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Newsletter Issue #697

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

So hardly a day passes where my senses aren’t assaulted by yet another supremely irritating Microsoft TV ad. Whether it’s touting the Surface tablet or Windows 8, I will fast forward the DVR, or press the mute button on my remote if I happen to be watching a live broadcast.

I realize Microsoft is spending a bundle on these spots. But they don’t actually tell you much about the products. It’s all about presenting lots of noise without any substance, or maybe they hope you won’t notice that they never actually tell you what the Surface does, other than that it’s a small computer that attaches with a click to a keyboard. With Windows 8, I fail to see any advantage in productivity over any previous version of Windows; that’s the case Microsoft has been unable to make. No wonder the adoption rate of the new OS is at historic lows according to recent surveys.

Well, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented John Rizzo, of MacWindows.com, who explained why Windows 8 has been such an abject failure, and offered suggestions on what Microsoft should be doing to improve their latest OS.

You also heard from cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider, who continued his presentation about the growing problems with Google’s Android mobile platform. He also gave his reasons why the reported adoption rate for Windows 8 is so low.

When it comes to Android, it’s hard to believe Google’s mobile OS may be on the ropes, but with Samsung basically dominating the platform and concentrating on enhancing their own stuff instead, Google may have to make some serious changes. Maybe tighten up the platform so that licensees aren’t free to rip it apart at the seams.

On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a special episode featuring veteran UFO researcher Don Ecker, host of the Dark Matters radio show. During this episode we’ll explore Don’s outspoken opinions about UFO and paranormal research. He also answers a number of pointed questions from our listeners.

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.

FALSE PERCEPTIONS ABOUT APPLE CONTINUE TO DOMINATE

Just when I began to think that Apple’s stock price had begun to overcome the doldrums, they returned. The bad news, still unconfirmed, kept on coming, with one analyst even claiming, without evidence, that Apple’s sales had declined during the March quarter. If that were true, it would mean that Apple’s own guidance, which tends to be conservative, would be missed by a fair amount.

The early signs appear to point in a different direction. The NPD Group’s recent estimate had it that Mac sales in the U.S. increased by 14% year-over-year in January and February, no doubt due to the fact that the 2012 iMac had finally begun to reach customers in decent quantities. Other surveys indicated that iOS market share had improved against Android. So why assume Apple is suffering from fewer sales?

Obviously the truth won’t be known until Apple releases financials for the March quarter, and that’s due on April 23. Apple knows what really happened now, but the numbers can only be guessed at until the official announcement. Meantime, financial analysts and tech pundits will continue to look for the bad news.

In my days as the head of a small news department at a radio station, I was routinely cautioned by management to obey the cliché, “If it bleeds it leads,” which meant to report the accidents, the murders, the wars and the natural disasters and give them prominence over just about anything else. But the same standard applies more or less to all broadcast media, although newspapers may emphasize other stories that are less sensational.

When it comes to Apple, you might say the media is basically hard-wired to find bad news, whether that news is true, a rumor, or outright false. The run-up to the current “Apple is dead” rumor arose over a report claiming that Apple had cut iPhone 5 display orders in half late last year. Apple may have met their own guidance for the December quarter, but revenue and profits fall somewhat short of what the financial community expected.

True, Apple reported constrained supplies of key products, such as the iPhone 5, the iPad mini, and even the iMac. Had supplies been more plentiful, Apple would have likely handily beat estimates. But it all played into the perception that Apple’s best days lay in the past, when Steve Jobs was around. It was all downhill from there, so might as well fire Tim Cook.

During the conference call with financial analysts in January, Cook reminded everyone that taking one supply chain report and assuming it represents the entire picture of orders and sales is just plain wrong. But few paid attention. The stock price continued to plummet. Facts didn’t matter.

At the same time, I’ve read some perfectly inane commentaries from tech and financial pundits about what Apple is doing wrong and the sure-fire solutions to their real or imagined problems. The general assumption is that Tim Cook and his management team must be fools not to pay attention. So, therefore, for example, Apple must build a cheap iPhone, whether it’s profitable or not, because so many other companies are flooding the market with cheap handsets, profitable or otherwise.

And when will Apple come out with a new gadget that revolutionizes a market? Of course, they forget that Apple doesn’t so much invent a market as reinvent. There were, for example, digital music players before the iPod, smartphones before the iPhone and tablets before the iPad.

Maybe Apple should follow Samsung’s playbook and build everything. And, true, Samsung’s sales and profits are on the rise, and success should be celebrated. But Samsung sells a whole lot more than smartphones and tablets. In fact, among home appliances and electronics, you could pretty well fill an entire home with Samsung gear. That includes everything from smartphones, to TVs, Blu-ray players, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, dishwashers and even vacuüm cleaners. Heck, you could even buy a Samsung PC if you’re into Windows. The list of what Samsung doesn’t make would be far smaller, and it’s also true that the Samsung home would be filled with high quality gear. But not necessarily innovative.

Apple, in turn, makes more money from less. But since Samsung is the media darling, at least to some, I suppose it doesn’t matter how well Apple does. It may never be good enough. But even were Samsung to emerge triumphant over Apple in high-end smartphones and tablets, not to worry. Media and financial pundits will go after them soon enough. And what about Microsoft?

FIRST REPORT: VIZIO E551D-A0 SMART TV WITH THEATER 3D

So late last month, VIZIO sent me one of the first shipping samples of the $899 55-inch E551D-A0 flat panel smart TV for review. I gather that they are just hitting the stores, so you should soon be able to see one for yourself at one of the big box discounters, such as Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, and Best Buy.

Founded in 2002, VIZIO has become a major TV maker, with U.S. sales that often rival or exceed that of several multinational electronics companies that I can name. Their claim to fame is delivering better-than-expected performance at a price that usually undercuts the competition.

The E551D-A0, part of the entry-level E-Series televisions, was introduced at this year’s Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas, and is part of an aggressive product rollout that also includes several Ultra HD or 4K sets, with pricing yet to be announced.

I don’t want this preliminary review to be a listing of spec bullet points, so let me cover the highlights. The E551D-A0 is quite slim, with a narrow bezel, and relatively light. With stand installed, it tips the scales at just shy of 54 pounds. This is quite a bit less than my 50-inch Panasonic plasma, circa 2008. It’s also Energy Star 6.0 compliant, and, with an estimated power consumption of 72.07 watts, won’t tax your electric bill, or fight the air conditioner to keep a room cool in the summertime. Please don’t get me started about the Panasonic.

The specs read higher than what you expect from a $900 TV. The “dynamic” contrast ratio is rated at two million to one, a refresh rate of 120Hz promises flicker free rendering of action scenes. Picture quality is enhanced with smart dimming, an ambient light sensor, and a bunch of picture enhancing technologies that at least sound good on paper. The use of Theater 3D means that the set works with passive glasses, the same type you receive at the local theater. In contrast, the active 3D alternative requires expensive specs. VIZIO supplies two sets of glasses, and extras are cheap. Or free if you keep the ones from the multiplex.

Typical of smart TVs, there is a decent collection of apps, such as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix, to enhance your enjoyment, and maybe encourage you to rely less on cable or satellite fare. There’s also an Ethernet port, and built-in Wi-Fi in case your router isn’t close enough for convenient hard wiring.

I came to this review with realistic expectations. Compared to plasma, a well-crafted LCD set with LED will deliver a brighter picture usually at the expense of inky blacks. The viewing area is somewhat restricted, so if you’re sitting off axis, colors tend to fade. I didn’t attempt to verify VIZIO’s claim (one very common) of a 178 degree vertical and horizontal viewing angle, but I could see a falloff in picture quality before I hit that limit. But if you view the picture from a normal distance of eight or ten feet, or mostly in front of the set, picture quality will remain pretty consistent.

In last week’s article, I detailed VIZIO’s relatively simple setup process. You also get a host of picture presets that supposedly optimize the image for different sporting events, along with the usual Standard and Movie. Standard is intended for general viewing that includes sports fare, news, and movies. Movie will seem darker, but it’s supposedly better tailored for film.

Now some reviewers will resort to costly instruments to optimize a TV for the best possible picture. But having this done in your home is a $300 to $400 affair, and something very few of you are apt to do with a relatively low-cost set. So the results aren’t practical or realistic for that matter.

Instead, I opted to adjust the picture using tools you can buy yourself, such as the Disney “WOW” and “Digital Video Essentials” Blu-ray DVDs. In both cases, the instructions will guide you to doing the basic settings, such as brightness, contrast, color and sharpness. There are also settings for color temperature, but they are far more complicated to adjust, and are probably best left to the professional.

After experimenting with the color temperature choices, I choose the Normal preset, which seemed to give the most pleasing picture. I also turned off the various motion jitter and noise effects, since they tend to have a modest impact and may actually reduce picture quality. In theory, you want to adjust the picture under your typical viewing situation, such as lights on, or at night, with lights off. I chose daytime with lights off as the best compromise for my setup.

While I will probably do some further picture adjustments, the initial calibration efforts produced impressive results. In fact, the settings I ended up with were remarkably close to the set’s Movie preset, so you may not even have to bother. The sole change was to increase the Color setting from the default 50 to 55. In fact, if you choose Movie or Cinema (sometimes THX) on any new TV, and leave everything else well enough alone, you should get real close to the best picture that set can deliver.

For the VIZIO, whites were shimmering, colors came across as pretty accurate, particularly flesh tones, and the black levels were much better than I expected for LCD, surprisingly deep rather than just dark gray as you find on some sets. I didn’t examine the Panasonic side-by-side with the VIZIO, but the former had a perceptibly dimmer picture, which is to be expected for a six-year-old set. I expect plasmas from 2013 will do much better, but it’s also true that LCD image quality has improved substantially over the years. Besides, most people these days buy LCD.

Yes, I realize you could get a better TV picture if you pay more, which is to be expected. But you won’t feel that you’re sitting in the cheap seats with the E551D.

Rather than make a snap judgment, I’ll be watching the usual family diet of Blu-ray, Apple TV, and satellite TV fare over the coming week to get a sense of how the VIZIO delivers the goods under a variety of viewing conditions — especially 3D. There’s definitely more to come, but color me impressed.

THE FINAL WORD

The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

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