THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE
As I unpacked a Roku 3 set top box the manufacturer sent me this week for review, I caught an online reference to Amazon's alternative, the Fire. Long-rumored, it looks good on paper, with the promise of solid performance, a simple user interface, and gaming console pretensions.
Certainly the chatter about the Fire is compelling, but does it represent a sea change compared to Roku and Apple TV? I'm not at all certain. It appears to be a case of taking the existing design schemes and adding more features to the mix, which doesn't alter the landscape all that much. Sure, Amazon has a large base of willing customers who might consider buying the new gadget, but it doesn't appear to do anything particularly unique.
Now there have been rumors that a new Apple TV is in the works. A few stories talked of an April introduction, but that appears to becoming less likely. Those expecting all-new gear from Apple are looking to the WWDC as the place for the first round of product launches. Traditionally, however, Apple doesn't tend to focus on consumer gear at such events. You might see new Macs, and the next versions of iOS and OS X, but a new Apple TV? Hardly likely.
My feeling: If it doesn't happen real soon now, the consumer gear won't arrive until the September or October timeframe, with a possible exception. If there's going to be an iWatch, Apple might unleash it at the WWDC primarily to get developers on board with health and fitness products.
Meantime, on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we welcomed Josh Centers, Managing Editor for TidBITS, and author of "Take Control of Apple TV." whose bill of fare included the arrival of Microsoft Office for the iPad, the panel on the NSA he moderated for the recent iWorld/Macworld Expo, the ongoing legal skirmishes involving Apple and Samsung, and his early reactions to the Amazon Fire set top box.
You also heard from outspoken commentator Kirk McElhearn, Macworld's "iTunes Guy," who talked about his struggles with satellite broadband Internet. He also discussed why buying expensive audio and video cables isn't worth the money and the eternal analog (vinyl) versus digital debate.
Having followed the audio game for years, I understand how polarized these discussions can become. It's also true that it's easy to quantify whether real differences exist among audio and video cables, but purely subjective evaluations are largely worthless under such circumstances unless accompanied by double-blind tests.
On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Do you think UFO sightings are at a low ebb? Not so, and not widely publicized outside of Canada is the fact that there was a wave of UFO sightings in that country in 2013. So we've asked long-time investigator Chris Rutkowski to come on The Paracast and cover the key cases and his latest research into the subject. You'll learn about some of the most compelling reports and how they disprove claims that the UFOs are mostly no longer being seen.
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.
DESIGNING GEAR FOR REGULAR PEOPLE
A big argument made in favor of Windows, and even Google's Android OS, is that they are friendlier towards the needs of the power user. There are more system adjustments you can make to customize the experience to your personal taste, and that is supposed to be a good thing.
This harkens back to the early days of the PC era, where you did everything via the command line. When Apple came out with the first graphical user interface that actually caught on — although it was never, ever dominant in the industry — the end result, the Macintosh, was dismissed as a toy.
The theory went that, in order to properly use a personal computer for your business, you had to master the ins and outs of the command line to provide the correct user experience and be productive. Just being productive out of the box didn't necessarily occur to these people.
But Microsoft understood that the Mac user interface was the proper way to go in order to extend the personal computing experience to the masses. You can argue how much of Windows was influenced by the Mac. On the surface it appears to be a lot, but Microsoft was able to use it to extend their dominance of the PC to an over 90% market share after a number of years and regular revisions to Windows.
By the time Windows 95 arrived on August 24 of that year, many regarded the Mac as an overpriced toy that would be forever reduced to niche status. But it was difficult to argue that pointing and clicking wasn't a valid way to interact with a real computer.
Although Windows got better over the years, the Mac OS, and later OS X, were both regarded as smoother, more elegant ways to get things done. Sure, maybe the Control Panel options weren't as extensive as on Windows, but that didn't matter to regular people who wanted things to just work.
It is true, though, that OS X offers an extensive range of command line tools, under Terminal, which allow you to customize the look and feel of the OS. There are loads of friendlier utilities that put those commands in a regular graphical interface where you can enable many of the changes with a checkbox, so asserting that you don't have a decent number of options with which to alter OS X is just not so.
Microsoft surely tried to simplify Windows with the Modern UI — formerly Metro — interface in Windows 8. But the scattershot and unintuitive approach proved just too much of a change for most users who had become accustomed to the traditional Windows look and feel.
So much for making things simpler. But Windows 8 is, at the end of the day, not an easier personal computing solution.
Now when Apple created the iPhone, smartphones generally used awkward keyboards, typified by the BlackBerry, and were mostly the playthings for executives, politicians and power users. As the latest Apple versus Samsung patent infringement trial reveals, the user interface of the iPhone was designed to be as simple as possible for normal consumers to embrace.
This is why tens of millions of people from all walks of live bought iPhones. Samsung's smartphones became popular by using an OS, Android, designed very much in the mold of iOS. You can argue over who borrowed certain features from where, but how Android works today was very much influenced by Apple. If there was no iPhone, it would likely have become a BlackBerry clone, and the same is true for Samsung.
Some of the documents revealed at the Apple/Samsung trial indicate how hard the latter tried to deliver a feature that worked as well as Apple's slide to unlock. In the end, they had to settle on Apple's solution, which doesn't auger well for the prospects of avoiding yet another verdict against the South Korean conglomerate.
The goal, however, was laudable. If more people embraced the product, sales would be higher. For Google, that meant more eyeballs to, they hoped, click on targeted ads and enrich the company. Android, after all, is free.
Microsoft's argument for Windows Phone is that it's designed to make it easier for people to check their information and get on with their business. Some suggest it's so simple as to work against the needs of people who need flexibility and ways to interact more deeply with a mobile handset. Microsoft, however, is adding features cribbed from other mobile operating systems, such as a voice assistant, and an alert and control scheme, to deliver some of that flexibility. All that does, however, is take it closer to Apple's approach.
You can argue all you want about which mobile OS is better for your needs. You cannot argue against Apple's plan, which many believe was a successful plan, to make the smartphone warm and fuzzy for most anybody, from child to senior citizen. Clearly Samsung knew Apple was onto something, which is why try tried a little too hard to deliver a similar user experience.
RESTAURANT REVIEWS VERSUS AUDIO EQUIPMENT REVIEWS
When someone writes a restaurant review, you understand it's all about one's personal and quite subjective opinion. You cannot produce measurements to explain why the roast chicken from one restaurant is more savory, better tasting, and seems more tender than the same meal from another restaurant.
So I wouldn't presume to explain why the chicken shawirma at a local mediterranean restaurant is far better than a similar dish at another similar restaurant. Different chefs use different combinations of spices and other flavorings, they may marinate the chicken for different amounts of time, and the cooking process may be decidedly different as well.
But I don't pretend to be a restaurant reviewer. I just want a delicious meal.
You do, though, realize that food reviews are very much about personal opinion and no two people will necessarily react in the same fashion to the same dish. So you may pick the reviewer whose views seem to closely align with your own preferences, and rely on that person when you explore new culinary possibilities.
The same shouldn't hold true when you review an audio or video cable. It's not a matter of taste so much as a matter of reality. If an audio cable truly alters the signal, which is the only way an audible difference can exist, that change can be measured by quite conventional instrumentation. It's also against the intent of proper cable design, which is to pass the signal with as little change as possible.
But if you read some of the audio magazines that cater to so-called high-end sensibilities, you cannot believe for a moment that an audio cable is being reviewed.
On this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, for example, one of my regular guests, Kirk McElhearn, also known as Macworld's "iTunes Guy," read a couple of paragraphs from an article he found in a British audio publication.
Here's one telltale example:
After about three weeks of daily use the cables began to undergo a change. There was always a slight question mark in my head over their absolute resolving power through the midband and after initially feeling very complimentary of their impeccable balance they seemed to grow a little soft and somewhat dull. But, gradually a new performance level was taking shape and they just grew in sophistication and balance as the weeks rolled by. What emerged was an even livelier cable set than before with an extra edge and clarity to their dynamic resolving power. The system had put on some weight, but in all the right places, drawing the electronics together as a more enjoyable whole with an even better feeling of stability to the musical picture. Now the system was sounding like a single musically focussed unit rather than a collection of expensive components.
I'm quite serious. This paragraph, and many others, were devoted to audio cables that the writer felt somehow experienced altered sonic properties after a break-in period, as if the ones and zeros from a digital source somehow trained themselves to deliver different ones and zeros after regular listening.
Of course, none of this makes any sense whatever from any practical, reasonable or logical standpoint. It's just a bunch of flapdoodle that lacks any connection with reality, objective or otherwise.
There is, of course, a simple way to determine whether the reviewer heard anything real. Perform a double-blind test, in which neither the participant nor someone administering the test, knew the identity of the tested products in advance. Take one of these exotic cables, which sometimes cost well in excess of $1,000 for a one-meter pair, and compare it to a coat hanger. See if the listener can reliably hear a difference, and we can talk further as to why.
However, many subjective audio reviewers will argue that double-blind testing must be flawed, using flights of illogic and fancy to justify their position. But it comes down to the fact that they probably know, even if they won't admit it in public, that they cannot reliably hear any of those exquisite differences once the product labels are hidden. You see, it's very easy to fool yourself into believing audible differences exist, which is why the companies who build those costly products manage to earn substantial profits from snake oil.
It's also too bad the regulatory authorities in various countries aren't concerned about exotic audio gear, such as cables, power conditioners, and other costly junk, and whether they can truly meet the advertised claims of amazing sound properties that reveal previously undetected nuances in a recorded musical performance.
Yes, there are components that can truly deliver provable and consistent sonic differences. It starts and often ends with loudspeakers and headphones. It's also true that tube amplifiers will, under load (connected to a speaker), often provide subtle signal alterations that can be measured and heard. You may even like the effect, but it's also true that a traditional solid state amplifier can be designed so the signal path is changed in the same fashion for a lot less money.
If you're interested in more information about the ins and outs of interconnects and whether or not they can really produce an audible difference, you'll want to check this lengthy post from a retired speaker designer who really blows the lid off the phony claims being made about these products.
And now let's back to our regular dose of tech reality.
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