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  • Newsletter Issue #736

    January 6th, 2014

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    Can a valid argument by made for buying an inexpensive Android smartphone for most people? Sure, you can get an iPhone 4S free with a two-year contract from the major U.S. carriers, with a slightly complicated payment variation from T-Mobile that turns their price into an installment plan. You can get an iPhone 5c for $99 on a similar arrangement, and sometimes there are deals that allow you to save some money.

    But what if you don’t want to deal with carrier contracts or two-year loans to pay off that fancy new smartphone? Well, perhaps the Moto G, at $179 unlocked, might be a possible contender if your needs are modest. It’s not the most powerful handset out there, but it offers a near-pristine Android experience. That’s a refreshing change when you compare the Motorola to a typical Samsung, which is stuffed to the gills with often useless junkware.

    That doesn’t mean a Moto G is an honest-to-goodness iPhone alternative. But for those who mostly care about making phone calls, doing some messaging and emailing and maybe running an app or two, it might be good enough. All right, I can’t see where Motorola is not making much profit from it, but since it puts you into Google’s ecosystem, they hope to earn something from the targeted ads.

    In any case, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured outspoken commentator Peter Cohen, Managing Editor for iMore, who spoke on the state of the tech industry in 2013 and 2014, with an emphasis on Apple. Inc. He discussed the prospects for 4K or Ultra HD, and whether Apple will consider building a TV set and/or a smartwatch for release later this year.

    You also heard from author and commentator Kirk McElhearnMacworld’s “iTunes Guy,” who described his experiences dealing with satellite-based Internet at his new home in the UK. He also offered the down and dirty details about his experiences comparing iOS and Android as the owner of a Moto G smartphone. As I pointed out at the start of this article, the product has the potential to succeed with a specific audience with modest expectations. He also talked about the value of the Mac Pro, and whether you really have to pay that alleged “Apple Tax” to buy one. But I’ll have more to say on Apple’s pricing in the next article.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris introduce long-time investigative journalist and author Barry Chamish. Barry is best known for his Israeli number one bestseller, “Who Murdered Yitzhak Rabin.” His research on a bizarre Israeli UFO wave led to five episodes of “Sightings.” His work led to a book called “Return of the Giants.” And, whether you accept the murder of JFK as a possible conspiracy, did you ever consider whether the death of his son, JFK Jr., in a plane crash was also the result of a conspiracy? You’ll hear about all this and more in this wide-ranging interview.

    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.

    ABOUT THOSE OVERPRICED MACS

    The story continues. Macs are expensive and PCs are cheap. If you just want a basic computer to get online, run Word, and handle email, you can do perfectly fine with an entry-level Dell, and I see them for as little as $329.99 at the company’s online store.

    Compare that, they tell you, to the tiny Mac mini at $599. There’s no possible comparison. Why spend the extra money for a luxury “niche” product anyway? After all, despite the problems with Windows 8, the majority of the computing world still prefers Windows.

    Anyway, that’s the argument, one that I have examined over and over again over the years with essentially the same result. When identically equipped — and sometimes that’s a bit of a stretch — the Mac and the Windows PC are pretty close in price. Sometimes the Mac is cheaper, and sometimes the PC is cheaper. But not by much except at the very high-end.

    Now about that $329.99 Dell, an Inspiron 660s minitower. It’s easy to say that this product is proof positive that the Mac mini is overpriced, but not quite. The basic Inspiron comes with a dual-core Intel Pentium processor. Did I say Pentium? Unfortunately, this PC, from Dell’s home or consumer product line, can’t be customized when it comes to the hardware. There are models with more powerful processors and larger drives, priced at $429.99 and $579.99. Suddenly the price difference seems less significant.

    A more meaningful comparison is a note-book. The cheapest 11-inch MacBook Air, a thin and light model, is $999. Among the listed Dell Inspiron Ultrabooks, the home versions aren’t being offered with solid state drives (at least none were apparent in the online listings I consulted) because the company probably wants to make them cheap. The entry-level work Ultrabook is an XPS 11 2-in-1, meaning it has a touch display and a swivel screen. The cheapest version sells for $1,149.99 but only has 2GB of RAM and an 80GB solid state drive. In contrast the basic MacBook Air offers 4GB of RAM and a 128GB drive. To me, storage space is still inadequate, but we’re trying to compare two products that are meant to compete in the same space. Granted a touchscreen is more expensive, but it’s also true that they aren’t getting the love from customers.

    This is a cursory comparison, but I’ll assume the processor and networking hardware is satisfactory for both. So we end up here with a Dell note-book with a starting price that’s $150 more than the starting price of the cheapest MacBook Air.

    In the all-in-one space, once again I had to go to Dell’s work-oriented store to find a 27-inch PC. The very cheapest XPS 2720 has a starting price of $1,599 compared to $1,799 for a 27-inch iMac. The specs are close enough not to be significant in general use, though the Dell does offer something significant not found in the iMac, an optical drive. The only productivity software offered is a 1 month trial version of Microsoft Office 365. A full license is $219.99, compared to free for iWork. Granted, Office is a far more powerful productivity suite, but most home users, and many small businesses, don’t need the extra features.

    What it comes down to here is that, once again,  Macs are priced very competitively with PCs that have similar configurations. Sometimes the Mac will be more expensive, sometimes the PC. But the difference is not usually significant. Yes, you can find cheaper gear aplenty in the Windows world, but that’s not an area where Apple will participate, since there’s not much profit to be had. It’s also true that there is a far wider range of configurations on the other side of the tracks, and you may find the exact components that suit your needs in situations where there’s no comparable Mac.

    Indeed, if you prefer OS X regardless, there are well-known tricks to create what has been known as a “hackintosh,” a PC that has been tricked out to run Apple’s OS. You may save some money in the process, though compatibility may be hit or miss unless you are careful in your selection of the raw components. It’s also quite possible a future OS X upgrade will break your carefully configured system.

    But you can certainly save time and aggravation buying a genuine Mac. Sure, if your needs are very modest, the cheap PC box you can find at a Walmart may be perfectly satisfactory. I can’t tell you how well it will hold up under sustained use, since, when the warranty expires, repairs will cost far more than replacing the box with a new one.

    When it comes to high-end workstations, the Mac Pro is clearly significantly cheaper than even a roughly comparable PC. That nasty fact has been true for a very long time, by the way. For some reason, Apple manages to make expensive gear more affordable than the competition.

    As I said in an earlier commentary, the Apple Tax on a Mac Pro is really a Tax Refund. When you look at the rest of the lineup, and compare it honestly to a similarly outfitted PC, you’ll get what you pay for, and the Mac is definitely not expensive when examined fairly. But this is nothing different from what I’ve said for years.

    DID OS X MAVERICKS HIT A ROADBLOCK?

    Other than freaking out Microsoft, which continues to charge up to $199 for a copy of the latest version of Windows, making OS X Mavericks free was considered a sure way to encourage quick adoption by Mac users. Indeed, for the first few weeks, it did appear that loads of Mac users had downloaded and installed the upgrade.

    According to a published report, however, it does appear that the popularity of Mavericks may have hit the skids, while the user base of OS X Snow Leopard, circa 2009, remains reasonably constant at 19.5%. After hitting 32% in November, according to Net Applications, which tracks online traffic, Mavericks “merely” increased to 37% in December. This, according to the article in question, must be a troublesome development. You see, some 22% of Mac users are still running Mountain Lion and 16.3% have stayed with Lion.

    The article uses the dreaded “fragmentation” word to create fear, but the numbers require a more linear analysis. You see, the rapid growth of Mavericks the first few weeks would largely have consisted of early adopters. The numbers in December likely consist largely of those who set up new Macs on which OS 10.9 was preloaded. I’m guessing, but this appears to make sense.

    The real question is how many of that 63% of remaining Mac users can actually upgrade to Mavericks. It’s fair to say that a large number of Snow Leopard users are off the list, and not just because they need to run Rosetta for legacy PowerPC apps. The hardware may just not be compatible. The same may be true for some proportion of Lion users. So the only way they can get Mavericks is to buy a new — or at least a newer — Mac. Otherwise they cannot upgrade.

    The larger portion of potential Mavericks users is that 19.5% running Mountain Lion, since Mavericks works on the same hardware. So you’d expect that number to erode over the next few months far more quickly than 10.6 and 10.7 users.

    I hope you see the logic here. There is a hard number in the current Mac user base who cannot upgrade. End of story. It has nothing to do with the comfort level or the reliability of OS 10.9. Unfortunately, the article in question, which isn’t getting a link for obvious reasons, doesn’t attempt to explain the reasons for the slowing adoption rate. It’s all about the alleged consequences, the supposed fragmentation that can hurt the advance of the Mac platform.

    I could, of course, point out that the uptake of Windows 8 and 8.1 is just beginning to exceed that of Windows Vista, which had its worldwide rollout in 2007. More than a third of Windows users are sticking with XP, first released in 2001. That disparity has to present all sorts of complications for developers who want to reach the widest possible audience yet take advantage of the platform’s latest features and enhanced security.

    It’s also important to point out that online surveys of this sort are, at best, approximations. They may vary from test to test, and only tally the “user agent” information transmitted by the browser, which would include the name of the app, the version and the OS. With Mac users, you assume the larger percentage of people are going get online soon after setting up a new Mac, or installing an OS upgrade. Many Windows computers never get online because they are used for businesses that speak strictly to a local network, or a private business network that will never register with Net Applications. Indeed, it may well be that there are more XP users than you might imagine as a result, simply because these computers, which may also simply run a cash register, never make an online transaction. I think of a nearby dry cleaner, for example.

    Unfortunately, without actually taking a direct user survey that has a proper mix of Mac users, it’s going to be hard to determine the meaning behind any given online metric. It’s a lot easier to post a sensational headline, particularly when it appears to portend bad news.

    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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