Thursday, December 20, 2012

Kindle Fire HD 8.9 Initial Thoughts

I've had my Kindle Fire 8.9 HD for awhile now but haven't commented on it for a couple of reasons. The first is that it arrived between my Acer Chromebook and Nexus 4 and was kind of crowded out. The more important reason though is I haven't been using it much.

That situation has improved recently but I'm still more than a little ambivalent about it. Don't get me wrong, the hardware is nice for the most part with the screen being excellent. The software is an evolutionary step up from my original Kindle Fire but easy enough to navigate and well suited to Amazon's business model of making it easy to buy and consume content from the Amazon store so what's the problem?

I try to be technology agnostic but there are a some things I don't want to do without. At the top of that list is GMail with several other Google. You don't get the Google apps with the Fire even though it is running Android under the Amazon User Interface. Rooting the device is an option but based on my experience with rooting my original Kindle I'd prefer not to go down that path. Things tended to break and apps become unreliable.

Google provides apps for iOS, they need to be in the Amazon app store as well. I've debated recently which company is to blame for the absence though so I won't take any more time on that topic here. Note you will see a picture of the Play store on some of the screen shots. This is a result of a half hearted attempt to work my way around this problem. It exits immediately when launched. :-(

I also purchased the Amazon Kindle HD Case which is kind of expensive but nice. It is included on the images below.

Production values have gone up a bit as I'm now using my Nexus 4 rather than the Palm Pre+ to take pictures.

The placement of the micro USB port is sub optimal when using the optional Kindle Cover

One minor nit with the case is that the back tends to slide when it is used as a stand on smooth surfaces which causes the Fire HD to collapse slowly to the table.

The cover is sturdy and well made. This is the front

As the caption on the first picture above mentions the Kindle Fire is not without design flaws. The placement of the micro USB and HDMI ports is sub optimal when the Fire HD is used with the case. Ideally they should have been put on the opposite side from the volume and resume buttons which are on the right hand side of the picture above.

This is the back of the cover. Note the speaker grills

The case fits the Fire like a glove but is reasonably easy to attach and remove. It's available seven different shades. This is "Ink Blue".

You can see the shiny in the picture above. I only occasionally find it distracting

The screen automatically dims when the case cover is closed and battery life is very good when the Fire HD is in standby mode. Battery life in general seems good as I can go several days of casual use between charging.

Can anyone name the film?

You can pretty much use the Fire HD as a mirror in many  lighting situations. In spite of that the viewing experience is actually  good the majority of the time and when the lighting is dim it looks amazing. To be fair, as you'll see in some of the pictures below it's really no worse than the iPad 2.

Overall performance is excellent with the included apps but I have noticed some sluggishness and lag on apps I've purchased such as "Air Harp" and "Archipelago". I'm inclined to blame this on the apps themselves since most things work fine.

The discounted AT&T 4G LTE plan is a nice first year feature if you purchase the 4G version. It will be interesting to see if it is available after the initial year. It really isn't cheap on a per megabyte basis if you compare it to AT&T's larger data plans so I think there is a decent chance AT&T will extend the offer.

Fire HD Versus iPad 

The iPad is often referred to as a ten inch tablet when in reality the screen size is only 9.7 inches. The Fire HD 8.9 is exactly the same width as the iPad when in the landscape orientation with the difference in screen size between the two devices being explained by their very different aspect ratios.

The Fire HD nearly covers the iPad 2

In the picture above I've placed the Fire HD on top of my iPad 2. You can see that they are much closer in overall size than you might expect given the difference in screen sizes

Detail showing that the width of the screens is pretty much identical as are the Bezels

In fact they are identical width wise both in terms of their overall size and bezel's.

Side by side, notice the restrictiveness of the screens is very similar
The size difference is explained by the 16:9 apsect ratio of the Fire HD 16:9 which leads to a shorter screen than the iPad's which has an aspect ratio of 4:3.

The iPad's retro aspect ratio means you're basically going to have the same experience viewing most movies on either since you'll get large black bands at the top and bottom of the iPad which will not be the case for the Fire HD. The iPad 2 is much lower resolution as well. This isn't an issue with the iPad 3 or 4 as they have approximately the same screen bit density as the Fire HD.


The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is a nice but somewhat flawed experience. 

If you're only interested in consuming stuff from the Amazon ecosystem then chances are you'll be pleased. If you want a full Android tablet experience and you aren't willing to root the Fire HD than the Nexus 10 is a much better bet though you would miss out on instant streaming video if you are an Amazon Prime member.

Overall I'm OK with this purchase but a bit disappointed. I only have myself to blame though as I knew what I was getting into.

I don't mean to imply the Fire HD is bad. It really is a nice piece of hardware and you get a lot for your money. I just don't like having to live without GMail, Google+ and the rest of the Google app suite.
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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nexus 4, Worth It?

A month or so back I was reading about how great the Nexus 4 was and feeling like somebody had punched me in the stomach. I'd planned on being one of the first "in line" but got distracted at work and ended up missing out. When the second batch went on sale I was determined I would emerge victorious. Little did I know how difficult and frustrating the next several hours would be. Everything started out fine. I added one of the 16GB models to my cart and clicked the Proceed link. That is where the first part of this story should have ended. When I clicked the proceed button I was informed my cart was empty. Then I was informed Google was out of stock.

I'll cut this part of the story short and jump ahead three hours when I finally managed the nearly impossible task of getting one into my cart and convincing Google to let me give them my money. I was exhausted, pissed and relieved. After that experience I had very high expectations. 

My previous Android phone was a first generation Droid X. I remember hearing a lot of people question why anyone would want a phone that large. It turns out a lot of people did in fact want a larger phone which lead to the iPhone 5 being about the same size as the Droid X. 

The Nexus 4 is a bit longer and a bit wider than the Droid X, but still very manageable. Here's a picture of the two phones side by side for comparison.

Front: Droid X and Nexus 4

Other than the size the thing that strikes me the most about the Nexus 4 is the lack of ornamentation on the front. This simplicity is in large part due to Google's decision to not sign an exclusive selling agreement with any carrier. Maybe Google also discouraged LG from putting their logo on the front. Honestly I wouldn't have minded a little ornamentation to help visually differentiate the top from the bottom when the phone is in its case because if the notification light isn't flashing it can be difficult.

The back of the Nexus 4 is a lot more interesting with both the Nexus logo and LG making an appearance.

Back: Droid X and Nexus 4

I almost bought the even larger Galaxy Note 2 but changed my mind when Verizon's online ordering system told me I'd lose my unlimited data plan. Worse still it tried to push me towards a 2GB plan for only ten dollars a month less than I'm currently paying. This was enough for me to lose my last bit of loyalty to Verizon.

Pros and Cons

Resolution wise the state of the art in phone cameras hasn't advanced much in the past two and a half years as both the Droid X and the Nexus 4 sport 8 megapixel cameras. Picture quality on the Nexus is better in my limited testing but not profoundly so. Where the Nexus 4 really wins over the X is Video quality. 1080p versus 720p is a big jump in quality.

Comparing these two phone in any area other than camera resolution would be a bit of a joke. The X was a great phone in its day but the state of the art hardware and software wise has advanced significantly and its would be a bit like comparing a horse to a 1964 and a half Mustang. Both are elegant and functional in their own way but the Mustang will get you to your destination faster and more smoothly.

The first thing I noticed about the Nexus was how fast it is. It loads apps up almost instantly and scrolling is essentially real time all the time. I can't think of any other way to describe the experience other than to say its "Apple like". 

The screen is clear and sharp with excellent viewing from almost any angle.

Battery life is good with a single charge lasting me comfortably through a day of moderate use with plenty to spare. 

There are some things I don't particularly like but they've all been discussed at length elsewhere so I won't spend much time on them here other than to note that in a phone this inexpensive some compromises are going to be made. The one thing I will mention is the glass back. Sure, the sparkles are kind of cool but they don't justify going with a design feature makes the phone more fragile. I'll also say that the complaints about the lack of LTE don't make much sense to me. Based on the bandwidth I get at my house I could burn through my entire 5GB monthly data plan in a bit over an hour. LTE certainly has some advantages over HSPA+ but they aren't all that significant right now given the limited availability of LTE and the additional battery drain.

The biggest non phone bonus is having the freedom to pick my carrier and move at will. Right now I'm using the T-Mobile $30 plan which gives me unlimited text, 5GB of data and 100 minutes of voice. Tacking on taxes and tethering would bring the total to about $50 which is way below what Verizon and the other carriers in the US charge for similar plans.


I've had the Nexus 4 about a week and a half now and so far I'm loving it. It's not only a great value price wise it also compares well with any other phone on the market right now including Apple's latest offering. The only downside? Good luck getting one. Google is sold out again with not indication of when more units might be made available. Apparently neither LG nor Google had a clue that this thing would be such a big hit. 

My only big concern long term is hardware support. What happens if my phone has some sort of failure? When you buy and iPhone you know the answer to that question. 

To be fair the Nexus 4 is just over half the price of an equivalent unlocked iPhone 5. That kind of savings doesn't come without something being lost. I'm basically gambling I never need that platinum support that I didn't pay for.

So in summary and to answer the question posed in the title of this post the Nexus 4 is an excellent phone that would be a great deal if you could buy one and based on my early impressions it was even worth the three hours of frustration I went through to buy mine.  Fret not though if you didn't get one because the way these things work there will be a new Android phone out in the next few months that will match or surpass the Nexus 4. 
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Monday, December 10, 2012

No Amazon Phone For Me!

Amazon shipment
Amazon shipment (Photo credit: enno)
There have been rumors for awhile now that Amazon is working on a phone. It's probably safe to assume that an Amazon phone would run Android since that is the case with their tablets. Having recently acquired a Nexus 4 I'm not going to be in the market for awhile but if I were I wouldn't be interested in an Amazon phone.

Amazon is Android without Google. No native GMail app, no Google navigation app, no Google+, etc. Amazon's ecosystem makes this kind of work on tablets but that ecosystem advantage gets much smaller on a phone where people are less likely to want to watch a movie or partake of Amazon's other offerings. The use case for a phone is different than a tablet and a lot of things Google brings to the mobile experience play particularly well on phones. Not having those capabilities present on a phone would make for a less satisfying experience.

This problem would be mitigated somewhat if the browser that came with Amazon's tablets weren't so bad. In my experience it tends to be slow, prone to crashing and offers very poor support for GMail and Google+ in particular. GMail is kind of usable but Google+ is nearly useless. Its just not a good experience.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not your typical user but I think a lot of people would miss Google's navigation software and be frustrated by the lack of choice in the Amazon App store

The answer to this problem is obvious. Amazon needs to get Google to make their apps available on the Amazon App site. I suspect there are roadblocks on both sides of this equation though.

On the Amazon side is a desire to want to control the user experience. A more cynical way of putting this would be to say they want to have a clear field when it comes to monetizing their mobile devices. Bringing Google into the picture makes that impossible. Google is a profitable company for a reason. 

On the Google side there may be frustration with Amazon using Android for free and essentially giving nothing back to Google. Google can't be happy with Amazon's decision to change the default search engine on Fire tablets to Microsoft's Bing either. Google and Amazon don't compete in all the same markets but there is a growing overlap and that is likely a detriment as well.

On the other hand Google has good support for iOS and Apple is clearly a competitor as well. Google does this because it makes business sense which is why I suspect they would come to an accommodation with Amazon if an attempt were made.

Which brings me to the conclusion that the real holdup here is Amazon. 

If I'm right than Amazon has a clear path forward if they really are planning on releasing a phone. I won't say that the Google Apps being missing would kill an Amazon phone but I do believe it would have a sizable impact on sales and reduce the viability of such a product. 

A smart phone without Google apps just isn't as smart as it should be. When you're competing with Apple, Google and a bunch of other well established players its not a good idea to be running the race with your legs tied together.

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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Acer Chromebook C7 With 16GB Of Memory?

Most of my posts have both business and technical elements with a tilt towards the business side. Today I'm going to turn the dial all the way over to geek and expand a bit on my Acer C7 review while also exploring the (unofficial) memory expansion options of the C7.

First of all a word of warning. You void your warranty by opening the case of the C7. If you take a look at the bottom of the C7 you should see a sticker like the one pictured bellow. It basically tells you you're SOL if you open the case and anything bad happens later. Don't say you haven't been warned by me, and Acer if you choose to explore further. 

To Boldly Go..

Below this sticker is a single screw you'll need to unscrew in order remove the bottom plate.

When you do you'll see something similar to this.

The hard drive is on the right and the memory is in the center. The C7 comes with a 2GB SoDIMM pictured towards the top and center. If you look just below it you'll see an additional slot that is empty.

I recently decided to upgrade my main laptop/computer from 8GB to 16GB as the cost with tax and shipping from Amazon was only $70. I'd had the C7 about a week when I received the 2x8GB SoDIMM's and decided to see if the C7 would work with that much memory.

Above you'll see the C7 with the 8GB SoDIMM's installed. Below is a closeup.

You can click on these images to see a bigger version but its probably not worth it in most cases since the quality is fairly low.

The next step was to power the C7 up and see if it would work. I first tried ChrUbuntu Linux. The results were what I was hoping as if you look towards the upper left corner of the following photo you'll see a number that starts 16 and has a lot of additional digits after it...

I'd had a less than stellar experience with this distro when the C7 had only 2GB. By default it doesn't setup a swap/page file and opening Chrome with a half dozen tabs was enough to cause the OOM (Out Of Memory) killer to kick in and start freeing up memory in its usual brutal and unforgiving way. Creating a swap file solved that problem but the system was sluggish which isn't a surprise. Any time you have to start using your hard drive as additional memory performance will suffer. I could have chosen a more light weight window manager but didn't bother since I was fairly sure I'd be upgrading the memory soon.

ChrUbuntu is a 64 bit distro/kernel and it had no problem recognizing and using all 16GB. Having that much RAM in the C7 didn't magically turn it into a high powered workstation but it did improve the user experience since it no longer needed to swap to the hard drive.

Next up I toggled the C7 to boot into Chrome OS and restarted.

I'd noticed before that the mini Linux distribution at the heart of Chrome OS is 32 bit. For the non technical this means that it will normally recognize less than 1/4th of the 16GB I had installed. There is some "magic" that can be done to work around this limitation. It's called "PAE" or "Physical Address Extension" and  what it does is allow the 32 bit Linux kernel to use all of the memory that is installed. This does come at a small cost in lost performance. How much of an impact depends on a lot of different factors but about 5% is typical.

I had no clue if the Chrome OS Linux kernel had PAE enabled but once the C7 came up and I logged in I was able to confirm that it does...

The impact of the additional memory in Chrome OS was smaller since its already very light weight. Opening tabs seemed a bit quicker but that could have been my imagination.

Once I'd verified that the 16GB config worked in both ChrUbuntu Linux and Chrome OS I pulled the 8GB SoDIMM's and put them in my main laptop. That left me with 2x4GB for the Chromebook. Not surprisingly both operating systems work fine with 8GB as well.

It probably doesn't make a lot of sense to upgrade a C7 to anything more than about 8GB since the underlying hardware isn't really up to supporting applications that would need those kinds of memory resources. You can get to 8GB at the cost of your warranty and around $40.

The additional memory does seem to extend battery life a bit. I don't have any formal measurements on this though.

Additional Thoughts

The C7 is an inexpensive work horse and surprisingly customizable. Don't like the hard drive? Invest in a solid state drive and replace it. Want more than 2GB? No problem, can do. Want to run something other than Chrome OS on it? Very doable. I haven't verified Windows 8 but I'd be surprised if it can't be made to work and Ubuntu Linux is already a given.

I'd really like to see an extended life battery. Three to four hours is OK, but I've gotten used to being able to go five hours or more before I have to find a wall outlet. It's not a fatal flaw though given the very modest price of the C7

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Low Tech Acer Chromebook Unboxing + Review

The production values of this unboxing are fairly low I'm afraid. I was supposed to have a Nexus 4 by now but an ill timed call at work and Google's inability to anticipate demand have conspired to leave me with my stopgap $32 smart phone.  I took out my frustration about this by buying another Google product, the recently released Acer Chromebook C7. 

I was getting tired of hauling me first generation Alienware M11x around and for $230 including tax and shipping it seemed like the C7 might be a cost effective replacement.

The C7 comes with Chrome OS installed. I won't go into a lot of detail about Chrome OS other than to note that its basically a stripped down Linux distribution with a very simple window manager, the Google Chrome browser and one or two other apps. Its designed primarily to be used while online but does have some limited functionality as a stand alone computer. And now onto the unboxing...

The Unboxing

The guitar picks in the picture below obscure my address and provide some idea as to the size of the box the C7 arrives in.

In a video unboxing people generally show all sides of the box. I'm not sure why but pixels are cheap so here we go...

Below you'll see the battery on the left, the manual in the center and the power cord on the right. The computer is in the lid portion of the box. You can see the black screen cleaner cloth that also came with the Chromebook sitting on it. A screen cleaner is a nice touch in a system this cheap.

Below you can see the computer freed of its cardboard enclosure but still in the white inner sleeve that it ships in.

I'll mention here that you can click on any of these pictures if you want to see them in their full resolution low quality glory.

Below you can see the Chromebook coyly peeking out of its sleeve. The empty battery slot is visible. Acer claims 3.5 hours of battery life with this unit. Based on my limited real world testing I'd say that is a somewhat optimistic estimate but not far off. The cord and power supply are small enough to be easily carried around.

I'm not a big fan of glossy screens but this one isn't that bad compared to some I've seen. It does reflect the camera flash very well though as the next picture shows.

If you have a Google account and access to the Internet you can be up and running in a couple of minutes. Setup is quick and easy.

I didn't take careful notes but I think there were like three questions I had to answer to get logged in and started initially.

At this point I got tired of taking pictures and just started playing around with the C7.


This is my first experience with Chrome OS. So far it seems reasonably functional. I've used GMail for years and am fairly deeply invested in Google Docs and search, My preferred browser has been Chrome for a couple of years as well so the transition to Chrome OS wasn't difficult at all.

One complaint, I can't seem to make the right mouse click work for spell check in the browser. I know the right click is working because it triggers actions in other parts of the operating system. It sure would be nice to get spelling suggestions when words are highlighted. 

Unlike the previously announced Samsung Chromebook the Acer uses a Duel core Intel Celeron. This has upsides and downsides. Performance wise the Samsung  peppier. Battery wise though there is no contest with the Samsung providing two or more times the run time that the Acer manages. 

Another oddity of the Acer is the inclusion of a hard drive instead of a small SSD. This doesn't seem to impact performance much but likely contributes to the short battery life. On the plus side it is possible to install Ubuntu Linux on the C7, leave Chrome OS intact and still have a ton of space left for music, video and whatever else you want to take with you. You can't do that on the 16GB Solid state drive that comes with the Samsung.

When I installed Ubuntu Linux and booted up the C7 I found that the CPU appears to be running an 800MHz rather than the 1.1MHz it is rated for. This may be a battery preservation move if true. I observed this while plugged in or running off the battery. For the more technically inclined I typed

cat /proc/cpu

To get this information

The C7 comes with 2GB or main memory. This is OK, but with 4GB DDR3 going for around $20 shipped I plan on upgrading soon. One downside of my upgrade plan is that Acer has a sticker over the screw that needs to be removed to open the bottom plate that must be removed to swap the DIMM. The sticker informs me that my warranty will be voided if I remove it. This is annoying but makes sense given the price of this thing. Acer's margins are likely razor thin and their accountants no doubt know exactly how many extra pennies that warranty will cost them if they allow the unit to be opened up. Every one of those pennies takes away from Acer's profits. Putting that sticker on there helps them meet their $200 price point and still make what they consider to be a sufficient profit. Given that I'm OK with it.

After a week or so that sticker is coming off and I'm going to upgrade the memory. Most hardware either fails within a week or lasts until it is obsolete so the risk seems acceptable given the price.. Hopefully I won't regret that decision.

Hardware wise my only complaint so far is the keyboard. It is OK, but the Enter key is too far over and a bit small. The size of the keyboard is fine otherwise and the feel is decent if a bit soft and lacking in tactile feedback. I'm able to type about as fast and accurately as I normally can though.

The C7 plays 720p HD video fine but chokes a bit on 1080p HD when plugged into an external monitor. Note that Chrome OS doesn't support extending the desktop at this time, only mirroring so you have to turn off the built in display to get full resolution on the external monitor. This is a software limitation as extending the desktop worked fine in Ubuntu. Support for extending the desktop in Chrome OS is apparently imminent 

Its hard not to think "born again netbook" when looking at the C7 but that isn't a bad thing. Small affordable computers that get the job done fill a niche that needs to be served. Not everyone can or wants to spend $1000 or more on an easily transportable computer. 

The price of the C7 means there are some compromises but for casual to intermediate use cases its more that powerful enough. I can see this thing being a standard part of my mobile computing kit for the next couple of years. Getting 100GB of Google drive storage for free during that time is a nice bonus as well. Three plus hours of battery life is enough for casual use and something I'm willing to deal with given the price and the added flexibility the relatively large hard drive and Intel processor give me.

Overall I'm very happy with this purchase. The price is great, the build quality appears to be more than adequate and I suspect it'll make a pretty decent Linux laptop as well. 
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Monday, November 19, 2012

What is "Papa" John Schnatter really saying? (Short Take)

Papa John's CEO John Schnatter pushed one of my buttons recently and I'm not going to be able to relax until I've ranted a bit about it here. I am not going to comment on his politics or healthcare reform as they are tangential to my point and I don't generally talk politics here. I am going to question his honesty or sophistication though when it comes to pricing.

Schnatter's claim that he would have to raise prices to pay for healthcare related costs has gotten a lot of press. These kinds of claims generally do. The problem I have with them is that they make no sense.

I'll put it this way; the thing you'll hear the most in business school is that companies are supposed to enhance shareholder value. Lets imagine a world where healthcare reform does not exist. If Schnatter knew he could raise prices and gain additional revenue would he? If he's looking to enhance shareholder value than the answer to that question is fairly obvious.

Costs should never dictate pricing. In fact, costs shouldn't even figure into pricing though they do matter if you're trying to figure out if a new product will be economically viable or if an existing product can remain viable or become more profitable.

When people claim they are raising prices due to increased costs I suspect they are mostly being disingenuous, particularly when you're talking about somebody like Schnatter who runs a large well knows business. Not all small business owners are this sophisticated in their understanding of pricing and so long as the Walmart's of the world stay away they generally don't have to be.

What Schnatter is really saying if you read between the lines is "This is going to squeeze my margins and I'd rather be spending this money on things other than employee health care". Which is his right as a CEO but being that blunt wouldn't play well with employees or the public.
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Saturday, November 10, 2012

How Google';s Nexus 4 Made Me A Hypocrite

Image representing Android as depicted in Crun...

I've been in the market for a new phone for awhile now. I documented my purchase of a Palm Pre Plus in this BLOG a month or so back. The Pre was really cheap and provides me with an OK stopgap  but it wouldn't have been a good solution for me two years ago when it was released and it is downright primitive now.

I was really close to pulling the trigger on a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 a week or so back. I went as far as transferring our one current upgrades to my number and starting the checkout process. That is when I discovered that Verizon was going to force me out of my unlimited data plan. They offered me a two gigabyte plan for $10 less than I'm currently paying for unlimited data. I was not impressed and aborted the purchase.

I discovered later that Verizon has locked the boot PROM on the Note. This annoyed me as well since Verizon has a nasty habit of layering extra stuff on top of Android that degrades the user experience. I'm sure their marketing department thinks of this as "adding value" which is one of many reasons I'm not a fan of Verizon's marketing group. The Note is a big investment even with the subsidy, I shouldn't have to put up with this kind of malarkey.

But here in the US Verizon has the best network. There may be areas where this isn't the case but based on coverage maps and my own experience Verizon does a pretty good job. They aren't cheap though and they are anything but open. Even their LTE phones require CDMA right now which pretty much rules out any non  Verizon phone. Given the limited coverage of LTE that isn't a huge deal but as coverage expands I suspect Verizon will continue this practice. They clearly subscribe to the concept that the best customer is the one you have in a (figurative) straight jacket.

Enter the Nexus 4, Google's latest foray into smart phones; this time in partnership with LG.

The Nexus 4 is getting mixed reviews with many people praising the build quality but questioning the absence of LTE (4G).

I criticized the iPhone 4S over a year ago when it came out as a GSM/CDMA only phone. I'm going to make two justifications for my change of heart in regards to the Nexus 4. First LTE isn't expanding as quickly as I'd hoped. Even today its not much of a factor outside of major urban areas. My second justification is based on cost. The iPhone is an excellent and well respected product for many reasons but it isn't cheap. Unlocked iPhone 5's are not available yet but rumors point to them costing about 2x what the Nexus 4 does. I'm willing to sacrifice LTE for those kinds of savings. Its also the case that while GSM is "old" it is also much more open than LTE right now and more than fast enough for anything I'm planning on doing. It may take me a bit more time to blow through my monthly data plan on GSM but I can live with that since it would be only a tiny fraction of a month in either case if I were using either technology at peak bandwidth.

There are other things missing from the Nexus 4. Internal storage options are limited to 16GB and there is no expansion slot. The battery is not removable either which means you're living from charge to charge with no option to keep a spare around for those situations where you'll be away from power for an extended period of time. Those compromises would be annoying in a subsidized phone at this price or in an unlocked phone at twice the price but for $350 unlocked I'm thinking very seriously about the 16GB version. This would mean leaving Verizon since they don't support GSM but I'm more than OK with that at this point.

In the past I've criticized Apple for selling a phone that had a non removable battery, antiquated broadcast technology and no ability to expand storage. All of these "short comings" are present in the Nexus 4. As the title of this post says, wanting a Nexus 4 makes me a bit of a hypocrite given all that but it also shows that price matters. I'm a value shopper. I want good products and good prices and am willing to compromise on features if I feel like what I'm buying will satisfy my needs and the price is right.

Will I pull the trigger? I'll know on Tuesday when the Nexus 4 is available to order. $350 is a great price but its still a lot of money so I'm still waffling.

Image via CrunchBase
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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Kickstarter, Parallella And 21st Century Brand Building

Victorinox Swiss Army knife, photo taken in Sw...
Victorinox Swiss Army knife, photo taken in Sweden. This is a Mountaineer model. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm a technology junkie. Its a bug that bit me when I was still in my teens and managed to buy my first computer with money I'd earned from a summer job.

Business is a passion that developed a little later in my life when I started wondering why some products succeeded and others failed. In particular I was confused when technologically superior products somehow lost out. This made no sense to me at the time and like most technically inclined people it drove me nuts.

It turns out there are some good logical reasons why companies and products fail. For instance not knowing what problem they are solving or spending their money in ways that don't actually help build their business. But there are bad reasons as well. One of the bad reasons is not being able to get the funding needed to take an idea to the finish line. This is particularly true when the idea in question isn't bad, but rather different enough from what has come before that the people with the money have trouble wrapping their heads around it.

Kickstarter has been around for awhile now but I'd never quite gotten around to checking it out. It turns out they provide a solution to the problems mentioned above. Kickstarter does this by providing a marketplace for ideas. If your  idea catches the attention of enough people you get the money and sales you need to take that idea to market.

I have a background in HPC (High Performance Computing) which is why the recent Apapteva Parallella Kickstarter campaign caught my eye. Adapteva designs and manufacturers parallel processor architectures. From what I can tell they are a very small company operating in a marketplace that is both competitive and cost conscious. Super computing is sexy, but very few companies make money at it and the margins are thin when they do.

Adapteva's architecture should eventually scale to 4096 cores on a single piece of silicon. That's a lot of processing power but there are issues. The current offering is only sixteen cores and each of those cores has just thirty two kilobytes of memory. I'm primarily a systems guy so I don't have a deep understanding of HPC programming but I do know that having so little memory significantly constrains the kinds of problems this iteration of the product will be capable of solving. Adapteva apparently understands this as well and chose to position their Parallella board primarily as an educational tool.

The Parallella board couple's Adapteva's sixteen core parallel processing chip with a SOC that includes two 1GHz ARM A9 processors an FPGA and other useful things like wired networking and USB 2.0. The ARM processors run Linux and the FPGA is used to interface between the Adapteva parallel processor and the outside world.

If you're not a technically inclined person just imagine this as a kind of Swiss Army knife of small computing platforms.

The Adapteva board will be credit card sized and cost just under $100. That is a killer combination.

Kickstarter isn't only about money though. The Parallella campaign was in trouble most of the way as it was not seeing the kind of growth in funding it was going to need to meet its goal of $750k. If you don't meet your funding goal you get nothing so this was a serious problem. What they were able to do, particularly over the final week of the campaign was to slightly refocus their target audience and release additional information that energized and excited their existing backers while encouraging many new backers to buy into the campaign. When the campaign ended they had raised nearly $900k

This ability to get quick feedback and adjust the message is one of the advantages of a Kickstarter campaign. That kind of market research is reasonably easy for web based businesses as the Lean Startup methodology espouses/shows but finding something equivalent for a physical product is much tougher. Kickstarter fills the niche nicely.

Kickstarter also lives up to its name by enabling people with products to build an initial customer base. Kickstarter projects such as Parallella are raising money in large part by selling the promise of a product being delivered to the backer in the future. Not all backers buy in at this level but it is an option for both backers and projects. Adapteva used this to pre sell thousands of their Parallella boards. All this helps build the company and its brand.

Funding, market research, customer acquisition and brand building can all be accomplished by a well designed Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter isn't a non profit so all this useful stuff does come at a cost. 5% of the proceeds go to Kickstarter with another 3-5% going to the payment processors. This seems like a very reasonable cost to me. In addition project owners retain all rights to their intellectual property.

I can't really think of any downsides from the project side. There is a potential downside if you are a backer in that a project creator may never deliver on their promises. Investing is always a risk though and I suspect we'll see laws put into effect over the next few years to better cover how that situation could be handled.

I decided to back the Parallella campaign because I found the idea intriguing and I wanted to get my hands on one of their boards. If things go well I should have one by next May.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Apple Products Not Over Priced (But the iPad mini may be)

Steve & Apple Inc.
Steve & Apple Inc. (Photo credit: marcopako )
I have an auto translation mechanism in my brain that changes "X is too expensive" into "X costs more than I'm willing/able to spend". I'm not being harsh here either. We're all a bit narcissistic so the tendency to project our own feelings onto the rest of the world isn't surprising.

In the tech world Apple is the company that gets the most flack for their pricing. This has been going on for decades now and will almost certainly continue for as long as Apple is a viable company. What most people fail to understand is that no company or product can realistically appeal to everyone. Apple is no exception. 

I could write a bunch of text here about Apple being a premium brand and how that impacts their ability to price but I've said it all before and its really not my primary point right now. Suffice it to say that the billions of dollars Apple has in the bank server as excellent evidence that their products are as a general rule not over priced. With one exception I think they are dead on again with their latest slate of new products.

To be blunt, the iPad mini looks like something Steve Jobs would have killed circa mid 2010 when he was still very much involved in the day to day operation of the company. It's woefully short on the technical side which isn't fatal but what is worse is that at the prices Apple is charging it is short on value. That won't stop people from buying it but over the mid to long term it is much more likely that people's good feeling for the company are going to be eroded.

The problem Apple appears to be addressing with the iPad mini is that competitors like Amazon and Google are selling a lot of units in the smaller form factor tablet market. Smaller tablets are much easier to carry around and if people have them they'll be more likely to partake of whatever ecosystem their tablet supports. Apple is primarily a hardware company but they make a fair chunk of money off their apps and media sales. Seeding the field to their competitors was not something they could afford to do. 

Lets assume Jobs was steadfastly opposed to the smaller form factor tablet. The man was a genius but he was also been known to be stubborn on things that he probably shouldn't have been. Shipping the original NeXT computer with a very immature optical disk technology as its only storage being one of many examples I could cite. If this is true it would mean Apple has had just over a year to get the iPad mini to market. That isn't a lot of time and they would have had to take shortcuts. Like perhaps reviving a design that Jobs had shot down. That would explain the sadly out of date tech specs. This thing is essentially a smaller more refined version of the iPad 2, a product that is now two generations behind Apple's current full sized iPad.

So maybe this is a stop gap and Apple didn't want to release it at a price point they would have to maintain for future generations? If this theory is correct we could see a next generations iPad mini in less than a years time that supports a retina like display, some variant of the A6 processor and at least a gig of memory. A device with those kinds of specs would be justified to sell for the price points Apple is currently asking.

Personally I don't see any reason to purchase this initial version of the iPad mini. Apple underwhelms badly on the technical side and are asking for an even bigger premium than normal on the price side. The math just doesn't add up.

They'll likely still move a lot of units but I suspect customer satisfaction on this first generation version is going to be lower than is typically the case and that could start to hurt them in the longer term. A company as successful as Apple can afford an occasional miss but they can't make a habit of it. This is particularly true now that Jobs is gone.
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