NotOpodcast: Episode 3

Welcome to the third episode of NotOpodcast, where Kilroy and Michael join me to discuss a variety of topics such the latest on E3 announcements from this week, physical phone keyboards, an in depth look at the upcoming Xbox Project Scorpio, the tactical triad, and ignorance about AR15s.

The timecodes are:

Gaming - 0:45 - E3, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo
Technology - 35:23 - Physical vs Software Phone Keyboards, Xbox Project Scorpio Specs
Firearms - 54:15 - Tactical Triad, Michael Moore AR15 Tweet

 


Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ Still Provides Best Value

In the last couple of years, the tablet market has become increasingly more crowded and competitive. However, in each generation, there are a number of standout models to consider in each tier. The latest generation had the Apple iPad and Google Nexus 10 in the top tier, comprised of 10 inch tablets. Just below that were the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 inch model and the Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ 9 inch tablet. And in the 7 inch range were the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, the Barnes & Noble Nook HD, the Google Nexus 7, and the iPad Mini.

Many of those lines are currently in the process of being refreshed. The Google Nexus 7’s second iteration has already been released, Amazon is on the verge of refreshing their entire line, Apple is expected to release new iPad models within the next 3 weeks, and there are rumors swirling of a new Google Nexus 10 possibly being released in Q4 2013. Some of you may have noticed I made no mention of a new Barnes & Noble tablet on the horizon. With that in mind, this next statement may seem like an odd one: the Barnes & Noble HD+ provides by far the best value for a tablet, and will continue to do so even as the new generation of tablets release this fall.

Many of you will ask “How is that possible? That tablet was released almost a year ago, and there are newer and better tablets forthcoming, plus the previous generation of tablets will all drop in price.” There are two parts to that question, and I’ll address each of them separately.

Nook

The first part is a question as to how a year old tablet can compete with brand new top of the line tablets. The answer to that is simple: price. The Barnes and Noble HD+ is currently selling for $149 with 16GB of storage included, the brand new Nexus 7 sells for $229 with 16GB of storage included. Look back to the first paragraph of this article: the Nexus 7 originated in a lower tier than the Nook HD+, 7 inch tablets vs. 9 inch tablets. Despite this fact, it currently sells for a significantly higher price. Of course someone familiar with these tablets will point out that the Nexus 7 now has upgraded parts and performance, so I urge you to compare the two tablets.

Nexus 7 (2013) (configured at $229)

  • SOC: Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064
  • RAM: 2 GB
  • Storage: 16 GB
  • Camera: 5 MP rear, 1.2 MP front
  • Battery: 3950 mAh
  • Screen Size: 7.0 inches
  • Resolution: 1920x1200
  • Weight: 10.55 oz
  • Expandable Storage: None

Nook HD+ (configured at $149)

  • SOC: TI OMAP 4470
  • RAM: 1 GB
  • Storage: 16 GB
  • Camera: None
  • Battery: 6000 mAh
  • Screen Size: 9.0 inches
  • Resolution: 1920x1280
  • Weight: 18.17 oz
  • Expandable Storage: Up to 64 GB (microSD/microSDHC/microSDXC)

Some would look at those numbers and feel vindicated in choosing the Nexus 7 (2013) over the Nook HD+, but you may want to consider some things first. Yes, the Nexus 7 has 2 cameras and the Nook HD+ has none, the Nook HD+ is heavier, it has less RAM, and it doesn’t run stock Android. However, it does have some key advantages such as a battery that’s over 50% larger than the Nexus 7, it has an ever so slightly higher resolution, it has a larger screen (which is usually considered an advantage when talking about tablets), and it has expandable storage. Not to mention the obvious fact that it’s a full $80 cheaper, something that becomes even more significant when considering the low price brackets these tablets are competing in. The pricing becomes even more impactful when talking about upgraded storage: the 32 GB Nook HD+ is $179 ($30 more than the 16 GB) whereas the 32 GB Nexus 7 is $269 ($40 more than the 16 GB). Also, because the Nook HD+ has expandable storage, the user can add an extra 32 GB onto either model for a mere $20.

In regards to the second point from the question above, which was basically “how can the Nook HD+ compete against older tablets that will see price drops?” I provide you with the following example. The original Nexus 7, which began in a lower tier than the Nook HD+ at its release, has been given a price drop due to the 2013 model being released. The old Nexus 7 has a less powerful processor, the same amount of RAM, a smaller battery, smaller screen, worse resolution, has no expandable storage, and only comes with a 1.2 MP front facing camera. So why does it currently retail for $179?

I can provide similar examples for all the tablets currently on the market and forthcoming to the market, but that would make this article excruciatingly long. I chose to use the Nexus 7 as my example because its new iteration has already been released and we can see how the price of the old model has been affected. To those of you still skeptical, I say good luck finding a 1080p tablet at $149 other than the Nook HD+. I also say good luck to those trying to find a 1080p tablet with expandable storage at $149 that is not the Nook HD+. There is no better value on the market, and there isn’t anything on the horizon that will provide better value.

This isn’t to say there aren’t downsides to the Nook HD+ of course; I hardly think it’s a perfect tablet. I would prefer it if it had cameras for video chatting, and having more RAM and a faster processor would be nice. I also dislike the fact it runs Barnes & Noble’s proprietary skinned Android, though I applaud Barnes & Noble for providing open access to the Google Play marketplace with their last update to the Nook HD+ (2.1.0). However, for those willing to do so, users can change the OS on their Nook HD+ to something more appealing such as CyanogenMod 10.1 (Android 4.2) or 10.2 (Android 4.3).

Now the question becomes “why is Barnes & Noble selling these tablets so cheaply?” The answer includes a variety of factors, the primary being slow sales. When the Nook HD+ launched, it was priced at $269, the same price as Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 8.9” and more expensive than the Nexus 7. Also, until May 2013, the Nook HD+ did not have support for the Google Play market and limited users to the few offerings in the Barnes & Noble Nook App Store. The Amazon Kindle Fire series at least made it possible to sideload apps despite not providing Google Play access, whereas the Nook HD+ had its OS too locked down to make sideloading a feasible workaround. This made the Nook HD+ a fairly unappealing option for the first six months since its release.

The low sales caused Barnes & Noble to drop the price of the Nook HD+, using the gaming console strategy of selling the consumer hardware without making a profit, and instead making profit on the software the user will buy for the platform. This strategy still did not work for Barnes & Noble because the downsides of being tied down by the Nook App Store were too significant to overcome despite the price difference since a useless tablet is still useless regardless of how cheap it is. Barnes & Noble then made the surprising decision to give users access to the Google Play marketplace, much to the delight of owners and consumers, because this suddenly made the Nook HD+ became a viable tablet.

From a financial perspective, this was highly problematic to Barnes & Noble. They would not be making money on software, because the vast majority of app purchases were happening through the Google Play marketplace, and they would be making very little money on hardware because although sales were up, they had dropped the price on the tablet significantly already. The obvious solution would be to raise the price back up, but consumers don’t take kindly to price increases on aging technology, so that wasn’t really an option.

At this point, Barnes & Noble made the decision to stop making Nook tablets, and that instead they would work with third-party manufacturers to co-create tablets, though they would continue making e-readers. In order to clear stock, they would sell off the Nook HD+ tablets at close to the cost of making them.

While this provided the opportunity to buy a $149 1080p Android tablet with expandable storage, there was a major concern that prevented me from recommending it to everyone. Since Barnes & Noble said they would cease to make their own tablets, it was highly likely that they would cease development and support for their existing tablets. This would be a situation highly familiar to adopters of the HP tablets running WebOS.

Luckily though, Barnes & Noble reversed their decision and decided that they would in fact continue making Nook tablets. This means that we can confidently expect future support for Nook devices.

At $149, the Nook HD+ is tough to beat, regardless of what new tablets are coming to market. It gives you a full HD screen, expandable storage, access to the Android store, the option to flash it with a custom ROM, and a generally solid experience. If you’re looking for value, look no further, because the Nook HD+ cannot be beaten.


Moto X: A Phone Apple Would Be Proud To Call Their Own

MotoMain - CopyAs someone who had been anticipating the Moto X since I first heard about it, I’ve been extremely disappointed by the details released at launch. It went from a great value with unique differentiators, to an expensive Motorola catastrophe. I’d like to create a timeline from my perspective of the development of rumors to the release of the Moto X phone.

Initial reports referred to the Moto X as the “X Phone”. Motorola Mobility had been purchased by Google in 2012, and had yet to produce any significant products under Google’s wing. This “X Phone” was to be the first Google + Motorola phone, and was rumored to be a superphone that would blow us all away.

Initial rumors were sketchy: I read various reputable news sources reporting rumored specs of a water resistant phone with a 4.8” nearly unbreakable sapphire screen, carbon fiber back with rubberized corners, and an impressive quad core Snapdragon 800 processor running at 2 GHz paired with a jaw-dropping 4000 mAh battery. We also knew that Motorola had a new facility near Fort Worth, TX where they planned on assembling these phones.

Soon after, we were disappointed to hear the rumored specifications had changed to a 1.7 GHz dual core Snapdragon S4 processor, and that the phone would have a 720p screen (rather than the 1080p that was becoming standard on high end phones). I saw this as a tradeoff, figuring Google was doing what it has done in the past with Nexus devices. That is, make a device with respectable mid-range specifications to sell at a reasonable off-contract price so that consumers could purchase one whenever they feel like. I was content with this tactic, though personally I would have preferred something with the best possible specs.

We then started seeing leaked images of the phone, and heard about a variety of different sensors that would be packed into it to give it unique abilities and features. At this point we already knew what the phone would be called: the Moto X.

I thought these sensors were cool - that the features would be interesting, but I was more interested in the specifications and pricing. What I was hoping to see was a Nexus device that was not simply created by a partner of Google, but rather made by Google (which owns Motorola Mobility). This would allow them to be uncompromising in their design, giving them the ability to really strive for excellence.

Soon, more rumors began to fly. I heard that this Moto X would be customizable, and that was part of the reason it was being assembled in the US. It sounded like Google would let customers choose various specifications of their phone when purchasing a Moto X, much like a laptop. This was exciting, as it was something never before done. Even if we wouldn’t be able to choose the processor or battery, we might be able to choose how much RAM it came with, or how much storage space it had, or what screen resolution you wanted. Even if it would be more expensive, being able to customize your phone would certainly be worth the extra expense.

Unfortunately that rumor was short lived. It quickly became apparent that while Google and Motorola intended to let users customize their phones, they meant only aesthetically. Customers would be able to choose the color and possibly the material of the phone’s chassis, and get it engraved as well. This was certainly a unique approach, but one that ultimately provides no value. A large percentage of people end up covering their phones with a protective case anyways, making the customizations completely pointless. I was nervous at this point, because I was concerned that these customizations would add cost without adding value to the phone, though I was fairly confident that Google wouldn’t be silly enough to heavily impact the price of their upcoming flagship phone with something as ridiculous as superficial customization. I believed that they would provide the color customization options without increasing the price of the phone. It should be mentioned that at this point, analysts were fairly confident that the Moto X would be priced between $200 and $300. In my opinion, if Google and Motorola could offer those customizations while keeping the phone in that price range, it would be a nice (if useless) differentiator.

As time went on, more about the phone became clear. We were quite sure it would be running the dual core Snapdragon S4 mentioned before, and it would have 2 GB of RAM, a 4.7” 720p screen, it would be offered in 16 GB and 32 GB variants, it would have NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, and 802.11ac WiFi. At this point, I was somewhat annoyed, as the idea of having a phone without a microSD card slot seems like nothing more than a ploy by the phone manufacturer to squeeze more money out of the consumer while providing less value: “Oh, you want to store music on your phone? Give us another $50-$100 and we’ll add another 16 GB. Too bad you can’t change your mind later; we don’t give you the choice.” I was not surprised by this though, as Google has been idiotically eschewing microSD card slots on their devices for a while now, on the laughable premise that microSD cards “confuse” consumers, and so the solution is to not even give them the option. Thanks Google, I really enjoy being told I’m too stupid to understand the concept of having my data stored in one of two places, especially while you’re trying to sell me on this idea of “cloud storage”, which is a much more confusing/complex concept for a layperson to understand than a physical storage device like a microSD card.

Again, this wasn’t a deal breaker to me. I still saw it as an opportunity for a new Nexus-like device that would be carrier unlocked, with better specifications than the Nexus 4, at a very reasonable price. This was especially important to me, because as a Verizon customer, I haven’t even had the option of buying a Nexus phone since the Galaxy Nexus. I was still excited to buy a phone at a reasonable price that would work on my network, that despite not having top end specs for CPU, RAM, and storage, would at least have the latest in connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, 802.11ac WiFi, and 4G LTE.

By now the rumors had already leaked about the extra features Google and Motorola had been teasing us with: an always-on microphone that would allow users to speak commands anytime, an “Active Display” that would allow users to check notifications by activating only the necessary pixels without having to turn on the entire screen, Motorola Connect which would allow users to sync texts and phone calls with their computers and would also provide lost phone tracking, Motorola Migrate which users would install on their previous phone, and it would transfer all the phone’s data to their new Moto X, and finally, Motorola Assist that would detect certain states of the phone and act accordingly (e.g. when moving above a certain speed, it would assume you’re driving and would put the phone in “Driving Mode”). These features seemed like cool extras, though it would be hard to justify them as selling points. I saw it as Google trying to differentiate this phone from the Nexus devices that had come before it, providing not just a stock Android experience, but stock Android along with some unique features that users would appreciate rather than see as bloatware.

Soon we saw Motorola release a new line of products, the Droid Mini, Ultra, and Maxx. The general opinion of these phones is that they’re irrelevant, just as the majority of Motorola products have been since the original Droid launched in 2009. What was significant about this launch though, was that Motorola was touting their “new X8 chip”, which would clearly be the chip in the Moto X as well. They said these new Droids would be packing octa-core processors. This assertion left many experts confused and annoyed, wondering what chip this could possibly be.

Soon the answer became clear: Motorola was using a dual core Snapdragon S4 MSM8960DT clocked at 1.7 GHz. We were familiar with the MSM8960T, but wondered what the extra “D” signified. That also soon became clear: the MSM8960DT is almost identical to the MSM8960T, but replaces the dual Krait cores with Krait 300s instead. That leads to the obvious question of where the heck the “octa-core” designation comes from. The answer should have been a red flag to all those of us waiting for the Moto X. It was the first sign that Motorola (and now Google) were trying to sell us BS. Motorola counted up the two CPU cores, the four GPU cores, the contextual computing processor, and a natural language processor, and decided that by adding those numbers together, they could say they had an eight-core chip. One commenter on ArsTechnica parodied the announcement in the best way possible, saying

“I'm working a 36-core SoC design. 16 of the cores are 6510's, 10 ten are Z80's, two are Hercules Graphics Adapters, two are FM synthesizers I pulled off of old SoundBlaster Pro or Adlib cards (whatever I could find at Goodwill), three are 8088s, and the remaining three are actually people doing jobs it offloads to Amazon's Mechanical Turk.”

This sums up Motorola’s approach to core counting quite well.

By now the Moto X had coalesced itself into something more concrete. We had all seen images of it in the wild, we knew the specifications, we knew the software features, we knew it would be available on multiple carriers, and we were pretty certain we knew the price.

To sum up each of these points, we knew it looked like this:

MotoX - Copy

We knew the specifications were a dual core Snapdragon S4 at 1.7 GHz with an Adreno 320 GPU, a 4.7” AMOLED 720p screen using “Magic Glass” (which is Gorilla Glass that wraps around the side of the phone without any gap), 2 GB of RAM, a 10MP rear camera, a 2MP front camera, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, 802.11a/g/b/n/ac dual band WiFi, 4G LTE, and would be available in a 16GB and 32GB variants.

We knew the software. It would be running Android 4.2 (which seemed a little strange considering that Google had just released Android 4.3, you would expect that a “Google Phone” would be running the latest version of Android. This should have been another red flag.) It would have Google Now (voice activation), Active Display, Motorola Connect, Motorola Migrate, and Motorola Assist, as well as some extra camera features not present on stock Android.

We knew it would be available on the five major US carriers: AT&T, Sprint, US Cellular, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile.

We were fairly sure that based on Google’s pricing on Nexus phones as well as from the middling specifications of the Moto X that it would probably be priced around $300 off-contract. The majority of news outlets and analysts appeared to share that view as well.

At this point, I was looking forward to the official launch day of August 1st. I said to myself “I’m going to replace this miserable Droid 3 (I had to downgrade after accidentally smashing my Droid 4) with a new phone that may not be the most highly spec’ed, but will be modern, have almost stock Android, will have a few interesting software features, will be reasonably priced, available on Verizon, and will tide me over until I can do a full upgrade in August 2014.”

August 1st finally arrived. As a result, on August 2nd - I bought myself a replacement Droid 4.

You might be asking yourselves why I would spend $190 on a phone that is a year and a half old. The reason is simple – the Moto X is a complete disaster.

The phone was officially “released” on August 1st to all major carriers. What this meant was that the phone would start seeing availability around the end of August/beginning of September. We were told that the 16 GB model would be $199 on-contract, and that the 32 GB model would be $249 on-contract. However, the kicker is that the 32 GB model will only be available on AT&T at first, and the customizable colors for the phone would initially only be available for AT&T customers. While we didn’t immediately know what the off-contract pricing for the phone would be, one thing was clear: it would be expensive. This meant Google + Motorola expected the Moto X would compete as a high end phone. Our fears were confirmed when AT&T stated the off-contract price for the Moto X would be $575 for the 16 GB version, and $630 for the 32 GB version. To put this in perspective, the Google Edition HTC One is currently available in the Google Play store for $600. The HTC One has the same sized screen as the Moto X with a better resolution, a better CPU, a slightly larger battery, and comes standard with 32 GB of storage space.

It was bad enough that Google and Motorola thought they could sell this mid-range device at a high-end price, as well as snubbing anyone not on AT&T, but what was bad soon became worse. We found out that the Moto X would come with carrier bloatware and a locked bootloader. Motorola has been releasing phones with locked bootloaders for a long time, but we expected that Google’s influence would prevent them from doing something so blatantly restrictive. We have since discovered that the Moto X sold for Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Rogers networks would come with the bootloader locked, but would have an unlocker tool provided by Motorola for the customer to use. Obviously missing from that list are Verizon, and Google + Motorola’s preferred carrier: AT&T. This is because Verizon and AT&T will only sell Moto X phones with locked bootloaders that cannot be unlocked until they release the “Developer Edition” of the phone. As we know, “Developer Editions” are never available at an on-contract price, so expect to pay $575+ for a Moto X with an unlocked bootloader.

To sum up the current situation, what you’re looking at is a phone with mediocre specifications, a locked bootloader, carrier bloatware included, with no expandable storage, and no sufficient storage option on any carrier except AT&T, at the highest possible price point for a phone: $200-$250 on-contract, $575-$700 off-contract (Best Buy will be selling the Moto X at $700 off-contract). This is especially ludicrous when considering that this month, LG will be releasing the G2 that comes packed with a Snapdragon 800 quad core processor that exists in an entirely different league of performance from the Snapdragon S4. What makes this situation even more laughable is that the G2 will be priced similarly to the Moto X. Why anyone would even consider the Moto X as an option at that point is beyond my comprehension.

Soon afterwards, Google announced they would be releasing a Google Play Edition of the phone which comes with stock Android. This raises the obvious question of why Google needs to release a Google Play Edition of a phone they created. The Moto X should have provided a Google experience to begin with; they shouldn’t have to release a Google edition of a Google phone. The one shred of hope that exists in this news is the very slim chance that the Google Play Edition will release at a reasonable price point (around $300). If that’s the case, it will be the only chance the Moto X has at achieving any sort of success. However, I seriously doubt Google will do something that intelligent given how completely disastrous the Moto X has been thus far.

For those of you that chose not to read the rest of this article, this nugget of advice should be all you need: If you’re considering buying a Moto X, don’t. If you want to spend $200 on an on-contract device and can’t wait for something new to come out, buy a Galaxy S4 or an HTC One. If you want to spend $600 on an off-contract device and can’t wait for something new to come out, buy a Google Play Edition Galaxy S4 or HTC One. If you want to spend $200 on an on-contract device or $600 on an off-contract one, and you don’t mind waiting a bit, within the next couple months, you’ll see the release of various phones running Snapdragon 800 processors that will thoroughly embarrass the Moto X even more than the current crop of (months old) Snapdragon 600 based devices.

Google and Motorola should be ashamed of themselves. When I began this article saying that I expected a Google product launch made by Motorola, but instead got a disastrous Motorola launch, it’s because I meant this: Motorola has long released products with mediocre specifications at stupidly high price points that come riddled with MotoBlur garbage, carrier bloatware, and locked bootloaders. They’ve tried to sell these devices by using misleading marketing for years; this “X8 eight-core chip” nonsense is something right out of their standard playbook. This type of product release is exactly what I would have expected from Motorola, but not what I would have expected from Google. I thought that by acquiring Motorola Mobility, Google would turn it into a subsidiary that would churn out products that Google would be proud of. Instead we’ve been presented with more of the same Motorola crap that now comes with the Google stamp of approval. Proof of this approval is that Google will supposedly be spending $500mil on advertising this abomination. I hope that sales are nonexistent, and that Google burns through that $500mil with no result. I want the market to brutally punish Google and Motorola for trying to peddle garbage at luxury pricing. They’ve clearly taken a page out of Apple’s book, and it disgusts me. I would call for a boycott of the Moto X, but it shouldn’t be necessary; after all, people should only buy decent phones to begin with, so the Moto X shouldn’t even be on the list of possible options.

If we at Bright Side of News had an award for products that should never even be considered for purchase, the Moto X would be a clear winner.

PS. For anyone wondering why I decided to buy a replacement Droid 4, which is both 1.5 years old as well as a Motorola device, the answer is simple: physical keyboards are awesome. They provide accurate, tactile feedback that is completely unmatched by the software keyboards available on smartphones today (but that's an article for another day). In any case, I manage by rooting the phone and replacing the ROM (thanks to the awesome hackers on the XDA Dev forums) thereby eradicating as much of the Motorola crapware as I can. Had the Moto X included a physical keyboard, it would have given them a differentiator more substantial than some ridiculous color customizations. If you want me to even think about trading away my physical keyboard, you'll have to do a lot better than the Moto X.