Thursday, June 28, 2012

Google Glass

The biggest announcement on the first day of Google I/O was that Google Glasses will be for sale next year. The futuristic devices seemed at least three to five years away! Despite the high price tag of $1500, it is still very exciting news.

Sergey Brin made the announcement with the help of skydivers, bikers and rapellers. All of the performers were wearing a pair of Google Glass and transmitting live feed of what they were seeing to a Google Hangout. The performance was great, especially getting to see it from their perspective in real-time.

The specs were not addressed specifically. According to Terrence O'Brien of Engadget, the specs were described vaguely as a "powerful" CPU and "lots" of RAM. As would be expected, it has an accelerometer, gyroscope, wireless radios, mic, speaker and a camera. It also has a touchpad on the side of the device. The tiny transparent display actually sits out a bit to the side of your line of vision to avoid interference with daily life.

Developers signed up for pre-ordering of the device at Google I/O. They received a piece of glass with the order number engraved on it. Look forward to seeing it in use next year!

Google Nexus 7

At the Google I/O yesterday, as expected, there were a lot of new releases. One of those was the launch of Google Nexus 7 tablet. This is the first tablet being launched directly by Google. The Mountain View company partnered with hardware manufacturer, ASUS, to bring this inexpensive tablet. The tablet has very impressive hardware encased, especially considering the low price tags of $199 (8 GB) and $249 (16 GB).

Generally, the tablet is being placed as a strong competitor to the Kindle Fire. The Fire has a similar price tag but for out dated hardware. The hardware in the Nexus 7 includes a NVIDIA Tegra 3 T30L quad-core processor running at 1.2 GHz. That's the same processor being used in the high-end ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity priced at approximately $500! It has a 7-inch screen with 1280 x 800 IPS LCD, which gives it the ability to display crisp quality at wide angles.

Tim Stevens of Engadget got his hands on the Nexus 7 during the Google I/O and did a video review of the product.

The device, at initial glance, is so impressive that I started considering whether I should drop my initial plans of buying the ASUS Transformer Pad and instead go for the Nexus 7. The first drawback of the Nexus is its small size for a fully functional tablet. Another is the maximum storage capacity of 16 GB with no additional memory card slot. Although, the processor and the RAM in both devices are identical!

Therefore, if only it had more options in terms of storage and screen size, I would have seriously considered buying the Nexus 7 over the Transformer. For 16 GB storage, Nexus 7 is costing $249, while the same internal storage in Transformer is costing approximately $370. The Transformer has a 10.1" screen and also the option of a keyboard dock, converting it into a laptop.

For users considering getting a tablet for fun and convenience, the Nexus 7 would be a must-buy!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Temporary Internet Connection

There are many times when you need to relocate to a temporary location. As I have mentioned previously, we are planning to look for a temporary place to stay during the month of August. After that, we will get a permanent place to live.

In the online hunt for furnished short-term apartments, I came across a particularly nice place. It is a one bedroom apartment with complete furnishings and in a very convenient location. They even have included Cable TV in the rent! Surprisingly, the apartment does not have internet access. If we decided on renting this apartment, we would need an internet connection.

Getting a cable internet connection would not be a viable option for such a short term. Another option is to get broadband connectivity from cell phone carriers like Verizon or AT&T. However, these require to buy devices for $200 and then sign a 2 year contract.

While doing some searching online, I came across a very good option: CLEAR. They have monthly options for $35 and $50, depending on speed required. The devices start as low as $20.

So, if we do end up deciding on an apartment which doesn't have internet access, I would probably get a CLEAR connection.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Flight ticket from Karachi to Minneapolis (Scam Alert!)

Usually, buying a flight ticket for most people is as simple as calling a travel agent and giving the details. For me, with my tendency to research, its not that simple. As soon as I knew I would be making a trip to Minneapolis, I was online, checking different websites for the lowest rate and best route for a one-way ticket.

The first stop was Expedia, which quoted the lowest rate as $1,214 per person. This translates to Rs. 116,544/-. The option for routes were:

  1. Karachi - Dubai - London - Chicago - Minneapolis (via Emirates and American Airlines)
  2. Karachi - Abu Dhabi - Chicago - Minneapolis (via Etihad and British Airways)
After checking multiple other websites, including the airlines, it was apparent that Expedia was quoting the lowest rates. After that, I called the travel agent I usually get my tickets from. I asked him to give me the best  rate and route for a one-way ticket to Minneapolis.

He got back to me the next day and emailed me a flight itinerary with the route Karachi - Dubai - Amsterdam - Minneapolis for Rs. 156,400/- The reason he gave for such an expensive ticket was that my port of entry into USA would be Minneapolis and I can go through customs and immigration there. I told him I don't mind going through Chicago and get custom and immigration clearance from there.

I gave him the routes that Expedia had suggested. A couple of days later, he gave me a quote of Rs. 86,600/- for route 1 and Rs. 91,800/- for route 2. Since route 1 had less stopovers and also slightly cheaper, I was about to confirm the purchase for the ticket.

Coincidentally, there was an advertisement in the newspaper that day for special discounts for student travelers going one-way to USA. It seemed like it was specifically targeted for me, especially the timing for it. I had my doubts it would be any cheaper than the travel agent I was already dealing with. Nonetheless, I called them and asked for a quote for a one-way ticket to Minneapolis. He identified himself as Hasan from One Ten Travels.

To my extreme surprise, he gave me a quote of Rs. 67,400/-. I was shocked that there could be such a big difference. The route he had given was route 1, which my travel agent had quoted for Rs. 91,800/-. I contacted him and told him about the new quote. Even he couldn't understand how it could be possible. Since it was such a big difference, he suggested I buy it but be extremely careful of a scam. 

I contacted the new travel agent and told him to issue two tickets. He insisted that I make the payment before he can issue the tickets. A red flag immediately went up in my head. I told him I cannot make a payment unless I have the tickets and I can verify them. Finally, we agreed on a post-dated check of one week. He makes an appointment and comes to my office and says he will issue the tickets after I give him the check. I was not letting him out of my sight until I get the tickets. He called his office and asked to issue the tickets and then showed me the e-ticket receipts online. I made the check payable to Shamshad Tours. The online tickets only showed the Karachi - Dubai leg of the flights as paid. He insisted that I trust him and these tickets are valid for the entire travel.

As soon as he walked out of the office, I forwarded the e-ticket receipts to my travel agent. Next day, he calls me back to give me the bad news that even the airlines have confirmed that these tickets are only valid for Karachi to Dubai travel. There is no other flight booked for it. It became apparent that the person was a con artist!

I called him and told him that the airlines had verified that these e-ticket receipts are not valid for the entire travel. He kept insisting that I trust him and take his word that they are valid. How could I, when the airlines are denying it! Finally, he agreed on returning the check and 'cancelling' my tickets. Fortunately, for my travel agent's due diligence, I got saved being scammed out of Rs. 134,400/-!

As expected, I told my travel agent to book my tickets for route 1 at Rs. 86,600/- each. As it so happens, there are no seats available on one of the legs of the route. I had to eventually settle on going via Abu Dhabi - London - Chicago. The fact that it cost me Rs. 10,400/- more was not as bad as the fact that I would have to take another stopover in London which could have been avoided. Also, via route 1, I would have landed in Minneapolis at 7.30 pm but via route 2, I land in Minneapolis at 11.30 pm!

Lesson learned: When it's too good to be true, it usually is!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Microsoft Windows Phone 8

Microsoft made another major announcement yesterday. Not as big as the launch of Surface, this was the release of Windows Phone 8. For most people, any version of Windows Phone is (hopefully) a mobile version of the popular desktop OS. This would mean that the users would get the same familiar user interface on their mobiles as their desktop computers.

Windows Phone, from the beginning, has used its format of Tiles to display information. Recently, with the new Windows OS for desktops (and especially for tablets), they have used a similar format. It is an effort at seamless integration for users using Windows desktops, laptops, tablets and now phones. Currently, Windows 8 for computers has not become very widespread. The tablet (Surface) has yet to hit the shelves. Smartphones running Windows Phone 7 have not gained too much momentum either. Time will tell whether the average user buys into the whole Windows ecosystem of laptops, tablets and phones.

The Windows Phone 8 release was extensively covered by Engadget. The WP8 has used the basic kernel from the desktop OS. This will ensure developers will be able to use the same code while developing apps for the desktop as well as the phone. Microsoft has made a very good decision by making it so easy for developers. Now when WP8 comes out, it will come with a large number of apps ready to be installed.

The strange thing about this release, is the announcement that none of the Windows phones currently being sold, will have the ability to be upgraded to WP8. For the current users, they released Windows Phone 7.8. Basically, its just a taste for the current users, to encourage them to buy a new phone after WP8 launches! So, any customers who are even buying a Windows Phone now, already know that its outdated! They have just used their current users as guinea pigs to test what works and what doesn't, and then left them hanging on to an obsolete phone. I would be surprised if current Windows Phones sales don't plummet.

The WP8 promises a lot in terms of high-end hardware support, high-res screens, multi-core support, more handset customization and a good browser. Whether it will deliver or not, remains to be seen.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Microsoft Surface

Yesterday, Microsoft announced its entrance into the tablet market. A bit too late I think! The secrecy that shrouded the event added to the hype for what mysterious product they were planning to launch. Even the location of the event was kept secret until the day of the event.

Tom Warren of The Verge covered the announcement in great detail. The launch was held at Milk Studios in Los Angeles. The CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, introduces a video of the company's history in the hardware arena. The Microsoft Surface is supposed to be a companion of the new Windows 8.

There are two versions of the Surface launched. One powered by Intel's 22nm Ivy Bridge chips running Windows 8 and the other powered by ARM's chipset running Windows RT. A detailed side by side comparison of both versions are shown here.

I think its a very good idea to make a tablet with a physical keyboard. I've discussed in my earlier post, that a physical keyboard is necessary if you want to write a long email or document. The virtual keyboard can only go so far. Adrian Covert of Gizmodo did a very good review of the technology being used in Surface's keyboard. From the looks of it, it seems like a rubber keyboard with no tactile response. If that's how it is, it would be very similar to typing on a touch screen. According to Adrian, the pressure sensitivity of it works very well. It can sense if you are typing or just resting your hands on it.

The way it magnetically attaches to the Surface, is very similar to the iPad's Smart Cover. Add to that the VaporMG kickstand, it converts a tablet into a very thin (and hopefully sturdy!) laptop. The technology that was demonstrated at the launch shows it to be an iPad-killer. But they have not specified any pricing details. It wouldn't be surprising that the reason for that would be because it's so expensive. If Microsoft prices the Surface really high as compared to the iPad, it would be hard for it to gain any significant market share.

Taking into account users' familiarity with Windows OS, people in the market for a new laptop or tablet would be eagerly waiting for the Surface to launch. Hopefully, it will be within their budget!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Tax on IE7 users

A couple of days ago, I came across a very interesting piece of news on Gizmodo. Apparently, an Australian online retailer,, has decided to charge a 6.8% tax on customers using Internet Explorer 7. As a web developer myself, I can understand the theory behind this tax.

When designing websites, the developer needs to make sure the user experience is the same for all browsers. For this, generally, I load the website on different browsers to make sure before I launch it. The majority of errors occur on old versions of Internet Explorer. The older the version, the more distorted the website gets! To rectify those errors, a lot of time and effort goes into making sure the user experience is seamless. So if I had a choice, I would completely exclude testing and developing for Internet Explorer. It would use up less time and effort, and end up costing the client less amount of money.

Therefore, if the client has to pay extra to make sure the customers using old versions of IE get the same experience as everyone else, it makes sense to pass the extra costs to those customers. This extra amount should not be equally passed on to all customers. It should be specifically charged to those for whom this extra expense is being made.

It is similar to the checked baggage policy being enforced by airlines. If a passenger checks in a bag, he is charged for that bag while a passenger who only uses a carry-on bag is exempt. In the same way, the extra expense incurred by a client for users of older versions of IE, should be incurred by the customers responsible for it.

Hopefully, this model of taxation will be followed by more retailers and it will cause more users to keep their browsers updated. In fact, I would personally prefer if users used Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Safari or Opera, anything but Internet Explorer!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Health Insurance in Minnesota

All of my friends have health insurance through their employers. Since I won't be having a job when I get to Minnesota, I have to find a reliable (and affordable!) health insurance provider. My university recommended Student Assurance Services. Their coverage plan costs $5070 annually for me and my wife. We are both more than 30 years old, which is a higher cost bracket as opposed to under 30 years. Even though the costs are extremely high, their medical benefits cover more than most other insurers. Most injuries under $5000 are 100% covered while between $5,000 and $50,000 are 80% covered.

Given such high costs, I wanted to make sure we were getting the best deal there was. Even though there are many insurers willing to insure for as little as $100 per month, the coverage they provide in case of sickness, would make me end up paying thousands of dollars.

The Minnesota Department of Health has taken a very good initiative and gives comparisons of most health insurance providers in the state on its website. The comparison provides sorting by monthly premium, maximum out-of-pocket, annual deductible etc.

The comparison chart has insurance coverage starting as low as $105 per month. But these have deductibles as high as $30,000! The higher premium I am willing to pay, the lower the deductible. So I have to settle at a mid-point where the premium is affordable and so is the deductible.

Another good website offering a similar service of insurance comparisons is American Visitors Insurance. This website primarily focuses on visitors and students from abroad. They gave me three options of different insurance companies with monthly premiums ranging between $125 to $160. The deductibles are $50 to $100. The limitations of these insurance providers are: (a) they are primarily for foreign travelers, and (b) the maximum insurance they provide is for one year. I think I will get an insurance coverage from one of them for the first semester or two.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

ASUS Transformer Book

Earlier, I had written a blog post about the different pros and cons while comparing a Tablet, Laptop and Ultrabook. In the end, I had mentioned that the ASUS Transformer series have good functionality where I can use it as a tablet as well as a laptop.

Well, at Computex 2012, ASUS showed off a new range of the new Transformer series. These are called Transformer Book. Dana Wollman of Engadget did a review; ASUS announces line of Transformer Books. The biggest difference between the previous Transformer range is that the Book runs Windows 8. For Windows fans, this would be a perfect replacement for laptop and tablet. These also come in three large sizes: 11.6, 13 and 14 inches! The sizes would easily define their functionality more as laptops than tablets. Also, they are installed with Intel Core i7 Ivy Bridge processors. The specs are on par with most current laptop specs.

The fact that the smallest size is 11.6 inches, might deter some people from using it as such a large tablet. For those who use their tablets for mostly watching videos, this would be great. Given the added functionality of a keyboard dock, this would be the perfect new device for a Windows user looking to get a tablet and a laptop. No more need to get two separate devices! :)

ASUS has not mentioned any details about prices as yet. In fact, the demos show only prototypes. There is a chance that the final product might be slightly different. I would expect the price range to be around $400 - $500. Add a $150 keyboard dock to it. It still ends up being much cheaper than getting a laptop and tablet separately with similar specs.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Choosing a theme for a blog

Initially, when I started writing this blog last month, I had no idea what to write about. I had been thinking of starting a blog for at least six months but couldn't decide what the subject should be. Then I came across a blog post by Chris Storm "366 or How I Tricked Myself into Being Awesome" and he had a very good suggestion. According to him, the blog should be generic, and every post should be about a different topic. It was a very good idea and I picked up on that.

After writing a few posts, I realized that most of my blog posts ended up being about technology. Even though there were some posts which were not tech related, but most of the posts had shaped my blog as a tech blog. That's when I decided that I should define it as a technology blog.

From my experience, if you are planning on writing a blog and can't think of what to write, just start writing posts about random topics. Eventually, you will gravitate towards what you would enjoy writing about. Within a few posts, you should have a fair idea what the theme of the blog post should be...