Apple Watch: Out of Sync?

John C. Abell, Senior Editor at LinkedIn, recently published a blog post in which he suggested that society has nothing to fear from intelligent robots, a veiled reference to recent statements from Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking about the future potential of artificial intelligence. Rather than robots or AI, Abell wrote: “Batteries will be the death of us.”

flip phoneWhile this brings a gentle chuckle, there’s plenty of truth in it.

Abell described how the first generation of cell phones (“feature phones”) sported replaceable batteries that lasted for days and could be swapped out at a moment’s notice. In other words, battery life wasn’t a concern. These devices, which had a core function of delivering voice calls to their owners, did so with efficiency and long periods between charges.

Core Functionality

This core functionality, however, was replaced when smartphones supplanted feature phones and scrolling through Facebook, watching YouTube videos, and—most significantly—perpetual texting became all the rage. The purpose of the silicon wonders in our pockets shifted dramatically. Yes, at their essence, they remained communications devices. But the functionality of a “phone” changed completely. And with it, battery life became a major concern, almost overnight.

Likewise, the functionality of watches is about to morph dramatically. Wrist-adorning devices that once delivered simply the time and date (and maybe a stopwatch or countdown feature, but still mostly only time-related features) are growing into small computers with elaborate sensors that offer continual connectivity to our other devices, like smartphones and tablets.

Practicality is paramount. I’m currently engaged in a book project involving the electric car market, and Abell made the perfect analogy between modern mobile devices and electric cars: Range anxiety. Back when we had mere feature phones with great battery life, fear of the device running out of juice rarely reared its ugly head. Ample power for our phones—or the lack of said electricity—was a non-issue.

apple watch clock faceIn this respect, the forthcoming Apple Watch may be two steps forward and one step back.

Pre-release reviews are beginning to indicate that only conservative use of the Apple Watch will deliver a full day on a single charge. Granted, despite the name, the Apple Watch is much more than a mere watch. Ironically, those who want to use it as a simple, but elegant and connected timepiece will be SOL. It will deliver very few hours of straight-up clock face display, depriving wearers the ability to simply glance at their wrist and see a ticking second hand.

According to 9to5 Mac, “We’re told that the Watch should be able to display its clock face for approximately three hours, including watch ticking animations, if nothing else is done with the device.” This reminds me of the primitive, yet disruptive, Texas Instruments watches that my father and grandfather began wearing and loved in the mid-1970s, almost exactly forty years ago.

The History

These first-gen digital timepieces featured bright red LED displays that required the wearer to press a button to briefly display the time—unlike their more advanced progeny, which featured continuous LCD readouts requiring no manual intervention to simply view the hour (that’s when Japanese Casio stole the crown from American Texas Instruments).

I recall my 6th grade math teacher, Mr. Musgrave, wearing one of the slightly inconvenient, but very popular, Texas Instruments LED models. My memory of this is distinct, simply because it was readily apparent whenever he took his right hand and pressed the display button on his left wrist to tell him how much time was left in the class period.

TI red digital watchI can imagine proud new Apple Watch owners nervous to show it off, afraid it will die before the end of the business day. The Apple Watch may be like a Nissan LEAF battery electric car restricted to traveling only 80 miles on a charge. Oh-so-nice and delightfully leading edge during that 80 miles, but then you have to plug it in and wait for your next playdate.

Great Gadget; Good Timepiece?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m an Apple fan and in love with (the idea of) the Apple Watch. But already we know that those acclimated to obtaining the time by simply looking down at their wrist will be in for a surprise—and recharging their watch every three hours if they do so.

As cited by Abell, 9to5 Mac also reported that the highly-anticipated Apple Watch will deliver “roughly 19 hours of mixed usage each day, but that the company may not hit that number in the first generation version.” “Mixed use” means that the watch display is mostly off and that it’s sucking only a small trickle of juice from the battery so it can receive notifications from the wearer’s iPhone or iPad.

It’s becoming clear that the Apple Watch, at least in its first iteration, will work well only within particular use case parameters, sometimes limiting its practicality. No continually displayed time. No hours of full-bore app use. No playing Angry Birds: Watch Edition on the trip to Grandma’s house on Sunday.

apple watchIt’s beginning to sound as if this miraculous little device, which in so many respects will be uber-cool, will also be hobbled by today’s relatively primitive battery tech. It’s sad that such a great gadget will be limited by a battery that hasn’t quite evolved to meet the needs of wearables that are extremely small, yet sport bright, high-resolution displays, relatively powerful processors, and juice-draining wireless connectivity.

Slowly Getting There

The energy density of batteries, for both cars and small mobile devices, is increasing rapidly. While I’m convinced that this first-gen Apple Watch will change the industry and perform miraculous feats of silicon syncing, it simply won’t suit all use cases or please all customers.

Remember the Oscar-winning 1967 film The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman? Remember the infamous post-college poolside investment advice from the family friend during the graduation party at the beginning of the movie?

“I just wanna say one word to you. Just one word.”

“Batteries.”

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:home theater book cover for blog footers

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

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Apple: The Myth of Too Expensive

[Updated July 31, 2015]

I often have friends approach me asking for purchasing advice for consumer tech products like computers, TVs and home theater gear, and home automation gadgets. I try to be as objective as possible. But my advice often involves recommending an Apple product.

Typically, the first response I get is “But Apple stuff is so expensive.” I’m not claiming this is a wholly undeserved reputation on the part of Apple. But one doesn’t get a Porsche for the price of a Prius. Better gear costs more. Period.

Proving It

apple tv for blogHowever, the perception that Apple’s products are vastly more expensive than the competition is, for the most part, a myth. In this short blog post, I’ll prove it.

First, let’s take a look at the increasingly crowded market for streaming media set-top boxes. One can choose from Apple TV, three Roku models, Amazon Fire TV, and others. All of which are priced at $69. I’m not going to argue that Apple TV is the best in this category; that’s for you to decide. But it’s certainly as good as the others. One’s particular lifestyle and the entertainment and hardware ecosystem into which they’re vested really determine the best choice.

I probably receive the most proclamations of Apple being too expensive in terms of personal computers. Yes, you can spend thousands on a MacBook Pro with Retina display (optioned out, one of these little beauties sells for more than $3,200) or a Mac Pro (the 6-Core model with dual GPU starts at $4,000). But these models are at the top of their classes—and are probably the best available in their respective categories. They’re extreme examples from Apple’s catalog.

237844-apple-macbook-air-11-inchMacBook Air

A more reasonable consideration is the MacBook Air. Apple’s svelt and most popular thin-and-light notebook computer (it’s barely thicker than the iPad) starts at $900. Apple quality and reliability for under $1,000 is quite a deal. I realize it doesn’t work if your budget tops out at $500 or $600. But remember the value of your time when that discount Dell or HP model croaks and you’re faced with hours invested in tech support, returns, and maybe exchanges. Not to mention lost productivity and sheer frustration. Time is money.

Mac Mini

For desktop computing, there’s the Mac Mini. Beginning at $500, this dependable little PC is the least expensive way to jump into the OS X universe without breaking the bank. At only 7.7 inches across, this cold aluminum square can deftly handle the computing tasks of the vast majority of consumers. Yes, you still have to add your own keyboard, monitor, and mouse or touchpad. However, this can actually save you money by allowing you to use peripherals you already own or less expensive competing models—although I recommend Apple across the board for these items also. (The exception is the monitor, where a much wider variety of non-Apple models can be had for a fraction of the cost.)

iphone5c-gallery2-2013iPhone 5S & 5C

And then there’s the iconic iPhone. I realize everyone wants the latest and greatest in mobile gadgets. But technolust aside, there are some great deals to be had. You can get an arguably superior Apple phone for less than many Android models. For example, take last year’s models, the iPhone 5S and 5C. On a two-year contract (the way the vast majority of consumers in the United States obtain smartphones), the 5S can be had for only $100. And the 5C can be obtained for…wait for it…free.

The next time you hear someone complain about the absurd prices of Apple’s products—and especially if they use it as an excuse for purchasing or recommending inferior products from competing companies—kindly inform them that they can have their Apple and eat it, too.

And, for goodness sake, stop imagining bloated pricing where it doesn’t exist. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get my work done on my Mac Mini so I can binge watch Deadwood on HBO NOW this evening using my Apple TV….

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Curt Robbins

[For more of my Apple rants, check out Back to Apple, Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot, and Need a Computer? Think Apple.]


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.

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.

Smartphone Display Size: Two Perspectives

Of all the modern mobile devices available to consumers, smartphones surely grab the lion’s share of both headlines and water cooler chatter. Not even the revered new kid on the block, the tablet, can keep as much of our collective attention as its smaller cousin. However, this back pocket technology can be confusing for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, smartphones are such a dynamic and rapidly moving target. You can be a genius regarding the latest smartphone functions and technologies, but two years later you’ll barely be familiar with available models and won’t recognize half the acronyms.

Yes, stalwarts like the iPhone and top Android models like Samsung’s Galaxy, HTC’s One, and LG’s G3 will probably be around for years to come. They’re all great and can easily make you very happy. Most will serve loyally for the duration of a two-year service contract. If treated politely, they will last well into a second life as a hand-me-down for a teen or whoever buys it on Craigslist.

iphoneBut how do you cut through the marketing and product review hype, manifested as a thick fog of new age corporate babble, hipster imagery, and obscure acronyms, to purchase a phone that’s best for you and your lifestyle? How do you escape the primitive and illogical concept of a phone that’s “best” and instead seek out one that’s most appropriate—all while potentially costing you less than many competitors?

Simple. Determine your priorities.

In terms of a mobile gadget like a smartphone, these priorities pertain to digital media. Specifically, images and video. Smartphones are single-handedly crushing the camera and camcorder markets. Consumers are choosing to replace their point-and-shoot and even high-end, bulky DSLR cameras with svelt smartphones. This is a real validation of the fact that some smartphones are very good at capturing data, such as photos and high-definition video (including super-slick panoramic images). Premium models like the iPhone, Google Nexus 5, and Motorola Moto X (as well as many others) all capture high-resolution photos and high-definition video (sometimes with stereo sound). It’s the type of stuff that you can display on a huge 70-inch TV hanging on your wall and say “Wow, that looks really great.”

Smartphones are increasingly good at displaying a variety of media, specifically video and photos. Larger displays (even from traditionally conservative Apple) are allowing smartphones to better accommodate high-definition video sources from Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu Plus. Stereo speakers are helping improve the audio portion of the equation, even though this is still the Achilles heel of mobile device media playback (and one reason headphones are so popular).

Choosing the best phone for your particular needs, and getting the best deal on it, is a matter of determining which function—capture or display—is most important to you.

Samsung-Galaxy-S5-3Personally, I favor capture, not display. However, I’m also the unofficial family archivist, an amateur photographer, and work out of my home office (where, if I want to consume video, I’ll use Chromecast or AirPlay to toss it up on a 60-inch plasma display with subwoofer-enhanced surround sound). I capture tons of video and photos and grab a few on nearly a daily basis. For me, the size of the display (the current obsession of the marketing efforts of so many smartphone companies) isn’t very important. Because most consumers upgrade their smartphones every two years, along with their service contract, a given model will typically provide only a couple years of service. However, the audio, video, and images captured by your smartphone will be archived for (hopefully) hundreds of years. (To learn how to preserve your data for centuries, check out my Understanding Personal Data Security book.)

Because I’m so picky about the quality of the media I capture and the memories of friends, family, and special events that are so precious, I really have little regard for the size of a smartphone screen. In fact, larger phones are more cumbersome and less comfortable stored someplace like the back of my jeans or in a jacket breast pocket. And less comfortable means I’ll be less likely to have the device on me. Meaning fewer Kodak moments.

If you’re a person who travels a lot or, for whatever reason, spends lot of time sitting around sucking down a variety of media, a smartphone with a larger, higher-quality display (OLED technology is a big winner among the Android phones) and a nice set of in-ear headphones might best serve you. If, however, you’re more like me and it’s all about the media you capture and plan to keep forever, a phone with a smaller display—but superlative camera and camcorder functions (like the iPhone 5S and 6 variants)—is the ticket. After all, what you capture amounts to more than mere photos and videos. These are the digital heirlooms that you’ll pass on to your children and grandchildren.

As the PR machines choke and sputter and everyone gets excited about the latest generation of the most popular smartphones in our annual hypefest of product introductions, remember that sometimes smaller is better. All you really care about might come down to capture quality, not video playback. Besides, think of all the money you can save buying last year’s model instead of that fancy new-and-improved toy, ala nothing more than a bigger display that’s helping write all the headlines for lazy journalists and bloggers and eating up your disposable income.

Happy shopping and choose wisely, grasshoppa.

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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.