THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE
If you live in or near a large city, getting broadband Internet is a no-brainer. You may even have a of two ISPs, as I do, which means both will fight for your business and perhaps offer special sign-up deals. I ended up with CenturyLink, a company, in part, descended from one of the original telecoms, Qwest, which offers a DSL service that uses old fashioned copper cables. But performance and reliability are first-rate, and I consistently achieve at least 90% of the measured speeds, which are listed in the Actiontec DSL router as 50 megabits down, and 20 megabits up. I also took advantage of a multiyear contract in order to save a decent amount over the full price. Current bundles can reduce the price of broadband to less than $20 per month.
But imagine if you lived somewhere in a rural area, say a converted barn in the UK, where the local ISP got you barely a twentieth of the speed I routinely achieve. That might be OK for routine browsing and email, but not so much if you want to stream videos from Netflix or iTunes. Well, as explained on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, which featured author and commentator Kirk McElhearn, Macworld's "iTunes Guy," that's precisely the dilemma he confronted. His new home, by the way, is absolutely beautiful, with an amazing view of the British countryside, so I understand why he and his lady decided to take the deal.
But he may be forced to pay extra for satellite Internet to get online, and there are some serious tradeoffs, such as poor latency as the signal bounces off the satellite. This can sabotage voice and video messaging, because of the delay between transmitting and receiving.
Kirk also explained why he's irked by live blogging of TV shows, and the ins and outs of his decision as an iPhone user to acquire a low-cost Android moto g smartphone from Motorola. I'll cover that in more detail in the next article.
You also heard from Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer, on such topics as the potential qualifications of two potential final candidates to replace Steve Ballmer as Microsoft CEO, and the differing business plans of such companies as Google, Microsoft and Apple. So, for example, Google turns you into the product by recording your online behavior and delivering up appropriate targeted ads, whereas Apple's products are the hardware, software and services they sell. He also discusses whether Apple still needs to consider offering a cheaper iPhone.
On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris welcome UFO historian Richard Dolan, author of two books in the "UFOs and the National Security State" series, "A.D. After Disclosure," with TV producer and novelist Bryce Zabel, and the upcoming "UFOs for the 21st Century Mind: An Ancient Mystery for a New Era." You can find more information about his books here: Richard Dolan Press.
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! We're taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: "Separating Signal From Noise." We've also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.
ANOTHER LOOK AT THE CHEAP SMARTPHONE MARKET
When my long-time friend Kirk McElhearn, a prolific author and commentator, told me ahead of doing an episode for The Tech Night Owl LIVE this week, that he had purchased an Android smartphone, I paused for as second. After a very few high-profile Mac journalists made well-publicized switches from the iPhone to Android earlier this year, I wondered whether Kirk would be among them.
But he was merely doing what I did last February, which was to have an extended exposure to that other mobile platform. My move become possible because Samsung's PR agency was only too happy to send me two of their flagship Galaxy handsets for review. I could even hang onto them for a while if I only added the units to my wireless account. So I proceeded to retire an iPhone 4S, and give Android its due.
As most of you know, I attempted to largely duplicate the iPhone experience on Google's platform with mixed success. I never found an email app that was truly reliable, although one, InoMail, did make a worthy effort to duplicate the look and feel of Mail for iOS. Worse, some apps, such as Time magazine and GCN's player software, which streams their 70 network radio shows, wouldn't work reliably, or, in the case of the latter, at all.
I chafed at the convoluted and sometimes confusing setup process with Android, which gives you many more options than iOS, but at the cost of added complexity. Even getting the best out of the Phone app required going through dozens of settings, most of which might well have been set as defaults and removed from the interface. The value of leaving some of those features off eluded me, but I grant that Android is still the number one mobile platform.
Rather than seek a review sample, Kirk decided to buy a cheap Android smartphone, and he settled the newly-released moto g from Google's Motorola division. At a U.S. price of $179 for the 8GB version, he got something that actually offered a credible experience for his needs. He was able to manage his email, check his favorite sites, and maybe run a few apps that mirrored his iPhone favorites.
Now Kirk would probably not be able to use that handset as his primary device. For one thing, Kirk has tens of thousands of songs in his iTunes library, and it's a tight fit even on his 64GB iPhone 5s. So he's heavily invested in Apple's ecosystem. Sure, it's possible to move most of the music to another device, since Apple doesn't offer DRM-contaminmated tracks anymore, but the easy syncing isn't possible with Google's cloud servers, which don't offer sufficient storage. Yes, it's possible to sync Android gear on a Mac with third-party software, or a basic free file transfer tool, but it's not quite as user friendly.
But consider the needs of most smartphone users, who don't buy lots of music or apps, or who object to committing to two-year contracts. The price of admission only means a small monthly fee on your credit card if you can't pay it upfront. What's more, Motorola's cheap phone appears well built, and has received some positive early reviews.
At the very least, you get a nearly pure Android experience, with very little junkware to fill the available storage space. Sure, 8GB barely gives you 5GB free space because of the Android bloat — there's also a 16GB version of the moto g for a mere $20 more — but that may not be a serious impediment for most users. While the unit, which arrives in the U.S. this week, comes with Android 4.3 jellybean, it will be upgradeable soon to version 4.4 KitKat, which recently shipped.
You also get a lot for the money. There's a 4.5-inch high definition display with a 329-pixel density, similar to an iPhone with Retina display. The 5GB rear camera may seem weak compared to the 8GB you get on the iPhone, but it that's sufficient for casual snapshots. Video capture is limited to 720p, but the difference between that resolution and the Blu-ray standard of 1080p isn't so significant on a TV set unless you have a fairly large screen.
According to Kirk, he received all-day battery life under normal use on the moto g, similar to his iPhone, but there is no support for the high performance LTE cellular standard. That might be a severe negative, I suppose, if you're into streaming video and downloading lots of stuff. But the supported HSPA+ protocol is still plenty fast for normal use, and on a par with low-end broadband systems.
In short, Kirk is quite satisfied with the moto g for testing and for use as a backup handset. I might even contact Motorola about having a look at one.
But you have to wonder about the price. The cheapest iPhone, the 2011 4s, is roughly $450 unlocked. So how is Motorola able to offer something for a mere $179 that is a credible and decent performing alternative? The answer is that the company is likely using the same pricing strategy as the Nexus line, which is to sell the handset at or near cost, and relying on the purchase of extra cost services, from Google Play, to make up the difference.
That is, of course, what Amazon does with the Kindle, and the strategy appears to be successful for the massive online retailer, although actual sales can only be estimated.
But that's not a place Apple will visit, despite all the clamoring from the media. Apple is in the business of selling hardware at a fair price, not offering loss leaders with this expectation that you'll buy something else to make up the difference. Remember, an iPhone is not a printer or a razor.
SEARCHING FOR FREE EMAIL: WHAT ABOUT APPLE?
As some of you know, I recently decided to rely on Microsoft's Outlook.com as my free general-purpose email provider of choice. Yes, I have accounts with iCloud, Google and Yahoo!, but with Microsoft's new support for IMAP, with ActiveSync push email available on iOS or Android, I thought it would be worth a try. So I set up the account on my iMac, which uses Mavericks. The fact that there were ongoing Gmail glitches, some of which were not fixed by the recent Mail for Mavericks update, hastened my choice.
I wasn't so concerned that Google scans the text of my messages to deliver targeted ads, since I seldom used their busy online interface. But I didn't like the fact that, if I accidentally deleted a message, it couldn't be undone without going to the Trash and restoring it. Or maybe Google believes that's a more secure solution.
Regardless, I found Outlook.com's minimalist interface, derived from the Metro theme of Windows 8, to be perfectly acceptable. I was able to recreate my email filters, which deposited certain messages to special folders, and an email forward on Gmail took care of the addresses I had neglected to change.
Now Microsoft has suffered from the problems afflicting Windows 8 and 8.1, particularly the fact that customers just don't care. But I was just looking for email, and Microsoft's targeted ads are well-organized in the right sidebar and not overly obtrusive. A $19.95 annual fee kills the ads, and the potential privacy concerns.
Well I tried; I really did. But as of this weekend, I've moved away from Outlook.com for two reasons: First, it doesn't work properly on either Mail or Outlook 2011. When I send a message from that account, it appears twice in the Sent box. That problem doesn't happen for messages sent from my iPhone or from the Outlook site, but the Sent boxes still show the extra copies. I've read of other IMAP issues, so I expect this is a work in progress for Microsoft. Even worse, however, is the fact that messages I delete on my Mac are not similarly deleted when I consult the iPhone, so I have to delete them again. Yes, I've waited long enough for the delete process to sync.
So what did I choose instead? Well, there's that former MobileMe account, which I established during the earliest days when Apple offed a mac.com address. I've kept it in force under iCloud, and so I decided to give it a wider deployment for the messages formerly handled by Gmail and Outlook.com. Message filtering or rules are handled similarly, and it's mostly reliable. Yes, there have been notable outages at iCloud that impact email delivery, at least temporarily. But that's also been true for Microsoft and Google.
Just as important: Apple is evidently not scraping the contents of my messages to deliver ads. There are no ads. Just a clean online email interface that offers all of the features most of you need with speed and efficiency. Yes, email on an iOS device is push, which means near-instant delivery. Email folders aren't screwed up, and everything appears to work as it should.
Sure, there are some limits to all this email joy. You are limited to the 5GB free storage space on an iCloud account, and more space requires an annual subscription. You cannot apply labels to a message as you can in Gmail, as if most people really care, and you cannot use iCloud to receive email from other accounts. But that's a minor inconvenience, as every email service I know about offers some level of Web access.
For now, I'm happy with the change — at least until the next iCloud outage.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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