Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Star Trek on Blu-ray

Live Long and Watch Star Trek

It's been a brutal 6 months, which is rounding down on the amount of time since the release of the JJ Abrams reboot of Star Trek to its release on Blu-ray, but it was worth the wait. There was literally a shorter wait for GI Joe and Transformers 2, which I only compare because they were big summer blockbusters (not because I think they ordinarily belong in the same paragraph as Star Trek).

I've already reviewed the movie itself, so I'll direct you to that May post instead of going into all the gritty details about the content of the movie itself. I don't pre-order movies very often at all though (hadn't since literally January) because I'm usually ok with waiting for price drops if I liked it enough that I'll want to watch it again sometime, so the fact that I pre-ordered this should be some indication of how blown away I was by this film. Months after seeing it there were scenes that stuck with me (much like my favorite of the year, Inglourious Basterds) and it proved further to me that this is a really fun film for repeat viewings. It puts together a well-constructed story (despite being controversial) with truly dedicated actors/actresses and grand set pieces that feel really worthwhile rather than tawdry reminders that this is a summer movie (that was actually intended originally for a winter release). If you haven't seen this movie then you really need to put renting it at the top of your list for movies to check out - definitely above pretty much anything playing in your local theater right now (at the time of this posting, at least).

Moving swiftly along: I was a little disappointed with the overall presentation of this set. First of all, the slip case for the Blu-ray box had the back side with the run time and pictures and such just tacked on with the junk that credit card companies use to send you new cards. I like the fact that the Blu-ray case itself is full-on Chris Pine's face (the one peeking through the title on the slip case), and on the other side is a close up of Zachary Quinto's face as Spock. I loved the focus in the marketing of the theatrical release on the characters as being powerful enough imagery to sell the film - it's simple and it works. What I was really more disappointed in was the overall menu system. It's not terrible, but I just expected something cooler given that it's Star Trek, especially compared to Iron Man. There's also like 3 trailers (or ads, as I like to call them) and a video game ad to start the feature film disc, but I actually just figured out today that you can hit the 'pop-up menu' button on your Blu-ray player remote to skip straight to the top menu (I don't recall ever hitting any menu button a DVD and going straight to the main menu until I watched all the ads).

Why am I whining about something so trivial? Because that's about all I can complain about here. I was floored by the ridiculous video quality here. I can't recommend it as a gold standard for introducing people to Blu-ray necessarily because it doesn't have bright colors like Planet Earth, but I think the only Blu-ray I own now that looks better than it is Wall-E. Still, the transitions between dark scenes in this movie and those with color are quite smooth with all the colors looking very true to how they should be (the more vibrant they're supposed to be the more awesome they look on your TV). There are a lot of face close ups in this movie and the clarity in even these shots made me want to get up off my couch and just applaud the folks who did this transfer. If you are disappointed with the video quality of this disc, no matter how big or high-end your TV is, there may be something wrong with you (or your TV video settings). I don't have a high-end surround system so I don't want to pass judgement on sound, but it does sound great as far as I can tell. I can't complain about anything except for that maybe it's a bit soft in some places. Clarity is stellar, even in scenes where I was afraid I would be straining my ears to understand what they're saying.

There are so many special feature videos on the second disc that I couldn't get through all of them. What' truly remarkable is that each and every video you see on these discs is in high definition. I think the movie itself certainly looks better than the special features, but we're really talking about shades of gray here because they still look like you're watching an HD channel and whatever the aspect ratio is on them fits my widescreen TV perfectly (whereas the movie has black bars on top and bottom). There's actual more content here (in minutes) than the running time of the feature film, and this is one of those movies that actually has interesting backstories for how every aspect of the production process came about so they're pretty addictive if you have an afternoon/evening to spare going through them all. The deleted scenes are also more interesting than you normally find on a home video release, including the original opening sequence of Spock's birth. The only other features on this disc are a gag reel, all 3 trailers, and 3-d models of the Enterprise and Nero's vessels with details about specific parts of them. As a cherry on top, these features actually have subtitles (which, in my experience, is pretty rare). On the main disc, there's also commentary, which I didn't listen to a whole lot of it but I have to say that it was hard to stop watching once I did turn it on because it's very much like you're peering into the minds of the writers and producers in the format of a candid, relaxed conversation that doesn't feel forced or scripted at all. I don't usually listen to these, but I think I'll have to make an exception here.

Simply put, if you have a Blu-ray player and liked Star Trek at all, you're really doing a disservice to yourself by not picking this up. The studios are trying this crazy thing now where they price Blu-rays equivalent to DVDs instead of price-gouging, so $20 for this one is more than reasonable. They really didn't put this out there to set up for a double dip, or they're doing so with great stupidity because I can't think of what else you'd realistically want from a Blu-ray set for this movie in any sort of re-release. It's going to quickly become one of favorite Blu-rays, for sure.

More Chrome OS Details

It's been quite a few months now since Google Chrome OS was announced. It was a pretty no-frills announcement since they didn't have anything to show for it and very little to say. To keep interest up in the operating system, Google held an event going into more details about the look and feel of the OS, a few of the applications, and the security model. You can get a pretty brief summary of the event here. I don't know if they fully grasp the weight of what they're trying to do, but this event seemed to really hammer hard on simplicity regarding an idea that's really not that simple. Getting users to trust a computer that is wholly dependent on the cloud is a really hard sell, and I didn't see any remarks about what happens if you lose your connection to the Internet or how they're going to ensure the security, safety, and integrity (i.e. that it doesn't get corrupted) of your data. There was a lot of talk about how you configuration is remote so you don't lose it even when switching computers, but that doesn't explain what happens if they shut down their servers one day. I'll admit that the look and feel is pretty nice - for a netbook. It doesn't look to me like a viable OS still for anything but a netbook. Which is fine, but is that really going to be a strong market once this finally ships?

I don't want to be too discouraging of the idea of Chrome OS because it's ballsy and I like that. The security aspect of it is very bold in that it aims to not only have your computer run in a sandbox (since everything lives in the cloud, after all) but aims to do boot time verification of every system element, which is actually a concept that dates back all the way to the creation of the Java Virtual Machine (I'm sure it's older than that, it's just probably the first big implementation of it). It's a pretty good plan that relies on the idea that valid signatures for infected system components can't be forged, but it's too early to tell if Google is doing everything right here. Even with these two big protections, it probably won't be foolproof (it's still built on Linux, after all, which definitely has security flaws in every distribution), but it sounds like they're really taking security seriously.

Palm Pixi Released

It didn't receive a whole lot of press fanfare, as far as I could tell, but the Palm Pixi is now available on Sprint. I know they're a little biased, but Pre Central had an interesting enough review of the Pixi that I actually read the whole thing on my Pre at the airport last week. Their biggest complaints were that it felt a bit small and runs a bit slower than the Pre. I think it looks really attractive and I love webOS so I can't imagine that it's a bad phone for someone who's not a power smartphone user but wants a smartphone nonetheless.

While Sprint launched the Pixi, Verizon was busy launching more AT&T attack ads, which you've probably seen like a hundred times by now. AT&T is still in a legal battle with Verizon claiming that the ads misrepresent AT&T's network, but they don't since it's clearly specified as AT&T's 3G network rather than their entire data network, and the red map really is Verizon's 3G network - it's just that widespread.

And, off in a corner, Samsung launched a new mobile OS called Bada. It's cute that they still think they're a big player. They took too many gambles that didn't pay off and now they're often an afterthought when people shop for a new phone. Fortunately, Bada is an open platform and I have to give Samsung credit for at least trying something new instead of floundering with outdated phone UI designs. I wonder if they ever considered building Android phones?

Bing Captures More Market Share

Claims of Bing's market share being a fluke are now way past us as they sail into grabbing 10% of the search engine market share. It could be their marketing, it could be the quality of their results, or it could be the new features they keep rolling that keeps them in the news and, theoretically, in people's minds. The new feature last week was integrating Wolfram Alpha results. You have to click on a bar on the left side to get to some of this added stuff, but it is pretty neat.


I have to pack for my trip home, so it's time to wrap things up here with some quick stories.

Google has invented its own programming language called Go. It doesn't seem all that exciting to me, but I'll probably come back to it when it's more mature and see if it's viable as a quick and dirty scripting language since it does run so quickly.

If you're interested in learning to program, Lifehacker has a surprisingly good guide. Knowing how to program is definitely only one facet to being a good software developer, but that article covers great ways to see if you have an interest in it that you may want to pursue with formal education or side projects.

SquareTrade pitted a bunch of laptop manufacturers against one another and found Asus and Toshiba at the top in reliability. I wasn't surprised about Asus since they've been a little-known excellent brand for a while now, but Toshiba has definitely come along.

If you want to know what not to ask in an interview, check out this story from some bad Google interviews. If you're still asking riddles in your job interviews then you need to hop in your time machine and go back to 2006 where those questions weren't considered useless.

The PS3 saw some interesting improvements this month including Facebook support and Netflix support.

If you've ever fallen for one of TechCrunch's crazy stories, you'll like this PC Mag editorial about Michael Arrington.

YouTube is adding auto captions for deaf views - goodonya Google!

Skype bought itself back from eBay.

Amazon Fresh is now more usable on the iPhone - grocery shop on your work commute so you can spend more time sleeping instead of shopping.

Have a fantastic Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Facebook Cons

The Latest Facebook Scandal

What is it about Facebook that gives it such a celebrity status among tech journalists? It seems to get a lot of coverage despite at its core merely being a platform to communicate with friends and post embarrassing pictures of your friends. The problem with being in the spotlight is that you get at least as much negative press as positive press (unless you agree with the adage that any press is good press). Typically, Facebook is bitten by UI changes or some critical privacy discrepancy at least once every 6 months. This time, the big news is a bit off the beaten path.

Techcrunch was probably first to the scene here with an expose from an insider who used to be a part of spreading spam on Facebook. It turns out that there's a whole seedy underbelly to the world of Facebook Applications. Facebook users typically aren't fans of buying stuff on Facebook, but it turns out that they are gullible enough to do things like download toolbars or give up personal information when prodded with the right incentive, which leads to conning them into paying the shady company money. Computerworld has a blogwatch compiling quotes from other articles weighing in on the scams calling out Farmville and Mafia Wars and decrying the offenses of virtual currency and hidden ponzi schemes.

So what happened? I guess this was really inevitable. You have a network that's growing like crazy, has an open platform, and users seem to put a lot of misplaced trust in. Facebook is a believer in small government and so they have tried to be hands off, which is an even better situation for scammers looking to make a quick buck. Now they're locked in an arms race as advertisers are finding more creative ways to cheat the system. It's not a very hopeful situation right now, but it's possible that legitimate advertisers will become more prevalent on Facebook and edge out the shady ones. In my opinion, Facebook still needs to make a more active effort to police these shady application owners. I hesitate to recommend a vetting process because we don't want another iTunes App Store situation, which is irritating despite being successful, but Amazon and eBay and many other sites have whole teams that work to expose fraud, why can't Facebook? If they already do have such a team then they may need to make it bigger because this is going to hurt the long-term growth potential of Facebook (the little they have, in my opinion) if people trust Facebook less and less.

Google Feature Bonanza

Last week really demonstrated how big Google has become as they managed to release 3 new features/products.

The smallest additions were options to allow more text to show up in your search results and/or thumbnails from the pages in the results. Some people went so far as to create Firefox extension to simulate this functionality so there was clearly a demand for them, though I've never felt the need for either feature.

Arguably the biggest thing to come from Google was Google Dashboard, which brings together all the data attached to your Google account into an easy-to-use interface. It is kind of cool, but I don't think it's especially useful and is creepy in a way. While it does force you to login again before using it, like when you try searching your history, it tells you stuff like how many calls you've made in Google Voice and the last video you favorited in YouTube. It's more a frightening reminder of everything Google knows about you than a great utility. However, the fact that it does give you this view of what Google has on you may encourage you to clamp down on areas you're more sensitive about.

The last thing Google announced was Commerce Search, which is a cloud-hosted search appliance targeted at retail websites. While it's not a bad idea I definitely question their ability to turn it into a successful product given that people barely remember that Google Checkout exists nowadays.

Selling Software With One Hand, Laying Off With the Other

Microsoft has sold a few copies of Windows 7 since it's launch a couple of weeks ago to the tune of 234% more copies in its opening week than Vista's opening week, and 84% more revenue. Despite the strong sales of Snow Leopard it's clear that Windows 7 came out on top as it already has more market share than Snow Leopard or all distributions of Linux combined. Granted, that's only 2% of the market but the other 89% of the market is Vista and XP. Still, not too shabby for its first two weeks.

Unfortunately, it's not all good news in Redmond: Microsoft announced that they would conclude the layoffs they began at the beginning of the year with 800 more layoffs. I'm guessing that some of these laid off employees can transfer to other teams within the company, so it may not be as bad as it sounds, but I'm sure that more than a few will have to look for work elsewhere.

Maybe they can find work at a much-criticized Microsoft retail store. The first one has opened in Scottsdale, AZ, which somewhat makes sense since there's not much to do in Scottsdale but shop. It doesn't look much better or worse than it has in the leaked documents but who knows, it could be a runaway success.

It's All About Android

Even though the iPhone still rules the smartphone roost (at least in America), Android 2.0 has turned more than a few heads. It turns out that it has more cool features than just Google Navigation, and Tech Radar has a pretty concise rundown of what's new. Some of the highlights are contact sync with external services, Microsoft Exchange support (took long enough), multiplayer gaming via Blueooth, and a much enhanced camera application. If you want a more in-depth look, Gizmodo has a pretty well-written review but be forewarned that they sneak in feedback of Droid in there since it's the only device you can get your grubby hands on running Android 2.0 so who knows if the sluggishness would be better on a better processor. What I'm disappointed in is that only certain devices can get this upgrade. I can understand if there are hardware limitations, but some of these features shouldn't be so tightly coupled with the hardware. It creates a world like Windows Mobile where you have different versions floating around where someones experience with an older version makes them think that the newest version is just as bad because they don't understand they're different. Or maybe Android users are savvy enough to understand this (no disrespect to Android users, but it's not likely that they all realize this).

Meanwhile, Verizon launched the HTC Droid Eris last Friday, which will actually run Android 1.5.

I think it's a pretty nice-looking phone, but it's really just a reworked version of the HTC Hero made compatible with the Verizon network. I understand that they want this phone out there to fill out their line some more for the holiday season, but, as I cited above, it's going to cause customer confusion having two different Android phones running two different versions of Android that are both brand new to the Verizon network. They ideally should've released Droid Eris earlier or delayed it until Android 2.0 was ready for it.


Just a few brief stories left...

Apparently there's a new format already in the works to follow HD called UHD, or Universal HD. A resolution of 3840 x 2160 sounds downright crazy, but I'm sure in the year 2023 I'll be eating my words when we all have a UHD set.

For those of you living in the present, Sound and Vision Magazine has a pretty cool guide to LED.

Joel Spolsky put up a blog post I liked that starts out explaining warning signs that you should quit your job and ends selling a product I'd endorse if it does what he says called Stack Overflow Careers. It's basically a simplified LinkedIn for getting your resume out there. It's not a bad idea.

The forthcoming version of uTorrent stops competing with ISPs' packet shaping strategies and cooperates with ISPs to adjust download and upload speeds for clients according to network congestion. Apparently, this will affect upload speed more than download speeds and is supposed to end up resulting in faster downloads overall. Very cool stuff.

In the October browser market share statistics, Firefox has finally bested Internet Explorer 6, which has more market share than IE7 or IE7 so technically Firefox as a whole has more users than any single version of IE.

Have a great, illness-free week everyone! *cough* Time for some TheraFlu...

Monday, November 02, 2009

Motorola Names its Comeback Kid: Droid

Droid Details Announced

I've mentioned Droid a couple of times recently and my last word on it was that it was probably going to be a line of Verizon phones instead of a single phone. Fortunately, it looks like that's not true and there is an actual Droid phone from Motorola that's due out later this week. Other than the gold colored square on the keyboard that I still haven't figured out, this is a pretty attractive phone and the first to market with Android 2.0. I personally don't think the aesthetics are as solid as the Pre, but it sounds like it feels solid and features a physical (landscape) and virtual keyboard. Plus, the screen looks like it's pretty awesome quality.

PC Magazine already has a review up and they sound somewhat impressed with it. They point out some pretty big failings in the physical keyboard, call quality, and slowdowns despite the powerful guts of the Droid, but it does sound like the multimedia software is strong as is the camcorder. Even though this may not be the most impressive phone on the block, I think it can do well if Verizon's marketing works and people do perceive it to be a good alternative to the iPhone, and I'm sure that it is a worthy alternative.

This is the first big release from Motorola in quite a while. I'm not counting the Cliq since it's not out yet and doesn't sound like it's as well-rounded of a smartphone as Droid. It's pretty clear that Motorola is changing their tune so that they can start making real money again and jumping in bed with Anrdoid. Their plans for 2010 are pretty firmly rooted in Android, and it's quickly starting to look like 2010 may be the year of Android for mobile phones, in general. The iPhone will still be popular, but I predict Android phones to pick up steam and could outsell iPhones as an aggregate. Given that Droid doesn't really undercut the iPhone on cost I don't think it's going to be a huge hit, but as the first worthy Android phone on Verizon I think it's the start of a crusade from Verizon to strike back at AT&T in the wake of AT&T chipping away at Verizon's subscriber base differential.

Google Navigation

One big feature of Android 2.0 that I neglected to mention above is the inclusion of free turn-by-turn directions. Given the ridiculous price of turn-by-turn on the iPhone, this is a pretty decent leg up that Android now has on the iPhone OS. I don't have a read on how much people care about turn-by-turn on their phone since I have a dedicated GPS, but I can see people using a feature like that to help justify buying a new phone. As demonstrated by the stock market, this is a pretty big blow to Garmin and Tom Tom as this application has a robotic voice, POIs, traffic and other common, rich navigation features, plus Street View (though the usefulness of that is debatable). If more Android 2.0 phones have car docks (like the Droid does), this could end up being a pretty popular feature, especially given that Android has voice recognition.

The only catch is that it sounds like this application requires data access, which is the only thing giving the GPS companies a fighting chance. When you're taking trips outside major cities and you have spotty 3G, you definitely don't want to get lost because you need Internet access. Of course, if you could pre-load the data you need for your journey and destination surroundings this wouldn't be so bad, but may be an expensive burden on the network.

The really good news about this though is that it's a pretty aggressive move that's going to really benefit consumers. This is going to drive down the prices of competing cell phone navigation products and probably of dedicated GPS devices, as well. Plus, you'll see more innovation across the board now that everyone knows Google is going to try to give them a run for their money.

Other Google Releases

There were a few other releases from Google last week.

You now get a link in image search results to find images similar to a given result, which is a pretty complicated feature when you consider the problem of establishing links between images.

Less surprising but still cool was the release of Google Music Search, which allows you to preview songs directly from your results and subsequently buy them.

The last thing Google talked about last week was that you can actually set up Google Voice on an existing number if you're ok with the fact that it's a lighter version of Google Voice with only a subset of the features. The main features it looks like you get are international calling and Google Voicemail (including transcription and usage of the online interface for managing it). I love the transcription and think it makes Google Voice valuable all on its own, so I tihnk it's cool that they're able to pull this off.

The Case Against Net Neutrality

I've spoken a lot in favor of net neutrality recently, with this picture being a pretty good depiction of what the world could be like without net neutrality, but there's definitely been a lot of concern with allowing the FCC step in. CNet posted an editorial that I don't agree with but I think poses some worthwhile alternate points. The jurisdiction argument is a tough one since the FCC is skating on thin ice in trying to legislate the Internet, but I definitely don't think such protection would be as paranoid as the CNet editorial seems to hint at.

Congress is starting to side with the dark side though an both houses are putting up bills to kill any possible net neutrality legislation, one of which was authored by John McCain (one of the reasons why I was really against him last year). Their motivations are definitely misled claiming that regulation kills innovation, in which case you could argue that monopolies should be allowed because they foster innovation being unregulated. Their bills sound a bit heavy-handed and I think you go to an extreme opposite the FCC in possible overstepping its bounds. I'm not sure how well either bill will do, but hopefully not very in a Democrat-run Congress.


I'm literally at the point of dozing off here so time for the last bits I have here.

Joel Spolsky put up a really good essay about capstone projects that mostly hones in on how undergraduate CS programs are not focusing enough on skills needed in the industry with regard to time management and some of the biggest parts of the software development process (almost feels like an extension of my recent essay). It's misguided at times but still great overall.

Did you know there was a new Magic Mouse with multi-touch gesturing functionality? Cool. Not sure if I really need gesturing in my mouse, but still nifty.

This is a pretty awesome, comprehensive guide to using HTML 5.

The UN has approved a universal cell phone charger, which could be a great win for consumers tired of being over-charged for their charger should the lose/forget theirs on a trip away from home.

You can now buy stuff on Amazon and some other partners with just a single phrase to confirm who you are. It's a pretty cool concept and adds a layer of security on top of normal 1-click so go set up your phrase. If you don't pick a good phrase though then it's just adding a weakness to your security, so be careful.

Inglourious Basterds on Blu-ray is now $20, which is cheaper than its DVD equivalent. Times have really changed! This is almost certainly a pricing strategy to encourage Blu-ray sales in the holiday season, and I hope it works because I love my Blu-rays and wish more people had the players.

Have a great week!