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  • Newsletter Issue #828

    October 12th, 2015

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    As most of you know, Apple sources parts for its gear from different sources. So the A9 processors in an iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus may come from either the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) or Samsung. Yes, Samsung! Despite the legal skirmishes between them and Apple, loads of Samsung parts are being bought. Indeed, it may well be that a hefty portion of Samsung’s profit growth can be attributed to Apple.

    Well, according to some online tests, if you have a new iPhone with a TSMC chip, you may receive up to two hours of additional battery life compared to the Samsung version. At least that’s what’s claimed, but Apple insists the testing is not accurate, and that the difference is closer to two or three percent. I await some more benchmarks to see what’s what. But if I had the “wrong” chip inside my new iPhone, would I have reason to return it to get the one with the “right” chip? And how would I know unless I ran one of those canned benchmarks?

    Forget about VW’s emission’s scandal, although the consequences are far more significant, particularly if you live in a city buried under an ozone layer. If Apple had to admit that some iPhones had two hours more battery life than others, what then? But even two or three percent can amount to half an hour or more.

    Speaking if the iPhone’s “chipgate” issue, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE,we were rejoined by columnist Kirk McElhearn, Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” who engaged in a discussion about the claims that the battery life of the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s may be very different depending on who supplied the chips. We also covered Volkswagen’s ongoing emission control scandal.

    You also heard from Adam Engst, of TidBITS and Take Control Books, who also focused on car technology. We covered problems with the infotainment interfaces and voice recognition, and the possibilities for an Apple Car. Adam also explained why he decided not to renew his Apple Music subscription after the free trial period ended, and his deep concerns over what he regards as the poorly-designed iTunes interface.

    We also presented a special appearance by Dr. Timothy C. Summers, President of Summers & Company, a cyber strategy and organizational design consulting firm, who is known as an “ethical hacker.” He talked about successful attempts to hack car electronics, the controversial Ashley Madison break-in, and how you can protect your data from unwanted intrusions.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a return appearance by Don Ecker, host of the real “Dark Matters” radio show (accept no substitutes!) to discuss the mysteries of Mars in light of the recent announcement of the discovery of flowing water on the red planet. The discussion includes the legend of the Martian canals, the face on Mars, and the possibilities of an ancient civilization, or even a present-day civilization perhaps hidden below the surface. There will also be talk of lunar mysteries and the possible existence of a secret space program . You’ll hear Don’s answers to questions from our listeners.

    CAR TECH: THEY DON’T GET IT!

    My very first car was cheap as in it was given to me. I lived in Alabama at the time, and in those days, for some reason, the car’s value had to be listed as something, so the relative who handed the vehicle off to me gave me a sales slip for $300 in cash and “other considerations.” It was a well-worn 1957 Chevrolet, with 3-speed manual transmission and an AM radio. Forget about air conditioning, and forget about the car for that matter. After a few weeks, it just wouldn’t start. After getting an estimate from a repair shop, a real breath-stopper, I decided to buy my very first new car, a yellow 1967 Opel Kadett, imported from Germany by Buick. The decision was made out of necessity. I didn’t have much in the way of a credit rating, but the local Buick dealer was able to sell the paper to a bank.

    The price was approximately $2,100. Payments were $50 a month. The sole option was an add-on AM radio, installed in a slot below the dash with readily accessible controls. The car lasted a few years, until replaced with a turquoise blue Toyota Corona. That car had a built in AM radio.

    A few years passed before I upgraded to a blue 1976 Buick Skylark hatchback with white vinyl roof and — get this — white leather seats. I never could keep them clean, so I wonder why I made such a foolish decision. But it had air conditioning, an AM/FM radio, and an automatic transmission. I was in the lap of luxury.

    In those days, if you wanted fancy audio or other features not supplied by the factory — or too costly when checked off the option sheet — you went to the aftermarket. Car audio shops are still around, but nowadays auto makers offer premium infotainment systems boasting such famous brand names as Bose, Fender, and Harman Infinity. Some layouts even offer faux surround sound, which makes little sense in a motor vehicle, I suppose, unless you acquire a large SUV with three rows of seats. Add Bluetooth audio, touchscreens, apps and navigation, and you have the promise of a pretty sophisticated system.

    But you can expect to pay several thousand dollars to add such extra features that may or may not pay for themselves at trade-in time.

    Now my first experience with a premium radio, a Bose, arrived with the worst car I ever owned. Recalling my purchase of an Opel in 1967, in 1999 I opted to lease an Opel imported by Cadillac known as the Catera. This was yet another of GM’s failed efforts to offer a lower-cost luxury car to compete with the BMW 3 Series. Their logic: It was a German car, with a 6 cylinder engine, a firm yet supple ride, decent handling, and plenty of passenger space. So what could possibly go wrong? They also offered leasing options that made it no more expensive than a typical family car. The trade-in value of my Saturn SL2 was enough to lower the cost even further.

    The radio controls were pretty straightforward. Remember, this car was built before auto makers offered hands-free systems and other more advanced infotainment features. The radio wasn’t all that sensitive, meaning more distant FM stations were sometimes ridden with static. But the audio was better than average, with relatively clean thumping bass, and crispy highs. It didn’t come close to a high-end home audio system, but as autos went, it got the job done.

    The Caddie, however, was a nightmare when it came to reliability. It made frequent trips to the dealer for various and sundry defects. I finally went to a lemon law attorney and sued GM. I ended up winning a small settlement after an arbitration hearing, which essentially meant that I didn’t have to pay the final six monthly payments. I returned the vehicle at the end of the lease and bought a Honda Accord.

    Through the years, I went through various cars of different price points, with various levels of infotainment. Navigation systems were usually pathetic, worse than Maps for iOS when it was first released. Premium audio systems were all right, I suppose, but controls were clearly designed by engineers without a clue how these systems were supposed to work in the real world.

    My most recent purchase was a Kia Optima. The premium audio system from Harman Infinity had high pretensions, and controls were fairly straightforward. But even after fine tuning the tone controls, I never could quite tame the boom and the buzz from the bass, and highs were always a tad tizzy. It came with a free trial subscription for Sirius satellite radio, but there were glitches that made me reluctant to actually pay for the service once the freebie expired. The radio consistently had dropouts in my travels around the Phoenix area, worse than the XM radio on other cars. The dealer blamed the inferior design of the Sirius satellite network compared to XM. I later discovered this was not true when I test drove a car in the same category from another manufacturer.

    Now between cars, I’ve had a chance to try out several low-cost rental vehicles. I wondered just what you can get if you select Economy when searching for the best price. To the car rental companies, this meant the absolute bottom line model, such as a Kia Rio, a Ford Fiesta or a Nissan Note. The latter is a tiny SUV-styled hatchback with chair-high seats, but very little storage space unless you fold down the rear seats.

    Since the Fiesta has received high marks for ride and handling, I was pleased to see a white one waiting for me at the rental agency’s parking stall. But I returned it the very next day. The electronics were pathetic, and you had to go through a complicated multistep system to place phone calls through the handsfree system. The LED display was tiny, dim, and surrounded by loads of bottoms. Somebody in Ford’s design team must have believed that the more buttons the better.

    When I actually made a phone call, the person on the other hand couldn’t understand me very well. But that’s been true of most of the handsfree systems I’ve tried. It was decent enough on the Kia, but just barely. But the main reason I returned the car was because it was just plain uncomfortable. I made every effort to adjust the manual seats to a fare-thee-well, but I could never find a satisfactory position. The gas pedal appeared to have been designed to make my foot ache after a long drive.

    The rental place was respectful. This couldn’t be the only complaint they received, though you wonder why Ford, which has been around for 112 years, can’t figure out how to design a comfortable seat even if it’s only on an entry-level vehicle. The only other economy vehicle on the lot was a dark metallic green Note, and I was pleasantly surprised. The seats were very comfortable, the radio offered surprisingly good sound quality and the XM satellite radio offered near-perfect reception. The infotainment controls were relatively straightforward and fairly easy to use. Although the ride was somewhat rough, typical of a small car with a narrow wheelbase, it handled well enough.

    An entry-level Note starts at just over $14,000 and, with fancy radio and all the options, maxes out at just over $19,000. That, in 2015, is cheap for a new car. Believe it or not, the average transaction price is over $33,500.

    My final test involved a VW Passat Limited. Before you add stuff, it lists for around $24,000 with a fancy eight-speaker audio system, Sirius satellite radio and a surprisingly well done touchscreen with a mostly comprehensible layout. This model features a push-button ignition switch, a power driver’s seat, and a 1.8-liter turbo engine that promises up to 36 mpg on the highway. Its 170 horsepower rating is lower than most of the competition, but it’s surprisingly peppy in a midsize vehicle. The Kia had 22 more horsepower, but seemed to accelerate more slowly.

    Although a tad smaller than a Honda Accord, the relatively austere Passat was positively huge inside, with an expansive rear seat and large trunk. The radio delivered a warmer, more pleasing sound than the Kia, which made it far more listenable. Even the touch controls were reasonably well laid out, as if someone actually exerted a little care in its design.

    Now VW dealers are suffering big time. Although the ongoing emissions scandal solely impacts models with diesel engines, foot traffic is way way down. The salesperson who greeted me admitted he hadn’t seen many people in recent days, so he had the time to grant my request for an extended test drive. I took the Passat through the same areas where the dropouts impacted the Kia’s Sirius radio, and they were virtually nonexistent. Although recent Passats were cheapened and enlarged to better appeal to an American audience, the ride, handling and steering were noticeably superior to the Kia. It didn’t lose its German character. The seats were more comfortable and, where the Kia seemed a tad tinny, the VW struck me as big and solid, even though the vehicle apparently weighs less.

    I suppose if you’re willing to overlook VW’s problems and the lower expected resale value, you might be able to negotiate a better deal. In this climate, I suspect those with subpar credit might be approved at a more favorable interest rate. But if you’re concerned about the longevity of the company, you may want to look elsewhere, although this, too, shall pass.

    At least VW, based on this one test drive and some reviews I’ve read, appears to understand that a car ought to be easy to operate, so you can concentrate on enjoying the driving experience rather than struggle with obtuse controls and navigation schemes. But it’s not perfect, so if Apple really decides to enter the auto business, you just know that the interface will be one of the first things to be overhauled. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

    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
    Sales and Marketing: Andy Schopick
    Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis



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    4 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #828”

    1. dfs says:

      To understand what’s wrong with modern automotive technology, you only have to contemplate the car I’m driving these days, a 2003 Cadillac with surprisingly low mileage. This car comes with a system for warning the driver that his tires are over/underinflated. The preprogrammed range of acceptable inflation is geared to the OEM tires and if you exchange these for aftermarket tires with a different range you have to take the car into the dealership to have the new information put into its onboard computer.

      Which, in Detroit’s view, is exactly the point of having an onboard computer. The car’s owner is not empowered to make even this simplest and most innocuous of all possible tweaks, because Detroit is married to the idea of getting you into that dealership as often as possible. I bet that at the same time they make their diagnostic gear difficult if not impossible for third-party mechanics to acquire, so as to enforce a monopoly on repairs. In other words, Detroit is married to the idea of closed computing because they see it as profitable. They are so jealous of this that they champion a legal theory that if you tinker with your car’s computing equipment you are guilty of copyright violation: even though you paid for the thing in their opinion you still don’t own it..

      In general, modern computing has done wonderful things in empowering us as individuals. I’d love a car computer which would do the same thing. Buy new tires? Plug in the new numbers yourself. Don’t like your car’s shift points? Change them. Want a harder or a softer ride? Adjust your suspension. And so forth and so on, using your onboard computer to customize your car’s performance the way you want it (and surely such a system could be idiotproofed so that a driver couldn’t inflict any damage on his vehicle). Any diagnostic information about its performance should be accessible to you and the mechanic of your choice. And so forth and so on. Apple is married to the idea of open computing, and if it ever does produce its own car, I would hope it would bring this philosophy to the automotive world, focusing on empowering the individual driver rather than maximizing its own profit. That would be truly revolutionary.

      • @dfs, Dealers have an important incentive to bring you to their service bays. With so much competition — and ready access to car invoice prices and incentives — people demand the cheapest deal possible. Some dealers make up for it by bundling packs in the finance department, but most of that stuff has little value and is overpriced. I might suggest gap insurance when you buy a new car with a long-term loan, unless your insurance company offers it or some sort of new car protection plan. The rest is junk.

        In short, dealers aren’t making the big profits from car sales, so they try to make it up by offering competitive pricing for service and accessories. The other day, I was in the service area of a local dealership and saw prominent signs touting lower prices for key scheduled maintenance compared to third-party shops. That is an important profit center, and if you’re visiting the dealer to get your car serviced, maybe you’ll take a look at next year’s models.

        Some cars do offer computerized control of suspension and shift points. But not the cheaper models, although such technologies filter down. But the auto makers still aren’t quite savvy about proper interfaces and the ability for the customer to adjust the driving experience with loads of options. I suppose they would also be careful out of liability. You make an adjustment that is too drastic, you might not drive as safely, and if you had a crash, you’d want to sue the car maker. So adjustments of this sort tend to be fairly minor overall.

        Peace,
        Gene

    2. dfs says:

      In my case, I have a sneaking hunch that something more may be at stake. Cad. made two models, a more expensive one with 300 h. p. (and a lot more “luxury” items), and a cheaper one with 275 h. p. I have a sneaking hunch that both models used the same engine and GM simply sold the cheaper model with a detuned motor and different shift points to cut back on its low-gear torque, thus making the more expensive model seem more desirable without going to the trouble and expense of setting up a separate assembly line. If I am right, then a little bit of computer tweaking could bring my 275 h. p. Deville up to its full potential level of perfomance.

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