The new iPad is a game changer

April 1, 2012 by  
Filed under Apple, Blogs, Tablets

As grand as it may sound, Apple’s new iPad is a game changer and it is all about pixels. Sure, a better camera is nice as is quad core graphics. But undoubtedly the star of the new iPad is the retina display. I suspect it will also be the one thing in the new iPad that will take the iPad-line into the future.

I’m actually writing this on the new iPad connected to a 23-inch Apple Cinema Display and an Apple Bluetooth keyboard. There is a SD card adapter as well as USB adapter laying on the desk, completing the setup. It is truly amazing what I can accomplish with this gear.

It offers probably 90% or more of the functionality of a Mac, and that remaining 10% I don’t need all the time. In addition it offers some clear benefits over a Mac, like all day battery life and portability that not even the smallest MacBook can match.

Sure, I can’t expand the storage, but with access to a 50 GB online DropBox I’m not sure it matters much. And by SSH-ing into a virtual server I have access to the full flexibility and power of a Linux server right from the comfort and convenience of my iPad. Finally, when I need something that doesn’t run on the iPad, like access a website that requires Flash, I can remotely connect to my office Mac and do what I need to do.

But back to the issue of pixels. I’m not sure I can adequately explain just how gorgeous the 2,048 by 1,536 pixel display is. It’s a miracle that so many pixels have been packed into an area as small as just 9.7 inches.

Since the pixels are so small, text looks crisp, photos look amazing, and apps – at least if they’re developed for the retina display – look supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

I truly can’t make out individual pixels and that’s a first for me I think. Even on the 23-inch Cinema Display it all looks very smooth and crisp at the same time.

So what about competitors?

I don’t see any coming anytime soon. Even if there would be an Android tablet, for example, launched soon, there will not be many apps for a very long time. Just look at the meager selection of Honeycomb apps in Google Play now. This is one area where Apple’s advantage is even bigger than it is when it comes to the hardware and software of the device itself.

So even if you have no intention of ever buying an iPad, you just simply have to experience one.

At first glance it may seem like Apple didn’t do much to update the new iPad compared to the previous generation.

However, that would be missing what’s staring you right in the face – or not as it may be – that the new iPad is the first device that will make us forget about pixels.

And that makes it a game changer, one that even Steve Jobs would have been proud of.

Photo courtesy of Emran Kassim.

Mission impossible: Saving the hard drive

March 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Storage Devices

We like to think that our gadgets are invulnerable, that nothing will ever happen to them. What else would explain the fact that so few of us take full backups of everything on a regular basis?

I’ve had an external hard drive for a number of years now and it was working fine until recently. It’s a Buffalo DriveStation with four 500 GB drives in it, configured in two partitions, giving me two 1 TB volumes to save information to.

For the longest time I just threw files into the drive and everything was fine. It was connected to a PC in our home office and shared over the home network. It wasn’t the fastest drive, and it made quite a bit of noise, but it was working, and it swallowed a lot of data, which is always a good thing.

But then, a few months ago, the problems started.

The drive started to basically die at what seemed random times when it was writing or reading data. It could be in the middle of copying files, and it just shut down, or, it could be in the middle of emptying the trash, and it would die.

The strange thing was that it never seemed to happen when I was sitting in front of the computer, always when I had left it to work on something. But I ran different kinds of tool utilities and none of them found anything wrong. I connected the drive to a Mac instead, and it made no difference.

Copying the data off of the drive was a pain in the you know what, because I couldn’t just start to copy and leave it. Always when I came back, the drive had died and I had to start it again. The only way I got it done was to copy little by little, sitting in front of the computer, monitoring what was happening. But that meant it took a long time. In fact, the 1 GB plus worth of data took me over a month of copying it bit by bit.

Once the data was safe, I swapped the hard drives and see if it was them causing problems, but the problem happened even with four brand new drives in the cabinet. So it’s the actual DriveStation, and since it’s out of warranty, it’s now a worthless piece of metal and plastic.

The good news out of this short story is that I actually didn’t lose any data. Instead, I had a great opportunity to get rid of a lot of digital stuff that was just gathering dust. And I also realized how much I really love the online services I use for storing some of my files like DropBox and Amazon S3.

If you take anything with you from my story, it should be that sooner or later all technology breaks. Yes, that includes Apple stuff as well. So make sure you back up your data to keep your valuable memories alive.

And your backup strategy should include an offline element as well as an online one. That will make sure, as much as possible, that you stay safe.

What should Apple do with its $100 billion?

March 17, 2012 by  
Filed under Apple, Blogs

At the end of 2011, according to Apple’s latest financial statement, it had $97.6 billion in cash. By now that is most assuredly more than $100 billion.

Of course, it’s not like Apple is actually sitting on a pile of actual cash worth that much. Instead, the money is in cash, “cash equivalents and marketable securities.” In any case, it’s funds that Apple could use for purchasing other companies, buy back stock, and similar things.

So what do you think Apple should do with all it’s money, besides giving some of it to you?

Judging by the frequent headlines, Apple could buy Greece, at least if it got a good discount. That comparison, which is often made, is, of course, totally false, and what would Apple do with a country anyway?

Apple would be better suited to spend more money on building iCloud. It’s a service, which seems to be just an embryo of what it could, or perhaps will be. Perhaps Apple is already doing this, but I think iCloud could become the de facto cloud service for end users, if Apple plays its cards right.

Personally, I think one of the best things Apple can do is to keep doing what it has been doing: invest in development of hardware components as well as the supply thereof.

Apple has for many years been buying up stock of components, like memory and processors, to assure that it has access to what it needs for its products. Flash memory is the best example of this, but the practice probably goes way beyond that. This practice assures Apple has access to the components, at a certain price and at a certain volume. It also assures that competitors will not.

This is one reason why it will be difficult for anyone else to match Apple on the price and specs of the new iPad:  the new high resolution display will be in very short supply for anyone else but Apple.

Very likely is that Apple will continue to buy other companies. Don’t expect Apple to buy any company you’ve ever heard of though. Apple tends to buy small, independent companies, with important technologies and people, rather than spending money on other brands. For example, in 2011, it acquired the small startup C3 Technologies in Sweden. C3 made photo realistic 3D mapping software, which is now, presumably, somehow used in Apple’s iOS.

Besides, it could of course be that Apple is just sitting on so much cash to be able to weather any financial storm that may be coming. Having cash on hand makes you more flexible as a company, at least to a point.

In any case, if you own some Apple stock, don’t expect dividends any time soon. Apple is on a roll, and with CEO Tim Cook’s tight grip on the leash, it will spend the cash wisely, which does not involve paying anything out to shareholders.

The new iPad: disappointment turned into Homer Simpson drool

March 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Apple, Blogs, Industry, Mobile Apps, Software, Tablets

You would expect that I talk about iPad 3, sorry, the new iPad, in this weekly column after Apple’s unveiling this past week. As with many Apple unveilings lately it was an anticlimax. I followed the event online, of course, and it was pretty much what we had already heard: high resolution display, faster processor, same size, LTE, etc.

My initial reaction after Apple has laid it all out was to tweet “Right now, I’m more exciting about putting ICS on Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 than this Apple event.”

Now that doesn’t sound as I thought much of the new iPad does it?

And I admit, my first thoughts were along the lines of “is that it?” But as I started reading reactions from people who had actually tried it, I slowly became more positive, and now I just want to lay my hands on one.

What I strongly suspect will happen then, when I do finally get to use the new iPad, is that I will want one. Perhaps it’ll be a month or two before I buy one, but I have no doubts that I will get one eventually.

So why do I say that after the initial disappointment? The new iPad’s retina display looks amazing, and the faster processor and more RAM should give it significantly more speed. That the camera is also improved I care less about, but it’s nice, of course. LTE still doesn’t have the widespread coverage it needs for that to matter to most users in the region, and, besides, Apple says the LTE in the new iPad will not work outside North America – bummer.

But what really excites me about the new iPad is what we’ve not seen yet: what developers will do with all those pixels. With four times the amount of pixels to play with, I can’t even begin to imagine what the UI guys and girls are going to treat us to in the coming months, but that there will be treats worthy a Homer Simpson drool, of that I am certain.

So what about the competition? Google has introduced Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0), which supposedly is better suited for tablets than Gingerbread, and you would think that would make more of a dent in the market. One reporter even wrote that he has “no doubt” that a Motorola tablet that might come out later this year is a “game changer” because Google didn’t spend $12 billion on Motorola just “to spice up the Droid.”

And to be fair, some companies are trying. Asus is pushing ahead with quad-core and keyboard on its Transformer, Samsung added a stylus to the Tab 10.1 and calls it Note, and Microsoft is making a tablet-friendly Windows 8. RIM? If there will even be another PlayBook, I’ll be very surprised.

But where are the serious contenders to the new iPad? I don’t see any.

So what about developers? I am not a developer myself, but it seems pretty clear to me that the homogeneous iOS ecosystem has more to offer: an active customer base that actually buys a lot of apps, a stable (and known) range of hardware and software for which to develop, and momentum.

Let’s just take one example: Mika Mobile, makers of the great Zombieville USA game, wrote the other day about its revenue stream that it spent 20% of its total man-hours in 2011 “dealing with Android in one way or another.” That 20% generated, drumroll, wait for it, 5% of its revenue. Clearly, not a sustainable situation.

And let’s remember that Android is a platform where more than 850,000 new devices are activated each day. That’s a very large number and should push the platform forward. But the question is will it propel Android forward in a way that means it can take on new iPad? That remains to be seen.

All this means that I will keep looking out for a non-Apple tablet that could be it for me, but in the mean time, I’ll probably buy the new iPad.

The best $200 I’ve ever spent on gadgets? Here’s a hint: 35mm f1.8

March 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Digital Photography

It was just about the best $200 I’ve ever spent on a piece of technology. A few years ago I bought a 35mm f1.8 lens for use with my Nikon D90, and I’ve got a lot of use out of that lens. In fact, it’s the lens I use for probably 90% or more of all my photography now. For most of the remaining 10%, I use a 50mm f1.8.

When I bought the D90 it was brand new, I could shoot HD video with it, and it was all the rage. But now, if you look at specifications and functionality, it’s really showing its age. Sure, 12.3 megapixels is more than enough detail to capture most anything I want to shoot, but it’s fallen behind in many ways. That said, it’s a camera I now know all the ins and outs of: I know how to set almost anything and everything with the knobs, dials, switches, and the LCD display. And that’s of great benefit to me and probably means that I can take better photos just because I know the camera, rather than having more megapixels or better functionality.

The D90 has a 1.5x conversion factor, which means that a 35mm lens in effect turns into a 52.5 mm lens. My 50mm lens is in effect a 80mm lens, so short telephoto. This is because the sensor that captures the light in the D90 is smaller than the 24×36 mm negative size in 35 mm film.

Nikon 35mm f1.8

But what matters more is how fast the lens is, the f1.8. That’s called the aperture or f-stop and the lower the number the more light the lens can let in. Shooting at a low f-stop also means shallower depth of field. A shallow depth of field means that less is sharp in front of and to the back of what’s in focus. With a small f-stop number like f1.8 only one or a few millimeters might be in focus, with a large number like f22 almost everything in the shot can be in focus at the same time.

That’s what I like about this lens that I can play with a shallow depth of field. It’s almost like there’s a third dimension to my photos, which adds to everything else that comes into play, like color, texture, movement, composition, etc. And for $200, it’s been the best thing I could have done for my photographic experience, and I hope also, my photographic skills.

As you progress with your photographic skills and especially as you play with shallow depth of field, bokeh is something you will come across. It’s a fancy say of talking about how the out of focus background looks like. For example, how the circles form, how colors separate and blend together, and how light and dark areas appear. Now I should add that there’s also quite a bit of snobbery in the world of photography, especially when it comes to bokeh, with many claims that you need to spend thousands on a lens to get the right bokeh. To me it’s a matter of personal taste, for which it is hard to find an absolute truth.

So when you’re thinking about buying a new DSLR next time, consider putting that money on a new lens instead. Chances are you can get away with a lot less money and that it’ll make much more of a positive impact on your photography. And if you can also find out what your favorite bokeh looks like, that’s a nice bonus.

Whatever happened to Google Chrome OS?

February 26, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Google, Industry, Laptops, Operating Systems, Software

We all know the tremendous success Google has had with its Chrome web browser. But whatever happened to Chrome OS, which was introduced with great fanfare in 2009?

Let’s retrace some of the activities so far.

Google’s Chrome web browser appeared first in 2008, and it has in just a few short years pretty much taken over the world of web browsers. A few months ago it overtook Firefox as the number two web browser worldwide, and it may become number one, passing Internet Explorer, this year.

The year after, in 2009, Google set out to create an operating system centered on the Chrome browser. It was released in November 2009 as the open source Chromium project. Anyone could download it and install the new OS, but it never really caught on. This was despite that Chromium came out right in the heyday of netbooks, these small, often underpowered, and usually very cheap PC notebooks.

The point of Chrome OS was that it was in principle just a web browser. You start up the computer and it starts up the Chrome browser. If you want any apps, you get them from the Chrome App Store. There is a little bit more to Chrome OS than just the browser, but not much at all. This means that a computer running Chrome OS should be faster than if the same computer ran, for example, Windows. It should also mean better battery life, and a less complicated life for the user, as it’s pretty much all online – operating system, apps, data, etc.

In other words, perfect for a netbook.

Google CR-48

Then in late 2010 Google sent out 60,000 free CR-48 notebooks running the Chrome OS. The CR-48 looked very much like Apple’s first generation MacBook, the black model. It was a reference design, meaning it was supposed to give manufacturers and developers ideas about what Chrome OS could be used for.

The CR-48 created a lot of buzz around Google’s Chrome OS, but because it was available in limited quantity and only to those users that Google deemed fit to receive one, it never became something for the masses, nor was it intended as such.

In May 2011, the Chromebooks were announced, notebooks running the Chrome OS from other manufacturers, like Acer and Samsung. The month after some models started shipping in a limited number of countries.

After that, it’s been pretty quiet concerning Chrome OS and Chromebooks.

So what happened to Chrome OS? Personally I suspect that Google’s interest got drawn to Android, by preference or necessity. Android has arguably commanded much more of the headlines compared to Chrome OS. It’s also with Android that Google finds itself in legal battles, directly or as a supporting act to hardware vendors, which must take up much attention and resources. And even though Android and Chrome OS are two very different products, is it viable that Google keeps both going?

We’ll have to wait and see, I guess. Personally I’m excited about the idea of a computer running Chrome OS, as long as it can be fast, affordable, durable, and connect on the go to the Internet. Most of the things I do with a computer, for personal or professional reasons, I do in a web browser anyway. More often than not, that is Chrome.

I sure hope that Google is working on something exciting for Chrome OS. Now that we know that both OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and Windows 8 are going to be very much about the cloud, it’s time for Google to step up and show that it wants to be the leader in this area.

Case in point: not everyone needs the latest PC

February 18, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Desktop PC

I admire my parents for many reasons. From how they at a very young age moved to a foreign country, set up a home, raised a family, and worked hard at making a good living for themselves, to how they take such pride in the very simple things in life.

More recently I admire them for putting up with what is by any reasonable standard a very old and slow PC, using it to read news, play games, and even do some email.

My dad, who worked in construction for all his life, took some evening classes in computing 101 many years ago. He learned how to use Windows, Office, web, and email, which were great accomplishments, since he had hardly touched a computer up to that point. Then my sister managed to get them an old computer. It’s a Pentium 4, with 1 GB of RAM and a 14-inch fat CRT display (yes, not even a flat LCD display).

It runs Windows XP and has Internet Explorer 6. I’m not even sure there’s any sort of anti-virus program on it, something I really should rush right over there and fix right now. To me, it takes forever to start up, and even just opening IE is an exercise in patience. Even though my parents have a broadband connection, you can’t really tell with their PC because it’s so slow – they might as well have had dial-up.

But what is amazing is that they use this PC. They are on it pretty much every day, reading the news, playing Solitaire, and now also even doing some emailing. It may not sound like much for regular Tbreak readers, who do more in an hour on their smartphones than my parents do in a week with their PC, but it’s a huge step for them.

Being in their seventies now, and retired since quite a number of years, my parents have all the time in the world to take it easy, do some gardening, take care of the grand children, and just have a good time. It’s nice to see that they also take the time to experience a little bit of what the modern times have to offer in technology. Besides the PC, the most high tech in their house a DVD player, which they hardly ever use.

I guess if I had no other choice but to use a PC like theirs, I’d be using it. But as long as I have some kind of choice, it’ll have to be a dark day in – you know what – before I try my patience on something like that. As I said, I admire my parents for many things, and being able to happily use this old PC on a daily basis is one of them, right up there at the top of the list.

Photo by ThreeHeadedMonkey.

Laser or inkjet for the home office, that’s the question

February 11, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Printing/Scanning

Do you have a printer at home? Is it an inkjet or a laser printer? Chances are it’s an inkjet printer, probably a multifunctional one. But would you consider a laser printer instead?

We’re looking to buy a printer for our home. As we don’t actually have one – strange, I know – and it’s been increasingly common lately that we’ve had to print the odd paper here and there. Now, I can, of course, print at the office at work, but I don’t want to have to rely on that. See, I have this secret plan that I’m working on, that I’m slowly trying figuring out all the ins and outs of my job, so I can eventually go to my boss and say “now I can work remotely from home every day.” Having a printer at home plays a role in that scheme, albeit a very tiny role.

The most obvious choice is then to go for an inkjet printer, one that sprays small dots of ink onto a paper to form whatever it is you’re printing. These printers are cheap, almost free, and typically produce good results. Some can even print in color and some produce stunningly good looking photo printouts.

There are also lots of inkjet printers to choose from, with different sizes and options. A common thing is for manufacturers to throw in a bunch of functionality in one product, and call it a multifunction printer. Often you can find a printer, scanner, and fax in one, but who uses a fax anymore?

But with inkjets, it bothers me that you’ll be paying out of your nose for the actual ink, even though the printer might be almost free. The razor blade effect in essence.

Then there are some really affordable laser printers. Especially Samsung seems to be active in the low-cost laser market, at least one mode that is cheaper than some inkjets. The lasers can often be faster than the inkjets and produce stunning results, at least in black and white. And that’s what I’d need a printer for mainly, just print out typical business documents without color. In that sense, a laser would be better suited for me, but I’m sure I’d one day need to scan something too, and then I’d be stuck.

And let’s not forget being able to print in color – that would be nice wouldn’t it? To be fair, you also have to buy the consumables for a laser, including the powder that it uses to make the print on paper, but when you buy a laser cartridge you feel as though you get so much more than you do when you buy an inkjet cartridge. Most of the time that is also true, that you do get more pages for less cost per page with a laser.

There you go, my present predicament is nowhere closer to being solved. So my search for a reliable and affordable printer continues.

Photo by tom_bullock.

Finally, the IPO – who thinks Facebook is now done?

February 5, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Industry, Internet

So, at last, Facebook has filed for its IPO, Initial Public Offering, basically meaning it’s now going to be publicly traded, so you could own a part of Facebook eventually. First, let’s take a look at some of the numbers.

Facebook is seeking to raise $5 billion through this IPO, but it may end up raising a lot more than that, according to many pundits. The company made $1 billion in profit on revenues of $3.7 billion in 2011, quite a feat. 85% of that came from advertising, and about 12% from Zynga, the social-gaming company best known for FarmVille.

Facebook has 843 million monthly active users, and about half that active on a daily basis. Perhaps more astonishing, more than 250 million photos are uploaded to the site every single day

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, retains control over Facebook, with 28.4% of the stock, the percentage he holds right now, giving him a controlling interest with 56.9% of the votes. If, for example, Facebook would raise $10 billion with the IPO, Zuckerberg would then be worth almost $3 billion.

But he will go from a salary of $500,000 in 2011 to $1 in 2013, mimicking Steve Jobs, who famously took only $1 per year in salary after he returned to Apple in 1997.

Well, let’s not cry for Zuckerberg, okay?

The question then becomes, is this is the end of Facebook as we’ve come to know it or the beginning of something new?

My guess is, to borrow a phrase from Bachman Turner Overdrive, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Already at almost 850 million users, Facebook is on track to reach 1 billion users sometime this year, probably sooner rather than later. That makes Facebook rank up there with as many users as population in the largest countries in the world, a truly remarkable achievement. I for one, do not see any slow down in Facebook usage among my family or friends, and not even professionally do I see anything like the Facebook apocalypse that some have predicted.

Sure, some people closed down their Facebook accounts in protest to lack in privacy and security, and other issues, but that was a small minority apparently, that never got any traction in wider circles.

And it’s inevitable, I assume, that what is successful will be criticized, no matter what it does, and that’s true for Facebook, as well. Now that it will be a publicly traded company, even though Zuckerberg apparently retains the control, it will have to be more careful about its moves. Now it has not only the users to satisfy, but the shareholders as well, and both parties can be fickle and turn on you in a second.

Other than tying up more people to use its services, where will Facebook’s necessary future growth come from? Online gaming with Zynga seems to be doing well, and there’s plenty of room for expansion there, in number of users as well as in revenue.

Will Facebook tackle Google head-on and go into search? Hardly likely. But online music, video, and other digital media, that could be matched rather nicely with the increasing user base. It also has a lot left to do in terms of apps and mobile, so expect that to be on Facebook’s radar too, moving forward.

But whatever it is that Facebook will do next, after the IPO, you’d be foolish to count Zuckerberg and co. out just yet.

Photo by Robert Scoble.

Don’t discard that old computer – learn UNIX instead

February 1, 2012 by  
Filed under Apple, Blogs, Desktop PC

Most of us go through so much electronic junk, buying more than we really need, and often just throwing it away. Sometimes a smartphone ends up in a drawer; sometimes it’s sold. Oftentimes a new computer is bought and the old one gathers dust in the garage. And I could say that I’m going to urge you to dig out that old computer and start using it again because I feel so strongly about protecting Mother Earth, but that’d be a lie. All I want to do, in fact, is to make you put your tech gear to better use and perhaps learn something in the process.

I’ll put this in the context of my recent experience with an old Mac. I’ve always wanted an iMac G4, the one with the half-dome base and a display that seems to float in the air. One day I found one on a website – something akin to eBay – called the seller up and the next day I was the proud owner of a once-powerful Mac. As it turns out, there’s much more power in my iPhone 4S than this Mac. It has an 800 Mhz processor, 1 GB RAM, and a 64 MB graphics card. Wow!

So besides looking very pretty on my desk, what was I supposed to do with this computer? Sure, I can browse the web with it, but it can’t run the latest browsers, so a lot of sites simply won’t work. Gaming is out of the question, as is any photo or video editing. It can’t keep up with video playback beyond some pathetically low resolution, and I’m pretty sure playing MP3s will be a stretch for the processor.

I could use it to write articles like this one with, so for that it’s still useful. But what I’ve decided to do is to get back to basics and really learn UNIX and the command line.

You know, “ls” for listing the contents of a directory, “ps” or “top” for checking what’s running, “rsync” for copying files to and from a server, “grep” to find things, and so on. I know some of this from having worked with computers for many years, but I still can’t say I’m very comfortable with a command line. The goal now is that my old Mac will, because it’s so old and slow, make me proficient at UNIX.

I’ve already started making a list of things I have to start working on. First on the list is learning some basics in the Bash shell, the Vim text editor, as well as how to do FTP and SSH. With that in place, I should be able to do a lot of the maintenance of my websites just by using the Terminal application on the iMac.

After that, I thought I’d venture on with network configuration, website hosting, and some software development. But that’s far away in the future so let’s not get too carried away.

Regardless of whether you want to use an old computer to become a command line whiz kid or not, there’s a lot of things you can use it for. It can be a file server, print server, used to download things with, and lots more.

Only your fantasy sets the limits, and your wallet will thank you, as well. Not a bad combination.

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