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  • Newsletter Issue #642

    March 19th, 2012

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    You wonder why some of those “house” tech pundits are so desperate trying to find something wrong with Apple’s new iPad. Sure, a proper journalist would want to be fair and balanced, and attempt to cover both sides of a story, and not just reprint someone’s press release. Unfortunately, there’s far too much of the latter, and when criticisms are made, they come across as desperate.

    Take the pathetic attempts to find other tablets for you to buy if you can’t wait for the iPad, as if a few days or even a few weeks would somehow permanently wreck your life. This isn’t even to suggest that the other products aren’t any good, although there’s no real tablet-based app ecosystem beyond the App Store. But Apple’s ace-in-the-hole is the Retina Display, which mimics the essence of the super sharp screen of the iPhone 4 on a much larger device. The biggest deficiency of the iPad 2 was no doubt the fact that it had a display that wasn’t as good — that’s changed, and you wonder how long it’ll take other companies to build their own higher resolution displays.

    While published reports indicate the displays are being built by LG and Samsung, that doesn’t mean they have any leftover capacity to supply any other companies — even Samsung’s own mobile division. Apple no doubt waved billion dollar purchase orders, and hefty upfront payments, in front of them, which may mean that supplies will really catch up with demand in a matter of a few weeks.

    Now on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we focus once again on Apple’s “new iPad” with that spectacular Retina Display, which is selling out around the world. We also covered the revised Apple TV, the prospects for an Apple “smart” TV, and Microsoft’s potential troubles with Windows 8.

    Our guest list includes: Jim Dalrymple, Editor in Chief of The Loop, cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider, and Peter Cohen, from the “Angry Mac Bastards” radio show and Executive Editor for The Loop.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present long-time UFO researcher Curt Sutherly, author of “UFO Mysteries: A Reporter Seeks the Truth,” who talks about about an almost-forgotten UFO pioneer, Kenneth Arnold, whose spectacular sighting of nine objects on June 24, 1947 began the popular UFO era. Curt has researched not only Arnold’s life, but his involvement in the controversial Maury Island UFO case.

    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.

    A BRIEF VISIT WITH AN APPLE TV

    It may be a “hobby,” but that hasn’t stopped the Apple TV from being a best seller among accessory TV set top boxes. Aside from the receiver you get from your cable or satellite TV service, you have a choice of loads of peripherals to add, such as a Blu-ray player and a gaming console. Roku has been pretty successful with their alternative to Apple TV, although Google TV has been a non-starter.

    The advantage of the Apple TV is the seamless integration with the company’s ecosystem, including iTunes, Macs, iPhones, iPads, iCloud, and so on and so forth. While other tech companies struggle to integrate their TV accessories, Apple succeeds, which allows you to forgive some of the lapses in available content.

    The third generation Apple TV, which came out on the same day as the new iPad, but was obviously upstaged, looks the same as the previous model. It’s a tiny black box that ships with a power cord and Apple’s minimalist remote. Yes, you don’t have to deal with a hefty power brick, because the power supply is internal; you just need the cord. But that’s understandable, since Apple TV uses low-power parts derived from their other mobile gadgets.

    The major change is moving from the Apple A4 chip to the A5, which affords the processing horsepower to support 1080p movies, the same resolution as Blu-ray. There’s a new app-oriented interface that makes the Apple TV resemble iOS devices more closely (it’s also available for the previous model). That also seems to create the potential for more content-based apps in the future. Little is changed otherwise, except that Apple has integrated Netflix streaming — which now also supports 1080p — into iTunes. You wonder how long it’ll take for other content providers to cede billing chores to Apple in exchange for inclusion on this gadget.

    In addition to movies, there are TV shows, but it can get expensive if you want to buy every single episode of your favorite shows, particularly if they film 22 or 23 of them each season, although a “Season Pass” can save you some money.

    There are published reports that Apple is hoping to reach deals with the entertainment companies for subscription services before the end of 2012, thus helping more of you cut the “cable” cord, and rely on Apple, and perhaps a regular antenna for your local stations. But TV stations can, I expect, simply create apps for Apple TV and reach you directly, assuming you can cope with hitting your ISP’s bandwidth caps after pulling down all that online content.

    No matter. If Apple is really going to build a smart TV, and I remain skeptical, the Apple TV will no doubt show the way. The more content this device offers, the need to switch to another box with another interface will lessen. If Apple can take over all or most of your TV viewing experiences with a $99 device, why would they need to get into the TV manufacturing game?

    Nonetheless, Apple TV works quite well within its limits. The initial setup process is, like the previous version, fairly quick. Entering your Apple ID and password, along with your router’s password, isn’t as hard as on other devices without a real keyboard. Apple makes it easy to click the virtual keyboard, and move from lower case to upper case as appropriate. After unboxing, I had it set up on my Panasonic plasma TV within less than five minutes, ready to retrieve content from iTunes or my Apple mobile hardware.

    Since the new interface is available for the second generation Apple TV as a free download, you might even wonder whether the upgrade is worth it. That depends on the value of 1080p, and it also depends on whether your ISP’s bandwidth will support the higher resolution streams.

    According to Apple’s fine print, you need a broadband connection with download speeds of at least eight megabits to get 1080p; 720p content requires six megabits. Yes, the Apple TV’s built-in Flash buffer will retrieve content for you, thus insulating you somewhat from service slowdowns, but you need to be aware of the requirements.

    Apple has managed to leverage their multimedia technology to keep the 1080p file sizes as small as possible, which means they aren’t much larger than 720p. While I didn’t do any detailed before and after tests, my subjective impression is that Apple’s 1080p content is, unless you look real close, similar to the picture on Blu-ray. I also compared it to the 1080p on-demand feed from DirecTV, and found it a fairly close match.

    Sure, Blu-ray will handle a movie’s action scenes somewhat better, and an image’s fine details may be fuzzier. But when you’re watching your large-screen TV from eight or ten feet distant, you won’t have anything to complain about. Apple has minimized the tradeoffs to the point where it hardly matters. Over time, as encoding techniques improve, picture quality may even get better.

    At the end of the day, though, Apple TV isn’t essential to your digital lifestyle. If you don’t need easy integration with an iOS device, or a Mac or PC running iTunes, and you’re perfectly satisfied with your other TV accessories, you can just pass this one by.

    But it’s also clear that Apple has a vision for their ongoing hobby. Apple TV may become the front end for a genuine revolution in your TV viewing experience. It may even be the forerunner of a full-blown Apple television set. I don’t pretend to know. But if you’ve been considering the possibilities of an Apple TV or similar accessory set top box, this is an essential buy. At $99, it’s dirt cheap, and if you do rely heavily on your Apple gear, an Apple TV is the perfect accessory.

    JOHN CARTER — ANOTHER BIG HOLLYWOOD FAILURE?

    I bet that few of you realize that, before he created Tarzan, fantasy fiction author Edgar Rice Burroughs conceived an even more interesting character, John Carter, who had many exciting adventures across the dead seas of Barsoom — the planet we know as Mars.

    Now in the real world, we know that Mars doesn’t have canals, or an atmosphere that can support intelligent life as we know it, let alone the gigantic multi-limbed creatures that graced the pages of those John Carter novels. But this truth made no difference in the world envisioned by ERB. From the first pages of a Carter, or Martian, novel, you are caught up in many exciting adventures.

    In the scheme of things, these stories were the progenitors for “Avatar,” and you can find elements in them that, in part, inspired “Star Wars.” So you have to wonder why John Carter has never graced the movie screens until now Other than a cheap TV movie, loosely based on the first Barsoom novel, “A Princess of Mars,” small screen producers haven’t tackled the stories either.

    Perhaps it makes sense. Most of the Martians that Carter encounters in his travels across the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom are alien creatures, such as the green tharks, which stand some 12 feet tall. So it would require a fair amount of makeup and special effects to realize Burroughs’ vision in a realistic way. It took Andrew Stanton, a director who previously helmed animated films for Disney’s Pixar division, to even attempt to bring these stories to life, and it appears with mixed success.

    Costing a reputed $250 million, typical of a Hollywood-based special effects extravaganza, “John Carter” appears to be fated to be a large failure for various reasons. While it appears Stanton tried hard to adhere to the essentials of the novels, the initial Barsoom stories were essentially part of a trilogy. Starting with “A Princess of Mars,” the initial tale of John Carter’s adventures continued with “The Gods of Mars,” and “The Warlord of Mars.”

    Compressing all that action into a movie that lasts a little over two hours surely entailed some trade-offs in terms of plotting. To be sure, many critics praised the film for great special effects, but dinged it for a so-so story and so-so acting. The public was only somewhat more favorably disposed towards the picture, which puts into doubt whether Disney will consider sequels.

    Some blame the potential failure of “John Carter” on poor marketing. The first trailers failed to convey the majesty of the story, or how the Barsoom stories influenced later literary and film creations. You can’t, for example, watch the love story between John Carter and Martian princess Dejah Thoris and not recall “Avatar,” and the love story involving Earth man Jake Sully and the alien Neytiri. I doubt that director James Cameron would disagree.

    But maybe Hollywood waited too long to bring the tales of Barsoom to the silver screen, and maybe Andrew Stanton tried to focus too much on the form and not as much on the substance of these thrill-packed novels. I can’t say. But while the film appears to be tanking in the U.S., the overseas box office is quite good. Between that and Blu-ray sales, it may well be that Disney won’t lose all that much money on this project; they might even earn a small profit.

    Having read all the Barsoom novels in my late teens, I’d love the see more of the adventures of John Carter make it to the screen. Or maybe Hollywood simply waited too long. There are other characters  from Burroughs in the hopper, such as Carson of Venus, but you’ll never see them in movie form. Time has passed these gems by.

    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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    2 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #642”

    1. Kaleberg says:

      We are big fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Mars books. We saw John Carter a few nights ago, and we really liked it. It was true to the original stories. It had great characters. The plot held together nicely – thank you Michael Chabon. It even had a bit of evil humor, much like ERB’s. The special effects were magnificent.

      The weakest element was, unfortunately, the direction. The actors were up to the task, but you could tell that the director wasn’t helping them. Compare Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris with just about everyone else. She was great, and you could tell the other actors were trying, but an actor or actress can’t do it alone.

      The other weakness was $250M. The movie only looked about $150M, maybe $180M. In Avatar, you saw every dollar they spent on special effects right up there on the screen. If they actually spent the reported amount, then a lot of the money was lost somewhere.

      The movie really captured the romantic side and the sense of adventure of the original stories. The Thark warriors may have been cruel, but they always had a code of honor, and they were always up for a fight. Burroughs always had a place for a fighting girl or two, though a hundred years ago he felt that radium rifles and daggers were more a lady’s weapon than a sword. The villain was a classical movie villain and the Therns appropriately sinister, even if they’ve been given a more important role in the story. The intercut back story added a lot to this retelling.

      We liked it so much, we’re thinking of hauling into town and seeing it again on the big screen, maybe even in 3D.

      • @Kaleberg, The director is a fan of the Burroughs books, which may have contributed to the fidelity of the adaptation. I agree fans will probably love it, but how many even remember who Burroughs was, other than his connection to Tarzan? Besides, how many Tarzan movies ever came even somewhat close to a real Burroughs novel?

        If there’s any hope, it’s that, based on really good overseas box office, the film has already grossed $179 million as of the time I wrote this response. But, if the film really cost $250 million to make, they’d have to gross $500 to break even. Such are the economics of the movie industry. But it sounds doable.

        Peace,
        Gene

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