I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.


From a Virtual Pants post refuting my experiences with the Surface:

It is expensive
The Surface is cheaper than an iPad. The base model Surface has 32GB of storage and is $499. The 32GB iPad Wi-Fi is $599. But, what about the Touch Cover? A 32GB Surface with Touch Cover is $599. A 32GB iPad with Smart Cover is $638. And that doesn’t include a keyboard.

Mr. Pants reminded me of a pricing trick I’ve wanted to point out for a while.

Flash-memory upgrades on tablets are much cheaper for the manufacturers than the $100 increments that Apple established with the original iPad pricing. The nonlinear pricing gives it away: why does the first $100 buy 16 GB more than the preceding size, while the second $100 buys another 32 GB?

Obviously, the $100 increments are arbitrary, because it’s mostly profit: the flash memory used in most iPad-like tablets costs about $1 per GB or less, not the $6.25 per GB that Apple charges us to upgrade from 16 to 32 GB. Since the other components are all identical between different-capacity models, we can surmise that a 32 GB iPad is about $84 more profitable than the 16 GB model.

Microsoft’s price of $499 for a 32 GB Surface is clever and aggressive: by adding only about $16 to its component costs, it makes people compare its price to Apple’s cash-cow $599 model, and the Surface seems like a better buy.

Why, then, isn’t there a 16 GB Surface? Presumably, it’s a combination of two factors. Windows RT needs 7–8 GB for itself, so a 16 GB model would leave relatively little room for the customer’s apps and files.

But the bigger reason is that the storage-price upgrade trick works against them in the other direction. Customers would expect a 16 GB Surface to cost $100 less, and Microsoft might only save $16 on the component costs. A 16 GB Surface would be about $84 less profitable. In this business, especially for a new, low-volume player, that can easily push the device far into the red.

It’s far easier for the Surface to appear to be cheaper than the iPad by starting at 32 GB than by starting at $399.

This is also why the iPad Mini starts at $329 for 16 GB, rather than a cheaper 8 GB model: people said it was only $80 more than the Nexus 7, because they were comparing its price to the $249 16 GB Nexus 7 instead of the $199 8 GB model. A few days ago, Google played the game in the other direction, widening the gap considerably, by doubling the capacities at the same price points. Now, the 16 GB Nexus 7 is $199, making the $329 iPad Mini seem considerably more expensive.

This game works, especially in the downward-price-pressure direction, because consumers and the press overemphasize specs when comparing tech devices. In practical use, though, most people don’t need more than the entry-level capacities. The gigabyte-matching tricks cloud these comparisons, but in reality, the entry-level price is what matters most: it will be advertised most, it will get people into the store, it’s the best value, and it’s the hardest price for the manufacturer to drop because it’s the least profitable.

A Kindle Fire is $159. A Nexus 7 is $199. An iPad is $329. A Microsoft Surface is $499.

Apple’s been selling midrange and high-end products at midrange and high-end prices for years, trying to get people to compare (sorry) apples-to-apples, but it just doesn’t sink in: Apple still has an “expensive” reputation, mostly because they don’t address the unprofitable low end of any market.

The Surface is a decent deal, but it is also expensive: not compared to the iPad at the same storage level, but relative to the market. That’s what customers see, and that’s how the Surface will be compared.


If you’re a U.S. citizen eligible to vote, find your polling place and vote today. Please.

I know none of the available choices are perfect. I wish we had more than two viable choices. But governments can neither satisfy everyone all the time nor impose massive changes rapidly: all they can do is try to make choices that help the most people, and make incremental changes over time to achieve significant long-term progress.

As voters, we have a similar responsibility: even when none of the options are perfect for us, or even particularly great, we must choose to make incremental progress. Choosing to do nothing by abstaining isn’t making a statement at all: it’s neglecting our society and impeding the progress you believe is necessary.


Linking to bullshit

The industry of writing inflammatory bullshit about Apple is booming.

It’s booming partially because writing inflammatory Apple headlines gets a lot of clicks. Apple is popular and the dominant player in many industries, so anything that attacks it will attract attention.

But it’s also booming because we all keep linking to the bullshit. We, Apple-and-related writers, link to it from our blogs or Twitter accounts. We point and laugh at the most humorously wrong sentence, or we rebut its points one by one.

We think we’re taking them down, but we’re just taking the bait. And then all of our readers and followers take the bait, and we support the bullshit by sending pageviews.

I enjoy an occasional humorous takedown of one of these by the people who do it best: John Gruber and The Macalope. But even they sometimes do it more than they need to (although it’s The Macalope’s job), and we don’t all need to pile on.

If you truly dislike bullshit writing and don’t want to support it, hit the publishers where it hurts: don’t read it, and don’t link to it.

Charging an iPhone without AC power

With the recent disastrous weather, a lot of people have lost power for many days and are looking to be more prepared for the next time. Generators can help on a large scale, but not everyone can practically use them (like most people in apartments), and the portable ones are only good until you run out of their fuel. But more importantly for this post, I don’t know anything about them, so I’ll assume you don’t have one.

If you just want to charge an iPhone,1 I can be a bit more useful. Here are your options:

Most extended-battery iPhone cases can only provide a partial iPhone charge before they’re depleted. Some of the very large external brick-like packs are worth up to two or three charges. But that’s about it. These can carry you through a power outage for a day or two if you’re lucky, but probably less, especially if you’re using your iPhone a lot because you can’t do much else.

This hand-crank charger (via Daring Fireball) sounds like a good idea but probably isn’t, and it probably isn’t worth $60. While your hand-cranking power is “renewable” and effectively unlimited, it’s probably going to take a lot of cranking for a full iPhone charge. (I can’t find any specifics on it, unfortunately.)

The PowerFilm solar AA charger uses unlimited, renewable, free solar energy. But it’s very slow: it takes many hours of strong, direct sunlight to charge a pair of NiMH AA batteries (the most common rechargeable type today), and they’re only good for about half of an iPhone charge through its USB output port. I got one of these for a group camping trip a couple of years ago as an unlimited-capacity last resort, but we didn’t use it much because it was too slow. It’s also probably not worth $70.

The standout hit of the camping trip, by far, was the Tekkeon AA-battery USB charger. It’s built cheaply and doesn’t even feel like it’s worth $20. But you can get nearly two full iPhone charges from a set of four AA batteries, if you use the right kind. The obvious disadvantage is that you’ll eventually run out of batteries, but you can get AA batteries nearly anywhere, even in bad-weather panics (since most old flashlights use C and D batteries), and you probably already have a bunch of them lying around.

The type of AAs matters a lot, since it’s a high-current device able to drain its AA batteries within an hour or two. I did some tests with different batteries before the camping trip and found that standard alkaline AAs don’t get very far at all, but NiMH rechargeables are passable, and (non-rechargeable) lithium AAs are the best by far. Lithium AAs are more expensive than alkalines, but they’re perfect for stockpiling for this sort of use: they have extremely long and stable shelf lives, they don’t care what temperature it is, and if this matters to you, they weigh almost nothing. (And if you get to the store after everyone else has already panicked and bought their supplies, they’ll be the only batteries left since they’re the most expensive.)

If I had $70 to spend on this problem, instead of a hand-crank or solar charger with a tiny capacity, I’d rather have the Tekkeon AA box and 40 lithium AAs, which could power my iPhone for about a month of frequent use. If I actually lose power for an entire month and burn through them all, presumably I will have spent part of that month finding some way to get a few extra AA batteries. And if that’s not possible, I probably have much bigger problems.

  1. If you want to charge an iPad, none of these solutions will work very well, if at all. iPad batteries, especially on the Retina models, are almost as large as laptop batteries, and that’s just too much power for any of these to reasonably provide. Some of the biggest external lithium-ion battery packs can give a partial Retina iPad charge at most, but that’s not going to get you very far.

    The Tekkeon AA pack won’t charge any full-sized iPad. It will charge an iPad Mini, but in the “Not Charging” state — the slowest mode that only charges when the screen’s off. I don’t want to burn another set of lithium AAs to find out how far they go with a Mini, but I wouldn’t expect more than about 75% of a full charge. ↩︎

The iPad Mini and the cost of Retina

The iPad Mini is a conflicted product.

It’s much better than the iPad 3 and 4 to handle, carry, and hold up during use. It has the best external design of any iPad to date. It runs cooler than the iPad 3 or 4, it has almost the same battery life despite its much smaller size and weight, and it matches the iPad 2 and 3 in most performance benchmarks. It charges more quickly than the iPad 3 or 4, and it’s more versatile in charging, since it’s the first iPad able to charge at full speed from an “iPhone” AC adapter. The Smart Cover even sticks to the back better when it’s flipped around.

And, of course, it’s much cheaper than the other iPads.

But the non-Retina screen is rough. If you’ve never used a Retina-screened device, you probably won’t care, but if you’ve been spoiled by Retina, you’ll notice the lack of it in the Mini almost every time you turn it on. I stop noticing after I start doing something with it, of course, but those first few seconds are a rough reminder every time.

The iPad Mini is conflictingly high-end and low-end. It’s the cheapest, “entry-level” model, but since this is Apple and this is their second-most-important product, it’s not bad, much like the 11” MacBook Air. On the contrary, the screen is the only thing about the iPad Mini that feels low-end. If they release a Retina iPad Mini next fall — and I don’t expect one earlier — no part of it is likely to feel low-end except the price, a recipe for a fantastic product.

Despite being the cheapest model, the Mini has top-notch build quality and materials. Almost every hardware spec is great: great battery life, great performance, great storage and cellular-data options. It doesn’t feel cheap at all, and no part of it feels like it was short-changed or underpowered because of price alone.

Including the screen.

A Retina screen at iPad resolution has a much higher cost than the price of the panel. I’m convinced that the other tradeoffs and costs are why the Mini doesn’t have a Retina screen.

This isn’t theoretical: we can see the cost of Retina for ourselves with the iPads 3 and 4. The iPad 3 was the first Retina iPad and showed us the initial issues, and the iPad 4 shows us the best Retina iPad that Apple could ship with the technological improvements available since the iPad 3.

We can see that a Retina iPad screen is a much bigger power hog than a non-Retina screen of the same size. That’s why the iPad 3 needed to be thicker and heavier than the iPad 2, and why it takes so long to charge: the battery is huge. The iPad 4 has roughly the same size, weight, and battery as the iPad 3, so we know that technological progress hasn’t been able to meaningfully shrink it yet.

And we can see that pushing four times the pixels needs four times the GPU power to keep performance similar to the non-Retina equivalent, especially in games. To achieve this, the iPad 3’s A5X needed to be inelegant: it was physically huge, it drew a lot of power, and it ran noticeably warm even under routine tasks like web browsing. The iPad 4 was able to improve significantly with the much faster, die-shrunk A6X, but its GPUs still need a lot of power and it still runs warm.

It’s not hard to imagine, given what we see with the iPad 3 and 4, what an iPad Mini with a Retina screen would be like with today’s technology. Its battery life, portability, or performance would suffer significantly. (Probably all three.)

Apple didn’t make an arbitrary decision to withhold Retina on the Mini to save money, upsell more buyers to the iPad 4, or “force” the first generation of iPad Mini owners to upgrade next year. They chose not to ship a Retina iPad Mini because it would be significantly worse than the previous iPads in very important factors.

Imagine the fallout if a Retina Mini shipped with only three hours of battery life, or was inelegantly thick and heavy. Or, very importantly to the iPad’s market, imagine if its GPUs were slower and it ran existing iPad games extremely poorly. And then add the component-price differences: imagine a Retina iPad Mini that was bulkier, shorter-running, or much slower (or all three) and that started at $399 instead of $329.

That’s why we don’t have a Retina iPad Mini yet. It’s not only about price: it’s because the resulting product would suck in at least two other important ways.

Until a good Retina iPad Mini can be made, it will be an unfortunately conflicted product: high-end in every way except the screen, which is a big one. But this tradeoff is anything but arbitrary.

The Big Jambox

I’ve owned an original Jambox since its launch two years ago. But unlike what its cool Sandwich Video depicts, mine is used in much less interesting situations: I use it to play music and podcasts in my bathroom. (The best shower podcast, by far, is Roderick On The Line.)

It’s great for bathroom use: it’s small, loud, wireless via Bluetooth, and battery-powered, so you don’t need to plug it into the precious few outlets that most bathrooms have. And running a wire across the bathrom would almost certainly be met with a spousal veto.

The original Jambox, while it’s a delightful product otherwise, has two major flaws for this use. It vibrates so much with bassy songs at high volumes that it can easily vibrate itself off the edge of whatever it’s sitting on. (Fortunately, it’s also very durable.) And while it’s impressively loud for its size, it can’t get loud enough for spoken podcasts to be heard consistently clearly in a noisy shower.

I first tried and didn’t like the Bose SoundLink to address those shortcomings. Then I tried the Big Jambox, and I’m glad I did.

Left to right: Bose SoundLink, Big Jambox in white (pardon the Moiré), and original Jambox in black (pardon its perma-dust coating). Both Jamboxes come in other colors as well.

It dramatically solves both of the original Jambox’s flaws: it can get much louder (and sounds much better along the way), and it keeps itself firmly planted. (Even its Sandwich Video is better.)

It also has dramatically better battery life. I thought the original Jambox had great battery life: under my typical use of 15–30 minutes per day of high-volume podcast or music playback over Bluetooth, the original Jambox lasted about 10 days. The Big Jambox lasts about a month in the same use.

Big Jambox in its natural habitat next to the shower.

But it’s also much less portable. The original Jambox can easily be carried around in most laptop bags. The Big Jambox will fit (awkwardly) into bigger bags, but it doesn’t just look like a brick: it’s noticeably dense, and therefore quite heavy for its size. It’s “portable” the same way 17” laptops are portable: you can bring it with you, but you won’t want it on your shoulder.

Neither Jambox sounds great while playing music, but I have high standards for “great” sound quality that have never been met by any Bluetooth, AirPlay, or Dock-port speakers. I’d say the sound quality from the original Jambox is what you’d expect if a 15” MacBook Pro’s speakers could get much louder, and the sound quality (and maximum volume) of the Big Jambox is comparable to most midrange AC-powered iPod/iPhone speaker docks. Both Jamboxes achieve volume levels that are surprisingly high for battery-powered speakers, especially given their sizes.

Both sound great while playing podcasts, but the Big Jambox sounds better. And if you want to listen to podcasts in the shower, you’ll probably need the Big’s higher volume.

The Jamboxes’ design is polarizing. Most audio products that come from the computer industry’s vicinity (anything with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or a Dock connector) look hideous, tacky, and cheap.1 Or, like the Bose SoundLink, like it came from a SkyMall catalog in 1997. Personally, I think the Big Jambox, in white (and only in white), is better-looking than any other useful Bluetooth or AirPlay speaker I’ve seen.

Both Jamboxes feel like very high-quality products. They both come with a full set of power and audio cables, and they’re filled with nice little touches, including the tasteful-yet-cool startup and pairing sounds.

The Bluetooth interface on both is rock-solid — it’s much more reliable, and much less buggy on iOS devices, than the AirPlay speaker in my kitchen. If you’ll usually have the same device sending audio to a speaker, and it’ll always be within about 15 feet, I highly recommend Bluetooth over AirPlay. And the Big Jambox is the best Bluetooth speaker that I’ve found.

I strongly recommend the Big Jambox, as long as you don’t need to carry it around very often.

I can also recommend the original Jambox, but with hesitation: it’s only the better choice if the price difference or portability are most important to you.

  1. Can we start a coalition or something to ban blue LEDs? Please? We, as a society, have shown that we can’t use them responsibly. ↩︎

Build and Analyze ending December 17

Recently, I’ve felt my current podcast, Build and Analyze, getting stale and repetitive. We’ve had a great run, and I’ve greatly enjoyed doing it, but it has run its course. I’d rather end it now than slide into mediocrity — imagine if The Wire ended after season 4, Six Feet Under ended after season 3, or Arrested Development ended right before Michael met Rita.

Anyway, Dan Benjamin and I have agreed that the last episode of Build and Analyze will be December 17. Thank you to everyone who has listened, written, asked questions, and rated the show.

We’re in a golden age of geeky podcasting right now, especially thanks to 5by5 and the road that Dan paved with it, and there’s no shortage of other great developer-related podcasts. Some of my recent favorites, if you’re looking to satisfy your developer-podcast needs:

After Build and Analyze ends, I’d like to take a few weeks off for the holidays, be a guest on other shows, and then experiment with new shows, topics, and formats to try to figure out what I want to do next in the world of podcasting.

Build and Analyze has been a blast and a pleasure. Thank you.

The wrong movement

As expected, I’ve already received a lot of feedback on my justifying-piracy post from this morning. I’d like to expand on this part:

You’re not making any kind of statement or participating in a movement [by pirating] — you’re just being cheap and/or impatient.

Actually, piracy does make a statement — it’s just the wrong statement. If you truly want to pressure content providers to adapt new distribution channels, and you’re not just trying to justify getting everything for free, piracy is hurting your cause.

Most geeks try to justify piracy because the content isn’t available on our terms. We can’t get it in our country, we can’t get it as quickly as we want, it costs more than we want to pay, we can’t get it on the device we want, or we can’t get it in the format we want. Publishers have a distribution problem.

But when publishers see widespread piracy of their content, they don’t see the distribution problem. They think they have a piracy problem.

Publishers believe (with mixed success) that piracy problems can be solved by force: existing laws are being mostly ignored and violated en masse, so the publishers lobby Congress for stronger laws and pressure ISPs for stricter enforcement. The more they fight on this front, the more likely that their anti-technology, anti-internet efforts will actually pass and hurt legitimate online activity and businesses.

Pirating adds to that problem and encourages publishers that they need to fight harder in that direction.

But distribution is completely their fault. They can’t blame anyone else. Insufficient distribution or unappealing terms are problems that they need to solve, not legislators, lawsuits, ISPs, or law enforcement.

Adding to their distribution problem without contributing to their piracy problem is the most effective way to encourage them to make the kind of progress we want.

Elevation Dock with Lightning adapter

My wife and I have been using a pair of these in our Elevation Docks for about a week and have come to the same conclusions.

The docks (designed for the iPhone 4S) cost $59 each on Kickstarter in February but didn’t arrive until September, shortly before the release of the iPhone 5, due to significant production delays. I’m not sure how much blame falls on Elevation Lab for the delays, but they had remarkably bad luck with the timing of the Dock connector’s retirement.

The Elevation Dock with the iPhone 4S is great and a pleasure to use. To cope with the Lightning port, Elevation Lab just released a $15 adapter that replaces most of the guts in the original Dock, and they now offer an $89 “iPhone 5” Dock with the adapter preinstalled.

The adapter works: the iPhone 5 can mount in the Elevation Dock with it. The instructions are terse, vague, and printed in dark blue ink on black paper, but installation is still easy.

It’s just a metal clamp that holds an Apple Lightning cable (not included, $19.99 from Apple) securely at the required angle. This brought my total cost to $97.40 per adapted Dock. For the pre-adapted Dock and a Lightning cable from Apple, new buyers need to pay $108.99 plus shipping and tax as needed. I could justify $59 on Kickstarter, but now it’s almost twice that.

The primary appeal of the original Elevation Dock was the ease of removing your iPhone from it. Apple’s crappy little docks were so lightweight that you’d need to annoyingly hold them down while removing the phone, often requiring two hands. Elevation Lab made a great video on Kickstarter demonstrating how frustrating other docks were, and showing how easily the iPhone lifted out of their heavy base with their custom, low-friction connector.

We all saw that video and knew that frustration, and that’s why they were able to far surpass their Kickstarter goal so easily. And with the iPhone 4S, it really did work that well, once we eventually got our Elevation Docks.

But with the Lightning adapter, the Elevation Dock works like all of the other docks in that video.

Apple’s Lightning plug holds very securely, nothing like Elevation’s original low-friction connector. They subtly hint at this in the adapter’s description:

Your dock will have as much friction as your Apple cord does now, which you can test.

It’s even harder to remove the iPhone 5 from the Elevation Dock than I expected. It requires two hands almost every time, and it makes me want to throw the Dock out the window. The Lightning connector on Apple’s cables not only wasn’t designed for this use, but substantially hinders it.

I initially thought that quickly offering an “adapter” that simply mounted an Apple Lightning cable was a clever solution for Elevation Lab to offer upset Dock owners: it was much faster, simpler, and cheaper than it would have been to work with Apple and make an official Lightning accessory.

But now that I have it, I can see that it’s not a solution at all: it’s a bad hack. It doesn’t work very well, it ruins the Elevation Dock’s appeal, and the total cost is embarrassing for its actual utility.

I hope that Elevation Lab can someday work with Apple to release a dock with a real low-friction Lightning connector that restores the short-lived usefulness and elegance that the original Elevation Dock offered for the iPhone 4S, because their current solution is neither useful nor elegant.