This is what FAIL looks like

Dead before it even started

The Surface RT numbers are in, and they are absolutely brutal. We’re talking Blackberry Playbook numbers. HP Touchpad numbers. We’re talking Kin part 2 numbers. This is the Edsel of tablets.

Initial reports from Microsoft indicated that they were planning on a shipment of 3-5 million Surface RT tablets over the holiday season (depending, presumably, on sales). Sometime in December, it was reported that Microsoft had slashed their order in half. Then Microsoft proclaimed that they upped their order in preparation for a frenzied retail store launch.

That frenzy never materialized. IDC reports that under 900K units have shipped so far. Mind you, that’s shipped to retail — the actual amount sold has been estimated by some to be as low as 250K. That makes sense — if they shipped 900K and sold them all, they would ship more. If they even sold 500K they would still order more. The fact that they’ve shipped 900K and stopped shipping or making any more units indicates that the lion’s share of inventory remains unsold. 250K? I believe it. And that number probably includes all of the Surface RT tablets Microsoft gave away to every single full time MS employee over the holidays.

But here’s the brutal part — Microsoft spent $400 million marketing Surface RT. That was spent on TV commercials, magazine ads, events, and multiple temporary Microsoft stores set up to show off Surface RT. Let’s say the 250K sold is low. Let’s say it’s more like 400K. That means Microsoft spent $1,000 in marketing per Surface RT sold. That’s not including R&D, manufacturing costs, and any other overhead. Just for marketing. $1,000 for each tablet, or twice the MSRP of $499. If it is indeed just 250K sold, that’s $1,600 spent for each Surface RT. Just for marketing.

You would think at some point Microsoft will cut their losses like they did with the ill-fated Kin. But they’ve poured so many resources into this failed platform, and without a plan B, it looks like they’ll keep up this charade for another year. Another long, brutal year.

Don’t Buy The Surface RT tablet

Another installment of Don’t Buy This, where I highlight a product whose purchase would be akin to lighting a pile of money on fire.

Last week, I advised not to buy the Surface Pro Tablet. This week, the product not to buy is the Surface RT Tablet. So they’re not the same product? No. No they aren’t. In short, Surface Pro is an awkward Windows 8 laptop that you can’t use on your lap that converts into an awkward and terrible tablet, while the latter is simply an awkward and terrible tablet that runs on the Windows 8 tablet operating system called Windows 8 RT. Is this confusing? Yes. Yes it is. It’s been on sale since it was released in October to middling reviews. In order to placate the other Windows equipment manufacturers (who were crying competitive foul), Microsoft released it in hard to find Microsoft Stores and the online Microsoft store. Since no one else bothered to make Windows RT tablets after all (because they’re not stupid), Microsoft is now putting them in retail stores. That is the reason why I am warning you not to buy it. In many ways, Surface RT is actually a worse purchase than the Surface Pro.

1) There are no apps. Do I mean that there are actually no apps in the Windows RT app store? No, there are apps, technically speaking. Microsoft likes to throw out the figure “20,000 apps” in the Surface RT app store. The problem isn’t the sheer number of apps, it’s the actual breadth and depth of the app selection and the functionality of said apps. Even more so than the Windows Phone, the Surface RT market has huge holes in its app catalog and many function poorly. And to compare, the iPad store has 250,000 tablet apps while the Google Play Store has 700,000 (Android doesn’t make the kind of distinction between phone and tablet apps like Apple does). It gets worse — at least Surface Pro allows you to run the same apps you installed on your Windows 7 desktop. Not so with Surface RT. The only apps you can install are the ones in the app store (which, as I explained, is a threadbare selection).

2) It’s awkward to hold. Here’s the thing — on a gram by gram basis, the Surface RT is only 18 grams heavier than the new iPad. And really, 18 grams in and of itself is totally something to sneeze at. However, the Surface RT runs a 16:9 aspect, which means that when you hold it in landscape mode, it feels heavier. Although apologists bring up the marginal weight difference and write it off as nothing, it’s the distribution of that weight that makes the iPad feel lighter than Surface RT. The extra 1.3″ width in landscape mode puts the center of gravity further away from your hand and makes it feel like a load. Well, okay then, there’s a kickstand. But if you need to use the kickstand, it has already failed as a tablet. And what about Android? The Nexus 10 is .42″ narrower than Surface RT in landscape mode, but here’s the thing — it’s a full 77 grams lighter as well. Plus, the squared off edges make the Surface RT feel thicker too. It’s simply a terribly designed tablet, and they were so gung ho on running side by side apps (which required a wide screen) that they threw all ergonomics out the window.

3) It’s using yesterday’s screen resolution. The iPad 4 screen runs at 2048 X 1536 with 264 pixels per square inch. The Nexus 10 ups the ante and runs 2560 X 1600, for an iPhone-like 300ppi. Meanwhile, the Surface lags behind at 1366 X 768 for a paltry 142ppi, barely outdoing the first iPad’s 132ppi. Does this make a difference? Absolutely. My Transformer Prime has 149ppi, and I can totally see the pixels. It’s not a terrible screen in and of itself, but when you compare it to the iPad 4 and Nexus 10, yes — it is a terrible screen.

4) The value isn’t there. The Surface RT tablet is priced at $499 for 32GB onboard while the entry level iPad 4 is $499 for 16GB. The Nexus 10 is $499 for 32GB and $399 for 16GB. So it looks like the Surface RT is undercutting the iPad4 considering the 32GB iPad 4 is $599. Look at it — it’s $100 cheaper! Except it’s not. The reason has to do with the fact that onboard storage is not the same as usable storage. For instance, about 2GB of the 16GB in the iPad 4 s used for the operating system. The actual usable storage is  around 14 GB. Meanwhile, Surface RT reserves a whopping 16GB for the operating system. So Surface RT doesn’t really have “double” the storage of the iPad — in fact, for the extra $100, you aren’t getting storage parity like Microsoft leads you to believe — the $599 32GB iPad 4 has almost twice the usable storage of the Surface RT. Now, the Surface RT does take microSD cards, so you can make up some of the storage difference for much less than $100. But that won’t help when you’ve installed 16GB of apps since those won’t transfer to the microSD. Well, at least you get a detachable keyboard thrown in, right? Wrong! That costs you another $119-$129 depending on the style of the keyboard. Now, it is true that keyboards are extra purchases for all tablet brands. However, Microsoft is using the type covers as a selling point. In fact, the whole commercial campaign revolves around the “click” sound it makes when the keyboard magnetically attaches to the tablet. That would be like Samsung advertising the stylus capabilities of it’s Note 10.1 tablet and then charging you extra for the pen (it is, in fact, included). Essentially, Microsoft is pitching the keyboard as integral to the experience yet making is a optional purchase. Does that make any sense? Oh, and if you’ve ever seen these things, it’s simply not possible they cost anywhere near $100 to make. It looks like a vastly overpriced accessory. iPad keyboards, in contrast, cost $40-$100. I can’t understand why Microsoft is trying to gouge their customers with the keyboards. Especially $119 for a membrane keyboard that is literally falling apart at the seams.

By the way, if you are still really keen on purchasing this product anyway, I suggest you wait until next year. I assure you, there will be price cuts and or bundles in 2013. That’s the surefire way to clear out excess inventory.

5) It’s slow and laggy. There’s really not much more to say about this. The experience is on par with an Android tablet from 2010.

6) It has nothing to offer that isn’t better on Android or iPad. This is when the cries of, “OFFICE!” howl up from the Microsoft Fanboys (yes, they do exist, but many are MS employees pretending to be regular folks from multiple user accounts). The truth is, the RT version of Office is not the same as the full fledged version and lacks tons of features. In the meantime, both iPad and Android have at least a half dozen apps that can read, edit, and create Word and Excel documents. If you get a Surface RT tablet simply to run Office, you’re not spending your money wisely. Oh, and by the way, Microsoft Office for Android is coming next year. The iPad vesion is up in the air because Apple is enforcing their 30% cut rule for the app store, but it’s very likely that Office will be available on both platforms outside of Surface RT very soon. So there is literally no reason to buy the Surface RT over the iPad or Nexus 10.

The bottom line: Get an iPad or Nexus 10. The Transformer Infinity is nice as well, and that has a keyboard dock that adds 6 hours of battery life. Buy the Surface RT package now for $528 and you’ll cry when it’s bundled for $499 or even $399 in a month or two. You’ll cry even more when you realize no one will ever develop apps for this dead in the water ecosystem ever again. In six months time, Surface RT will join the Blackberry Playbook and HP TouchPad in the dead tablet bargain bin.

DON’T BUY THIS.

Don’t Buy This.

I’m thinking of making “Don’t Buy This” a regular series for those tech products that simply make no sense and are just another way of collecting your money into a pile and burning it.

The first device you shouldn’t buy is the Microsoft Windows Surface Pro. It’s supposed to be a dual use tablet/ultrabook hybrid. Attach the optional keyboard cover, and it’s “like” a laptop. Take it off, and it’s “like” a tablet.

First problem: It’s too heavy. It’s over half a pound heavier than the iPad 4. Now, 8.65 ounces may not sound that heavy, but you will feel the burn if you try to hold this for long periods of time like the iPad. Consider that people complained that the iPad 3 was heavier than the iPad 2, and that difference was a mere 2 ounces. The Surface Pro is almost 50% heavier than the iPad 2. Apologists suggest you use the fold out kickstand to relieve the stress on your arms. The problem is, what’s the point of having a tablet if you have to stand it up on a flat surface? If you have to rest it on a flat surface, why don’t you just get a laptop?

Second problem: Your arms won’t get too fatigued since the tablet only has a 4 hour battery life. In an age where 9 hours is about the average for a tablet, Surface Pro rocks a laptop like 4 hours. The reason is because unlike your typical iPad or Android tablet, which runs a low power chip designed for portable devices, the Surface Pro uses a full fledged Intel laptop processor that devours electricity at twice the rate. And by the way, that 4 hours is for “typical” use. If you are in fact running a program that requires a lot of processing, you will get even less than 4 hours. On the bright side, it’ll run out of juice by the time you start to lose the feeling in your arms!

The worst problem: It’s way too expensive. The base tablet (with 64GB storage) is $899. The hard keyboard cover adds another $129 to the price (the membrane one isn’t worth buying). That means the base price for this tablet/laptop functionality is $1,028. If laptops were $700-$1,000 and tablets were $700-$1,000, this might be a worth a look. But you could buy a laptop and a tablet for less than $1,000 total, and that’s a laptop with a fully functional keyboard and a tablet you can actually hold for more than 4 hours. If you had an extreme use case like you travel all the time and you’d rather carry a single device instead of a laptop and a keyboard it’s still a dubious purchase. The reason tablets exist is because of the long battery life and the ultra-light, ultra-portable form factor. The Surface Pro has neither.

Don’t buy this.

Windows Phone 8 is already dead

I know that there are reports that the Nokia Lumia 920, the current flagship Windows Phone 8 device, is selling out here and there. It’s possible I suppose, but likely overstated. But there’s no way they’re going to sustain sales beyond these eager early adopters. Why? Because no one wants a Windows Phone.

Let’s back up to 2006 to see what the problem is. Back in the days before the iPhone ushered in the modern smartphone era, Windows Mobile was Microsoft’s entry into the mobile phone market. It was based on the Windows CE kernel, and it was a tiny PC OS that was jiggered to send and receive calls. As a phone, it was pretty bad. But as a tiny computer, I thought it was actually pretty great. But I was in the minority — most people absolutely hated Windows Mobile. Once the iPhone hit the market, it looked even worse. I still liked it better than the iPhone, but I was in an even smaller minority.

The reason why I kept on chugging with WinMo was its vibrant developer community and open ecosystem. Regular dudes were creating utility programs to deal with this problem or that — sure, the iPhone could do some of the things I was looking for in its sleep, but the OS was so locked down and restricted. Basically, I was willing to go with the buggy system because it was open. When Microsoft announced Windows Mobile 7 (which  became Windows Phone 7), they decided to follow Apple’s lead and create a locked down system. This is exactly when I flipped to Android. Android, not Windows Phone 7, is the spiritual successor of WinMo.

In any case, Microsoft was very late in coming out with WP7 phones, and when they did, they were underwhelming. They had last generation specs and zero reason to switch from Android or iPhone. And for a long, long time, they were trailing in marketshare to WinMo. That’s right, they couldn’t even beat the two year old operating system they replaced.

Still, the level of ineffectiveness was astounding. And then a year later, they scrapped it all. Windows Phone 8 came out to generally positive reviews in October. The first phones, the HTC 8X and the Nokia Lumia 920, received generally good scores and positive notices.

And still no one will buy them. Sure, there are real problems, like the hanging and freezing that WP8 devices are prone to and the random rebooting that is the target of an upcoming update. And the battery life isn’t really great shakes. And while Microsoft likes to claim that they have almost all of the “important” apps that iOS and Android have, most of these are apps are in name only — their functionality greatly trails the apps for the other operating systems. The dearth of good apps for Windows Phone 8 reminds me of the Android Market circa 2010. Android got over that pretty quickly after developers noticed how much traction it was getting in the marketplace. But Windows Phone is mired in the single digits in terms of marketshare (and that’s including WinMo devices). Where’s the impetus for developers?

And then there’s the fragmentation of models by carrier — the Lumia 920, which many consider the WP8 flagship phone, is an AT&T exclusive. Ditto for the 8X. There will be models from HTC and Samsung coming for the other carriers eventually, but by then WP8 will have been swept under the carpet, a carrier giveaway phone that no one wants. Even now, the Lumia is being sold for $49-$99, which puts it at the kind of price bracket for bargain phones. And the bottom line is this:

No one wants a Windows anything. Most consumers have been burned by Windows PC’s in one way or another. Most of the problems have nothing to do with Windows itself, but Windows is what most people see up front and center, and thus it’s Windows they heap scorn upon. They keep using it because they have legacy printers and legacy programs, continuing to upgrade their Windows OS out of inertia and fear of the unknown (and the prices of Mac systems aren’t helping matters). They’re in a hate cycle they can’t break. So the last thing they want to get caught up with is Windows on their phone.

When you see the kind of monolithic name recognition Windows has, the fact that they can only achieve a sliver of marketshare suggests that people are avoiding the brand just like people are avoiding Blackberry. Microsoft is a victim of their own bad reputation. Even worse — no one is buying Windows 8 PC software either. Sales have been very disappointing, and the prevailing advice is to skip it like Windows Vista. The halo effect from the closely named Windows Phone 8 will also result in the rejection of Windows 8.

Oh, and the Windows Surface Tablet? Yeah, that’s also DOA. As with Windows Phone 8, there is simply no compelling reason to give up Apple or Google or Amazon for Microsoft.

What Phone Should I buy?

I get asked this question a lot. On one level, it’s a difficult question to answer since I haven’t actually tried all the models out there (and in the Android world, there are a TON of phones available). On the other hand, I read a lot of reviews, and I know which ones to avoid and the ones that have a consensus of favorable ratings. I always get a little tripped up by the whole “Android versus iPhone” debate – while I am an unabashed fan of Android, I do understand why iPhones would make better options. But at the same time, I’ve seen people who I thought would love Android deciding to move back to iPhone while people for whom I was concerned about end up fully embracing the Google operating system. It’s really kind of a crapshoot.

 

Before we go over some choices, let me make this very, very clear — do NOT buy the phone that’s free with a two year contract. Free is great. Free is tempting. But in this instance, free will just be frustrating. And not just merely frustrating — it will be frustrating for two whole years. Struggling with your phone for 24 months will chip away at your soul and your sanity – the $200 it costs to get the latest and greatest is totally worth it when you consider this is $8.33 per month to have something that works. To have something that isn’t handicapped by a multitude of limitations. To have something you will love instead of disdain. I’m not trying to trivialize $200 – it’s a lot of money. But let’s do the math – you’re going to be spending $2000-$3000 over the course of your two year contract. You can either spend another $200 and leverage the resources you’re paying handsomely for, or you can go with free and barely make use of your $2000 investment. It would be like paying for the complete HD Digital cable package and watching it on a 19″ set from 1995. Except a nice HDTV will set you back way more than $200.

 

What’s the difference between free and $200? Typically, a phone is free because it’s cheaply built. It has internals that are two or three years old and runs software that’s at least a year old. Nothing about the phone is cutting edge, and halfway into your two year contract, your free phone is already obsolete. Can you make calls and texts? A little email? Some web browsing? Yes, yes, yes, and bare minimum. Can you run the newer apps? Many times, no. Can you load it up with music and take photos? Again, due to cut down storage in these free phones, you will be running out of space a lot. The photos will suck. And keep in mind that carriers advertise free phones to pull people into stores. They would rather sell you  a newer phone, which is why every free phone has some huge deal breaking weakness. But that may not be entirely evident to you if you’re distracted by the word, “FREE”. What will happen is this: Sometime into your two year contract, you will come to the realization that you would gladly pay $200 right now to upgrade your phone. But you can’t — you have at least a year to go. The only way out is to pay an early termination fee and lose your phone number, or buy a phone off contract, which will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of $600. It’s a terrible feeling to carry around with you for the rest of your contract.

 

Okay, so let’s say I’ve convinced you to pay the $200. What phone should you get? I would say across the board, the Samsung Galaxy S3 is a top choice for it’s large screen, slim profile, highly rated camera, and light weight. If your battery can’t seem to last a day, you can get either a spare battery or an extended life battery (which nets you a spare battery as well). And if your music and photos are bursting your storage capacity storage at the seams, you can always pick up relatively inexpensive microSD cards to pick up the slack. How inexpensive? 32gb cards are routinely available for under $25. Compare that to the $100 Apple charges you to move up to 32gb. For a quarter of that price, you end up with 50% more storage. Need even more storage? The S3 takes up to 64gb microSD cards (around $60-$70). Furthermore, the sheer ubiquity of the Galaxy S3 (30 million sold and counting) means there’s a plethora of options when it comes to custom accessories.

 

However, I would argue that the Galaxy Note 2 is the better phone on Sprint. The reason is that the radios on the Note 2 are amazingly good, allowing you to access their 3G network with usable speeds. And voice is loud and clear on the Note 2. Considering it may take anywhere from 6 months to over a year before Sprint’s 4G LTE network is available in most areas, adequate 3G is a huge area of need for any Sprint phone.

 

In fact, the Galaxy Note 2 comes out as a close runner up to the GS3 on all carriers. Battery life is 50%-80% longer with the Note 2, and it will likely get newer operating system updates first. Plus, the SPen is great for Draw Something, and it’s just crazy smooth and fast. Of course, it comes with a heftier price tag (around $100 more than the S3) and it’s rather ginormous. I’ve been able to acclimate to the size as I believe  most people would, but if you think the 4.8″ Galaxy S3 is already a little to big for you, the 5.5″ Galaxy Note 2 comes off as comically large.

 

Then there’s iPhone (although T-Mobile still doesn’t carry the iPhone). There’s nothing wrong with getting an iPhone. It’s clearly not my cup of tea, but it’s a mass market people pleaser. I’m not fond of its limitations, namely lack of storage, sealed battery, and small screen size. The operating system is rigid and locked down. Maps are a disaster. And it’s expensive to own — the Lightning Port accessories, like chargers and connection cables, are ludicrously overpriced, and you have to pay separately for your iPhone and iPad for the same app. Not to mention many paid apps in the App Store are free on Android. That said, if you are going go that way, the iPhone to get is the Verizon version — they have the best voice network, the best data network, and the SIM is unlocked out of the box (meaning you can use an inexpensive local SIM when traveling overseas). Plus, they don’t charge you for Facetime over 3G or 4G. And tethering is free if you have one of the new data plans (meaning you can use the iPhone like a modem for your laptop or tablet). The Sprint version is the worst due to the irrelevance of their 4G LTE network. It won’t be available for most people until well into next year.

 

If you are a bargain hunter, the best deal in US cellular phones is the Nexus 4 with a prepaid T-Mobile plan. For $350, you buy the Nexus 4 outright, with no contract to sign. This sounds expensive up front, but the monthly plan savings more than make up for it. Consider this (the taxes and fees are approximate — I used 13% as the taxes & fees charge):

 

Verizon with 2GB data and voice/text – $113/mo including taxes and fees. $2712 over 24 months plus $200 for phone.

Total cost = $2912

 

AT&T with 4GB data and unlimited voice/text – $125/mo including taxes and fess. $3000 over 24 months plus $200 for phone.

Total cost = $3200

 

Sprint with Unlimited data and 400 landline minutes – $90/mo including taxes and fees. $2160 over 24 months plus $200 for phone.

Total cost = $2360

 

T-Mobile with Unlimited data and voice/text – $101/mo including taxes and fees. $2424 for 24 months plus $280 for phone.

Total cost = $2704

 

Nexus 4 with 2GB 4G data and unlimited voice.text – $60/mo flat. $1440 for 24 months plus $350 for phone.

Total cost = $1790

 

That’s almost $600 cheaper than the Sprint option and over $1400 cheaper than AT&T (there is no 2GB plan on AT&T). The biggest caveat, however, is that while T-Mobile data is actually pretty good, their voice service is by far the worst. But using hundreds of minutes a month talking is almost an antiquated concept. If your T-Mo voice service is really bad, you could always send texts on the road and use a voice over IP service like Skype or Google Talk over wifi. The days when communication on your mobile phone was about cellular voice is in the past now. Consider that AT&T and Verizon now sell you data first and voice as an add on feature. It’s all about smartphones and data now. That you can talk on your phone is secondary consideration now.

 

There are some shortcomings to the Nexus 4 as well. For starters, good luck finding one. Supplies are constrained, and the entire run sold out rather clumsily in one day. It also shares some of the limitations of the iPhone, namely sealed battery and no microSD slot.  And it doesn’t run on 4G LTE networks. This isn’t really a problem if you’re going with T-Mobile, since they don’t even have a 4G LTE network.  AT&T has a 4G LTE network, but it’s not as large as their HSPA+ network that gets you 10-20 mbps download speeds. Only Verizon has a viable 4G LTE network, but you can’t use the Nexus 4 on it (it can’t be used on Sprint either). And if you somehow get your hands on one, make sure it’s the 16GB model. Do not buy the 8GB model for $299 – it ends up being 3GB usable storage, and if you don’t need more than 3GB storage, you might want to rethink if you even need a smartphone at all.

 

And if you were wondering, both Blackberry and Windows Phone are currently unworthy of your business. The Blackberry is somewhere around Homo Habilis in the smartphone evolutionary ladder, and Windows Phone 8 is not ready for prime time. The dearth of good apps and the freezes and reboots are just not what you want from a modern smartphone.

The 8,523rd sign that Blackberry is dead

Quick — what’s the fourth most populous country in the world, behind China, India, and the United States? It’s gotta be Russia, right? Maybe Brazil? Pakistan? France? Nope. It’s none of those. The fourth most populous country in the world, with a quarter of a billion people is… Indonesia. It’s the largest Muslim country in the world by population and it was the last bastion of Blackberry in Asia.

Until now.

Android has reached 51% adoption rate in Indonesia, and now it looks like RIM’s last big user base is going the way of the dodo, much like the platform itself. To understand why it was ever popular in the first place, you need to know three letters — BBM. In the days before unlimited texting plans and the proliferation of Facebook and Twitter, BBM was the soul of social networking. It was texting, but more immediate. You could send attachments and pictures as well as group chat. And at a time when texts cost 10-25 cents a pop and the only alternative to add $20/mo plans for 500 texts, unlimited BBM was included in your BB plan for free. What is happening in Indonesia is the same thing that happened in the United States – unlimited texting plans disrupted the one feature Blackberry users had found indispensable. And once one domino fell, the rest started to follow – BBM was a Blackberry only feature, and as more people left Blackberry, the number of people you could BBM with started shrinking. On the consumer side, the only reason left for anyone to own a Blackberry is the physical keyboard — the platform has nothing left to offer. And with foreign characters easier to implement and customize on software keyboards, this isn’t even a big advantage overseas.

As the telcos in emerging markets also start offering unlimited texting plans, this shift away Blackberry will leave its parent company with nothing more than a patent portfolio and enterprise software. Which is to say, pretty much what it’s like right now… except even worse.

Maybe it’s $29 for a reason

The Verge is reporting that Apple says the Lightning port adapter supports analog audio out. If that’s the case, there must be an audio DAC built into the adapter. So the $29 price tag might not be so outrageous. Still, there’s no need to force people into splurging on a $29 adapter if all you want to do is charge and sync.

We’ll see how this shakes out.