Monthly Archives: July 2011

Apple’s RAM upgrade prices are extortionate. Save money by buying elsewhere.

Last week I purchased a Mac Mini from the Apple online store.

The Mini comes with a minimum of 2GB RAM, but you can upgrade at purchase. 8GB of RAM adds £240 to the price, 20% VAT included.

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That struck me as expensive, so I purchased an 8GB Kit from Crucial, 2 x 4GB SODIMMs, DDR3-1333 PC3-10600, from Crucial. It cost me £55.19 including VAT though I should have waited: the price today is £49.19.

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If you purchase the upgrade from Apple, you just get 8GB. If you purchase the upgrade elsewhere, you end up with two spare 1GB sticks that you might be able to use or sell for a few pennies.

Upgrading the RAM on a Mac Mini used to be somewhat challenging, involving a putty knife, a certain amount of stress, and likely a few marks on your case. Now it is just a matter of twisting a cover on the underside and takes a couple of minutes.

The ex-VAT price is £200 from Apple versus £40.99 from a third-party. That can be expressed as a 487% mark-up. Of course we need to allow for the skilled engineering work in twisting off the cover and testing the RAM; or maybe Apple does this at the factory and has a pile of pre-configured machines; but then again I am sure Apple gets a better price on its volume RAM purchases than the rest of us can manage.

I would not blame anyone for going the safe route and ordering their upgrade from Apple, so as to be sure it is the correct part, correctly fitted. But Apple is taxing these customers heavily. The Mini is no longer good value with the official upgrade.

One thing in Apple’s favour though. I imagine it could have put some little chip into its official RAM that prevented standard parts from working. At least it has not done that.

Review: Hands On with the HP TouchPad

When I saw HP’s TouchPad on display at the Mobile World Congress last February I thought it looked good and wanted to have a closer look. I have been doing so for the last couple of days. The TouchPad is a 9.7” tablet similar in size to Apple’s iPad and iPad 2. It comes with 16 or 32GB of storage, 1024x 768 display, wi-fi, Bluetooth, dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.2Ghz processor, and front-facing camera. Battery life is up to around 9 hours. The TouchPad runs WebOS, the operating system acquired with Palm, and which seems to form the basis of HP’s mobile device strategy.

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Since a large part of HP’s business comes from selling and servicing Windows servers and PCs, it would make sense for the TouchPad to have excellent support for Microsoft’s platform. Then again, why is it running WebOS and not Windows? There are several reasons. First, Microsoft refuses to allow the Windows Phone 7 OS to be used in a tablet form factor, and the first tablet-friendly Windows OS will be Windows 8 which is not yet available. Second, HP has been down the Windows Mobile track before, and seen Apple takeover the market.

HP has good reason therefore to take a non-Microsoft approach to mobile. However, you can see in the TouchPad the downside of that decision. Exchange support is good, but SharePoint support non-existent. The TouchPad makes a terrible client for Office 365. There is no sign of Microsoft Lync or even MSN Messenger in its messaging account options:

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Why does this matter? Well, in the end the question is why you, or anyone, is going to buy an HP TouchPad rather than one of its competitors. There is a gap in the market for an business-focused tablet with strong support for Microsoft’s platform, and I wondered if HP, with its strength in that market, might fill it with the TouchPad. In this respect it is a disappointment. It is behind Apple’s iPad, which lets me open and save documents from SharePoint via WebDAV, and edit them in Pages or Numbers; and even the iPad is weak in this area.

Look and feel

I hate making constant comparisons with Apple’s device, but it is hard to avoid because it sets the standard at this price level. With its rounded corners and glossy black finish, the TouchPad is OK but feels inelegant and chunky in comparison to the iPad 2. For example, both the iPad and the TouchPad have a single recessed button that acts as a kind of home key. On the iPad it is a round button that fits your finger nicely; on the TouchPad it is rectangular and slightly sharp-edged, and therefore less pleasant to operate. A tiny detail, but one that when combined with others makes the TouchPad feel less well designed.

More seriously, the touch screen seems less responsive than that on the iPad. This may be as much to do with software as hardware, but sometimes taps seem to get lost. I also had difficulty with the screen rotating at the wrong moment; this can be a problem on the iPad too but seems worse on the TouchPad, though you can lock the screen if it gets too annoying. Sometimes the screen flickers slightly; this may be to do with power management but it is unpleasant.

On the plus side, WebOS has a card-based interface that works well. Each app shows as a card when not full screen, and you can flick between cards to select a running app, or flick the card up to close it.

Another plus is the Touchstone accessory which does wireless charging; a great feature though this was not included in the review sample.

Setup

Setting up the TouchPad was straightforward, though I saw more of the spinning wait circle than I would have liked. You are required to set up a WebOS account, but there is no requirement to enter credit card details until the point where you actually want to buy an app. I did twice get the message “we are unable to create an account for you. Please try again in a few minutes or contact HP for help,” but third time was lucky.

My next step was to connect to Exchange. The TouchPad absolutely refused my first attempt because it did not trust my self-signed certificate. By contrast, most devices merely throw up a warning and then let you continue. I fixed this by going to Settings – Device Info, which has a Certificate Manager in its drop-down menu. I copied the certificate to the TouchPad over USB and then installed it.

Exchange worked OK after that, though the mail client is sluggish. I do not know if it is related, but soon after setting up Exchange I got a “Memory critical, too many cards” message and the TouchPad pretty much died, though it revived after a restart.

I also added accounts for DropBox and for Box.net, both of which offer cloud storage and synchronisation.

Finally, I added some music. I installed the beta of HP Play, which is a music player and library manager. Once installed, you can drag music to the HP TouchPad when connected over USB.

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This worked; but with hindsight I was nearly as well off copying MP3 files directly using Windows Explorer. The main benefit of HP Play is drag-and-drop playlist management. You can also set up auto-synchronisation, but I turned this off as I prefer to select what goes on the device manually.

Sound quality on the TouchPad is decent even using the internal speakers. Here is one way in which the TouchPad improves on Apple’s iPad, though the difference disappears if you use external speakers or headphones. Formats supported are DRM-free MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR, QCELP, and WAV. No FLAC which is a shame.

The printed user guide for the TouchPad is just a few pages, but there is a detailed manual you can download – recommended for TouchPad owners.

Apps

A selection of apps comes supplied with the TouchPad.

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I am interested in Quickoffice, which lets you view a wide selection of document formats, but sorry to find that all documents are read-only. Adobe Reader is also installed. Printing is supported, as you would expect from HP, but my network printer is a Canon and does not work with the TouchPad.

The web browser is based on WebKit and includes Adobe Flash 10.3 but not Oracle Java. The Youtube “app” just links to the Youtube web site – what is the point of that? BBC iPlayer work nicely

Maps is Bing Maps and looks good, with options for Satellite and Bird’s Eye views as well as “Show traffic” which is meant to indicate which roads are busy but did not seem to work for me. You can also get turn by turn directions.

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You can install new apps by going to the Downloads screen and tapping HP App Catalog.

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The selection of apps is weak though, especially in comparison to iPad or Android. HP needs to attract more developers to WebOS; but they will only come if HP can make a success of the devices.

Amazon Kindle is meant to work on the TouchPad but is nowhere to be seen, although it is referenced in the user guide. Apparently it has appeared for US users.

Conclusions

My immediate impression of the HP Touchpad is that it is promising but not yet good enough to win much market share, especially given that the price is similar to that of the iPad. At the time of writing, the TouchPad costs around £400 for the 16GB version, as does Apple’s iPad 2.

That said, there are a few reasons why you might want one of these:

  • Printing to HP printers
  • USB Drive support when attached to a PC or Mac
  • Adobe Flash
  • Multi-tasking with WebOS card interface
  • Wireless charging
  • Integration with HP Pre 3 smartphone
  • Above average sound quality

None of these strike me as a must-have, but there will be scenarios where they tilt the balance in favour of the TouchPad.

The problem with the TouchPad is that it is insufficiently distinctive from Apple’s offering, but its usability and performance is in most respects less good.

The promise is there; but can HP get enough momentum behind the platform to attract a stronger set of third-party apps, as well as fine-tuning the performance and design?

I am doubtful. HP, like RIM, is going to have difficulty maintaining its own mobile platform. In the end it may have to either join the Android crowd, or mend its relationship with Microsoft.

Thanks to Dabs.com for supplying the review loan.

Nokia results: demonstrating the Osborne effect?

Here’s Wikipedia:

The Osborne effect is a term referring to the unintended consequence of the announcement of a future product ahead of its availability and its impact upon the sales of the current product.

The reference is to Osborne Computer Corporation, a pioneer of early personal computers, which announced the next generation of its range long before it was available. Sales of the current model immediately dived, and the company went bankrupt.

In February this year, Nokia announced that it was abandoning its Linux-based MeeGo smartphone OS, then in development, and that Symbian would be reserved for low-end phones. Its future smartphone strategy will be based on Windows Phone.

Now here come the results:

The challenges we are facing during our strategic transformation manifested in a greater than expected way in Q2 2011.

says the release, which report an 11% decline in sales quarter-on-quarter and an operating loss:

In the period from January to June 2011, net financial expense was EUR 74 million (EUR 141 million). Loss before tax was EUR 141 million (profit before tax EUR 632 million). Loss was EUR 261 million (profit EUR 279 million), based on a loss of EUR 24 million (profit of EUR 576 million) attributable to equity holders of the parent and a loss of EUR 237 million (loss of EUR 297 million) attributable to non-controlling interests. Earnings per share was EUR -0.01 (basic) and EUR -0.01 (diluted), compared with EUR 0.16 (basic) and EUR 0.16 (diluted) in January-June 2010.

Would these results have been better, if Nokia had not bet its business on Microsoft’s mobile OS back in February? My guess is that they would. Nokia in effect announced the obsolescence of all its current Smartphone range. Smart device sales are down 32% year on year.

Still, even the Osborne effect does not account for the decline in its sales of feature phones, down 20% year on year and 25% quarter on quarter. This is what Nokia says:

The year-on-year and sequential declines in our Mobile Phones volumes were driven by distributors and operators purchasing fewer of our mobile phones during the second quarter 2011 as they reduced their inventories of those devices which were slightly above normal levels at the end of the first quarter 2011. In addition, our lack of Dual SIM phones, a growing part of the market, until late in the second quarter 2011 adversely impacted our Mobile Phones volumes during that quarter. Mobile Phones volumes were also adversely affected by continued pressure from a variety of price aggressive competitors.

Despite the grim figures though, it is too early to pronounce the failure of CEO Stephen Elop’s strategy. After all, no Nokia Windows Phones are yet on sale. The company must be hoping to hang on until it has a decent range of Windows Phones, and for Microsoft to grow its mobile market share dramatically above what it is currently.

Should Nokia have chosen Android rather than Windows Phone? Android’s extraordinary growth suggests that it should; yet there are signs of significant copyright and patent trouble for Android, and by attaching to Android Nokia would have been a me-too behind more established vendors such as Samsung, HTC, and nearly everyone else.

Should Nokia have persevered with MeeGo and Symbian? Although early MeeGo devices are winning praise, I doubt that the OS would have challenged Android and iOS; but that is open to speculation.

The problem for Nokia is that if it was going to make a radical platform shift, some degree of Osborne effect was inevitable. Adopting Windows Phone could not have been done in secret.

That said, perhaps the company could have been smarter. Rather than laying all its cards on the table, could it have announced a Windows Phone strategy alongside MeeGo and Symbian, adopting a more gradual approach to avoid shocking the market?

It is also worth noting that Nokia’s problems started long before the arrival of the new CEO. What we are seeing now is the playing out of old mistakes, not just the impact of what may be new ones.

However you spin it though, the new Nokia is a lesser thing than the Nokia of old, which commanded rather than followed the mobile market.

Apple’s new Mac Mini ditches DVD drive, promotes App Store

Apple is now selling a new range of Mac Mini computers with Intel Core i5 or i7 processors and a Thunderbolt port.

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There is also an HDMI port for connection to an entertainment system, FireWire 800, 4 old-style USB 2.0 ports – not USB 3.0, presumably to focus on Thunderbolt – and an SDXC card slot.

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There is one thing missing, though, which is the DVD drive. Want to rip CDs, play a DVD, or install an application from optical media? Here’s what Apple says:

With the Mac App Store, getting the apps you want on your Mac has never been easier. No more boxes, no more discs, no more time-consuming installation. Click once to download and install any app on your Mac. But if an app you need isn’t available from the Mac App Store, you can use DVD or CD Sharing. This convenient feature of OS X lets you wirelessly “borrow” the optical drive of a nearby Mac or PC. So you can install applications from a DVD or CD and have full access to an optical drive without having to carry one around.

Of course you can also purchase an external optical drive, though hanging a device like that off the Mini so spoils the attraction of its small size.

By omitting the optical drive, Apple is also promoting its App Store over shrinkwrap software. This is good for usability, and means the user will get the latest version of the application rather than having to update immediately, as is often the case with shrinkwrap installs.

A side-effect though is that more transactions are subject to Apple’s cut of the sale price. Third-party resellers are hammered. Further, Apple gets to approve what software appears in the store.

The desktop Mac is unlikely ever to be locked down like the iOS devices; though it would not surprise me if some future Mac Mini actually does run iOS rather than OS X. Nevertheless, you can see how well this plays into the overall strategy.

Renault’s electric Frendzy includes RIM Playbook, external 37” screen

I am not a motoring journalist, but this is a car I would like to review. Renault’s Frendzy, which will be shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September, has several notable features:

1. It’s electric

2. An asymmetric design in which the passenger’s side represents business, and the driver’s side leisure.

3. An external 37” widescreen display embedded into the passenger side door, which is a sliding affair with no window.

4. A dock for the RIM Playbook.

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The Playbook does obvious things like navigation, but also more than that:

As soon as it is plugged in, it becomes an integral element of the vehicle and configures itself into the Renault environment. Continuity of work is assured once the device is removed, and it can of course be used for all of the renowned BlackBerry PlayBook tablet features.

The device has an important role to play, too, in the customization of the vehicle as it controls the exterior screen while the vehicle is in motion and when parked, for business as well as for personal uses – pictograms illustrating life with electric vehicles, or the viewing of a film, for example.

says the release.

5. RFID sensors in the door sills. If you are delivering goods that have RFID chips, you can have a truly intelligent courier service. The packages can inform the vehicle of their destination, talk to the navigation system to display the route, and I presume could even raise the alarm if you drove away from the destination having forgotten to deliver parcel 3 of 3.

All cool; and I have not even mentioned the interior lighting can be switched from green for work to orange for leisure.

At the same time, I have some questions.

I am not sure whether giving the driver easy access to a full-featured tablet is wise, as I would rather he concentrated on driving rather than posting messages to Facebook or engaging in the latest MMORG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game).

It also seems a bit of a waste having the 37” screen external. I can see the sense for advertising, though having the screen on the side means it will be more visible to pedestrians than to other motorists, and is even 37” really big enough to get a message across at the kind of distance that will be typical? Renault says:

… a large external screen that can display useful messages or information (such as “making deliveries” or “back in five minutes”, the battery-charging method or the remaining charge) or advertising messages, either whilst parked or on the move.

I am not sure that I really want to tell the world how low my battery is.

The one thing you cannot do with the external screen is watch a film on it, unless you park and have a picnic I guess, though not to worry:

Depending on their mood of the moment, children can watch a film or play games on the touch-sensitive pad which slides out from the back of the driver’s seat. They can even draw on a special slate integrated into the sliding door.

Finally, I am amused by the trouble Renault has taken with the sound scheme – yes, since electric vehicles are inherently silent but need to make a noise for safely reasons, even the sound has a personality:

FRENDZY’s dual personality prompted Renault and IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique / Musique) to develop a broad range of sounds. The programme has led to a variety of sounds that are emitted both inside and outside of the vehicle to ensure that everyone can tell whether it is in business or passenger car mode, thanks simply to its sound signature.

More information on the Frendzy is here.

Now you can rip SACDs

Sony’s Super Audio CD (SACD) is an audiophile format featuring high resolution and multi-channel sound. The discs are are copy protected, and until now it has not been possible to create an exact copy. Of course you can capture the analogue output and re-digitise it, and certain players from manufacturers such as Oppo enable you to capture digital output converted from Sony’s DSD (Direct Stream Digital) format to high-resolution PCM (Pulse-Code Modulation); but still, it is not an exact copy.

Ripping an SACD is still not that easy. The crack depends on getting hold of an early model of the PlayStation 3 that has not been updated to the latest firmware. Recent PS3s do not play SACD at all, plus you need firmware of 3.55 or lower, before Sony removed the capability of running an alternative operating system. There is no downgrade path, so it is a matter of scouring eBay for one that has not been updated.

Once you have the right hardware you can follow the instructions here  to rip the SACD:

SACD-Ripper supports the following output formats:
- 2ch DSDIFF (DSD)
- 2ch DSDIFF (DST) (if already DST encoded)
- 2ch DSF (DSD)
- mch DSDIFF (DSD)
- mch DSDIFF (DST)
- mch DSF (DSD)
- ISO (due to the 4GB FAT32 size limit on the PS3, files will be splitted when larger)

There is some discussion of the procedure here from where I have grabbed this image:

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Is it worth it? Good question. There are SACD enthusiasts who swear that DSD reproduces sound with a natural fidelity that PCM cannot match. On the other hand, researchers conducted a test showing that listeners could not tell the difference if the output from SACD was converted to CD standard PCM. I have also seen papers suggesting that DSD is inferior to PCM and may colour the sound. Expect heated opinions if you enter this debate.

Nevertheless, there are many great sounding SACDs out there and the format is not completely dead. Universal Japan, for example, issues SACDs made of SHM (Super High Material) at premium prices, and whether it is thanks to the super super technology, or simply clean mastering from good tape sources, these are proving popular within the niche audiophile market.

The fact that these discs cannot be perfectly ripped is part of the appeal from the industry’s perspective. Now that is no longer the case, and the torrent sites will be able to offer DSD files with full SACD quality.