This is the last day of the All Things Digital site, which began life in April of 2007 as a year-round extension of the D conference we launched in 2003. Since then, we have published nearly 40,000 posts and attracted millions of loyal readers.
Starting January 2, we’ll have an all-new site and suite of conferences, with a different name and Web address, run as an independent company with great investors and partners. It’s likely that you’ll hear a lot about it.
But before we go — this will be our last post here, by the way — we want to say we are intensely proud of what we did on this tech and media news and analysis site. And as we reach the end, we’d ask you to indulge us in a moment of sentimental reflection.
When AllThingsD began, we told readers we were aiming to present a fusion of new-media timeliness and energy with old-media standards for quality and ethics. And we hope you agree that we’ve done that.
Over the years, we’ve had numerous scoops, influential reviews and thoughtful analysis pieces. We have been the first to tell you what was going on inside the big tech companies, from Google to Microsoft to Amazon; what stealthy startups were doing and who was giving them money; and even exactly when Apple was introducing its next iDevice.
We have also explained in plain English what the mobile carriers and the e-retailers, the TV networks and cable companies were really doing — even if they said otherwise.
And we’ve tested hundreds of new products and services to tell you whether they were any good, from game-changers like the iPhone a couple of months after our site began, to a Bluetooth basketball last month.
We’ve also done what we humbly regard as some of the funniest liveblogs in the industry, and have brought you all the video and commentary for our own D conferences, all 11 of them. From the historic joint interview of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates a month after our site’s launch, through the carousel of CEOs at Yahoo, and many other memorable interviews, we think we have helped deliver some great moments in tech over the last decade.
As for that ethics thing, we’ve innovated there, as well. We introduced a transparent drop-down warning to all new users, cautioning them about tracking cookies. We placed a link to an individual ethics statement next to every writer’s byline. And we banned personal attacks and self-promotion from our comments. We also held stories until we were sure they had multiple solid sources, and killed them when they didn’t.
But what has always made us most proud over the years has been our stellar staff, which — although one of the smallest among tech sites — has worked brilliantly together, and punched far above its weight.
But now it is time to bid farewell to All Things Digital in all its incarnations. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading this site as much as we’ve enjoyed producing it.
As we noted, we are deeply grateful to our small but mighty team of writers, editors, developers, conference producers and business folks. And we thank Dow Jones for giving us the chance to run a small, entrepreneurial business inside a very big media company.
Most of all, we are in your debt for being our readers, and we hope you will follow us to the new site and conferences.
Because — in taking a page from the tech industry we cover — it’s once again time to refresh, reimagine, remake and reinvent. (You’ll see what that means soon enough.)
Before we end our reign of terror, oops, tech at AllThingsD, I wanted to post a few of my favorite videos from D: All Things Digital conferences that we have done since 2003.
While we are proud of all we have created on the news site, I think it is fair to say that the conferences have also been pretty dang fine and moreso taken as a whole. While others may try to trot out the phrase going forward, I think it’s fair to say we have owned “all things digital” for the last 11 years.
We’ve had a panoply of bigs in tech and media up there over those many conferences, all sitting in our signature red Steelcase chairs, with some memorable moments, including:
More than a half-dozen appearances by the late, great Steve Jobs of Apple, including an joint interview with Microsoft’s Bill Gates; the famous hoodie incident with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who managed to ably recover from the very sticky situation; the testy interview with former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina; the hysterical one with former Sony head Howard Stringer; the sassy one from former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz; the future-is-here one with former DARPA head Regina Dugan; the silent-off with former Groupon CEO Andrew Mason; the geek-out with Hollywood director James Cameron; the epic Elon Musk chat from last year, he of SpaceX and Tesla.
We did not publish the videos for the first five conferences, as we did not have a site to post them too, but here are my top seven from each year we did, all joint appearances with Walt Mossberg, as well as one each from the smaller Dive and other conferences, featuring Peter Kafka, Liz Gannes and Ina Fried.
Hands down, the historic — and decidedly poignant — joint interview of Gates and Jobs:
New Corp’s Rupert Murdoch in a surprisingly — to the crowd, at least — avuncular mode (this is part one of six — here are the rest):
Twitter’s Biz Stone and Evan Williams in simpler days:
Zuckerberg and the hoodie that saved the day:
Browser man and VC Marc Andreessen on software eating the world:
Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel is not shy:
Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk is Tony Stark:
Dive Into Media (2012)
Rust never sleeps for Neil Young:
Dive Into Media (2013)
Vice’s Shane Smith and CollegeHumor’s Ricky Van Veen are also not shy:
Dive Into Mobile (2010)
Google’s Susan Wojcicki is the most powerful Internet exec you don’t know as well as you should:
Dive Into Mobile (2013)
Google’s Eric Schmidt will take your questions now:
Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square is very inventive:
Netflix’s Reed Hastings knows video:
Twitter’s Dick Costolo is the fashion police of Las Vegas:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.”
Actually, I don’t sleep, since I am a blogger and, as you all must realize by now, a sparkly vampire, too.
Thus, like the undead, we’ll be reanimated in another form and with a new name right quick. And, not to worry, the archives of what we have written since mid-2007 will also forever remain as definitive proof that we existed, thanks to the hard workers at the NSA in its ongoing quest to suck every digital scrap it can find!
But before The Wall Street Journal redirects this site’s URL to its own tech coverage, here are some stories by John Paczkowski, the very first editorial hire Walt Mossberg and I made here, as well as some choice bits by me over the years (Yahoo, Yahoo and, well, mebbe some Yahoo, too!).
Key lines: “With handheld sales that fell by more than half year-over-year in its first quarter, HP is surely looking for a way to revive them and capture a larger portion of the important mobile market. Acquiring Palm could be a good way to do it.”
Key lines: “Google had finally acknowledged that its search results were no longer solely and automatically determined by the company’s vaunted algorithms. Now they simply “relied heavily” on them. Why the sudden change?”
Key lines: “Despite a slew of evidence to the contrary — plunging market share, rapidly deteriorating fundamentals, mass layoffs and a stock that’s falling like a knife, Research In Motion’s got a bright future ahead of it. This according to CEO Thorsten Heins, who says RIM is headed for a rebound, not certain doom. In fact, he crowed in an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail, ‘We expect to empower people as never before.’”
Key lines: “Here’s a potentially noteworthy development in the patent litigation-riddled mobile device market. Last week, the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued a very broad patent on motion-based smartphone control, one that could have significant implications for the industry.”
“One could say hindsight is 20-20, of course, but what made me sad about the sale — and I was very sad when I heard of it — was that these laudable and smart people could not seem to figure it out, and had to turn to a magical Internet wizard to do so. In the coverage, that sentiment was echoed again and again — that you would somehow conjure up a series of fantastic new news products that would capture the imagination of all and return the paper to its former glory.”
Key lines: “[CEO Carol] Bartz then asked the question: ‘What have we done to re-engineer Yahoo?’ She reeled off a list she has repeated many times before, the point of which was to let us all know she has been mighty busy cleaning up the big mess she had to deal with on arrival. So lay off, all you naysayers! It’s kind of like what President Barack Obama is saying these days, as he looks forward to huge political losses in the upcoming election. It’s apparently a disciplined approach. “First you walk, then you run.’ Then, she added, you FLY! Don’t look down, Carol!”
Key lines: “‘Your bachelor’s degree is in accounting and computer science. Now, from both of those, I mean that’s, that’s pretty obvious that’s PayPal,’ said [Moira] Gunn. ‘What are the most important things you learned?’ ‘Yeah,’ begins [Yahoo CEO Scott] Thompson, failing to correct her at all on the fact that he does not actually have a computer science degree — only one in accounting.”
Key lines: “First, my initial reaction when I first heard about the deal: Ugh. Sigh. Hopelessly corrupt. Now 100 percent more icky! A giant, greedy, Silicon Valley pig pile. I was upset. By early evening, after my kids told me to chillax, my dark mood had changed to accept that the transaction — however profoundly distasteful to me — was part and parcel of the insidious log-rolling, back-scratching ecosystem that has happened in every other center of power in the universe since the beginning of time. And so it goes in Silicon Valley.”
On Dec. 31, at the stroke of midnight, All Things Digital will be no more.
Of course, the archives of what we have written since April of 2007 — close to 38,000 posts — will remain in the digital ether for your perusal (thanks, Edward!). And, as has been reported elsewhere, the whole staff of AllThingsD is reportedly moving on to a new online tech and media news effort with new investors and a new name (ironic, we know, but no comment from us!).
While we are not exactly sentimental types, I asked the crew to come up with a few of the stories they liked best from their tenure. I am posting them here, three AllThingsD writers today, three tomorrow, three on Saturday and two Sunday. (Note: I have not included Katherine Boehret and Walt Mossberg, as they did roundup pieces already for this site and The Wall Street Journal.)
And, on Monday and Tuesday, I will round up the really remarkable highlight videos of 11 years of D conference speakers.
Without tooting the horn too much, using tools of accuracy, fairness, quality and more than a little humor, you will see via this small sampling of stories a staff that has truly distinguished itself over the nearly seven years in bringing its audience the very best in news and analysis. I have posted only a handful for each, but it should give you a glimpse into the wide range of topics the AllThingsD reporters have covered over the years.
Here are some great examples of that, and once the retrospective wraps up — as I also wrote in my very first post on this site on April 18, 2007 — “Enough looking back: On to the next thing.”
Key lines: “This is the year for many big pronouncements about The Future Of TV, and we’re hearing the first round this week at the Consumer Electronics Show. Here’s how I’m sorting through the deluge: I’m ignoring almost all of it. Instead, I’m focusing on the ones that promise to bring me the TV I want to see, when I want to see it, without charging me a fortune. And without making me pay for stuff I don’t care about. Try it yourself. See? Things get quiet in a hurry.”
Key line: “The bigger question is whether YouTube will be able to generate enough ad money for content makers to support the “premium” programming it has been trying to attract so it can compete with traditional TV.”
Key line: “The newly fashionable idea that you can learn a great deal and thus improve a software application by analyzing the big mass of data gathered about how it is used and where users run into problems has been been at the core of Bloomberg’s operational philosophy from the beginning.”
Key line: “It was at this point that a quarter of a million people, including me, tuned in to the streaming video image of a Uniden Bearcat scanner radio picking up publicly available police communications traffic in Boston.”
Key line: “Best Buy, sources tell us, is so unhappy that it has told HP it is unwilling to pay for all the TouchPads taking up expensive space in its stores and warehouses, and wants HP to take them back. HP, for its part, is pleading with Best Buy to be patient.”
Key line: “If indeed there is an internal horse race, it is between [Dadi] Perlmutter and [Brian] Krzanich. But here’s an important precedent: Every single Intel CEO since Andy Grove has been COO first.” [Note: COO Krzanich was picked as CEO.]
Key lines: “Although startups like Pinterest, Uber and Airbnb may not seem to have much in common except their lofty valuations, they share a similar purpose that could help describe the current era of consumer technology: Bringing the online world to the offline world. This is not a new concept, of course. But it’s a meaningful moment for the physical world to be activated by social, financial, personalized and sensory data. And likewise, it’s a relief for technology companies to chill out about counting every minute people spend on their websites — and instead figure out ways to fit usefully into the living world.”
Key line: “About a year and a half ago, a Facebook mobile special ops team was formed, with its own building separate from the rest of the company. The workspace was accessible by keycard only to people intimately involved in the effort. This Facebook team was indeed trying to build a phone — really build a phone — much as Apple did, with integrated hardware and software. But when the project became too big and too political and different from where it started, many of the people involved left the company or went on extended leaves of absence, and the effort was shelved. The first Facebook phone project was called the “Social Layer,” which was then shortened to “Slayer,” a sly mashup of the phrase.”
Key lines: “Google CIO Ben Fried, who sets policies for internal technology usage at the company, said he is driven by the potential of consumer technologies and collaboration to transform the enterprise. But he can’t just let employees mess around with consumer-grade technology.”
Key lines: “Five years ago, Dropbox famously reverse engineered Apple’s Finder system to introduce its own icon onto the top dock, with its folders fully integrated and a little green checkmark when files are synced. The hack was so nifty that it attracted acquisition interest from Steve Jobs. That original approach — thinking a system through and intuiting what it can do — turns out to be central to Dropbox, continuing through to the company’s recent product launches, like automatic camera uploads and integrations with various phone manufacturers.”
Here’s the tech reviewer Walt Mossberg talking on CNBC about his top picks from the last two decades he has written about the arena.
Mossberg names Apple products as the biggest influencer over this time, although in his last column for The Wall Street Journal after more than 20 years of reviewing, he also mentions Microsoft’s Windows 95, Google Search and Twitter.
Although he is leaving the WSJ on Dec. 31 — and this site too, since it is owned by News Corp — there is much more to come at the start of 2014. You can read a bit about that here in this Mashable exit interview, where Mossberg talks about his work over the last 20 years and more.
Here’s the best part — his advice for young journalists just starting out, which never really changes:
“I would tell them quality over quantity, which is one of the biggest sins on the Web, particularly today. I would tell them that it is enormously important to earn the readers’ trust by being ethical, another problem that some websites are guilty of. I would tell them to keep in mind who your reader is. Never talk down to that reader.”
This is my last column for The Wall Street Journal, after 22 years of reviewing consumer technology products here.
So I thought I’d talk about the dozen personal-technology products I reviewed that were most influential over the past two decades. Obviously, narrowing so many products in the most dynamic of modern industries down to 12 is a subjective exercise and others will disagree.
Though most were hits, a couple weren’t blockbusters, financially, and one was an outright flop. Instead, I used as my criteria two main things.
First, the products had to improve ease of use and add value for average consumers. That was the guiding principle I laid down in the first sentence of my first column, in 1991: “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.”
Second, I chose these 12 because each changed the course of digital history by influencing the products and services that followed, or by changing the way people lived and worked. In some cases, the impact of these mass-market products is still unfolding. All of these products had predecessors, but they managed to take their categories to a new level.
Some readers will complain that Apple is overrepresented. My answer: Apple introduced more influential, breakthrough products for average consumers than any other company over the years of this column.
Newton MessagePad foreshadowed some of today’s most cutting-edge technology. SSPL via Getty Images
1. Newton MessagePad (1993)
This hand-held computer from Apple was a failure, even a joke, mainly because the company promised it could flawlessly recognize handwriting. It didn’t. But it had one feature that foreshadowed some of today’s most cutting-edge technology: An early form of artificial intelligence. You could scrawl “lunch with Linda Jones on Thursday” and it would create a calendar entry for the right time with the right person.
The first successful consumer Web browser, it was later crushed by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. But it made the Web a reality for millions and its influence has been incalculable. Every time you go to a Web page, you are seeing the legacy of Netscape in action.
3. Windows 95 (1995)
This was the Microsoft operating system that cemented the graphical user interface and the mouse as the way to operate a computer. While Apple’s Macintosh had been using the system for a decade and cruder versions of Windows had followed, Windows 95 was much more refined and spread to a vastly larger audience than the Mac did.
Windows 95 made the mouse a mainstay for computer users. Associated Press
4. The Palm Pilot (1997)
The Palm Pilot led to one of the first smartphones, the Treo. SSPL via Getty Images
The first successful personal digital assistant, the Pilot was also the first hand-held computer to be widely adopted. It led to one of the first smartphones, the Treo, and attracted a library of third-party apps, foreshadowing today’s giant app stores.
5. Google Search (1998)
From the start, Google was faster than its predecessors. Getty Images
The minute I used Google, it was obvious it was much faster and more accurate than previous search engines. It’s impossible to overstate its importance, even today. In many ways, Google search propelled the entire Web.
6. The iPod (2001)
Apple’s iPod was the first mainstream digital media player.
Apple’s iPod was the first mainstream digital media player, able to hold 1,000 songs in a device the size of a deck of playing cards. It lifted the struggling computer maker to a new level and led to the wildly successful iTunes store and a line of popular mobile devices.
Just as Netscape opened the Web, Facebook made the Internet into a social medium. There were some earlier social networks. But Facebook became the social network of choice, a place where you could share everything from a photo of a sunset to the news of a birth or death with a few friends, or with hundreds of thousands. Today, over a billion people use it and it has changed the entire concept of the Internet.
8. Twitter (2006)
Like Facebook, Twitter changed the way people live digitally. AFP/Getty Images
Often seen as Facebook’s chief competitor, Twitter is really something different — a sort of global instant-messaging system. It is used every second to alert huge audiences to everything from revolutions to interesting Web posts, or just to offer opinions on almost anything — as long as they fit in 140 characters. Like Facebook, it has changed the way people live digitally.
9. The iPhone (2007)
The iPhone was the first truly smart smartphone. AFP/Getty Images
Apple electrified the tech world with this device — the first truly smart smartphone. It is an iPod, an Internet device and a phone combined in one small gadget. Its revolutionary multi-touch user interface is gradually replacing the PC’s graphical user interface on many devices.
A year after it was introduced, it was joined by the App Store, which allowed third-party developers to sell programs, or apps, for the phone. They now number about a million. It has spawned many competitors that have collectively moved the Internet from a PC-centric system to a mobile-centric one.
Google quickly jumped into the mobile world the iPhone created with this operating system that has spread to hundreds of devices using the same type of multi-touch interface. Android is now the dominant smartphone platform, with its own huge selection of apps.
While iPhones have remained relatively pricey, Android is powering much less costly phones.
The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs introduced this iconic slim, light laptop by pulling it out of a standard manila envelope. It was one of the first computers to ditch the hard disk for solid-state storage and now can be seen all over — on office desks, on campuses and at coffee shops. It spawned a raft of Windows-based light laptops called Ultrabooks. I consider it the best laptop ever made.
With this 10-inch tablet, Apple finally cracked the code on the long-languishing tablet category. Along with other tablets, it is gradually replacing the laptop for many uses and is popular with everyone from kids to CEOs. Developers have created nearly 500,000 apps for the iPad, far more than for any other tablet.
As I sign off from this column, I want to thank The Wall Street Journal for giving me the freedom to write these reviews all these years. And I especially owe great thanks to the readers who have followed my work. I am not retiring — I will still be doing reviews on a new online site. And the Journal will continue to offer tech reviews, penned by talented successors, which will continue to guide readers as consumer technology evolves.
Home medical devices, as opposed to fitness products like activity-measuring wrist bands, have too often been stuck in the past, even as smartphones have zoomed ahead on hardware and software.
A prime example is the device used by diabetics, a small gadget called a glucometer that analyzes a tiny drop of blood. Diabetics usually use these several times daily to determine the levels of glucose in their blood and make decisions on diet, exercise and medication.
Most glucometers use ancient technology that provides only a snapshot of information. And most lack wireless connections for easily transmitting readings to digital devices for more sophisticated analysis or for sharing the data with a doctor. Many diabetics still log their results using pen and paper.
The OneTouch VerioSync Meter offers an app to collect and analyze diabetics’ health readings.
I’ve been reviewing two diabetes meters that aim to change that. Both are able to instantly send results to a smartphone over a Bluetooth wireless connection. Each offers an app that collects and analyzes the readings, and gives a picture of how their users are doing over time. Both apps can also send reports from the phone to a doctor or other person.
One is the iHealth Wireless Smart Gluco-Monitoring System, and comes from a company of the same name that also makes other products that aim to provide a collection of digital sensors for health measurement. It’s more of a tech company than a standard medical-device company.
The other is the OneTouch VerioSync Meter and comes from LifeScan Inc., a Johnson & Johnson company that is a leader in the glucose-monitoring business.
I’ve been testing both products for a few days, and both work as advertised. Both are FDA approved, though they operate a bit differently, and their companion apps are different.
The iHealth meter is available now, while the LifeScan product is set to come out early next year.
The iHealth Wireless Smart Gluco-Monitoring System. The meters can transmit the readings to a smartphone using a Bluetooth wireless connection.
I can recommend either for diabetics who’d like to know more at a glance, and tie their most important health-tracking device into their sophisticated phones.
One caveat: These two new meters are only partial steps toward improving diabetes care. Users will still need to prick their fingers multiple times daily to get those drops of blood. And both use disposable test strips, which can cost $1 or more apiece, before insurance.
The VerioSync looks like a traditional meter. It’s a rectangular white plastic device with a large, black inset screen that presents the glucose reading in large white type. The iHealth device is designed to look much cooler. It’s a slender, curvy white device with a blank white surface on which the reading appears in fainter blue type.
LifeScan’s new meter works only with Apple’s iOS devices — iPhones, iPads and iPod touches. It’s expected to cost $20 at launch, and $30 thereafter. A box of 25 test strips is expected to cost $40, before insurance.
The iHealth meter works with both Apple’s devices and seven Android phones. It costs $80 for a kit that includes the device, 50 strips and other accessories. More strips cost $50 for a packet of 50, before insurance.
As with any Bluetooth device, like a headset, you have to pair these meters with your phone. I found this easier with the VerioSync. In addition, the VerioSync more easily reconnected with the phone whenever it was in range and I prepared to do a test. The iHealth app always asked me to press a button on the meter to reconnect.
Both meters can be used when out of range of the smartphone to which they are paired. In these cases, the meters save the readings, and then sync them to the phone the next time you’re in range. You can also use the free apps without buying the meters, as digital logbooks. But the companies say their apps only sync data wirelessly from their own meters.
Traditional meters use small batteries that can last months. A downside of these two Bluetooth meters is that they don’t use removable batteries and must be recharged periodically. The meter can last three to four weeks on a charge for a person who tests three times daily, iHealth says. LifeScan says its meter lasts up to two weeks between charges.
I found the LifeScan VerioSync app to be richer and easier to understand. At a glance, it shows you a color-coded bar that tells you what percentages of the time you’ve been in or out of your optimal range of glucose readings for the last 14 days. You can also see your average reading, and other data, quickly. Tapping on these symbols gives more details.
There’s also a logbook that shows readings, and patterns of readings, over 14 days, or grouped by time of day. You can manually add readings from other meters, and customize your target ranges, presumably according to what your doctor recommends. You can also email screenshots, or even tables, of results.
The iHealth app is plainer, and more table-based, though it does include a simple graph to show trends. It also lets you manually enter readings and set target ranges. And it allows you to email results, in table or graphic form, or even post them to social networks. One nice addition: iHealth’s emails include a file that can be opened in a spreadsheet.
A big difference is that, when you are in Bluetooth range, the iHealth app walks you through the test-taking process on the screen of the phone, which I believe could be annoying to an experienced tester. Even in range, the VerioSync app merely receives and integrates the reading.
With iHealth, you also get access to a browser-based cloud dashboard that collects data from all of the company’s devices you might own. But I found the glucose portion of this to be pretty rudimentary. And you can still only share results via email, not by giving others permission to access your cloud account.
Either of these meters could make disease management easier for diabetics with smartphones. But the snail’s pace of improvement in these devices is maddening.
I have a vacation home and I am paying for cable service at two houses. Is there a practical way to stream TV from one house to another and eliminate one cable bill?
Probably the easiest option is to buy a Slingbox, a device that starts at $180. It connects to a cable box and streams the programming over the Internet to a PC or Mac, smartphone or tablet, using Sling’s SlingPlayer software. If you want to watch the streamed content at the other house on your TV screen, you can either beam it from a mobile device to the TV via a Roku or Apple TV, or purchase a small set-top box from one of several companies, like Western Digital, which build in the SlingPlayer software.
In my work I often visit places that don’t allow camera phones for security reasons. I currently have a BlackBerry Torch without a camera. I would like to upgrade to an iPhone or Android device. Do any of these type of phones come without a camera?
There are no iPhones sold without cameras. And all of the best-known Android phones have cameras. However, I did a quick search for “android phone without camera” and found a handful, mostly sold in Asia. I haven’t tested any Android phones in the U.S. without cameras, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I also noticed an article about iPhones sold in Singapore, for use on military bases, that have been modified by removing the camera lens.
If you’re thinking of getting someone a new, name-brand tablet for the holidays, but blanch at spending base prices of $229, $399 or $499, Dell is hoping you’ll look its way. The computer giant, battling an industrywide slump in PC sales, is once again making a push into tablets and one of its weapons is low pricing.
Dell has had little success in tablets. But it introduced this fall a family of four Android and Windows-based slates called Venue models. I took a close look at one model, the 7-inch Venue 7, which, at $150, is the least expensive new major-label tablet I’ve seen at the standard 16-gigabyte base memory level. (There are a few year-old models, or models with less memory that cost somewhat less.)
To understand how low $150 is for a name-brand, 16-gigabyte tablet, consider that the market-leading Apple iPads start at $499 for the 9.7-inch iPad Air; and $399 for the iPad Mini with a 7.9-inch Retina display. Even the latest 7-inch models from Google and Amazon, known for aggressive pricing, start at $229.
In fact, mostly because they adopted better screens, the 2013 models of the iPad Mini, Google Nexus 7 and top-of-the-line 7-inch Kindle Fire actually rose in price from the 2012 models.
So, what exactly do you get from a $150 name-brand tablet?
The answer: You get a lower-quality device with weak battery life, which might suffice for a first-time tablet buyer with a tight budget.
The Venue 7 is a relatively chunky black plastic tablet running Google’s Android operating system, that’s available via Dell’s online store. It operates over Wi-Fi only, though a cellular version is planned for next year. It cannot be ordered with more internal memory than 16 gigabytes, but it has a slot for a memory expansion card.
This tablet has a big brother, the Android-powered Venue 8, with similar specs, that starts at $180, still a good price.
On the plus side, I found the Dell Venue 7 to be fast enough not to be annoying. Common apps like Gmail, the Chrome browser, the Kindle reading app, Google Maps, Twitter and Facebook all worked fine for me. Videos played smoothly.
But buyers of this tablet aren’t getting the latest or best technology.
The processor, an Intel Atom, and the version of Android used, Jelly Bean 4.2.2, are last-generation editions, though Dell says it hopes to offer an upgrade to the latest version of Android next year.
Screen resolution, at 1280×800, is also more characteristic of prior models of competing tablets. It’s no match for the resolution on the latest small tablets from Apple, Google and Amazon.
Also while the Venue 7′s screen was responsive, I was annoyed by a slight pebbly look, especially in white areas, at some angles.
The Venue 7 is thicker and heavier than leading 7-inch competitors like the latest Google Nexus 7 or Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX. And while it’s a bit lighter than the new iPad Mini, which has a much larger screen area, it’s about 30% thicker.
The Dell’s rear camera, at just 3 megapixels, took truly mediocre, even fuzzy, pictures, indoors and out.
In my tough battery test, where I play videos back to back at 75% brightness, with power-saving features turned off and Wi-Fi on to collect email in the background, the Venue 7 lasted 5 hours and 29 minutes. That was less than half the battery life of the iPad Mini; two hours less than the last 7-inch Kindle Fire; and half an hour less than the latest Nexus 7.
Finally, there’s workmanship. This is an admittedly subjective area, but the Venue 7 felt a bit flimsy to me, especially around the longer edges of the screen. There seemed too much “give” where these edges connected to the case, and in a few cases, I could even hear a popping sound when I pressed on the case near the screen edge.
To be sure I wasn’t imagining things, I asked two other people who own tablets to check this out separately, and they agreed.
I want to stress that no amount of pressing on the screen edge seemed to degrade either the performance or the appearance of the device, but neither did it leave me feeling that the Venue 7 was as solid as its competitors. And I wondered how it would hold up to a child’s care and handling.
Dell says this is a deliberate design feature, created to make it easier for the back of the device to be removed for service or other purposes by qualified technicians. It stresses the “give” at the edge of the screen doesn’t affect functionality.
Bottom line: If you can spare more money, you’ll get a better experience and more longevity in a competing small tablet. But if you can’t, the Dell Venue 7 is a heck of a buy for an Android tablet from a brand-name company.
If I bought the Republic Wireless phone you reviewed last week, would I be able to make calls overseas without paying the usual exorbitant roaming fees the big carriers charge, as long as I was in Wi-Fi range?
Yes indeed, according to the company. The Motorola Moto X sold by Republic is a modified version that defaults to making calls and sending texts via Wi-Fi and only relies on cellular networks in the U.S. when Wi-Fi is too weak or unavailable. So, the company says Wi-Fi calls to and from the U.S. from anywhere in the world are covered in each of its four calling plans, without the need for a special Internet-calling app. However, if you aren’t in Wi-Fi range, you’re out of luck: Republic says it doesn’t offer international cellular service.
What if you could get a top-tier, current-model smartphone with all the bells and whistles, and pay between $5 and $40 a month for unlimited voice, text and data? And there’s no contract required.
Well, you can if you sign up with an innovative carrier called Republic Wireless. Republic’s secret is it modifies brand-name phones so they place voice calls and send texts over Wi-Fi instead of more expensive cellular networks. That lets the company charge less per month and forgo contracts. And now it offers a top-tier phone, the Moto X from Motorola.
When Wi-Fi is absent or too weak, Republic’s phones switch to Sprint’s cellular network for calling and texting. Cellular calls and texts don’t cost extra. If you start a call via Wi-Fi and keep talking as you leave Wi-Fi range, the call switches over to cellular.
Most other smartphones can make Wi-Fi calls, but these typically require an app. Republic modifies the phone’s main dialer and texting functions to work over Wi-Fi whenever possible. You don’t have to do anything special to initiate a Wi-Fi call or text.
Republic lets users change plans right on the phone twice a month.
Republic has been in business about a year, but its first offering had several drawbacks. First, it worked only with a clunky, limited phone, the Motorola Defy XT, which had skimpy memory, a small, low-res screen, and only the older 3G cellular data network. Second, call quality over Wi-Fi was iffy, with audible echoes and some clipped words. Third, the handover between Wi-Fi and cellular was clumsy. The phone had to hang up the Wi-Fi call and redial over cellular.
Now, all that has changed. I’ve been testing Republic’s latest, improved service on the Moto X, and it has solved all three problems. There are still a couple of drawbacks, but I can recommend it as an option for people who want to save on monthly bills and don’t mind being limited to a choice of a single modern Android phone.
The first improvement is the Moto X, which came out in August. The Google-owned handset maker’s premier model has a vivid, 4.7-inch screen, fast 4G LTE data capability, and 16 gigabytes of memory.
Second, I found call quality over Wi-Fi to be very good. I heard no echoes or clipped words, and everyone with whom I tested it said the Wi-Fi and cellular calls were indistinguishable.
Third, handing off calls between Wi-Fi and cellular networks is now truly seamless. Neither I nor the people with whom I was speaking could detect the millisecond pause when I left Wi-Fi range and the calls switched to Sprint.
I used Republic’s modified Moto X in my home, in several Starbucks shops, and in a few other public Wi-Fi locations. All of the calls worked fine, as did the handover as I kept talking while walking out of Wi-Fi range. My only glitch came at one of the Starbucks, where the phone had trouble with the Wi-Fi and it took several tries to connect.
Battery life was decent: The phone lasted a full day on a single charge.
Republic charges $299 for this Wi-Fi-centric Moto X. That’s much more than what traditional carriers charge with a contract. AT&T sells the same phone for $50 with a two-year contract.
But Republic’s price is considerably less than the no-contract price carriers offer. Without a contract commitment, Sprint charges $550 for the Moto X.
If you’re willing to pay more upfront, your monthly fees are much lower with Republic. The upstart carrier offers four service plans for the Moto X. The first is just $5 a month for unlimited calls, text and data over Wi-Fi only. Under this plan, the phone can’t be used out of Wi-Fi coverage. The next plan, for $10 a month, gives you unlimited talk and text on both Wi-Fi and Sprint cellular, but only data on Wi-Fi, not cellular.
The third, and most popular, plan, costs $25 a month for unlimited talk, text, and data on both Wi-Fi and 3G cellular. Finally, for $40 a month, you get unlimited talk, text, and data on both Wi-Fi and 4G LTE cellular.
Over time, these lower monthly fees can more than offset the higher cost of the phone. Sprint says unlimited talk, text and data on its network is at least $80 a month for the unsubsidized Moto X.
And Republic offers another cool feature: Twice a month, you can change plans right on the phone, and the new fees will be pro-rated for the remaining days in the month. So if you opted for the $5 Wi-Fi-only plan, but you now need cellular coverage, you could switch on the fly to a cellular plan.
Republic is also planning to offer a feature that lets you change your phone number via its app on the phone.
For the increasing number of people who are in Wi-Fi coverage most of the day, Republic Wireless might well make sense.
Republic says it errs on the side of caution when placing calls. It will use cellular, which costs it more, if it judges the available Wi-Fi to be too unreliable for a good call. And it doesn’t try to switch you back to Wi-Fi if you start a call on cellular.
So what are the drawbacks? For one thing, you can’t order the Moto X in colors, as you can with other carriers. And the Republic’s Moto X can’t be switched to other carriers, even Sprint, because it has been modified.
Also, Republic has very limited customer service and relies mainly on its users to help other customers through online forums.
Overall, however, Republic is offering a clever, modern service on a good smartphone, and is showing that Wi-Fi calls can be as good as cellular ones.
I think we may have goofed. We bought a tablet that claims to be “Wi-Fi only.” Can it be activated to handle 4G cellular data?
It’s highly unlikely. To use cellular data, a tablet needs extra chips, antennas, and other hardware and software, similar to what a smartphone includes. If it says “Wi-Fi only,” that very likely means it lacks this hardware.
In fact, if you compare the specs on, say, an iPad, or a Google Nexus 7 tablet, you’ll see that not only are the prices higher for the 4G cellular versions, but they weigh slightly more, to accommodate the cellular gear.
I am trying to monitor my teenagers’ iPhones. I bought an app called PhoneSheriff based upon good reviews. However when I went to install it, it says to ensure the targeted iPhone is “Jailbroken.” I believe this will void the Apple warranties. Is there anything I can do to monitor my teenagers’ iPhones without jailbreaking?
There’s an app called TeenSafe that claims to be the only monitoring system for iPhones that doesn’t require that the target phone be jailbroken, which essentially means hacking the phone to accept apps that Apple hasn’t approved.
It apparently works via the Web, and relies on your knowing your children’s Apple IDs and passwords (presumably, even if they change). I haven’t tested or reviewed the app, so I can’t recommend it.
In the market for high-quality wireless speakers that stream music digitally, Sonos has been a gold standard. Its products produce sterling sound, need no wiring or professional installation and are controlled by apps on computers, tablets and smartphones. They can be used alone, or several can be networked together to form a whole-house system.
But Sonos products have been relatively expensive, ranging between $300 and $700 for a single speaker, plus $50 for a “bridge” device that plugs into your home Internet router to make the speakers’ wireless network function. And its speakers have typically been large and heavy.
Now, the Santa Barbara, Calif., company has come out with a lower-priced, smaller model that preserves its quality sound and its modular, wireless connection system. Like its larger siblings, it works with a handsome Sonos app on Macs, PCs, iPhones, iPads and Android phones and tablets to stream music either from those devices, or from the cloud via services like Pandora, Amazon and Spotify.
I’ve been testing the new $199 Sonos Play:1 and I really like it, despite a couple of downsides that Sonos is working on fixing. I found it easy to set up and use. I loved the crisp, rich sound it produced, which easily filled a large room without being at maximum volume. Sonos is even throwing in the bridge device free with the Play:1.
Like older Sonos speakers, the Sonos Play:1 plays music from computers, tablets and phones, but is more portable.
I was able to tuck away a Play:1 almost out of sight and still enjoy great sound in my large family room. I was able to combine two speakers in a single room as a paired stereo set. I was able to set up three of them in my house and either play the same song on all of them, or separate songs and playlists on each. I controlled it from computers, tablets and phones.
While the Play:1 isn’t meant to be a fully portable device and must be plugged into an electrical outlet, it’s small enough to be toted to another room occasionally. It weighs 4 pounds and is about 6 inches tall and under 5 inches wide and deep. It’s the first Sonos speaker with a play/pause button, because it’s small enough that it might be in reach on, say, a desktop or kitchen counter.
What’s the difference between the Sonos wireless speakers and smaller, battery-powered speakers for digital devices that use Bluetooth?
Its app lets you set up multiple units, with each playing different music.
These latter products are best thought of as wirelessly tethered amplifiers for smartphones and tablets. They produce good sound, but won’t work if the digital device to which they are tethered moves out of the short range of Bluetooth.
The Sonos units, such as the new Play:1, don’t rely on the device that runs the Sonos app for their Internet connection. They use their own special network to connect to the Internet. That means if you’re using an Internet source like Pandora, a Sonos speaker can keep on pumping out music long after the phone or tablet or laptop used to start the process has left the room, or the house.
If you are playing music stored on a portable device, Sonos won’t be able to keep playing the music for long after you move the device out of range. However, its range is much greater than that of a Bluetooth device. I was easily able to stream music stored on an iPad to a Sonos on another floor.
Finally, the sound from the Play:1 is much, much richer than anything I’ve heard from a portable Bluetooth speaker. Though it’s likely audiophiles will find it less impressive than the larger Sonos models. I was surprised at the good bass from such a small unit and thought the high notes and vocals were quite crisp. I am no audio expert, but the little Play:1 sounded better and stronger than some much larger speakers I’ve owned.
To set up one or more Play:1 units, you first plug the bridge accessory into your router. The bridge is a small box that emits no sound but merely sets up the Sonos wireless network (which is separate from your regular Wi-Fi network and wholly dedicated to the speakers).
The play/pause button on the Play:1.
Then you download and fire up the free app on the device of your choice — a small tablet is ideal — and briefly hold down two buttons on the top of the speaker. It gets recognized and added to the left side of the app, along with any other Play:1 units or other Sonos speakers you have.
The app lets you choose to Queue up (or immediately play) your personal music from a mobile device; play music stored on a networked computer or hard disk; or music streamed from Web services like Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Amazon and more. You can also stream radio stations and podcasts. You use the app to group and ungroup multiple Play:1 speakers so they play the same or different audio, or to set them up as a stereo pair.
The app lets you set up combined playlists and favorites from multiple sources — say, songs from your PC, plus a Pandora station or a streamed FM station from your hometown. It also sets sleep timers and alarms for the speakers.
I did find some glitches with my Play:1 test units. For one thing, there was a conflict between the Sonos network and the very latest versions of Apple’s wireless routers, which I happen to have recently bought. Sonos helped me resolve this, but be warned if you own these new routers, the conflict may shut down your home Wi-Fi network.
For another, on the iPad, I ran into a bug Sonos plans to fix where its app falsely claims it has lost connection with a speaker and can’t play a track, even though the track keeps on playing just fine.
Overall, Sonos has finally democratized its quality product line with a more affordable, and smaller, but still very good, wireless speaker.
My wife started reading e-books downloaded from the library on her iPad 2. Indoors the print is very readable, but it loses some of the sharpness in bright light. Some of her friends suggested the Kindle Paperwhite as a better reader in all types of light. What is your opinion?
All current color tablets use a screen technology that washes out in sunlight and can become almost unreadable in direct, bright sunlight. The Kindle monochrome e-readers, including the Paperwhite, use a different technology that does well in all kinds of light. However, I have never noticed any degradation of screen readability on iPads or other quality color tablets in bright indoor light.
Is it fair to say that the iPad Air, like its predecessors, is designed more for content consumption than content creation, and that someone who really needs a computer but also wants a tablet (and can’t afford both) would do better with something like the new Surface?
The iPad can be a fine productivity and creativity tool, with or without an accessory keyboard, depending on the app you are using. Business email and calendars, or the editing of office documents, work fine on the iPad, as do many drawing applications. You can even sign legal documents on it electronically. However, if you are looking for all the functions of a PC, a full Windows 8 tablet like the Surface 2 Pro would be a better choice, because it runs all the programs a Windows computer does.
In the new Mac OS X operating system, Mavericks, it appears it is not possible to sync Notes, Contacts and other data using iTunes via a cable connection. Is this true?
Yes. Apple says: “In Mavericks, OS X syncs Contacts, Calendars and Notes using iCloud.” (That’s Apple’s Internet cloud service.) The company adds that, if you make changes to your data and don’t have access to the Internet, OS X will sync the data the next time an Internet connection is available.
As smartphone usage has surged, so has the demand for reliable, fast cellular data. Sure, your smartphone can use Wi-Fi to surf the Web, watch video, stream music and download documents. But Wi-Fi isn’t always available or costs extra in some public places.
In the U.S., the fast cellular technology of choice is called 4G LTE. The 4G just means we’re on the fourth generation of cellular data systems and LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, which is the fastest and most consistent form of 4G cellular data. It’s the one that U.S. wireless carriers are competing to offer in as many cities as possible, as quickly as possible.
Verizon Wireless got the jump on deploying LTE and I reported my first tests of its nascent service in January 2011. But now AT&T claims it has almost caught up, and Sprint and T-Mobile are racing to build out their LTE networks.
So I decided to test the availability and speed of the four major U.S. carriers’ LTE coverage in three metro areas where I happened to be in the past month or so. I focused on download speeds because the average consumer is still downloading much more than uploading.
Please note that this wasn’t a scientific test. I didn’t drive the nation in a van jammed with technical gear. I toted around four versions of a major LTE smartphone that supports all four carriers—the iPhone 5S—and ran the same speed test in the same places, 20 times per phone per location. Then I averaged the readings and ranked the results. And I didn’t go into pricing because the companies tend to have pricing plans that are too confusing to lay out in detail here.
Note that, while LTE connections can peak at rates of well over 40 megabits per second, a good average LTE speed is somewhere between 10 and 20 mbps, though the carriers typically promise lower speeds, if they make promises at all. The average speed of a landline Internet connection in the U.S. in the second quarter of this year was 8.7 mbps, according to Internet provider Akamai.
I did the tests in three places. One was my home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. The second was a hotel in midtown Manhattan, near Times Square. The third was a hotel in the heart of Silicon Valley.
The winner, for the first time in any test I’ve run, was AT&T, with an average speed of about 19.7 megabits per second. But AT&T’s victory was secured mainly because of a stupendous performance in New York City, where it dominated its rivals with a stunning average speed of 34.8 mbps.
It was the slowest in my Silicon Valley test and ranked third in the D.C. suburbs. AT&T says it doesn’t promise any range of speeds to its customers.
Verizon Wireless came in second, averaging 16.7 mbps, well above its promised range of 5 to 12 mbps. Verizon wasn’t No. 1 in any of the test locations, but it was the most consistent performer, clustering between 15 and 18.6 mbps.
In each city, my T-Mobile iPhone took longer to find an LTE network than the others, but it did quite respectably, with an average score of about 13.5 mbps, well within its wide promised range of between 6 and 20 mbps. T-Mobile won my test in the D.C. suburbs, with a speed of around 19.5 mbps.
Sprint proved the most problematic. Its overall average was the lowest, at about 10.4 mbps and that was only because it won my Silicon Valley test with a speed of 20.7 mbps. In the other two cities, I had to leave my main testing location to search within a small radius to get a Sprint LTE signal, and the results were by far the worst in those places.
Sprint says its network is still wanting in some places because it is trying to replace technology while customers are still using the network.
Sprint has a new variation on LTE called Sprint Spark that it claims could “surpass the entire U.S. industry in speed capability in 2016.” But the company says in the near future Sprint Spark will only be available on a few phones and in limited portions of five cities, so it wasn’t part of this test.
You may get different outcomes with your phones and services. Locations, times of day, levels of network congestion, phone models and other factors all can affect speeds. Even in my limited tests, I saw big swings. Some of you may not even get LTE at all where you live, typically in rural America.
A good LTE connection should allow you to use your phone (or tablet) to comfortably stream movies and music, peruse large documents in the cloud, surf the Web quickly, traverse social networks with no slowdown, and get email effortlessly, as if you were at home with a good landline connection.
The main conclusion I draw from this exercise is that decent LTE speed isn’t just limited to Verizon anymore, and that’s a good thing.
Corrections & Amplifications
Download speeds for the four main U.S. cellphone carriers’ LTE services in three major U.S. metro areas range from about four to about 35 megabits per second. An earlier version of a graphic in this article incorrectly gave the speeds in thousands of megabits per second. The graphic has been corrected.
There are so many devices based on Google’s Android operating system that it’s hard to keep track of them all. But each year Google works with a hardware maker to produce a “best of Android” phone and tablet, called the Nexus models, which are often used to launch a new version of the OS and to strip away the quirks and variations other makers and carriers layer on top of Android.
I’ve been testing the latest of these Google-designed phones, the Nexus 5 made by LG of South Korea, and the newest version of Android, called KitKat, or Android 4.4. I like both, though neither is an especially bold leap forward in features. They are mainly designed to do two things: To integrate Google’s own features and services even more deeply into Android, and to lower the price of phones capable of running the latest version of Android.
The Nexus 5 is designed to offer robust hardware specs to buyers of premium phones at a much lower unsubsidized price than market leaders Apple and Samsung charge for their top-of-the-line models. It starts at $349 for an unsubsidized, unlocked, 16 gigabyte model — about $300 less than what a similarly unsubsidized, full-price, iPhone 5s or Samsung Galaxy S4 costs.
The new Nexus 5 has a larger, higher-resolution screen than the Nexus 4 but is thinner and lighter than its predecessor.
Its biggest advantage over its predecessor, the Nexus 4, is that it supports LTE, the fastest and most robust cellular data network that is most widely used in the U.S. Its biggest downside is that, ironically, it won’t work on Verizon, which has been the leader in deploying LTE.
KitKat, which will appear on other Android phones, has been engineered under the hood so it can run on much lower-priced, lower-powered phones, especially in emerging markets. KitKat was designed to demand much less memory. (Google is using the name by striking a marketing agreement with the candy bar’s owner, Nestlé and its U.S. maker, Hershey.)
Google hopes this re-engineering will gradually ease the fragmentation of Android, in which most devices use different versions of the OS and only a minority run the latest version. This fragmentation, which is in contrast to Apple’s devices, often deters app developers from launching their software on Android first, despite Android’s much larger market share. It’s much simpler to develop for the more unified Apple platform.
The new Nexus 5 has a larger, higher-resolution screen than the Nexus 4, but manages to be thinner and lighter. The screen is just under 5 inches, versus 4.7 inches for last year’s model. It is substantially larger, thicker and heavier than the iPhone 5s, but the iPhone has a smaller, lower-resolution screen.
The plastic Nexus 5 felt very comfortable in the hand, especially for a large-screen phone. This was partly due to a soft, rubbery back. The speaker, which was poor on the last model, is much better on this one. Calls were quite crisp and clear.
The Nexus 5, which I tested on T-Mobile’s LTE network, got fast cellular speeds, similar to those on the latest iPhone, and much better than those I get on the Nexus 4. But I found its Wi-Fi speeds, while good, fell short of those on the latest Samsung and Apple devices. I didn’t do a formal battery test, but the battery appeared to last a full day.
The Nexus 5 will be sold directly by Google, and by Sprint and T-Mobile. It won’t be sold by AT&T, but will work with an AT&T SIM card, according to Google. To make it compatible with Verizon’s network, Google says it would have had to make a special model and chose not to do so. This is a big minus.
The screen was clear and sharp, though a little dimmer than on some competing high-end phones. Touch was very responsive and the device was speedy.
This new phone has several key new features.
Recent callers are first in a favorite callers list.
Like the Moto X, from Google-owned Motorola, it accepts voice commands without requiring you to first tap an icon or button. You just say “Okay Google,” and it performs a search or answers a question. This worked most, but not all, of the time.
You can now get to the Google Now predictive intelligence feature, which gives you the weather, sports scores, commuting times and more, by simply swiping right on the home screen.
The camera has now been improved to allow in more light, and has an advanced feature called HDR+, which improves on the common HDR feature in other phones by taking more quick shots to try and get the best one. There’s also a small gyroscope built in to help stabilize shaky images.
I was underwhelmed by the Nexus 5 camera and didn’t find it a match for the latest iPhone camera. The pictures from the Nexus 5 were generally good, but not great, especially indoors. Details didn’t pop and in one or two cases, images were a bit blurry.
The phone app draws on Google Maps for caller ID info on a business that isn’t a contact.
While the primary goal of KitKat was to run in a much smaller amount of memory, it has a few notable new features. The phone app now places recent and frequent callers first in its favorite callers list and de-emphasizes the full list of contacts and the dialer keypad. When you search for a contact, it will also return results for nearby places and businesses, which you formerly had to look for in Google Maps or other apps.
The phone app also tries to provide caller ID info when a local business that isn’t in your contacts list calls you, drawing on information from Google Maps.
Text messages now appear in Google’s proprietary messaging app, Hangouts, much the way Apple earlier unified text messages with its own proprietary messaging app, iMessage.
And, in another catch-up with Apple, KitKat has the built-in ability to act as a pedometer, though this requires special hardware, so far only available with the Nexus 5. Fitness apps must be rewritten to use this feature.
KitKat is also somewhat smoother and faster than its predecessor, Jelly Bean, at least on the Nexus 5. All of these KitKat features worked fine, but none was a huge deal to me.
Nexus 5 is the best Nexus phone I’ve tested. But the phone and its software are designed more to bolster Google features and global Android dominance than to wow sophisticated users.
The world of mainstream technology reviews has undergone a major shakeup in the past few weeks, with legendary columnist Walt Mossberg cutting his ties to the Wall Street Journal after almost half a century, and David Pogue leaving the New York Timesfor Yahoo. As a result of these changes, Matt Buchanan of the New Yorker wonders in a recent piece who the “next great technology critic” will be, the one who will assume the mantle left by these two giants, and how their job will have to change as a result.
I think the premise of the piece is missing something, however: namely, a sense of how much the media world has changed since Walt and David started — and how much the tech market in particular has fragmented and evolved. Rather than any single source taking over the mantle, I think it’s more likely that no one will, or rather than many people will assume parts of it.
The media market has splintered into niches
As Buchanan notes in his piece, Mossberg has stood astride the North American technology media like a colossus for decades. His reviews of software like Windows 95 and devices like the iMac or iPhone were guaranteed to move markets, and to move units for retailers as well — and as a result he got almost unprecedented access to tech leaders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
Now he is moving on to help run All Things Digital, the company he formed in partnership with Kara Swisher that has severed ties with the Journal (and may have to get a new name). Pogue hasn’t been around quite as long, but he also wielded incredible influence via the NYT for a couple of decades, especially when it came to consumer-level hardware. Between the two of them, Mossberg and Pogue dominated the tech-reviewing scene.
Over the past decade, however, the whole concept of “mass media” has imploded like a star collapsing in on itself, to the point where media theorists like Tom Standage of The Economist and researcher Lee Humphreys argue that a market in which mass-media publications broadcast to a largely un-differentiated audience was a historical anomaly. Thanks to the democratization of information, what we have now are a series of specialized niches, each with its own Mossberg.
For some, a blog like Boy Genius Report might satisfy their need for breaking news, while Daring Fireball might cater to a desire for inside information, and Boing Boing might appeal to those who want to put tech in a broader cultural context. Others are going to look to a site like Wirecutter for insight — the kind that the ailing Consumer Reports used to provide — or to someone like our own Kevin Tofel, who does compelling hands-on reviews from the point of view of a regular husband and father who just happens to love technology.
Let a thousand technology critics bloom
The New Yorker piece acknowledges that the technology market has changed, arguing that anyone who wants to assume the title of “next great technology critic” will have to look at the field not from the point of view of a gadget reviewer — obsessed with bits or bytes — but from the point of view of the user as part of society, and of technology as deserving of thoughtful critcism, the same way art or music is.
“it needs to be deeper, and different, than what Pogue and Mossberg did. There can be beauty in aluminum, glass, and polycarbonate; art in the design of software; and elegance in coding. Or ugliness and chaos. These are rarely, if ever, meaningfully captured in newspaper technology criticism”
This is undoubtedly true — technology is much more mainstream and deserves to be treated that way. But I still think Buchanan’s piece is based on the faulty premise that there will be one or two giants who will lead everyone to the promised land of tech reviewing (and while we’re at it, we might even be able to find some that aren’t just the usual gang of old white guys).
The point is that looking for the next Walt Mossberg is like looking for the next Walter Cronkite: he’s never going to appear because the market dynamics in which that person emerged and came to hold that position simply don’t exist any more. That’s not to say there won’t be prominent tech writers, because there will — in fact, there are probably more of them than there have ever been, covering tech from as broad a range of perspectives as possible.
And isn’t that better than just one or two mainstream-media superstars? The embarrassment of riches we currently have in tech may not be as easy for product managers or PR departments to navigate, but I would argue that technology users and consumers are ultimately better off.
Thanks for explaining how to use the new-style Intel Inside sticker to find a laptop with the latest Intel chip. But what if I’m shopping online, where they usually don’t show the sticker?
Besides the sticker, there are two ways to tell if the PC or Mac you are considering has the latest Intel Core processor, which boosts battery life. One is to look for the words “Fourth Generation” or “4th gen” or even “Haswell” (the chip’s code name) in the description of the processor. The other is to check what Intel calls the processor number, which follows the chip’s name, to make sure it starts with the number 4. One example might be Intel Core i5 — 4300M.
Apple’s iTunes Genius feature is getting on my nerves, because, when I sync my device, it takes up time syncing “Genius data.” What does Genius do and how can I turn it off?
Genius is a free, optional feature that can create mixes or playlists based on songs in your music library. The data that is synced is used to update the playlist-creation algorithms about changes to your library. If you don’t use Genius or like it, you can turn it off by going to iTunes on your computer, selecting the Store menu, and clicking on “Turn Off Genius.” Note: These menu items won’t be available if you use iTunes Match, a separate, paid service that stores your music in the cloud.
I need a new laptop and I want Windows, but I don’t want to get one with Windows 8, or Windows 8.1. Is it still possible to buy a laptop with Windows 7?
Yes. They are getting scarcer, but you can find them at both stores and online. I saw a few in a Micro Center chain store about 10 days ago. Checking on the chain’s website, I see more, from $350 to over $1,000. But many listings indicate a limited number remain in stock.
One reason for the phenomenal success of the iPad has been Apple’s ability to pack speed and versatility into a thin, light body with long battery life. It doesn’t do everything a laptop does, but for many common scenarios, it has replaced the laptop as its owners’ go-to device. That’s why the company has sold 170 million iPads in just 3½ years.
Now, Apple is raising the bar. On Friday, it plans to start selling its fifth-generation full-size model, called the iPad Air, and this one significantly extends the iPad’s advantages, at the same $499 base price of its predecessor. In a feat of design and engineering, Apple has slashed the iPad’s weight by 28 percent, made it 20 percent thinner and 9 percent narrower, while increasing its speed and retaining the brilliant, 9.7-inch Retina display.
The new iPad weighs just 1 pound, down from 1.4 pounds for the previous top-of-the-line model, the iPad 4, which is being discontinued.
And it has done all this while maintaining the iPad’s industry-leading battery life. In my tests, the iPad Air far exceeded Apple’s claim of 10 hours of battery life. For more than 12 hours, it played high-definition videos, nonstop, with the screen at 75 percent brightness, with Wi-Fi on and emails pouring in. That’s the best battery life I’ve ever recorded for any tablet.
The iPad Air, right, is 0.29 inch thick, compared with the iPad 4, left, which is 0.37 inch thick.
I’ve been testing the iPad Air for about a week and found it a pleasure to use. This new iPad isn’t a radical rethinking of what a tablet can be, but it’s a major improvement on a successful product. It is the best tablet I’ve ever reviewed.
That isn’t just because of its slimmer, lighter design, but because Apple boasts 475,000 apps optimized for tablet use — far more than any other tablet platform. (The iPad also can run all of the million or so apps available for the iPhone.) By contrast, the vast majority of apps available for rival Android tablets are just stretched versions of phone apps.
In addition to the new iPad Air, in late November Apple will introduce a new version of its popular smaller tablet, the iPad mini. This second version of the mini will gain the ultrasharp Retina display, with the same number of pixels as its big brother, packed into its smaller, 7.9-inch screen. It is slightly thicker and heavier than the first mini and its base price will rise to $399 from $329. It runs all the same apps as the iPad Air.
I was only able to use the upcoming mini briefly, at Apple’s launch event, and found that, like its predecessor, I was able to jam it into the back pocket of my jeans securely. It isn’t as easy to carry as competing Android models with 7-inch screens, but it works fine one-handed and Apple claims it has up to 40 percent more screen real estate.
These latest iPads do have some downsides. They are pricier than many competitors. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 can be bought starting at $360. Dell has just introduced a new small tablet, the Venue 7, for $150.
And iPads can get even more costly once you start adding features, because Apple charges hefty prices for extras like cellular connectivity and more storage. A fully tricked-out iPad Air, with both Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity and the maximum 128 gigabytes of storage (up from 16 gigabytes in the base model) will set you back $929.
But Apple has taken some steps to offer iPads for less than in the past. It is continuing to offer the original iPad mini at a reduced base price of $299. And it will sell the 2011-vintage iPad 2 at a base of $399. These models have non-Retina displays and older processors.
Also, unlike some of its competitors, Apple isn’t introducing official accessories to the iPad to enhance productivity and creativity. Unlike Microsoft’s Surface tablets, the iPad lacks a manufacturer-made snap-on keyboard. And unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Note tablets, it doesn’t come with a stylus or built-in apps that can use it.
Apple says it opted not to add these things because many third-party hardware makers produce keyboards, keyboard cases and styli for the iPad. And the company did take steps to enhance productivity and creativity via software by making redesigned versions of its iWork office suite and its iLife creativity suite free with newly purchased iPads.
I found the iPad Air to be much more comfortable to hold for long periods than the last two, heavier models. And I found it to be noticeably faster than prior iPads. Apple claims it offers up to twice the speed of past models. It attributes that to a new processor, of its own design, called the A7, which also will be in the new Mini. This processor, like most PC processors, is what’s called a 64-bit chip, which means it can handle data in bigger chunks.
Wi-Fi is improved with two antennas instead of one. The iPad Air repeatedly recorded higher Internet speeds than its predecessors, essentially matching the Internet speed of my laptops.
Smaller improvements have been made to the cameras, especially the front camera most commonly used for video chats. And the iPad now has two microphones instead of one.
The battery performance of the iPad Air simply blew me away. In my tough tablet battery test, where I disable automatic screen dimming and other power-saving features, and combine video playback from the device’s memory with leaving Wi-Fi on and email working at normal settings, the iPad has almost always met its claims and beat competitors by a wide margin.
But this new iPad Air just kept going, clocking a battery life of 12 hours and 13 minutes, which exceeded Apple’s claim by more than 20 percent. The company says its A7 chip, combined with the fact it controls its own operating system, gives the new iPad the ability to tailor under-the-hood processes so unneeded drains on the battery can be minimized.
Bottom line: If you can afford it, the new iPad Air is the tablet I recommend, hands down.
I was surprised to see updates for some of my favorite apps say they can access my camera to take pictures or video at any time without my permission. Can they really take pictures or video from my camera?
I wouldn’t use any app that could trigger the camera without your knowledge or at least implied consent each time. An app might legitimately be using the camera for tasks like scanning bar codes or business cards. But even so, it should be obvious and allow you to decide what to do. And if the app is one that should never need the camera, but says it wants to do so, don’t use it.
Apple says it flags and rejects apps that use the camera without stating that the camera is part of the app’s functionality. Google doesn’t curate apps in advance and apps’ disclosures are generally stated all at once in a dense page at download.
I like the TV on at night, which drives my wife crazy. Is there a device that would attach to the TV and use Bluetooth to wirelessly send the audio to a set of earbuds so the main speakers could be muted?
You can buy these either as just a transmitter or as a set that includes headphones — though I haven’t tested any of them and can’t recommend a model. One example is the Clear Sounds CLS-CS-Qlink Stereo TV Transmitter, which sells for $41 on Amazon. But be aware that with this or similar products, you may need an added-cost cable adapter to fit your TV’s audio-out jacks.