Category Archives: Technology

Passing Notes

Cell phones evoke strong reactions in many users, from camping out for days in advance of a posted release date, to igniting flame wares online debating the merits of the latest models. Some people are fully entrenched in one brand or the other and cannot conceive of ever using another model, while others flip back and forth depending on what deal they find at the time. Some people get a new phone every six months while others hold onto their phone until it completely stops working. I tend to fall in the latter group. My Galaxy Note 4 was on its last legs and it was time to consider a new phone. I held off getting a replacement until I knew whether or not Samsung would continue the Note line after its Note 7 debacle. I now have a new phone and a new carrier (kinda) and I am a happy camper once again.

I bought my Note 4 when my Note 3 failed. When my Note 4 began exhibiting battery problems after a year, I considered having my carrier upgrade me to the newly-released Note 7 (Samsung skipped the Note 6) as a replacement. Fortunately, my Carrier was able to get me a new Note 4 that resolved my issue and I didn’t have time to be disappointed because it was just then when the Note 7 began exploding in people’s pockets. The carriers very much want people to buy a new phone every year and it had been more than two since I bought my Note 4. Both Samsung and Verizon were keen on upgrading me to the Galaxy S-8. I even considered it, but it came down to the fact that there is no S-pen in the S-8. I just couldn’t do it.

All that changed at the end of July, when Samsung began teasing its “Bigger Things” ad campaign. Clearly from the silhouette, they were about to release a new Note! I was giddy with “New Phone” excitement. After Samsung announced the phone, the major carriers began offering pre-orders at different price points. The phone is not cheap. $960 from all the carriers, but that could be mitigated by trading in an old phone. Best Buy offered it for $150 less than the carriers, so that was the best deal, if I stayed with Verizon. One problem, though, was that I had finally finished paying off my Note 4 and my Verizon bill was about to be a lot lower, but if I bought the phone from them, I was stuck making payments for two years again. Verizon is not the cheapest data plan unless you get four lines from them. As I live alone, I certainly don’t need four lines. Their unlimited plan was a bit more than I wanted to pay, so I began shopping around.

The other major carriers were comparable to Verizon and nothing stood out. Comcast had recently launched their Xfinity Mobile service and I looked at that. As an Xfinity Internet customer, I could get phone service from them without paying a line access fee. That was cool. Their unlimited plan was cheaper than the other carriers as well. The only problem was that Xfinity Mobile wasn’t listing the Note 8 as being available, and I had to buy the phone from them to activate it. They do not yet offer a bring your own phone plan. Fortunately, the week after its announcement, the Note 8 appeared on the XM website for pre-order at $200 less than all the other carriers. That pretty much put the nail in the coffin for me. I ordered the phone and the “by the gig” plan ($12 per gig) and waited.

The phone arrived at my home via FedEx on the 15th (the official launch date) and I unboxed it immediately. It is about a centimeter longer than the Note 4 and about a half-centimeter more narrow. It is an all-glass body, which makes it challenging to hold onto. Also, it is very slippery and will readily slide on any slanted surface, so a tactile case is essential to prevent damage. It’s biggest cosmetic difference is the infinity screen, removing any hard buttons from the face of the device. No home button. No fingerprint scanner. Nothing. When the phone is off, it is just a black obelisk. The power button is in the same position on the right side and the volume buttons are on the left. One new button shares the left side at about thumb position and that is the Bixby button. More on that later.

On the flip-side, there are two camera lenses, the flash and the re-positioned fingerprint sensor. The dual 12 megapixel camera is an oft-touted improvement allowing for more portrait style photography giving simulated depth of field. The front camera has improved as well, now sporting 8 megapixels. The most significant improvement for me is the manual settings allowing the user to set aperture and shutter speed and ISO if they so choose.

The S-pen does more now as well. While it is still a WACOM stylus, Samsung has added more features in the system that uses the S-pen. It had a coloring program that allows the user to either color on predrawn art, much like those adult coloring books that were all the rage a couple of years ago, or free draw and color original artwork and share it in an online gallery for feedback. I have wasted a couple of hours doing that already.

The Note 8 is a Note, so it still works on the same principle as its predecessors and I am well familiar with it. My greatest impression is the faster CPU and the larger memory. The Octocore processor running at 2.35 GHz and the six Gigs of onboard RAM mean it is zippy fast. Samsung also brought back the micro SD card slot so the on board 64 Gigs of storage can be augmented by adding up to 256 Gigs of removable storage.

What I not as enamored with is the rear mounted fingerprint scanner. I have yet to get my finger in the correct position thanks to the thickness of my phone case/wallet. Fortunately, the Note 8 offers retina scanning as a biometric option as well as 3-D facial recognition. This is fine for unlocking the phone, but my apps and websites still want fingerprints.

Some of the updates to standard apps are not as welcome either. The mail app is missing the ability to register a domain as spam, meaning one can only register each message one at a time. Some menu items have been moved to other screens, which is just a matter of a learning curve.

All in all, I am quite pleased with my new Note 8 and I am glad I waited. I am also happy I got it for $200 less than the major carriers were charging, while I still get the Samsung promotion for a wireless charger and memory card. I even ordered a new wallet case which showed up one day after the phone. Apple announced the new iPhone just two weeks after Samsung announced the Note 8. At $1000, the iPhone X took the Note’s short –lived title as the most expensive phone on the market. At least until Samsung announces the Note 9.

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Worth A Thousand Words?

About a month or two ago, I was watching a movie at the cinema and Schick featured a new ad (and I HATE HATE HATE that companies are putting commercials in movie theaters) that communicated its message through emojis. Now, I doubt I have to explain what an emoji is to the millennials, but for those of us that actually prefer to use the written word to communicate, an emoji is a little picture that can be cute or ugly or just plain stupid that is supposed to represent a feeling, much the same way that web speak developed the emoticon back in the 90s. Consider emojis kind of like emoticon 2.0.

The emoticon was created because in a text-only communication channel, the subtle nuances of non-verbal communication are lost. A sideways glance, a mischievous grin, a shrug that would otherwise provide context and mitigate the meaning of a sentence need some way to convey sarcasm or humor in shorthand without having to type out “I’m not serious about that, it is just a joke” or “I’m really bummed about something and I don’t feel like typing it all out.” Millennials really embraced the emoji and have use it liberally on facebook and instagram to comment on friends posts for years now. The emoji, coupled with texting shorthand, have destroyed much of the English language as it spreads across the globe.

These millennials have now infiltrated marketing companies and are trying to spread their illiterate shorthand into the mainstream by creating commercials with animated emojis, actors playing emojis or people being forced to communicate with only emojis. Schick has people dressed like emojis dancing around telling people how much better their life would be if they shaved with Schick products. Pepsi recreated their famous Cindy Crawford commercial done entirely with 3D emojis and Chevrolet asks a focus group to rate their car using only emojis. Why? That’s the million dollar question.

Emojis, like their predecessor the emoticon, represent feelings, not actual concrete ideas, so marketers can use a singularly Pathos appeal to drive their message, without providing anything substantial like facts or data or logic to entice the market to adopt their product. The millennial generation is all about feelings. We see this all over the place, from TV and films to the internet, as millennials bemoan how offended they are by the reality of the world. Even the Olympics is getting to be all about feelings as people complain about a white, male, multi-gold medal winning champion bearing the American flag in the processional because it hurts Muslims feelings. What emoji might that earn?

Emojis say nothing of substance. They convey feelings, but only those of the sender. It is not a medium for real communication and it is not a serious way to entice me to buy a product or service. In fact, I am actually so put out with emojis that using them in messaging is a sure fire way to drive my business to the competition. Down with Emojis.

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Mr. Fixit Strikes Again

Rheem Criterion control panel

The wires snake out of the cabinet and coil around the mounting bracket obscuring the control board and spiraling around each other; masking their connection to the circuits. There is no way to see where each wire terminates without moving them and disconnecting some of them. Of course, once one of them is disconnected, there is no way to be certain from which terminal it was disconnected. The flashlight flickers again, dimming and going out, plunging the furnace and the attic into darkness. I shake it violently, bringing flashes of light as it tried to come on. Stupid short. Stupid cheap flashlight. Stupid furnace. It doesn’t help that the furnace is positioned on its side right next to the pull-down ladder, making it difficult to work on comfortably. There is a real fear of falling out of the attic if one moves the wrong way. Fortunately, it is winter, so the attic is not hot, but if I don’t get this furnace working, it will stay real cold in the house.

I have always been a hands-on guy, preferring to fix things on my own rather than rely on repairmen and the requisite expense that comes with them. I have always been good at troubleshooting things, which serves me well in my job as a technical instructor. When I was a child visiting my grandmother, she gave me a broken alarm clock to divert my attention from the fact that there were no toys to play with, and no friends around her house. The clock was a Big Ben nightstand clock and after I took it apart, examined the pieces and how they worked together, and put it back together, it started working. She and my parents were impressed. Then she gave me an old radio. I don’t remember if I fixed it too, but I think I did.

As a teen, I learned how to do maintenance on a car and, with the help of a buddy, I rebuilt a 1972 Ford Pinto that had a broken timing belt. In the Army, I was required to perform preventative maintenance, checks and services (PMCS) on my vehicles. I also made use of the rec center garage to keep my personal car running. As an adult, I learned how to build and upgrade personal computers, build and maintain networks, and setup home electronics. This led to my current job as a technical instructor. I call myself a “Jack-of-All-Trades” kind of guy. I always tried to do it myself before even thinking about hiring someone to do it. Until recently, that is.

One morning last month, I was changing the oil on my motorcycle and it occurred to me that I had performed about half of the scheduled oil changes on the maintenance log. I had paid for the others at either the dealership or garage. As I wrestled with the oil filter wrench, I remembered why I took it to the garage. I HATE doing maintenance. As I get older, the thought of working on my bike no longer holds any fascination for me. This isn’t limited to my bike either.

I have two palm trees with dead fronds hanging low refusing to fall off. I also had a tree from the neighbor’s yard overhanging my house and a pine tree that had four dead branches. I have procrastinated getting the ladder and saws to rectify the problem. One morning, a tree service was out and about and I haggled him into doing it for me. It wasn’t cheap, but at least I didn’t have to clean up the mess after risking life and limb cutting and sawing.

15 uF Capacitor

Now, in contemplating the repair of the furnace, I remembered when we had the compressor replaced five years ago, the repairman told me a new control panel would be $600. I bit the bullet and ordered a new control panel. Fortunately I found one for less than a hundred dollars on Amazon which seemed a steal. While I waited for it to arrive, I watched several YouTube videos about changing the panel and, of course, the professionals made it look easy, but I did get more comfortable with the idea. I snapped several pictures of the panel and wires and studied them extensively until I felt (maybe mistakenly) confident that I could swap the board. When I got it home, I immediately put it in. The wires were not as difficult as I first imagined and it went in with no problems. I set the mode on the thermostat, flipped the switch and engaged the safety. I heard a click and a hum and then…nothing. The fan refused to spin up. *#^@%

It must be the motor. The motor is about $200 bucks and requires completely dismantling the blower assembly. Perhaps it was time to admit defeat and pay someone to do it. I discussed the matter with my brother-in-law who told me that it sounded like the capacitor may be bad. Fortunately those are relatively cheap at around $15 and easy to access and replace. The original one looked good to me when I inspected it, but sometimes a capacitor can fail with no external indication. I bought one at Grainger and put it in. Again, I set the mode on the thermostat, flipped the switch and engaged the safety and this time I heard…nothing. For a second longer than I expected to anyway. Then I heard a click and a hum and then….the motor spun up! The fan was blowing air again! Yippee! I fixed the fool thing for only $115 bucks! Now we can head into spring without worrying about boiling in the house.

Ok, Maybe I don’t need to hire all the fixit jobs out after all. Unless I just don’t want to mess with doing it myself. Like oil changes and tree trimming. Anyone want to come weed my gardens?

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Pictures in the Stream

In the 90’s, the ‘It’ gift was a movie. I could count on getting at least one video tape or DVD each gift giving event, be it birthday or Christmas. My family could also count on my giving them one, too. It was what we did. With the advent of video tapes in the 80’s, home theaters were becoming more common and once the price point fell to the point where ordinary people could afford to buy a copy, it became a status symbol to have a vast library of movies. New movies “dropped” into stores on Tuesdays and people often lined up to buy the blockbusters. I still have a large collection of DVDs and some VHS tapes. It is rare, though that I pull them out. Technology has changed, making owning media cumbersome. I don’t even keep my DVDs out anymore. They are sequestered away in a cabinet out of sight. With the ability to stream movies on the internet, media fans who wish to build a library of movies have to ask themselves one question: Why own a DVD when the content is available directly to your networked television or computer? The answer is one of image quality versus content availability.

Several years ago, there was the last media format war. Blue Ray and HDDVD went head to head, battling for the attention of media collectors who had to determine the best format for picture quality and feature offerings. While many say that HDDVD had a better picture, Blue Ray offered more features. Blue Ray also had Sony in their corner, so once they undercut Philips’ (who was the primary backer for HDDVD) price point and secured enough studios, customers chose Blue Ray. Blue Ray has a fantastic picture, far and away better than standard format DVD. It is true High Definition. So, while a progressive scan DVD has a very good picture, it cannot hold a candle to the color depth and sharpness of true 1080p resolution. For people who want the immersive experience of true HD, Blue Ray can’t be beat.

While image quality is fine, getting discs can be a problem. In order to watch a Blue Ray disc, one needs a Blue Ray player and a disc. Usually that means getting up from the couch or recliner and trudging off to the store to buy a disc or to the Red Box to rent one (adieu Blockbuster). That can be inconvenient. Once one has seen the entirety of their library enough times, it gets boring watching the same old movies over and over. No, the best way to be entertained is with a constant stream of new content that doesn’t have to be physically retrieved from a vending machine or store shelf. Having that content available at the click of a button on the remote makes it that much sweeter.

Smart TVs started offering Netflix and Hulu almost as soon as those services became available. The content is streamed via Internet Protocol to the device, allowing immediate playback without having to download the entire film before watching it. This puts a vast library at one’s fingertips; a library larger than almost any one person’s DVD collection, and one that is constantly updated with new titles. Both of those services are also offering original content that is not available anywhere else. No DVD that can be bought, no TV channel that can be recorded. Cable services are also getting into the on demand streaming game as well. Most movies are available via HBO Go, or Showtime or any other premium movie service that usually comes with cable subscription. The one downside is that as they add new titles, they must occasionally retire older titles, making them unavailable. I wanted to watch Smokey and the Bandit last month and it was not available with my streaming subscriptions. I had to buy a copy.

While the ability to watch a movie on a whim is a good thing, there is a downside. The process of digitizing and streaming content using Internet Protocol reduces the image quality. It is like taking a picture with a digital camera, then uploading it to Facebook. When the image is sent, it is compressed during the transmission. When you download it from Facebook, it is not as high quality as the original image. The digitization and compression process is a “lossy” process. Data is sacrificed for bandwidth. This is inescapable. True 1080p Blue Ray grade content takes a lot of bandwidth to transmit. Any movie viewed on Netflix, while it does look good—better than broadcast TV, is not as good, not as high def, not as clear as Blue Ray. It cannot be. Even if a service advertises that a movie is 1080p, it is not the same quality as Blue Ray. The 1080p is merely referring to how many pixels are represented in the display after decompression. It does not talk about the color depth or the contrast ratio and it doesn’t account for lost data in the compression process.

So as I said, the real question for movie lovers is convenience versus quality. If you prefer to have a vast, ever-changing library available at the click of a button, get that streaming service. If you want the best quality image and sound, stick with building your own Blue Ray library. You may end up watching the same old titles, but that is why you head down to the store on Tuesdays, to add new titles to your library. You don’t even have to retire your old movies. For me, I still buy Blue Ray copies of my favorite films, but I also watch streaming movies from time to time. I did sign up for Netflix so I could watch Longmire, and while there, I have grown to appreciate Daredevil and House of Cards. I might just keep my subscription even as I continue to build my disc library. I just found a Blue Ray copy of Smokey and the Bandit on Amazon.

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Tick Tock: Wearable Tech

I don’t wear a watch. I haven’t for more than twenty years. I did when I was growing up; I went through several. My mother bought me a Mickey Mouse watch several years ago. I don’t remember the exact circumstances of why she got it for me, but she did and I wore it even in basic training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in the Army. It was during AIT in Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio that I lost it. As part of our training, we had to run a litter obstacle course, carrying a patient across a mock battle field. I was part of a four-man team carrying our litter across a stream and, not wanting the watch to get wet, I gave it to the patient on the litter. One of our teammates footing slipped, dunking our patient into the cold water and the patient dropped the watch into the stream. Mickey was lost forever. I bought another watch, an Armitron, if memory serves and wore it for some time. It got wet and the face got messed up, but a jeweler offered to clean it up for me. He painted the face and put a nice gold colored band on it. It got people’s attention, and one person even offered to buy it from me. I refused, thinking it was too pretty to sell, but unfortunately the water damage was not limited to the face. The mechanism broke down and it died. By the time I got out of the Army, or shortly thereafter, I stopped wearing watches. The bands pulled the hairs on my arm and I grew weary of taking them off, putting them on, winding them or changing the batteries, and I kept scratching up the crystals. I tried a pocket watch for a while, thinking it looked cooler, more sophisticated, but it turned out to be a pain in that I kept forgetting to put it in my pocket. It’s not much of a pocket watch if it’s never in one’s pocket. Once I started carrying a pager and then a cell phone, I no longer had any need to wear a timepiece. If I had any need to know what the time was, I could simply look at my phone. It was like a more modern equivalent of carrying a pocket watch that I was less likely to forget to put in my pocket. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

Fast forward twenty-odd years.

?

A new technology has broken upon the scene: the Smart Watch; a device designed as a companion to the cell phone.

Once Apple introduced the Apple Watch and Samsung offered the Galaxy Gear, many of my friends asked if I intended on getting one. Of course, the Apple Watch was a nonstarter as I don’t like iOS devices, but I did look at the Galaxy Gear. I am a techie after all. If it is new technology, I usually give it the once over; just to see if it will be of use to me. I perused the Galaxy Gear and was underwhelmed. Its clunky design and non-intuitive interface were not enough to pique my interest. I was also disappointed with the plastic band and toy-like appearance. Watches were always a fashion accessory first and foremost and a timepiece second. The Galaxy Gear was neither. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

There are a couple of other smart watches such as the Fit Bit which offers the ability to track heart rate, step count and activity. Most smart watches do this, but Fit Bit makes fitness the main focus of their device. There is also the Pebble, a low-cost entry into the smart watch category and it looks like it. It has the fit and finish of a child’s toy watch one gets from a toy vending machine or Cracker Jack box. I did not like what I saw. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

Samsung redesigned the Galaxy Gear to provide it with a standalone cell connection so it is more like a Dick Tracy secret spy watch-phone. It has a speaker and a camera built in. It is essentially a phone one wears on one’s wrist. And it is that much bigger, too. It also costs more than a phone if you don’t get the carrier service contract. No, it would not do for me. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

While I was in Best Buy perusing the latest tech, I spotted a different watch: the Motorola 360. Sporting a solid stainless steel body and gorilla glass face, the 360 looks like a real watch; more so than any of the other entries in the market. It comes with different bands, too. The entry level offered a black steel body and black leather band, or one could opt for the stainless steel body and metal link band. A brown or gray leather band is also available. This device may be a smart watch, but it actually looks like a watch. It has the fit and finish of a fashion accessory, something that most smart watches lack. Before the Apple acolytes rage against this machine, I will admit that one can configure an apple watch with enough bling to make it a $1000+ fashion accessory too. The Motorola 360 has that look out of the box for $150.

When I unboxed it, its battery was flat dead. Many electronics come boxed with a least a partial charge, but not the 360. It uses the Qi wireless charging system, so there is no charging port on the device, which helps it maintain that classic watch look. After charging for a while, I was able to pair it to my phone via Bluetooth. I initially used a Galaxy Note 3 to pair the watch and it went without a hitch. The only problem was that out of the box the version of the 360 firmware was not efficient with its battery use and the watch depleted in about a half hour of constant use. At this point, I was fairly certain I would be returning the watch. I have no use for a device that cannot last at least ten hours of nominal use on one charge. Fortunately, once I charged it up again, it downloaded not one, not two, but three firmware updates. After completing the last one, the system was much more battery friendly. It also added several new features that the first version didn’t have. The battery now lasts all day. I do have to put it on the charger each night, to ensure it has enough charge for the next day, but when I place it on the charger, it still has anywhere from 40% to 60% charge left after 16 hours of moderate to heavy use. One of the nice things it does when charging is change the display from the standard watch face to a digital clock face that shows the charge level as a ring around the face. This means if I wake up in the middle of the night, it acts like a nightstand clock.

The 360 runs on Android Wear, a stripped down version of Android designed for the minimalist interface afforded by the small form factor of a wrist watch. It is designed to work in conjunction with an Android-powered cell phone, provided said phone is running Android 4.0 (Kit Kat) or higher. Interacting with Android Wear has a learning curve. It is not as intuitive as I would have liked. One swipes left/right and up/down depending on the function one is doing, and there are no obvious prompts as to which way to swipe or what swiping will do. Fortunately, it doesn’t take too long to figure it out, and there is no lasting damage from doing it wrong. One cannot delete a message from the phone on the watch, for example.

Pairing the watch to a cell phone provides the wearer the ability to read incoming text messages or emails on the watch screen without having to open or unlock the phone. Also, notifications are sent to the watch as well, so that appointments, reminders, and updates alert your watch. Some might find this unnecessary as their phone is never out of their hand, but as I have a phablet which rides in my hip pocket most of the time, I like being able to check an incoming alert with a simple flip of my wrist. If I am instructing, my phone is set to vibrate so that it doesn’t interrupt my class. It would be rude as well as distracting to my students if I stopped teaching to wrestle the phone out of my pocket to see what the alert was. Now, I can just look at my watch.

Google searching is one of the core functions of Android Wear. The 360 is better at voice recognition than most phones. Rather than whip out the cell phone to type in a search term, the 360’s dual microphones allow the wearer to simply say “OK, Google,” which brings up the Google app, and then speak the search terms. “Find a pizza place near me,” or “How old is George Clooney,” brings results right to the watch face. Since the watch does pair with the cell phone, if the user has set up Google Now on the phone for the personalized cards, these same cards can appear on the watch as well. The 360 pulls data from the phone for weather, time, date and agenda right on the watch face. You can even get your airplane boarding pass on the watch’s display.

Flat Tire effect at bottom of display

There is a downside. While the watch face may seem large for a watch, it is small for a browser. Reading content on the watch requires a lot of scrolling. One can set the font size to make reading easier, but with my eyes, I have to keep the font relatively large. Android wear does have the ability to open the alert or message on the phone for better reading if it something that requires more attention. Also, there is a small area at the bottom of the screen that is not used for the display. Some people call it the “flat tire” look. This area houses the light sensor the device needs to set the screen brightness. If one selects a bright watch face, the area is very noticeable. I have a black face, so it’s difficult to notice.

Android Wear offers a number of slick watch faces that are user-selectable and the Google Play store offers many apps to design one’s own from either a template, or from scratch if one has an artistic bent. There are many apps available for Wear, from games, to note taking, to ordering pizza, but I find most of them superfluous. The apps I do use are the voice recorder (though it has no speaker, the 360 has two microphones for Google searching) which saves voice notes on your phone, a calculator, a Wear version of Shazam and the coolest one is the camera remote app. Selfies are a breeze now. Simply set up the phone, frame the shot, the check out the image on the watch and if it is good, snap the pick with the watch. Playing games on the watch seems pointless. There are better games on the phone and since the watch is always no more than 30 feet away, best to keep playing on the phone.

It is important to remember what the watch is supposed to be. It is a time piece that also interacts with your cell phone to help keep users connected to their information. It is not a content delivery system, or a personal entertainment system, or a media system, or a development/production system. One still needs a phone/tablet/PC for those functions.

Motorola just released the next version of the 360, which offers a slightly faster CPU and slightly better battery management. It also has three different versions: one for men, one for women and one for the sport-minded. The price has gone up as well, to between $300 and $400, depending on the configuration. I am happy with mine, so I have no plans on upgrading.

After more than twenty years with a naked wrist, I am adjusting to wearing a smart watch now. It felt heavy at first, but then again, any watch would feel heavy to someone who hasn’t worn one in a while. I do like checking the alerts without pulling out the phone and being able to voice search is a great benefit. People who know me have noticed the device. My son came to the house the weekend I bought the 360. As soon as he saw me he said: “What’s with the watch? You don’t wear a watch.”

He’s right. I don’t wear a watch. I wear a Moto 360.

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Every Other Update

I’m not much of an early adopter anymore. Too many times I have been burned by “not ready for prime-time” products and updates. Now, I usually wait for the second or third iterations before making any technology changes. I made an exception this time, for Windows 10. I have found that Microsoft gets updates right about half of the time; usually on every other version. Time will tell if I chose wisely or not, but I have been playing with it long enough to form some initial impressions.

My Surface Pro 2 came with Windows 8.1 Pro installed and it took a couple of weeks for me to adapt to the new touch-designed interface, which has been called Metro, Touch and Tile World at various times since its launch. Microsoft figured that all personal computing was going to the tablet/touch interfaces commanded by iOS and Android, and they wanted to gain a piece of that market. They banked on that idea so much that they completely lost the traditional Windows desktop that has commanded computing since 1994. Public outcry was such that Microsoft quickly brought the desktop back to Windows 8 as a patch, which effectively split the user experience in two, leaving many to complain that 8.1 suffered from dual personality syndrome. Even so, I had a grasp of the nuances and managed to get my Surface to work for what I need it to do, though I was still missing the simplified user experience of Windows 7.

Microsoft, evidently wishing to distance itself from its Metro mistake, completely skipped Windows 9 and redesigned the entire OS for its newest update. The biggest news about the upgrade, however, was not the return to the desktop—a welcome piece of news for windows users, to be sure—but that the upgrade would be free. Free, that is, for those who are upgrading from 7 or 8 and do so within a one-year time limit from the release. Those who are still running XP or Vista (why would anyone be?) are out of luck.

This also means that all future upgrades are also free. Microsoft announced that there will be no more “Versions” of Windows, merely updates and patches. This is similar to Apple’s Macintosh OS stopping with OS X, even though there are constant updates for that system. Microsoft will not be losing money, to be sure. They have figured out a way to monetize OS usage by collecting user data. More on that later.

So, I upgraded my tablet the day after the release. The update process was simple and painless for me, although some Norton users complained that they lost their antivirus and had to go through some hoops to get it back. I had no such problem. My Norton immediately updated itself upon completion of the initial Windows 10 setup process.

Most of my configurations remained, such as my desktop image and icons. Users boot right onto the desktop just like previous versions, with the tiled Metro start screen now popping up as the start menu from the Windows button. Gone is the 2-App limitation on multitasking that Metro imposed on us; back is the multiple windows on the task bar. Now some of the touch-specific niceties of the Metro interface are also gone, such as the charms and the swipe to close/minimize feature. Closing is back to clicking the X in the upper right corner where it has always been. I had gotten so used to swiping down to close windows, that I kept dragging windows below the task bar and having to work to get them up and closed. I’m almost over that now.

Swiping in from the right used to bring up the charms, but that feature has been replaced by what I think is one of the biggest improvements in Windows: the notifications panel. In Windows 8, metro social apps like Facebook and Twitter kept a process running in the background to update their live tiles on the start screen. They still do this, but now they also show up in the notifications panel, and they remain there until the user clears them. This functionality is not new to mobile users—phones have had this for years—but Windows has never embraced it for computer users until now.

Windows also has included a built in mail app that can be configured for any POP3 or iMAP4 service. Yahoo, Gmail, and Hotmail can appear right beside ISP/work email in the same streamlined client, which alerts the user of new mail in the notifications panel. For those who use a web-based calendar like Google or hotmail, reminders for appointments and tasks also appear in the notification panel alongside any alarms the user might set.

Even with those updates, the biggest improvement for Windows might have to be Cortana. Apple launched Siri several years ago to the amazement of the mobile world. Google followed suit a few years later and there have even been some independent personal assistants like S-voice on Samsung phones. Windows developed Cortana to compete in that market, and rather than program a life-like computer-generated speech synthesizer, Microsoft employed an actual human actress to record her voice for the digital assistant.

Cortana is actually the name of a character in Microsoft’s game series Halo. In the game, a computer AI is named Cortana and is one of the antagonists for the hero. The voice became so popular that Microsoft decided to make Cortana real. Now Windows users can talk to their computers by simply addressing them with “Hey, Cortana.” Doing so will open a voice search window where a user can speak search terms, ask about the weather, inquire as to the day’s schedule, check email or even ask Cortana to tell a joke.

Again, Siri users will say “Been there, done that,” and they would be correct. In fact, Siri is still a bit more intuitive than Cortana, who opens web browsers to Bing for simple questions way too often for my taste. I can only expect that Microsoft will improve the service as time goes on.

Now for the concerns. In order for Cortana to work, the computer’s microphone has to be on all the time, and the network connection must also be active all the time. While this is a drain on the battery, it also means everything that is audible in the vicinity can be picked up and transmitted to Microsoft’s servers. Again, this is no different from Siri or Google, so many people won’t mind. But with all these voice recognition programs and devices, more personal data is being transmitted, collected and used by tech companies to gather information on users for marketing purposes. Some privacy advocates may be bothered by this.

Since Windows 10 is “free,” Microsoft has put a lot of data gathering tools embedded deep in the system. There are several places to find the settings for them and they are not easy to find and they are not together in the same place. Concerned users can opt out of all the data collection if they so choose, but Cortana will stop working if they do.

So, overall, Windows 10 is a step up, continuing the trend of good upgrades skipping a version. 95 good, 98 bad, 98 second edition good, ME bad, XP good, Vista bad, 7 good, 8 bad, 10… well, we’ll see if it ends up being as good as the first two weeks seem to indicate. One of my friends posted that her newly upgraded desktop locked up on Windows 10, which may be more of a problem with the fact that it is a cobbled system, rather than an out of the box computer. I am on a Microsoft-built device, so it may be that my good experience is owing to tight development between Microsoft hardware and software. So far, so good.

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Passing Notes

The webinar was projecting on the screen as our team huddled around the conference table listening to the latest golden nugget of wisdom from the corporate office. We all consider ourselves professionals and as professionals, we take notes about corporate nuggets of wisdom. Of the ten of us, I had my Microsoft Surface, the guy next to me had his iPad 2, the guy next to him had a galaxy Note 3 stylus in his hand and the phablet on the table in front of him, and the woman next to him was tapping away on her iPhone 6. In fact, everyone had some technology in front of them save one: Our director. She had her lined, bound notebook open to a blank page and her pen at the ready, tapping a syncopated rhythm on the page.

In her office, she has filled shelves with these notebooks. I think she owns stock in the company that makes them. She always has one with her and if I stop by her office, be it for a request, or a status update, or to solve some problem (even if I am—gulp—summoned) she has the book open and the pen at the ready. I’ve never seen someone so diligent about taking notes.

I’ve never been good at note taking.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I do take notes about things. I have a degree after all, and you don’t get one of those without taking a note or two. It’s just that my handwriting leaves something to be desired and even I can’t read it when I write in a hurry. I wrote a blog about this a few years ago and I haven’t improved any since then. My problem—well one of the many—is that penmanship aside, one has to actually go back and read the notes one writes in order for them to be of any good. I kept a note pad in my days in the Army to document all sorts of things. The only time it came out of my pocket was when I was writing in it. I never really went back and read the thing. I even had a Day-Runner in Army cammo to try to keep myself on track.

Reading my notes remained a problem for me in college until technology caught up with me. Some brilliant individual created an electronic note pad. Not only that, it was also a calendar and an address book. It was essentially an electronic Day Runner. Many will remember the Palm Pilot, a ubiquitous accessory for the corporate yuppie in the nineties. What made it work for me was that it beeped reminders. Oh, happy day! No more missing appointments. No more missing meetings. No more missing assignments. Well, no more excuses for missing assignments, meetings and appointments anyway.

Now I have this Microsoft Surface, which I admit I use more as a laptop replacement than as a tablet, and I have the Note 3 phablet. Both have a stylus—that little device that acts like a pen allowing one to write on an electronic tablet. I rarely use either stylus for the same reason I don’t use a paper notebook. Even Microsoft’s engineers, as brilliant as they are, can’t write code that can make any sense out of my chicken scratch.

So in the meeting, I had my Surface attached to its clicky little keyboard all ready to take notes. We progressed through the webinar and my mind (as I’m sure many others have done) began to wander. I looked around the room and I noticed something: all these note-taking devices were sitting idle. No one was taking notes. It wasn’t because the presentation was particularly riveting either. Some were watching the screen, some were fiddling, some looked thoughtful in that distracted-but-I-want-to-look-interested kind of way. Not one of them was writing or typing.

Except one person.

She was scribbling away like she always does. I’m sure she filled up another one of those bound volumes that line her bookcases. In my defense, the nugget of wisdom was accompanied by a Powerpoint deck that had all the notes we would need, so no need to retype it all. I wouldn’t read it anyway.

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