Understanding Streaming Music

3d1The trend is clear: Sales of music on physical compact discs are steadily decreasing, while consumption of streaming music is increasing in a dramatic way. Even the growth of digital downloads, most popular from services like Apple’s iTunes and Amazon Music (formerly Amazon MP3), has slowed considerably. Consumers enjoy the convenience of music as a service, and are willing to pay between $4 and $10 a month to enjoy the world’s biggest jukebox.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10: Streaming Music & Downloads from my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, available on Amazon Kindle. This is the first of a three-part series regarding streaming music and the popular services delivering it to consumers.

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Curt Robbins


This is an exciting time in terms of how entertainment content is packaged and sold to consumers. We’re in the middle of a titanic shift, from music-as-a-product to music-as-a-service. Instead of purchasing tunes on compact disc, consumers are increasingly choosing to obtain their musical entertainment from internet-based streaming services, such as Pandora and Spotify.

Even digital downloads, such as from iTunes, which decimated sales of compact discs, are being cannibalized by streaming music services. Consider that the sale of “digital singles” dropped 3% between 2012 and 2013, while music streaming increased 24% during the same period (according to Nielsen SoundScan). In 2013, digital downloads decreased 1% while streaming music grew by nearly 40% (according to the Recording Industry Association of America).

Renting vs. Buying Music

The economics of this shift are significant. You may be in the habit of purchasing music as albums on compact disc from a vendor such as Amazon or Walmart. Or maybe you prefer to buy your music one song at a time from iTunes or Rhapsody. Regardless of the method, it’s a model where you own the music, giving you the flexibility to burn it to a CD or listen offline, without an internet connection.

Music streaming services, however, are more like renting music. Or, rather, renting access to music. Services like Rdio and Beats Music offer catalogs comprised of tens of millions of songs. Think of them as the world’s largest jukeboxes, available on all of your devices—including your home theater.

Streaming vs. Downloading

songza for blog postWhen you purchase a song that you download, you’re copying the full song, as a single unit (a data file) from the internet to your computer. Streaming, on the contrary, is when you feed your mobile device or home theater a constant flow of digital data in the form of music or a movie. Most importantly, this data flow isn’t saved to your mobile device or AV receiver (minimizing the chance of piracy). In fact, this is the definition of “streaming.” YouTube, Netflix, and Pandora are good examples of streaming services. iTunes, Amazon Music, and HDtunes are examples of download services where you purchase, transfer, and store a song file on your computer.

Commercials & Artist Refusals

Streaming music is also a great way to avoid commercial interruptions. Subscription-based services offer ad-free entertainment in exchange for a monthly or annual fee. Some services, like Pandora and iTunes Radio, offer a free ad-supported version, as well as paid accounts that remove all commercials.

But it’s not all peaches and cream. Despite most services having deep catalogs of 16-30 million songs, don’t expect all artists and albums. Classic rock band Led Zeppelin, for example, is available only on Spotify, Songza, and Pandora. Pink Floyd prohibited its songs from being streamed by on-demand services until July 2013. The core works of Garth Brooks, the Beatles, AC/DC, Tool, Bob Seger, Metallica, and several other artists aren’t available on most streaming services.

Why Are Some Artists Unavailable?

Music services of all types must obtain legal rights to stream their song catalogs (obviously the intellectual property of thousands of other parties). This occurs through either the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) or via direct negotiations with record labels. The DMCA is a U.S. law that some other countries recognize. When companies such as Spotify, Apple, or Google negotiate directly with the major music labels (there are three in the United States), their deals involve restrictions, such as which artists are available for streaming and in which countries they can operate.

The DMCA

Two streaming services featured in this book, Pandora and Songza, rely on the DMCA. All others negotiate directly with music labels. While this gives DMCA-reliant streamers the luxury of playing any song they want—just like an FM radio station (terrestrial AM and FM also rely on the DMCA)—they’re restricted to offering their services only in countries that recognize the DMCA. Thus, Pandora is available in only three nations and Songza in only two (compare this to Google Play Music’s 68 countries served or Spotify’s 61).

pandora for blog postWhat does this mean in practical terms? That the bands that have withheld their songs from streaming distribution, such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and AC/DC, can’t be heard on the major on-demand streaming services (outside of Spotify, which got exclusive rights to Led Zeppelin’s full catalog in late 2013).

If you really love Metallica, Bob Segar, or Tool and want to hear them on your on-demand streaming service, forget it. You’d have to use a radio type service like Pandora or Songza to, with luck, hear these bands, with zero control over the exact songs you hear or when you hear them. (See the Music Lockers section below for a neat and typically free solution to the problem of missing artists on nearly any music service.)

Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is any form of copy protection applied to digital content, either streamed or disc-based. DRM can be found in many forms of digital media, including music and movies. Hollywood liberally employs DRM to protect movies from piracy, typically in the form of complex encryption. For most consumers, the result of DRM is not being able to copy a disc or a downloaded song or video. There are also more subtle results of DRM, such as preventing a laptop playing a streaming or Blu-ray-based movie from connecting to an external display panel via HDMI (the assumption is that there could be a recording device on the receiving end of the cable).

Most of the millions of songs available on iTunes are encrypted with DRM to prevent them from being freely shared. An increasing amount of modern video and audio, however, is DRM-free, a convenience feature that is purposefully marketed to consumers to win their favor. For example, music downloaded from the new high-resolution PonoMusic service contain no DRM, Amazon features no DRM in the MP3 songs it sells, and Apple is slowly converting its catalog to the DRM-free iTunes Plus format.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Ebook Domination: When, Not If

Recently, I blogged about the inevitable dominance of all-electric vehicles over their gas-guzzling siblings. The conclusion was that saving the earth, sci-fi-level tech, and even Porsche-like performance will have little or nothing to do with the intrusion of electric powered vehicles into American garages. Instead, the primary motivator for middle class consumers will be lower cost and greater convenience.

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An almost identical dynamic is occurring in the world of books. Amazon, the world’s largest book seller, announced way back in May 2011 that its sales of ebooks had exceeded those of traditional physical books (paperback and hardcover combined). Then, in January 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reported that his company’s ebook sales had jumped 70% from 2011 to 2012, while also pointing out how this compared to paper books:

“Our physical book sales experienced the lowest December growth rate in our 17 years as a book seller, up just 5%.”

In 2008, ebooks were so new that they were outsold by audio books and dismissed by many industry veterans—authors and publishing houses alike—as not even ranking within the relatively elitist world of publishing. Amanda Barbara, writing for Forbes in April 2014, said “Buying trends indicate the e-book industry is immature. After all, statistics show that more than 60 percent of readers still prefer print.” According to Aaron Pressman, writing for The Exchange, “Dig a little deeper and you’ll see that…ebook sales rose from $68 million to $3 billion [between 2008 and 2012], what’s technically known as a gazillion percent increase,” adding, “Absent ebooks, total print book sales did shrink about 8%.”

According to the latest stats, industry-wide ebooks sales topped $3 billion again in 2013—with a considerable percentage of legitimate sales not being reported (due to the archaic data gathering of the publishing industry). BookStats, a joint project between the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, reported that the number of ebooks sold between 2012 and 2013 rose by more than 10%, to 513 million.

The installed base of e-readers and tablets, like the iPad (Apple has sold more than 225 million as of October 2014), has finally grown large enough to allow ebooks to sell not only more units than their paper siblings, but is the logical precursor of greater industry revenue in the not-so-distant future. Although, granted, this increase might not be concentrated among a few behemoth old school publishers; it’s called the democratization of publishing for a reason. And the French weren’t able to invent democracy without axing a few heads (already, the legacy publishing business is consolidating).

3d1Yes, per-unit profits will be down, driven primarily by very low prices for titles downloaded to consumer mobile gadgets. But given how Americans enjoy low-cost impulse purchases—like fast food and crap not on their shopping list at Target or Walmart—the number of ebooks available for under $5 will motivate those twitchy fingers hovering over Buy buttons, resulting in record-setting numbers of books sold. It will just so happen that the vast majority of them will be inexpensive (i.e. $1-3) ebooks.

In 2010, when the Apple iPad was introduced, only 5% of Americans owned an e-reader and 4% possessed a tablet. Today, 32% own an e-reader and 42% tout a tablet. According to a Pew Research Center poll, the percentage of people reading books in digital form jumped from 16% to 28% from 2011 to 2014.

It’s not surprising that ebook sales are increasing due to the rapidly growing installed base of e-readers and tablets. It would be easy to assume that this is coming mostly at the expense of pricier hardback books. However, according to a May 2013 New York Times article, “Mass-market paperbacks, the smaller format of paperback popular in airports and grocery stores, also decreased in sales.” Also, one must remember that all of these statistics exclude sales of ebooks not featuring an ISBN, like many from unknown independent authors and even some from prominent scribes, like JA Konrath.

When the digital version of a book is $3-5 and the hardback is $15-30, consumers will allow their wallets to make the decision for them. What? I can get three, five, or even ten ebooks for the price of a single hardback? Granted, paperbacks are more affordable and the biggest sellers among physical books, but they still suffer from material costs, warehousing, shipping, and the dreaded returns system that the publishing industry continues to so primitively embrace.

Moving atoms is a bitch; shifting electronics is cheaper and easier (and more convenient for customers). Average ebook prices will only continue to decrease, with even legacy publishers beginning to see the light of a 21st century economy driven so strongly by digital media, mobile e-commerce, and lower prices for digital commodities, like songs and ebooks. (Yes, shocked ebook authors, you’re creating what is rapidly becoming a commodity, whether you like it or not.)

American middle class consumers want value. Whether we spend a little or a lot, it’s what we get in return that matters. We’re a society of convenience. But what if the most convenient route is also the least expensive, as is the case with ebooks? Anyone betting against ebooks—and any publisher not taking the digital domain seriously—is beginning to look increasingly bound for the dinosaur boneyard. You can almost instantly download and begin reading an ebook, which is likely markedly less expensive than its paper sibling. The convenience of having dozens and possibly hundreds of books on a single mobile device like an iPad, Kindle Paperwhite, or even a smartphone is certainly enticing—and objectively superior to physical books, especially for students and those with mobile lifestyles.

Like with electric cars, it’s simply price + convenience that will drive ebooks to dominance over ink on dead trees. This will be true even among readers who prefer paper to digital (I have only respect; there’s tons of them). Most of us are on a budget. Getting three or four ebooks for the price of a single paperback will motivate even digital naysayers and Luddites to embrace this new format, pushing it to clear market dominance.

Just as there are still candles (even though most of us use light bulbs powered by electricity), there will always be paper books. But they will get relatively expensive. As the installed base of mobile devices grows, the public sightings of physical books will eventually become rare. In the publishing industry, it will be lower per-unit cost—not gee-whiz technology—that will drive this migration from analog to digital.

In other words, don’t tell yourself that you prefer old school paper books, because you won’t decide to adopt ebooks: Your wallet will.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot

Apple’s success can be directly attributed to its intense focus on enticing design, superior build quality, and an overall excellent user experience. Yes, there’s the highly manipulated and hyperbole-laden product release press events. But despite all criticisms, few can deny that Apple’s products are either the best or among the very best available.

Unlike Google, Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC, and many other Android-fueled smartphone manufacturers, Apple puts its considerable R&D and channel partner weight behind only two models—the last generation iPhone 5C and 5S and the current 6 and 6 Plus.

Only Two

Likewise, in tablets, Apple offers only two, the iPad Mini and the full-size Air. Desktop computers? Only three models: Mac Mini, iMac, and the brawny Mac Pro. Laptops? MacBook Air and the venerable MacBook Pro, two of the most popular computers in the world. Regardless of the number of products it its stable, Apple’s intense focus on the user experience and overall quality of its gadgets is an inspiration to the CEOs of both small startups and multinational corporations alike.

One thing Apple doesn’t do, however, is moon shots. That’s the territory of Google and, more specifically, co-founder and 30x billionaire Sergey Brin. Google’s daredevil and left-leaning computer scientist “directs special projects,” according to Google’s official Management Team webpage. He’s also been described as an “enlightenment man” by The Economist.

apple vs google for twitterThe products of Brin’s efforts? Self-driving cars (legal to “drive” in California and Nevada), Google’s Project Loon, an internet delivery mechanism intended to help previously unserved regions of the world via what’s basically a high-altitude weather balloon, and the infamous and celebrity-endorsed Google Glass smart glasses (the owners of which, when wearing them in public, are said to be glassholes by the gadget’s critics).

Lab Experiments

I’d argue that Google Glass and Project Loon are really just lab experiments with an abundance of media exposure and good PR. This is despite the fact that Glass is now available for anyone to purchase. But at $1,500, it’s an expensive experiment in wearables on the part of customers, the pursuit of which defies the practical disposable income of most middle class consumers. The self-driving cars, however, are truly impressive. They do more than provide gee-whiz technology to a burgeoning generation of millennials who are less concerned with driving than the status of their social media lives. They disrupt—and in a big way.

As impressive as Google’s self-driving cars are, two of Google’s three major moon shots are currently unavailable to even the most well-heeled consumers. Apple’s products, meanwhile, can be purchased anywhere, including Walmart, Amazon, and Best Buy. Contrasting the two companies, in many ways, is truly comparing apples and oranges. Another difference between these tech titans is Google’s offering of affordable ultra-high-speed residential internet service in the form of Google Fiber. Unfortunately, this service is in only Austin, Kansas City, and Provo. Thus it, too, is basically unavailable to nearly all consumers.

apple logo for blogBut what about the largest, most important product category: Smartphones? The playing field was recently leveled when Apple released the significantly enlarged 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and it’s big brother, the 5.5-inch Plus variant (the first iPhone to sport a true 1080 display). While it could previously be argued that Apple had great hardware that wasn’t satisfying consumers’ desire for larger screens—driven primarily by our insatiable desire to consume video from YouTube, Netflix, and Facebook—this is no longer a pertinent argument.

Now that Apple has upped the ante by competing on size, it’s hard to knock advising consumers to simply purchase an iPhone and get on with their lives. In reality, Apple is actually offering three smartphone display sizes because it’s still selling the 4-inch iPhone 5 models. For those who prefer a smaller, more pocketable form factor, 2013’s iPhone 5S is an excellent choice, especially for those wanting the photo and video capturing capabilities of the iPhone 6 and the majority of its processing power. Those criticizing Apple’s prices as being prohibitively high need to wake up and smell the coffee; the iPhone 5C, the award-winning smartphone with a reputation for capturing excellent photos and superlative video, is available from nearly all carriers for free (subsidized on a two-year contract). If you can live with the smaller screen, last year’s 5C is the value leader, costing you nothing out-of-pocket.

Goodbye Bloatware

There’s also the fact, in no way insignificant, that Apple’s products completely lack bloatware and, in the interface department, are skin-free. While manufacturers like HTC, LG, and Samsung continue to tweak and augment their respective versions of Google’s Android mobile OS, Apple’s iOS is free of any carrier-loaded software “enhancements.”

In addition, updates to Apple’s mobile operating system are available immediately to its entire installed base of devices (including its tablets), whereas Android updates are provided by Google to phone manufacturers, which must then apply their own modifications, typically releasing them months later—or not at all (carriers are under no obligation to provide Android updates to their subscribers).

tim-cookFinally, one can’t help but analyze the situation from a business perspective. As Apple CEO Tim Cook recently pointed out (and ad-free social network Ello emphasizes), with Google and its free services, you’re the product. You and the data regarding your online preferences and behavior are the product sold by Google to advertisers (just like how Facebook operates). With Apple, including all of its services, you’re the customer. Apple in no way remarkets or sells the data regarding its customers to advertisers or third parties.

In the end, the mature stance is understanding that Apple and Google each possess distinct and contrasting strengths and weaknesses. Google takes a buckshot approach to its products and services, spreading its resources among a weird variety of both practical and, seemingly, impractical projects—which may or may not become available to consumers (there’s a reason Alyce Lomax at The Motley Fool called Google a “Jack of all trades, master of none”).

Apple, thinking different, focuses on the few painstakingly positioned models in each of its product categories, ensuring industry-leading quality, reliability, and customer satisfaction while sweating the details for each new product cycle.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

My Chemical Romance

In the 1950s and ’60s, Americans were promised “better living through chemistry.” Today, public sentiment more aptly supports a mantra like “better living through social media.” At least that’s the way we act. But we’re surrounded by some really cool chemical technology—some of which goes seemingly unnoticed by a big chunk of consumers. Maybe we’re too distracted by our smartphones and Facebook feeds to attend to some of the more hidden and amazing chemical innovations that surround us (and no, I’m not talking about Vicodin).

When I got my first sports car after college, I discovered a glass treatment called Rain-X. Some of you are surely familiar with it, while others may be completely clueless. More likely you’ve heard of it but never used it or seen it in action. What does it do? It dramatically increases driver visibility, beading water off any glass surface. Because of the wind resistance hitting a car’s windshield, Rain-X is especially effective on this surface. The rain or condensation beads and then wind resistance pushes it off the glass. It’s that simple.

Wikipedia describes Rain-X as a “synthetic hydrophobic surface-applied product that causes water to bead.” In other words, it’s basically wax for glass. If freshly and properly applied, Rain-X prevents you from having to use your windshield wipers. It’s that good. And, if you’re a obsessive car-loving tech geek like me, it’s super fun to watch in action.

rain-xRain-X works by saturating the microscopic pores in glass with its chemically bonded silicon polymers. This is what prevents water from sticking to the surface of the glass. In addition, insects, mud, and road debris are also repelled. Instead of sticking to your glass, these elements basically slide right off (this is a great reason to also use it on your headlamps and taillights). Thus, automotive glass surfaces don’t simply sport amazingly improved visibility during rain or snow, but they’re also safer and more pleasant during dry periods—because there’s less crap sticking to your windshield and blocking your view. (If you still suffer a foggy or glare-ridden windshield after properly applying Rain-X, try cleaning the interior of your glass.)

As long as you re-apply Rain-X every month or so, you’re in business. The frequency of treatment depends on how much rain the treated surfaces have received since the prior application (drivers in Portland and London will be buying more Rain-X than those in Phoenix). More rain equals a shorter life span and more applications (especially rain encountered during full-speed highway or freeway driving). If you experience a fog or glare after application, it means you haven’t properly removed the overspray. The combination of a wet sponge, followed by a dry paper towel, will take care of this, leaving your glass as clear as you’ve ever seen it. And it will remain clean for much longer than the untreated windshield on your neighbor’s car.

This probably isn’t true for most drivers, but windshield wipers give me a headache. They mess with my field of view. Their incessant swiping action I find to be obnoxious and distracting (and drivers have enough distractions). With Rain-X, I rarely use my wipers. In fact, regular applications of this 20th century molecular magic can prevent you from ever using your wipers.

Rain-X is one of the most inexpensive and easy ways to improve the safety of your vehicle while also getting some cheap entertainment in terms of the beading action on your windshield. Whether you drive an entry-level econobox or a $100,000 European saloon, you owe it to yourself—and the safety of your family—to give it a try.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Back to Apple

Everyone loves to take sides in the religious war between mobile platforms. Like trying to walk away from a Spanish soap opera, it’s a drama from which millions of fanboys on both sides of the fence seemingly can’t disengage. “Mine is great, yours sucks” is the tone we so often hear. Platform preachers and mobile zealots love to tout the superiorities of their particular corporate religion. Like Republican versus Democrat or Christian versus atheist, you’re either one of us or you’re one of them.

My first tablet was an iPad. It was a great experience. But when my daughter began stealing the device to use high-end drawing apps like Procreate with an increasing frequency, I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and simply purchase a new tablet for myself, relinquishing the iPad for my artist-in-residence 14-year-old. I was curious about Android and the hype surrounding the then-anticipated Nexus 7 tablet with the Kit Kat operating system, scheduled for release in August 2013. So I watched the product announcement online, got excited, and purchased one on Amazon.

Objectively, of course, the stock version of Google’s Android OS installed on the Nexus 7 was superior to Apple’s iOS in some ways, but couldn’t live up to it in others. We all have different sensitivities, so which is “better” overall is truly a matter of personal opinion. However, because of those subjective sensitivities, there is a right tablet for you. And, as I’ve learned, there’s definitely a right tablet for me.

apple logo for blogThe proof was delivered by a single app: Flipboard. This tremendously popular news aggregator boasts more than 90 million users. As its name implies, Flipboard provides a tiled layout, with each square on your screen representing a different media source of your choice. Because my 2013 Nexus 7 tablet featured the latest generation software and hardware, I anticipated even better graphics performance than I was getting from my older iPad. Or at least equal. This was a logical assumption, right?

Flipboard, delivered via the Android app on the Nexus 7, seemed half-baked. The tile pages stuttered and briefly froze as I swiped through them when checking my media sources. The pages typically never moved smoothly from one side of my tablet to the other. It was as if the GPU (graphics processing unit) had narcolepsy, falling asleep briefly at the times I needed it most. After the smooth Flipboard performance on the iPad, the Nexus 7 delivered a herky jerky user experience that was the mental equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. It was as if the iPad was a graceful ballerina, while the Nexus 7 was a drunken frat boy.

Then, after only 10 months of use, the Nexus 7 died. One morning I awoke to the colored balls of the Google startup logo spinning incessantly. Three attempts later, the unit continued to refuse to boot up. I was forced to call Google’s tech support. After identifying that the problem wasn’t with its operating system, Google forwarded me to Asus tech support. Asus arranged an in-warranty return of the device for repair or replacement. I was now going to be out-of-pocket with a device that was an important part of my daily workflow. Doing business with Google and Asus was becoming a pain.

In the meantime, I began using the iPad again (my daughter won’t be “liking” this blog post, trust me). Despite being older generation hardware, Flipboard’s pages turned smoothly and elegantly. The stutters and moments of micro-hesitation exhibited by the Nexus 7 were nowhere to be found. It took only a couple of days for me to realize that I really wasn’t looking forward to the return of the Nexus 7. I had been spoiled by Apple and it’s buttery smooth graphics processing. It was as if I had driven the fast and silent Tesla Model S and, in migrating to the Nexus 7, was being forced to downgrade to a loud, slow Chevy.

ipadLater, I happened to be in a Verizon store in my community and, while waiting for a customer service rep, was playing with some of the display devices. I approached an iPad Mini. Low and behold, it just happened to have Flipboard installed. I began swiping on the screen, noting the perfectly smooth action of the pages as they turned under my finger. I began swiping faster, trying to force the Mini to stutter or somehow show weakness in its processing and display of the highly graphical, ever-changing tiled pages. But alas, I couldn’t. The Mini running Flipboard was perfect in its graphics prowess. Stuttering Porky Pig had left the building.

Like it or not, Apple’s tight integration of hardware and software—combined with the adoration and efforts of so many of its third-party software developers (like Flipboard)—results in the best user experience available. Period.

I’m sure this stance seems trivial to many. It’s just a few chokes, locks, and stutters, after all. While I fully respect the admiration that Android fanboys and users have toward their devices, I, personally, am returning to Apple for my tablet fix. It’s not only the smooth operation of Flipboard and similar apps that is beckoning to me. It’s also the mere fact that the iPad, having logged many more hours and tons more abuse (under the hands of my teenagers) than my Nexus 7, has never died. My wife has an even older second generation iPad. Again, no headaches, no problems; just a smooth user experience in any app. Yet after a significantly shorter period of use (not even a year)—and being babied and never dropped—the Google/Asus Nexus 7 croaked.

Before lashing out in the comments, realize that I’m not a blatant fanboy of either platform. It’s why I have open-mindedly tried both. But the proof is in the pudding. Yes, Apple is more expensive. But now I have a strong, “been there, done that” understanding of what that extra money delivers in terms of value, reliability, and overall user experience. Regardless of price point or specific features, Apple’s smartphones and tablets are now the assumed standard in my home.

Anybody want to buy a slightly used Nexus 7 tablet?

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Curt Robbins

[Also see my related blog posts Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot, Need a Computer? Think Apple, and Apple: The Myth of Too Expensive.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Home Automation: Increasingly Affordable

Home automation has long been the domain of the upper middle class and wealthy. Expensive, professionally installed proprietary systems have traditionally dominated the home automation landscape.

The rise of mobile tech and ubiquitous wireless communications—combined with less expensive and more powerful sensors and electronics—are finally enabling the availability of relatively affordable devices. Most feature leading-edge functionality and the ability to control them from anywhere in the world using your favorite mobile device. Many of the most compelling products are the efforts of Silicon Valley startups, not entrenched players.

home-automation-increasingly-affordable

From monitors that sense when your plants need water to video-capable deadbolts that allow owners to communicate in real time with visitors to smartphone-adjustable multi-color LED bulbs, these domestic tech tools are finally delivering real power and convenience at prices that all of us can at least consider.

What Can You Really Get?

But what can you really get? And how much will it cost? Companies like Nest, Lockitron, Skybell, Dropcam, and LIFX are introducing new consumer-friendly products and services at a rapid pace. Nest (now owned by Google), the most recognized name in home automation, has sold millions of cloud-connected and remotely controlled thermostats and smoke detectors. The appeal of the Nest thermostat is primarily the average annual savings it delivers in the form of decreased heating and cooling bills, so it’s a relatively easy sell (even though tech geeks lust for it for obvious and different reasons). But what about other, lesser known products?

Most home automation devices aren’t as practical as the Nest thermostat in terms of saving money. Many of them provide considerable convenience or safety, however (depending on your use case). For example, LIFX sells high-quality wi-fi controllable LED light bulbs. While some of the nicest units on the market, they’re also priced in the zone that gives most middle class consumers the willies: $100 for a single bulb. However, LIFX’s models don’t require a hub controller; you can get started with the purchase of only a single bulb.

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For homes on a budget, but still wanting wi-fi controlled bulbs (many of which offer thousands of colors, all selectable from one’s smartphone or tablet), there’s products like Philips’ Hue, with bulb kits beginning at about $185 on Amazon. The entry-level kit nets you a three pack of bulbs and the hub necessary to control them from your wi-fi network. Philips promotes the “personalization” of its bulb system, noting that owners can adjust the brightness and color of its bulbs to meet any occasion or mood. Other companies offering LED bulbs that can be controlled by your mobile device include ilumi, which sells units priced from $90 to $100, and Insteon, with bulbs costing a modest $30—but they require a $115 hub (always read the fine print).

Smart Locks & Doorbells

“Smart” locks and doorbells are an interesting and sometimes amusing category of home automation. The top vendors include Lockitron, Kwikset, Skybell, and Doorbot. Lockitron, a Silicon Valley startup, sells a remotely controlled smartlock. The $180 device boasts user-friendly installation and fits over most conventional deadbolts—instead of requiring the replacement of your current lock, like most competing products. The $200 Doorbot takes a different approach, adding a wide angle video camera to the outside doorbell and alerting you to visitors on your smartphone. It’s a full two-way communication system, allowing owners to see visitors and speak to them via an integrated speaker and microphone. It’s even compatible with Lockitron, allowing owners to not only communicate with visitors, but also unlock the door to allow entry into their homes.

The $220 Kevo, from old school deadbolt manufacturer Kwikset, takes automation and convenience even further, providing one-touch admittance to your home by trusted friends and family—as long as they have their smartphone in their pocket. But what if your kids don’t have smartphones? Kwikset provides key fobs that act as authenticators, solving this problem (after the company received a lot of flack from customers for not bundling such fobs with the first release of the product). The Kevo can even detect if a request is coming from inside or outside your home, helping prevent unauthorized entry.

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Such products, because they’re software-controlled, even allow you to schedule access by particular individuals, granting them a permission code that works only during a specific time slot. This is practical for folks who travel for their jobs or simply aren’t home for a plumber, pet care, or other domestic maintenance. And what if the service tech is late? They can ping you and request real-time entry.

The companies behind these products obviously market them based on convenience and security. It used to be said that most advertising appeals to only two emotions: Greed and fear. I suppose the convenience of these home automation devices points toward our greed, while security enhancement obviously caters to our fear.

This blog post could easily grow to 10,000 words by describing the plethora of home automation products available today to consumers—some of which are really cool, some of which suck, and many of which are not-quite-affordable for people who count themselves among the middle class. For that, you’ll have to wait for my forthcoming book in 2015, Understanding Home Automation. In the meantime, do some Googling to learn if any of these leading-edge products can enhance your particular home with greater security and convenience.

And if the neighborhood kids begin pranking your Doorbot, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Understanding Headphone Amps

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[Updated September 9, 2015]

It’s challenging to discuss a home theater category like headphone amps and remain within the practical—and financial—bounds of middle class consumers. Many home theater owners have never even heard of this gear category, let alone own such a component.

However, the value of headphone amps, for people who truly love great sound, can’t be disputed. The good news is that many companies, like Schiit Audio and others, produce affordable hardware that can dramatically improve the quality of your sound when you’re wearing your cans and enjoying your favorite album (or movie).

The following is an excerpt from my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, from Chapter 9: Headphones.

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Curt Robbins


Headphone Amps

Headphone amplifiers are probably the single most misunderstood area of audio entertainment (if you’ve even heard of this tech). Infamous for being expensive toys owned by audiophiles, they are a relatively uncommon device within a home theater. What does a headphone amp do? Simply put, it’s an output from your receiver that re-amplifies the signal to improve the sound produced by your headphones.

In most receivers, even high-end models, the built-in headphone amp is a super-cheap afterthought. Audiophiles and music enthusiasts claim that, if you have a good pair of headphones, you’re cheating yourself by not getting at least an entry-level headphone amp to bring out their potential. “Using a dedicated headphone amplifier will step up the performance of any home theater to an entirely new level,” Frank Iacone, a 35-year industry veteran known for his heartfelt Twitter feed and reviews on headfi.org, told me in an interview. Because most middle class consumers have never used a headphone amp—and very possibly never listened to high-end headphones—it’s one of those situations where people simply don’t know what they’re missing.

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Prices for headphone amps range from $60 to $16,000. That’s right, if you have a large pile of money and are wondering what to do with it, you can purchase 3,200 copies of this book or a headphone amp that costs more than an entry-level Toyota. The kids can walk, get the amp!

Tube, Solid State, & Hybrid

There are two primary technologies employed in building headphone amps: Analog vacuum tubes and digital solid-state circuitry. Vacuum tubes are way old school; some audiophiles collect antique tubes that are more than 50 years old. Solid-state amps, which involve digital processing and circuitry, are typically less expensive than their tube-based brethren and feature a more accurate, less “warm” sound. The third type of headphone amp, called a hybrid, merges these two technologies, theoretically offering the best of both worlds. Good applications of this approach achieve this, while poor executions fail to sufficiently exploit each type’s advantages.

Audiophiles Divided

The audiophile community is divided regarding which approach, tube or solid state, provides nicer sound. In reality, each type offers distinct pros and cons and is implemented in a wide variety of quality levels by different manufacturers. In the end, the model best for you is determined more by your wallet than your feelings regarding the warmth, intimacy, or accuracy of a particular model’s amplification technology.

However, one typically doesn’t spend the kind of money we’re talking about on headphones and headphone amplifiers and not appreciate the nuances of high-end audio. For many, the differences in sound quality between comparable quality tube and solid-state amps is significant (another religious war among audiophiles). My own opinion, quite frankly, is that I appreciate the lower cost of solid-state amps while also somewhat desiring the more accurate sound reproduction and efficiency that they deliver (which I also prefer in my AV receivers). But this certainly doesn’t mean that solid state is better. It’s simply my personal take on the matter (and my wallet’s influence).

From a sound perspective, I’d rather have a $1,200 Woo Audio WA2 tube amp (pictured below) than a $120 Vali solid-state model from Schiit Audio. However, this reflects a desire for a high-end amp, not a disdain for digital amps, preference for tube amps, or any leaning toward Woo Audio over Schiit (both of which are great companies offering models you should seriously consider). My budget—and the quality of my headphones—dictates that my purchase will probably involve a cold aluminum solid-state Schiit Audio Asgard 2 for $250 (the “practical” model for which I continue to lust).

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Pros & Cons

One disadvantage of tube amps is that they can require up to 10 minutes to heat up in preparation for use. This is an old school characteristic indeed, and about the most retro electronic wait period of our modern drive-thru, microwaving, Twitter filled world. Fans of tube tech, however, swear it’s worth the patience and dollars (and boast of the romantic glow provided by their vacuum tubes—probably especially nice during the holidays).

An advantage of solid-state amps is a reduction in background noise. Some audiophiles actually prefer an elevated background noise level, especially for live performances or fully analog productions. One advantage of solid-state amps that doesn’t really touch home theater applications is mobility. Some models are designed to accompany a mobile device, offering small size, battery power, and significant improvements in audio quality compared to the anemic default output of mobile gadgets (especially when paired with good headphones).

Upgradable Tubes

A neat feature of vacuum tube amps for hobbyists is the fact that you can swap out—and thus, upgrade, within certain technical limits—the tubes. Some hyper-hobbyists even keep two or three sets of tubes, reserving each for a particular type of music. Many replacement tubes are relatively inexpensive (Schiit Audio sells a set of four tubes for its $350 Valhalla model that runs $40). While the cost of the initial amp itself might be somewhat hefty, the expense of playing hobbyist with different tubes—or replacing units that have burned out—can be manageable and fun.

Reputable Brands & Models

What is more important than whether a headphone amp employs vacuum tubes or solid-state circuitry is its sound quality, period. Companies such as Woo Audio (USA), HiFiMAN (USA), Bryston (Canada), OPPO (China), and Schiit Audio (USA) offer a wide range of both tube and digital amps.

Woo Audio manufactures expensive tube-based models featuring exquisite hand-crafted build quality and leading edge design that are made in New York City. Ranging in price from $550 to $16,000, Woo offers some of the best (and most attractively designed) tube amps money can buy. If you’re sweet on their products but on a budget, consider the $600 WA3 or $700 WA6.

Schiit Audio, headquartered in California, produces beautifully sculpted aluminum amps. Most of their models are solid state, but they also offer a couple hybrid and tube models. Schiit amps perform like Canadian and American models costing several times more. It’s relatively small product line, priced between $100 and $750, are all American made from American parts (Schiit even has face-to-face relationships with its local vendors). The company provides what reviewers cite as excellent and personalized customer service.

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Premium Blu-ray player manufacturer OPPO in 2014 released a $1,200 solid-state headphone amp that has received rave reviews. The audiophile-quality OPPO HA-1 features an attractive display that compliments the unit’s leading edge features (it can even simulate those sexy analog VU meters from way back when). Like other OPPO products, the HA-1 is controllable via the OPPO Remote Control App for mobile devices.

“The hardware inside the HA-1 are some of the beefiest I’ve seen in a headphone amp. It looks like a barely scaled down loudspeaker amp,” said Geoffrey Morrison when reviewing the model for Forbes. Reviewer John E. Johnson, Jr., writing for hometheaterhifi.com, added, “And, wow! What a sound. Built like a tank, and gets as hot as a tank in the Sahara due to its Class A output.”

If you want to check out entry-level tube-based headphone amplification on a budget, look into the Bravo Audio V2, a $70 ($55 street price) single-tube amp. “It’s a nice little tube amplifier in its own right for those of us who want to experiment with that highly desired ‘tube sound’ without paying the exorbitant rates many tube amps cost,” said an amateur reviewer on Head-Fi.org.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Power Conditioning: Red Headed Stepchild

3d1Today’s blog post is an excerpt from my new book Home Theater for the Internet Age,  available on Amazon Kindle. The following is pulled from Chapter 3: Components.

In 2014, more people than ever own a home theater, regardless of the cost or sophistication. Whether it’s just a cable TV set-top box and game console attached to a small TV with two small speakers or a full complement of expensive components feeding their output to a 70-inch display and eight or 10 big surround sound units, we love our home theaters. And curse them when they don’t work or suffer a failure.

What most of us don’t do is properly protect our relatively delicate components. Enter power conditioners. They’re no mere power strip. Read on to learn how to protect all of your expensive home theater gear.

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Curt Robbins


Power Conditioning

The most neglected—as in not installed—component of home theater is a good power conditioner. The power delivered to the average home is relatively dirty, thus requiring this “conditioning.” Unlike surge protectors (power strips), power conditioners (sometimes called “line conditioners”) regulate the voltage of the power they receive. In short, these devices take dirty power and make it clean, removing spikes and noise, the elements that slowly kill electronic devices such as home theater equipment. Think of the purchase of a power conditioner as an insurance policy that helps prevent power-related problems, which typically cause small levels of damage that accumulate over time. Most consumers have no clue that long-term dirty power is the culprit behind many electronic malfunctions and failures.

apc_line-rA good example of an inexpensive power conditioner, and the model I use throughout both of my home theaters, is the APC Line-R. Available in both 600- and 1200-volt varieties, the higher-capacity model can be had for as little as $48 on Amazon.

If you have a high-end home theater and want an equally high-end power conditioner, check out Canadian Torus Power. Their top-shelf units, which incorporate high-quality Toroidal transformers, can’t be beat—and will set you back a couple of thousand dollars. But this is the Rolls Royce of power conditioning. If you want the best and have the coin, these units are the bomb.

It’s a good idea to use power conditioners on all of your expensive electronic equipment, including computers.

Protecting Wall-mounted TVs

If you have a wall-mounted TV that’s too far from your receiver to plug into the receiver’s power conditioner, there’s a good chance that space limitations will prevent you from installing a conditioner in the wall behind the panel. However, there is room for a basic surge suppressor. While not as good as a power conditioner, a surge suppressor will help prevent spikes and brown outs from damaging your beautiful TV. I personally use the $30 Rocketfish 4-outlet model on both of my TVs, which tucks safely and discretely behind wall-mounted panels. You’ll completely forget it’s even there—but it won’t forget to protect your expensive TV.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Blu-ray Players: More Than Discs

3d1When researching my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, one of the most significant things I recognized was the versatility and power of the latest generation of Blu-ray players. We think of them as simply playback mechanisms for physical discs. Which is understandable, considering that’s how CD and DVD players worked. In reality, however, modern Blu-ray players offer so much more. Especially if you’re a technology-embracing, mobile device-toting, wi-fi connected person or family.

Backward compatibility has always been a strength of much consumer technology. Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OS X will run software designed for significantly older versions of their respective operating systems. Likewise, Blu-ray players can handle nearly all previous generations and standards, including CDs for music, DVDs for movies, and discs featuring any type of media burned on your computer.

What most consumers either don’t understand or simply don’t utilize is the fact that physical discs are only one of three avenues for getting media into your Blu-ray player—and pumping through your surround sound speakers and widescreen display panel.

The other methods? USB flash drives and any type of network connectivity.

Most Blu-ray players feature a USB port on either the front or, less conveniently, the back of the unit. This allows you to copy music, photos, and videos from a computer or network storage device to a flash drive and plug it into your player. Although primitive in some respects (this used to be called sneakernet in the computer world), this is a valid way to get media files from a computer or storage device in your house to your home theater.

The third method, network connectivity, requires either wi-fi or Ethernet. In this case, your Blu-ray player is simply connecting to another computer or storage device in your home to gain access to media files. Sometimes this involves a dedicated media streaming technology, like DLNA (a capability that must be built into your Blu-ray player). This is my favorite method. Many people have thousands of family photos and songs residing on a computer or network storage device in their home. Using either a hard-wired Ethernet or wi-fi connection to your Blu-ray player, you can have access to them all. You can run photo slideshows, choose from among hundreds of ripped music albums, or play family videos (or those purchased online).

oppo bdp-103Yet, despite this capability, most consumers never do more than drop shiny discs in their Blu-ray players. What a waste! In theory, these folks are getting only one-third the functionality and value out of their players.

The very best content you can pump through your home theater—in terms of fidelity and quality—is a Blu-ray disc. They offer the most crisp video and the very best audio. Hands down. But ignoring the sometimes voluminous personal media many of us have and continue to accumulate (regardless of the technical quality of that media) is leaving dollars and fun on the table. So check your Blu-ray player. Does it feature a USB port? An Ethernet port? Does it have wi-fi built-in? If so, you could be accessing your archive of family/personal media on a regular basis.

So remember, as Kyle from South Park would say, we learned something today. Most Blu-ray players can receive input from sources other than the disc tray. Archived media is great for simple preservation and passing on our legacy to our children and grandchildren. But not utilizing that media for our personal enjoyment and the enrichment of our family is, well, wrong. You saved it for a reason, right? I’d argue that the media you preserve isn’t just for future generations, but also for the enjoyment of you and yours right now.

Now where did I put that flash drive?

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Electric Car Adoption: Not Why You Think

In the past, I’ve written about both the lack of innovation in the auto industry and Tesla Motors. Researching Tesla revealed many things. The physical, technical, and practical advantages of electric versus internal combustion cars are plentiful and amazing.

Yes, I’m convinced that the transition to fully electric cars is indeed inevitable. But it won’t happen for the reasons most people think—and it has nothing to do with helping the environment, running out of oil, or making the world a better place. While those are valid arguments that are well-and-good for the media and proponents of such voltage-based transport tech, they will have little to do with the inevitable success of all-electric personal transportation in the United States.

nissan leaf for linkedinMuscle cars are among the least efficient, loudest, and most smog-producing vehicles on the road. Despite this, they remain the most popular and revered of all cars ever made. I’d kill for a 1963 C2 Corvette or a 1967 Camaro. I watch Supernatural with my daughters just so I can hear the hunky 1967 Chevy Impala’s modified engine through my home theater’s subwoofer.

I can understand muscle car fans wincing at the prospect of driving across town in a nearly silent all-electric vehicle. On the surface, it doesn’t sound tough or cool—which runs counter to the 20th century-spawned notion that cars help define our personalities and, ironically, individuality (think James Dean, Steve McQueen, and Vin Diesel).

Let Me Count the Reasons

Advocates of electric vehicles, often tree-hugging environmentalists, new age hippies, and science geeks, give us countless reasons why electric cars will replace their fossil fuel-guzzling predecessors (not the least of which is the inevitable disappearance of oil). Melting ice caps, serious long-term health ramifications, and the prosperity of our children and our children’s children are all used to make us feel guilty about driving our noisy, sluggish, gas-guzzling sedans and SUVs.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Consumers will decide if electric cars replace internal combustion models, not governments, advocacy groups, or even the media. Because for consumers, it’s all about cost. We might be concerned about rising carbon dioxide levels and climate change, but if an exhaust-emitting internal combustion car is less expensive than a clean all-electric model, consumers—especially middle class consumers—will almost always opt for the cheaper model. At least if we want to take a vacation now and again or send our kids to college.

When Tesla Motors releases its much-anticipated Model 3 in 2017 or 2018—assuming they can actually sell it for $35,000—Americas will do some basic math and realize that they can have a car with decent range (200-250 miles per charge), significantly more storage, zero internally produced noise, Porsche performance (the current Model S sedan is literally faster than a Porsche 911), and the satisfaction of knowing they aren’t creating greenhouse gasses in their own back yard. For about the cost of a nicely optioned Ford Taurus or Nissan Altima, folks will realize they can have so much more.

Huge Savings on Consumables

But that’s the hedonistic car lover’s side of the equation. It’s after they do the consumables math, i.e., add up the costs of fuel and maintenance, that Americans will flock to electric cars in droves. This is primarily because, by selling a $35,000 high-performance all-electric car, Tesla (and any other manufacturer) doesn’t simply match the price of a gasoline-powered vehicle in the short term. It beats it in the long term—by a wide margin. Unlike fossil fuel-powered vehicles, the more you drive an electric car, the cheaper it is to own.

No oil changes, only a few bucks to charge the batteries (instead of the $50-120 required to fill the tanks of conventional piston-pumping vehicles), and no more standing in 10 degree F weather to fill their tanks at gas stations will convince consumers that electric cars aren’t only cheaper, but that they’re also more convenient. And convenience is what Americans are all about. There’s a McDonald’s on every corner and even Pizza Hut has a drive-thru window for a reason.

tesla model s replacement for blogA Tesla Model S owner in Wisconsin reported that he “barely even noticed” any increase in his electric bill when analyzing it to calculate how much it was costing him on a monthly basis to recharge his sleek all-electric sedan. I realize that’s a somewhat ambiguous statement, but the next time you “barely notice” the monthly accumulated gasoline bills for your car, let me know. Significantly less expensive fuel, combined with almost non-existent maintenance costs, dramatically change the overall cost of ownership of an all-electric car like the Nissan Leaf or any of Tesla’s models.

As one Model S owner commented, you simply charge it at night and replace the tires.

Car Dealerships Suck

Despite America’s love of cars, for the average consumer, a visit to a car dealership is like a trip to the dentist or an IRS audit. We don’t like it, and for good reason. It’s a smarmy, hawksterish zone where contention runs high and trust runs low. It’s populated by clueless salespeople, gaudy signage, and loud, obnoxious commercials. Most car dealers are a cheesy exercise in financial obfuscation, cheap and predatory sales tactics, and—all too often—a gross lack of professionalism and honesty. Yes, Lexus, BMW, and others luxury brands have done a lot to counter the mostly skanky state of the dealership industry, especially those representing the big middle class brands like Chevy, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Chrysler, and Hyundai. But conventional car dealerships still suck.

During the next few years, two things will happen in the auto industry. First, a company like Tesla will produce an affordable, attractive, and performance-oriented all-electric vehicle with an acceptable range. Obviously, others will follow. Second, Americans will begin to perceive that they can save money by owning an all-electric vehicle.

Dramatically reduced fuel and maintenance costs will motivate consumers to jump on the electric bandwagon—sports car-like performance and gee-whiz technology will simply be the icing on the cake. Once consumers are buying electric cars as fast as they’ve been purchasing iPhones and iPads for the past few years, all auto manufacturers will embrace the approach. Electric sales will soon after outpace those of old school piston bangers with tail pipes.

In the end, it will be the savings and convenience that will convince Americans to get in bed with electric vehicles, not rescuing the environment or even the amazing performance. And if we get to avoid a trip to the dentist in the form of negotiating with sleazy dealership dorks who we despise—and don’t trust—all the better.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Cutting the Cord

cord_small (1)It’s 2015, and most of us have at least heard the term cord cutters. They’re consumers who have chosen to cancel their cable or satellite TV service in favor of internet-based streaming media (or simply popping old school discs into their Blu-ray players).

About nine years ago, after struggling with Time Warner Cable for years—and the company spending literally thousand of dollars trenching new coaxial at our curb in an effort to remedy our digital cable woes—my family cut the cord. We’ve never looked back. We were paying about $90 a month. That equals roughly $10,000 in savings. Wow.

It was a relatively daring and unusual move a decade ago. Our motivation wasn’t simply to rid ourselves of the quality headaches we were experiencing with Time Warner, but also to alleviate the pain of commercials. Our children were young and we felt good about virtually eliminating their exposure to the incessant stream of ads that run on television. Admittedly, it would have been challenging if we had been big sports fans (today, services like MLB.TV and NFL Now help ease that pain).

It’s estimated that only 6.5% of Americans (about 20 million people) are cord cutters (according to Experian Marketing Services). While still small as a percentage, this rapidly growing market segment has caught the attention of some tech and media corporations. TiVo, for example, recently introduced a DVR aimed at cord cutters that will record shows for those lacking cable TV. Features of established entertainment channels, like HBO GO and Showtime Anytime—while they don’t cater specifically to cord cutters—help bridge the gap between conventional cable or satellite TV and the mobile device-toting cord cutter lifestyle.

In June 2014, the Leichtman Research Group reported that nearly half of U.S. households subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime (or, as is often the case, a combination of these services). In 2010, this number was only 24%.

rock streaming stick

A study released by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in 2014 supports these numbers. The organization claims that 45% of American households watch streaming video from the internet on their TVs. In 2013, it was only 28%. Something is trending, folks. While the CEA study revealed that only about five million American homes rely on internet TV exclusively, 10% of all TV-consuming households said they’re probably going to cancel their cable or satellite TV service in the next 10 months. Should Comcast, Cox, and AT&T be nervous?

More proof of this trend? In May 2014, The Verge reported that 500 of those ubiquitous Redbox kiosks we’re all so acclimated to seeing will disappear this year. Americans want to stream a significant portion of their entertainment content—regardless of whether they’re cord cutters or not.

Britain’s The Guardian recently surveyed North American cable and satellite TV customers who had chosen to cut the cord. A former Comcast customer in Marysville, California stated, “After a traumatizing series of bad customer service experiences, I decided I’d rather sit in a dark cave than give [Comcast] another dime. Not one regret.” A disgruntled former Shaw Communications customer from Alberta, Canada, said, “I didn’t want to be the person who stayed up until 2 a.m. watching the magic bullet blender commercial over and over and over again.” An ex-cable subscriber in St. Louis echoed this sentiment: “I have a busy life and sitting through commercials is something I am not interested in.”

One of the biggest complaints of consumers is paying for hundreds of channels on cable, but watching only a few. Advocates of TV reform have called for a la carte channel packages for years. A recent study by Nielsen reported that the average U.S. home receives 189 cable channels. And how many of those do they actually watch? Only 17 (that’s less than 9%). In addition, The Guardian survey revealed that only 3% of cord cutters would consider going back to cable if providers began offering a la carte pricing. The lack of a la carte is obviously only part of a much larger discontent.

fire tv stickBut let’s be fair: Cutting the cord doesn’t simply erase your cable bill. Consumers often are compelled to spend more for better internet bandwidth and a streaming video device or two (like a Roku or Apple TV) to compensate for their lack of cable or satellite service. There’s also subscription fees for services like Netflix and Hulu Plus and rental costs for iTunes or Vudu.

So let’s do some quick math. I got rid of Time Warner Cable at $90 a month and later subscribed to Netflix ($9 a month) and Hulu Plus ($8 a month). I spend $10-20 per month at my local Family Video store (because you can’t feed anything to your home theater better than a Blu-ray disc). A few times a month, my family also rents movies or TV episodes from Google Play Movies & TV or iTunes at $3-6 a pop. But we never spend $90 a month. And the commercial interruptions we tolerate are light (basically just Hulu Plus, which features far fewer than conventional TV).

No, cord cutting isn’t free. For that, you’ll need a rooftop or desktop antenna to pull in your local affiliate stations. But the value proposition of cord cutting is so great that it’s hard to ignore. The fact that it’s less expensive than cable and features few or no commercials makes cutting the cord an increasingly appealing alternative for middle class consumers.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Innovation: Not a Purple Pencil

Companies today are obsessed with innovation. As they should be. Call it a “paradigm shift,” “disruption,” or simply a “new age.” It’s all the same. If publish or perish is the mantra of academics, then smart companies should be preaching “disrupt or die.”

Marketing efforts prevail, however. Middle class consumers are continually told that the companies from which they purchase goods and services are innovative. But innovation isn’t a #2 pencil on which a company slaps a coat of purple instead of yellow paint. Innovation is a mechanical pencil you can re-use forever, simply purchasing new lead (especially when we’re running out of trees).

pencil for blog

Innovation isn’t a slightly better something, it’s a new something. True innovation from companies is customer-centric. It isn’t the Chevy Volt, with a battery pack cozying up to an internal combustion engine. It’s a fully electric Tesla Model S or a Nissan Leaf, with zero engine noise, more storage space, and connectivity to your smartphone. Disruption isn’t Comcast or Time Warner Cable offering on-demand video streaming or more digital channels. It’s Netflix and Vudu turning the industry upside down and encouraging cord cutting. Improving things for consumers isn’t Hewlett-Packard or Dell cranking out laptops with faster chips and higher resolution screens. It’s Apple, Samsung, and Google producing leading-edge mobile devices and wearables—and making them interactive with our homes and vehicles.

Innovation comes from companies like Netflix, Tesla Motors, Apple, and USAA. It was USAA, the financial services company serving primarily military customers, that introduced taking a photo of a cheque to deposit it. Why was it the little guy, USAA, that developed this consumer-friendly and extremely practical “technology”? Where were Bank of America and Citibank, with their voluminous resources? Probably on the golf course or lobbying in D.C., not forming research labs to produce such consumer-friendly and competition-smashing tech.

In a recent blog post, I discussed the lack of innovation in the auto industry. The proof? Nearly all cars seem the same. Most people I know can ride to lunch with a friend and, after returning, not be able to tell you the brand of car in which they were transported. Yet we can identify an iPad from across the street. While standardization is important, especially for safety, this reflects laziness among the executive ranks of so many companies. For the auto industry specifically, it seems they’d rather play copy cat than focus on real innovation. Innovation isn’t marketing BS. It’s customers and owners telling their co-workers and neighbors “You gotta get one of these!” When was the last time someone told you that regarding their car, lawn mower, or laptop computer?

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The Fremont, California manufacturing facility now occupied by Tesla Motors was previously a GM/Toyota partnership. This is wonderfully symbolic of the changes we’re about to witness in the auto industry. If you think disruption is just Pandora and Snapchat, think again. Let competitors partner on bland products that motivate consumers to say meh and dread the experience of a visit to their local car dealership or Best Buy. Meanwhile, companies like Tesla Motors, Netflix, Apple, and Google will build the new world atop the boneyard of the old dinosaurs. It’s the phoenix from the ashes, and it’s happening right in front of us.

Don’t partner with your competitors—defeat them. Innovate, disrupt, and blow the other guys away. Yes, there are valid opportunities for “coopetition.” Industry consortiums and standards groups are sometimes essential to progress in the marketplace and the interoperability of products and services from different companies. But allowing the accountants to navigate the ship, relying on economies of scale and rationalized partnerships with your enemies is short-term, borderline desperate thinking.

In today’s world, true innovation is disruptive, sustainable, and genuinely enticing to consumers. The only reason most of us aren’t parking a Tesla Model S in our garage is because of the relatively high cost (a topic about which co-founder and CEO Elon Musk has been very honest). But what about 2017, when Tesla introduces it’s roughly $35,000 Model 3? What about when Nissan gets the Leaf to crank out more than 200 miles from a single charge? What? You don’t want a car that produces virtually no sound, features more storage, produces no harmful exhaust, is super-sporty and fast, and costs a fraction of what’s required for gas-powered vehicles to fuel and maintain? Please forgive my cavalier attitude, but I’d say you’re freaking nuts.

If the company for which you work desires to survive and thrive in the 21st century, it must embrace this spirit of ultra-competitive and reality-based innovation. If it doesn’t, the new guys are going to be purchasing your office building or manufacturing facility to produce what middle class consumers really want—and your company will be relegated to nothing more than an obscure Wikipedia entry.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Improving Coffee

No, this isn’t a blog post ranting about Starbucks. Rather, it’s about cost-effectively making the best possible coffee at home. The machines that grind and brew coffee are tech gadgets, after all. In some respects, there’s no right or wrong here. If you prefer Folger’s instant, that’s cool (although you probably don’t get out much). Coffee snobs, however, frown on such bourgeois concoctions. But how, exactly, does one affordably produce great coffee at home?

I asked myself the same question toward the end of 2013. I was using a cheap $20 Hamilton Beach machine I had purchased at Walmart. Because I knew that freshly ground beans improved quality and flavor, I also had a $20 blade grinder. The value proposition was high: For $40 in hardware, I was enjoying thoroughly mediocre coffee. Even when I purchased top-shelf beans.

What to Get? What to Get?

So when my kids asked me what I wanted for the holidays last year, I said a good coffee maker. After a few hours of research and watching customer reviews on YouTube, I finally decided on a model. And what did I learn? That good coffee is about much more than simply a good coffee maker. It’s also about the particular type of grinder you use and how you store your beans. Um, you do purchase fresh roasted whole beans and toss them in a grinder, right?

Ultimately, I went with the $160 8-cup Bonavita with a thermal carafe (I drink coffee for several hours in the morning and bonavita_1often into the afternoon, so the thermal carafe has been invaluable for my particular use case). Granted, you can spend much more than this on a fancy coffee maker. A buddy of mine has a $300 espresso machine (but he’s into latte fraps; I’m not). Like most areas of life, you can spend literally thousands of dollars on a high-end coffee maker. But this is Middle Class Tech: This stuff has to be affordable.

Where I really gained some schooling was in terms of the basic science behind good at-home coffee. First, most coffee makers don’t heat water to a temperature high enough to properly extract the oils and all of the coffee goodness from the ground beans. The Bonavita, like only a few other moderately priced consumer models on the market, heats the water to 205 degrees F (96 celsius). If the water isn’t at least 200 degrees, forget extracting the best flavors from even the most luxurious coffee beans. So I had taken care of the temperature problem exhibited by the majority of coffee makers on the market—even some of the more expensive models.

Bean Grinders are Critical

What really blew my mind was the important, albeit critical, role of a coffee grinder. There are two types of grinders: Blade and burr. You want a burr grinder.

Blade grinders are bad for a few reasons. While they’re good in that they’re the least expensive variety, they’re bad because they produce an uneven, coarse product. Also, blade grinders, based on the physics of how they operate, generate too much heat. Your coffee beans are already roasted. A blade grinder basically roasts them a bit more, adversely affecting the flavor. This is a pain because you want to thoroughly grind your coffee (depending on your particular brew method), but you don’t want powder. But the more you grind it, the more you harm the flavor and quality due to the heat you’re creating. It’s a primitive double-edged sword, and your taste buds are the victim.

Enter the burr grinder. These types operate much more slowly, crushing the beans between stainless steel conical burrs. This both alleviates the heat produced by blade grinders and results in a much more uniform grind (avoiding the chunks and dust of their bipolar blade-based cousins). About the only downside of a burr grinder is that some models can be loud. Like holy-crap-wake-the-family-loud (I actually used mine on my outside deck one morning in an attempt to not wake my kids and their sleepover guests).

Tonx Talks

If you want to watch a short, humorous video about this topic, check out Tonx Talk: Making Do With A Blade Grinder on Vimeo. Within the video, an employee of Tonx coffee, a high-end roaster based in Los Angeles, states: “Coffee nerds hate blade grinders, and for good reasons. Burr grinders…[allow] you to make small adjustments and to dial-in your brew method. Blade grinders are like really cheap food processors; they hack away at your beans and leave you with [a] chunky mess. They really suck.” She adds, however, that “A crappy blade grinder can still give you a decent cup if you start with fresh roasted whole beans.”

There are two types of burr grinders: Conical and flat plate. Grinders featuring flat plate burrs are superior, but typically cost-prohibitive for consumers. They’re found on the commercial models at your local coffee shop and overkill for almost all at-home coffee drinkers. Conical burr grinders are much more affordable, don’t produce unnecessary heat, and deliver a nice, even grind.

I chose a Bodum Bistro conical burr grinder I found on Amazon for $130. I know. Nearly $150 for a grinder—not even a coffee machine—is a steep proposition for many middle class consumers. My overall investment to improve my coffee burr-grinderexperience was about $330. But when you consider how much you pay for good coffee beans—and how much Starbucks and other shops want for a decent cup, especially if you drink it on a daily basis—it’s an investment that pays for itself over time.

Probably the best thing most people can do is purchase whole beans, not pre-ground coffee and acquire a nice burr grinder. If nothing else, this will elevate the quality of your coffee by leaps and bounds. If you really want to hit a home run, get any coffee maker that is guaranteed to heat your water to at least 200 degrees.

Final Advice: Storage

The final advice for good coffee is storage. First, understand that storing your raw beans in the freezer to maintain freshness and quality is a myth (this can lead to nice debates with your parents, who may have been doing this for decades). Why? The freezer removes the moisture from the coffee, something that’s critical to its freshness and flavor. No, you don’t want your beans to get too moist or humid, but you also don’t want anything near what a freezer will do to them—especially over time. It’s about a fine balance, grasshoppa, and the freezer blows it. The rules are simple: Store your coffee beans at room temperature and away from light and air. Personally, I use a BeanSafe stainless steel storage container that I got on Amazon for $25.

If you’re tired of the crappy java your Mr. Coffee or Hamilton Beach model delivers, try spending a few more bucks and getting one that heats the water properly. Then get a good burr grinder and a purpose-built storage container for your beans. And don’t forget the advice of Tonx: Always use freshly roasted, high-quality beans.

You may love the results.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, check out his car-related articles on CarNewsCafe, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Gene Simmons: Confused Luddite

Gene Simmons, the bombastic and outspoken bassist and sometimes lead singer of ’70s supergroup Kiss, recently conducted a short interview with Esquire magazine. In it, he claims that “Rock [music] is finally dead.”

Wow. While chart-topping Foo Fighters and thousands of other current—and relatively successful—rock bands are politely disagreeing, it’s the logic behind Simmons’ words that really defies intelligence, not the statement itself.

And who—or rather, what—does Simmons blame for the death of rock music? Technology.

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In particular, file-sharing. “My sense is that file-sharing started in predominantly white, middle- and upper-middle-class young people who were native-born, who felt they were entitled to have something for free, because that’s what they were used to,” he told the magazine. I’m sure no immigrant kids ever used Napster or ripped a CD from the library or a friend. Simmons is ignorantly—or stupidly, depending on your perspective—blaming a technology, file-sharing, for acts of piracy committed by humans. People’s potential sense of entitlement pertains very little to the particular mechanisms employed to satisfy that perception.

The 65-year-old former rock star isn’t only a big bag of crazy, but also seemingly can’t link cause and effect or understand how technology is actually more help than hindrance. Just because today’s music scene is different than in his roughly forty years ago heyday, Simmons somehow thinks it’s all gone to hell. Gene, things change. Today it’s a different world (and not just because we have really crappy reality TV shows). You might want to get used to it, dude.

Yes, CD sales are in the toilet. But bands have typically made more from touring than the sale of physical media (the Beatles being one major exception, but it’s only because they had a disdain for touring). From both small garage bands you’ve never heard of to big acts like Lorde, Taylor Swift, and Macklemore, the bulk of their income typically is derived from performing live, not selling shiny discs.

During the interview (which was conducted by his son Nick; no conflict of interest there), Simmons states: “If you believe in capitalism—and I’m a firm believer in free-market capitalism—then that other model is chaos. It destroys the structure.” What structure? The music industry model from the 1970s and ’80s? Pre-Pandora? Pandora and Spotify are chaos? Really. And here for all these years I thought they were pretty cool companies that increased convenience for consumers while giving exposure to old and new bands alike.

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Yes, the theft of intellectual property is a bad thing, but it’s something in which the vast majority of Americans don’t engage. Napster has been gone since 2002. For 12 years, there have been almost no popular-with-the-masses file-sharing services or schemes available. Litigation by the Recording Industry Association of America ensured that (and good for them; intellectual property theft is bad for producers and the economy alike).

“I am so sad that the next 15-year-old kid in a garage someplace in Saint Paul, that plugs into his Marshall and wants to turn it up to ten, will not have anywhere near the same opportunity that I did,” laments Simmons to his son/interviewer. Wait a second. Today, teens (or anyone) who wants to produce music, paintings, interviews, poetry, writing, fan fiction, videos—literally any form of art—has a plethora of outlets for both their core work and the promotion thereof.

Podcasts on iTunes, videos on YouTube, opinion pieces on blogs, and streaming music from a web site or dedicated service are all readily available—and typically free—for Simmons’ hypothetical Minnesota-based garage band teen to publish the results of his creative impulses.

I don’t know about Simmons, but when I was a kid, one had to beg the owner of the local pub or music venue for a chance to play on a sparsely attended Tuesday evening. Promoting one’s work outside a few small venues or one’s local area was extremely challenging. Today, people in Tokyo or Sydney can effortlessly listen to music from kids in Vancouver or El Paso (regardless of whether any money is made off the relationship).

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Hmmm, let’s see. Napster was released in 1999, 15 years ago. How many good rock bands have come up—and prospered—during the past almost two decades? Foo Fighters, Imagine Dragons, Breaking Benjamin, Rise Against, Linkin Park, and dozens of others don’t count? Simmons said he could identify only two “iconic” rock bands: Nirvana and Tame Impala. Gene, you’ve forgotten to take your medication again, haven’t you?

But wait, it gets better. In an October 2013 interview with Scotland-based Team Rock Radio (only 11 months prior to the Esquire interview), Simmons contradicted his most recent statements, claiming that Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s famous frontman who committed suicide in 1994, was no icon. “Kurt Cobain—no, that’s one or two records, that’s not enough,” he said. With flip flopping like that, Simmons should run for Congress. Of course, during the same interview, with no sense of sarcasm or humor, he called the internet “a fascinating experiment.”

Gene “God of Thunder” Simmons seems to be confusing file-sharing with music streaming. I have two music-loving teenage daughters. When I queried them, neither had even heard of Napster and both were unfamiliar with BitTorrent—used mostly to steal movies and TV episodes like Game of Thrones, not illegally download music.

While I would disagree that streaming services are killing opportunities for new bands, that’s the core argument. Not whether yesterday’s file-sharing craze is responsible for the state of rock music (which isn’t as dire as Simmons claims; just ask Dave Grohl).

Gene, give up the ignorant technology bashing and go back to doing what you do best: Selling Kiss-themed lunch boxes and biting a blood pill on stage in those ridiculous high-heeled boots you apparently stole from Elton John’s basement.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Time for Tesla

The autumn announcement of new car models, in addition to my typical obsession with consumer technology, has recently produced a constant mental Venn diagram—with new cars in the left circle and consumer tech in the right. And in the middle, overlapping section of the diagram? Tesla Motors.

In a recent blog post, I kvetched about the lack of technical innovation in the auto industry. In reflection, I was referring only to the technical enhancements to personal transportation, such as Bluetooth, backup cameras, adaptive cruise control, and head-up displays. But what about the core drivetrain? When you consider the pace of improvement and innovation in industries like consumer electronics, entertainment, and computers, it’s amazing that all of our cars (even if you drive a Chevy Volt or a Toyota Prius) are simply leveraging an improved version of a 155-year-old technology: Internal combustion.

Let’s At Least Agree on This

Regardless of whether you’re Republican or Democrat or your stance on climate change, no one can argue that auto exhaust is good for the planet. If given the choice, I’d vote to exclude it from my community. And so would Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors. In fact, Musk’s vision is for one of his other successful companies, residential solar power provider SolarCity, to provide clean, sustainable energy for our homes and for Tesla to offer a viable, affordable solution to consuming that clean energy for transportation.

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Musk has faced roadblock after roadblock for his small offering of high-tech, sporty, and fully electric vehicles. Recently, car dealers and lawmakers across the country challenged him based on the fact that Tesla sells direct to consumers—not through dealerships. Old laws from a bygone era designed, ironically, to prevent monopolies are currently being leveraged to prohibit Tesla from selling its cars in all areas of the United States. Lazy car dealerships acclimated to purchasing local monopolies for their particular brand are apparently so intimidated by Tesla and its attractive electric tech that they have been taking legal action and calling on their country club cronies to help protect them from open market economies. Unfortunately, it seems that most car dealership owners are more talented at screaming “Discounts, discounts, discounts!” on the local FM radio station than taking on a fair fight. Apparently their wallets are bigger than their balls.

Combined with fuel costs hovering between $3.00 and $4.00 per gallon—and each of those gallons delivering an average of only 25 miles per gallon (according to 2013 data from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute)—the old way is feeling about as advanced as the paper and pencil that might have resided in the pocket of Henry Ford at the 1908 introduction of the Model T. When you compare these items with a modern smartphone, like an internet-connected iPhone 6 or the Samsung Galaxy S5, you get an idea of how far technology as a whole has evolved in American society. Holy crap. Henry Ford couldn’t have even imagined Angry Birds or Orange is the New Black.

Genesis

If the Model T was the foundation of the fossil fuel-propelled auto industry, then it is surely one of Tesla’s models or the Nissan Leaf that is the genesis of a new age of significantly more advanced and earth-friendly vehicles. Because of Musk’s own passion for cars—specifically those of the high-performance variety—we’ve learned that electric cars don’t have to be boring. As practical and decidedly high-tech as the Toyota Prius is, “sexy,” “sleek,” and “fast” are terms that typically don’t enter one’s mind when thinking of this vehicle from our friends in Japan. Let’s face it: If you have any lust for sportiness or curb appeal whatsoever, the Prius has always felt like a sacrifice, as if a middle-aged dot com hippy is, by driving down the road in one, symbolically stating, “I’m doing my part for the environment.”

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Musk has personally bootstrapped Tesla during the course of its relatively short existence, investing more than $75 million of his personal wealth. He spent his last $40 million (from the sale of his brainchild PayPal to eBay) to save the company from bankruptcy in 2007. Tesla now seems to be out of the woods in terms of its financial solvency. Investments from industry titans like Mercedes and Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in addition to a successful 2010 IPO, have helped keep Tesla alive and growing (the company reported profits for the first time in early 2013).

Putting us at 2014. Tesla is three years away from selling a $35,000 everyman’s version of its vaunted $80,000 Model S that will be called the Model 3. The Model S is the follow-on to Tesla’s first vehicle, the exotically sporty and expensive Roadster (hyped at its introduction by celeb customers like George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Arnold Schwarzenegger). Tesla has also broken ground on a battery plant outside Reno, dubbed the Gigafactory, a partnership between the company and Panasonic that will help make the Model 3 affordable for consumers and profitable for Tesla.

Musk has pointed out how market forces alone—especially given the heavy-handed lobbying and deep old-school pockets of the petroleum industry and car dealers—haven’t been enough to decrease the price of car batteries fast enough, enabling affordable electric vehicles. The Gigafactory, using leading-edge manufacturing processes, is purported by Musk to be the reason his company will be able to offer a fully electric car that competes on price with gas guzzlers from Detroit, Tokyo, and Seoul.

A Bit Toned Down

Musk is one of those once-in-a-generation entrepreneurs who truly stops you in your tracks when you consider everything he’s accomplished—and when you comprehend what he might do in the next decade or two (he’s only 43, after all). Unlike some of the more ego-driven and bombastic executives in Silicon Valley—like Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Microsoft’s (former) Steve Ballmer, and T-Mobile’s John Legere—Musk is a relatively humble founder and CEO. Not to be confused with his confidence, which is blowing-smoke-up-your-butt powerful.

However, given his accomplishments during the past few years, and his likely successes in the coming decades, it turns out he hasn’t been blowing smoke at all. Although The New York Times and Britain’s Top Gear TV show might have lost faith in his efforts, or even rigged some of their testing of his vehicles (claims made by Musk), the prospect of a Model 3 electric car for the masses before the end of the decade is all but certain.

So let’s cheer underdog Tesla Motors and its tenacious CEO Elon Musk for having the courage to challenge established players—be they car dealers or the big guys from Detroit. Porsche performance in a zero-emission car with leading edge technology, less expensive fuel than from fossils, and the quality and comfort of premium brands is an option that American consumers deserve. And clearly want.

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Curt Robbins

[See also the related blog posts Tesla Bigot: IADA’s Bruce Anderson, Tesla Test Drives: Responding to Bob, and Auto Industry: Slow on Tech Innovation.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Auto Industry: Slow on Tech Innovation

It’s the time of year in America when our kids are back in school and the auto industry has released next year’s models, so let’s talk about consumer tech in cars. It’s nice that even some entry-level automobiles feature cool tech like Bluetooth, backup cameras (mandatory in all cars sold in the United States by 2018), and in-built wireless technologies like 4G. But why do I always get the feeling that the auto industry is continually dragging its heels, always playing catch up with mobile devices and all the wireless tech with which we’re surrounded on a daily basis?

With consumers habituated to fast upgrade cycles for items like smartphones and personal computers, why is the auto industry so bloody slow when it comes to jumping on the same bandwagon? Just like the consumer electronics industry, car companies release new models every year, so they certainly have the opportunity.

tesla model s replacement for blogI can almost understand a conspiracy theorist who might insist that auto manufacturers are colluding in their seeming refusal to embrace new tech and interoperability between our mobile devices and their products. Yes, there was Microsoft Sync in Ford’s automobiles (RIP) and Apple has introduced CarPlay, which began rolling out in a few 2014 models (and works only with Apple’s products; this isn’t an industry standard). But this still feels more like a push from tech titans like Apple and Microsoft than true innovation from the auto industry itself. Simply connecting to our existing mobile devices is part of the equation, but where’s the “gee whiz” stuff?

Where is the Angry Birds or Snapchat of automobiles?

Yes, I do like “new” technologies like LED taillights, adaptive cruise control, and computer-controlled suspension systems. But we’re talking innovation here. While uber-cool, these are tech that have been around for a long time. In fact, it’s a sign of how slow the automobile industry is not only to innovate, but simply to roll out existing technologies based on past innovations. While LED lights are finally beginning to trickle down to even entry-level cars, nice tricks like laser-based adaptive cruise control and sci-fi-inspired head-up displays are still the territory of luxury vehicles.

We expect a culture of affordable innovation from companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung. It’s the foundation of their existence. But the fact that they have to push their tech on the auto industry is sad. Yes, really cool technology is expensive and auto manufacturers don’t want to reduce their already sometimes razor-thin profit margins. I get it. But we also know that truly innovative tech becomes considerably less expensive as more consumers jump on the bandwagon. Any manufacturer that decides to roll out a given technology (LED taillights, for example) across it’s entire catalog will experience such per-unit price discounts that the cost of this tech should not be its primary concern. What should be? Beating the competition by satisfying the tech lust of middle class consumers. But if recession-strapped Americans gobbling up $600 iPads at unheard of rates isn’t enough to convince auto execs of this, what is?

Where are the advanced sound systems that use basic acoustic science to drown out road noise and vastly improve our listening experience? Where is the uttered “down window” that prevents me from taking my hands off the wheel? Just the fact that so many cars manufactured today lack auto-on headlamps is enough to make you cry. Unfortunately, auto industry executives just don’t seem to get it. At least not when it comes to innovations that satisfy consumer demand and recognize dominant social trends.

It’s nice to know that if you were frozen in a cryogenic chamber 35 years ago and awoke today, you could capably drive a 2014 or 2015 model car. Yes, we need standardization. But when I jump in a friend’s sedan and we cruise down the road and I can’t even tell who manufactured the vehicle without looking at its badging, I think we have a problem.

nissan leaf for linkedinWith the distinct exception of Toyota’s Prius hybrid, Nissan’s all-electric LEAF, and anything from Tesla, cars seem to totally lack differentiation. Sometimes it feels like they’re all manufactured by one huge World Car Corp. and they simply offer a wide range of shapes, sizes, luxury levels, and prices. This is especially painful given the price of automobiles. Really, Buick and Kia, the best you can do is Bluetooth, LED lights, and a crappy, difficult-to-navigate touch screen on the dashboard?

Voice navigation and head-up displays are probably the most promising uses of new-tech we’ve seen in a while. Both improve driver attention where it matters: At the road. And both are way-cool and enticing features. But while many of us actually have Bluetooth or backup cameras in our vehicles, how many can control the music or air conditioning in our cars with our voice?

Exactly.

This is probably one of my lousiest blog posts in terms of educating readers or making a good point (like me, chances are you’re simply angrier now). I’m basically just whining. But at $20,000 to $60,000, the value proposition for tech in cars is among the lowest of any consumer purchase. Considering how much we spend on personal transportation, I think we’re all entitled to a bit of whining—whether you drive a Toyota Yaris or a BMW M5.

I sincerely love that Google, Ford, and Volvo are doing some incredible things with advanced perimeter sensing, collision avoidance, and automated parking in their quest for better safety and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars make for great headlines in the media. But while we salivate over this future tech, the cars actually sitting in our driveways aren’t that much different from models from ten or even fifteen years ago—and none of us would use a cell phone or computer from 15 years ago, would we?

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Curt Robbins

[See also Time for Tesla and Electric Car Adoption: Not Why You Think.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.