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  • Newsletter Issue #626

    November 28th, 2011

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    In the wake of a published report that Android OS malware had grown tremendously in recent months, you had to wonder whether the notorious Windows virus problem was due for a replay. At one time, it was said that you could connect an unprotected Windows PC to the Internet and have it infected with malware within 15 minutes. But it’s not nearly as bad now, inasmuch as Microsoft began to take the problem seriously and started to offer built in security enhancements.

    But the Android OS is relatively new. It’s distributed free to wireless handset makers, and the official Google app repository is basically not curated. Sure, Google will remove illegal and infected apps if they are alerted to the problem, and make needed OS updates. But it’s not as if owners of Android gear are assured of ever getting such updates. That’s up to the carrier, who evidently ceases to care about customers after the contracts are signed, except to deal with call quality issues and, of course, questions about your bill.

    Well,  John Martellaro, a Senior Editor for The Mac Observer, decided to do his own investigation, and so he contacted media and industry experts on the subject. He wrote an article about it, and also reported the surprising results of his investigation on our latest episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE.  John also discussed the curious troubles he encountered upgrading his aging DirecTV DVR to the latest version. It appears that DirecTV cannot always guarantee you’ll get a current model, and that is a really foolish move on their part. I hope I don’t face a similar obstacle when my DirecTV set top box gets long in the tooth.

    We also talked about the ongoing problems with iTunes Match and other topics with outspoken commentator Peter Cohen, of the “Angry Mac Bastards” radio show and Executive Editor for The Loop, who also offered some offhand observations about the Amazon Kindle Fire tablet.

    Author and commentator Kirk McElhearn revealed why Apple won’t let him use iTunes Match on his desktop computer, and he also detailed his ongoing and downright strange Mac hardware problems.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris explore UFO sightings through the ages during wartime with Mack Maloney, author of “UFOs in Wartime: What They Didn’t Want You To Know,” which covers a number of compelling and not always well-known cases from our early history until modern times.

    Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt — Now with New Design! 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.

    DOES AN iPHONE 4 TO iPHONE 4S UPGRADE MAKE SENSE?

    So the manager at our favorite pharmacy takes out a white iPhone 4s from his pocket and announces, sadly, “I really didn’t need this. My iPhone 4 was working just fine, and Siri isn’t of much use to me.”

    I asked him if he’d tried it much, and he said, “yes, but I don’t need to ask about the weather. I just tap twice and there it is. Besides, how would it look if I started to talk to my phone while working?” With a smile, I thought about his customers staring at him as he filled their prescriptions.

    Of course, Siri isn’t the only attraction of an iPhone 4s. The interface feels noticeably snappier than its predecessor, and the camera is good enough to have made more and more people set aside their regular point and shoot models. Wasn’t that sufficient to justify the upgrade?

    That appears to be debatable. Sure, better performance is always good, but if you’re not into gaming or performing other chores that tax the processor, maybe it won’t make so much of a difference. The camera? Well, if you don’t actually print 8x10s and expect photo quality to match up with a traditional high-resolution digital camera, the upgrade may also be less compelling.

    But what about that sophisticated diversity antenna system, where the antenna that grabs the best signal is used? Doesn’t that pretty much eliminate the so-called “Death Grip” problem for most anybody? Won’t superior reception mean the difference between holding a solid connection and dropping the call?

    Again, that only matters if you live in a region where your current wireless carrier’s cell phone reception is sub-par and you need all the help you can get. Some of you might suggest that this condition exists pretty much everywhere if you use AT&T. But it’s also true that recent surveys indicate that Sprint customers with iPhones have an even higher incidence of dropped calls, but maybe they just need to tune their networks better.

    Now I doubt skepticism about upgrading your iPhone 4 should necessarily come as a surprise to anyone. The critics lambasted Apple for failing to deliver a compelling product refresh, though beyond a new case — assuming you agree it looks better — and perhaps a larger screen, they surely improved the iPhone as much as you have a right to expect. Besides, isn’t Siri becoming a sort of cultural icon? I’ve seen some of those YouTube videos lampooning Siri, such as the one where a husband and wife use Apple’s personal assistant as an intermediary in an argument. Funny stuff that!

    As you’ve heard, the editors of Consumer Reports downgraded the iPhone 4s because it didn’t offer a larger screen, or 3D capability. The former might make sense if it can be done without seriously enlarging the case. Today’s iPhone fits perfectly in your hand; making it noticeably larger may make the fit less than perfect for many people. But CR isn’t in the business of actually testing the usability of tech gadgets in real world situations. If one product has more bullet point specs, and no obvious performance deficiencies, that product earns a higher score.

    And please don’t get me started about 3D! That gimmick has yet to prove itself even on TV sets.

    For me, I’m on the fence about the upgrade. Now that Apple has fixed the “case of the wrong ID” problem on my iPhone 4, everything is working just fine, thank you. My lingering problems have more to do with iTunes Match bugs, such as failing to match all the tracks even on mainstream albums that are in their catalog, than with general usability.

    But I doubt very much that I’m in Apple’s target audience. There are millions upon millions of iPhone users who don’t have an iPhone 4 and are anxious to buy an upgrade, now that their contracts are up. Besides, the addition of Sprint to Apple’s carrier partner list has to have brought in customers who might have otherwise considered deserting this nation’s third largest cell phone company.

    There are also people buying smartphones for the first time, or ready and willing to depart the Android, BlackBerry or Windows Phone universes, and the iPhone 4s may prove to be just the ticket. Certainly those stellar sales tallies indicate that Apple is really on to a good thing, even if current iPhone 4 users decide to sit this upgrade out. For them, the possibilities of a real iPhone 5 and a major overhaul in 2012 will be really tempting, helped along by the expiration of their carrier contracts.

    THE WILD WORLD OF HIGH-END AUDIO

    When I was very young and very foolish, my parents bought me a cheap record player. It lasted through my teen years, and I didn’t actually get a real hi-fi system until I was well into my 20s, although my brother did give me a few spare components from his music system.

    Over the years I had some middle-priced systems and one that was to me at least, relatively expensive. It consisted of a set of Carver Amazing Platinum speakers, in a black shiny finish, plus an assortment of other gear from Carver and another company Bob Carver founded, Sunfire. Indeed, my preamp was a tube-based affair, although I can’t say it made any audible difference in sound quality.

    That system was a casualty of downsizing some years ago, and I hope it continues to serve the new owner well. But I still follow the audio business from time to time. Just recently, I got an issue of Stereophile magazine, a publication that caters to mostly well-heeled customers that, depending on your point of view, crave audio perfection, or merely hope to return to the 1950s, where LP records and tube gear ruled the roost.

    To the editors and writers of Stereophile, every single component or accessory you place in your audio system can color the sonic experience in some drastic or subtle fashion. Merely swapping cables, and they tout products that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per pair, can change the quality drastically. It doesn’t matter that level-matched double-blind listening tests have failed to demonstrate the existence of such audible differences, except, of course, when the cables are damaged or inadequate for the purpose used. An example might be a long run of thin speaker cable, where signal degradation is heard and measured.

    There’s also a story where the founder of one of those exotic audio cable companies failed to discern differences between his very own expensive products and cheap cable.

    No matter. Those who write for these audio magazines regard themselves as possessing golden ears. They claim the ability to listen into the music and discern the subtle differences created by swapping out any single component in their system. Although such magazines as Stereophile will include detailed measurements, there appears to be no measurement that accounts for why one amplifier with basically similar measured results as another will deliver more “air” in reproducing woodwinds or give vocals more depth. To them, the engineers who design such gear, many of whom are worshipped as heroes in those publications, design gear from a artist’s palette rather than employing sound scientific principles. Change a part and they can make the sonic experience less involving, remove a part or slightly alter an almost unmeasurable spec, and strings become luscious and warm.

    And, of course, vinyl is king. Forget about CDs and all that “digital haze.” Real music is meant to be heard on a records, even though the audio quality will begin to suffer after just a few plays. The loving ritual of preparing for the experience is cherished. You slowly and deliberately take the LP out of its sleeve, being careful not to put your fingerprints on the surface, and you use some sort of exotic and overpriced cleaning solution to make sure dust is wiped away. You place the LP onto the turntable, gently place the needle on the groove, sit back and listen. Well, at least until it’s time to turn the record over.

    But understand that automatic turntables or record changers are verboten, and the turntable and cartridge will often have five-figure price tags. And, yes, I’ve heard such systems, and they’re still phonograph records with scratches and all the other artifacts of surface noise. They are also far from perfect reproductions of the original master tape, but they alter the sonic experience in a way that seems more pleasing to some listeners. You see, they deliver a sense of warmth, and perhaps comfort, to many dedicated music listeners for whom the iPod and iTunes are travesties.

    Regardless, you’ll find an amazing selection of equipment. A lot of it can get costly, particularly when you’re dealing with hand-wired parts, sporting gold-tipped wiring, tubes, fancy chassis layouts and well-finished cases. The workmanship, from a visual point of view, is simply stunning, and you wonder if Steve Jobs was ever influenced by the high-end audio industry. And a lot of this gear is even made in the good old U.S.A. if you wish to make a patriotic statement.

    Yes, exotic audio systems can sound mighty good, if you can afford them. But whether it’s taking you closer to the master recording, which is what I presume they want, is highly debatable. But that shouldn’t stop you from having a great time anyway. Then again, some people prefer rebuilding old cars.

    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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