Sunday, January 8, 2012
It's a new year & we all know what that means! A return to sin-city for the first convention of the 2012 Calendar year. The 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show kicks off Tuesday January 10, 2012 to showcase the latest consumer technology to come in 2012. Gadgetmaniac will be front and center at the Las Vegas Convention Center as well as the Venetian Hotel for all the action reporting about the best of the best in consumer tech. Be sure to come back here for multiple daily updates starting with CES Unveiled on Sunday January 8, 2012 at 4pm PDT. Monday is Press Preview Day with major electronic manufacturers holding press events announcing the products they feel is of interest to all of us. Check back here to see the most up to day information on what CES 2012 has to offer.
A few years ago the Apple Macbook Air introduced a whole new line of thin and light laptops the world had not seen the likes of before. It was the thinnest and lightest 13" laptop computer at less than 1 inch thick, and barely 3lbs. light. Gone was the optical drive, most conventional ports, and it had one lone USB port. It was sleek, sexy, and fit into a manilla envelope without a problem. Many said that it would be a niche product for Apple for a select few who want different. Fast-forward three years and the Macbook Air is reinvented, in an 11" version & a new 13.3" version that adds an SD reader, another USB port, and a new not well known Thunderbolt port that supports just about every possible data stream including Ethernet, video, audio and power.
Since it's introduction, the Macbook Air has taken a slow but successful path to being one of the most successful products to come out of Cupertino. In fact, with an 11" Macbook Air, it is rumored that a 15" Macbook Air is in the pipeline to replace the exisiting 15" Macbook Pro. A 15" laptop with no optical drive? Apple says yes. Recall back when Apple was the innovator of computers and ditched the floppy drive from its entire line in a move that analysts declared as insane and would finally put the nail in the coffin to seal Apple's fate. Obviously that didn't happen, and the floppy drive has since faded into tech history as most manufacturers followed Apple's lead and stopped equipping it's hardware with the now defunct floppy drive.
What sets the Macbook Air apart is not only its sleek, slim & sexy form factor, but it's speedy boot up times thanks to an all SSD (Solid State Drive) line. Every Macbook Air uses flash memory for storage. No mechanical hard drives to slow things down. Much like random access memory (RAM) which is superfast (but volatile), SSD's use the same silicon to hold and store user data when the computer is shut off, but this is non-volatile memory (volatile loses it's data once power is lost, non-volatile does not). Since there is no mechanical aspects to SSD's, there is no moving parts to fail like in traditional hard drives. No longer is the storage medium the slowest link in the data transfer chain with SSD storage. So what's that tradeoff you ask? Simple. Cost. SSD can be 3 to 10 times more expensive than a mechanical hard drive. Eventually, the mechanical hard drive will go away, but it will be some time since cost is always a consideration in the computer manufacturing arena. SSD's have been steadily decreasing in price over the past few years, but not at a pace that most would like. Capacities for SSD currently max out at about 1 terabyte, where 4 terabyte mechanical hard drives exist, so there is allot of ground to catch up on before the mechanical hard drive becomes extinct.
I've had a Macbook Air since it launched almost 4 years ago. I had the 13.3" unit as my faithful transportable computer that didn't have an SSD, but an 80Gb mechanical drive. It served me well till Apple finally introduced an 11" Macbook Air with a 128Gb SSD. I'm still in love with this little advance in computing. As I type this review, I can't say enough about this technical marvel that hasn't already been said. The smaller footprint makes for an excellent transportable machine that I can take anywhere. Light (under 3lbs.) slim (under an inch or less) and smaller than a piece of paper, you can easily assume that it has a cramped keyboard. It doesn't. As a matter of fact the backlit island keys style keyboard is a full size tactile and user friendly welcome feature. With two USB ports, non-upgradable RAM (this one has 4Mb), a 128Gb SSD (comes in 64Gb, 128Gb, or 256Gb) there is enough room for everything you need to take on the road. With flash drives and portable external HDD's reaching over 1.5Tb (yes Terabytes) there is no worrying about running out of room. While I would like to see more RAM, this one has yet to make me regret my decision. The Thunderbolt port allows me to connect one of Apple's recently released 27" Thunderbold Cinema displays by simply plugging in a single port and all my connections are made--audio, video, ethernet, power, & usb. Nothing could be simpler.
The screen is an 11.1" glossy finish that is bright, vivid & sharp. While an 11" screen can be a bit cramped, this aspect is easily overlooked given the small package you can easily transport. The Macbook Air is rated with an 8 hour battery life, but normal everyday use nets me about six hours easily. With an Intel i5 Core 2.4Ghz Processor (i7 is available as an upgrade) this unit is speedy and can tackle most everyday uses. Video is integrated so if you're planning to do video editing, you probably want to think Macbook Pro. Bluetooth 4.0 is standard, as is an 802.11n wireless card for connecting to WiFi. A headphone jack rounds out the ports on the side, but there is no SD card reader slot on the 11" Macbook Air like there is on the 13" model given it's smaller form factor. The Macbook Air uses a 45 watt slim power adapter that travels well.
Taking the 11" Macbook Air on the road is a joy, as is using in on a cramped airplane tray table. Not many laptops are airplane friendly. And please don't even think about comparing this to the $300-$800 netbooks out there, they simply don't hold a candle with their cramped keyboards, small screens, and bloated Windows OS. Mac OSX Lion is standard on all of the new Macbook Air laptops. The 11" 64Gb SSD Macbook Air starts at $999 ($940 street) where a 128Gb Model adds $200 to that price. A 13" Macbook Air starts at $1299 ($1239 street) with 128Gb SSD, or $1599 for a 256Gb model ($1,539 street).
Any of the Macbook Air's would serve you well. With even the ability to add Windows 7 either virtually using virtual software (Parallels or Fusion Software) or set up as a dual-boot system where you boot into Windows or MacOSX, your choice by splitting the hard drive into two partitions, one for Mac OS and one for Windows. For this, you probably want to opt for a larger SSD so you have enough room for each. Then you have the best of both worlds, or if you have a windows program that simply doesn't have a MacOS counterpart.
The Macbook Air is not for everyone, and many may not like the fact that there is no optical drive ( you can buy an external unit for $79) but with Wifi and flash drives pretty much taking over the computing landscape, optical drives will soon be going the way of the dinosaur. With the Mac Software Store, you can download just about any program directly to your hard drive, no disc needed. If you need to watch a movie, simply convert or rip it. If you're looking for a workhorse, you're better off looking at a Macbook Pro, but for portability, style, and functionality, the Macbook Air won't let you down.
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Rest in Peace Steve Jobs.
While the visionary of all things Apple has been laid to rest for a few months now, the visions & products he carried to market will have an impact on the technology world for years, maybe even decades to come. He's showed the world that you don't have to be number one to make the finest hardware, just make it as perfect as an imperfect world will allow. He did just that, he saw, created & they came, bought in droves, and made Apple the darling company it is today.
On the eve of Jobs' death October 4th, 2011, recently promoted Apple CEO Tim Cook was on stage at the Apple Cupertino, CA Headquarters campus introducing the world to the latest & greatest iPhone yet, the iPhone 4S. It looked no different than it's predecessor, the iPhone 4 that was launched 16 months earlier when it was unveiled in June of 2010. While newer version iPhones have been announced/launched almost every June/July since it first launched in June 2007, Apple this year pushed back the launch day to coincide with it's usual iPod announcement that normally happens early Fall every year, just ahead of the holiday buying season. With traditional non-touch iPod sales slowing, and iPhone and iPod Touch sales soaring, it made perfect sense for Apple to push the launch of it's next gen iPhone to fill the gap. Most analysts & rumors anticipated big changes and upgrades to come in the form of an iPhone 5. It wasn't to be. The iPhone 4S became Apple's new iPhone baby. Although initial reaction was muted given the lack of an expected overhaul, it wasn't the disappointment that anyone thought it was either. Given the demand that has followed, the iPhone 4S is another hit for Apple.
The iPhone 4S came with some welcome upgrades, the biggest being the update to iOS 5 which had been announced & introduced many months earlier with features that put it head and shoulders above any previous version. In a nutshell, iOS is a major overhaul to fix most of what users had complained about in previous iOS versions. The iOS update alone is big news in itself and has been made available to previous iPhone users all the way back to the iPhone 3GS.
The iPhone 4S had 3 major upgrades over the iPhone 4. First is it's dual-core processor similar to that found in the iPad2 (vs. single core in the iPhone 4). This processor clearly gives the 4S it's robust and swift interface. But that isn't really where a dual-core processor is needed. Enter Siri, Apple's new voice command & recognition feature is where that dual-core is needed. Siri clearly is a game changer in the smartphone arena, and its clear that Siri is the force driving sales to the iPhone 4S. From it's natural voice recognition to it's human like understanding and voice that responds to natural speech questions in real time, this sends every other smartphone voice command system back to the drawing board. Siri isn't just a big deal, it's a GIANT leap in voice recognition technology. In a word, it WORKS! The last significant update to the iPhone 4S upgrade is it's camera to an 8Megapixel CCD vs. a 5Megapixel camera in the iPhone 4. That in itself is a healthy upgrade, but Apple didn't just stop there. Add to the mix an improvement in the lens systems (added lenses to also improve white balance), and you've got the most powerful smartphone camera on the market. The iPhone 4 had a camera that professionals swore by and used on the go, but the iPhone 4S improves substantially on even that!
I've been using an iPhone 4S on the Sprint network for the past couple months and you can color me impressed. I have been using an iPhone 4 since it launched, and even I am blown away by the much improved quality of the camera. Pictures are sharp, vivid, and detailed. HD video is phenomenal for having been recorded on the iPhone 4. I opted for the new 64Gb capacity (never before offered in 64Gb) for added space to take more videos. I do feel that the new processor does add to the swiftness of the user interface, noticeable when most applications load quicker than on my iPhone 4. But as I said previously, the new dual-core processor gives Siri it's power. Ask Siri a question, and it answers you in plain English. "What's the weather like outside Siri?" and Siri politely shows you the weather on screen and gives you a brief vocal description. "Find me the nearest Hospital" and Siri pin-points it on the Google Map application with address, phone number, and direction from your current location. Tempted to text while you drive? Don't do it kids! Dictate it to Siri, tell her which contact to send it to and Siri will transcribe it and send it off for you hands free. Remarkable! That's not all, Siri in her female friendly voice will remind you of things you need to do, review and read you your calendar, even tell you the meaning of life if you ask. Simply amazing this Siri feature is.
So should you wait till the iPhone 5 is announced/launched later this year. The answer is a resounding--maybe. If you currently are using an iPhone 3GS or earlier, an iPhone 4S is a worthwhile upgrade if your contract is up & your iPhone is getting long in tooth. If you currently have an iPhone 4, then you might do well to wait for the 5, especially if you're not due for an upgrade yet. Yes the new features make this smartphone a no brainer, but the prices are not cheap, but the same as the previous gen iPhone 4. $199-16Gb, $299-32Gb, $399 for the new & never before offered 64Gb capacity, all with a two year agreement with AT&T, Verizon, or newly available Sprint network (sorry T-Mobile not yet there yet) and it comes in your choice of black or white. Without a contract, you can buy the iPhone 4S completely unlocked for $649, $749, or $849 for a 16, 32, or 64Gb model respectively to use on AT&T (or T-Mobile-but only at 2G data speeds) (unlocked units are not available for sale for Verizon or Sprint at this time) if you don't want to sign an agreement.
Overall, the iPhone 4S has been a hit since it began shipping in mid October, with supplies being highly constrained since launch on all carriers. It's shipping in over 40 countries now & there are no signs of sales slowing down. Many believe that the Siri feature is driving the sales of the 4S, as is the improved camera. With an iPhone 5 no doubt going into production soon, with an anticipated October 2012 launch more than nine months away, Apple will have no trouble carrying the momentum into Fall. While the 4S did not come with 4G LTE data speeds, it did double previous theoretical maximum speeds on AT&T, although you'd be hard pressed to recognize any improvement given AT&T's highly crititicized and overtaxed network. LTE 4G (the next generation wireless data system deployed in over 150 cities and growing by Verizon and also being deployed by AT&T ) will most likely find it's way into the iPhone 5, as will a possible larger 4" screen. No doubt T-Mobile will finally get the an iPhone in 2012 as Apple seeks to widen it's reach to all four major US carriers.
The iPhone 4S is pretty much an incremental upgrade from the iPhone 4. But your two year contact isn't up just yet anyway. The iPhone 5 isn't far off and that iPhone should be a dramatic upgrade from the iPhone. For now, all other smartphone makers will have to go back to the drawing board & find a way to give Siri some competition. Until then, Apple will be running away with their lunch.