#44 - Master Tech Comparison Column

Motto: Pick your poison... and by poison I mean most interesting and useful thing in the modern world..


This is my master tech comparison review. If you don't like reading about this stuff... just pretend like update 44 doesn't exist… except the Top 5 and the Quote. Those are still good. Just a fair warning - this is a super-long post. It's a grand master summary of my feelings about Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

There are three major players behind the scenes and/or at the forefront of the consumer tech industry today: Apple, Google, and Microsoft. This column will compare all three on the following fronts:



1. Flagship phone offerings
2. Flagship tablet offerings
3. Flagship computer offerings
4. Final considerations
5. A very brief wrap up



1. Flagship phone offerings
Apple: iPhone 5
The iPhone, since its original debut over 5 years ago, has been held the golden standard of smartphone prowess. The competition was, at first, anemic and laughably, haphazardly thrown together. This, unfortunately for Apple, is no longer the case. Still, the iPhone 5 is a true American* beauty. It is a simple and wholly consistent device- I mean this in terms of user interface, hardware, and overall performance. Consumers know what they are paying for when they buy one, and generally they get just that. Apple’s phone hardware, since the iPhone 4, is inarguably beautiful and capable. The Apple ecosystem is mature, robust, time-tested and thoroughly refined. The iPhone 5 is a truly capable performer in every facet of competition. It is a great phone and will continue to be a great phone for the foreseeable future. Its hardware and software, much like the iPhones before it, are both simple and exquisite. In general, Apple did the world a huge favor by removing the “you must be at least this nerdy to ride” requirements smartphones used to have. They completely and utterly redefined what entails a “smartphone”, and have been delivering on that definition for many years now. Having said all that, it is hard to argue against the opinion that Apple has went from being the undisputed leader of mobile innovation, to catching up with those that have now outran it. To summarize, I will steal a quote from a Google+ user, Ivan Raszi - “iPhone is like a Bond car with leather stitching. It not only takes you from A to B, but also makes you smile if you look at it and guarantees and enjoyable driving experience. It gets the job done effectively and in style. Little awkward when you park it next to the same model only in white at the casino when you really meant to go to the opera.
* Designed in America, made in some 3rd world country for 5 cents labor cost
Google: Nexus 4
Android phones are the antithesis of the iPhone. The high walls of Apple’s sanctuary are nowhere to be found. In fact, if Google had it its way, there would be no walls around Android at all. That is exactly what their Nexus program is all about. With Android comes a culture of freedom. Freedom to choose between dozens flavors of Android hardware and software. Sony, HTC, Motorola, Samsung, LG, and ASUS each have their own hardware running their own unique flavors of Android. Four years ago, with the debut of the Nexus One, a pure, unadulterated Android experience has been available. The forth and most recent generation of this choice is the Nexus 4, by LG. Its hardware has a beauty on par with or surpassing that of the iPhone (beauty, as it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder). Its software has a level of simultaneous polish and capability never before seen in the Android world. It is smart, capable, and most importantly, free in all the ways the iPhone is not. It is extremely inexpensive- but not “cheap”.  The price, $300 unlocked, removes the last remaining walls surrounding Android. It can be had by those without high-paying jobs. It can be had by those who despise the idea of signing two-year contracts. It can be had by anyone in almost any situation, and it will perform very well for them. Google is doing a beautiful thing here, more on that later.
Microsoft: Lumina 920
Strangely, the oldest player in the smartphone market has become its newest contender. My first smartphone ran Windows Mobile 6.0. “User experience” was not a term they considered much back then, and I’m glad to report they have come a long way since those days. However, being that Windows Phone 8 is so new, I have little-to-no first-hand experience with a Windows Phone. I cannot claim any opinions of the software or the hardware through my own observations. What I can say, even without experience, is that Microsoft has a hefty price to pay for letting Android and iOS reign unchallenged for so long. Its app ecosystem is paltry and the OS has had to fight to remove the “we make a terrible smartphone” label that Microsoft has had for so long. Nokia, much like Microsoft, was a big-time player in the phone world before the introduction of the capacitive touchscreen and the iPhone changed everything. It seems fitting that they have pinned their hopes of revival on Windows Phone 8. The Nokia Lumina 920 has met mostly positive reviews. It has been praised for its camera. It has been shunned for its size and weight. The one thing that remains to be seen is this: will it be at all relevant? For Nokia’s sake, I hope so. For Microsoft’s sake it’s just important, but I don’t care as much.

2. Flagship tablet offerings
Apple: the iPad and the iPad Mini
Again, you have to credit Apple with both redefining and creating a strong consumer desire for a formerly niche-market-only form factor. The original iPad, which debuted somewhere around 4 years ago, was scoffed at for being “nothing but a large iPod touch”; and this is a valid summary. Many people at the time (including me) expected it to be a hybrid of Apple’s mobile and computer operating systems. When they went the route of mobile-only, some tech enthusiasts were letdown (including me, again). This didn’t stop Apple from singlehandedly upending the market for cheap personal computing devices. Netbooks were all the rage back then… now they are dead. Tablets have killed them. And for that, Apple, I thank you. The iPad and its hundreds of thousands of tailored applications have been seen by many as the only real tablet offering out there - recently, this hasn’t been so much the trend. The iPad is now in its 4th generation, and it is still a wonderful and entertaining piece of consumer technology. It’s fast, well-built, and fits nicely into the walled sanctuary Apple has meticulously constructed. It has been embraced by tech-heads, children, hipsters, parents and grandparents alike. The recent introduction of the first-generation iPad Mini has been, in my humble opinion, entirely underwhelming; underwhelming in a different way than the original iPad launch, though. The iPad Mini is underwhelming by comparison… but that hasn’t stopped it from being (what looks like) a home-run for Apple’s first foray into the world of “small” tablets. Personally, I am not a fan of the iPad Mini’s chosen particular form factor. The 3x4 aspect ratio is awkward for a small tablet. Portrait and landscape don’t really have separate uses, they are too similar. The Mini’s screen is not much smaller than the regular iPad, 7.9” as compared to 9.7”… a difference of 1.8 inches diagonally. The price, also, is not much smaller than the regular iPad. The size and price tend to put it at an awkward in-between stage from its bigger brother and its smaller, less expensive Android competitors. I’m not even going to bad mouth the screen’s pixel count or the processor, it’s just too easy.
Google: Nexuses 7 and 10
Google has recently extended its pure-Android experience Nexus program into the world of tablets. The first of its two contenders for your money is the Nexus 7, a small, inexpensive-yet-more-than-capable performer. I ordered the Nexus 7 the day it was announced. It’s $200 price tag puts it nearly into the realm of “impulse buy” for some. I expected it to be a toy of mine which would never really replace the ASUS Transformer+keyboard 10” Android tablet I had at the time. Boy was I wrong. The Nexus 7 didn’t take up most of my tablet screen-time… it took up all of it. Honestly, the size difference between a 7 inch 16x9 tablet and a 10 inch tablet changes the way you think about the device entirely. It becomes a constant companion. It is small and light enough to go with you wherever you go… it is a much more personal experience. Relevant side note here, the difference between screen sizes on the popular Android tablets is 3 to 3.1 inches… much more significant than Apple’s 1.8”. Anyway, the Nexus 7 has a build quality and, more importantly, performance that DEFINITELY makes it feel like a more expensive tablet. I have been thoroughly impressed and couldn’t recommend the Nexus 7 more to anyone looking into a “personal sized” tablet. The Nexus 10 is Google’s new baby. It enters the market $100 cheaper than the iPad that it outperforms on many levels. The device has an ultra-high resolution screen (higher than the one Apple bragged about constantly), very capable processor, and, like its two smaller Nexus siblings, my favorite operating system of all time. Legitimate complaints about Android as a tablet OS: Its application selection is much weaker than the mighty iPad. As of right now, disappointingly few apps take advantage of the increased screen real-estate. Many apps are just blown-up versions of those made for phones… not very compelling. There are, however, more than enough to keep me satisfied – especially since my discovery of free game console emulators.
Microsoft: Surface
Microsoft has engrained a tablet version of their desktop Windows 8 OS into their very first (as far as I’m concerned) hardware offering: Windows Surface. I have never seen a true Surface tablet in person, but this weekend I DID see an ASUS (or possibly Acer?)-branded tablet running Windows RT, the version of the new Windows OS that doesn’t support legacy (read: anything you’ve ever installed on your home computer) applications. The tablet hardware was nice – very much like (read: exactly like) the Android-running hardware that company already offers (for ~$100 less). Windows tablets run Microsoft Office and whatever applications you can find in the recently opened Windows Store. Gone are the days of individual vendors putting out CDs of their software into brick-and-mortar buildings, every OS has its own associated store. The Windows Store is currently both the newest and the most sparse of them all. Time will tell if that will change. Back to Surface, though, my impressions are that it (and its nifty keyboard/cover) tries to straddle the fence between tablet and computer a little too hard. It performs less-capably than two cheaper devices designed for a single purpose. To put it another way, Surface is too expensive and lacks the speed and 3rd party development of its competitor(s). Microsoft has no 7 inch “personal sized” tablets. So, that’s that.

3. Flagship computer offerings (I won’t go into much)
Apple: the iMac, Macbook Pro, and Macbook Air
Apple, once an on-the-ropes contender in the realm of traditional desktop computers with traditional full-fledged operating systems (at the time, these were simply known as “computers”), has created the number one highest-grossing laptop, ultrabook, and desktop PC today. The iComputers, as I’ll call them, are very much like the iPhone in many regards – they run an Apple-designed operating system on Apple-designed hardware, they are among the most aesthetically pleasing options out there, and they are (arguably) way more expensive than they realistically should be. However, consumers by the millions have proven themselves willing to pay “the Apple tax” to get their hands on the latest and greatest products from your friendly neighborhood supercorporation. This is probably because Macs are really nice, and if you have an iPhone or iPad they work really really well together. Within its walls, Apple has built a sanctuary. It is truly a sight to be seen. It is a very nice (and very expensive) setup. I can really appreciate the integration and purity of a purely-Apple system. At one point, I strongly considered going that route… but I never did… and I doubt I ever will.
Google: Chromebooks and the “this is a thing?” Chromebox
Google actually DOES have an operating system designed to run on traditional computers. Chrome OS is an interesting idea to say the least; but it’s just not practical as a complete computing solution for the average end-user. For those of you who don’t know, Chrome OS is an operating system that is essentially just a gateway to the internet. It isn’t designed to do anything really outside of the Chrome browser. While the internet is amazing and wonderful and capable of a LOT more than some people give it credit for – I still don’t think it’s quite capable of replacing everything I use a computer for. I’m not sure if Google’s intent was to replace your home computer, so much as it was to supplement it… I hope it was the latter. Chrome OS is nifty, and I’m glad it exists… but it can’t stand up on its own as a valid “my only computer” option.
Microsoft: Any Windows 8 device
Microsoft perfected its traditional desktop OS with Windows 7. The fact that I start off by saying that should tell you my opinion of Windows 8 implicitly; in case it wasn’t clear, though, I’ll just say this: I don’t like Windows 8. It’s gaudy. It’s weird. It’s unlike what I’m used to and it’s not what I’m looking for in a computer. Now, I will always try to stay up on the basics of all current operating systems on all relevant form-factors. I refuse to be an incompetent old man who never evolved past the era that was popular when he was growing up… but man… Windows 8 is making it hard on me. The operating system was designed with touch in mind – which isn’t a bad thing, so long as you HAVE a touchscreen… but I’m not interested in getting a desktop PC that I have to poke at. I honestly believe that, when sitting at a desk, the keyboard and mouse are a much more natural input than reaching your arm up and touching the screen. I am not interested in carrying around a half-laptop-half-tablet that performs 75% as well as either would on a specialized device. I am building a computer soon, and it will most certainly NOT be running Windows 8. I will avoid diving into that pool for as long as humanly possible. Who knows, though, I could be wrong and this could all be a terrible travesty.

4. Final considerations
In general – all three companies aim to invest you into their ecosystems. All three offer their own web browser, office programs, application store, music and video stores, cloud services, hardware solutions, and mobile and traditional operating systems. Two of them offer online search. Two of them offer email. Once you dive whole-heartedly into their systems, they each have their own unique spin, their own flare, complete with advantages and disadvantages on all sides. I will stay surface-level here, partly because I’m not invested in Apple or Microsoft and partly (mostly) because this post is godawfully long already.
The Apple Biome:
All hail Apple for its uniformity and polish. You pay a premium to get premium devices running in a premium software biome. I use a nature-inspired vernacular because going entirely Apple is a very natural experience. Their business model is to sell a top-of-the-line consumer experience to you directly, with a significant (read: 30% to 40% more) premium. The Apple is NOT the only game in town offering these levels of fit and finish, but they ARE the only game in town who ONLY offers these levels of fit and finish. Having an iPhone, iPad, and Macbook Pro is one of the holy-trinities of technological perfection. The software and hardware were designed by the same company. They share the same vision and were designed specifically to suit one another. They are both pure and impressively capable. They will almost always out-perform devices with similar specifications at their intended task. Because they offer no low-end devices, they do not have to make any sacrifices. Safari is a very popular and current web browser. ITunes is the most popular of all online media stores (I’m guessing, here). The original “The App Store” is the most robust of them all. Apple shines with media production, but has weak native office programs (sorry, iWork). Their relatively new service “iCloud” might serve as a brilliant introduction of the advantages of cloud storage to the masses. Apple has very successfully lowered the need for prerequisite technological know-how without lowering the bar on end-user experience. It’s worth mentioning again the price disparity between Apple and its competitors. Apple is offering a Macbook pro with Retina display for $2600. For that price, you could get a Windows laptop with better specs, a second monitor, AND a full surround sound system (just for fun).
The Google Utopia:
Google’s motto “Don’t be evil”, their open-source ways, and their business model are all entirely utopian in nature. I love it. Google has established itself as a very successful company using a business model that is, as I see it, a win-win-win. Google offers the us end-users GREAT products and services at no cost. In exchange, they serve us advertisements that are tailored to our specific needs. Advertisers get their ads seen by those likely to be interested by them. Google gets paid by the advertisers. And society gets all the goodness that Google offers for free. Google embraced the cloud and the internet by leaps and bounds moreso than Apple and Microsoft. This gives them many distinct advantages. Google Docs is easily the best collaborative office program out there. You can throw your Chromebook off a bridge, go to the store, get a new one (for $250, btw) and pick up exactly where you left off. Your documents and pictures and contacts and email are all backed up in case you ever had some sort of catastrophic event in which you lost all your devices at once (you threw your phone at your computer so hard they both broke… or… you know… a house fire). Google the quality of Google search and Gmail are unmatched (sorry Microsoft, I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul). Google offers its software free of charge, which allows hardware manufacturers to sell it to us cheaper. This is why Microsoft’s Surface is $100 more expensive than an Android tablet with the same specs. This is why the Nexus 4 sells unlocked for prices you used to have to sign contracts to get. Google Play has become arguably the neatest and best content store currently available. It offers apps, music, movies, TV, books, magazine, and physical hardware devices all from a unified, beautiful digital storefront.  Not everything is perfect yet, however. Google lacks a real “my only computer” solution… and until they can offer one, you’re always going to have to rely on somebody else. Also, Google has been unfocused historically. A few of their projects and products have either died or become abandonware (I’m looking at you, Google Tasks); and their recent attempt at focusing and integrating their products revolves around Google+ - a social network that is tragically still lacking the adoption rates enjoyed by Facebook. Regardless, I’m a Googler through and through.
The Microsoft Ball:
Microsoft is trying. They are trying hard to be what Apple has become. They want you to use search Bing on Internet Explorer using your Windows 8 touchscreen whatever. They want you to use Windows SkyDrive to store your Office documents and Xbox Music to buy and stream your “tunes”. They want you to email your “buddies” from Outlook.com and use Skype to chat with your “best friends”. Microsoft, however, seems too out-of-touch, too out-there, and too far removed from the direction I want to go. Like an old white man who wears his hat sideways with is sandals and socks because he suddenly decided he wanted to be cool and hip, it seems like they just didn’t quite get it right. Windows “Modern” (Metro) UI is gaudy and awful and godawful. Microsoft LOVES big businesses - and have really succeeded when it comes to corporate adoption… but they did that years ago… using the versions of Windows that actually had windows. They will continue to reign supreme in the business world for quite some time, despite their venture into left-of-left field territory with Windows 8. This is only because big businesses have a real investment in old Microsoft, and changing their ways now would be exceedingly difficult. If Microsoft doesn’t do something different with Windows 9, a mass exodus from the Windows ecosystem is entirely possible.

5. A very brief wrap-up:
All three companies offer perfectly legitimate lineups for total technological solutions. They each have their own niche, their own feel, and their own direction. Here’s the wtl;dr (waaay too long; didn’t read):
Apple:
Apple offers great products all the way around, if you can afford them. They don’t have to make compromises for low-tier hardware and can provide a wonderful, if not a little too “one of us, one of us”, user experience. Apple gets an A for user experience, but a much worse overall grade when it comes to price (and my general opinion of their abuse of the patent system to demolish competition).
Google:
Google is great. Their online prowess is unmatched and their business model is nothing short of amazing. The low price required to buy all the way into their ecosystem is not reflected in its quality. Their offerings are all top-notch. They could use more 3rd party development for Android tablets, and if they ever made a legitimate desktop OS that could run a decent video editor, I would pee my pants. A++, would recommend.  
Microsoft:
The once undisputed king of the castle grew frumpish and fell like a fledgling fawn. Their left-of-left field approach seems futile and foolish. I give the Microsoft an F (actually, I’ve given them several). I hope I’m wrong. Maybe if I spent a month with a Windows Phone 8 phone and Windows 8 RT tablet and Windows 8 computer I might change my tune… I just don’t think I would. For now, I suggest having a Windows 7 computer and Microsoft Office, but nothing Microsoft has done in the past year.

Top 5: Things I'm interested in outside of the realm of consumer electronics
5. Fitness, health, and personal betterment
4. Organization
3. Guns and outdoorsey stuff
2. Movies
1. Other people, I suppose

Quote:
"I'm not lazy, I'm energy-efficient"
    - Melissa Hill just said this. I laughed. -
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