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November 21, 2008

Smartphone & Pocket PC Magazine -- the shortsightedness of letting an incredible resource die

With Microsoft sitting on billions of dollars in cash and spending many millions on comedian Jerry Seinfeld and a silly Vista campaign, the one magazine that has covered Pocket PCs and Windows Mobile for many years has just died due to lack of support. I am talking about Smartphone & Pocket PC Magazine, published by Thaddeus Computing Inc. Those guys were publishing magazines on small Microsoft-powered computers for almost a quarter of a century, yet neither Microsoft nor Hewlett Packard apparently cares enough about real, quality coverage of their products to at least use this incredible magazine as a venue for advertising, let alone as the important, invaluable partner in spreading the word about handheld computers that they are (and now were).

Having founded and run several print magazines myself, I know all about the work and hardship that goes into creating a quality magazine, and how things are all different in this age and day of the Internet and web. Advertising dollars are increasingly going away from print, and people no longer want to wait for information to appear in print. Everything is available instantly. Yet, the information on the web is .... different. In a way it almost does not compete with print. How else would one explain the fact that there appear to be more magazines on newsstands than ever? I myself absolutely cannot imagine life without computers and the web, yet I have a good dozen print magazine subscriptions that I never intend to give up. Magazines and the web are as different as radio and TV -- both convey information and entertain, but in different ways. Unfortunately, tech companies like Microsoft do not seem to understand that, and the phone companies who have taken over the smartphone business are clueless about the market that has fallen into their laps.

Fact is, online is becoming much like TV -- far too many channels and nothing to watch. It's all commercials and infomercials. You have to channel-flip not because you can, but because you're constantly avoiding commercials and seeking something, anything, meaningful to watch. And quality is getting lost in a vast sea of drivel. You can google a particular product and instantly get 10,000 references to it, mostly junk. By now the web is jam-packed with virtually content-free sites that are just landing pages for ads and more ads. Even reputable sites are doing it: two paragraphs of content and then commercial bombardment. The ever more popular "customer reviews" are often little more than "this product sucks!", "no, this product is the best ever" slugfests, and the same goes for bulletin boards where there is endless posting and almost no factual information. With the exception of the by now almost suffocating commercialization it's all worth it, of course. But it is NOT a replacement for a good print magazine.

When I look at the final copy of Smartphone & Pocket PC Magazine (the Smartphone & Pocket PC Super Resource Guide Dec/Jan 2009) I see a hundred pages of superb, comprehensive information, a reference guide I am certain to keep around for years. You'd have to visit literally thousands of websites to get that amount of good information, and even then you would not get the quality. A complete and total spec list of ALL smartphones with touch screens? Check. A complete and total spec list of ALL PDAs? Check. Reviews and ratings of hundreds of the best software apps? Check. A complete analysis of GPS on Windows Mobile, including product reviews and comprehensive comparison charts? Check. Detailed reviews of the leading and upcoming smartphone platforms? Check. And that is just a small part of it. If a consultant were given the task of compiling the huge wealth of information contained in just one issue of Smartphone & Pocket PC Magazine, it'd cost many tens of thousands of dollars, and probably hundreds of thousands. For a company like Microsoft to let such an incredible resource die -- a resource that does nothing but promote Microsoft's mobile embedded platform -- is simply unimaginable. Spending millions on nonsensical commercials and sitting on billions, yet not support real, quality, serious information, it just does not compute. The cost of supporting a resource like Smartphone & Pocket PC Magazine that provides real information is absolutely minuscule compared to the billion here, billion there mentality of big business.

Lacking any meaningful support from the Windows Mobile side of things, Thaddeus Computing is now going on to cover the iPhone platform with their new iPhone Life magazine. It'll be an uphill battle as now they'll be dealing with one single hardware and software vendor (Apple), one single service provider (AT&T), and application software vendors who do all of their selling through Apple's App Store, so the impact of print advertising will be less traceable than ever. The iPhone is hugely popular, of course, but neither will people buy another iPhone (they're locked into a 2-year contract) nor can they buy another model (there's only one). The phone companies have historically not supported enthusiast magazines and there is no indication they ever will. They also don't "get it," something at least the Microsoft field people certainly did.

But won't Apple be thrilled to see one of the most respected niche and enthusiast publishers switch allegiance? Likely not, if they even notice. Apple is sitting on its own billions of cash, but I am fairly certain none of it will go to supporting a small magazine that could spread high quality news and real information at an annual cost that's a tiny fraction of the interest on Apple's cash reserves alone. And AT&T, which in the U.S. has a service monopoly on the iPhone? Hah.

So best of luck to the folks at Thaddeus Computing. It's an absolute crying shame to see Smartphone & Pocket PC Magazine die, and those in the Windows Mobile industry who let that happen deserve to be accused of colossal, inexcusable shortsightedness. Maybe someone will come to their senses and buy Thaddeus. 25 years of experience and commanding knowledge of the major serious mobile platform in the world AND they know how to compile and present information AND they have all the magazine distribution channels in place AND running them for a year probably costs peanuts? No brainer if you ask me.

Posted by conradb212 at 03:27 PM | Comments (0)

November 18, 2008

Thoughts about ingress protection: eliminate potential points of failure

The most commonly used measure for protection against the elements is the IP rating, or Ingress Protection rating. The IP rating consists of two numbers where the first indicates protection against solids and the second protection against liquids. Solid ratings go from 1 to 6, with 6 meaning the best protection. Liquid ratings go from 1 to 8, with 8 meaning the highest protection. Essentially, the purpose of these ratings are the determination of how well a device can keep out dust and water. As far as liquids go, the purpose of the rating is not to signify waterproofing for underwater operation (though IP68 means a device is indeed waterproof) but how well a piece of equipment can keep out water during normal operation in the field. What could happen, for example, is that a device gets exposed to rain, or even strong driving rain during a storm. In a marine setting it is possible for a device to suddenly become exposed to heavy seas, and it may need to be protected against that.

All of this needs to be tested and certified, and the way it is usually done is by following standard procedures that describe a controlled lab testing setup, like document 60529 issued by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).

The problem is that lab tests do not always accurately predict what may happen in real life. In that respect the ratings should really be considered guidelines rather than hard data. Consider, for example, two devices that both carry an IP67 rating. One of them has no external ports other than a single surface mount connector used to provide interfacing via a port replicator or dock. The other has a variety of commonly used ports, all protected by individual rubber plugs. One machine may also have an externally accessible expansion slot and an easily replaceable battery, each nicely sealed via o-rings and other high quality seals. Which device do you think is more at risk for leaking?

I'd say the second as it has multiple areas of entry as opposed to just one. No matter how well engineered the device may be, the probability of something going wrong is higher. A protective cover may not be pushed in all the way. A seal may have shrunk or gotten broken. A door was inadvertantly left open. It can happen.

A compromised seal may not necessarily mean a leak into the inside of the device. The port itself may carry enough sealing in addition to the protection provided by its cover to ward off damage. Then again, it may not. Bottomline is that the simplest and most foolproof protection is best.

Anything mission-critical should be failsafe. Failsafe means that if a system fails, it must fail in its safe state. A relay that snaps closed when it loses power is an example. The problem with protective rubber and other seals I'd that none are fail-safe. They are all fail-fail. So the best way to proceed is to have as few potential points of failure as possible.

What that means is that, all else being equal, a device with fewer possible points of failure will almost always be a better choice as far as protection us concerned.

Posted by conradb212 at 11:12 PM | Comments (0)

November 10, 2008

Benchmarking popular mobile Intel processors

Well, we finally managed to benchmark a mobile device with an Atom processor. Like everyone else, I was wondering where Atom performance fits in. The Thermal Design Power (TDP) of the 45nm Atom processors is so ridiculously low that it's impossible to even make an educated guess. There are, of course, a number of different Atom processors out there, but one that appears to be popular in small mobile devices is the Atom N270.

The N270 is a single-core processor that runs at 1.6GHz and has a TDP of 2.5 watts -- significantly less than even an ultra-low voltage Intel Core Solo and only a small fraction of the power consumption of your average consumer notebook. There are other system parts that use power, and for now Intel doesn't offer Atom-compatible chipsets that are nearly as miserly as the processor itself. Further, a lot of the advanced features we've come to take for granted in Intel Core processors are simply not part of the Atom. Instead, Intel resorted to the hyper-threading technology from its past. It's all quite complex and it probably takes a chip design experts to tell how various Intel technologies impact performance.

What we can do is run benchmarks, and that's what we did on an Atom N270-powered Acer Aspire One netbook, an exceedingly handy little clamshell computer with an WXGA 8.9-inch display and a weight of just over two pounds. The tiny Acer came with a gigabyte of RAM, a 160GB 5400rpm disk, and ran Windows XP. Our standard benchmark suite, PassMark, did not complete and so we switched to CrystalMark 2004R2. Here are the results:

PERFORMANCE COMPARISON Intel A110 Core Solo U1400 Atom N270 Core Duo U2500
Clock speed 800MHz 1.2GHz 1.6GHz 1.2GHz
Test Unit GETAC E100 Motion F5 Acer One Xplore 104C4
Thermal Design Power (TDP) 3.0 watts 5.5 watts 2.5 watts 10.0 watts
ALU 3026 4565 5544 9291
FPU 3682 5343 5370 11124
MEM 2732 4989 4442 6132
HDD 3614 3252 7900 6381
GDI 3040 4239 3293 3987
D2D 2530 4221 2912 3899
OGL 738 1151 684 1187
Overall CrystalMark 19362 27760 30145 42001

These figures suggest that systems equipped with the Atom N270 are quite a bit quicker than machines with the Atom's predecessor chip, the A110, but only a bit faster than the first-gen Intel Core Solo. The 1.6GHz Atom N270 is no match for the 1.2GHz Core Duo U2500 that's used in a number of high-performance Tablet PC slates. The high clock speed of the single core N270 is therefore a bit misleading. Clock cycle for clock cycle, the unloved Core Solo is more powerful.

However, in a lean, smartly designed system with enough RAM and a speedy disk, such as the Acer One netbook, the N270 can deliver both power and economy. The Acer feels fairly quick, and it runs about 2-1/2 to three hours on a small 24 watt-hour 3-cell battery and 5-1/2 to six hours on a 49 watt-hour 6-cell battery.

Posted by conradb212 at 09:59 PM | Comments (0)