CategoryTechnology

Mini Gaming PC

Life has been pretty hectic for the past month or so, and things aren’t going to slow down back to normal soon, but I feel like I’m at least over the most difficult (foreseeable) part. That doesn’t really account for the apparent four month gap in posting here, but, you know, blogging isn’t at the forefront of my mind.

One of the things I never got a chance to blog about was my new gaming PC build. If I’m being totally honest, the machine I built in 2015 was still perfectly fine, especially with the GPU upgrade I did last year. However, with the release of the new Ryzens, I got the itch. Last year I got the same itch because I wanted to downsize my tower, but managed to hold off, so this seemed like as good a time as any to do a new build.

I originally tried to build the smallest PC I could with a full size GPU and an AIO liquid cooler using a Dan Case A4. That turned into a cabling nightmare, so abandoned that idea, sold the Dan Case, and went with a bigger mini ITX case, the NZXT h200. I am not normally a fan of cases with windows, but I decided to give it another shot. The jury is still out on how much it’ll annoy me when dust starts to build up, but I put substantial effort into cabling, thoughtful layout, and tasteful LEDs. The messiest thing about the build are the AIO pipes, but there’s only so much I could do with them.

Pics of that are on my Instagram.

I really dig the way it came out. Now I just need time to futz around with the 3D printer I bought two months ago…

The MacBook Keyboard Conundrum

After scouring Windows laptop reviews, deals, and new releases for more than half a year, and after buying and returning a 2018 Razer Blade 15 last summer, I finally broke down and bought a 2018 MacBook Pro (with Touchbar) late last year. I think at this point, you’ve all read reviews about these divisive Mac laptops, so let’s cover the basics in bullets and then address the meat of the divisiveness in full.

Pros:

  • Best-in-class trackpad. Period.
  • Aesthetically pleasing design paired with Apple’s usual craftsmanship and build materials/quality*.
  • Great battery life.
  • Runs MacOS. Look, I like Windows. I like Windows 10 a lot, actually. But I like MacOS better. Sorry, Microsoft.

Neutral:

  • Dongle-city if you don’t like or USB-C. This doesn’t bother me, as I rarely ever plug anything in my laptop that isn’t the charging cable.
  • Bezels aren’t big, but aren’t small. Looks a little dated next to its premium Windows laptop competition.

Cons:

  • Price. Any way you slice it, the MacBook Pro is more expensive than the most premium Windows laptops.
  • The Touchbar is indeed a gimmick that makes the whole machine cost more for no reason.
  • SSD and RAM soldered to logic board.
  • No touchscreen. There is no excuse for this in 2016, much less 2018. I will argue with you until I’m blue in the face that MacBooks need touchscreens.
  • Thermal design sacrificed for thinness.

Most of the cons are tolerable because the pros are so huge. The price I can swallow because I realize options are limited, and if I’m spending $1500 on a Windows laptop, I might as well spend $1900 and get the laptop I actually want. The Touchbar has other cons if you actually miss your function keys (I don’t) but I’d rather not pay $300 extra for something I don’t care about. Components not being upgradeable also adds to the price both upfront and down the road if those components need out of warranty repairs or force your hand in buying a new computer because you simply can’t deal with RAM or disk space limitations from when you bought your computer four years earlier. But again, I am fortunate in being able to absorb that blow, because I buy a new laptop around every three years anyway (with a warranty).

Sometimes I go to touch my MacBook screen and then I get sad, but I deal. I don’t run into thermal constraints too often considering my workload. While tradeoffs, clearly they’re not significant enough to affect my purchase, because the pros for me are pretty big. As much as there is a host of quality, non-Apple hardware out there, Apple has the market cornered on trackpad quality. There is simply no Windows laptop with a trackpad that comes anywhere close to Apple’s. Even if the feel and tracking quality gets really close, any trackpad that doesn’t allow me to get that physical-click feel anywhere on the surface feels broken by design.

But look, you’ve read the title of this article, and you know where this is going. This isn’t about trackpads or thermal design or Apple pretending like touchscreens can’t exist on their laptops. This is about keyboards.

There are two problems with the current MacBook keyboards (and all MacBook keyboards with butterfly switches), the first of which is that they’re objectively failure prone to the point where even the Wall Street Journal is chiming in on it with a remarkably well-done article. iMore claims that overall reliability has gone up, but keyboard reliability specifically has gone down. However, you’d be wise to note that David Hansson claims (and supports with “anecdata”) in the first article linked above that he doesn’t believe Apple is capturing the full extent of the keyboard problems in their metrics.

That’s the objective problem, and while my 2015 MacBook never experienced keyboard issues after I literally wrote several novels on it, the endurance of my new MacBook Pro is yet to be determined.

The subjective problem – and the thing I think is actually keeping more “regular” consumers away from newer MacBooks – is the feel of the keys themselves. Typing on a MacBook is not an ideal experience. Some people like the butterfly switches, so people hate them, and some people are pretty much indifferent, but the problem is exactly how divisive the keyboard is when it is the only keyboard offered in Mac laptops. If I like the Dell Inspiron but hate the keyboard on it, I can upgrade to the XPS or even the XPS 2-in-1, which both have different keyboards, or I can just go buy a Razer Blade or a Surface Book or whatever. In the Apple world, if you don’t like the butterfly switches, your alternative is a Windows laptop; there just isn’t a Mac option.

I am somewhat indifferent to the typing experience on the MacBook. I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it. Keep in mind, I say this having written multiple novel-length works with this keyboard. With that much typing experience, I believe I am particularly well-qualified to say just how mediocre this keyboard is to type on.

That said, I want to make it very clear that the keyboard isn’t all form and no function. Yes, Apple made the travel ridiculously short to shave millimeters from the thickness of the overall device when there was really no reason to do so, but the stability of the keys is much improved. In fact, in that aspect, the MacBook keyboards are similar to mechanical keyboards, but they are severely lacking in every other comparable measure to a mechanical keyboard.

When I type on other laptop keyboards, I always notice how loose the keys feel, which is similar to when I type on regular desktop keyboards instead of one of my mechanical keyboards and it feels like there is a layer of mashed potatoes underneath the keys. But that key travel, ugh. If only the travel was farther, it would be the perfect laptop keyboard.

I am lucky in that I can type on almost anything. I think it started when I got a Surface Pro 3 with a type cover before Microsoft vastly improved the type cover with the Surface Pro 4. It took a bit of adjustment, but I was able to type on it pretty quickly, and I wrote something like half a novel or so on it before getting the SP4 type cover. As I mentioned, I also have several mechanical keyboards, and I’ve typed on plenty of regular old membrane keyboards in my life, including one of those split, ergonomic keyboards.

For those that are not so lucky, their typing suffers greatly on the MacBook keyboard. The lack of travel doesn’t give their brains the feedback they need to properly register when keys have been successfully pressed, and with that lack of feedback, the rate of typos is greatly increased. If I’m being totally honest, in the first 5-10 seconds it takes my brain to adjust, I probably make a few extra errors when going from my mechanical desktop keyboard to my MacBook keyboard. If your brain doesn’t adjust, then those typos are just a fixture of the device.

Apple created this super low-profile keyboard originally for its 12″ MacBook – the thinnest and lightest laptop they make. Along with the low-travel keyboard, it has one USB-C port, it has a Y-series processor, and that’s fine, because it is filling a niche where those trade offs are acceptable.

But on the Pro series MacBooks? It’s just totally unacceptable.

In a world where the keyboards on these machines weren’t failing as often as they are, we would still have a totally objective problem. Apple is the only manufacturer for MacBooks, and making design decisions that alienate as many people as these keyboards have is utterly absurd.

I can appreciate elegant form-over-function decisions. Apple makes a lot of these, and while extremely utilitarian people may not be fans, subjective things are subjective. Whatever, it’s fine. But these keyboards are anything but elegant. The MacBook Pro is functionally too thin – totally ignoring thermal design – because the keyboard is crippling this machine.

I don’t hate this keyboard. I really like my MacBook Pro. But Apple has to redesign these things.

The post The MacBook Keyboard Conundrum appeared first on Philtered Tech.

Source: Philtered Tech

Goings On

I’ve been trying to keep up with blogging, and it’s been a little difficult, but I’m still doing better with updates lately than I have last year or probably the year before.

So, what has been going on?

  • I have a new favorite king cake (Cannata’s gooey butter amaretto cream cheese (*insert chef’s kiss here*).
  • I finished my anime rewatch spree (True Tears was about how I remembered it – fun ride, disappointing end).
  • Apex Legends has been a ton of fun, but I’m really looking forward to them adding more game modes
  • My goal to read more often feel through in a spectacular fashion, so I guess I am replacing it with “play Beat Saber for 30 minutes five times a week.”
  • We are going to Japan soon (I fly a lot, but I’ll admit having quite a bit of anxiety over this long as heck, trans-Pacific flight).

I still want to write a sort-of-review about the 2018 MacBook Pro, because I definitely have some things to say about specific aspects of the machine, but I don’t feel like writing a full review. Also, I’m sure the Japan trip will warrant its own post at some point.

Editing on Reiterate is going kind of slow. I’m at the point where I’m getting burned out on it (it happens when you’re reading and re-reading and re-re-reading), but I did I take a small break in between to write something new, which can be found in my last post. I was shooting for April or May to be done, but I can pretty much guarantee now that April won’t happen, and May probably won’t either. I’d rather be sure it’s the best it can be, though, so I’ve gotta finish my due diligence on it.

That’s all for now.

What’s wrong with HomePod?

When Apple announced the HomePod, I wasn’t particularly excited.  Honestly, I don’t think too many people were except for the hardcore fanboys and the handful of people that are concerned with privacy and security but still want a smart assistant device in their home.

After a slightly delayed launch, initial reviews raved over the sound quality and criticized Siri’s capabilities.  The consensus seemed to be “if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, you’ll probably like the HomePod.”

This is not a review of the HomePod’s technology because that can be summed up in a paragraph.

The HomePod sounds incredible and is super easy to use.  It shines as an AirPlay target for AppleTV, and the far-field mics can hear you whisper from across the room.  Bizarrely, Siri does not answer general knowledge questions on HomePod like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

There’s really not a whole lot else to say.  I could go on about how Siri is even more useless on HomePod than she is on iOS, or I could complain about lack of connectivity besides AirPlay – heck, I could whine about Apple Music being the only supported streaming service, but that’s not what this article is.  

The simple and honest truth is that every review was right – if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, the HomePod is incredible.  You already know Siri sucks, you don’t need Bluetooth since all your devices have AirPlay, and you probably have either Apple Music or music stored on your iPhone that HomePod can stream.

So why don’t we ever hear anything about HomePod anymore?  Why does it seem like the device isn’t selling well?

A common complaint about Apple products that I have seen for literally my entire tech-adjacent life is how overpriced they are.  10 years ago, I would argue that aside from the Mac Pro, Apple products weren’t overpriced – they were expensive.  That’s an important distinction, and back then, it was true.

These days, that’s not so much the case.  Apple hardware has slowly risen to absurd pricing levels, and while I’m not here to argue the value of the products or say that their pricing spells doom and gloom for the company, I am here to say how disappointing that fact is. 

The Sonos One supports AirPlay 2, has Alexa built in, and is currently on sale for $179.

I bought a HomePod on sale for $249 on Black Friday.  That’s a discount of $100 from Apple’s MSRP, which was a price that I simply could not justify.  At $249, it was still hard to justify, but at the very least, that sale did not price me out of the product like Apple’s MSRP did.  I simply was not interested at $349.

In the past, I always felt like I was paying a premium for a good product when I bought from Apple.  $249 for a HomePod feels like a premium, so what, exactly, is $349 supposed to feel like?

It’s no secret that Apple has been trying to increase their ASP (average selling price) across their line of products.  iPhones, iPads, and Macs cost more than ever, which means that Apple products are exclusionary.  That isn’t necessary as “evil” as it sounds, considering that with cheaper products, you’re paying less in money but more in data.  Privacy does have a cost, and cheap, privacy-focused products simply don’t seem to exist.

In all honesty, I could’ve written this article about any of the aforementioned products, but I chose HomePod specifically because it’s a new category that isn’t completely defined.  Apple can charge a premium for most of its products because people either see Apple as a market leader, a brand they trust, or just the trendy thing, and they will pay the price.  But for a category like this, it just doesn’t seem to be the best move. 

iPhone ASP courtesy of MacWorld

What’s wrong with the HomePod isn’t technical no matter how much anyone complains about Siri or what it lacks in connectivity – it’s the price.  At $349, I wouldn’t even consider buying one.  At $249, I’m considering how I could use a second one.

I suspect I’ll have a lot more to say about Apple’s higher-trending ASP in the near future.

The post What’s wrong with HomePod? appeared first on Philtered Tech.

Source: Philtered Tech

So, you want to buy a Windows laptop…

It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote about the incredibly lackluster laptop market, and I have to admit that as far as regular consumer laptops go, not a lot has changed.  Over the past half year or so, I’ve researched Windows laptops extensively, and guess what I ended up buying?

A 13″ MacBook Pro.  Sigh.

My new MacBook Pro

But that’s not really where the story starts.  No, instead this story begins around January when I decided that I’d probably be buying a laptop this year.  I’ve expressed my displeasure with Apple’s current laptops more than once on this site, and as a result, I set out to find a Windows laptop that would make me happy.

In the beginning, I was determined to buy a gaming laptop to replace both my desktop and my laptop, and after hours and hours of research, I narrowed my choices down the Razer Blade 15 and the MSI GS65.  In doing that research, I learned quite a few very alarming things about the Windows laptop market that I’ve been totally immune to since 2005 (when I bought my first Mac laptop).  Yes, I do have a Surface Pro 3, but I never really intended on that completely replacing my laptop.  Settle in, this is a fun list.

  • Trackpads on Windows laptop are either pretty good (read: not great) or awful.  You have to do research on every single model (even if you are just looking at Dell laptops) to make sure you’re getting a good one.  I would never buy a Windows laptop without a glass trackpad and Windows Precision Drivers, and even those are not as good as a MacBook’s.
  • Poor customer support/lack of local support options/quick turnaround for issues is a serious problem.  The best option seems to be buying from Microsoft with their Performance Guard warranty so you can return/repair/get help at Microsoft stores.
  • Screen/light bleed (bright spots on your display) is very common, but the quality varies a lot manufacturer to manufacturer.
  • Build quality varies wildly, including case flex (when the chassis gives if you press down on it) and screen flex, which I was horrified to learn was an actual problem in the Windows laptop world
  • A lot of Windows laptops have questionable cooling solutions and/or try to cram way too much hardware in way too little space, and, as a result, get pretty loud and hot.
  • No Windows laptop has speakers that come anywhere close to Apple’s.  Honestly, Apple’s laptop speakers are magic.  I have no idea how they manage that level of quality from those tiny speakers.
Razer Blade 15, fresh out of the box.

So, after considering all of this, I bought a Razer Blade 15 from the Microsoft Store.  I was drawn to the power and design, as Razer used a unibody design similar to Apple, and it had top-notch specs.  It didn’t solve two problems I have with Macs, though: the high refresh rate screen didn’t have a touch option, and the price was essentially equivalent to a 15″ MacBook Pro.

I brought the laptop home, got it setup, tried to play Fortnite on it, and the fans kicked on so loud that it was actually distracting me from the game.  That area above the keyboard was so hot that it felt like my finger was going to actually burn.  My device also had moderate screen bleed.

On the flip side, the design was “nice,” aside from the gamer-aesthetic Razer logo.  The trackpad was also probably the best I’ve used in a Windows laptop, maybe tied or slightly better than a Dell XPS.

But I returned it the next weekend.  It was too loud, too hot, and generally too imperfect to justify its price.  It was back to the drawing board.

I decided gaming laptops were clearly out, so next I’d find a good ultrabook.  I kept my eye on the Razer Blade Stealth, the Dell XPS 13, and sort of the Huawei Matebook X Pro.  Surfaces don’t have modern ports, and they’re expensive, so they were automatically disqualified.  Apple was also rumored to be updating the MacBook Air, which I was actually pretty excited about.

Then Apple released the update, and they used a Y series CPU.  Yes, I know it’s 7w, but I’m not buying a Y series CPU again.  Apple had once again disappointed me with their laptop offerings.

First off, the Huawei seemed like the best deal, but no matter how I tried to slice it, the design was such a personality-less ripoff and the device was known to have just enough common issues that I knew I’d be disappointed with it.  I didn’t want to have to take apart the laptop to put a piece of paper under the trackpad to make it not rattle, which is a very real and common thing people have to do with that computer.

Dell is also hard for me to stomach.  The XPS line is pretty nice – the design is premium, and it has personality; however, that personality is decidedly “Dell.”  The carbon fiber palmrest design and the general Dell aesthetic is not my thing.  Plus, I keep telling myself after all the issues I have with other Dell products in my life, I probably shouldn’t keep buying Dell stuff.

Finally, I wasn’t a fan of the bezels on the Razer Blade Stealth, but it seemed like the best option.  That is, until I found out all of the issues people seem to have with it besides Razer’s already infamous customer support.  Apparently the screen is prone to phantom touches, and it’s so common that people just disable the touchscreen and live with it.  Come on, this is totally unacceptable.

It was at this point, months later, that I gave up.  Apple does not make the laptop I need, but I was left with no other options.  I could either buy a laptop that had meh power but the right price point (MacBook Air), or I could buy a 13″ MacBook Pro, which had the power the Air should’ve had along with a bunch of other stuff I didn’t need and a price tag I didn’t want.

This was a long, difficult process for me, and I am a tech person.  I can’t imagine how frustrating this must be for the average person laptop shopping right now.  Apple really would’ve killed it if the MacBook Air would’ve come out at a lower price and also offered a U series chip at a mid-tier price point (~$1300).  That said, I do like the MacBook Pro.  I’m dealing with the keyboard and still trying to find a use for the Touch Bar, but I’m sure I’ll have a whole article about that later.

If you’ve gotten this far, sighed, and realized I wasn’t going to make a recommendation, don’t fret, here it is: if you don’t want a Mac, and you want an ultrabook, get an XPS 13.  The other options are just not suitable for most consumers.  If you enjoy or can deal with Dell Aesthetic™, the XPS 13 (and 15, for that matter) is a quality machine, and they will back it up with decent support.  Bonus points if you buy an XPS 13 at a Microsoft Store.  Heck, even if you don’t buy it there, I think you can still bring it in to them for free basic troubleshooting.

The post So, you want to buy a Windows laptop… appeared first on Philtered Tech.

Source: Philtered Tech

RIP Moisty Mire

My attention has been divided between this blog and a couple others (the bottom two on the side bar over there –>), but if you’ve been paying attention to those, you’ll probably notice that my activity on those has waned as well.  Most of my writing focus lately has been going toward the sequel to Iterate, which is actually coming along pretty well, but I’ve been sorely lacking in posting personal/life updates here, so I guess it’s time to do that.

I’ve been wanting a new laptop since the beginning of this year, and for the first time, it’s not because there’s a laptop out that I want.  Quite the opposite, it’s because I feel ready for a more powerful laptop than my 2015 12″ MacBook, but the problem is, there is literally not a single laptop on the market that I want.

I usually default to buying a MacBook when it comes to laptops because Windows laptops are kinda terrible, but I’m just not the biggest fan of Apple’s current laptops.  Now that they’ve updated the Pro models with a Touchbar and didn’t bother with the non-Touchbar version, which is literally the only laptop I’m interested in from them, they’ve just totally lost me.  But even before that update, I had given up and gone over to the Windows world for a laptop, and let me tell you, that market is a total and complete mess.

This is probably the wrong place for me to get into the details since I have a tech blog, but I’m gonna do it anyway.  The issues boil down to a combination of some (or perhaps all) of the following:

  • Poor trackpads, aka, “Does this laptop have a glass surface with Windows Precision drivers?”  This is a dealbreaker – don’t buy a Windows laptop that doesn’t have this if you plan on using the trackpad.
  • Poor customer support/lack of local support options/quick turnaround for issues
  • Screen bleed
  • Build quality, including case flex (does the chassis give when you press down on it) and screen flex, which I was horrified to learn was an actual problem in the Windows laptop world (can you tell I haven’t purchased one in a while?)
  • Noise tests (how loud do the fans get?)
  • Poor quality speakers (no one comes close to Apple here)

I pity anyone shopping for a Windows laptop.  I bought a Razer Blade 15 and returned it because it simply wasn’t worth the price tag for the heat/noise it generates.  And heck, now I feel bad for the pros that went out and bought the new i9 MacBook Pro, because I guess those are throttling hard (7-25-18 update: Apple has apparently fixed this with a software update yesterday).  But, at least if you want a Touchbar (or don’t mind paying the premium for one), you can buy a pretty decent 13″ or 15″ Core i7 model…so I guess that’s something.

Anyway, I gave up on that and instead just focused on my desktop.  I mounted a monitor arm on the wall next to the sofa, so now I can easily use my desktop while relaxing.  I also bought a GTX 1080, which I installed yesterday, so hopefully I’ll be set for another 3 years or so with that (my GTX 970 was just over 3 years old, and honestly would’ve still been fine had I not gotten into VR or wanted a 144Hz 1440p gaming monitor…).

I guess on that note, I’ve been playing a ton of Fortnite, so if you want to play together, hit me up on my mobile (that’s a little old person humor for you, the joke is that I’m old; social media is fine).  Oh, if you don’t read my tech blog, I guess I should mention that VR is awesome, and I’ve been playing Beat Saber almost every day since I got my VR headset.  It’s really cool, and the most fun I think is truly to be had with the games that are designed for VR rather than shoehorned to fit VR.  Fair warning about it, though:  I don’t have issues with nausea (the headsets are super fast and responsive these days) but some people still get motion sickness.

Anyway, here’s to hoping Apple releases a good laptop without a Touchbar that has at least a current generation Core i5 sometime in the next year so I can buy one.  Sigh.

Windows Mixed Reality – a look at the Lenovo Explorer headset

I’ve always thought augmented reality (AR) was the future.  I’ve mentioned it before on social media, I’ve said it on a podcast I used to co-host – AR is cooler and more important than VR.

However, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t see value in virtual reality.  In fact, I’ve wanted an HTC Vive from the moment I heard about them, but I refused to pay the $799 price tag.  Since then, I’ve maintained a half-watchful eye on the market, but I admit, I’ve been a bit curious every time I passed by the Microsoft Store and saw customers playing with the VR demo.  The wires always turned me off, and I told myself “I’ll get one when they’re way cheaper or when they’re wireless.”

Then, a couple weeks ago. SwiftOnSecurity tweeted this:

 

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Needless to say, I was intrigued.  Oculus Rift had come down to $399 and the HTC Vive to $499, but I still didn’t want to make that level of investment on a wired headset.  $199, though?  Take my money!

And indeed, they did, because I now have a Lenovo Explorer VR headset.  Well, I guess it’s actually a “Windows Mixed Reality headset,” but I’m a little unclear why it’s branded as that, considering it and other Mixed Reality headsets are all VR rather than AR, the latter of which is what the term “Mixed Reality” implies.  I suppose it could be Microsoft’s way of hyping “holograms” and all of the tech they’ve prepared for the Hololens without actually having a consumer-ready version of that product available for purchase.  If that is the case, it was wasted on me, because I’ve been ready for the Hololens long before I got this VR hardware.

Skyloft environment in Windows MR. Image courtesy of Microsoft

Windows Mixed Reality Headsets are compatible with Mixed Reality games in the Microsoft store, as well as Oculus and Vive games using Steam VR (you just have to download the Windows Mixed Reality program in Steam to get it to work).  Outside of gaming, Microsoft lets you interact with Universal Windows Apps inside of your own virtual reality house.  It’s honestly pretty cool, despite how incredibly useless it is.  But again, the novelty is still quite incredible.  It was the first thing I saw in VR, and my first reaction – and I imagine most people’s is as well – was just “whoa.”

Virtual reality has a lot of moments like that, not just when you first put on the headset.  The first time I “telepathically” controlled something, I got such a huge grin on my face.  The first time I shot a gun in VR, I couldn’t believe how incredible the tracking was.  The greatest thing about this headset, or any other one, is that once you try VR, the rest of the headset will sell itself to you.

There’s a lot of weird stuff with Windows MR, and I’m sure there are bits that may or may not apply to other VR headsets, but look, I’m just going to say this plainly and simply: virtual reality is incredible.  You’re going to keep reading this article and think, “wow, there’s a lot of weird stipulations and issues.  Is this even worth it?”  So just imagine it this way – after every negative thing or issue I mention in the rest of this article, imagine the sentence is followed with, “but VR is awesome, so you won’t care.”

I know, I know, that sounds like a wild assertion, but consider this: if you lived in an alternative universe where all smartphones had a one hour screen-on-time battery, took blurry pictures, and crashed about every 30 minutes, but they still gave you the whole app ecosystem and the ability to have the Internet anywhere, you’d probably still want a smartphone, right?  Having a communication tool like a smartphone in your pocket is incredible.  VR is the same, though not quite as life-changing.

So, that said, let’s dive a little deeper.

The hardware of the Lenovo Explorer has one major drawback, but it only affects some people.  There is no hardware adjustment for pupillary distance, so if you’ve got wideset eyes, you’re out of luck.  This headset will always be blurry for you in at least one eye, so you should definitely look into one with a hardware adjustable IPD.  This was not an issue for me, so no worries there.  It also doesn’t have a mic or speakers built in like many competing headsets do, but it’s got a headphone jack.

They only other negative thing I can say about the hardware is that the Lenovo Explorer’s (much less decently-priced) competitor, the Samsung Odyssey, has a slightly higher resolution.  As far as I know, most Windows MR headsets are 1440×1440 per eye, but the Samsung device is 1440×1600.  That’s not to say that the resolution on the Explorer is bad, but even having never used another VR headset, it’s clear that the resolution could be better (the lower resolution units create what people call the “screen door effect”).  I imagine this would only take away from the experience for you if you were used to using a headset with a much higher pixel density, but I don’t think such a device exists yet.  In the meantime, it’s such an immersive experience that I really stop noticing after a bit anyway.

Image courtesy of Microsoft

Microsoft has a Mixed Reality PC Check app that you can download to make sure your computer meets the minimum requirements, but I’d also note that a lot of people, despite passing the check, have issues with built-in Bluetooth adapters and end up needing to buy a Bluetooth 4.0 dongle (I got this one for a whopping $13, it works great).  The controllers eat batteries pretty quickly, so you’ll definitely want to buy rechargeable AA‘s and a charger.  Mixed Reality also requires Windows 10 with at least the Fall Creator’s Update installed, but the April 2018 update is highly recommended.

The other downside as far as hardware requirements go is that they’re…well, steep.  I built my gaming desktop three years ago using mostly next-to-best components, and my GTX 970 is literally the minimum requirement for most VR games.  I can’t play Fallout 4 VR or some of the other big name games that were ported over to VR, but I’m actually not super upset about that…yet.

Oh, and speaking of Fallout 4, even if you own it, you have to buy the whole game again to get the VR version, and this is true for most VR games I’ve found.  I understand that a lot of additional work goes into porting these games, but I own Fallout 4 and a season pass, and I feel a little cheated that I have to shell out $60 if I ever upgrade my computer and want to play it in VR.  I’d be fine giving them an extra $15, but come on, I’ve given you ~$75 already.

The software component is actually the biggest downside of Windows MR and the Lenovo Explorer so far.  It’s completely worth the hassle, but it is a hassle at times.  Part of it is that this is all new, and while it’s getting better, there are bugs, and the other part is the learning curve that comes with a new technology.  Some people have issues with the controllers connecting, some people have issues with SteamVR crashing, some people have issues with the boundary being lost – all of which are solvable, but frustrating things that I experienced.

Image courtesy of Microsoft

Because most people seem to need to buy adapters, you can’t forget to disable your built in adapter or it will stop your new adapter from working properly.  Sometimes SteamVR just crashes and you have to restart SteamVR, Steam, the MR Portal app, or your whole computer.  Oh, and the boundary?  That’s the thing that you trace in reality to tell you in VR where you can move in your room without bumping into stuff.  It’s really neat, but it requires a well-lit room and a floor with a distinguishable pattern, because besides the built in accelerators and whatnot, it also uses the front-facing cameras to determine your location.

It took me about 20 minutes of wracking my brains and googling to figure out why I was getting the “boundary lost” message (I had to turn on the lights), and though it seems obvious in hindsight, it is such a typical Microsoft error message, lacking the most basic instructions to fix it.  I’m sure it’s in the manual, but seriously, who gets a VR headset and sits down for an hour to read a boring book about it?

Within VR environments the biggest issue is locomotion.  It’s something that has yet to be solved in a great way that doesn’t also cause a large amount of users to get motion sickness, so as a result, most games use some kind of teleportation mechanic.  This is a very non-immersive solution, which sucks, but the other options are 1) make people sick or 2) don’t make games that require that kind of movement.

Option 1 has resulted in games like Pavlov VR, and option 2 has resulted in lots of “wave shooters” and games like Beat Saber.  If you’re unfamiliar, Pavlov VR is an online FPS that some Steam reviews call “Counterstrike for VR,” and it employs a locomotion technique where you basically just put you finger on the left touchpad to move around.  I tried it, and while at times it’s a bit disorienting, it didn’t make me sick, and I actually sort of liked it (I returned the game though, as I was stupidly hoping for more offline content, of which the game has almost none).

Superhot VR gameplay

Wave Shooters are games like Superhot VR and Raw Data, where you stand in one spot and shoot enemies as they approach you.  You can move around within the space you’re standing, but to, say, travel down a hall, you either teleport there, or your character is “on rails” and moves there automatically when you’re done with the current area.

Beat Saber is a rhythm game that takes advantage of limited physical movement, so while you don’t have to travel down a hall or anything, you do occasionally have to dodge or duck under obstacles that approach you.  This type of game works very well in VR, as do wave shooters, and while Pavlov VR was novel, I feel like maybe people are only playing it because it’s a VR shooter game, not because it’s necessarily a great game in general.  On the other hand, Beat Saber and Superhot VR aren’t good games with VR attached somehow – they’re good because they’re VR games.  That is to say, the best games I’ve played in VR so far are the ones that do things that you can only do with VR rather than ones that are traditional-style games adapted to VR.

Anyway, it’s easy to overlook the issues with VR when you put on the headset.  Even if it crashes one out of 10 times, or you have to unplug your cables and plug them back in 20% of the time, when it works, you just forget all of that.  I honestly can’t remember the last time a video game has wowed me as much as Superhot VR did.  Sure, I loved the last few video games I played (all Fire Emblem games), but it was a familiar, predictable experience.  Yes, I am admitting there is a lot of novelty with VR, which is one of the things I hate about Nintendo’s hardware every time they release it.  The Wii controllers were fun until they weren’t new anymore, then they became a detriment (in my opinion, at least).

Beat Saber gameplay. Animation courtesy of Road to VR.

The Wii succeeded in making games feel more immersive, but it only brought a part of that equation.  Sales were great, but anecdotally I believe that once the newness wore off, a lot of people used Gamecube controllers for pretty much anything besides Wii Sports.  In fact, if you look at the going price of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on eBay right now, the Gamecube version is going for about twice as much of the Wii version, the latter of which forced you to use the Wii controller.  Of course, correlation does not imply causation, blah blah, but the Wii version of the game is technically more modern and displays in 16:9, whereas the Gamecube version only does 4:3.  I don’t know why else the Gamecube version would be more popular other than the controller.

At the very least, I think this shows that for certain types of games, people don’t want gimmicks – they just want great gameplay.  This leads to a pretty obvious question: is VR just a gimmick?

I think it’s a fair question to ask, considering one of the reasons PC gamers prefer PC gaming is because a keyboard and mouse gives you much greater control over a game than an Xbox controller, and that is something that VR takes away.  While you can technically play some VR games with a controller on your PC, the experience is greatly diminished by not using the motion controllers.

If you ask me, a person who is as fallible as any other, I’d say that the immersive nature of VR sets it apart from a device like the Wii, whose gimmick was merely a controller.  You could also say that multitouch displays were a gimmick when the iPhone came out, because at the time, “real work was done on devices with keyboards.”  Clearly, touchscreens were no gimmick, and I think VR falls somewhere closer to touchscreens than the Wii remotes.  Windows Mixed Reality applications are very much a gimmick, because there’s very little practical application for them, but VR gaming is the exact opposite of that.

VR is one of those things that you can’t do justice by talking about, seeing pictures, or even seeing video.  It’s one of those things that you have to experience to understand.  If you have the resources, I’d encourage you to try it out, and let me know what you think.

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Hey Siri, why do you suck?

No matter where you stand on iOS versus Android or MacOS versus Windows or really Apple versus any other ecosystem, there is a universal truth that we can pretty much all get behind:

Siri sucks.

Techpinions recently posted an article on iPhone X customer satisfaction, and the graph details this truth pretty brutally – consumers are super happy with the iPhone X in every aspect except for Siri.  This has prompted a lot of extra opining on the subject lately by tech journalists, so naturally I couldn’t resist jumping into the fray myself.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t feel like tech journalists understand the plight of regular people, since most of them exist in a bubble in which they live and breathe any and all tech, which divorces them from reality at times.  This is another of those cases, because over and over again, when I hear tech journalists complain about Siri, it’s always something along the lines of, “Siri sucks because it doesn’t have enough access to your data.”  I have no idea where they are drawing this conclusion from, but it always drives the conversation to what Apple can give Siri access to in order to make it better, which is a terrible assertion and the wrong direction for the conversation to go in entirely.

Siri doesn’t need additional access to be better; Siri just needs to work, period.  The only thing Siri is okay at right now is setting reminders/timers, sending text messages, and controlling HomeKit accessories.  And while Siri is good at those things, even some simple commands throw it for a loop.  As I understand it, commands given to Siri get send to one of multiple Siri processing servers at Apple, and then a result is returned.  Sometimes, it feels like the fate of your command is dependent on which server it hits, because 9 out of 10 times, your command will process and work properly, but the 10th time, it won’t.

One wacky personal example of this was when my wife and I were headed on a weekend getaway to the mountains.  I activated Siri and said, “Give me directions to Lake Lure, North Carolina,” and consistently, multiple times in a row, it returned directions to a completely unrelated town in a totally different state.  There was no rhyme or reason to this.  This town didn’t sound anything like my command, Siri just straight up failed to get anything about my request correct other than that I wanted directions to a place.  Siri has navigated me to Lake Lure multiple times with no issue, but in this instance, it gave a completely bizarre response.

And it’s not just stupid failures of the server that make Siri dumb; she’s literally unable to do requests that feel totally obvious.

“Hey Siri, turn on the flashlight.”

“Sorry, I’m unable to do that.”

“Hey Siri, take a selfie.”

*opens the front facing camera, doesn’t take a picture*

These are both on-device commands which pose little to no privacy concerns.

Then, there’s one of the biggest complaints about Siri – general knowledge questions.  I’m not talking personal data, I’m talking, “What is the name of those gates in Japan?”  For this type of question, Siri will just do a Google search and display the top results.  The correct result is at the top, but this is entirely not useful if I’m driving or if I ask a HomePod or if I’m across the room.  Google Assistant, on the other hand, responds verbally with the correct answer and some information from Wikipedia, correctly identifying the answer to my question as “torii.”

Take note again, that question was not context based, nor did it require any sort of permissions to my personal data.  It was simply a request to find some basic data on the web.  Sure, I can ask Siri how tall Natalie Portman is, and she’ll answer, but that’s just par for the course.  If I can ask that, I should be able to ask other general knowledge questions like I can with Google Assistant, and the fact that Siri only sometimes knows the answer to my questions makes me less likely to try it for new things.

Why waste my time attempting to see if Siri will tell me what the fastest production car in the world is when it’s so inconsistent with literally everything else?  It will (surprisingly) answer that question, by the way, which is the saddest part of this situation.  Siri can do a lot of things that people don’t know about, but none of us are willing to waste our time with trying because of how often it ends up being a waste of time.

Quite frankly, I don’t care if Siri can’t tell me information about flights I booked or if it can’t give me contextual information based on the website I’m currently looking at.  Lacking the ability to do both of those things, which Google Assistant can do, is not why Siri sucks.  The fact that Siri keeps more data on device is great for users that care deeply about privacy, and I don’t think that’s something needs to change.

Making Siri better is not a matter of privacy versus convenience; it’s a matter of getting consistent performance, being able to do the things that you’d expect of a smart assistant (within the focused space of on-device privacy), and becoming better at answering general knowledge questions.

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iPads for education – good idea or bad idea?

Apple held an education event on March 27th, which is probably not a surprise to anyone reading this, nor is it any sort of breaking news that the biggest thing to come out of the event was a new 6th generation iPad with Apple Pencil support aimed at the education market.  This iPad is very similar to the low-cost, $329 iPad that was introduced last year, with a bump from an A8 to an A10 (not A10X) processor in addition to the aforementioned pencil support.  This new iPad still has a non-laminated display (which means there’s a small air gap), lacks ProMotion (Apple’s adaptive refresh rate technology that goes up to 120Hz), and doesn’t have the smart connector to snap a keyboard on, but for half the price of an iPad Pro, I do think it’s quite a bit more than half of the iPad Pro.

I don’t think a review of this iPad is super necessary, because anyone that buys one knows exactly what they’re getting – a really good iPad at a much easier to digest price point.  Again, it’s not the best iPad experience, just a really good one.  But this event wasn’t targeted to consumers, it was targeted to education, the market in which Apple (and Microsoft) are losing serious ground to Google on thanks to low-cost, easy to manage Chromebooks and Google Education offerings.

Apple’s sell on this new iPad was to this specific market.  For educators, the new iPad is discounted to $299 and the Apple Pencil to $89 (because of course, it’s not included).  There was a host of updates to iWork, including some fancy new annotations with the Pencil, announcements of 200GB of iCloud storage per student account, and a few other creative-type things relating to AR and eBooks, but the main takeaway here is that Apple wants to make their offering clear to the education market.

This is an opportunity to not only sell iPads, but to get kids in front of iPads that may otherwise not have been exposed to them, which could create a positive brand association down the line, ensuring future sales.  If that sounds dumb, my elementary school had Apple II’s and old Macintosh desktops, and when my parents bought my first computer (a Packard Bell running Windows 3.11), I was a little upset that it wasn’t one of the ones we had at school.  Granted, many kids today grow up with tablets, whereas kids from my generation probably didn’t have a computer at home until the late 90’s.

From a school’s perspective, there’s very little doubt that Chromebooks are still a cheaper option.  For the price of an iPad alone, you can get a pretty decent Chromebook with money to spare.  It may or may not have a touchscreen, but what it will have is a keyboard, and it won’t be nearly as fragile, which means it’s ready to go.  Apple’s big sell was pretty heavily reliant on the Pencil (or the $49, education-only Logitech “Crayon” that will be launching soon), and that still doesn’t include a Bluetooth keyboard to type on (since this iPad lacks a smart connector) or a protective case.

Speaking on terms of price alone, the Chromebook clearly wins, but Apple’s vision for the product goes quite a bit beyond the traditional idea of a computer in the classroom (and of course, Apple simply doesn’t compete on price).  I’m quite sure there are some really cool merits to giving kids the ability to create eBooks in their classroom, introduce them to coding with Swift Playgrounds, and maybe give them the ability to create music with GarageBand.  I would never downplay the importance of these tools, and if the iPad came with a keyboard, this entire blog post could basically be deleted from existence.

However, that’s a major issue from my perspective – this new iPad targeted to education does not come with a keyboard.  If we could somehow pretend that keyboards aren’t important anymore and that kids won’t break an iPad without a case, that would knock $99 off the total cost of these devices.  See, besides the $49 Logitech Crayon I mentioned earlier, Apple also announced a $99 Logitech-created rugged keyboard case, which brings the total up to $447 minimum to give students an iPad with a stylus and keyboard/protective case.  That’s more than double the price of many Chromebooks.  Education is a very price-sensitive market, and Apple’s offering is not just double the price, but double the price at education scale.  We’re talking $447 times hundreds of students instead of $200-250 times hundreds of students.  For a school of 500 kids at $250 a pop, that’s a difference of nearly $100k, and there are cheaper Chromebook options to make that rift even larger.

Keyboards are important.  Yes, touch is incredible, and it’s captured and redefined the world via mobile, but most kids will get jobs doing work that is still done with keyboards.  Really, the only job I can think of offhand that you can do entirely with a touchscreen is cashiering at a fast food place.

The eBooks Apple wants to help kids create, the coding they’re hoping to inspire kids to learn about – just try doing either of those things on an iPad without a keyboard.  You will drive yourself crazy.  Kids need to be taught how to type because content creation is severely restricted without a physical keyboard.  I like to think I’m a pretty forward-thinking person, and I can’t imagine a 12 year old kid today getting an office job in 10 years that doesn’t require them to create reports, type up long emails, work with spreadsheets, or a whole host of other things that are just incredibly difficult on a touchscreen and oftentimes impossible (read: unavailable) on iPads.

I know how slow corporate adoption can be, and even for the organizations that upgrade quickly, many are bound by the vendors that make the software.  Specialized software for niche markets is notoriously bad at updating, which is why so many machines out there still run Windows 7 and even Windows XP.

By not providing kids with keyboards, we’d be setting them up for failure, so these $299 iPads don’t cost $299, they cost $398, which at that point is already double the price of a Chromebook before you tack on the Crayon or Pencil.  Yes, Apple doesn’t compete on price, but this is not a market than can absorb Apple’s strategy for competition, save for some of the wealthier private schools (it should be noted that Apple held this event at a public school in Chicago).

Quite frankly, I have some concerns about Chromebooks for a similar reason – that kids aren’t getting exposed to the actual operating system they’ll be using once they get a job (most likely Windows, sometimes MacOS).  Hopefully this is an unfounded concern, or I’m underestimating the ability today’s kids will have to adapt from ChromeOS to a similar-but-very-different system, but this same adaptation simply doesn’t apply to my concern about using a real keyboard.

I suppose you can argue that there are plenty of successful people who employ the hunt-and-peck method of typing, but at least this method was honed on a physical keyboard.  Maybe they type one third or even half as fast the average WPM of a person that knows how to type properly, but the reality of that situation is still that they are not as prepared or equipped for the real world.  Heck, I even shudder to think of trying to take notes in college without the ability to type.  I suppose you can handwrite notes with an iPad and a Crayon/Pencil, but personally, I type about three times as fast as a I write.

This isn’t to say that Apple’s education strategy will be a failure for their business, but rather that I hope it’s not a failure for kids or schools.  Only time will tell in that aspect, but I guess on the bright side, the new iPad does seem like a solid purchase for consumers.

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Privacy in a data-driven world

The progression of advanced technology has rapidly changed our lives, most relatably in recent years with the advent of mobile technologies so advanced that PC purchases have been in decline year-over-year for some time now.  Yes, there are far more positive impacts than negative, but that doesn’t mean the negative should be completely downplayed.  While there are plenty of debates over what tiny screens in our pockets have done to us socially as a species, there are also many far-less controversial consequences, like distracted driving.

Today, however, I’d like to talk about one of those controversial impacts, and that is the issue of privacy.  The world has become very data-driven, for example, by services like Instagram, which is a simple photo-sharing app at face value, but is a huge sales and marketing tool for influencers.  We can now buy $50 devices that sit in our homes and react to commands to buy things and turn our lights on, and cameras on our phones are so good that owning a point-and-shoot digital camera these days is practically…well, pointless (pun intended).

But these things come with tradeoffs, and as we move further and further into this data-driven ecosystem, people are starting to become concerned about how much is too much.  Is it okay to put an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple HomePod in your home, knowing full well that those devices listen to you and have the potential to accidentally record and store much more data than intended?

"Hey wiretap, can cats eat pancakes?"
This image is, of course, ridiculous, untrue, and conflates compulsory government with voluntary enterprise, but it sure made the rounds on Facebook.

We know, almost certainly, that the Amazon Echo is not recording everything that a person says.  The way these devices work is by waiting to hear a specific waveform – that of your trigger word (“Alexa,” “Okay Google,” “Hey Siri,” etc) – at which point it records the sound that follows, sends it home for analysis to Amazon, Google, or Apple, then returns a result (this is also how assistants work on your phone).  They don’t record all the time (except when an error caused the Google Home Mini to do exactly that), or we’d know by sniffing the network traffic.

The reason I used the phrase “almost certainly” above is that there is always the possibility of the government forcing Amazon (or any of these companies) to record and store all listening data for a single user, but the instant a savvy user noticed increased network traffic and tracked it back to their voice assistant, it would be the biggest news story of the week.

People worry about these devices, and have every right to, because as consumers, we don’t completely understand them.  However, because of that very concern, worry is often misappropriated.  Take, for example, those that refuse to have a Google Home in their living room, but carry a Pixel 2 on their person at all times, so far as even keeping it on a night stand 3 feet away from their head while asleep.  This same concept applies to those that tape over the cameras on their laptops but would never do the same thing on their Galaxy S9.

It’s not a completely black and white issue, but if you are truly concerned about privacy, it would be foolish to take precautions like taping over your laptop camera and depriving yourself of modern home assistant technology, but not also take some kind of precaution with your phone – the most personal device currently imaginable (which, by the way, probably has at least 2 microphones and 2 cameras, minimum).

Consumers are almost always willing to trade a little privacy for convenience, which is why Google’s entire business model of knowing everything about you is working so well for them.  Conversely, there are still those that are concerned about these types of things going too far, and Apple has a model that is more friendly to those consumers.  Yet, either way, some privacy is sacrificed, or at least, the possibility of complete privacy is given up.  Even with a privacy-focused company like Apple, if you backup your phone data to iCloud, the government can subpoena that data from Apple, and they will provide it.  But does that mean you should never use a phone?

We should always be wary of what information we give to companies, because whether or not that info improves your experience with a product or service, it is almost certainly also being used to feed complex algorithms with ways to make more money from you.  On a personal level, I don’t particularly care if Google knows the area I work in so it can advertise relevant local eateries around noon, but some people take offense with this, even if the company is upfront about it.

Privacy is a difficult and delicate issue, but there is no blanket statement that those of us that understand the intricate details can provide to make the less tech-savvy make better decisions.  Unfortunately, I’d guess the lack of brevity tends to make people disinterested.  What we need to remember is that we shouldn’t oversell convenience without taking into account what our data is worth, but we also shouldn’t oversell the value of certain data that we can exchange for a greater amount of convenience.

If you’re looking for a takeaway, I’ll say this: being concerned about putting a Google Home in your bedroom is absolutely, completely valid.  Do your research, understand how it listens and responds, then make that choice, but also remember that your phone follows you around and your Google Home does not.  Mentally separating the two because your phone is more familiar is cognitive dissonance if you truly want to sacrifice convenience for security.

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