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  • Newsletter Issue #637

    February 13th, 2012

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    So is there some deep, dark, nasty truth about the way employees are treated at the various contract factories that assemble gear for Apple and other tech companies? Or is that the way such factories routinely operate, with the approval, tacit or otherwise, of the local governments? While few in the more industrialized parts of the world would tolerate working without a day off, living in dormitories and existing on substandard wages, it’s also true that, when Foxconn recently advertised for workers, they got far more applicants than they needed.

    Among tech companies, Apple happens to be one of the very few that actually discloses information about suppliers, and they continue to push for improved work environments. Besides, if you want to boycott Apple because of the alleged mistreatment of their contracted factory workers, where do you go? Most tech gear is built in the very same factories, by workers who get equal or worse treatment.

    That doesn’t mean that Apple and other companies shouldn’t demand better working conditions for everyone, not to mention higher salaries. Short of moving back all production to the U.S. (an unlikely prospect), it’s not as if the situation will change overnight. As factory workers in Asia move up the income ladder, however, things are bound to get better, but it won’t happen overnight.

    Now on the latest episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, author and commentator Kirk McElhearn, Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” talked with Gene about some of his favorite TV shows, and his favorite and not-so-favorite Macs over the years.

    Industry analyst Stephen Baker, of the NPD Group, discussed tech industry trends, including smartphone sales, the possibilities of Windows 8, 3D TV, and whether Apple will really build a “smart” TV.

    Avram Piltch, Online Editorial Director for Laptop magazine, detailed Android OS update problems (I’ll have more to say about that in the next article), whether smartphones with physical keyboards have a future, and his own investigations into reports that Apple and other tech companies are allowing their Asian contract factories to abuse factory workers.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris were flies on the wall for this session, featuring a “great debate” on Roswell, the Roswell “Dream Team,” UFO abductions and other topics featuring Kevin D. Randle, author of such books as “Reflections of a UFO Investigator,” and Jim Moseley, Editor/Publisher of “Saucer Smear.”

    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 huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show, along with a redesigned storefront.

    MORE SOLID EVIDENCE OF ANDROID FRAGMENTATION

    If you’ve followed what’s happening at Google, and the ongoing upgrades to the Android mobile platform, you’ve no doubt heard about version 4.0, code-named “Ice Cream Sandwich.” It’s said to offer across-the-board feature and performance improvements. If you’ve chafed over lagging screen refresh and frequent crashes, no doubt you’d love to update your Android smartphone or tablet.

    But actually getting that update may be a total exercise in futility. You see, as of the time I wrote this article, it appears that the Samsung Galaxy Nexus may be the one and only smartphone to feature Android ICS, although I realize others will be available soon. Right now, the other Android-powered gear you might want to buy will be loaded with a previous version of the OS, and it’s not version 3 or “Gingerbread,” since that was designed strictly for tablets. Instead, you will get a version 2.x OS bearing the same code-name, or maybe something older.

    Are you with me so far?

    What this means is that if you bring your Droid or other Android smartphone to the local consumer electronics or wireless handset store for an OS update, prepare to be disappointed. There may be an update, but more often there won’t be. They already got their money from you, and they usually care only about selling you a new model, assuming your cell phone contract is up for renewal, or you want to pay a hefty early termination charge.

    This troubling state of affairs is nothing new, but the latest criticism about the situation comes from a highly unlikely  source. According to Christy Wyatt, senior vice president and general manager for Motorola’s Enterprise Business, the blame for this upgrade mess can be laid at the feet of Google.

    In an interview with PCMag this week, she described the complicated process used by Google to handle these upgrades: “When Google does a release of the software … they do a version of the software for whatever phone they just shipped,” she said. “The rest of the ecosystem doesn’t see it until you see it. Hardware is by far the long pole in the tent, with multiple chipsets and multiple radio bands for multiple countries. It’s a big machine to churn.”

    I wonder, in passing, how long Ms. Wyatt will have a job at Motorola, especially after Google takes control.

    But here you have a situation where the OS has to be optimized for the individual hardware configuration of each handset, the manufacturer’s custom software has to be added, and then the whole kit and caboodle has to be certified by the wireless carrier. All of this takes time. By then, the carrier is busy pushing the next model, and they give the older products lower priority. Good luck in ever getting an update.

    You see, by making Android open source, more or less, Google has ceded control of the OS upgrade process to their partners and the carriers. The manufacturer just sells their gear to the carrier, so they’re off the hook other than handling hardware warranty issues. The carrier only cares that you pay your monthly bill, so they are not overly concerned that your Android smartphone is running a year old OS.

    Even though Apple is routinely attacked for having too much control over their hardware and software platforms, at least they care about you, the customer. Their contracts with wireless carriers allow Apple to handle support for their gear, and they have the power to push updates to you as they are needed. If there’s a security problem with an iPhone or iPad, Apple will make sure that the fix is made available for download direct to you as soon as possible.

    You don’t have to hope and pray that the wireless carrier will care.

    In the scheme of things, Microsoft also maintains a much tighter level of control over the Windows Phone platform compared to Google, but here Apple is king of the hill. Yes, you may want greater freedom to get apps that wouldn’t be acceptable at the App Store. You may want to custom configure your iPhone or iPad in a way that isn’t officially sanctioned by Apple unless, of course, you hack them.

    In that respect, the Android OS is probably more attractive to so-called power users. But the reason why the iPhone and the iPad get much higher user ratings than other gear is because they offer a predictable and elegant user experience. Apple doesn’t just throw out the interface to add new features. Well, yeah, I suppose you can suggest they are doing just that with Mac OS X Lion, but most of the interface ills that some regard as controversial can, in large part, be changed in a few seconds courtesy of System Preferences.

    None of this should necessarily mean that Android is doomed to fail some day. But when people buy in to that OS and the gear that uses Android, they should be aware of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    IF YOU HEAR IT, IT MUST BE REAL

    In several recent articles, I’ve discussed the value of performing double-blind, level-matched listening tests in determining the audible differences on gear for which such differences ought to be either subtle or perhaps non-existent. I cited the embarrassing situation in which the founder of Monster Cable, one of the main forces behind the high-end cable business, reportedly couldn’t hear the differences between his own cables and the cheapest stuff available.

    This doesn’t mean there are no measurable differences, but such differences would have to exceed the level of audibility to be detected. If you can’t hear it, the difference doesn’t make a difference except to purists who crave a “straight wire with gain.”

    Now most of you listen to audio equipment under decidedly unscientific conditions. You may go to a dealer, and press a button to switch from one speaker, amplifier or another component. Where there are drastic differences, this is a useful tool, and certainly it’s the common technique employed for listening tests. But when the differences are questionable or controversial in terms of having any scientific authority behind them, the switching process may still deliver the impression of an audible difference.

    So are we talking about mystic properties here or what?

    Well, one key determinant of an audible difference is the volume level. I don’t mean loud versus soft, but something far more subtle. That’s the reason why audio engineers have established level matching to within .10 dB, something you’d have to do with some sort of app or instrumentation. Greater level differences, still less than one decibel, may not come across as loud versus soft, but with the louder signal possibly presenting greater visceral impact, with a wider soundstage, while the lower signal would seem a tad distant or hesitant.

    One sophisticated method of performing a double-blind listening test is the A/B/X method, where the listener has to decide whether “X” is either A or B. Using a computerized algorithm to randomly switch between the two signal sources, with enough trials so you can be sure whether a real audible differences exists or not.

    Of course, nobody is expecting you to conduct an A/B/X test whenever you audition audio equipment. Even if you could, it takes time and can be fatiguing, since you are straining to identify whether you’ve actually heard an audible difference. You want your listening trial to be fun, though maybe hiding the identities of the equipment wouldn’t be a bad idea, since the prettiest or the most expensive product may seem to have superior sound.

    In the real world, though, audio cables don’t survive double-blind listening tests, nor do most audio electronics unless they are run outside of their operating range or distorting the signal severely. So a tube amplifier will sound different from a conventional solid state amplifier, not because of magical properties, but because of the higher measurable distortion and the interaction with loudspeakers. Certainly analog recordings and digital recordings may also sound different, because of the way signals are handled when they go into overload.

    There’s no doubt that vinyl sounds different from a CD, but again it’s because of readily measurable properties, including the surface noise, ticks and pops on an LP. That surface noise is, to some, more comforting than the wall of silence of a digital recording; hence, it seems more real to some people.

    But the discussion here isn’t about preference, but difference.

    With loudspeakers, the audible differences will indeed be drastic, since they are the most imperfect components you can buy. Complicating the purchasing process is the fact that speakers that sound great at the audio dealer’s showroom may sound perfectly awful in your home because of room reflections. Sometimes moving them around will help, and a knowledgeable dealer can advise you about proper placement. Maybe they can even send someone to your home to help, though this can get costly. In the end, you may have to exchange the system for something else.

    None of this matters so much for the typically inexpensive gear that most of us have. If it sounds good, relax and enjoy. Sweating the details may just be the wrong thing to do.

    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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    5 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #637”

    1. Scott says:

      Gene…you mentioned “straight wire with gain” as the holy grail of audio. It’s not often that a tech fanboy site will use that term.

      For quite a while I’ve been a tube guy in the form of a class A tube preamp going to powered studio monitor speakers. I have a very high quality DAC feeding the preamp. Because of the specific type of harmonic distortion that tubes add, lots of my music–especially smooth jazz vocals and smooth jazz guitar sounds great. The downside is that rock, techno and even complex classical and New Age doesn’t necessarily sound better with tubes.

      For fun, I recently purchased an Axiom passive preamp from Luminous Audio. It uses a serial/shunt design where only half of a pot is used to shunt some of the signal to ground (thereby lowering the volume). I couldn’t believe how good it sounded on all of my music. It was really close to tubes but music that sounds better with solid state sounded better with this little preamp.

      I can’t leave well enough along. The design a serial/shunt passive is incredibly simple. I built my own using a TKD pot, Vishay thin-foil “naked” resistors, quality RCA connectors and silver wire (when silver tarnishes, the tarnish is still an excellent conductor–unlike copper oxidation residue. My point is that this is so close to a straight wire with gain that I can hardly believe it.

      • @Scott, I was doing audio before Jobs and Wozniak created Apple. 🙂

        Peace,
        Gene

        • Ben says:

          @Gene Steinberg, What are your thoughts on buying cheaper HDMI cables over those overpriced ones for $40 for 6′. I noticed that Home Depot now sells no name cables for about $1/foot. I know that a lot of companies talk about gold plating to help, but I also remember the early days of USB, when some companies were touting that they used gold and that it would help make the connection better. An engineer from Intel told be that it was complete BS and the specs for USB called for tin and tin only. I have been reading your site since the “beleaguered” days of Apple and value your opinion. Especially since you’ve been doing audio since at least the mid 70’s.

          • @Ben, My thought is this: If the cable is compliant with the current standards, it’ll work fine. It’s possible the cheaper tips of low-cost cables will corrode over time, but if they are cheap enough, buying new cables a few years hence shouldn’t be so big a deal.

            Peace,
            Gene

    2. dfs says:

      On the subject of Android fragmentation, Gene looks at this from the p. o. v. of the consumer. I can’t imagine this situation is any bed of roses for the developer either. It must be hard writing apps that work equally well (if at all) on all the specialized flavors of Android in circulation.

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