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Thoughts About the 2016 MacBook Pro Laptops [UPDATED]

MacBook Experience

Apple’s new MacBook Pro laptops were shown on October 27 to a relatively small audience at the company’s headquarters. The machines were redesigned to be smaller with a respectable offering of hardware options in processors, RAM, storage, and graphics horsepower. The highlight, of course was the Touch Bar with Touch ID which offers innovation for the tired row of function keys along with fingerprint security.

Touch Bar on MacBook Pro

The only surprise was the significant bump in price over the predecessors. And for me, Apple seemed to apologize for this by offering a less expensive MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar and half the USB-C ports.

Apple executives seemed to be prepared for this reaction and conducted an unusual interview with Cnet reporters. I can’t recall such an interview at previous product launch events.

During this interview, Apple asserted that the MacBook Pro models were designed to an experience and not a price point. I’ll take them at their word, but the prices are still too high. Comparably equipped premium Windows computers aren’t cheap but are much more affordable. So the whole designed-to-an-experience-and-this-is-what-it-costs argument is kind of hollow.

If the experience was paramount, the MacBook Pro line would start off with 1 TB of flash-drive storage.

Another point on the steep price: The day after the launch event, Amazon had a Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro discounted $200 and the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro discounted $360. Hmm.

In the past, Apple has poked fun at Windows PCs with touch screens. Their opinions were arguably valid, but their actions might not be fully in line with their words. With the large trackpad and the new Touch Bar, I’d argue Apple is making everything “touch” except the screen. I don’t intend this to be an outright criticism of Apple, but it’s something to consider.

And finally, let me pick on Apple about input/output. The MacBooks appear to be all going to USB-C/Thunderbolt 3. While this creates an uncomfortable period where there are few directly compatible peripherals, I feel this is the right way to go. USB-C is the future. It powers devices, runs video/audio, and offers very high data speeds. And each port can do more than one thing per connection. What’s not to love about USB-C?

Meanwhile, the iPhone still uses Lightning connections. And the latest iPhones, the 7 and 7 Plus, courageously lost their headphone jacks (but you can still connect your wired headphones to the new MacBook Pros). To do right by their customers, Apple needs to lose Lightning in favor of USB-C on the very next iPhone.

That has to be obvious.

Don’t get me wrong, I find the new MacBook Pro laptops very attractive. They’re top of the line and will perform very well, I’m sure. But I can’t bring myself to afford the one I want right now. Perhaps more of the discounts Amazon previewed will become more widespread soon.

So … my waiting continues…

Sad German Shepard Waiting

UPDATE Oct 30, 2016: So this is part of the designed experience? The right-hand side USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports have reduced performance. I know this would only be noticed by few users, but still…

The Implications of a Delayed iPhone 7

iPhone ?

Nikkei is speculating that the iPhone 7 won’t debut until 2017. And I’ve been wondering the same thing over the past few months.

So perhaps Apple will keep the iPhone 6 design around for a third year. Photos of alleged iPhone pre-production parts are appearing on the rumor blogs, and they look like … iPhone 6 designs. The most significant rumored changes are camera updates and no more headphone jack (which might lead to better water resistance).

Meanwhile, the rumor mill regarding iPhone’s switch to OLED displays puts that hardware change into 2017. Going with OLED displays on an “s” year just seems unlikely to me.

If this is all true, it will be entertaining to see what they decide to call the 2016 iPhone 6 iteration.

Also if this is true, it might allow Apple to dedicate some time and resources to Siri. Other existing and upcoming virtual assistants from competitors are making Siri look neglected. In fact, Siri’s original creators recently demo’d Viv which seems to be leaps and bounds ahead of Siri. Apple’s 2016 WWDC might include a huge push for Siri. Rumors swirl that the voice assistant might get its own SDK for developers to better implement the technology in their apps. Also, dedicated Siri devices could be on the way to compete with Amazon’s intriguing Echo product.

While that sounds positive, a delayed iPhone 7 could further impact Apple’s stock price. Apple continued to sell a huge number of iPhones this year, but it showed essentially flat growth from the previous year. Investors tend to hate that. And if there’s no shiny new technology to make up for an absent iPhone 7, the Apple stock will likely take another hit.

This is, of course, all speculation, and that’s fun. Time will tell, though.

Digital HD Movies and Your Options

Digital HD banner with several digital movie service icons above it

I’ve been thinking a lot about digital movies recently, and what are truly the best options and ways to manage it all. Unlike buying digital music nowadays, digital movies are still controlled by digital rights management (DRM). While the iron-fisted approach to music DRM ultimately was its undoing, movie DRM seems to be much more liberal. However, it’s still very confusing. Doing research on this subject, I concluded that it would take a long boring article to fully explain the concepts. But I won’t. This is the quick introductory version with a concise bottom line to get you started.

Should You?

Should you abandon your physical media collection for digital copies? Lifehacker offers a great article on the subject. Read it and decide for yourself.

Sources

When I say “sources”, it’s a loosely defined term. The key concept is that these sources manage the digital rights over the movie titles. Sources include Apple’s iTunes, Amazon Video, Disney Movies Anywhere, and UltraViolet. Most of these sources also sell movies, but UltraViolet does not. UltraViolet exclusively manages DRM among several services.

Services

Services sell movies and allow you to stream and download them. You can buy digital movies from many sources like iTunes, Amazon Video, Disney Movies Anywhere, Flixster, FandangoNOW, Vudu, and several others. You can also redeem digital HD codes included with Blu-ray and DVD media which usually direct you to a single redemption source’s web site.

Sharing

Some sources allow sharing your digital collection. I was only able to find that Vudu offers the ability to share, but there might be others.

Playback

Services allow you to view your collection on a wide variety of devices like your desktop computer, laptop, tablet, and mobile phone. You can download the movies to the mobile devices for offline playback which is terrific for long plane flights or staying within mobile data caps.

Depending on your desktop computer, your streaming video quality might be limited. Without an HDCP connection to your monitor, you will not be allowed to stream high definition (HD) versions of the movie. You’ll be limited to standard definition (SD). Also, downloading to your desktop and laptop will likely require DRM software from the service.

Best Intersection of Services

Here’s where you’ll need to understand how services can and cannot work together. Amazon and Apple are pretty much isolated from what I can tell. If you buy a title from those sources, you can only watch them from those respective sources. Surprisingly, Disney plays well with several other services, including iTunes. But iTunes titles won’t show up in Disney Movies Anywhere. UltraViolet-managed titles work among affiliated services which exclude iTunes and Amazon.

Confused yet?

So here’s my bottom-line recommendation: Vudu.

Vudu works with Disney and UltraViolet. Vudu also shows both of those collections in its web site and mobile apps. Playback on your TV will require the Vudu app. That app can be found in Roku streaming devices as well as built into some smart TVs. The Vudu app is not included with Apple TV. At least not yet. You might have some success with iOS AirPlay, but AirPlay is not built into the Vudu iOS app’s video player.

Unfortunately trade-offs are unavoidable. But you can get a nice Roku streaming stick for $50. Sometimes less if you keep an eye out for deals.

I hope this helps get you started with digital movies in the smoothest possible way.

Post Script

I forgot to include Google Play in this article. Google’s service also seems to be isolated like Apple and Amazon.

Please comment if you have any information or experience to add.

Does Apple Music Still Mess With Your Song Collection?

Apple Music Plus Your Song Colleciion Equals Confusion

After almost a year, can Apple Music be trusted to work with your existing music collection? The heated debate continues. But my take on it is: NO! Apple Music should not be allowed to touch your music collection.

However, if you haven’t meticulously curated your collection, then perhaps you won’t care when Apple Music randomly changes your album art or mixes up your studio and live tracks among other odd behaviors.

Apple Music manages (or man-handles) your music when you turn on “iCloud Music Library” on the General tab of iTunes Preferences.

iTunes Preferences

In my own experience, having iCloud Music Library on changed album art for a significant number of my songs. It also mixed up some tracks in completely illogical ways. I would find one of my songs, tap it, and something else would play. Some of my more obscure tracks never appeared in Apple Music at all, but I could find them on my hard drive.

Thankfully, just turning off iCloud Music Library restored my collection without having to retrieve everything from a file backup. But I have had friends who were not so lucky.

While I loved having my playlists synchronized on my computer and my phone, I had to turn off iCloud Music Library. I could not find a way to only sync playlists. And if I could, I would.

Otherwise, I love Apple Music! I pay for it, because the music discovery is terrific. The handpicked playlists are fun to explore, and the radio serves up terrific tunes. And just about all the tracks I want are just a search away. And using Siri to cue up music is just wonderfully convenient.

There’s always hope that iOS 10 and MacOS 10.12 will resolve the iCloud Music Library problems, but I’m not holding my breath…

Sources:

Comcast Raises Its Data Caps

 

You Got Comcasted

Comcast, who offers Internet services via its Xfinity brand, announced a significant increase in its data caps. Several markets were placed under a 300 GB per month data cap. With this limit, customers were allowed 3 no-cost overages in any 12-month period. After that, going over meant an extra $10 per 50 GB of data.

Starting June 2016, the cap jumps to a respectable 1 terabyte (1,000 GB) per month. Comcast claims its customers can stream 700 hours of HD video content without fear of exceeding the cap. For customers who do exceed the terabyte, the same $10 per 50 GB fee still applies. Comcast claims 99% of their customers don’t use 1 terabyte of data. They previously claimed this same statistic when they instituted the 300 GB cap. There is no word whether customers are allowed any complementary overages.

There has been a lot of negative attention on the Internet data cap, and it seems that entertainment giant actually listened.

I am a Comcast customer in Atlanta, and my family has been living with the data cap for a few years. The 300 GB cap just felt so restrictive. When we started to stream a Netflix show, I found myself doing quick mental check to get a feel for whether we were topping out our cap. One terabyte certainly lifts that constant feeling of dread.

iPhone and a Changing Marketplace

$ iPhone

Just the other day, Apple reported flat growth in iPhone sales for the first quarter of its fiscal year 2016. Keep in mind the number for sales (and revenue and profit) are phenomenal, but it’s still the first lack of significant growth in the product line’s history.

Here’s a quick thought about a market factor that I believe will be a challenge for iPhone going forward: Carriers are dropping the 2-year contracts. And because of that, customers are seeing the true cost of their iPhones.

I’ve done the math for my family, and dropping the 2-year commitment and paying for our phones resulted in reduced cost over the same time period. That is based on our usage, of course. Your mileage may vary.

But the on-contract price of $199 or even $299 is mentally more appealing than $750 or $850. These higher prices are now being explicitly exposed to buyers. And while consumers are still buying at those prices, I suspect that they will do it less often in the future.

Other factors certainly play into this consumer behavior. Economic conditions around the globe are relatively volatile. The smart phone market is clearly maturing with fewer distinct and meaningful new features being added to the annually updated devices.

So Apple will need to consider dropping the prices of their phones (gasp!).

Apple’s leaders are not stupid. They’ve certainly been aware of these trends and what the company will need to do to adjust.

Just my two cents for today…

Review: Mpow Seashell Bluetooth Sport Headphones

Mpow Seashell Bluetooth HeadphonesDisclosure: An Mpow representative shared this product with me in return for an unbiased review, and I promise that is what follows.

Packaging

These headphones were packaged very well. The box has a magnetic closure allowing you to store your headphones in it again. In addition to the headphones, there are small, medium, and large ear cushions as well as ear stabilizers in the same sizes. And finally, a small user guide.

Build Quality

Build quality of the Mpow headphones appears to be of very good quality. They are very lightweight, but quite solid. The band that connects the headphones is very flexible and is ribbon-shaped so it won’t tangle or kink. The ear cushions and stabilizers are pliable but very durable. Overall, I am impressed with how well-made these headphones are.

Fitting & Comfort

The Mpow Seashell headphones fit great. At first, I thought I might be constantly refitting them during my activities, but then I adjusted the stabilizers in a non-obvious way (at least non-obvious to me). I rotated them toward the back for my ear instead of pointing upward. Once I did that, these headphones stayed in place no matter what. Awesome! So I encourage you to experiment with the cushions and stabilizers. For me, the results were remarkable. The Mpow Seashells are pretty darn comfortable, overall. They’re feather-light and a pleasure to wear during long activities.

Pairing

These headphones pair fast! When I turn them on, they immediately connect to my iPhone 6s. Initial pairing as a cinch. Have the headphones off, put them on, press the multifunction button for about 5 seconds, the audio prompt will indicate that it’s pairing. I tapped the Mpow entry in my phone’s Bluetooth settings, and it was paired in seconds. And when I turn them back on, they’re immediately connected to my phone. I do this several times per day, so it’s convenient to never need to troubleshoot the Bluetooth connection. This may be related to the new Bluetooth 4.1 spec that these headphones support (and thankfully so does my phone). Establishing the Bluetooth connections is always as smooth as silk. It’s just really nice to have such reliably quick connections.

Sound

Talking about sound is always the most controversial part of any product review. It’s such as subjective aspect, but let me try to be as objective as possible. The Mpow Seashell headphones sound just fine, and they’re great for workouts and activities. While I could not get them to reproduce low-end/bass (even by tweaking my phone’s equalizer settings), the high-end/treble sounds terrific. Bottom line: They’re not going to reproduce sound like expensive, high-end products, and that’s okay. I appreciate those products as well as anyone else, and these Mpow Seashell headphones sound great for its product segment. And they sound very good at low and high volumes.

Using Them

I’ve used these while at my desk job, working out, and doing yardwork. At my job, the Mpow Seashells were comfortable and provided the convenience of being cordlessly connected to my phone. During my workouts, they were just as comfortable and out of the way the whole time. And I don’t recall needing to adjust them. Very nice! While doing yardwork, I noticed the headphone’s band would become lopsided while I was raking leaves. This led to tugging when I would switch to rake the other direction. The solution: Let the band hang in front of your neck. They’re lightweight, and it allowed me to rake trouble-free after that.
When I take the headphones out of my ears and let them rest on my shoulders, I notice that the microphone side of the headphones tended to slide forward. This isn’t a big deal but something to be aware of so you don’t lose them on a run.

The Mpow’s volume and multifunction buttons control my iPhone’s playback just like the headphones that came with it. Volume, skip back, skip forward, and pause are all available.

Phone call performance was terrific. During one call I switched from the phone to the Mpow Seashells, and the caller didn’t notice (I mentioned it later in the call). And the headphone controls work as you’d expect during calls, too.

You can invoke your phone’s voice controls by pressing the multifunction button for about 2 seconds and then releasing. I do this, and Siri is waiting for my command.

Conclusion

It’s easy to recommend the Mpow Seashell headphones. They’re terrific for activities or just lounging around. They sound great especially for this price segment. And the Bluetooth performance is the best I have ever experienced. These headphones go with me everywhere.

Your Privacy Versus The Government

Data SecurityWith the proliferation of mobile devices around the world, data security on these devices is getting truly serious attention. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others are automatically encrypting data on these devices. This encryption is getting so strong that it has intelligence and law enforcement agencies very concerned. They’re worried they won’t be able to get into these devices during investigations.

What Is Encryption?

I won’t be getting too technical, but here is the concept: The data on your mobile phone gets randomly scrambled based on a complex key. That key allows your phone’s operating system (Android, iOS, Windows Mobile) to descramble and use the data. If you legitimately access the phone with a passcode or biometric check (like fingerprint reader), then you can access data on the phone. If you don’t have the passcode, your truly locked out. Even if you disassemble the phone and remove the storage element, all you’ll be able to see is jumbled, meaningless numbers, letters, and symbols. Without the encryption key, it could take a supercomputer thousands of years to discover the key that decrypts the data.

Governments Want a Back Door

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies want a special key to a “back door” to access data on phones. Sounds reasonable, but there are ramifications. If there’s a known back door, then malicious hackers have a target. These people will find it. That’s what they do. Also there’s the obvious government intrusion potential.

It’s Not A Good Idea

For the greater good, a government back door just can’t be a good idea. While it would make investigations much easier, the potential for abuse and exploitation is just too great. It’s not whether abuse will occur but when. When pressed, I think most investigators will admit that other tactics will discover the evidence they need. And there’s always the possibility a suspect can be convinced to surrender a passcode to access a mobile device’s data.

If a universal back door exists and is exploited, it puts a huge number of people at extreme risk for identity theft and more. A virtual skeleton key to access any device is so profoundly dangerous to the well being of so many people, it’s ludicrous to even consider.

Anyone who argues otherwise is shortsighted or untrustworthy.

Learn more: Daily Dot9to5mac

Amazon Tries to Improve Work Conditions, and You Can, Too

Amazon Misery

Living smart with your tech begins with making your living. Choosing where and how you work is critical to a balanced life. This topic has been gnawing at me for a long time, and this seems like an appropriate time to post it.

Last summer, the New York Times reported on some unflattering work conditions at Amazon. Punitive performance reviews for employees who missed work due to serious health issues or tending to grave family matters were just a couple of the cited examples. To be fair, Amazon is far from the only organization with such a corporate culture.

But Bloomberg recently reported that Amazon is working on it. And in a fairly innovative way. The company is soliciting employee feedback on a daily basis, aggregating the responses, and reporting on perceptions. This sort of daily barometer should help managers understand the atmosphere they are fostering, compare it to stated goals, and make adjustments as needed.

Many of us find ourselves in work environments that are less than optimal. If you’re miserable, you need to understand what made the environment the way it is and then realize your options.

Your Drive

Professional Life

You probably want to do good work, be recognized for it in meaningful ways, and be provided opportunities to advance and receive more take-home pay. These desires drive us and encourage us to get up and go to work each day.

Your Bosses

The person to whom you report used to have these basic desires, but now he or she has additional responsibilities. In many places, bosses are expected to manage you (not just your work) to meet organizational goals. Some of those goals aren’t supposed to be shared with you, so your boss walks a fine line sometimes. Your boss is expected to make things happen on the front lines that conform to those organizational goals … and every now and then a goal might actually compete with others.

Their Bosses

Your boss’s bosses answer to a wider group of organizational stakeholders: Executives, board members, shareholders, etc. They truly earn their pay at this level because they likely never stop working. Evenings and weekends chained to their work-issued smartphones aware of each and every incoming email message. The organizational goals can be difficult to manage. Some goals are fleeting and some are long-term. All are probably communicated as “critical”.

The Result

The scatter-brained response to answering to disjointed demands can result in a organization run by fear of not meeting all these overwhelming goals. And this fear trickles down to you.

The Unexpected: You’re Human

For your direct boss, this is all difficult to manage. He or she needs all available resources to meet objectives. You are one of those resources. When you’re not available, your boss might consider you the problem.

You’re human, and sooner or later you’re going to have demands outside of work. If you’re out of the office a day or two here and there, that’s manageable. When you have a serious illness or condition that takes you out of commission for weeks, that’s not manageable. And corporate fear could result in your manager perceiving you as a liability.

Your boss and your boss’s bosses aren’t evil. They don’t hate you, per se, when you can’t perform as expected. They fear how their bosses will react when objectives aren’t met.

This fear can impact you in surprising ways. Like when your boss tells you that your cancer is affecting your work.

The Solution: Examine What’s Important Before You Make a Change

When you’re in this kind of environment, you can seek to work somewhere else. Also, you should really examine how you measure your success. Do you want to make yourself comfortable? Or do you want to keep up with the Joneses? Either answer is acceptable as long as it’s honest.

Personally, I used to want a large custom home, all the latest gadgets, and a nice automobile. These things are high-cost items. But I’ve learned there is a high cost of earning a high living. No family time. No uninterrupted time off. Living to juggle the next email message … and the one after that. Some people can manage this lifestyle in stride, so their cost of earning that living might be acceptable. For others, this lifestyle is miserable.

If having time for yourself and family are also important, you’ll have to decide where your balance is for you and for them. Perhaps, a track home or apartment is comfortable. Perhaps a Chevy is as good as a Cadillac. Perhaps the 2-year-old smartphone and 3-year-old laptop still work well. And quality downtime with your family and friends can be realized.

I’m not going to expand into philosophical or religious aspects that might influence your decisions. All of that is up to you.

I’m also not going to discuss at length the whole notion of finding work you like. But there is something to the old saying “find work you like, and never work another day”. That’s cute, but there’s always a reason they call it “work” and not “fun”.

Personal Life

But there are jobs out there that allow you to balance your professional and personal life. Organizations that actually support you if you need to tend to health and family matters. But jobs like these might not make you rich.

But in other ways, these jobs might make you richer.

Review: Anker ToughShell for iPhone 6s Plus

iPhone in ToughShell - Front and Back

Disclosure

Anker provided their ToughShell for iPhone 6s Plus without cost in return for an unbiased review, and I promise that is what follows here.

Packaging

Anker’s product packaging continues to be as thoughtful as anything Apple can design. Opening the ToughShell package was pleasant and looked classy.

Anker ToughShell Packaging - Closed and Open

Look

The case looks rich and professional. The design appeals to my own preference of solid, well-built understatement. Even the Anker emblem is embossed in a classy-yet-inconspicuous way.

Build quality

The materials used are of very good quality. It looks good and feels just as good. No mushy feeling air gaps under the shell. I don’t think this aspect of the case could be any better.

Feel

Lightweight and smooth, which is good for easily gliding in and out of pockets and purses. It’s easy enough to hold while using, but some might prefer a less slippery feel. This is a subjective preference, of course, but buyers might want to be aware of this.

Protection

The back and sides are well protected. The corners feature built-in shock absorbing bumpers that should offer adequate protection from a usual drop. The front offers a raised edge that will most likely protect your phone from a drop onto a flat surface. The barely there design for the front bezel helps the iPhone maintain its aesthetics. Some people (like me) might want that front protection to be a tad deeper, but it probably protects the phone just fine. This design makes it easier to swipe in from the edges to take advantage of iOS features. Deeper bezels can get in the way.

Fit

The ToughShell fits the iPhone 6s Plus like a glove, and installing it on the phone was a breeze. The case holds the phone just about perfectly and with confidence. A drop will not dislodge the phone from this case.

Use: Access to buttons

The volume and sleep/power buttons are covered by the case, but pressing any of them is simply effortless. The button covers are designed to be flush with the case. This is great for aesthetics, but it’s not so easy to locate the buttons by feel. I imagine this would become easier over time as you get used to the case.

Use: Access to ports/mute toggle

Accessing the mute toggle, headphones jack, and lightning port are very easy. While they are not covered by the case, they are recessed for protection.

Here is the only real criticism I can find for the ToughShell case: Anker’s own lightning cables will not fit into the opening for the lightning port. I tried Anker’s 3ft, 6ft, and 3ft braided lightning cables, and none will fit. If you pull firmly up on the front lower lip of the case, you can manage to connect Anker’s cable. But this is an awkward chore that requires one more hand than most people have. Meanwhile, Apple’s OEM lightning cables fit perfectly. Go figure.

Anker-brand Lightning Cables Do Not Fit in the Case, but Apple Cables Work Fine.

Conclusion

I can easily recommend this case to any iPhone 6s Plus owner. If you’re looking for this level of protection, Anker’s ToughShell appears to offer great protection and professional looks for a terrific price point for an excellent overall value.