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  • Newsletter Issue #696

    April 1st, 2013

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    So what’s a DDoS and why should you care? Well, it’s defined as distributed denial of service attack, which is a way to bring down a Web site by flooding it with loads of unwanted traffic. Servers can only handle so many simultaneous attempts to connect, and too many will slow them severely, or cause them to just stop feeding sites.

    While this sort of thing happens to banks and major commerce sites in general from time to time, you may think that cybercriminals don’t much care for your site or mine. But that’s not exactly correct. I’ve had evidence of several such attacks in recent months, though not as severe as some you’ve heard about. Even though datacenters are working harder to prevent or mitigate such unwanted intrusions, the frequency of such attacks appears to be on the increase.

    Well, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured Joe Wilcox, Managing Editor of BetaNews, who discussed the increase in cyberattacks on major Web sites, including banks and other financial institutions. He also explained why he’s switching his cellular service to T-Mobile, and covered other topics that include Samsung’s impact on the Android platform.

    We also presented Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer, who talked about Apple’s large stash of cash and the tax man, plus other subjects, including T-Mobile’s new marketing scheme that is intended to eliminate subsidized handsets.

    Since T-Mobile has already established LTE service in the Phoenix area, which was among the first seven cities supported in the initial rollout, I will seriously consider moving my wireless service once the current contracts have expired. I also welcome comments from T-Mobile customers as to the level of service and support you receive. AT&T has been all right, but connection problems still occur on occasion, despite claims of more capacity in this area.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present veteran UFO researcher Dr. Roger Leir. He’ll be discussing his ongoing work in removing and evaluating possible alien implants from abductees, and his research into key cases, including the Turkish UFO videos.

    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, along with a redesigned storefront.

    ARE YOU READY FOR THE NEXT APPLE/SAMSUNG BATTLE?

    There appears to be no stopping Apple and Samsung from suing each other. They continue to do battle in courts around the world over various and sundry intellectual property matters. While Apple gained a notable victory in a Northern California court last year, they haven’t collected any money, and Samsung is still selling the same smartphones and tablets.

    In recent weeks, it has also been reported that Apple is working to move more and more component purchasing to other suppliers. Samsung has earned billions of dollars per year from Apple to build processors and supply memory chips and other components. Certainly Apple must be reluctant to want to enrich a heated competitor with whom they are battling in the courts, so this makes sense. But it would seem not to make sense for Samsung, considering all that lost business will be difficult — if not impossible — to replace.

    The latest battle, however, is all about mobile devices. In March, Samsung introduced the Galaxy S4 smartphone, successor to the hot-selling Galaxy S3. They spent a bundle on a lavish if poorly executed presentation, but there was plenty of media interest. It was only natural to expect immediate comparisons between the S4 and the iPhone 5.

    From a pure spec standpoint, hardware and software, the S4 would appear to emerge triumphant. Before you consider the meaning of the specs, though, you are comparing a product released in September 2012 to one going on sale in April 2013. In those seven months, hardware has improved, and Samsung has surely learned a thing or two about designing proprietary software for the new handset.

    When you look at the bullet points rather than the two phones, it would appear that Samsung does better. Preliminary benchmarks, evidently using the prototypes on display at the Samsung event, appear to indicate that the S4 is a whole lot faster than the iPhone 5, but benchmarks seldom tell the whole story.

    Apple doesn’t make a huge deal out of the specs of their proprietary A-series processors. Perceived performance, however, depends on how well the OS is integrated with the hardware. When you compare the previous Samsung flagship, the S3, to my 2011 iPhone 4s, the latter is clearly smoother running in most respects. Android can be fast, jagged or stall at inopportune times. As Android has improved, handset makers have used the most powerful hardware available to overcome lingering performance hangups. But even the first iPhone was smooth and relatively snappy, consistent among just about all the apps you’d run.

    Doing a proper comparison will depend on getting a shipping version of the S4 tied to a specific carrier to see what it does in the real world. Even if the preliminary benchmarks are borne out, and the current version of Android, 4.2.2, proves fast and stable on the S4, what about Samsung’s home-brewed apps? What about the ability to take pictures from both front and rear cameras at the same time and merge them? Is that just a gimmick or something really useful for regular people?

    What about looking at the S4 and being able to scroll through content with a mere tilt? Will that feature prove to be reliable and fast? What about accidentally tilting the phone while looking at it? Will you suddenly find that you’ve scrolled a few screens by mistake? Do you tilt down to return to where you were, or let your fingers do the walking?

    What about gestures that function by moving your fingers over the S4 without actually touching the unit? Is it possible to accidentally engage a feature if you move your hand too close to the handset by mistake? I think of the Power Mac G4 Cube, which had a proximity on/off/sleep switch. I remember having one of them at my office for review back in 2000, and I also remember Mrs. Steinberg accidentally putting the thing in sleep mode from time to time when she’d be cleaning my office.

    So Samsung can add all the features they want. Unless they are easy to use, and really meet customer needs, you can expect users will ignore them outright, or try them out a few times and never use them again. In other words, flash over substance. It may well be that Samsung added them not because they were potentially useful, but because the iPhone didn’t have them.

    Apple usually isn’t about just adding features for the sake of brownie points, but to improve the customer experience.

    I don’t pretend to know when the iPhone 5s (or will it be an iPhone 6?) will appear, or what it will offer. Recent rumors suggest a rollout at the end of June, with release in July, 10 months after the iPhone 5 appeared. Well, that’s not really so early, but you’d think Apple would be announcing iOS 7 to accompany the next iPhone some time soon, to give developers a chance to make sure their apps are compatible.

    If rumors grow about a summer iPhone release, would potential Galaxy S4 customers sit on the sidelines and just wait to see what Apple is going to release? The recent smartphone intros from BlackBerry, HTC and Samsung were clearly meant get a leg up against Apple.

    But if you need a new smartphone, and it’s not an emergency, there’s nothing wrong with waiting a few months to see what Apple delivers.

    TWO TECH SUPPORT ENCOUNTERS

    I haven’t reviewed a flat panel TV in a while. The family set, an entry-level 50-inch Panasonic plasma from early 2008, is still in great shape. Early on, I calibrated the picture with a setup DVD, and it looks real good; eye-popping says the Mrs. It has also held up well, considering, as with many TVs, it is turned on first thing in the morning and stays on until late in the evening, even if nobody is watching. I suppose the main sign of age is the fact that the picture seems a tad dimmer than it used to be. That’s not unexpected, but it probably has a useful life of several more years.

    The question is whether five years has meant huge improvements in overall picture quality for less expensive models, and whether LCD has begun to approach plasma in image quality. From a sales standpoint, there is no contest. LCD beat plasma long ago. Pioneer gave up its top-rated plasma lineup several years ago, and there are reports that Panasonic, another top-tier plasma maker, will soon join them.

    Among the current TV makers, VIZIO, which began operations in 2002 as a budget maker of TVs and PCs, has become a major manufacturer with annual sales in the multibillion dollar range. VIZIO is quite prevalent at big box discounters, including Walmart, its Sam’s Club subsidiary, Costco, and even Best Buy and Amazon. I reviewed a 50-inch VIZIO plasma in 2007, but these days the company is all LCD.

    The heart of the product lineup includes the budget-priced “E” series, and the somewhat higher cost “M” series. All are replete with features usually found on more expensive gear, such as LED backlighting, smart dimming, Internet apps, such as Amazon, Hulu Plus and Netflix, and built-in Wi-Fi. Some models include what the company labels “Theater 3D,” which uses the same sort of passive glasses that you get at the local multiplex.

    From the 2013 lineup, VIZIO sent me the $899 E551D-A0, a 55-inch set that includes all of the above and then some. The set is apparently just going on sale, so you may not see one at your favorite consumer electronics store yet. In short, it’s thin, relatively light as big screen TVs go, very power efficient, and delivers a picture that, at first glance, comes across as bright, crisp, with decent blacks and accurate colors.

    But this article will focus on the tech support experiences I encountered trying to get the set to work with a Logitech Harmony 900 universal remote. Understand that Logitech is preparing to ditch the Harmony division, so perhaps support has deteriorated in advance of that move. But support is often needed, since programming the Harmony can, at times, be difficult, and that’s an understatement.

    So the Harmony appears to have a program a problem recognizing the E551D’s input changing scheme. Understand that VIZIO’s setup isn’t at all complicated. Press Input on their remote, choose from six alternatives on a drop-down menu on the screen with the up or down buttons, and click OK. Simple, right?

    But not to the Harmony 900, which doesn’t seem to know how to scroll in both directions through an on-screen menu. The remote’s documentation isn’t very informative, and the programming options are, to put it mildly, obtuse. I even posted a query about the problem on Logitech’s support forum, only to be told by an experienced member that I need to call support. Unfortunately, support wants to charge me $29.99 for the privilege of making what is probably a simple, if ill-explained change, to address the limitations of the remote’s programming process. After all, I’m only trying to configure the unit to work with a mass market TV; it’s not some sort of custom setup.

    I complained to Logitech’s customer support people, and was promised a callback, which may come by the time you read this article.

    Meantime, I telephoned VIZIO’s support team. The company gets high marks in J.D. Powers surveys, so I expected first-rate assistance, and they really tried to help, even though the problem involved someone else’s product.

    It took about 10 minutes to get a VIZIO person on the phone. I talked to a gent from their U.S.A.-based call center who was especially eager to be helpful. Even though I was dealing with another company’s product, he made an effort to check VIZIO’s database for guidance, and even did a long Google search to try to come up with a solution.

    His suggestion was to buy one of VIZIO’s own universal remotes, which are really cheap. Unfortunately, VIZIO doesn’t support the ZVOX 580 sound base to which the set is connected. I’m not surprised, considering the fact that ZVOX is a relatively small specialty speaker maker, though one with a huge pedigree of long-time industry veterans. I did get the Harmony to work with the ZVOX, but only after lots of trial and error.

    In the meantime, VIZIO gets high marks for friendly support, and for taking extra time to try to help with a problem that really wasn’t theirs to solve. As to Logitech, I suppose I could call their PR people, since the product was submitted to me for long-term review, but I’d rather see how a regular customer is treated. So far I’m not too impressed.

    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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