels a bit like it’ll slip out of my fingers sometimes.

Overall, I am quite pleased, but hope that the down points will be helped over time. Maybe my battery’s performance will improve, maybe Apple will improve the dictation feature or even enable Siri, and possibly Apple will update the iOS to cool down that corner a tad. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I look forward to using the iPad 3 in earnest.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys, iPad Tags:

More DIY

August 5th, 2011 Comments off

In July, we built our second computer in the college’s Computer Making Club, and it works just fine. Core i5 2400 CPU, ASRock H67M mobo, 8 GB 1333 DDR3 RAM, 1 TB HDD, Blu-Ray reader. Not bad–the most powerful rig in the school, and it cost ¥50,000 (the semester budget for the club). Using last semester’s (the one interrupted by the earthquake) funds not spent on a whole computer, we could buy 3 Full-HD monitors and an SSD with the spare change. Maybe next semester we’ll trying SSD caching on a Z68 mobo.

Today, students from last semester’s club wanted my help building two computers for their friends. They bought roughly the same equipment as I listed above, but they really wanted smaller cases. We got all the parts, in duplicate, and spent much of today building the computers–I worked on one while the students copied my moves on the others.

We finished, and then did a test start–and nothing. Dead. No power, no lights, no fan movement, nada. We checked and re-checked the wiring, then checked it again. Everything was OK. Tried different cables. Tried both computers. Tried alternate arrangements for the power switch connectors, even tried using a paper clip on the leads. Nothing. I brought the club’s new rig, the one built in July, and ran that rig’s power supply wiring to one of the new mobos–nothing. We must have tried a dozen different things and nothing worked. For all we could see, we had two computers, both completely DOA.

Which didn’t make sense–two different computers dead in the exact same way? One rig having a dead part I could understand, but two different ones, having the exact same fault? I began to suspect that the students were sold defective parts–but that didn’t sound right, either. Even a dishonest distributor would not sell one person the same defective part twice.

We checked the instructions–but one of my main gripes about the computer world is that documentation sucks. As it did with this case–it said very little at all. Really fracking annoying.

Salvation came from a half hour of Googling the case, then the mobo–and I found someone who had the same problem and solved it by removing the motherboard from the case. Wires attached, just lift it from the case mount, and it worked, so the post went. So we tried that.

It worked.

From there, it was a simple matter of working backwards. If we set the motherboard down in the case, unscrewed, would it work? Yes. How about if we added this one screw? Yep, still works. Another one added, in that hole? Works. How about adding one more screw, here? Bango, no power.

After looking into it later, it seemed that a lack of insulation and the way the board was set up caused the mobo to be “grounded out,” whatever that means. This case was apparently designed so poorly–and did not include fiber washers–that in any case of this design, screwing the mobo in place on one side causes a ground-out. What’s more, they included a rubber “bump” which could insulate the board and didn’t mention what it was for. It’s listed in the parts, but no mention of how or why or when or where it is used. Seems to me that if your design so regularly causes power loss via “grounding out” and you know this well enough to add a part to deal with it, then you goddamn fracking better well mention it before your customers spend hours figuring it out, or worse, spend days ordering new parts.

So, because the case maker screwed up the design and failed to note it in the instructions, we spent two hours agonizing over the whole thing. Major pain in the ass. Sometimes you just want to find the corporate offices and kick these idiots.

Once we figured this out, it went like a breeze, although the BIOS showed a core CPU temp starting at 40°C and climbing to 55° or so, just in the BIOS. I read some posts saying this was relatively normal, and both rigs had the same readings, so I let it go but warned them to install the hardware monitors and keep an eye on the temps.

Not too shabby a day, but I could have done without the useless anxiety and frustration. All part of the DIY experience, I guess.

Fun with DIY

August 4th, 2011 1 comment


The computer is now made and running smoothly. The specs:

  • 3.3 GHz quad-core Core i5 (Sandy bridge) 2500K, with 1MB L2 cache and 6MB L3 cache
  • Cooler Master Hyper 212-Plus heat sink
  • 8 GB 1333GHz DDR3 RAM (decided to go cheap on that)
  • Z68 Chipset on an ASRock Z68 Extreme4 Mobo w/ USB 3, eSATA, IEEE 1394, 4 video ports
  • 1TB 7200rpm SATA3 (6Gbps) WD HDD
  • 64GB SATA3 (6Gbps) Crucial m4 SSD used for caching
  • 750 GB SATAII WD HDD (partitioned so I can install Linux and Hackintosh)
  • 12x Blu-Ray burner
  • USB WiFi link

As you can see, I did not go whole hog. No discrete video card (I don’t do gaming), no high-speed DRAM (I toyed with going for 1600 MHz, but ultimately decided not to). Nevertheless, it is, if I may say, a nice little rig.

I had a scare with the CPU slot. Somehow, one of the pins got bent. I don’t know if this would be enough to make the whole rig not work, but I did not want to gamble. I carefully photographed it and got to understand exactly how it was bent (down and to the left), then used a pin (I know, conductive, but it was the only thing small enough) to caaaarefully coax it back into place. If you know how small and delicate those things are, then you know how nerve-wracking that was. However, I did it, and it worked in the end. (Or else it never mattered.)


So I put the CPU in, and snapped the RAM into the slots. Then came the CPU cooler / heatsink. If you read the blog recently, you’ll know about my little misadventure with Dospara and Cooler Master; when the non-mismade part was delivered, I was able to start working on it. Usually cooler fans use those four damned pins which are hard to snap in. The first two go in OK, but the third is hard and the fourth is damned hard, and sometimes it’s not easy to discern if the pins are in right. The Cooler Master setup I got has a plate you attach to the back first, with bolts on the top of the motherboard making it easy to attach the fan up top; I like that arrangement much better.

I did not use the thermal grease included with the CPU cooler, instead going with some Arctic Silver MX-4, which was recommended. The Cooler Master plate-and-bolt attachment makes it better for applying the thermal grease as well–if you use the pins and have trouble, then there’s more chance you will detach the fan and ruin the grease application.

So the motherboard was then set; installing it in the case was not too hard, but, as usual, they did not give enough of the bolts the motherboard is seated upon. (Why do they always chintz on that?) In this case, a few screw holes were not properly made so that I couldn’t screw the bolts in all the way anyway. However, the board can be secured well enough even with a few points left unsecured.

Then came the drives. The case, a Gigabyte GZ-X5, has the nice locking clamps for the internal drive bays, so you don’t have to use screws. That’s a nice feature; just slide a drive into place, put the clamp on and turn a lever. Cool.

I hate how most cases handle the front panel and bezels, making them very difficult to detach, and having nothing in the instructions on how to do that. It usually involves reaching into inside recesses and tripping things you can’t see or grip very well; if you don’t know how to do it, you likely won’t guess, and most cases have sharp edges inside that make it dangerous even for those who do know how to do it. With the front bezels, it’s usually the case of pushing them outward until it feels like they’ll break. I slashed my pinky finger trying to get one of the 3.5“ bezels out so I could install the USB 3 front panel (with the SSD holder included). The optical drive slid in, no problems, but the hard drive bay walls were a tad too narrow and putting in the HDDs was a little difficult.

With the motherboard and drives in place, next come the cables. The motherboard came with 4 SATA3 cables (which work OK with the SATAII devices as well), so I had just the number I needed. The case has a 500W built-in power supply, and nice cables; hooking up to power was not a problem.

The cables for the case buttons and power were, as usual, tough to get in. The instructions are also, as usual, vague and unhelpful–for example, thinking I was following instructions, I put the case power-button connector switch on backwards. Is ”G“ (”ground,“ I assumed) the same as the minus polarity? So I had thought, but whatever, I switched it and it works.

Then there was the usual cable-securing, making sure the cables would not rest against parts or interfere with the fans, tying them off as best I could to keep them out of the way. I put the sides of the case back on–the side opposite the motherboard just fit, with the prongs from the heat sink actually touching the case, though not exerting any pressure. Could not have fit that any tighter.

So, I plugged in the power, monitor, mouse, and keyboard, and let ‘er rip. Worked perfectly. I installed the OS, still fine, so I went ahead and tried some more software.

Now, at this point, I was curious about the SSD caching–I did not, after all, see the SSD appear in the drive menu. I could see the drive in the Device manager, which reported that it was ”working properly,“ and I found a dialog box that said that disk caching was on, but it turned out that that was not SSD caching. I figured it out when I could not see my second HDD, and discovered that drives had to be initialized before they could be used. I am used to (a) external drives being pre-formatted, and (b) the Mac telling me this when it detects new drives, even when not formatted, and so hadn’t noticed.

This is when I figured out that I had not set things up right for the SSD caching. The BIOS needs to be set up for RAID, which should be done before the OS is installed. Argh. I would have to reinstall everything, starting over again. I tried switching to RAID and restarting, but it didn’t work. Then I found a page that suggested changing the registry–just two small changes from 3s to 0s–would allow RAID to be activated without reinstalling. I tried it, and it worked. After downloading the software from Intel (references to what software was needed were vague, and going through the zoo of versions on Intel’s site was confusing, but I found it), I was able to set up the cache. It works great–it actually worked better than ASRock’s demo, cutting my startup time from about 45 seconds to about half that. Startup is now almost like coming out of sleep mode.

[ Still, why can't documentation ever be halfway decent? This is a plague in the computing world if you want to do anything more sophisticated than common, everyday use. ]

I also tried overclocking, and am still working it up. I started with nothing, testing the CPU temps and voltage, researching what limits are (most say about 70°C and 1.5V), and then seeing how things ran (in case I did not apply the thermal grease correctly). It stayed under 35°C, so all seemed well. Then I set the overclock for 4 GHz (from the standard 3.3 GHz), where it has been running for a few days; temps not over 40°C; so far, so good. Next step will be 4.2 GHz. I understand that people usually find that 4.4 or 4.6 is a stable limit.

Not that the computer isn’t already fast enough for my current needs. Apps pop open with almost no wait time. However, I plan to do some image & video editing as well as some other CPU-intensive work in the future, so would like to see where I can take it. It will also be nice to have maxing-out capabilities in four years’ time when the hardware is older and a slower setup would be rendered useless.

The Blu-Ray drive works quite well. It takes about 1 minute per gigabyte, or about 24 minutes for a full disc. Considering that one disc holds the same as 6 DVDs (or about 35 CDs), it’s a nice way to back up files.

I have found a few problems with transferring files between the PC and my Macs. As usual, Windows is the problem point, but I was able to set things up anyway. WiFi transfers are too slow for big files, so I have been using USB flash memory or my external hard drives. However, there is a problem with supported file systems. FAT won’t support files over 4GB, but the Mac’s usual file system can’t be read by Windows. I discovered one new to the Mac–ExFAT, which supports files over 4GB and can be read by both OS’s. The Mac can read ExFAT formatted by the PC, but Windows doesn’t seem to see the Mac format (predictably).

So, for the future, Linux and then Hackintosh will get attempted, we’ll see how those work. But for now, I am getting reacquainted with Windows full-time (or mostly full-time), and rediscovering the pains it still presents. For example, why no ability to see folder sizes in list form? You have to hold your cursor over the folder icon, making it extremely difficult to figure out what’s causing the disk to fill up. You can get a utility like Folder Size for that, but seriously, it is such an obvious oversight in Windows, it is staggering that they haven’t addressed that yet. On the other hand, Windows 7 has a halfway-decent magnifying utility, and I must admit that the Aero Flip 3D feature is fun–though not as quick or as functional as the Mac’s Exposé.

Anyway, the whole thing is fun (more than it is frustrating) and educational. Saving a few bucks from what you would pay for a pre-made computer is almost beside the point.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:

Computer Stuff Came

July 7th, 2011 5 comments

Yesterday, I ordered a new computer. Most of it arrived today. It’s my first personal DIY–we’ve done two of these in the club I sponsor at school (third one coming soon), and I wanted a full-featured Windows box at home, for a variety of reasons, the primary of which is that I teach using Windows and so have to use it, and doing it virtually on the Mac can have its drawbacks. Another reason is that it’s new computer gear and (hopefully, depending on what problems may crop up) it’s fun.

The big boxes that just arrived are the case (a Gigabyte GZ-X5 with a 500W power supply) and the monitor (a BenQ G2420HD 24“ LCD display). Amazon put the rest in one box–a 4-core Intel i5 2500K at 3.3 GHz, an ASRock Z68 Extreme4 motherboard, 8GB (4GB x 2) of Kingston 1333MHz DDR3 RAM, a Western Digital 1TB 7200 RPM SATA3 HDD, and a Buffalo 12x Blu-Ray burner. I also ordered a Crucial 6GB SATA3 SDD drive to take advantage of the Z68 chipset’s SSD caching feature, but it’s from a third-party seller and might not arrive until the weekend.

The whole purchase set me back just a shade under ¥94,000, but it’s going to be a very nice rig when it’s done. Store-bought, the same rig would cost at minimum an extra couple hundred bucks even with a 2400 i5 and without the Z68 chipset–the cheapest BTO setup I could find. Everything else I found was much more expensive, even with similarly lower specs.

Now I know what I’m doing over the weekend…

What’s Wrong with That?

April 27th, 2011 1 comment

This is weird, at least to me:

Google says that 39% admit to having used their smarpthone [sic] while going to the bathroom….

OK, not “smarpthone,” that’s obviously just a typo. But first, why use the verb “admit to”? Is there something shameful about using your smartphone on the john? Heck, I sometimes take my iPad or even my laptop in there. Proudly!

The other odd thing is, only 39%? Does this tie in to the shame some people apparently feel? Using a smartphone would seem only natural, especially as it is an item we often carry with us and so is handy when no other material is available. I mean, really, some people resort to reading the labels on shampoo bottles; you’d think that people would be happy to be able to whip out their phone to play a few rounds of their favorite game or catch up on their email.

Instead of assuming that only 39% of people admit to using their smartphone in the bathroom, I would assume that 61% simply forgot to bring it with them.

Categories: Gadgets & Toys Tags:


October 7th, 2010 2 comments

Went to CEATEC today. Lots of cool stuff. Heard one piece of news that may make me change over: WiMAX, already tempting as an Internet-everywhere solution for $50/mo. for (theoretically) 40 Mbps, will be converting to WiMAX version 2 in 2012. The speed of the new wide-coverage wireless Internet? 330 Mbps. Yep–three times faster than current fiber-optic speeds offered in Japan. (Again, theoretically.) And it’ll work when you’re at high speed, like when the bullet train you’re on is going faster than 300 km/hr.

The portable, battery-powered WiFi converters (which take the WiMAX signal and translate it into WiFi emanating from your backpack or pocket) also are available, meaning you can have a mobile WiFi signal with you all the time (that you’re not underground) for your laptop, iPad, and even the iPhone if you want to keep the data plan charges to a minimum.

More on this later.