Jag Venugopal's Blog

July 21, 2013

Samsung has a ways to go before dethroning iPhone

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 4:34 pm

I recently bought a Samsung Galaxy 4 smartphone. The price from AT&T was just right, the screen looked tantalizingly big, and I kinda like Android over the iPhone.

But if Samsung intended the Galaxy 4 to be the iPhone killer, they have much more ground to cover. Don’t get me wrong, the basics are just fine. Slim body, large screen, good battery life for a smartphone, when paired with the Battery Guru software, standard Android features. In short, its one heck of a smartphone, if you’re into using Google (gmail, search, voice, etc) for everything.

The disappointments are in areas where Samsung tried to innovate beyond the current smartphone paradigm. One much-ballyhooed feature involves tilting your head to get the screen to scroll up and down. After a few minutes of trying it, my luddite daughter, who was in the same room, took great delight in asking if I was having a seizure, seeing my head bob up and down at random. Well, so much for that, but there’s another feature where you can tilt your phone to get it to scroll. That works. Most of the time. A third doodad has you waving your hand over a sensor to scroll up and down a page. Now this I mastered, though I suspect my colleagues often wonder why I feel the need to swat imaginary flies off my smartphone so frequently.

Yet another feature allows you to see a preview of your email by pointing your finger at it. Similarly, one can get a preview of the contents of an album. But, it seems downright silly to point to my smartphone, inches above the screen, as if I was about to release a bolt of force lightning on the Gorilla Glass.

Even when it works, most of the finger pointing and hand waving stuff only works on Samsung’s additions to Android — the browser and email apps in particular. The sensors haven’t been integrated into the OS, and therefore no other app is aware of their existence.

I had high hopes for the infrared blaster on the device, hoping to use it as a universal remote. We have a Logitech Harmony that I bought off ebay, and which has worked perfectly for our home theater for over a year now. Alas, here too, the Samsung excites, only to ultimately disappoint. The software does not recognize my Sony CT 100 sound bar. Given that the sound bar is also an HDMI multiplexer that mediates between cable, Blu-Ray and Roku, not being able to use this makes the whole universal remote thing rather useless.

Being on the rather tubby side of things, I figured I’d use the Samsung health application to lose a few pounds. Here again, it took my height and weight (the latter being a growing number), and… did absolutely nothing with it. I was asked what my calorie target was. Well hello, shouldn’t the app be telling me what my target ought to be?

So, I’m back to using the Galaxy 4 as a big, generic Android phone, with some pluses like a thin body, an SD card slot, and a replaceable battery. Nothing wrong with that. I like it. But not one of Samsung’s new features is good enough to be satisfying.


May 6, 2013

The most cost-effective way to read Amazon ebooks on a tablet is now… the Nook

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 6:36 am

Barnes and Noble has slashed the price of the Nook tablet this week from $269 to $179. Its a great price to pay for a full-sized tablet with excellent resolution, one that by all accounts seems well made. And, one can easily read all their Kindle books on the device by downloading the Kindle reader from Google Play. Sadly, Barnes and Noble will not be seeing  a dime from me in eBook purchases.

I don’t understand what Barnes and Noble’s motivation is, in putting the Google Play store on the Nook, and discounting the tablet at the same time. Chances are, they are not making back their cost on the device. And because they allow competitors to sell their wares on the tablet, they’re not likely to make money off the content, either.

In the mean time, the Nook is proving to be a great replacement for my smartphone. I can now access email and calendaring wherever there is WiFi. And I now have a prepaid phone for those rare occasions I need to place a phone call.

March 8, 2013

Seven habits of highly effective electronics buyers

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 7:08 am

Electronic gadgetry is usually a big-ticket and high-risk purchase. Technology is changing constantly — you don’t want the next version of your widget to show up a few weeks after you purchased it. Also, you don’t want to pay a dollar more than what you must.

Here are some suggestions from someone that has spent way much more of his paycheck on electronic doodads than he should have. I’ve shopped both local stores and on the web, and for the most part have come out on top by following the below principles:

1. Buy your widget about three months after release: Your widget will be at its most expensive the moment of release. That’s when manufacturers expect the early adopter crowd to swarm the stores and pick it up. For these early adopters, price is less of a consideration than bragging rights about being the first. About three months after release, the model is still brand new, but the initial fervor has died down. Sellers will be vying with each other to rack up sales. Ergo, your chances of landing a good price are much better.

If that’s the case then why not buy six, nine or even twelve months after release? That’s because technology changes very rapidly, often on a yearly cycle. Buy within six months of release, and you’re paying not much less than at the three-month mark, but have to now accept “technological depreciation” of six months instead of three.

2. Buy last year’s model in a stable category: In certain categories, the march of technology has slowed, and significant savings are to be had in purchasing last year’s model if it is not too different from this year’s. Dealers are looking to unload the stragglers and price their products to move. One example where this works well is TVs and Blu-Ray players. Sure, you get incremental improvements year-upon-year, but last year’s model is usually pretty good, and will come at a fantastic discount as well.

3. Don’t buy last year’s model in a rapidly changing category: In categories where there is still a lot of technology churn, avoid last year’s model. The discount is low compared to how much better the latest model is. An example of such a category is digital cameras, where advances in technology are very rapid. Another is the entire category of tablets and handhelds.

4. When buying smartphones, don’t get the 1-penny deal: Yesterday’s smartphones are usually on sale for a penny with a 2-year contract. The latest, on the other hand, cost about $200-300 with the same contract. It would appear that you are saving a lot by buying last year’s technology but in fact your savings are meager in exchange for what you’re missing out. Most of the cost of smartphone ownership are in the monthly payments for 24 months. You will roughly pay $2400 over the duration of the contract for the privilege of owning a smartphone. The $200 you save by buying an obsolete model is less than a 10% discount, in exchange for something that is behind the times.

5. Check if your local stores will honor web prices: During the last holiday, BestBuy matched Amazon on price. Where it gets interesting is that if during the return period the prices fall further, best buy will give you the difference but Amazon won’t (you will have to return and re-buy). So, with Best Buy, you get as good a deal initially as Amazon’s, and you have a month or two worth of price protection.

6. Never buy store brands: Names such as Dynex and Insignia are store brands. They may look like Samsung and Panasonic products, but are usually a generation older, made by different Chinese factories, to hit a price point. You may think you’re getting a deal, but the difference in quality is clearly visible, not to talk of it being obsolete on day one. A similar consideration applies to buying lower-tier brands such as Vizio, Westinghouse, etc. If you’re going to pay the money, buy a top-tier brand.

7. Never buy HDMI cables for more than $1-5: I’ve always bought the least expensive HDMI cables from Amazon, and they work just as well as the $60-100 deals from Monster cable routinely pushed by BestBuy and their ilk.

Bonus recommendation — Evaluate not just purchase, but lifetime costs: For example, when you buy an e-reader, Barnes and Noble may offer you a better deal today than does Amazon. Similarly, with a Digital SLR, you may get a better deal from a lesser-known brand than you might get from Canon or Nikon. But in both instances, you also have lifetime costs to consider. For the e-reader, it is the cost of books. Amazon typically sells books cheaper than does Barnes and Noble. Over time, your savings in book costs will likely oughtweigh the extra $10-20 that you may pay for an Amazon device. Similarly, with cameras, you will end up buying lenses, flashes, and assorted other add-ons. With Canon and Nikon, you are assured of a vast market of third-party suppliers and a robust used-equipment marketplace for lenses. With the lesser-known brands, much less so. Additionally, when you buy Canon or Nikon, your existing accessories will be virtually guaranteed to work with a new camera. Not so with off-brands, who may discontinue the entire line at short notice.


November 12, 2012

Return of the Netbook

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 9:10 pm

Amid all the hoopla about this tablet and that, the resurgence of netbooks has quietly flown under the radar. A few years ago, they were all the rage, and for a while until the arrival of the iPad, were very popular. I bought my father in law a WinXP based netbook three years ago, which serves him faithfully to this day.

The netbook had many disadvantages, however. The major one was that the Intel Atom was vastly underpowered for Windows (XP/Vista/7), and using one was a subpar experience. There were a few that ran various versions of Linux (e.g. Lindows) but they, too, floundered quickly.

Google is betting that the next iteration of netbooks in its Chromebook avatar can change all that. The Chromebook runs Google’s derivative of Linux, called Chrome OS. Where it departs from traditional Linux and Windows OS’es is that none of the operating system is exposed to the user. They see only the Chrome browser. The bet is that the user will perform all activities in Chrome and save their work to Google’s cloud. Thus, instead of Microsoft Office bloatware, the user is directed to Google docs and Google email. The operating system is reportedly kept secure by allowing virtually nothing else to run on it other than “Chrome Apps”. Now I’ve never tried a Chrome App, but I believe it is a scripted application that runs on the Chrome browser.

The Samsung version of the Chromebook is a super-slim affair, resembling a much more expensive Macbook Air. It contains no hard drive, and 16 GB of Flash memory. The CPU is an ARM derivative manufactured by Samsung. Because its an ARM, power consumption is much lower than X86, allowing the system to be designed without a fan or other accoutrements common to Windows machines (e.g. VGA port). As with all Chromebooks, the OS is installed and is self-updating over the web. There are no patches to apply, and no antivirus to download.

While the Samsung was a bargain at $250, and continues to have customers on a waiting list at Amazon, there is a newer kid on the block. This one is from ASUS. It appears that ASUS has repurposed a traditional netbook (X86, 320 GB HDD, all PC ports) into a Chromebook for an even lower price of $199. For that kind of money, expect a much heavier and thicker machine than the Samsung.

Google may find a niche with its Chromebooks, for users that live their electronic lives in the cloud (preferably Google properties), and that have robust Internet connections. For such people, the devices present a zero-hassle computing system that allows them to get 80% of their job done at far lesser cost than a Wintel solution.

August 23, 2012

When does Freemium work?

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 10:50 pm

There’s a good discussion over at the Wall Street Journal on when the freemium business model make sense. I’ll direct you to that article for the details, rather than regurgitate them here.

The authors miss one area where the freemium model does not only work, it is close to essential. If your product depends upon a network of people, and if the value of the product increases with the size of the network, then the freemium model is essential to building the network. Think LinkedIn — no one would be buying their premium subscriptions if LinkedIn locked out the millions of freeloaders. Without the freeloaders, the service would be useless to paying customers. Another example is Facebook — the appeal of the site is that so many billions are on it. If your friends were not on Facebook, you would not be very interested in it. A third, somewhat tangential example is newspapers. Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal make a good selection of articles free via google.com. If you were to go to their site directly, you would be walled off. But if you go through google news, you will be able to reach a large fraction of their entire newspaper. Again, the reason is that they need a wider network of eyeballs, this time to bait advertisers.

April 9, 2012

Dot com insanity is back

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 7:05 pm

The tech news headline of the day was that Facebook acquired a photo album company called Instagram for a billion dollars. That’s right kids, billion with a ‘B’. For a company which has zero income, probably 6-10 staff, no known business model, and that writes software to display photographs on a phone.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because the last time I checked, Facebook’s valuation was $104 billion. Let’s reflect for a moment on what this means. Using Google’s P/E ratio of 21.10, Facebook must have earnings (not sales) of approximately $5 billion. And, assuming that its profit margins are the same as Google’s (~26%), it must have sales of somewhere around $19 billion.

Yes, I know that prices for momentum stocks are based on expectations of future earnings and not current. Even so, we’re back to the days of pets.com, webvan.com, and etoys.com, and not to forget the granddaddy of them all, AOL.com.

 My biggest worry is this… I am a believer in indexing. Much of my meager savings is invested in the Vanguard S&P 500 index fund. A Facebook IPO would catapult it into the S&P 500 right away. With the result that Vanguard will have to buy into Facebook to maintain its correspondence with the index. Which means that I will become an unwilling investor of this future trainwreck that does not have a snowflake’s chance in heck of earning anything close to what its valuation suggests.

Money come easy, money go easy.

January 11, 2012

Ludicrous smartphone names

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 6:28 am

Came across this gem in a promotional email sent by AT&T:

Samsung Galaxy S (TM) II Skyrocket (TM)

I can’t think of anyone that woke up one fine morning and said “I gotta get me one of those Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrockets”. Is this the best that the combined marketing departments of Samsung and AT&T could come up with?

December 23, 2011

How brick and mortar retailers can win in an online world

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 6:34 am

Amazon’s price comparison app has stireed up a hornet’s nest among brick and mortar retailers. Though I haven’t used this particular app, similar apps on my mobile phone allow me to scan a barcode and search for the product online.

Understandably, brick and mortar retailers are very worried about becoming mere showrooms for online stores. Their concern is that a shopper will visit the store, examine the product and then order it online for a lower price. They have come up with various strategies to prevent this from happening… asking people caught barcode scanning to leave, removing barcodes from merchandise, and borrowing from the mattress industry, coming up with exclusive lines for each retail chain to thwart direct comparison.

These steps are ineffective. Customers can still type in the product name into their smartphones, if BestBuy decides to remove barcodes. Asking potential customers to leave the store is terrible business practice, barcode or no barcode. And while exclusive lines work for mattresses, where the decision is very subjective, it will hardly work for electronics where innumerable online forums offer comparisons between even the slightest brand variants.

A better approach would be for brick and mortar retailers to leverage their strengths… they have the customer physically present in store, and have an opportunity to build a deeper face-to-face relationship. How about store associates that are actually knowledgeable? And how about offering in-store warranty service? If I do not have to mail my malfunctioning electronics halfway across the continent to have it repaired but instead have my local BestBuy turn around a repair within a week, would I buy from there? Absolutely! This would be especially useful in gadgets with high failure rates, for example, laptops.

And for a revolutionary idea, how about letting the prospective customer “borrow” a demonstrator for a few days? The customer can try the product in the privacy of their own home, and if they don’t like it they can turn it back in, no questions asked. A fee can be charged, which would be waived upon in-store purchase of the product. Would I like to try this with a cell phone or a camera? You bet! I’d happily pay 50 bucks to have one for a couple days so I make the right decision on a 500 dollar purchase.

For people like my parents, who find newfangled gadgets difficult to use, how about in-store classes on how to use their newly purchased camera/smartphone/other gadget? It doesn’t have to be free.

A commentator on a newspaper’s website put it best: Amazon does not complain about an unfair playing field… the brick and mortar retailer has the customer in store, can talk to them and sell them on goods, and the customer is holding the product in their hand. Amazon is at least 24 hours removed from having the product in the customer’s hand and they never get to see the buyer, much less talk to him. Amazon’s not complaining. Why should retailers?

October 26, 2011

Netflix’s troubles

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 5:06 am

If only I had shorted the stock at the same time as I wrote about Netflix’s troubles… I’d be laughing all the way to the bank. Looks like Netflix’s ultimate strategy is to vertically integrate, and be a content creator as well as distributor. They’re not going to distribute as widely as they did in the DVD era, but they’re going to finance unique content. In other words, they’re aiming to become a new HBO clone.

suggested a month ago that this was the only option available to them. Good to know Reed Hastings follows my blog 🙂


October 5, 2011

The $35 tablet is here, for $60

Filed under: Digital Living,India — Jag @ 7:11 pm

The much ballyhooed $35 tablet promoted by Indian education minister Kapil Sibal is here. Engadget is reporting that it is an off-the-shelf Ubislate 7 from a company called Datawind.

How do they get the cost down to $35? Simple… government subsidies. Never mind that the Indian government is running a deficit, and has on its hands such gems as a fertilizer company that never made an ounce of fertilizer, or cable manufacturers that make zero feet of cable each year. They are now in the tablet marketing business.

I would be excited if there was some technological advance that could qualify as innovation on the cost front. Instead, what you have is a bottom-drawer Android tablet sold by a non-name company, subsidized by the Indian government for God knows what purpose.

Rather than coming up with such cockamamie schemes, it would make a much greater difference if they did something meaningful at the primary school level… get more kids to show up, have teachers that teach, and provide decent classrooms. I’m sure $35 can buy a lot in the rural areas — providing employment to teachers and a semblance of education to children who desperately need it.

The purpose to which these tablets will be put is unclear. (no educational software, word processing, spreadsheets, software development tools, etc). After the fanfare has died, I suspect it will play a central role in granting young men easy access to the abundance of “tube” sites on the Internet.

Postscript: Indian readers with gray hair will recognize a time in the early eighties when Color TV had just been introduced, and a government firm, ECIL, started manufacturing them. Everyone was promised one of these new-fangled gadgets for 5000 Rupees, approximately half the going rate from private manufacturers. I remember badgering my father to call the dealer week after week asking if they had any in stock. They never received any — after a few specimens at the advertised price, the government tired of handing out 5000-Rupee subsidies to each purchaser. Similarly, I suspect that after a few token batches of the tablet have been sold, it will go “out of stock”, and die a slow and unheralded death.

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