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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

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!

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Sep 152017
 

A brave or foolhardy pilot? Or a well Photoshopped picture? The answer is at the end of the newsletter.

Good morning

Well, what a week it has been, some of it good, some of it disappointing.

Let’s talk about the good first.  Our Grand Tour of Great Britain next June had another person sign up this week (a lady on her third Travel Insider tour).  We’re now at 18 – room for about ten more, but it is getting closer to time to get your name on the list please.

The first week of our 2017 Fundraising Appeal has been very generously supported indeed.  Thank you to all 74 people who have responded so far – a magnificent recovery from last year where a mere 42 people responded in the first week, and matching 2015, with 72 people in the first week.  We’ve had contributions ranging from $5 to $500, and they are all very much appreciated, and quite possibly the kind person contributing $5 had to make a larger sacrifice than the person who added an astonishing two extra zeros.

We’re ‘equal opportunity’ appreciators here, but of course, we must thank our especially generous ‘super supporters’ (those who sent in $100+ contributions) – Mark M, Gil K, Charles J, Joel W, Peter N, Lary J, Roger L, Dave H, Mike M, J&S M, Cosmo B, Chrystin P, Elizabeth K, Pete R, John M, Bob C and Kenny N.

This year we are hoping for 400 kind reader in total to help this really rather astonishing internet phenomenon, so we’re well on the way.  The Travel Insider is in parts quirky and acerbic, sometimes esoteric, and often off-topic (what exactly is our topic, anyway).  But, hopefully also, you find your weekly Travel Insider communications to be boutiquey, personal, genuine, and totally different from mass-produced news and the ugly crossovers between press-releases and reviews that fill so much of the ‘content’ we’re offered these days.

All of this is for you, and possible because of you.  With your help, I hope to continue on this sometimes Quixotic mission for as long as you wish and my health permits.  The other parts of my never-robust income model are not nearly as active as they once were – for example, the Google advertising on my web pages now returns only about 5% of what it once did in its heyday.  With so much of the fresh content now coming to you via email, there’s much less need for you to visit the web pages and so that side of things has suffered, although hopefully your experience as a reader has improved.

Supporting this noble enterprise is easy.  Simply click this link, which allows you to contribute any amount you wish, instantly by credit card.  You also have the option to set up a regular ongoing monthly or quarterly support contribution, and there are details about mailing in a good old-fashioned check if you prefer.

Everyone, whether a contributor or not, gets the profusion of content that comes out each week – the equivalent of a full-sized book every couple of months (does anyone read every word of every article, I wonder – but it doesn’t matter if they don’t because the website is creating a wonderful archive of all the many millions of words of material written in the 16 years since I started in 2001).

I’ve put together a few extra pieces for contributors – a huge report on the best way to get internet access while traveling, a shorter piece reviewing the eight leading video streaming boxes, and advice on how to get a free Amazon Echo type unit, and maybe even a free $10 Amazon gift card, too.  I’d planned to add another inducement for this week, but my week filled with creating public content for everyone, as you’ll see.  Maybe another little bonus this coming week (which of course is given to all other 2017 contributors too).  I’ll send this and a ‘bonus’ editorial commentary too quickly to you in response to your kind support.

Note the site may be off-line for an hour or so on Friday afternoon.  I’m already applying some of the support received last week to a few unfortunately necessary server updates and changes.  Yes, all the more need for your support, if at all possible!

So two good things this week – our Grand Expedition group is strengthened by another lovely lady, and your generous support is moving us strongly towards this year’s fundraising goal.  Yay.

The disappointing thing?  Apple’s release of its latest selection of iPhones – the iPhone 8, 8+, and X (which, as you surely now know, is pronounced as ‘ten’).  Within a couple of hours of their release I had rushed out a detailed analysis of the three new phones (plus also a new watch and video streaming device), along with an answer to the ultimate question – should you be lining up to buy one of these new phones when they become available for sale.  I then spent the rest of the week polishing and extending my initial analysis (which I’ve now largely rewritten, although the conclusions remain the same).

In brief, my feeling is that with the evolution of all smart phones, what has happily happened is that the more ‘basic’ phones these days, while still offering very low prices (some times under $100) are also now providing a very sophisticated mix of features and capabilities.  For most people, most of the time, the small remaining additional features on a high-end phone are of little value or use.

This is clearly becoming a problem for Apple.  It was easy to justify paying $100 or $200 more for a wonderful Apple phone when the cheaper phones were obviously inadequate.  But now, with the price differential more like $500 and sometimes closer to $1000, and with much less ‘feature gap’, there is less and less justification to pay the ever larger premium Apple is demanding.

So as to help you make your own decision, I also wrote a third article that discusses this last point, and provides a comparative listing of 19 phones – five Apple phones and 14 Android phones, so you can see for yourself what you can expect for a $50 or $100 or even $200 phone, compared to Apple’s phones which now top out at $1150.

All three articles follow this weekly roundup.  This is, may I unabashedly suggest, an example of the value you get from The Travel Insider.  Not only ‘outside the box’ opinion and commentary, but the facts to support my claims, and the potential to save you many hundreds of dollars whenever you might next decide to buy a new phone.  May I remind you again about the need for you to now, in turn, please respond to our annual fundraising drive.

A few other things for you as well :

  • Easyjet Enters the Trans-Atlantic Market – Sort Of
  • Emirates to Go Downmarket?
  • Warning – Small Coach Class Seats Could be a Deathtrap
  • Big Brother Is…..
  • The Dog Ate My Homework and other excuses
  • Is the Air Marshal Program Worth its $800 million Annual Cost?
  • How Private is Your Guest Registration Data When You Check In to a Hotel?
  • Amazon Tablet Deals Again
  • And Lastly This Week….

Easyjet Enters the Trans-Atlantic Market – Sort Of

Easyjet is one of Europe’s largest and best-known low-cost carriers, and so the promise offered in this article’s headline “Budget European Carrier EasyJet Gets Into the Long-Haul Flight Game’ seems full of exciting potential.

But the reality, buried in the story, is that there are no plans for Easyjet planes to fly across the Atlantic.  Instead, all that is happening is that you’ll be able to buy a combo ticket that includes Easyjet flights within Europe connecting via Gatwick to a Norwegian or Westjet flight across the Atlantic to North America.  You won’t even be able to check your bag all the way, but will have to retrieve and recheck it at Gatwick.

Rather underwhelming.  But we’re certain that Norwegian in particular will appreciate any extra passengers that the tie-in with Easyjet might bring their way – we’ve seen some recent rumors suggesting that Norwegian might be slightly over-extended at present, and we hope as desperately as they probably do too that they’ll get through any difficulties and continue to successfully grow their services to/from North America.

Emirates to Go Downmarket?

For a long time now I’ve been surprised that Emirates has steadfastly refused to offer a fourth class of service on its flights – a Premium Economy type product.  Although increasingly common on many other international airlines, they’ve consistently refused to add it.

You’d think on their long flights there’d be plenty of demand for this, because one of the obscured truths about Emirates is that while their business and first class cabins are splendid, their coach cabin is very similar to all other coach cabins.  There’s only so much you can do in an environment comprised of too small seats, squeezed too tightly together.

Recently, over the last year, it seemed Emirates might be about to consider adding Premium Economy.  But after the ructions caused by the security panic and electronics bans, Emirates – and its Gulf airline competitors – are facing some challenges, and rather than adding an improved economy cabin and selling higher priced fares to match, they might instead be looking at adding a more basic coach cabin, and if this article is to be believed, looking at squeezing even more seats into the coach sections of their planes.

Most terrifyingly, they are considering making the seats still narrower, while trying to tell us that no-one will notice.  I wouldn’t bet on that.

Warning – Small Coach Class Seats Could be a Deathtrap

Hot on the heels of Emirates’ musings about squeezing in more and necessarily smaller seats is an excellent write-up of a recent court decision, requiring the FAA to report back to the court on the adequacy of its present certification processes that determine how many seats/passengers a given plane can hold.

This number is based on how many passengers can leave the plane through half its exits in 90 seconds.  The adequacy of such testing has long been criticised as being totally unrealistic, and completely at odds with the demonstrated reality of what passengers do in a real emergency evacuation (ie take their carry-ons out of the overheads, etc) and also fails to allow for casualties, blockages, panic, and everything else that would happen in a real emergency.

Indeed, to look at one extraordinary recent case, an emergency evacuation wasn’t even started until 52 minutes after the plane landed!

One of the key concerns is that as seats have got smaller and people have got larger, the ease and speed with which we can all get up and out of our seats and rows is reducing.  But many of the airplane capacity certifications are based on historic data, so they’re not only inadequate and inaccurate, they also no longer reflect modern-day passengers and seating.

The FAA (and airlines) astonishingly maintains that all is perfect and nothing needs to be reviewed or revised.  But the judge disagreed.

It is a lengthy and well written article.  The FAA has to report back to the court by the end of December; so this is a story that has yet to be concluded.

There’s also an interesting second issue within this that is worthy of note, too.  The passenger rights organization Flyers Rights had petitioned the DoT/FAA some time back to promulgate new rules to deal with the safety issues caused by smaller seats and larger passengers.  The FAA simply refused to respond to their petition.  Flyers Rights had to bring about a court case, now being heard in the US Court of Appeals, simply to force the FAA to respond to its petition.  This isn’t a court case about the FAA’s ruling.  This is a court case that has been required to force the FAA to actually look at and consider its way-out-of-date safety standards.

This is also not uncommon.  There are other petitions open and unactioned by the DoT/FAA, slowly gathering bureaucratic dust.  If you ask the government to consider something controversial, its response is sometimes to simply do nothing.

Big Brother Is…..

Here’s a test of your general knowledge, or estimating ability.  About how many monitoring cameras do you think are in place at LAX airport?  If you guess low, that might be because many are hidden, and if you guess high, you’re merely a bit ahead of your time – the airport plans to double its present number.

To answer the question, and according to this ‘puff piece’ article about security at LAX (executive summary – at least according to the article, it is all wonderful, in expert hands, nothing to worry about), spread over the nine terminals and approximately 120 gates, plus all the other public and private areas, in total there are currently 3,500 cameras and plans to grow that to 7,000.  So, in round figures, the average person will probably be caught by about 100 cameras on a typical trip through the airport, with that number increasing to 200 in the foreseeable future.

And this all makes us safer, exactly how?

The Dog Ate My Homework and other excuses

I wrote a few weeks ago about the spate of US Navy collisions.  The Navy was extremely fast to assert itself and fired the Admiral commanding the entire 7th Fleet, even though he wasn’t within a thousand miles of any of the crashes or tactically involved in any element of the ships’ maneuvering, and most notably before investigators had even rushed out the most preliminary of reports on the most recent collision, involving destroyer John S McCain.

Now there are stories emerging that the Pentagon is musing whether the crashes were caused by foreign hackers taking over some parts of the ship(s) systems.  That’s a beyond-ridiculous ‘Hail Mary’ attempt at transferring blame to a vague shadowy third-party, and does nothing to explain why the regular watch-keepers who should have been posted and alert to all the ships around them also failed to report any pending collisions.

One has to wonder, though – if the Navy deems it plausible to blame computer hackers, will they reinstate their fired Admiral and make a public apology.

Is the Air Marshal Program Worth its $800 million Annual Cost?

The TSA spent about $800 million on its Federal Air Marshal program in 2015 (down from $966 million the previous year); and probably the same or slightly more last year, and likely will be spending still more again this year.  In return, about 1% of US flights have a pair of under-cover air marshals on board – so yes, perhaps we should be thankful the TSA didn’t demand the additional funding to have air marshals on all flights (that would be $80 billion a year).

What type of added security do we get as a result of the $800 million?  How many terrorists have been intercepted and how many attempted plane hijackings have been prevented?

Well, the most positive answer the TSA can offer is to concede that no terrorists have been intercepted and there are no known cases of air marshals saving flights from hijackings, but they suggest that is because the program is working so spectacularly that terrorists have totally given up any attempt at attacking US flights.  Details here.

This is indeed a possible interpretation of the awkward circumstance that apparently none of the estimated 3500 federal air marshals have ever done anything except clock up air miles in first class.

But it is probably also nonsense.  The first point of imprecision is understanding what ‘about 1%’ of flights means.  My guess is the actual number of flights with air marshals is on the low side of 1% – you just know that when an official says ‘about 1%’ and they are trying to impress you, then they have rounded up to 1%, not rounded down from closer to 2%.  Some sources have suggested the actual number of flights with air marshals might be closer to 0.5%.

Whatever the number is, there’s a very important thing to appreciate.  The flights that air marshals are on are not randomly selected.  They are flights that are deemed ‘higher risk’ – flights that travel to, from, or go close past major strategic cities.  You can probably guess, because we’re so good at locking the stable door after the horse has bolted, that many flights in/out of Boston have air marshals on board, most flights in/out of New York do, and all flights in/out of the DC area airports have air marshals.

We also know from public information where the field offices for air marshals are located, and we even know which six of those field offices have been closed.  Tip for terrorists – cities with air marshal field offices are more likely to have air marshals on flights than cities without field offices.

Our security experts clearly feel it is most important to protect our iconic major cities.  But for the rest of us in the rest of the country, we currently also perceive that terrorists are likely to fixate on doing bad things in those major cities, and if we’re in a secondary city, we feel much safer and hope that the worst of major terrorist attacks may pass us by.  For that reason, having terrorists take over a flight from, say, Wichita, KS to Spokane WA (I’m not even sure there is non-stop service between these cities, but the point isn’t the specific cities as much as the general concept) and crash it into buildings in Denver (or any of the many other cities en route) would be unsettling to more of the country than another attack on NY.

Now, how likely is it that flights between Wichita and Spokane have air marshals on board?  If the average is less than 1%, and if pretty much all the flights into BOS/NYC/WAS have air marshals, that leaves precious few for flights between secondary and tertiary cities.

I could continue, but you get the point already, and for sure, those with evil intent know this too.

There’s another thing, too.  There’s no guarantee, in an encounter with terrorists, that the air marshals would prevail.  It is debatable who has the better element of surprise, and if I were an armed terrorist, I’d walk up to the front of first class (which on a typical single aisle jet is only four rows of seats) before revealing who I was, and command all the first class passengers to freeze and not move an inch.  I’d already have scoped out the most likely air marshals (hint – little old ladies are probably not federal air marshals) and I’d have command of the cabin, while my partners effected entry to the cockpit.

And that assumes that terrorists wished to take over the plane.  If instead they are the latest generation of shoe bomber or computer bomber or whatever, they can quietly do their thing at their seat or in the toilet, and the first the air marshals will know of a problem is when they along with everyone else hear the sound of the explosion.

So, we all sort of know where the air marshals are and where they probably aren’t, and even if they are present, it is far from certain they could prevail in a takeover action, and would be useless in a suicide bombing.

Do we really need air marshals?  Why not simply increase the number of armed pilots – because no matter what else happens, if terrorists wish to take over a plane, they’re probably going to have to access the flight deck, and there’s no way they can sneak in the locked strengthened door without alerting the pilots and giving them time to access their pistols.

How Private is Your Guest Registration Data When You Check In to a Hotel?

We know that in some funny foreign countries, hotels report the details of their guests to the local police.  We accept that, and feel thankful that we’re free Americans, with rights to privacy and where the police aren’t always looking over our shoulder.  We probably even feel that when we provide a hotel with our personal details while checking in that those details are indeed personal, private, and belong to us.

But how accurate are these perceptions?  Not as accurate as we’d wish.  Here’s a dismaying article that reveals how some Motel 6 properties in the Phoenix area have been voluntarily sharing details of their guest registrations with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

There are of course procedures where law enforcement agencies can acquire such information, with a key step in that process being obtaining a search warrant or other form of court-issued order.

How happy are you knowing that your movements might be offered up, gratis, to various law enforcement agencies?  Sure, only the guilty should worry, right – the innocent have nothing to fear, nothing to hide?  But history overflows with examples of where the misuse or misinterpretation of such information has caused appalling harm to private people.

At the very least, commercial organizations, whether hotels or anything else, should be required to disclose to their customers if they’re going to share any element of their business relationship with third parties – law enforcement agencies, tax departments, private investigators, credit bureaus, you name it.  That way we in turn can make an informed decision as to who we choose to do business with and what we choose to share with them.

Keep this in mind next time you choose a Motel 6, and if you decide not to stay there, don’t just not book their property, but actually let the property know that you’re deliberately booking away to another property.

Amazon Tablet Deals Again

Amazon has been doing a lot of discounting of its Fire 7″ and Fire 8″ tablets of late.  But a deal currently available and expiring, I think on Saturday, is close to the best I’ve seen, and definitely so for the much nicer Fire 8.  The 7″ tablet is reduced from $50 to $35, and the 8″ tablet is down from $80 to $55.  Both require Prime membership, but here’s the thing.  If you’re not already a Prime membership, sign up for a free one month Prime trial, and get your tablets during your Prime trial.

$55 for a reasonably decent 8″ tablet!  Amazing.  Interesting that $55 will get you an 8″ tablet, but it costs $1000+ to get a new 5.8″ iPhone X.

Talking about Apple, also last week, while everyone else was looking at their new phones, Apple quietly raised the price on a couple of their iPad tablets.  Because, apparently it isn’t enough to have only a $500 – $1000 price premium over the competition.  They want more.

And Lastly This Week….

Add Amsterdam to the growing list of greedy cities around the world that want to fleece their visitors more.  Not content with already charging a 5% tax on hotel rooms, the city is now pondering adding a €10/night tax.

The specious justification for this completely overlooks the fact that tourists are Amsterdam’s lifeblood.  All those tourists, buying all those meals, drinks, souvenirs, tours, transportation, you name it (prostitution and drugs, to be blunt) – tourists aren’t getting a free ride of any sort at present.  Without the 17 million tourists last year, Amsterdam would be a hollow shell.

Germophobes already know that one of the cleanest things in your hotel room is the toilet, and the dirtiest thing is the tv remote control.  But apparently there’s a new source of germs in hotel rooms to alarm us, and a most unlikely one.  The hair drier.  You might think ‘what could be the problem with hot air’ but that’s not the problem.  The problem is holding the hair drier itself.

Solution – you’re already in the bathroom.  Wash your hands after using the hair drier.  Problem solved.

Let’s all raise a glass and toast Dr Dao the next time we’re having a drink in an airport lounge or on a plane.  As a direct result of his problems being dragged off a United/Republic flight, airlines have upped their game when it comes to involuntary denied boarding cases.

This came to a very visible head last week when Delta ended up paying $4000 to persuade a passenger to take a later flight.  The story behind it and why no-one would budge for less than $4000 is rather amusing and well worth reading.

Truly lastly this week, the photo at the start of the newsletter.  It, and many others, are courtesy of Photoshop, and apparently combine a picture of the pilot in the plane, on the ground, but with a different background replacing the plane on the ground, giving the appearance of the plane in flight.  Details here.

Well, on to the accompanying three new articles about iPhones and other smartphones.  Like what you’re reading?  If so, please do join your fellow Travel Insiders and send in even a modest sized contribution as part of this year’s annual fundraising drive.  Thank you.

Until next week, please enjoy safe flights

 

David.

 

 

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Sep 142017
 

You could pay up to $1150 for a new iPhone X. Or you could pay $170 for this Doogee Mix (and many other comparable phones) instead.

Apple’s management of its iPhone range may be extremely clever – but just perhaps, increasingly it may be the opposite.

Yes, we of course accept the iPhone’s extraordinary success by all measures to date, and don’t wish to argue against that.  But, the past is not necessarily a predictor of the future, and if we are to look to the past for lessons, perhaps it is the most recent past that should be considered most carefully – for example, the iPhone’s drop in market share rankings, recently announced now as falling from second to third place.  Samsung has been the market leader for some time, and now Huawei – a brand still little known – has taken second spot.

Apple’s release of three new models of phone this week (please read our review and analysis of Apple’s iPhone 8 and iPhone X, here) has struggled to create more than muted praise and some mindlessly recycled meaningless statistics.  Most notable of the meaningless statistics is the oft cited claim ‘the iPhone X gives up to two hours more battery life than the iPhone 7’.

But what does this mean?  The ‘up to’ qualifier of course makes the claim meaningless.  Is it two hours extra standby life, already hundreds of hours and so of little value?  Or is it the actively in use life of 12 or so hours and therefore significant?

And why compare the iPhone X to last year’s model iPhone 7?  Why not compare to either the iPhone 7+ or 8+?  Those are more comparably screen-sized phones and – oh yes.  Compared to them, the iPhone X doesn’t seem to offer any improvement in battery life at all.

While Apple of course (and equally of course, correctly) described the three new phones breathlessly as their best phones ever, that means increasingly less when the marketplace has overtaken the iPhone and Apple is now struggling to catch up.

Apple’s best is no longer synonymous with the market’s best.

A Confusing Mess of Uncoordinated Products and Capabilities

Apple’s three new phones comprised two models in their traditional design style, but seemingly obsoleted by the third model with a totally different appearance.  That’s like a car manufacturer releasing simultaneously a slightly tweaked version of last year’s model, and at the same time, a brand new model.  Plus also continuing to make and sell last year’s model, and the year-before’s model, too.  Imagine a car manufacturer not only selling 2018 model cars, but continuing to produce now reduced-in-price 2017 and doubly-reduced-in-price 2016 model cars.  That makes no sense for cars, and we’re not sure it is very sensible with phones, either.

Look at what Apple is now selling.  It is offering eight different models of phone – the SE (essentially a model 5), 6s, 6s+, 7, 7+, 8, 8+ and X.  Is that a ‘rich’ product range – or a ridiculous product range?

Plus also, look at the jumble of features that underscores the uncoordinated nature of its model range.  It is one thing to offer a consistent family of phones with growing levels of feature implementation and price, but it is entirely different to just continue throwing older products at the market.

There are now four different screen sizes – diagonals of 4″, 4.7″, 5.5″ and (sort of) 5.8″.  How does that sit with Steve Jobs’ earlier famous statements about identifying a single exact size, and refusing to consider other sizes?

We never agreed with Jobs on that point and understand a mix of different screen sizes.  But we do feel sorry for developers and designers now having to consider four different screen resolutions for their products, although if they do this well, it saves us as users from noticing any major variation in user experience.  Amusingly, this (lack of consistency in screen resolution) was formerly a criticism directed at Android by Apple’s supporters.  They’ve now fallen silent.

But what about the other variations between the models?  Most have control buttons, but the latest and allegedly greatest model seeks to tell us that control buttons are no longer the best approach.  This might be true, but in making that claim, Apple now cedes one of its few distinctive features and instead becomes another copycat phone, similar to all the Android others.  At least, if they decide to give up their control button, why not complete the process of copying Android and offer three ‘virtual’ buttons rather than requiring us to memorize an increasingly complicated and long list of different swipe movements around the screen.  Apple, once famous for its intuitive interfaces, can no longer claim this with its iPhone X.

Some iPhones have regular touch screens, but some have “3D” pressure sensitive screens.  Some have headphone jacks, some don’t.  The latest have wireless charging, the others don’t.  Some have fingerprint readers, some don’t, and one has face recognition.  They have different memory capacity options.

There are reasons for having a broad product range, but dangers too.  The unanswered – and apparently unasked – question surely has to be ‘Is the $449 priced iPhone 6s helping to take market share from competing Android phones, or is it taking market share from the $699 priced iPhone 8?’  The related question – other than a bigger model number, what exactly does the iPhone 8 offer to justify its $250 extra price – is also relevant and difficult to answer positively.

So, Apple has a mess of different phones and different features now being offered for sale.  But all the phones also have some common features – or perhaps it is more accurate to say, they all suffer from a common lack of features that are increasingly the norm on other high-end phones.

The Most Consistent Thing?  The Missing Features!

The biggest omission is the inability to plug in Micro-SD cards.  Almost every other phone, high, middle, or low-end, allows users to plug Micro-SD cards into the phone.  Only Apple (and Google) stick out for their refusal to allow their users to get better and more unrestricted use of their phones.  They refer to try and lock us into and force us into their more expensive inbuilt memory models and their ‘cloud’ storage options (which become impractical and costly when we travel away from fast/free data service areas).

There is also, of course, Apple’s controversial decision to eliminate industry standard headphone jacks from its phones.  The arrogance in that decision is matched only by its unnecessary nature.  While ostensibly either to allow Apple to make their phones more water/dust proof and/or thinner in size, other phone manufacturers can match Apple’s dimensions and beat Apple’s degree of water/dust resistance, while still allowing us to conveniently use whatever headphones we wish, via a universally accepted 3.5mm headphone socket.

Talking about universally accepted connectors, every other phone out there uses a USB type connector – either Micro-USB or the new USB-C connector.  Only Apple demands we conform to their unusual connector.

There’s another increasingly common feature being offered by better phones – a dual SIM feature.  This allows one phone to work simultaneously with two different phone numbers.  You could have a work and home phone number, both on one phone.  Or, if traveling out of the country, a local phone number (to save you money on local calls and data) and also your back-home number for convenience, too.

A further unfortunate omission from the three new phones announced this week is they don’t support the latest frequencies being deployed for phone service in the US.  T-Mobile has spent $8 billion buying up frequency allocations from the FCC and has exciting plans to deploy, within six months, a nationwide new 5G ultra-fast network.  The already announced LG V30 phone has support for this key new frequency band.  The new iPhones do not.

The new iPhones also don’t support the latest 1Gbps potential data speeds being released by all the wireless carriers.

While there’s nothing new with Apple being slow to embrace new technologies (quite the opposite of how the company is generally perceived as being on the leading edge), it is still dismaying to consider buying a new $1000 phone that is already suffering from partial technical obsolescence.  Clearly that benefits Apple (more inducement for you to more quickly upgrade to a successor model next year!), but for those of us wishing to hold onto our phones for longer periods of time, it is less appealing.

Should You Buy a New iPhone?

We like the new iPhone X, and are happy for Apple that, several years after innovators such as Samsung, they are now reducing the bezel on their phones.  But whereas Samsung offers you a full screen with no bezel, Amazon still has a thin bezel and a funny notch thing at the top.  The iPhone X is a great phone by Apple’s standards, but not by the broader standards of the market as a whole.

Does it make sense to buy the last of the old traditional design of iPhones?  Not if you’re keen to display the latest and greatest.

But does it make sense to buy the first of the new design of iPhones?  Our sense is the iPhone X has been rushed to market prematurely so as to conform to Apple’s annual product release calendar, and our hope/expectation is that next year’s model (XI? Xs?) might complete the process and capabilities that are currently lacking in the X, possibly re-introducing a fingerprint reader, maybe resolving the notch cut out of their display, adding support for the latest frequencies and data speeds, and perhaps even giving us a true boost in battery life rather than a semi-mythical ‘up to two hours’ extra compared to an obsolete and dissimilar phone.

Hopefully also, next year will see Apple finally kill off some of its obsolete phones and instead offer lower priced new-style phones as well as the ridiculous $1000 priced phone.

High end Android phones offer similar (some would say better) capabilities at lower prices.  Low end Android phones offer almost the same functionality, at prices down as low as $50.

These days even the second-level phones and their second-level features are more than good enough for most of us.  Is there really $950 of extra value to you in an iPhone X compared to a BLU R1 HD?  Before committing to Apple’s high prices, we suggest you should check out our brief listing of a selection of Android phones at all price points and feature levels.

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Sep 142017
 

Choosing the right phone has become more important with the steady climb in high end phone prices, and also the steady growth of low-priced phones with almost the same features.

Apple have just announced their newest three phones, priced at even higher prices than last year’s models, and culminating in a breathtaking $1150 for a top of the line iPhone X with extra memory.  (We review and analyze their new iPhone 8, 8+ and X models here.)

Many of us have gotten into the habit of automatically buying iPhones.  We bought an iPhone back when there were no or very few and inadequate competitors, and we’ve stuck with Apple ever since.  I’m like that myself – I have enjoyed all the five different iPhones I’ve owned.

But three things have happened in the ten years since the first iPhone truly revolutionized the phone market.  First, Android phones these days are now as good as iPhones and in many respects better – sometimes even much better.  If you are choosing a phone based on ‘which is the best’ then the answer is no longer an automatic slam-dunk for Apple.  Quite the opposite.  By most (but not all) measures, the best of the Android phones are now better than the best of the Apple phones.

Secondly, the price gap between an iPhone and any Android phone has been increasing.  Sure, Apple has made its success out of selling premium priced products, but these days, the pricing differential is greater than ever before, while no longer providing anything apparent in terms of extra features/functionality.  It may be possible to justify a $100 or even $200 in extra cost to buy the Apple brand, but the extra cost these days can stretch to $500 and up.  Is it sensible to pay $500 extra for a phone that offers nothing more than the Apple name stamped on the back?  Would you pay hundreds of dollars more than a Samsung phone for an Apple phone which, amusingly, has a Samsung screen on it?

The third thing that has happened is that most of the wireless companies no longer subsidize phone purchases.  It was easy to overlook the extra cost of an Apple phone when it only appeared to make the difference between an Android phone offered for free with a new two-year contract, or an Apple phone apparently costing only $100 or $200 in total.  But now, with the fully exposed phone prices, we can no longer ignore the fact that there is not and never was such a thing as a ‘free’ phone, and that the actual cost of a new Apple phone is a staggering $700 – $1150.  Probably plus tax and maybe plus assorted other sundry costs, too.

We can no longer justify an automatic repurchase of another Apple phone.  We need to look at what else is out there.

These days there are literally hundreds of different makes and models of Android phone.  Some are from major brand names such as Samsung, Motorola and LG.  Others are from an increasing number of ‘no name’ Chinese manufacturers who are churning out a huge number of almost-identical phones with slightly different feature-sets and slightly different prices, all at stunning low prices.

There’s no way we can present a definitive listing of all these hundreds of phones.  But we have selected some phones, and show you comparisons of five iPhones and fourteen Android phones, across a dozen different features of each of these phones, as a way of exposing you to the enormous range of different phones, features, and pricing now out there.  We specifically call out four of the bargain priced phones as worthy of consideration, and if you’re looking for higher end phones, the Android phones match or beat Apple on features as well as price.

Please click here to download a PDF listing of these phone comparisons.

For explanation of the features and why we choose to select some as better or worse, please see our earlier article and earlier listing of phones, posted a year previously.

Most/all of these phones are available on Amazon, and selected models are also sold through the various wireless companies, too.  Here’s a link to Amazon’s huge selection of unlocked phones that will work with most of the US and international wireless companies, and here’s a link to Amazon’s selection of discounted phones that have carrier subsidies and may require new carrier contracts at the same time.

Note that some of Amazon’s phones are offered at a discounted price to their Prime members.  If you’re not a Prime member, don’t despair!  They will give you a 30 day free trial Prime membership – buy your phone during the 30 days and then decide if you want to let the Prime membership lapse or not at the end of the 30 days.

We’re not saying don’t buy a new Apple phone, but we are urging you to fairly check out the exciting and enticing array of Android phones first.

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Sep 122017
 

Apple now offer a bewildering line up of too-many and too-similar phone choices.

Today was Apple’s official launch for its new range of iPhones.  The event started off with a short tribute to Steve Jobs, but some of us were wondering what Jobs would have thought of the event and the products to be featured there.

Jobs was famous for ensuring near-total secrecy of products prior to their launch, whereas the details of this latest iPhone launch have been leaked every which way for weeks and months and not a single surprise remained.

Jobs was also famous for his categorical statements about the iPhone, which he limited to a single form/model/size, because his choice of size was, he told us, perfect and therefore not needing multiple versions.  What would he make of today’s launch of three different iPhone models, and an overall iPhone lineup that now has Apple offering eight different models simultaneously (SE, 6S/6S+, 7/7+, 8/8+, X).  There are four different screen sizes across the range (4″, 4.7″, 5.5″ and sort of 5.8″), some with buttons, some without; some with “3D” touch-sensitive screens and some without; some with headphone jacks and some without; and some with wireless charging and some without.  And each model series with at least two different memory capacity options.  Is it possible to have a less cohesive and more fractured series of products?

Needless to say, the selective remembering of Jobs and his iPhone legacy that we were offered up carefully avoided answering such difficult concepts.

After almost exactly an hour of other material (we discuss these – the new watch and Apple TV products – below), Apple finally turned to the item that everyone wished to know about.  Its new iPhone range.  In brief, we were totally unsurprised, and sadly underwhelmed, and we also noticed the awkward way the presenters stressed empty phrases like ‘our best ever iPhone’ (something of course said of, and expected of, every iPhone) but while the superlatives were abundant, the specifics supporting them were not so obviously present.

New iPhone 8 and 8 Plus

As had become universally known, there are three new phones.  The first two are the iPhone 8 (4.7″ screen, starting at $699 for a 64GB unit), and the iPhone 8 Plus (5.5″ screen, starting at $799 for a 64GB unit).  256GB units will also be available.  Phones can be ordered on Friday 15 September, and will be available on 22 September.

The pricing is of course way high, and while Apple would argue this is because they are including more GB of memory than earlier and less expensive model phones, the truth is that most of us don’t need 64GB of memory.  How about also offering a 32GB unit, more than enough for most people, or even a 16GB unit, satisfactory for most?

The new iPhone 8 phones have a glass front and back.  No, this is not new, it is the same as was briefly the case way back with the iPhone 4.  The glass is being used again now to allow for a wireless charging capability.  So, yes, many years after other companies started featuring it, this year Apple is now supporting wireless charging.  Even more astonishingly, Apple has decided to support an industry standard – Qi – rather than seek to impose its own restrictive unique protocol.

The screens have better color on them, and of course, there’s a new faster processor chip inside the phone, same as always.

The camera capability seems to have been improved, and the 8 Plus offers dual 12MP sensors (for ‘normal’ and ‘telephoto’ settings).  The regular 8 has a single camera lens/sensor.  Battery life is similar to the 7 series, and perhaps slightly inferior to the 6S series.

And, unless we’ve missed something, that’s about it for the ‘major’ changes in the 8 series of phones.

New iPhone X

There had been intense speculation about the third of the three phones Apple was expected to release, with the general expectation that it would be a stunning leading edge product (and with a stunning four figure price, too) – a ‘show off’ celebration of the tenth anniversary of the original iPhone, and showing some type(s) of amazing innovation, just as the original iPhone did.  But by the time today’s launch finally came around, just about every aspect of this new product had been leaked, including even its name, the iPhone X, and none of the leaked features seemed innovative or stunning at all.  Note that this model name is pronounced ‘ten’ not ‘X’ – it is the Roman numeral for ten, not the letter X.

This phone is supposed to be the first example of an industry leading phone from Apple in a long time.  But even the original iPhone, ten years ago, was a curious mix of ‘ahead of the curve’ and ‘behind the curve’ features, and while Apple has a reputation for being an innovator, in truth, precious few phone innovations came first from Apple, and sadly, the model X is no exception.

The screen ‘notch’ at the top of the iPhone X is an inelegant workaround to the need to place sensors on the front of an otherwise all-screen phone.

The new iPhone X certainly shows that Apple can still design an astonishingly attractive phone.  It too has glass on both sides, with stainless steel rather than aluminium for the sides.  Unlike the other two phones, which still have the traditional button at the bottom, this phone is almost all display, with a ‘virtual’ rather than real button (you know, like the three virtual controls on the bottom of Android phones for many years….).  But there’s a curious notch at the top of the screen for sensors, making for a rather strange seeming display shape.  There are, in total, an astonishing eight different sensors at the top – an infrared and regular camera, a speaker and microphone,  a proximity sensor, two illuminators, and an ambient light sensor.

There are now new swipe functions to be learned to compensate for the lack of the button.  Ugh.  We understand that more features sadly equate to more complex user interfaces, but the initial promise of the iPhone (a drop-dead simple intuitive interface) has become more and more compromised over the years.  Without the button at the bottom, how do you now log-in to the phone?  Of course there’s a way, and of course you’ll learn what it is, but it is just another little pinprick of pain rather than pleasure.  As for the various new ‘swipe up from the bottom’ functions, I’ve just finished leaning about ‘swipe this way or that way to go to a search screen that used to be visible at the top’ and so on, and now one is expected to layer another series of ‘gestures’ and ‘swipes’.  Did you even know that different things happen if you swipe with one or two or more fingers?  The interface has moved beyond the point of simplicity.

There is a new facial recognition system to allow approved users to log in, rather than the former fingerprint sensor that had been built into the button.  Apple says you won’t be able to fool it with a photograph (that’s probably due to the infrared sensor looking for body heat), and it won’t be upset by hats or beards (because the recognition is all about lips/nose/eyes) and will work in low light at night (the infrared sensor again).

One of the things I liked about the fingerprint reader was that you could register up to (I think) ten fingerprints, and they could either be of all your fingers, or of the fingers of selected trusted friends and family members.  It is not clear if the facial recognition will allow for multiple faces.

Because the screen goes almost all the way to the edges, it is larger than the iPhone 8 Plus, with a 5.8″ diameter, and with a resolution of 1125 x 2436 pixels.  This gives it a stunningly high dpi of 458.  This compares to the 8+ and earlier 5.5″ screened phones with 1080 x 1920 pixels at 401 dpi.

But unless you hold the phone right in front of your nose, your eyes probably won’t resolve the extra pixels (generally, at arms-length distances, about 350 dpi is all the eye can individually resolve).  But we’ll not criticize the phone for having ‘too many’ pixels, and are happy to see them all (if only we could).

The screen uses an OLED panel (again, a case of Apple catching up to the rest of the market) and has high contrast and vivid color.  It is certainly a lovely screen.

Because the screen is almost bezel-less, the phone is actually smaller than the iPhone 8+, and only very slightly larger than the iPhone 8.  The larger screen on a smaller phone concept is certainly appealing, but nothing new.  Indeed, the ironic thing is that the new iPhone X now looks for all the world like a generic Android phone, due to losing its distinctive button at the bottom, and for people who like to conspicuously show off their expensive gadgetry, this more generic look might reduce the appeal of the model X rather than enhance it.

A careful parsing of Apple’s claims for battery life suggest the phone might be slightly better than the iPhone 7 and 8, and comparable to or perhaps not quite as good as the 7+ and 8+ models.  This is a disappointment – we’d have loved to be able to luxuriate in freedom from battery worries during a full day of phone usage.

It is of course important to remember that battery life issues are not so much a concern for a brand new phone with the battery capable of giving its full charge, but become increasingly a problem as the phone ages and the battery capacity diminishes.  So if the phone’s battery life is already problematic on day one, imagine how much more of a challenge it will become on day 100 or (possibly even) day 1000.

The phone will sell for $999 with 64GB of storage.  It will be available to order on 27 October, and be available on 3 November.  In other words, Apple slightly ‘cheated’ by announcing the phone today, because it is still almost six weeks away from being orderable and seven weeks away from being deliverable.

New Watch

Apple opened their release event, after almost 20 minutes of corporate jingoism, by releasing a new version of their lackluster watch product – not that you’d think that to be the case, of course, based on their claims for the success of the watch in its previous two incarnations.

The new watch will be available on 19 September, and a new version of the watch’s operating system will be released at the same time.

The watch itself, dubbed the ‘Watch Series 3’ has its own built-in cellphone, rather than relying on your regular phone.  Will that mean you need another line of service from your wireless provider?  (Answer, apparently yes, of course.)

It also has the de rigueur faster processor such as every new product always has *yawn*, and now allows you to stream music to the watch.  Why would you do that, instead of streaming it to your phone, one wonders?  What will be the battery life implications?  Apple is silent on that point, but we note the watch will support only up to one hour of phone calling, so we’d expect the music streaming life would be similar.  They quote a test, here, but read the fine print – the test isn’t streaming over the wireless data connection, but rather via low power Bluetooth direct from your phone.

The display seems unchanged in terms of size and pixel count.

The watch will come in new color options, and band options, and pricing will start at $329 or $399, depending on if you want its built-in wireless feature or not.

New Video Streaming Box ‘Apple TV’

The next item featured was a new version of their Apple TV video streaming product.  At last, it has caught up to the rest of such devices, and now will support both 4K resolution and HDR as well as the standard qualities and resolutions.  This is good, but it is catching up to the rest of the market, not innovative.

They are also supporting more content providers, but nowhere near the number supported on the less expensive and generally superior Roku products.  Pricing starts at $179, and it will be available in a week.

For more information on current video streaming options, please see the article we wrote just a few days ago, and now updated to reflect Apple’s latest TV product.

Missing Features?

The ‘silent guest’ at Apple’s party were all the missing features – some new, some longstanding – that these phones suffered from.  Some are pinpricks of annoyance we’ve come to reluctantly accept, some make it hard to view their phones as anywhere near as state of the art as they claim, and some render the phones quickly vulnerable to technological obsolescence.

We write about this in our companion analysis piece, Apple’s Growing Jumble of Obsolete Under-featured Phones.  You really should read this before deciding to spend the $1000 or thereabouts on one of Apple’s new phones.

 

iPhone X or iPhone 8+?

You would pay an extra $200 to get an iPhone X instead of an iPhone 8+ (and $300 more compared to the iPhone 8).

This gets you a slightly larger screen and a phone size smaller than the 8+ but slightly larger than the 8.

Don’t get too hung up on screen size though, because not the entire size of the screen is fully usable, so the slight increase in size is slightly deceptive.  But the design of the iPhone X is definitely more modern, and more in line with recent models of the Samsung family of phones, for example.  Somehow, Apple’s thick bezels around its screen and physical button at the bottom now look even more dated than ever before.

In addition, the question isn’t just ‘would you pay $200/300 extra for an iPhone X’ but really, the question has to be ‘would you pay $1000 for an iPhone X’.  There are an abundance of Android phones costing as little as $200 with almost as many features as the iPhone X.  Would you pay $800 more than a good quality Android phone to buy Apple’s new top of the line phone?

That is the big question, which leads on to our next point.

Other Buying Choices Too

Your choice is not only limited to the 8/8+/X.  You also still have the 7/7+ and 6S/6S+ too (and the small screen sized SE).

If you don’t already have an iPhone with a big screen, which of these three families/generations of phones should you get?  The 6S series phones are priced from $449, the 7 series from $549, and the 8 series from $699, as well as the X for $999.

Each phone is slightly faster, but – here’s the thing – my even older model 6 phone is perfectly fast enough for everything I use it for.  The cameras get slightly better, but, again, the improvements are only things a photo enthusiast would notice, and such people probably are using dedicated cameras, not phone cameras, anyway.  The screens are almost identical, and the only other points of note would be the inability to plug regular headphones into the 7/8/X phones, and the wireless charging to be offered on the 8/X phones.

The newer phones add a few more frequency bands as well, but the impact of this, on most of us, most of the time, is close to zero.  Again, I’m happy with my model 6 and its data coverage most of the time.

If you can’t, yourself, see a clear value/reason to get a model 7 or 8 or X, then, for all intents and purposes, there is no reason to do so.  Get the model 6S or 6S+, and save yourself at least $250 in the process.  Or, save yourself even more, and get a $200 Android phone, which for all intents and purposes will be as capable as the 6S phone.  We detail a variety of Android phones, some priced as low as $50, that you should consider as alternates, in another companion piece to this article.

About the Wireless Charging

So about the only new feature on the iPhone 8/8+ is the wireless charging.  Maybe this is something you really want.  But if it is – you can relax.  There’s no need to replace your current iPhone at great cost.  Simply choose the appropriate sized wireless charging case for your particular iPhone model, at a cost of about $20.  Instant wireless charging!

And one more thing.  While Apple is adding wireless charging to these new phones, it is not providing a wireless charger.  Fortunately, those are under $20 each, too.

So – is the wireless charging feature really all that big a deal?  Not really, but happily it is, and has been for some long time, already easy to add to your current iPhone if you want it.

Will the New Phones be a Success?

Apple has now slipped to the third position in terms of phone sales (first is Samsung, and now second is Huawei), and its volume of phone sales has been falling.  The markets are already anticipating these three new phones will drive a new surge in phone sales.

The problem in market share is due to Apple’s phones being increasingly more expensive than similar Android phones.  These new phones do nothing to address the ‘value’ problem that is increasingly playing against Apple.

The problem in actual units sold is not only a market share problem, but also due to people being slower to upgrade their phones.  Whereas in the early days of iPhone models, each new model had a clearly understood and obvious new ‘must have’ feature, these days there are seldom any entirely new and ‘must have’ features, merely minor tweaks on what is already present.  As a result, few of us still change our phones every year, and we’re more likely to keep them for three or even four years.

The problem is made worse because just about everyone has already upgraded from an older ‘feature phone’ type phone to a modern touch-screen based smart phone, either an iPhone or one of the many Android models available.  So there is no longer that part of the market feeding new smartphone sales as well.

More recently, ‘must have’ new features have been focused around ‘generational’ leaps forward with the iPhone, with the most recent one being the release of the iPhone 6 and 6+, three years ago.  Those two phones finally saw Apple catch up with the larger sized screens of their competitors, and that excited a large number of iPhone users to upgrade.

The iPhone 6S series was very little different to the iPhone 6, and last year’s iPhone 7 was also very little different.  Will the iPhone 8 and 8+ now give the people who bought an iPhone 6 (or 6S or 7) a compelling reason to upgrade?  We think not, the 8 series is still part of the same generation as the 6/6S/7 series.

In Apple’s favor is that many of the people who bought iPhone 6 phones, three years ago, will be feeling about ready to get a new phone.  They might feel they are entitled to now treating themselves to a new phone, having virtuously sat out the 6S and 7 releases.

But will people who bought an iPhone 7 last year feel the need to turn it in and get an iPhone 8 now?  We challenge anyone – indeed, anyone with a 6, 6S or 7 phone, to point to anything they’ve wished they had or could do with their phone and which the new iPhone 8 (or X) can do (other than wireless charging which is a solution to a problem most of us never even knew we had).  Indeed, the battery life on the 6S series of phones seems to possibly be better than on the new 8 series phones.

You’ll notice the preceding discussion largely ignores the model X.  We love the larger screen and the lack of the ugly and excessive bezel which has looked increasingly old-fashioned on iPhones for some years now.  But we feel this phone was rushed to market prematurely, and expect that next year’s model (XI?  XS?) might complete some of the things not yet fully optimized – perhaps even adding a fingerprint sensor to the rear of the phone, addressing the probable missing high-speed wireless connectivity, and with better battery life.

There’s no way we’d buy an X today.  Next year’s improved X?  Maybe.  But not if we were to buy an 8+ today!

Which points to the other minor problem Apple now has.  It is cannibalizing itself with so many different models.  People are no longer forced to buy the latest model at the highest price – now they can reach back one or even two generations, and buy phones almost as functional (because they are part of the same ‘generation’) but at massively reduced pricing.

Smart people will buy a 6S+ phone.  Except, of course, if you bought a model 6 phone, you’d not want to swap a three-year old phone for a ‘new’ phone with two-year old technology in it, in which case, you’ll probably wait and see what happens to the X and its successor, next year.

Summary

Yes, these truly are Apple’s best phones, ever.  But that has been true every time Apple releases a new model of iPhone, so that’s nothing special.

Apple CEO Tim Cook claims that the iPhone X is the ‘biggest leap forward since the original iPhone’.  We understand he is paid to be the company’s biggest cheerleader, but even so, the sad reality is that all this phone does is catch up with features that Samsung and others have offered for years.  A (small) leap forward within the Apple universe – yes.  But anything more than a broader marketplace catchup?  No.

We’re increasingly being tempted away from all the models in the iPhone product range by the new generation of bargain priced highly featured Android phones – see our related article.

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Sep 082017
 

An amazing idea for a new canal, across Thailand, would cut down transit times and reduce pressure on the congested Straits of Malacca.

Good morning

Although official summer continues for another two weeks, traditional summer has finished, the schools are back, and traffic patterns, at least in Seattle, are returning to their terribly jammed state.  Perhaps Amazon’s announcement this week of creating a second HQ in North America employing as many as 50,000 people – a crazy concept on the face of it (How can you have two headquarters?  Two locations, yes, but two headquarters?) will help further pressure from being applied to our woefully inadequate roading.

Of course, there are real reasons for a second location – headquarters or not – that have nothing to do with organizational sense.  By having two states massively beholden to Amazon’s corporate presence, Amazon instantly doubles its voice in Congress (to say nothing of all the other states it has distribution centers in, and now all the states it has Whole Foods stores in too).  The company will almost surely scoop up billions of dollars in incentives from whatever state ‘buys’ Amazon’s decision to open there, and then it can continually play the two states off each other.  Exactly the way Boeing does with WA vs SC.

It is not only the end of summer, it is also time for the start of another annual Travel Insider fund raising drive.  May I hold out the ‘tip jar’ for your annual kindness.  If you’re a recently joined reader, I should explain that we operate on a PBS type model.  The site, articles and newsletters are offered for free to everyone, and once a year I ask for readers to voluntarily help out by contributing whatever they feel to be a fair amount in return.

Many people never respond, and that’s fine.  Some people get burdened by guilt and unsubscribe each year – please don’t do that!  Stay as a reader by all means, and contribute if you can and wish to, but if you can’t or don’t wish to (why ever would you not wish to!), then that’s fine too.

It is sometimes hard to see the direct benefit you get from reading the Travel Insider.  But how do you value being better informed?  There’s very little direct benefit in buying any newspaper or magazine.  In addition to information, maybe some of what you read is also entertaining.  You may spend money on movies, on books, on cable subscriptions.  Clearly that has value, too.

Sometimes though there are direct benefits.  For example, the $300 settlement as an outcome of the class-action cruise company robocall lawsuit that a surprisingly large number of you have qualified for (check it out if you’ve not already done so).  The steady flow of reviews and tips – last week a definitive guide to passport expiry requirements (could save you money), in recent previous weeks a way to drown out hotel room noise and sleep more quietly (how much is a good night’s sleep worth, and my suggested solution costs nothing), a cautionary note about the illusion of living abroad cheaply (might save you from a big mistake), introducing you to the concept of camera monopods (making travel more convenient and your photos better) and how to accurately weigh your suitcase before traveling and what to do if you have a weight dispute with an airline (might save you hundreds of dollars in excess baggage fees).

Add to that advocacy pieces ranging from being allowed to film on planes to being allowed to travel to North Korea, and 3,000 – 5,000 words of general news and happenings each week, and – well, you know this already, don’t you.  There’s a lot of content and hopefully you’ll agree, a matching lot of value.

I need your help to continue.  The ‘business model’ is, to be blunt, a very weak one, and the little bit of advertising on the website – none of which comes through to the emailed newsletters – barely covers the webhosting costs.  Just like PBS, I need support from you, the recipient/reader of this material.  I hope I can now count on your to do your part to keep The Travel Insider alive for the next year.

Supporting this noble enterprise is easy.  Simply click this link, which allows you to contribute any amount you wish, instantly by credit card.  You also have the option to set up a regular ongoing monthly or quarterly support contribution, and there are details about mailing in a good old-fashioned check if you prefer.

Now for a little something extra for supporters.  Last year I published a lengthy piece on the best ways to get internet data access while traveling exclusively for supporters.  That is still available to this year’s contributors too, and I’m also adding another piece this year as an extension of this week’s feature article below.

The article below talks about how streamed video content has taken over from DVDs and Blu-rays, and is now threatening to eclipse cable and satellite tv, just like how cell phones are displacing regular wired phones.  For example, there are almost 6,000 streaming channels of content on Roku alone.  If you’re not yet well-connected to the expanding world of streaming video services, the article should tell you what you need to know to do so.

Plus, the exclusive bonus feature for supporters – a review of the eight leading streaming devices, explaining the differences (some more obvious than others) and telling you which you should get, and a bonus bonus tip on how to watch any television programming (many people get this wrong).

Please do consider becoming a supporter.

As further inducement, would you like to know how to get a free Amazon Alexa/Echo type device?  Become a supporter, and I’ll tell you.  And, oh yes, I just claimed a $10 credit from Amazon, totally for free, doing nothing other than what I’d normally do.  You might be able to do so too.  Become a supporter, and I’ll tell you about that, too.

So, whether for altruistic motives, out of appreciation for the content and value you’ve received, possibly for 15+ years, or in exchange for the items mentioned above, please do become one of our vitally essential supporters.

Oh – there’s one more reason to become a supporter, too.  As soon as we get to 400 supporters, I’ll stop pestering you!

What else this week?  Well, as always, an assortment of pieces.  Please continue reading for :

  • United’s Strange Reason for Not Buying the Best Plane in the World
  • Used A380s For Sale – Going Cheap
  • BA’s Sister Airline Searches Out the Depths of Non-Service
  • Pilots Union Doesn’t Understand Basic Math
  • Should We Get China to Build Our High Speed Rail?
  • Month End Silence from Tesla
  • And Lastly This Week….

United’s Strange Reason for Not Buying the Best Plane in the World

What would you suggest to be the best plane in the world?  Some people might say the A380, others might suggest the 787 or A350.  A few might try to ‘cheat’ and say ‘any private jet that someone else was paying for’ and of course, if eligible to be considered, there is the Concorde (actually cramped inside, but ‘best’ in so many special ways, nonetheless).

But, for many of us, the ‘best’ plane promises to be one that we may have never heard of, and sadly may never get to fly.  As improbable as it may seem, our cousins to the north of us may have created the plane which offers the best passenger experience.  Most comfortable/wide seats, most windows, and extra overhead space, all in a whisper quiet cabin.  This is the new C-series passenger jets by Bombardier.

Available only in small passenger capacities, smaller than a 737, they have been sold to Delta and international airlines, but other US carriers have looked away.  Why?  Because they are convinced that passengers won’t pay a premium for a more comfortable travel experience.  As I’ve said before, we’ve met the enemy and he is us.

But United in particular had a strange reason for why it had no interest in the C-series planes.  In an article that was open to read earlier this week but which might now be paywalled, (and which has now been paraphrased and summarized here) we are told

United President Scott Kirby, whose airline canceled an earlier C Series order, says he’ll probably examine the 100-seat market again someday.  But his preference is for bigger planes. Even if you can’t fill a 737 on a particular route today, he says, in 10 years you’ll likely be able to, and the airline will own the plane for 20 years.

It is true that air passenger volumes are steadily increasing, everywhere in the world, and perhaps United would indeed hold onto any new planes it buys for 20 years.  But this logic would mean that buying any ‘right sized’ plane today would also be too small in ten years.  And that has never been a problem in the past – airlines, even United, either fly more flights with the same planes, or upgrade to larger planes and redeploy the smaller planes to other new routes that are opening up.

Why would it be a problem for the C-series but not for the 737, 757, and so on?  Indeed, looking at the top end of the market, with the 747, rather than upgrading to larger 747-8I or A380 planes, United did the opposite and ‘downgraded’ to smaller 777 or arguably 787 planes!

Used A380s For Sale – Going Cheap

Talking about United’s surprising response – replacing 747s with smaller rather than larger planes, the airline industry is fascinated by the question of how much a used A380 will be worth.  Although very little in the airline industry comes within a country mile of the concept of classic free competition, used airplane values are probably one of the more ‘efficient’ transactions with values reflecting the general perception of the planes’ worth.

A number of different services offer valuations on used airplanes, and there are services which report, to a greater or lesser extent, on the price for which planes are bought/sold and leased.

With most types of passenger plane having been sold over many years or even decades, there is a fair amount of sales volume allowing for some reasonable valuations to be set, and giving comfort to both buyer and seller that they are striking a fair deal.  The buyer also knows that if he chooses to sell the plane on again, there continues to be a steady market in the plane, making a re-resale of the plane reasonably easy.

But what about the A380?  To date, not a single one has been sold on the second-hand market.  There are no ‘comparable sales’ figures to look at.  But that’s a trifle of a problem compared to the lack of a clear market for selling the second-hand planes on.  Even if an airline decided to buy a second-hand A380, how readily could it sell the plane on again to someone else in the future?  No-one knows.

Both Singapore Airlines and Emirates have early-delivery A380s that are notionally coming close to the point where their fleet policies and financing deals would suggest the airlines should sell them.  But who would buy them?  At what price?

The matter isn’t just hypothetical.  It is very important to everyone involved.  Airbus of course, because the less their planes depreciate and the better they hold their value, the easier it is to justify buying them to airlines.  The airlines, of course, because the ‘total cost of ownership’ is a key measure in evaluating the planes they purchase and how long they hold on to them.  Leasing companies, because their lease rates have built-in assumptions about the market value of planes over time.  And, yes, there’s even some importance to us, in terms of impacts on the types of planes airlines buy and how they operate them and make them available to us.

Singapore Airlines has four A380s nearing the end of ten-year leases with a German lessor later this year, and the lessor is ‘thinking out loud’ that the best thing to do with them might be to break them up for parts.  They estimate they could sell the planes (including their engines) as parts for about $100 million a piece, and this seems to be more than they believe they could sell or lease them on for.

Not a good outcome for planes that are probably less than half-way through their hoped-for economic and operational lives.  The planes apparently sold new for something somewhat under $250 million, and these days you could probably buy a new A380 from Airbus for about $300 million.  Dropping $200 million in value in ten years is quite something.

More details here.

The situation is even more complicated – Airbus is far from committed to continuing to sell the plane, and if it should end the A380 program, used plane prices would drop even lower than they hypothetically may be.

This also means that in a terrible chicken and egg paradox, Emirates is hesitating to order more A380s, for fear that the program will then be discontinued, causing them to lose tens, maybe hundreds of millions, in second-hand value on each of the hundreds of planes they already either have or which are on order.  But if Emirates doesn’t order more A380s, the program quite likely will be ended.  Details here.

BA’s Sister Airline Searches Out the Depths of Non-Service

No, I’m not going to apologise for the gratuitous mention of BA in the headline, because its holding company, IAG, is in large part a superset of BA, now with other elements including Iberia and more recently Aer Lingus, too.

And BA has decided to add itself to the Hall of Shame, the listing of carriers that have decided to squeeze an extra seat per row into their 777s, going from nine abreast to ten abreast.  This article refers to it speciously as BA ‘cutting costs’, but that is a distortion of what is happening.  BA isn’t cutting costs, it is boosting profits.

But the main point I’m making here is that Aer Lingus has decided to no longer allow passengers the free use of blankets on trans-Atlantic flights, and neither will it give you the throwaway in-your-ear headphones that most airlines pass out on international flights.  Instead, the use of a blanket will cost you €3, and a set of throwaway headphones will be another €5.

You can buy fleece blankets that are every bit as good or better than airline blankets, and a great deal cleaner, too, for less than $10.  I hesitate to recommend the purchase though because, although they are very light, they are bulky.  If you have space in your carry-on for a compacted fleece blanket, then by all means buy one – they will pay for themselves almost completely after a single roundtrip, and definitely after two, as well as being much more hygienic.

However, you definitely should buy your own headphones.  Indeed, no need to even buy them.  Just save them after your next trip with any other airline that still gives them away by the handful.

You can buy a better set for under $10, and a very good set for not much more.  Or you could do what I do, and travel with a quality and comfortable set of noise cancelling headphones, enjoying a much more comfortable flight every which way, whether you’re listening to music and movies or not.  The Bose QC25 noise cancelling headphones are clearly the best out there, but their predecessor QC15 headphones are almost as good, and sometimes still available at Costco or elsewhere for much less money.

Pilots Union Doesn’t Understand Basic Math

The Horizon Air subsidiary of Alaska Airlines has been struggling with pilot shortages, so much so that it is regularly being forced to cancel flights due to a lack of pilots available to fly them.

The lack of pilots also means that its scheduled deliveries of pre-ordered new planes are rather unwelcome.  What is the point of getting additional planes if you have insufficient pilots to fly the present planes?

As for the pilots union, you think they’d be besides themselves with glee, with their members having opportunities to fly every possible legal hour to boost their income as much as possible.  Full employment, when you’re the employee, is a wonderful thing.

Parent company Alaska Airlines is wondering how best to address the situation, and has been considering shifting the newly arriving planes to independent airline SkyWest.  Both Horizon and SkyWest do contract work for Alaska Airlines.  Presumably SkyWest have sufficient pilots to operate the planes.

Now, for the pilots union, you might think they’d see a rising tide as lifting all boats.  More planes in the air means more pilots at the controls, and even if they don’t belong to the Horizon pilot union (a branch of the Teamsters, which provides amusing confirmation of my claim that pilots are little more than overpaid bus drivers with fancier uniforms), more employment overall for pilots is surely a good secondary benefit.

But the Horizon pilots union is insisting that these new planes be only flown by their members.  Never mind they have insufficient members to fly the planes Horizon is already being forced to idle and park unflown.  The union seems to wish to see the extra planes also be parked at airports, unused.

I get it – the union is doubtless reasoning “If we give Alaska no other option, they’ll be forced to start paying our members above industry-rates so as to recruit pilots from other airlines, and that will be good for our members and our ‘local’.”

But don’t you wish the union could think two steps ahead and keep thinking “…. but if Horizon flights operated by our members end up as being more expensive than other contracted flights by other airlines not staffed by our members, maybe Alaska Airlines will shift more and more flights to those other airlines.”  Details here.

And as for SkyWest, it has ordered more planes directly from Embraer.  Horizon’s pilot union might be able to prevent SkyWest from flying planes originally intended for Horizon, but it surely can’t prevent SkyWest from flying planes it orders itself.

Should We Get China to Build Our High Speed Rail?

We seem unable to afford or agree on much transportation related infrastructure at all, with the starkest example of paralysis and inaction being high-speed rail service.

But are we overlooking a potential solution?  Why not get China to build some high speed rail for us?  Malaysia has just negotiated a deal for China to build a $12.8 billion, 430 mile rail line across its country.  Trains, each carrying 600 passengers, will travel the line in under four hours, including 22 stops along the way; less than half the time it takes to drive by car.

If Malaysia can get China to build a $12.8 billion rail line, couldn’t we do the same.  Our trade imbalance with China is $25 billion – every month!  Couldn’t Mr Trump insist that some share of that be used to invest in US infrastructure?

As an interesting aside, China may be interested in building other things, too.  Have you heard about the transformative plans to possibly build a canal across Thailand, making a 2 -3 day or longer time-saving for shipping that currently goes around the bottom of the Thailand/Malaysia peninsula and through the very congested Malacca Strait?  (See map at top of the newsletter.)

Month End Silence from Tesla

After celebrating its staged ‘delivery’ of 30 Model 3 cars to employees at the end of July as proof the car was on schedule, Tesla set itself the not-too-lofty target of producing 100 cars during the 31 days of August.  This is to be followed by ‘more than 1500’ in September, and by the end of the year, a staggering 5,000 cars a week.

So how did Tesla manage with its August target of 100 cars?  Ummm, no-one knows.  While quick to boast of their self-claimed successes, Tesla has been totally silent as to the number of Model 3 cars ‘delivered’ (again, probably only to employees and closely associated others) in August.  It is also rumored that the people who received the first 30 cars have had to sign non-disclosure agreements, so very little is known about how wonderfully well (or not) the July Model 3 cars are performing in the real world, either.

This article, in what is in large part a Tesla fan magazine, guesses that perhaps 40 – 75 Model 3 cars might have been delivered in August, but it doesn’t have any more accurate knowledge than does anyone else.  The article published overall August numbers that show the Tesla Model S with 2,150 sales, followed closely by the Chevrolet Bolt at 2,107, then the Prius Prime at 1,820.  The Tesla Model X came fourth with 1,575 units, and then the Chevy Volt with 1,445.

The current model Nissan Leaf is still selling surprisingly well, with 1,154 cars sold.  And the new model Leaf has now been announced, although with less range than had been rumored a few weeks back.  The extended range version will apparently come a bit later – the opposite of Tesla which, it is thought, is delivering extended range Model 3 cars first.

Nissan hopes to sell 90,000 Leafs (Leaves?) each year, compared to Tesla’s claim of producing 250,000 or more Model 3 cars a year.

And Lastly This Week….

It doesn’t really deserve a heading of its own, but it seems there is no stopping items related to my theme of Germany and Naziism.  This week, mention is delicately made in the NY Times of a popular board game, ‘Secret Hitler’.  Alas, neither the NYT nor the game manufacturer can prevent themselves from linking this to our present Administration.  But the game, while complicated, has at its heart an interesting concept, and admirably, you can download the game, the pieces, and the rules, all completely for free, from its website.

Our feature article this week is about one of the modern-day uses of the internet that one would never have dreamed of, even ten years ago.  Another modern-day use is internet dating.  In a story that seems to have come from the scatological final scenes of the movie, Dumb and Dumber, a blushing young lady went out on a date with a man she met on-line, and suffered a mishap in a toilet.  What happened next – well, you really have to read the story.

I wrote about BA squeezing more seats into its 777s, above.  Perhaps they got the inspiration for this from what purports to be a new seating chart for a Delta plane.

And now truly last this week, the world’s longest stage (almost 20 miles long)?  Almost definitely.  Details of this whimsical notion here.

In case you missed it, please don’t overlook our annual fundraising appeal.  Please help us to continue our weekly gifts to you in turn.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Sep 072017
 

A small selection of the thousands of public and private channels available on your Roku player.

Surely you know all about Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and the now literally thousands of other internet video streaming services.

The internet has progressed astonishingly – do you remember, seemingly only ‘yesterday’, when the internet struggled to allow poor quality audio to be broadcast?  The first attempts at video, with appallingly low resolution and constant pauses for rebuffering the stream?  Contrast that with now – the internet is increasingly the prime source of not just HD but even 4K video, with 4K video available through internet streaming long before 4K Blu-ray discs and players started to appear.

Indeed, video disc sales in general are dropping, due to the growing popularity of streamed video.  These days the typical distribution cycle of a movie – to theaters, then to disc, then to streaming video and cable – is shifting, with some movies now skipping the video disc part of their distribution entirely.

This shift in ‘consumption’ is certainly true for me.  I used to buy a DVD or Blu-ray most weeks – I’d watch it and then store away, likely never to be watched again, on my increasingly crowded bookshelves.  Now, I might buy one or two a year, and only on rare occasions when it is a movie I absolutely have to watch, and which isn’t (yet) on one of the streaming services.  The cost of Netflix ($8 – $12 a month) is less than half the cost of a single DVD or Blu-ray disc, and so is extremely easy to justify.  As for Amazon Prime Video, it is included for free as part of their regular Prime membership.

So how can you too best access the amazing world of internet streamed video and enjoy it on your regular television?  You probably already understand how to watch it on a tablet/phone (with apps) or computer (usually through a web browser).  But don’t forget the big screen experience too, complete with surround sound coming out of your home entertainment system too, every bit as impressive and involving as if it were a DVD or Blu-ray in your player (and possibly even better).

Big screen televisions also give a better quality picture, usually offering better picture contrast (dark scenes don’t lose all their detail and become featureless blobs).  If you’re wanting to watch something with a partner, it is much more practical with a big screen than a tiny computer screen.

Using an external streaming device, rather than apps on a computer/tablet/phone also give you a more convenient way to access and manage all the many thousands of different video streaming services available.  Which seems like a good place to move on to the next heading.

The Amazing World of Video Streaming

Coming from New Zealand, I still vividly remember when our television sets offered only one television channel.  And being an old guy, I remember when that one channel was black and white, and only operated between 6pm and 10pm.

Within the US context, the earlier concept of a dozen or two broadcast channels evolved into cable and satellite television, and potentially 100 or more channels of programming – something that a couple of decades ago seemed more than anyone could possibly ever need.

But the internet has made cable television seem as ridiculously old fashioned as, well, as those four hours a day of single channel black and white television was, a mere 50 years ago, in New Zealand.

One hundred channels?  That’s peanuts.  Even 1,000 channels is very little.  How about 5,788 channels accessible through a Roku streaming box!  That’s how many were listed in early September 2017 on this site.  And while some channels charge for access, 4,741 of them are free.  Sure, 1,300 of those are religious channels, and plenty of the others have advertising, but you still have thousands to choose from.

Plus, the numbers are growing all the time.  In January 2014 I referred to ‘over 1,000 channels’ accessible through a Roku player, now there are 5,788.  So, in round figures, that is about 100 net additional channels every month – and in reality, many more, because channels are being discontinued all the time.  I also referred to a ‘create your own Roku service’ that, back then, was serving 3,040 different streams.  Now the site claims to be serving 22,654 streams.

Which points to another large chunk of channels.  In addition to the public channels, there are an unknown number of private Roku channels out there too (explained in my earlier article).  Here’s a reasonably comprehensive list, and Google or Bing is your friend to help you find more.

Much of this is being offered in better quality than is available o ncable or broadcast tv.  Oh yes – talking about cable, increasingly people are cancelling their cable service and relying on the internet streamed versions of their favorite cable and local television channels.  This of course creates an interesting situation, because in much of the US, our (former) cable providers are in a second monopoly position, being our only choice for obtaining the internet access we want/need so that we can then cancel their cable service.  The most polite way of looking at this interesting conflict of interest is that they’re going to get money from us, coming or going.

Internet Bandwidth Requirements

Of course, all this high quality video uses up appreciable internet bandwidth.  Netflix says a single video stream requires about 5 Megabits per second for HD quality video (and 3 Mbps for lower SD quality).

Note this is Megabits, not Megabytes.  A byte, for these purposes, is eight bits, so divide the Mbps rates by eight to get MBps (Megabytes per second) if for some reason you need to think in those terms.  Most internet connections are rated in Mbps though, but we notice sometimes people confuse the two and misstate a speed in the wrong unit.

If you want to enjoy the Netflix UHD (ie 4K) video streaming, that is said to require 25 Mbps/second.  That is a big jump from 5 Mbps – there are four times as many pixels, and potentially more picture information per pixel, which explains the five-fold increase.

Keep in mind also that if you have two or three people all watching video at the same time, each of them require their own stream.  Two people would use 10 Mbps.  Three – 15 Mbps, and so on.  And if you have two or more people wanting to watch UHD streams, well, it is probably time to sign up for a faster internet service!

There is currently very little programming available in 4K/UHD quality, and of course, if you don’t have a 4K television set, there is no point in streaming the video in 4K because you’ll not see any difference in quality.  In other words, there’s not a reason to start worrying about your connection speed until such time as you both have a 4K set, a 4K streaming device, and start to see some 4K content you want to watch.

But when that happens, you should upgrade to perhaps 35Mbps at a minimum – enough for a 4K stream, a regular HD stream, and some spare capacity for emails coming and going and all other ‘stuff’ that seems to always be happening.  Remember you probably have multiple computers, phones and tablets all doing stuff, all the time, in the background.  If you decide you want to have two 4K streams playing, it would be a struggle to fit them both within a 50 Mbps circuit and probably would be better with 55+ Mbps.

If you have the misfortune to be charged for the data you transfer on your internet connection, you should know that each hour of HD video is probably going to use – and therefore cost you  – about 2.5GB of data.  So a typical movie represents 4 – 5 GB of data in HD.  But if you’re treating yourself to 4K, you could be using 25 GB of data or more, just to watch a single movie.  Maybe buying the new 4K quality Blu-ray discs and matching players (now available on Amazon for about $160)  is going to be cheaper!  Is the cycle about to reset and return us back to ‘old fashioned’ physical media?

And, yes, it goes without saying that the underlying appeal of streamed video is massively weakened when you find yourself paying for every minute you are watching.  Plus, don’t forget that if two or three of you are each watching different video streams on different devices at the same time, the meter starts to really spin around the charging dial, because each of you are using your own ‘stream’ of data.

Note that some ISPs have ‘unadvertised’ limits on your data use.  These are obscured behind vague reference to ‘fair use policies’ and or ‘abuse of service’.  As best we can tell, it seems that once you start using more than something in the 250 – 1,000 GB of data a month, you are starting to be at risk of being noticed by your ISP as being an ‘unusually high user of bandwidth’ – something that is of course increasingly a nonsense concept, when you consider that 250GB represents maybe 100 hours of video streaming – that’s only 3 hours a day on a monthly basis.  Whether ISPs will raise what they claim to be ordinary/normal levels of usage, or whether they’ll express mock horror at the amount of data they are providing ‘for free’ and start to charge for ‘excessive’ use more widely remains to be seen.  Which sort of brings us back to the comment above, about how the cable companies seem to have a stranglehold over our access to entertainment, whether it be via cable or the internet.

We see that Comcast’s XFINITY internet service has a plan now active in 30 states that charges $10 for each 50GB of data used over their data cap (1TB).  So watch a 4K movie once and it might cost you $5 in internet costs alone.  A regular HD movie is a more moderate $1 if you go over your free allowance.  But let’s say you and the other people in your household end up watching 100 hours of content a month, which could potentially represent $50 or more in extra internet access costs.  How is it that you pay only $10/month to Netflix for this service, but the guy in the middle who does nothing except provide the connection to your home – Comcast – gets $50 for their part of the puzzle.  Depending on if you see your glass as half full or half empty, should either be appreciative of the tremendous value Netflix is providing or appalled at the rapacious charging by Comcast.

One can only wonder how it is that we have ended up with so little competition for the provision of internet service, and bemoan that our average internet speeds place us at about number 15 in the world, not number 1.

Built-In Streaming Capabilities with Your Television Set

To watch streaming video on your television, sometimes the easiest (but not necessarily best) answer is to use any capability built into the television set itself.  Modern sets usually seem to include fairly extensive video streaming capabilities.

The good thing about this is it is built right into your television, and doesn’t require additional equipment, wiring, or more remotes.  There is nothing complicated to connect.

The not so good thing is that often television apps are the least featured, and are unlikely to support the latest and greatest features that some of the streaming services offer.  New services might include such things as, for example, support for higher definition video streams, better streaming compression functions, surround sound, 3D, possibly also things such as multiple languages and other ‘picture in picture’ type features, plus who knows what else will come along in the future.

In addition, it is common for television streaming functions to only offer a limited number of streaming channels.  In total there are many thousands of different channels.

It may also be difficult to run an audio feed (particularly for surround sound) from your television to any other type of home audio receiver/amplifier.

Sometimes the only way to get additional or new features added to the television’s built in streaming function is to buy a new television, or an external streaming box.

So, using any built in service is perhaps a good way to start to experience streaming services, but check to see which features your tv set supports and be aware that the streaming services you use may be adding new features that never make it to your television.

Which brings us to the second option.  Happily it is not expensive.

External Streaming Boxes

These days there are three major external devices that can be considered to bring internet video streaming to your television set.  They are offered by Google, Amazon, and Roku.

Yes, Apple-fans, there’s the Apple TV device as well, but it is appreciably more expensive, doesn’t support FLAC audio, and astonishingly doesn’t support 4K video either.  Oh yes, it also doesn’t support Amazon streamed video, although apparently that is due to be allowed some time in the foreseeable future.  It seems Apple is yet again seeking to impose their own closed-system limitations, for their benefit not yours, and we can’t get close to viewing their TV product with any degree of enthusiasm.

Update 12 September, 2017 :  Apple have announced a new TV box streaming product that will support 4K video and HDR.  At last.  While the unit is now comparable to other high end streaming products, the price is not – $179 or $199, so you’re paying about twice as much.

We have a seven page Special Report complete review of eight different streaming box options available for our 2017 supporters.  This also includes a little known but essential tip for how to best watch any sort of programming on your television, and tells you of the must-have feature to look for on any streaming device. If you’ve contributed $10 or more this year, please let us know and we’ll send you the report immediately.  Otherwise, if you’d like a copy, please may we encourage you to send in some support and we’ll again of course be pleased to send this report to you.

(This is one of four different special supporter supplements offered to supporters.)

If it is not convenient to support us, then in quick summary, Google and Amazon each offer two devices and Roku (this is the Roku website but their products seem to be a bit cheaper on Amazon) offer a very wide variety of different devices.

Both Google and Amazon tend to give preferential access to their own video services, and can make it difficult to use other services too, while Roku offers the broadest coverage of services/channels and so one of the six different Roku devices is probably your best choice.  Our full report of course gives you more detail and clear recommendations.

Summary

These days there is more entertainment and education programming online than there is via cable networks, satellite feeds, or regular ‘over the air’ television.  The best way to receive this information on your main television(s) is via a streaming box such as one of the Roku family of devices.

With pricing as low as $40 for a unit, this is something you should consider adding.

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