Over the years, some tech pundits have decided that Apple really needs to drop the Mac. To them, it has outlived its usefulness and, besides, far more money is made from selling iPhones.
But it’s a good source of hit bait to claim that “Mac users don’t really matter to Apple.”
Indeed, Apple has, at times, made it seem as if that claim was accurate. The Mac mini has not been refreshed since 2014. After releasing a total redesign for the Mac Pro in late 2013, Apple appeared to drop the ball and mostly abandoned that model.
When a new MacBook Pro was launched in late 2016, some thought the claim that it was a professional notebook was a huge exaggeration. It was thinner, in the spirit of recent Apple gear, but the highly touted Touch Bar, powered by an ARM system-on-a-chip, was thought to be fluff and not much else.
Apple also got dinged for things it had never done, such as supplying a model with 32GB of RAM. But that would have required using a different memory controller that might have impacted performance and battery life. In comparison, most PC notebooks were also limited to 16GB. A future Intel CPU update will offer an integrated memory controller that doubles memory capacity.
Just after Christmas, a Consumer Reports review failed to recommend the 2016 MacBook Pro supposedly due to inconsistent battery life. After Apple got involved, it turned out that CR’s peculiar testing scheme, which involves disabling the browser cache, triggered a rare bug. After Apple fixed it, a retest earned the MacBook Pro an unqualified recommendation.
Was all this proof that Apple just didn’t care about Macs?
Well, it’s a sure thing the Touch Bar wasn’t cheap to develop, and embedding an ARM chip in a Mac is definitely innovative. But Apple’s priorities appeared to have gone askew, as the company admitted during a small press roundtable in early 2017.
The executive team made apologies for taking the Mac Pro in the wrong direction, and promised that a new model with modular capabilities was under development, but it wouldn’t ship right away. There would, however, be a new version of the iMac with professional capabilities. VP Philip Schiller spoke briefly about loving the Mac mini, but quickly changed the subject.
Before the 2017 WWDC, I thought that Apple would merely offer more professional parts for customized 27-inch 5K iMacs. But such components as Intel Xeon-W CPUs and ECC memory would exceed that model’s resource threshold. So Apple extensively redesigned the cooling system to support workstation-grade parts.
The 2017 iMac Pro costs $4,999 and up, the most expensive, and most powerful, iMac ever. You can only upgrade RAM, but it’s a dealer only installation since it requires taking the unit completely apart, unlike the regular large iMac, where memory upgrades are a snap.
Apple promised that a new Mac Pro, which would meet the requirements of pros who want a box that’s easy to configure and upgrade, would appear in 2019, so maybe it’ll be demonstrated at a fall event where new Macs are expected.
But Apple surely wouldn’t have made the commitment to expensive Macs if it didn’t take the platform — and Mac users — seriously. The iMac Pro itself represents a significant development in all-in-one personal computers.
Don’t forget that the Mac, while dwarfed by the iPhone, still represents a major business for Apple. Mac market share is at its highest levels in years in a declining PC market, serving tens of millions of loyal users. When you want to develop an app for iOS, tvOS or watchOS, it has to be done on a Mac. That isn’t going to change. In addition, Apple is porting several iOS apps for macOS Mojave, and developers will have the tools to do the same next year.
According to software head Craig Federighi, iOS and macOS won’t merge and the Mac will not support touchscreens.
Sure, the Mac may play second fiddle to the iPhone, but that doesn’t diminish the company’s commitment to the platform. But it’s still easy for fear-mongering tech pundits to say otherwise, perhaps indirectly suggesting you shouldn’t buy a Mac because it will never be upgraded, or that upgrades will be half-hearted.
Perhaps there’s an ulterior motive behind some of those complaints; they are designed to discourage people from buying Macs and pushing them towards the latest PC boxes that, by and large, look the same as the previous PC boxes with some upgraded parts.
But since Intel has run late with recent CPU upgrades, Apple has often been forced to wait for the right components before refreshing Macs. That doesn’t excuse the way the Mac mini and the MacBook Air have been ignored, but I’ll cut Apple some slack with the Mac Pro, since a major update has been promised for next year.
Now this doesn’t mean the Mac isn’t going to undergo major changes in the coming years. Maybe Apple is becoming disgusted with Intel’s growing problems in upgrading its CPUs, and will move to ARM. Maybe not. But that’s then, this is now.
A few years back, I embarked on upgrade mission, to swap out the slow hard drive on my 2009 27-inch iMac and replace it with a nice and speedy SSD. With the cooperation of Larry O’Connor of Other World Computing, I got ahold of a 1TB drive and an upgrade kit, consisting of a few tools and suction caps. The latter was used to pry the display from the chassis.
Once the glass is extracted it’s supposed to be placed on a soft surface — I put it on a bed — the rest of the job largely involved carefully unhooking several thin wiring harnesses, easily damaged, and the drive. The manufacturer provides an adapter cable to make the new drive compatible with the iMac.
All told, it took about an hour to get through the process and reassemble the computer. O’Connor’s company offers installation videos on his site to simplify the process.
The reason I bring this up is the result of the first interview on this episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, where we were joined by tech columnist Rob Pegoraro, who writes for USA Today, Yahoo Finance, Wirecutter and other publications. At the beginning of this segment, Rob explained that he took apart his vintage 27-inch iMac, from 2009, in order to replace the drive with an SSD from Other Word Computing. Gene shared his experiences in upgrading a similar computer several years ago. In later iMacs, it’s held together with an adhesive strip, making the disassembly and reassembly process far more complicated. There was also a discussion about Siri’s voice recognition problems, and a recent report that someone’s Amazon Echo Dot, featuring Alexa, recorded a personal conversation and sent the file to a contact in another city.
Can we trust these digital assistants to respect our privacy? Rob also talked about a meeting with security experts discussing changes and possible improvements in online security over the past 20 years.
The Amazon scandal is also discussed in the next article.
After the interview with Rob was recorded, I contacted two local authorized third-party Apple repair shops as to whether they’d be able to upgrade the drive on a more recent 27-inch iMac and how much it would cost. The process involves removing the adhesive that holds the display to the chassis. It’s not something I’d care to tackle.
Well, the first dealer gave a flat no, saying that even trying would damage the computer. That didn’t sound right to me, since Apple uses a similar process to upgrade memory on the iMac Pro. It can’t be upgraded as simply as the regular large iMac, which has a RAM cover at the bottom. Maybe that particular dealer didn’t want to bother or had a bad experience or two.
A second dealer gave me a detailed quote that included labor, two adapters from Other World Computing, plus backup and restore. It came to $457.93!
When I looked at the numbers, though, it sort of made sense, since they charge $200 for a full backup and restore, $19.99 for the replacement adhesive strip, and $79.99 for the needed OWC and Newer adaptors. The actual labor comes to $150. OWC sells SSDs with the proper adaptors and the customer can always restore the data themselves, so the price could be as “low” as $169.99.
In a special encore presentation, you heard a vintage segment featuring Ben Williams of Adblock Plus. Ad blocking has experienced a lot of activity over the past year, especially since Google entered the fray with its ad filter for Chrome. There are still battles between publishers and ad blockers, and payment systems to publishers from users are being talked about with more frequency. Gene and Ben also engaged in an extended discussion about the value of online advertising, and the long history of making it as offensive as possible. There was also a fun pop culture discussion, about ads that build branding images based on using a well-known personality, such as Oscar winning actor J.K. Simmons, known for Farmers Insurance commercials and loads of movies and TV shows, including the recent comic book film, “Justice League,” where he played Commissioner Gordon. You also learned how ad blockers can be configured to allow ads that have been approved by Adblock Plus.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and guest cohost Goggs Mackay present Dr. Jack Hunter, an anthropologist and author of “Engaging the Anomalous: Collected Essays on Anthropology, the Paranormal, Mediumship, and Extraordinary Experience.” In this book, Dr. Hunter poses serious questions about consciousness, experience, spirits, mediumship, psi, the nature of reality, and how best to investigate and understand them.
In this discussion, Dr. Hunter will present stories of personal experiences, encounters with mediums, and float a wide variety of suggestions as to how various paranormal phenomena might somehow be connected, and that includes the UFO mystery. Dr. Hunter is the founder and editor of a free online journal, Paranthropology.
SSSSHHHH: ALEXA IS LISTENING
Let me start with the Siri follies.
With growing concern that Apple’s Siri digital assistant isn’t capable of matching the competition from Amazon and Google, there are rumors that the next WWDC will feature news of a major refresh. Last year, Apple touted that Siri would receive a new voice and machine learning, but it’s not at all certain there has been much change beyond a smoother conversational tone.
A recent published report featured expressions of sour grapes from former Siri employees who worked at Apple, plus a claim that it worked fine when reporters tested it before it went public. But after it was launched, beginning with the iPhone 4s in 2011, Siri’s bugs were legion. Maybe it just couldn’t cope with massed requests under load.
The Night Owl’s personal experiences are hit or miss. Despite the fact that I have 25 years experience as a broadcaster, and a decade of voice training, Siri is sometimes deaf to me. A simple example is the request for Maps to navigate me to the location of the nearest Walmart. There happen to be several, a few miles apart, but Siri will only produce a list, and rarely does that list display the location I seek. I find it easier to search in Google and manually pick the store to which I want to travel.
But that process hardly makes it hands free. I have to stop somewhere first to make my selection. So I tend to focus on setting alarms or reminders, where Siri is mostly correct.
One excuse given for Siri’s subpar performance is that Apple doesn’t want to infringe on your privacy, so it doesn’t actively collect information about you that is pushed and stored beyond the device itself. The theory goes that, if access to your device and requests were more open, since Siri resides online, you’d achieve more accurate results to more complicated requests.
That takes us to one of the “superior” digital assistants, Alexa, which is featured on the Amazon Echo smart speakers. Indeed, Alexa and the Google Assistant are supposed to represent the cutting edge of voice recognition and response technology.
Apple is often urged to maybe relent on online privacy and deliver a smarter and more dependable Siri. But maybe that’s not the right idea after all.
So there’s a published report of the results of an overeager Alexa, which confirmed the worst fears about such digital voice assistants. The act of recording someone’s private conversation and emailing it to someone, even from their contact lists, is the worst definition of eavesdropping. I suspect intelligence agencies might be salivating over the ease with which this stunt can be pulled off.
As you might expect, the family contacted Amazon “multiple times,” according to a published report, and conversed with one of the Alexa engineers, who looked into the matter to figure out what went wrong. In the end, the existence of a bug was confirmed.
According to Amazon’s statement, “Amazon takes privacy very seriously. We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future.”
Well, you can hardly expect them to say anything else.
Now I want to be fair to Amazon, and perhaps it was just a glitch as they claimed, one that they will or have already fixed. But how often has this happened, and had there not been publicity about this particular episode, would anything have been done other than perhaps make some excuses to the victims?
To be blunt: Amazon does a fine job delivering merchandise at affordable prices, but its customer service, largely outsourced, is not easy to deal with. Whether a chat or a phone call, you often have to explain and re-explain the problem several times for the basics to be understood.
That doesn’t mean Amazon is being careless about Alexa and how it works as the frontend to a smart speaker. Again, I am not suggesting this mishap was anything more than a rare system glitch of some sort.
One article I read on Alexa’s inadvertent attempt at spying tried to connect it to Apple and the HomePod, and whether it, too, might accidentally record someone’s personal conversation and email it to someone. But that’s not the province of Apple’s smart speaker; we benefit from the fact that it was not designed to record your random conversations in the course of isolating a request.
Maybe you’d rather not have HomePod laden with too many features after all, however useful it might seem to some users.
Regular readers know that I’ve spent an awful lot of time correcting fake news about Apple. Is it because I’m an Apple fanboy? No, it’s more about my obsessive nature. Without claiming that I’m in any way perfect, I dislike reading false information about anyone or anything. I’m very much in favor of reporting the news as accurately as possible and correcting mistakes when it’s necessary, even very slight ones.
In a sense, then, these columns are very much works in process. When the story changes, or I discover a typo, I update. It’s one of the good things about the Internet, but it also makes it easier to post falsehoods without much in the way of consequences. It’s just more clutter, and there’s so much of that you can barely keep up.
Now maybe there is hope. Last week’s revelation that the iPhone X, even through the March quarter, was Apple’s best selling smartphone and, in fact, the best-selling smartphone on planet Earth, would surely have convinced the naysayers that they were wrong all along about sales collapsing. Or maybe not. The nonsense about supposed negative supply chain data pointing to poor sales of Apple gear has long ago been disproven.
But some people never learn, or maybe there’s an advantage in saying bad things about Apple, even though a lot of those statements are outright lies.
In any case, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented commentator Josh Centers, Managing Editor for TidBITS, and author of “Take Control of Apple TV” and other titles, who focused a main part of his conversation with Gene on Apple’s record earnings for the March 2018 quarter. Despite all the unfounded rumors of poor iPhone X sales, which hurt the company’s stock price for several weeks, Apple reported that its flagship smartphone was its top-selling gadget for every week it was on sale — and thus the top-selling mobile handset on the planet. You also heard about Apple’s decision to discontinue AirPort Wi-Fi routers, why it may have occurred, and possible alternatives. And what about the announcement that, once again, T-Mobile and Sprint are attempting a merger. Will the attempt succeed this time with a different administration in Washington? Will customers receive better service, and how will prices be impacted? What about the fate of employees of both companies, and merging two incompatible cellular networks. Josh also explained why, for now, he’s basically stuck with Verizon Wireless in the rural area in which he lives.
You also heard from outspoken columnist Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer, who explained why false rumors about alleged poor iPhone X sales got his dander up. Gene and Bryan talked at length about such fake stories, and how Apple actually fared during the March quarter compared to last year. There were also discussions about the proposed T-Mobile/Sprint merger, and how the plan differs from AT&T’s plans to join forces with Time Warner. Will the political winds in Washington force AT&T to ditch CNN to get the merger approved by the Department of Justice? There was also a discussion about the news that Twitter has asked its entire membership to change their passwords because of a purported error in storing them internally in plan text. Twitter claimed outsiders were not impacted, but that didn’t stop Gene from immediately changing his password.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and guest co-host Michael Allen present a return visit by researcher MJ Banias, a blogger who critically and philosophically examines the weird, the strange and the anomalous. During this episode, MJ will discuss the latest episode of the “MUFON Follies,” a new documentary about the Flatwoods Monster, a creature seen in West Virginia in 1952, and even how he accidentally got involved in debates over the Billy Meier contacts. And what about the alleged alien agenda? MJ was a former field investigator with MUFON, has been featured on multiple podcasts and radio shows, and contributes to Mysterious Universeand RoguePlanet. His work has been included in FATEMagazine, and in a collection of UFO-related essays entitled UFOs: Reframing the Debate.
I REMEMBER THE iMAC
In 1998, the typical Mac was a large beige desktop, or a black PowerBook. Simple, conservative, powerful. In those days the PowerPC roasted Intel Pentiums for lunch. It took years for the PowerPC’s reign as the fastest PC processor to end.
In May of that year, Steve Jobs announced a revolution in personal computing — with an emphasis on simple Internet access — the iMac. It didn’t ship until August of that year, but I already had one in my home. As a member of Apple’s Customer Quality Feedback program, I was beta testing the original Bondi Blue iMac. It would go on sale for $1,299, but my Apple contact told me I could keep it if it survived a final firmware update.
I wasn’t surprised to see it didn’t, and thus I sent it back for, they told me, proper disposal. But armed with that experience, and with Apple’s approval, I wrote an article about iMac for a Phoenix newspaper, which included an interview with none other than Jonathan Ive.
In retrospect, the iMac was a revolution, setting the stage for future Macs, but to me it was just a low-end consumer all-in-one computer. It took a while to see the method in Apple’s madness. To me it didn’t provide the higher end features I needed for my work.
As a practical matter, though, its 233 MHz PowerPC G3 was as powerful as the one offered in the most expensive Power Macintosh minitower the previous year, although many of its parts came from the PowerBook. Just after Apple finally got the RAM upgrade process simplified for Macs, doing it on an iMac required pulling out the internal chassis. Not hard, but an awkward process.
But this wasn’t about easy upgrades. It was about having a computer that you could connect to a power outlet and a phone jack, turn it on and log in. Suddenly, online access was easy. I was an old hand at getting online, so it wasn’t so big a deal for me, but I can see where millions of potential customers would find it a revelation. To me, however, the iMac was almost an alien visitor. There was no LocalTalk port, no SCSI port, no floppy drive. But the addition of a USB port — an Intel invention in fact — paved the way for the future.
It didn’t take long for peripheral makers to go USB. The 1.0 version made for slow hard drives, but you didn’t have to mess with SCSI chains, incompatible devices, and terminators. Printers, scanners and other accessories worked just fine, and you can’t imagine how this simplified the connection process.
PC makers didn’t understand when it was time to give up on old technology, and thus the boxes had lots of legacy ports, and you had to juggle with cables, driver incompatibilities and so forth. An iMac? It just worked, but it was still just a low-end computer that would be fine for online access and word processing. You couldn’t imagine working with Photoshop or playing games on it, though the former would run all right enough despite the poky internal drive.
Over the next 20 years, you would see evidence that Apple had a long-range plan. The iMac went through several design generations before it became what was essentially a monitor with a rear-end that became fat in the center.
The 27-inch iMac, in 2009, was a powerhouse. For most tasks, performance was on a par with the hefty cheese grater Mac Pro, and only fell behind with apps that worked best with a least 8 cores inside. Graphics performance was decent, and the large display was awesome for its time.
It was enough to convince me to sell a slightly older Mac Pro and a large Dell display. I was able to sell the system to a friend, and use the money for a brand new fully-outfitted iMac and a backup drive, and still have a few hundred dollars left to pay some bills.
By 2014, an iMac arrived with the PC industry’s best display — ever — with a resolution of 5K. It allowed you to edit a 4K movie in Final Cut Pro, with enough space left on the screen for the menus. While the first model cost a few hundred dollars more than an iMac with the regular display, it wasn’t long before Apple found ways to build those marvelous 5K displays cheaper, with color improvements. Thus all 27-inch iMacs received 5K displays, with no increase in price.
The PC world was left hanging. Go online and find a 5K standalone display, other than the one LG built with Apple’s assistance. Now find one that’s actually affordable, and seek a PC with the graphics power to drive one without fiddling with multiple cables.
In 2017 released a high-end iMac, the Pro, with a rejiggered cooling system capable of supporting an Intel Xeon processor with up to 18 cores plus EEG memory. The prices started at just below $5,000 and soared into the five figures. Finding a PC with comparable specs wouldn’t save you any money, and configuring one with a 5K display, other than the one from LG, turns it into an even more expensive proposition.
From its humble beginnings in 1998 as a simple consumer-level all-in-one computer to the most powerful Mac on the planet — at least until the next Mac Pro arrives — has to be an amazing achievement. The iMac Pro is designed to handle high-end scientific tasks, movie special effects rendering, and other tasks that are required of the most powerful PC workstations.
But there’s still a cheap iMac available. You can buy a 21.5-inch model, with standard definition display, for $1,099. One with a 4K display is just $200 more, the same price as the iMac of 20 years ago. But if you count for 20 years of inflation, the $1,299 you paid for the Bondi Blue iMac in 1998 would be worth $1,984.29 today.
Even if I could afford the 2019 Mac Pro when it arrives, the iMac remains my computer of choice. Well, until it’s replaced by something cheaper and better.
Some feel that Apple should be doing more, producing a greater variety of products. After all, a company of its size ought to be able to deliver a far wider catalog of tech gear. To some it may be seriously underperforming based on its huge potential.
Take the expected decision, as announced last week, to discontinue AirPort routers. After all, Apple was a pioneer in that business, so why should it abandon it? One key reason may be that there is no longer a place for Apple’s entry into this market. If sales were good and profits were high, AirPort would surely have had further updates after the last one, in 2013. It was no doubt strictly a business decision.
Compare that to the Apple LaserWriter, one of the original products that heralded the desktop publishing revolution. Equipped with Adobe PostScript, a LaserWriter was a mainstay for businesses, an expensive mainstay.
By 1997, when the LaserWriter was killed by Steve Jobs, it was hardly a unique product. There were plenty of equivalent printers available, all compatible with Macs, and Apple needed to ditch underperforming gear. So the LaserWriter joined the Newton and other products in being discontinued.
In any case, on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented outspoken commentator Jeff Gamet, Managing Editor for The Mac Observer, who briefly talked about the Slenderman urban legend, which was featured on our other radio show, The Paracast, before jumping full tilt into technology. There was a detailed discussion about Apple’s decision to discontinue AirPort routers, and why, after pioneering that business, it decided to give it all up. What about reports that the HomePod smart speaker system isn’t selling so well? What about a thought piece. so to speak, in Macworld about products Apple ought to give up? Gene and Jeff pointed out that one of the items on the list, the Mac mini, continues to get the love from Apple with positive statements from such executives as Tim Cook and Philip Schiller. The state of iTunes for Mac and Windows was discussed, plus the possibility that Apple might move the Mac platform to its customized ARM-based processors, or is there yet another option?
In a special encore presentation, you also heard from columnist Rob Pegoraro, who writes for USA Today, Yahoo Finance, Wirecutter and other publications. He discussed in detail his trip to Cape Canaveral to witness the launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, the most powerful rocket ship the company has developed so far. Rob also explained what happened when he got lost. He briefly talked about his expectations for Apple’s smart speaker, the HomePod before discussing unexpected privacy issues involving an activity-tracking social network known as Strava, and the downsides of publicly revealing the location of its users, especially if that location is a secret U.S. military base. The privacy of connected cars was also discussed, particularly concerns about all that driving data a car collects, which can be used by insurance company, with a plugin receiver, to track your driving record. Gene and Rob also discussed whether car makers should make it easy for you to erase your data when you trade in the vehicle or it’s totaled.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene is joined by guest cohost Michael Allen in welcoming prolific paranormal author Nick Redfern back to The Paracast. Nick discusses the book, The Slenderman Mysteries: An Internet Urban Legend Comes to Life.Is it possible to invent a myth online, and have it emerge with frightening reality? Indeed, The Slenderman may be a tulpa, a thought-form that can stride out of our darkest imaginations and into reality if enough people believe in it. Nick Redfern is the author of 40 books, including Immortality of the Gods, Weapons of the Gods, Bloodline of the Gods, Monster Files, Memoirs of a Monster Hunter, The Real Men in Black, The NASA Conspiracies, Keep Out!, The Pyramids and the Pentagon, Contactees, The World’s Weirdest Places, For Nobody’s Eyes Only, and Close Encounters of the Fatal Kind.
WHAT IF A THIRD PARTY INK CARTRIDGE DAMAGES YOUR PRINTER?
It’s well-known that printer makers earn most of their profits from the consumables, not the purchase of the original product. Indeed, during a normal lifecycle, you’ll pay the hardware’s price over and over again to keep it going. But there have been efforts to reduce the cost of consumables, such as Epson’s Eco-Tank printers, although your upfront price is far higher in exchange for cheaper ink.
Some suggest that printer ink can cost more than an ounce of gold, but that might be pushing it. But consider just one example of overpriced ink. So the usual going rate for an OEM, or factory-built ink cartridge for a printer may be over $30, if you buy the “extra capacity” version. For my all-in-one, Epson’s Workforce WF-3640 printer, which has been out of production for a while, the 252XL cartridge is $34.99 at most mainstream dealers, such as Staples. Add a similar amount for each of the remaining three colors.
Now most of my printing is handled by a cheap Brother laser. From the day that the original factory toner cartridge was spent, I bought remanufactured cartridges. I am guided by the combination of high ratings and a low price at Amazon in choosing what to buy. Of late, I’ve used the INK4WORK brand, which costs $14.98 for its replacement for Brother’s TN-850 High Yield Toner Cartridge. Brother’s version is $106.99 after discount.
You can see where I’m going.
Well, print quality is almost identical to the OEM version, except for a slight streak every so often. There is no evidence whatever that the printer has suffered any, so I’m happy to continue to use it.
However, I didn’t do near as well with the WF-3640. I only print color occasionally. The cost of color is not worth it, but the original high-capacity black cartridge finally ran out. I found an LD Products replacement for $9.99 and bought one last week.
I didn’t expect trouble, since LD is supposed to be a pretty reliable brand. But sometimes reality doesn’t match one’s expectations.
In doing some online research, I ran across this comment in a Consumer Reports article on using third-party printer cartridges. I should have paid closer attention to this phrase: “some aftermarket inks worked initially but quickly clogged printer heads.”
So after I installed the black cartridge replacement from LD Products, the printer went through its long setup cycle before outputting the first page. I printed a web page consisting mostly of text with a single color illustration, but I didn’t expect what emerged from the printer’s output tray.
While the color print was mostly good, the black text was inconsistent, barely readable with lots of faded copy.
Before printing another document, I ran a test print to check the condition of the print heads. While three of the four colors were fine, the black parallel lines on the page had huge gaps in them.
I ran the printer’s head cleaning function, which uses quite a bit of ink during the cycle. After one cleaning cycle, the black lines weren’t so bad, but there were still gaps in them. The other colors remained solid, so I concentrated on the black only option as I ran the printer through another four cycles, running a test print between each. There was no further improvement.
Now one serious downside of using a remanufactured or third-party cartridge is that the manufacturer might void your warranty and/or refuse to repair a damaged unit if there’s evidence you used something other than OEM ink. I didn’t take this seriously before, because the only problems I’ve seen over the years with other inkjets were inconsistent print quality, If I went back to OEM, it was just fine.
I contacted Epson via online chat to see if they had any advice to clear the print heads, aside from taking the unit in for repair. Since the warranty had expired, getting free service would have been out of the question in any case.
The tech took me through the standard process of multiple cleaning operations, and removing and replacing the cartridge. There was no further improvement, so I was advised to take the printer to an authorized repair center to address what they concluded was a hardware-related problem. The print head assembly is not user replaceable as it is on other inkjets.
While there are third-party products that promise to clear clogged print heads on an Epson printer, they are not guaranteed to work. One product sold by Amazon had this cautionary note, “Printer cleaning is successful 95% of the time, but does require a supply of fresh ink and carries a small risk of damage to the printer.”
If it doesn’t work, you’ll get a refund, with no guarantee of repair or replacement of a broken printer.
So before considering whether to invest money I didn’t have in fixing an older printer, I contacted Amazon, whose only solution was to either replace the cartridge or give me a refund. I choose the latter, but opted to contact LD Products anyway in the hope that they might offer something more substantial because of what happened to my printer.
I didn’t mention that Amazon refunded my money; it was about their solution. The best they’d offer was to send a replacement cartridge, and I’ll grant the one I bought might be defective. I asked the tech what they’d do in the event the replacement doesn’t help, and the solution was to send another cartridge.
When I asked whether they’d pay for repair or replacement, I was informed that, if the repair shop agreed that the printer was probably damaged by the cartridge, they’d agree to pay part — but not all — of the repair cost.
Depending on how much the repair costs, it might be worth it. But how do you prove any specific ink cartridge damaged the printer, other than to leave it in the unit to demonstrate it had been used? Even then, the causal factor can only be inferred.
As I wait for the replacement cartridge to arrive, I’m frankly disappointed at the turn of events. Switching to OEM is a non-starter even if the printer is ultimately repaired. Amazon’s price for the set of four Epson 252XL high capacity cartridges is $140, with an estimated yield of 1,100 copies. Compare that to what I get from that remanufactured Brother laser toner cartridge, between 4,000 and 5,000 copies from an investment of just $14.98.
Has Facebook gotten out of control? After listening to Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testify before a committee of the U.S. Congress last week, I didn’t pity him at all. He deserved it, and, in fact, probably was treated too kindly.
His presentation seemed decent in comparison to those dire warnings about the boy wonder and his inability to conduct himself in a mature fashion in public. He allegedly was thoroughly schooled on the proper behavior before political vultures, supposedly.
I mean he did all right, I guess. But far too often he’d respond to a complicated question with a stock answer, that he’d have his team get back in touch with the questioner. I just wonder if that has happened already or ever will happen. The fact checkers also found some contradictions in what he said about when and how Facebook first became aware of the existence of Cambridge Analytica, which reportedly harvested user information without their knowledge.
In any case, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented security expert Chris Weber, co-founder of Casaba Security, a Seattle-based ethical hacking firm that advises major tech, financial, retail and healthcare companies. They also work with companies to develop secure apps and software. He is the co–author of the book, “Privacy Defended: Protecting Yourself Online.” During this session, Chris discussed the growing brouhaha over Facebook privacy, and the kind of information they’ve collected about their users. Its unexpected involvement with the 2016 Presidential campaign was also covered, and what about the appearance of Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg before Congress? You also heard Chris talk in general about protecting your privacy, and making it harder for hackers to take control of your accounts by using strong passwords and two-step authentication, which involves adding a second method, often a smartphone, to provide extra security from hackers.
You also heard from long-time Apple guru and prolific author Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, as Gene recounted yet another annoying episode of his ongoing troubles with AT&T when he tried to check into a cheap offer for DirecTV. Gene explained why he’s kept AT&T service for his iPhone even though there are other and possibly better alternatives. Bob says he switched from AT&T to T-Mobile. There’s also a brief discussion of “world backup day,” as Gene facetiously suggested that maybe the show ought to go back in time to honor the event in the proper fashion.
And what about published reports that future versions of macOS and iOS might allow you to run the same apps on both? And what about recent speculation that Apple will someday ditch Intel processors on Macs and make yet another processor move, to the same A-series ARM chips used on iPhones and iPads? Is this a reasonable possibility, or would the fact that many Mac users need to run Windows at native speeds make such a move unfeasible?
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and special guest cohost Don Ecker introduce UFO researchers Ben Moss and Tony Angiola, from MUFON Virginia. The two focus on their four-year study of the 1964 Socorro, NM case and their friendship with UFO researcher and amateur paleontologist Ray Stanford. Both Moss and Angiola have been guests on the History Channel’s “Hangar 1” reality show, loosely based on MUFON’s research. While this episode will focus heavily on hardcore research of UFOs and the possibility that they are extraterrestrial, they will admit that, so far, very little progress has been made towards solving the mystery.
WATCHING TV WITHOUT iTUNES AND APPLE TV
Aside from adding 4K and HDR support and a few odds and ends, the Apple TV 4K didn’t change much from its predecessor. Well, except for those complaints about the fact that the 32GB model is, at $179, $30 more expensive than the already-expensive fourth-generation model. That doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense inasmuch as the 64GB version is unchanged at $199.
Evidently Apple’s bean counters have an answer for this screwy move, but it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. It’s not that the Apple TV 4K does so much more than the Roku Ultra, which can be had for as little as $69.99 from Amazon.
Well, there is the fact that Apple TV of any sort is required if you are invested in Apple’s ecosystem for iTunes video content and hope to watch the forthcoming TV shows that will probably come to you via Apple Music.
I do have a handful of iTunes movies that I have acquired over the years, mostly when they were dirt cheap. But there’s also a service called Movies Anywhere that can concatenate your videos from several services into one readily accessible library.
When VIZIO sent me a 2017 M-Series TV display for review last year, I was able to take advantage of the fact that it included support for Google Chromecast. The remote has dedicated buttons for such services as Netflix and VUDU; the latter is roughly an iTunes equivalent from Walmart mainly focused on movies.
In addition to the built-in streaming apps, a SmartCast app for iOS and Android lets you “cast” or stream a thousand or two more services via your Wi-Fi connection to the TV. With all that going on, I realized I hadn’t used my third-generation Apple TV since December. After moving to a new apartment last week, I unpacked all the TV accessories, and promptly put the Apple TV on one of the bookshelves in my office.
As most of you know, VIZIO is not the only company to make smart TVs with support for third-party streaming services. Since the ones the TV makers design are usually pretty bad, buying a dedicated set-top box to handle those tasks makes sense. But some TV makers have opted to deliver built-in support for Google or Roku. Apple doesn’t embed its hardware and software into third-party products, but maybe it should if it wants to spread the joy. Think about CarPlay.
As it stands, if you’re not embedded in Apple’s ecosystem, Apple TV offers little if any advantage.
So how is life with one less appliance connected to my TV?
Well, as I said, Netflix is a dedicated button on the VIZIO remote. When you press it, you get a very standard menu that isn’t that different from the one on an Apple TV. I had no difficulty whatever playing the shows I wanted to see, even the ones that were started on Apple’s streamer. I was able to just resume playback. Indeed, while deciding whether to set up a DirecTV at my new home — the only option available because the place is wired by CenturyLink and they embed the satellite provider with dishes installed on each building — Barbara and I mostly ran Netflix. Maybe we’ll stay that way and save some bucks.
But I found a bargain rental at VUDU and ordered it. Walmart’s order processing is a tad more complicated than iTunes. It’s set to bill via my Walmart account, where my payment option is stored. When you order a movie rental from iTunes, the transaction occurs in the background unless there’s a problem with your payment method. So, yes, you are charged, but you don’t see a receipt until it arrives via email.
Not so with VUDU, where you are taken to an online order form where you are shown what you’re ordered and the price with tax. You have to physically OK that order for it to work. When you want to resume playing your movie, you have to select it again from the VUDU home page to continue watching. You are stepped out of the listing for that movie, unlike iTunes where you just pick up where you left off.
All right, a couple of more steps for ordering and resuming playback, but otherwise I had no difficulty in managing the interface. This sort of represents an Apple approach versus a Microsoft approach; the latter usually involves extra steps to accomplish the same task.
But since movie rentals are a rare thing for me — and usually only when there’s a special offer — a few more clicks on a remote is not going to represent a problem.
So what is going to become of Apple TV anyway?
Well, a company executive announced recently that full-featured games are being brought to the iOS platform because the power of Apple’s new graphics processors, and Metal 2, make it possible to bring you the entire experience at a performance level similar to a console. I suppose it’s possible that Apple TV could be upgraded to provide similar levels of performance. When equipped with a gaming controller, it would provide an experience that would freak the console industry. It might also offer additional sales potential.
On the other hand, since I’m not a gamer, it doesn’t really matter to me. I still don’t need an
Apple TV — or a HomePod if you care.
So I’ve decided to send my Apple TV on to someone who might need it.
If you watch any number of TV dramas, no doubt you’ve run across so-called police procedural shows, such as “Law and Order: SVU.” From time to time, an episode will feature a computer expert or hacker who is talking about the “Dark Web” or “darknet.” It’s very much the equivalent of the Internet’s underworld, where all sorts of unsavory types usually hang out. There are criminals there who offer all sorts of illegal services that you’ve also no doubt heard about on those TV shows.
Well, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured Jarrod Suffecool, Intelligence Team Lead for Binary Defense, who took us on a fascinating journey through the Dark Web (darknet). You learned about the unsavory activities that include “crime-as-a-service” — professional hacking kits and criminal services (created or offered by skilled hackers) that anyone can buy or rent online, and they’re often very inexpensive. This makes it easier for less skilled criminals to pull off sophisticated attacks and scams, and we’ll see a lot of this with tax fraud rings over the next two months. You also learned about Tor, the browser used to access Dark Web. Binary Defense Systems specializes in monitoring and infiltrating criminal marketplaces on the Dark Web to protect businesses and uncover evidence of crimes.
Now it’s easy enough to download and set up Tor, and I expect the curious would want to check about what’s going on in darknet. But it’s also easy to get yourself in trouble if you don’t watch what you’re doing when exploring a dangerous neighborhood. It’s not meant as a place to have fun, unless it’s a very unusual sort of fun. I’ve checked it out from time to time, but I usually stay away.
You also heard from author/publisher Joe Kissell, of Take Control Books. Joe talked about some of the troubling problems he’s encountered with macOS High Sierra, and about the decline in the quality of Apple’s operating systems. What about reports that Apple is cutting back on planned features for iOS 12 to emphasize reliability? Also discussed: The apparent failure of Apple’s “underpromise and overdeliver” policy by postponing features in new products that aren’t ready for prime time, including the delays in expanding support for the APFS file system to Fusion drives and Time Machine. What about the complexities and reliability problems of iCloud, which is a cornerstone of Apple’s services? Joe mentioned that he’s had to backup and restore his new Mac after owning it for less than a month, and Gene talked about the very worst Mac he ever owned, one that required constant repairs from Apple in the short time he owned it.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Best-selling author Erich von Däniken and UFO researcher and biblical scholar David Halperin debate the theory of ancient astronauts, that advanced beings from other planets visited Earth in ancient times. David also continues with discussions about his very different views of UFO reality, and the causes behind related events. von Däniken is arguably the most widely read and most-copied nonfiction author in the world. He published his first (and best-known) book, Chariots of the Gods, in 1968. In the 1960s, David Halperin was a teenage UFOlogist. He grew up to become a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with special expertise in religious traditions of heavenly ascent and otherworldly journeys. He is the author of five books and numerous articles on Jewish mysticism and messianism, and a novel, ‘Journal of a UFO Investigator.”
Will Apple’s Critics Admit They Were Wrong About iPhone X?
When it comes to actual fake news, Apple is often the victim of phony stories about one thing or another. The reasons why are varied. So putting Apple in the headline, good or bad, is certain hit bait. That means more ad clicks, and more money.
But I often wonder whether some of those faux stories aren’t fueled by Apple’s competitors. Certainly they have motives, because Apple earns the lion’s share of profits in the smartphone business, lots more than even Samsung. Apple pretty much owns the smartwatch market with Apple Watch, and the iPad, with sales on the rise again, dominates tablets. You get the picture.
Obviously, there’s no clear evidence if another company is instigating those unfavorable comments or the alleged bad news that’s based on lies. But I can see where some carefully selected bloggers and so-called industry analysts might be encouraged to post reports that are deliberately manipulated to make Apple look bad. I wouldn’t suggest any transfer of money or goods is ever involved.
Consider what’s been going on since the summer of 2016. Even as speculation built over that year’s new iPhones, there were expectations of a far better 10th anniversary version. It made sense from a logical point of view, that Apple would want to create a premium model, maybe even limited production, which would observe the occasion. Perhaps new technologies would be featured, but what?
Now the early speculation may not have been fueled by any real information, but was mostly based on good guesses. Apple doesn’t always adopt new features first, so just what is missing?
OLED displays of course. Unlike LCD, OLED is more similar to plasma, once fairly common on TV sets. You get a rich picture, with deep blacks and a virtually unlimited viewing angle. The comparison is obvious. Take a regular iPhone — other than the iPhone X of course — and turn it to the side slowly and you’ll see the picture dim, with colors becoming more muted. It’s a phenomenon typical of a regular TV set except, of course, for those with OLED displays.
Why Apple avoided OLED before this may be due to getting more accurate color and reducing the burn-in problem, where remnants of constant images stick on the display. That was also true of plasma. Regardless, it seemed to make perfect sense that Apple would go there.
Understand that the presence of such a model was used as ammunition to claim you shouldn’t buy the 2016 iPhone family, the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus. After all, they represented modest improvements over the previous two models, so why bother? What for the “real” update?
As 2016 turned into 2017. the speculation of the 10th anniversary iPhone coalesced, though it was at first referred to mostly as the iPhone 8. OLED was a given, but since Samsung couldn’t embed a fingerprint sensor beneath the edge-to-edge display on the Galaxy S8 family, it was assumed that Apple would confront the same problem.
The speculation first had it that Apple would put Touch ID in the rear, same as Samsung. It was also suggested by some that there would be no Touch ID or any biometric, which was, at every level, a preposterous concept. Such a feature was a must-have for many functions. Apple wouldn’t casually drop it without something better, which is why facial recognition came into the picture. But development was reportedly begun long ago; it was not tossed in as a last-minute replacement.
At this point, the complaints had it that Apple couldn’t come up with anything altogether new, since other smartphones had both facial biometrics and OLED. So how does Apple make a difference?
But remember that Apple often innovates by devising ways to improve on existing technology with its unique flair.
Yet another potential complaint had it that Apple planned to gouge customers with a $1,000 price tag, which would make the presumed iPhone 8 a non-starter. It was the height of hubris to expect customers to pay even more for a premium iPhone. This speculation continued unabated even when the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 debuted at $949. That disconnect was never explained.
But even when the iPhone 8 became the iPhone X, and the real iPhone 8 ended up as a more modest refresh of the previous model, the complaints never stopped. Face ID would present privacy problems, even though it used the same secure enclave scheme as Touch ID. When it was actually shown for the first time, it turned out that the “notch,” the narrow area at the top of the unit that contained the embedded sensing technology, dubbed TrueDepth, blocked out a small portion of the edge-to-edge display. Developers had to work around it for the best presentation of their apps.
When Apple began to take orders for the iPhone X at the end of October of last year, the backorder situation rapidly worsened. As the critics claimed, it soon lengthened to five to six weeks, implying that getting one before Christmas would be hit or miss.
As is often the case with Apple, the facts kept getting in the way. For the most part, Face ID turned out to be as reliable or more reliable than Touch ID. Not perfect, but almost seamless for many users who no longer had to reach for a Home button. Indeed, there was no Home button, meaning you had to learn a few new gestures to get around, but most people appeared to adapt to them without much complaint.
In short order, Apple began to match supplies with demand, and the situation improved really fast. So if you had to get an iPhone X immediately or with a short delay, it became more and more possible.
Why? Well, instead of assuming that Apple was simply competent in managing the supply chain, it was all about a presumed lack of demand. Soon it was rumored that Apple cut parts orders big time for this quarter, thus indicating that sales were far lower than expected.
In the days ahead of the release of Apple’s December quarter financials, the stock price began to drop. Apple allegedly placed a huge bet on the iPhone X, and it lost.
Again, the facts get in the way. Once it began to ship, the iPhone X became the number of smartphone on the planet. The iPhone 8 Plus, also fairly expensive, starting at $799, was number two, and the “lesser” iPhone 8 was number three. For the quarter, Apple’s smartphone lineup beat every other mobile handset maker in total sales, even Samsung, which sells loads of product at a fraction of the price.
That average sale prices exceeded $700 confirmed the product mix, that people bought higher quantities of the larger, more expensive iPhones.
Despite all this success, Apple still sold slightly fewer units during the quarter compared to the previous year. But was due to an accident of the calendar. So in 2016, the holiday quarter lasted 14 weeks; this year it was 13 weeks. But weekly sales totals were much higher in 2017. Apple’s revenue and profits hit record levels once again.
Apple’s guidance for this quarter reveals a healthy increase over last year, although, at $60 to $62 billon, it’s still below exaggerated analyst expectations. Indeed, Apple expects iPhone revenue to grow by double digits compared to last year. That’s supposed to be good news, better news than one has a right to expect from a product entering its second decade in a saturated market.
Overall, Apple has once again demonstrated that the critics were utterly wrong about the iPhone X and the company overall. Don’t expect any retractions or apologies, though. That’s not how things work when it comes to fake news about Apple.
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 9:00 pm - 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 © 1999-2018. Click here to subscribe to Tech Night Owl Newsletter. This article was originally published at Technightowl.com -- reprinted with permission.
Anytime there’s a scandal, it becomes a “gate,” reminiscent of Watergate, the hotel/condominium complex in Washington, D.C. where the 1972 break-in of Democratic headquarters led to a President’s resignation. My most important memory of the period was spending the night there once, in my uncle’s home, about a week before the dastardly deed was done.
Apple has had a few scandals, though whether or not they were serious is debatable. I don’t recall having any problems with the iPhone 4, although it did lose reception if you held it in a way that covered the external antenna system. Still, “Antenngate” brought enough bad publicity to force Apple to give away free iPhone bumper cases for a while; that move overcame the problem.
The bending issue with the iPhone 6 Plus evidently was first spotted when the unit was placed in the rear pocket of someone’s tight pair of jeans. Call it “Bendgate,” and while Apple and others, even Consumer Reports magazine, claimed that the product was acceptably resistant against such damage, Apple shored up the structure for the iPhone 6s Plus.
Now we have what I call “Throttlegate,” the practice if capping performance on recent iPhones when the battery is determined to have seriously deteriorated. Apple defends the move as preventing a potential shutdown when these units are under heavy load, but maybe they should have been more proactive to explain to customers what was going on. So far, at least three class action lawsuits have been filed, and while claims that Apple throttles performance to fool you into buying a new model don’t pass muster, the failure to provide at least a warning message may be enough to force Apple to settle these cases.
Typical of such legal filings, lawyers will earn millions. Complainants will end up getting discount coupons for their next Apple purchase.
Now on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured outspoken commentator/podcaster Kirk McElhearn. Front and center was the ruckus over reports that Apple was deliberately throttling performance of older iPhones. Kirk gave you his unvarnished opinion of the practice; does Apple deserve to lose those cases? The discussion also focused on Apple in 2017, and the costly iMac Pro all-in-one computer, which is now shipping.
You also heard from tech publisher/editor Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer, who also offered his opinion on Apple’s actions over what Gene calls “Throttlegate.” Gene and Bryan also talked about the value of Apple TV. In offering a brief report on the VIZIO M-Series TV he’s reviewing (see the next article), which comes with Google Chromecast built in, Gene wondered about the future prospects for Apple’s streamer. In pop culture mode, the duo talked about Apple’s reported billion dollar move into TV production, which includes a new sci-fi show produced by Ronald D. Moore, of Battlestar Galactica fame. And does Tom Cruise really do most or all of those death-defying stunts in his movies?
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Rosemary Ellen Guiley & Michael Brein, co-authors of The Road to Strange: Travel Tales of the Paranormal and Beyond. This collection of 44 true stories tells of travelers around the world who are suddenly faced with ghosts, paranormal phenomena, unusual synchronicities, time slips, magic, visions, past-life connections, premonitions, mystical experiences, mysterious figures, and more. Rosemary, a perennial favorite guest, needs no introduction. Michael is a seasoned traveler and travel writer who has written over a dozen travel guides for those heading out around the world to exotic locals and also has published the Travel Tales Monthly since 2012.
FIRST LOOK: 2017 VIZIO SMARTCAST M-SERIES DISPLAY
I’ve been previewing this column for a while, ever since I worked out a deal where VIZIO provided the set in exchange for my agreeing to review it. But they put no restrictions on how I should rate the product, so I’m free to do what I’ve done for the past 25 years, which is to give my unvarnished opinion about a tech gadget.
This time I ran into a couple of obstacles. Since it was just months after I sustained some back injuries in an accident that took out my car, I asked a neighbor to help me do the heavy lifting, removing my 2012 55-inch VIZIO E-Series and replacing it with the comparably sized 2017 SmartCast M-Series Display.
Not that these sets are heavy. The new VIZIO weighs around 36 pounds with the metal feet installed. The other set weighs maybe 10 pounds more. Carrying either wouldn’t normally present a problem, but lifting it onto the stand required some help.
The old set has a single base in its center. The new set has two legs at the edges of the unit. But my existing TV stand measures just 41 inches wide, while the new VIZIO’s feet are 43 inches apart. I had hoped to use it with a ZVOX Audio Z-Base 580 soundbase, but it’s just 36 inches wide.
Both had to go. Fortunately, I was able to acquire a suitable TV stand, an AVF measuring just shy of 50 inches wide, at a huge discount from a store that was just two days from shutting down for good. VIZIO recommended their highly-rated SB3621n-E8 36″ 2.1 Channel Soundbar, which comes with a wireless subwoofer. Despite selling for $149 or less, this product has received five stars from CNET for delivering surprisingly robust audio quality. The TV lists for $699, but you can probably find a discount if you look real hard.
For a 4K set with HDR, that’s fairly cheap, but VIZIO doesn’t cheap out on performance. The specs specify 32 local dimming zones, built-in Google Chromecast, 4 HDMI ports, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and an eight-core CPU to process the picture.
So where does VIZIO scrimp to keep the price reasonably affordable?
Well, there’s no built-in tuner; that’s why it’s referred to as a “display” and not a TV set. I suppose VIZIO theorizes that most people are going to use a cable or satellite connection if they aren’t relying on the unit’s smart features, or an external streamer, such as an Apple TV 4K or a Roku. If you need to receive over-the-air stations, you can find a suitable tuner at Amazon for $30 or so. No big loss.
Unlike the 2016 models, VIZIO isn’t providing an Android tablet. Instead, you can use your own iOS or Android device and set up the TV with VIZIO’s SmartCast app.
Instead, I opted to use the supplied remote and install the app later. Other than streaming content, I ran the TV with a Cox cable remote, which can be configured to call up the essential functions of the TV and the soundbar.
Typical of VIZIO gear, the mounting of the ports require you to insert the plugs vertically, rather than horizontally. For the most part, I got it to work without much trouble, except for some difficulty in connecting the optical cable from the soundbar, which required a little trial and error.
Once you turn on the unit for the first time, you’re taken through a setup assistant that allows you to configure basic settings, and connect to your Wi-Fi network. Here I ran into a glitch, where one character in my password would always echo back as the upper case equivalent rather than the correct lower case. I managed to induce it to work by essentially backspacing and reentering the character. After that, the connection was pretty quick.
The onscreen menus are fairly simple to understand and navigate, though you might want to download the full user manual if you plan to manage more than the basic settings; the unit comes with a printed “quick start” guide. The assistant also has several legal proclamations that you are asked to accept. The one that you can refuse is the statement that VIZIO will collect your viewing data. This is something other TV makers do, but VIZIO got attacked for the practice several years ago. Since you’re entering Google’s ecosystem if you plan to use the Chromecast features, it’s something you should expect.
After the setup process was done, I had to wait another 10 minutes or so for the unit to update the firmware and software.
There are several picture presets. At first, I opted to follow the manufacturer’s recommendation to use Calibrated, which “allows your Display to deliver the most accurate picture quality for most environments.” Later on, I also turned on the Auto Brightness feature, to accommodate the fact that we watch TV in our master bedroom with lights on and lights off. When the lights are off, the only lighting comes from the foyer and the bathroom, so it’s fairly dim. The automatic setting, which has three brightness options, is meant to accommodate such situations.
For a brief time I experimented with another setting recommended by some reviewers, Calibrated Dark. But as the label indicates, it’s useful if you mostly watch your TV in dark surroundings, so even with a higher backlight setting, with Auto Brightness enabled, I ultimately returned to Calibrated.
I have no doubt that professional calibration will improve the already excellent picture even further, but most people who buy TVs make do with the existing settings. Most never change the defaults. So I wanted to focus this review on how regular people will use a TV such as this, which means sticking with the presets.
I’ll be spending the next few weeks putting the set through its paces with a variety of program material. During the first few days, I concentrated on cable fare, and some 4K content from Amazon and Netflix, such as “The Man in the High Castle” and “Stranger Things.”
While TV makers are selling loads of 4K gear, there’s a dearth of compatible content. Cable and satellite companies have made few moves to change that state of affairs, so most of the programming you’ll watch will be scaled up from lower resolutions, and here’s where some TVs fall down on the job. Fortunately, the VIZIO does a creditable job in upscaling, as regular HD shows were clearly sharper, with richer colors. Genuine 4K fare, especially with HDR support, was even sharper and the colors popped.
To really see 4K in all its glory, you need a set with a large enough picture, unless you sit real close. Since our master bedroom is relatively small, a 55-inch display is quite enough to see the resolution advantage.
Even with HD shows, the M-Series is a revelation. On the old set, blacks were usually dark gray. Here even the labels on the set-top box’s TV guide were deep black. The wider contrast ratio was obvious. Indeed, the deep blacks reminded me of my old Panasonic plasma; well, except for the fact that any LCD LED set, such as the VIZIO, will present a more limited viewing angle.
But what about the audio?
Well, it’s passable. You don’t expect much in a TV at this price range. Audio was clean enough, but there wasn’t a whole lot of bass, which is to be expected. Here the SB3621n-E8 made a huge difference.
Setting up the soundbar was mostly plug-and-play, but the subwoofer needed some extra adjustment. Since the walls in this apartment are notorious for producing sympathetic vibrations when bass is cranked up too high, and I didn’t want to annoy the neighbors, I placed the subwoofer next to the front of the stand. At its default setting, there was plenty of thump with content that provided a decent amount of bass; maybe too much thump. In another room, I could hear and feel the thumping through the wall, similar to the effect of being near a car where the subwoofers are running in overdrive.
A properly adjusted subwoofer should enhance the sound, not overwhelm it, so I had to back off on its level with the supplied remote until I reached the sweet spot. Typical of two-channel soundbars, there’s a faux surround sound feature, in this case DTS TruSurround, which expands the width of the soundstage beyond the unit’s 36 inches. It’s not the real thing, but a decent simulation. A crisp midrange means that dialogue is especially clean. I noticed that I could play it at a lower volume than the ZVOX, which will no doubt please the neighbors.
In this household, the family’s TV is a constant presence, so I’ll know soon enough how well the VIZIO works with a variety of program material. As it stands, I’m extremely pleased that I took on this review, despite having to replace the TV stand and audio system. When it comes to a TV’s picture, I’m obsessive about quality, and this system, so far at least, deserves my highest recommendation.
I’ll have more to say about it in these columns, and on my radio show, in the coming days. In the meantime, another neighbor has offered to take my old set, the stand and the soundbase off my hands for a small sum. I gladly accepted the offer.
This week I heard a surprising announcement from a regular guest on The Tech Night Owl LIVE. So we presented tech commentator Rob Pegoraro, who writes for USA Today, Yahoo Finance, Consumer Reports, Wirecutter and other publications. During this episode, Rob put the FCC’s decision to abandon net neutrality into perspective, and I’ll have more to say about that shortly. The main question, of course, is whether ISPs will begin to prioritize net traffic, or will the possibility of negative publicity and potential lawsuits postpone — or prevent — any changes for the near future? Rob also discussed the end of AIM, and how this pioneer instant messaging app influenced an entire industry? And do we really need lots of messaging apps to stay in touch with our contacts? Gene laughingly referred to Rob as a turncoat as he explained why he, a long time Mac user, recently purchased a PC notebook to replace his aging MacBook Air.
So why did Rob switch?
Well, his response was reasonable. He didn’t want to spend more money for a MacBook Pro, and the recent pathetic upgrade to the MacBook Air didn’t appeal to him. He chose, instead, an HP 2-in-1 notebook. And since, for the most part, he could use the same apps and services on both the macOS and Windows, it wasn’t so big a deal, at least so far. But will he feel the same a few months from now? He laughingly suggested turning it into a Hackintosh, by following the online instructions to induce it to run macOS. But that process may not work on an off-the-shelf PC notebook. Usually, it requires picking and choosing parts tested and found to be compatible, and outfitting a custom-built PC with them.
You also heard from tech journalist Jeff Gamet, Managing Editor for The Mac Observer. As the segment began, Jeff complained that his copy of Skype 7 for the Mac was upgraded to Skype 8 without his approval, and he doesn’t like the all-new interface. In an extended discussion of net neutrality, Gene pointed out that more and more cable companies are embedding Netflix into their set-top boxes, perhaps as a move to help reduce cord cutting. As the pair moved into pop culture mode, Gene mentioned the latest reported move by Apple to add original TV content, with a direct-to-series order for a new sci-fi series from producer Ronald D. Moore, whose previous shows include Battlestar Galactica. Jeff explained in great detail why the fabled Star Wars lightsaber would be impossible to use in a real world setting. Gene suggested that the DC Comics super heroes on TV are better than their movie counterparts. And what about having different actors portray such characters as the Flash and Superman?
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Alejandro Rojas of OpenMinds.tv for a 2017 retrospective and a preview of the 2018 International UFO Congress and Film Festival. Alejandro is the host for Open Minds UFO Radio show, and emcee for IUFOC. He is also a blogger for the Huffington Post. As a UFO/Paranormal researcher and journalist, Alejandro has spent many hours in the field investigating anomalous phenomena up close and personal. Gene and Chris will also talk shop with a focus on UFOs. There will also be a pop culture-related discussion about what both regard as the sad state of pop music.
GETTING IT WRONG ABOUT NET NEUTRALITY
Part and parcel of our polarized society is the feeling that, if we accept the other side’s approach, it may be the end of the world as we know it. They wish us ill, and are doing foolish and/or evil things to take us all down.
Now I’m not going to dwell on my political viewpoints about the crazy things that are going on in Washington, D.C. except for one thing, and that’s the promise — or threat — that net neutrality is ending soon.
As is often true, the facts are more nuanced, and whatever does happen can be overturned by a future FCC, and we start all over again.
So this past week, the Republican majority of the FCC decided to undo a move by its predecessor that, among the things, prevented ISPs from prioritizing Internet traffic. What this meant is that these companies could not demand that a high-traffic service pay extra to enter a fast lane.
Those who opposed net neutrality, including FCC chairman Ajit Pai, claimed that putting restrictions on ISPs would somehow prevent them from improving and expanding their services. Being forced to allow online traffic to flow freely was somehow an impediment to growth.
I’m not sure I see how, or any evidence that this could happen. But it’s unfortunate that the cable TV talking heads who interviewed Pai — or at least the ones I’ve seen — simply allowed him to repeat his unproven talking points without questioning the logic. There was no request for evidence that what he said was true.
Supporters of net neutrality also maintain that it’s not just about getting miserable performance from Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, with constant buffering even on a fast connection. What about the streaming startup, a company that wanted to someday compete with Netflix? If they had to pay extra to achieve good performance, it’s likely that they wouldn’t be able to attract venture capital to cover their costs.
This, too, may be an overwrought conclusion if we assume things will return to the way they were before the concept of net neutrality ever arose.
A key reason for government regulation is not that regulators just need something to do. It’s often in response to a need, to address abuses by private industry. That explains why there are rigid controls covering the approval of a new drug by the FDA in the U.S. It means that pharmaceutical companies have to subject new drugs to a rigid set of tests to make sure they actually perform as advertised without seriously endangering one’s life in the process. Or at least disclose the dire side effects so you know what you’re in for.
Net neutrality was a response to something the ISPs did, which was to slow down such services as Netflix, largely because they sucked up huge quantities of data.
As of now, Netflix consumes nearly 37% of all Internet traffic, and when you add all the streaming services it’s 70%. That also includes such services as YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Dish Network’s Sling TV and DirecTV NOW.
That leaves 30% for the rest of online traffic.
From a business point of view, I suppose it made sense to focus on the worst abusers and see if there’s a way to manage the load without inconveniencing other customers. Back in 2014, there were reports that such ISPs as Comcast and Verizon were putting the brakes on Netflix. In turn, Netflix reportedly paid extra in order to deal with the situation, with reports of mixed success.
During that period, you may have experienced constant buffering from Netflix. Loads of complaints from customers and tech companies helped influence the previous FCC to reclassify an ISP as a Title II communications service, thus preserving net neutrality. Prior attempts were blocked in the courts.
Despite the new regulations, there were recent reports that Verizon, particularly through its high-speed FiOS service, was once again throttling Netflix and even YouTube. So it seems peculiar that the FCC would believe that ending net neutrality was a good idea.
But what’s also happening is even more interesting. It appears that Netflix is taking a “can’t beat them so join them” approach, which is to strike deals with some ISPs, so their app appears as just another premium channel on a cable set-top box, similar to HBO and Showtime. What this means is that the ISP would, in exchange for offering Netflix without speed restrictions, get a piece of the action. By being part of their regular cable service, the load on broadband bandwidth would be sharply reduced.
By including Netflix — and I suppose Hulu and other services can be offered in the same fashion — customers are being offered more attractive cable packages that might help stem the tide of cord cutting.
While an experiment with Netflix and DirecTV appears to have ended, you can get it on at least some cable boxes from Comcast, Cox, Verizon and other services. You’ll have to check with your cable company to see which hardware it’s offered on, and how much it costs.
Now when I checked with the cable company I use, Cox, it appears Netflix is available on their Contour 2 box, but is limited to HD. If you have a 4K TV, you’ll have to still depend on a smart TV or a streamer, such as an Apple TV 4K, and certain models from Roku and other companies. As it stands, the cable and satellite companies are only testing the 4K waters. Higher resolution means there is less space for other channels, so it may be a juggling act until capacity is boosted.
In any event, despite the FCC’s vote, net neutrality isn’t going away tomorrow. There’s a comment period, and the attorneys general of a number of states are planning to file lawsuits. So this matter may not be resolved for months or years, depending on court rulings and potential appeals. I suppose it’s possible that the U.S. Supreme Court will get involved.
After all is said and done, I doubt the ISPs are going to act hastily, knowing the political winds may likely change with the next administration. In the meantime, if more cable and possibly the satellite companies strike deals with Netflix and other services to offer them premium channels, that might sharply reduce the load on their systems.
So they wouldn’t have any motive to throttle anyone’s traffic, and it would also provide an additional revenue stream. Assuming Netflix’s 4K service comes to your cable box, would that influence your decision about cord cutting?
So it’s possible that the ISPs and streaming companies could work out reasonable solutions without harming anyone, assuming the price you pay doesn’t change too much. That said, net neutrality offered more than a few ounces of protection against the worst offenders. The suggestion that it may have stifled innovation is absurd. The move to embed Netflix on cable boxes clearly disproves that claim.
It’s fascinating to see how Apple’s entrance in a product category can change things so drastically. So for the longest period, we heard that smartwatches were the next great thing. There were models from a crowdfunded startup, Pebble, and such entrants as Samsung Galaxy Gear.
As with digital music players, smartphones and tablets, Apple seemed late to the party, very late.
That takes us to this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, featuring J.D. Levite, senior editor of Thrifter.com. Thrifter is a consumer site focused on tracking hot deals on tech and other products, special holiday promotions, etc. This discussion focused on finding the best deals for the holidays, including top grade 4K TVs and the key features that will maximize your enjoyment. Gene and J.D. also discussed the top gaming consoles, media streamers, such as Apple TV and Roku, Bluetooth speakers, and even drones and gear for the connected home. You also heard why Gene remains skeptical about the Internet of Things.
But when it came to smartwatches, J.D. said it was yesterday’s news. Few are really interested in them anymore. When you look at recent sales estimates, however, it appears that such wearables may not have gained much traction, except for one product, the Apple Watch. Despite all the skepticism, Apple claims double-digit sales increases in recent quarters. Industry analysts are reporting that the Apple Watch Series 3 is proving to be more popular than originally expected.
Apple won’t reveal actual sales, except in generalities because the actual results are buried in the Other Products category. Will that ever change? Maybe if the Apple Watch really takes off and hits a critical mass. Maybe never. I do see more and more people wearing them in my travels, however.
In a special encore segment, you also heard from Jeff Gamet, Managing Editor for The Mac Observer. In pop culture mode, Jeff mentioned The Shadow before moving to a pair of Fox TV genre shows, “The Orville,” a sci-fi series reminiscent of Star Trek with comedic elements, and “Gotham,” the Batman prequel. After Jeff admitted he hasn’t kept up on the superhero shows on The CW, he explained how he got up early in the morning to place an order for an iPhone X at AT&T’s site. Although he said he appears to have been successful in placing that order, it appeared there might be glitches in AT&T’s ordering system. After a brief discussion about the iPhone X’s most controversial features, such as the “notch,” the conversation moved to the future of the Mac mini. Just what sort of upgrade is Apple working on? Will it offer more powerful components to make it more suitable for use as a web server or a low-cost workstation? Does the delay in updating a product last refreshed in 2014 mean that Apple is working on a major redesign?
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a special episode featuring a “great debate” on the merits of the extraterrestrial theory for UFOs. It’s the prevailing theory, that we are being visited by beings from other planets. Does that theory hold up, or are there other valid possibilities as the source of the UFOs?What about hidden civilizations on Earth, other dimensions? You’ll hear about the ins and outs of the evidence and the issues that cause some to doubt that ET is here. The possibilities are vigorously debated by four long-time UFO researchers who are regulars in our forums, featuring Thomas R Morrison, Robert Brandstetter (forum name: Burnt State), Jason (forum name: marduk) and Mike Jones (forum name: mike).
APPLE AND HOME AUDIO
Once upon a time, I had a fairly sophisticated stereo sound system, worth well over ten thousand dollars. It consisted of a set of classic flat panel ribbon speakers, the Carver Amazing Platinum, in piano black, and several components bearing the Carver and Sunfire labels. The preamplifier even had tubes in it, so call me retro.
Alas, I sold it all in 2006 when I needed to raise cash. But I had reached the point where I seldom listened to it anyway. I spent more time listening to stuff on my TV set; I had a Bose home theater sound system in those days. True, the audio quality didn’t come close to matching that Carver/Sunfire system, but there was the added benefit of convenience. The main system was placed in the living room, and the family and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time there.
Since the advent of digital audio, and the amazing and unpredictable success of the original Apple iPod, more and more people listen to music on tiny earbuds. Some will spend money on higher quality gear, perhaps a full-sized set of earphones. But for traveling about, convenience rates above audio quality.
Of course, there is always your car’s audio system, and they have become much better in recent years. If you spend a lot of time driving from place to place, you might be pleased at how good they can be. For long trips, pairing it with your iPhone, the ultimate iPod, can give you access to up to millions of songs.
While Apple builds premium gear, it has not established a reputation for creating products with superior audio quality. Even the 2014 purchase of Beats Electronics for $3 billion didn’t convey the impression that Apple cared about high-quality audio. Beats headphones were legendary for bloated bass.
Indeed, the purchase was regarded as controversial. What did Apple stand to gain from buying a maker of overpriced headphones of questionable quality? Well, there was always the streaming services later rebranded as Apple Music.
Did the Beats acquisition result in improved sound quality for Apple gear? Well, I suppose recent iPhones, iPads and Macs can play louder without distortion. But you’d hardly call the audio rich and full. Even Apple’s best selling AirPods aren’t delivering state-of-the-art audio either, although they excel in other categories, such as the tiny size and the seamless integration with the Apple ecosystem.
That takes us to the HomePod, a smart speaker system, powered by Siri, which was supposed to debut this month for $349. It has since been postponed until early in 2018.
Ever since the first rumors about the HomePod appeared, the tech media has been working overtime comparing it to the Amazon Echo, low-priced speakers that use the Alexa personal assistant to accept commands and make it easier to buy stuff from the world’s largest online retailer.
Indeed, there have been privacy concerns that focus on the Echo, and the competing Google Assistant speakers hearing too much and making use of that data to learn which ads to send you.
Apple? Well, isn’t Siri inferior to the other digital assistants because of Apple’s policy of protecting our personal information? Indeed, the updated Siri that debuted in iOS 11, which uses machine learning to improve its ability to understand your commands, was compared unfairly to the competition from Amazon and Google even before it was released.
Despite sales estimates that are far below blowout, the Echo is regarded by the tech media as a huge success and the industry leader. Apple’s HomePod is dismissed as overpriced, even though only a small number of journalists have actually heard them, and then only for a brief period of time.
But what is HomePod anyway? Is it all about home automation, or, perish forbid, listening to music?
Few would argue that the audio quality of even the most expensive Echo is nowhere near state-of-the-art. It’s mostly about the digital assistant and not loudspeakers. True, the second generation Echo has pretensions of improved audio quality, with support for Dolby processing, although the specs don’t say which Dolby format is actually being used. Amazon also claims “crisp vocals and dynamic bass response,” but what level of audio quality can you expect in a gadget that lists for $100?
The specs of the Echo and the Echo Plus, listing for just under $150, mention a single 2.5-inch woofer and a tweeter. Not terribly impressive.
An article from AppleInsider’s Daniel Eran Dilger touts the “real” purpose of the HomePod, that it’s more about paving the way for the next generation of home audio rather than providing just another digital assistant.
According to Daniel, “HomePod uses a 4-inch driver with an incredible 20 mm excursion—possible because of dynamic modeling. This lets it create larger sound with far less distortion than a typical speaker. It also uses six microphones and seven beamforming tweeters to model the size and shape of the room and develop sound tuned specifically for its setting, canceling out echo and beamforming detection of your voice over playing music, all powered by Apple’s custom A8 Application Processor. This isn’t just a Bluetooth speaker with Siri.”
I wouldn’t for a moment expect audio quality to exceed that of those huge Carver Amazings that I used to own. That system offered scintillating highs and thundering bass, but it required loads of power to deliver the goods. But Apple is strongly emphasizing the “amazing” sound of the HomePod in its promotional materials.
The ability of the HomePod to tailor itself to your listening environment is impressive if true. If you recall the placement considerations of traditional loudspeakers, you’ll appreciate not having to waste time finding the ideal positioning for Apple’s forthcoming smart speaker system.
And the digital assistant?
As Daniel suggests, HomePod is very much about home audio. The other features are described in a section entitled, “Listen to what else it can do.” That’s where you learn about the capabilities of its Siri home assistant, and its ability to work with Apple’s HomeKit to manage home automation.
Above all, however, it’s about home audio. Indeed, I would love to see what my old friend, Bob Carver, who designed those Amazing loudspeakers and loads of traditional audio gear, thinks about HomePod.
Indeed, one of Bob’s early inventions, Sonic Holography, a precursor to Dolby surround sound, may well have been an inspiration for the sort of sonic processing that paved the way for the HomePod and other speakers that can tailor themselves to one’s listening environment.
To be sure, I don’t expect HomePod to be capable of replacing my long-departed stereo system. But I’m getting more and more curious about trying them out. Maybe it’s time for me to start putting spare change in a bottle to see how much cash I can raise in the next few months.
You just know that any business wants to reduce its tax burden as much as it can. Without doubt, Apple has a huge number of accountants at its beck and call to find ways to reduce its corporate income tax bills by billions of dollars.
But Apple’s methods of handling its taxes have been the subject of severe criticism, more so with the release of the so-called Paradise Papers, leaked to a German newspaper, which contain documents purportedly revealing how the rich and the famous manage their offshore cash. Apple was included in the list, but it wasn’t the only company whose finances came into question. Other companies reportedly include Facebook, Twitter, Disney, Uber, Nike, Walmart and even McDonalds.
I mean, it’s a huge list. But with Apple in the crosshairs, the company claimed that the data contained in those papers wasn’t accurate or misleading, that it pays more taxes than any company on the planet, and that it “pays every dollar it owes in every country around the world.”
As the U.S. Congress debates revisions to the country’s complex and confusing tax laws, ways might be sought to convince domestic companies with huge offshore cash hoards to repatriate that money. You also expect Apple to deny that it does anything but obey the law, even if it has to be done creatively. But some corporations pay no tax at all, including GE. So the billions Apple remits might indeed be, as they claim, more than the others.
Which brings us to the fact that, a few weekends ago on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured outspoken commentator and podcaster Kirk McElhearn. The main focus was on taxes, and whether Apple is unfairly reducing its corporate tax burden by strategic parking of its huge offshore money hoard. Apple has selected the small island of Jersey in the Channel Islands, which has ties to the UK. Jersey is also the birthplace of actor Henry Cavill, famous for portraying Superman on the big screen.
In a series of statements, Apple claims that it pays billions of dollars in taxes every year, and that it is complying with the law regardless of the skepticism about such practices, but Kirk doesn’t believe it. The discussion shifted from taxes to electric cars, as Kirk explained that he owns a Toyota Yaris Hybrid. Among the models mentioned is the somewhat pricy BMW i3, and the new compact-sized Tesla, the Model 3, which is still confronting problems in ramping up production.
You also heard from prolific author Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, who talked about the ongoing fear-mongering from some members of the media about the iPhone X and its Face ID and other features. Bob explained that, despite the advertised backorder situation, he was able to buy one from his mobile carrier and receive it on the day it was released. But will he keep it? He appeared to be skeptical of its perceived advantages, but will make a decision while he still has time to return it for a refund. He said he is also holding off publishing a review while he considers its value. Bob also discussed the use of iPads in major league baseball, and how it may have helped the Houston Astros win the World Series. He also said that you shouldn’t be in a rush to install a new OS on your Mac, iPhone or iPad, and maybe wait a short while to make sure there aren’t any serious bugs that’ll cause you trouble. You can listen to the entire show here.
That same weekend on our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present MUFON Executive Director Jan C. Harzan. He discussed the state of UFO research, and what the organization has learned in its 48 years of existence; it was founded in 1969 as the Midwest UFO Network. He’ll also discuss concerns about MUFON’s policies and staff shakeups, and about the reasoning behind the controversial 2017 symposium that featured lectures on the alleged U.S. secret space program and some especially outrageous speakers. Harzan is a 37-year veteran at IBM, and holds a B.S. in Nuclear Engineering. He’s been Executive Director of MUFON since 2013. You can listen to the entire show here.
IS APPLE FINALLY GETTING THE LOVE FROM CONSUMER REPORTS?
Consumer Reports magazine claims to be incorruptible because it buys all the products it tests and retail, and won’t allow companies to use its reviews in their advertising. On the surface, it all sounds credible. But I’ve long felt that its test results are often unfairly skewed against Apple. Are corporate politics at play?
Indeed, Apple has had a curious history with CR, and you can decide whether it’s received fair treatment. Consider the iPhone 4, released in 2010. Do you remember AntennaGate? If you held the handset in a certain way, reception quality would nosedive. You could see the signal strength dip precipitously in YouTube videos of the time, and it appeared to be a potential source of trouble.
So Steve Jobs sarcastically remarked that you should hold it differently. That suggestion went over like a lead balloon, so Apple invited the media to a press conference where they actually allowed some of them to tour its multibillion dollar antenna test facility. According to Jobs, other smartphones exhibited similar symptoms when held in certain ways, and Apple posted videos of telling examples, but CR still decided not to recommend the iPhone 4. Other mobile handsets were not similarly downgraded.
Although Jobs claimed the phenomenon was due to the laws of physics, Apple still offered free bumper cases for a time, which certainly eliminated the problem. Next year’s model, the iPhone 4s, in addition to the debut of Siri, sported a redesigned antenna symptom designed to reduce signal loss when you held it the “wrong way.”
The next purported scandal was BendGate. Amid reports that the iPhone 6 Plus might be unduly prone to bending under such conditions as placing it in your back pocket, CR decided to see if Apple did it again. But they didn’t. Tests indicated that its resistance to bending was acceptable and comparable to other mobile gear. But the following year, Apple made moves to strengthen the aluminum case on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus to make it even more difficult to bend one.
That takes us to the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. CR has a peculiar method of testing battery life that involves loading some test sites from a server repeatedly with browser caching off. It’s not that people use browsers that way, except for development purposes.
On the Mac, that involved invoking Safari’s Develop menu, again something few people do in the real world, and deactivating caching. This evidently triggered an obscure macOS Sierra bug that caused repeated loading of web icons. So battery life was inconsistent, and CR said it couldn’t recommend the new MacBook Pros.
In turn, Apple realized it had a problem on its hands and reached out to CR. At the end of the day, a minor OS update fixed the problem, and the MacBook Pro achieved extremely high battery rates as a result even if they were, as I said, entirely unrelated to what normal users would achieve. It was, therefore, now recommended.
In passing, you can no longer disable the cache in Safari for macOS High Serra, although the cache can be emptied.
On the day the iPhone X went on sale, CR placed “secret shoppers” in the lines at Apple Stores to buy a dozen of them. They were quickly added to the test queue.
According to CR: “Based on those early impressions, the new iPhone makes good on Apple’s promise of delivering something bigger and better.”
In a very positive early review, the iPhone X survived drop tests that have caused other gear, including some copies of the Samsung Galaxy S8, to self-destruct. The OLED display was found to deliver superior performance, “with deep blacks and accurate colors.”
Face ID? Evidently CR had few problems with it under normal use. For the most part, it worked as advertised, except for extreme situations where someone pulled a baseball cap down to their eyebrows, caught a look at the iPhone X while it was placed beneath a table, or when glancing at it from the side while driving.
Aside from those edge cases, it did seem that Face ID “rarely stumbled.” CR didn’t mention the twin test, where identical or near-identical twins might fool the device. In other words, it was as close to perfect as one might expect for such a product. After all, Touch ID doesn’t work all the time.
The magazine’s preliminary conclusion? “With its starting price of $999, the iPhone X isn’t a purchase to take lightly. But it’s worth mentioning that the costs of high-end components—such as OLED displays and 4K video cameras—are pushing other phones, such as those made by Apple’s rival Samsung, closer to the $1,000 mark, too.”
It’s refreshing to see a reminder that the iPhone X is not the only expensive smartphone out there. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 costs up to $960, U.S., at some dealers, although there is widespread discounting. On a monthly basis, the price difference between the Note 8 and the iPhone X is may be a dollar or two. Both offer 64GB of storage. True, the iPhone X is much more expensive if you opt for the 256GB model, but Samsung doesn’t offer anything comparable.
But I’m not reading endless blogs that Samsung is gouging its customers by selling gear for only a little less than the iPhone X. Only Apple gets dinged for a pricing decision that probably makes sense to the company’s marketers and bean counters.
Does this mean the iPhone X will be rated above the previous high scorer, Samsung, when the review is complete? In the past, iPhones have scored a tad lower than Samsung’s gear, in part, due to shorter battery life, so I suppose we’ll see.
In the meantime, it’s a promising start, and I’m curious to see where the final rating is set, considering how well it appears to have scored so far. But with CR, there could be a surprise or two that’ll reflect poorly on Apple, or the totals will be weighted questionably to somehow favor Samsung.