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  • Newsletter Issue #589

    March 14th, 2011

    THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    You have to wonder whether the lines can get any longer every time Apple releases a new product. Yes, you didn't see so many people waiting at most dealers when the Verizon Wireless version of the iPhone arrived, but that's because the product had been out for months in GSM dress. Besides, Verizon craftily rolled out the product in a way that most customers could order one online and not deal with crowds, nor the lengthy waits to get activated.

    On the other hand, big crowds attract the media, and thus Apple got plenty of coverage Friday when the iPad 2 went on sale at their retail outlets in the U.S. and at loads of independent dealers. Sellouts were frequent, and you may have to wait a few days to get the model you want.

    In keeping with the number one consumer electronics topic this week, on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we explored the ins and outs of the iPad 2. You'll also heard why other tablets — would-be iPad killers — such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Motorola Xoom, are destined to fail. We also looked at the possibilities for the next Apple mobile system release, iOS 5.

    Our guests this week included Peter Cohen, co-host of the "Angry Mac Bastards" radio show and Executive Editor for The Loop, Lance Ulanoff, Editor-in-Chief of PCMag.com, and Avram Piltch, Online Editorial Director for Laptop magazine.

    In passing, it's interesting to note the similarity of the reactions to the iPad 2, even though two of our guests this week could hardly be called rabid Apple fans.

    On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris introduce John B. Alexander, Ph.D, author of "UFOs: Myths, Conspiracies, and Realities." He'll discuss his ongoing research, and what the government knows and doesn't know about the subject.

    Coming March 20: Gene and Chris present an encore appearance by plasma physicist Dr. John Brandenburg, author of “Life and Death on Mars: The New Mars Synthesis.” What's the source of our endless fascination with the Red Planet, and was Mars ever the source of intelligent life?

    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 selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.

    APPLE EXPLOITS OUR NEED FOR INSTANT GRATIFICATION

    I understand the need for wanting something now, and it's not just an attractive fellow member of our species. Back in the late 1960s, I took a test drive in an innovative motor vehicle that masqueraded as a simple compact car. It was the Mazda R100, the first mass-produced car that contained the Wankel Rotary engine. Had I not been on the unemployment rolls at the time, I would have placed my order then and there.

    When I finally found a job, it was in another state, and it took several years for Mazda's distribution to expand, but I soon took home the R100's successor, a modest-looking yellow four-door Mazda RX2. It wasn't so different from the Toyota Corona (a precursor to the Camry) in terms of looks and accommodations, but, oh, that fabulous engine! It didn't matter that it got lousy fuel economy, and the rotor seals, equivalent to the pistols of a regular internal combustion engine, self-destructed in a few years. I was in auto heaven.

    So I do understand why so many of you must have the latest and greatest gear from Apple Inc.. Indeed, it makes sense to see the YouTube and network news videos of thousands of people around the U.S. waiting for hours to get their hands on their very own iPad 2.

    It's not that the first iPad, if you own one, stopped working when the new model came out, any more than a new Mac, or TV set, suffers from a fatal electronic mishap on the day of the next product update — and no, I won't mention cars that seem to self-destruct when the manufacturer's warranty expires. My 2009 27-inch iMac, with a quad-core Intel i7 processor, is already a little long in the tooth as electronic gadgets go, but it still works great!

    At the same time, Apple has perfected the magic and mystery of product marketing that convinces millions of people around the world that they have to buy something with the famous Apple logo now! Not next week, now! And even if the product is back ordered for several weeks, few of you will have buyer's remorse, cancel the order, and buy someone else's gadget instead.

    That's certainly something that Samsung hasn't discovered. I haven't heard of many people camping at local stores when the Galaxy Tab first debuted. While there have been loads of TV ads for the Motorola Xoom, which some regard as a reasonably credible iPad alternative, its arrival appears to have been greeted with collective yawns.

    So what is there about Apple that makes so many of their latest and greatest gadgets must-haves? Is it the legendary "Reality Distortion Field" that Steve Jobs allegedly generates whenever he does a media presentation? Hardly, because many of Apple's product introductions are heralded with a simple press release, and perhaps a few carefully choreographed interviews with other Apple executives.

    Maybe crowds didn't surround the local Apple Store when the MacBook Air arrived, but it nonetheless made a bundle of cash for Apple. The same is likely to apply to the new MacBook Pro family, which has garnered rave reviews even from tech outlets that are not known to be Mac oriented.

    When it comes to tablets, I was especially intrigued by benchmarks that show, in large part, the iPad 2 smokes the Motorola Xoom.

    Unfortunately, when reviewers stage those bake-offs, they are ignoring what makes the iPad and its successor so much more successful than the competition. It's all about the style and the user experience. It's not hard to put faster processors inside a box, and smart design engineers ought to be able to tweak the power management so you get a decent amount of battery life. Well, it'll be decent for the Xoom until Adobe Flash becomes available, and then all bets are off.

    The companies who make those iPad wannabes continue to sell specs above usability. They are following the old PC playbook, where they assemble off-the-shelf parts and push the numbers. That's why the vast majority of Windows-based personal computers are largely carbon copies of one another. They all run Windows, they may have slightly varying case designs, and an assortment of dreadful junkware bundles for your desktop. Maybe one company offers better support and product reliability than another. At the end of the day, though, you can buy one on price and specs alone, knowing that, unless the company has a miserable record for support and reliability, you'll get essentially the same box.

    I rather expect that the avalanche of coming tablets will afford a similar lack of differentiation. Except, in this case, they are simply following the iPad playbook. In fact, that's the name of RIM's forthcoming imitator, although they still haven't figured out a sensible marketing plan. In case you haven't heard, the Playbook won't be able to handle email unless you have a BlackBerry at hand to sync with. Talk about abject stupidity! Do they really think they'll sell more smartphones by requiring them for customers of their tablets?

    But even if you decide the iPad 2 is for you, the question is this: Must you have it now, or can you wait a few days, or weeks, for one to arrive at your home or office? It won't disappear, the price won't change, and you'll still be able to buy the software you want from the vast selection at the App Store. It doesn't absolutely have to be today! But that won't stop loads of loyal Apple customers from lusting after their latest and greatest gadgets. And based on the reviews and initial customer reactions alone, I suppose they have a point.

    EXAMINING THE CONSUMER REPORTS VISION OF THE IDEAL FAMILY CAR

    As you know, I have serious issues with the approach Consumer Reports takes to reviewing consumer electronics, especially when it comes to personal computers and mobile devices. Their test methodologies appear seriously flawed, and they simply don't grok the differences among operating systems, particularly how they might impact the user experience. And isn't that the most important thing?

    But when it comes to motor vehicles, CR ought to be taken seriously. They spend millions of dollars buying new vehicles each year from regular dealers, and they maintain a huge testing facility with dozens of workers performing everything from basic performance tests, to breaking, and handling. In fact, the auto industry rarely disputes their findings. If CR says a vehicle has dangerous handling defects, the manufacturer will usually make fixes to address the problem. Of course, you have to wonder how CR discovered problems that somehow eluded multi-billion dollar global manufacturers, but that's how it goes.

    Well, recently, our one and only family car was involved in an accident. Though not serious, the driver's side door was smashed in by a truck. The driver of the other vehicle was cited by police, so her insurance company is paying for repairs and, of course, a rental car to keep me on the road while the body work is performed.

    Now car rental companies pride themselves on delivering efficient vehicles to fill a need, such as vacationers and folks who, like me, are stranded when their cars are being repaired for one reason or another. They buy popular cars with a few standard options, in various price/size categories. In passing, the real money is made when they sell the rental cars after a year or two of regular use (and, I assume, abuse).

    Now auto makers tend to push their lesser models onto rental agencies. So, for example, you'll see such offerings as a Mitsubishi Galant, a family car, instead of something fancy, such as a Mazda6, or the compelling 2011 Kia Optima or a Hyundai Sonata. If you have the money, they'll even rent you a luxury vehicle, or maybe your insurance company will pay for one.

    Unfortunately, there were few family-oriented cars on the lot when I arrived at the rental store. One was a Chevrolet Malibu, an aging model that has been rightly criticized by most major auto magazines, including CR. The other vehicle was the Galant, in dark red, which had gotten acceptable reviews from CR.

    I returned the car the next day in disgust. The air conditioner could barely survive the 80-plus degree temperatures in the Phoenix area, handling was so-so, and the turning circle was as wide as a truck. I could see why Mitsubishi's sales are well past their prime in the U.S.

    Fortunately, the rental agency got in a pearl white 2011 Nissan Altima 2.5 S, a car that had garnered a 91 rating and was, therefore, CR's best rated family auto. That score applies to the model with a pretty efficient four-cylinder engine; the six cylinder version, which loses two miles per gallon in mixed driving, earns a 93. In passing, most of the cars with higher scores are premium brands costing a whole lot more than the Nissan, which starts at a tad over $22,000.

    As an automotive appliance, Nissan has just the right ingredients. The bulbous body is small enough to fit into a normal-sized single car garage, and offers loads of room for up to five six-footers without suffering discomfort. The seats are comfortable, the controls are simply labeled and accessible, and ride and handling are first-rate. What's more, the trunk is cavernous, and the fit and finish are impeccable. Indeed, if you have another few thousand dollars to spare, you can even option the Altima with enough luxury amenities to rival a luxury vehicle. You can get power seats in leather, an automatic garage door opener, a fancy radio with wonderful sound quality, a navigation system — the whole nine yards.

    If you go a little crazy checking the option sheet, the package will cost north of $31,000, but you will have 90% of the accommodations of a luxury car costing twice as much. You'll be able to drive cross-country in a safe, reliable vehicle, and not suffer from a serious backache. Your children won't complain about severe discomfort, even those who have become taller and wider than you.

    What you won't get is status. The Altima is decent looking, but totally anonymous when compared to millions of other conventional family cars. Police will barely notice if the speedometer strays a tad past the speed limit, and you'll never feel the urge to push the gas pedal a little harder to speed up the freeway ramp. Yes, there's enough power, even in four-cylinder trim, to get to highway speeds quickly enough. But there's no excitement whatever.

    But that's what CR strives for: A safe, comfortable, reliable and utterly practical family car that will get you from here to there without fuss or miss. But if you prefer to experience the sheer joy of driving, look elsewhere. Indeed, whenever I search for that car in a parking lot, I can barely remember what it looks like. Fortunately, I can press the lock button on the key fob, and the horn will briefly blare loudly enough for me to locate exactly where I left it.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Business Development: Gil James Bavel
    Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis



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