When old becomes new

Another win for Windows 10!  My good friend Brad Rabuchin’s machine we put together in 2010 stopped booting up properly; he hadn’t done a proper backup in a while (?!?#@?#@?) so the first thing to do was to save the data. Because it’s a desktop, it was easy to remove the drives, hook them up to my machine, and then pick and choose what to move over to an external 2.5″ USB disk. We were able to get everything, so the pressure was off. Now how do we move forward? Windows repair wasn’t working and neither was doing a system restore to an older point in time. At this point a fresh reinstall on a new drive (thus keeping the old OS install intact just in case) is what I like to do.

Seven years ago SSDs were first becoming ‘affordable’, but at $200 for a 64GB drive we chose to use a spinner, a 750GB Hitachi, hooked up to a 1st generation i3-530, 4GB of DDR3 and an Echo Gina 3G PCI audio card with Windows 7. You know what? Those specs are more than enough to run Windows 10, so we just bought a 500GB Samsung 850 EVO and installed the OS fresh, everything worked perfectly and just incredibly smoothly, booting from off to usable in mere seconds, just like a modern machine. Even that old Gina was purring along, with rock solid performance at 64 samples by the way for running Sonar at full real-time input monitoring.

After making sure all the data was there in under Windows 10, and having seen that the BIOS was set to IDE instead of AHCI for the SATA ports, I figured that perhaps that was keeping Windows 7 from booting. Sure enough, it now booted just fine from the old OS drive. But, what a difference in performance! All because of the SSD, it’s now a whole new computer! Microsoft was kind enough to let us install 10 with the old serial from 7 and Brad is ready for another at least 5 years with this thing. If needed, he can pop in an i5 or i7 and double the CPU performance, there’s room for another 2 DIMMS to go to 8GB of RAM for $50 or so, but even as it is, it’s a totally modern feeling machine…… seven years later!

iPhone X

Can you believe it? It’s only been ten years since the release of the first iPhone and mankind, at least around here, has been turned into an army of Zombies staring down at a tiny screen most of the day. To be precise, not everybody is addicted, and even though most of us, me included, have bought a smartphone, there are even some left, interestingly in my experience with far above average intelligence by the way,  with the dumb variety. For the last few years Apple has not really been a technology leader anymore in this field, hopelessly behind in screen quality, resolution and even physical design, only ahead in pure processing power of its SOC. Still, diehard fans keep touting that the ecosystem “just works”, contrary to empirical evidence by the way, found online and in my personal experience.  I’ve discussed all of this extensively on these pages so I won’t get into it again, but listening to Howard Stern today it became even more painfully obvious.

Here’s a guy who can buy anything he wants; the incredible $1000 starting price of the iPhone X means absolutely nothing to him. Except: he doesn’t tell it that way! In describing the built-in planned obsolescence of Apple products he sounds genuinely irked. The discussion gets most interesting when he discusses FaceId, the “improved” replacement for TouchId. Now let me tell you, perhaps my favorite part of my ($250!!!) Nexus 5X is the fingerprint reader! As long as my finger is dry, it works almost flawlessly, more than 95% of the time unlocking my phone before it’s out of my pocket. Stern is worried that the facial recognition of the iPhone X is worse than the fingerprint reader on his current model, which he says fails at least half the time. Robin, his sidekick, concurs. Wait…what? You’re paying top dollar, for a device with less than stellar specs, and one of its main features works 50% of the time? I’m not making this up, or exaggerating, this discussion really took place. A little research on the interwebs reveals that as a matter of fact TouchId hasn’t worked all that well for a significant number of people, although it works perfectly for many.

So what else does this most amazing iPhone ever do: wireless charging (Samsung introduced this years ago), an Amoled screen of lower resolution than what’s been available for years, 3GB RAM (a little over half of what the Note 8 has)….. oh yeah, and animated poop emoji that follow your facial expression. Most people I know who keep their iPhones on the table during dinner and ready to pounce at all times, use that fingerprint reader to incessantly wake up their device without picking it up; how will that work with a facial scanner? Only time will tell…

Galaxy Note 8

Did anybody out there watch Samsung’s presentation of the Note 8 today? I’m betting not very many of you! I’m sure it’s gonna be quite a nice piece of kit, but it’ll set you back $1000. That’s right, as much as a touch screen XPS 13! The event was surely cringe-worthy, as the Korean giant’s have been in the past, but there really isn’t that much innovation here. Bigger screen? Of course, 6.2″ but with a super tall 18.5 to 1 aspect ratio; 6GB of RAM, 64GB of flash, but still with an microSD slot and a regular 1/8″ headphone jack! So did Apple not want you to be able to connect your favorite cans without a dongle? Dual cameras? Of course, what is a phone that can’t blur the background behind that glorious shot of your tasteless gluten-free dinner?

And then there’s Bixby, yet another personal assistant waiting to become your best friend. I must say that Google’s has become better and better and that I hear iPhone users bitch about Siri as much as ever. Cortana is really good too, but how many of them do we need? When it comes to security, Google is head and shoulders above everyone else, and its ecosystem is available from many manufacturers. Tying your world of productivity to one brand is not smart, especially in this time of accelerating change.

All in all, unless you have money to burn, I think it’s not a smart buy, no matter how nice. Other than the S-pen, it offers nothing of consequential difference over a $200 phone. If we look at the screen size for instance, the new “6.3 inch” display is an interesting one: because of the extra tall aspect ratio (18.5:9) it ends up being exactly as wide as the Note 2 (!!!!!) screen, just a little taller. That means that for 16:9 content it will literally have the exact same image size as a 5.5″ phone. That’s right, it might be a better quality display, but my $200 Zenfone from 2 years ago already allowed for that size.

Mostly I don’t understand why one would want to watch videos on a tiny screen anyway; buy a Moto G and a decent 10″ tablet, and you still spend less than half. The idea that spending a lot now and then use it for many years is wise? Who knows what will be available even 2 years from now. Trust me, at that time Samsung, just like Apple, will be doing lots of things to subtly convince you to buy the next BIG THING.

Clear me

Nobody likes to wait in line. As a matter of fact, I think we’re getting more and more impatient collectively. As a traveling musician, twiddling your thumbs gets more time than playing your instrument, especially in airports, and standing in security checkpoint lines is a big part of it. Pre-check is a time-saver, but as more and more of us sign up for it, and the TSA randomly assigns access to non-members, even its lines can be long at times. A possible solution: Clear, a privately run system that makes sure you are who you say you are, through background checks and biometric identification. For no less than $179 per year, you get the privilege being personally escorted right to the metal detector, bypassing the need to show your boarding pass and ID to a TSA agent. There are ways of getting it cheaper, with some credit cards giving discounts and Delta going all the way to making it free for Diamond elites. It does save time, but how about the company running it? Mind you, this is a private business!

It always blows my mind how little concern most show for their digital security, especially in this land of scaredy cats. The fear around here is hardcore, everything locked at all times; I literally have to constantly tell people to NOT close the door when they come into my apartment, their default behavior clearly to pull the door shut and lock it immediately, even when I live in a gated apartment building and the door was wide open when they show up! And I’m talking about people who’ve been coming to my place for many years! But when it comes to the digital world just about everyone lives recklessly; if I got a dollar for every iPhone user I’ve heard desiring a way for his phone to stop ‘bugging’ him about security updates…. You see, the inconvenience that possible changes in the OS could cause trumps the increase of protection.

So, let’s talk about Clear again. When you sign up, they get your fingerprints and an iris scan. But who are they? Obviously their machines are linked to some kind of database. Is it safe? Properly protected?  Right now the damage of that data being stolen is probably pretty limited, but let’s not forget that digital things can be stolen without us knowing and stored for later use. Who knows what kind of security we’ll have and for what in this crazy future that lies ahead. Who knows if the company behind Clear will be around, what will happen to its assets! The last iteration didn’t last very long….. in my opinion we’re setting ourselves up for some pretty serious trouble.

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?