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  • Newsletter Issue #604

    June 27th, 2011

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    As we all await the final version of Mac OS X Lion, and perhaps some Mac refreshes in the next month or so, Apple news hasn’t been scarce. In addition to all the speculation and ongoing reports about OS betas, there are those legal skirmishes about patent rights and, this past week, news that Apple was granted a fairly all-encompassing patent covering touchscreen technology.

    As I’ve said in previous columns, I don’t pretend to have any special legal insights. But it does appear this particular patent isn’t dependant on the hardware so much as the software and how the user interacts with the screen. What this means is that, if the patent is upheld, perhaps every single maker of smartphones and tablets may be at risk. While demanding that all of this gear be removed from the market may not sit well with the courts, and antitrust regulators, it’s possible Apple stands to make another boatload of money over intellectual property licenses.

    As you might expect, this was one of the key topics discussed this week on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, where noted tech commentator Jim Dalrymple, of The Loop, gave you updates on Apple’s patents and patent lawsuits, and the troubles confronted by RIM, makers of the BlackBerry.

    Security guru Rich Mogull discussed the efforts by cyber criminals to hack government sites and financial institutions, and offered some common sense tips to protect yourself.

    Rounding out the guest list this week was Macworld editor Lex Friedman, who delivered a lengthy update on the patent issues, and the downsides of offering Mac OS X Lion strictly as a downloadable upgrade.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris revisit the mystery of crystal skulls with archeologist Stephen Mehler. This has been one of the most controversial topics on our forums in recent weeks. You’ll hear fascinating discussions about mysterious objects, ancient mysteries, the Rosicrucian Order, and other topics.

    Coming July 3: Gene and Chris introduce former National Enquirer reporter Paul Bannister, author of “Tabloid Man and the Baffling Chair of Death.” Learn about the incredible supernatural and conspiracy stories he’s covered over the years. Beginning this episode, The Paracast will also be heard weekly by millions of listeners in New York City, New Jersey, and Long Island, courtesy of WVNJ radio, thus adding to a growing number of terrestrial stations that carry the broadcast.

    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.

    A PERSONAL TALE OF APPLE RELIABILITY

    As much as I have concerns about the way Consumer Reports reviews tech gear, I will take their reader surveys seriously, having answered some of them myself. While some of the questions seem a tad too general, at least CR appears to be making an honest attempt to determine if a product or service is reliable or not.

    My personal experience has actually shown those reliability surveys to be very much on the mark. Consider that 2002 Honda Accord I used to drive. CR says there are transmission issues, and yes, Honda did have a special repair program that addressed premature failure. But it never happened to me over the 74,000 miles my son and I put on that vehicle.

    The earliest Intel-based Macs also didn’t have quite the bullet-proof hardware reliability you’d expect from Apple gear. They ran hot, a problem that was at least controlled somewhat with ongoing updates to the cooling fans. But it appears that hardware may have been prone to other ills.

    My first intel-based unit, a MacBook Pro acquired in the summer of 2006, had a defective battery. It wasn’t one of the swollen kind reported by some; it simply stopped sustaining a full charge after a few months. Apple sent a replacement, without requiring the original be returned.

    If you examine Apple’s warranty policies over the years, you’ll see that extended repair programs appear from time to time. The power supplies of older iMacs come to mind. In one case, a client actually paid a third-party dealer for those repairs, not knowing such a program existed. It sounds like a double-dip to me, but when the problem occurred again, Apple support not only agreed to make the second repair free of charge, but actually refunded the previous payment. I also expect that the repair department at that reseller got chewed out over this attempt to steal some extra money from a customer.

    In May, 2008, my son, Grayson, received a black MacBook upon the day of his graduation from college. He since took employment near Madrid as a teacher, has traveled all over Europe on brief vacations — and back to his home in the states — with his portable Mac in tow. But he also protects it in a resilient case when it’s not in use; he is reasonably careful in handling his valuable possessions.

    Well, it wasn’t long before his MacBook’s keyboard failed. Over the next three years, he had the logic board and hard drive replaced as well; a cloud-based backup system was used to restore his data, since the files on the original drive were irrecoverable. Fortunately, there was AppleCare, which extended the warranty to three years.

    The rest of the story is even less pleasant.

    AppleCare expired last month, and just a tad over a month later, I got an email from Grayson, complaining that “My computer monitor seems to be broken. The bottom half of the screen doesn’t show up; it only appears as a grey or white block.”

    Now the cause may well be a loose video cable; that’s not unusual, particularly on a note-book that gets moved around a lot. I suppose the video circuitry on the logic board could be failing as well, maybe even the LCD panel. Regardless, if the repair extends beyond a simple cable, Grayson will confront a major expense. But he’s an adult now, long gone from the family nest, and quite capable of deciding the appropriate remedy. I did urge him to request a special exception from the authorized Apple reseller he visits, using that MacBook’s dismal service history as ammunition to make this repair without charge.

    Grayson might consider just investing in a new MacBook or MacBook Pro — the Air doesn’t seem his cup of tea, since he is heavily vested in physical media, and shouldn’t be forced to deal with an external optical drive with a dongle on his travels.

    I am not about to suggest that this singular example proves that Apple’s hardware reliability is necessarily suffering, at least compared to the Windows-based competition. The problems may be the result of all that traveling, or maybe it’s just the luck of the draw. That’s a question I cannot answer, since few of my Macs, other than that infamous PowerBook 5300ce in the mid-1990s, have ever exhibited much trouble.

    Certainly, dear reader, if you have a similar war story, I’d like to hear it. I’ll also update all of you on Grayson’s pending encounter with that repair shop to see whether he receives a free or low-cost repair, or decides to exercise his credit card and invest in a brand new Mac note-book.

    Update! So on the next day, I called Apple’s corporate headquarters, and asked to speak to a customer service person in their executive office. I was connected immediately. After a few moments conversation, during which time I never mentioned that I’m in the media, the representative checked the service record, and, having found a notation about a major repair as recently as last November, granted an exception. Apple will replace the defective LCD panel on Grayson’s MacBook at no cost. All’s well that ends well.

    A BRIEF LOOK AT NEW CAR TECHNOLOGY AND DESIGN

    Knowing that we’d soon have to look for a new (or replacement) auto, we’ve been spending an extensive amount of time checking out the possibilities over at local dealers. Now, depending on your point of view and your needs, the process of seeking out a new car can be quick and pleasant, or lengthy and annoying.

    Even though car makers have forced their dealers to tighten up on misleading claims and overly aggressive sales tactics, you still sometimes feel you’re entering a den of hungry wolves when you visit a showroom. With car sales still in the dumps, relatively speaking, I’ve seen a lineup of salespeople hungrily eyeing the potential customer who drives up in hopes of a fast conquest, and, of course, a sizable commission. Yes, I realize some auto stores pay their sales staff a salary, but higher sales mean generous bonuses for the entire crew, and if a worker doesn’t move enough iron, a replacement is always in the wings.

    Now to get a fair picture of what’s available for 2011 and 2012, I actually shopped for vehicles way out of my price range, plus lots of affordable compacts. With tightening fuel economy requirements, auto makers are being compelled to sell more smaller, fuel-efficient models. At the same time, since profits tend to be slim on the low-end, they are puffing up those models with such luxury amenities as fancy radios, navigation systems, Bluetooth (for your iPhone and iPad), leather seats, and loads of additional electronic doo-dads that will quickly inflate the price.

    So nowadays, you can buy such popular compact cars as a Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra equipped nearly the same as the larger, more expensive models, yet be assured of getting a reliable 35 to 40 miles per gallon on the highway. But in a desperate bid to move product, some makers may even go a little too far to deliver flashy looking cars at a lower price.

    The Elantra is a good example. For all practical purposes, this compact car contains near the room of a mid-sized vehicle of just a few years ago, along with all the fancy amenities. But the sharply curved roofline, which is mirrored on its hot-selling sibling, the mid-sized Sonata, sharply cuts rear seat head room. But it looked good on the Mercedes-Benz CLS four-door, which is where these car makers cribbed the idea. Hyundai also learned a few tricks about designing front grills from MB.

    The accompanying high-beltlines on a Hyundai look sexy in person, but they also mean narrower windows, and reduced rear visibility. But no matter. Hyundai’s navigation systems offer a rear camera so you can see what’s behind you, and not run over the family pet by mistake. That is, if you’re willing to pay the piper to get one so equipped.

    As far as the electronics go, some auto makers go way over the top. Ford touts their new MyTouch features, which include voice activation, touchscreens and lots more. But Ford’s J.D. Powers initial quality surveys have taken a nosedive, after rising for several years, because customers are complaining about OS bugs, features that are difficult to learn, and the slow response of the touchscreen. In saying that, let me tell you that Ford licenses MyTouch technology from Microsoft, and that explains everything.

    Hyundai’s electronic geegaws seem better designed, and the same is true for the flagship sedan from their Kia division, the Optima. Audio quality of the premium radio, which requires purchase of a Navigation system for over $2,000, is decent enough. The standard radios tend to sound thin and harsh.

    Buick’s Regal sports sedan, basically a rebadged model from GM’s Opel division, is quite an attractive design, with good handling, and all the comfort you expect in a car with luxury pretensions. Pity the engine, even the optional turbo version, is terribly underpowered, and why does Buick omit a garage door opener from this model, unlike many popular cars at a lower price from the Japanese and Korean auto makers?

    On the high-end, I took a test drive in a 2011 Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport. It’s attractively designed, but the steering and handling feel like mush, and the interior is a little low-rent for even an entry-level luxury car that starts at over $30,000. The style, particularly the interior, is supposed to be refined for 2012.

    Moving on up the ladder, there’s a BMW 328i, listing for upwards of $45,000. The demo vehicle I test drove had all the power and comfort amenities you expect in the “ultimate driving machine,” plus the latest iteration of BMW’s notorious iDrive system, which uses a single multifunction knob for navigation. Alas, they’ve also given it a voice that seems taken from the female robot in a bad 1980’s sci-fi movie. Maybe some bean counter in Germany is suffering from an advanced state of cost-cutting at the expense of common sense, or this is one silly oversight. Or maybe dealers are giving owners a choice — for a price of course.

    One of the better voice and navigation systems can be had in a Honda Accord, particularly the high-end EX-L with the V6 engine. Honda boasts up to 30 mpg on the highway from their most powerful engine, courtesy of a feature that deactivates three of the six cylinders in a so-called “ECO” mode when you’re not hot-rodding it. The body isn’t flashy. It’s simple, clean, and the large airy windows afford the best possible view of adjacent traffic; the critics are apt to call it “vanilla,” “plain” our a tad outdated.

    Yes, Honda’s navigation system has the rear-view camera too. But Honda is an engineering company that eschews fancy designs, and sticks to the traditional. The interior has a sort of old-fashioned swooped dashboard with inlays of faux wood, which isn’t much different from the “real” wood you find on the BMW 3 series. They also employ large, clearly labeled buttons, so you can actually, among other things, apply a preset for your favorite radio station by pressing and holding the button until it beeps. This is the traditional way, but one eschewed by Hyundai, where even the salespeople couldn’t figure out how manage those presets. Worse, the manuals don’t seem terribly helpful, since the process isn’t correctly described. Or wasn’t in the manual I consulted.

    As to audio, MB does it well, BMW’s “Professional” audio system seems a tad unpowered. Buick’s standard GM radio is just fine, but the premium is the best choice.

    To my surprise, Honda’s “premium” radio sounds as good as any without the fancy name. Highs are clear and crisp, and the bass has a satisfactory but not overwhelming thump that even fans of classic rock will treasure. Honda also has the advantage of being number two in that J.D. Powers initial quality survey. Maybe the latest Civics and Accords don’t look as futuristic as the competition, but loyal owners boast of getting hundreds of thousands of reliable miles on them.

    In terms of ride and handling, they all deliver credible results, except for that mushy MB. The Honda Accord’s steering is distinctively light and sharp, with a solid ride somewhat reminiscent of a German import. Hyundai tends to be softer, with somewhat sloppier steering, while Kia strives for a sportier character with a ride that some regard as a tad harsh.

    As you can see, there are loads of compelling cars to choose from, and I haven’t begun to list all the ones I test drove. Auto dealers are hungry as hounds these days, and can offer great deals, but banks are decidedly reluctant to finance people as easily as the used to. That means getting one of those fabulous zero interest or “sign and drive” deals is next to impossible. You need a perfect credit rating, or prepare to pay a load of interest or a huge up-front down payment to buy or lease your dream car.

    Or just be patient and wait out the current economic storm, hoping things will get better before they get worse.

    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
    Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis



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    7 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #604”

    1. […] Continue Reading… Please Link to Us!<a href="http://www.technightowl.com/2011/06/newsletter-issue-604-a-personal-tale-of-apple-reliability/&quot; >Newsletter Issue #604: A Personal Tale of Apple Reliability</a>Related Articles:A Look at the PC Junk FactorConsumer Reports Continues Taking a Schizophrenic Approach to MacsOn Raising Unreasonable ExpectationsMore Apple Speculation: Sensible and OtherwiseThe World of Bad First Impressions […]

    2. Kaleberg says:

      Personally I’m hoping that the guy who designs my “ultimate driving machine” hasn’t been born yet. That is a really morbid slogan for an automobile. It’s kind of like naming a car “The Estate Wagon”, “Coffin”, “Legacy” or “Widow Maker”. (I think two of those are real car names!)

      To be honest, I’m still missing the old hatchback subcompacts they used to sell with lots of power, tons of carrying space, tight handling, great visibility and hand cranked windows. (Driver’s side electric windows just will not stop where you want them. That’s distracting and dangerous.)

      I know this sounds ridiculous, but I remember when the VW Beetle came out in the 60s and was closer to the Ford Model A than any modern car. It sold like hotcakes and took 10% of the US market, back when the US owned the US car business.

      • @Kaleberg, Between station wagons and hatchbacks, most families would have all the space they need, without having to struggle with modified trucks, or vehicles that fit somewhere in between. I’m also concerned over the extremely poor user interfaces on the onboard control/navigation systems. They’ve learned nothing, or from the wrong teachers.

        Peace,
        Gene

    3. […] this weekend’s newsletter, I gave a brief overview of the state of certain compact and mid-sized cars in different price ranges. I was actually quite […]

    4. Andrew says:

      I own the MB C300 Sport, a 2009 model. I don’t know what was wrong with the one you drove (low tire pressure perhaps), but the handling is anything but mushy. My wife has the BMW, and while the BMW has tighter handling, the difference is minor. I too test drove the Accord, and it is nowhere near the level of precision handling of the C300 sport.

      These cars feel very soft in casual driving, but have some fancy suspension wizardry that stiffens it up nicely you push the car a bit harder than normal commuting. I’ve had mine on the track a few times, and it is a very willing accomplish to all sorts of high-speed hijinks.

      The interior is definitely where they cut their corners, though not in the things that matter, like the seating. I’ve done 1,100 mile days in that car without the usual back pain, and for that reason alone I am on my third C Class Mercedes Benz.

      The Accord and its competitors are great cars, and the improvements seen in the $40,000 over the $30,000 class are relatively small compared to the improvements in the $30,000 over the $20,000 class, but you most definitely do still get what you pay for.

      • @Andrew, Part of the initial impression of the MB 300 Sport is that too-light steering. I think it contributes to the overall feel of the vehicle. A BMW is much, much tighter in steering and general road feel.

        However, I realize you have far, far more experience with a current MB. My last extended encounter occurred many years ago.

        Peace,
        Gene

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