Tag Archives: Tech

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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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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Time For The New Toys

The technology we use to entertain ourselves is in a state of constant flux. It is always changing; some things shrink while others grow. New features make that which was intricate simple and the obvious complicated. One thing that never changes, however, is that customer whim drives the technology. The latest medium has had a rocky road, but 2010 will finally be the year of the Blue Ray.

Once upon a time, the only way to watch a movie in the home was to buy a projector and a copy of the actual celluloid film. In the 70’s, home video came of age with the aptly named Video Home System (VHS) which beat out rival Betamax in a heated contest for consumer hearts and minds and wallets. With video, a new industry was born and flourished with many companies manufacturing tapes and selling copies to rental houses across the country. Soon, the cost of reproduction fell so low that people could afford to buy a copy of their favorite movies to own. Home libraries grew to rival the rental houses and as more stores popped up selling tapes, the rental houses began to fall away one by one.

Then the first real challenge to VHS market dominance came in the digital versatile disk (DVD). This CD-sized medium offered startling resolution when compared to VHS as well as surround sound. It filled the hole in the market left by the failed laser disk and overflowed all over the VHS market. Soon, the remaining rental houses began stocking only DVDs. Wal-Mart decided to do away with tapes altogether. Now the video tape has gone the way of the 8-track.

DVD has enjoyed total market dominance for almost 10 years, surviving the HD wars that caused such a stir three years ago. Two new formats of DVD fought it out much in the same manner as Betamax and VHS. HD DVD and Blue Ray both offered significantly better picture and uncompressed 5.1 digital surround sound. They used improvements in laser technology to cram more data onto disk the size of a standard DVD. Drives that read either disk could also read standard DVDs as well. So the battle was fought not in the TV, but in the shopping centers and box stores as releasing companies tried to outmaneuver each other with the new format. Blue Ray finally won and HD DVD has joined Betamax in the annals of failed but superior technology.

But Blue Ray’s victory was not complete. While it emerged as sole High Definition format, the Venerable DVD was still the big boy on the block and wasn’t going gently into that good night. Vendors and movie companies failed to realize the market and thought and planned on Blue Ray as a premium medium. They priced players in the $500 range and movie titles were double that of standard DVDs. Well, customers just thought that wouldn’t do, so they stayed away in droves from the Blue Ray section and bought more titles in standard DVD.

Even as HDTV took off and more and more people bought LCD and Plasma flat panel TVs, they were not spending the extra money for Blue Ray. Many market analysts predicted that Blue Ray would die a death of market apathy. People wouldn’t elect to buy a Blue Ray version of a title they already had in standard DVD, especially with the premium price tag. Some stores only allocated a half a shelf for the entire blue ray section, while the standard section was four or five shelves.

The rebound happened with Christmas 2009. After the summer FCC mandated digital transition, HDTVs started flying off the shelf even faster than before. Prices for flat panel sets dropped well below the thousand dollar mark. Movie companies finally began to realize that customers will not pay more for a blue ray title and so stores started marking them down to almost as low as standard DVDs. Many titles are actually cheaper on Blue Ray. Blue Ray players have also dropped in price, making the whole high def home theater experience affordable.

For those still on the fence, it is time to get in the game. Prices will only drop so low, and with the economy being the way it is, specials abound making it the perfect time. Besides, you will be doing your part to stimulate the economy to help bring us out of the recession. It is time for the DVD to join the VHS tape and the LP in the age of obsolescence.

Next, 3D-TV?

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