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David Rowell

David Rowell

You can see an extensive mini-bio about me here http://www.thetravelinsider.info/info/about.htm And here's a Google Plus link : Google

Oct 132017
 

Amazon’s new 10.1″ large screened tablet, available at a wonderful value price of $150.

As promised, deliveries of Amazon’s astoundingly affordable $150 10.1″ Fire HD 10 tablet started arriving on Wednesday – in my case, in a ridiculously large-sized box 50 times larger (yes, I was so curious, I measured) than the tablet buried at the bottom and smothered in plastic filler material.

As an aside, the package was shipped via UPS.  UPS charges shippers by volume as well as weight, and this ridiculously outsized box not only will have cost more in the first place (due to all the extra cardboard and then all the filler that had to be placed inside it) but then must have surely cost appreciably/unnecessarily extra to ship.  It is stunning that Amazon – a company which is so dependent on efficient shipping – should send out items in such unnecessarily enormous boxes and at such avoidable extra cost.  Plus I’ve now got an unwanted big cardboard box to throw away.

After persevering through a disappointing initial experience getting the unit operational, the HD 10 quickly showed its value when placed alongside an iPad Air (costing 3 – 4 times as much) and a Fire HD 8 (costing half as much).

The HD 10 is fast and responsive.  It has a clear 1080×1920 screen, and allows you to plug Micro-SD cards into the unit to massively expand its capacity.  With convenient integration into the Amazon ecosystem, it also supports the Alexa voice assistant feature, either in an always-on mode like an Echo unit, or activated only when you press and hold the home key on the unit.

If you’re considering a(nother) tablet, then the Fire HD 10 has to be on your short list of possibilities.

First Impressions – Not Good Impressions

Companies these days generally obsess about the ‘opening the box’ experience that customers get when first opening their purchased item.  Customers obsess about this too, with bazillions of YouTube videos showing in elaborate detail someone opening up whatever they have bought.

To be sure, there is a new wave of minimalism used to excuse a rejection of some of the most extreme of the one-time excesses in packaging where quite literally the cost of the packaging – something you quickly open up and then usually discard, never to be used again – can match or exceed the cost of the item within.  The trend to selling more products online has also reduced the need for store-based ‘eye appeal’ packaging.

But there are some universal considerations, ranging from the trivial but often ignored (the packaging should be easy to open without requiring knives or scissors), to essential (the item should include all items necessary for it to work such as batteries and cables), and common sense (it should be protectively packed, and it should have enough instructions to make it easy and obvious and quick to get the item working).

In the case of Amazon’s Fire HD 10, it seems they’ve hired someone from IKEA to design the out-of-the-box experience.  There is a multi-folded ‘instruction sheet’ but without a single word on it, same as you get with IKEA flat-pack furniture.  Just little cartoon style illustrations.  Really, Amazon – are you selling to people who you don’t think can read?  (To be fully fair, the other side of this sheet was full of legal fine print and warnings, of which it could be said Amazon hopes you won’t read.)

The lack of clear instructions was to become an immediate problem.  I couldn’t turn the device on.  There was absolutely nothing anywhere in the wordless instructions to answer the question ‘why won’t the unit turn on’ and a similar silence when it comes to ‘what is the number for contacting customer support’.   Amazon has some type of direct on-device support service which I’ve never clearly understood, but the enormous Catch-22 with whatever that does is a requirement for the device to be on and operating and connected to the internet.

I wondered if perhaps the battery had failed.  I connected the tablet to a charging outlet on my Qicent hub, but that didn’t solve the problem, and actually hinted at a new (?) problem – a message appeared on my computer advising that a new USB device had been connected (correct) but had malfunctioned (oops!).

So I found myself forced to play the ‘find the phone number’ game on Amazon’s site.  Eventually I found it and soon enough was speaking to a foreign gentleman, presumably in a far away land, and he told me not to worry, I just needed to charge the battery for half an hour or so.

I pointed out to him that every other device I’d received from Amazon or other suppliers always came with the battery somewhere between fully and partially charged, and there was no way that a brand new freshly released product could have had its battery discharge completely in the week or so between manufacture and my receipt of it.  I also asked about the error message on the computer, but he said to just wait half an hour and see what happens.

I tried to get him to tell me if this was normal or not.  Was this now Amazon policy to ship devices with dead batteries?  If so, why, and if so, why not include a note – in English – advising people to charge the unit for 30 minutes before turning it on?  Alas, neither these questions nor any responses to them were on his script, so I got nowhere.

As it turned out, he was correct.  Half an hour of charging later, and the unit burst into life, revealing that it now had a 1% level of charge.

If this is the new Amazon policy – perhaps a response to valid concerns over shipping large numbers of tablets by air, all with fully charged Li-ion batteries in them, then wouldn’t it be nice to include a little note, with words rather than pictures, advising people of that?

So, my ‘fresh out of the box’ experience scored close to max for unnecessary negativity.  A unit that wouldn’t turn on and which gave error messages when connected to a charging cable from my computer, no instructions or advice about this, no information about how to contact support, and then the support experience itself.

A 1/2 cent piece of printed paper included in the kit would have resolved all those problems.  If they’d packed it in a smaller box, they could have reallocated some of the unnecessary extra shipping cost and spent it on improving the user experience.

The extraordinarily long list of permissions required by Alexa.

Activating the Amazon Fire HD 10

Once the device came to life, it was relatively easy to activate.  Cleverly, Amazon had already configured the device in anticipation of me being its owner/primary user (it is possible to have multiple user accounts on the device, just like on a computer).  It offered to auto-restore itself from the most recent backup from my Fire HD 8, which I allowed it to do, but it was not clear exactly what it restored.  Most of the third-party programs did not download, indeed, it didn’t even load the books I’d purchased into the Kindle reader program, either.

The typical updates to operating system and other programs then followed, and after refusing its wish to connect to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and reading through a series of guided tour elements, the device was pretty much good to go.

There was one major decision point to consider.  Did I want its Alexa function to be ‘always on’ and waiting/listening for its activation word, or did I want to only activate it selectively by a long press on the home key.  This choice was accompanied by a staggeringly long list of permissions Alexa would require in order to work (see image).  There are pro’s and con’s to both Alexa settings – I was concerned that having it in an always-on setting might drain the battery more quickly, and there’s the privacy concern as well, but on the other hand, the  but a few days of experimentation has shown surprisingly little battery drain from having the Alexa capability on standby and always listening.  It does get interesting when I have two or more Alexa devices near me, in terms of which one – or which ones – respond.

A nice aspect of using Alexa on a Kindle, instead of on an Echo, is that sometimes it displays some of the information you ask for.  This is true if you’re asking for a weather forecast, but if you’re asking for a recipe, something that clearly benefits from displaying information, there’s no way to do so.  Another example of how the Alexa service is being rushed to market with great missing gaps in its feature set.

A couple of things to be aware of.  The default name of the device is not necessarily very helpful.  It defaulted to the name “David’s Fifth Fire Device”, which did little to identify it from, obviously, four other devices.  But it was quick and easy in Settings – Device Options to rename it to “David’s Fire HD 10”.

It didn’t default to having a screen/password lock when you turn the device on.  Unless you’re careful not to store any personal information or account details, you probably should add a password/lock to the unit.  It was surprising because one would have thought that as part of copying the backup settings from the Fire HD 8 backup it accessed, it would have also taken its password/lock settings.

A quick visit to the Settings – Security page soon fixed that.

I chose the option to get the HD 10 for slightly less money in return for allowing it to show advertisements on the lock screen.  This is totally non-intrusive and sometimes interesting.  For example, I now see on one such featured promotion, to my astonishment, that there is a these days a Starbucks sponsored television series – Upstanders.  The link between coffee and tv programs seems a bit weak, to put it mildly.

The tablet was very snappy and responsive.  It was fast to power up, and fast to change programs and screens.

The HD 10 at top is visibly larger than an iPad (middle) and HD 8 (bottom)

Comparing the HD 10 to Other Tablets

From a visual and tactile perspective, I prefer my iPad Air.  The metal on the iPad, rather than high gloss polished plastic on the HD 10, feels and looks nicer, and there’s a greater abstract feeling of ‘quality’ in some elusive form surrounding the iPad.

But an iPad costs two to five times what a Fire HD 10 costs.  Do I really want to spend $500 extra for a device that I primarily use to read books and watch video on?  So, yes, the iPad is – at least in my opinion – nicer to look at and hold, but the cost issue eclipses the minor degree of extra ‘niceness’.

In terms of performance and actual features and functions, the Fire with its 10.1″ diagonal has a slightly larger screen than a regular iPad with its 9.7″ diagonal, even after adjusting for the different aspect ratios (1.6:1 compared to 1.33:1).  The 10.5″ diagonal on the iPad Pro gives it a larger total screen area, but when viewing regular HD video at normal 16:9 aspect ratio, the Fire HD 10 actually displays a larger video image than both the 9.7″ and the 10.5″ iPads.

This is an important plus.  You can see the picture here which shows the Fire HD 10 compared to both a 9.7″ iPad and a Fire HD 8.

We also noted that when playing Amazon video, the Fire HD 10 reported it was playing video at full HD 1080 quality, but the iPad only reported HD, which we guess means 720×1280 rather than 1080×1920 resolution.  Both images looked good, but the 1080 resolution has more than twice as many pixels of data and image quality on the screen as the lower 720 resolution.

Compared to the Fire HD 8, which was also showing video both in much smaller size and also in the 720 format, the difference was quite clear, as can be seen in the picture.  The HD 10 has 60% more screen area.

We noticed the two Amazon tablets had similar Wi-Fi receivers inside them.  The HD 10 was slightly better – maybe 3dB – 5dB more sensitive on weaker signals, and (equally useful) it reduced the strength of strong signals (so as not to swamp weaker signals).  (Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t allow apps to directly measure Wi-Fi signal strengths, so we couldn’t compare the HD 10 to an iPad.)

The two Fire tablets both take Micro-SD cards to give them massively expandable capacity to store and play back video and music, whereas the iPads do not.  But the iPads do have some things the Fire tablets don’t have – they offer Bluetooth connectivity, fingerprint readers, and much better front and rear cameras.

We understand and admire Amazon’s hard-headed approach to features.  Their promise seems to be to provide a tablet at an unbeatable price with a great set of core features, but without the ‘feature creep’ elements added that would inevitably compromise the amazing value they can offer their tablets at.

Do you really need Bluetooth?  No, almost certainly not.  Is a fingerprint reader worth paying $500 more for?  Again, almost certainly not.  Do you want to use your tablet rather than phone or camera to take pictures and video with?  Again, no.

But if any of these are ‘must have’ features, then you’ll probably choose your tablet based on that feature.

Note also, in our special exclusive Supporters Special report, we also identify another tablet that offers Micro-SD card capability, high quality cameras, plus Bluetooth and a fingerprint reader too.  It also includes a GPS unit – not available on the Fire tablets and a $130 option on the iPads.  With a price of about $290, this is perhaps the ideal sweet spot between features and price.

If your prime uses are email, social media, web browsing, games, watching video and reading books, get a Fire HD tablet.  That’s the absolutely and clearly best value best solution.

Should you get an 8″ or 10″ Fire tablet?  For that matter, what about, also, the Fire 7″ tablet?

With the small price difference between the 7″ and 8″ tablets, it is easy to ignore the 7″ tablet.  Sure, it is the lowest price, but for only $30 more, you get a massively better and bigger screen on the 8″ tablet.

As between the 8″ and 10″ tablets, both work acceptably well. There is only about 5 ounces extra weight in the larger 10″ tablet, which is almost 2″ longer and 1.3″ wider.  As long as you can readily fit the 10.3″ x 6.3″ x 0.4″ dimensions of the larger tablet in your carry-on bag, probably it is the better choice.  But if size and weight are both ultra-critical, and price also an issue, you’ll be happy with the 8″ tablet too.

Case/Cover for the HD 10

I’ve not bothered with buying protective covers for my 7″ and 8″ tablets, because the cost of the cover can almost match the cost of the tablet (in the cost of the $50 7″ tablet, particularly when it is discounted down to $40 or lower).  But for my expensive iPads, I do have protective covers and on several occasions have dropped them and been grateful of the cover’s protection.

So I think I’ll get a cover for the HD 10, too.  At present, there are not many covers to choose from.  There are ridiculously expensive $40 covers that Amazon offers, or less expensive covers by Ztotop and Moko.  Just be sure that you’re getting a case for a ‘7th Generation/2017 release’ HD 10, not any of the earlier 10″ Fire tablets sold by Amazon.

Summary

Amazon now has two great choices if you’re looking for a tablet.  The Fire HD 8, priced from $80 and with an 8″ screen, or the Fire HD 10, priced from $150 and with a 10.1″ screen.

The only appreciable difference between them is the larger screen and better resolution on the HD 10 (and necessarily larger overall size), and the difference in price.  We’ve always thought the bigger the screen the better, but if you’re seeking a compact unit or trying to keep your spend to the absolute minimum, the HD 8 is a perfectly good choice as well.

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Oct 062017
 

Fancy taking one of these on your next flight across the Atlantic?

Good morning

Happy birthday to the lovely and now undeniably old 747.  It was 49 years ago on 30 Sept 1968 that saw the ceremonial roll-out of the first 747.  It is interesting to see the list of 26 launch customers for the 747 – ten of them have disappeared.

Our 2017 annual fund-raising drive continues to move forward, albeit more slowly this week, with another 39 readers choosing to become supporters.  Included among these very kind Travel Insiders were another select group of seven Super Supporters (sending in three figure sums), so here’s a call out to Max L, Randy S, Maureen F, Hugh M, Linda M, Bryan G, and Janet A.  Thank you to the Magnificent Seven, and the almost as magnificent 32, too.

I’ve noted the flagging in response level, and that has motivated me to come up with two new inducements.  I’ve added a new shopper comparison chart, this time for 20 high-end cell phones to match this week’s feature article (a review of the new Google phones announced on Wednesday).  The ‘gem’ in this review is the $200 phone that is functionally identical to most of the $500 – $1000 phones, and in some respects better, while also being massively less costly.  If you’re considering buying a new phone at present, you’ve got to check that out.

I’ve also updated the public chart on cell phones too with fresh but different data, so there’s something for everyone to benefit from.

Secondly, I’ve negotiated a 20% discount with a friend’s company, Asterride.  They’re a limo/hire company, a bit like Uber but upmarket, and supporters can use their special code as often as they like for the balance of this year when calling for limo service.  That will probably save you $10 – $20 any time you arrange a ride – a single trip from home to the airport and back again might see you saving $25 or more.

I also updated the special supporter report on tablet devices again.

This means you get to enjoy seven bonuses :

  • 37 page article on internet access while traveling
  • Streaming device reviews
  • Tablet features comparison
  • A free Amazon Echo type device
  • High-end phone comparisons
  • 20% off all Asterride hires through 31 Dec
  • How to get $10 for free from Amazon

So, please do allow these inducements to help encourage you to get around to joining in this year’s fundraising drive, and get us quickly to our goal.  I can also hint there will be at least two more entries on this list next week, one of which would save you hundreds of dollars.  Indeed, I’ll add them to the supporters special page over the weekend, so if you join in the fundraising drive now, you’ll be among the first to know about these new benefits.

As a reminder, The Travel Insider relies upon and needs your support to remain independent and uncompromised.  In return, you get fearless evaluations and critiques, going places where few other journalists are willing to go.

As an example of this, look at this week’s evaluation of Google’s new phones, announced on Wednesday, and following on from today’s roundup.  Whereas a leading electronics magazine journalist says of the new phones that he “couldn’t help but get almost irrationally excited about them” I wryly observe that his excitement was indeed irrational, and tell you why the phones are an expensive disappointment and a betrayal of the founding principles of Android.  That’s a statement you’re unlikely to see anywhere else.

One of the other items Google released at the event was a very ordinary set of Bluetooth headphones.  About the only distinctive thing about them was their ridiculous cost ($160).  But journalists who should know better foamed at the mouth with outlandish claims that “Google’s New Pixel Buds Can Translate Languages in Real Time“.  My response to that?  No.  The earbuds merely connect to the phone, which in turn connects to the Google Translate service online in the internet cloud.

We had another couple choose to join our Grand Expedition of Great Britain next year, but tragically also had one lovely lady, a lady who has graced two earlier Travel Insider tours, pass away.  She’ll be with us in spirit, and I fervently hope her sorely grieving widower will still choose to come, and enjoy a couple of weeks of warm fellowship with a group of supportive old and new friends.

Just a few other items in this week’s round-up.  Not only is the article about Google’s phones and their implications huge, but I’ve been distracted this week due to wearing my volunteer hat at Anna’s Middle School.  I’ve ended up coordinating the ‘Math Club’ activities for the entire Middle School, plus running a ‘Speech & Debate Club’ too.  I don’t begrudge a second of it, of course, but getting both sets of activities up and running for the new school year is taking more time than I’d hoped.

But here are some fun pieces; the chances are they are offering you different perspectives than you’ve seen elsewhere.  Which is, of course, why you read The Travel Insider, and why in turn, I need your support to keep bringing you these alternate points of view.

  • The World’s Longest Low Cost Flight
  • Elon Musk to Bring Rocket Travel Down to Earth?
  • Who Did Tesla Lie To?
  • Australia Takes Up Musk’s Wager
  • All Inclusive Cruises?  Not Really.
  • You Sort of Know This Already.  But You Like to Pretend You Don’t.
  • And Lastly This Week….

The World’s Longest Low Cost Flight

It is a curious thing – the longer the flight, the higher the fare.  Not just the total fare for the distance traveled, but the fare per mile of distance traveled.

We see it in the US, where our various somewhat low-fare carriers tend to operate shorter routes, and we definitely see it in Europe and elsewhere, with airlines such as Ryanair focusing on relatively short point to point flights.  The occasional high-profile attempts at low-cost long distance travel – for example across the Atlantic – usually either fail spectacularly, or, even worse, slowly go up in cost to equal the regular fares, or perhaps remain an obscure niche product with little relevance to most people and most itineraries.

Norwegian, an airline which by some reports is experiencing a few financial growing pains at present, has an ambitious program of expansion so that it neither fails spectacularly nor remains as an obscure niche product, and also is broadening its routes to more and more parts of the globe.

Its latest new service is being hailed as the world’s longest low-cost flight – between London/Gatwick and Singapore (6758 miles as the crow flies; longer with detours to avoid various regional hotspots).

This is a development that will doubtless delight Singaporeans, but add further challenges to their national carrier.  Singapore Airlines is struggling to change itself to reflect the very changed patterns of air travel these days, and adding low fare competition will be another problem it will have to respond to.

Details here.

Elon Musk to Bring Rocket Travel Down to Earth?

Talking about long low-cost flights, Elon Musk is now tilting at another windmill in grand quixotic fashion.  After talking about, then abandoning, the hyperloop concept, and after having dug a few feet of tunnel to ‘prove’ the viability of tunnels as a new (?) way for cars and trains to travel, he is now talking briefly shifting focus from sending people all the way to Mars to instead sending them not quite so far away.  He is considering people flying ballistic rockets that would take off, fly to their destination somewhere else on the planet in mere minutes, and land again.

Well, the capability has been theoretically present for decades.  But to offer this as a practical form of public transportation?  That’s an ambitious concept that not even Sir Richard Branson has dared to espouse.

Musk tells us that a journey from New York to Shanghai would take about 30 minutes, and nowhere would be more than an hour away.  He didn’t comment on just exactly how much noxious toxic rocket-fuel would be burned, but he did tell us that the cost of these flights would be about the same as full-fare economy in a regular jet at present.  Full fare economy appears to be about $3750 for a one-way fare between New York and London, for example.

His concept rocket would carry about 100 passengers per flight.  Could a rocket operate profitably for $375,000 a flight?  Perhaps a clue can be seen in his charges for rocket launches at present, about $60 million for the Falcon 9 rocket.  A passenger rocket would probably have to be larger and use more fuel, because it is having to gently lower itself still fully loaded back to earth again.

Of course the $60 million figure includes a generous profit, but equally of course, Musk would want to make a profit out of flying passengers too.  About the only thing we can be sure of is that the Falcon 9 rocket launches are being sold at costs 200 or more times higher than what Musk would likely get from this new super-sized 100 passenger rocket (don’t forget the passenger bags as well, of course!).

Another benchmark.  The brief sub-orbital flights that Sir Richard hopes to start offering in the future are expected to cost about $250,000 per passenger.  Again, there’s a huge cost gap to close between $250,000 and $2,500.

So, don’t go expecting to see a Musk rocket offering you flights in time for joining your next Travel Insider tour.  And don’t hold your breath expecting the tickets on any such rockets in the future to be anywhere close to affordable.

Talking about Mr Musk and his at times optimistic statements, his poster-child venture, Tesla, has suffered some embarrassment this week.

Who Did Tesla Lie To?

I’ve been accused of being a Tesla hater.  That is not true.  I would love a Tesla car, and greatly admire and respect the revolution they’ve almost single-handedly brought to the electric vehicle industry.

But that doesn’t mean they should not be held as equally accountable to honoring their public claims and promises as any other company, and the more I see the main stream media politely looking the other way and ignoring some blatant challenges, the more I feel it necessary to compensate.  Such as with three related matters this morning.

That oh-so-muted bombshell that you probably didn’t hear going off this week was the mainstream media quietly catching up with the story I broke a month ago.  Tesla is miles behind its Model 3 production targets.  As of the end of September, it had promised to have delivered 1630 cars.  It seems that it may have only delivered 260 cars, about 1/6th the number promised.

Tesla tells us not to worry.  And a new analyst has initiated coverage of Tesla, and they are telling us to rush to buy Tesla stock, predicting it will rise 40% within 12 months.  That almost makes sense in the Tesla universe – a stunning failure to meet targets, matched by giddy optimism in the share market.  How long will this be sustainable?

And now for the lying issue – an even bigger story with even less media coverage.  In a filing with a California regulatory body, Tesla provided projected production numbers that seem to be less than half the projected production numbers it has been publicly promising to its shareholders.  Which number is correct – they are both counting the same cars, so they can’t be reconciled.  One is right, and the other is wrong by a factor of two.

Here’s the analysis that reveals this extraordinary contradiction in Tesla’s claims.  Tesla, in reply, has decided to ignore the story and hope it goes away, which makes me think the analysis is pretty much on target.

Australia Takes Up Musk’s Wager

After suffering a major power outage a year ago, Australia’s state of South Australia took up a wager extended by Elon Musk.  He offered to build them a 129 MWhr power battery storage unit to help smooth out future power surges and interruptions, and said he’d either have it installed within 100 days or give it to the state for free.

Now, call me cynical, but that offer was made last year, and since then South Australia (SA) has moved very slowly forwards and only this week signed a contract with Mr Musk.  But he has clearly known for some time prior to the contract signing this week that he was getting the deal.  The original offer, if taken up immediately, may have strained his resources.  But the 100 day promise now seems trivial, because he has had 200 days to prepare for the 100 day time frame.

This standby battery is thought to be costing in the realm of $95 million and will be the world’s largest lithium-ion battery.  But how long could SA survive on this battery alone?  It has been difficult to get an exact answer to that question – surely a relevant question and measure.  One source says it could power 4000 homes for one day.  We estimate there are about 500,000 homes in SA, so that would mean the entire state could last for about 12 minutes – assuming that the batteries have the capacity to deliver their power at that rate, which is far from clear.  Another source says it will give the state up to 15 minutes of power if it has a loss of power from other sources.

These two fairly consistent claims are contradicted – within the same claims, and for example here as well, where it is stated that the battery could only provide power at a rate that would see the batteries discharge not within 12 – 15 minutes but rather at a rate that would take about 80 minutes to discharge.  In other words, while in theory the battery could supply the entire state for 12 – 15 minutes; in practice, it could only supply about one fifth of the state, but for about five times as long – perhaps up to 80 minutes.  So four out of five households would see no benefit from this battery at all.

To be fair, the battery is not intended to replace the entire power infrastructure, but merely to provide some spare capacity and ‘headroom’ during occasional unusual peaks of demand.

We wish the project well, and the underlying concept of using rechargeable batteries as a power reservoir, particularly now that uncontrollable renewable power sources such as solar and wind are becoming more common, is very sensible.  But let’s not over-hype what SA can expect from its investment in Tesla batteries.

All Inclusive Cruises?  Not Really.

The cruise industry has been quietly walking back its earlier cornerstone product promise – an all-inclusive and affordable experience on a high quality cruise ship.

Sure, it has never been common to see drinks included in the cruise fare, other than with some very high-end cruise lines, with matching high-end fares.  But I recall, several decades ago, cruising on the QE2 and being astonished to see drink prices, in their deluxe Queens Grill, that were lower than what I’d pay in a bottle store back home.  I enjoyed fine vintage champagne that I would never have been able to afford back home.

Now, however, if you go for a cruise on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, it might help your budgeting if you’re a teetotaler.  Their ambitiously named ‘Ultimate Beverage Package’, which certainly does not include fine vintage champagnes, is yours for an aggressive $105.02 a day.  My guess is you’re looking at well drinks, house wines by the glass, and some beers.

And if you were thinking of some, ahem, ‘strategic’ purchasing of this package, forget it.  If you’re going to take advantage of this ‘bargain’, then everyone in the cabin with you (over the age of 21) must also sign up for it, as must also everyone in the cabins of anyone else traveling with you.  The kids under 21 are also required to sign up for a related Soda Program.

And if you were thinking of, ahem, alternating between party/drinking days and recovery days, forget that too.  You have to buy the package for the entire cruise.

There’s a long list of exclusions and requirements, detailed here.

Am I the only person to recoil in horror at the nature of this drink package and its cost?

You Sort of Know This Already.  But You Like to Pretend You Don’t.

Here’s an interesting article with an even more interesting item concealed within it.

The article talks about how Whole Foods has been enjoying an upswing of shoppers since Amazon took it over and immediately slashed some of the prices there.  It is interesting to read about that, and surprising to see how many of the new shoppers are people who have been regularly shopping at Wal-Mart before.

The article was crammed full of detailed data of where Whole Foods shoppers were coming from, their past shopping habits, who they were, even how much they earn.  I found myself wondering how it was I’d not seen anyone surveying shoppers on the several trips I too had made to Whole Foods since the Amazon takeover.  Clearly, a very extensive survey had been done.

Which brings us to the even more interesting item concealed within the article.  The study was not based on interviewing shoppers on their way in and out of Whole Foods stores.  It was based on data collected from 30 million phones.  Somehow the survey company managed to get weeks or months of location data from 30 million phones, and work out from that location data not only when the phones owners’ had visited Whole Foods, but also where else they would visit as well, plus identify the phone owners to understand demographic data even including their income.

Your phone is not keeping your secrets.  It is sharing them, willy-nilly.  We already sort of knew that, didn’t we.  But it is not nice to be so directly shown how much unknown people know about us.

And Lastly This Week….

No matter what side of the ever broader political divide we might find ourselves on, I think most of us can agree that our President, whether Democrat or Republican, tends to travel internationally in a manner that is ridiculously over-the-top.  Motorcades with 30+ vehicles, hundreds of people in the entourage, and of course, the whole 747 Air Force One thing as well.

Certainly, we can point to other heads of state (Canada, Britain, Australia, and so on) who travel much more modestly, and usually limit their extravagances to simply buying a first class seat on a scheduled flight.

But we can and should also point to some heads of state who travel at a level of extravagance that even our present President would be hard-pressed to equal, in his wildest dreams.  Heads of state such as, for example, this gentleman, with a larger plane, a gold escalator rather than stairs out of the plane, a staff of 1500, and special food flown in daily from his home nation.

Here’s a fascinating bit of rail trivia, about an amazing marvel of an abandoned station in Spain that may be about to be restored.

And, here’s a money-saving tip for you.  Many modern cars specify a requirement for premium unleaded fuel.  The chances are they would run perfectly well on regular grade, or if you’re unwilling to ‘risk’ that, compromise on mid-grade fuel.  I’ve put over 150,000 miles on my ‘use only premium fuel’ Landrover and it has been 99% on regular fuel.  I’ve had no engine problems, and the fuel economy is in line with the claimed economy on the EPA label when I bought the vehicle – probably 11,000 or more gallons of fuel, and saving 20c – 30c per every gallon purchased.

Modern engines with computerized engine controls automatically adjust for the grade of fuel.  If you hear engine ‘knocking’ or ‘pinking’ then you know you need to go up to the next level fuel, but if the engine runs normally, keep your money in your pocket.

Here’s an article about the growing cost differential of premium grade fuel, and also mentions how some people put premium fuel in vehicles that don’t require it – an even greater error than the more understandable error of feeding it to vehicles that do need it.

And now, truly lastly this week, after a week in which we’ve seen some terrible things, there is still cause for hope.  Some of the Disney characters at Disney amusement parks are going to start speaking to guests.  Sort of.

Talking about cause for hope, might I hope for your kindness and decision to help with our annual fundraising drive.  It would really help.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and if you hear a sound ‘like balloons popping’, be aware that it might be something quite different.

 

David.

 

 

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Oct 052017
 

Google’s new Pixel 2 phones look identical to the earlier Pixel phones, except for the colored power button on the side.

Google’s own phones (albeit made by a varying range of third-party manufacturers) – in the past sold under the Nexus brand and more recently under the Pixel brand – have a tiny market share (about 0.7% according to this article), but a disproportionate – and possibly undeserved degree of impact on the market.

This is not only because of the Google imprimatur (particularly valuable because Google develops the Android OS) but also because Google claims to make their phones aspirational examples of the best device capabilities, combining the most up to date version of Android and high-end phone hardware.

The general ‘heft’ of the Google brand, and the desperate way we all are searching for an alternative to what is starkly becoming an Apple/Samsung duopoly (75% of all US phones are from these two companies alone, with LG trailing as a distant third) provides more reasons to encourage Google in their efforts.  On the other hand, it is interesting to contrast how commentators (including me!) have derided Microsoft for their various failed ventures into the phone hardware marketplace, but have been quick to praise Google for activities that are really similarly disastrous as those of Microsoft (with one of the last nails in the Windows phone coffin being hammered home today).

Google’s phones feature a ‘pure’ version of Android without any extra ‘bloatware’ or unnecessary customization that many other Android based phone manufacturers add to their phones in a desperate attempt to distinguish their Android phone from the hundreds (thousands?) of other models of otherwise almost identical Android phones out there.  Usually such enhancements detract from rather than add to the user experience, which is unsurprising because the other reason for manufacturers customizing Android is to try and defeat the underlying purpose of Android.

Android was designed to be a generic common interface shared by multiple devices; the customizations inevitably interfere with this, while gently coaxing you into the confines of a manufacturer’s own branded rendition of Android.

Another appealing factor of Google phones is Google’s commitment to quickly push new Android updates to their phones.  A side-effect of manufacturers customizing Android into their own version is that when a new version of Android comes out, there can be a long wait until manufacturers get around to adding their customizations and releasing it onto their phones.  That is definitely an advantage for the iPhone – updates are available instantly for pretty much every iPhone that is eligible for any updates to their iOS software (after a few years of upgrades, it seems that iPhones stop getting updates – as do Android phones too).

So, for all these reasons, there was a degree of positivism in the air as Google prepared for its traditional early October reveal of its latest release of smartphones.

On the other hand, now that Android (and iOS too) are mature well-developed operating systems, and now that the manufacturers seem to be running out of new hardware features to add, there’s no longer much excitement when either new phones or new OS updates are released (although the latest iOS 11 was more impactful than has been the case for a few years).  I’ve several Android devices with various different versions of Android on them and none of them show or lack any ‘must have’ features – hardware or software based – that other devices with earlier or later versions of Android feature or lack.

The lack of eye-opening new features mean that the launch events of all new smartphones are becoming increasingly inane and trivial.  For example, a talked-up feature of the new Pixel 2 phones Google released on 4 October was a brightly colored on/off button on their sides.  I kid you not.  You buy your almost $1000 phone, and get given a device with a colored button on the side that looks more like it belongs on a child’s toy, not an adult’s phone.  The power button is now brightly colored – is this really the best that Google has to boast about?

Skip the next section if not relevant, but you might find it interesting to understand Google’s evolving lineup of phones.

The History of Google’s Phones

The first Nexus phone didn’t appear until January 2010, almost three years after the first iPhone, and was made for Google by HTC.  That was followed by the Nexus S in December 2010, made by Samsung.

The next model, the Galaxy Nexus, was unveiled in October 2011, and was also made by Samsung.  This set a timing pattern – annual releases in October – that has been followed ever since.  The Galaxy Nexus had to be withdrawn from sale for a week in 2012 due to a patent dispute with Apple.

A year later saw the Nexus 4, in October 2012, this time made for Google by LG.  This phone showed Google’s willingness to aggressively price, and although initially released at $299 or $349 for versions with 8GB or 16GB, in August 2013, the prices dropped to a stunning $199 and $249 – amazing for a phone with a then large 4.7″ screen and 768×1280 pixels.

Yes, the next phone, also by LG, was the Nexus 5, and when released in October 2013, it was also very competitively priced, with a huge 5″ 1080×1920 screen (an appreciable increase in both screen size and screen resolution from the Nexus 4), for $349/399 (16GB or 32GB).  As a comparison, this was within a week or two of Apple’s release of the iPhone 5S, offering a puny 4″ screen with 640×1136 pixels.

But so much for aggressive pricing.  October of 2014 saw the Nexus 6, this time from Motorola, now priced at $649 or $699 for 32GB and 64GB models.  This was a huge leap in pricing from the previous year’s model, although with a further increase in screen size (to 6″ and 1440×2560 pixels).

(Note – the Nexus 7, released in 2012, was not a phone but rather a 7″ tablet.)

For their 2015 announcement Google announced two phones – a Nexus 5X and 6P (5.2″ and 5.7″ respectively).  The numbers hinted at their respective screen sizes, with the 5X being made by LG and the 6P by Huawei.

But in October 2016, rather than releasing another pair of Nexus phones, Google renamed them and called them the Pixel and the Pixel XL.  Prices remained high – starting at $649 and $769 respectively.  Although sales were low, Google had surprising problems keeping them in stock, and so possibly sales could have been higher if Google had done a better job of inventory control.

Which brings us to, yes, October 2017, and Google’s announcement yesterday (4 October) of its new generation of phones, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.

Google Concedes All Phones are Increasingly the Same

It was interesting that Google started off its presentation by conceding that these days smartphones are ‘reaching parity on their specs’.

We’ve been making that point for some time – the speed of new and enhanced feature releases at the high-end has slowed, while ‘low end’ phones are moving closer and closer to the same specifications as higher end phones costing four times as much.

Google went on to try and make the point that while the hardware was becoming indistinguishable from one phone to the next, it was the software that was integrated with the hardware that was and would increasingly become the differentiator.  That’s a slightly difficult claim to make, because of course, a very large part of everyone’s phone experience is built upon either the Android or iOS operating systems, and all Android phones have very similar experiences, and even the differences between Android and iOS are more stylistic than basic functional essentials.

To be fair to Google, what they probably mean is the way their phones connect in with their additional external cloud based services is what gives them distinctive extra capabilities.  Some of these capabilities might possibly be restricted only to their own Pixel phones, but we think Google would rather share the new capabilities with as many other Android phones as possible.  Google is primarily seeking to gather data from people, not to sell phones, so it would be a needless restriction to limit its newest and most sophisticated features only to its own phones and their trivial 0.7% market share.

Are we getting to a point where phones are becoming generic?  Google, Samsung and Apple of course hope not, because their strategy is to price at a high price point, and if they can no longer credibly point to anything other than their brand name as reasons for paying twice as much as other similarly featured and similarly functional phones, that becomes a much more difficult marketing proposition.

Our point to you is, and increasingly so, that before you countenance paying $650 – $1000+ for a phone, give at least equal consideration to phones half that price and below.  While the hardware is becoming more and more identical, and the commonality of software based features are also tending to merge and blur, the one most obvious remaining difference is the variation in cost.

This is clearly exemplified in our related article and attached table that contrasts a range of high-end, mid-level, and low-end phones.  Can you really see why you should be paying $1000 for a phone when there are credible alternatives priced as low as $100?  Don’t be tricked into chasing after vanishing returns – who needs all the extra pixels on a screen if they are too small for your eyes to individually distinguish.  Anything with a pixel density over 400 ppi is just wasted pixels and not worth paying for.  Try not to go much below 300 ppi, but don’t pay extra to go over 400 ppi.

The New Pixel 2 Phones

There had been quite a lot of leaking about what Google’s new Pixel phones would offer, and it turned out most of the leaks were correct.

The two phones are very little different from last year’s phones, and similarly, very little different from other high and mid level phones.  This meant that the usual chorus of fanboys struggled to come up with the usual unquestioning excitement, but they duly did the best they can.  For example, how about this :

I spent a few moments playing with both of the new devices and couldn’t help but get almost irrationally excited about them

Is this a confession that rational people wouldn’t get excited by the phones?

Or how about this :

both are almost shockingly light

Does anyone care about weight these days?  The truly shocking thing would be a heavy phone – aren’t all modern phones uniformly lightweight, plus or minus some fractions of an ounce?  But, if there is still an interest in phone weight, does the reviewer not know that the new ‘shockingly light’ Pixel 2 phone weighs exactly the same as last year’s Pixel phone, and indeed the new Pixel 2 XL is slightly heavier (0.25 oz) than last year’s Pixel XL?

(I’ll not embarrass the commentators other than to hint they were writing in an enGadget article.)

About the only positive difference of note between last year’s phones and these new models (other than a nasty price increase in the larger XL phone, up from $769 last year to $849 this year – surprising in view of the smaller model remaining at the same $649 price as last year) is a new ‘feature’ that seems as much like a gimmick as a useful feature – you can squeeze the sides of the phone to active the Google Assistant feature.  Not exactly a feature that we were all desperate for, and not even a unique innovation – it was introduced by HTC on one of their phones earlier this year.

It also seems like something that could be prone for accidental activation, much like how a slightly too long button push on an iPhone annoyingly results in Siri popping up onto the screen.  Google tells us that machine learning will identify the difference between intentional and incidental squeezes.  Let’s hope so.  Interestingly, some early review feedback says that reviewers found it too hard rather than too easy to activate the squeeze command.

Like last year, the phones come in two different screen sizes – 5″ and 6″, and with slightly different aspect ratios – the 6″ screen is proportionally narrower than the 5″ screen.  To be technical, the 5″ screen has a common 16:9 aspect ratio, the 6″ screen has a less common 2:1 (or 18:9) ratio.

The screens now have an always-on display that shows the time, date, and assorted other notification icons (we think this is probably more a function of the software than their hardware – in other words, it may become common on all Android phones, rather than be a reason for uniquely choosing a Pixel phone).  It seems, based on pictured examples, this information might either be sparsely shown on a black screen, or possibly on your choice of various backgrounds of always on screensaver images.

One imagines now going into a movie theater and seeing dimly glowing shapes in everyone’s shirt pockets, and wonders if this will further feed our phone addictions, when the phone is slightly more always in our face and calling for attention.  Will it be possible to dim the device at night – screen light is a known factor in insomnia and poor sleep quality.  Hopefully part of the ‘Do Not Disturb’ or Mute function will not only be muting incoming calls but also switching the screen off too.

While the screens are different, just about everything else on the phones was the same in both models.  You might say ‘well, of course it is’, but that’s not the case with Apple, where their iPhones have different quality cameras, for example, on the different versions of their latest generation phones.

Some of the usual things were also announced.  A better camera, for example.  Meh.  While it may well be, based on one third-party test measure, that the Pixel camera might be better than the cameras on the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Apple iPhones, does anyone care?  And, of course, there is also the almost universally announced, by every phone manufacturer, every year, upgrade in processor power.  Again – does anyone really care?

No Headphone Jack

There was one change we feel very negatively about.  Google is slavishly following Apple’s lead by eliminating the ‘headphone’ jack.

It is worth noting that this jack is not only for headphones.  Other devices rely on this jack too, because it is possible to use this not just for microphone inputs and speaker outputs, but for any other type of analog input and output too.  You may have noticed people at market stalls with miniature credit card readers connected to their phones – those readers use this feature.  You may have also noticed some of the more esoteric devices such as oscilloscopes and other types of probes and test instruments connecting through this interface as well.

It was not shocking to see Apple eliminate their headphone jack, because Apple hates allowing any third-party device to attach to their phones.  That’s a core part of Apple’s values, and enforced on all their hardware.  But the entire concept of Android was that it was an open-ended system and service, and was deliberately designed to be the opposite of Apple’s closed operating system and environment.

One wonders if the engineers in Google who decided that because Apple has eliminated their headphone jack, they can do the same, ever thought beyond the ‘let’s do what Apple does’ concept and considered the broader functionality and the reversal of system design philosophy they were embracing.  Almost certainly, they did not.

It is sad to see our world increasingly being designed and constrained by arrogant 20-something-year-olds, abundantly endowed with all the technical know-how, but sadly with none of the equally essential life-experience, wisdom and maturity to ensure they use their technical skills correctly.

So now, instead of having a nice neat headphone jack, you have a separate short cable that ‘converts’ from the USB connection to a headphone connector.  How quickly will you lose that, and how ridiculously overpriced will replacements be?  Plus, if you’re using this converter cable, how will you be able to charge your phone at the same time?  Or, as just one more of dozens of examples, how will you be able to have an audio device connected to the USB port to input music or other audio material, and listen to it through headphones at the same time (I’ve a miniature ‘SDR’ radio I connect to my USB port then listen to through headphones).

Sure, Google will say, as has Apple already, ‘go buy a set of Bluetooth headphones’.  I was an early advocate of Bluetooth headphones, but eventually, try as hard as I would to ignore the realities confronting me, I gave up on them.  It was another device to keep charged (and often another charger to keep at hand, too).  It was a hassle waiting for the headphones to turn on.  Pairing the headphones to the phone was always a suspenseful event, because every so often, the connection would fail to be established, and maybe you’d need to re-pair them, and chances are you’ve forgotten the pairing password.

The sound quality was never as good as a wired headset, and the controls were impossible to understand – so much so that I could never be certain ‘Did I just turn the device on, or did I turn it off?’.  How crazy is that?  The concept of a simple slide on/off control, and/or a power on light, being of course too simple for the brilliant fools who design such things to implement.

So, no, I’m far from delighted at being forced into either taping the connector cord to the side of the phone or struggling with another Bluetooth headset.  Give me back my headphone jack.

More Comments and Details

While the lack of headphone jacks is a sad loss from previous models, they also don’t have Micro SD card slots – an omission that Google has consistently followed, because it wants to force you to use its cloud services, while never thinking that we might sometimes be somewhere where the internet ‘cloud’ can not be accessed quickly, conveniently, or cheaply.  Really, Google’s designers need to live a little and get out of their labs sometime and discover the rest of the world, without having expense accounts to absorb the sometimes outrageous costs of sometimes terribly slow wireless data in other countries.

One more thing that was a mild disappointment – the phones don’t support wireless charging.  This was the ‘new big thing’ of Apple’s latest iPhones, announced a few weeks earlier; Google says that it hasn’t yet found a suitable wireless charging system that allows for convenient fast charging of their phones, and choose instead to boast that a quick 15 minute charge will power the phone for ‘up to seven hours of go’.  What does ‘up to’ mean, and what exactly is ‘go’?  Only uncool people would dare to ask such questions.

Of course, the ‘we can’t find one good enough’ is a well-worn excuse by tech companies who in truth are merely slow to implement new features.  We’re unexcited by wireless charging, but it is clear that offering wireless charging is becoming a more common and expected feature in high-end phones, so it is surprising to see its omission.

High Tech Clones

As always, when watching these presentations, I’m struck by how interchangeable the people presenting them have become.  They all dress the same in their elaborately casual dark-colored garb, they all use the same sound-bites and phrases and quote the same concepts and aspirations.  They look similar, they’re in similar age groups, they generally vote the same, and if you were to take off their shirts, you’d probably even find matching tattoos.

Do any of them have an ounce of the personality or uniqueness that was the hallmark of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, or for that matter, love him or hate him, of Steve Ballmer, too?  At least these were people with personality and personal presence, but can you cite the name of anyone in Google, and point to something distinctive about them, now that Sergey Brin and Larry Page have both stepped back from the limelight?  For that matter, to be an equal opportunity hater, while we probably know the name of Steve Jobs’ replacement (Tim Cook), do we know of Tim because of what he is, or because of who he is?  Without meaning any additional disrespect, is it not true that Mr Cook is another vanilla ordinary person who, if stripped of his office, would not stand out in a crowd in any way at all?

eSIM Feature and Fi

An interesting new feature is that Google is supporting the new “eSIM” standard.

You are probably familiar with how most modern phones are linked to your wireless account via a SIM card – a tiny little thing similar to a Micro-SD card.  You get the SIM from your choice of wireless carrier and plug it into your phone, so the phone then ‘knows’ which service to use, and so the service can identify you and your phone.

Increasingly, the best phones now have slots for two SIMs.

SIM sizes have steadily reduced – originally they were the same size as a credit card, now they are almost identical to a Micro-SD card – about 0.3″ x 0.5″.  The next logical step is to make them ‘virtual’, and that is what an eSIM is.  Instead of relying on a physical chip from a wireless carrier, an eSIM can simply accept a downloaded data file and assume a new identity.  An eSIM could also conceivably store two or many more than two different identities, allowing you to select between them, or, like current dual SIM phones, to have two or more simultaneously active.

This is great for us as consumers, and simplifies things for phone manufacturers, who can save more space and have a simpler design without the need for the physical slot and carrier to place the SIM into.  But the wireless companies are proving very slow to embrace the concept of eSIMs, because it would make it ‘too easy’ for us to change services.  So Google is being forward-looking in providing an eSIM feature, even though you’ll struggle to find any wireless services that will agree to support it.

One other special thing about both the original and new Pixel phones.  They are four of the only five phones that can be used in conjunction with Google’s wireless phone and data service, what it terms Project Fi.  This is an interesting approach to how wireless voice/data service is provided, and in particular, charges no more for data internationally than domestically.

We like Fi, and if it would work on other phones, would seriously consider switching to Fi as our primary service.  But with a requirement to buy a very expensive Google Pixel phone, or a still expensive Motorola phone, the ‘cost of entry’ is too high.  For a while, Fi had been also offering heavily discounted earlier model Nexus phones as an inducement for people to join, but they no longer do this.

Pricing and Availability

The Pixel 2 lists for $649, same as the original Pixel.  The Pixel 2 XL lists for $849, an increase on the $769 price of the Pixel XL.  It seems Google is running a promotion for an uncertain amount of time where you get a free Google Home Mini (explained below) included with each new Pixel phone you buy.

At the same time, Google dropped the prices of the original Pixel and Pixel XL by $100 each, to $549 and $669.  If you want a Google Pixel phone (although we’ve uncovered no clear reason why you would), it might make sense to get last year’s model, so as to simultaneously save $100 or $180, and also to get a phone with a headphone jack.

The new phones are already available for preorder.  But there was no mention of when they would start shipping – an intriguing omission, and a suggestion that Google felt compelled to follow its annual release timing, even when the products themselves were still an indefinite distance away from being shippable.

But, can we suggest, for most of us, the availability of the phones is irrelevant, because there is no reason to choose to buy one.  If you’re considering buying a new smart phone, have a look at our article and associated table comparing a range of smartphones showing their respective features and pricing.  If you’re one of our supporters, we also have a supplemental report that compares all the leading high-end phones and includes some additional feature comparisons.

Other Announcements at the Google Release Event

A line up of Google’s new products, including the two phones, various Google Home devices, the Google Clip camera and the new Chromebook computer.

Google is rushing to catch up with Amazon by further developing its equivalent to Amazon’s Echo device – what they call Google Home.  The two product ranges even look similar, and we’re surprised that Amazon in particular has yet to adopt a more aggressive pricing policy, the same as it has done with its range of astonishingly high-value Fire HD tablets (7″ for $49, 8″ for $79, and 10″ for $149).  We’d be unsurprised to see the price of Echo devices drop in time for Christmas.

Our sense is that Amazon has more to win (or lose) in this game than Google.  Sure, Google wants to be in our lives and in our faces, knowing everything we do, 24/7; but Amazon’s ability to monetize its own growing omnipresence seems more direct – it wants to sell us everything we buy, no matter what we want, and then get it to us more quickly than anyone else.

Amazon brought out their Echo Dot in March 2016, and now Google is bringing out a very similar product, the Google Home Mini.  It looks much the same in terms of size and shape, but has a fabric top cover rather than all plastic.  It is priced the same – $49, and will be available in stores on 19 October.

Google also announced a Home Max device, with a larger and better speaker set within it.  This device is interesting because it points to what is increasingly an approach to maximizing sound fidelity.  In the past, speakers in particular were passive units that were designed to be as ‘sound neutral’ as possible, and if a person thought at all about the impact of the room acoustics on the sound, this was generally ignored or viewed as an unavoidable part of the sound reproduction process.

With the latest in digital sound manipulation, the new trend is to make poorer quality speakers and then adjust the sound that is fed to the speakers to compensate for speaker inadequacies and also for the coloration caused by the room itself, so that in theory you end up closer to experiencing the same acoustic as the studio or hall where the original recording was made.  (Interestingly, this same design concept is being used for cameras – tiny lenses and their flaws are being compensated for by software which balances out the lens anomalies to improve the resulting image.)

This is a great concept, albeit with limitations on just how aggressively the room and speaker issues can be compensated for – a speaker with a frequency range of 150 Hz – 5 kHz can never be made to play 20 Hz or 20 kHz tones.  Many modern amplifiers come with a calibration microphone that will do this compensation, and now the Google Home Max will do it too.  Typically the system plays a few tones and ‘listens’ to hear how they are impacted by the speakers and room and adjusts accordingly – like a super ‘graphic octave equalizer’ if you remember back to those products.

The Home Max boasts as being 20 times louder than the regular Home speaker.  But that’s not actually a huge difference, because we hear sound logarithmically rather than linearly.  It is 13 dB louder, in case that helps understand the difference in volume.

The Home Max is not only much louder, it is also much more expensive, and is priced at a beyond-ridiculous $400 per unit.  I’m not yet clear if it is possible to get a pair and have them play stereo music, but of course, if that is possible, you’re looking at a total spend of $800.  And if you wanted to get a surround system with five speakers, well, you can do the math yourself.

This price is beyond high.  We’re talking about a small unit with some tiny cheap speakers in it, plus a microphone or two (even less expensive) and probably a single chip to do the digital sound processing.  How they can charge $350 more for this than their Home Mini is a question with no answer.

Oh, the grossly inflated price includes a year of free YouTube music without commercials, an inclusion few of us were seeking.  A more appropriate name for this device would be the Google Home Max Price.  It will be available in December (they didn’t say exactly when in December, which is not a good sign).

Although it is clear that Amazon is making a major push to advance its Echo range of products, and although Amazon has also managed to get its Echo/Alexa service installed on other products made by other companies, the fact remains that it is a frustratingly limited service that only responds to a limited number of commands and queries, quite unlike the Google Assistant or Siri.  So we see this as an area where Google with its much greater prowess and history of providing voice operated services could quickly catch up and maybe even displace Amazon.

Google also somewhat speciously tried to promote its assorted Google Home and Google Assistant services by saying it would free children from spending too much screen time with other devices.  But really, having a story read to a child by a device is no better and probably worse than having the child read a story themselves, either on a device or via a book.

Chromebook

Google announced a new Chromebook laptop – a type of device using its Chrome operating system rather than Windows, and where most of its storage is on the internet rather than in the computer.  Originally these were being sold as the lowest cost way of getting a semi-working computer, which of course become completely useless without a fast internet connection and unlimited data, making them inappropriate for people traveling away from their home or office.

Now the Chromebooks do have some onboard intelligence and capabilities, but they still occupy an awkward middle ground, somewhere between high-end tablets and low-end computers.  The new Google Pixelbook weighs 2.2 lbs – twice what a 10.5″ Apple iPad Pro tablet weighs and 50% more than the weight of the 12.9″ iPad Pro.  The Pixelbook has a 12.3″ screen, but unlike the tablets, comes with an integral keyboard.  And the ‘limited’ onboard capabilities – they will be available with up to 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage – one might almost say that is ‘too much’ onboard storage for a system designed to rely on network connections.  Pricing starts at $999, and it will be available on 31 October.

There is also a $99 stylus available to use with the device, and the screen is touchscreen.

So, you could buy a regular laptop computer, running Windows 10, with similar specs, and about half the price, or you could buy this odd-ball Chrome OS device, costing almost twice as much.  Is that a difficult decision for you?

Google Clips

Lastly, Google closed with a little ‘bon bon’.  A tiny little device, a small camera called ‘Google Clips’.  This is designed as something you might clip onto yourself somewhere/somehow, and the camera will use ‘machine learning’ to automatically take photos of what it thinks to be interesting things.

Is that a fun new device?  Or is it a spooky scary step closer to total lack of privacy, everywhere we go.  Because, of course, the challenge here isn’t so much what your device captures, but what the devices being worn by everyone else might also be capturing, and how that same ‘machine learning’ then stitches it all together to have an all-encompassing view of your life and everything you do and everywhere you go (well, Google already knows everywhere you go simply via its records of where your phone is).

Happily, the device is also ridiculously over-priced, at $249, so let’s hope few people will buy them.

Summary

The big part of Google’s event was the release of two new Pixel phones.  Yes, they have the de rigeur ever-faster processors, the latest 5.0 version of Bluetooth, and a new feature no-one was asking for (squeeze the phone’s sides to invoke the Google Assistant).  They have essentially the same form factors and screens as their predecessor phones, but now omit headphone jacks.

Should you buy one?  Probably not.  Check out our article on good Android phones for as little as $50 before deciding to pay $850 for a Pixel phone.

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Sep 292017
 

What’s wrong with this sign, found at NZ’s notionally southern-most point? The answer is at the end of the newsletter.

Good morning

Thank you this week to the very kind additional 61 readers who joined this year’s annual fund-raising drive during the last week, bringing us to 186 kind souls to date.

And, of course, very special thanks to our very special supporters, those sending in three figure sums.  This week, mention must happily be made of Jeff K, Hilda W, Pat M, Barbara K, Clayton H, Jim J, Bob G, Clifford L, Andrew C, Robert T, Michael L, Len G, Steve N, Ruth Ann M, Bill M, and Phil S.

We’re ahead of 2016 (172 supporters to this point) but 2015 has us beat with 199 supporters in three weeks.  Our target – our desperate need – is to get all the way to 400 supporters, and our current rate of progress threatens to clutter up many more newsletters with weekly appeals before we can all return back to ‘business as normal’.  Can I ask those of you who have been meaning to help out to perhaps do so, immediately right now, rather than to continue to delay.  If you’re like me, delayed things quickly become forgotten things.  It truly only does take a minute or two, especially if sending in support via credit card, so please think about clicking over to the supporter’s page and joining this worthy cause.

Talking about worthy causes, what are the two aggravations most of us wrestle with on our web browsing journeys these days?  Perhaps they are paywalled sites that demand you pay a fee to access their content, and sites that attack you with impossible-to-stop video and ads that take over your screen.  With a third aggravation being sites with minimal content, but spread over half a dozen pages so as to expose you to even more ads.  And how about the video ‘pre-roll’ ads that force you to watch an impossible-to-skip 30 second ad before you actually watch the feature video, only to discover that the feature video is only 15 seconds long and totally uninteresting, anyway!  Here’s a great article decrying the way the internet is destroying itself with its ever more intrusive advertising.

Now, how many ads do you get in your Travel Insider newsletters?  When have you ever had a video ad assault your senses on a Travel Insider web page?  When have we every split a short article over a dozen pages?  None, not at all, and never!

But there’s a reason why these new types of intrusive advertisements are becoming close to universal.  Ordinary ads no longer work well or pay well.  My Google advertising income has steadily dropped all the way from $6,000 a month (almost ten years ago) down now to a mere $350 a month.  This is also a measure on how much I value protecting your experience and keeping it friendly and positive for you.  But is this valuable to you?  If you value the clean uninterrupted experience, please help keep your Travel Insider reading free of offensive advertising – please become a supporter and send in whatever you feel to be a fair level of assistance.

One of our super supporters wrote in with a helpful suggestion.  John said

David, I entirely agree with everything you say about the value of The Travel Insider, which is why I’m happy to be sending in my support again this year.  Of course it is fair to consider your weekly newsletter as being of much greater value than a taxi tip or a cup of coffee.

But, for many of your readers, the problem might be that while no-one notices a dollar or two a week, when that becomes single lump sums of $50, $100 and more, once a year, it is harder to justify.  Why not suggest they join your monthly or quarterly supporter program?

John has a point, doesn’t he.  I’ve myself chosen to do things like support the local free classical radio station by way of monthly payments, because for sure, it is easier to ‘not notice’ a small sum each month than to digest a three figure sum once a year.

Did you know that instead of a single lump sum, you can choose to have a Paypal/Credit Card automatic transfer of your chosen amount of support – from as little as $5, and up to a still not-too-impactful $25, sent in every month or quarter?  There’s a single button to click to cancel payments at any time too, so you’re not trapped into one of those nightmarish arrangements that are impossible to stop.  Maybe this would be helpful to you (and therefore to me!) too.

Full details of this, and of course, the other ways you can send in your support too, here.

Supporters received an updated version of one of their special reports this week – if you’re a current supporter, you can go back to your special supporter page to get a new version of the Streaming Video Player review.  It has now grown to eight pages and includes more Roku tips and a discussion on the new Apple TV 4K units.

There is a 98% chance that, as you read this, you’ve not yet become a supporter.  Of course, if you have, feel deservedly smug and pat yourself on the back, but if you’ve not yet done so, may I ask you to now please consider doing so.  Whether you choose $5/month, or any other amount, or whether you send in a single payment, also in any amount at all, your help is truly needed and very much appreciated.

———-

I’m hoping we have another couple about to join us on our Danube River Christmas Cruise in December, and there are some more people in the planning stages of expecting to join next year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain too.

There’s still room for you, on both tours, although with us now only just over two months before the Christmas Cruise, it is probably getting fairly close to being a good time to now decide to come join us on that one!

———-

What else this week?  Two articles, showcasing the two different sides of The Travel Insider, both of which you hopefully enjoy and appreciate.  Although more generic tech than travel tech, the first article shares the surprising discovery I made, and a simple cure to what I’d thought was an incurable limitation of USB connected devices.

And, the other side of my focus is a piece that struggles to politely contain my astonishment at the Dept of Commerce’s decision this week that Bombardier’s CS100 planes should be subjected to a 220% import duty.  From my perspective, there’s not a single good thing about this, and just a slew of losers, all around the world, starting with the US itself, all likely to suffer negative outcomes from the impact of this astonishing decision.

So, another week offering you a valuable tip to improve your experience with your electronics, and another week of fearlessly telling it like it is, plus the assortment of other items below.  Does that have any value to you?  If so, please provide your needed support to that of your fellow Travel Insiders, hurry us to our goal, and keep your Friday newsletters flowing.

And now, hopefully with you feeling particularly pleased with yourself for having become a supporter, please continue reading for :

  • It is Time to Give the 787 a Passing Grade
  • United’s Understatement of the Week
  • Airline Boom?  Or Airline Bust?
  • Airline Wi-Fi, Delta Texting
  • What We’ve Always Suspected – Pilots Leave Us in a Hot Cabin to Save Money
  • A Trio of Supersonic Stories
  • Air Travel Taxes – Shooting at Sitting Ducks
  • The Lie of ‘We’re Helping You to Go Through Immigration Faster’
  • The US Navy Fires Another of Its Admirals
  • Twitter’s Pending Present to President Trump?
  • And Lastly This Week….

It is Time to Give the 787 a Passing Grade

Boeing’s 787 development program is a classic case of a big company doing almost everything possible wrong, of missing every deadline and breaking every promise, with an explosion in costs and delays such as to make it unclear if the company will ever get to the right side of that financial eight-ball (some analysts estimate that even with the 1,278 orders the plane has received to date, the program is still showing an overall loss with development costs not yet recovered).

Of course, the battery fire problems were a terrible example of short-sightedness, and when you added the innovative nature of the materials used for some of the plane’s construction, and the rush to give it the maximum ETOPS certification, I felt it prudent to avoid the plane, something I’ve successfully done for the almost exactly six years since its first flight on 26 October, 2011.

But after the early problems, even I have to accept the plane has flown regularly, reliably, and safely, and Boeing this week announced a new milestone achieved – one million flights, and 2.5 billion miles flown.  They made a jazzy short video to celebrate this achievement.

And – you know what?  Not only is it getting harder to avoid the plane, but I’m no longer going to do so.  I’ll now be pleased to fly a 787.

United’s Understatement of the Week

United is cutting back on where it sells its Basic Economy fares.  These were the lowest fares with the least inclusions.  They didn’t include seat preassignments, you boarded last, and you had actual enforced limits on your cabin baggage.

The only thing worse than airlines ‘sticking it to us’ are the passengers with enormous senses of entitlement who think they can ignore the rules of fares and do whatever they wish, and who think that if confronted, the best response is to bluster and bludgeon rather than to apologize and comply.  It seems United has at least its fair share of such passengers, and when suddenly told at the gate that they can no longer take ridiculous amounts of items on as free carry-ons, things become a bit fraught.  Indeed, this article quotes a United source as describing the boarding process by saying “It’s become a circus”.

The implications of no preassigned seating are, unsurprisingly, that people traveling together quite likely will not be seated together.  Instead, one person gets a middle seat somewhere, and the other person gets another middle seat, somewhere a long way away.

However, it seems that families traveling together, particularly with younger children, feel that as of right they are entitled to be granted an exception to United’s rules.  Yes, they are expecting an airline with compassion.  They have been disappointed.  Which brings me to the understatement :

Couples and families with small children flying Basic Economy are another big problem.  They have not always responded well to the news they may not be able to be seated together….  [my emphasis]

Airline Boom?  Or Airline Bust?

Last week there was a spate of articles talking about the latest airfare war and the negative impacts it would have (was having) on airline earnings, in particular, American Airlines.

This week, we’re being told that American Airlines ‘could be a first-class investment’.

So what changed in a week?  How is it that often extremely highly paid airline industry analysts have such enormously divergent opinions of the exact same airline?

Airline Wi-Fi, Delta Texting

Here’s a short but moderately helpful article giving summaries of the major US carriers’ policies and charges for in-flight Wi-Fi.

And good news for Delta passengers.  As of 1 October, it seems you’ll be able to send free text messages, from anywhere in the world, on Delta flights.

What We’ve Always Suspected – Pilots Leave Us in a Hot Cabin to Save Money

How often have you found yourself in an appallingly hot and stuffy airplane cabin, sometimes for half an hour or more.  If you’re very lucky, there might be a trickle of air coming out of the overhead vents, but it is ambient temperature air, changing neither the temperature nor humidity.

Maybe you even ask to have some air conditioning turned on, and maybe you’ll be given a story about how it is not possible due to <insert any made up reason at random here>.

But the truth of the matter?  The airline and its pilots are probably just choosing to save money.  It costs money to have an a/c tender truck brought to the plane, and it costs money to run the plane’s Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) to generate the power to operate the plane’s own a/c units.

The airlines don’t like to admit this, but as part of the ugly arguments between Ryanair and its pilots, a pilot deliberately leaked the part of their flight manual that tells them not to run the a/c unless temperatures become very hot indeed.

Actually, it seems Ryanair is more merciful than many US carriers.  I’ve guessed temperatures to be the wrong side of 90° at times in US planes, with nothing being done to start the a/c, just more lies about why it can’t be done, or fragile promises that it will be started really soon now, just as soon as the door closes.

A Trio of Supersonic Stories

For some people, the glory days of travel were back in the 1950s or 1960s.  We wore suits, enjoyed spacious seating, great food and friendly service.

For others, the glory days of travel were from 1976 – 2003, this being the 27 years during which the Concordes flew.  While the planes were cramped inside, and the windows tiny, no amount of spacious ‘first class suite’ in an A380 can compensate for shooting through the sky at just over twice the speed of sound, Mach 2.02/1340 mph, and at 55,000 ft – so high up you can see the curvature of the earth below, and the dark of space above.

Ever since the tragic and unnecessary withdrawal of the highly profitable planes in 2003, there have been a steady stream of stories of new supersonic planes under development, but almost 15 years later, none of them have come anywhere close to reality.  Naysayers claim it is impossible to ever return to supersonic travel, because the planes are impractically expensive and unavoidably noisy.  They’re wrong on both points.

There have been tantalizing glimpses of new plane designs with amazing reductions in sonic booms, and of new planes promising enormous improvements in fuel economy.  But, nothing yet you can go to your local airport and catch a ride on.

At the same time, the US Air Force’s amazing SR-71 plane, which entered service in 1966, also was retired, back in 1999.  It is believed to have been the fastest plane, ever, with an officially stated maximum speed of 2200 mph, but many of us believe its true maximum speed was appreciably faster.  (As an aside, the well-known U-2 ‘spy plane’, introduced in 1957 and still in service today, is a relatively slow-moving plane, incapable of even exceeding 500 mph, slower than most passenger jets.)

Rumors have long existed of a replacement to the SR-71, but nothing has ever been officially acknowledged.

So, with that as background, three supersonic themed articles :

A look at the Soviet equivalent of the Concorde, the TU-144 :  Stories persist that the reason for the very close similarity between the TU-144 and the Concorde is due to the Soviets stealing the Concorde plans.  And more stories suggest that the British and French knew about the espionage, and arranged for deliberately faulty plans to be stolen, therefore ensuring the TU-144 would not be a success, and leading to at least one of its two crashes.  (There are more rumors about other factors that may have contributed to the Paris crash, too….)  Never mind the rumors, this article is a fascinating look at the TU-144, including some details I never knew before – in particular, a suggestion that the airplane interior was so noisy passengers had to communicate by writing notes on paper to each other!

Progress on a Mini-Concorde Successor :  The original Concorde was small and only seated 100 passengers, in rows of seats two either side of a single aisle, and with a fairly tight seat pitch (38″).  One of the many potential successors to Concorde promises to be even smaller, with seating for only 22 passengers.  Yes, there’s sure to be quite a premium attached to the cost of tickets on that plane!  This story simply reports that the company developing the ‘Spike’ plane is planning to start tests of scale models of their proposed plane, which will fly at subsonic speeds.  I’ve no idea how testing a scale model at subsonic speeds is actually an achievement or step closer to a full-sized supersonic jet, but the company itself seems pleased and proud with its ‘progress’.  Deliveries of the final plane are expected from 2023.  Anyone care to take a wager with me on that – I’ve a dollar that says ‘no way’!

Some SR-71 Replacement Rumors :  For a long time, there were rumors of an SR-71 successor called the Aurora.  Now there are rumors of a successor called the SR-72.  To me, the most interesting part of this article, which is necessarily light on facts, is the apparent acknowledgement that if such a plane is in some stage of development or deployment, it is probably a type of plane in which pilots are optional rather than essential.  It is suggested the new plane would be ‘hypersonic’ which requires a different type of jet engine technology, and would travel very much faster than even the SR-71 – perhaps 3500 mph, ie more than Mach 5.

We also regularly read ridiculous articles about hypersonic speed passenger jets, but there’s only one use for that type of technology, and that’s getting bombs very quickly from Point A to far-away Point B.

Air Travel Taxes – Shooting at Sitting Ducks

Much as we might find the airlines generally unsympathetic and ill-deserving of sympathy, and much as they feel exactly the same of us, there are times when our purposes are conjoined.  Like, for example, the rapacious nature of governments the world over to charge more and more and more to people for the simple act of traveling.

One example is the appalling greed of the British government.  Their Air Passenger Duty (APD) fee started off seemingly acceptably with a £5 charge on shorter flights and £10 on longer ones, back in 1994.  Interesting, air fares have more or less stayed the same between then and now, but not so the APD fee.  Now, on flights over 2,000 miles, you can find yourself paying £73 if you’re in coach class and a staggering £146 if you’re in business or first class ($98.50 or $197).  What do passengers get in return for that fee?  Ummm, nothing at all.

So, think of this.  Air fares have stayed more or less the same, passenger numbers, in round figures have doubled, and this gratuitous government fee has increased 7.3 times.  With the doubling of passenger numbers too, the British government is collecting about 15 times more in fees than it did in 1994, while still providing exactly the same services in return to travelers – utterly absolutely nothing.

Or, think of this.  An airline might charge $500 – 750 for a coach fare to/from Britain that is over 2,000 miles of travel.  The airline probably makes a net profit of perhaps 5% on that fare – say somewhere in the $20 – 40 range.  But the British government makes a net profit of $98.50 – two to five times as much as the airline.

The airline has to do all the ‘heavy lifting’ of arranging the flights and everything that goes on with that, and has to accept the risk of a loss as well as hope for the possibility of a profit.  The British government does nothing (the airlines even do the fee collecting/remitting for them), risks nothing, and only ever profits.  Is that fair?

Or, yet another thought.  Airlines hate the fee.  Airports hate the fee.  Passengers hate the fee.  But the only change that happens is the fee continues to soar, ever higher.  Details here.

This is not to suggest that other governments are not also guilty of extorting money from people who wish to fly in, out, or around their countries.  Looking more broadly at Europe in general, and for the ten-year period 2006 – 2016, the portion of an airline ticket that goes to passenger taxes has doubled, and airport fees have also increased, both as a portion of the average ticket price and in absolute terms.  Details here.

The perplexing truth is that governments seem to have identified airline passengers as a never-ending source of new revenue; a source of revenue that often comes from non-voters, and which entails no matching obligations to provide associated services or benefits.

Politicians love to campaign on the promise of lowering taxes for whichever group it is they’re speaking to.  But when have you ever heard any politician offer to lower air travel taxes?  Isn’t it about time that we ask our politicians to stop charging us fees when there are not fairly matching services alongside those fees.

The Lie of ‘We’re Helping You to Go Through Immigration Faster’

Talking about fees we get no benefit from, the same people who regularly tell us they’re from the government and here to help us, have been boasting of a new phone app that will ‘streamline’ our arrival process when we return to the US.  It will reduce wait times without compromising border security, we are told.

Well, that’s all wonderful.  It is perhaps also true.  But it obscures other issues and realities.

First, why are there shameful delays to go through US Immigration and Customs in the first place?  We – as American citizens or permanent residents – never get to experience the extended delays which other visitors are subjected to upon arriving in the US, and noting also this phone app is only available to US and Canadian citizens, we’re actually not the people who will benefit the most from it.

The reason there are shameful delays is two-fold.  First, and obviously apparent to every arriving passenger who faces a sea of empty unmanned booths in the immigration hall, because there are insufficient Customs & Border Patrol officers on duty to provide decent service to arriving visitors.  Keep in mind that every US arriving passenger pays dearly for the privilege of their ‘inspection’ upon arrival, with fees added to their airline ticket.  There’s a regularly increased ‘international arrival tax’ currently of $18 (and a twin international departure tax, also of $18, even though you’ll probably not see a single CBP person when you leave).  There’s a federal security segment tax of  $5.60 per sector flown, including flights departing the US.  There’s a $5.50 Customs fee, a $7 immigration fee, and a $5 Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service fee.

So the government is directly collecting $35 and up from every arriving passenger, and another $23.60 and up from every departing passenger.  Shouldn’t that buy us, in return, a decent experience and minimal wait times?  The government admits it makes a profit from these fees, which is surely not what government fees are expected to do.  How about simply spending the money they collect from us on the things for which it is claimed to be collected for.

The second reason for the delays?  Because the entry process into the US is more complicated than most other countries.  Most countries in the world don’t require us to fill out a landing/arrival card, and most won’t ask us any questions and simply wave us through (this includes countries such as China, Russia and even North Korea); many European countries don’t even bother to stamp our passports.

It should be demonstrably obvious to all that the US is no more under threat from muslim terrorism these days than many other countries.  And similarly, the ‘interview’ given to arriving visitors coming into the US seems more designed just to make people feel unwanted and unwelcome rather than to effectively root out any terrorists.

Why do we have to be the rudest and most unwelcoming country of all?

But, back to the ‘benefit’ of this new phone app.  All it does is shift more of the work from them to us.  It requires us to key in an-impossible-to-understand set of duplicate data that seems to serve no purpose at all.  They already know our name, address, date of birth, travel itinerary, and more other details than we’d ever suspect, from the information the airlines have given them, the information from our passports and our passport applications, other ‘shared’ information from other government services, and possibly also ‘data mining’ through external commercial data collection agencies.

We’re supposed to be appreciative that we now have to tap away at our phone screens to provide the CBP people with information they already have from multiple sources?  Apparently, yes we are.  Just keep reminding yourself – they’re from the government and they’re here to help us.

The US Navy Fires Another of Its Admirals

Okay, so four ship collisions in a short period of time – in any period of time – is a bad thing.  But just how much ritual debasement must the US Navy engage in before enough is enough?

I’d half joked last week that the people doing the firing better be careful, or else the firing might creep up to their own levels too.  Many a true word spoken in jest, and now this week we learn of a four star Admiral who has decided to take retirement after being advised that his expected promotion will not now be forthcoming.

It is commendable to see accountability and consequences.  But ‘the buck stops here’ concept seems to be totally misunderstood.  The buck isn’t stopping anywhere, merely briefly pausing before bouncing on and on.  Who will be next to go?

How can so many senior commanders all be deemed so culpable as to be either summarily fired or gently let go?  Is the US Navy confessing that rather than some isolated ship-level shortcomings, there is a massive problem throughout their entire Pacific Fleet?  Does it really need to continue this gratuitous ritual embarrassment in public?  Details here.

Twitter’s Pending Present to President Trump?

One of Twitter’s distinctive features has been its 140 character limit on how much text can be sent as a ‘tweet’.  There’s never been any underlying genuine reason for its existence, and similarly it has always been a limit that could be changed at any time if the company chose to do so.

It has already made various changes to how it ‘counts’ the 140 characters to liberalize the amount of text, but the traditionalists in particular have vociferously objected to suggestions the 140 character limit should be greatly increased.

I’ve always suspected that some of the most hyper-active users of Twitter secretly like the 140 character limit.  While it is impossible to say anything profound, moving, or particularly sensible in 140 characters, it is also difficult, although, as is sometimes vividly demonstrated, not impossible to say anything too stupid either.  Ideal for politicians – they can have an annoying presence without having to actually say anything.

Twitter has now announced it is trialing an extension of the size limit from 140 characters to 280 characters.  It will allow a selected group of users to make use of the new feature before deciding if it should be more broadly enabled or not.

No word on whether our President will be one of the favored early test users.  Details here.

And to put those limits into perspective, this newsletter is right around 28,000 characters.

And Lastly This Week….

The problem with the sign depicted at the top of the newsletter?  The sign, well-known in New Zealand, is to be found just south of Bluff, at the foot of New Zealand’s South Island, and has been there for decades, occasionally being updated/replaced.  But only recently has an observant tourist noticed that some of the indicator boards are pointing in the wrong directions – for example, the wide variation in angle between the signs to Cape Reinga (on the left) and Wellington (on the right) should actually be very narrow.  Some of the distances are wrong, too.  Ooops.  Details here.

Here’s an example of an article that takes 24 web pages to tell you what could be contained in one.  But, in truth, the UK Daily Telegraph website is far from the worst site out there, and it is an interesting topic – “24 fascinating things you didn’t know about your passport“.

So, have you enjoyed the newsletter again this week – and keep in mind there are still two more feature articles to follow.

If you feel you’ve received some pleasure, some amusement, some knowledge, and/or some value, please would you too ‘put your money where your mouth is’ and join the current 186 of your fellow Travel Insiders and help support us in our efforts to give you some Friday morning enlightenment, information, advice, and amusement.

And truly lastly this week, as a final desperate attempt to curry favor with you and to encourage you to help out in this year’s fundraising drive, here’s a slightly strange story of how owls like me.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

Send to Kindle
Sep 282017
 

An illustration of a future Bombardier CS100 in Delta livery.

In April 2016 Delta announced an order to buy 75 of Canadian company Bombardier’s new CS100 commuter jets.

Bombardier was desperate to get a validating order from a US airline, and indeed, desperate to get any orders from any airlines.  Prior to the Delta order, only 53 planes had been ordered – 30 by Lufthansa subsidiary Swiss Global Airlines, and small numbers by sundry other airlines, with no new orders (just a cancellation) since January 2012.

By all accounts, Bombardier offered Delta a steal of a deal so as to secure the order.  While the details are commercially confidential, it has been suggested the planes might have been sold for about $20 million each, and it is also suggested that the cost to product the planes might be closer to $35 million each.

The CS100 is by all accounts a lovely new plane, relatively comfortable and spacious for passengers, and economic and efficient for airlines.  The eight that have been delivered to Swiss so far seem to be performing very well.

The plane typically holds 108 passengers (8 first class and 100 coach) or as many as 133 in what is politely termed a ‘high density’ configuration (with a mere 28″ of seat pitch and all coach class).

Boeing also tried to win the Delta order.  But it doesn’t have a plane that small.  Its smallest current plane is the 737-700, a largely obsolete plane that dates back almost 25 years and which has now been superseded by the 737 MAX 7, which holds 138 passengers (8F + 130Y) or up to 172 in high density configuration.  In other words, the 737 MAX 7 is about 30% larger than the CS100, and that’s enough difference as to make the two planes totally dissimilar and non-competitive.

The reality of the lack of overlap between the two planes was matched by Boeing’s response to Bombardier’s proposal to sell the CS100 to Delta.  Boeing apparently never tried to persuade Delta to buy 737-700 or 737 MAX 7 planes.  Instead, it offered to sell Delta some second-hand Embraer E-190 planes it had traded in as part of a deal with Air Canada, and/or possibly supplemented by some old used 717 planes that were also on its books.

One year after the Delta sale was announced, Boeing filed a formal complaint with the US Department of Commerce and the US International Trade Commission, in April 2017, claiming to have been unfairly harmed by Bombardier selling CS100 planes to Delta at under cost price, and pointing to unfair Canadian government subsidies being used by Bombardier to sell against Boeing at artificially/impossibly low prices.

Now this is where it all starts to get strange.  Really strange.  You might wonder, for example, how Boeing could be harmed for losing a deal in which it wasn’t trying to sell any of its own planes.

There’s also a huge uncertainty about the ‘selling below cost’ claim.  That might seem like a simple accounting exercise, but as accountants know, ‘cost accounting’ is one of the most subjective fields of accounting.  In the case of airplane manufacturing, the two main variables are ‘how do you handle the up-front development costs of a new model plane’ and ‘do you base the manufacturing costs on the first few planes that come off the assembly line while you’re still working out how to do things most efficiently, or on the 100th plane that comes off the assembly line, when everything has settled down to its most optimum productivity and efficiency’.

Depending on how you answer these questions, you can ‘prove’ that the cost of a plane might be half or twice the figure that someone else is suggesting its cost might be or should be.  One thing is clear, however.  The more planes you produce, the more you can spread the fixed costs and so the less they need to be recovered from each individual plane sold, and the more planes you produce, the lower and lower your production costs per plane keep going.

So it is far from uncommon for airplane manufacturers (hello, Boeing, this includes you – are you going to file a complaint against yourself, too?) to sometimes sell airplanes at prices that, by some measurements, could be considered to be ‘below cost’.

As well as these production/cost considerations, there are also marketing considerations.  Sometimes you want to simply get some sales happening so as to create interest in the product and to get some positive headlines.  Sometimes you want to win some deals because they then send invaluable signals that you’ve succeeded to get respected market leaders buying your product.  Or perhaps you’ve a production gap and want to keep your factories busy and your people employed.  And sometimes you’ll sell your product at a loss just to keep a competitor out of the market.  If you want an example of that, look no further than Boeing’s sale of 737-700s to United not long prior to the Delta sale – it seems likely the 737s sold to United may have been under some measures of cost price (they were at about a 70% discount off list price!) and the deep discount was apparently extended to squeeze Bombardier out of that deal.

These are universal concepts and broadly adopted, not just in the airplane manufacturing industry, but in most other fields too.

So Boeing’s claim that it was harmed by the Bombardier sale to Delta seemed specious in two respects – first, Boeing didn’t really have a dog in that fight, and second, it is hard to determine at what point selling a plane ‘below cost’ moves from being an accounting or marketing exercise and actually becomes an unfair action.

You might wonder why Boeing even decided to file a complaint.  My guess – Boeing doesn’t really care about the CS100 at all.  But it does care about the larger CS300, which with 130 – 160 seats gets closer to directly competing with its smallest 737s.  Looking further ahead, Boeing may be concerned that if these two planes models become successful, Bombardier may choose to extend the product line further with even larger capacity versions of the CS series that would pose even stronger competitive threats.  Perhaps for this reason, Boeing is trying to pre-emptively harm/destroy Bombardier any way it can; indeed, it has even hinted as much by claiming (speciously) that the rise of Airbus caused the collapse of the passenger jet divisions of Lockheed and MD.  Here’s an excellent article that destroys this claim by Boeing.

The strangenesses continue, however.  Although it took Boeing over a year to decide it had been harmed by Bombardier’s sale to Delta, and although it routinely takes other aviation related matters many years to slowly move through US government bureaucracy, Boeing’s complaint is now moving at warp speed.

Boeing asked for duty of 160% to be imposed on CS100 planes imported to the US.  This week saw the US Commerce Department decide that a fair duty rate would be 220% – even more than Boeing’s outrageous request.

No Winners – Only Losers

The unfairness of every part of this action beggars belief.  But wait, there’s more.  If this is all implemented as the Commerce Dept proposes, guess who stands to suffer the worst of the consequences?  Clearly this will be harmful to Canada and to Bombardier.  But over half the total value of these planes is produced in the US – the Pratt & Whitney engines and other component parts.  Bombardier claims 20,000 US jobs are dependent on is CS series programs.  So we’ll be scoring a happy ‘own goal’ as part of our response.

That’s not all.  Guess who else will suffer a major consequence?  The UK – Northern Ireland in particular, because the wings are made in Bombardier’s Belfast plant in Northern Ireland, and 4,500 jobs there are at risk – a huge impact on Belfast (population just under 300,000).  That impact also flows through to the UK government, where the Conservative party is struggling to maintain a majority, relying on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which is now demanding extreme responses to the Commerce Department’s astonishing finding.

But that’s not as easy as it may be, because Boeing has pointed out that while Bombardier has 4,500 people employed in the UK, it in turn employs 16,500 people and so any retaliatory actions by Britain may create more harm than good.

Canada in turn is threatening to cancel a $5 billion order of Boeing’s F/A 18 fighter jets, and my guess is that populist PM Trudeau would love any credible excuse for doing so.

Lastly, what about Delta.  If what Boeing alleges is true, the airline was about to benefit from a steal of a deal, buying planes for an amazingly low price.  If that truly is so, surely that is a good thing for Delta – a US company with US shareholders and employees?  If its cost of airplane ownership drops, doesn’t that mean maybe it will either be able to offer lower fares to us as passengers, or distribute more dividends – again, to some of us as investors.

Isn’t buying goods at below cost price, when the company that is selling them is outside the US, a sort of subsidy, not just from the Canadian government to Bombardier, but also directly to Delta and the US economy, too?

The next step in this dispute is for first the Commerce Department and then the International Trade Commission to determine if Boeing was actually harmed by Bombardier’s sale to Delta.

But what has clearly been harmed, already, is the relationship between the US and Canada, and between the US and UK.  Two of our very closest allies are now united against us in outrage at a decision that seems to defy any attempt at rational justification.

One also has to wonder just how positively Delta is feeling towards Boeing at present.  It isn’t as though Delta is not a potentially huge ongoing customer for Boeing.

Talking about upsetting airlines and governments, one wonders why Boeing is totally silent on the rise of China’s C919 airplane, which has now picked up 730 orders.  The C919 is by all accounts a lackluster plane which owes its success to Chinese government support, and more directly competes with smaller 737 planes.

But bullies always like to pick on people smaller than themselves.

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Sep 262017
 

This Qicent powered USB hub solved all my puzzling USB problems.

For the longest time, I’ve been plagued by mysterious problems with various USB devices I have connected to my computer – particularly hard drives.  I’ve even trashed some hard drives and replaced them, thinking them to be faulty or incompatible with the latest version of Windows or something.  I’ve tried many things, but the problems have persisted.

Some problems I’ve attributed to bad cables – sometimes I’ll connect devices that are recognized by the computer, and sometimes not.  But I’ve never been able to clearly determine which were the good and bad cables.

I have got as far as determining that some devices seem to work better if plugged directly into my computer, rather than via the tiny Anker USB 3.0 hub I had been using.  But I sort of gave up at that point, and deemed it all to be an example of perhaps unavoidable imperfections of USB type connections.

However, in a recent beer-fuelled general moaning session about computers with a friend, I started denouncing the strange problems I struggle with when connecting USB devices, and he asked me if I had a powered or unpowered hub.  In the ‘olden days’ of USB 1.1 and 2.0, I used to have bulky expensive powered USB hubs, but my $10 ‘travel’ USB 3.0 hub was unpowered – indeed, it didn’t even have any ability to add an external power source or not.  I assumed that the modern 3.0 USB spec and modern devices had become so good that an external power source was no longer needed with a USB hub.  The friend suggested all my problems were due to insufficient power in the hub.

So, at my friend’s urging, I went out and bought a Qicent seven port powered hub, to see if the external power supply made any difference.

To my surprise, and to my delight, yes indeed it did.  All the disk drives that used to work unreliably now seem to be working perfectly, and other devices, ranging from camera to phone to tablet, which formerly would sometimes not be detected when plugged in, are now all quickly being recognized by the computer.

I’ve had three external drives – two USB 3.0 drives and a USB 2.0 drive – connected simultaneously, and I’ve added assorted other devices, too, and the Qicent hub takes it all in its stride.

Using the Hub as a Charging Station

There’s another benefit of a powered hub, too.  I can use some of its power to charge my devices.

The Qicent hub gets 30W of power from its plug-in power adapter, and I’m not sure how much of that is available for charging, but it has shown itself capable of charging an iPad (2A = 10W) and an iPhone (1.5A 7.5W) and a Fire HD tablet (1.1A 6W) all at the same time, and with a couple of hard drives plugged in to it too.  You probably shouldn’t plan to be charging through all seven ports simultaneously, but clearly there’s enough power there to allow a number of high current charging devices to be serviced simultaneously.

I no longer need two separate boxes on my desk – a USB connectivity hub and a USB charging hub, and now enjoy having both functions in a single box.

Speed Improvements

It seems that data transfers happen faster, also with the powered Qicent hub.  A USB 2.0 external hard drive transfers data at 35 MB/sec, a USB 3.0 external hard drive with compressed directories would transfer data at speeds generally above 60 MB/sec, and a USB 3.0 external hard drive with non-compressed directories would transfer data at anywhere from 70 MB/sec up to sometimes brief peaks above 100 MB/sec.

In theory, USB 2.0 has a maximum transfer speed of about 50 MB/sec, whereas 3.0 can run about ten times faster.  While I’ve never been able to experience the quite astronomical transfer speeds which it seems USB 3.0 might theoretically be capable of (other constraints such as hard drive transfer speeds also acting to limit the throughput), it is also obvious, in reality, the 3.0 spec does allow for truly faster transfer speed than 2.0.  More subtly, it also means there is less ‘bus contention’ – if you have multiple devices all sharing the same USB port/hub, then the faster speed can better accept the data from all devices without becoming congested and slowing down.

USB 3.0 is also essential if you’re working with HD video.

The unit comes complete with a power supply (which delivers 2.5A at 12V) and a USB 3.0 connecting cable – the hub has a less common B connector on it, so the provision of the connecting cable was much appreciated.

The power supply had a somewhat short connecting cable on it – another foot or two would have been nice, but that is the only quibble I have.  Back to the positive, the unit came complete with somewhat Chinglish style instructions (not that any are really needed) and a generous one year warranty.

Summary

If you occasionally experience issues with USB connected devices, you might find that an adequately powered USB hub will solve your problems.

At a price of $29 on Amazon, the Qicent seven port powered USB 3.0 hub seems fairly priced, and – so far, after a week of experimentation and testing, has solved all my various anomalous USB problems.  If you have a USB 2.0 hub supporting multiple devices, or if you already have a USB 3.0 hub but which is unpowered, you might wish to consider getting one.

The three common types of USB 3.0 connector and the almost identical but not blue USB 2.0 connector on the left.

Oh – an important point.  Be sure to connect your USB hub to a USB 3.0 port on your computer (they have blue pieces inside to distinguish them from 2.0 ports).  If your computer is older with only 2.0 type ports, you’ll not get the same benefit, but by choosing a 3.0 hub, you’re ‘future-proofing’ your hub (at least until USB-C becomes more widespread…..).

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Sep 222017
 

Whether looking like this NASA drawing or anything else, sadly you shouldn’t plan on flying in an electric plane any time soon.

Good morning

It is a great pleasure to start off another week with another round of heartfelt thanks to the people who generously added their names to our 2017 Supporters list.  We are now at 126 Supporters after two weeks of this year’s annual fundraising drive, compared to 122 after two weeks last year and 118 the year before.

Special thanks are due this week to our latest ‘Super Supporters’ (people who send in $100+) :  Ken K, Larry W, Jerry K, Joe L, Lynne H, Mike S, Paul F, David B, Kelly N, and Marty S.  Wow.  As I often comment, while the money is sadly essential, it is the affirmation and generosity of all supporters which encourages me to keep going ‘the extra mile’.  It keeps me fresh and engaged, and I hope it keeps your content fresh and engaging, too.

I’d mentioned last week that our site would be down for some of last Friday; it indeed was, but hopefully now is back to its usual extraordinarily high level of reliability.  If you tried to send in your support during the down period, would you please try again now.  And, of course, if you’ve yet to do so (yes, that means you, for 98.5% of people reading this right now), may I ask you to join your fellow Travel Insiders and support our worthy enterprise.

Super supporter Mike S suggested I add another way for people to send in support, so after trialling it with his help, I’ve now added Venmo as another option.  If you use Venmo, you can see me there as David-Rowell-4.  I don’t know who the other three David Rowells are, but I’m apparently the fourth.

I added another Travel Insider Exclusive Feature on Wednesday, a seven page special report extending greatly the free feature article on Amazon’s new HD 10 tablet that follows after the weekly roundup, below.  (If you’ve already supported, go back to your special supporter page for the link to the new article, and if you’ve forgotten that page’s url, let me know and I’ll of course tell you again.)

If you’ve been considering buying a tablet, this special report tells you important things I’ve not seen discussed by any other reviewer, and helps you confidently answer the essential ultimate question – which tablet should I choose?

At the low-end, there is Amazon’s 7″ tablet for $50 or sometimes less, and at the high-end, there is Apple’s 12.9″ iPad Pro going up to $1280 in price – an enormous range of prices and huge potential to pay more than you need, for features you don’t need.  We focus on tablets costing $80, $150 and  $290, plus also consider the various iPads and other possible choices too.

That article alone could save you beaucoup bucks while ensuring you get the tablet with the best feature set for what you need.

Plus we’ve three other special supporter exclusive articles too – how to stay connected when traveling internationally (that will save you money and keep your data flowing), how to get a free Amazon Echo type device, and a six page review on streaming devices (this will help you get broadest access to the thousands of online channels at the best price).  And, as a little bonus, a story on how we got a free $10 credit from Amazon for doing nothing we wouldn’t do anyway.

So, whether it be just because you feel it is the fair and proper thing to do, or because you’d like access to these special reports, please do consider becoming a Travel Insider Supporter, and helping ensure that we continue to produce the same quality content into the future as we have for the 16 years before.

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More good news for next year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain participants.  We had four more people join our group this week, and now that we’re at 22 members, the cost per person has dropped another $100 per person.  So, our group is getting steadily better while the cost is also steadily improving – that’s my sort of win-win.  Please consider joining us and make it your sort of win-win, too.

Talking about win-wins, I managed to persuade Amawaterways to extend our special discount for this year’s Danube River Christmas cruise.  In truth, with only a very few cabins remaining, there’s no reason to leave the discount out there, but as a favor to us, they’ll allow any last-minute extra participants to also get the $750 per person discount (you won’t find this on their website), or the no single supplement, plus of course the various other special Travel Insider exclusive bonuses.

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What else this week.  Two feature articles (and the special supporter exclusive report).  As I’d been predicting, Amazon released a new generation of 10″ screened tablet this week, continuing its series of astonishing value products with a good range of essential features but none of the unnecessary frills.  How astonishing a price?  How about $150.  Most people will now find themselves choosing between the $80 8″ Fire tablet, or the $150 10″ tablet, but with so many hundreds (maybe thousands) of different tablets out there, there are many more distracting choices out there, too.  This article helps you understand what to look for and how to make the best choice for you.

The second article dares to be politically incorrect, and here’s something I hope you’ll consider.  If it makes you uncomfortable, please consider donating twice as much as you otherwise would (although, sadly, twice zero is still zero!).  The chains of political correctness are muting open honest discussion far more effectively than abolishing the First Amendment ever would – and if we’re to be fairly and fully informed, we need to have access to both sides of an issue, and to be allowed to, and trusted to, then make our own judgment.

In this case, I felt it necessary to tell the other side of the story as it relates to airlines and their self-proclaimed eagerness to switch to ‘better’ and more ‘eco-friendly’ fuels than regular kerosene style jet fuel.  The main stream media cooperates unquestioningly and loves to run stories of airlines trialing alternative bio-fuels and to report on airlines professing eagerness to switch away from ‘nasty dirty’ kerosene to cleaner burning eco-friendly alternates.

I call BS on this.  And see also my quick report on electric airplanes, below.

This is part of The Travel Insider’s essential contribution to public debate.  We provide the other side of the story, and hopefully, in small part, an element of accountability.  As I list at the start of the fuel article, the airlines have a huge war-chest of meaningless ‘feel good’ stories they continually re-use, aided and encouraged by the mainstream media.  So next time you read of an airline spending millions on a new cabin configuration, or developing new menus with some famous chef, or any of the other various canards often offered to us, laugh to yourself and think ‘The Travel Insider warned me of this’.

Our role is one that doesn’t exactly encourage airlines to generously support us, does it.  So, unless you want to start reading gushing stories on our pages too of the latest color changes in the latest multi-million dollar cabin update, please do help keep us independent and snarky!

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Electric Passenger Planes?  Not in Our Children’s Lifetimes
  • DoT Surprises Everyone By Fining Frontier
  • A Canadian Air Passenger Bill of Rights?
  • Virgin Atlantic Possibly Sets World Record for the Most Expensive Taxi Ride Ever?
  • The US Navy Apes Alice in Wonderland
  • Amtrak Ads Attack Airlines
  • A Muslim’s View of Israeli and US Security
  • And Lastly This Week….

Electric Passenger Planes?  Not in Our Children’s Lifetimes

The article that follows suggests we’ll not see bio/alternative fuel powered planes in our lifetimes.  But what about electric airplanes?  There’s a growing level of uncritical pieces predicting the arrival of marvelous electric-powered planes.

We can understand why people feel this could be so.  Mr Musk and his Tesla cars have changed the public’s perception of electric-powered vehicles.  They’re no longer an impractical oddity.  They’re the highly desirable future, they’re increasingly the inevitable future, and best of all, they’re becoming part of the present too.

Adding fuel to this fire are Musk’s plans to announce an electric battery-powered truck, (expected to be announced in October).

If we can have cars, now with ranges comparable to that in a regular gas-powered car, and if we are now starting to develop trucks too, why not also airplanes?  It seems logical and a direct extension to impatiently call for electric-powered planes to start appearing at our airport gates.

Unfortunately, fueling and powering a plane is totally different to fueling and powering a car or truck.  And fueling anything to make it capable of traveling 5,000 or even 10,000 miles on a single ‘tank’ of fuel, whether it be by land or air, is totally different to fueling something to allow it to travel 500 or even 1,000 miles.

Let’s talk facts, rather than aspirations, when it comes to electric battery-powered planes.  Three facts alone starkly show the utter impossibility of battery-powered planes (at least, based on present and foreseeable battery technologies)

  • Batteries store 40 times less energy per pound than jet fuel
  • While jet fuel gets consumed during flight, a battery weighs the same at take-off and landing, charged or discharged
  • A battery needs 20 times more space than jet fuel for the same energy content

And that’s just the start of the problems.

If you still think that electric planes are possible, here are a couple more startling facts.  Battery powered systems have four times higher maintenance costs than current gas turbines.  And while electric cars are more fuel-efficient than gas-powered cars, electric planes are not.  This is because the efficiency in an electric car comes from recapturing the ‘wasted’ energy every time we brake.  But planes have almost no wasted energy.  When they slow down and descend to land, they are not braking, they are merely generating less power than the plane needs to maintain its speed and altitude, so the plane gently ‘falls out of the sky’ in a controlled manner.

These are the conclusions published at the end of what is, in places, a very deep dive and technical analysis of the issues surrounding battery-powered planes.  You can see the last part of what is a thirteen part article series here (the previous parts are of course linked from the website too).

DoT Surprises Everyone By Fining Frontier

Ever since the DoT gained the ability to fine airlines for breaking its ‘Thou Shalt Not Strand Passengers on Parked Planes’ rule in 2010′, it has consistently turned a blind eye to infractions of this requirement.

In theory, if an airline causes passengers to be stuck on a plane for three hours or longer (or four hours on an international flight, because, apparently, we’re all that much happier to sit trapped on an airplane if it is an international rather than domestic flight), they can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger for the incident.  On a full 200 passenger plane, that is $5.5 million.  That’s an absolutely enormous potential censure, and the DoT seems to have been terrified to use it, even though it is clear that the DoT doesn’t need to go the full $27,500 per passenger per violation.

It has also always been a strange rule.  Think of this.  A plane load of passengers are forced to suffer a nightmarish delay on the ground, with the usual sort of terrible things happening.  No food or drink.  The toilets overflow.  The a/c fails.  People faint.  And so on.

Now let’s just suppose, in this very hypothetical situation, the DoT then turns around and fines the airline, maybe even ‘only’ $10,000 per passenger, say $2 million in total for the breach.

How much of that $10,000 do the passengers get as recompense for the delays and agony of the multi-hour involuntary imprisonment?  Do they get it all?  Does the DoT keep a 10% handling and administrative fee?  Well, being the government, perhaps we should allow it 20%.

Does the DoT split it down the middle and give half to the passengers and keep the other half?

Nope.  The DoT keeps it all.  The passengers get nothing.  Not a single solitary penny.  The entire $2 million goes to the Department of Transportation.

Now you might think that this makes the DoT very trigger happy and fast to fine airlines.  Peculiarly, this utterly does not seem to have been the case.

Additionally, you might think that the requirement to allow passengers to get off the plane within three hours, timed from when the last airplane door through which passengers pass is closed, would mean that 180 minutes after the timer started ticking, you could stand up, walk to an exit and get off.  But, you’d be wrong.  The DoT has decided to define the 180 minutes as ending at the point where the airplane pilot decides to go back to the gate, or is given permission to return back to the gate.  The actual travel time back to the gate could be another ten or twenty minutes (more in the snow or in congestion), then the time to find a gate, find someone to get an airbridge or stairs to the plane, unlock the door to the terminal, and so on – this can add another hour to the time.  And then the time it takes for you, in seat 317Z, to finally get off the plane, that might be another ten or fifteen minutes further.

So, in the wonderful world of aviation, if you’re inconvenienced, the government benefits.  And three hours might actually be four.  And even if all this happens, maybe the airline is given a ‘get out of jail free’ pass for inexplicable reasons of government kindness.

Which is why the news of the DoT actually fining an airline is indeed notable.  Frontier were fined a total of $1.5 million for two violations during bad weather in Denver last December.

Well, actually, by the DoT’s own reckoning and according to this article, there were 12 Frontier violations on that particular day, and for the month, 21 flights in total violating the three/four hour rule.

But, let’s do the math.  In total, in December, 14 Frontier flights violated the delay rule.  Two were fined, $1.5 million in total (but then rebated to reflect compensation given by Frontier to passengers).  Two more were excused because they started returning to the gate within three hours.

So, DoT, what about the other ten Frontier flights?  And the other seven flights operated by other airlines?

A Canadian Air Passenger Bill of Rights?

In related news, the Canadians are looking at introducing an air passenger bill of rights which they say will, if/when finally passed (the bill has been kicking around for a while – it had its first reading back in May – and might be passed next year, it seems) prevent atrocities such as a recent flight that sat for six hours after landing before proceeding to a gate.  Currently in Canada there is nothing requiring airlines to get their planes to the gate at any point, no matter how long the delay or inhumane the conditions on the plane.

The new legislation, as described in the press, would appear to be excellent news and to be commended, and we hope the Canadians might be more effective at enforcing their legislation that we are with ours.

But there is every reason to fear the Canadian legislation may prove to be a paper tiger – and this is before the airline ‘friends’ in parliament finish attacking and weakening the bill’s provisions.

To start with the bill doesn’t actually set out any obligations or requirements, but instead commands the Canadian Transportation Agency to make regulations about matters such as tarmac delays, passenger bumping, and so on.  The nature of those regulations are left unspecified – a curious abdication of Parliament’s prerogative.

But the bill does hint that perhaps some cases might see less liability flowing through to the airline, including situations involving ‘natural phenomena’ (a fancy way of saying weather) and security events and for safety reasons and mechanical malfunctions.

So, if there is snow falling in Toronto, will that give flights in and out a blanket excuse and waiver for any tarmac delays?  Wasn’t that the entire point of the US legislation?

If weather is an airline’s favorite delay, its second most favorite is ‘mechanical problems’ and ‘flight safety’.  The Europeans have decided that almost all mechanical delays are not acceptable excuses for airlines to proffer as a way of avoiding liability for delays.  It is only extraordinarily unforeseeable mechanical delays that might be considered outside the airline’s control in Europe.  Here, as we well know, an airline merely needs to hint at the ‘safety’ word and is immediately given a free pass.

Bottom line – the legislation neither sets out specific provisions nor penalties, but does broadcast a big ‘hint’ to the Canadian Transportation Agency that a range of dubious excuses should be allowed to exempt airlines from liability.  Even though this is a toothless and almost useless piece of legislation, it still has the airlines up in arms and is making very slow progress.

Sometimes, bad law is worse than no law.  Bad law allows the politicians to pretend their job is done, and then allows them to redirect pressure away from them and to the non-elected bureaucrats in the Canadian Transportation Agency.

Virgin Atlantic Possibly Sets World Record for the Most Expensive Taxi Ride Ever?

Manchester Airport is 190 miles from Heathrow Airport, just outside of London.  To travel between the two airports, it is a one hour flight.  To travel by car, it is about a three hour drive.  Trains are two hours between London and Manchester, plus maybe another hour to get between train stations and airports at each end.  BA offer a bunch of flights each day, there are lots of trains, and of course, taxis can leave at any time.

A BA flight is about $100, maybe more, maybe less.  Uber would charge perhaps $300 for the journey.  Trains are similar in cost to flying.

So, now that you know all these complicated confusing facts, lets say that you’re in charge of an airline – Virgin Atlantic, if we must be specific.  Let’s say your airline finds itself short a pilot in Manchester, but has a spare pilot in London, able to fly the plane, but only if he can get to Manchester, of course.  What do you do?

Oh, one more point.  Because you’re in charge of an airline, you’ve got flights leaving London on a regular basis, but, alas, none going to Manchester.  They’re all international flights, mainly to the US, and in huge big international planes.

So, how do you get your pilot up to Manchester as quickly as possible?  Do you put him on the next flight by any airline up to Manchester, and even offer to pay full retail price for the ticket?

Or, remembering that you also own a railroad, do you have him go by train?

Or do you hand him a taxi chit and some petty cash and bundle him out the front of the terminal and into a cab?

Maybe you decide to charter a helicopter for the flight – perhaps that’ll cost you $1000.

But, we forgot.  If you’re an airline executive, you don’t need to think these things through logically.  Instead, you send the pilot to hop on your next flight to anywhere (just so happens to be to Boston) and get the flight to Boston to divert to Manchester to drop the pilot off, en route.

That’s what Virgin Atlantic did last week.  While this article, telling the story, reports that the diversion caused the Boston flight to arrive 96 minutes late into Boston, it can only speculate as to the cost of the diversion to Virgin Atlantic.

Remember the story, a couple of weeks ago, of the man who was fined $98,000 as being the cost of causing his smaller A330 plane to fly back to Honolulu to drop him off due to his being unruly?  Well, for sure, a diversion to Manchester would cost much less than that, but also for sure, it probably cost $10,000 or more.  An additional take-off and landing cycle, possibly the need to dump fuel before the plane could land in Manchester, probably the need to put more fuel onto the plane again, and of course, the inconvenience (but no compensation) to the Boston flight’s passengers, now arriving 96 minutes late.  If the hapless passengers missed a connecting flight (the flight arrived at 9.11pm) there almost certainly wouldn’t have been a later flight, that same day, to their ultimate destination.

Making this all the more extraordinary is that there were two scheduled flights operated by BA that Virgin could have put their pilot on, but decided to ignore, while commandeering their own flight instead.

Is it any surprise that Virgin expects to make a loss this year.

If this was the US Navy, one would expect three or four executives to be instantly fired.  But, it isn’t, so as far as we know, there were no negative consequences attached to this strange decision.

And talking about the US Navy…..

The US Navy Apes Alice in Wonderland

In Alice in Wonderland, the Queen demands a prisoner be sentenced first, prior to the jury reaching its verdict.  Noting her propensity of ordering the cutting off of people’s heads, once the probable sentence had been effected, the verdict becomes somewhat less relevant.

This reminds me of the US Navy’s ongoing actions in response to its four ship collisions earlier this year.  After summarily firing the commanders of the relevant ships – perhaps (although equally perhaps not) a fair thing to do – it then started firing admirals too, and this week we’re told how a second Admiral has been fired while a third has been permitted to ‘request early retirement’.  They’ve also fired a captain.

All of this before they know what the ultimate root causes of any of the four incidents are.  Is this extraordinary rush to judgment proving how responsibly responsive they are, demanding accountability, or proving how knee-jerk reactive they are, demanding scapegoats?

A word of caution to the people writing out the firing orders.  If you’re pushing the doctrine of ultimate command responsibility way up the chain of command, when do you think your own letters of dismissal will arrive?

We’re all for accountability, but an interesting thing about an effective safety culture is that you’re more likely to find out the truth if there is no culpability associated with major screwups that caused an accident to happen.

Any mistake is as much a learning opportunity and a chance to close procedural loopholes and improve processes that clearly have some shortcomings.  But if everyone is frantically trying to save their careers, you’re never going to fairly and fully find out what the root causes were, and you’re never going to correctly and completely resolve the vulnerabilities that resulted in the accident.

Let’s hope the Navy shows better sense and judgment when deciding when to fire on unknown targets than it does in deciding when to commit fratricide within its own ranks.  We trust these guys with nuclear missiles, and at present, their command judgment is being displayed as a rush to find the executioner’s axe and some necks to attack with it.

I’m as troubled by the Navy’s cashiering of crew before the facts have been ascertained and evaluated, as I am by what appear to have been shocking failures to observe basic seamanship standards.  Their rush to fire senior personnel in no way impresses or reassures me, and instead leaves me wondering how three admirals rose to become admirals if they are now seen to be deserving of summary dismissal.  And if one thinks about that for too long, one wonders who else, with how many more stars, should also start thinking about their own early retirements.

Details here.

Amtrak Ads Attack Airlines

Amtrak is in the process of handing over its reins to a new CEO, Richard Anderson.  Anderson is a former CEO of Delta Air Lines.

So what does Amtrak’s new ad campaign do?  It attacks the airlines and promotes Amtrak as a better way to travel.  It says that traveling by train means no middle seats, no baggage fees, no ticket change fees, no restrictions on cell phone use, and no inexplicable extended periods of requiring your seat belt to be fastened.  “It’s time we stop putting up with travel’s every last headache”, the campaign tells us.

The amusing thing about this is it seems to prove that airline executives know just how dreadful the travel experience they’re forcing on us is.  Clearly Anderson knew exactly the ‘pain points’ to focus on in this campaign.

But equally clearly, the airlines know that for almost every city-pair route in the US, Amtrak, no matter how wide its seats may be, is not anything within a country mile of being viable competition.  Anderson seems to have forgotten the earlier total immunity from rail competition he enjoyed at Delta.

So Anderson can rabbit on all he likes about no baggage fees and power points at every seat, but that’s not going to persuade any one of us to change from a choice of half a dozen flights each day to where we wish to go, and a four hour journey; and substitute it with one train, every other day, that takes two days (and two nights) to make the same journey.

Amtrak will persuade almost no-one to add four days and four nights to travel roundtrip, at inconvenient times of day/night, when the alternative is quick convenient flights, no matter how uncomfortable and awkward (and expensive) the flight experience.

Anderson needs to focus utterly and totally and single-mindedly on building some high-speed routes.  When he can offer comparable travel times, and an incomparably positive travel experience, he can truly slam-dunk the airlines with his advertising.  Indeed, he won’t even need to advertise.

But until he has that, he has nothing more than all his predecessors have also struggled with.  A perennially loss-making cash-bleeding enterprise, and also – sorry to say – Amtrak’s service is far from shining.  Trains are often late, equipment is often not working properly, food has a poor reputation, and staff can be every bit as surly as on a flight.

For every article I write decrying the US’ extraordinary inactivity when it comes to build out a decent rail infrastructure, he should be writing ten.  He should be on the talk shows, and camped outside the offices of congressmen and senators, day and night, pushing the need for a program of national rail investment.

Instead of advertising irrelevant comparisons with airlines that persuade no-one, he should be investing in public affairs promotion to build up a huge groundswell of popular support and demand for better faster rail.

Our current president has even promised his own version of shovel-ready projects and infrastructure investment.  Now some eight months into his presidency, has a single penny of that been allocated or spent?

A Muslim’s View of Israeli and US Security

One would think there would be few experiences less pleasant than for a Muslim to travel to Israel.  As we all know, the security is famous for its extraordinarily strict measures, and as we also all know, being a Muslim is going to guarantee you an extra dose of super-security.

But, maybe, what we think we know is not correct (a truism that we should be more aware of).  Here’s a very well written account by a Pakistan born gentleman (now apparently resident in Canada) and his travel through Israeli security when going to and from Israel recently.

And, just to complete the narration, he contrasts it with US border security.  His observations are telling.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s yet another ‘Watch you, Tesla, your competitors are catching up’ story – this one about Porsche due to release a high-end Tesla competitor in 2019, and offering a very similar fast-charging capability to that which Tesla love to boast about (but which the typical Tesla owner never uses).

I wrote last week about a pilot displaying amazing Photoshop capabilities.  Apparently, pilots in general often have an interest in photographic pursuits, although some pilots and their interests are slightly less mainstream than others.  Such as, well, this.  (We’re waiting for the pilots to say it is lack of sleep and insufficient earnings that is causing them to do such things.)

I’m sure the good old days of flying – and the good old pilots – were never like today.  But flight attendants and their clothing have, at least with some airlines, generally been consistently attractive.  Here’s an article that suggests China is now invading yet another field, by claiming to have the worlds most stylish flight attendant uniforms.

Whatever you think of the Hainan Airlines uniforms, do scroll down a bit to the series of 18 lovely images of former flight attendant finery.

And lastly this week, how’s your general knowledge about the air travel industry.  For example, can you name the world’s busiest airport?  But get ready to learn a new airport as answer to this question; although Atlanta has been the world’s busiest every year since 1998, we’re within a year or two of that title being taken by Beijing, and with Dubai vaulting up the rankings too.

Okay, so that was a fairly easy question.  What about the world’s busiest air route?  Or the airline that flies to the most different countries.  Or, talking of Hainan Airlines, the world’s least punctual airline (yes, there’s a clue in that sentence somewhere).  How about the airline with the most ‘powerful’ brand.

Answers to these and assorted other questions, here.

So, have you enjoyed the newsletter this week – and keep in mind there are two more feature articles to follow.  If you’re reading it with a cup of coffee in hand, how much did you spend on your cup of coffee?  How much is it worth to keep The Travel Insider bursting into your email inbox every Friday morning, the same as we’ve done for most of the past almost 850 weeks?

Please would you too ‘put your money where your mouth is’ and join the current 126 of your fellow Travel Insiders and help support us in our efforts to give you some Friday morning enlightenment, information, advice, and amusement.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Sep 202017
 

The ‘good old days’ – four J57 engines under load at take-off.

When airlines feel a desperate need for some good press, there are several standard things they can do.

They can offer up any empty bit of corporate jingoism that is dutifully parroted by a slavish and sycophantic press, dependent on airline advertising dollars.

They can talk about their latest multi-million dollar cabin redesigns, secure in the knowledge no reporters will pivot to the inconvenient truth of ever smaller seats being jam-packed ever more tightly into their expensive cabin redesigns.

They can boast of new in-flight cuisine and wine-lists, coordinated by a big name chef, unworried by the danger of anyone pointing out that even the very best airline food is the sort of food that would never ever be served at the big name chef’s own restaurant.

They can announce new ‘simplified’ and ‘lower’ fares, smug in the unchallenged irony of describing fares with more rules, fewer inclusions and more fees and penalties as being simplified and lower.

They can talk about bringing new service to new cities, even though the ‘new’ service used to be provided until it was cancelled, and even though it has yet to be restarted and might be cancelled, again, even before it starts.

Or they can talk about new trials of eco-friendly jetfuel (that sounds a bit like an oxymoron, but who cares in the gloriously uncritical world of airline publicity).  They can rabbit on endlessly about carbon emissions (or lack thereof) and using recycled just-about-anything to make the fuel, and proudly proclaim the outstanding success of their trials.

Yes, there are many other golden oldie stories they can also bring up too, but you get the picture.  The one we’re here to pick apart today is the ‘bio-fuel’ story.

First, though – here’s a recent example – ‘British Airways plans turning trash into biofuel for its jets‘.  Bravo, BA, right?  Even more impressively, this new plant is expected to create enough fuel to power every single BA 787 flying between London and San Jose and between London and New Orleans.  That’s so wonderful it makes your head spin, doesn’t it.

But, when the dizziness recedes, and we can see things in clear focus again, let’s parse the article more carefully.  There is no promise or commitment or timeline mentioned.  Merely a lot of qualifying terms such as ‘planning to’ and ‘potential’ and ‘currently being assessed’ and ‘by the year 2050’.  Those qualifiers are just in the first two paragraphs; we haven’t even got to more lovely escape phrases later in the article such as ‘it is estimated’ and ‘when up and running’ and ‘expected to’.

Let’s also consider the marvel of being able to power every single BA 787 between LON-SJC and LON-MSY.  Curious cities to choose, don’t you think?  But there’s a reason, because while there are single daily flights between London and San Jose, there are only four between London and New Orleans each week.  So, we’re talking about enough fuel for 787s to fly 112,000 miles a week, or 5.8 million miles a year.

Well, that’s still a lot of flying, isn’t it.  Or, is it?  BA’s a big airline, with 290 airplanes.  I estimate they fly 560 million miles a year in total.

So the bio-fuel story?  If it ever comes to pass, it boils down to BA might possibly replace 1% of its fuel needs with bio-fuel, maybe some time in the uncertain future.  Is that really worth a headline story, or perhaps nothing more than a footnote mention somewhere else?

Here’s another story also from this week – ‘Airline industry could fly thousands of miles on biofuel from a new promising feedstock‘.

Call me a cynic if you like, but what is special with a 747 being able to fly 10 hours on bio-jet fuel, when it could fly 20+ hours on regular jet fuel?  Is that something to be proud of, or is it actually ‘negative progress’?

In fact, this claim hints at a probable problem – lower energy density in the bio-fuel, meaning you get fewer miles per gallon from it than from regular jet-fuel.  This is a deal-breaker of a problem because that also means you get fewer miles per pound of fuel, and you know how obsessive the airlines are at saving every possible ounce of avoidable weight.

But the biggest problem isn’t mentioned at all in the article.  Instead, the article reports a researcher boasting that the fuel’s cost – an estimated $5.31/gallon – is less than the prices of most other bio-fuels.  You might think that is good, but the thing is, this or any other biofuel isn’t having to compete against other biofuels.  It is having to compete against oil-based fuels – essentially kerosene, currently used to power jet engines.  Guess how much the airlines currently pay for regular jet fuel?

According to the US airline lobbying group, who has yet to meet a jet fuel price it didn’t automatically consider to be way too high, in September 2017, airlines are paying about $1.80/gallon for jet fuel.

So are we to believe that airlines are eagerly rushing to these researchers, keen to pay three times as much for fuel which will only fly them half as far per gallon?  In other words, quite apart from destroying the necessary operational flying ranges of their planes (forget about nonstop trans-Pacific flights) they’ll end up paying effectively six times as much for their fuel.

We can only guess what sort of sized fuel surcharge the airlines would choose to impose on us if that were to happen!

There’s more.  How could we write an article about airlines and their inflated boasts, and in particular, their apparent desire to become eco-friendly and power their planes on outrageously expensive fuel-stocks, without mentioning dear old Sir Richard Branson and the airline he formerly owned, Virgin Atlantic.

In early 2008 he demonstrated his amazing ability to garner headlines around the world by boasting about ‘a vital breakthrough’.  Virgin Atlantic operated ‘the first flight by a commercial jet that was partly powered by biofuel’.  Details here.

Let’s first examine what ‘partly powered’ means.  One of a 747’s four engines was partially driven by a biofuel tank that was providing 20% of the engine’s power – so in total, 5% of the total plane’s power was coming from bio-fuel.  A ‘vital breakthrough’?  Only in Sir Richard’s hyperbolic universe.

But wait, Sir Richard is always the gift that keeps on giving.  He went on to predict that within ten years airplanes could be routinely flying on ‘plant power’.  Well, those ten years expire in February next year, some five months from now.  How’s that prediction looking, so far, Sir Richard?

Actually, that’s a question already partially answered.  In September 2016, Virgin got excited on its in-house blog, reporting they’d just received a fuel sample of 1500 gallons of a new bio-fuel.  Wow – 1500 gallons!  That’s enough to power a 747, like the one used for their earlier trial, for about 300 miles (assuming a standard energy density) or possibly many fewer miles if the energy density is lower.  A 747 can hold 60,000 gallons of fuel.  Eight and a half years into Branson’s ten-year timeline, and they’re excitedly getting a 1500 gallon sample?

When asked to (re)predict the future, the article expressed the future timeline in terms of ‘the next few decades’.  That’s a much safer prediction.

The great thing about distant dates is that the people making the predictions have been promoted or retired long before they can be held accountable for their promises.  As for Sir Richard, having just sold down his holdings in Virgin Atlantic to now a remaining 20% share, he has been happily quiet for a while.

The reality of all these microscopic ‘trials’ and ‘tests’ and ‘plans’?  You can probably guess where I’m headed.  But let’s ask a truly successful airline CEO for the real scoop on bio-fuels.  Straight talking Michael O’Leary, CEO of Europe’s largest and probably most profitable airline, Ryanair, got it right when he said in 2015 at an aviation conference

It’s all a PR stunt.  Nobody is really flying around the world on aircraft powered by biofuel, it’s generally all powered on kerosene.  The rest is a PR stunt designed to appeal to some middle-aged, middle-classed person worrying about the future.

Don’t be fooled.  The airlines will never substitute current oil based jet fuel with any other fuel that will present as a greater net cost to them.

Lastly, to state the ugly obvious, if/when alternate fuels should ever come along which are cheaper/better than kerosene, the airlines won’t be converting to use them for any reason whatsoever other than saving money and generating greater profit.  The airlines are no more the environment’s friend than they’re our friend.

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Sep 202017
 

The new Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet is available in three different colors.

As we have anticipated for a while, Amazon have now released a new 10.1″ screened Fire tablet, the Fire HD 10, addressing an increasingly painful gap in their tablet product range.

As hoped for, the new tablet is priced at an astonishing bargain price of $150 – the same price their 8″ tablets were selling for a year ago.  The device can be ordered now, and deliveries start arriving on October 11, 2017.

This new tablet offers a greatly improved resolution over the earlier 10″ screened model (1920×1200 compared to 1280×800) and longer battery life (about 10 hours instead of about 8 hours).

Should you get one?  We compare the new HD 10 to other possible contenders for your future tablet purchasing – the nearly new Fire HD 8 (ie with an 8″ screen and $80) and place the two units alongside the three similar sized Apple iPads – the Mini with a 7.9″ screen, the regular iPad with a 9.7″ screen, and the high-end (or, at least, high-priced!) 10.5″ iPad Pro.

Let’s look at the most important features and differences.

Screen Size – More Difference than You’d Think

Both Apple and Amazon offer a 7.9″/8.0″ screened smaller tablet, and then a larger tablet as an upgrade option – either 9.7″ or 10.5″ with Apple, or 10.1″ for Amazon.

Amazon also has a smaller HD 7 tablet with a 7″ screen, but with the 8″ tablet priced at only slightly more ($80 instead of $50) and having tangibly better resolution, we see little/no reason to consider the 7″ tablet, other than as a ‘throwaway’ tablet to have spare around the house or office.  When the 7″ tablet was $50 and the 8″ tablet, last year, was $150, the 7″ unit had a clear market segment, but with the price now so close between them, the 7″ tablet is harder to justify.  The HD 7 tablet comes standard with less storage (8GB).  So, to compare apples with apples, the 7″ tablet with 16GB of storage costs $70, compared to the 8″ tablet with 16GB storage at $80.

Apple also has a larger 12.9″ screened tablet – a truly lovely device indeed.  But it is reaching the upper limit of portability/convenience and is starting to cross over into the ‘lightweight laptop’ size category.  It is great if you’re a salesman giving presentations to people, and perhaps in other similar situations where multiple people are all looking at the screen simultaneously, but as a personal tablet for just you, it is moving towards overkill.  And with pricing starting at $799 and quickly moving past $1000, it scores low on the affordability front.  We discuss this further in our related special report (see below).

So, coming back to the 8″ and 10″ screen options – whether for Apple or Amazon – which is best?

The 8″ screen of course allows for an overall smaller and lighter tablet.  These are definite benefits.  On the other hand, the extra 2″ of screen diagonal translate to only about 1″ – 2″ of extra length and width for the tablet, and 5 or 6 extra ounces of weight.

And you get surprisingly much more screen than you’d think, which makes it easier and more involving to watch video, and to see pictures in larger size/more detail.  In approximate terms, screen area increases with the square of the increase in the diagonal, not linearly, so a small seeming increase in diagonal measurement actually makes for a much larger increase in actual screen size.

As you can see from this table, going from Amazon’s 8″ screened unit to a 10″ screened unit, while a 25″ increase in diagonal, gives a 60% increase in screen area.  Similarly, going from Apple’s 7.9″ unit to either of the other two gives a 52% or an 80% increase in screen area.  And, of course, the amazing 12.9″ unit’s screen is massively more than any of the others.

  Length   Width    Screen Area  Aspect Ratio  PPI     
Fire 8″ 6.8″ 4.2″ 28.7 sq in 1.6 189
Fire 10.1″ 8.6″ 5.4″ 45.9 sq in 1.6 224
iPad Mini 7.9″ 6.3″ 4.7″ 29.6 sq in 1.33 326
iPad 9.7″ 7.8″ 5.8″ 45.1 sq in 1.33 264
iPad Pro 10.5″ 8.4″ 6.3″ 53.2 sq in 1.33 264
iPad Pro 12.9″   10.4″ 7.8″ 80.3 sq in 1.33 264

 

So our point here is that the increase in screen area is more significant than the increase in size/weight of the unit, and much greater than implied by the diagonal measurement alone.  So, unless you were ultra-constrained with size and weight (or unless there is a ridiculous price penalty to pay for the larger units), we’d generally advocate the 10″ models over the 8″ models.

We feel the larger screen size on the various 10″ models does make a very positive difference when watching video.  It also gives some benefit when viewing web pages (font sizes don’t get so small), but makes little or no difference when reading eBooks and of course no different at all when listening to music.

Resolution

The other thing about a larger screen is that you can fit more pixels on it.  Indeed, that is a double-edged sword, not only can you add more pixels, but you probably should add more pixels, so as to keep lots of pixels per inch (PPI).  Too low a ppi count and you can see the individual pixels, but when you get to the ‘just right’ number, images look photographically smooth and fonts – even in small sizes – looks like they were printed on paper.  As an interesting comparison, laser printers generally print at 300 – 600 dpi, and offset presses print type at about 1200 – 2400 dpi (but print pictures at a very much lower 150 – 250 dpi).

Is there such a thing as a too high a ppi count?  Maybe, yes, in the sense that the more pixels on a screen, the costlier it is to manufacture and probably the screen also consumes more power.  After a certain pixel density, our eyes can no longer make out any additional improvement because the resolution of our eyes is limited.

So what is the ‘just right’ number?  Apple claims it to be around about the 300 pixels per inch, and that’s as good a number as any.  Until Apple brought out their ‘retina’ screened devices (first with the iPhone 4) pixel densities tended to be around the 150 ppi number on small devices, and much lower on regular computer monitors (70 – 90 ppi).  If you looked carefully, you could see some pixel granularity.  So 150 ppi is starting to trespass, at least these days, into ‘too low’ a ppi, even though we still accept much lower resolutions on most standard computer monitors.  As a point of interest, a modern typical 24″ screen 1920×1080 monitor has a pixel density of 92 pixels per inch.  Yes, you can surely see, if you get close, the individual pixels and type doesn’t always look smooth, but we’ve become accustomed to accepting this.  It is helpful to keep that in mind so as not to obsess about the relative difference between two screens with say a 350 and a 400 ppi density, because in truth, both are amazing overkill.

Anything much above 300 ppi – say, over 360 ppi or so – and you’re starting to get no additional clarity by adding more pixels.  If anything, you’re starting to make pictures appear inconveniently small.

The Fire 8 has the lowest pixel density, although the image quality on the screen is still acceptably good most of the time.  The iPad Mini has razor-sharp images with its high ppi, and the other tablets have good but not superlative ppi counts.

Coming back to the actual resolution count, the Fire 8 has one weakness the other units don’t also share.  It lacks enough pixels to be able to show a full HD movie on its screen.  HD resolution is 1920×1080, so the other units can fit all the picture information of an HD movie onto their screens, whereas the HD 8 needs to discard some so as to squeeze it into its fewer number of pixels (1280 x 800).  This is not really a profoundly noticeable weakness with most video streaming, and in the context of an $80 unit, is totally acceptable.  But it is nice to know, with all the other units, that ‘it is all there’ on your screen.

To put this in context, remember when DVD quality video was considered stunningly clear and sharp?  A DVD resolution is 480 x 720 pixels, so all of these units are way ahead of DVD quality.

At the other extreme, none of the units can directly display 4K video (2160 x 3840 pixels).  But that doesn’t matter at all, because unless you were holding a 4K-capable device just off the end of your nose, you’d not notice the extra pixels and resolution at all.

GPS

The two Amazon units don’t have GPS receivers.  Apple offers GPS capability as part of a $130 optional extra add-on that also includes cellular/wireless data capability (next point).

Do you need GPS on your tablet?  If you’re using any type of mapping/GPS program, then yes, you definitely do, so as to know exactly where you are.

On the other hand, most of us have GPS and mapping programs on our phones, and so do you really need to pay another $130 to duplicate what is already on your phone?  And usually, the smaller form factor of the phone is much more convenient to use with a mapping program, whether driving in the car or hiking in the outdoors, or walking through a foreign city.

Clearly, Amazon have decided they’d rather offer unbeatable bargain prices rather than cram in unnecessary feature bloat.  We would certainly like GPS – if it were included for free, but noting that our tablet use is mainly to read books, watch movies, browse web pages, and maybe do some email or even play a game, it is not a ‘must have’ feature.

Wireless Data

All these reviewed tablets offer dual band Wi-Fi.  Apple also offers, as the other part of its $130 optional add-on, the ability to connect to a wireless company’s data signal, too.  Note that of course you have to sign up for service and pay a monthly fee for this, but the monthly fee is reasonably moderate, depending on how much data you use.

Is this important or necessary?  We have tablets with and without the wireless data capability, and look upon it much as we do the GPS feature.  First, we’d never use cellular/wireless data to watch a movie, because that would eat up too much data too quickly.

Second, if we were somewhere with no Wi-Fi, we’d use our phone to access email and to browse websites.  Or, we’d use our phone to set up a personal hotspot and connect to it from our tablet, and share our phone’s wireless data, thereby getting our tablet onto the internet that way.  We usually don’t use our entire data allocation on our phone each month, so there is ‘free’ data available to use with the tablet, by connecting via our phone.

In other words, adding a wireless connection to a tablet, for most people, is not necessary, and if added, threatens to become expensive.

How Much Memory

Most of the tablets come with at least two choices for memory capacity.  The Amazon units also allow you to add a Micro-SD card to further boost their capacity.  These days Micro-SD cards go up to 256GB in capacity, and this will probably continue to increase over time to their currently defined limit of 2TB.  It seems that 128 GB cards are the current (Sept 2017) sweet spot for capacity/price, but the newest 200GB and 256GB cards are quickly improving in value too.

Micro-SD cards have two big advantages over built-in memory.  First, it is the cheapest way to grow your capacity.  Apple charge several times the cost of Micro-SD card storage to increase the capacity of their units.  Second, you can have unlimited off-line capacity on multiple cards and plug them in as needed.

So why do you need built-in memory if you can supplement it with an endless number of Micro-SD cards?  You need the built-in memory to conveniently store your programs, and perhaps some program related data, too.  Certainly it makes sense to store movies and music (and maybe even books) on Micro-SD cards, but your programs should be loaded into the tablet’s built-in memory.

It is also fair to observe that Micro-SD cards are small and fiddly and easy to lose, whereas built-in storage is convenient and always there, so there are some convenience factors associated with built-in storage.

Remember also that some of the memory on the unit will be used for the tablet’s operating system (about 3 – 5 GB), so you start off immediately with less than the advertised amount actually available for use.

I have a 16GB Fire tablet that is still half empty, because I also have a 128GB Micro-SD card that has 70GB of data on it plugged into the unit.  But I also have a 32GB iPad that is almost full to the point where I am always having to find programs to delete before I can load new ones, and a 64GB iPhone that is about half full.  My backup/test Android phone has 10GB free of its 32GB capacity.

So it seems that – at least for me – if you have a Micro-SD card, you can get by with 16GB of built-in capacity (but 32GB would be better).  If you don’t have a Micro-SD card capability, then you might get away with 32GB but probably should consider 64GB as the necessary minimum.

Other

All units claim to have about 10 hours battery life, although the magic words ‘up to’ rather neutralize any claims.  All units have dual band Wi-Fi, and all but the 8″ Fire include the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi protocol (its omission is entirely immaterial).

There are slight variations in size and weight between the Apple and Amazon units.  Nothing profound, although of course, every bit of size/weight reduction is valuable, and generally the Apple units are slightly more compact.

Happily, although Apple has eliminated headphone jacks from their iPhones, they still exist on their iPads.

None of the units have very sophisticated cameras.  It is a puzzlement that a tiny phone seems able to feature a much better camera than a large tablet.  The Fires’ front facing cameras are particularly primitive.  These days video calling (or selfie-taking) is becoming more common and better front facing cameras are becoming less a luxury and more an expected essential.

Of course, if that is really important to you, you probably already have two much better cameras, facing both ways, on your phone.  So, again, we are left wondering if Amazon is crazy for leaving out ‘important’ features, or crazy-like-a-fox for distilling the essential elements of a tablet into an extraordinary value package, while leaving the unneeded frills out.

Another factor to consider is the range of apps available for the Amazon and iPad tablets.  There are still more iOS tablet apps than there are Android tablet apps.  Furthermore, Amazon only allows a limited subset of all tablet apps to run on its Fire tablets.  Competing shopping apps for example are less likely to be approved by Amazon than by Android more generally.

But these days the question of who has the most/best apps is becoming less relevant, because, for most of the general purpose requirements we variously have, both Amazon and Apple have a wide range of apps to choose between.  Does it really matter if Apple has 50 different currency conversion apps and Amazon only has 20?  Does it matter that Apple has 25 different weather apps and Amazon has only 10?  (These are made up numbers to illustrate the concept, not actual counts.)  Probably not.

Summary and Special Supporters’ Report

The outcome is unsurprising – Apple’s tablets have more features, but not all of these are essential.  And in terms of price – well, Amazon blows Apple out of the water.  The Fire HD 8 is only about one-quarter the cost of an iPad Mini.  The HD 10 is in the 1/3 to 1/2 cost of the regular iPad (and less than 1/4 the cost of the iPad Pro).

We have prepared a detailed chart comparing the five models of Amazon and Apple tablets, together with a ‘ringer’ – another Android tablet that we feel may be the best of all the 10″ tablet alternatives out there.  This other tablet has the same features as Apple, and a much lower price, while also addressing a few of the Fire 10’s weaknesses (if you perceive them to be so) and giving an excellent all round product at about the $290 price point (a similar Apple iPad would be about $560, or almost exactly twice the price).  So if you do want something better than a Fire HD 10 – maybe you feel you must have GPS, for example, you don’t have to break the budget.  Apple is not your only choice.

This detailed chart analyses 17 different considerations for each tablet, and comes with six additional pages of discussion and suggestions.  It its entirety, it is invaluable if you’re considering a tablet purchase and want to ‘drill down’ into more detail than in this already comprehensive 3000+ word article.

The complete special report is available to everyone who has contributed $10 or more to our annual fundraising drive this year and is available on the special supporter’s access page (ask if you’ve lost its url).  Oh yes, if you become a supporter, you will get several other special reports as well.

This extended report also discusses another measure that I’ve never seen shown in any other review.  This measure shows you how much screen area is available to show a movie.  So although the Apple iPad Pro has a larger screen than the Fire HD 10, it ends up displaying a smaller movie image (due to its less efficient aspect ratio).  This is fully explained in the special supporters’ report.

If you are price conscious, your choice is between the Fire HD 8 and HD 10.  The main difference is the HD 10 has a screen that is 60% larger, which has more than twice as many pixels, and can display Full HD video.  It also has twice the built-in memory of the HD 8 and a faster processor, although these are not such core attributes.  The HD 10 is priced at $150, compared to the HD 8 which is $80 (or $110 for an HD 8 with the same memory as the $150 HD 10).

Should you pay an extra $40 – 70 for the larger higher-resolution screen (as well as the other less immediately impactful benefits)?  It depends on what your primary uses for the tablet will be.  For watching video – definitely.  For viewing web pages – probably.  For reading eBooks and email – probably not.  For listening to music – definitely not.

As for our mystery device at $290, should you get one of those or two of the Fire HD 10s?  See our special supporter report for the answer to that question!

Hands-On Review Now Available Too

We have now received one of the first production units, and you can read our review of the Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet here.

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