Dell Inspiron 13 7000

Helped a good friend and his wife find a laptop today at Best Buy! He’s only really accustomed to Mac and she’s really used to Windows, which is what she uses at work. The time had come to get a laptop for the house and there were no preconceived notions, but budget was of course an issue. A Macbook starts at $1000, has a crappy screen with an i5, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD; MacBook Pro 13 with 256GB, 16GB and a beautiful screen is $1500, and only USB-C ports BTW! The store had a giant sale going on, almost every Windows laptop on sale.

First item of interest was a Samsung ultra-thin. Everything is soldered on the motherboard thus can’t be replaced or upgraded, the keyboard had uncomfortably little travel, gorgeous display and under 3 pounds, for $1100 with 256GB SSD, 16GB of RAM for $1100. I talked them out of it, not in the least because such an irreparable machine should only be bought from a company with good warranty service; Samsung is not such a company! Besides, for a machine that’s gonna live in the house all the time, not be lugged from airport to airport, saving a pound is inconsequential. There was the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1. Screen quality in between the Mac Air and Pro, 1920×1080, full 10 point touch(!), 360 degree hinges, pretty damn great keyboard, not as nice as the XPS 13 but way better than that $1100 Sammy. One with i5 12GB of Ram and 256GB SSD is $749, with an i3, 8GB, 128GB $649! We’re talking USB-C port AND two regular USB3 ports! It has SD card reader, HDMI out, metal body. I tell them “Let’s see if there’s an open box one….” and there it is! The i5 model, Geek Squad recertified, with full manufacturer warrant, for $550.

Let me tell you, this thing is GREAT! It’s under 4 pounds, well built, touch screen works great and all the different modes are awesome; Tent mode is just perfect for on the kitchen counter, where a wet finger won’t drip onto the guts of the machine, or for watching Netflix in bed. It might not have everything an XPS has, like a PCIe SSD, but guess what: this little computer FLIES, just a joy to use. In a couple of years when the 256GB is full, you pop in a 1TB! An extra 8GB costs $65 right now! The final bonus is a Windows Hello compatible camera; no really, it has an infrared camera, which means a face-unlock feature that’s actually secure, can’t be fooled by a picture. I had never seen it in action and it is mighty freaky to look at the damn thing and it acknowledging you by name……

As I sip on a nice French Roast on the Clover and write this post, I’m reading some reviews online, scratching my head. How in the world are you going to put a $750 machine up against something costing double and then complaining about the screen? The rating of 3.5 stars out of 5 is completely wrong in my opinion. This is as close to a five star machine as possible for that price. At $550 it’s a gift from the Gods!

Google Assistant

Boy, it’s getting better and better, isn’t it? As Siri gets ridiculed for her incompetence more and more (by iPhone users by the way!), Google Assistant is improving by leaps and bounds. Its speech recognition error rate is now below 5% and its conversational abilities are ever more impressive. You can now ask follow-up questions about your last query and it just knows what you’re talking about. As predicted AI is accelerating in its development and pretty soon we will not have to touch our devices very often anymore; instead we will just talk to them, as if they are intelligent beings. Microsoft is probably second in this regard but Apple is starting to look like it’s being left behind, and now the big G has released Assistant for the iPhone to give its users a taste of the future… how long can the Kool Aid induced smokescreen cloud the truth?

Against your own best interest

“I have to talk to you” he said; according to the others, he was an established musician, seasoned keyboardist for many artist over the span of his career. He was in the middle of integrating a computer into his live rig to have access to the incredible sonic world of virtual synths and plugins.  I was on break from playing in the house band for a Jam session, while others where sitting in, so it was loud. I quickly explained my setup: Dell XPS 18, Zoom UAC-2, Korg Kronos. No laptop stand necessary (as a matter of fact, because the Dell is basically a big tablet, I can wedge it right on my ultimate stand or use the sheet music stand I always bring anyway to put it on. He’s duly impressed.

Because I know most guys around here swear by Apple, in order to not waste any time, I explain to the guy that I don’t deal with Mac, that it’s unnecessarily limiting in so many ways. His face turns: “What do you mean? Everyone uses Mac!” Here we go again, I’m not in the mood, I’m working, I tell him unfortunately I can’t help him. He won’t let it go! “What do you mean it’s limiting, the guy from so-and-so and the guy from so-and-so……” I tell him it’s too loud to explaing right now, but if we go to the back I’ll tell him what I mean. He takes me up on it…

So, I explain to him that first of all, Apple doesn’t make a Tablet even close to the size of the XPS18, which has literally twice the screen surface of the iPad Pro. It means you can see TWO pages instead of one, which makes more difference than you can imagine and all those Apple freaks know it. Now imagine that that wonderful tablet not only takes the place of the iPad you already bring to the gig, but also of the Macbook you bring that runs the sounds and Ableton. Now realize that you don’t need a special table or laptop stand, you just put it on a music stand! If you have a Kronos, all you do is run 1 USB cable and Windows uses it as a sound card. That means Ableton’s output comes out of the Kronos mains! Now realize that the XPS18 costs less than an iPad pro and the picture is pretty clear…..

At this point, his head is spinning, but his mouth keeps saying no! “I’ve already gone the Mac route….”, “the guys from so-and-so’s band……”. I tell him, if you’re touring you don’t want to mess with any of this, you build a rack mountable, dual computer, system, fixable with parts from any computer store. “We’re talking about a rig you bring yourself to local gigs, right?” I ask him. He doesn’t even quite answer. One last time I tell him, of course the Mac thing works, but you’re limiting yourself, making it more complicated, not too mention, making it WAY more expensive. All he can say anymore is: “I disagree”. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad, and all I can think about are all those poor folks who voted for Trump who, even though it’s now becoming more and more obvious how much they will be disadvantaged by the Orange one, still support him and believe he’s best for them……

Another thing: Microsoft is incredible good a laying frameworks for the future and because of that older software continues to run. When my old friend Rodney Lee, possibly the best B3 player I’ve ever worked with saw that I can still use the Native Instruments B4, which he agrees with me on is the BEST B3 emu ever made, he realized how his Mac habit is costing him. You see, on the MacOS side of things, it hasn’t worked in many years, thanks to the Fruit’s habit of breaking compatibility with every new release. So Apple users are now stuck using NI’s new organ plug, which isn’t nearly as good, or some of the other options out there, none of which have the soul and grit of the B4.

Google Customer Service

For the first however many years, regular folks like you and me were not customers of Google’s; we certainly used their products, Maps, Gmail, Search, but like in any situation where advertising pays the bills, we were the product, lured in by good stuff, which was then sold to the advertisers. More precisely, our ‘attention’ was and is being sold, the chance to put something in our minds, for however short a period of time. Even Android was in effect free for consumers.

These days the Big G actually sells directly to us, from Cloud storage to music and movies, but even cellular service with Project Fi, which I subscribed to almost a year ago. Last Wednesday, my beloved Nexus 5X started acting up: fingerprint reader stopped working and it started rebooting on its own. I tried a factory reset which failed the first time, but completed the second. Once everything was back up it mostly worked, but once in a while would reboot. Clearly, it needed to be replaced and was still under warranty so I started a support chat with Google at 2AM. The customer service rep was quick, asked me about my problems, made sure I had d0ne a full reset (she knew what she was talking about!) and did not make me repeat all the steps because it’s on the script (!*&!*&*@&), and then told me a replacement would be shipped out Fedex NextDay at no cost to me! “You deserve a working device” was the line she used. This morning, less than 36 hours after initiating the chat, I got it! It said refurbished, but this is a brand new looking Nexus 5X!

So there it is: as good an experience as one can expect, with a carrier that’s perhaps the most inexpensive of all by the way! My monthly bill has gone from $70 with T-Mobile (albeit with more data) to $35 or $40, with better reception, a free second Data SIM for my backup phone, ability to text, call and check voicemail from my computer or any browser for that matter. Plus, I can now call my friends in Holland on their cell phones for 4 cents a minute, from my mobile! I can make calls from just about anywhere in the world for 20 cents a minute, texting from and to anywhere is free. That’s right, I can be in Ukraine texting someone in South Africa for free.

About that second free SIM card: I have it in my Honor 5X, an inexpensive Huawei (I paid $170, 5.5″ screen, 2GB RAM, uSD slot) with dual SIM capabilities that I use to hold my old landline number that I ported to H2O wireless on a $9 every 3 months plan (that’s right, I can keep my number for $36 per year). It means that I can tap into the same $10/GB supply on my Project Fi account to keep that phone online, and since Hangouts doesn’t care which device it’s on, texts and voicemails to my main number show up on the Huawei as well! In this case I was still able to use my Nexus, but if I ever lost it or it would stop working altogether, I’d never be without being reachable on my main phone number, or without the ability to use maps, airline apps etc. etc. It’s simply brilliant!

NotsApp

Repeatedly, repeatedly, some of my friends in Holland, and even a couple in the US, would ask me: “Why don’t you want to use WhatsApp?” As a matter of fact, last time I was there I did install it and use it while over there, but as soon as I left I deleted it from my phone, to the dismay of a few. When mobile data was expensive and SMSing (texting for you US folks) wasn’t free  I guess there was some point to it, although I never understood why we needed yet another service, on top of Email, Skype etc. etc. etc. The interesting part of WhatsApp was the creed of its founder: No ads! No games! No gimmicks! Another statement always expressed by founder Jan Koum was “privacy is programmed into our DNA”, promising full end-to-end encryption. If the company would have stuck with its mantra, and kept charging for the app to generate revenue, perhaps in the future it would have been a platform worth considering. Unfortunately, empty promises they turned out to be….

Two and a half years and 1 BILLION users later, WhatsApp is about to start sharing user data to make money! This is a problem with all this new tech: investing in ecosystems should be done with great care. I learned this early because of MP3.COM, before iTunes and many of the things that seem to have been around forever. Myspace is another great example of something that folks invested a great deal of time and effort in, building a huge network, only to see it disappear into thin air with little to no warning. After the MP3.COM debacle I decided to get my own website, control my own little space on the mighty web. Free services are inherently fleeting and it just seems silly to invest time in building something you don’t and can’t control, doesn’t it? Especially when for $90 a year you can have 100GB of space on a server, to be used as your website and cloud.

So there it is, do you really want your personal communication with friends and family mined by third parties? Do you want to entrust a company who didn’t even make it to three years before breaking its lofty promises with your privacy?

Being the product

Years and years ago I heard someone explain it in regards to broadcast radio: if the service you’re using is free, ad-supported, YOU are the product! The station is selling access to you to the advertisers! When people bitch about the limited playlists on various platforms, and I try to explain this point, often they have a gag reflex of sorts, rejecting that premise, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

So let’s look at that most popular of modern time wasters Facebook. How much are we worth to them? Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant has the answer: per American user FB earned $14.34 in Q2 2016 ($9.30 last year), per European user it got $4.72. In total, on earnings of $6.4 billion it made a profit of $2 billion. It becomes kind of interesting when you look at it this way: if we would just pay $1.50 per month, the company could make more money and could be AD-FREE! Wouldn’t that be much nicer? Wouldn’t that be a lot smarter? What does it mean that we’re willing to expose ourselves to this endless propaganda and marketing to save not even $15 a year? How in the world is that worth it?

Apple earnings

Two days ago Apple reported earnings for Q3 2016: revenue of 42.4 billion dollars, 40.4 million iPhones sold, 9.9 million iPads and 4.2 million Macs, resulting in a quarterly income of 7.8 billion dollars or $1.42 per diluted share.  For Q2 2016 those numbers were respectively: 49.6, 47, 10.9, 4.7, resulting in 10.7 and $1.85. In other words, down in ALL major categories year-over-year. Q2-2015 to Q2-2016 saw a drop as well so it looks like there’s a trend here…. so why in the world did the Fruity stock go up 8% after this latest news?

SlippingThe answer is services, supposedly. You see, revenue in that category is up 19% from Q3 2105! As Chinese manufacturers are making ever better phones for half or a third of the price of an iPhone, Apple has to diversify if it wants to keep  growing. Unlike in the first 6 or 7 years of the existence of the modern smartphone, even a $200 device these days is good for quite a few years, with very little new coming out every year to entice folks to upgrade to a new device. So, Apple is moving in the directions that Microsoft has been going for many years: services for the things people do with their devices.

Unfortunately, contrary to popular belief, software is not something Apple is particularly good at. Look at the mess that is iTunes; even the biggest fans of the brand loathe it, and even more the fact that you have to use it. Just read any forum about macOS and you realize that it’s anything but smooth sailing these days in that world: from broken compatibility every single time a new version of OSX comes out (11 versions since 2001! That’s right 11!), to dropping support completely for machines as young as 7, to ever increasing crashing of Safari, confusing arbitrary decisions in software design, it doesn’t “just work” anymore.  As Apple tries to catch up with Google and MS, adding on new features, it becomes clear that, just like happened to OS9, its lack of foresight has led to workarounds and jury rigging, both on the desktop and on iOS. The decision to use a phone OS for its tablets, even the “pro”, and now doubling down on that decision, proves to me that they don’t get it. As Windows users get more and more cool stuff, Mac users are stuck and only because of their blind love for the Fruit. One can only make excuses for so long!

Last night I had a conversation with a friend of mine who moonlights as a Mac tech. He’s expensive, but he knows his stuff and he’s a pretty smart dude actually. I’ve been reading about the mess that the beta for macOS Sierra is right now, only months before it’ll be released so I asked him about it.  Couldn’t help myself and I told him he’s too smart to fall for all the Apple propaganda, and asked him why he would not use Windows. He said what they all said: “It just works!” But, I said, you know that’s not true! As a matter of fact, you make money from when it doesn’t and I know you know that problems have been increasing tremendously; Mac-heads would never admit it to a Windows evangelist like me, but I hear them talking among themselves pretty regularly and I read tech forums every day. His answer was beyond classic: “Well, you just have to set it up right.” Seriously? That was always the excuse for Windows, the thing Apple users would balk at! “What do you mean I have to learn how to do something?” was always the attitude! That and the mocking of the command prompt, something that OSX users have had to learn. SUDO anyone? Repairing permissions?

So, Apple Maps was a disaster, better now, but not particularly trust inducing. iTunes is a horror, Apple Cloud is far inferior to MS’s, which by the way is usable on ALL major OSs, macOS breaks compatibility with many and major applications at every new iteration while Windows 10 still runs apps from 20 years ago, iOS has been eclipsed by Android in just about every way even in traditionally strong areas as photography and MIDI/Audio performance, even Fruiters have to admit Siri is just not very good, while MS and Google are speedily improving their already marvelous speech recognition and A.I.

We will see what the iPhone 7 brings. Predictions are it will use mostly the same design introduced with the 6, and for a customer base so obsessed with the way things look that can’t be good. I do know that my Nexus 5X, which can be had for $250 with 32GB, is as smooth and pleasant to use as an iPhone more than double the price, and can do a LOT of things the latter can’t. I hear more and more complaining about Apple’s lack of updated Mac hardware, which combined with dropping OS support for perfectly serviceable machines is just cruel, forcing people to pay premium prices for old tech. At some point, something’s gotta give, doesn’t it?

HooLoo

Man, this is some bad TV! No, not bad in a Tarantino motherfucker kinda way, but as in not good. This is not good. It’s called “Difficult People” and it’s proof that sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Let me explain….

You see, it is the first episode of the second season I’m watching….this should be running a broken-in engine at least. Oh, and it’s a “Hulu Original”. That’s right, the online portal created by the participating channels, has been a channel of its own for a while now! As a matter of fact, it’s rather popular, because it offers streaming of some very popular TV shows exclusively. I’ve checked it out before, but their mostly things I’m not all that interested in: The O.C., The Bachelorette, The Mindy Project…. And then there were these awful things called commercials! Couldn’t believe people would pay $8 a month and still have to watch them! Then they made an option for $12 to have an ad-free experience, but I still much preferred Netflix’ selection.

So a couple of days ago, to celebrate the release of Hulu’s Windows app, they were and still are offering 2 months free for new members! After verifying that the commercial-free tier was available I downloaded and signed up. I was pleasantly surprised to find some good movies available for streaming: Top Gun, Pulp Fiction, 48 Hours. Not a huge selection, but definitely quality entertainment. Still, almost all the TV shows are not ones I want to watch: Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, America’s Got Talent, Teen Mom 2, even a couple like South Park, Family Guy that a lot of my friends would find valuable. And then there’s its original programming… so far it hasn’t been impressive…….some show with Natasha Legere….and then this “Difficult People”……more jokes about the Gym…..it’s about the world of TV, marketing, homogeneousisity! It’s for the people who live in that place and I’m not one! By the people, for the people……

Project Fi Part Deux

Got my Nexus 5X and Project Fi Sim yesterday! Set up was easy as pie, charge the device, pop in SIM card and follow the on-screen instructions. I had put in all pertinent information during the ordering process, including my T-Mobile PIN which was required to port my number over to Google. It took about 4 hours for the porting to be completed and then I was able to use my new device. So far I’m quite happy actually. Reception is excellent at my house and the phone itself is just super. Beautiful screen, snappy performance, and my favorite part: the fingerprint scanner! Boy this thing is fast! Surprisingly the Bank Of America app showed an option for it instead of using a password and it works GREAT!

Self Colliding Cars

So, it happened already! Somebody died while riding in an autonomously operating vehicle, in this case a Tesla on ‘autopilot’. Musk has already been quoted as saying the death will not have material consequences for shareholders and I think he’s right.

crash-720Over the last few years in discussing self-driving cars, many of people have made the same comment: just wait till someone dies and the lawsuits will end the whole experiment! I’ve always disagreed and I guess we’ll find out sooner than later who was right. In this case, the guy that is no longer was a huge fan and proponent of the technology. He made several videos demonstrating his beloved Tesla’s capabilities and explaining the benefits and dangers of the whole system. He was well aware of its limitations and the need for actual road-testing to improve it. Also, the way the crash happened, there was simply no way it could have been avoided by the Tesla, or a driver of it. Out of the blue, a tractor-trailer turned left and the car literally went underneath it, its roof striking the trailer. The Tesla continued to drive, striking two separate fences and a utility pole before finally stopping. It all went so fast, the brakes were never applied, by the machine or the human.

The bottom line is this: Tesla Autopilot has now driven 130 million miles with one human fatality. That’s just about as safe as human drivers in the Netherlands, or twice as safe as people in the US! That’s right, the average amount of miles driven before a fatality here is around 70 million. Of course this is too small a sample size to draw conclusions yet, but the systems are just being developed an tested now. Imagine how reliable they will be in a couple of years! Google’s cars have driven almost 2 million miles, while only causing one accident!