Let’s get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way, shall we?

I’m not in favor of piracy. IMNSHO, information does not want to be free. And, while I believe the music, movie, and publishing industries, have, to varying degrees, bobbled the transition to a digital-dominated marketplace*, I don’t believe that justifies an attitude that all audio, video, and written material can be “shared”, guilt-free.

* Especially when it comes to the methods they use to enforce copyright.

That said, I had to laugh when I saw this story. You read it correctly. Warner Bros. issued DMCA takedown requests against its own websites because the content violated its own copyrights.

To be fair, the requests didn’t come from WB directly, they came from Vobile, a company whose homepage claims their goal is to “Protect, Measure, Monetize the best movies and TV content in the world” Advertising mis-capitalization aside, that’s a remarkably elitist statement, isn’t it? Do they decide whether your content is among “the best” when you engage with them, or–as seems likely–is the fact that you want them to work their PMM magic sufficient evidence that your content is superior?

Regardless, they use the usual sort of digital “fingerprint” technology to identify their clients’ content–and then, apparently fire off a barrage of DMCA takedown requests with little-to-no human oversight. “Fair use? What’s that?” “Verification? Never heard of it.” Yeah, I’m putting words in their mouths.

Hey, do you suppose Warner has told Vobile that they should stop searching for unauthorized distributions of “Happy Birthday”? After all, the song was only placed in the public domain seven months ago…

Anyway, it’s a nice bit of gander sauce.

Moving on (briefly).

Rumor has it that Google is preparing to release a successor to the extremely popular Nexus 7 tablets. Ars, among many other tech venues, suggests that it’ll be announced at Google’s big October 4 launch party, along with new phones, Chromecast, and VR hardware.

If it’s true, I’m very glad to hear it. The world needs more seven-inch tablets. It’s an excellent size for reading, it’s large enough that watching video and playing games isn’t an exercise in annoyance, and it’s small enough to be carried easily.

I don’t expect to be getting one immediately–I’m still quite satisfied with my $50 Amazon Fire tablet for reading and my Nexus 9 for anything that needs a larger screen–but if the new “Pixel 7” (or whatever they decide to call it) is as affordable as Google’s earlier seven-inchers, I’d give it a strong recommendation to anyone who is in the market for a tablet.

Interesting Times, Part 1

Well, the year is off to an interesting start, technologically speaking. Oh, not for everyone. I know everyone is looking forward to this year’s crop of flagship phones, whose primary distinguishing feature is that they’re larger than last year’s models. But that’s not really interesting in any sense of the word. My year has started interestingly in the sense of the Chinese curse.

On the sixth, the second hard drive in my Windows computer died. It wasn’t really a big deal. The only things on that drive were my iTunes library, which can easily be recreated, and a staging area that I used for holding backups until an automated routine moved them to the network server in the middle of the night. So I figured I’d ignore it while I worked on more critical matters–my current writing project and, of course, taking pictures of Sachiko.

On the tenth, the primary hard drive died. Normally, I would have jumped on the problem. One drive dying is likely random chance. Two drives dying this close together could be a sign of an underlying problem: overheating, motherboard dying (it’s of the right age that it could have bad capacitors), or some variety of malware. Normally I’d have had the machine open within minutes, but I’ve been dealing with an unrelated problem.

At least, I assume it’s unrelated. On the ninth, about ten hours before the second hard drive went down, my beloved Nexus 7 passed away. According to the autopsy, the flash storage bit the dust. So that makes three drives–on two separate machines that have never been connected–failing in less than a week. Disturbing.

I use the Windows machine a couple of times a week. The Nexus 7 I use several hours every day. It’s my ebook reader, my news reader, and the home of the few games I actually play. Having it out of commission was a serious block to my normal routine. Of course, the first thing I did was a deep dig into the Web to see if it was recoverable. Short answer: no. Longer answer: there are some recoverable failures with similar symptoms to the storage failure, but the flash storage is soldered to the motherboard and can only be replaced by swapping out the entire board.

I called Google’s hardware support to confirm my diagnosis. Kudos to “Dan,” who didn’t read from a script or have me repeat tests I had already done. He asked a few questions to confirm that I had actually done what I said I had, suggested one test I hadn’t tried, and when that failed, he confirmed that my tablet was pining for the fjords.

Since I bought the Nexus 7 in mid-2013–on the first day they were available, in fact–it was long out of warranty. Waiting weeks for a repair at a cost higher than what I paid for the tablet was a non-starter. Google doesn’t sell the Nexus 7 anymore. Getting a new one would mean buying on eBay or from a closeout seller*. Again, not really a path I felt comfortable about with my daily routine on the line.

* I’ve had mixed results with Tiger Direct and similar sellers. Sometimes they’re great; sometimes their inventory is wishful thinking; sometimes the inventory is fine, but their shipper employs snails–not snail-mail, actual snails.

I considered a non-Nexus tablet, but I’m not fond of the UI changes they layer on top of stock Android, and I really don’t want a device cluttered up with their add-on software. Space is tight, and I see no reason to sacrifice space to software I don’t use.

Google offers two choices: the Nexus 6 and the Nexus 9. The N6 is a phone, and I don’t need a second phone, thanks–and, all jokes about phablets aside, IMNSHO, a six-inch screen is a little too small for extended reading.

So that left the Nexus 9. Yes, I got one. I was concerned about the size and weight, and that is a bit of a problem. Reading on the N7 felt a lot like reading a mass-market paperback. Reading on the N9 feels more like reading a trade paperback*. The N7 fits in a jacket pocket–even some generous pants pockets–even with a cover. The N9 isn’t going in the pocket of any garment I’ve ever owned or would be willing to wear.

* Which is still better than reading on an iPad. It’s not just a matter of weight: even with an iPad Air, the sheer size of the screen makes it feel like a hardback psychologically. That’s a bit of a barrier for me. Reading a hardback has mental overtones of studying, rather than reading for pleasure. (Am I the only person who feels that way? Surely not.)

The N9 is fast, yes. The screen is gorgeous, I’ll admit. The N7’s screen was too small for watching videos comfortably, but the N9 is–just barely–large enough to make it work. I’m not sure it’ll unseat the iPad as my portable video player, but it might. On the downside, it is too heavy to hold unsupported for long stretches of time. I wouldn’t want to use it standing on BART. The “double-tap the screen to wake it up” feature is handy, but very easy to trigger accidentally when picking it up or putting it down. Once the case I’ve ordered arrives, accidental double-taps shouldn’t be as much of an issue, and the case* will double as a stand so I don’t have to hold the darn thing all the time.

* I favor the origami-style cases from roocase. They don’t add too much weight to the device, they give a reasonable amount of protection, and–most importantly for me–they work as stands in both portrait and landscape modes.

Once I’ve finished migrating to the N9, I’m sure I’ll be just as happy with it as I was with the N7. But note those key words: “finished migrating”. I got the tablet on Saturday. Today is Tuesday, and I’m still setting it up. Google has made some design decisions for Android that limit users’ control of their data, and that’s a big problem.

Tune in on Thursday for the second part of the story, in which I explain why Google needs to be turned over someone’s knee.

New Toys

So now we know. Yesterday Google announced that the next version of Android will be the deliciously un-crossmarketed “Lollipop”. It’ll roll out around the beginning of next month along with several new devices (more on those in a moment).

Last year, I suggested that this would be an unsponsored release and implied that I thought Lollipop was the most likely name, ahead of the ever-popular Lemon Meringue Pie. So a point for me. We’ll see if the next release is indeed co-branded with Mounds candy.

On to those devices.

We’ve got the expected new phone. Or phablet. The Nexus 6 ups the stakes in the size battle. At 5.96 inches, it makes Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus look tiny. Forget about putting it in your pocket. Consider yourself lucky if it fits in your backpack.

We’ve got the expected new tablet. A nine inch (OK, 8.9 inches if you’re going to insist on precision) model, it’s clearly intended to compete with the iPad Air: slightly lighter, front-facing speakers, multiple colors, etc., etc.

Apparently, Google considers the seven inch form factor to be obsolete. Don’t want a nine or ten incher? Great, get a phablet. All models of the Nexus 7 are showing as out of stock in the Play store, and there are no indications that they’ll be back. That’s a shame. The larger models are, I’ll admit, better for video–I use my iPad for most of my video needs–but seven inches is, IMNSHO, the perfect size for ebooks and web browsing. Six inches is just a little too small to get enough letters on the screen at once to keep up with my reading speed.

So, no upgrade for me this year. I’ll wait until next year, when the size war brings the new phones to seven inches.

Google’s final device announcement yesterday is the Nexus Player, because the world really needed another streaming media player. From what I’ve seen, it’s basically an Android-powered tablet without a screen: install any standard Android app (primarily games, presumably, though of course it’ll come with the usual selection of Google apps, including the media players) and display them on your TV. Oh, and it’s got Chromecast functionality, so you don’t have to find a vacant HDMI port on the TV. Unplug your Chromecast, plug in your Nexus Player, and you’re ready to roll. Joy.

That was yesterday. Today, Apple held another product launch meeting. We’ve got iOS 8.1. We’ve got Yosemite, the new version of OS X. (Sorry, Apple, I still miss the big cats. Much more engaging than chunks of geography.) They work together via iCloud. Which is, of course, perfectly safe. (They also work together via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which are also perfectly safe.)

Mind you, we already knew this stuff. There’s nothing about the OSes that wasn’t announced at WWDC or the iPhone 6 / Apple Watch launch. The only news is that Yosemite is available today, and iOS 8.1 will be out on Monday.

On to the good stuff (new toys, in other words).

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Apple’s got new iPads coming. Brace yourself for the iPad Air 2, even thinner than last year’s antiquated iPad Air. Because the most important thing about a tablet is how thin it is. I mean, yeah, it’s faster and has a better camera, it’s got TouchID–but no NFC, so you can’t use Apple Pay in stores. Not that anyone cares about that. The important thing is that it’s thinner! (There’s an unanswered question here: how much does it weigh? Remember, the Nexus 9 will come in at 418 grams, 50 grams lighter than last year’s iPad Air. Weight is at least as important as thickness for long periods of use.)

There’s an iPad Mini 3. It comes in three colors. That’s about all Apple is saying about it.

Moving on.

How about an iMac with Retina Display–yes, that’s the official name. A twenty-seven inch screen at 5120×2880: seven times as many pixels as your HD TV. All the usual spec boosts over previous models. Only $2499–which isn’t that bad a deal if you compare the cost of a 4K TV, or 4K PC monitor. Fans of the late, lamented oviod iMacs will be disappointed to hear that there are still no plans to bring back the rainbow colors.

New Mac Mini. Faster, cheaper.

Is it just me, or are the mini versions of Apple’s products not getting much love this year? I guess they’re just not very exciting compared to the tininess of the Apple Watch. And the lightness of the iPad Air 2.

Google News and Notes

As promised, here’s my take on this morning’s Google announcements.

The most important is, of course, the announcement that Google is spending $600,000 to create free wifi in San Francisco parks. Thirty one parks are included; Google will build the necessary infrastructure and manage it for two years before turning it over to the city.

No, I’m not serious. Haven’t you figured that out yet? The story is true, but it’s hardly earthshaking, even if you live in San Francisco (and a good thing too, in light of the Bay Bridge’s seismic concerns.)

As expected, Google finally announced Android 4.3. Given the modest increase in version number and the fact that it’s still being called “Jelly Bean”, it should be no surprise that there aren’t major new features. It does have some nice tweaks, though:

  • Bluetooth 4.0 / Bluetooth Low Energy – This will allow Android devices to more easily connect to more devices and types of devices, including fitness gadgets and watches. Watches? See next item.
  • App access to notifications – There have been a heck of a lot of rumors about various companies working on smart watches. This new feature in Android 4.3 will allow apps to directly access OS notifications and, per the Android developer blog, update, delete, and push notifications to nearby Bluetooth devices (emphasis mine). Sure sounds like a useful thing for a watch, doesn’t it?
  • Multi-user restricted profiles – Let your kids use your phone? Now you can block them from taking certain actions (running particular apps, making in-app purchases, and so on). For those of us who don’t have kids, it should mostly be useful to keep our cats from getting out of the photography app and into the web browser to download kitty porn.
  • OpenGL ES 3.0 and new DRM APIs – I’m lumping these together because they’re largely invisible to consumers. The results, though, is that high-resolution graphics will be faster and smoother. The first consumer-visible change is that Netflix has already been updated to use the new DRM, allowing it to stream content in 1080p.

The update is rolling out now to Nexus devices. It’s not on my Nexus 7 yet, but that’s no surprise: the last Jelly Bean update took almost a week to get to me. The usual delays getting it onto non-Nexus devices are also beginning now. Note that “usual delays” apparently also applies to the “Pure Android / Google Play Edition” devices from HTC and Samsung: Multiple sites are reporting that Google is not distributing updates for those devices. HTC and Samsung have yet to commit to release dates (HTC is saying “soon”; Samsung says “in the coming months”).

Also as expected, Google has taken the wraps off the new Nexus 7. As with Android, it’s a set of incremental improvements rather than something pathsetting.

  • The screen has been beefed up from 1280×800 to 1920×1200. Yes, slightly higher resolution than your HD TV. That’s actually the same resolution as my 24-inch monitor. I’ll be very interested to see how sharp that kind of pixel density looks; early reports are that it’s a huge improvement over the original Nexus 7.
  • The dimensions have changed a little. The new version is a smidge taller, and about half a smidge narrower and thinner. It’s also a squoosh lighter. Yes, those are precise technical terms. Not a major improvement, but those who have seen it in person say the change does make it slightly more pocketable.
  • The new quad-core CPU is supposed to be about 80% faster than the original’s CPU. Combined with a bump from 1GB of ram to 2GB, it should make for noticeably smoother performance, especially with a lot of apps running.
  • Wireless charging is a nice touch, but you’ll have to pay extra: it ships with the traditional micro-USB charger and cable.
  • HDMI out. Well, sort of. The micro-USB port is SlimPort-enabled, so with an appropriate adapter you can connect to a TV. The adapter is not, of course, included. It’s an improvement over the original Nexus 7, but feels like something of an afterthought–more on that below.

The new Nexus 7 will be in stores next Tuesday. Best Buy is taking pre-orders, and I imagine other sellers will be soon. For what it’s worth, Staples is showing a $20 discount on the old 16GB model and a $50 discount on the old 32GB model.

Should you buy it? IMNSHO, if you don’t already have a tablet, this is the seven-inch to buy. If you’re thinking about upgrading, it’s only worth it if you’re actually seeing limitations with your current one. Me? I do a lot of switching between ebook reader, news reader, and browser and I frequently see several seconds of lag on each switch, so yes, I’ll probably upgrade, but I won’t be in a huge hurry to do so. I’m not pre-ordering, but will grab one when I see it in a store.

Finally, there was one unexpected announcement: The Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player. This is Google’s response to Apple’s AirPlay. A $35 “box” roughly the size of a fat thumb drive, you plug it into an HDMI port on your TV and join it to your wifi network. Once that’s done, you can stream video from any app that supports the technology. Yes, “app”. Unlike AirPlay, which is an OS-level technology, Chromecast is built into individual programs. That means that it’s not tied to a single OS (AirPlay requires you to be solidly in Apple’s infrastructure). Chromecast is already available in Netflix’ app, is coming soon from Pandora, and in the Google Play media apps. It’s also in beta for the Chrome browser. Yes, anything you can display in your browser can be streamed to your TV on all OSes where Chrome runs (Windows, Mac, Linux, Android). Note that all of those media players are streaming only; that means that at the moment you can’t display local content, but that should be a temporary limitation: once media player apps pick up the necessary APIs, that problem will be solved. My guess is that we’ll start seeing Android apps with the support next week and desktop programs not long after.

This is why I said that the HDMI/SlimPort support on the new Nexus 7 feels like an afterthought: if Chromecast lives up to its billing (and the early reports suggest that it does–though granted that’s based on not much more than demos), why would anyone want to tether their tablet to the TV when they can get the same result wirelessly?

No surprise, the Chromecast is sold out directly from Google already. Best Buy is expected to be selling it next week. If you can’t wait, you can order it from Amazon. Mine is supposed to arrive Friday. If it does, I’ll check it out over the weekend and publish a report here on Monday.