You can bet that, when reviewing smartphones, Consumer Reports magazine appears to have a blind spot towards Samsung; maybe a few blind spots. How so? Well, I’ll get to that shortly.

Now on the surface, CR ought to be the perfect review source. Unlike most other publications, online or print, it actually buys tested products from retail stores. That includes luxury cars costing over $100,000 if need be. So, in that area at least, it should be incorruptible. Compare that to regular publications that contain reviews, most of which receive free samples from the manufacturers.

Indeed, when I announced recently that Vizio sent me a 4K TV for review — with no preconditions as to how I rate the product — I got a comment from a reader suggesting that my article would somehow be tainted. But I’ve been reviewing tech gear received on that basis for over two decades, and it’s definitely not a factor. Never has been.

But even if there’s a tiny bit of suspicion on the part of some people that product reviews might be slanted if those products are sent free of charge, I am not surprised that CR gets high credibility. So there’s a story from Seoul, South Korea touting the fact that, “Samsung’s Galaxy S8 tops U.S. consumer review.”

South Korea? But isn’t CR an American magazine? Yes, so this story no doubt originated from Samsung, even though a manufacturer is theoretically prohibited from quoting a CR review. So the article mentions the conclusion, not the contents, so even if it was originated from Samsung, the company is off the hook.

According to the latest CR report about smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the Galaxy S8 Plus gained top ratings by CR. Number three, peculiarly, was last year’s Galaxy S7. Really. So where did the iPhone 8 end up? According to CR, fourth and fifth. Number six was the Galaxy Note 8.

I decided to take a look at the factors that put the iPhones below three Samsungs, including one of last year’s models. Let’s just say it didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the scheme of things, but I’ve had these issues before with CR.

Take, for example, the Galaxy S8 versus the iPhone 8. The former is rated 81, the latter is rated 80. So despite the implications of the article from that South Korean publication, the scores are extraordinary close. A minor issue here, another minor issue there, and the results might have been reversed.

But what is it that makes the Samsung ever-so-slightly superior to the iPhone? Unfortunately, the two reviews aren’t altogether clear on that score. So on the basis of 11 performance categories in which the two phones are rated, the iPhone 8 has six excellent ratings, four very goods, and one good. So in theory the Samsung should have scored better in these categories. However, it has four excellent and seven very goods.

From my point of view, the Apple ought to rate better. More excellent ratings, right? But there is a Good rating for battery life, whereas the Samsung rates as Excellent. Evidently that factor must supplant all other considerations and award the Samsung with a higher total. Curiously, the longer battery life of the iPhone 8 Plus evidently didn’t merit a rating higher than Good either.

Just saying.

But there’s more. It turns out that the iPhone is far more resilient to damage than the Galaxy S8. According to CR, the iPhone “survived the water dunk test and our tough 100 drops in the tumbler with just some minor scratches.”

Evidently, being a rugged mobile handset doesn’t count for very much, because the qualitative ratings don’t include that factor. So the Galaxy S8, according to CR, doesn’t fare nearly as well. The report states, “The screen is rather fragile. After 50 rotations in the tumbler, our experts rated it only fair. The display was badly broken and not working. For this phone, a protective case is a must have.”

What does that say to you? It says to me that the Galaxy S8 should have been seriously downgraded because it’s very fragile; users are forced to buy extra protection for normal use and service. Smartphones are routinely dropped or knocked against things.

To me, it’s barely acceptable. To CR, ruggedness doesn’t matter.

Nor does the reliability of a smartphone’s biometrics count, evidently. As most of you know, the Galaxy S8 and its big brother, the S8 Plus, have three biometric systems. The fingerprint sensor, located at the rear, is an awkward reach. You are at risk of smudging the camera lenses instead. Both the facial recognition and iris sensors aren’t terribly secure. Both can be defeated by digital photographs.

In short, you have a breakable smartphone with two biometric features of questionable quality being judged superior to another smartphone that’s rugged and has a reliable fingerprint sensor. But maybe it has somewhat shorter battery life than the competition. In other words, CR seems to regard battery life above other important factors, but how ratings are weighted, and why potential breakability is not considered, is just not mentioned.

But since CR buys the products it reviews, the serious flaws in its review methods aren’t important. The media that continues to quote the magazine’s ratings without critical comment aren’t helping to encourage CR to change its ways.

And please don’t get me started about the curious way in which it rates the battery life of notebook computers.

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Gene Steinberg is a guest contributor to GCN news. His views and opinions, if expressed, are his own. Gene hosts The Tech Night Owl LIVE - broadcast on Saturday from 9:00pm - Midnight (CST), and The Paracast - broadcast on Sunday from 3:00am - 6:00am (CST). Both shows nationally syndicated through GCNlive. Gene’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc. -- Copyright © 1999-2017. Click here to subscribe to Tech Night Owl Newsletter. This article was originally published at Technightowl.com -- reprinted with permission.

 

Published in News & Information

In the old days of the Mac, back in the 1980s and 1990s, the suggestion that they were immune to computer viruses would have been laughed at. It wasn’t nearly as bad as on the Windows platform, but you definitely needed to run antivirus software.

 

I learned that lesson the hard way in the late 1980s when, as the owner of a brand new Macintosh IIcx, I was in search of software. It wasn’t so easy in those days, as most computer stores had PC applications, MS-DOS aplenty, but if there was anything for the Mac at all, it occupied a single dusty shelf usually located in the rear of the store.

 

Well, one day I visited Egghead Software, a long-departed chain with an outlet in Edison, NJ, and I bought Pyro!, a screensaver from a well-recognized utility publisher of the time, Fifth Generation Systems. After installation, one of my apps, QuarkXPress, reported a corruption problem. Well, I downloaded some antivirus software, shareware, and gave my Mac a scan.

 

Sure enough, that screensaver was infected with a virus; I forget which. It was only a few days since I set up the Mac, and thus I hadn’t really done much real work on it. So I wiped the drive, reinstalled everything — except for that screen saver — and all was well. The antivirus software was known as Virus Detective, long since abandoned by its author.

 

Now I’m not at all sure where in the production or sales chain that utility app got infected. I returned it to the dealer, who gave it a moment’s attention and offered to exchange it or give me my money back. I took the latter route, and decided to take my business elsewhere. No reason to take chances.

 

Around 1990 or so, working at a prepress studio, we were processing client floppies to send output to a high-end phototypesetting machine which produced high resolution film or positives. The shop set up antivirus software on all our Macs, and we often ran into a so-called desktop virus known as WDEF. I joined the rest of the staff in gently explaining to our customers how to protect themselves from these things.

 

I continued to run antivirus software on my Macs until the Mac OS X era arrived in 2001. While it wasn’t advertised as free of malware, it was Unix-based and far more secure. Thus most outbreaks were more about social engineering. So you’d click a link in an email or on a site, or download and install something that contained the payload. If you were careful and avoided such traps, you would be all right.

 

Perhaps the worst outbreak occurred in 2012, involving a Trojan Horse known as Backdoor. Flashback, which infected Java. A lot has changed then, and Apple ended up letting Oracle, Java’s owner, handle the updates. It also meant that I opted to stay away from apps developed in this cross-platform environment wherever I could.

 

But it wasn’t always easy or apparent where I’d run across Java. So, for example, I still use an older version of Adobe Photoshop, version 12.1, part of CS 5.5 from 2011, partly because I’m not inclined to want to subscribe and pay forever to keep the latest versions running.

 

However, as many of you with newly-installed versions of macOS can testify, you also have to locate and install an old Java 6 update for Photoshop to launch. Wasn’t it supposed to be a native Mac app?

 

Well, anyway, I don’t run web apps or services that require Java anymore.

 

While there are occasional Mac malware outbreaks out there, I have yet to see the need to install antivirus software. You see, Apple provides its own level of basic malware protection, regularly updated. That’s one way Flashback was eradicated. Businesses who run both Macs and PCs may install security software on the former. But a main reason is that some Mac antivirus apps will guard against PC viruses too, so it protects you against an accidental cross-platform infection.

 

As a practical matter, a good way to avoid possible malware is to only download and install apps from the Mac App Store or from a recognized third-party publisher’s site. It’s not a good idea to just search at random for something cool, because something cool may contain something that’s not so cool. One app that has garnered plenty of complaints is MacKeeper, which offers to provide a host of cleanup and protection functions. But some feel it may cause more trouble than its worth, and it can be difficult to remove once it installs itself on your Mac.

 

One cleanup app that does do what it claims is Cocktail, which basically puts standard macOS cleanup, maintenance and repair functions in a pretty interface for easy access. It’s one of those added ounces of protection that you may never need, but it’s worth a try if your Mac suddenly seems to run a little too slowly for no discernible reason.

 

Otherwise, always be skeptical about emails claiming to be from a business or financial institution that you may patronize. It’s a common way to fool you into going to a bogus site and giving up your login information. If you get a message that there’s a problem with your account, it doesn’t hurt to just go to the firm’s site and login directly and check out the situation. Scam emails pretending to be from PayPal and large banks are all-too-common.

 

If you are careful about downloading stuff, and you watch out for bogus links in email, you’re likely to reduce or eliminate the need for installing security software. I mean, it probably doesn’t hurt to run one of those apps, except that the ones that offer automatic background scanning may also slow down your system or cause some instability. The Mac App Store has some free or low-cost antivirus apps that will do on-demand scanning, meaning you run them when you want, and otherwise they don’t do anything to impact performance.

 

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Gene Steinberg is a guest contributor to GCN news. His views and opinions, if expressed, are his own. Gene hosts The Tech Night Owl LIVE - broadcast on Saturday from 9:00pm - Midnight (CST), and The Paracast - broadcast on Sunday from 3:00am - 6:00am (CST). Both shows nationally syndicated through GCNlive. Gene’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc. -- Copyright © 1999-2017. Click here to subscribe to Tech Night Owl Newsletter. This article was originally published at Technightowl.com -- reprinted with permission.

 

Published in News & Information

So let’s put this all together now: Apple allegedly sells higher-priced gear than the competition, yet puts significant restrictions on the use of these devices. You have to accept Apple’s ecosystem — make that walled garden — in order to buy Apple.

 

It may, to some degree, be akin to joining a cult where the leaders, managed by CEO (High Priest) Tim Cook, tell you what to do, what to buy, and what to install on your devices. Well, that’s the impression some might want to convey, but it makes a lot more sense to parse these claims and see if there is any factual basis to them.

 

Of course, on the surface, they do seem a bit much. But it’s worth putting the claims through a fact-check process anyway.

 

So the first complaint is about the price, that Apple deliberately charges high prices to gouge customers. They should be charging less, and in fact competing with mainstream gear.

 

Now obviously, Apple has the right to charge what it wants. It’s up to customers to decide if the prices are fair. If not, there are other choices. What’s more, Apple does cut prices from time to time. A key example is the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display. Prices dropped until they were the same as the older models with regular displays.

 

For months we heard endless complaints about the thousand dollar price for what became the iPhone X. But it was then known as the iPhone 8 until, of course, the iPhone 7s became the iPhone 8.

 

Take a deep breath please!

 

The price was real, well $999 for the 64GB version is close enough. But since the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 doesn’t cost a whole lot less, well $70 less, the argument that Apple is price gouging seems a tad lame. Sure, it’s more expensive than the Samsung, but the difference is very small if you up for one of those 24-month lease/purchase deals, less than $3 per month.

 

Is the iPhone X worth a little more money? That’s up to prospective customers to decide. If not, Apple might eventually cut the prices. That’s what was done with the original iPhone in 2007.

 

Apple is also attacked for alleged high prices on product upgrades. You want to buy a MacBook upgraded to 16GB RAM, it’s $200 extra. There’s no choice, since RAM is soldered to the motherboard. On the other hand, when you compare the cost of RAM and storage upgrades at Apple with similar upgrades on gear from mainstream PC makers, such as Dell and HP, you’ll find the prices are in roughly in the same league.

 

The real complaint is that Apple only produces a few models where you can upgrade RAM yourself. Technically you can upgrade the storage on an iMac, but you really don’t want to make the attempt. And then there’s the Mac Pro, and the promise of a modular version, easy to upgrade, perhaps by next year.

What about being forced to tolerate Apple’s ecosystem?

 

Well, having products that integrate with one another, and allow you to switch from one to the other and continue your work ought to be a good thing. Similar apps and similar services mean that you can work more efficiently. No other platform can match it! Microsoft tried, but Windows Phone crashed and burned.

 

Isn’t reasonably smooth product integration supposed to be a good thing?

 

Now the walled garden means that you are limited to the App Store on all Apple gear except for the Mac. It means Apple curates the apps, and you may run up against some limits in what you can get. I have complained, for example, about not having the equivalent of Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack on an iPad. It’s an app that lets you capture audio from multiple sources and save them as a single audio file. It’s essential for my radio shows.

 

Since Apple clearly wants to make iPads more useful as productive tools, and the enhanced multitasking of iOS 11 demonstrates that commitment, perhaps some of the limits for app developers will be removed going forward.

 

But limiting you to one official app resource provides a much higher level of security, and at least a basic assurance that the app will run. There are few guarantees on the Android platform with Google Play. To use an outside app source on an iOS device, it has to be jailbroken, which creates serious security vulnerabilities. Android users can sideload apps from other sources if they want.

 

So Apple’s policy probably makes more sense for most people even if some of us chafe at a few restrictions.

 

On the Mac, nothing stops you from running the apps you want, good or bad. The Mac App Store is but one resource. And you can easily run Windows with Boot Camp, and loads of different operating systems via virtual machines. All official, all supported.

 

In that sense, the Mac is far more flexible than a Windows PC. While you can hack some PCs to run the macOS, it comes with lots of babysitting to induce even simple functions to work on a Hackintosh, such as messaging. Some things never quite work without jumping through hoops.

 

The long and short of it is that users of Apple gear have lots of freedom to do what they want, the way they want. I’ve only occasionally run across restrictions in doing what I want on the Apple mobile gadgets I’ve owned, and since Apple has expanded opportunities for iOS developers, some of those restrictions may eventually go away.

 

If Apple’s pricing and ecosystem are too stifling for you, rather than complain about the company’s well-known and highly successful policies, nothing stops you from buying something else. Apple obviously cannot tell you how to spend your money.

 

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Gene Steinberg is a guest contributor to GCN news. His views and opinions, if expressed, are his own. Gene hosts The Tech Night Owl LIVE - broadcast on Saturday from 9:00pm - Midnight (CST), and The Paracast - broadcast on Sunday from 3:00am - 6:00am (CST). Both shows nationally syndicated through GCNlive. Gene’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc. -- Copyright © 1999-2017. Click here to subscribe to Tech Night Owl Newsletter. This article was originally published at Technightowl.com -- reprinted with permission. 

 

 

Published in News & Information

If you have more than one wireless phone line, switching to another carrier isn’t necessarily easy, but I can only give you my personal experience in considering the possibilities.

 

So I desperately want to cut the price, but I need lots of bandwidth and solid coverage wherever I travel. One of the people on my current plan, with AT&T, lives in a rural area of Arizona were reception is just terrible. But he tells me that, based on the experience of a friend, T-Mobile ought to deliver better service in his area.

 

I’ve looked at the coverage maps, and it does appear that T-Mobile is second to Verizon Wireless in that region. But as many of you know, coverage maps are at best an approximation of the quality of service you’ll actually receive. You may not know the truth until you make the switch. But even if you get a great deal, and T-Mobile even offers to pay off your current handset purchase plan to get your business, there’s no guarantee service quality will suit your needs.

 

But after you’ve switched to the new carrier, transferred the phone numbers and maybe traded in your old equipment, what if you realize you made a mistake? Carriers will usually allow you to cancel your service if you’re not satisfied. T-Mobile’s offer is 20 calendar days after you receive your equipment.

 

Does this mean you get the gear you traded in back? Can you then return to your old carrier, move the numbers back, and go about your business as if nothing happened? I can’t see how this is going to be an easy process unless you own all your equipment outright and can go where you want, assuming the carrier’s network is compatible. They don’t make it easy, so assume that switching is going to be a one-way street without being forced to jump some large hoops.

 

In any case, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented outspoken commentator Peter Cohen, who, in response to Gene’s search for a better deal with a wireless carrier, talked about T-Mobile, its advantages and limitations. He mentioned the Band 71 issue, the new 600 MHz spectrum that T-Mobile is rolling out to some parts of the U.S., and the fact that flagship gear from Apple, Samsung and other companies are not yet compatible. The discussion moved to the new Apple TV, the issue of cable/satellite cord cutting, and the dangers of fragmentation, where there are so many services vying for your subscriptions that it may become must too expensive to watch all the new shows that require separate memberships. What about the new iPhones, and especially the iPhone X with Face ID for logging in rather than Touch ID? What about macOS High Sierra, which is officially released on September 25th, the day this article posts. Does the lack of support, at least for now, for all those Macs with hybrid Fusion drives cause any problems?

 

You also heard from columnist Joe Wilcox, who writes for BetaNews. He explained why he recently switched from T-Mobile to Verizon Wireless, mostly to improve coverage, but is now considering a return to the former. The discussion covered the ongoing dilemma of choosing the right carrier. And what about published reports that T-Mobile and Sprint, the two smaller major carriers in the U.S., might be ready to ink a deal and merge? It’s not the first time this move has been rumored. Gene and Joe also talked about the new productivity features in iOS 11, and whether they might impact the use of the iPad as a productivity tool. There was also a brief discussion of macOS High Sierra before the conversation moved to the Apple Watch Series 3, which comes in a version with LTE so you can use it to make phone calls without connecting it to an iPhone. Does this huge step now liberate the Apple Watch so it can do most things all by itself? Does the future take us away from a big smartphone to a tiny smartwatch?

 

On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and guest co-host J. Randall Murphy submit themselves to questions about UFOs and their background in the field of Ufology from Paracast listener Louis Sheehan. Gene talks about his history as a UFO researcher and writer, and about a series of recurring nightmares during a period when he constantly smelled the odor of burnt sulphur, both of which may have significance as paranormal events. Gene also discusses at length his favorite episodes of The Paracast and debates, with Randall, the original and current meaning of the acronym “UFO,” and why Gene is not necessarily a believer in the most popular theory, that the flying saucers are spaceships from other planets. As Gene often states, would we even recognize the product of a highly advanced spacefaring technology?

 

MOVIE RENTALS, 4K UPGRADES AND OTHER NONSENSE

 

The entertainment industry has given us one thing, and sort of taken away something else, and it all begins with the fifth generation Apple TV, which adds 4K and HDR as its main new features.

 

So as the new set-top box shipped, Apple announced an important change to the iTunes movie rental policy in the U.S. So up till now, you had 30 days to start watching the movie. So far so good, but once you began, it would self destruct in 24 hours. If you weren’t finished, that’s too bad; just rent it again.

That was not a policy set by Apple to inconvenience their customers. It was clearly enforced by a greedy and paranoid movie industry that didn’t recognize reality. There may be many reasons why someone can’t finish a movie. Whether a family matter or something else interrupts the process, it doesn’t matter. Did the industry really believe that people will happily rent a movie a second time without protest?

 

Well, the policy has changed. It’s now a slightly more reasonable 48 hours. It’s probably enough for most people, but it still fails to respect the customer. After all, you could rent a physical movie from a video store — when there were video stores — and hang onto them for a few days before you had to return them without the late fees. The original Netflix DVD rental model allowed you to keep one movie until you wanted another, in which case you sent the one you had back, and another was shipped in its place. What you paid per month depended on how many DVDs you wanted at one time.

 

Yes, Netflix still allows you to rent physical movies, although that service has become a much smaller part of its business. These days, it’s pretty much all about streaming, and what you pay depends on whether you want standard definition, high definition or even 4K, assuming your ISP gives you the speeds you require for the latter, usually estimated at 25 megabits or more.

 

Now when it comes to 4K, Apple has begun to offer a wider range of content in the higher resolution format. At the same time, they have imposed a significant limitation on your freedom to enjoy the movies you’ve bought or rented.

On the positive side, 4K movies cost the same to buy or rent as HD, except, evidently, for Disney which does not, at least so far, support the new policy. Your existing movies can be updated to 4K without cost, when the improved versions are available. So far so good.

 

But in a support document, Apple says you can only download the HD version; 4K content must be streamed from Apple’s servers. There is no way to store them on your local device. What this means is that you are basically stuck if you don’t have a fast enough broadband connection, experience a temporary outage, or you’re in danger of hitting your ISP’s data cap.

 

Now it could be that Apple doesn’t want to overextend its servers for the time being, just playing a 4K movie will have less impact than downloading the entire thing along with all the iTunes extras. Maybe. At least until you want to watch it again.

 

Or perhaps, in exchange for the free 4K upgrades and the standardized pricing, the industry forced them to impose that restriction. But Apple won’t necessarily tell us, though I suppose some journalists might ask. It may well be that it’s the entertainment industry once again that wants to inconvenience us in exchange for handing us a benefit.

 

I cannot see where potential piracy might enter the picture. If someone wants to pirate a movie, it will hardly go through traditional channels. Such content ends up on torrent sites and other sources of illegal content.

 

Besides, I do believe most people are happy to pay a fair price for a product or service, and don’t have the time or inclination to want to search for a freebie. Remember, too, that illegal content is a known source of malware.

 

Again, I would hope the inability to download 4K movies from Apple is only temporary, and that when things settle down, you’ll have the freedom to do what you want within the usual license constraints. Or maybe it’s better to just pay a little more and buy a physical Ultra HD Blu-ray version. I see that, except for special discounts for older Blu-ray content, the 4K versions at Amazon generally carry a $5 price premium. But you don’t have to worry about streaming.

 

Well, you do need a player, of course, and there aren’t many of those to be had, and they are generally available at much higher prices than regular Blu-ray. And you have to watch out for the 4K upscaling players that only support HD content. They don’t play native 4K. So you’ll want to check the fine print and confirm the specs.

 

So if you have a bright, beautiful 4K set in your living room or bedroom, expect to pay and pay again to enjoy that content. Even then, unless the display is large enough, and particularly if it has HDR support, you may not even see much of a difference over “old fashioned” 1080p.

 

Oh and by the way, the Night Owl is making arrangements with manufacturers to review some 4K hardware. I’ll have more to say on that score in the very near future.

 

Peace,

 

Gene Steinberg

 

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Gene Steinberg is a guest contributor to GCN news. His views and opinions, if expressed, are his own. Gene hosts The Tech Night Owl LIVE - broadcast on Saturday from 9:00pm - Midnight (CST), and The Paracast - broadcast on Sunday from 3:00am - 6:00am (CST). Both shows nationally syndicated through GCNlive. Gene’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc. -- Copyright © 1999-2017. Click here to subscribe to Tech Night Owl Newsletter. The full text of newsletter #930 is reprinted here with permission.

 

Published in News & Information