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  • Newsletter Issue #734

    December 22nd, 2013

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    If you think that your high-definition TV represents the current state of the art, think again. No, I’m not referring to 3D, which, while it looks nice and all as a change of pace, hasn’t really done a whole lot for the TV industry. I know that I tried the 3D glasses with my TV a couple of times for review purposes, but that was it. I haven’t been tempted to break out the glasses since, nor have I considered buying a 3D version of a Blu-ray movie, except once.

    But if you’ve visited your favorite consumer electronics store in recent months, perhaps you’ve seen a few expensive models that boast 4K, or Ultra HD, which basically means having four times as many pixels as standard 1080p. It may sound impressive and all, particularly if you’ve seen the Retina display on an iPhone, an iPad or a MacBook Pro.

    Sure, TV makers are probably desperate to convince you to buy a new set, but it’s also true that Ultra HD doesn’t make much of a difference unless you’re sitting real close to the set, or have one with an 80-inch screen.

    In any case, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, our featured guests included Jeff Gamet, Managing Editor for The Mac Observer, who covered the rollout of the 2013 Mac Pro workstation, which has twin AMD FirePro graphics chips that can support up to three 4K displays, the projects for Ultra HD TV, whether it’s easy to make your Mac’s Web cam turn on without displaying a green light, and whether Apple will really introduce an iWatch.

    You’ll also heard from Avram Piltch, Online Editorial Director of Laptop magazine, who also covered the push towards Ultra HD TV, along with the magazine’s survey of the “Top 10 Tech Fails 2013,” and the mobile gear that delivers the best battery life. He also talked briefly about accessory keyboards for the iPad Air.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present long-time UFO authority and book author Timothy Good, who expresses his “meta” viewpoint on the extent and scope of the UFO mystery. Good also recounts experiences he’s had over the years that may involve meetings with extraterrestrials, along with some of the curious and perhaps frightening results of his decades of intriguing research featured in his many best-selling books. One subject he’ll focus on is the possibility that some UFOs are piloted by hostile alien beings who have long-range plans to take over our planet.

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

    DOES THE MAC PRO BOOST THE 4K TV SURGE?

    The TV industry has certainly had problems generating huge profits, although sales have continued at a decent clip. Similar to the PC industry, TV makers have rushed to the bottom as prices crumble even on relatively full-featured sets with smart apps and 3D.

    When the first 3D sets appeared, the feature was restricted to premium models. Most supported active technology, which required glasses with built-in decoding technology. The end result was having to pay upwards of $150 a pair, assuming they didn’t come standard. But if you had a large family, you either had to have your clan watch 3D content in tiny groups of two or three, or spend a bundle to accommodate everyone’s needs.

    Passive 3D uses the same glasses you get at your local movie theater. They are cheap, and some sets will include half a dozen or more; some VIZIO M-series 3D sets include eight pairs, and replacements are relatively cheap. But, despite moving downscale, 3D has not taken the world by storm. It’s just not suitable for casual watching.

    So if 1080p is standard issue, and 3D is getting there, but not doing much to boost sales and profits, what about 4K? With 4K, or Ultra HD, four times the number of pixels are packed into a picture, which, theoretically at least, should mean a tremendous improvement in picture quality.

    But as I said in the previous article, you won’t see much of a difference unless you sit close, or the set has a huge screen.  Then again, 720p and 1080p don’t look altogether different at normal viewing distances, but customers have loaded up on 1080p, which is even featured on some really cheap models. Despite the reality, more pixels promises a better picture regardless of real world performance, and I expect 4K will mean the same once the sets become reasonably affordable.

    Now my lone experience with 4K was at a Sams Club discount store. They had a 55-inch LG set on sale for less than three grand. Understand that a regular 1080p LG can be had for less than $700, so is it worth paying more than four times the price for four times the pixels?

    I spent a few minutes watching the set from eight or ten feet away, and I didn’t see any real difference, though I suspect the store managers hope you’ll watch it from a much closer distance and be blown away.

    Regardless, as 4K sets get cheaper, you can bet that the movie studios will be finding ways to churn out content to satisfy your needs. One way is to load the movies onto an accessory drive, and perhaps download them overnight, because the file sizes are too large to stream live on a normal broadband connection. Over time, though, new compression techniques will reduce the size difference without seriously sacrificing image quality. I also expect there will be a 4K Blu-ray format before long. In fact, it is widely expected that the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) will announce the new standard during the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show next month.

    It may take a lot longer or TV broadcasters or the cable TV industry to find ways to support the format. 3D TV channels didn’t do so well, so I expect there will be some resistance to offering a higher resolution alternative, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, and it’s clear Apple Inc. wants to be on the forefront of the new technology.

    Consider the Mac Pro. The marketing for Apple’s fancy tubular workstation touts the ability to run three 4K displays at once time, harnessing the power of the built-in AMD FirePro graphics chips. Early reviews indicate that the Mac Pro can handle these super high resolution images and all sorts of special effects with aplomb. At the same time, Apple upgraded its video editing app, Final Cut Pro X ,to version 10.1, which provides full 4K support.

    So much for an app that only catered to the needs of students or prosumers.

    To Apple, 4K is clearly a big deal. Indeed, it has now been revealed that the late 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina display also supports 4K. This is not a casual move, and you can no doubt expect expanding 4K support on Macs to give video editors more flexibility in creating their projects with, Apple hopes, Final Cut Pro X.

    Now one thing is sure: Apple is very circumspect about adding new features, and support for 4K video represents a huge commitment to the future.

    By this time in 2014, you will likely be able to buy a 4K set for only a slight premium over 1080p. Indeed, budget TV makers, such as VIZIO, are already readying a full line of 4K hardware. And, as they did during the switchover to high definition, Ultra HD sets can upconvert lower resolution content, which ought to represent some level of real improvement if done properly.

    Sure, maybe Ultra HD won’t make much of a real difference in picture quality for normal sized sets, but that doesn’t mean it won’t take off. I also suspect the TV manufactures are hoping you’ll consider buying a set with a larger screen to exploit the advantage of all those pixels.

    Even if 4K does take off, don’t expect the improvements to stop. There’s already an 8K format  under development, promising 16 times the resolution of 1080p. Prototypes have already been displayed at recent CES trade shows, and I expect you’ll see more of the same in 2014.

    So imagine, some day, a 3D set that doesn’t require glasses offering 8K resolution. I’d go for that once they are less than $1,000 for a 55-inch screen, assuming I’m still around to appreciate it.

    ONLINE DISASTERS IN 2013

    When you consider the recent outage of Yahoo! Mail, which lasted for several days, it’s only the tip of the iceberg as far as online failures go. A recent story over at the Web Host Industry News site covers 10 major Web outages for the year.

    Of course, the failure of the HealthCare.gov site, the Federal insurance marketplace that was the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, is cited as evidence that the U.S. government hasn’t a clue when it comes to handling IT issues. In retrospect, you wonder why the powers that be relied on existing government procurement policies rather than contact the best and brightest from Silicon Valley to make it work.

    Indeed, that’s what they’ve apparently done as the site continues to improve.

    But it’s not as if Silicon Valley is always successful with cloud-based services. Certainly the failure at Yahoo!, one of the early tech giants, clearly indicates that making complicated server systems work perfectly remains the impossible dream. Readers of these columns know about the notable failures of Apple’s online services over the years. Even after the latest iteration, iCloud, debuted, there were periodic outages, particularly email. Amazon, Google and Microsoft also experience system glitches from time to time. One of the recent Amazon outages brought down Netflix, who uses their cloud servers for portions of their streaming network.

    If they can’t smooth the rough edges, who can?

    What about Web hosts? What about companies who earn their keep with the promise of a safe and secure environment for your personal or business site? Well, perfection is the impossible dream there too. I have had dedicated servers with several firms, and there were occasional service interruptions for maintenance or because of a system failure or glitch.

    According to that Web Host Industry News report, one of the worst failures impacted a datacenter in Provo, Utah run by Endurance International Group, a company that owns a some of the largest hosting services on the planet, including Bluehost, HostGator and HostMonster.

    Now to be fair, some critics of EIG suggest that cost-cutting might be to blame, that when the company buys a host to add to its portfolio, service and support quality take a nosedive. I know of one Bluehost customer who took advantage of an attractive price for a dedicated server, and was stung by the outage, which occurred back on August 2. The cause was blamed on a “hardware failure during routine server maintenance that ‘quickly cascaded throughout the network.'” For the better part of a day, sites were off and on, but never consistently.

    DreamHost had a major service interruption beginning on March 20 due to a power system outage at a datacenter in Irvine, CA, which impacted the company’s 350,000 customers for up to two days. During that time, as with the EIG outage, loads of sites went offline, but at least none of these failures occurred during the critical holiday season.

    But you wonder whether cloud services are being held together by tape and rubber bands because they fail so often. Even experienced providers seem to have had their share of system failures, so it’s no wonder the government has encountered problems running a complex e-commerce site that has to link with a number of other systems that include federal, state, and an assortment of insurance companies.

    Over the past few months, we’ve seen a few small interruptions impact our own sites, but nothing altogether serious. But if you think my fingers and toes are crossed, you’re absolutely correct.

    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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