Tag Archives: Technology

Hey! I’m Talking To You

Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick predicted it with 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal 9000 computer, as people interacted with the machine by voice commands. “Open the pod bay doors, Hal” has given way in today’s world to “Alexa, read my mail.” “Ok, Google, play my music.” “Hey, Cortana, what’s on my schedule?” “Hey, Siri, how’s the weather?” and “Bixby, check my stocks.”

More and more people have found themselves uttering something along these lines lately as digital assistants are becoming more ubiquitous in daily life. These features are not just an outcropping of cell phones, but have actually become stand alone services; some with separate devices that operate independent of a phone or tablet.

Apple started the trend when they launched Siri on the iPhone 4S with iOS 5. Several programmers tried to copy Siri for Android phones, but none met with the success Apple enjoyed. Samsung launched S-voice shortly after with the Galaxy S-3, but it’s was not widely accepted by users. There were a few app developers that tried to make device agnostic personal assistants for phones, but none met with Siri’s success. Until Google.

Google’s voice to text system is built into every Android system and works every bit as reliably as Siri. Android-based phones, even phones who try to add their own voice command systems, can access the Google voice system by saying “OK, Google.” It is cloud based, but also backed up by a dedicated team of people who constantly monitor the voice traffic to ensure even the most mumble mouthed commands get understood.

The battle might have remained between Siri and Google had Amazon not expanded the border conflict beyond phone handsets when they introduced the Echo. The small canister shaped device is essentially a voiced-operated, sound-based internet device with no visual user interface aside from a glowing ring. The flagship device is about 7 inches tall with omni-directional, far-field microphones and an adequate speaker for listening to music. It’s assistant is Alexa and users can access the system simply by calling her name. No need to push a button, or even use an interjection like “Hey” or “OK.”

Windows has entered the fray with Cortana, first introduced on Windows 8 phones, then on all versions of Windows 10 for phone, tablet or PC. While Siri, Google and Alexa have voices that are computer generated, Cortana’s voice is that of an actual human being. The name and the voice are taken from Microsoft’s hugely successful Halo game series.

I have tried these systems and, after wrestling with the burgeoning tech for more than a year, I have come to some conclusions. The tech is here to stay. The real question is which one is the best and most successful in what it does. I’ve lined up the five I have tried.

Number 5. With the launch of the Galaxy S-8, Samsung revamped their failed S-voice experiment, added some features and rebranded it as Bixby and have included it on every handset since, clearly aiming to be the Siri for Android. Or at least for the Galaxy line of phones, anyway. Bixby is no longer just the personal assistant, it now drives all Text to Voice applications on the Galaxy line. Sadly, though, it doesn’t do it well.

Of all the voice assistants, Bixby falls flattest. I have used Bixby in my brand new Galaxy Note 8 and just today fully disabled it from the phone. Its engine is slow to respond, does not accurately render the text that is spoken, even when it is spoken slowly and clearly, and often generates gibberish, spelling out the punctuation instead of adding it correctly period (.)

Number 4. Cortana is not bad, but not as robust as the others. Perhaps because its responses are recorded and not generated, or perhaps because it doesn’t have a cadre of technicians monitoring the inputs, but often, Cortana defaults to a generic web search (using Bing—the Bixby of web search engines) for its returns. She does understand better than Bixby, she just doesn’t do as much as Siri or Google, and she is a bit slower rendering the text.

Number 3. I use an iphone for work, but rarely actually use it for anything other than checking my work email, so I am not dependant on Siri. I have experimented with her to see how accurate she is in her text renderings, and she is useful in that regard. I don’t, however, miss her when I don’t use the phone. Even if one has a smart home system that Siri can control, it still requires the iPhone or iPad to do it, because there is no stand alone device for Siri yet. I hear there is talks to incorporate Siri into the Apple TV remote. Perhaps that will be an improvement. I’ll let all the Apple acolytes defend her position in the voice assistant rankings, but for my list, she is in the middle.

Number 2. The real battle for dominance is for the two assistants that are not bound to hand sets. Google just launched their Google Home product line with devices almost identical to the Amazon Echo. These devices now work just like the Google app on the phone, but without a web browser interface. It has the same network that gives Google its dominance in the web search market and it is amazingly accurate in how it listens and interprets voice. Using the phone, a user can watch the app correct a listening mistake to provide the correct information or perform the desired action. Google rarely makes a mistake in the voice interpretation. It does make mistakes in the results, however, just like it always has. But those mistakes are very few and far between.

Number 1. Alexa was designed by Amazon to work with users’ Amazon accounts. Remember that Amazon is, first and foremost, a shopping retailer. It seems Echo’s goal was similar to the goal of the Dash buttons; to make it quick and easy to order things from Amazon. With the Echo, one can order and play new music from the Prime playlists, reorder any item in the users order history and access the Amazon Prime video system to playback on smart TV or the Amazon Echo View device. If this was where the system stopped, it would rank below Siri in its usability, but Amazon didn’t stop there. With the Echo, Amazon opened the API to developers to create what Amazon calls “Skills” for Alexa. Echo can interact with Samsung’s Smartthings system for home automation, access iHeart radio stations, play games and many more things. On top of those things, Amazon gave Alexa some personality too. She responds to “Good Morning” with some interesting tidbits of information for the day. She tells jokes and even sings songs.

As technology creeps ever further into our daily lives, many people become more dependent on the services systems like these offer. My home has sensors that turn lights on automatically, preventing the stubbed toe from fumbling around in the middle of the night in the dark, interconnected thermostat so I can monitor and adjust the temperature from anywhere, and connected door locks that alert me when they are opened, or that I can lock and unlock from anywhere. Will we come to the day where society comes to a grinding halt if the systems go down? Some people will lose their minds when their assistants disappear into the cloud from whence they came, I have no doubt. I like to think I can adapt and get by without Cortana and Alexa if they go down. But for some, they live in fear of Skynet taking over.

“OK, Google, set the thermostat to 72 degrees.”

“I’m sorry, but the Government has mandated a minimum of 76 degrees for energy conservation.”

Or worse, finding themselves locked out of their homes.

“Alexa, open the front door.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Like Dave Bowman, the sole survivor of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I still know how to pull the plug.

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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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The Best of Both Worlds

I once wrote a blog about how the tablet was the replacement of the netbook, and for the most part, I nailed it. Many computer makers now make small computers called ultra books with as much or more power than notebooks and desktops. Most feature touch screen displays similar to tablets, albeit a tad larger, which brings me to my point: The tablet is NOT the replacement for the net book. But then again, neither is the ultra book. No, the replacement is actually a little bit of both. Microsoft introduced the Surface last year and despite a mega marketing campaign and obvious product placement in shows like Arrow (or just about every other show on TV) the Surface has not beaten the iPad or Android tablet in sales. It should. It is the replacement for the net book and brings the best of mobile computing and traditional computing together.

I traded my Acer One net book for an Asus Transformer Prime tablet (with attached keyboard) running Android’s Jelly Bean OS. I used this setup for a couple of years, trying different software to get some semblance of functionality for writing. Unfortunately, Android is still in sore need of a serious word processing solution. After Asus abandoned the prime, software updates made the tablet so slow as to be worthless to me. There was no update to Jelly Bean or Kit Kat for the Prime. It was time for a new device.

I first tried a Galaxy Note, but it was too much like my phone, also a Note, and I thought it wouldn’t be a good tool for writing, as Android still lacks a good word processor. I briefly considered the iPad, since it comes with Pages, which I hear is not a bad app for writing, but when I tried it I was underwhelmed. No, I needed to get back to a windows machine, it seemed, especially since I have been dying to try Scrivener, a professional writing app for Windows and Macs. Of course, that meant getting into Windows 8.

The Windows 8 operating system has a split personality that occasionally battles with itself. Tablets like the Galaxy Tab and the iPad feature operating systems and applications tailored for the ultra mobile consumer platform. Users of tablets do not spend a lot of time creating content, rather, they view and interact with content. For this reason, most tablets do not offer all the bells and whistles of a full version of Windows or Mac OS. Apple realizes this and has a separate OS for their mobile devices. Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be struggling with drawing a line between functions. For Windows 8, Microsoft jumped head first into the mobile platform pool, and took the desktop with it. Long time users of Windows moaned and groaned and clung to their copies of Windows 7 like a life preserver. Some even refused to leave XP. Microsoft listened and revamped 8.1 to include the ability to keep the traditional desktop interface, albeit with some modifications. Once a user gets used to the changes in the full version of 8.1 and not the RT version, the changes are not too bad. There is a learning curve, to be sure, but so far, I have found all the settings and functions I have gotten used to with earlier versions.

The Surface Pro 2 is zippy fast boasting an i5 CPU running at 2.5 GHz, though if one wishes to optimize battery life, it will slow down the CPU when on battery. When it does this it is not appreciably slower to the average user. During my testing, I did notice the slow down on the legacy apps, which are more resource hungry. It also comes with a stylus.

Good keyboard action on the Power Type cover. This has the same chicklet-style keys that the Type cover has, but is on a thicker platform, which for me make it feel more stable. The touch style keyboard is the thinnest and cheapest keyboard, but it has a fabric skin on it and there is no tactile response to the keystroke. For me, as a writer, I must have that tactile response. These keys on my type cover are actually better than many of the ultra books I have tested. The downside of these covers is that the other parts of the keyboard are wrapped in a flimsy covering that feels like paper and I suspect will start to split and peel eventually.

The stylus works well and has an eraser feature which is pretty neat. One simply flips the stylus over and rubs the other end over the tablet to erase, just like a pencil, when used in an app that supports it. It does not default to mouse function in desktop mode, though. It does a very good job of selecting and Windows has altered the file explorer to provide check boxes when selecting, which is easy to do with the stylus. Another stylus-related feature is the Windows journal app, which allows for handwritten note taking using the stylus, including doodles and sketches. The handwriting can be converted into text very effectively by the journal. No easy feat considering the state of my chicken scratch.

Microsoft boasts the Surface has 10-point touch capabilities in the screen. I understand the benefit of multi touch, which allows pinch to zoom and rotation and a host of other features, but why call out the number ten? How could one put all 10 fingers on the screen at the same time? Little Hands? Who’s holding the tablet then?

The Surface Pro 2 is quite heavy, especially when you add on a keyboard. This is a fact that is not necessarily a bad thing if it is used as a notebook, but can be hard to hold for reading. Add in the fact that the battery in the Power Type cover also adds 20 percent more weight as well and it gets quite heavy; about 20 percent heavier than my old Asus Transformer Prime.

The reason I bought it was because it has a 10-inch screen. Most people would balk at the small size, as laptops usually run 13-17 inches with some models running as large as 21 inches, but I like being as portable as possible and I really primarily use it as a writing tool. I looked at several ultra books, since they were cheaper (less expensive) but they were cheaper (flimsy). The Yoga came in a close second, but I didn’t like holding the keyboard flipped backwards.

Now for a tablet, the Surface is quite pricey. The 128 gig SSD Pro 2 version runs a grand by itself plus 120 to 200 dollars for the keyboard depending on which keyboard you get. I got the one with the extra battery to help the tablet last longer. My Asus had that feature, which in that case doubled the battery life, but in the case of the Surface, only provide 50 percent more battery life. Is it worth the extra 60 bucks for the battery? I dunno, but with both batteries fully charged, the surface lasted 12 hours of constant word processor use with some internet and video thrown in. The battery control panel doesn’t accurately report the status in either control panel. This is confusing and frustrating as I never know exactly how much battery life I have left at any given time.

Now, the biggest issue with the Surface is none of the things I have yet mentioned. No, the biggest hurdle is the interface; the surface uses Windows 8—an operating system I have spent the past year decrying as terrible. One might wonder if I have changed my viewpoint on this subject since I did spend more than a thousand dollars on a device running this pariah of an OS. The caveat I claim here is that I have always said, and I still maintain, that Windows 8 was designed for touch screen devices like tablets and cell phones and the surface is one such device. As it has a very responsive touch screen, Windows 8.1 is functional using the metro interface. With the latest updates to 8.1, the legacy desktop interface is still there, one simply has to look for it and with the new version, it is only a touch away. Most of the features of traditional windows are still there and if one still uses a mouse and keyboard, one might forget for a moment that it is on a tablet.

With the pro version, legacy windows apps such as Word 2007 and Photoshop CS4 run like they always have, in desktop mode. Microsoft is busy trying to build a library of metro interface apps so the users will have an iPad-like experience with an app store that runs in the touch metro interface. There are two versions of Internet Explorer, one that runs windowed like IE has for years, but also a touch-optimized version, which puts the address bar in auto hide, drops it to the bottom of the screen and changes up the UI entirely. Instead of clicking a back button, or even hitting the backspace key, one simply swipes from the left to go back.

The other version of the Surface was initially called the Surface RT, but Microsoft dropped the RT from the name. It has an atom processor and runs a stripped down version of windows that supposedly drops support for legacy apps. I cannot verify that as I have the Pro, but that was the main reason I got the pro. I need to use the apps I have already paid for. I see no reason to pay Microsoft a monthly fee to use Office, which is the current model for Office 360. Adobe has followed suit with a monthly charge of $40 to use Creative Suite.

It occurs to me though, that even as much as the Surface does, it probably should not be the only computer in anyone’s network. It has a SSD running from 32 to 512 gigs, depending on how much one wishes to shell out. Microsoft is graciously throwing in a year’s worth of Sky drive for cloud backup, but unless one has some money, either an external USB drive or some network storage solution would be best in addition to the Surface.

So far, after a week of using it, I am loving the Surface. I am mad at myself for waiting this long. This device has my whole hearted recommendation. Even Windows 8 gets a nod, given that it is on a touch screen and has 8.1. Just be prepared for a bit of a workout lugging it around.

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Roll The Tape

In this day of rapidly developing technology, it is fast becoming a curiosity to see remnants of the old ways.  I was in a Family Dollar and saw that they still had VHS video cassettes for sale two for seven dollars.  The first thought I had was “gee, that sounds expensive,” followed up with “who still buys video tapes?”
My mother was a video tape archivist.  She still has cardboard boxes full of VHS tapes of shows she recorded from back in the 80s.  She had them stored in book cases for years along with tapes of movies she bought at the store before she started buying DVDs and Blue Rays.  She still has the VCRs plugged in and still records some things to tape for permanent storage.  For daily recording, she, like most people, uses a DVR, but she still has that collection of cassettes.
I built quite the collection of tapes myself over the years.  I still have several of those VHS tapes in storage somewhere.  In the bottoms of cabinets, in boxes in the garage, in plastic organizer totes shoved under beds in guest rooms, they sit waiting in futility for a day when they might again see the tape player.
I still have a VHS tape recorder.  It probably still works.  I wouldn’t know.  It’s sitting on the floor next to my desk from the last time I plugged it in to transfer a video tape to digital storage.  I cannot remember the last time I bought a video tape.  It would have to be around 1994 or so.  Zorro, the Gay Blade was the title, I think.  It is one of my favorite movies; one that I can still quote from beginning to end and my sister, Diane, and I both bought a copy when it went on sale.  That was the movie I was digitizing the last time I used the VCR.
I DVR everything now.  I even built my own DVR out of a computer to make it easier to record four shows at once.  Now most providers can do that, but when I built mine four years ago, it was not so common.  The DVR is so ubiquitous that it is almost surprising to run into people who don’t have one.
I was in an elderly neighbor’s house this morning; he was having a problem with his cable and the technician was going to fix it for him.  He had an old pre-HD reverse-projection TV and a cable box that was plugged into a VCR.  He still used the VCR to record his shows from the cable box.  He had tapes across the top of his TV and his living room was littered with unlabeled VHS cassettes.  I was standing in awe of what I was seeing when it hit me: this is the guy that still buys video tapes from stores like Family Dollar. 
I’m not sure Wal Mart even stocks VHS anymore.  The cable tech was trying to explain DVR to the guy, but he wasn’t interested in a new way to record his shows, because it wouldn’t be permanent.  This guy has his tapes and his VCR and he’s good to go.  He doesn’t want the new tech.
The mind boggles.  At least now I know who still buys tapes.


Filed under Personal, Society, Technology

Old-School isn’t OLD

I posted a blog some time ago about digitizing my entire music library and about how nice it is to be able to listen to any song without having to search through a stack of LPs or CD racks for the album.  I have a history of using the latest technology for my entertainment needs.  Today, as with many days, I will sit in my recliner listening to my favorite music on my media PC, where my music library is stored.  Recently, as I enjoyed my 4 and 5-star rated playlist, Dancing in the Moonlight by King Harvest played and it harkened back to a time when, as a child, I lived in DeRidder, Louisiana.  I was reminiscing about that time with my wife, Michelle, and I recalled how we used to listen to music back in those days, before cellphones, ipods, mp3 players, CDs, walkmans and all the modern technology.  We had radios back then.  And record players.  And 8-track or cassette tapes.  All the old-school technology.  As new technology improved, I adopted the new tech.
I had an old AM radio that my mom handed down to me which sat on my nightstand, but I don’t remember using it to listen to music much.  When we lived in El Paso, I used it to listen to the El Paso Sunkings play minor league baseball.  Most of my exposure to music came from the car radio in DeRidder and on WGH in NewPort News, Virginia.  Granted, I was only ten or eleven years old and music was not a priority for me.  It wouldn’t be until I was 15 or 16 that music became significant to helping me mold an identity.  Since it was only AM, once FM became the preferred format, I switched radios.  I listened to KILT on the AM and then switched to the FM when it came around.  KILT was top 40 back then.  I don’t know what became of that old school AM radio.
My parents had this old credenza console stereo that had an AM/FM radio and a turn table with a record changer that stood vigil in our living room.  The only memories I have of the family using it are Christmas eve and Christmas morning when mom would put on her Perry Como, Englebert Humperdink and Andy Williams Christmas albums.  On a side note, those same albums have been digitized into my library, too.  Several years later, this stereo would be replaced by a smaller home stereo with AM/FM and 8-track with a turn table and separate speakers and relegated to a spot in the garage.  I would fire it up while I was rolling newspapers for my paper route and jam out.  That stereo now sits in a storage shed in North Little Rock, Arkansas.  I wish I had the space for it, it would be a great conversation piece of old-school nostalgia.
When my parents got that stereo, they put away an older turntable my mom had.  It was a big heavy thing that folded up and was supposedly portable in that it had a handle and the speakers could be clipped to the case to facilitate carrying the contraption.  When I was 9 or 10, mom gave that old record player to me after wrapping it in mod-style contact paper.  We played our nascent record collection on this device for years.  We had the Partridge Family among other albums and several 45 singles on the old-school vinyl discs.
My parents gave me a turntable/record changer with AM/FM and a cassette player for my 16th birthday.  My friends got cars, I got a stereo.  One time when I was grounded–I couldn’t go anywhere nor have friends over–I was talking on the phone with my friend, Kevin, and I got tired of holding the phone and sitting at my desk.  This was before cordless phones were invented when you were tethered to the phone by the coiled cord.  I had a microphone on my stereo and a nice set of speakers so I figured there had to be a way to connect the two.  I took the phone handset apart and attached wires to the contacts and ran them to the stereo creating a home made speaker phone.  I was in the middle of a conversation when my mom burst into my room ready to read me the riot act.  It seems that the stereo fidelity was so good that to her, it sounded like Kevin was in my room with me in violation of my punishment.  But even though I had not broken the rules, I was not to escape her wrath unscathed.  Once she saw the phone dissected and the wires running across the room, the fires reignited in her eyes.  It seems we didn’t own the phone (in those days you leased the phone from the phone company) and she was worried we would get into trouble.  I sadly disassembled my new-fangled speaker phone invention and reassembled the old-school phone.
I used that stereo until I bought my first component quadraphonic system while I was in the army.  As older technology matured, new technology launched and I upgraded the components periodically, double cassette deck, turn table, multi CD player, DVD player, Xbox, equalizer, etc.  My system now is just three components: my Dolby 7.1 receiver, my media PC and my Xbox 360. 
I could conceivably get rid of the receiver and let the media pc do everything, but something happened to me on the way to maturity.  I no longer crave the latest technology.  If what I have works, I no longer feel the need to get rid of it for new things.  I guess I’m too old school now.  I like having a stereo receiver.
With all the new components, my music collection also developed.  I started out listening to Top 40 pop music, the I went through my Rock and Roll phase.  I even gradually learned to appreciate classical and country music.  My collection is now quite eclectic.
My 13-year-old granddaughter recently spent the weekend with us and while we were listening to music, she commented on all the “old people” music in the library.  Now we have popular music from the 40’s (Nat King Cole) though this year (I just added Passenger and OneRepublic’s latest) as well as some classical, but I wouldn’t call classic rock “old people’s music.”  As I have gotten older, I may have become old school, but I refuse to be labeled “old people.”

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Filed under Humor, Personal, Society, Technology

The Rumble In The Cloud

Clouds come and clouds go.  Some drop rain, some brings thunder and lightning and some just vanish in a trail of wisps.  Some clouds bring destruction in the form of storms, hurricanes, tsunamis and tornadoes that destroy homes and lives.  Some clouds are pretty and fluffy and look like kittens.  Clouds can be useful and clouds can be devastating.
The current talk in personal computing is “The Cloud.”  People use computers for any number of reasons, but in almost every use, something is saved.  Some file is created.  The most common used today are picture files, music files and video files.  People take pictures of friends and family with digital cameras and cell phones, buy digital music online, or rip CDs bought at retail and stream movies and TV shows.  These files all need to be stored somewhere so the data is readily accessible.  When people create files, the files are stored on the computer’s hard drive.  If someone want to access that file on a different computer in another location, it necessitated copying the file to some form of removable media like a floppy disk, CD ROM, or Flash Drive.  This came with a few problems and was not a perfect solution to data transportation, but it did create a back up of the data in case something happened to the hard disk in the original computer.
With mobile computing, people want quicker easier access to their data and with mobile broadband becoming more prevalent, streaming is the way to go.  But with streaming, comes the cloud, looming on the horizon growing darker and more ominous as it builds.
Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Google have marketing departments working overtime to convince people to use the cloud for their data storage needs.  This allows instant access to data across any number of platforms.  The upsides are impressive.  Order a song on iTunes on your iPhone, it appears in your iTunes library on your PC and iPad at the same time. Amazon offers the exact same service.  Its convenience in it purest form.  No need to burn a CD or DVD.  No need for removable media.  It is simply there.
Cloud services go beyond entertainment, however.  They would love for you to upload your files to the cloud so you can access all your data whenever and wherever you want.  Need that spreadsheet?  Just log onto the cloud.  Need that PowerPoint presentation?  It’s in the cloud.  Want to update your resume?  Go to the cloud.
Of course, this allows those companies to see and analyse your data.  This allows those companies to know your music and entertainment tastes and market more directly to you.  This allows those companies access to your files.  It also puts your data security squarely in their hands.  If something happens to your data, only they can recover it.  You have no recourse beyond their tech support.  If their servers get hacked, your data is open for whoever performed the hack, perhaps to be sold to some internet marketing firm (if your lucky) or used by identity thieves (if your not).
One commercial for Google Plus illustrates the ideal use case for the cloud.  A new father has taken hundreds of photos of his baby girl to post to Facebook and share with friends.  His then looses his phone and all those pictures.  He is heartbroken.  Inconsolable.  Every early memory of his new baby girl is gone.  But then it isn’t.  He gets a new phone, logs into Google Plus and every picture is there.  Relief, you are the cloud.
But what if there is some kind of cloud break and Google Plus goes away?  Suppose that Google undergoes some kind of corporate restructuring, and Plus is no longer supported.  All that data could be lost forever.  Suppose Apple goes under (It could happen).  All your music could vanish.  Suppose You Tube disappears.  All your videos are gone.  The most common problem with cloud computing is that it requires an active internet connection.  If you want to stream High Def videos or music, you need broadband.  Without internet, you have zero access to your files.
The only way to avoid this would be to have back ups of all the files on your computer.  Perhaps burn the files to a DVD or Blue Ray for archiving.  It is the only way to ensure you have these files in the case of a cloud burst.  Also, be selective as to which files you upload to the cloud.  No financial or personal files should be uploaded to the cloud.  Security may be touted, but those files exist on someone else’s computer and that computer could be hacked.
The cloud is a convenience, but it is not the end all be all to data security.  Always have a local backup, just in case and always keep private data as far from the cloud as possible.

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Slick Times in the Gulf

This world is so full of life and nature that exists outside the realm of mankind, that to think we have even more than a smattering of knowledge of it all is the height of conceit, and to think we have any control of it is just plain idiotic. Sure, the industrial age heralded an unprecedented understanding about the natural sciences relative to what we knew before. Compared to the sum total of knowledge in the dark ages, we could be considered almost omniscient. But that is not really saying much. It is like saying that, compared to a newborn, a high school graduate is brilliant; but no one would assume that high school graduate is about to cure cancer or understand the behavior of tachyons. We are smarter sure, but we don’t know everything.

We don’t know enough to really understand what the gulf oil spill is going to do in the long run. No one could have even predicted the events that led up to the spill. Sure, one could argue that if “proper precautions” were taken, the crisis would never have happened. But that is really not true, especially when you remember that accidents happen no matter how many plans you put into place. You cannot plan for every eventuality. Perhaps if BP had drilled secondary vents, they could relieve the pressure on that line so less oil would leak into the gulf. But that would not have prevented the explosion. Maybe if they make a determination that the explosion was “preventable,” someone will step forward and admit wrongdoing. Not likely, but one can always hope. Either way, that determination will be erroneous. We can always second guess our outcomes, but hindsight is 20/20 and the only good it does is to give the public a scapegoat.

Who should take the blame for this? Obama and the socialists? It would be easy to blame them. Bush and the conservatives? Easier still for the liberals to blame them. But really, the fault lies with BP. Only with BP. No one else can claim fault (unless the explosion was the direct result of an eco- terrorist act) because no one else was involved. The public wants to roast someone on a spit about it. Whenever something goes wrong the first thing the public wants to do is to assign blame. This makes the public feel superior and gives them comfort in their moral superiority. Never mind that the main reason BP was drilling there was to feed the public’s appetite for energy.

Obama made a declaration in an interview yesterday that he was in talks with experts so he “knows whose butt to kick” about the disaster. There are all kinds of people clamoring for the government to take over the efforts to repair the pipe and stop the leak. That is the last thing anyone should want. Why would we want an institution that cannot even balance a budget, cannot secure our nation’s borders, cannot solve healthcare crisis and cannot meet the basic needs of the nation to even try to fix a leak in a 40-inch pipe a mile under the surface of the ocean? They could only make matters worse. It would be like a plumber trying to wire in a 220 volt circuit, or a baker trying to repair a hot water heater. These are not similar skill sets. Nothing good can come of the attempt. There is no geologist just waiting around the West Wing waiting for a project. The best minds that can work on this problem already are.

The only thing the government can do is drive BP to work harder. Fine them a billion dollars a day that the leak is spewing. Give them the proper incentive to get this problem fixed. But stop getting in the way. Everyone knows what is going on, we don’t need more coverage, we don’t need more politicians getting airtime clamoring for the administration to act, and we don’t need bureaucrats getting in the way of real experts.

No one knows how the spill will affect the gulf ecosystems in the long run. Sure, it will kill of thousands, perhaps millions, of animals. Sure it will poison the waters. But the oceans are huge and you may not know this, but raw crude oil has been leaking into the ocean since the dawn of time through naturally occurring fissures in the ocean floor. Perhaps not as rapidly as the oil well leak, but it gets there none the less. The ocean cleans itself. It is part of nature. Don’t ask me to explain how. I don’t know. And that is my point.


Filed under Media, Politics, Society

Resistance is Futile

That you are reading this means that you and I have both figured out how to get online, which means we both know how to use technology. I have always had a fascination with all things tech; I even work in a business that is at the forefront of new technologies. I like to assimilate new technologies into my collective—resistance is futile.

I have several computers; each with a specific purpose. I use a netbook to write these blogs and my book and anything else I compose. I have a Dell XPS that I use for graphics work such as scanning pictures and we have the media computer that is tied into the home theater, which is the machine that has given me fits of late. We also have two laptops, plus I have my work laptop. I also have a few more computers at work that I have to use as well. As a direct result, I have learned much about these machines, such as the fact that they don’t like people.

Why would they? We build them out of fire, smelting the metal compounds to make the wires and contacts and frames, casting the plastics for the cases and moving parts and we charge electricity through them constantly. It can’t be a comfortable life for these things, and we constantly demand that they do more and more. In fact, we have gone from asking machines to do our math for us to having them keep track of our inventories and finances to having them entertain us. Now we expect that they will not only keep track of our groceries in the refrigerator, but that they will order restock items for us. Which actually gives us an excuse for getting that Sara Lee pie or the extra can of whipped cream: the refrigerator did it.

So the media computer has been running pretty much 24 hours a day since I built it 5 years ago, even after the rebuild two years ago. I added a blu-ray player and upgraded the video card and added memory so it would be a viable blu-ray disk player for the home theater. Well, the machine had been complaining for months about the workload. It staged strikes and work stoppages, but I always managed to coax it back to work. Once I even had to fire the whole system and reload it. I have no qualms about strike busting my computers.

Well, over Christmas 2009, the media computer staged one last strike. When we came home, we found that it had crashed and it would not reboot for anything. This strike resulted in the death of the media computer, so it was time for a replacement. Now, I have minimum requirements for a media computer. Since it is performing a specific function, it has to have specific components. Well, I noticed that no new computers are being sold with Blu-ray players in them. This confounds me, since Blu-ray is the only way to watch true High Def on 1080p TVs. Oh, I found a few machines, but they were high-end gaming systems and I do not need that kind of computer; particularly when it costs $2300. Building a machine from scratch is no cheaper these days.

I decided to harvest the surviving organs from the corpse of the old media system and transplant them into a lower end, off-the-shelf computer. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about time or refrigeration. In order to use the transplants required that I get a computer that can accept them. Organ rejection can be a tough obstacle for any computer to overcome. I found a low end HP with the required slots and I opened it up for the operation.

The installation actually went very well. The problem happened during the driver installation. It seems that Windows 7, which is a vast improvement of Windows Vista, but still not as intuitive as XP, is still so new as to have some backwards compatibility issues with older equipment. The Blu-ray player developed an HDCP issue which caused intermittent flashing of a green screen during the playback.  It took a week of trial and error to find the problem and correct it. The new computer now works the way I need it to work and it seems rather stable, finally. But more to the point, it seems to like doing what it’s doing. It hasn’t given me any fits since I fixed the driver issue. Maybe this machine will like me.

I have to say that I am impressed with the Windows 7 version of Windows Media Center. It works with the TV tuner much better than the OEM software that came with it, and it integrates with all media seamlessly, including the Blu-ray. It makes computers act like they like entertaining us.


Filed under Humor, Media, Personal