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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

Nov 232017
 

Good morning

<Insert traditional comment of your choice about Thanksgiving eating excesses here!>

I hope you too enjoyed Thanksgiving, which felt very much like a holiday for me this year.  Having Anna at home on Wednesday (her school came up with a coincidental reason why there should be no school on Wednesday either) broke up the weekly routine, and the cold dark wet days made it feel much more like Christmas than Thanksgiving.

I gather from a number of delighted responses back that my special email earlier in the week was well received, and that quite a few of you did indeed rush out to buy an Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet at the astonishing bargain price of $100 – including one gentleman who first bought one from Best Buy, then liked it so much he promptly ordered two more as Christmas gifts.

Happily, I see that, at least as of Thursday night, the Fire HD 10 is still on sale at $100, as is the Fire HD 8 at $50 (usual price $80).

Appropriately enough, with many of us now thinking of ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday’ deals, I’ve had another busy week, preparing for the ‘Christmas Gift Giving Guide’ that I promised; with the time-consuming part being publishing more reviews to support the recommended items.  So you’ll find below not just the guide itself but also two more product reviews.

In total there are a nominal ten items in the guide.  One of them proved more complicated than expected – an external battery pack to recharge portable devices with.  Sure, I’ve reviewed these things many times before, but I decided to do so a bit more scientifically this time, and observed that the three ‘current’ battery packs struggled to give 55%, 58% and 61% of their rated power capacity when recharging devices.  I’ve always empirically noted that you don’t get the entire promised capacity, but these shortfalls were astonishing.

So rather than accept at face value the claims, clearly I’m having to carefully test each and every unit, and have ordered in an assortment of such units.  I expect to provide results next week.

And what else for you to enjoy while quietly snacking on yesterday’s left-overs?  Please continue for :

  • Reader Survey – Airline Amenity Kits
  • Boeing’s Battle with Bombardier Escalates Again
  • Eastern Airlines Closes Down
  • Flying Car Time, Again
  • A Tesla Timewarp?
  • What About Las Vegas?
  • Thank You, Miss Manners
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey – Airline Amenity Kits

Reader Jerry was reminiscing last week about flying on a Chinese domestic flight in the early 1990s, and being given an amenity kit that included a shower cap.  Neither he nor anyone else on the flight could understand the relevance of shower caps.

Which got me wondering about the amenity kits that are passed out in business and first class on most international long haul flights.

What is the most unusual thing you’ve ever received in an airline amenity kit?  What is the most useful thing you’ve ever received?  What did you formerly get in amenity kits and wish was still included?  What else would you like included (be realistic, recognizing that airlines don’t allocate much money to such things)?  Please write in and share your experiences and ideas.

I remember, when I was a much less frequent traveler, that an airline amenity kit was a thing of precious value, to be treasured at home for years – albeit usually unused/untouched.  I also remember the kits being actually good, with nice bags/pouches and good things inside.  Now, I often notice when walking off a flight that some of the amenity kits have been instantly junked and left behind.

I always roll my eyes when reading a press release by an airline boasting about upgrading to a special name brand of cosmetics or using a high-profile designer to design the kit bag or something inside it, because whenever I get one such thing, it inevitably contains the same throwaway junk as always – eyeshades, maybe sock-things, earplugs, micro-toothbrush and toothpaste, perhaps a razor, and maybe some ‘smelly thing’ and some lotion.

So, please, do let me know what you have encountered variously as the most unusual thing, the most useful thing, the good thing no longer included, and your idea of something that could/should be included.  No need to reply in depth or detail, but if you have a thought or observation, please send it in.  I’ll collate responses and feature them next week.

Boeing’s Battle with Bombardier Escalates Again

Boeing’s successful co-opting of the US Commerce Department to levy draconian import duties against the Bombardier Cseries jets – a jet which in no way competes with Boeing – continues to outrage people around the world and create further pushback.  The appallingly one-sided nature of this David vs Goliath dispute – a dispute over nothing – is seeing Boeing losing goodwill internationally.

After Boeing’s actions forced Bombardier into Airbus’ arms, resulting in a strengthened Cseries program and the potential to add larger Cseries planes that would compete against Boeing, or at least, now give Airbus a broader product range than Boeing, we have seen several airline orders go to Airbus/Bombardier.  This last week we have now seen the EU clear its throat gravely and hint at possibly retaliatory punitive tariffs being imposed on Boeing planes being sold into the EU.  Suffice it to say that both the quantity and the tariffable (is that a word – it certainly should be) value of Boeing planes sold into the EU is orders of magnitude greater than the similar measure of Cseries jets going to the US.

Details here.

Eastern Airlines Closes Down

No, this headline isn’t 26 years out of date.  A revival of Eastern Airlines appeared in 2011 and commenced flying in 2015, but their operation, while quickly getting off to a promising start, floundered and failed, and the airline has now disappeared once more.

But the person who spearheaded the Eastern Airlines revival, and who left when things started to go bad, is now trying again, this time to restart World Airways, a predominantly charter airline that closed in 2014.  Details here.

What is it about people who seek to start new airlines with an old airline brand?  I’m unaware of a single one of the many such attempts (including multiple attempts to revive the corpse of Pan Am) ever succeeding.

Flying Car Time, Again

It is a slow news week this week, I guess, because there are not just one but two flying car stories out there (and some recycled supersonic plane stories too which I’ll spare you!).

This article tells the latest twist in the long running story of Terrafugia, a company that has been promising flying cars ‘real soon now’ since its inception in 2006.  It has just been bought by the Chinese company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, the same company that now owns Volvo, Lotus and the London Black Cab company.

It is a sad situation when a company that was started by MIT graduates is now deemed more likely to succeed after being bought out/bailed out by a Chinese company.  Geely expects to get their flying cars into the air by 2019.

This article cheers on a new British startup that plans to have a futuristic flying car in the air (and on the roads) by 2020.

So – flying cars – now a sure thing, real soon now?  Maybe.

A Tesla Time Warp?

Fair’s fair, and if one is to point out the regular flow of Tesla news that some might think reflects poorly on the company, its products, and its management, it is only fair to also point out its successes, with an apparent success being Tesla completing a project within their promised 100 day terms.  But, like so much to do with Tesla, when you scratch the surface, strange things start appearing.

Read through this with me, and see if you can make sense of it.

The state of South Australia suffered an embarrassing power outage and was experiencing ongoing power supply problems, in part due to using renewable energy sources that weren’t always producing as and when needed.  So back on March 9, Elon Musk tweeted a promise to build a 129 MWh battery system for the state within 100 days, and if he failed to get it operational within the 100 days from signing a contract, he would do it for free.

The state agreed, and Musk completed the project within 100 days, with the system expected to go online pretty much any day now.

Congratulations to Tesla, right?

Now we’re not going to count the days, but an astute person would note there is more like 250 than 100 days between 9 March and today.  Ah yes, but the deal timer only started from when the contract was signed.  So when was the contract signed?

It is clear that by July, Tesla knew it was getting the contract and was even able to start preparations for the project – here’s a 7 July article stating it as a done deal, but there’s no need to rely on possibly ‘fake news’.   Here is Elon Musk himself, on the same day, referring to the contract apparently being activated.

And now here is an article dated 29 September that refers to Tesla holding a party to mark the half-way point in the project.  If we go back 50 days from 29 September, that seems to take us to a contract signing on about 10 August, which is a long way after 7 July.

If we also count 50 days on from 29 September, that takes us to 18 November, a week ago.  But we’re only now being told that work is being finalized – which is absolutely not the same as saying it is completed – and we’re also told it is expected the project will be complete well within the 100 day timeline.

And this article, dated 28 September, says the contract was signed on Friday 29 September (the time difference being due to the date line) but also notes that construction was half complete at that point.  This might seem like a contradiction, but the article chooses not to explain that.

If the contract was signed on 29 September, 100 days would go through to 7 January next year, not 1 December this year.

This article, dated 23 November, refers to the contract deadline as being 1 December.  100 days before then would be about 23 August.

So, when was the contract actually signed, and why was the contract signing delayed so long?

Was the contract signed on 7 July, 10 August, 23 August, 29 September, or some other time entirely?  Why all the conflicting stories, and if the contract wasn’t signed in early July, are we to believe that Tesla would start work on apparently a $50 – $100 million project, and continue for several months, with no contract in place and no payments being made?  That seems impossible to believe.

What About Las Vegas?

If we’re approaching Christmas, it is the time of year when the State Department often bestirs itself and emits a travel alert for Europe.  This year is no different, and the State Dept has issued an alert applying to all of Europe between now and 31 January next year.

The usual combination of backward looking statements about things that have happened before and useless platitudes are offered up.

And if that isn’t enough, there is also an ongoing worldwide caution too.

But, interestingly, there are no travel warnings applying to our own country (well there are, issued by other countries, but not by our own State Department).  I guess we are perfectly and officially safe here.

Thank You, Miss Manners

A few years ago in a reader survey, two-thirds of readers indicated they prefer hotel beds with sheets and blankets rather than with a single duvet/comforter.  I’m strongly in the two-thirds category, and at the risk of over-sharing of my bed related preferences, I like a top sheet and blanket that is tucked in at the foot of the bed and which readily comes up to cover my shoulders at the other end.

As a moderately tall person, that is often a problem with blankets (I surmise they shrink with repeated washings) and always a problem with ‘lying loose on top’ duvets.

Plus, how does one regulate the degree of warmth with an ‘all or nothing’ duvet?  I’m either too hot with it on, or too cold with it off.

Why is it, with most guests preferring sheets and blankets, that hotels are steadily shifting to duvets?  Because they are cheaper is of course the unsurprising answer.  Cheaper to buy and cheaper to launder.

In an article last week, Miss Manners weighs in on the subject of suitable bed linen arrangements.  Hoteliers, take note!

And Lastly This Week….

Uber has patented a device it says will stop passengers from getting car-sick.  The device is described as

The car would use data from its self-driving “eyes” to create a “sensory stimulation system” that syncs up your eyes and ears. That could be done with controllable seats that move and vibrate with the car, bursts of air, or using a display or “light bar” within the car to create visual stimulation such as an augmented reality live stream of the surrounding environment.

Sounds to me more like a device guaranteed to make you car sick twice as quickly.  Details here.

Talking about Uber, that makes me think of Amazon, which is increasingly taking a leaf from the Uber book and creating a growing army of ‘self employed contractor’ delivery drivers to get our packages to us.  And, just like Uber, Amazon’s attempts to get the most possible productivity at the lowest possible cost is causing problems.  Here’s an interesting read.

France is such a strange country, isn’t it.  Among other strange things is their reactionary pride in the French language, and their determination to ‘protect its purity’.  This is of course the utter opposite of the anarchistic nature of the world’s most popular language, English, which ‘bends with the wind’ and survives by assimilating any possible competitors.

Here’s a fascinating story about the latest attack on French – read it with concern, for fear it should happen here, too.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and good luck with your bargain buying

 

David.

 

 

 

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Nov 232017
 

Whether you’re looking for gifts for others, or wanting ideas to pass on for appropriate items for yourself, here’s a wonderful cornucopia of ideas, at least some of which are sure to delight everyone.

We’ve come up with a mix of the commonplace (but sometimes overlooked) and the unusual, giving preference to modestly priced items (so, no, we’re not going to suggest a new enormous new 8K TV or a Tesla) and also to items which might be on sale.  Here’s a summary list, followed by individual write-ups and links to reviews and where the items can be purchased.

  • Bose QC25 Noise Cancelling Headphones ($300, currently on sale at $179)
  • Memory Card ($10 to $100)
  • Travel Blanket, Pillow, Sleep Mask ($10 – $90)
  • Camera Monopod ($12 – $25)
  • Eight Port USB Charger ($22)
  • External Battery Pack ($10 – $50)
  • Mini (Travel) Flashlight ($20 – $50)
  • Amazon Echo/Alexa Device ($30 +)
  • Amazon Kindle eBook Reader and/or Fire Tablet ($50 – $250)
  • External Monitor for Laptop ($190)

Bose QC25 Noise Cancelling Headphones  (About $300, sighted on sale down to $179)

We’ve reviewed dozens of noise cancelling headphones, and pretty much every Bose set since the QC1, more than 15 years ago.  In the past, we’ve sometimes delightedly uncovered almost-as-good headphones at vastly lower prices, but the latest generational leap by Bose (when they brought out the QC15) moved them decisively ahead of the competition.

The Quiet Comfort 25 – the current best there is – is the successor to the QC15, and in turn, now exists alongside a newer model, the QC35.

The Quiet Comfort 35 is good, and is notable for offering a Bluetooth wireless connection as well as via a normal connecting cable.  But generally we feel Bluetooth is better avoided, both due to the slight loss in music quality commonly introduced by the Bluetooth circuitry and the regular hassles they pose with forgetting connections, so we’d not pay extra for that.  The QC35 is $350, almost exactly twice the price of the currently on-sale QC25 at $179.

We also don’t like that the QC35 uses a rechargeable battery.  Sure, it is reasonably long-lived, but if your battery dies on you, it may not be as easy to recharge it while traveling somewhere as it is to simply swap out one AAA battery for a new one.

The QC35 has also become, in our opinion, over-engineered with ‘features’ that get in the way of simply plugging in a set of headphones to listen to music.  Too many buttons and features and options.

Now, for the QC25 (usually visible on this page, a little bit down).  It gives you unsurpassed noise cancelling and good sound quality.  They have a simple single on-off switch and nothing else, which is the way a set of headphones should be.  They do have an inline microphone in their connecting cable so if you are listening to music and you  wish to take a phone call or maybe make a Skype call on your computer, you can do that, too.

Bose is famous for never allowing its products to be discounted, and for maintaining rigid and high pricing.  Seeing the QC25 headphones at $179 makes for an exciting opportunity to get what is probably the world’s best noise cancelling headphones at a great price.

Our review of the Bose QC25 headphones can be seen here.

Memory Card ($10 to $100)

Who can’t benefit from another memory card, or a larger capacity replacement for a present card – perhaps for your phone, tablet, security camera, regular camera or video camera?  Although memory prices aren’t dropping as much as they once were, it does seem that each time we buy more memory cards ourselves, the high-end in terms of capacities has expanded still further, and the middle range shows some price drops.

Generally we tend to get large but not the largest possible cards for things such as storing music or video, and medium-sized cards for our cameras (ie, the largest card in the ‘sweet spot’ price range rather than pay a huge premium for a slightly larger card).

We used to have music split over four 64GB cards, which was a nuisance to swap them in and out of our music player.  We then replaced them with two 128GB cards – an improvement, but still not perfection.  With technology’s continued forward march, we now have almost all we want on a single 200GB card.

Having all that music (about 500 hours) in our lovely Fiio music player at the same time is a great convenience.

Actually, a Fiio music player makes a great stocking stuffer too – even their entry-level and still excellent X1.  Here’s an article we wrote about high quality digital music players.  (No, neither an iPod nor an iPhone is a high quality music player.  High quality players, with FLAC type music files, are vastly better than MP3 type devices such as iPods and iPhones.

We prefer medium capacity cards for our camera, because even a 16GB card holds so many thousands of pictures as to be almost ‘too big’.  We don’t entirely trust the reliability and longevity of SD cards, so we like to limit how many pictures we have on each SD card, and we also quickly back them up to other media.

The sweet spot currently for memory cards seems to be when you are getting about 4GB per dollar.  So a 64GB card for about $16, and so on.  The largest 256GB cards are more expensive – you’re then getting less than 3GB per dollar, making a seldom justifiable leap in price between the 200GB and 256GB cards.

Note that many devices that are a year or two old will talk about accepting SD/micro-SD cards of up to perhaps only 32GB or 64GB in size.  But invariably, that is just because when their specifications were written by the marketing department, the maximum size card at that time was whatever is cited as maximum size.  The unit, whatever it is, will 99.9% definitely accept larger capacity cards (the remaining 0.1% seems to be in some rare cases when they have created an artificial software limit to try and force you into a more expensive version of the product.)  The actual maximum capacity of modern memory cards is 2TB, and currently micro-SD cards can be found up to 256GB and full-size SD cards up to 512GB.

Here’s Amazon’s page (better to say, pages) of memory cards.  Here’s an article we wrote about high-capacity memory cards and detailing some of the issues and considerations that apply.

Oh, and while talking about memory cards and backing up, you might want to think about a portable hard drive to take with you that will automatically read and copy/backup your files from your memory cards.  Regular external hard drives are now commonly available at very moderate prices; we suggest at least a 2TB capacity (probably costing no more than $70).  Even if you don’t have 2TB of data, this allows you to keep multiple generation copies of your data, making it easier to recover and restore in the case of a data loss/corruption.  Here is Amazon’s product listing page.  Get the smallest form factor possible, and if it doesn’t come complete with some type of protective carry case, get one of those too.

Such a device should be powered through its USB connection, and have USB 3.0 capabilities and speed.

Now for the very special element – being able to copy SD cards to the external hard drive without needing to control it with a laptop.  There are several ways of doing this with varying degrees of simplicity/complexity and cost/affordability.  The easiest/best approach is with a WD Passport Wireless Pro drive.  There is a Toshiba unit too.

Travel Blanket, Pillow, Sleep Mask ($10 – $90)

Whenever we fly coach (which is most of the time) we’re always keen for anything that will somehow miraculously transform the comfort and quality of the experience.

Travel blankets, once liberally given out, are increasingly rare in airplane cabins and it is now appropriate to consider traveling with one’s own.  We review four different types of travel blanket here, and found one of the four as clearly the best – the Travelrest blanket for $30.

We’re not sure if we’ve reviewed more travel pillows or noise cancelling headphones over the many years of The Travel Insider, and just like the Bose QC25 are a clear standout for headphones, there is a clear standout for pillows, too.

This is the Caldera Releaf, and here is our recent review of it.  Here’s a quick link to the Amazon page selling the $20 unit.

As for a sleep mask, Amazon offer lots to choose from.  We like the silk sleep mask from Silk Camel – soft and sufficiently ‘special’ as to make it suited for a stocking stuffer type item that its recipient will choose to actually keep and use.  $9 on Amazon.

Camera Monopod ($12 – $25)

  If you know a camera enthusiast, then here’s a wonderful device that gives you most of the steadying power of a tripod, but which doesn’t take up so much space and weight in a camera bag.

The best thing about this gift is that monopods are an underappreciated and often overlooked camera accessory, so there’s a good chance that whoever you’re getting one for will not have one already, and will be delighted with the unit once received.

We review monopods here and identify the best value ones.  Or you can click here to go direct to Amazon’s monopod listing page.

Eight Port USB Charger ($22)

We all continue to add more battery-powered devices to our lives.  Particularly if traveling with someone else, a single charger that can simultaneously charge a lot of devices is a tremendous convenience.

After earlier reviewing six and seven port devices over the past several years, here now is a review of our new favorite – an eight port device, which we like even more than other devices with up to twelve ports (the review explains why).

Here’s a direct link to the Amazon product page for our favorite.

External Battery Pack ($10 – $50)

  Yes, the eight port charger is a great device, but alas, there will be times when your phone or tablet or something finds itself running out of charge and needs to be topped up, but you’ll be somewhere where you can’t just plug in your eight-port (or any other) charger.

In such cases, an external battery pack that will transfer its charge into your needy device can be a life saver.  I never travel without one.

We’ve written about such things regularly over the years, and it has been interesting to watch how the amount of charge capacity such units can hold is increasing, while the cost of the units are decreasing.

At the same time, the demands on these units is also growing – we now expect units to be able to charge two or more devices simultaneously, and not at the sedate 0.5A speed of yesteryear, but instead at speeds greater than 1A and possibly greater than 2A.  We also expect the devices in turn to be capable of being recharged at a decent rate.

Currently the sweet spot seems to be for devices of capacities ranging from 10,000 mAh to 20,000 mAh.  We’ve seen 10,000 mAh devices at prices down to $10, and 20,000 mAh devices going down to $20.  But we’ve also seen units at two or three or even four times the price.

We have also empirically noted in our past testing of such units an apparent shortfall between claimed capacity and actual delivered charge.  With that in mind, we are embarked on an ambitious program of testing, using special USB type amp hour meters, and a selection of external battery packs.

Here’s a link to Amazon’s pages listing external battery packs.  Some are on special for Black Friday/Cyber Monday, but they appear to be more expensive than normal to start with and far from compelling bargains.

We suggest you wait until we’ve published our complete report next week and then decide on the best of what is currently a bewildering variety of choices.

Mini (Travel) Flashlight ($20 – $50)

  Light defines our lives.  While most phones have a flashlight feature these days, a small pocket flashlight is still much better for most purposes, and a nice little stocking stuffer.

Here’s the article we wrote about mini flashlights, and while we identified several ‘short listed’ favorites, here is the Amazon product page for perhaps the best all-rounder of them all.

Amazon Echo/Alexa Device ($30 +)

  Although we are sometimes frustrated by what these devices can’t do, or don’t yet do well, we are also impressed with the rate of ongoing development of new features that is happening with them.

Amazon’s Echo range of voice controlled devices using their ‘Alexa’ assistant service are clearly a key strategic future direction for them, and as such, increasingly the wave of the future for us all.  We like the small Echo Dot units, which list at $50 on Amazon and sometimes can be found for $40 or less (sighted today for $30).

We’re less excited by the more expensive full-sized Echo units, or the various other Echo variants such as the Echo Spot and Echo Show.  Well, to be exact, we definitely agree that all these units are so much better when combined with a display screen, but we’re dismayed by the ridiculous prices Amazon is asking for them.

We don’t mind paying something less than $50 for Echo Dot units.  But over $200 for a unit which is essentially nothing more than an Echo Dot and 7″ Fire combined is of little appeal.

At $50 or less, an Echo Dot is a great ‘stocking stuffer’ and a low-cost introduction to this new type of interface.  Here’s one of the several reviews we’ve written on the Echo Dot, and here’s a link to the Amazon Echo product page.  We expect the units will be on sale for much of the time between now and Christmas.

A related product would be a  remote controllable switch or plug outlet that will work with the Echo unit.  We have several Wemo brand devices, and they’re sometimes to be found on special (here’s Amazon’s product page).  Note that some of the other brands also need the purchase of a special ‘hub’ unit to control them, the Wemo units don’t need a hub as well which is why they are our preferred choice.

Amazon Kindle eBook Reader and/or Fire Tablet ($50 – $250)

 

 

It is almost exactly ten years since the introduction of the first Amazon Kindle eBook reader – a device that when released in November 2007 cost $400.

What a difference a decade makes.  Now there are better Kindles for little more than one tenth that price, and even the top of the line lovely new Kindle Oasis costs only $250.

An entry-level Kindle costs $80 and may sometimes be discounted down to as little as $50.  The Kindle we recommend, the Paperwhite, lists for $120 and might be found sometimes for under $100 (currently $90).  There is also a Kindle Voyage, priced between the Paperwhite and the Oasis, but it is little better than the Paperwhite, while appreciably more expensive, and also definitely inferior to the Oasis, while only a little less expensive, so it ‘falls between the cracks’ and makes no sense.

While you might think that the eBook reading programs on tablets have now obsoleted dedicated eBook readers, their light-weight, small-size and very long battery life give them a continued niche existence, particularly for reading fiction.  If you wish to read books that come with color illustrations, then a tablet based reader would be better.

We travel with both a Kindle and a tablet.  (Well, in truth, we travel with a Kindle, usually two tablets, and a laptop, but that’s not entirely essential for everyone!)

Here is a link to the Kindle page on Amazon.

If you wish to get a tablet instead or as well as an eBook reader, Amazon’s Fire range of tablets are the very best value tablets available at present.  They have a 7″ unit for $50 – an amazing price compared to their first ever 7″ Fire, which was released in 2011 and priced at $199.  Astonishingly, the original Fire not only cost $199 but its optional cover was $50 – as much as a new Fire today!

But these days the 7″ unit is largely obsolete, because the 8″ unit is very much better, and only a little more expensive – listing for $80 but sometimes dropping down in price to $60 or possibly even less ($50 today).

Amazon released a new 10.1″ screened tablet just a month ago, and it in turn is as massively better than the 8″ unit, as the 8″ unit is better than the 7″ unit.  The 8″ unit is acceptably good for most purposes, whereas the 7″ unit has quality and functional compromises right from the start.  The 10.1″ unit is simply better for every purpose and application, although of course also slightly larger/heavier.

In terms of price, it was a bargain when released at $150, and currently is on a temporary ‘Black Friday’ type special for the astonishing price of $100.  Rush to buy one of these as quickly as you can.

Here’s our most recent of many reviews/writeups on the Kindle tablets, it has links within it to additional pages.  And here’s a link to Amazon’s Kindle product page.  Hopefully you’ll get lucky and find a unit on sale; we expect that will be the case intermittently between now and Christmas and certainly is so at the time of writing.

External Monitor for Laptop ($190)

  Do you have multiple monitors connected up to your regular at-work and at-home computers?  If you don’t already, that is definitely something you should do – studies show that adding a second monitor increases your productivity by about 50%, and that has absolutely been my own experience; if anything, I feel I’m closer to twice as productive with two screens than I am with one.

My ideal desktop screen is the less common 1920×1200 screen.  Plenty of screens these days are 1920×1080, but the extra 10% offered by 1200 rather than 1080 dots in height makes another small extra difference.  The Asus 24.1″ VS24AH-P seems like a great product at a good price, and I have two of them, both of which I’m thrilled with.

But what about when you’re traveling?  Isn’t your need for productivity even greater when you’re traveling?  You probably have less free time then, and many things you want to see/do while on the road.  I used to hate going from two 24″ screens to one single 15.6″ laptop screen when traveling, so I added a second monitor to my laptop too.

Doing so is very easy, and uses a regular USB connection.  We write about and recommend an ASUS MB169B+ (here is an Amazon link) because it seems to be small and lightweight, but there are AOC monitors which are similar and slightly less expensive, too.

 

We hope that somewhere on this list of ten items (and really, to be exact, there are way more than ten items in this list!) you’ll find something for you and all the people on your ‘nice’ list this year.

Send to Kindle
Nov 212017
 

The eight port charger alongside a phone it is charging

How many different USB powered electronic devices do you have?  And, more to the point, how many ‘wall wart’ or ‘brick’ type chargers are you also accumulating?

Sure, with some planning, much of the time you can allow your devices to take turns at being charged, but particularly if you’re traveling (and doubly so if traveling with a companion), you’ll find occasions when you need to charge a combination of phones, headsets, tablets, music players, eBook readers, and potentially other devices too, all at the same time.  You’re not ‘only’ wanting to charge two or three devices at once, the two of you might be needing to charge six or eight devices.  Quite apart from the other problems, your hotel room might only have one or two spare plugs.

The solution of course is a multi-port charger.  I’ve written about six and seven port chargers before, but should I be proud or embarrassed to say that even seven ports is starting to get inadequate!

Happily, technological solutions are keeping pace with technological problems, and you can now find multi-port chargers with as many as twelve ports.  That is impressive, but perhaps foolishly, I ended up choosing one with ‘only’ eight ports, and which cost slightly more than the twelve port charger.  But I preferred the eight port charger – let me explain why.

These days the concept of ‘charging’ a device via a USB style connection has become a very nuanced thing.  In the early days, one simply connected the device to the charger, waited until a light went on or off or changed color or something, and that was that.  Chargers would charge at a rate of 0.5A max, while devices, if you left them on, might have been using power at a rate of 0.1A max, so it didn’t really matter if the device was on or off while charging.

But ever larger batteries have called for, in turn, ever faster chargers.  And, ever more power-hungry devices (particularly large screened tablets) quickly reached the point where they would use power as fast as a 0.5A charger could deliver it, with nothing left over to top up the battery.

The USB standard specification upgraded the charging current from 0.5A to 0.9A in the USB 3.0 definition, but increasingly devices and their chargers have grown to want and potentially provide considerably more – up to sometimes 2A or more.

The problem is that different devices now use different ways of signaling to chargers that they want and can accept more than the standard rate of charging current, and different chargers communicate in different ways, too.  It has become a modern-day electronic form of the ‘Tower of Babel’ problem and we never really know if our devices are charging quickly or slowly, other than by watching the battery level change over time.

So I am always very interested to know exactly how fast my devices are charging, and recently I’ve started to think that my seven port charger is charging more slowly than before.  But how to test and confirm this?  You can get nifty devices that will display the voltage and charge rate that plug into the middle of your charging circuit, but sometimes these themselves create new problems by interfering with how the devices and the chargers can communicate with each other.

Close up of the display, showing five devices charging at rates up to 2.4A and in total I’m getting 40.3W from the unit.

What appealed greatly to me about the eight port device is that it has an LCD screen that shows the voltage it is providing to all eight ports, and then shows, individually, the rate that charging current is being supplied to each port and the device connected to it.

Which means there are no mysteries.  You instantly can see the charge rate on all eight ports, just by looking at the screen.  While it hasn’t told me what my old charger may have been doing, I sure can tell now what my new charger is doing and will immediately know if it mysteriously slows down in the future.

The unit will provide up to 8A of current (ie 40W) of current in total across all eight ports, and I’ve had devices taking as much as 2.5A per port.

Which brings up one more relevant item on its display.  It shows the total wattage it is supplying.  It would be easy, if taking 12.5W per port, to quickly exceed the 40W maximum, so it is helpful to keep an eye on how much it is providing in total.

I managed to have devices charging on all eight ports, and consuming 40W of power simultaneously.  But as soon as the unit tried to supply more than 40W, a safety breaker tripped then reset, tripped then reset, limiting the current.

I adjusted the devices so they used a little less than 40W, and noticed the device got very hot indeed on its underside while providing almost its maximum 40W, and after about 15 minutes, it cut out.  Fortunately, this wasn’t a permanent failure, it was simply another safety measure – a thermal overload sensor.  After a few minutes, it reset and started charging again.

It seems that if you have air flowing under the unit, it cools much better and can provide almost 40W long-term, but if there is no air flow underneath, it seems to max out at maybe 37W.  With the heat being generated, the thermal cutout seems like a sensible feature to include.

So in round figures you can average almost 1.0A per port.  If you just have a few devices plugged in, there is no problem if they are drawing 2 or more amps each, as long as the total current is just under 8A (ie just under 40W).

Testing confirmed that the unit was accurately displaying both its voltage and its current draws (and therefore, also, its wattage).

Summary

The eight-port multi USB charger is a great device that gives you a lot of information about what the units you are charging are doing and how much current they are accepting.  While you can probably live without this information, for only a few dollars more than a generic charger that tells you nothing, there’s no need to do so.  The unit is light and portable and so great to travel with.

Priced at $21.89 on Amazon, it is a good price and a great way to charge up to eight items simultaneously.

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Nov 212017
 

The Fenix E-12 fits comfortably in your hand and in your pocket.

Better batteries and better lightbulbs have transformed pocket flashlights (or, as we say in English countries, ‘torches’).  What was formerly bulky and heavy, requiring multiple batteries that would be used up way too soon, large reflectors, and fragile bulbs (drop a flashlight with an incandescent bulb switched on and you invariably cause the bulb to fail) has now been replaced by tiny little lights using amazing energy-efficient, long-lived, robust LEDs.

The tiny LEDs obviate the need for large lenses, and their energy efficiency (they use three to thirty times less power than traditional incandescent bulbs) allow for massive reductions in the batteries needed to power them.  Best of all, they are virtually indestructible, and with a life measured in the many tens of thousands of hours, they’ll potentially outlive their owners.

Making a good thing even better, modern batteries store a lot more charge within them.  Alkaline batteries – now the standard – hold 2x – 11x more charge than the previous carbon-zinc batteries.

Formerly the ‘go-to’ light for police officers, huge heavy 6-cell Maglites have been obsoleted by units as small as the Fenix shown above.

The bottom line – in my case, my one-time much-loved six-cell Maglite (with six of the large D-cell batteries) has now been replaced by a single AA cell flashlight.  The battery lasts longer, the light is probably as bright, and while it doesn’t work as well as a ‘night stick’, the convenience of having a reliable and omnipresent flashlight in my pocket is hard to overstate.

Sure, many people now use the flashlight feature on their smart phone as a ‘go anywhere’ type flashlight, and that’s a good solution too.  But I only have my phone with me 95% of the time, whereas I have my flashlight with me whenever I have my trousers on, because it lives unobtrusively  in my pocket.  It is also slightly better than a cell phone light – more powerful and more directed, so better able to light up, for example, a path in front of you.

It is astonishing how often I use this little flashlight.  It is particularly useful on planes, particularly when they dim the lights for ‘overnight’ flights and you want to find something around you or up in the overhead.  I use it regularly, every day.  From peering into the coffee bean hopper in my coffee maker in the morning to lighting up the hallway at night; from using it to search for items that fall behind something to using it when taking the dog outside at night, I use it several times every day.

Best of all, the single AA cell that powers it lasts seemingly forever.  I replace them ‘whether I need to or not’ as part of a ‘getting ready for a long journey’ ritual – with AA cells from Costco or Amazon costing as little as 25c a piece, I’d rather know I have a fresh battery and not want it, than find out I have a dead battery but be wanting it.

How Much Light Do You Need

There is a huge range in terms of how much light flashlights emit.  Their lighting ‘power’ is generally measured in lumens, but these ratings are seldom accurate and seldom sufficiently specified.  Ideally you want to know not just how much light is emitted, but also how focused the beam is – the more tightly focused the beam, the longer its range, but for some purposes (indoor area illumination in a power cut, for example) you might prefer a more diffuse beam.

Note that the solution for when you need area illumination can be simple, assuming a moderately flat and moderately white ceiling is simple – stand the flashlight on its end and shine it upwards; the light bouncing back down from the ceiling will be much softer and diffused.

There is a potential temptation to ‘treat yourself’ to more light power than you really need.  While we love being able to carry a ‘portable sun’ with us, and it is true that dazzling a potential attacker might be a possible way of de-escalating an encounter, it is important to realize that in this article, we are narrowly considering a convenient pocket light, not a larger flashlight that you’re less likely to always have with you.

In addition, because of the way our eyes perceive light, doubling the lumens won’t necessarily double the range of the beam or how bright we see it as being.  It would sort of double the area it can illuminate to a constant brightness, but we tend to think of ‘doubling’ an area as what is actually a quadrupling of the area.  So the difference between, say 150 lumens and 200 lumens is probably imperceptible to most of us, and remembering also that the lumen measurements seem to be equal parts science and science fiction, we suggest not giving too much importance to lumen measurements.

We suggest you will probably find anything from about 120 lumens and up to be fine for most general purposes, and if the flashlight has a lower light setting, then the lower it is, the better, down to perhaps 10 – 20 lumens.

A distinguishing point that you probably can’t tell if you’re buying online is how even the beam is.  Some beams have a ‘hot spot’ somewhere that makes the rest of the beam area dim in comparison and harder to see, and some have the ‘doughnut of death’ – a dark spot in the middle.  Both these issues are absolute no-no’s in a tactical light, but more forgivable in a pocket light.  The more even the coverage, the more useful the beam.

Battery Issues

There are lots of different types of batteries used to power small flashlights.  Some will operate with one single AAA or AA battery, others use non-standard batteries, some use two or more AAA/AA batteries, some use NiMH rechargeable batteries and some use Li-ion rechargeable batteries.

Even cleverer, some will accept either an alkaline AA battery or a NiMH battery or a Li-ion battery, which seems like close to the ideal ‘best of all worlds’ approach.

From the perspective of a small tiny ‘go everywhere’ pocket flashlight, we recommend you only consider units that will accept one single AAA or AA battery.  Don’t get trapped by buying a lower cost flashlight but which then turns around and consumes expensive hard to find batteries at an alarming rate.

On balance, the single AA battery flashlights are only slightly larger/heavier, but have a much longer life per battery and probably a more powerful beam, too, than the AAA battery units, so that is our ideal compromise battery.

If the flashlight has ‘clever’ electronics in it to accept either a regular AA battery (1.5V when fresh) or a NiMH battery (1.2V when fully charged) or even a Li-ion battery (3.7V – possibly internally reduced to 1.5V) and there’s no appreciable cost or size penalty, then maybe choose that.  But probably you’ll tend to only use it with the AA battery – at 25c each, it is so simple to just replace them as needed, and maybe only once or twice a year.  If you choose rechargeable batteries, you’ll have to recharge them at regular intervals – not only because you have used up all their charge for lighting, but also because such batteries ‘self discharge’ and become flat all on their own over three – six months or so.

There’s nothing worse than a flashlight with a dead battery when you need some light.  And rechargeable batteries, when discharged, are of no use to you if you, eg, need your flashlight in a power cut.  So while we have rechargeable batteries in most of our electronics, we use regular batteries in our flashlights.

Features to Look For

If you’re going to carry your flashlight in your pocket, you want to make sure that the unit has no sharp edges.  Some ‘tactical’ flashlights deliberately have semi-sharp crenellated edges to allow it to become a defensive tool if you are attacked, but those edges will chew through your pocket linings.  Get a flashlight with nice smooth rounded corners.

We prefer metal to plastic, but that’s merely a preference with no real science behind it.

We like units that are dual power.  We seldom use the high power setting, preferring the low power which most of the time is plenty bright enough, while extending its battery life out from perhaps 2 – 5 hours to maybe 20 – 50 hours.  But when we do want the high power, it is great to have it available.

On the other hand, we find three power levels are less essential, and four levels unnecessary.  KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.  And we hate the “SOS” flashing function, but most lights seem to come with that, so it is almost impossible to avoid.

It is good if the unit is somewhat waterproof.

It is good if the unit, while probably generally cylindrical, has some edging on it so it won’t roll off a sloped surface.

It is good if the unit can stand on its end and act as a lamp.

Some units have focusable beams, but that tends to be offered in larger sized units, not in the smallest ones, and we’ve also noticed that some of the low-priced focusable beam flashlights have terribly flimsy focus rings that break almost instantly.  And, need we remind you, we are recommending here a simple ‘take everyone’ small and light and robust unit.  By all means do as we do and get larger more powerful and more fully featured units to keep in the car, on the bedside table, and elsewhere, but for your ‘Every Day Carry’ light, choose small and simple.

Some units come with pocket clips and/or split ring/key-ring attachments and/or wrist straps.  We remove all such things.  At the risk of being overly repetitive, all we want is a simple unadorned flashlight to keep in our pocket.

Small Flashlight Choices

These days it is possible to get small pocket-sized flashlights for as little as $5 – $10.  Certainly, there’s no need to get a unit costing $100+, but if this is to be an ultra-reliable item that is always in your pocket, maybe you want something a bit better than the $5 unit in the bargain bin.

We would also point out that, on average, it seems each of these lights lasts us about three years.  But we replace them not because they fail, but because we lose them.  We surmise they fall out of our pockets – especially when lying back in an airplane seat.  Or we leave them alongside beds in hotel rooms and forget them when checking out.  If you feel you might be similarly prone to forgetfulness, it might be best to not choose an ultra-deluxe unit (and to buy them two at a time!).

We have used Surefire lights in the past for tactical purposes, and continue to view them as the ‘gold standard’ for high stress and special application environments.  But, as we keep returning to, we’re simply wanting a tiny pocket flashlight, so the Surefire units, none of which are small or appropriate enough for this purpose, stay in the drawer.

Our last three units have all been Fenix units, and they remain our preferred brand.  They are robust and well made, and their small pocket models are indeed small and well suited for pocket carry.  They have a limited lifetime warranty, but we’ve never had a warranty claim.

I occasionally buy astonishingly cheap flashlights from China that seem to be as good as the Fenix units, but they have always disappointed, with poor quality construction and uneven lighting, and the Fenix units remain unchallenged as my EDC (Every Day Carry) light.

The Fenix lights come in a wide array of sizes and configurations (and pricing).  Three possibilities to keep in mind would be :

  • Fenix E05, the smallest of the three.  This takes a single AAA battery, has either an 85 or 27 lumen brightness setting, and is $20 on Amazon.
  • Fenix E12, which uses a single AA battery and has three brightness settings – 130, 50, and 8 lumens.  It is $27 on Amazon.  This is probably the best choice and best compromise between too big and too small.
  • Fenix LD12, which uses either a single AA battery or either a NiMH or a Li-ion rechargeable battery.  It has four brightness settings – a ‘turbo’ mode 320 lumens with a Li-ion battery or 150 lumens without, then a 70, 30, and 5 lumen mode as well.  It costs about $50 with one regular battery included, or $60 with a Li-ion and a regular battery.  The Li-ion battery is clever – to charge it, you plug a micro-USB cable into a socket on the battery itself.

If you did want to go ‘wild and crazy’ and get a light so powerful you could cook with it (I exaggerate slightly!) then the Fenix E35 with its 1000 lumen capability is only an inch longer and 0.2″ wider in diameter and 1 ounce heavier.  It has a number of other brightnesses all the way down to a mere 8 lumens and uses a rechargeable 18650 li-ion battery.  $46 without battery or $55 with, on Amazon.  It too uses a Li-ion battery with a recharging socket built in to the battery.

Summary

There are of course plenty of bigger and brighter flashlights.  And there are ones much smaller as well, to say nothing of most phones these days also having a ‘flashlight mode’ to provide a broad/diffuse short-range beam of light.

But for a general purpose always-keep-in-your-pocket light, one of these Fenix lights is an excellent product, and astonishingly useful.  Whether you’re getting one for yourself, or several as stocking stuffers for Christmas, they’ll be appreciated for the high quality and functional items they are, and – like me – you’ll end up wondering how you ever lived without one in the past.

Recommended.

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Nov 192017
 

Amazon’s new 10.1″ large screened tablet, available on special for a short time at $100 rather than its normal $150.

Good evening

As you surely know, we’re in the run up to Thanksgiving.  That doesn’t only mean turkey on Thursday, it also means Black Friday, and as you also surely know, the concept of Black Friday has broadened, particularly with online retailers, who added a Cyber-Monday, and now – especially at Amazon – are offering things such as all-week specials.  Black Friday is no longer a single 24 hour period, but instead it has become a week, or potentially even longer.

I’ve been eagerly watching Amazon for deals, and you should too.  I just now encountered one so exciting I felt it worth a special newsletter to update you on.

Their lovely new 10.1″ screen tablet is on sale at present, with its normal list price, already a bargain at $149.99, dropped down to a stunning $99.99.

This discount is substantial, whether you consider it as a 33% reduction or a $50 reduction.  At the time of writing, their earlier 8″ model remains at $80 (and the 7″ unit, now essentially irrelevant, remains at $50) – there’s every chance they might be discounted too during the week ahead, and I’d not be surprised to see the 8″ unit drop to $60.

But – the 10.1″ at $100 is one heck of a deal.  I wrote about the unit when it was first announced, and reviewed it when it first came out, barely a month ago.  In both cases, I was recommending it at $150, so imagine how positive I am now at its new $100 price.

The key point to appreciate is there’s a lot of improvement between it and the 8″ unit.  The screen size is actually 60% larger – a huge difference that is obscured in an apparently small change in screen diagonal size.  There is an even greater increase in pixels – from 800 x 1280 pixels (1.024 million) up to 1200 x 1920 pixels (2.304 million).  That’s more than twice as many pixels, greatly increasingly the screen quality (pixel density increases from 189 ppi to 224 ppi) and also enabling the 10.1″ unit to show HD videos in full resolution, rather than down-sampled on the smaller 8″ and 7″ tablets.

Whether you want one for yourself, or as a spare, or as a gift, at $100 it seems hard to go wrong.  It is not clear how long the deal will remain, so if you’re tempted, you probably should urgently order one asap (assuming the deal is still there when you read this).

I hope to come out with a complete Christmas Gift Giving Guide as part of this coming Friday’s content, but this is something that can’t wait.

And, oh yes, in case you’re wanting to read something other than Black Friday ads, here are some interesting/amusing stories of what happens in Air Traffic Control Towers.

Until Friday, please enjoy safe travels.

 

David.

 

 

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Nov 172017
 

Astana, described with some justification as ‘the world’s weirdest capital city’ is the starting point for our May 2018 tour of Kazakhstan (with optional extension to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan).

Good morning

It has been an interesting week, with a major development in terms of the future of the A380, but not the development generally anticipated last week.

I’ve been quietly busy this week, and have three feature articles to offer, in addition to the roundup.  One of these arose out of last week’s article on travel blankets, and amusingly/embarrassingly I realized that an article I thought I’d written almost a decade ago somehow never actually made it to the website.  Ooops.  So, a mere nine years late, I’ve now written a review of what is generally my favorite travel pillow, a good combination of comfort, compactness, and convenience, and at a sensible cost.

The second item is another glimpse into the future of motor vehicle transport, this time pointing out that no matter how keen Toyota might be with their Mirai fuel-cell powered car, there’s no way that fuel cells will ever become anything other than a bizarre footnote to the mainstream of vehicle power systems.

The third article started off as one of the roundup stories, but grew to a point where it deserved its own article.  There’s more than meets the eye to the refusal by Emirates this week to order additional A380s.  I don’t know what is not being revealed, but I do know that the official reason for their not proceeding with a new order makes little sense.

As a side comment, at the same time Emirates is waffling about maybe ordering more A380s, it is spending a huge amount of money upgrading their present fleet.  Who better to explain this than Jeremy Clarkson (am I the only person eagerly awaiting season two of The Grand Tour?).

And what else?  Please read on for :

  • Kazakhstan Tour Dates Now Confirmed
  • How Airlines Compete
  • Biggest Airplane Order Ever at Dubai Airshow
  • Supersonic Planes Again
  • Russia Says ‘Don’t Forget About Our Plane Plans Too’
  • A Slow Hyperloop?
  • iPhone X Problems
  • Tesla Continues its Unique Approach to Business
  • How Small Can a Weapon of Mass Destruction Be?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Kazakhstan Tour Dates Now Confirmed

We ended up with a very even split of people preferring May or September for our tour of Kazakhstan, so decided to choose May.  We have a possible Ireland tour being created for late August/early September, and probably New Zealand for late October/early November, and hopefully another Christmas cruise in early December, so May seemed a better time.

I’ve added dates to the page about the tour, and will add all the ‘fine print’ and other details in time for next week.

An astute observer will note how the Kazakhstan tour ends shortly before the Grand Expedition of Great Britain starts.  That is not a coincidence, although I’m still trying to decide if I’ll briefly fly back to the US, or just stay in Europe/Asia for the short time between the one and the other.  I might add another day or two of optional post-touring to the Kazakhstan tour if I stay on.

How Airlines Compete

The new mantra among airlines is to right-size their fleets and routes.  Airlines have discovered the hidden joys of operating full planes, and nowadays would rather fly one plane full and leave people behind, than fly two planes, each 3/4 full.

They are no longer in the business of providing efficient convenient air transportation (cynics might say they never have been in that business).  Instead they are in the business of squeezing as many people as possible into as few planes as possible, all the more so because this artificial supply/demand imbalance allows them to justify charging higher fares.

So, what would an airline do if it noticed a route that was over-served with flights already?  Well, if it was a US dinosaur airline, and the other airlines were fellow ‘competitors’, it would probably ease back on its own flights.  That’s how ‘competition’ works in the US these days.

But if it is an international route being operated by an independent airline, rather than stepping respectfully back, you do exactly the opposite, and start flying the route yourself, no matter whether there is any reason to do so or not.

Iceland is a small country of only 334,000 people.  It is well served by Icelandair, and more recently, by WOW Air, which is moving positively to offer services to the US.

But – here’s the thing.  Both Icelandair and now WOW Air too primarily fly people between the US and Europe, merely going via Iceland.  It is actually a very sensible place to hub – if you look at a globe and draw a ‘great circle route’ you’ll see the shortest route between much of Europe and much of the US actually runs very close to directly overhead Reykjavik.

So you’d think, if you were a US carrier, you’d see these two tiny airlines offering service to Europe, and either ignore them, because they only fly to a limited number of US (and European) cities, or else, offer competitive fares between the same city pairs, but instead of flying from US city to EU city via Iceland, of course fly from US city to EU city via their own pre-existing hub, wherever it makes operational sense to do so.

But, no.  Instead, in an amusing example of knee-jerk responses, first Delta back in 2011 started limited seasonal service to Iceland, then United earlier this year, and now American Airlines too.

But – here’s the thing.  Their flights are only to Iceland, not going on further into Europe.

The AA flight is particularly curious.  First WOW announced plans in September to start flying to DFW.  Then a week later, arch-competitor Icelandair said it would start flying to DFW as well.  All of a sudden, DFW went from zero to two airlines flying to Reykjavik (and of course, on to the rest of Europe too).

So AA has now said it will start flying to Reykjavik too.  But whereas most of the people on the other two airlines might never actually leave Reykjavik/Keflavik airport and just change planes on their way on to/from Europe, AA will need to find sufficient people who only want to go to Iceland and no further to support its new service.  AA will operate a 176 seat 757 on a daily service between 7 June and 27 October next year.

We wish them luck filling the approximately 22,000 seats they’ll be adding to the route.  Details here.

Biggest Airplane Order Ever at Dubai Airshow

After the first day at the Dubai airshow, with the double bad news for Airbus (Emirates not ordering more A380s, and Emirates ordering 787s), it was looking like this was going to be a bad year for the Airbus order book.

And then, two days later, things dramatically changed, with the announcement of an order for 430 A320neo planes.  That’s the largest airplane order, ever.  The planes were ordered by Indigo Partners, probably a name you’ve not heard of before.

So who are Indigo Partners that they can place such a huge order?  They are the company that owns Frontier Airlines in the US, and parts of JetSMART in Chile, Volaris in Mexico, and Wizz Air in Hungary.  Wizz gets 148 of the planes, Frontier 134, and the other two airlines the balance.

Coming in very strongly was Boeing, with an order announced the same day for 225 737MAX planes from  flyDubai (an affiliate of Emirates Airline).  So one way and another Emirates is tilting strongly into the Boeing camp.

The show was also positive for Bombardier.  Egyptair announced its plans to buy 12 CS300s, with options on another 12.  Egyptair has been waffling on the ‘will we/won’t we order some CS300s’ all year, and it seems the new 50.01% ownership by Airbus of the CS series program has given them the confidence to go forward.

Similarly an unannounced European buyer has also confirmed an order for up to 61 CS100 planes.  So the CS series is looking much stronger now than it was a month or two ago.  With neither buyer being based in the US, the Boeing argument with Bombardier and threat of punitive Customs duties of course has no bearing, other than in the sense that Boeing’s bullying of Bombardier forced Bombardier into Airbus’ arms, and now airlines the world over all feel much more positive about ordering CS series planes.

Boeing’s own goal continues to score.

Supersonic Planes Again

If their airplane design and building abilities are anywhere near as good as their pr abilities, then maybe Boom will finally prove to be the one company that actually makes good on their promises and successfully develops a successor to the Concorde.

They were present at the Dubai Show, and generated another round of unquestioning praise.  This second article is interesting because it first quotes the claim that seats on the Boom SST would cost ‘the same as normal flights’ but then modifies that further down to ‘about the same as flying business class today’.

There’s a huge difference between ‘the same as normal flights’ and ‘about the same as business class’.  I can’t see either claim as being likely, because the plane will be small – perhaps with 50 seats, perhaps 55 in a ‘higher density configuration’ (which doesn’t sound very appealing), and costing a firm $200 million (only a little less than a 500 – 550 seat A380, in other words).  Currently their website is down, but that is almost certainly a very temporary glitch.

The second article is also interesting because further down it has a ‘slide show’ that shows a number of other different SST proposals that are in the works.  So many.

Russia Says ‘Don’t Forget About Our Plane Plans Too’

Also at the Dubai Airshow were the Russian airplane manufacturers.  It is easy to forget that Russia still makes planes, and would like to claw back the market share it lost with the fall of the Soviet Union and all its (almost literally) captive markets.

Russia’s MC-21 series of planes currently have two models, one that is about the same size as a small Boeing/Airbus or a Bombardier CS300, with a capacity of about 132 passengers in a two class configuration (the MC-21-200) and the other a 163 passenger in two classes configuration, the MC-21-300 that is moving more directly in to 737/A320 territory.

Interestingly, they are now talking about joining up with the Chinese aircraft manufacturer, Comac, and coming out with an even larger MC-21-400, with a 250 passenger capacity, slightly larger than a 737/A320.  A three plane lineup becomes an interesting family of planes, and with Russia and China (and their allied markets) behind the venture, it could become a major player.  Comac have also been slowly developing a plane similar to the MC-21-300 and this may enter commercial service perhaps in 2020.

If the tenacity and cash of the Chinese is matched with the design skills and experience of the Russians, the result could be impressive.  Watch out, Airbus and Boeing.

A Slow Hyperloop?

One of the many ideas that Elon Musk temporarily appropriated and called his own is that of the hyperloop.  In its pure form it comprises a sealed tube system with most of the air pumped out, allowing pods to shuttle through the tubes at very high speed with very little friction.  It is possible this system might be surprisingly affordable to build, much lower impact than regular high speed trains (because the noise and ‘slipstream’ of a regular train is contained within the tube), and capable of astonishingly high speeds, 600+ mph (faster than passenger jets).

Several different companies are pursuing hyperloop concepts independent of each other, and claim to be in substantive discussions with potential operators in various parts of the world.

One of the newer hyperloop companies is Arrivo.  It was formed after a messy dispute at the company Hyperloop One saw one of its founders leave with salacious lawsuits flying around, and create Arrivo instead.

Arrivo claims to be close to getting an agreement with the Colorado Dept of Transportation and other bodies to establish some routes in and out of Denver – to the airport and to Boulder in particular.

Unfortunately, and as the relatively short distances hint, the Arrivo product is not a 600 mph superfast product.  Its pods would move at a relatively sedate 200 mph.  But as anyone who has been stuck on the Denver-Boulder Turnpike in the morning or evenings can attest to, 200 mph is probably akin to ten times faster than current traffic speeds.

The nicest part of the Arrivo concept is that you could drive your car onto (or should that be ‘into’) a pod, then have the pod whisk you to your destination, then drive your car out again at the other end.  That solves the ‘last mile’ problems at each end, and also means you can keep all your ‘stuff’ in your car as you normally do.

All going well, the system could be up and running in 2021.  That seems an astonishingly short timeframe for something that has not yet even progressed to any sort of proof of concept stage, but let’s all wish them well.  Details here.

iPhone X Problems

I wrote last week, but apparently prematurely, that unlike most new iPhones, it seemed the iPhone X (am I the only one who mentally reads this as the letter ‘x’, not as ’10’) had been released without incurring any of the problems that seemed to arise with many of the previous iPhone releases.

This week, news of not one but two problems with the iPhone X.  A green line on the right of the display, and the screen ‘freezing’ – appropriately enough in cold weather.

Meanwhile, here’s an interesting article that suggests maybe the iPhone 8+ is better than the iPhone X.

And proving the unthinking way that so many people automatically rush to buy any new Apple product, here’s a hilarious situation where Jimmy Kimmel showed people a new iPhone X and asked for their comments.  People gushed over how wonderful it was, as you’d expect.  But what you wouldn’t expect was that the ‘iPhone X’ was actually an old iPhone 4!

Oh – talking about iPhones, there’s much less talk about Apple’s watch product, or indeed, about smart watches in general.  I was idly looking on Google’s Play store this week to see what the current range of Android Wear OS based watches was, and to my astonishment, I see that Google no longer shows any watches at all.  I also realized that the earlier flood of new smart watch releases has pretty much dried up to the barest of trickles now.

While there are still Android Wear watches available, one has to wonder if Google’s quiet de-emphasis of the product sector presages its dropping the Android Wear OS and its future development.

Tesla Continues its Unique Approach to Business

What do you do if you’re running an electric car company, and you’ve two established car models that you are struggling to keep sales numbers up for, and a new third car model that you’re struggling to start producing in appreciable numbers, while all the time losing extraordinary amounts of money to the point that some commentators are expressing concern about the company’s future viability?

Do you focus on your core two products, that you can produce?  Do you focus on resolving the problems with your new third product?

Or do you go off on an unrelated tangent, and announce plans to start making 18 wheeler semi trucks as well – trucks that won’t go on sale until 2019 at the earliest, and which will, prior to then, do nothing except bleed off more cash and distract from your three already problematic automobiles?

Well, you can guess what Elon Musk did on Thursday night.  Yes, it seems that Tesla is now going to crossover from passenger cars into commercial trucks.  A truck that can take a 400 mile charge into its (unspecified capacity) battery in just 30 minutes, and apparently from Tesla’s existing supercharger network.

That’s something I’m going to have to see to believe (I’m guessing it may require power at a rate of 800 kW – like turning on 600 home heaters, all at once).  Currently Tesla’s superchargers operate at a maximum of 120kW, and each two outlet charger has a total of 145kw to share between two cars.  Getting from 120-145kW up to 800 kW out of a single charger and into a single vehicle would be quite some challenge – both for the supercharger station and for the electrical grid supplying it.

And then what happens when two trucks pull up at the same time.  Plus a car or two as well.

Oh yes.  He also announced a new sports car.  Even faster than any of the other Tesla cars.  The new sports car is slated to go into production in 2020.

No doubt Tesla’s investors will react with uncritical delight when the markets open today (Friday).  Details here.

How Small Can a Weapon of Mass Destruction Be?

Help me out on this, if you can.  How small or how big does something have to be to become a ‘weapon of mass destruction’?  I’ve always felt WMDs were especially draconian – you know, the sort of thing we’d go to war over (and indeed did in Iraq).

Okay, so we can probably all agree that a nuke from North Korea would qualify as a WMD.  It seems that chemical weapons have also been generally categorized as WMDs.

But what about a single bomb, dropped from a plane?  A Tomahawk missile?  Are those WMDs?  Or are they, well, single bombs?

Most people would probably say that while a bomb might be capable of destroying an entire building and of killing the people inside it, it is still an ‘ordinary’ bomb and not a WMD.  If, on the other hand, cruise missiles and drone dropped bombs are WMDs, we have a bit of national soul-searching to do.

The reason for my question is this news article.  It tells how a person had a home-made pipe bomb.  There is some suggestion that at some point it might have been going to be used in some way against a neighbor.  We don’t know the size of the pipe bomb, but we do know it was small enough to be in an employee’s ordinary ‘going to work’ carry bag.  We don’t know the type of explosive, but the term ‘home-made’ seems to suggest it was fairly ordinary – maybe gunpowder.  In all probability, gunpowder – especially if home made – in a ‘pipe bomb’ might struggle to create sufficient a blast as to pop the caps off the pipe bomb.

The person, coincidentally an air traffic controller, when discovered with the pipe bomb, was arrested and charged with possession of a weapon of mass destruction, acquiring a weapon of mass destruction, and transporting a weapon of mass destruction.

Never mind the wonderful way that a single situation involves three different but almost identical charges.  Can someone please explain to me in which alternate universe home-made pipe bombs have become weapons of mass destruction?

And Lastly This Week….

I was just wondering, above, how trivial something can be and still be considered a weapon of mass destruction.  Perhaps a clue to this can be seen in how a short circuiting, smouldering camera battery at Orlando Airport shut down the entire airport for an unclear amount of time, but resulting in 24 cancelled flights, and thousands of travelers suffering hours of delays.

Orlando has two terminals and four different sets of gates at the end of shuttle trams, and each about half a mile from the other.

Details here.  Although described as an ‘explosion’ it is fair to note that the battery was doing nothing more than some sparking and sputtering.  But I did like the official reference to passengers ‘self evacuating’.   That used to be called ‘running away’.

Talking about things that are smaller than you think, here’s an interesting list of travel attractions that are smaller than you might think.

My article about the USPS and its unfair shipping rate schedule continues to get some excellent comments, thank you.  I noticed something I’d not realized before with Amazon this last weekend – maybe it is new.  I had a shipment coming from their ‘Fresh’ service and, as a Prime member, I was given free shipping.  But Amazon had another line on its summary of charges ‘tip to driver’ or words to that effect, with $5.00 pre-filled in.

So we are to get free shipping, but are now being suggested/encouraged to give a $5 tip to the delivery driver????  I’m probably the worst person to comment on this, because I come from a culture where we never tip anyone for anything, but since when did we start tipping parcel delivery people?  Should I be giving the UPS driver $5 every time he brings something to the door?  And how is the relativity established?  If an Amazon driver is worth $5, how much is the DHL driver with an expensive international shipment (and a $100+ freight charge) worth?  How about the USPS postie – will the next time I get something from China that costs me $2.50 for the item and the delivery fees then cause me to have to pay twice the cost of the item and shipping as a tip?

Free shipping is no longer free if we’re expected to pay a $5 tip.  I decided not to.  By coincidence, my package was delivered to the wrong address, something that has never happened before.

The apparent non/lost delivery caused Amazon to offer me a $20 credit and refund the entire order.  After I ordered the items a second time, the neighbor called to say she had my package.  I called Amazon to say ‘cancel the duplicate order’ and they said ‘it is too late to cancel it now, so just keep both orders’.  Net result, I received $120 worth of goods and paid $40 for them.  That’s the best outcome I’ve ever experienced from not paying a tip!

As people who travel with me know, I place some importance on punctuality.  But what would I do if I ever were to inadvertently leave 20 seconds early?  Would I respond the same way that a Japanese rail company did after one of its trains was deemed to have left 20 seconds too soon (the next train left a mere four minutes later)?

Truly lastly this week, the next time you’ll hear from me will be when you’re recovering from too much turkey the day before.  If you’re planning on driving somewhere for this Thanksgiving, here’s some unfortunate news.

But, if you do drive somewhere, I hope the pleasant time at your destination will more than compensate you for the inconvenience in driving there.  And if you’re flying, here’s something to ponder while the miles rush by underneath.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Nov 162017
 

The 100th A380 delivered to Emirates Airline, on 3 November 2018. The airline currently has another 42 on order.

By all accounts, the A380 is a lovely plane to fly in.  It is quiet, comfortable, spacious, and flies smoothly.  With three jetways, boarding and deplaning is reasonably quick and efficient, and most airlines operating the plane have fitted their planes out well with inflight entertainment systems.

Indeed, not only is it a lovely plane, but airlines operating the A380 have noticed their passengers seek out A380 flights in preference to other airplanes.

But, just because passengers prefer the A380 is a very weak reason for airlines to choose it.  Not only have very few airlines chosen to buy the A380, but even fewer of the airlines that have bought the A380 are choosing to buy more of them, and some of the airlines who have ordered the plane are backpedaling and clearly have no intention of ever honoring their purchase commitments.  Airbus of course can’t really sue such airlines, because it hopes to be able to swap A380 commitments for balancing orders for other planes it offers, and taking an airline to court is seldom a good way to win its future business (something Boeing should have thought about before filing its complaint against Delta/Bombardier, perhaps).

The Emirates Order That Wasn’t

There had been controlled leaks suggesting that Emirates was about to order another large quantity of A380s at this week’s Dubai Airshow.  Instead, to everyone’s astonishment, Emirates got the show off to a big start by announcing a new large order of planes, but instead of a new order of A380s, it announced an order for 40 787 planes from Boeing.  This marked the final outcome of an earlier order Emirates had with Airbus for 70 A350s, which Emirates cancelled three years ago and was reviewing and renegotiating with both Airbus and Boeing.

As for the A380 order, at first we were told that ‘negotiations were ongoing and expected to be concluded at any time’, but then it became apparent that, no, there’d be no new order for A380s, making the outcome a double loss for Airbus – the 787 being chosen instead of the A350, and no A380s ordered.

The decision to order 40 787s, three years after cancelling the order for 70 A350s, was also surprising in the sense of the lower number of planes being ordered, but perhaps not so surprising when one observes that Emirates has not been enjoying the same seemingly effortless and endless expansion that has marked most of its past history.

Back to the A380.  Emirates reportedly may have been willing to order at least 30 additional A380s, and possibly as many as 50.  At the reduced rate of eight planes a year, this would have been at least a four-year extension of production for the A380 program, and with both Airbus and Emirates feeling that the plane needs time for the market to catch up with its capabilities, four more years on ‘life support’ would be very valuable.

It turned out that the deal-breaker point was Emirates were requiring Airbus to guarantee the A380 would remain in production for at least ten more years.  On the face of it, this should have been a very easy ask by Emirates.  Just the previous week, Airbus CEO Tom Enders was quoted as saying he expects ‘the A380 to be in production for at least another decade’ and indeed, with the current 42 A380s still on order for Emirates and another 38 ordered by them now, that would equate to ten years production without needing any other customers or orders at all.  Add to that possibly a few of the other A380 orders currently on the books actually proving to be ‘real’, and who knows what other airline orders possibly coming in too, and with a new Emirates order, it would seem the next decade would be assured.

But apparently, Airbus was unwilling to give this guarantee to Emirates, and so the deal foundered, with a Catch-22.  Without the Emirates order, the plane’s future is definitely in doubt; but with the Emirates order, its future for the next decade seems almost assured.  Why this couldn’t have been positively resolved is a mystery, even more so because – as detailed further down, with plane replacements, it seems EK would singlehandedly continue ordering sufficient A380s every year to keep the plane in production indefinitely.

Before we get to that, why is the ongoing longevity of the A380 program so important to Emirates?  An even harder question – why won’t Emirates itself guarantee the program’s viability?

The importance is maybe not because EK wants to be able to continue to buy more, whenever it wishes.  It would be reasonable to speculate that the importance is actually attached to the opposite end of each plane’s life – Emirates wants to be able to sell the planes on as it rotates them out of its fleet, at a reasonable price.  The resale value of a current model airplane is generally much higher than the resale value of an obsolete out-of-production plane, just like is the case for cars.

The Resale Value and Annual Depreciation Cost of an A380

Whether leased or owned outright, the numbers pan out very similarly – a higher resale value means either less depreciation cost for owned planes, or less monthly lease cost from a lessor who does the same factoring in of whatever likely resale value the plane will have as part of setting their lease rates as does Emirates itself.

The planes have a list price, currently, of $435 million.  We guess that Emirates is buying them for perhaps $250 million, and some of the first planes it took delivery of were probably much less expensive.

But does the resale value actually matter?  The curious thing is that EK earlier said that when its A380s become sufficiently old as to dispose of, they might just scrap them.  Emirates like to keep a reasonably new fleet with an average plane age of about six years which means selling the planes typically somewhere after six years and before about 12 years.  With their oldest A380s having been delivered almost ten years ago, it is getting close to the point where they’ll be starting to think of disposals.

Most airplanes have an economic life of 20 years, maybe even longer.  The statement by Emirates, back in 2014, that they might simply scrap their A380s, seemed surprising at the time, and if this is indeed their plan, why do they care about resale values at all?

In theory, it seems that a 12-year-old A380 has astonishing little resale value – somewhere between $30 million and $80 million depending on where in the major overhaul cycle it is and how much reconfiguration to the cabin a new airline owner would need to do.

But theory is theory.  What of the real world?  A380 owning airlines have been conspicuously avoiding finding out.  Malaysian Airlines came close to selling its A380s, and for a while it was thought Singapore Airlines would sell its oldest A380s, but neither airline did so, and it is still a couple of years before we can expect to see if Emirates really will scrap their oldest A380s or not.

On the face of it, a used A380 would seem to have extraordinary appeal to a bargain-hungry airline – an airline such as Delta, for example, famous for seeking out old used planes and buying them cheaply.  Why spend the best part of $300 million on a plane and see its value drop down to maybe $60 million 12 years later – ie, an annual depreciation cost of $20 million, when you could buy an older version of the same plane for maybe $100 million now, and sell it for maybe $16 million in another 12 years time – an annual depreciation cost of only $7 million a year – a saving of more than $1 million every month the plane is owned.

But that too is theoretical. The only two things that seem reasonably realistic are that if Emirates truly is going to scrap its A380s rather than sell them on, why does it care what the resale value may be?  Alternative, if it does buy another 40 or so A380s and plans to keep a fleet of about that size (assuming little further growth which would be astonishing), that means a total fleet of about 180 planes.

The possibility of scrapping older A380s is not unique only to Emirates.  Singapore Airlines retired its first ever A380 in June 2017 after ten years of service.  A second A380 has now also been retired, and two more are expected to follow soon.  The first plane has been returned to the leasing company in Germany, the second is sitting in Singapore, and while the lessor says it is confident it will find new homes for the four planes, it is also considering selling them for spare parts.

Emirates Might Need 15 New A380 Planes Every Year Just to Replace Older Ones Being Retired

Now – think of this :  With 180 planes that have been steadily delivered over 15 years or so, and a planned retirement of planes after 12 – 14 years, that means EK will need as many as 15 new planes every year just to replace old planes being retired.  Airbus can keep its production line open for as few as 8 planes a year, and would be ecstatic at the thought of ongoing annual replacement orders of 15 planes, allowing the production line to stay open indefinitely.

So, what is the problem between Airbus and Emirates and the inability to, between them, come up with a deal guaranteeing the plane will stay in production for ten more years?  Emirates could singlehandedly guarantee this simply by its renewal orders.

Is it possible there is some other factor that is not being disclosed?

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Nov 152017
 

Li-ion batteries have become so much better, and so quickly, that there’s no longer any role for fuel-cell vehicles.

These days, Toyota is the best known auto maker promoting fuel cell vehicles.  Yes, they are a very sensible and very successful company.  But even the most successful companies in the world are not always right on every product they develop/support; indeed, it could be said that the more successful the company, the more willing it is to risk failures.

Look at Microsoft or Google for examples of successful companies proudly surrounded by their many failed products.  Or look at the many technological developments that promised to be the future of something, but which instead became dead ends.  Eight track tape cartridges.  Or, more recently, plasma screen televisions, and quite possibly, 3D screens too.

The mere success of a company is no guarantee that all its products will be successful.  And so one should not automatically equate Toyota’s support of fuel-cell technology as guaranteeing the good sense of this technology, and indeed Toyota itself is increasingly hedging its bets – having been an early and successful pioneer of hybrid vehicles, and now moving to fully battery-electric vehicles too and investing into future battery technology research.

Fuel Cells – Once A Promising Future, Now an Obsolete Past

Perhaps it is fair to say that there was a time when fuel-cell powered vehicles looked viable, but the rapid developments and improvements in battery technology have obsoleted and/or are obsoleting the fuel-cell concept.  This is similar to many other technologies that have appeared only to be displaced by other technologies.  Also similar is the slowness with which some proponents of the displaced technology react and respond to the changed marketplace and competitive environment.

There is really only one still one remaining advantage claimed by fuel-cell vehicles – the ability to refuel your vehicle almost as quickly as you could pump gas (ie petrol not hydrogen) into a regular vehicle, and to have a comparable range per full tank.  Indeed, some fuel-cell vehicle options offer more range between fill-ups than do similar petrol or diesel powered vehicles.

Back when battery powered cars had very short range (under 50 miles) and very slow charging (maybe adding only 3 – 10 miles of range per hour of charging), this long-range and fast-refuel capability of a fuel-cell type vehicle had great appeal, as did – also back then – the lower extra cost of fuel-cell technology compared to battery technology.

But now, not so much.  You can get 150 miles of range added to an electric car in 20 minutes – sure, that is nowhere near as good as 400 miles of range in 10 minutes, but it is also nowhere near as crippling as the previous slow charging was.

Furthermore, the whole ‘slowness to recharge’ issue is very much a red herring. The currently comparatively slow rate of charging of electric vehicles is only seen as an issue by people who do not have electric vehicles.  There is also a huge and balancing benefit of having an electric vehicle that few people who don’t own them appreciate – the ability to recharge your vehicle, at home.  For those of us with designated parking spaces that can have a home charger placed alongside, we are freed from the hassle of having to detour off our route to buy petrol.  Buying petrol isn’t just the five minutes of pumping time – it is the time to get to the gas station, maybe to wait for a pump, to pump the petrol, to pay for it, and then to get back onto your route to where you were going again.

Talking about range as well as recharge time, electric cars nowadays will often go 200 – 300 miles on a single charge.

For most of us, most all the time, we never drive more than 200 miles in a day (few people even drive over 50 miles a day) and so, similar to our cell phones, we simply connect our car to its charger each night, and never, during the day, have to think about range or worry about running out of charge.  Indeed, whereas cell phones struggle to get through a day and seldom could last two days, an electric car, at 50 miles or less a day, and 200 miles or more total range, is likely to manage for almost a week between charges.

The future trend in battery technologies suggests faster charging and greater ranges will continue to evolve, whereas for fuel-cells, their filling and storage technology is more mature and there is less chance of matching improvements.

It isn’t just the charging speed and driving range of electric cars that has been improving.  The cost, the size, and the weight of batteries has all been positively evolving over the last decade or so, removing these once major negative factors for battery powered cars.  Between 2010 and 2016, the cost of Li-ion batteries has dropped more than four-fold, from $1000/kWh to $227/kWh, and continues to drop further.  Back in 1991, the cost was $3,200/kWh.  At the same time, a battery of given size can now hold over ten times as much electricity.

Looking speculatively into the future, there are several promising new battery technologies that may give not just further incremental improvements in cost, size/weight, capacity, and recharging speed, but massive disruptive improvements.  There are no such opportunities available for hydrogen, due to the unavoidable physical and chemical limits on the process.

So, maybe hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles were once a great idea.  But they are no longer.  It is time for Toyota and other manufacturers to stop focusing on them, and – more to the point – it is time for governments to stop encouraging and subsidizing this technology.

The Little Talked About Problem with Fuel Cells

Battery powered vehicles haven’t just caught up with fuel-cell powered vehicles.  They’ve zoomed on past.

Sure, you’ve read the gushy stories about how fuel-cell vehicles have no emissions other than a bit of pure water mist, and how their cost is coming down.  Quiet clean technology, low maintenance with almost no moving parts.  And so on and so forth – it is easy to understand the enthusiasm that supporters of fuel cells have.

But how often do you read stories about how much per mile the hydrogen costs to fuel the car?  How often do you read stories that look beyond the ‘clean burning’ fuel cell and its water vapor output to an analysis of what hydrocarbons may have been burned to create the hydrogen in the first place?

The ugly reality is that hydrogen is a much more expensive fuel than electricity, and expressed in terms of a ‘miles per gallon equivalent’ is massively inferior to batteries, and possibly inferior to gasoline as well.  Let me explain why.

It is All About Electricity, Not Hydrogen

Forget the hydrogen.  The surprising fact is that both fuel cell and battery powered vehicles actually use the same ultimate source of power.  Electricity.  Hydrogen is merely a way to transport the electrical energy.  Electricity is used to extract hydrogen, and then in the fuel cell, the ‘stored electricity’ in the hydrogen (gack – that’s a terrible simplification, but an acceptable one for these purposes) is then recovered as part of the process where the hydrogen bonds with free oxygen in the air to form water.  The recovered electricity then powers an electric motor.

As for a battery powered vehicle, electricity is stored not in the form of hydrogen, but in a battery (as chemical energy), and then converted back to electricity, which is then used to power an electric motor – quite possibly a motor identical to the one in the fuel-cell vehicle.

The only difference in these two processes is the relative efficiency and convenience of how the source – electrical energy – is transported from wherever it is generated to the wheels of your car.

In the case of battery vehicles, our existing power grid is used to transport the electricity to your home or wherever else you then charge your car’s battery.

In the case of a hydrogen powered vehicle, there are hydrogen producing plants at various places around the country, and if hydrogen became more widespread as a fuel, there would of course be further plants established.  Unfortunately, unlike gasoline, the hydrogen – in liquid or highly compressed gaseous form can’t be piped to fueling stations, due to its enormous pressure.  Instead, it needs to be trucked, and then stored in tanks at filling stations – all somewhat analogous to how regular petrol and diesel gets to filling stations at present, but without the pipelines efficiently connecting the major sources and distribution points.

Hydrogen distribution systems are clearly less efficient than the electrical grid, and there’s another inefficiency that is obscured but important.  There is also an energy cost associated with either compressing the hydrogen from regular air pressure to its storage pressures, or liquefying it.  Hydrogen tanks in cars are typically rated for a maximum of either 5,000 or 10,000 lbs per square inch of pressure – and of course, the higher pressure tanks allow more hydrogen to be stored.

As a comparison, a SCUBA air tank for a diver usually has air pressures of between 2,000 and 3,500 psi.  Less obvious is that hydrogen can leak more readily than air, because its molecules are very much smaller than nitrogen and oxygen molecules.  So a hydrogen tank and transfer system is not only at very much higher pressure, but the hydrogen can and will leak much faster, too.

The cost of compressing hydrogen to these types of pressures is considerable, and even the small losses due to leaks and inefficiencies becomes measurable.

So let’s look at the actual differences in efficiencies in terms of how much driving you can get per kWhr of electricity, whether it be via a fuel-cell or battery type system.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

If we start off with 100 kWhr of electricity, in the case of a battery powered vehicle, you could expect to lose about 10% of those 100 kWhr in the charging process, and another 10% in the battery.  In other words, if you had three watt meters – one before the charger, one between the charger and the battery, and a third between the battery and its motor, you would first see 100 kWhr go into the charger, then you’d see 90 kWhr come out of the charger and go into the battery, and then you would finally see 80 kWhr of electricity come out of the battery and go into the motor.

In the case of a fuel cell powered vehicle, if we start off with 100 kWhr of electricity, we can either convert natural gas to hydrogen or we can electrolyze water.  Natural gas is – ooops, a non-renewable hydrocarbon, and also has a cost associated with it, so let’s assume instead we electrolyze the water, which is less expensive (but pure water is seldom free).  This is about a 75% efficient process, so we have about 75 kWhr of hydrogen after the electrolysis (yes, I know, that’s a really strange way of measuring hydrogen!).

Now we want to pressurize it.  Liquefaction is actually more energy costly, so we’ll look at compressing.  That’s a 10% energy cost, bringing us down to 67.5 kWhr.

Now we need to truck it to a filling station.  That is probably about a 20% energy cost, so we’ve now got 54 kWhr of net electric energy equivalent remaining.  We fill our car (and will ignore the small loss in this process) and then use the fuel-cell to convert it into electricity, ready to go into the motor, the same as if it came out of a battery.

A perfect fuel-cell can theoretically reach 83% efficiency.  But a real world one seems to run about 50% efficient (due mainly to thermal losses).  So our 54 kWhr of hydrogen ends up giving us 27 kWhr of electricity into the motor.

And that is the fatal problem which hydrogen can never resolve.  Using batteries means that we have an 80% efficient process.  Using hydrogen means we have a 27% efficient process.

(Note – we are ignoring losses/inefficiencies in the electrical transmission lines, and also in the vehicle’s electric motors, because those issues are very closely the same for both battery or hydrogen/fuel-cell systems.)

Looking Into the Future

It is possible that in time, some of the hydrogen steps can be slightly optimized, but even if we were to get closer to impossible perfection at each step of the process, we’re unlikely to go much over 50% efficiency.  Meantime, there are opportunities to improve on the efficiency of the battery process too, although with an already very high 80% efficiency, these optimizations won’t be enormous, but can be realistically expected to perhaps take the overall process up to an 85% efficiency, possibly even slightly higher.

So, in round figures, currently a battery based power source is about three times as efficient as a hydrogen based power source, and even in the future, is likely to remain twice as efficient.

The cost and convenience factors of battery based vehicle power systems can be expected to continue improving.  Not only is there steady incremental improvements in Li-ion battery technology, causing their cost to reduce, their energy density to improve, their recharge-cycle capacity to increase, and the speed at which they can be recharged to also increase, but there are new battery technologies at various stages of development that promise major leaps forward.

Solid state batteries promise to be half the size of Li-ion batteries, capable of being fully charged in a single minute.  It would be very difficult to supply electricity at this rate from the power grid, but perhaps super-capacitors will help smooth the load, and if the recharge speed is slowed down five-fold or more to a rate comparable to pumping petrol, then the grid pressures will greatly reduce.  Solid state batteries also promise a longer life – perhaps 100 times more charge/discharge cycles than current Li-ion batteries before suffering appreciable reduction in capacity.

These new batteries are not yet in commercial production, but may become practical in about five years time.  Interestingly, Toyota is one of the champions of solid-state batteries – clearly it sees a future where its fuel-cell technology may no longer be relevant.

It is foreseeable that within a decade, not only will a battery powered vehicle be at least twice as fuel-efficient as a fuel-cell vehicle, but its battery pack will be smaller, lighter, and less expensive than the hydrogen tank and fuel cell in a fuel-cell powered vehicle, while having longer range and being capable of being recharged more quickly than either fuel-cells or regular petrol/diesel vehicles.

Our point is that not only is there no remaining opportunity for fuel-cell powered vehicles today, the future sees their niche market getting smaller and smaller.

But what if electricity were free, or so low in cost as to make the different efficiency levels irrelevant?  That doesn’t address the other benefits of a battery powered vehicle, but let’s still consider this possible future, which is actually more likely than you might think.

What if Energy is Free?

Believe it or not, there are times every day when in much of the world, energy is indeed close to free.  These are times when renewable energy sources (mainly solar and wind) are generating more electric power than the region they serve is consuming.  At present, the rest of the energy they produce is just wasted – if you don’t use electricity as and when it is generated, you lose it.

There are some elaborate way of storing electricity – perhaps in enormous battery banks, or maybe by running a hydro-electric power station in reverse, pumping water uphill and storing it in the lake above until it is needed, then running it back down and through the generators.  There is growing interest in such systems due to the growing use of renewable (but uncontrollable) energy sources.  Storing surplus energy could then be used when solar stops generating at night, etc.

So, with the continued growth of renewable energy generation, there will be more occasions when there is ‘free’ spare or waste energy.  Could we use that energy, at those times of days, to then create hydrogen almost for free?

Yes, we could, but we could also use that ‘free’ energy to top up our car batteries.  Increasingly we are seeing utilities developing ‘smart metering’ type technologies and demand-based pricing that allow them to direct surplus energy into ‘discretionary’ uses such as battery charging, or into an energy storage system, and which encourage electricity uses to shift their usage from peak periods to off-peak.

Whether or not the electricity is free, it will always be desirable to get twice the use from it.  Only if or when all energy is always free and abundant, at all times of day, every day, will it no longer matter how efficient the storage and subsequent use of that energy is.

One could also argue that even if we always had ‘too much’ energy, we should still be careful at its use.  If we can reduce the infestation of wind turbines, wouldn’t that be a nice thing?  And while there might be ‘too much energy’, it isn’t actually truly free, even if it is solar or wind sourced.  The capital costs of such generating facilities are definitely not and never will be free, it is only the variable costs that sometimes go down very low.

In other words, no matter what the cost of the energy, being able to drive twice the miles per unit of energy is always going to be a good and valuable thing.

Summary

Fuel cells are an interesting technology that once held a lot of promise, but has been obsoleted by the rapid advances in battery capabilities and costs.

Even a theoretically perfect fuel-cell based vehicle will still be only half as efficient as a battery based vehicle.  In terms of operating cost, the differential may become even greater.

Most of the interest and funding for fuel-cell vehicles is the result of state and federal incentives.  These would be better redirected to battery powered technologies and vehicles, and currently these incentives are encouraging the development of obsolete technology that now is only justifiable based on the presence of such incentives.

Resources

Here are some sources for the information in the article above.

Cost per Mile of Hydrogen/Fuel Cells

https://www.cars.com/articles/fill-er-up-refueling-the-2016-toyota-mirai-1420690448036/

Improvements in Li-ion batteries

1991 – 2005 http://grist.org/article/are-the-batteries-ready-100-clean-energy-requires-progress-on-storage/

2010 – 2016 https://www.dvhardware.net/article65919.html

Comparable Energy Efficiencies

https://www.greenoptimistic.com/hydrogen-cars-efficiency/

Future of Batteries

https://www.androidauthority.com/lithium-ion-vs-solid-state-battery-726142/

https://electrek.co/2017/11/14/fisker-solid-state-battery-breakthrough-electric-cars/

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Nov 142017
 

A truly different type of travel pillow that also truly works wonderfully.

A reader wrote in to comment on last week’s Travel Blanket review and shopper’s guide.  We also discussed travel pillows, and I went to find the link to my review of my current favorite travel pillow to send to him.  But – after some searching, I discovered that, even though I have had one of these units since early 2008, inexplicably, it seems I’ve never written a review about it.  Ooops.

So, let’s consider this a nine-year usability test – probably the longest a person has ever taken to test and review a travel pillow!  Can I submit this article to the Guinness Book of Records?

The problem with so many regular travel pillows is they either totally don’t work, or else are either very complicated and/or wildly impractical – way too bulky, or will make you look so strange as to cause even the most thick-skinned of us to cringe self-consciously and prefer the torture of trying to sleep unsupported in a coach class seat.

We see a steady stream of sometimes very creative new approaches to this problem, but we seldom see ones that actually work well and are a sensible product for normal travelers to consider.  But, once in a while, something truly different and also truly good comes along.  The Caldera Releaf Travel Pillow is one of these rare products.

The Caldera Neck Relief simply wraps around your neck and fastens at the back with a velcro tab. Easy and effective.

As you can see from the illustration above, it is basically a modified neck-brace.  And as is illustrated here, it is a soft flexible brace that you simply wrap around your neck and then use the velcro tab to hold in place.

The net result is actually more beneficial than you might think.  Yes, the device – they call it a Neck Brace – does then stop your head from falling – no matter whether it would fall forwards or to the side, your head is now well supported.  That’s enough already to justify the unit’s modest $19.99 price on Amazon (and elsewhere).

But it does something else as well – it does indeed support your head, and if you set it to a firm tightness, it is now actually supporting your head (typical weight up to 12 lbs) and your neck/shoulder muscles can relax.  This helps your body as a whole to relax, and makes it easier for you to mentally relax and perhaps then sleep, and has you less stressed at the end of your journey.

This stress relief is particularly relevant when you’re sitting immobile and unmoving for extended periods.  During our normal day, our head is shifting and moving all the time, so the support muscles are being worked and tightened and released, but when we’re sitting unmoving in a plane, the muscles set in a particular position with no relief or rest.  Hence this extra benefit of the Releaf Neck Brace.

If you ever speak to someone who has had to wear a neck brace for medical reasons, they’ll tell you that while the unit looked awful and was awkward and restricting, it was also surprisingly comfortable.  One guy told me that he didn’t want to take it off again.  This is because the neck brace takes over much of the job of holding your head upright.

The Releaf product gives you almost the same benefits as a ‘real’ neck brace, while being not quite so restrictive or confining.  You can set your own degree of tension/support simply by deciding how tight to fasten the velcro.  Sometimes I go for moderately loose, so I can move my head around and sort of sink my chin into the unit – this is good for when I’m semi-active, other times when settling in for hopefully a nice long sleep, I’ll make it tighter for more support and with my chin above and resting on the top of the brace.

It only takes a couple of seconds to put on, and even less time to take off again.

The unit is lightweight and easy to roll up or fold over to stuff into your travel bag.  It weighs a hair over two ounces – in other words, only slightly heavier than a feather!  And size-wise, I fold mine into a shape that is about 7″ long, 4″ wide, and 1 1/2″ – 2″ thick.  And because it is so flexible, you can stuff it into a bag any way at all to use whatever remaining space there is.

It comes in several different color combinations, and in two sizes.  The larger size is longer than the smaller size; both have the same width and height, it is only the length that differs.  Most adults will want the large size, which is suited for 15 1/4″ and larger sized necks.

I’ve been known to use mine when stealing a short nap at my desk, and it can work well in a train or bus/coach or anywhere at all where you want to sleep while sitting rather than lying.

So – lightweight, small size, easy to use, works brilliantly, and only $19.99.  Based on my, ahem, nine-year evaluation, I’m happy to now finally and highly recommend the Caldera Releaf Neck Rest/Travel Pillow!

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