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).

Monday, September 1, 2014

What is a "tax inversion"?

"Tax inversion", also known as a "corporate inversion" is one of the ways corporations reduce their tax burden.  The long made short - a company based in a country with a high tax rate merges with a company that's in a country with a lower tax rate, then moves the headquarters of their newly formed company to the country with the lower tax rate, essentially "renouncing" their citizenship.

This has been making quite a bit of news lately as US corporations are looking at any and all ways to increase profits.  The US has the highest corporate tax rate of any western nation at 35% (well, highest of those in the OECD).  Of course, we all know that no corporation actually pays taxes; they pass the cost of taxes along to the consumer in the form of higher prices.  However, taxes still come off their bottom line so if they can find a way to get the cost of taxes down, then the bottom line retains more profits.  This makes investors happy, but hurts the previous host nation (in this case, the US).

Another benefit to corporations, besides the obviously lower rate, is not paying taxes on out-of-country profits.  US based corporations pay 35% whether the money is made in the US or elsewhere; they're merely credited what they paid outside the US.  For example, if a US corporation paid 20% in taxes in another country, then they'd pay an additional 15% when they brought their remaining profits back home.  Most countries only tax profits made within their individual country; this means the money made outside the host country are not taxed any more than what the other country requires.

Anything that's good for a corporation must be bad for the people, right?  Well...that's up for debate.

First and foremost, shareholders take a bit of a hit when the inversion occurs as their shares will be traded out for shares in the new company...and subject to capital gains tax.  Secondly, corporate profits made within the US will remain the same.  So we're really just talking about the loss of a small percentage on foreign investments.  True, there are some pretty big multinational companies (like Burger King) talking about making the jump, but even the US Treasury is only estimating a loss of $20 billion over the next DECADE.  That's right - a paltry $2 billion a year.  For a country which has budgets in the trillions of dollars, $20 billion over ten years is a drop in the well.

What about the little know, the thousands of employees the company has here in the US?  Truth is...they're not even going to notice.  So long as business in the US continues to be profitable, these companies are going to continue to do business in the US.  The one exception here...employees with company shares would feel the pinch as capital gains tax.  Even that's just an impact to the middle class and wealthy who hold long term positions; individuals making less than $37k and couples making less than $78k do not have to pay capital gains.  And anyone who has these stocks in a Roth IRA, 401k, or other tax deferred account.  (Investment advisers may also recommend selling some other stocks for a loss to offset the capital gains, or even gifting a portion of stocks to someone else.)

According to the Ways and Means Committee of the US House of Representatives, 76 companies have completed corporate inversions since 1983; 19 have announced plans to do so in the last 18 months alone, with 14 having completed their plans already.  In fact, since President Obama took office, 25 companies have chosen to change their addresses.  The pundits, of course, blame this on the Obama administration and their aggressive rhetoric/policies; the reality is more that we're a global marketplace now and corporations are under heavy pressure to reduce tax burden.  This is just one of many tactics to do so.

The companies completing tax inversions are varied and several you've heard of, maybe even buy from regularly.  Medtronic, a manufacture of durable medical goods, just moved to Ireland.  Most pacemaker recipients will have heard of this company.  Pfizer has been in on-again/off-again talks to buy Britain's AstraZeneca.  Liberty Global, formerly of Colorado, bought Virgin Media and made the jump across the pond.  Chiquita bought Fyffes and moved to Ireland.  Forest Labs bought Dublin's Activis and is reincorporating there.  You may notice these companies are all moving to the UK...that's because the government there taxes at 13% and only taxes domestic profits.

Burger King and Walgreen's have been hot in the news lately.  Walgreen's was considering a move to Switzerland; for what can only be described as patriotic reasons (i.e., heavy PR fallout), they reconsidered and will remain a US firm for the present.  Burger King, though, is merging with Tim Hortons of Canada and the move is underway.  Some argue this was for the brand value of Tim Hortons; it's practically a household name in Canada, so headquartering it here might damage the brand.  The tax benefits are only around 10% so although there are some financial benefits, it's not as massive as some other inversions.  Money is money, though, and that will allow the new company to expand as they pull on each other's considerable experience and menus.  (Let's face it - Burger King makes some great sandwiches, but their breakfast is terrible; Tim Hortons is the breakfast king in Canada.)

So...that's the story on corporate/tax inversions.  The media is making a big deal out of it; the Democrats think it is the end of the world; the Republicans are all about it.  For the rest of us, it's good to understand all the hoopla.