Hong Kong iPhone Rant

Well, not really a rant. Just frustration.

If you were to go to the US Apple web site today (as I did just now), you can buy an unsubsidized iPhone 6 and wait 7 to 10 days for shipping.

If you go to the Hong Kong Apple web site today (as I did just now), you cannot buy an iPhone 6. It just says “currently unavailable.”

I tried the system for reserving one for pick-up in a store that day. Woke up at 7:50, got to my computer and just started hitting refresh. Up until 7:59, come back later. At 8 AM, a code. You have to send an SMS with that code to Apple and they send you a reservation code. You then have to input that on the web site. But I was unable to get my SMS delivered until almost 8:20 AM. 20 minutes of “not delivered/try again.” And the result was no phone.

Apple announced that they sold 10 million iPhones on opening day. It’s probably more like, took 10 million orders. Reportedly they are manufacturing 400,000 per day through their various out-sourced suppliers.

Here in Hong Kong, those people who are lucky enough to get through buy as many as they can. (You’re allowed 2 iPhone 6’s and 2 iPhone 6 Plus’s per order.) Mostly they are not buying them for themselves. They’re buying them to sell at a profit.

Word is that all of this reselling is causing Mong Kok prices to drop, but if you consider that the top of the line iPhone 6 plus was selling for up to HK$20,000 in Mong Kok (against a list price of roughly HK$8,000), a 25% drop in price still makes it too damned expensive. And with the drop in prices, there are reports that people are now hoarding them to bring to HuangQiangBei in Shenzhen to sell there. I’ve seen friends posting photos of their purchases on Facebook. Now and then I’ll leave a comment asking if they’d sell one to me and the response is invariably, “No, I want to wait a few days and see how much profit I can make.”

Yesterday the Hong Kong police failed to arrest some smugglers who were loading boxes of iPhones onto a boat in Sai Kung at night. They left behind 15 boxes with 130 phones. Who knows how many they got away with?  We can certainly guess how they managed to get so many.

I’m not going to pay a premium to get one. And I’m not going to order one through a mobile company such as 3 or SmarTone as I don’t want to get stuck into another 2 year contract.

So I just have to wait. It’s just a pain waking up before 8 every morning and sitting in front of the computer only to be disappointed. Frustration grows and my desire to get one grows in proportion to my inability to get one.

Here’s a site that’s tracking availability of iPhones in local shops.  I have no idea of how accurate this information is.  C refers to the shop in Causeway Bay, I to the shop in IFC in Central, F for Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong.

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Of course all of this insanity is because the iPhone 6 isn’t available legally in China yet. I almost wonder if Apple has colluded with the Chinese government to make them scarce here to take HKers’ minds off democracy.

I mean, let’s face it, there is no good news in Hong Kong these days. Here are just a few headlines from today’s paper:

  • Rafael Hui got secret $11m payment from Beijing
  • Scuffles break out as students call on CY Leung to meet for talks on political reform
  • Ex-housing boss to lead arts hub (so it won’t be an “arts hub” much longer, but who ever expected promises to be kept?)
  • Thousands join Hong Kong students’ democracy protest as classroom boycott begins (okay, a grand statement, but it won’t change a thing)
  • Ex-civil servant who poured boiling water on maid avoids jail
  • Beijing to take a more active role in Hong Kong’s affairs (so “one country two systems” didn’t make it 15 years, let alone the promised 50)
  • One in five Hong Kongers “considering emigration” as pessimism hangs over city
  • Beijing shifts from indulgence to hard line on Hong Kong

And lets not forget about how last week Hong Kong’s air pollution hit new record highs as Guangdong factories went full-speed to pump out as much product as they could before the week-long break starting next week.

So yeah, I’d rather think about getting an iPhone 6 because the real news is just too fucking depressing.

UPDATE: Yes, writing this post unjinxed me. This morning I was able to get through the reservation system and have a iPhone 6 reserved for pick up today. Last night while doing some checking around, I found that local Chinese language web sites DCFever and HKGolden have hundreds if not thousands of ads for iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. While most people are asking for relatively extreme mark-ups, there are also quite a lot listed at just HK$100 or $200 above the regular list price. One sort of tip for HKGolden – if you’re trying to register there, I’m told they will actually only accept registration from certain email domains. In other words, I was unable to register using my email addresses from Gmail, Yahoo or Netvigator. One friend, who works for the local government, told me he had to use his government email to be able to successfully register there.

iThoughts on New Apple Stuff

First off, as most of you know by now, every year Apple announces new iPhones and iPads and every year I write “hmph, not that much, not going to bother” and then get the fever and rush out to buy it as soon as I can. So I’ve given up pretending to resist. I want the new iPhone 6.

The livestream of the Apple event introducing the new model was a total mess for the first 30 minutes. First of all, someone please tell Apple that it serves no one in any positive way to require that you use the Safari browser to view the livestream. It’s just spiteful, short-sighted, stupid.

Some brainiac had the idea that the live video would be on the top half of the web page and the bottom half would be an auto-refreshing live blog. Why they thought this needed to be on the same page, I can’t even begin to guess, let’s just say lazy thinking. But the result of bad Javascript code that wasn’t properly QA’ed was that every time the blog portion at the bottom of the page refreshed, the video also refreshed and went back to the beginning again.

Also there was some sort of error in the control booth so for the first 30 minutes or so, anyone who did manage to watch the livestream heard the Chinese translator, her voice mixed louder than Cook’s. I thought at first it was some geo-checking thing happening only in Hong Kong; it turned out it was global.

It’s really a shame that a company that’s been doing this for so long – and that was introducing what appears to be some really good stuff – should be set back by these avoidable errors.

iPhone

So the deal in Hong Kong was that 3 PM Friday, you’d be able to go to the Apple web site and reserve up to 2 phones for delivery starting on September 19th. But the store was down until almost 3:40 PM. When it did finally open, it wasn’t working properly probably due to a large number of people hitting the site.

For me, it meant that I could reach the site, could choose what I wanted to buy (iPhone 6, space grey, 128 gig)(my wife said the gold color was unlucky for me since I’d never lost a black phone and I think the Plus is too large for my purposes) but then hitting the “select” button would just bring me back to the beginning of the process again. The phone never went into my shopping cart. Note that I was trying to do this on a MacBook and using Safari, with no luck.

Over at Twitter, I saw tweets from a lot of people having the same problem.

And yet, each time as I refreshed the page, I’d see the delivery date slipping. September 19th. Then 1 to 2 weeks. Then 3 to 4 weeks. Then “currently unavailable.” The pre-orders sold out within two hours.

One friend of mine told me she finally had success when she switched from trying to order on her PC to ordering via the iPhone Apple Store app. She has multiple iTunes accounts and ordered four phones.

The major reason for this is China. I don’t believe they’ve announced the release date for China yet – probably due to extra time needed to clear some regulatory hurdles there. So that means, once again, that everyone in China is trying to get their iPhone from Hong Kong.

The Chinese language HK newspapers published the prices that the shops in Mong Kok would pay for new iPhone 6s and 6 Pluses. The 64 gig 6 Plus, for example, they’d buy from you for HK$13,000, a hefty profit over the retail price of just over HK$7,000. Presumably they will try to sell it for up to HK$20,000, at least initially.

So not only is everyone in China trying to get one, everyone in Hong Kong is buying as many as they can, figuring if they can sell a couple of them up at Sing Tat in Mong Kok, they can make a nice sum of money.

Apple does not seem to have anticipated any of this. So while the iPhone 6 didn’t immediately sell out in the U.S. (at least insofar as I can tell from the Apple blogs I follow), in Hong Kong pre-orders were exhausted within two hours, with no word as to when the process will resume.

On the 16th, you can start to use the app to reserve phones for in-store pickup. As I recall from last year, ordering starts at 8 AM and each day orders were sold out by around 8:02 AM.

Since I don’t want to extend my mobile phone contract by another two years or pay a premium in Mong Kok, if I’m going to get one then I’ve got to buy it direct from Apple. I find that I really miss my 5s (lost in a taxi in Manila in August). The fingerprint sensor was a huge thing for me. I’m almost tempted to go and buy a used 5s – the market will probably be flooded with them very soon. When I lost the 5s, I knew it was just a month before the 6 announcement, so I was hoping I could have the new one in hand soon after that. I should have known better. I think I’ll be lucky if I can find one before November.

U2

In case you didn’t already know this, U2 has their first new album in 5 years and Apple arranged to give it away for free to everyone who has an iTunes account. That’s roughly half a billion people. Billboard reports that Apple will be spending $100 million on the marketing of this album. No word on how much they paid to U2 for this.

The thing is, everyone who has their iDevice set to automatically download purchases found the entire U2 album installed on their device, essentially without their permission. This has pissed off a lot of people.

And that leaves the question – why U2? Sure, they have a long standing relationship with Apple. They can still sell a fair amount of records but they’re far less consequential or notable than they were 10 years ago or more. With Apple upping their music game with the Beats acquisition, one wonders why they didn’t pick something more current (as Samsung did with their huge Jay Z stunt). My guess is that this was chosen as an album least likely to be found offensive by most people. The album itself? Pretty much of a piece with their last 2 or 3 albums. If you liked those, you’ll like this. I’ve played it once so far. It’s okay only.

Apple Watch

Note that it’s Apple Watch, not iWatch. Looks like Apple is finally moving away from the “i” branding on mobile devices?

Ben Thompson has an interesting take on the introductory presentation.  He notes that when Steve Jobs introduced the iPod, iPhone and iPad, Jobs spent a fair amount of time describing the need for this kind of device before revealing the device itself. Tim Cook took a different approach, showing the Watch right away and leaping into the description.

On the one hand, it might be easy to say that this is because Apple can’t speak to what niche this is filling, that they’ve done it simply because they’ve sensed there’s a good potential market for one.

On the other hand, in true Apple fashion they appear to have put a lot more thought into how such a device would function than any of their competitors.

There are three different models at two different sizes each.  Apple only announced a “starting at $349″ price. They also didn’t announce the date it would be available, only that it will be out next year. I’d say they did this to get 3rd party developers working on apps and also because it will probably put a major dent in sales for Jawbone, Fitbit and all the others currently out there. Apple also didn’t say anything about battery life – reports are that it will need to be charged daily.

All of the fitness tracking stuff – well that’s a proven market with lots of players in the space already. Forget sleep tracking if this needs to be charged daily.

The stuff with doodles and emojis, I think that’s clearly meant to be pitched at a generation that has abandoned wrist watches. Give “the kids” something cool to play with and they’ll start wearing watches again.

My initial take on the watch is why would I spend $350 or $500 for a device to wear on my wrist that in large part is only replicating the functionality of the phone that’s already in my pocket? Also, these days, you buy a watch and you know it’s going to last for 2 or 5 or 20 years. Just put it on, change the battery once a year, you’re done. You know that Apple will announce new models of this every year – do you want to upgrade your watch annually just as you do your phone?

Derek Thompson over at The Atlantic has written the most interesting piece I’ve come across so far on why the Apple watch could be a huge success. He reminds us that many analysts predicted the iPhone would be a failure. And that the Watch may be a new category of technology rather than just something that extends the current category.

Our projections of a piece of technology that’s just been invented don’t matter compared to the factors that actually drive adoption, like widely read reviews and the user experience of your colleagues, friends, and family. 

Me? I’m not going to say that I won’t get one. I’m going to wait until it comes out. I want to read the reviews, I want to see how the apps are functioning and extending its usefulness.

 

Review – Think Tank Photo My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13

Photographers suffer from what we jokingly refer to as GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. We get GAS not only for cameras and lenses, we also get GAS for bags. I don’t know any photographer who only has one camera bag. We buy them in all different sizes for all different purposes.

There are plenty of companies making photo bags and I’ve tried lots of them and after several years, the one company that I “follow” is an American company called Think Tank Photo. Their bags are intelligently designed and durable and have stood the test of time for me.

Here’s my “family” of Think Tank Photo bags:

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As you can see, I’ve got six of them, ranging from a small shoulder bag that will hold just my Nikon D800 with a zoom lens all the way up to the rolling Airport Security bag – which I use not just for travel but also for local shoots when I’m taking everything with me.

Think Tank decided to branch out into a new line that they called My 2nd Brain. This is a line of bags that they say are specifically sized for Apple products – MacBooks, iPads, iPhones – though of course they should work for just about any notebook, tablet and phone.

The first series of bags that they introduced left me cold. These were ultra-slim shoulder bags that could fit a laptop or a tablet computer and maybe a few sheets of paper but very little else. They couldn’t begin to accommodate what I carry on a normal work day. I looked at them and wondered if their designers all had 20/20 vision or wore contacts. There wasn’t even space for a couple of regular-sized eyeglass cases, let alone all the stuff I’m liable to carry on an average work day.

So, you ask, what do I carry on a normal day?

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  • 13 inch MacBook Pro
  • iPad Air
  • two pairs of glasses – reading and sun glasses
  • Fiio headphone amplifier
  • Over the ears headphones – most often B&W P5s, sometimes I go for the Bluetooth Parrot Zik headphones, which are also fabulous.
  • a “regular” pen and an Adonit Jot Script pen for writing on my iPad
  • The power adapter for my MacBook
  • a battery-powered electric fan, for all the times I’m waiting for the damned 307 bus in 35 degree heat
  • some sugar-free mints
  • 3 different business cards (day job, photo studio, photo/writing)
  • Keys
  • Battery charger and cables
  • Umbrella
  • Water bottle

And that’s not everything. Not shown in the photo above are:

  • Two mobile phones (one for business, one for “life”)
  • Cigarettes and a lighter
  • Sony RX100 III camera
  • And, occasionally, a paperback book for when I feel like reading on paper vs. on my iPad

Now, take all of that stuff and add on that I’m somewhat obsessive compulsive (as if that wasn’t already evident) and that I don’t want to spend time digging through my bag looking for things. I want each thing to have its own pocket or compartment; first so that it won’t be banging into anything else, and second so that I can put my hands on anything in an instant without digging around.

I have a slim vertical shoulder bag from Skooba that can’t really handle too much stuff. An iPad and two pairs of glasses and the Sony camera leave it bursting at the seams. I have a messenger bag from Crumpler that holds all of the above and more, but it’s just too big – when I’m sitting on the bus it’s really difficult to keep the bag from spilling over onto the laps of the people sitting next to me.

I decided that I wanted some kind of briefcase, to look more professional (okay, granted, I go to work wearing jeans and t-shirts and sneakers, but once in a rare while I have to do “business casual” or even a suit and a messenger bag just doesn’t go with that).

There’s probably a zillion briefcases one can find in Hong Kong, everything from cheap knock-offs to fancy leather cases costing thousands of dollars. I figured I could spend years looking at all of them, trying to find one that would fit my particular mania. But when TTP expanded their My 2nd Brain line to include briefcases, I knew that was the answer I was looking for. The price was right, the size was right and I also knew that this would have all of the pockets and compartments I wanted. So I got the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 in black (it also comes in “Harbor Blue” and “Mist Green”).

(Full disclosure – after not being able to locate the bag in Hong Kong through the local TTP distributors, I approached the company directly asking for a bag in exchange for a review and I was quite surprised when they agreed.)

Let’s start by examining the outside of the bag, starting with the front:

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It’s a very clean, classic design, made from 420D high density nylon with a water-repellant coating. The bag measures 14.2″ wide by 11.8″ high by 4.5″ deep. As you can see, the handle at the top of the bag is well padded. The detachable strap is also sufficiently padded, with those little shiny maybe-silicone bits that keep it from slipping off one’s shoulder.

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There’s even a small buckle on the strap to let you hang a pair of headphones or some other small item with a strap.

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(The above photo is the only one taken from the company web site. Wish I had a nice set-up at home for doing this kind of shooting!)

All of the hardware is durable nickel-coated metal.

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The front flap has two zippers that open to reveal the type of sectioned divider that’s found in almost every TTP bag.

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Note that there’s a deep pocket there good for papers, a small notebook, or perhaps a passport and tickets. (That’s where I put my electric fan.) There’s also a small blue strap with a hook at the end meant for attaching a key ring.

Viewing this same compartment from the other side, there’s another flap that’s the right size for a full-size iPad – in my case an iPad Air in a slim case from Odoyo.

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Just behind that compartment is a zipper that opens to reveal a small compartment meant for a mobile phone.

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There’s also a small webbed pocket in there that will fit business cards nicely. Me, I prefer to keep my phone in my jeans.  I tried putting my Sony camera here but the weight of the camera made this section get all bulgy.  So I’m using this pocket for my smokes. They fit perfectly there and they’re instantly accessible.

Looking inside the main compartment, theres one divider that features 5 expandable pockets:

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And there’s plenty of room to fit some papers or a magazine back there. Still in the main compartment but facing the other direction, there’s another divider that features two clear zippered pockets.

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And again, room behind that for more papers.

What you might also note in the above photos is that there are pieces of fabric along both sides attaching the front of the case to the rear. This is great because it means when the bag is on your shoulder and you open it up on the street, there’s no possibility of the front flipping over and all of the contents spilling out. You also have probably noticed the light grey interior, meaning it’s easy to see every item that you’ve got in there.

TTP include rain covers will almost all of their bags, and the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 is no exception.

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The blue bag contains a black plastic cover. The strap ends with a bit of velcro that wraps around a red elastic hook inside, meaning that you can take the bag out.

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As you can see, the rain cover bag actually takes up quite a bit of space.

Looking at the back of the bag, there’s the zippered compartment for your laptop.

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I don’t know that I needed that bit of cutesy text there. Both sides of the compartment are lightly padded.

Then there’s a slim space that you can drop a newspaper or magazine into.

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There’s also a tight flap that will allow you to put this securely onto the handle of a larger piece of luggage, as shown below with my TTP Airport Security rolling bag.

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Finally, both sides of the bag have zippered, expandable pockets that can hold a water bottle, a folding umbrella, a large eyeglass case or perhaps a kebab from Ebeneezer’s.

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So, yes, this bag holds everything I might possibly want to take with me on a day out, each item in its own place and easily accessible. It’s small enough to fit on my lap and it’s flat which makes it a great “desktop” for holding my iPad while I’m watching my TV shows during my commute.

I’ve been using this bag now every day for about 3 weeks and on the whole, I’m really loving it. It’s the same Think Tank Photo quality that I love in the other 6 TTP bags that I own. It seems strong and durable. It feels as if it will last a lifetime, or at least for several years.

What this bag positively screams is that Think Tank Photo have put the same amount of thought into the organization, construction and details that they put into their camera bags. That’s what I was hoping for in a briefcase from this company and they didn’t let me down.

The size is both a positive and a negative for me. Everything feels as if it has been engineered to military-like precision. The bag is small enough and light enough for me to take it with me every day without feeling as if the bag alone has added 5 or 10 extra pounds to the stuff I carry with me. (The actual weight of the bag is 2.1 pounds.)

It’s also small enough that I can pack it in my luggage when I travel. I know that sounds odd, but generally when flying I want a larger carry on bag (for reasons that I won’t go into here). But once I arrive, I want the smaller bag for my every day walking around stuff. I’ll be able to do that with this bag.

On the other hand, this compactness means that once I fill up the bag, and all of the little inside pockets, there’s not a lot of room left over. This becomes an issue with the power adapter for my MacBook. I’m not sure that the Think Tank designers ever saw this power pack with the huge British plug as opposed to the slim American one – it’s a tight fit and I can’t really use the compartment for this as shown on their web site. I suspect that the bag is strong enough that I could really stuff it beyond the point of sanity and manage to get it closed, but it might get really bulky and uncomfortable to carry at that point. I actually find myself wondering if I shouldn’t go for the 15 inch laptop size – not because I want a larger laptop but because of the couple of extra inches of interior storage space I’d get as a result.

Honestly, that’s about as much of a complaint as I can come up with for the bag. It is 100% the bag I was looking to get. It holds pretty much everything I want to take with me during the week – it holds everything safely and securely and everything is instantly accessible whether I’m standing at a bus stop or sitting at my desk. And, bonus, my wife says that the style really suits me.

The Think Tank Photo My 2nd Brain briefcase series comes in 3 sizes – for 11 inch, 13 inch and 15 inch laptops. Each size is available in three colors – black, “Harbor” blue or “Mist” green.

The My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 that I have retails for US$129.75. You can purchase the bag from Amazon or  B&H Photo.  You can also try contacting Howen International, a great local company that distributes Think Tank products (and other photography accessories) in Hong Kong although at the moment they’re not bringing in the briefcases.

Thanks again to Think Tank Photo for supplying me with this bag in exchange for a review.

Taking Notes

So I was in London for a few days a couple of weeks ago, and sitting in all these meetings, and I noticed that one of my co-workers was using a pen to take notes on his iPad. I asked him about it and he told me the stylus he was using was the Adonit Jot Script and the software was an iOS app called Noteshelf.

I thought about it after I got home and decided that there could be quite a few advantages to this, not the least of which is that now my notes are spread across 27 different notebooks and pads. My iPad is obviously a lot lighter than my laptop, using a stylus for input might be more intuitive and faster, and using a note-taking program that syncs with Evernote, such as NoteShelf or Penultimate, would mean that wherever I go, no matter what I’m carrying, all of my notes would be with me.

I did a bit of research, as I am prone to do, and saw that everyone pretty much agrees that there are 2 stylii at the top of the heap when it comes to writing text on the iPad – the Adonit model my co-worker was using and and Pencil from FiftyThree.com. Pencil looked a bit thick to me while the Adonit more closely resembles a pen. These both use bluetooth and feature “palm rejection technology,” meaning you could rest your hand on the iPad while writing and it should mostly be ignored.

So Adonit Jot Script it was.

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Their web site shows the price as US$75. That should equate to HK$600. So you can imagine my surprise (and dismay) when I went over to the Wanchai Computer Centre and found that the few shops that had it in stock were asking HK$1198 for it – double the price.

Because that’s how things work in Hong Kong. When something is seen as (a) desirable and (b) in short supply, retailers will try to gouge you.

Next I looked on price.com.hk and saw that the HK price should indeed be $599. They listed several shops in Mong Kok’s Sim City mall has having it at that price, so I went there on a Saturday afternoon when I had nothing else to do. (Note that despite the recent heat wave, Mong Kok was completely jammed with people and the view was a heatwave of a different kind.) None of these shops had it in stock.

So now I could wait until it came back into stock – which would mean walking back over to the Computer Centre every few days or once a week until I spotted it at the normal price (it’s just a 5 minute walk from my office) or I could order it online, where it seemed to be in plentiful supply.

Amazon has it at $75, no discount. If I wanted fast shipping on it, that was going to be an additional HK$250 (roughly US$32.50, almost half the price of the stylus, no thanks).

Then on a whim I went back to Adonit’s web page and tried to order it from them. They do direct sales. So plenty of stock. $75.  How much for shipping?  US$8. And just 2 day delivery? What? Because it turns out that this is not just made in China, as you’d expect, but they would be shipping it to me from China.

So instead of paying $1198 at the computer center or $850 to order it from Amazon, I’m getting it for HK$665 – and it’s certainly worth HK$65 to me to save myself from making 27 more trips trying to find it in local shops.

I also decided that while I was at it I’d add a keyboard to the iPad, for banging out long emails, which I am forced to do too frequently. Logitech’s are the best reviewed. A number of shops tried to push Belkin’s at me, but it was clear after comparing the two side by side that Logitech’s keyboard was the better one. There are three different models and I went for the cheapest, the one that flips over the screen rather than ones that combined a full front and back cover.

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If I think of it, I’ll post some sort of review on both of these items after I’ve taken a couple of trips with them (Manila visit coming up in a week and I’ll just take my iPad and leave my laptop at home).

I’m not always this lucky when it comes to buying stuff like this. I’m a huge fan of Think Tank Photo’s bags.  I probably have six of them, from a small shoulder bag that holds a small camera plus several odds and ends, all the way up to their rolling bag that can hold my D800 and all of my lenses, accessories and laptop.

Now they’ve got a line of briefcases and shoulder bags designed around iPads and MacBooks that are probably incredibly well built and durable and feature what appear to be thousands of pockets. They call this line My 2nd Brain. Okay, not the greatest name in the world. But the My 2nd Brain Briefcase 13 looks to be perfect for me.

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It will easily hold what I normally carry with me during a normal work day. Reading glasses, sunglasses, over-the-hear headphones, keys, mints, pens, business cards, iPad (and sometimes MacBook), a camera, a battery-powered fan (for those 20+ minutes I’m standing on the street waiting for the goddamn 307 bus) and a book or two – all without taking up too much space on my lap while sitting on tiny, crowded bus and mini-bus seats.

But it’s nowhere to be found in Hong Kong. I checked at DCWave at Sim City and they don’t seem to be carrying the line at all. I called a friend – who is one of Think Tank’s HK distributors – and he told me he probably wasn’t going to carry it since the minimum order is 24 pieces and the line wasn’t selling that well for him.

So the price is US$130, should be HK$1,000. Pretty reasonable, I think. I could order it from B&H Photo or Adorama, but they want an additional US$80 or more for shipping, and that’s just insane. I wrote to TTP and they suggested that I check with their Singapore distributor. I wrote to them – and they never wrote back they wrote back after 3 days saying they don’t have it in stock and in any case they won’t ship to Hong Kong.

Next thought, since I’m going to Manila soon, I wrote to the Manila distributor, who told me that this hasn’t reached the Philippines yet and they didn’t know when to expect it.

So there is always one more option – “do without it.” And I guess that’s what it’s going to have to be.

(Reading all of the above, yeah, I know, it probably gives the impression that I have way too much free time. All I can say to that is that on weekdays I get home from work about 2 hours before my wife does. Plus she works on weekends and I don’t. So this kind of crap is another way to fill up some of the time.)

 

New Gadgets – Amazon Kindle Fire HDX and Jawbone Up24

A week-long visit to New York City is coming to a close. I’m here because it was my mom’s 93rd birthday this week.

My mother’s relationship with technology is unique. When people hear that a 93 year old woman has a computer, does email and is on Facebook, they assume that she must be some kind of tech wizard – and perhaps it’s true for someone her age. But in the 20 years she’s had a computer, she actually has learned very little about how it operates. She can bring up a browser and click the right buttons to look at email, Facebook and Amazon. But she has no idea of how to do a web search, doesn’t know how to forward an email (or find any email that has dropped down from the first page) and doesn’t know what cut-and-paste is. She’s still on Windows XP and uses an older version of IE. Be that as it may, she gets by.

However, at 93 years old, her eyesight is failing and she gets tired very quickly. She has trouble seeing the computer monitor and also no longer wants to sit in a chair in front of the monitor. While that might seem to suggest a laptop, that didn’t seem like a solution to me. For her, even the MacBook Air would be a heavy thing to hold on her lap and the heat would really get to her, not to mention the expense. So a tablet computer would be the way to go.

As an Apple fanboy, you’d think that I would naturally suggest an iPad for her. But I didn’t. I got her the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX with the 8.9 inch screen.  Why did I make this choice? It’s very simple. I can be anywhere in the world and log into Amazon using her account and obtain content for her that will automatically appear on the Amazon device without her having to do a thing. Whether she wants a movie or a game or a book, I can do it for her.

We went for the 8.9 inch version, significantly more expensive than the 7 inch version, because she tried the 7 inch one in a shop and it was just too small for her.

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There is one other thing that Amazon offers that I don’t think any other tablet maker has. You can hit the “help” icon and then click on a yellow button and you will get a live person talking to you and showing you things right on your screen. Amazon says that their staff can view the screen but not access the camera to view the person. They also say that the average wait time after pushing the yellow button until you get to a live person is 15 seconds. So far we have not tested this feature out.

She’s had it for two days now. I’ve installed Skype and Facebook and a few other odds and ends. The screen is beautifully clear (resolution is said to be just a hair less than the iPad’s retina display) and speed of opening and running apps seems good. The OS is Android, with some extensions from Amazon, and it seems to work pretty smoothly. I think Amazon has come up with a really good device here.

There are just a few issues that I want to highlight. The first is Amazon’s elegant hardware design. There are just 3 buttons for this thing – a power on/off button and two buttons for volume control. These are on the rear of the device, small with tiny white icons and very flush against the rest of the back. Basically this means that my mother can’t see them. And when I tried to teach her to slide her fingers down the back of the tablet until she felt them, that doesn’t seem to work too well either. Finally I put two small pieces of white masking tape along the top and bottom of the power button and that seems to have solved that. She’s going to have a hard time seeing where to plug in the micro-USB cable to charge the device but one of the two pieces of tape is right by the charging port so I hope she will be able to work that out.

The second is that while you can resize most things on the screen, you can’t resize the navigation icons. There’s a tiny white house for “home” and a tiny white “back” arrow key and they remain tiny no matter what you do. Once I get home I will have to search through Amazon’s app store and see if they have any accessibility apps that help with this.

I think/hope that this will work out for her.

My other new gadget is one for myself, the Jawbone UP24 fitness tracker.Jawbone_UP_35831719-2-10

I’d previously had the Nike Fuel (which I got as a gift) and stopped using it after a month or so because I wasn’t finding it very useful. The Jawbone seemed like it would be useful because it tracks sleep as well as fitness. I have Obstructive Sleep Apnea and I don’t use my CPAP machine.  I knew that this probably wouldn’t be able to show exactly how the OSA is impacting my sleep (the last time I did a test in a sleep center, it showed I was waking up approximately 50 times per hour; those events are too brief for the UP24 to notice) but I was curious to see what this could show me. Also I have gained a bit of weight in the past 6 months and I know I need to lose that and I hope that this can help me with that.

After about a week with this, I’m liking it, with some reservations.  The nicest thing is that the UP24 has bluetooth and is constantly connected to my iPhone as long as the phone is in range. I don’t have to take any action to sync it with the phone app.

The Jawbone app is much better in many ways than Nike’s app. Nike has this concept of “Nike fuel” and they don’t explain how that relates to anything in the real world. Jawbone stays away from such silliness. Jawbone also has an app store with a few additional apps and I expect that the device will become even more useful with iOS 8.  The device has no screen of its own, unlike the Nike Fuel, just two LEDs to show status. All of the display is on your phone app.

In terms of day time use, this thing basically counts footsteps. You input your height and weight and age and it tells you approximate calories burned. But I don’t know if it can measure the difference between walking up hill or down hill. There’s no way it can know if you are walking empty-handed or carrying a 20 pound bag in your arms. And it presumably can’t tell the difference for a one mile hike in 20 degree C/50% humidity vs. 35 degree/90% humidity.  You can input some of what you eat during the day to get a comparison of calories consumed vs calories burned.

The other issue I’m having with it is that you have to push a button to let it know you’re sleeping. And then it automatically makes a guess as to when you wake up. So for example, last night I went to bed at 11:30 and pushed the button. It shows me how long I took to fall asleep and how much was “light” sleep vs. deeper R.E.M. sleep. But I woke up to go to the toilet around 2:30 AM, forgot to push the button when I lay down again, and as a result it “thinks” I only had 3 hours of sleep last night.

Over all, I find this a very well thought out device. The reviews all seem to suggest that wearable tech is very flawed but that the UP24 is the best of a flawed bunch. I think it’s definitely better than the Nike Fuel.

The true test of the Jawbone UP24 will be a long term one. Once the novelty of having this wears off, will I still continue to use it? That will depend on whether or not I’m finding the information it provides useful.

Anyway, my NYC visit comes to an end today. Naturally last night was the first night in which I went to sleep at a normal time and slept for 7 hours, more or less. So I’m finally in the NYC time zone exactly when it’s time for me to return to Hong Kong, so I get to be a wreck for a few days after I get home. Oh joy.

Neil Young’s Pono – Oh No!

Neil Young is a famous audiophile. Cranky ole Neil has raged for years about audio fidelity. First we got to hear about how much he hated compact discs. Now seemingly every chance he gets he’ll go off on how much he hates MP3s.

To some extent, he’s right. Digital music doesn’t sound as good as analog. And compressed files don’t sound as good as uncompressed. The thing is, 99.9% of the world doesn’t care.  The average person can’t afford the kind of equipment that brings out this rich sound and the average person probably couldn’t tell the difference – especially because most of the music today is heavily processed stuff that is mastered for MP3 in the first place. Most people are probably listening to 128 KB MP3 files through the cheap earbuds that came packaged with their phones and they think it sounds great.

At any rate, for years Neil has been threatening something revolutionary in the audio world and he finally announced it, via a Kickstarter campaign – Pono Music, Where Your Soul Rediscovers Music. And it’s not really revolutionary after all.

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After all these years of sound and fury from Mr. Young, I for one feel let down.

Pono is a portable music player and a music store. The files are in FLAC format, although the player will also handle MP3 and other formats.  So it’s not a new audio format, which is what I was kind of expecting. FLAC has been around for a long time and there is already a huge library of software for encoding in FLAC and for playing back FLAC music files.

So first, the store. They claim that all the major record labels are behind this. Albums are expected to cost between $15 and $25. They’re reasoning that people will pay more to buy digital music in a lossless format. It’s expensive but I can see some people going for this.

There is no word on whether or not the music files they sell you will contain Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection. I think the answer to this is no because they say that you can play the files you buy “on your PonoPlayer or other compatible devices.”

So I think that’s all pretty good.

Now, the player.  This is where I have a problem.

It will sell for US$399. It will serve one function and one function only – playing music. I am already walking around every day with two mobile phones and a tablet that are capable of playing music and are also capable of about a million other functions. Do I really need to carry another device just for playing music?

Well, they claim that music will sound great on this.  They say that this will be “the best playback device ever for listening to high quality digital music.” The best Digital Audio Converter (DAC).  The triangular shape is said to allow them to use larger components inside, properly spaced, as well as a round battery instead of a flat one, which they say will all result in less interference.

The device itself has just three buttons – on/off and two buttons for volume. Everything else is controlled through a touchscreen interface. In terms of storage, it comes with 64 gig of internal memory and with a 64 gig MicroSD card. They’re claiming 8 hours of battery life for the player. The player will be assembled in Shenzhen.

The Kickstarter campaign has already raised over $2.4 million dollars. There are different rewards at different pledge levels, starting from $5 (you get a thank you on their web site). You can get a Pono player for $300, $100 off list price, in black or yellow.

$400 gets you something a bit more collectible.

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It’s a chrome Pono player, numbered limited edition (500 of each), laser inscribed with the signature of the artist of your choice, pre-loaded with 2 albums chosen by that artist. The signature editions that are sold out are from Pearl Jam, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and Neil Young. Still available are ones from Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, My Morning Jacket, Patti Smith, Arcade Fire, Beck, Crosby Stills & Nash, Dave Matthews Band, Foo Fighters, Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, Lenny Kravitz.  I guess Patti Smith and Arcade Fire would be my first and second choices – if I was interested in getting one.

The Pono player is expected to ship in October.

$5,000 gets you an invite to a launch party in California hosted by Neil. This one is sold out already.

So why am I not interested in getting one? These days most of my music listening is done in noisy environments – on the bus, in the office, walking down the street. And I recognize that at my age, a lot of my ability to hear high frequencies is gone. I think that sitting at home in my home office I might hear and appreciate the difference, but the rest of the time I won’t. And I simply don’t want to carry around another device every day when the ones I’ve already got already do the job for me quite well.

What about you? Does the Pono player interest you? Are you thinking about getting one?

Smart Watches?

Wearable tech is the big thing for 2014, or so the pundits tell us. The jury is still out.

Right now the stuff that’s doing well in the market are wrist bracelets that provide a variety of health and exercise related functions. I’ve got the Nike Fuelband, a gift from a friend, I wore it for about a month and since then it’s been gathering dust. Jawbone and other companies are doing okay in this space as well.

Of course there’s Google Glass, which right now costs US$1,500 and is only available in very small quantities to an invited audience. It will become more widely available at a more reasonable price.

And there’s smart watches. The most successful company in this space so far has been Pebble. They launched a couple of years ago via Kickstarter with a $149 watch that could link to either an iOS or an Android device via Bluetooth. The screen is a backlit eInk screen and it runs several apps. This year they’ve released the new Pebble Steel at $249. It’s a fine looking watch, at least as far as smartwatches go, and I was momentarily tempted to order one.

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The thing that stopped me is that it’s $100 more for what is now two year old technology – they updated the case and the wristband but the tech inside the case is still the same.

The most disastrous smart watch launch to date has probably been the Samsung Galaxy Gear. It only pairs with Samsung devices – but considering that Samsung phones are outselling just about everything else, the potential audience is wide enough. However version one received almost universally horrible reviews and reportedly returns were running well over 30%.

Samsung has just announced version two, and interestingly enough it will no longer be an Android device.

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It will use something called Tizen, a new Linux open source OS backed by Samsung and Intel. (Samsung is also expected to announce its newest flagship phone, the Galaxy 5, this week.)

Of course the 800 pound gorilla in the room is still Apple, which is expected to announce their own watch at some point this year. It seems like anyone who has Photoshop is working overtime to create images of what the iWatch might look like.

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I have both an iPhone 5s and a Samsung Galaxy S4. I still prefer my iPhone by a wide margin. That’s the one I use all day long. The Samsung mostly sits in my pocket, only getting pulled out for business related use and left plugged in at home on the weekends.

So I will wait and see what Apple comes out with. The way I figure it, I don’t need all the apps I’ve already got on my phone on a smaller screen on my wrist that I probaby won’t be able to read without glasses. But the extra notification of incoming calls and texts would be useful. I keep my phone on silent most of the time and very often won’t notice it go off even though it’s in my pants pocket as I’m walking down the street.

The wrist watch is another business that has probably been disrupted by smart phones. The luxury watch business is doing fine, and probably always will. But a lot of people around the world who will never buy a Rolex are asking why they should wear something around their wrist when there’s already a clock on the phone that’s always in their pocket (or in their hands).

For now, I’m sticking with my Casio G Shock.

Snugg iPhone 5 Case Review

Since I write a fair bit about the iPhone and iPad from time to time, the folks at The Snugg wrote to me and asked me if I’d like a free case in exchange for a review. They told me I could select from a subset of their offerings and I chose their “Ultra Thin Bamboo iPhone 5 Case in Black.”

iPhone cases are practically a dime a dozen in Hong Kong, and even cheaper if you head across the border to Shenzhen. I always pick up a few of these cheapies at a time – either I get tired of the design or it doesn’t really fit the phone properly or it just falls apart after awhile.

In terms of material, I’ve steered clear of those rubber ones, because I just don’t like how they feel and some of them have seemed to “stick” against my wallet. I’ve also stayed away from leather because that usually adds too much bulk. I don’t like anything with a cover or any of those pouch-like ones. My phone is usually in my front jeans pocket, sharing space either with my wallet or my work phone (a Samsung Galaxy S4).  So I want a screen protector on the front and something thin on the back and sides. The Snugg Bamboo case seemed to fit my particular bill.

So here’s front and back shots of the packaging.

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 And here’s the front and back of the case once removed from the packaging.

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 So as you can see, it’s suitably thin. The bamboo piece has been coated so that it’s smooth to the touch – you’re not going to get any splinters when you pick it up.  The black piece is some sort of plastic or rubber – I’m no expert here – but also smooth. It’s a good, proper fit. Once the phone is in the case, there’s no jiggling around.

Both the top and bottom are “open” – on the bottom it’s not covering the speakers, lightning jack, or headphone jack. The cut is the same on the top, even though there’s just the one on/off button there.

The one thing I would change? I wish it was just the plain wood without their 3D logo. It takes away from what I think is otherwise a pretty sharp looking case.

Here’s a shot of my phone in the case:

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 And a side view:

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 (You’ll probably have to view this photo full-sized. It’s my phone standing on its side, using the, um, case’s case to balance it.)

One thing you should take away from these photos is how thin the case is. It’s also very light. So it adds little to the size or weight.  Yet it seems rigid enough to do what it’s supposed to do.  No – I haven’t tried any torture testing on it, no dropping my phone from ten feet or trying to see if I can smush the case with my fists.  I’ve only had it for a couple of days so I can’t comment on how well it will still look after a month or two. This particular case sells for US$24.95. (Other iPhone 5 cases from them run from $15 up to $40.)

The Snugg actually has a very wide product range. They make cases for every version of the iPad (some include Bluetooth keyboards) and quite a few other tablets out there (including Kindle and Nook). They cover (pardon the pun) iPhones and Samsungs and Blackberry and they also have cases for MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.  They claim to be the #1 seller of iPad cases on both Amazon US and UK.

I just took a look at their listings on Amazon for their iPad case. Almost 5,800 reviews, with an average rating of 4-1/2 stars. Not too shabby. For the bamboo iPhone case, 45 reviews with an average rating of 3.8 stars.

Of course there’s about a billion companies making a zillion cases out there, running the gamut from a buck or so up to designer cases that can cost more than the phone itself. Why pick one from these guys?  Well, of course the first thing will come down to whether or not you like the styles on offer.

These guys do offer a bit more though. They offer a lifetime guarantee on all their cases, they ship globally, they offer free shipping for orders over US$50 (I’m guessing that’s just in the US or the UK – I can’t find any further details on the web site) and say that they offer “no fuss returns.”

Overall, I’m happy with the bamboo case and intend to keep using it. You could do worse than to check out their site and see if they’ve got a case that suits you.

 

New Apple Stuffs

First off, I should mention that one month after release, it’s still very difficult to get the iPhone 5S in Hong Kong – especially if you want the gold one. I “registered my interest” with my mobile carrier back on September 17th for a gold 64 gig model and am still waiting. Just checked the Apple HK web site and it says 2-3 weeks for the black or white models, the gold one is unavailable and you can’t even place a pre-order for it.

(Why do I want one? The fingerprint sensor and better camera would be useful for me, worth the upgrade if I’m doing it contract/subsidized. I feel no desire to run over to Sin Tat and buy a grey market one.)

As for yesterday’s Apple news, in case you haven’t read it yet elsewhere, new iPads and MacBooks.

The “big” iPad is now called the iPad Air, because the size has shrunk down a bit and it weighs 1/3rd less. Inside, there’s the same A7 CPU that the iPhone 5S has. People were expecting it to also share the fingerprint thing but that didn’t happen. The pundits I read have all been going ga-ga over this and I’m at a loss to understand why. This is innovation? A little bit smaller, a little bit faster – but nothing really new to speak of. Maybe once I actually hold one in my hands I’ll have a better idea but basically I was glad that I didn’t stay up late to watch the live-blogging of the event.

The iPad Mini got the same A7 sensor and now boasts “retina display,” a bigger upgrade from the previous model. For my tired eyes, I prefer the larger iPad. The size and weight are not a problem for me.

The MacBook Pro got Intel’s latest Haswell processor – better battery life. So that’s the innovation there – shoving in a processor made by another company. The 13 inch retina display model also lost a bit of weight. My 15 inch retina display MBP is a couple of years old now and it’s tempting to trade that in for the latest 13 inch model. Aside from my own MBP, I managed to convince my employer to replace the crappy Dell that was sitting on my desk when I started with a 13 inch (non-retina display) MBP and I’m happier for it.

I guess the real innovation from Apple is that the latest OS upgrade, Mavericks, is free. And on the mobile side, Apple’s iWorks suite is now also free with new devices.  I’ve upgraded my work machine but won’t get to my home one till the weekend.

Up and Down with Spotify

Call me crazy, call me nuts, but when I run across an interesting video on Youtube, I’ll download it in MP4 format and toss it onto my iPad for later viewing. Such was the case with this wonderful BBC 4 Arena documentary on Brian Eno that was done in 2010.

If you’re an Eno fan, this is really essential viewing. In one hour it manages to cover most facets of his career, more time spent on his ambient and experimental music but with plenty of nods to Roxy Music and a bit of time spend on his producing efforts with Coldplay and U2.  You get to see him working in his (I think home) studio, hear him discuss his thought processes and influences, it’s really a pretty complete profile.

Midway through, he mentions that one of his favorite productions of all time is Giorgio Moroder’s work on Donna Summer’s “State of Independence.”  (He likes the sound of the robotic sequencers against her voice.) I never even knew she covered this. I flipped over to Spotify and had the song streaming in a matter of seconds.

Although … I really love Moodswings’ version with Chrissie Hynde, which I think is the original (too lazy to check). Spotify had the single version of that but it didn’t have any of their albums because suddenly I got really in the mood for an extremely guilty pleasure, Moodswings’ Live at Leeds album, which basically sounds like 100 people randomly hitting percussion instruments for 36 minutes or so, with a bit of a dub or some tape loops tossed in here and there. It’s an all time favorite. Please don’t tell anyone.

Having completed the documentary, I then wanted to hear some classic Eno stuff. I brought up Spotify on my iPad and it found Eno and when I clicked on his name, that little wheel just kept spinning, minutes on end.

So I took out my iPhone and did the same search on Spotify and the search results came up instantly (and both my iPhone and iPad were on the desk next to each other, both on the 3 network) but not quite right. Search on his name and you find him but then it says there’s nothing available. Butthen click on albums and you get a list of almost every album he’s done and in a few seconds I was listening to Another Green World, which mostly streamed pretty smoothly with just a couple of buffering pauses in 30 minutes.

At home, my Spotify boat seems to have run aground. Spotify is refusing to work on my desktop Windows PC.  It worked for awhile but then a few days ago it came up and said it was offline and couldn’t get online.  So I followed instructions and did a clean reinstall.  Following that, it doesn’t come up at all.  I get “error 101″ which means it is likely being blocked by my firewall, but I checked and saw it was one of the allowed programs there.

Hmmm. Even though it worked in the past, I next tried disabling my anti-virus software. Nope.  And I’ve got a few different VPN programs installed so I deleted those. Nope. Their tech support is telling me to make all sorts of entries in my router, which makes little sense because at home, on WiFi and not on cellular, my iPhone has no trouble reaching Spotify through that same router.  So the answer clearly lies within my PC but all tech support keeps telling me to do is to do a clean reinstall.

I can live with that – I’ll probably use this mostly for mobile purposes. I wanted to use it on my desktop primarily to get links and build playlists to share here, which I now cannot do – at least temporarily. No idea why the same search on my iPhone and iPad, on the same network and right next to each other, would work on one device and not the other.

Anyway, watch the Eno documentary.  I really loved it.  Here’s a link in case you’re not seeing the player which should have been embedded above.