If you’re not a baby boomer, you may not recognize the name RCA, but even our younger readers know something about Motorola. Despite this, both companies have long histories, but nothing is forever.
So RCA Corporation, originally known as Radio Corporation of America, was founded in 1919. Among its achievements was the NBC network, which it founded in 1926 as the result of the acquisition of several radio stations. Just three years later, after the purchase of the Victor Talking Machine company, RCA become the world’s largest manufacturer of phonographs.
Phonographs? Yes, you remember them, right, and don’t forget the record company. Indeed some of the world’s most famous recording artists, including Elvis Presley, had their music released under the RCA label. So you see we’re talking of a company with a pedigree, although various mergers and acquisitions essentially undid the company’s core in the 1980s.
- HD Radio: Salvation for U.S. Broadcast Radio? So is the conventional wisdom correct? Is broadcast radio truly dead, yesterday's news and all that? Now this ages me, but when I grew up, FM radio was the luxury you added to a car only if you checked off the appropriate box on the option sheet. FM meant clean sound, relatively free of hiss, although the you couldn't hear stations from hundreds of miles away. Remember, there was no satellite or online radio in those days. This was before both AM and FM were standard issue on a new auto. If you wanted long distance, you listened to AM. At night, weather being right and all, you might receive stations from hundreds or thousands of miles away as signals hopped to the stratosphere and back. In some larger cities, such as New York and Chicago, you had 50,000 watt "clear channel" giants — meaning there were few if any stations on the same frequency — that you could hear from thousands of miles away. I remember, for example, listening to rock music on WLS-AM Chicago when I resided in Alabama. These days, most music has migrated to FM, and WLS-AM, as with most AM outlets, is mostly talk. From a quality standpoint, it made sense. AM is fine for talk, but not so fine for music, and, depending on where you are in relation to the transmitter, you may hear lots of static or a spillover from other stations on the same frequency, particularly at night. Indeed, to avoid interfering with other stations, the FCC mandates that the AM signal be highly directional for many stations, particularly at night. This means you can be in the very same place where you heard a clear daytime signal, but you hear nothing at all at night, or just scattershot signals from faraway stations. Drive a few miles, and the same station comes through loud and clear. With the growth of satellite and online radio, particularly podcasts, the argument for AM is more difficult to make, which is unfortunate. My radio shows are carried on some AM talk stations, so I'm particularly interested in the future of this classic radio technology. But if you live in a city with lots of local outlets, there's still plenty to hear, and there may be some solace in something known as HD Radio. HD Radio? Well, "HD" is the usual abbreviation for high definition. With HD Radio (and the "HD" is simply a trade name that doesn't stand for anything), broadcasters embed a digital signal as part of their transmissions on both AM and FM. On AM, you get hiss-free audio that's is fairly close to FM in quality. FM delivers audio quality that is close to CD, which makes it even better than satellite radio. But in addition to carrying a station's normal broadcasts, HD Radio supports up to three additional stations on the very same channel. So you get the equivalent of an HD2, HD3, and HD4, depending on the decision of the broadcaster about offering extra content. Now what's nice about the technology is that it's essentially seamless. If you don't have an HD Radio, you receive your stations the same way as before whether or not they are transmitting a digital signal. If you have an HD Radio, it will switch to the digital signal automatically after a few seconds. If you drive in an area where the digital signal isn't strong enough, it will be replaced with the analog signal, although that doesn't help if you're listening to one of the alternate stations. The biggest negative, however, is finding a radio that supports HD, and the rollout has been incredibly slow. While the technology seems promising enough, and is sometimes touted as a free alternative to satellite radio, good luck finding a home HD receiver. The HD Radio site lists only one portable, and two affordable home radios from one manufacturer, Insignia. There are tuners and receivers that support the format from a handful of audio companies, such as Denon, Marantz and Yamaha. But they can get quite expensive. You'll fare better in your car or truck, where most of the manufacturers are now offering HD either as standard equipment or as an option. I experimented with the technology on recent test drives of the Kia Optima and Mazda6 and found HD Radio is pretty much as advertised. AM reception is crisp and clean, though with a bit more digital haze than you hear on satellite radio. It wasn't quite FM quality but not far removed. In contrast, FM was pristine and definitely a step above what you normally receive from an analog signal. The rollout, though slow, is similar to what was originally offered with satellite radio, where only a few car makers offered the feature as an option, and most required a dealer installed add-on. And, to this day, there are still very few home receivers that receive satellite signals, but mostly because of the awkward antenna setup, which requires moving the thing around so it has a clear path to the satellite. But the real issue is actually finding an HD station in your city. In the Phoenix area, I found half a dozen AM stations that offer HD, and many more on the FM band. While the technology seems to work well enough, I wonder about its long-term future, although iBiquity Digital, which created the technology, claims that some 2,144 U.S. radio stations supported HD as of March 2012. To be sure, traditional broadcast stations are fighting a huge battle for survival and advertising dollars. But they also counted radio dead and buried when TV came along, and it didn't happen. The huge difference nowadays is that you can get radio in many formats, both programming and technology. It doesn't matter. People will not stop listening.
- The iMac SSD Transplant Report It's quite certain that the designers of recent iMacs didn't consider what might be required if you wanted to change anything more than RAM. And on the 21.5-inch version, you can't even do that. So this forces you to load up such Macs on Apple's build-to-order page when you place your order, so you don't have to concern yourself about lost upgrade opportunities. Now I bought my late 2009 iMac towards the end of that year, a few weeks after release. I did customize some, with an Intel 2.8GHz i7 processor, and the upgraded graphics card. I kept the standard 8GB RAM, since I could always flesh it out later if I wanted; that was the one thing that could be upgraded easily. Indeed, when the time came to move to 16GB RAM, I did the deed in about five minutes from the time it took to lift the iMac from my desk, place the screen on a large towel, open the tiny cover at the bottom of the unit, and replace the RAM. Although that RAM upgrade should not have made a substantial performance change, or at least I didn't expect one, I found that some apps seem to be less apt to clog system resources. A particular example was Parallels Desktop, where I was able to launch into a Windows virtual machine somewhat more quickly, with fewer slowdowns impacting other apps. Understand that I seldom gave Windows more than 1GB of RAM, so the slowdowns shouldn't have been as drastic as they were. In any case, I appreciated the modest performance boost, but still suffered from long startup times, amounting to several minutes because I launch half a dozen apps at startup, and opening one of those large productivity apps, such as Adobe Photoshop and QuarkXPress, took 20 seconds or more. Anything that involved copying large numbers of files seemed glacial, and the 1TB Western Digital Caviar "Black" drive that shipped with the iMac was regarded as reasonably swift for its time. So I enlisted the expertise of Other World Computing, who specializes in Mac upgrades, to suggest a suitable drive upgrade for review. We settled on the closest match to the stock drive, OWC's 1TB Mercury Electra 6G SSD. If you want to buy one, it retails for $478, a fairly normal price for such a device. If you can don't need that much storage, or can rely some on an external drive, you can get a 480GB SSD for $259. OWC also includes some useful features that make it suitable for use on Macs. So what OWC calls "global wear leveling algorithms" and "StaticDataRefresh" are said to eliminate the need for one of those TRIM hacks, not officially supported with OS X Yosemite, which are often necessary for third-party SSDs. The major claim to fame with SSD is a performance level several times higher than a traditional hard drive without the wear and tear. OWC advertises "sustained reads up to 535MB/s and writes up to 443MB/s," although I made no effort to verify that claim. Alas, you can't just pop the hard drive out of an iMac and put a new one in. Installation involves a laborious process that you shouldn't try without some careful instructions. You'll also need to buy a special kit that contains some special tools and a pair of suction cups. OWC sells such a kit for $59. They have also posted an instruction video that makes the process seem less intimidating. It's still not a cakewalk, but if you pay close attention, and you're comfortable with a tiny Torx screwdriver and fiddling with slim, delicate wiring harnesses, you'll probably do all right. In addition to the SSD and the drive installation kit, OWC also sent along a 3.5-inch drive adaptor — the SSD is a 2.5-inch device — although you actually can get by without it. Oh, and by the way, next-generation of ultra-thin iMacs are even more difficult to upgrade. In place of magnets to hold the glass in place, Apple has moved to a special adhesive tape. In any case, I received the kit on a Saturday, and steeled myself for the installation the following Monday. I watched the video several times, and kept it available on another Mac, the review iMac 5K that has since been returned to Apple, just in case I needed a refresher. And I did. I won't detail all the steps here. But it starts with using the two suction cups to pry the glass from the iMac's chassis. After that, you have to unscrew a bunch of tiny Torx (six-point) screws to remove the LCD display. All this has to be done real carefully, and it's best to have some clean, soft surfaces on which to place the delicate components you're removing. Disconnecting the LCD involves unplugging some real slim wiring harnesses, and you have to be extremely careful. It's not that replacement cables are necessarily expensive, but getting them from a local Apple dealer or even an Apple Store will not be easy. They are not regarded as user serviceable parts. To prepare myself for the process, I ran a full clone backup to the external FireWire 800 drive with Carbon Copy Cloner. From beginning to end, it took over an hour to install the SSD. The photo at the left shows the iMac at the point where the LCD panel was being removed. The only fly in the ointment was the dust that accumulated inside after five years in dusty Arizona, and it required a few moments to blow it out. No doubt I improved the long-term reliability of this computer in the process. After the iMac was closed up, I carefully reconnected all the peripheral cables and the power cord. Since I had to install a new OS onto an empty drive, I pressed Option during the startup process to allow me to select the Yosemite restore partition from the backup drive. The relative speed of the installation signaled what I'd expect once the iMac had its own OS. The migration process required some four hours to restore 500GB of data to the new drive, about the same as the same migration procedure took on the iMac 5K. Once restored, I was able to give the SSD the acid test, and I was amazed. Normally it takes up to three minutes for my Mac to boot and all startup apps to load. This time the process took little more than 30 seconds to complete, and I hit the desktop in 15 seconds flat. Most apps launched instantaneously, and Adobe Photoshop took maybe three seconds. QuarkXPress 10.5 loaded in about 10 seconds. As any of you who has used an SSD can testify, just about everything runs amazing fast, and the dream of almost instant response is realized. Indeed, it is now hard to detect much of a difference between my old iMac, and the iMac 5K — the latter came with a 1TB Fusion Drive, which gives you most of the performance of a true SSD — which goes to show how much of what you do on a Mac is drive related. Based on the system tools I put into action, the iMac is also running a lot cooler now, since the drive generates little or no heat, usually not much higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit after some intense action. It's hard to complain about that. The sole downside, and it's minor, is the fact that a 1TB SSD generally formats to around 960GB capacity, short of the 999GB used by the previous drive. But that's really a minor trade off to gain those amazing speed advantages. True, an SSD, and the accompanying installation kit, aren't exactly cheap. But it's a lot less expensive than buying a new Mac. If you would rather not engage in such extensive transplant surgery yourself, and I understand why, see if a local Mac dealer would do it for you; an Apple Store would refuse for obvious reasons. You can also ship your iMac to OWC's own plant, of course, but first see if you find a nearby dealer to handle the chores, because it will cost less, particularly when you include the cost of shipping. A nearby authorized Apple dealer, MacMedia of Scottsdale AZ, considers iMac drive upgrades a Tier 2 process for which it charges $95. It's definitely worth the peace of mind if you choose to take this step. Now OWC normally sends out review hardware for 30-day evaluations. But since reviewing this drive involved a complicated installation process, they aren't exactly rushing me to return it.
- An ISP’s Dirty Secret As many of you already know, broadband speeds are getting better in the U.S., at least in some parts of the country. Google is currently testing a gigabit Internet service in Kansas City known as Google Fiber, although the first speed test I saw covering service quality recorded download and upload speeds of 700 megabits. But that's nothing too shabby. I'd take 100 megabits if I could get it affordably, which, unfortunately, I can't. Imagine downloading all the high definition movies you want in minutes, rather than hours. It seems a way of realizing the dream of complete access to all your TV shows and movies in the cloud. You won't need a cable or satellite account either, and some of you have already cut the cord. I suppose judicious selections of online versions of your favorite stations, iTunes, Netflix and Hulu Plus can give you all or most of the content you want. Unfortunately there is one troubling limitation that threatens to complicate matters seriously, and that's your ISP's bandwidth cap. Alas, most ISPs don't tell you about it upfront, as a wireless carrier might do when you buy a specific package. It may be hidden in the fine print somewhere, or support will tell you when you've exceeded the cap and risk a service slowdown or interruption. Worse, they may still proclaim "unlimited," as if the word had something other than the conventional meaning. Here in the Phoenix area, I have access to a pair of broadband services. Cox Communications offers packages with up to 55 megabit downloads (5 megabit uploads), with a cap of 400GB. The only competitive package comes from CenturyLink (which acquired Qwest in 2010), which offers up to 40 megabits downloads and up to 20 megabit uploads. In the real world, CenturyLink downloads are actually faster than Cox, and upload speeds blow Cox away. But their bandwidth cap is pegged at 250GB for downloads. You can upload as much as you want without incurring any penalties. Now you probably realize that it doesn't take too many days of constant HD movie downloads before you reach and exceed the ISP's limits. With both Cox and CenturyLink, you'll first get warnings, but they reserve the right to terminate your service with extreme prejudice for your "evil" behavior. I understand that ISPs may be constrained by server capacity, and thus feel they have to restrict users to a fixed amount of bandwidth before you run afoul of their quality standards. But it's really more about the number of simultaneous connections and the amount of data being downloaded at any moment in time rather than the total, actually. It's not as if your ISP is storing your content, or at least I hope not. Now if you're getting your TV content from your ISP, there are no restrictions, since everything originates on their network. Certainly I can see the marketing advantage in all this, although customers should be allowed to download whatever content they want without being discriminated against. There is a form of net neutrality in effect in the U.S., but it doesn't address needless bandwidth caps. It just mandates broadband equality. Of course, if you are careful about how much you download, or your lucky enough to have an ISP in your city with more liberal bandwidth caps -- or no caps at all -- you have nothing whatever to worry about. For me, I continue to monitor the content I download, and I only occasionally use iTunes to rent a movie. If Apple plans to introduce a subscription TV/movie service, however, they will confront this obstacle, and it's not something that is easily remedied, unless the broadband providers get their acts together and treat customer needs fairly. But one big problem is that, in many locales, they have no competition. If your broadband provider doesn't give you the service you want, you may not find another with equal or better service. This is the sort of monopoly situation that can cause abuses of this sort. Besides, it's not a trivial matter to start a new ISP. If you want to build your own network, and not just lease bandwidth from someone else, you have to spend a bundle digging up streets and laying cable. For that, you need permission from localities, and conform to specific licensing regulations. Even then, it's possible a housing or apartment complex has already made a deal with another provider for wiring, and thus will not allow you to use someone else's pipes. Sure, they can't stop you from installing a satellite dish, assuming that you conform to some basic installation scenarios and have a clear path to the satellites themselves. But ISPs? Other than dial-up, forget about an alternative. I realize that a large portion of my readers live in other countries, and thus your ISP may have different services, bandwidth caps, and other requirements. You still may or may not have an option if the service you get is subpar. Although I'm not necessarily a fan of Google, I like the concept of Google Fiber. It's cheap, and even offers a TV service to compete with cable and satellite. If the Kansas City experiment succeeds, it would be real nice to see Google laying cables in my area. I do not expect to see the new broadband service spread far and wide so quickly, though, but maybe the existence of Google Fiber will inspire other ISPs to clean up their acts.
- About Terminating iTunes with Extreme Prejudice So iTunes hasn't exactly received the love in recent years. Some say it's bloated, although technically that's not quite true. Others are just overwhelmed by all the features that are regularly added, without taking steps to simplify the interface so the power of the app is at your beck and call. Others fret over stability and reliability issues, and reports that music databases may be borked with iTunes 12.2 and Apple Music only make matters worse. Now my history with iTunes goes back to its origins as SoundJam and later SoundJam MP Plus from a now-defunct publisher known as Casady & Greene. In 2000, Apple made the smart decision to buy the product, and bring along its developers, including Jeffrey Robbin, now a VP of consumer applications at Apple. In addition to being lead developer of iTunes, Robbin is credited with helping to create the software for the iPod, and was, several years ago, reported to be a part of the development project to create an Apple TV set. Of course, that project appears to have been discontinued, but it's notable how Apple has put Robbin in charge of significant projects. I've known him for years, and he's a real talented guy and deserving of his success. But something's gone real wrong with iTunes, and it's in need of serious repair, or Apple needs to start over and rethink the app. Before I go on, don't assume that starting over is anything new with Apple. Ask users of Final Cut Pro, for example. Although the new and far cheaper version, Final Cut Pro X, got a whole lot better over time, some loyal users chafed at the changed interface and lost features, and went elsewhere. Still, Apple is not shy about changing thingsy, and it's high time that iTunes go under the knife. The latest version, 12.2, was released to introduce Apple Music. It's otherwise substantially the same as the previous cluttered version, only it's more cluttered. It only adds new layers of inconsistency and unpredictable behavior to an app that was already breaking at the seams. A major change of version 12 was the use of a context-sensitive navigation bar that totally confounds muscle memory. So when you move from Music to Podcasts or to Movies, the options and the width of the nav bar labels changes. This may make sense from a logical point of view, but it means that you have to stop and think before you click. Apple Music merely adds extra labels for the Music section. There's no Apple Music icon, since the feature integrates with existing music features. All right, that's part of it, and I suppose most of you have gotten used to the poor implementation of this feature. There's more, however. With Apple Music, context menus usually don't work, and the ellipses that are usually placed next to the titles of albums and tracks don't deliver consistent context results. Select an album in the For You page and the ellipse will only allow you to share the album. When you click on the album to open its playlist, you have additional options to share an album, but none to tell Apple Music you want that thing off your list post haste. To make matters worse — and more confusing — if you tap and hold an album title in the For You list in Music for iOS 8.4 (and now the 9.0 beta), you not only have extra choices, but one entitled "I Don't Like This Suggestion." Why isn't that readily available with iTunes? Tell us Mr. Robbin! I realize that iTunes is very much a browser, meaning that the content you access can be instantly altered. I suppose that adding more context options is something that could be done on-the-fly without updating the app, and maybe it'll be fleshed out over time as the service is refined. For now, however, the interface and the layout are poorly designed, as if it was perhaps thrown together to meet a deadline with the hope it'll be fixed later. Kirk McElhearn, Macworld's "iTunes Guy," and my go-to expert on such matters, suggests that Apple's marketing people are being given too much power to drive the look and feel of iTunes. It's more about turning visitors into paying customers, but it doesn't even succeed on that level. If they hope you'll buy a track you're enjoying in Apple Music, the process is definitely not easy. Or perhaps Apple really does believe that we are all destined to rent music, and this is only guiding you into that direction. Remember, when you rent music, you own nothing other than the tracks you've previously purchased. Anything you've downloaded from Apple Music stops playing when you stop paying. If you decide one month you have other priorities, and you've spent days fine-tuning your custom playlists, will Apple allow you to suspend your membership for a while, and allow you to pick up where you left off a month or two later? Just asking. The reason I suggest Apple should kill iTunes and try over is that the app has moved in the wrong direction. It doesn't mean it should be split up into separate media apps, as is done in iOS. Having a single place to get play and acquire content on a Mac or PC is probably the more efficient idea. But that shouldn't keep Apple from starting over and devising a better way. It's not that there is better competition out there, particularly if you are accustomed to the Apple ecosystem. But how long will Apple allow this messy situation to continue before taking action?
- More Cord Cutting Nonsense At a time where your cable or satellite bill may be north of $100, way north, the possibility of saving lots of money by cutting the cord may seem incredibly attractive. It does make sense in theory, but as a practical matter, it has its complications. Unfortunately, stories about the process seldom bother to cover the gotchas. But I'll make up for their lapses. Let's start from scratch. The theory goes that millennials don't have the extra cash to buy a full-blown TV package, so they find ways to cut corners. So start with Netflix, add Hulu Plus, plus an antenna for local stations, and they have a decent TV package. Such streamers as Apple TV include those basic streaming channels and more, including sports and news, and the cable and satellite companies are wondering where the customers are going. Growth has stalled to a snail's pace. The existing cable/satellite providers have clearly priced themselves out of the market for many subscribers. When fees for content go up, they are passed on to you. Maybe you can re-up your subscription with a new one-year or two-year agreement and receive some temporary discounts, but they expire in a staggered fashion, and you may end up back where you started with a year left on that contract. One of the problems is that they stick you with large and larger packages of channels. You cannot just order the 10 or 20 you really watch, because they might be stuck in different tiers. And I haven't even started with premium channels, such as HBO and Showtime. To get a piece of the cord-cutting action, Dish Network has brought into play Sling TV, a $20-a-month service consisting of a subset of channels that's streamed online. You get a smattering of choices, including some sports, plus extra cost options — or tiers — if you're not satisfied with the core collection. But not broadcast, at least not yet. Sure, an antenna might suit, but what if you live a little bit too far from local stations to get decent reception. Indeed, that's what brought about cable in the first place, where a company would set up a central antenna system (later buttressed with satellite dishes) to receive stations from far-away places and distribute them via a network of cables to customers. In a CNET report, Dish's Chief Executive Roger Lynch is quoted as saying that they plan to add broadcast networks "in a tier," meaning as another extra cost option. But I think you can see where I'm going. Add a few tiers, and maybe a premium channel or two, and suddenly the monthly price isn't altogether different from a standard cable/satellite package. Add to that the elephant in the room, your broadband ISP's bandwidth limits, and you can see where complications are in store. Now wasn't Sling TV supposed to be the cheaper alternative? What about a basic satellite package, where you don't have to worry about Internet bandwidth? Dish's America's Top 120 costs $29.99 per month for the first year. All right, you have to pay $59.99 per month the second and subsequent years, but you get free HD and a free DVR. Consider that when you begin to add a few frills to Sling TV, the price difference will be far less. Bait and switch? If you can live without the constant presence of the tube in your life, though, you're apt to find a small number of services that aren't expensive and offer what you need, or can live with. But things can quickly get out of hand if you start adding standalone services still believing that you're somehow saving money over the traditional offerings. So don't get carried away. Now I can see where the cable and satellite companies are coming from. Pushing slimmed down cloud-based packages, though, is just an alternative to so-called basic cable, and I fail to see how it serves the customer any better. One way to better serve customers on a budget would be to offer a la carte programming. Choose one from Column A, two from Column C, and build a custom package that meets your needs, and only pay for what you want to watch. However, this sort of unbundling scheme should be priced in proportion to the stations you want, compared to the standard 100-400 channels they offer now. Unfortunately, existing content deals may include channels licensed to the cable/satellite systems as a bundle, which may complicate single channel offerings. From a practical standpoint, a la carte may work fine for most of you. With the present structure of hundreds of choices, however, you may discover a new channel with great content simply by channel switching. But if that channel isn't on your programming list, you'll never see it, and that might work against the success of newer offerings in search of an audience. But throwing channels in different service levels, seemingly at random, doesn't help either. You may have to order higher-priced tiers just to get a particular channel. DirecTV does that, for example, with Cloo, a channel that runs mostly repeats of popular crime procedurals. You can't get it with the basic package. As I write this, there are still those rumors that Apple is close to starting their own TV subscription service. The question is how Apple can make a difference and stand out from among the cable/satellite and free-standing channel clutter. How can they get you a decent selection of content at a lower price, without pushing you past your ISP's bandwidth cap? Unfortunately that raises questions that are seldom covered by the press.
This article was posted on Monday, February 3rd, 2014 at 12:00 AM and is filed under News and tagged with: Elvis Presley, Motorola, Nbc, phonograph, Radio Corporation of America, RCA, RCA Corporation, Victor Talking Machine Company.