Dell XPS 18 review

December 11th, 2014

Two days ago I received my 500GB Samsung 840 EVO SSD and did the upgrade to my beloved Dell XPS 18: let me tell you, it’s better than I could’ve ever imagined! My machine came with the i5-4210U, 8GB of RAM and a 1TB spinning hard drive which I now replaced. Even in its original configuration it was pretty sweet, but now it’s the snappiest machine I’ve ever owned. It’ll boot from being off in 2 seconds after the BIOS screen, browsers (IE or Firefox) open up instantly, searching is blazing fast! One 4GB DIMM is soldered on the motherboard, but the second one I replaced with an 8GB stick for a total of 12GB, the maximum this machine can handle and plenty for what I do.

My primary purpose for it was to read music on gigs; the typical iPad or other 10″ tablet is just so damn small, really barely big enough to display one page at a time, and although it’s mighty handy to be able to carry so much music in such a small form factor, I had always longed for something more. The Dell delivers in spades: it shows two pages BEAUTIFULLY, with room to spare on both sides. I recommend Sumatra PDF for a reader on a touch screen computer because you can open multiple charts at the same time, and do a two-finger tap on the one you need to go full screen. Try it! The Real Book PDFs fly on this thing, and when you properly index any collection of PDFs, standard Windows search (hit the Windows key and just start typing the name!) works instantly. The battery lasts 6 hours, long enough for just about any gig, and it sits on a music stand just fine. Added bonus: it runs Sibelius or Finale perfectly so if you need to make adjustments to a piece of music at rehearsal you can do it! I use the former, and it’s not exactly optimized for touch, but does work. Better is to just bring a mouse….

Speaking of input devices: the bundled ones are not bad actually. They’re made by Logitech and even though lots of reviewers think they are Bluetooth devices, they are not. Inside there is an extra hidden USB port with a Unifying Receiver plugged in, so any modern Logitech device can pair! Opening the unit is quite easy actually, just requiring a T8 torx bit, and one could put a Microsoft receiver in there instead if desired. There are two more USB 3 ports on the side and of course Bluetooth as well, so connectivity is excellent.

The screen is a 1080P IPS panel with an excellent picture, and full 10-point touch, which works well. At first it’s a little overwhelming, but you get used to using it as a tablet quite quickly actually! The built-in feet allow it to stand in two different ways: upright in landscape mode, and also at a much slighter incline, almost like an audio mixer. I use Cakewalk Sonar X3 for my audio recording and it fully supports touch. I haven’t used it that much yet, but this setup enables a hands-on mixing workflow that is very intriguing……..

That brings me to the second thing I was hoping to do with the Dell: running Ableton Live 9. So far I had always brought a laptop to gigs for this purpose, but I always needed another stand or table to put it on. The XPS 18 sits perfectly on my music stand which I bring anyway, allowing me to easily put it wherever I need it. One USB cable to my Kronos and I have a full-fledged rig, because it uses the Korg as an audio interface! I can’t tell you how amazingly well this combo runs, it’s truly a joy. No cut down iOS nonsense, the real deal! I’ve thrown the biggest Ableton projects at it, and even with the original spinning HD it worked fine, now with the SSD it’s smoking.

In addition to the 2.5″ drive bay, there’s a spot for an M.2 SSD as well, and I’ve ordered a 250GB one to put in there. For now I’ve been running the Ableton projects off a 32GB microSD card believe it or not, but this will complete the system with some of the highest performing storage out there. It’s still hard to believe that you can get this kind of machine in such a form factor. It’s easy to work on, really well built (by Foxconn I believe, who build iPads too), and comes with excellent, “Next Business Day” in-home warranty. Truly spectacular………

One of those people who…..

December 8th, 2014

Something has been really bugging the Grammar Nazi in me! It involves the preposition “of”, as in “One of those people who….”. Now let’s say there’s a verb next in that sentence; does it need to be singular or plural? Lately, more and more people are looking at the nounĀ before the ‘of’ for the answer but that’s not always correct. The correct form should be “One of those people who are”, as in “I am one of those people who are here.” You see, the subject of are is people not I!!!!! It’s about me, as one of the people who are here.

Here’s another real-life example, from Anandtech.com: “The shape of the keys on the G910 were also subject to research”. Believe it or not, this is getting more and more common. When the noun after the of is plural, people write the verb as a plural, when sometimes it should be singular. If you remove the qualifying “..of the keys on the G910…” the sentence becomes “The shape was subject to research”! Catch my drift?

Royals

December 8th, 2014

The VPRO, my favorite Dutch public television broadcaster, did a program about Lorde, the brand new Pop star fom New Zealand; basically a documentary with lots of concert footage from her show in Holland. Sprinkled throughout are interviews with her and various Kiwis who all seem to think she’s the second coming! When I saw the listing for it online, I thought to myself how dangerous this could be; I mean, this girl is only 18, has one hit under her belt, which I’ve seen her perform on TV once or twice, and not very well I might add. The song “Royals” has something, that’s for sure, but I was still quite surprised to see so much time devoted on her already.

I always try to expand my universe, keep an open mind, so I watched it. First of all, let me say: she’s not great live. Seemingly incredibly self-conscious, she’s very uncomfortable to watch, but more importantly, her singing is sub-par. She’s not that out of tune, but just weak, and not convincing. Second, her ‘band’ consisted of a guy on a Spartan drum set and a guy with some keyboards! Of course the many layers of vocals you hear are on a track, along with all the rest of the instruments. The amazing thing about it is that the docu makers can transition from a live song to the recorded version perfectly, since the tempo is exactly the same! The difference when that happens is startling: the records sound really cool actually, with original style and creative soundscapes.

Her lyrics are somewhat pretentious, but at times quite poetic, which brings us to the next subject: her attitude. She’s very young, but kinda looks like a 40 year old woman in some ways. She comes off very snooty and cocky actually, bragging about being born into the internet, meaning she can work it like no one over 40 ever could! It’s undeniable that she had a monster hit, but this documentary talks her up like she’s a genius, and I’m not so sure about that. She’s going to have to learn to perform a LOT better, and grow musically too if she wants to keeps this train rolling. Some of her other tunes are quite mediocre, but she does have some more promising material, with adventurous chords and creative melodies. It becomes obvious though that her success is mostly based on connecting with angst ridden teenagers who find comfort in her strangeness and songs about being awkward and not belonging, not on great musical depth. Going in I expected to be disappointed, but she might just get better with age……….

De Muur

December 7th, 2014

Boy, what a gripping new documentary series on Dutch public TV! It’s called “De Muur” which means “The Wall” and shows how humans in various places in the world are putting up barriers, and what they do to the populations. So far I’ve seen four of the six episodes and I feel quite sad from what they showed. Twenty five years after that great seperater in Berlin came down, it seems like the world is getting more divided, not less. What’s being built in Israel is beyond heart-breaking, in Belfast the bombing has subsided but people on both sides, all Irish mind you, are only made more afraid of each other by the “peace wall” that cuts the city in half……

Another crazy episode was the one about the border between the US and Mexico, where the wall is not so much about stopping illegal crossings (which would be impossible anyway), but more about directing the immigrants away from Tijuana, making the trek that much harder through a brutal desert. Many, many die on this treacherous journey, but the most heart-wrenching part of the program was seeing men who lived in the US for years and years before getting deported, with kids born there, stuck behind a fence, talking to the wife and off-spring that stayed behind through the grate, hoping daddy will return one day.

Then there’s the monstrosity that cuts what used to be “Western Sahara” in half; colonized by Spain for a long time, it is now disputed territory with Morocco running the show, but the native Sahrawi people have now seen their land cut up. Add land mines and you get the idea….. when you see the terrain, you wonder what the hell humans are doing……… so much of this is because of religion, even more than heritage. One thing is for sure: peace on earth is quite far away.

Phone math

December 5th, 2014

“I will NEVER pay $800 outright for a phone!” said my good friend, when he finally understood how American mobile phone providers subsidize those super-expensive flagships. Currently he’s rocking a Galaxy Note II, full price $749 plus tax, which he got from Verizon for ‘$299′, and his contract is up. For another ‘$299′ and another 2 year commitment he can get the Note IV, but how much would it really cost? Well, it turns out his wife is happy with her device, so he called customer support and they told her if she does not upgrade they will take $25 per month off their bill. Let’s do the math: 2 years comes to $600! Add that to the $299, plus sales tax on the full price and you’re looking at $950+ for a new Samsung Note IV! It’s amazing how people justify things in their mind, because I think he’s gonna get one anyway ;-)

Dell Support

December 4th, 2014

It’s widely known that Apple sets the standard in customer support; there are countless stories about folks going into a retail location and being helped, even when they didn’t deserve it. Especially if you buy Applecare, you are guaranteed a quick fix for any problem you have. So what about other manufacturers?

This is a story about a guy with a Dell XPS 18, bought “open box” at Best Buy, for less than half the normal price I might add! It’s the model with an i5, 8GB of Ram and a 1TB drive, all in very portable package with an 18.5″ touch screen. It’s a thing of beauty, I must say, normally $1099, which I picked up for $520. One of these days I’ll write about this piece, but today is about what happens when something breaks!

You see, even in a Mac, you will find a hard drive (or an SSD and they break too) and it is the most fragile component in a modern computer. Sure enough, when I started really moving some data onto my XPS, at some point it must have gotten to a bad part of the drive, and the machine locked up. A self-test showed an error code, which according to what I found online meant a physically bad HD. Thankfully I had the full manufacturer’s warranty, so I went onto Dell.com to see how to straighten this out. Their website is not excellent, let me say! Because it was Sunday night, chat was not available, but phone support was, so I called the number. The wait was reasonable, I explained the problem, they already had my unique identifier for the machine (the ‘service tag’), but when she saw which model it was, the rep told me I had to talk to “XPS support”! OK, she gave me the direct phone number in case I got disconnected and transferred me. As soon as I got the next person, I got disconnected………wow! So I call the new number….

Guess what….it was the same support system. Talked to a rep, same exact playbook, told the lady: the direct number you gave me is not right. Ok, she looks up another one, transfers me………almost……disconnected AGAIN! Believe it or not, this happened TWO more times, including giving me a number which literally brings me back to the same, incorrect department. It’s not looking good….. I decide to try the chat when it’s available again the next day.

Monday around noon I start the chat session. Within 6 minutes, Vivek the tech has explained to me the HD is bad, needs to be replaced and that I have ‘in-home’ support. Tuesday at 5PM a guy shows up to my house, with a brand new drive, OS installed on there already. The guy is competent, calm and collected and takes about 15 minutes to do the repair, and I’m good as new! Amazing, how this turned around, and what peace of mind to know I have this warranty until February of 2016!

Pomplamoose

November 29th, 2014

Anyone else out there read this article about the 28 day tour that cost a band money? It’s going around on the web, shared by a few musicians I know of course as yet another example of how fucked the music business is. But is it? I believe it’s not actually, but let’s look at the numbers:

28 days, 24 shows in 23 cities!

$43.974 in salaries for crew/band

$147.802 in total expenses for the entire tour, sharing hotel rooms by the way.

$135.938 in total income, $97.519 for ticket sales, $29.714 in merch sales, $8750 in sponsorship from Lenovo.

Bottom line is they lost $11.819! That seems like a lot of money, but is it? 24 shows is a LOT of people, according to the story they sold 1129 in San Francisco alone. Sell another 1500 or so CDs and you’ve made that money back actually. Back in the day of record companies ruling the roost, this would have been a more than acceptable loss.

You see, musicians are very bad at business, oftentimes not even comprehending the most basic principles. The whole story is set up to show how a band that’s seen as ‘having made it’ runs. Fact is they are quite a new group, and are already making money. They sell $5000 worth of music every month online! When you record company used to provide tour support, all that dough got recouped from your royalties! It’s quite normal for a real business to take a loss on activities that can be seen as an investment, especially if the potential increase in sales benefits goes straight to the bottom line.

In the end, here we have an Indie act, that can hire musicians and crew to go on tour for a month at $1400 a week! It’s not the greatest pay, but I bet you more than some really big Pop stars pay their guys. If Pomplamoose is any good, they’ll sell more tickets next time, and go in the black on these endeavors very soon. From the comments online, the music business is fucked. I don’t see how this is not a success story…..

 

Second Keyboard

November 25th, 2014

What an incredibly fun gig last night! Thanks to Oscar Cartaya who got me on board as the second keyboard player for “Singer’s Night” hosted by Delious Kennedy of All 4 One at the Federal Bar. They do this once a month or so, picking a different theme every time. Last night’s was “Michael versus Janet”, as in Jackson of course, and the selection of tunes was awesome. It’s not often that one gets to play “Can You Feel It” or the otherHeartbreak Hotel” …..

The band was top notch by the way, with Andy Abad (Backstreet Boys, Marc Anthony) on guitar, Paul Alexander Gonzalez (Gloria Estefan, All 4 One) on drums, Kenneth Towns (The Jacksons) on first keyboard and Oscar (Spyro Gyra, Jennifer Lopez, Herb Alpert) of course on (synth)bass; all these guys are just excellent, and it’s just beyond cool to recreate those epic productions with a big band. There were a few ringers thrown in, but all the singers were at least competent too, with some being truly world-class. The place was packed and fun was had by all….this is why we live in L.A.!

Google Contributor

November 21st, 2014

Really? Google, the company built on advertising, might design a way to browse the ole web without being pestered? They’re calling it “Contributor”, orĀ  “an experiment in additional ways to fund the web.” For a low monthly fee, you will be spared the incessant begging for your money. Right now, it’s invite only and blocks ads on only a handful of sites, but imagine how cool this could be.

What’s App

November 6th, 2014

It’s not all that popular in the US because by the time SMS texting really caught on here, it had become fairly cheap and currently mostly included for free, but in Europe “What’s App” is very very common. Of its 16.8 million citizens, about 9 million are customers in Holland and a little change in the software has set off a shit storm of privacy concerns there: you can now tell if and even precisely when the recipient ‘read’ your message. The upset ones call it a ‘breach of privacy’! My question is: how insecure have we become? My goodness, this is just silly, isn’t it? Is the extra social pressure that results from this really that bad?

As we learn to use all these new methods of communication, we starting to lose a lot I’m afraid. I’ve already encountered many examples of misunderstanding, sometimes serious, that resulted from misinterpretation; is that really unexpected when we limit ourselves to 160 characters of written text? No facial expressions other than the precious few emoticons we have, no subtleties like the ones hidden in the tone of your voice. It has lead to a level of insecurity that’s really bad: “Why isn’t she getting back to me! She has read my message………” The two check marks that turn blue when the message has been read don’t tell the whole story: did the recipient truly read the thing? Under what circumstances? It’s pretty much meaningless, except perhaps to the most insecure. We are turning into teens permanently…..