Episode 104: Vox.com vs. FiveThirtyEight

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Spoiler: We kick off the show discussing TV watching and spoilers. Is it possible to have an Internet connection and not get a show spoiled if you can’t watch the show live?

Our main topic is our thoughts on Vox.com and FiveThirtyEight, the two new big journalism startups. There is a lot to like. And a lot not to like.

Listen to this week’s episode:

 

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Episode 103: I’m being poked in virtual reality

OculusRift1

We discuss Facebook buying Oculus, the maker of the virtual reality headset Rift.

The original Oculus Rift was crowdfunded on Kickstarter, and intended as a way to make playing video games more immersive. Now, we enter into a virtual world where your friends can poke you whenever they feel like it. We think.

Should those original backers get some money from this $2 billion sale to Facebook? Should a company that is eventually going to seek VC money and to be bought out by a large company ever engage on crowdfunding?

We also discuss criticisms that 538 and Vox.com are too white and male.

Listen to this week’s episode:

 

Download the MP3

Show notes:

 

Thoughts on Vox.com, Ezra Klein’s new website

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Ezra Klein’s Project X is here, and now it is called Vox.com.

This is what he and several of journalists left The Washington Post for. It’s early, but I’m impressed. There is still much work to done, however, to really make this new news organization stand out.

Here are my early thoughts:

  • The design is simple — There is nothing about the Web design of Vox.com that is eye popping. The site is clean, simple and easy to use. The design probably took less time to build than a lot of metro newspaper websites. Good design is about saying no, not yes. When you look at most journalism websites, it looks like no was almost never said no, except when it came to trying new things. Vox.com isn’t cluttered with random crap that most people don’t want. That’s the beauty of its design. Also, the design works very well on mobile, which is key to harnessing social media traffic properly. I also imagine Vox.com is aimed at a lot of educated, urban users who will read stories on their way to work on public transportation or at coffee shops on breaks. This website is perfect for those kinds of users.
  • The content is delicious and slightly esoteric — Naturally I’m a fan. Vox.com is a general interest site, except it’s not. It’s a general interest site for people who share Ezra Klein’s taste, just as Daring Fireball is a general interest site for those who share John Gruber’s taste in tech. It’s a site aimed at educated, urban, urbane readers who care about policy. Frankly, it’s a website that  appeals more to your typical white-collar DC-area worker than the Washington Post does.  I think general interest news sites are a tough business when they try to appeal to everyone. That’s what metro newspapers have traditional done, and while it worked in print, it’s a tougher sell online. Vox.com is a general interest website aimed at a niche audience. I think it’s the only way general interest can work on the Web. I also would think that advertisers are pretty excited about this site.
  • I love the Vox Conversations videos — There is nothing fancy technologically about these videos, just a big heaping of taste. The quality is high, and the videos are well thought out and edited. This isn’t smartphone journalism. This is video that would make Charlie Rose and TED proud. Lots of news organizations could do the same thing, but video like this takes time to build. These conversations are the kind of videos, however, that will be relevant for a long time to come, like TED Talks, which allows you to have higher production costs. The idea of producing tons of journalism each day is incongruous with high quality. These videos showcase that.
  • Cards are Wikipedia-esque way to explain large stories — I’d suggest firing this feature up on a mobile device to really get the full effect. Essentially cards are a way to explain by topics, such as the Ukraine Crisis, in more manageable chunks. Think of it as a more approachable Wikipedia that is more tightly edited on current hot-button topics. This is also a way to give context to stories. And Cards are a nice way to present ads to users every few clicks and swipes without detracting from the main content. Cards are kind of a high-brow way to do slideshows on important topics. Every news organization that has covered what is going on in Ukraine should have an explainer feature about what is going on. Just reporting on the day-to-day goings on with Ukraine and Russia doesn’t educate users on the why. News organizations should care more about the why. Cards are all about the why. The true value of cards, however, won’t be realized until they can be linked to additional reporting.
  • The lack of comments and community features is disappointing — News websites feel dead without community. Even though Vox.com features a nice design that works well on all my devices, and has stories that speak to me, the inability to read what people think and share my own opinions leaves me detached from this site. I don’t comment on most journalism sites that I read, but just reading the comments that are left (at least on the sites that build strong communities), enriches the experience and makes me feel a part of something bigger. The comments on nytimes.com, for instance, are fantastic and often extend the story significantly. I hope we see community features added soon, because Vox.com just doesn’t feel complete right now.
  • Excellent use of charts and data — I’m not talking about big data or fancy data-drive projects. I’m talking about putting in easy-to-read charts and graphs when they help tell a story. Does your story involve data of some sort? It should have at least one data visualization. That could be as simple as an Excel chart.
  • I dig the yellow color — Yellow is not a common color for websites. I’m grown weary of seeing so many blue websites or black and white color palettes for news organization. The yellow works well on several levels. Not only does Vox.com feel fresh like spring, but the yellow also reminds a user of highlighting a college textbook. Vox.com is a general interest news website, but it also wants to be educated and wonkish. The yellow color and the way links look like underlines in a textbook really underscore that. They even made links look like a real highlighter went over them by not being symmetrical. It’s a nice touch.
  • Text could be bigger — The text on Vox.com is bigger than most news organizations (some news organizations seem to want to make reading as difficult as possible), but I’d still like to see it bigger. Larger text is easier on the eyes, making reading easier for longer periods of time. For a site that wants to be wonkish and bookish, bigger type would help accomplish that. Bigger type is also easier on older eyes and people with vision issues. Medium does the best job of any website with text. I love the size and font choices they made. I’d like to see Vox.com adopt something similar.
  • Look Mom, no Flash! — The videos are viewable without Flash. Every news website needs to do this. It’s no surprise that a tech-focused company like Vox would use HTML 5 for everything, but it’s still worth mentioning.
  • I’d like to see higher resolution video — This is also a complaint that I have with another Vox property, The Verge. I’d love to be able to see some of their videos in higher resolution. The initial Vox Conversations video is soft and highly compressed. This keeps costs down and helps with loading times, but I’d like to see an option for at least high quality 720p video. Heck, I’d probably chip in $10 a year just for this feature. A lot of people won’t care about this, but it’s a premium feature that some may enjoy.

For those wondering, we’ll be launching a new responsive design this summer for the Interchange Project. This design was hastily hacked together. I’m excited to put all of my previous Web knowledge together with everything I’ve learned in my Human-computer Interaction master’s program.

Twitter is the reason to watch television live #HIMYMfinale

himymfinaleI’m a binge watcher.

I don’t watch a lot of television live, save for sports. I don’t have cable, and Netflix is how I watch most television shows. But Twitter pulls me back into live television.

There is nothing that cable companies and channels can do to pull me back into live television, but technology and the communal experience can. Twitter is so much better than the day-after water-cooler experience. You discuss and share experiences in real time, as new developments happen over the course of a show.

Twitter is the only reason I watch the Oscars. The show itself is kind of boring and bloated, but all the discussion about the host’s jokes, who won what award (or should have won), etc. makes it enjoyable. Oscar watching parties are still popular, and a good way to go, but with Twitter you don’t need a party to experience a live event with lots of people.

I binge watched How I Met Your Mother with my wife starting about a year ago. We eventually caught up to the final season about halfway through (eight seasons in a year is a hell of a way to watch a sitcom). And I’m glad we did for the finale, even though the show is much more enjoyable to binge watch than in 22-minute chunks.

With the second screen experience and Twitter, watching television becomes a communal experience, where as share our thoughts and theories.

As we were watching the HIMYM finale, I couldn’t take it anymore. I opened up my laptop and went on Twitter. I had to see what people were saying, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The #HIMYMFinale hashtag was the top one in the U.S. I went there and was able to vent and share my feelings. About half way through the finale I began tweeting my own thoughts.

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As this point, I none of us knew the Mother would die (although I expected her to for several weeks), and that Ted and Robin might be a thing again in the future. And then people began responding to me. Some thought there was no way this could happen.

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After the final was over, and it was clear what had happened, I sent out one of my final tweets.

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If I hadn’t caught up to real time with the show, I would never have sent this tweet out, and had all the interaction I had with people all over the world that night and for the next week. People will still be upset by the finale (or continue to love it) for years, but the energy around the finale was when it aired. Imagine the snark that would have happened when Seinfeld’s finale ended if Twitter were around. I almost want a time machine and Twitter to make that happen.

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Of course, you have to avoid Twitter if you want to avoid spoilers, and there is no way to segregate tweets by region. West Coast HIMYM fans could watch the finale when it aired and still have it spoiled by East Coast viewers and their reactions. That’s a flaw in the current broadcast television model that will only cause more people to go to streaming.

Not showing shows at same time everywhere is the issue — an anachronism from a pre-social media time. The social experience around a television event shouldn’t be limited to people who get to watch the show first.

This is one of the big strengths of Oscars and live sports. These kinds of events are shown everywhere at the same time and work very well for social media. Scripted television will need to adapt.

Binge watching is great. Most of the time it is better than watching a 30-minute show filled with commercials once a week. But binge watching kills the social experience. This will have to be rectified.

But traditional television models are bad at binge watching and the social experience. Viewers don’t really benefit at all from the traditional television model, which is user hostile.

One day when all content goes over IP, this won’t be an issue. Imagine being able to watch a television show when it airs on CBS in your time zone or being able to stream it at the same time everywhere. West Coast viewers could tune in at the same time as East Coast viewers.

But the more I binge watch, the more I realize that the current model really harms the viewing experience and the show themselves. Sitcoms really drag when you are given about 22-minutes of new content a week surrounded by ads. Game of Thrones, with each episode being a weighty 50+ minutes, sans ads, still works in a once-a-week format, because the show is so dense that it’s hard to binge watch more than a few episodes in a week.

I don’t think sitcoms like HIMYM do that well. The show was more enjoyable when I could binge watch it. You can get in about three episodes of HIMYM in about an hour on Netflix. But, again, binge watching can’t be nearly the social experience. All you can talk about with binge watching are the broad strokes of a show.

So, what’s the solution? Perhaps we need more hour-long shows with fewer episodes per season. Or, maybe every episode except for the last few in a season should be available on day one. This way people can binge watch the show over a few weeks and then come together for a big finale together as a community.

House of Cards is a great show, and it’s fun to binge watch, but it lacks a strong social community around it.

The MacBook Pro (or PC laptop) that I would bring to college

Starbuck falling asleep while studying. The laptop and tablet combo is a good one for college.

Starbuck falling asleep while studying. The laptop and tablet combo is a good one for college.

The topic of what computer to take to college comes up often here. Jeremy and I may not fully agree on this (he’d say MacBook Air), but here is my advice.

I’m specifically highlighting which Mac I would recommend to take to college (with some equivalent PC options as well), because this is a recent question we were asked. I also use a MacBook Pro for graduate school and had to make this very decision two years ago.

Price certainly matters. Form a budget. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll need this computer to work well for at least four years, and I know many people who bought cheaper computers and had to replace them before college was over.

A good computer could even last you through graduate school.

Computers have gotten a lot cheaper over time, and there may be some temptation to get a random laptop for $450, but that could be a big mistake. I spent about $3,000 on computer for college, and that wasn’t abnormal at the time.

One of the big reasons that computers have gotten cheaper since I was in undergrad is that quality has dropped a lot. It was much more difficult to get a really cheap computer that was filled with poor compromises.

I’m not suggesting you need to spend $3,000 on a computer, but I’d hesitate to go cheap with this decision. It’s important.

Displays matter. Go HiDPI (Retina)

If you’re going to be doing a lot of reading or writing — and this is a lot of college students — I’d really only look at laptops with HiDPI displays. The most famous is the Macbook Pro with Retina Display, but there are several PC options as well. We explain how HiDPI displays can reduce eyestrain and make reading easier.

HiDPI stands for high dots per inch. It means more pixels and smaller pixels. It means fonts so clear that you can no longer see the pixels (your eyes will thank you for this). It means images that look like high-quality prints. It’s kind of the difference between an HD and non-HD television.

HiDPI is the future of computer displays, and it is already the present on smartphones and tablets. There is no reason not to get on this bandwagon now, and you’ll thank yourself for doing so in a few years.

I get many of my textbooks as Kindle ebooks. This is usually cheaper and much lighter and space conscious. I can often read these books on my iPad and iPhone too, making it easy to sneak in a few minutes of reading here or there. But sometimes I don’t want to carry an iPad or Kindle with me.

My MacBook Pro hooked up to my external monitor. It's a great way to do heavy-duty work.

My MacBook Pro hooked up to my external monitor. It’s a great way to do heavy-duty work.

There is also a Kindle Web app. Normally, I wouldn’t want to try to read a book on a low-resolution computer monitor, but now that I have a HiDPI display, I can also use my laptop for book reading.

Trust me, this makes a huge difference. I had a bad case of eye strain during college, largely from working on the student newspaper, and HiDPI displays are a way I manage my eyestrain today. My computer, smartphone and tablet are all HiDPI, and I’ll never buy a non-HiDPI display again.

This is why I do not recommend the iPad Air, despite it otherwise being perhaps the best general college laptop around. Text isn’t as sharp on the display, and it will fatigue your eyes faster. The 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina is 3.46 pounds, and while it is not MacBook Air light, it is plenty light enough to carry around campus. I have the 15-inch MacBook Pro, and with the right bag, its 4.46 pounds doesn’t bother me.

The MacBook Air may go Retina as early as this year, and as soon as that happens, many of you may prefer the MacBook Air. The MacBook Pro is a more powerful machine, but the MacBook Air should appeal to more college students with its lighter weight and lower price. The lack of a HiDPI display, however, is not worth it to me, unless you are in a major that doesn’t require a lot of reading and writing. Or if you’re in a major that doesn’t require a lot of computer use

There is no such thing as too much ram

I would go with the maximum amount of ram you can afford. I’d also go with additional ram over a faster CPU any day of the week. This may not matter now, but it may come in handy 4-6 years from now. Newer applications and operating systems tend to use more memory over time, and this will leave you better prepared for tomorrow’s applications.

I believe in using computers for years and years and running them into the ground. I had an eight-year-old PowerMac as my daily machine for awhile. I plan on using this MacBook Pro for many years.

A lack of ram will hurt your ability to use a machine for a long time. A hundred dollars or so now could mean several years of additional life out of your machine later.

As of March 2014, I’d recommend going with at least 8 GB of ram. You probably won’t notice the effects of anything above that, but going with more ram will provide greater future proofing, which may come in handy post graduation when you can’t afford a new computer.

SSD all the way

I never want to own a computer again with a traditional spinning hard drive. Everything is faster with a solid state drive (SSD). Applications spring to life in an instance. You can go through hundreds of photos without hiccups.

SSDs also use less energy, allowing for longer battery life. You don’t want to rely on bringing a power cord to class because many classrooms don’t have power outlets. It’s usually my classmates with traditional hard drives that are crowding around the power outlets during class.

SSDs are also more durable, especially to drops. College students drop stuff. An SSD hard drive could save your data and your grades.

All MacBook Pros with Retina displays and MacBook Airs come with SSDs standard. But if you’re going to get a PC laptop, get an SSD. This is what my Windows 8 laptop has, and you’d be shocked at how fast it boots up and wakes from sleep. Spinning hard disks are for big storage needs, and you can always get an external hard drive if you need more storage.

With external hard drives with 2 TB of storage less than $100 now, don’t worry about internal storage. Speed, durability and reliability are more important for your internal hard drive.

Consider an external monitor

I’m writing this post with two monitors right now. I have my text editing window on my MacBook Pro, and I have websites and resources that I’m looking up on my 22-inch external monitor. Having two monitors makes you more productive and cuts down on errors.

Here is a very good 22-inch LED monitor for $150. The other advantage of an external monitor is that it allows you to go with a smaller laptop, because if you ever need more screen real estate you can just plug in your external monitor.

Most college students would be best served with a 13.3-inch laptop such as the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. I think this size is the best balance between power and portability.

Now, I do have the larger 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (partly because there was no 13-inch version at the time), and there are advantages. The 15-inch version is quad-core and can support a dedicated GPU. If you don’t know what this means, you probably don’t need them.

Students doing video editing, photography, 3D animation, computer science (for compiled languages, not Web development), graphic design and perhaps a few other areas would benefit from the increased power. But for writing papers and doing research  — what the vast majority of college work is for most students — a 13-inch laptop is fine. And frankly, you can do all of those things I mentioned above on the 13-inch MacBook Pro, just a little slower.

It is very hard to find a HiDPI external monitor, however. This issue will be sorted out in a few years, but right now your best option is to get a 22-inch 1080p monitor. It’s not HiDPI, but it will be fine for a secondary monitor as long as you do most of your work on your HiDPI laptop monitor.

Look at all of your computing and technology needs together

Form am overall budget to spend on computing and technology. If you want to do photo journalism, for instance, budgeting for a decent digital camera would be wise. Many of you like using an iPad or Kindle for textbook reading. Budget for that as well.

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Reading for class on my iPad.

You may get more enjoyment and productivity out of going with a cheaper laptop plus a tablet than you would out of a more expensive laptop. I would encourage you to think of your technology needs together and form an overall budget.

I do a lot of my reading for school on my iPad and Kindle, both of which I received before graduate school, but if I had nothing right now, I would budget for a tablet and a laptop. This would require me to make sure my laptop didn’t eat up my entire budget.

Unless a paper book is a lot better than the ebook (this does happen with more graphical textbooks), I go with the ebook.

Backup, backup, backup

I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you to backup your data. There is no excuse for a college student today to lose data. If you do, it’s because you didn’t prepare ahead of time.

The most important kind of backup that anyone can have is remote. Local backup is an added layer of protection that I’d recommend, but remote backup handled by a company who specializes in data integrity is a must.

I would either go with Backblaze, Crashplan or another similar backup-everything-for-a-fixed-cost-every-month service or with Dropbox, if you need syncing and the ability to pull up files for class. You can even go with a combination of the two services by utilizing the free Dropbox account for storing smaller amounts of data. Several of my classes have used shared Dropbox folders, and it is a great tool even if you don’t use it for backups.

Backblaze and Crashplan are dead simple to operate. They backup everything on your computer in real time. They are always running and always backing up your data. If you have an Internet connection, your data will be backed up. Both are around $50 a year or so.

If you go with a Mac, I’d also suggest using Time Machine. A simple USB 3.0 hard drive will do just fine, and it will provide fast, local backups for under $100. The benefit of a local backup is that they are much faster for retrieving lost data. It can take a considerable amount of time, sometimes days, to get all of your data back from a cloud backup service.

Time Machine also does versioning. Sometimes you just want to get back a file you deleted, and Time Machine will provide daily backups for at least the last month. You’ll want your Time Machine hard drive to be at least twice as big as your internal laptop hard drive so that it can handle doing many versions.

Don’t forget your academic discount!

You don’t need to go through your college or its technology center to get an academic discount. Most major computer makers offer educational discounts through their online stores.

Don’t buy a random laptop; a computer is more than just specs

The quality of a laptop goes far beyond specs. You can have two laptops with identical specs, and one will be great and the other will cause you to pull your hair out. In particular, there is huge variance in the quality of keyboards and trackpads.

If you want to get a laptop that I don’t specifically recommend here, at least read reviews elsewhere to get a good idea of what you’re getting into. Using a computer in store is a good option too. I’ve used countless laptops with virtually unusable trackpads. Do you really want to carry a portable mouse with you everywhere (and be almost unable to use your computer when you don’t have it)?

There are some really bad keyboards out there, especially on thinner laptops. Some are very hard to type accurately on.

Every Apple laptop has an incredible trackpad. I’ve never seen a PC laptop with a trackpad that is anywhere near this quality, and I never feel like the trackpad doesn’t meet my needs.

Macs have very good keyboards too. I’d say the keyboards on Lenovo ThinkPads are the best, and they generally have good trackpads too. My No. 1 PC recommendation is usually to check out a ThinkPad first.

I have a Toshiba Windows 8.1 laptop, and it is virtually unusable without an external keyboard and mouse. Yes, it is light, relatively fast and has an SSD and all the modern specs, but its keyboard and trackpad is atrocious. It’s hard to believe that this was allowed to be shipped, and this experience is not that uncommon for PC laptops.

A good keyboard and trackpad is worth hundreds of dollars.

My MacBook recommendations

Every computer listed below has distinct strengths and weaknesses. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is the most balanced, but you need to ask yourself what your needs are. I felt having a lot of CPU and GPU power was important for the kind of work I do, and that’s why I went with the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina for most college students

  • 8 GB of ram and a 256 GB SSD are fine for most students. I wouldn’t be opposed to upgrading the ram to 16 GB and the SSD to 512 GB.

15-inch MacBook Pro for power user college students

  • This is a little more confusing. There are two distinct versions here. Most just have integrated graphics, but one model has dedicated graphics. This makes a big difference in price. If you need a dedicated graphics card, this model has a loaded CPU, GPU, lots of ram and a big SSD. It should last you many years. It’s the model I have, and I highly recommend it.
  • If you’re not going to get the version with a dedicated graphics chip, the main reason to get it is for the bigger screen. You have to ask yourself if a bigger screen is worth $500. I’d say that for most of you, the 13-inch version with an external monitor is the better option.

11-inch MacBook Air

  • The 13-inch MacBook Pro and 13-inch MacBook Air are similar in size. I think most students would be better off just going with the Pro, unless money was a big issue. In that case, the MacBook Air is a solid option.
  • The one thing a MacBook Pro can’t compete on is really small size. If you want a really portable laptop, the 11-inch MacBook Air is compelling. It still has a full size keyboard and a great trackpad. You can still hook it up to a big external monitor and all of that. But it is really small and light. You can basically take it anywhere. If you envision yourself always with your laptop, typing away in all sorts of nooks and crannies, this might be a compelling option.
  • This laptop will be a writer’s dream when its a Retina display.

My graduate school computer setup

15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display

  • 8 GB of ram
  • Dedicated graphics chip
  • External 22-inch monitor
  • External keyboard and mouse for heavy duty work at my desk
  • OmniOutliner for note taking in class
  • Ulysses for writing reports
  • Microsoft Word for formatting written assignments
  • Coda and Sublime Text 2 for writing code
  • Photoshop, Illustrator and Pixelmator for graphic design

iPad with 32 GB of storage

  • This is the main way I read textbooks and PDFs (we read a lot of journal articles).
  • Kindle textbooks work well and sync back to Kindle, phone and Web.
  • It syncs to OmniOutliner, allowing me to read and edit notes that I take in class.
  • I have the 9.7-inch version, and I think it works better for many textbooks than smaller tablets, but if you mostly read novels or text-based books, the iPad Mini and similar smaller tablets may be a better option.
  • I have the wifi-only version, and most college campuses are covered with wifi. I wouldn’t worry about getting a version with a data plan.

iPhone 5 with 32 GB of storage

  • I mostly just use this for email and checking in on our online learning system.
  • I also read Kindle books on this. If you’re going to read Kindle books for class, I’d recommend getting a smartphone that has the Kindle app. It’s more useful than you’d think.

Kindle

  • I’m talking about the basic black and white E-ink Kindle here. It has great battery life, is durable with a cover on it and is very, very easy on the eyes.
  • This is how I read textbooks right before bed so that the blue light from my iPad doesn’t keep me up late. It is not recommended that you use an iPad right before bed. The same goes for any laptop not running software such as Flux. Flux is a free utility that I recommend every computer user run (when not doing color sensitive work). You will sleep better with this installed.
  • I have the version “with special offers.” It saves money, and it doesn’t impact the user experience.

Recommended PC laptops

ThinkPad T540p with solid state drive

  • This is a 15-inch laptop with a HiDPI display.
  • It also has an optional dedicated graphics chip for more graphics-intensive work. This is the closet thing you’ll get to a 15-inch MacBook Pro from a PC.
  • It’s heavier than I’d like at almost a full pound more than 15-inch MacBook Pro.

ThinkPad X1

  • This is the closet thing to a PC MacBook Air. It’s very well made, and it weighs less than 3 pounds.
  • A HiDPI display is optional for $150. I think it’s money well spent. But, again, if you don’t think you need a HiDPI display, you can forgo it and this is still a great laptop.

Acer Aspire S7-392-6807

  • Considered one of the best Ultrabooks around.
  • Very nice design.
  • Is not a HiDPI display, but it is 1080p. It’s similar to a MacBook Air.

Thinkpad T440 with solid state drive

  • It doesn’t have a HiDPI display, but if you feel you don’t need one, this is a very good, reasonably priced Windows laptop. Great keyboard too.

Leave a comment below if you have questions about what you or your child should bring to college. We’ll do our best to give you answers based on your needs.

For more on technology in the classroom and thoughts on what to bring to college, check out Episode 101: Technology in the classroom.

Episode 102: Distraction-free classroom

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We follow up last week’s episode about technology in the classroom by talking more about how professors feel about students bringing their own technology into the classroom. We have BYOD in the workplace. Will education embrace this as well?

We also discuss Amazon raising the price of Prime to $99 a year. Is it still a good deal?

Listen to this week’s show:

 

Download the MP3

Show notes:

 

Episode 101: Technology in the classroom

As promised last week, we spend the entire episode talking about technology in the classroom, from both the teacher and student perspective.

There is a lot that Jeremy would like to see happen in the classroom, and the current technology can certainly improve. I ask, why don’t schools invest more in their own tools? Why rely on third parties like Blackboard to deliver solutions that don’t work for teachers or students?

A school like Lehigh, where Jeremy teaches, has the resources and talent to build a robust solution that is really catered to the school’s needs. Why not make their own software to help facilitate learning? Or partner with like-minded institutions?

We also discuss what kind of technology students should bring to college. And is it appropriate to take notes with a laptop in class? Opinions differ!

Listen to this week’s episode:

 

Download the MP3

Show notes:

 

 

Apple CarPlay demo videos

Here are some videos of Apple’s CarPlay in action.

When you see it in action, it’s not just that you can see cars getting smarter, but you also realize how this kind of technology will help spur driverless cars. You could essentially use a future version of this technology as your command center, while the car drives itself. I imagine driverless cars to be like autopilot in planes where a driver still needs to know how to drive in an emergency situation.

Ferrari

This video is the most impressive demonstration of the technology we’ve seen so far.

 

 

Volvo

The touchscreen in this car is huge, which seems ideal for this kind of system (bigger screen can mean bigger buttons to tap), but it’s a little laggy (especially when compared to current iPhone speed). That will need to be fixed before launch. The experience should be similar to using an iPhone.  All of these systems, however, are demos right now, and should improve quite a bit before they ship to consumers.  They are still quite impressive.

Mercedes Benz

This is a weird video of b-roll outtakes. I don’t know if it really has any value, but we saw no reason not to include. The two videos above are much, much more interesting.

Read our initial coverage of Apple’s Carplay.

Apple unveils CarPlay — hopefully cars are about to get smart

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Apple finally unveiled more of its plans to bring iOS into the car with what it is now calling CarPlay.

CarPlay will allow iPhone users to plug their iPhones directly into a car and use iOS to control their cars navigation and radio, while also providing hands-free calling and texting support. What is exciting about this isn’t what you can do with it, but rather that it comes from a company that develops some of the best software and user interfaces anywhere in the world. Car navigation and entertainment systems are notoriously bad, and the fancy ones with touchscreens and GPSes are usually over-priced messes.

Users will also be using the same apps in the car that they have on their phones. This will give users less to learn and make the experience more seamless. The idea of having a separate digital life for the car never made any sense, and car makers aren’t good at writing consumer software.

Smartphones are powerful personal computers with lots of wireless radios. In the past that power sat idle while users were forced to use poorly implemented systems by car manufacturers.

What are the advantages of this over getting one of the many navigation and entertainment options already available directly by car manufactures?

  • Always have what you need — Our phones are our personal assistants. They are truly personal computers. We have them loaded up with our favorite apps and our preferences. Why have a totally separate solution for the car? Why not plug in a device that already has everything you need right on it? Your music. You maps with your favorite places already in it. Your contacts. It just makes sense to have one device that you can always have on you.
  • Voice, touch or knob control — CarPlay gives you Siri voice control in the car. Very few cars have voice control, and the ones that do don’t have very good voice control. You’ll be able to send text messages with your voice, control your audio apps and control your navigation and more with just your voice. This may be the first good hands-free technology to go into cars. But CarPlay cars will also come with touchscreens, a natural fit for iOS and the apps that will integrate into CarPlay. Most cars, even if they have a touchscreen, still have knob fallbacks for temperature and audio, and these knobs will work with CarPlay. Users will be given a variety of ways to control what they are doing, and the different input methods will fit in nicely depending on if a driver is stopped or moving (or has a passenger).
  • Maps are constantly updated, improved and have real-time data — Navigation systems in cars are notoriously poor because they go out of date over time, and they aren’t connected to real-time data — both because of a lack of a data connection. CarPlay will give you navigation with real-time traffic data and alternative routes. It will also give you the ability to find restaurants and other landmarks, something that many dedicated GPSes already do, but these will again be updated. What’s the point of having a list of restaurants and coffee shops from seven years ago? Apple Maps has Yelp integration, which is very handy for finding good restaurants, the hours of restaurants and even telling you if a restaurant is still in business.
  • Radio is dead — CarPlay will allow you to control your favorite audio apps. While you can currently hook up an iPhone to a car stereo through an auxiliary input, that makes controlling the audio very difficult and at times dangerous. Now you’ll be able to control your favorite audio apps in a much more native and seamless way in the car. I’m looking forward to being able to natively control Spotify, Downcast and Audible in the car. Cars are probably the only thing keeping FM radio on life support, and that’s only because streaming audio hasn’t been integrated well into cars. That’s about to change in a big way.

The devil will be in the details, however. Apple will have to deliver a level of stability and reliability that they haven’t with their recent operating system software. iOS 7 was launched almost six months ago, and it’s still buggy. We’re all desperately waiting for the iOS 7.1 update to refine the OS and tackle some major bugs.

OS X Mavericks is getting more refined, but it too could use some more work. The difference here is that an occasional app crash or even system crash isn’t a huge issue with a smartphone or even a PC, but it would be a big deal if it happened in the middle of driving a car.  Apple will need to deliver a level of refinement and stability for CarPly that they haven’t with some of their other software.


Here is Volvo’s video introducing CarPlay for their cars.

The quality of Apple Maps is also a concern. It has improved considerably since launch, and it’s reputation is probably no longer deserved, but it does lag behind Google Maps — at least in car-based navigation. I prefer Apple Maps on foot, but Apple CarPlay is all about the car.

Apple needs to make a big commitment to making their maps app as good as any mapping solution out there. Beyond that, it would be nice to allow third-party maps apps work as well. Not just Google Maps, but specialized navigation apps for when you’re visiting a national park, for instance, or maps that provide guided tours of cities.

Apple is allowing a variety of music and podcast apps to work through CarPlay, so I have hope that we’ll see additional navigation options in the future. And maybe CarPlay is another sign that Apple is taking mapping seriously.

With an expanding family and an aging car, I’ll be looking to get a new car within the next few years. Any car that doesn’t support CarPlay (and without a several-thousand dollar upgrade) will automatically be off my list. I’m tired of driving dumb cars that have bad navigation systems and even worse audio options.

Let’s make cars smarter.

Episode 100: The looming living room wars

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Episode 100 is here.

I don’t think either of us envisioned making it to 100 episodes. But thanks to our listeners, we have pulled through and delivered 100 episodes, and show no signs of slowing down.

We prepared to talk about technology in the classroom, but our early-show banter turned into an episode about a new Apple TV, apps in the living room and video games. A new Apple TV is coming soon, and we think it could really shake up the living room.

Are you ready to start downloading apps straight to your TV? Can a new Apple TV be the spiritual successor to the Wii when it comes to expanding the audience of video game players?

But Sony and Microsoft want to own the living room too. The Xbox One can control your cable box, has tons of streaming services, has world-class games, can do Skype from your couch and more. It’s actually a very compelling product for non-hardcore gamers, but Microsoft, and Sony with the PS4, have not done a good marketing and communication job with their new boxes.

My Mom and Dad won’t be swayed by vide-game centric commercials that focus on first-person shooters. But the TV, movie and Skype capabilities of the Xbox One? That’s something they would use a lot.

Listen to this week’s show:

 

Download the MP3

Snow notes: