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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Last week, Apple’s decision to ditch the classic CD/DVD drive in its new update to the Mac Mini caused many reviewers and bloggers feverishly pound their keyboards in distress. The ODD was in jeopardy. The physical was being ditched in favor of the digital. Is it possible that iMacs and Macbooks in the future would lose their constant circular companion? Probably. But it makes sense, and you should probably not be as worried as you are.

What About The Disc Man?!

Honestly the reason anyone is freaking out about this is decision is because it’s a huge shift that has been looming over our heads for years. Now Apple has decided, as it normally does, to drag its followers kicking and screaming into the next generation of content. The last time Apple did something to this magnitude was in 1998 when Apple killed off the floppy drive in their computers. It was a big deal for the time, but not as big a deal as today because it’s not just a shift in format. Back then all one had to do was move from floppy to cd. Sure it was painful and expensive. Whatever, we dealt. However, now we are moving from owning content that’s physical, to owning content that is theoretical. We can’t feel it, touch it, taste it (ugh), etc. We can consume it, but it exists in the theoretical domain of the hard disk drive (or even worse, that unknown mess of stuff we call the cloud). It is certainly scary because with a CD or DVD, we know it’s there. There is always a backup copy because it is a physical object we can stick in our computers.

There’s also something so satisfying with owning a disc copy. I know, I love my discs too. I refuse to pay for backup services that are cloud based, I keep my files backed up on a hard drive, I still use flash drives, I always buy DVD or CD versions of media rather than downloading. I understand. It feels somehow wrong to dole out our hard earned cash on something that isn’t immediate, or that you can unwrap, or that you can touch.

However, the reality is that there are many benefits to digital media. For one, it’s actually more secure, given that the company that provides it is reputable. The fact that (at least through Apple on iTunes) you can buy a song, download it, and then re-download it when your computer or hard drive dies is very reassuring and secure. Physical discs will deteriorate over time. You can lose them. And if you lose the disc or it breaks, and your digital copy is gone, there is no other backup. It is lost forever. I have done this many times and it always adds a little cement to how much more secure iTunes content (or Amazon or Google Music) is than a physical disc.

Programs…on disc? Huh?

I got to thinking when I read an Engadget editorialthat lamented the change pretty hard. When was the last time I actually used a disc? As I said, I still buy CDs for my music, but then I rip it into my computer and file the disc away, which is essentially the same as downloading. I play computer games, and so the last time I actually used a disc was a DVD that I inserted to install a game. However, the irony was that what it really did is open up steam, activate the game on steam for me, and then start the downloading process. The disc didn’t actually have the game content on it. As silly of a scenario as that is, it is a reality in a time when game publishers are concerned about DRM, security, and also in a time when discounted disc-less games can be found on Steam.

Here’s another example. The Mac App store. Not only is all your content downloaded, but it is typically cheaper than buying a disc in a store. Most likely, the lack of a disc also means making shipping unnecessary, means making processing cheaper, and also means not having to send millions of discs all around the world, some of which may end up rotting on the shelf if the software never sells. That makes the software cheaper. It allows Steam to sell games cheaper and it allows Apple to sell software cheaper.

The same point applies to music. In a world where iCloud, Google Music, Amazon Cloud Music and Pandora exist, is there really a need to have CDs in your car? Even low-end car decks will have auxillary ports now. It is simply much more convenient to plug in a phone or mp3 player into your car radio and play your favorite songs than to pop in a cd.

The Interwebs Hate Me

That brings us to another point. With all this content going through the series of tubes we call the internet, that’s certainly going to put a strain on internet companies. Some companies are instituting stringent data caps for home internet, and some are throttling heavy data users. If you are on a mobile internet plan, well you’re pretty much screwed. Unfortunately, though, Apple does not control internet companies, nor their policies. The state of home broadband, especially in the US, is terrible, but it is easily remedied. This is proven simply in the fact that this broadband state is not the case all around the globe. The reason internet providers institute data throttling and data caps is primarily because they can and because they can gain a profit out of it. If there were more competition for internet providers, perhaps internet companies would actually spend the money to expand and upgrade their networks.

What Apple is doing with things like iCloud and disc-less computers is indeed what many complain will happen with this shift. It will push internet use higher than before. When internet providers get strained by the extra use, what do you think will happen? Will Comcast or AT&T fold first or Apple? Well that is to be seen but I applaud Apple for trying to push us slowly into the digital age. This is only a small step but it might be as significant as iPads and iPhones and iPods.

You Forgot About The Other Discs

And by the way, no you can’t currently download a 5-10GB Blue Ray movie very easily on the terrible broadband we have in the US. But guess what? You also can’t stick a Blue Ray disc in your current Mac Mini. Steve Jobs’ disinterest in blue ray is well documented and normally explained by saying “you can get HD on iTunes.” Obviously such a statement is a smack in the face of Blue Ray lovers. Thanks Steve, your 720p content sounds fantastic. The fact is though, 1080p content willcome to Macs. And also, you can still put your blue ray in your player and watch it on your amazingly beautiful 60 inch Plasma TV instead of your amazingly beautiful 27-inch iMac display or your (depressingly) non-1080p Macbook display. Steve is probably considering the fact that you can just hit one button on your remote and move from the Mac Mini to the Blue Ray Player. Blue Ray will never come to Macs. Will people care? Probably. Will they get over it? Yes.

You Forgot About My Discs

And what about home movies? Are they so last decade? Yeah Probably. Many still enjoy creating home movies on iMovie and then burning them to a DVD. Okay fine, but once again, technology is racing past the need for discs. The Apple ecosystem is amazingly capable and will become more capable in the future. First of all, for in the house there are things like AppleTV, AirPlay, Internet connected TVs and Blue Ray players. All of these can stream a movie from iMovie to your TV. Outside of the house there is still the same stuff, just transferred through an iPad, iPhone, or heck, that little external hard drive that sits around your house collecting dust.

But also soon there will be iCloud which will race your content all over the internet to wherever you want it to go.

How about non-Apple stuff? There is Facebook, Flicker, Google+, etc. There are various online services that allow you to publish your home movies and share them a lot easier and faster than burning a disc and shipping it or driving it around everywhere. For Windows users, the removal of the disc drive would make no sense. Apple is probably the only company that can get away with radical shifts like this.

Closing the Wall

The fact is, for Apple it’s all about control. Since iTunes came with the iPod, Apple has been trying to use cool gadgets to bring people over to the Mac ecosystem. I have personally seen many who have bought an iPhone or iPad and, while they would never consider it before, now consider getting an Apple computer for the ease of use and interoperability. They have seen the simplicity, convenience and security of a walled garden, and now want to stay inside forever. You cannot have a walled garden without walls.

The fact is that this shift is business as usual for Apple. The truth is, whether you like it or not, is that Apple has been forming and shaping their walled garden for decades, and only now are they giving you invitations with shiny gifts. Inside the garden it is beautiful (Apple’s products designed for aesthetics). Inside the garden it is safe (Apple controls the software environment, now more than ever). Inside the garden all the roads are well paved (Apple buys high quality hardware and makes the software to be easy to use). However, there are obviously walls to a garden. Easy does not necessarily mean advanced. If you don’t like Apple’s hardware, then you cannot (legally anyway) choose otherwise. On iPods, iPhones, and iPads you can only get apps from Apple (unless you jailbreak). For years Apple has been allowing you to rip your CDs that you bought elsewhere and the DVDs that you bought elsewhere and the software that you bought elsewhere on your Apple computers. Well, obviously that time is passing. The garden is closing a little more.

The approach of the walled garden is insulting to many people but reassuring to others. The level of insult vs. reassurance normally corresponds to the spectrum people lie on the PC vs. Mac debate. Many will enjoy the reassurance of a closed ecosystem in which content is secured, filtered, regulated and distributed equally. Many will be insulted by the declaration that Apple knows better than you. However insulting it is, it is surprising how often it is true.

So….

So in other words, the shift makes sense and people probably shouldn’t be worried as much as they are. For most users, if Apple completely switched to disc-less computers, the main change people would notice is that software, music, and movies would be cheaper, would be backed up into “the cloud” and easily steamed to whatever format you wanted. Some would mutter angrily at inability to burn something to a disc, but also then realize they can share it wirelessly or put it on another storage medium.

Once again, this is Apple we are talking about. This is Steve Jobs looking at something and telling us, “You don’t need this anymore, why are you paying for it?” We can either agree or disagree with him, but I think the answer to that argument will depend on what platform you favor.

Ever since Llano was released and reviews started pouring in, I’ve had mixed feelings about the platform. On one hand I felt betrayed that AMD had essentially thrown an Athlon II processor in the same die as a beefy IGP and strung them up with an underpowered memory controller. It seemed a waste for AMD to seemingly put no development into their aging CPU cores (other than making them smaller and therefore more energy efficient) and continue to ride on the backside of ATI’s GPU success.

Then I saw a letter from AMD, which I have unfortunately lost and cannot find the website I originally found it. It detailed what seemed at first to be an excuse from AMD, and a pretty typical one. In the letter they argued for the importance of a GPU for modern computing and downplayed the importance of the x86 processor. They claimed that the differences between most modern x86 processors for most users is negligible.

Well as a technophile, and one who has recently replaced his 3-year old Athlon x2 FX processor with a Sandy Bridge i7 Processor, my initial response was “Blasphemy!” How can AMD allege such a ridiculous notion? There’s a massive difference between an Athlon II X2 and an i7! I mean look at the reviews! Look at how much faster that cpu does cinebench! Look at how much faster that processor decodes video! Look at how much faster that processor can play that game!

Then I calmed down and thought about it. My new i7 gave me a performance advantage, for sure. For multitasking. Playing Supreme Commander now has no stutters where it might get a little dodgy in frame rates with lots of stuff on the screen. Decoding HD video was a bit quicker. But I also upgraded my motherboard, double my RAM to 8GB and even got faster DDR3 RAM. In *actual perception* there is a boost, but not that much. I would argue that I probably wouldn’t notice much difference between my i7 and a Phenom II X4. When you benchmark the two, the difference is incredible, but does the human brain notice the difference in numbers?

Benchmarks can help us decide which hardware part is the better deal but how much is that difference actually seen when you take away the benchmarks? How much is hardware limited by the inefficient design of software? Does Photoshop actually need a beefy CPU and tons of RAM or is it like Crysis in that it is so badly designed that it rapes computer resources without needing it?

And then there are laptops. Legendary for being low powered with the worst graphics you can possibly get. Intel changed it a bit this round by integrating a low end graphics chip with the CPU. Woot, now you get a ridiculously beefy CPU with a very less crappy GPU. Want to play games? Now you can…in low detail settings and resolutions. But hey you can encode that HD video without a problem, load 8 applications at once and do all that stuff that CPUs do…whatever that is.

Then there’s Llano. Great battery life, amazing GPU, low end CPU. This thing can game like a champ. It can play HD video. It can multitask like an i3. It can decode and encode video a bit slower than SNB, but its hard to say if its perceivable. But it has a slow cpu, according to the benchmarks. What does a CPU do again? Would I notice? I dunno. But I did notice that this is the first time ever that I’ve been able to go into a Best Buy and see a laptop under $800 with mid range graphics. Isn’t that something to be amazed of?

Is there something I’m missing? Does AMD have a point after all? I don’t notice as much of a difference as I feel I should but maybe its because I’m doing the wrong stuff. Maybe I have GPU dedicated needs. But in the age of HD Video, Streaming video, beautiful games, beautiful GUIs, etc., doesn’t it make sense to have a great graphics card instead of a great CPU?

I guess I’m just mainstream…

So the HP Touchpad came out last week hoping to fulfill the dreams those many Tablet lusters that are uninterested in Apple and disenchanted by Android. Most of the major review sites have poured in their opinions now and unfortunately, its not the slam dunk that HP and us geeks were hoping for. Should have been surprised? Probably not.

I have to admit that I was drooling with the thought of an OS platform that seemed to be designed specifically for the needs of tablet users that would seemingly be as integrated as Apple hopes to be but as customizable as Android. I was enticed by the amazing WebOS card system. I was enticed by the responsiveness that I was shown in WebOS advertisement videos. I was happy to see a tablet other than the iPad finally sporting the 4:3 aspect ratio. I was enticed by the knowledge that HP has been trying to reach out to the creators of unofficial apps and projects such as Cyanojen because as much as a user interface can be amazing, if it doesn’t have software, then it won’t succeed. It seemed like the Touchpad had everything it needed to succeed.

And then it came out. The reviews are pretty mixed, but all tend to be unfavorable.

Engadget, the Apple loving hippies that they are, of course blasted the unfortunate device: OMG its not an iPad

CNET has a more unbiased review but still believes it to be not up to par: CNET

This Is My Next kinda shrugged: TIMN

Gottabemobile hasn’t reviewed it currently but asked who even got one: GBM: Who Decided to Buy One

And finally Ars Technica tried to give the promising tablet a fair shake, even to the extent of mostly ignoring the performance problems that will probably be addressed in further updates, but inevitably brought it down: Ars Technica Review

Unfortunately, after my limited time with the tablet, I have to agree. The platform is promising. It is mostly pretty quick and responsive but those glaring hicups with performance constantly annoy me. The app catalogue is anemic at best. Its obvious that this is a 1.0 device. And that made me think, well of course this is a 1.0 device, but everyone has to start from somewhere right? HP is promising OTA updates to fix all the software problems (From WebOS Chief). They are promising that the home brew community is alive and well (ZDNET).

This would all be well and good if the competition was in the same place. The fact is, the iPad has already had a year and a half of development, not to mention several years of iPhone development that actually works just fine on the bigger device. Android’s tablet development has been slow but at least it is fully compatible with the exploding phone market, lending hundreds of thousands of apps and custom tweaks etc.

If the Touchpad came out last year, none of the problems HP has right now would be problems. The iPad still needed a boost that the iPad 2 would give it. Android was still having issues that Honeycomb was supposed to solve. Unfortunately, though, WebOS 3.0 is only promising, its not a slam dunk. As CNET declares, this is a tablet that smells like last year. Its not HPs fault (okay maybe that atrocious glossy plastic is). Nobody could have guessed that the tablet market would move this fast. That a single year could make or break a product. It’s the fact that WebOS is now climbing an uphill battle attempting to grasp at Android’s 2nd place only to realize that 2nd place is where the mountain is crumbling.

However, its not all dismal news for HP. There are some things that could help WebOS succeed. Note I said WebOS and not the Touchpad. These are very different products with very different futures. There are rumors already of a refreshed Touchpad coming, and there is no doubt that HP will be releasing more WebOS products in the future. However, the most promising piece of info for HP is that unlike Apple, HP will be offering licensing for its Mobile OS and already we are hearing about talks with Samsung. In addition, we are hearing reports that HP has been giving not only free tablets but also even servers to app developers to help them get apps on their platform. Its clear that HP is throwing every possible solution forward to get their software platform out there, and because of its merits and the possibility of extra devices through licensing, WebOS has the possibility of eventually being a viable and successful alternative to Android (as an alternative to iOS).

Currently its a wait and see market. While WebOS clamours for the crumbling second place marker, Apple continues to dominate the tablet sphere. Is it a chicken and egg scenario? Will people buy into a new platform with no guaranteed promise? Will developers buy into a platform that is still only an alternative? Will HP continue shoving vast amounts of money into their platform to keep it alive? Will the rumored iPad 3 send everyone else back into oblivion?

Sheesh, I think I’m gonna stick to laptops for now.