Apple OS X: letting Windows finally win.

It’s official: Windows 7 is faster to boot, shut down, and more responsive in every way than OS X Mountain Lion on my early 2011 MacBook Pro.    -facebook/Google+ post

I’ve already said I’ll switch back to Windows full time if OS X 10.9 doesn’t improve on the issues and sluggish behavior introduced since 10.7. My opinion just got cemented today. Apple has less than a year (supposedly) before I simply wipe this laptop and do a fresh Windows-only installation.

I’ve been an ardent fan of Apple and happily shot down the b.s. of Apple haters since 2006. It’ll be a sad day, but performance trumps brand loyalty.

Switching Back

In late 2006 I sold my Sony VAIO on eBay to finance the purchase of my first Mac since my dad’s LC II. I bought an entry level 13″ MacBook. It was a Core 2 Duo running OS X 10.4.11 “Tiger” and I swore I’d never go back to Windows.

Now I’m thinking the only thing I should never do is make such definitive claim regarding technology.

Make no mistake, I don’t have a shred of regret for “thinking different” the past six years. I was able to ignore Windows Vista and the little MacBook ran dramatically quicker than my dad’s Vista-based gaming tower at the time. Plus, I was interested in media production and the resulting products I could turn out with GarageBand, iMovie HD and iDVD were much easier to achieve and orders of magnitude better quality than anything I could do on a Windows machine. Anyone who complains about the “Apple tax” is full of crap- you would pay hundreds more for comparable software on a conventional PC.

But then Windows 7 came along and was pretty great. And I’ve already noted my disdain for OS X Lion. Then Apple recently released Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8). I was hopeful, because while Snow Leopard didn’t really add anything to Leopard, it was very inexpensive and made the code so much more efficient that I picked up about a 10% speed boost in operations on my old white polycarbonate workhorse. Unfortunately, not only is Mountain Lion just as slow, it now chews through my battery faster and has tons of features that should work but just don’t.

I’m tired of undelivered promises, Apple. I’m not doing media production anymore. And I want to play good games.

So what makes Mountain Lion nothing more than a $20 cash grab? I’m running a fairly new 15″ MacBook Pro (version 8,2) these days, and it’s slow. This is their “Pro” machine only a year old running the most current OS, and it’s making me miss my old entry level plastic laptop on 10.4 or 10.6. This is the opposite of improving an operating system.

That would be enough to gripe about, but I don’t know if I’d leave the OS entirely because of it. So why am I threatening to go back to Windows full-time?

Syncing doesn’t work. There are a number of apps that now sync data between OS X and their iOS-based counter parts. I think. Supposedly. Reminders, Calendar, and Contacts still probably work for the most part but Notes doesn’t work at all, despite the option being checked in my iCloud preferences. I was really hopeful this would be my Evernote alternative, because then I could type in a quick few notes even when I’m offline (say, on a flight), which the Evernote app won’t let me do, and then just have it all sync when a data connection is restored. No joy, no matter what I do.

And while I’m glad stupid names like iCal have been replaced with Calendar, it’s still ugly and gave Ars Technica the chance to teach me a new word in skeuomorphic. The same goes for Contacts and Notes- they’re ridiculous looking. No big deal as a single factor, but it is another small straw being added to the camel’s back. I like that Notes has been pulled out of it’s previous home in Mail (where I never used it) because I use it all the time on my iPhone. But why, oh why won’t it sync and actually be useful?!?! I thought the whole point of using a Mac was because “it just works”? It’s becoming less and less the case.

I don’t know how I feel about Reminders being separated from Calendar in OS X, but I don’t think I like it. I know the whole goal of Apple’s desktop OS is to slowly merge and become one with iOS, but this is an instance of where I think it’s a mistake. Having two distinct apps makes some sense on the iPhone, because Reminders can be like a quick-access “backdoor” into a feature of Calendar allowing a user to dictate a reminder by voice (via Siri) or set a geo-fence and have an alert trigger with the GPS enabled. That’s cool, but my laptop and/or desktop don’t have GPS and suddenly the extra app feels like fragmentation in this context. In a desktop setting, Calendar should function as a well-integrated symbiosis of the two mobile apps.

Messages. Again, replacing a stupidly named program like iChat with a more grown-up moniker is a welcome change in my book. Too bad it doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. If the desktops are going to converge with the mobile devices, they need to focus on working as well and seamlessly. Messages doesn’t access Contacts, doesn’t sync with the iOS app for a shared history of conversations, and for the most part just sucks. When I get an incoming message, I’m not running Messages on my MacBook- I have to take a break from the screen and use my iPhone instead, even if the message is coming from somebody using an iPhone or iPad. I thought Messages was finally going to be the IM client I would actually use, and I was wrong.

And Game Center is even more ridiculous on an operating system that doesn’t have much in the way of games. Beside, that’s what Steam is for.

I still love iOS devices and have no plans to abandon them. The iPhone and iPad are truly remarkable in how well they work and the level of refinement and quality of the apps still hasn’t been matched by Android. But despite having gorgeous hardware, I’m really thinking I’m done with Apple’s “real” computers. The elegantly designed hardware just isn’t enough reason to keep using an OS that increasingly doesn’t “just work”. Combine that with tunneling into my remote desktop at work still requiring Windows (they support Apple, but I can’t get it to work) and my desire to play more of the latest graphic intensive 3D games that often don’t run on a Mac with or without Steam…? A garish-looking 17″ behemoth of a gaming laptop looks like a better and better choice. If I could wind the clock back to Snow Leopard, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Apple says OS X releases will be annual now. I’ll give them until 10.9 to get their act together and make my system “just work” again. Because I’ve been through .Mac, MobileMe, and now iCloud without any indication they’re gaining a clue on how to make the cloud work. You know who does know? Google. I already use the Chrome browser 99% of the time and use my three Gmail accounts more often than Apple’s mail. I could be quite content to start using Google Docs. I hope Apple gets it right, because I really do have a weird love for the elegance their stuff used to have (and the software has lost). But right now I can’t recommend anybody get a Mac unless their doing A/V work. I spend 95% of my time Bootcamped into Windows 7. And with Windows 8 Metro being right around the corner Apple better pray that Microsoft makes a huge misstep because I’m getting ready to tell them iQuit.

Sometimes the Old Ways Are Better

I’ve been accused by a friend of always wanting to jump on the latest whiz-bang technology and the accusation isn’t without merit, even if slightly inaccurate. Really, I am absolutely fixated on efficiency to point of believing it’s a moral value. I chase down efficiency almost doggedly- to the point of getting frustrated when I find myself making multiple trips throughout the house for things instead of accomplishing all my chores in one fell swoop on an uninterrupted path. And because what is new tends to be more efficient than more traditional means, I almost always find myself enamored of the latest gizmos. From phones to vehicles to personal hygiene products. But there’s the thing, and a painful realization for me: what is more efficient isn’t always better.

Now, when it comes to vehicles or computing devices, I don’t have an example to back up the theme of this post. There’s no sense in a 15 mpg engine that gets one horsepower per cubic inch in the face of a 30 mpg engine with one horsepower per cubic centimeter. Better power and fuel economy relegates old American muscle car engines strictly to the dustbin of nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, I just believe we need to be realistic in our assessments. I have an old Jeep Cherokee XJ not because it’s the finest 4×4 ever built, but because I won’t mind when it dies. It’s cheap purchase price and cost make it an efficient choice for me. Likewise with computing products. Captain Kirk may carry a separate communicator and tricorder, but I’ll just stick with my iPhone.

So when do I feel that older, more traditional methods are better solutions than the most efficient means? Well, that’s going to depend on the reader and individual priorities. But here are a few things I’ve noticed.

Car washes. The drive-thru car wash that gets you washed, rinsed, waxed and dried in 5 minutes or less is a marvel of efficiency. I love these things when I’m pressed for time but hate my car looking like a rolling collection of different deserts I’ve traversed. (I’m talking about my car here, not my Jeep. It’s more efficient to leave the XJ unwashed.) But an automated pull through sprayers and rollers will never get a car as clean or waxed as well as a good detailing. To really get that vehicle looking showroom new, there’s just no substitute for an hour or two of hands-on, minute attention to detail. The car will get just get dirty again, sure. But if you want to keep your vehicle as nice as possible long-term for resale down the road, getting the deep dirt out and preventing it from accumulating here and there is the only way to go. Spring for a quality detailing at least once a year.

Shaving. While ladies shave a lot more real estate than men typically do, try not to look at the specifics of this paragraph so much as the theme. There’s no shave as efficient as an electric razor- it’s also a lousy shave. You simply have to wet shave for any quality, but here’s where I’m going to get controversial. As far as the shave itself, a modern gel and multiblade disposable cartridge work wonderfully- they’re both quick and clean. But recently I’ve found myself taking the much more laborious path of using an old glycerine based lathering cream or even soap, applying with a brush, and using a vintage Gillette Tech or Super Speed. Why?

  • It’s relaxing. It takes longer, but that extra time is nice if used correctly.
  • It’s cheaper. Initial investment costs, but the money saved replacing a blade instead of a cartridge recoups your investment in the first year. Maybe sooner.
  • It’s healthier. What’s in that pressurized gel that foams? I don’t know. But I have learned what lots of women already knew: that your skin is an organ and using all natural ingredients will keep you healthier and younger looking longer. There’s enough crap poisoning us in the world today, why not eliminate it where you can?

Incidentally, I get my shaving products from The Art of Shaving, and I prefer the Gillette Tech to the mechanical complexity of twist-to-open designs. Simplicity rules (but I’m not quite willing to go to the hassle of a straight razor).

Showering and bath products. I’ve been a fan of Pert Plus for years. Shampoo and conditioner in one fell swoop?! Heck yeah! Just one bottle! Then I found a Nivea product that’s shampoo, bodywash, and shaving goop all in one! This just gets better! I also eschewed washcloths as useless contrivance years ago. Here’s the thing: CLP works ok for cleaning and lubing and gun, but not as well as solvent and oil separately. And if it’s true for firearms care, it just might be true for stuff that cleans us, too. Lathering with a washcloth and a bar of soap has tripled the life of my soap (cutting cost), and using the cloth to scrub exfoliates the skin. I thought that was just a girl thing, until I noticed zits on my back and shoulders becoming more rare. Separate products and “old school” washing has me cleaner and feeling better. It may be an extra bottle or two in the shower, but that’s a small price to pay for health.

I’m sure there are lots of other examples, but that’s all I’ve got for now. I thought about e-books vs. traditional print, but I’m torn on that one. The only reason for dead tree media is the nostalgia that I slightly disparaged earlier. A Kindle’s e-ink screen is very nice for reading on and the advantage an entire library in such small physical space can’t be overstated for the traveler. Then there’s backups and online storage vs. losing a physical copy of a book due to theft or destruction. The printed book’s only advantage is a subjective and nostalgic one, the smell of paper and physical turning of pages. But sometimes, maybe that’s enough. An e-reader is invaluable to me, but the je ne sais quoi of a physical library is just more “human” for lack of a better term. I like books.

So what say you, dear reader? What examples do you have, and more pointedly why do you feel sometimes there’s no school like the old school? Who knows? Maybe sometimes, efficiency isn’t everything after all.

Cooking and the iOS App Store

I just finished some mesquite chicken topped with bacon and port cheese and a side of asparagus, but that’s not what this post is about. While I was very happy with my culinary creation and want to brag about it, the problems I’m having with Apple’s App Store for the iPad and iPhone are what’s really on my mind. Some of the fixes I see that need to be made would fall on Apple to implement, some on the developers themselves. Let’s see if I can avoid blurring the lines here and list the fixes I would put into place.

The “walled garden” is what Android fans and/or Apple haters refer to as Apple’s ecological model- everything is “locked down” and the App Store is the single authorized place to get apps unless your device is jailbroken. Personally, I see this as a benefit, because Apple ensures no malware gets on your device and there’s just one place to check as opposed to multiple Android app stores which may or may not have the app you’re looking for at the moment. But it’s not perfect.

The problem with the App Store isn’t the walled garden or being locked down, but in its effectiveness in communicating the app’s quality or behavior. Ratings done by any Joe Schmoe that cares to rate, whether or not they have the app or even a clue about rating something fairly. Written reviews are largely absent of information that’s actually useful, and the App Store only differentiates programs in to “free” or “paid”, without consideration of a $0.99 app’s inequalities to a premium program listing at $40. The App Store also doesn’t fully describe an app’s requirements.

The app’s requirements lead me back to why I opened with dinner discussion. I have three cookbook apps on my phone. Only one, Epicurious, is a “universal” app for both the iPhone and iPad (which I’ll touch upon more in the Developer Fixes section later), but only my old Betty Crocker cookbook (iPhone only, not updated for Retina display) has an actual database of recipes and will function without an internet connection. It’s a cookbook, for crying out loud! Online and social functions like commentary and trading recipes is all well and good, but creating a “book” that can’t be accessed without potentially using some of your mobile carrier’s data plan is just nonsensical. Epicurious and Cook’s Illustrated are both good apps that become useless when the internet access we take for granted is stripped away. And while some apps may disclose they require a data connection, it’s up to the developer to disclose in their product description, rather than something uniformly stated in the details.

Why does data access matter in the product details, and how will I tie that in with the App Store’s lack of a “Premium” section? I’m glad you asked! Did you know there are full-on professional apps like DishPointer? It may be niche, but it makes your iPhone a real tool that uses the compass, accelerometer and GPS to figure magnetic variation on the globe and actually point your dish at a satellite in space. It’s too bad it’s so hard to find among all the dollar garbage. When WolframAlpha first debuted on the App Store it was famously $50 in a world of 99-cent crap. Sure, some dollar apps are a good product, but WolframAlpha was an honest-to-goodness database of information and answers. Now it’s $2.99, but also nothing more than an iOS interface for the website and requires internet access to function. Why would I pay three dollars for what boils down to a website bookmark?!?! Another example, which will lead to my final gripe about the App Store itself, would be the plethora of GPS apps for a buck but are really nothing more than a new skin using the same data and tech as the built-in Google Maps, when a premium app like Navigon is a complete database of maps and will function as a true GPS even when your data connection is iffy on remote highways. Give me access to filter out the crap and get to premium apps that are worth my money, Apple.

Which leads to my last Apple-based recommendation for perfecting the store: Start eliminating some of the catalog. I know, I know… that’s free-market heresy. But shouldn’t a company that brags about how many more apps they have than Android, or how much better the apps are be able to claim that both statements are simultaneously true? The App Store may have more selection than Droid Marketplace, but who cares if you’re wading through garbage to get to the good stuff? Search the App Store for the wonderful game “Plants Vs. Zombies” and see the knock-offs that border on plagiarism like “Animals vs. Zombies” or “Zombies vs. Ninjas”. I understand it’s a free market, or that it’s Capitalism at work- that doesn’t change $1 plagiarizing knock offs being unethical or making the App Store an unpleasant shopping experience. Frankly, I refuse to browse the App Store anymore because of all the electronic detritus- I’ll wait until something stands out enough it gets recommended by a trustworthy source and then I’ll seek it out by name.

Finally, developers, here are two helpful hints: make your apps universal for the tablet and phone, and keep them updated.

Now, not every app would work as a universal- I love RunKeeper but nobody in their right mind would strap their iPad on like a backback before a run. In that case, phone-only for GPS and armband wearing makes sense. But why in the world does my bank have two separate apps depending on the device? Or for that matter, why are premium games like Plants vs. Zombies still separate editions? Every app that can be universal should be- because if somebody owns an iPad it’s pretty likely they own an iPhone or want to… Charge more if you must, I’ll pay. I’m compulsive enough about organization that I hate having duplicate apps in my iTunes account and don’t want to buy twice- and I’d wager many others are, as well.

And keep them updated. When screen resolutions changed to “Retina” on the iPhone 4, there was such a strange joy at watching my app’s icons go “HD”. When they languish, that tells me the app has been abandoned- and when I paid a lot for the app (GTA: Chinatown Wars, I’m looking at you) it tells me maybe I shouldn’t bother buying something from that developer in the future (cough, cough, Rockstar, cough)…

All that because Jetpack Joyride is universal and great, and my cookbooks are irritating…

Lion loses to 7 again…

For the past year I’ve kept any external hard drives formatted in FAT32 so I could have read/write access from either my MacBook or Dell XPS. Now that I’ve replaced both with a MacBook Pro (running OS X Lion and Windows 7 partitions virtually networked though Parallels), Lion just lost another battle for my favor: I’m keeping my new WD Essentials TB drive formatted in NTFS. I don’t care if Lion can’t read to it, and if I can’t hack Lion to write NTFS (like you could with Snow Leopard) then that’s just another strike against Apple’s software this time around.

I still like Apple’s hardware, but Lion blows. They either need to go full-on tablet and cloud computing, or let a workstation still function as a workstation, because this halfway in-between stage attempt of an OS is for crap.

OS X Lion: Apple’s Vista

While I’ve written in defense of Apple, in the end it’s just a computer and sooner or later ANY operating system is going to have it’s foibles. I switched to a Mac back in 2006, and while Mac OS 10.4 was marginally more stable than Windows XP, the programs themselves had a tendency to randomly crash. No blue screens of death for the OS itself, though! Nope, that was steady as a rock.

The point is no computer is immune to screwing up sometime. We simply pick what errors we’re more willing to live with. (And as an aside, while XP was far more prone to malware, it’s also the most insanely prolific operating system even ten years after it released.)

I literally chuckled smug chuckles of smug during Microsoft’s Vista years. It was a memory-hogging hodgepodge of forced “features” that made everything more obtrusive and difficult to use. Project Longhorn was supposed to be glorious, and instead people got a UAC that had to be turned off because it’s security benefit got in the way of every little task you tried to accomplish. Vista was so awful users would “upgrade” back to XP, and it never gained more than a 19% installation base. Apple jumped on this with blatantly mocking (and successful) ad campaigns to woo users burned by Vista.

But now, Apple seems to have done a remarkable job of causing me to do a “one-eighty”. OS X Lion (or 10.7 in more logical terms) seems like a massive step back in usability for something named after the king of the jungle. I saw no need to upgrade my old white MacBook from 10.6- the new OS literally has no “must-have” features except for iTunes matching. But I bought a new MacBook Pro to replace both my aging Core2 Duo MacBook and a Dell XPS m1710 gaming rig- and while the hardware is fantastic it left me with no option but 10.7 on the Mac OS X partition.

The problems begin with the importation of my old profile. I’ve upgraded my old Core2 Duo MacBook from 10.4 to 10.5 and 10.6 and it has literally been effortless and trouble-free every time. Apple lived up to their “It just works” mantra… until now.

Upon booting the machine, 10.7 requires some setup. No problem, right? Every computer needs to be told country, language, time zone, etc. on initial setup. The problem is I have to set up my name, user account and Apple ID… Then when I go to import all my files from my old laptop’s Time Machine backup, I’m told I can’t because it’s conflicting (the same) user profile. Seriously? Apple didn’t think there are sole-user systems out there and account for it in the very profile importation software they provided?

This is just the start.

Over the next few days I get the joy of having a dual-installation of my user profile on the OS X Lion partition of my MacBook’s hard drive, doubling the space taken and causing significant bloat. While all the tech websites complained about reverse scrolling in Lion to mirror smart phone and tablet behavior, that’s the ONE aspect I took to like a duck to water! It’s brilliant (note: I’m using the laptop’s trackpad, not a mouse). Unfortunately, that’s obscured by the default options of Lion like not showing me how much disc space I have available, or hiding my library from me and making the Finder open up to some bizarre “All Files” window. To a compulsive organizer like me, there is no longer any order to my OS. I’ve got dual-install bloat, and my files are a freaking mess all over the place.

I hate you, OS X Lion.

But it’s ok. At least I’ve got all my expensive applications that I purchased for podcasting and telephone interviews, right? Wrong. Lion dropped all PowerPC support. Now, I didn’t buy a Mac until after the Intel switch (although I fantasized about iMacs since the G4), and I didn’t even know that some of the programs I had purchased and used heavily were old PPC-based affairs. That’s how lightweight and unobtrusive emulation through Rosetta was- you didn’t even notice it. But that’s dead with Lion. There was one good native Mac game and Lion killed it. MacTheRipper, an excellent DVD archiving program, quit working. My $80 (big money when you’re a student) WireTap program that I used for all my telephone interviews on the podcast is suddenly incompatible. And it broke the only copy of Plants vs. Zombies I had that still had the Michael Jackson zombie!

I hate you, OS X Lion.

So we’ve got crappy interfaces, less system information provided to the user, system bloat, and arbitrary killing off support of applications.

Seriously. I hate you, OS X Lion.

Unfortunately, I’m, still addicted to the far superior products that iPhoto, GarageBand, and iMovie let you put out. They’re bundled in, insanely polished and easy to use. For media production, there’s just no better option short of full-blown professional software. And the hardware design is so much nicer than ostentatious or cobbled together Windows machines that I’ll keep buying Apple computers… for now.

But why I really love my laptop right now is the screaming fast installation of Windows 7 on the Boot Camp partition of the hard drive. The partition that I boot into 98% of the time, now. It’s blazing fast (a 7.9 on the Windows User Experience index), with excellent driver support from Apple, Win7 still supports and runs old XP programs (even some Windows 98SE!), and gaming on it in Steam is a dream come true. With Microsoft’s driver support for a USB Xbox 360 gamepad, and Google’s Chrome web browser…? This is heaven! When Windows 7 came out lots of Apple fans (myself included) laughed at how they had simply copied Apple once again. The Taskbar cloned the Dock from OS X, and Windows Aero interface bears a striking resemblance to Apple’s Aqua both in name and appearance. But Windows copied a good version of OS X.

The MacBook is awesome hardware that I honestly love, with a native OS that I avoid until I’m forced to use it for media production. Seriously- I try to shoot, edit, and upload YouTube videos solely on my iPhone 4S. I’ll only log into Lion if I need a file on that partition, or a video effect the mobile iMovie doesn’t give me. Lion is that bad; Windows 7 is that good.

It’s a weird world for an Apple switcher.

The Myth of the Apple Tax

In some circles, it’s commonly accepted that Apple products cost more than comparable devices from competitors. From laptops to phones and MP3 players, Apple-haters insist that the Cupertino company charges more for pretty design and exclusivity. This gets referred to as the “Apple Tax” and people who buy Apple devices are obviously just fanboys (or worse, misusing the term “hipster”) who were duped into believing the hype in a Steve Jobs-created “Reality Distortion Field”.

Here’s the thing: it’s just not true.

First, let’s tackle the notion of “comparably equipped”. These are the guys who just take raw specifications and proclaim one device to be superior to another. The problem is a computer is a system. Why’s that matter? Because while these guys may know specs inside and and out and are generally pretty knowledgable, they’re not usually engineers that know how all parts will run together. To make an automotive analogy, it would be like declaring an 850 cfm carburetor to be “better” than a 650 cfm… without considering the motor is a now-drowning 289 Windsor. Certain components play better together than others, and this holds true in the computer world. (Don’t believe me? Spend some time reading 1-egg RAM reviews on Newegg. The vast majority are people that bought “spec” RAM without paying attention to whether or not it was matched to their system, with replies from the manufacturer saying “you should have purchased this set”.)

Second, it seems like a lot of competitors are getting sucked into the “reality distortion field” as well, because there are an awful lot of Apple copycats suddenly. But they’re forgetting to drop the price! If Apple is just charging for design and exclusivity, why aren’t these copycats substantially cheaper? Or in some cases more expensive?

That’s just the MacBook Air, but tablets are no different. No iPad competitor offers a comparable product at a cheaper price. Sure, there are cheaper tablets than iPads. They’re also smaller, have shorter battery life, don’t have as responsive or nice a screen… This isn’t a condemnation of Android tablets by any means! If you’re invested into the Google ecosystem they make a lot of sense. But what you pay vs. what you get isn’t any different than an iPad.

The latest Droid-based phones cost just as much as the latest iPhones, with poorer cameras, and less battery life. Android users were proclaiming they had dual-cores before iPhones, but they sucked the battery dry and left a supposedly mobile device tethered curiously near power outlets at all times… If we’re talking about the cost (and now the effectiveness) of the device the “Apple Tax” is bogus once again.

So let’s get back to the big Kahuna. The main event and what is still the focus of work, education, business, and content creation remains a full-blown computer (for now). Whether it’s a laptop or desktop doesn’t really matter in this case. Take the sum total of an iMac (display and everything) and it will stack up dollar-for-dollar against a truly comparable PC running Windows. What’s the big difference?

The big mistake in the entire argument is overlooking what you can do with it.

Nobody really talks about this, and it’s shocking to me because this is what it really all comes down to. Look at the software that comes on a Mac vs. what comes on your average Windows machine from CompuBest big box store. Apple gives you the iLife suite that will create professional looking photo albums, movies, and music right out of the box. The average Dell or HP gives you 30-day Trial software to subsidize it’s cost, and Windows Movie Maker so you can create home videos with 1989-era television quality titles and effects. You’ll sink hundreds more into the “less expensive” Windows machine over it’s lifetime in software and upgrades. Even if the Apple somehow costs more new, it amortizes over it’s lifetime to become much more cost effective than the weekend sale special.

You’ll never play worthwhile games on a Mac unless you install Windows. And I prefer Windows 7 over OS X Lion any day of the week. But we’re talking about what you pay for what you get. And anyone who uses the term “Apple Tax” as if it carries any legitimacy needs to pull down on their shoulders until they hear a loud pop- that’ll be their head coming out of their….

Avoid Walmart.com at all costs

For the first time in my life I want to write a chain letter. Not one of those, “If you don’t forward this to seven people a kid in Uganda will get herpes” chain letters, but something people forward on and on. The kind of thing you’ll get sent back to you from somebody else in 8 months. Because I really want the world to know that walmart.com is hopelessly broken, and has customer service that makes the TSA look good.

Now, you can’t make statements like that without setting up the field, or you just become another whiner, so let’s first establish that I have no real complaint with the Walmart retail locations. I choose to shop elsewhere, but I have no axe to grind. This is strictly about their online presence being a broken mess, and trying to ward off as many people as possible.

Instance #1- I pre-ordered the limited edition of Forza Motorsport 4 through walmart.com, because they had the best exclusive content of all the retailers that offered any. First, Walmart didn’t even ship the game until the release date, so I got it a week late. Then they refunded my money, shipped the game, and re-charged me two days later with an email that basically said, “Sorry, we really have no idea what we’re doing.” Then I never received my exclusive content, the only reason I did business with them in the first place. Finally, I went back to the website to try and contact customer service over the whole mess.

Instance #2- A scant month or two later, I’m deployed overseas with work. I log on to my bank’s website, and discover that somehow my ATM card info has been stolen and a $538 purchase has been made from walmart.com. (The real comedy here is that I swore I’d never spend another cent on their site after Instance #1.) I contact my bank, get the card cancelled, etc. The bank is going to review the purchases and see if I can be refunded for the fraudulent purchase. Finally, I go to walmart.com to try and contact customer service over the whole mess.

In both cases, this is where the web site completely falls apart. For your convenience, I’ve attached screen shots of how helpful walmart.com is in Instance #2. Search for “fraud” under the Help section of their website, as pictured here…

…and you’ll get the results pictured here.

But the best part is that the vast majority of their “helpful” section is about whether or not you went to a spoofed Walmart site. Here you can see the one section regarding your actions available if you’ve been the victim of fraud. They basically tell you to go away.

They tell you to go away and lodge a complaint elsewhere.

Can you imagine going to a Customer Service desk at a retail store that overcharged you and being told to go away? Can you imagine?! Can you imagine trying to report criminal activity that took place in a retail location and the manager won’t provide any way to be made aware of it, and insist you tell somebody else? Walmart.com literally provides NO means to report fraud to them! Instead, they tell you to get lost because they’ve been paid and it’s no longer of any concern to them. I already disliked walmart.com after Instance #1. This has me out-and-out hating them.

Now, the more observant (and patient, getting to this point) readers out there will have noticed the “Contact Customer Service” link to the left and say, “Hey! Why didn’t you try that?” Oh, but I did, gentle reader. Recall the last sentences to Instances #1 and #2? The results are a strictly formatted series of radio buttons, pictured here.

If you’re concern doesn’t fit exactly into parameters they provide, it goes unaddressed. I contacted Walmart’s online presence no fewer than 3 times and never once got a reply. On top of that, there are problems like the site logging you out of your account if you click the wrong link, or the inability to link purchases made as a guest to your walmart.com account even if both purchases were made with the same credit/debit card…

On a technical level, the site is just garbage. It’s no wonder Amazon is the leading online retailer, because they deserve to be. Add to that the “screw the customer, we have their money” attitude clearly displayed by walmart.com at this point, and I have to tell everybody to stay as far away as possible. I doubt anyone reading this would actually make the mistake of ordering from Walmart instead of Amazon, but you’ll have friends. And they’ll have friends. And if we forward this enough, maybe we can warn the would-be victims and Walmart loyalists of the online store’s shortcomings. Maybe if we forward this enough, a Walmart CEO might actually see it and straighten out their online division. And maybe, just maybe if we forward this enough, we can keep that poor Ugandan kid herpes free.

Here’s hoping.

Two years after writing this, it strikes me as funny that it’s my single most targeted post for spam comments. I can only assume that’s because “walmart.com” appears so often. It’s almost malware, people. Stay far, far away.

iPad (Gen.1) review

This was originally written in March 2011, right after the iPad 2 released. I bought an original model on clearance, then returned it. Here’s why.

In daylight the screen is near worthless. If you’re wearing polarized sunglasses, it IS worthless. For lounging out by the pool, you’ll need to stick with dead trees.

I can’t believe people were campaigning for a 7″ form factor. This one is 9.7″ and it’s almost too small as-is. Jobs was right when he said a 7″ was too big to be a phone and too small to be a good tablet. That would have been a terrible idea and goes to show sometimes people say they want something, without realizing what that would really mean.

Landscape mode, the keyboard is GREAT! I can type like a fiend on this thing, but bear in mind that I hunt and peck anyway… Still, I am just as fast on this thing (and maybe faster due to excellent auto-correct) as on a conventional keyboard.

I think my biggest frustration with this thing is that I already own an iPhone 4. It has a higher resolution screen, 3G connection so I’m never without a web connection… If you’ve ever lost your internet connection and immediately declared your computer to now be worthless, you have an idea of how I feel going from the iPhone to a wifi-only iPad. (and yes, I realize how spoiled I am that I’m complaining about this)

On the other hand, having a screen this big is gorgeous! The sense of scale really does change things vs. running the same or equivalent app on my phone. People who say the iPad is just an overgrown iPod Touch are technically right on one level, but missing how magnificent the experience can be. The screen size truly does make things order of magnitude better.

This brings me to my other niggle, however. I’ve owned an iPhone since the 3G. I loved my upgrade to the 4 and the screen resolution was amazing. It was a constant bit of joy to watch my old chunky iOS apps get their newer, slicker icons and update to the beautiful graphics the new phone offered. Lest you think I digress, imagine my dismay over the way things are handled on the iPad. Unless you specifically get the “HD” or universal app, the iPad displays the app in a small window that approximates the size of an iPhone screen, regardless of the resolution. Old iPhone 3G or 3Gs apps display at the same physical size as iPhone 4. Isn’t this an instance of the fragmentation that we’re told Apple spares you vs. Android?

“HD”? Really?! It just irks me that everything is “HD” now. The iPhone 4 has FAR superior screen resolution. The screen on the iPad is nice, but calling it HD is a joke. It’s like calling every little thing “epic”, now. When everything is “epic” or “HD”, nothing is.

But that leads into developers and the App Store. Now, I think the App Store is great and that digital distribution is the way to go. Developers get a huge percentage of the consumer’s spent dollar and anyone who wants to gripe that Apple is evil or greedy needs to shut up and look at the conventional retail distribution model before they open their fool mouth. However, the App Store has one critical flaw. That is, the “critics” are the flaw. Reviews on the App Store are meaningless and often typed by troglodytes that seem barely able to operate the equipment on which they’re espousing their opinions. “This is the bomb!!!”, does not constitute a review. Tell me why. Give me high points and low points. Discuss the resolution or how snappy the response is, or how useful the app is. Because as cool as the iPad is as a piece of hardware, it’s worthless without good software.

An aside- stick with reviews from respected sites. Of course, this comes from the guy who’s still angry I wasted a dollar on the craptacular Doodle Jump, when it’s a mini game in the far superior Pocket God which costs the same. Here’s one instance where Nintendo’s Iwata is both right and wrong when he talks about value gaming, but now I AM digressing.

This is a magnificent device for viewing video and consuming media. With the right apps, I can envision this being a remarkable tool for creative media production. I desperately want ColorSplash and other iPhone photography editing apps on this device’s larger screen! (Also, the Constitution [U.S.] and Library of Congress Virtual Tour apps, as well as my bank.)

My friend Tony Brown of the Armed Ape podcast boils his reviews down to some very simple questions, one of which is the money shot: what is it designed to do and how well does it do it? And that’s kind of the rub with this thing. What IS it designed to do? With the right apps and software, this could ALMOST be a laptop replacement. I kid you not, it’s like a ritzy net book. It’s more expensive than your average netbook, but more classy. Or maybe the word I’m looking for is “pretentious”, except I don’t mean for it to have any negative connotation. Since I can’t really be Iron Man, this is the closest I can get to the netbook Tony Stark would use. The construction is substantial and not cheap or chintzy feeling at all- I’m working with something of consequence and I like that. The re-thinking of how the tablet works (as opposed to the abominations that have been Windows based tablets) make this thing usable and a real joy. Apps are creative, and as such it seems to reduce the barriers between man and machine one more layer. When you’re in an app, it simply IS and you simply DO. It’s pretty cool, and you may have to experience it to understand what I’m saying. Apple got that much very, VERY right.

It’s a great e-reader. It’s great for watching movies or tv. It’s great for playing games. Apps written for it are amazing. Oddly enough, it is a god-awful iPod. I love using my iPod or iPhone to listen to podcasts and music while I’m running or at the gym, but this thing is just too big to be a good iPod and the album art it displays looks fuzzy due to the resolution of the pictures on the large screen. Still, while I wouldn’t want to use an iPad as an iPod (getting very tired of typing iEverything), it is one of those functions I don’t think they should remove but desperately need to fix. All it’s really good for right now is playing music in the background while you do something else. But then, maybe that’s it’s perfect function.

So who’s it for? I kid you not, I think this thing is for enterprise. You want something tough, well built, professional and attractive looking, crazy long battery life (especially compared to the competition), capable of doing real work, small and light for packing in carry-on luggage, but capable of giving presentations to clients (now with iPad 2 and HDMI adaptor kits)… The iPad gives you all that, plus calendar, contacts, email… This is a device for the mobile professional. That’s just my non-professional traveler opinion, but I promise you if I were the jet setter type, whisking across country for all manner of meetings and staying in hotel rooms across America, this thing would be my constant companion.

So what are the limiting factors here?

First, the dependence upon iTunes. With the phone, it made sense to me because my phone is super cool, but I’ve never really thought of it as a computer unto itself. The iPad makes me “think different”, to borrow the phrase, about what a computer should be. Being required to tether this device to my home computer seems a crime, and makes me take it slightly less seriously.

Second, if you already have an iPhone, you’re in for a data dilemma. I admitted it earlier and I’ll say so again, I’ve become spoiled by having data at my fingertips whenever I desire. Not having the 3G connection on this iPad makes me sad. But, I’m already paying for data on my phone… And apparently my carrier thinks I should pay an additional $20 a month for tethering… So, they want me to pay again for data access I’m already paying for. I’m not interested in jailbreaking, but my carrier’s arcane data policies might just change my mind, since I’m still kicking myself for getting talked into 2GB a month instead of unlimited right before the Netflix app hit the scene. If I’ve ever felt like kicking my carrier where it hurt, their demand for even more money to get an iPad anywhere access would be the trigger.

Third, and finally, I don’t want to re-purchase apps that I already have on my phone for the iPad, but the iPhone versions on the larger screen are displayed horribly. (Notable exception, Final Fantasy still looks beautiful, even when zoomed in.) I’m willing to pay good money for good apps (curse you, Doodle Jump!), but buying an app twice just hurts. Especially when I’ve already purchased Plants vs. Zombies three times on different platforms. It would be all kinds of slick if apps were simply universal from here on out, and I doubt I’ll purchase many more if they’re not.

So is this thing as magical as Steve Jobs or Jony Ives have said? Well, yes, but slightly less so if you already have a laptop or iPhone 4 or both. The iPad becomes the coolest thing ever that you don’t really need. A very expensive piece of gizmology that I’m struggling to justify spending the money on it that I did. (And I got a clearance 1st generation refurb. Almost $200 off and only now do I think it’s fairly priced.) If I owned desktop computer instead of laptop, or hadn’t already spent the money I have on iPhone-only apps I would likely be far more enamored of it. And I’m an Apple fan; the fact that I don’t want to keep this is shocking to me. It’s not a bad device by any means, and I do think it’s worth the cost because of the quality of the product. But my computers and my phone leave the iPad as a piece of magic in search of a niche because I’ve already got it covered. I’ll still own one someday, just not now. This one’s going back, and I’ll use the money to put a lift kit on my Jeep or something.

But not before typing this entire review in the Notes app on the iPad.