Advertisements
Tag Archives: Technology

Yes, you should buy the new MacBook…

It has been awhile since I posted here. I apologize. Moving on… Yesterday Apple held another closely watched launch event (pun intended).  Beyond the anticipated Apple Watch (save that for another post), Apple also announced a new MacBook.  If you’re reading this, you probably already know: It is the sleekest, thinnest, lightest, sexiest laptop Apple has ever made.  It brings retina displays to the laptop world and weighs only 2 pounds.  It.  Is.  Gorgeous. But is it for you? The short answer is: Yep, unless you need the horsepower of something higher end for video processing.

The longer response: You’ll hear controversy around 2 choices Apple made, namely:

  1. Replacing all ports (power, USB, video, etc.) with a new “C” port; and
  2. Using a lower-resolution front-facing camera.

Ignore them. These are great “compromises.” C Ports are the docking station of the future. The new C port is very cool.  It is a fully-reversible, single port that can handle whichever connection type you need.  The tech media’s first reaction to it seems to be negative, though.  D PortAfterall, in order to charge, and use an external display or hard drive, at the same time, you need to buy a separate dongle, and no one likes required add-ons.  The thing is, though, while annoying, you should just think of this dongle as the dock of the future.  Up until now, almost all Windows laptops offered dock connections, and while you COULD plug your monitor, mouse, power, external hard drive, ethernet, etc. all in by hand, if working with an external display was your standard operating procedure, you just bought a dock.  You pop your laptop down and have instant network, screen and power without messing around with wires.  It’s something PC laptop makers have streamlined and was never possible on the Mac.  Until now. From here out, buy a connector for your office and home workstation, leave your external display, power adapter and other devices plugged in to the dongle and when you want to get to work, you only have to find and insert 1 wire into 1 connector.  Sounds great to me!  Plus, if this isn’t how you work, you just saved weight and space for the device you lug around all the time.  It really is a win-win. Worried about forgetting your dongle when you travel?  Sure, but you can expect high end conference rooms to have the required adapters in a couple of years, just like they have mini-displayport adapters now.  Don’t let this derail you. But what about the camera? Apple products have always had great optics.  From the iSight to the cameras built into our iPhones and iPads, not to mention current MacBooks, Apple has always used higher-end cameras and squeezed great image quality out of them. figure1_isight precision_camera-copy With the new MacBook, they’ve taken a step in the wrong direction.  They’ve opted to include a 480p camera, instead of the 720p camera you’d expect.  This means Facetime, Skype, Hangouts and other calls will all be in standard definition (SD).  Worse, the new MacBook has a retina display, so the SD footage will be noticeably less crisp than anything else you do on your device… At the end of the day, there are only a couple of use cases for the camera on your computer, and you don’t REALLY need your coworkers and meeting attendees to see you in crisp HD to make the meeting personal, so it is more for family use that it matters, and for that you have your iPad anyway.  Don’t get me wrong.  I wish Apple hadn’t skimped here, but the quality of the built-in webcam has never been a decision-maker for any of you on what computer to purchase in the past, and I wouldn’t start now. Everything else Beyond those 2 items, this is a no-compromise machine for the masses.  It has great specs, including the screen, the battery life, the new keyboard and force-touch trackpad… it is a great device starting at $1,299, which is a price point you expect to see Apple laptops at.  If you can get away with a $400 chromebook, do it; if you need the horsepower of a MacBook Pro or desktop rig for video editing, do that; for the rest of you, this is the new benchmark for your daily driver.

Advertisements

No, you should not get the iPhone 4S…

… Unless you love Apple and didn’t get the iPhone 4.

Today Apple held their latest iPhone event where everyone expected the announcement of the new iPhone5.  After over 2 hours of following their announcement (most of which we had heard before, when Apple announced the release of their new mobile operating system to developers), Apple failed to deliver.

Still, they did announce a new phone, dubbed the iPhone 4S.

The new phone comes with an impressive new specs, including:

  1. Dual-band radios (GSM & CDMA) making this a “World Phone” for international travel;
  2. Never before implemented set of antennas to improve call quality;
  3. A new dual core A-5 processor, meaning a phone allowing 2x the performance of the iPhone4;
  4. A new graphics processor 7x faster than the one in the iPhone4;
  5. A built-in camera that rivals (or surpasses) the quality and speed of most stan-alone point-and-shoots;
  6. A new humble artificially intelligent assistant named Siri; and
  7. most importantly, 8 hours of talk time and 300 hours of standby battery life (compared to 7 and 200 on the iPhone4)

But is it for you?

The short answer: It’s actually a tough call, but I’d suggest you not get the 4S unless you plan to buy it no matter what I write here.

The longer response:

As with all upgrades, it depends on what phone you have right now.

If you have the iPhone 3G or 3GS

Some of you just *like* Apple products. The hardware is beautiful (made up of materials that aren’t even always available to the competition), the seamless way it works with iTunes (and now your Apple cloud services) is unparalleled with other desktop/phone combinations (though the cloud options may be paralleled), and the apps just work the way they’re supposed to.  If you’re one of these people and are still using the iPhone 3G or 3GS, now is a great time to upgrade, but should it be to the iPhone 4 for $99 or the 4S for much more?

The retina display and build quality on either are worth ditching the 3G or 3GS and making the move, and since you sat out one upgrade cycle, I’d recommend taking the money you saved and applying it to the latest offering.  You’re spending money anyway and likely locking in 12-18 months on this phone, so might as well treat yourself to all the bells and whistles of the latest.  You may not NEED most of what the 4S offers over the 4, but the camera, extra talk time, improved call quality (and maybe even Siri) will keep your phone feeling fresh a year from now, whereas with the iPhone 4, you’ll likely be jonesing for another one sooner.

If you’re on the 3G or 3GS and don’t fit in the Apple fan-boy camp, keep reading.

If you have the iPhone 4

If you already have the iPhone 4, then you’re going to be spending between $199 and $399 to upgrade; is it really worth that? The main benefits touted by Tim Cook today at the event aren’t really meaningful to most users.

A processor that’s 2x as fast and graphics 7x better than the prior model mean developers can build apps that they wouldn’t have attempted on lesser configurations.  But that’s unlikely to impact you right now.  It is going to take some time for Developers to conceive of, and build apps that really take advantage of the new hardware.  If the game console marketplace is a good indicator (and I’d argue it is), it could take a year or 2 before there is a critical mass of applications that max out the new specifications, and even longer before those apps will really suffer if you try to run them on the older models.  Given that you upgrade your phone every 18-months to 2 years, Apple will be on the iPhone 5 or beyond (the 5S?) by then and you can upgrade at that point.

So, for you, the only reasons to make the leap to the 4S are:

  1. You do a lot of travel overseas, but prefer Verizon at home, so getting a World Phone means you don’t have to pay 2 plans or deal with the hassles of switching for trips;
  2. You really need a better camera/video camera on you at all times; or
  3. That 1 extra hour of talk time and longer standby time will get you through the day.

To me, these aren’t compelling enough for the upgrade price.  I’d stick with the iPhone 4 a little longer.

If you’re on any phone other than an iPhone (or are on an iPhone, but you’ve never believed the iPhone was SO great in the first place)

This is where it gets tricky.  The iPhone 4S is the most promising Apple phone ever to be released.  Much of that promise, however, is wrapped up in the 200+ updates to iOS.  The latest operating system for the iPhone, iOS5, is a fantastic update.  The updates have been covered for months on various sites, including a great write-up by Gizmodo and one from my friends at Engadget, but to name a few:

  • A new notifications bar that eliminates the task-halting pop-up window of prior versions;
  • The ability to update and sync your phone to the cloud without requiring a computer or iTunes; and
  • Deep integration of Twitter to help you be more social.

These updates were sorely needed and will make for a much better iPhone experience, BUT they’re going to be available on the iPhone4 and 3GS as well, so is it worth spending the coin on the 4S?

Without devolving this post into a big debate between iPhone and the chief competition, phones that run Google‘s phone operating system, Android, I will point out that there are a lot of great Android phones out there.  If you’re already on a latest-generation Android Phone, there’s little or no reason to switch to Apple.

The Android Community blog put together a nice comparison yesterday showcasing the latest Android offerings and how they stack up.  Check it out on their site. And see their chart below:

iPhone 4S versus the Android competition

In both specifications and pricing, the Android phones are truly competitive and in many ways superior.  By using universal ports, like micro-USB for charging (the same one your new Blackberry and most other phones use) and HDMI for porting video out to your TV, these Droid phones save you money on accessories.  Android phones are also highly customizable.  The iPhone works right out of the box and largely without any crashes or tech support needs, while the Android is for tinkerers.

 Apple takes a heavily monitored approach to what it allows in the app-store, including denying products for too closely replicating the functionality of existing offerings; Android on the other hand thrives because of a nuance in one developer’s version of software that makes the difference between loving the functionality and hating it.  By way of example only, I keep my phone on vibrate.  With the iPhone (prior to Apple adding custom vibrations in iOS5), I was stuck with very limited options for alerts; on Android, I could find hundreds of programs forcing the phone to stay on vibrate, customizing the duration and intensity of alerts, and more.  This degree of customization won’t matter to most of you, but it is a real selling point for many.  The flexibility extends beyond what is allowed in the app store, with Android phones offering alternate keyboards, automation, widgets to put information right on the home screens (the phone version of your desktop), and even completely custom builds of the operating system being run (known as ROMS).  Lifehacker explains it well.

But, perhaps the most compelling feature of Android over Apple for those of us that live the mobile life is the case itself.  Apple’s case is locked down to end users.  The insides stay there.  By contrast, all current Android phones have removable backs and add-on slots.  What this means is that Android phone batteries can be swapped for a fully-charged backup at a moment’s notice ( I highly recommend keeping a spare battery in your bag), and large micro-SD cards can be purchased to add storage for songs, photos and other media.  While Apple’s battery life may be superior to most (or even all Android) phone batteries, it certainly doesn’t beat TWO batteries (or more even).  And, while you’ll pay a $100 premium to get 32GB and $200 for 64GB over the base of 16GB, a 32GB add-on Micro-SD card can be had for as little as $45.

And don’t forget that Adobe’s Flash is still a dominant format for web video and interactivity, and supported by Android, but not iPhone

Still, if you aren’t convinced of the benefits of Android, I’m not going to spend the entire post getting you there (perhaps a topic for some other time).  You want to know if you should spend the money on the 4S, go for retina display and cheaper price tag on the 4, or if you’re on AT&T, just get the 3GS for free.  If that’s you and you haven’t fallen into one of the buckets of people above, then there are likely only two remaining possibilities:

You’re on an earlier iPhone, your contract is up, but you’ve never believed iPhone was THE ultimate phone.

For you, did you read what I just wrote about Android?  The answer is Android, but if you’re still not convinced, sure.  Go for it.  Why not?

You’re a hold out using a Feature Phone

If you’ve been on what’s known as a “feature phone,” or a low-end phone that likely doesn’t have the ability to download the latest applications (Jave & BREW apps don’t count) nor utilize a touch screen, etc., then you have been waiting for the right moment to join the modern era.  It is time.  Accessing your email, the web, and all of the available applications makes you more productive and gives you access to your music, movies, books and more while on the go.  You wouldn’t be reading my post if you had no interest in these things anyway, so you’re ready to make the switch.

If money is not a real object, go for the 4S.  You’ll find yourself playing with all of the cool features and you might as well have the version with the latest bells and whistles.  Learn today’s tools, not yesterday’s.  Plus, you’re not the kind of person that has to upgrade every new release, so you’ll likely have this phone for a while and in 2+ years, the older models will feel dated.

If you’ve stayed on a feature phone because of price concerns, be ware:  the monthly cost of a data plan is not insignificant.  Most plans are at least $15 per month and ramp up from there.  If you’re going to spend an extra $180 per year on your phone, perhaps it makes sense to get the 3GS for free and still have the latest OS with all of its great features?

Conclusion

Ultimately, the 4S is a solid phone with some really well-thought-out features that help it stand apart from its ancestors.  It isn’t surprising that Apple was willing to put this out there on its own.  Even though people are disappointed that there isn’t a new hardware design accompanying an iPhone 5 versioning update, people will buy the 4S and you will be in good company.  But, to me, it isn’t really worth the price right now.  I prefer Android or one of the cheaper, earlier iPhones.  Go with your gut and don’t look back.

You should use online password managers

Sincere apologies for the long delay in getting this post out, and thanks to @justinlamo for the question: “Are on-line password storage sites safe?”

Per my promise to all of you to get to the point first, the quick answer: Not 100%, but you should use them anyway.

And the longer response:

How many times have you received an email saying, “Please ignore that odd post/email/request, it seems my account was hacked”?  Or worse, how many times have you had to send one yourself?  Hacked accounts are a reality of the modern digital age.

Absent turning into a Luddite, your best protection is a strong password for all of your accounts.  A strong password is long, nonsense, and composed of a variety of different types of characters (including upper and lower case, numbers, and punctuation like #, !, @, &, etc.).  There is a lot written about why you should use a strong password, and you’ve all heard the horror stories, but also check out one man’s explanation as to how easy it is for him to crack your weak passwords.  Hopefully that’s convincing enough so I don’t have to dedicate time to hammering the point home.  To create your own strong passwords, reference this clear, concise article by Eric Wolfram.

Still, even the strongest of passwords can be compromised.  Unsophisticated companies can mess up and store your passwords in plain text, where they can be stolen from the servers; you can expose yourself by falling for a fake site asking for your password (known as a “phishing attack;” or perhaps you simply log in from a public computer and forget to log out.  Having your strong password stolen or hacked for one site can cause enough damage, but if you’ve used the same password for all of your social networks, bank accounts, blogs, email and more, the results could be disastrous.

So, the best practices recommendations for strong password protection is actually to use a DIFFERENT strong password for EVERY site (or at least every category of sites).  But, you ask, how can you keep dozens or hundreds of passwords straight?  The answer, of course, is that you can’t.  That’s where password managers come in.

Password managers in general are pieces of software that store and organize all of your passwords and the associated sites and accounts you use them for.  The most rudimentary are simply protected spreadsheets or databases stored as files on your computer; if you can remember one password (the one to open that file), known as the “Master Password,’ you can look up all the rest of them as you need them.  The trouble with the rudimentary form is that it is a tremendous hassle.  Taking time to log into a site is already a barrier to what you are trying to do and no one wants to make that harder.

So, a new breed of password managers emerged.  These new password managers were also form fillers and often came as browser extensions or add-ons.  In other words, these password managers work in coordination with your web browser, recognize the site you are on and automatically fill in the needed password.  You still need to remember the one master password, but after that, your browsing is much smoother.  But, there are problems with this set of managers as well, chiefly:

  1. If you’re computer crashes or you delete the files, you’ll lose ALL of your passwords; and
  2. If you’re away from home you either need to bring the files with you (on a thumb drive, by using Dropbox, or some other way), which can be hard to remember.

SO…  online password managers were invented.  Like the others in the new breed, the online password managers fill your forms and work with your browsers to save you time, but now, instead of storing all of the information on your own computer, you now keep copies online in ways that are accessible across multiple devices.

The concern with keeping this level of sensitive data online is that it too risks being compromised.  On the one hand, you’re using a password manager so your sites are more secure, but on the other, you’re storing your sensitive data in the cloud so that it risks being stolen.

There was recently a threatened attack on a reputable online password manager, but the threat was largely overblown.  Back in May (when Justin first asked this question), LastPass was attacked, but the CEO has since explained why there was little cause for concern in an article posted by PC World.

The reality is that the risk of your password manager data being stolen, given how securely it is encrypted and the protections the password manager companies have in place is very small.  The tension between privacy and convenience is an ancient one, and convenience always wins.  If one option for convenience is a system with dozens or hundreds of attack points (i.e. ANY of your accounts) and the other is a system with one attack point that is heavily guarded (i.e. your online password manager’s server), I recommend going with the latter.

Thus… yes, you should use online password managers.  I don’t have a recommendation as to which one is the best as I haven’t tried them all, but LastPass does a very good job.  For some other suggestions and help choosing the one that’s right for you, check out the following links:

  1. PC Magazine – Six Great Password Managers
  2. LifeHacker – Five Best Password Managers
  3. TopTenReviews – Password Management Software Review
Regardless of what you choose, you need to keep your passwords safe.  Think about how you do it.

TV Everywhere? Cable on the Net Isn’t There Yet – TIME

TV Everywhere? Cable on the Net Isn’t There Yet – TIME.

This is a great write-up on the state of TV Everywhere from a consumer perspective, and a good prelude to Part 2 of “How can I watch Internet video on my TV?”

How should I share my media with you?

You may not be surprised to hear that, as a former DivX employee, I’ve often gotten the question, “How should I share my photos/videos/files with you?”  What is surprising is that in the fast-paced world of the Internet, my answer has been consistent for more than 4 years.

You should use a combination of free tools: Picasa (client and web albums) and Dropbox.  I recommend these solutions because:

  1. When your goal is to share media with friends, your goal is not to “publish” it and many services confuse these needs;
  2. When you share media, you want to preserve the quality of it for the enjoyment of your friends; and
  3. When you share media, you want to allow your friends to use the media in their preferred environments or workflows.

The distinction between “sharing” and “publishing” is an important one.  If you are “publishing,” then you are disseminating a particular expression/experience (typically to a wide audience).  Sharing, on the other hand, means that you are enabling the joint use of a resource. If what you want to do is “publish” your media, Facebook, YouTube and blogging platforms (like WordPress or tumblr) are great, but they make privacy complicated, don’t give your friends flexibility, and typically reduce the quality of the file you’re sharing.

Picasa and Dropbox resolve all of these problems elegantly, simply enough for the least technical of your friends, and with versatility.

Picasa

Picasa is primarily a photo tool, but also has some video functionality, so while I would classify it as a unitasker, I think it is one worth your time (I think even Alton Brown would agree)  The (free) desktop client (PC and Mac) is best-in-class, and has seamless integration with the web albums. The combination provides a fantastic UI for photo management, photo editing (cropping, red-eye reduction, brightness leveling, etc.), online backup, album sharing, collaboration (designated friends can add photos to your albums), stand-alone slide shows, print ordering, and of course, full-resolution download.  Kodak, Shutterfly, Snapfish and others lock you into their services once you’ve uploaded and expire your account if you haven’t ordered prints recently.  By contrast, Picasa syncs up to dozens of the top photo printing sites and is agnostic as to whether you ever order a physical print.  SmugMug actually does solve a sharing problem more effectively, and allows your friends to download full resolution photos, but this is enabled only 1 photo at a time, which can be grueling for large albums, especially where Picasa makes it easy to download a full album.  Bottom line here, “sharing” on any other service is merely publishing.

Dropbox

For any purpose other than sharing full albums of photos, Dropbox is the way to go. Dropbox is primarily an online backup/cross-device folder synchronization tool.  By installing Dropbox on multiple computers (all associated with one user account), you can automatically synchronize any file you put in your Dropbox.  Thankfully, though, Dropbox doesn’t stop there.  It includes robust sharing features, enabling anything from sharing an auto-synced sub-folder with a friend who also has Dropbox to creating a web link to a file enabling anyone with the link to download the associated file.  Like Picasa, Dropbox includes a (free) desktop app with an integrated web client.  The Dropbox desktop app installs onto your PC/Mac and appears just like any other folder on the system, so if you know how to save a file to a folder on your computer, you know how to sync/share using Dropbox.  There are competitors in this space (chief among them is Box.net), but, in large part because of the fantastic implementation of Dropbox’s native desktop client, it stands out markedly from the pack.  It is worth emphasizing that Dropbox is filetype agnostic (while it handles photos admirably, the lack of photo-specific functions leads me to stick with Picasa for photo albums), so I can recommend it for sharing virtually any media.

A Note on Google Docs

I do want to give an honorable mention to Google Docs.  Google Docs is king when it comes to version control and collaboration, and since it technically does allow download as well as robust privacy settings, it shouldn’t be considered a “publishing tool.”  Still, because it requires conversion from native files and doesn’t integrate with any third-party internet offerings, it can’t be my recommendation for sharing media.

So, please do share your media, especially when you attend events and parties and promise someone they don’t need to use their camera since you’ll “share” the photos that were taken with yours.  Perhaps Color and its progeny will fix all of this, but in the meantime, consider my advice.

Should I Use Group Messaging?

In the wake of the tremendous amount of exposure provided to group messaging platforms during SXSW, including GroupMe, Beluga (now part of Facebook), Fast Society, etc., it is easy to think these platforms have a clear value proposition and a straight shot to broad adoption.

My friends in the “industry” are constantly asking which service I prefer.  I set out to answer the question, but instead found the better question to be, “Should I use any of these group messaging services?”

To stick with my formula of giving you quick answers, regretfully, I have to say, “No.”

In more detail, the answer is: Only if you find it fun to play with these kinds of things, or need to be up on the latest apps for your job (both apply to me), and then you should be playing with all of them.

I actually spent a good amount of time this weekend trying to move a variety of different “groups” to one of these platforms as an experiment.  What I found was that it was too hard to make it worth while.

My main justification is that these apps don’t actually make it easier for your groups to talk.  Not only are the features not materially superior to pre-existing solutions, but the switching cost of convincing people not predisposed to using new modes of communication is not worth the effort.

The important question everyone asks is, “Can’t we just use email?”  The two rebuttal responses don’t hold water:

  1. Some say Email is old-school and chat feels instant:  It really isn’t true in a world of iPhones, Droids and even Blackberrys.  Those of us with smart phones are accustomed to receiving email on our devices.  Email is quick, provides OS/Launcher-level alerting and allows us to interact with any number of customized groups of people.  All of the major mobile OSes have taken great steps towards integrated messaging platforms such that it can be kinda tough to even figure out whether a message was email, txt or IM.  Email is also quickly accessible from the phone and desktop alike, has superior archive and searching functionality built-in, and is free under existing data plans (unlike txt).  No clear win for group messaging here.
  2. Others point out that group messaging, unlike email can be accessed from feature phones:  Feature phones (aka phones without app store support primarily used by Luddites, the elderly and those for whom work will only pay for the data portion of their smart phone) do make email challenging, and the ability to hit up multiple people with txts is theoretically a winning solution. Unfortunately, the practical reality leans the other way.  Those who carry feature phones have several complaints ranging from: “I don’t like fancy new apps,” to “how am I supposed to keep up with (and pay for) dozens of text messages rather than a simply email thread?”  There’s no good response in a world where texting costs $20 a month for an unlimited plan.  These folks would rather get an email and I can’t blame them.  If everyone on the smart-phone side were on board, they might feel left out of the conversation, but (see #1 above) it just doesn’t feel that way today.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some cool features on these services including: on demand conference calling; the map that allows you to see where your friends are; and the ability to create chat groups without having to share your actual phone number (FastSociety only, I believe, and used for ad-hoc communication with groups you’d rather not keep in touch with), but these features are nice-to-haves right now, not things that make adoption a no-brainer.

Ultimately, as a hack-day solution to a small problem, I think these services are awesome.  There may be times when I would find them invaluable.  But, as an everyday means of communication, the world just isn’t ready yet, and you don’t need to rush in. Maybe Facebook will make this awesome, or perhaps the AOLers out in Palo Alto can help speed things up, but for now, you’re ok sitting on the sidelines.

UPDATE: I have continued playing with these services, and can now recommend Beluga if you do decide to use these services at all.  It works much like BBM in that if you both have the app, no one gets charged for texts and when you look at it as an SMS replacement app *with* group messaging, rather than the reverse, it starts to look attractive… starts.


%d bloggers like this: