Monday, March 7, 2016

Inexpensive but decent tablets...? The RCA Viking Pro, 10.1", Android tablet....

In today's society, pretty much everyone has some kind of computer.  If it isn't a laptop, then it's a tablet or a smartphone.  Schools are giving kids laptops, iPods, and tablets to use throughout the school year; devices that become "theirs" for the entire year.

Needless to say, the age of personal computing has expanded and the latest must-have is a personal tablet.  Tablets are used for surfing the 'net, reading books, playing games, and much more.  That said...the king of tablets, the iPad ain't cheap.  Equivalent Android tablets aren't much better.  These devices are effectively priced outside the viable range of millions of users.

Enter the budget tablet.  Graphics are decent, but not quite the same level as the flagship tablets of companies like Apple or Samsung.  Processing is pretty good, but not as fast as those flagship tablets.  You can watch movies but maybe the speakers aren't super duper, Dolby, hi-fi, magical.  The big thing though - these budget tablets are pretty darn inexpensive.

There are a lot of dogs on the market; the typical $50 tablet is just awful with stuttering functionality, terrible viewing angles, off-putting colors, and poor resolution.  Any money you save on these will end up being funneled to an eye doctor.  The only exception in this range is the Amazon Fire Kindle.  At $50 with ads ($65 without offers), it's got a great display, fast processor, ok camera, and ok storage.  The only's running a fork of Android that is exclusive to Amazon's eco-system which means you miss out on a bunch of great stuff.

Getting closer to $100, the quality improves appreciably.  There are some decent brands here, not the least of which is Google's and Asus' early Nexus.  Yes, these are all smaller tablets (typical 7" tablet) but they're great for reading, surfing, and most general use.

Then there's another recent entry - the RCA Viking Pro.  This is not your typical budget tablet.  First and foremost - it's a 10.1" tablet.  That's the same size as the iPad and Galaxy lines.  It comes with Android 5.0 (Lollipop); a quad core, 1.3GHz processor; and ***32GB*** of built-in memory.  The screen is 1280x800.  To top it all off, it even comes with a keyboard that is custom built to the tablet.

The best thing about it - you can buy it right now from Walmart for $99.99.

When I first heard about this tablet, I could not believe the specs.  I had to see for myself.  I ordered it online from Walmart, chose their free shipping option, and it was here within a week.

The tablet and keyboard fit together with a magnetic catch that holds pretty well.  It's easy to separate, but isn't going to fall off.  I was surprised at the heft of the unit; it's basically a netbook running Android.  The tablet is a bit thicker than some others on the market, but it feels good in the hand and it's made of plastic so it isn't heavy at all.

The power switch is a slightly recessed button on one side and the tablet itself has all the ports and such (not the keyboard base, as you might think).  This is important as it means you have a full sized USB port right there on the tablet along with mini USB, HDMI, and a round power connector.  This was a particular curiosity; although it charges just fine via the mini-USB port, it comes with a regular/old-fashioned, round charging port and the charger uses this port, not the mini-USB.  Aside from the first charge, I've used a USB cable ever since and experienced no issues.

The real surprise is when you power the tablet on.  I have to admit - the graphics are impressive for a tablet that costs less than $100.  I've had tablets that cost two and three times as much but not even come close to the clarity of the screen on this Viking Pro.  My Galaxy Tab A doesn't look this good and even though I got it for $200 after discounts, coupons, and rebates, that's a $300 tablet compared to this one.

I took a week to put it through it's paces.  First thing I did, was install a game (Clash of Clans).  Again, the clarity of the screen is really very good, certainly better than many (if not most) budget tablets.  The game plays fine, although you can definitely tell the difference between the Viking Pro and my iPad Pro.  Things move slower, but it's still very serviceable.  (And, seriously, you could not expect the two to be comparable.)  The screen seemed a bit less responsive than my other tablets; it didn't really stop me or slow me down, but I've definitely experienced better.

The sound is a bit tinny and I put that down to the speaker being on the back.  I'm not sure why RCA would do that, but...go figure.  Nice thing about this supports BlueTooth so, if you want, you can pair with an external speaker and use your own sound.  Video ran smoothly and looked very good as well.  Did I mention it has a 10.1" screen too?

Android is capable of limited multi-tasking and can be set up to run multiple users.  In the past, I've found it doesn't take a whole lot to bring an Android tablet to its knees with multiple apps running, and I'm convinced there are memory leaks that zap the CPU's memory allocation as the tablet is used across multiple users.  The Viking Pro is no different here; in fact, it's pretty easy to bog down with my multi-user set up.  However, this would not be an issue for a single user and tablets tend more to be personal electronic devices than group- shared.

The cameras are nothing to write home about.  They'll do fine in a pinch but this is really more for Skype than anything else.

Battery life is ok; I estimate 5 or 6 hours for normal users, and it does seem to run down fairly evenly when in standby.

The keyboard is a basic keyboard, small, and works well if you're into that sort of thing.  It holds firm to the tablet and I'm surprised they could include what seems to be a well built keyboard in a $100 tablet.  You can flip the tablet around and use the keyboard as a stand or even keep the two attached with the tablet facing upwards.  One thing to note - the keyboard mount does not flip all the way back; it only comes open to about 110 degrees or so.

Another noteworthy feature is the memory - this tablet comes out-of-box with 32GB of memory.  That's pretty good but to make it even better, it has a micro-SD slot on the back where you can add up to 128GB more.

The end analysis - this is a really decent little tablet for $100.  I can't find any reason to not buy it, other than being able to afford the higher performance of a much more expensive model.  If you're looking for a second tablet, something for a child, running tight on funds...then you just can't go wrong with this tablet.  Among the budget tablets on the market, this one is hands down the best one I've played with so far (and I've handled a bunch).

RCA has a 7" tablet called the "Voyager II" that sells at Walmart for $40.  Maybe I'll pick that one up next....

Friday, May 29, 2015

Shooting and being disabled....

As is common with many shooting enthusiasts, I participate in a variety of discussion forums.  Recently, a great discussion came up - does anyone have suggestions that would make shooting easier for folks with disabilities?

Many of us suffer from one disability or another; visual, mobility, muscular, size/weight....   All of these will absolutely impact how well one can shoot and how enjoyable the experience.  The good news is that there are MANY things you can do to accommodate most disabilities and they're the same things that a lot of shooters do regardless.

And, of course, I'm going to give everyone some examples of things you can do to accommodate common disabilities.

Vision Problems

If you suffer from problems seeing the sights and/or targets, you'll probably be missing what you shoot at a lot and that's just the pits.  The bang may be exhilarating, but being able to hit the mark gives a solid sense of accomplishment.

Your first and best approach will always be training; even with limited visibility, you'll find the target.  Jerry Miculek, a shooting great, has actually shot targets blindfolded and still done so blindingly fast.  (Sorry, couldn't resist the pun.)  However, I want to do better than just hit the target.

One of the first things you can do is get a better set of sights on your gun.  If you like iron sights, visibility will be improved by using fiber optic sights (work well in decent lighting) or tritium sights (work well in most lighting).  There are even combined fiber optic/tritium sights that offer the best of both worlds.  Some good brands/products to consider include: Williams Fire Sights, HiViz, TruGlo, and Trijicon.

You can also move to using reflex sights.  For pistols, reflex sights are a great choice to improve visibility; they can be magnified and usually include a dot to help you aim.  Unlike a laser, the red or green dot is on the screen of the sight.  Of course, the down side is that these are also usually battery powered so you'll need to remember to turn them off.  I really like what I've seen from Trijicon on these, and that's the one I'll eventually buy, but there are many other fine brands out there as well.

Next up would be a full blown scope.  This can be a more expensive selection, depending upon how far you take it, but lots of folks find a scope on a pistol is a great assist to their accuracy.  There are even more options in scopes than in other solutions.

Of course, let's not forget the most obvious of improvements you can make - glasses.  Most experienced shooters and instructors will tell you that yes, your local range will allow you to wear your regular, prescription lenses as safety glasses but they do not really offer as much protection as true safety glasses.  They're absolutely correct too - there are way too many gaps all around normal glasses, they often only cover the space of the eye socket itself, and you will almost certainly find yourself looking over top of the lenses, which means you are even less protected.

I've had one heck of a time with this one myself.  Wearing my prescription glasses under a pair of safety glasses flat did not work and I was always looking over top of my regular glasses.  After getting powder in my eyes for the umpteenth time, I decided I had better find something better.

There are plenty of places that sell proper shooting glasses with an insert or even prescription lenses.  The prices are all in the couple-three hundred dollar (or higher) range and I'd really rather put that kind of money toward another firearm for my collection.  ZenniOptical has a pair of plastic, half-rim frames (#744412) that fit the bill perfectly.  They're very nearly shooting glasses by another name.  Best part about it - they're 30 bucks; 35 bucks if you include shipping.  This did the trick for me.  Reviews on Zenni are mixed, but I've had good luck with them.

And last but not least, consider lighting.  Some indoor ranges are just darker than others and that can be a real problem for you if you have vision problems.  I love my Williams Fire Sights on my Rugers but at a dark range, they just don't perform well.


All shooters should wear some form of hearing protection.  There are many types, some that are in the ear and others that cover the ear.  Each has a different level of noise reduction and a different "fit" as well.

The fit of a headset is very important.  If it's too big it might be loose; too small and it will pinch your ear, making it uncomfortable.  In-ear protection may be insufficient for the size of your ear or requiring adjustment to accommodate the size of your ear.

If you suffer from hearing loss, when you wear your ear protection you may find you can't hear much of anything at all.  While that would seem good on the surface (the ear protection is doing its job) that also means you will not hear the range safety officer, your instructor, or other shooters.  THAT'S bad.

One solution - electronic hearing protection.  These are headsets and ear-bud protection that include sensing equipment to block high dB sounds while magnifying lower dB sounds so you can hear in the room.  You don't need to suffer hearing loss to use these either.  I use the Howard Leight line of electronic hearing protection for myself.  For a smaller head (child), I went with Pro Ears ReVo.  On this particular one, I opted to NOT use the electronic version and just used the passive variety.  There are many other, very good options available.

Fatigue - Muscular and Mental

Another problem we all experience is simple fatigue.  Standing for long periods of time, holding a pistol or rifle up a long time, the physiological effects of recoil...these all tire out any shooter.

The most obvious thing to do here is to occasionally rest.  Most ranges/clubs offer memberships and, depending on the time you go and the season, they'll give you a lane for pretty much as long as you like when you're a member.  Instead of a 30 minute session, go for an hour and take the occasional break.

Hands get tired from shooting and reloading magazines - buy extra magazines and load them up before you go to the range.  I know a few shooters who have 10 or more magazines for their favorite firearms and they have them loaded, ready to go, days before their competition or range visit.

If you do load your magazines at the range, and even at home, you can reduce the impact to your hands by using "speed loaders".  The Mag Lula is great for larger calibers as it brings your entire hand into the process of loading the magazine (not just your thumb) and for 22LR there's the "Ultimate Clip Loader" that just lines all the rounds up with a few shakes and drops them right into the magazine.

I use a Mag Lula to help me load my 9mm and 40 cal magazines; I just do not have the finger strength to load 17 rounds into a 9mm magazine by hand alone. If you ask me, this thing is nothing short of amazing.  Here's a link to one on Amazon...

I recently picked up an “Ultimate Clip Loader” for my 22 magazines as well. I’ve seen this puppy in action and man oh man does it load 22 mags fast compared to the thumb killing manual method.  Here's the Amazon link to the one I bought...

These two assists are used by just about everyone I know; if you suffer any disabilities, though, it's just double bonus dollars.

There's also nothing that says all shooting must occur while standing; you can shoot just fine sitting down.  In fact, you don't even have to hold the firearm freeform.  Shooting rests, both the metal/polymer stand type and the sand bag type, are great aids in this department.  An improvised shooting rest can even be something as simple as your range bag.

Many rifle shooters are familiar with the use of a shooting rests as it dramatically improves stability over simply holding the rifle free-form.  Caldwell makes a bunch of different shooting rests that are well represented in the shooting community.  There are other brands out there as well.  You do not need to spend a lot of money here; a good range bag, three pieces of wood with a small pillow over them, and anything else you can rest your arms on will help.

I frequently buy supplies from MidwayUSA and they have many shooting rest options.  Here's a link to a search:

Grip and Handling

You have to be able to hold on to your firearm to use it.  I already mentioned shooting rests above, recoil is discussed below.  Here I'd like to focus in on grip.

There are two aspects of grip to consider - preventing your hand from sliding off the firearm (typically a pistol) and being able to tighten your hand around the stock/butt of the firearm.

Many firearms come with grips that are just fine the way they've been manufactured.  Others come with interchangeable backstraps that help adjust the width and breadth of the grip.  Many firearms allow you to replace the entire grip or the sides.  You have plastic, rubber, wood, and other materials in the aftermarket that will help you make the best choice for your shooting style.

I have a S&W Model 66 revolver that came to me with wooden grips.  I removed the wood grips and replaced them with a Hogue grip (rubber) to get better traction on the revolver. This was my carry gun for a few years as an officer.  My Glock 34 came with several backstraps; I took the largest of those available to get a much more pronounced beavertail on the pistol.  This allows me to really get my hand up under the slide without risk of slide bite, and dramatically improves my overall grip on the pistol.  I bought a Pachmayr grip glove to attach to my SD40VE.  My Beretta was perfect the way it arrived.

If you find the grip is not interchangeable with aftermarket grips, and you don't like the grip glove/sleeves, another option to consider is "grip tape".  This is also known as skateboard tape.  It's a sort of gritty, stipled kind of tape that prevents slippage very well.  It became so popular, that some manufacturers started selling a version specific to certain models of handguns; a lot of early Glock users bought kits for their specific guns that were pre-cut to be applied to the backstrap, grip sides, and even slide.  Many shooters will also put a small strip on the front of the trigger guide so they can use their non-trigger index finger to further stabilize the pistol.  One such firm is Talon Gun Grips ( and you'll find plenty of folks who use their product.

Rifles are not without their own aftermarket grip aids as well.  In many ways, a rifle is even more customizable than a pistol as you can often remove the entire stock and replace it with a different one.  There are many different materials and designs available, including some that are adjustable.  My S&W MP15-22 is an AR style rifle in 22LR.  The version I bought comes with a MagPul kit already installed.  The stock is adjustable; I can pull it out for my long arms or push it in so a child can still seat it comfortably.  Many rifles support a vertical foregrip that attaches to a picatinny rail, and bipod attachments are a must for stationary shooting.  The shoulder pad is also a strong aftermarket item for rifles; you can replace or add to existing rifles to cushion the impact on your shoulder.

You can also improve grip by using gloves designed for shooting.  Sometimes, your skin just doesn't adhere as well to the firearm or maybe you need to protect your hands from the wear of shooting.  There are many versions of shooting gloves on the market.

The other half of grip is being able to squeeze your hand around the grip of the firearm.  This can be especially challenging for pistol shooters; rifles usually are more a matter of keeping hold and shooting rests work very well for rifles.  Grip assist gloves such as Gripeeze ( are designed to help individuals who suffer from any of a number of conditions that impact their ability to hold on to something.  We're looking at this right now for arthritis support.  (The company is based in the UK, but you can buy them online through Amazon.)


The toughest part of shooting will always be perceived recoil.  Everything we do that leads up to the point of depressing the trigger is important, but the recoil is stressful no matter your size, experience, or abilities.  As such, it's important to choose a firearm and round that is suitable to your frame and abilities.

Most polymer guns will be lighter than those with steel frames; that often means more perceived recoil.  The heavier the firearm, the less perceived recoil.  This is a general rule; I've shot polymer pistols that were easier on my hands than steel frame and there are polymer pistols that are heavier than steel framed pistols!  The point to keep in mind here is that every firearm has its own "personality" and you want to make sure it is a good fit for you, as an individual.

An example from my personal collection - I have a Beretta Neos, a Ruger Mark III, and a Ruger 22/45 Lite.  All three shoot 22LR and are roughly the same fit and form with polymer bases/lowers.  The Neos has a 6" barrel (the Rugers are 5.5 and 4.5 inch barrels, respectively), so it is a bit heavier due to the longer barrel but that is not the only thing that makes it heavier; the whole construction of the upper adds weight on this pistol.  On the other hand, the 22/45 Lite has aluminum all over and that makes it very light compared to the other two.  The grip on the Neos is a tad more narrow, and fits smaller hands very nicely.  Each has a very different personality.

I found that the 22/45 Lite had a bit more perceived recoil and muzzle flip than the others.  Shorter barrel, lighter construction...this was no great surprise.  However, it also has a threaded barrel which means I can add an accessory.  The recoil isn't that bad for us (it's just a 22LR) so I went after the muzzle flip.  I added a compensator and it made a fairly significant difference in the amount of muzzle flip.  Compensators work by redirecting the expanding gasses behind the barrel in a different direction.  This particular compensator pushes some of the exploding gasses up, which drives the barrel down just a bit as the bullet exits the pistol.  You can also use suppressors and muzzle brakes to modify the behavior of a firearm as well.  Compensators are designed to reduce muzzle flip, a muzzle brake reduce the kick of the gun, suppressors reduce the bang, and a flash hider reduces the flash from the explosion behind the bullet.  There's a little overlap among the four, some combine functions, and prices vary widely.

Longer barrel, heavier construction materials usually means less perceived recoil; the shorter the barrel, the more plastic or alloys, the greater the perceived recoil.

As you might have expected, choice of caliber will also make a big difference in the perceived recoil as well.  The difference between a 22LR round and a 50 cal is huge.  There are also "standard" rounds and heavier loads like +P, hyper velocity, magnum, and so forth.

Smart caliber selection is important.  If your disability manifests with pain or fatigue, you'll certainly want a lighter round.  The same goes for someone with a smaller frame.  A lot of folks don't like the 22LR round but I'm here to tell you - it's relatively easy on the body, ammunition is inexpensive, firearms are inexpensive, and it's plain fun to shoot.  The 22 gets a bad rap in the self-defense community, but for training it just can't be beat.  If you're new to guns, it's the best place to start.  You can get pistols and rifles chambered in 22LR that have the same look and feel as the versions that shoot 9mm.  If you hunt varmint (small animals), the 22LR is well used and does just fine.  The 40 and 45 caliber rounds both tend to generate more recoil than the standard 9mm; they also have a bigger bang.  If the 9mm is too heavy for you, consider the .380 or 38 special; they are about the same size but have less recoil/bang.

While we're talking about self-defense, all of these same things factor into your choice of a self defense firearm.  Whether you fall into the shotgun camp or the pistol camp, be sure to apply the same considerations to what you keep in the nightstand or on your hip.

Trigger, Slide Release, Charging Handle, Disassembly

The way you interact with your firearm impacts how long you can handle it.  Heavy triggers, stiff slide releases, and difficult to charge slides/handles can quickly fatigue your hands.  Some guns and rifles are really easy to use while others...not so much.

The typical double action trigger pull can be 8-10 pounds or more; single action tends to be closer to 4 or 5 pounds.  Many competition shooters like a very light trigger pull; typically close to 2 pounds.  For most shooters, a 4-6 pound trigger weight is good.  This is why you're better off shooting avoiding single action only pistols if your hands don't work so well.  Some triggers can be adjusted, especially on rifles, and there are a number of companies that make aftermarket parts including triggers.  My S&W SD40VE has an 8 pound trigger pull; I purchased a replacement trigger from Apex Tactical that brings that down to a more manageable 5.5-6 pounds.

Charging your firearm is usually done by pulling back a bolt, racking the slide, or a similar action.  Anyone with weakness in their hands, grip, or forearms knows that this can be a challenge.  Consider this when you choose your firearm.  There are some after-market part that can help as well; most AR style rifles have a charging handle you pull and you can find an attachment to allow the use of more of your hand.  A really good example of such an implement is actually for the Ruger Mark and 22/45 line of pistols.  These are very common 22LR pistols but grabbing ahold of the back of the bolt to pull it out can be tough.  TandemKross has a small handle that attaches quickly and easily that simply solves the problem.  You'll find it here...

The slide release will affect how your slide is released AND, in many cases, how you field strip the gun for cleaning.  Some slide releases go down quickly and easily with the push of a thumb; others require two hands and a lot of effort to move.  If you're in the camp that says you don't use the slide release to rack the slide forward, you'll want to ensure there are serrations on the slide to grip and that it doesn't require a pick-up truck and chain to pull it back.  (Grip tape may help here too.)

Every firearm needs to be cleaned and that means disassembly.  Consider this when you make your purchase; some come apart really easy while others require a bit more manual dexterity to say the least.  My Beretta Neos has a button and a screw that removes the barrel piece; you press the button to release the latch on the screw mount, then unscrew it and the top comes off.  The slide release holds the slide back; while holding the slide, you depress the slide release and guide the slide forward to pull it and the associated springs and such right off the pistol.  My Mark III though...well, let's just say you need to own a mallet to get it apart and that's actually part of the recommended technique for disassembling it.


Whether it is a long term disability or a short term injury, we're not at our best when we take a part of our body out of commission.  This might be something as simple as a broken bone to as severe as an amputation or any of a number of disabilities.

Many of the above suggestions will help with injuries but one that doesn't specifically fit into the above categories is training.  I know...every instructor harps on training, visiting the range regularly, building muscle memory, and so forth.  They're all right, though -- the more you train, the easier you will find it to accommodate your disability and the more natural that accommodation will "feel" to you, as a shooter.

One example that fits both sides of the fence here is the use of your non-dominant half.  Right handed/left handed, right-eye dominant/left-eye the other side of your body to be stronger is an added plus.  Learning to shoot with the opposite eye or even with both eyes open is just a good habit to get into regardless of the reason.  The same can be said for shooting one handed with your "weak" hand.

I've been working with the kids in our family a lot lately, my own as well as nieces/nephews, and my nephew threw me for a loop - he's a lefty when everyone else is right handed.  Took me a few times to work out posture, grip, and general stance.  Needless to say, I'm now working on left handed shooting.

I'm left eye dominant although I am right handed.  Ever try to shoot a rifle right handed while focusing through the scope with your left eye?  Needless to say, I've been working diligently to use my right eye.  I'm also working on point shooting with both eyes open.

Getting used to the "bang" and recoil also comes with practice.  The more you experience, the less sensitive you will be and that means a less extreme reaction.

Worth considering too - take classes and work with more experienced shooters who can help you develop better form.  I've found I make mistakes without realizing it and having a shooting buddy helps immensely; I can't watch myself but he can see what I'm doing and help me make adjustments.  Sometimes you'll pick up an idea for something that you can pull into your own shooting practice.


I'm sure there are many other ways to accommodate disabilities when shooting and welcome further comments/discussion.  As always, I can't recommend enough reaching out to others on the various gun enthusiasts forums, at your local range and shooting clubs...there is a great community of folks out there who want nothing more than to help others enjoy the sport of shooting firearms.  I've always found the shooting community to be very supportive and open to questions.  I hope you found this article helpful!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day

FWIW, I've always though that "Earth Day" was ridiculous.  I mean, seriously, why do we need a day for the planet?

Well...I can't argue with the value of the outreach and the lessons that are commonly raised around Earth Day, even if these are things we should be paying attention to EVERY day.  Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement (1970), or something pretty close to it.   The idea is to rally around what we can do to take better care of the planet and there are a lot of focused discussions on 4/22 that really do have an impact on the thoughts and opinions of many, many persons.

I've said it before on this blog, in my private life, work discussions, and elsewhere - we are not good stewards of this planet and if we don't figure it out soon, we may well find ourselves on the wrong side of an extinction level event.

There are a lot of things we can all do to improve the current environment.  Simple things, things that do not require any real investment but have a significant impact, especially when lots of us do it.  For example:

1) Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - Use less stuff, reuse the stuff you already have, and recycle the things you don't need.  Plastic is a good example here - it is one of the most heavily used materials in the world, if not the most heavily used, and there are many instances where we flat don't need it.  Consider bottled water; do we REALLY need to use 30 BILLION plastic bottles of water each year?  Some estimates are that the average person uses 167 bottles per year.  Buy a reusable container and refill it each day instead.  If you MUST use bottled water, at least be sure to recycle the bottle; less than 20% of all plastic bottles are being recycled (that means we're sending 24 billion plastic bottles to landfills).

2) Use less electricity - Turn off computers; put home entertainment equipment on a power brick and flip the switch when not in use; turn off lights during the day and when you're not in the room.

3) Use less paper - It's the digital age; instead of writing things down, use your computer/phone/tablet.  If you get magazines and newspapers, make sure you're recycling them.  If you use paper to write or print something, use both sides and recycle it when done.  Get your billing statements via e-mail and pay your bills online.  Get an "e-ticket" when you fly instead of a printed ticket.  Did you know the average household receives 40 pounds of junk mail?  Get your name off lists and reduce the junk mail you receive (there are actually services out there that can help, check out

4) Turn the heat down - Set the temperature on the water heater lower; use a programmable thermostat to drop the temp at night and when away.

5) Buy efficient appliances (including furnace and AC) and keep them tuned up - Efficient appliances are available at nearly the same price as their less efficient counterparts; when you replace home equipment, go for something that uses less energy.  Existing equipment should be kept tuned, cleaned, and properly maintained to squeeze the greatest efficiency out of them.

6) Conserve water - Use a low-flow shower head; turn off the water while washing your hands or brushing your teeth; take a shower instead of a bath; take short showers; use a dishwasher instead of hand washing (especially an ultra-efficient dishwasher if you have one); don't water the lawn (even better - replace it); and wash your car less.

7) Use less gasoline - The no brainer here is always to use public transportation or car pool, but there are other ways to reduce your gasoline use.  Regular oil changes and other general maintenance is huge in improving fuel economy.  How you drive also makes a big difference in your fuel economy; avoid fast starts and use your cruise control whenever you're on a long stretch.  If you look at the techniques hypermilers use to get pretty amazing fuel economy, you'll find a number of little tips of use.  Another thing folks don't think about is how often they go out when they could combine trips into a single run or two; the less you start the car, the less gas you'll use!

8) Use rechargeable batteries - Every year, some 15 billion batteries are sold and most of them are disposables.  That means more raw materials and more landfill.  Why not buy rechargeable batteries?  They cost a little more up front, but you'll get far, far more use out of them.

9) Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent or LED lights.  Incandescent bulbs waste most of the electricity they use on heat, not light.  Upgrade to CFLs or LEDs.  In many cases, you can upgrade CFLs to LEDs as well.  New lighting technology not only uses less electricity but it's also a very pleasant color of light.

10) Pass the word on - Talk with friends, family, and others about the importance of doing your part.  It's really not that hard or even inconvenient but the benefits of our combined efforts is massive.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Guns that look like toys....

A shotgun concealed within a Super Soaker.

A handgun painted red.

Guns painted with cartoon characters and multiple colors.

Customization and concealment of personal items is something people have done since forever, but now it's being taken too far with firearms and the result is deadly.  Go to Google and search on "guns that look like toys" then click on Images.  Dozens of pictures of real firearms that have been decorated or painted for concealment come up.  And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Criminals have figured it out - cops will hesitate to shoot if they think the weapon isn't real.  Unfortunately, with continued and increased criminal use of firearms, that second guessing can get a cop killed.

The media has been picking up on this topic more and more lately and it seems to be becoming more of a problem.  Unfortunately, there's no good solution either.

And that's scary.

Kids have played with toy guns for hundreds of years; practically since the first firearm was invented.  It's a rite of passage; playing cowboys and indians, cops and robbers, army, and more.  Toy guns have always been obvious; whether it's the bright orange tipped airsoft gun, the snap cap cowboy six shooter, or brightly colored squirt guns, these are part of millions of childhoods.

There are also well known training tools such as the blue or red plastic guns utilized in classes to educate new and experienced gun owners.  These are used to provide safe training drills for self defense and combat exercises.  I own both a blue, heavy plastic Beretta look-alike and a red with black slide Glock look-alike that provide grip and dry-fire practice.

There's also a drive to "customize and personalize" firearms.  This is one of the most irresponsible actions a gun owner can consider and firearms manufacturers should be slapped up side the head for providing the product.  Firearms need to look like firearms; black, silver, brown, no cartoons or bright colors.  As much as I dislike gun control legislation, this is one of those instances where the gun control advocates have a reasonable platform.  If you own firearms, please - do NOT make them "pretty".

As always, law abiding citizens are not the primary problem here, but we all need to be aware.  It's no longer sensible to allow our children to play with toy guns when out and about, even on the cul de sac.  Criminals are desperate and they don't care if innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire, so take the time to protect yourself and your family.  Sit down with your kids and tell them about these decorated/customized weapons, help them understand the importance of avoiding them and what to do if another child brings one out.

Friday, September 19, 2014

What kind of computer should I buy?

Let's face it - there are a gazillion computers out there that you can buy and unless you have a geek on your shopping trip, everything is going to blur together.  Well, today is your lucky day - I'm here to provide you with the necessary geek tips to get through that shopping trip.

First Things First

When buying a computer, the very first thing you need to do, before you even THINK about looking at an ad or website, is figure out what you want to use the computer to do.  This is the prime determinant in what you're going to buy and I'm going to let you in on a little secret - if you're an average buyer, then you can have more options than others, including budget laptops.  Let's look at the types of users:

1) Basic User - This is the person who is going to surf the web, use e-mail, write up shopping lists, listen to music, keep finances, maybe even edit a few photos of the kids...that sort of thing.

2) Business User - This user is all businessy; he/she is going to be doing spreadsheets, basic graphics, running business applications.

3) Gamers - Gamers are in a calls all their own.  They require lots of power, lots of memory, lots of graphics capability.  This is the second most expensive category of user because, let's face it, you get what you pay for.

4) Power Users - The power user does not require as much power as the gamer, but pretty close.  Your typical power user is a higher end techie who has a lot of programs running at the same time, needs multiple monitors, maybe does software development, and so forth.  Computer engineers and software developers fit in this category.

5) Graphics Professional - This is the most expensive category of them all.  Graphics professionals demand even more out of their systems than the gamers.  These are the people who edit movies, design animation sequences, and use computer aided design (CAD) applications.  Gamers would love to have one of these systems but usually can't come close to affording them.

The vast majority of folks are either basic users or business users and these two categories are actually very close to each other.  Your basic user can get by with a laptop that has 4-8 gigabytes of memory, 500 gigabytes to 1 terabyte of storage, and an i3 or greater processor.  The business user will  want to demand at least 8-12 gigs of memory, a terabyte of storage, and an i5 processor.  The optimal set up is one notch up for each.  If you're getting Windows 8, get a laptop with a touch screen as well; you can run Windows 8 without one, but the new graphical user interface (GUI) is designed for touch so why not grab the best of both worlds?

Desktop, Laptop, MacOS, or Windows?

The next question is desktop or laptop?  If it's just for you, consider going with a laptop.  It's the call of the 21st century - we are a mobile people.  Nothing beats having the ability to pack up and go.  That's something you can do when you're a laptop user.  If you're buying for the family, then the all-in-one is a great solution; all of the modern operating systems (Mac OS, Windows, Linux, etc) allow for multiple users on a single PC and it's best to keep your kids in the family room under your watchful eye.

That brings up another question - Mac or Windows?  (I'll throw you another wrench in a bit when I talk about tablets.)  If you're not tight on funds, a Mac may be the best choice.  Graphics professionals will nearly always use Apple's products, especially the new Mac Pro.  Basic users and business need to look at how much you can spend and how you want to link your equipment.  Windows is the standard for most users, but Apple has done some pretty neat things with their product line that merits a look.  Higher cost; yes.  Ease of use and interoperability; absolutely!

Although I started off with DOS (command line) and moved into Windows, I'm an Apple guy now.  (I actually started off on the old Apple II series back in the early 80s.)  I have an iMac desktop, a MacBook Pro laptop, iPhone 6 Plus (on preorder!), and an iPad.  I've used every OS platform on the market at some point but I've settled into the Apple ecosystem for one big reason --> interoperability.  Everything I do with my technology is linked via Apple's equipment and operating systems.  Whether it's making a phone call, e-mail, documents, messaging, or even shopping lists, I have the lot of it running through my Apple devices and can get to it from any one of them.  Apple's equipment is also high quality; it costs a little more but it comes with high value.  Even more important to me - Apple equipment just plain works.

For those of you consider other operating systems like the many flavors of Linux, ChromeOS, or others...these are really more for specialty types.  If you're reading this article for advice on buying a computer, then stick to Windows or MacOS.

Price Points

Moving back to the world of Windows and the many, many choices available.  Let's break these out by their price points.

The $250-$300 laptop is a true budget unit suitable only for the most basic of users.  This is typically an i3 or Celeron processor; has 4 gigabytes of memory; usually a 15.6", non-touch display; and a 500 gigabyte drive.  These are suitable for surfing the web, e-mail, basic word processing, and similar activities.  They'll be a bit slow and quickly outgrown by anyone but the simplest of users.  This is also where you'll find things like the "Chromebook".  Chromebooks are ok for a select group of users but for most users, you'll want to avoid these as they're just too restricted.

The $350-$500 laptop opens up the spread significantly.  These laptops typically sport an i3 or i5 processor or equivalent, 500 gigabytes to 1 terabyte of storage, maybe a touch screen, 64 bit processor, and 4-8 gigabytes of memory.  This is where the typical, basic user will find a decent system but these laptops are still not quite the right choice for business users.

From about $600 up to $1000, you'll find yourself in a much better piece of equipment.  Although the specs will vary widely, this is where most users should really try to purchase their equipment, with business users typically looking closer to the $900-$1000 range.  These laptops will come with i5 or even i7 processors (or equivalent), 8 or more gigs of memory, a terabyte of storage, touch screens, and even added ports.  Basic users will be satisfied with these systems and even some power users, depending on what they need the PC to do.

As with all things, the amount you spend will typically reflect the quality of the item you purchase.

What About the Specs?

This is where we get down to the nitty gritty; the geek speak.  Once you've decided what kind of user you are and how much you can put down on your new laptop, the next decision centers on the power.

Processor - The processor is the brain of the computer and the more power you have here, the better the computer.  There are two dominant manufacturers of processors in the market today - Intel and AMD.  In consumer laptops, AMD has pulled a bit ahead of Intel at the moment, but either will work fine for most users.

Intel has three basic processors on the market today:

  • Celeron and i3 - These are slow, and the bottom of the barrel.
  • i5 - This is a dual core processor with decent speed and capabling of handling most users' needs.
  • i7 - This is the quad core processor and offers the best bang for the buck.

AMD offers similar processors with dual (E1) and quad core (E2) offerings.  They also have the A series of processors that offer multiple CPU and GPU cores - A6 (3/2), A8 (4/4) and the A10 (4/6).

The speed of the processor has become less of an issue today as well.  Most systems run at 2.5GHz or greater and so long as you stay in that general realm, you'll be fine both as a basic user and as a business user.

The further up the ladder you go on your processor, the better.  I'm a big fan of the i7 CPU, but an i5 will work ok for most folks.

(BTW - the "core" responds to how many processing units are on the chip.  In the old days it was just the one.  Modern computers have multiple processing units on a single chip courtesy of miniaturization.  In fact, we now have processors with both computing and graphics cores on the same chip!)

Memory - Memory stores the data the computer crunches.  The more memory you have, the faster the computer crunches that data.  If you have less memory, then the system swaps it out to the hard drive and that means slower operations.  The absolute minimum memory for a truly basic user is 4 gigabytes; you should shoot for 8-12 gigabytes though.

Display - The size of the display is a personal preference.  Laptops come in 11", 13", 14", 15.6", and 17" varieties (give or take a few tenths of an inch along the way).  I've always bought 17" displays because I like having the full keyboard and number pad, as well as the extra real-estate the 17" screen offers.  That said, my MacBook Pro is a 15.6" screen and it works just fine.  If I need more space, I simply plug a monitor into the laptop and use multiple displays at the same time.  (This is a feature supported by nearly every laptop on the market today.)

Displays also can be touch or non-touch and this is a big deal if you're running Windows 8.  Windows 8 was designed to be used with a touch screen and although the desktop is still there, it's nice to get the best of both worlds.

The quality of the image on the display is no longer such a selling point.  Most displays are perfectly adequate to task for both basic and business users.

Storage - You can never have too much storage BUT external storage is king; the storage on your system is really more about what you need to take with you when you're on the go.  500 gigabytes is enough for the average user and a terabyte certainly offers the growing room for most users, basic or business.

Wireless/WiFi - Wireless standards start off with 802.11 and end with a letter b, g, n, or ac.  There is usually some measure of backward compatibility as well.  If you can find one, a computer that supports 802.11ac is the latest and greatest, plus it will be backwards compatible with b/g/n.  In most cases, though, you'll find just b/g/n support.  Don't buy anything that doesn't support at least b/g/n.

The other part of this equation is the frequency that is supported.  2GHz and 5GHz are the way these are usually labeled.  Get a computer that supports both and avoid computers that only support 2GHz. Look for this when you buy - I found a great buy on a quad core laptop that had all the basic specs I needed for my home office Windows system and didn't even notice that it had a 2GHz only chipset.

Ports & Accessories - This is one area where manufacturers can really shine.  Every computer you buy is going to come with some kind of video and audio output, and probably two or more USB ports.  However, these are not all created equal!  A standard VGA port is nice to hook up another monitor, but a mini-displayport is better and even better than that is HDMI.  USB3.0 is much faster than USB2.0 (with appropriate devices, of course) and the USB3.0 port supports earlier standards so it offers the best all around option.  Firewire is great, SATA is nice but you're unlikely to use it.  Would you believe that most laptops no longer include a CD/DVD drive at all?  You'll want to think about that before you buy, but if you get one without, you can always get a drive that plugs into your USB port for about $20.

What about the brand?

Would you believe this really doesn't matter so long as you stick to the big companies?  Toshiba makes great budget laptops; HP and Dell have been the choice of business for many years; Samsung makes a great laptop as well.  On the desktop front, HP has been putting some very nice all-in-one units out for a while now and Dell, Lenovo, and Asus have all hit the market with good equipment too.  Of course, as I mentioned earlier, if you can afford it, you just can't go wrong with Apple.

Brand loyalty is a big deal for a lot of folks but I'm just not among them.  I've found that most manufacturers offer similar quality and it's really the hard core specs that you need to consider.

Bottom Line?

The bottom line is that you want to get as much power as you can for as much as you can afford to spend.  Here are the minimums I recommend:

Basic User - i5/A8 processor; 8 gigabytes of memory; 500 gigabytes to 1 terabyte storage; 64 bit Windows 8; 15.6" or 17", touch screen display; USB3.0 ports; 802.11 b/g/n with 2 and 5 GHZ support; any brand.  Average price: $600.

Business User - i7/A8 process; 12 gigabytes of memory; 1 terabyte storage; 64 bit Windows 8; 15.6" or 17" display; USB3.0 ports; 802.11 b/g/n with 2 and 5 GHZ support; Dell with various additional coverage (accidental damage, 3 year warranty, etc).  Average price: $1200.  (Note the business cost is a bit higher because of the extra protection/warranty that you buy.)

As I write this article, we're heading into the holiday season and there will be MANY sales on computers.  It's the best time to get a decent deal, aside from watching the ads every week during the rest of the year, searching for that one great buy.  Black Friday will have a bunch of laptop mark downs and store shelves will be overflowing with options.  It's a golden opportunity to take your new found knowledge on a shopping trip!

What else?

There are lots of "extras" you'll want to buy for your computer.  A wireless keyboard and mouse or trackball (Logitech; $50-$75), maybe a second display (go for as big a screen as you can get; runs about $125), an external CD/DVD drive ($20)....  These are all semi-essentials and really, choosing them is nowhere near as difficult as buying the computer itself.

For you laptop users, make sure you get a good bag to carry your laptop around.  I'm particularly partial to Swiss brand backpacks; they protect the equipment well, have ample storage for accessories, and a backpack allows you to distribute the weight across your back as opposed to carrying it on one side in a briefcase style holder.

You should also consider purchasing an external storage device or two.  For backing up your data, a USB hard drive like those offered by Western Digital (WD) and SeaGate are inexpensive choices ranging from $50-$150.  A 2 terabyte drive will be enough for most users.  The key thing here - back your data up and do so often.  If your external hard drive crashes, you'll be happy you have that external hard drive sitting there with a copy of everything.  You'll get great use from a USB "thumb drive" or "stick" as well.  These are even less expensive, running $10-$100 and storing anywhere from 8 gigabytes to 128 gigabytes of data.  USB thumb drives are great for carrying just about any data between systems, especially for business users.  They can be lost, though, so consider their use carefully.

While we're on the "what else" topic, everyone who uses a computer needs a basic office suite that includes a spreadsheet and word processing program.  The best known of these program suites is, of course, Microsoft Office but it's kinda pricey, even if you go with their Office 365 program.  Never fear, there are two free suites that are just as good and even support the Microsoft file formats for interoperability.  They are WPS Office and LibreOffice.  At the moment, WPS Office has pulled out in front and offers the best collection of features in a free office suite.  Before you cough up the cash for Microsoft's products, give these a test spin; you may never turn back.

What about a Tablet?

I'll close this article out with a brief touch on the tablet.  Tablets are all the craze and with good reason; they take portable computing to all new levels.  They're small, light, and fairly powerful.  Many of us have replaced our daily technology usage with a tablet, especially for surfing the 'net and answering e-mail.  However, they're just not quite yet ready to completely replace the computer for most users.  They're really more of a companion.  When you need to edit pictures, write a paper, work on a spreadsheet, or any of a myriad of other tasks that require the use of a keyboard and pointing device, tablets just don't quite cut it.  I'm pretty fast on the tablet; but I type WAY faster on a regular keyboard.  Every tool has its purpose and even though there are now tablets with USB ports, keyboard cases, and even the ability to wirelessly connect to a keyboard/mouse, they just don't have quite the same power as a full blown computer.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What streaming device should I buy?

Today I was asked about the streaming devices that are on the market.  The specific question was which one offered the best bang for the buck.

When it comes to getting your entertainment, there are many options available to consumers today.  In fact, a lot of us are moving toward "cord cutting" for entertainment.  Sure, you still have an Internet provider, but at least you aren't paying to get 500 channels when you're only going to use 10, including 5 or 6 of those which you can get over the air for free.  Setting aside home entertainment mainstays that now incorporate streaming functions, if you want to get a set top box there are four basic players in the game:

1) Amazon Fire TV
2) Apple TV
3) Chromecast/Google TV
4) Roku

Any one of these four will plug into your TV and give you access to all sorts of entertainment.  The first three, though, were specifically designed as content delivery devices within the ecosystem of their respective manufacturer.  This means that Amazon, Apple, and Google designed these so you would purchase your content from them specifically and directly.  Roku, on the other hand, is wholly independent of the others and offers more "independent" channels.  They all support the big content delivery independents - Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and YouTube.

Apple TV

Apple TV is the most restrictive of the four and this makes it the poorest choice for the general consumer.  Apple offers you access to music and movies you purchase through iTunes, Netflix, and Hulu Plus.  They have a bunch of other "channels" you can access if you have the right subscription (usually a cable provider).  You can read about the channels available here:

The best thing about AppleTV, though is that you can also mirror your iPhone/iPad/iPod to the TV and that's pretty cool.  I have one of these for just that purpose.  It's also nice to be able to access your photo stream on the TV and iTunes radio is just as good as any cable based music channel.

Anyone who knows will know I am a HUGE fan of Apple products.  I have the full suite - iPhone 6 Plus (preordered), iMac, MacBook Pro, iPad, AppleTV, and next year I'll even get an Apple Watch.  But, if I'm being honest, I just can't recommend the AppleTV to anyone who isn't heavily hooked into the Apple ecosystem.  Apple just hasn't shown themselves serious about this area of entertainment and Android based devices are just better.  Apple TV goes for $99 normally, but you can find it on sale occasionally and on Black Friday, Best Buy likes to sell them for closer to $50-$60 too.  (Hey - it's only a couple of months away!)

Chromecast/Google TV

Google has come up with their own rendition of home entertainment set tops called "Google TV" and an Android extension device in a stick called the "Chromecast".  If you're looking for a full set top solution, forget about Chromecast.

Consumers of the Google Play world of content (movies, music, etc) and Android afficionados, will find Google's options a great addition to their homes.  If you have Android devices, you'll enjoy the ability to mirror them to the TV just like Apple geeks can do with the Apple TV.  Google TV is for Android what Apple TV is for iOS, right down to the channels offered.  The one thing you get with Google TV that you don't get with Apple TV - apps.  There are lots of Android apps that will run on your Google TV box.

Again, though, my recommendation here is limited.  The Google TV boxes run anywhere from $100-$200, depending on the model, sales, and so forth.  Heavy Android users - this is a great pick for you.  Of course, you can't play iTunes content on Google TV but there's just as much content from Google Play.  If you're not all about Android, then there are better choices.

Amazon Fire TV

When you come right down to it, Amazon is the supreme leader of content delivery.  No one does it better.  Period.  End of discussion.  Their e-reader devices may not get my vote, but Amazon has a very well developed ecosystem for delivering movies, music, and books that has made it the behemoth it is today.

The Fire TV is a relative newcomer to the set top box market.  It retails for $99 and offers full access to all the big content providers, apps, and even has a standard game controller you can buy to play some of the many games available for the device.  The interface is simple; sliders where each row is a different category of content/apps, and even a voice recognition driven search system.  It is elegant in its simplicity and design.

The best feature of Fire TV is how it hooks into Amazon's ecosystem and the pairing of the device with Amazon's "Prime" service.  Amazon Prime costs $109/year and offers free, 2-day shipping on anything you buy as well as access to their Netflix like library of movies and TV shows.  Of course, newer material takes a while to get to the streaming service, but the selection actually rivals Netflix.  Having Prime plus Netflix will give you enough media content to vegetate on the couch for years to come.


Roku is the power house in this category.  In addition to carrying all the big content providers, Roku also taps into Google's media and even Amazon's.  (No Apple or Google content accessible yet.)  As an added bonus - the Roku is cheap.  Entry level Roku boxes cost only $50 and earlier generations can be found for less.

In the war of versatility, Roku takes the cake without competition.  In addition to the heavy hitters, there are dozens of small content providers with channels you can add to your Roku box, some for a couple of bucks a year and others for free.  Music lovers will be pleased to find that even Spotify is available on the Roku.

Sidebar - What's "Plex"?

I'm glad you asked!  In addition to the big content providers, you may find yourself to be a bit of a content provider on your own.  With Plex, you can store your very own content at home (Plex Media Server) or even in the cloud.  (Cloud services start at $3.99/month and they offer yearly, $29.99, and lifetime, $74.99, subscriptions as well.)  Roku, Google TV, Amazon Fire TV, and most mobile devices support Plex to boot.  This is a great option to add to your home entertainment system if you have a large MP3 collection or if you have a lot of movies you've ripped.

So...What to Buy?

Your particular viewing needs will dictate which device you find most appealing.  If your content exists primarily in one ecosystem (Apple, Amazon, Google) then that's where you'll best end up.  If you want a bunch of tchotchke channels with esoteric programming, along with the big content providers, then you'll find Roku works great.  The overall winner in my book is the Amazon Fire TV.  Amazon's content is just unparalleled in the market and even if you're a regular Google or Apple kinda user, Amazon's content delivery is superior.  SO, if you were the type of shopper who just wanted ONE box, then I'd recommend getting Amazon Fire TV, adding Amazon Prime, buying any digital movies you want through Amazon, and even tying it into your "Free Digital Copy" coupons when you buy discs.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

iPhone 6 has arrived...but was it worth the wait?

So, Apple had its big shindig, the H2 keynote.  They announced a brand new iPhone, Apple Pay, the Apple Watch...but, is it worth the upgrade?

In order for a smartphone update to be worthy of an upgrade, some conditions need to be met:

  1. Faster processing
  2. More memory/storage
  3. Better camera
  4. Operating system improvements
  5. General improvements and new stuff

In the case of the iPhone, the product line had become a bit stale so this new model really needed to be an out of the park, grand slam kinda hit.  This particular upgrade hits all the salient points.

Faster Processing

Apple is introducing its newest chipset, the A8 (CPU) and M8 (motion management).  The A8 has 64 billion transistors and is umpteen times faster than its predecessors.  The M8 introduces new features in that it can measure motion and elevation such as going up stairs.  Graphics processing is supposed to be 50% faster as well.  All of this and a reduction in overall power consumption.  This definitely qualifies as a significant improvement to the processing capabilities of the phone.

More memory/storage

Apple did not say anything about the memory on the phone, but there was a nice bump to storage.  The base model comes out with 16G of storage but the next two levels are 64G and 128G.  This is especially important as the iPhone isn't just a telephone or your average smartphone but a personal music system and a place to keep thousands of photos.

Better Camera

The new iSight camera has improved upon previous generations.  We still have 1.5-micron pixels, ƒ/2.2 aperture, and 8 megapixels, but the sensor is greatly improved.  When talking about digital photography, the sensor is likely the single most important thing for getting good, crisp pictures.  The new camera uses on-sensor phase detect focus (called, "Focus Pixels"), improved tone mapping, better noise reduction, improved face detection, better HDR (High Dynamic Range)...all good things.  Apple also claims the front facing camera takes in 81% more light.  The end result is MUCH better pictures.  Another plus courtesy of the larger sized iPhone 6 Plus - Optical Image Stabilization (OIS).  The smaller iPhones, including iPhone 6, use digital image stabilization and while that's good stuff, it doesn't compare to OIS which actually moves the lens as part of keeping things still.  If you're into selfies, iPhone 6 can do burst mode selfies too.  On the video side of the shop, we have 60fps HD video but also 240fps slow motion video.  That's kinda cool and you can get real artsy with slow motion and time lapse.

Operating System Improvements

Apple already gave us the grand tour of iOS 8 earlier in the year and it is definitely a bump from iOS 7.  There are all the standard/sub-standard updates of apps making them look faster or run better, of course.  iOS 8 also increases the usability of the device with things like more interactive notifications; quick-reply; integrated SMS (not just Messages, but actual SMS); cross-platform improvements  including the ability to dial calls from your Mac; new photo editing tools; time lapse mode and timer for the camera; improved searching; and "Family Share" which allows family members to share content.  All are very solid improvements and all will be available on 9/17 to owners of iPhone 4S and greater (as well as iPad2 and greater, and the iPad mini).

General Improvements & New Stuff

Now THIS is where we really get to the meat of things.  The above are all absolute musts for an upgrade to even be considered, but to seal the deal there needs to be some keepin' up with the Joneses.

Probably the biggest issue with the iPhone, compared to Android devices, has been its size.  First everyone wanted smaller but now that we've realized how useful these things are, we asked for a bigger screen.  Android manufacturers responded with devices up to 5 and 6 inches.  Apple...they increased to 4 inches.  Needless to say, that just wasn't enough and the customer base was pretty clear on that point.  They've corrected course and the iPhone 6 comes in a standard 4.7 inches while the iPhone 6 Plus comes in 5.5 inches of phablet phabulosity.  The thickness has been reduced from 7.7mm to 6.9mm and 7.1mm respectively.  The new colors will be silver, gold, and black.

The second complaint has been with battery life.  Apple claims to have improved overall battery life depending on usage with as much as 16 days of standby.  This is a significant claim for those who do not live on their phones.  Overall battery life is said to have improved as well, due to a 50% improvement in the A8's power management capabilities.  Browsing gets up to 10 hours, video 11 hours, audio 50 hours, and 3G talk 14 hours.  iPhone 6 Plus, which can hold a bigger battery obviously, bumps those up a bit -- 3G talk gets 24 hours and audio a whopping 80 hours, while browsing goes to 12 hours and video to 14 hours.

The transceivers have been updated substantially as well.  LTE is juiced up to 15Mbps with 20 bands and carrier aggregation.  VoLTE (Voice over LTE) has been added and that's the next big thing in cellular carriers' world.  On the WiFi front, the iPhone 6 supports 802.11ac, the latest WiFi standard and the fastest yet.  iPhone can also shift calls back and forth between WiFi and cellular now.  (Android has been able to do this a while; T-Mobile uses it extensively, since their network coverage is so poor.)

The iPhone 6 played a little catchup with the addition of NFC features as well.  Near Field Communication allows devices, like smart phones and tablets, to exchange data over a range of a couple of inches.  While this technology is not new, Apple is largely bringing it to the mainstream with their Apple Pay service.  Apple Pay is a payment service that uses a wallet to store your credit card information.  Ever notice the "Tap to Pay" thingmes on the credit card swiper at the supermarket?  That's an NFC transceiver; you will now be able to use your phone to keep track of your credit cards and pay for purchases in a far more secure fashion.  (Android has had this ability a while now.)  This feature is only available on iPhone 6; earlier versions of the iPhone do not have an NFC chip.

Graphics have, of course, improved in this new series as well.  The iPhone 6 has a pixel density of 301ppi on its 4.7 inch, 1334x750 screen; the 6 Plus sports 401ppi on its 5.5 inch, full HD screen with a 1920x1080.  (That's right - a phone with 1080, full HD.)  This gives portable gaming yet another boost and Apple was quick to show it off a bit with a demo of a new game from Super Evil Megacorp.  Between the faster processing, better graphics engine (Metal), and display improvements...they did not fail to impress; the graphics are simply stunning.

The last big thing that comes along is one of Apple's newest campaigns - health and fitness.  iOS 8 introduces two new fitness apps; one that tracks your day, and another that helps you track your workout. There have been fitness trackers for a while that log how many steps you take, your daily heart rate, and more.  The iPhone 6 now has some of those functions as well.  The new "Apple Watch" takes it one step further, providing all the data of a wristband fitness tracker, haptic feedback, and more.  This is nice because it integrates all these trackers into equipment you typically have with you everyday and everywhere you go.

The "Apple Watch" (which I'll review later) also provides you with a wrist based interface to your iPhone.  This is nice because it means the iPhone can stay in your purse/pocket/holster.  What's more, the smart watch includes its very own NFC chip so users of older iPhones will be able to take advantage of Apple Pay by tapping their watch to the credit card reader.  There are some really cool things you can do with this smart watch and it's a very nice companion tool to the iPhone.


Pricing is always a question when there are so many feature improvements and hardware upgrades.  The iPhone 6 will run $199 for 16G, $299 for 64G, and $399 for 128G (with 2 year contract). iPhone 6 Plus is $299, $399, $499 (same storage). They're dropping the 5S to $99 and the 5C to free.  (For those interested, the Apple Watch hits early next year at a very pricey $349.)


The big question: Is the iPhone 6 a worthy successor in the product line and a worthwhile upgrade?  The answer here is definitely a yes.  This new generation of iPhone brings the device up to date compared to its competitors in the market, improves on every aspect of the hardware and design, and incorporates a bunch of new features that moves it to the forefront of the smartphone wars.  The prices haven't really changed, although the iPhone 6 Plus is a bit more expensive than the base model, and there's just a bunch of improvements.  iPhone 6 ships 9/19/2014 (iOS 8 releases to everyone on 9/17/2014).