Shadowing the Bleeding Edge of Technology

When shopping for a new tech device, a big dilemma can be knowing when to actually make the purchase.  Buy too soon and one risks being coaxed into spending money on an overly expensive item that doesn’t live up to its initial hype.  Wait too late and one risks being stuck with a quickly outdated device that pales in comparison to newer models.  So in a sense, the goal is to pull a Goldilocks and find a gadget that feels “just right”.

But hitting that home run is easier said than done, especially when hunting for electronics.  It takes a lot of research, forward thinking, and patience to wait out a sweet spot device.  And even after the device has been identified, there may still be an additional wait as the price falls in line.  Yet, while it may seem like indecision to the untrained eye, it is in fact a methodical march towards a product that will sustain its shine for years.

For example, I recently started looking into tablets and whether they are a worthy investment for my household.  Honestly, I have been indifferent towards tablets since mid-2012.  I knew that they provided value for users who wanted to watch movies, make Skype calls, and send email, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything highly-productive with a tablet.  So why would I spend $500+ on something that couldn’t even replace my laptop?

Well, it looks like Samsung has been working hard to answer my question.  Over the past couple of years they have been iterating the Galaxy Note, and it has matured into a productivity-enhancing tablet.  iPads may have better screens.  Surface Pros may have a more-robust OS.  But the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition (who named this??) has an impressive blend of hardware specs, software features, and accessories (the S-Pen).

Yes, Galaxy Note 10.1 is 9 months old, and Samsung has launched a new Galaxy Tab S 10.5.  But the Galaxy Tab S lacks the S-Pen integration.  And other than the Tab S’s improved screen, all other hardware is consistent.  More importantly, the same price nets you 32GB of storage in the Note 10.1 2014 versus 16GB with the Tab S.  So, $499 for 2X the storage, a stylus, and hardware parity, while only losing out on the sharper screen.

That definitely sounds like a sweet spot deal to me.

Waving Goodbye to Cable and Satellite TV

With so many gadgets and devices being launched each month, I admit that I sometimes miss out on the genesis of a new digital movement.  But once I catch wind of an overlooked tech trend, I immediately set about learning the benefits and drawbacks of the relevant devices.  Well, that light bulb moment happened to me two weeks ago when Amazon unveiled its new Fire TV media streamer.

In my household, no one is considered a heavy television viewer.  And the majority of shows that we do watch are on local television networks.  Yet, not once have I put any thought into giving up on cable and satellite TV and migrating to an online media experience.  Even when I got annoyed with the yearly price hikes, it still didn’t convince me that media streamers might be a good route to take.

But when a company like Amazon enters a market, it tends to grab your attention.  And after researching exactly what the Fire TV–and other media streamers–has to offer, I really like what I see.  The best-reviewed products cost $100, and the choice boils down to the ecosystem, channels, and features the buyer prefers.  After that, one simply picks and purchases the desired content.

So in my case, the Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube channels must be available.  That means Apple TV is out (no Amazon channel).  I also want access to my personal media files.  Which removes Fire TV as well.  So the last major product standing is the Roku 3, which has the required channels and allows the user to plug in a USB drive and watch videos, play music, or view pictures.

However, now that the Fire TV has been released, I’m hoping Roku will counter with an updated model of their own.  And if that new Roku were to have specs similar to the Fire TV’s, then it would be the perfect device.  Then again, if Amazon were to add support for personal media files, I would happily purchase my first Amazon product right now and use it for TV viewing (and light gaming).

Also, I’m sure Apple has something in the works.  And while I’m no fan of iTunes, Apple has a way of one-upping its competitors in spectacular ways.  So I’ll just wait for the dust to settle and see which little box comes out on top.  But one thing is for sure:  I’d rather spend $7.99 a month for Hulu Plus and Netflix (each) than $40+ for cable or satellite TV.  It’s time I started getting what I pay for!!

Why I Now Know All About Bitcoins

AMD launched the Radeon 200 series of GPU’s on October 8th of last year.  Although many of the cards were essentially rebrands of models from the previous Radeon HD 7000 series with higher clock rates, the biggest selling point was the lowered prices.  As an example, the incoming R9 280X was offering performance identical to the outgoing HD 7970.  However, the R9 280X was priced at $300 whereas the HD 7970 cost $550.

With my current PNY Nvidia GeForce GTX 460 OC hitting its peak while running newer games, I’ve been on the lookout for a replacement.  So when I saw the performance curve of the Radeon 200 series, I knew that the R9 280X would be a great upgrade.  And after reading a few reviews, I settled on the XFX Double D Radeon R9 280X video card.  The only thing left to do was to wait out the price fluctuations that follow a product launch.

However, a not-so-funny thing happened on my way to getting a shiny new video card.  Instead of hovering around $300, the price of the R9 280X skyrocketed.  And, unbelievably, the XFX card is now $550.  But it’s not just the R9 280X models; the R9 290X cards (MSRP of $550) are now selling for $900Is that normal?  No.  What’s the reason?  Cryptocurrency.  And what exactly is cryptocurrency?  Well, I am really glad you asked.

Cryptocurrency is a form of digital currency that uses cryptography to manage the creation and transfer of money.  Although there are many cryptocurrencies, the most notable is bitcoin.  And apparently, AMD’s new GPU’s are extremely efficient at bitcoin mining.  Mining?  Yes – to obtain bitcoins, one has to purchase them, acquire them as payment for goods/services, receive them via a transfer from another person, or mine them.

A simplistic way of understanding “mining” is to view a user’s video card as an accountant (in a pool of accountants).  When a bitcoin transaction occurs, the video cards are used to process said transaction while also securing the network.  Participants in this peer-to-peer network are then paid in bitcoins for the “services” that their video cards provided.  And the cycle repeats for as long as the user runs the cryptocurrency’s software.

So, with the Radeon cards being excellent at mining, they keep selling briskly.  Which allows the retailers to markup the price.  However, the Bitcoiners keep buying.  And the prices keep rising.  The incredulous thing is I initially had zero interest in cryptocurrencies.  I only wanted to know why the R9 280X is 83% more expensive than it was in October.  But now, I’m wondering how much digital dough I can make with my GTX 460.

Dota 2: Game Designers Should Take Notes

When free-to-play games started gaining in popularity, I’ll admit I wasn’t too keen on the premise.  What’s the point of labeling something as “free” when a player is asked to purchase content to fully enjoy the game?  Sure, I could play a fighting game that has free access to one of the eight characters.  But eventually, I’ll want to buy an item: a new character, an alternate costume, an additional stage.  I know it, and publishers know it.  And in the end, I pay $5 here and $7 there until I have spent as much as I would have on a $40 retail game.

Truthfully, in most cases that is how owning a free-to-play game shakes out.  Dota 2, however, takes a different route.  Even though Valve decided to use the free-to-play business model, none of the important features are locked behind a paywall.  All 105 of the released characters are ready and waiting for any user to choose.  There is even content (like custom HUD’s and announcers) that can be bought by one player and then shared with others during a game.  And at any point, a player can trade or gift his/her purchased items to another user.

But more than that, Dota 2 feels like a complete game – no purchases necessary.  There are a few developers that understand the concept of genuine polish.  It’s that feeling you get when you’re using a piece of software and the attention to detail becomes apparent.  Valve has given Dota 2 that shine.  Now, some may whine (or in extreme cases, spam Volvo’s Facebook page) when weeks pass without new features being added.  But if Valve needs longer development cycles to competently produce a high-quality game, then I can manage my impatience.

And other Dota 2 players (and video game fans) should do the same.  Because that time is the difference between 105 characters being silent versus each having close to 300 distinct voice lines.  That care is what makes Valve rework the model of an unreleased character because the community doesn’t like it.  That dedication to detail is why I have played each character multiple times although a few don’t fit my play style.  Dota 2 is a work of art.  And yes, to show my support I bought a $10 item.  And I wouldn’t trade Blotto and Stick for anything!

The Superla-Techs: cache.cafe’s Year In Review

Welcome to the first annual cache.cafe Superla-Techs.  In the spirit of the holidays – and taking a cue from high school senior superlatives – here is my take on an awards ceremony meant to highlight 2013’s tech achievements.  So to all the winners, please feel free to take a bow.  For better or worse, you’ve definitely earned it.

Best All-Around: Valve.  For refining Steam, launching the Linux-based SteamOS operating system, developing Steam Machine gaming computers, and consistently releasing large updates for Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2.

Most Likely To Succeed: Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation 4 [TIE].  For selling millions of units only weeks after being on the market.

Most Popular: Apple’s iPhone 5s.  For outperforming all other smartphones.  Again.

Most School Spirit: Livescribe.  For being such big fans of Apple that the Livescribe 3 Smartpen is only compatible with iOS7 devices.

Most Athletic: NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 780 Ti.  For being a 7.1 billion transistor monster-of-a video card, consisting of 2880 stream processors, 240 texture units, 48 render output units, and 3GB of RAM.

Most Attractive: Ubisoft’s “Snowdrop” game engine.  For showcasing the potential of next-generation physics, lighting, textures, and particle effects in video games.

Most Intelligent: Intel’s Xeon E5-2687W v2.  For striking the perfect balance between brute force processing (eight cores and 25MB L3 cache) and blazing fast processing (3.4GHz frequency).

Most Reliable: Amazon.  For announcing Prime Air, a futuristic plan to have aerial drones deliver packages to customers within 10 miles of a fulfillment center (in under 30 minutes).

Most Unique: Google’s Chromebook Pixel.  For bringing a new contender to the premium laptop market, while scaring Apple and Microsoft into rethinking their strategies on operating system pricing and features.

Most (User) Friendly: Motorola’s Project Ara.  For promising users the ability to mix and match components to create their ideal modular smartphone.

Class Clown: Blackberry.  For taking a brand that was once synonymous with business smartphones, and making it the joke of the tech community.

~ Happy Holidays from cache.cafe!!!

8 Ways to Keep a Windows PC Running Smoothly

I recently had the “pleasure” of working on a Windows 7 laptop that had multiple issues.  Some were expected – outdated system files, corrupted shortcuts, viruses.  And others were not – even now, I’m trying to figure out how the user got multiple grains of rice underneath the keyboard!  So, with the holidays approaching, I figured it might help if I shared some tips that will keep a newly purchased Windows system purring for years to come.

Tip #1: Utilize Windows Update.  Just set Windows to update automatically (with daily installs) and let Microsoft handle the rest.  Quick and easy.  As a side note, it’s a great practice to regularly check for updates of all installed software.  Or better yet, set the software to check for updates automatically.

Tip #2: Take advantage of restore points.  When you are unsure how your system will react to an update of old software or the installation of new software, then create a Windows Restore Point.  If things go awry, you’re just a few clicks away from getting your computer back to its previous state.

Tip #3: Have a backup plan.  If you have any valuable files stored on your computer, then you should be using Backup & Restore at least once a month.  And just as important, you should be storing your files on a standalone or secondary hard drive (and not a second partition on your computer’s main hard drive).

Tip #4: Not all free software is good software.  When trying to decide if a free photo editor is worth your time, try browsing the developer’s forum.  There you should find unfiltered user feedback about the advantages and disadvantages of the software (and possibly, some developer feedback).

Tip #5: Do not trust the Internet.  If you see a popup while viewing a webpage, do not click on it.  Even if it’s a message about a required update for a piece of software that is on your system.  Simply close the popup, open a new window, and go to the software developer’s homepage to see if an update has actually been released.

Tip #6: Divide to conquer.  Whether you intend on installing multiple software packages or making numerous hardware changes, it’s best to take things slow.  Don’t install 5 new software suites simultaneously because finding the source of any instability will be tedious.  And don’t replace the power supply, hard drive, video card, and sound card all at once – divvy up the process to make troubleshooting errors much easier.

Tip #7: Verify what you’re getting.  Quite a few companies like to add in software during the download & installation process.  So make sure you’re paying attention to the boxes that popup (normally pre-checked) when you’re setting things up for the first time.  Otherwise, you may end up with McAfee Antivirus and Google Chrome in addition to the photo editor you originally wanted.

Tip #8: Give it some Spring cleaning.  Buy a can of compressed air and give your computer a nice spray.  For a desktop, open the case and pay attention to the power supply, hard drive, and case/CPU/video card fans.  With a laptop, focus on the air vents and hard drive/battery compartments.  And don’t forget to spray accessories like keyboards and drawing tablets.

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic . . . and Rendering

When you are a part of the tech industry, often times it is good to revisit past ideas.  For example, a year and a half ago I wrote a post filled with thoughts on how Microsoft could inject some oomph into the marriage of education and technology.  I was curious as to what would happen if a major tech company designed a new computing ecosystem centered mainly on students (and by extension, researchers).

At the time, I envisioned a Windows 7-based operating system, hardware components from HP and AMD, and a $699 price.  I summarized it as, “for $699 the buyer would walk out the store with a box containing the mini-desktop, a 21.5″ 1920 x 1080 LCD monitor (with webcam), and speakers.”  The desktops would then become the seeds that would grow into a new “computing community” for schools and research centers.

Well, I guess we can scratch all of that – (smile).  Just as technology products become outdated as soon as they leave the factory, so too do technology ideas.  With the announcements of Intel’s NUC, Xi3’s Piston, Valve’s SteamOS and SteamBox, Sony’s PlayStation 4, Microsoft’s Xbox One, and multiple versions of Chromebooks, I think it is time for me to fully reengineer my education-themed computing ecosystem.

First, we’ll have to say goodbye to Microsoft.  Windows 8 has rubbed quite a few consumers the wrong way.  And diehard techies have been championing Linux for years anyway.  So how about a polished, Arch Linux-based OS named “Papyrus”?  With software like OpenOffice, GIMP (photo editing), Blender (3D graphics), Ekiga (video conferencing), and VLC (media player), the system would still be full-featured.

On the hardware front, I would go with Dell to manufacture the box (while keeping the “Alkali” name).  And AMD would remain the CPU/GPU vendor of choice.  However, I now prefer a custom, low-power processor like what’s found in the upcoming consoles from Sony and Microsoft.  A 2.0GHz eight-core APU (containing 640 graphics shaders) would be robust enough to perform nicely in educational use cases.

Throw in 4GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive, and on-board Wi-Fi (while selling a 21″ monitor separately), and the mini-desktop would cost $399.  At that price it should not be difficult to find a university willing to do a pilot program.  Growing and nurturing a community of students, teachers, and researchers still sounds like a great idea.  And with a lower price and open software, how could anyone pass it up?