Switchback: Talking Tech

May 16, 2014

The Switch team talked about gadgets, tech and tech policy in their weekly chat. The Switch team took questions about the gadgets you have, the ones you want and the ones that aren't even out yet, as well as how the biggest tech stories affect you.

Hayley and I are here -- although, alas, Brian will not be able to join us this week. Ask away!

Just to be clear: exactly who are the bad guys here?

That really depends on who you ask. Net neutrality advocates (like major tech companies, venture capitalists, and some content producers) will likely tell you big cable and other Internet Service Providers are the villains, trying to set up a system where they can pick and choose the winners online by who will pay for better access to customers who are already paying their ISPs for access to the Internet.

Obviously, ISPs don't feel the same way -- instead essentially arguing that they own the pipes and should be able to make decisions about how traffic flows through them. 

Can you explain what's up with the Xbox Live changes this week?

Sure thing. Microsoft had a couple of big things to announce re:Xbox this week, but what's probably most interesting to existing Xbox owners is that it revamped pricing for Xbox Live.

Basically, you don't have to pay for the $60 annual subscription to Xbox Gold to access services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus or HBO Go anymore -- which is nice, because it kind of sucked to payfor those things twice just to get them on your game console.

So, you may be saying, I've already paid for a year but I really don't want Gold anymore. You're in luck: those who already have an Xbox Live Gold subscription can ask for a refund for the parts between June and the end of August.

Microsoft also announced that it's going to unbundle the Xbox One and the Kinect, which makes it more competitive with the PlayStation 4.

Have you guys heard of this prank that's going around where networked printers started displaying Vote for Josh as the welcome message? It apparently started on April 1 but I just heard about it yesterday. It's simultaneously hilarious and mysterious - my favorite type of story. Here's the reddit post that alerted me to it: http://www.reddit.com/r/dogecoin/comments/25nst9/so_some_shibes_been_owning_a_lot_of_printers_and/ (claiming it's related to a dogecoin thing, but other people are disputing that since it started so long ago - anyhow, I spent a good hour interneting this last night)

I hadn't heard about that, but -- pranks aside -- all the networking holes that connected devices are opening up in workplace and government networks is a legit concern.

What I really love about this story is that the recommendation for a fix that I found on HP's forums is basically that old "IT Crowd" recommendation of power-cycling.

Also, change your password.

If I have $1,500 to burn, should I buy Google Glass?

Well. I wouldn't.

But I'm not a) a developer b) willing to regularly field questions about my face-computer or c)  all that patient with beta products.

I am totally intrigued, though, by the reports that former fashion and current marketing exec Ivy Ross is taking over the Glass team now, which signals to me that they're getting even closer to a widespread launch.

The fashion piece is particularly important, because the most distracting thing about Glass is definitely how weird it looks. The frames that Google has added to its later models, plus its announced partnership with RayBan/Oakley definitely help normalize them a bit -- it would be even better if they were fashionable.

Why does Andrea hate Star Trek: Deep Space Nine so much?

So, I see you've been following our debates on Twitter. 

Here's my problem: I'm a big Star Trek nerd, but my boyfriend has been trying to force feed me the series, and, as it turns out, the first season of DS9 is super boring. 

Here is my personal definitive ranking of Star Trek series: 

Actually, my general ranking of the televisions shows is pretty much in line with popular opinion

But I disagree with the public about the films: 

I'd rank First Contact up top, followed directly by Khan and Voyage Home -- or, as I lovingly refer to it: Star Trek IV: Save the Whales -- but the new movies, while flashy, just contained too many plot holes for me.

Like when they are chasing down rebooted Khan near the end of Into Darkness? That's completely unnecessary. Why not just use the super blood of any of the frozen dudes to save Kirk? 

So, I love DS9 and it is my favorite. It explores all sorts of issues about the politics and dynamics of a space society in ways that the "let's go explore" series don't.

Also, Quark.

I'm not saying that every Star Trek series should stay in one place, but I'm saying that I'm really glad DS9 did.

I am, however, totally with Andrea on the new movies. That's not what cold fusion means, guys.

In your opinion, is the FCC's endorsement of the"Fast-lane" proposal a modest step forward or a step in the wrong direction?

"Opinions" are a really hard thing to express when your job is to objectively report on this stuff. But as a person who grew up on an open Internet and whose job now depends on people being able to access my work over that same Web, it's hard not to be a teensy bit concerned about the prospect of paid content prioritization. What if outlet X is willing to pay an ISP more than my outlet is to get their content to load faster? When it comes to user experience, speed matters. I know because I remember dial up. But mostly, I think as a society we need to decide if we see the Internet as a utility or as luxury -- and plan accordingly.

My mom, who is not terribly tech savvy, is interested in getting a tablet where she can read ebooks, check her mail, and surf the web. She initially mentioned getting an iPad, but I'm thinking a Kindle Fire might be a better fit. What do you think?

If she's sticking to those basics, I think your instinct is right -- particularly if she's planning on getting those e-books from Amazon.The Kindle Fire is a good, basic option for her, definitely, though it's not great for anything more complex than consumption.

Plus their video selection is getting better -- though it's still not great -- so that's a perk if she wants the occasional show/movie to watch.

(I feel here that it is appropriate to note that Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey Bezos owns The  Washington Post.)

But no tablet purchase lives in a vacuum. (Or is an island? Metaphor mixing.) Those are some pretty basic functions, but if your Mom uses Gmail she may want to look at the Google tablets, or if she's an Apple devotee, the iPad might really be a good fit for her.

I would say, though, that for those three functions it's probably best suited to a smaller, more compact tablet rather than the full-sized iPad -- think more the Fire/Nexus/iPad mini size. Reading on a full iPad is not a good experience, IMHO.

When should I upgrade and to what - if Windows 8 is a bust. What now?

So, I've already written about where I stand on Windows 8. (Basically, I dislike it about as much as Hayley dislikes Glass.) After using it for several months and essentially paring it down until it's a barely broken version of 7, it's at least usable.  But I'd urge you to stick with 7 as long as you can.

I wish I had better advice, honestly. I've found Ubuntu a pretty solid open source alternative, but there is a learning curve. 

So, George Takei really wants transporter technology, apparently. Is anyone working on that?

I have the vaguest of memories that Nature reported some scientists had reported successfully teleporting an atom.


Ah, yes, here it is.

That's really cool, but I definitely think that teleportation is one of those technologies that raises insane ethical questions, though  I admit that much of my thinking on that has been shaped by the whole "Thomas Riker" storyline in Star Trek.

See, Andrea? I like TNG, too.

I am officially calling it that from now on. Wrath of Khan is obviously the best of the films though. When I need a good cry all I have to do is think of (spoiler alert? do we need to do that?) Spock's death and I sob like a baby. Love Actually serves the same purpose, btw, but is less chat appropriate.

Also, for those of you who haven't read Brian's excellent interview with George Takei and thought that question was super random, I refer you here.

Also, to this:

Brian and George Takei

I'm lucky enough to live in Kansas City and recently got Google Fiber. But when will they make a deal to carry AMC? I can't believe I'm paying almost DOUBLE what I paid for Time Warner, but no Walking Dead!!!

I'm originally a Kansan myself -- woo midwest! But unfortunately, I don't have any insight into when or if Google Fiber might pick up AMC.

However, I DO have a work around for Walking Dead! AMC has many of their shows streaming on their Web site -- some require a cable login like Mad Men -- but so far it looks like the current season of Walking Dead episodes posted do not.

There was some excitement recently that someone had developed a real life tricorder as well: http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2014/01/07/no-science-fiction-company-shows-off-real-world-star-trek-tricorder/

That is super cool. A medical tricorder would be amazing.

To your answer about iPads. I've been living with a full-sized iPad for several months after getting it as a gift, and I have to admit that it's not doing much for me. I already have a big screened smartphone and a laptop, and the full-sized iPad just doesn't do enough to make it a useful addition to my life. My mom (also a tech dummy - sorry mom) has the iPad mini + an iPhone and that serves her needs perfectly.

Both of my parents have iPad minis with keyboard attachments that they use for their home entertainment and basic computing needs -- and it seems to work great for them. But I can't imagine it working for me -- I have a Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro that is basically my life and converts pretty easily between laptop and tablet mode. Overkill for a casual user, but nice in my line of work. 

Would be: and 

I agree those are fabulous. I'm also a big fan of this episode: 

So what is going to be the next big smartphone advancement? There have only been marginal improvements over the past five years or so, and I include Siri/Google Now in that category (even Siri launched four years ago!). Or are wearables the way of the future?

Well, I think anyone who has an answer to that questions stands to make a boatload of money.

Wearables is certainly an option, and one that the industry seems pretty excited about, because there's so much potential to change the game there.

There are some promising things out there for the smartphone, though. Not long ago, I did a profile of a lab at GWU that's working with Google on Project Tango, which basically incorporates new sensors to be able to map the world around you.

The potential for that project, beyond whatever Google does with Tango, is pretty cool, because you could totally imagine a Waze-like real-time map of places around the world. Think of how useful that would be for trips in unknown cities, etc.

And not to toot Google's horn here too much, but I also think the swappable, customizable, modular idea behind Ara is super cool. I'd love to see where that goes.

My family and I are primarily Apple people with iPhones, iPads, Apple TV, and AirPrint printer capability. However, I have a 4+ year old Toshiba Satellite laptop with Windows 7 that works okay. Is there any real advantage to buying a Mac laptop, and if so, which model is recommended?

While  I admit that I, personally, have a Mac laptop -- and like it -- I actually think the ecosystem advantage you get is smallest for the Mac. You get notifications for things across platforms, can get iMessages...all that's well and good, but not just a huge advantage. Again, just in my personal opinion, the cloud services aren't so great or so locked into the Apple platform that it would make buying a Mac a no-brainer.

There are some rumblings that Apple's going to further integrate iOS and OS X -- we'll see at WWDC -- but since Apple's been pretty clear that they aren't going to merge any time soon, I'd say that it isn't totally necessary to add the Mac to your list of Apple products if you've been happy with your PC all these years.

Has the widespread adoption of broadband internet completely undermined the traditional LAN party? There was a time when my friends and I would get together to game in person. But now, all we do is tweet #ZergRush from our rooms alone (at 15 Mbps).

So, my short answer is sort of yes -- but only if you let it.

Obviously, it's a lot less hassle to connect online than to lug a bunch of boxes around to meet up in person. But if you value that sort of social experience, there's no reason you shouldn't try to set up an in person get together and play old school. Or you can keep your video gaming online and try to organize a more analog in person activity: Board game night. 

The last time I went to visit mine they were complaining that my dad's genius solution of hooking his old computer to the TV to watch streaming videos wasn't working anymore (I didn't grasp the exact reason - computer was just too old, I think). I want to get them a Chromecast or AppleTV or something to replace it. What do you think would be the most user-friendly for people who will not understand what this technology is?

Weird that it stopped working -- maybe a cable or connection issue? I live in a cordcutter household, and we have a PC gaming rig connected to our living room TV that handles all of our entertainment needs -- from streaming video to playing a heavily modded version of Skyrim.

But none of that actually answers your question. In fact, Hayley's probably better suited to help you out... 

You're too kind, Andrea.

I, too, am a little confused about what could have happened to make that arrangement stop working.

To your question, a lot depends on what other tech you have in the house, and what they watch on. If, for example, they're looking to get home videos from their laptop to the TV, then the AppleTV is probably the best bet. (This is, funnily enough, one time when a Mac is an advantage.(

If they're just trying to get Netflix, YouTube and Hulu onto the TV, though, then the Chromecast, at $35, is a good choice and also pretty easy to use. All you need is Wifi, pretty much, and a couple minutes of set-up. Then you'll just need to show them which icon on those services will cast the shows to the TV -- pretty easy.

It also works to stream tabs from Chrome, though it can be a little laggy if you try and stream video that way. But I once watched a whole season of Downton Abbey that way (my bunny ears broke), so it's definitely doable.

Alright -- last five minutes guys so give us your lightning round questions!

Could we ever get this sort of ruling in the U.S.?

Well, certainly the attitude toward privacy in the U.S. government right now is not one that would be hospitable to a decision like this. Here, we've pretty much hung our hat on industry self-regulation, at least for now.

There's also much more discussion of freedom of expression in discussions about online privacy here, and the censorship questions that come into play when thinking about having Google or other search engines take things down from their results is one that -- at least, on the face of it -- many Americans may balk at.

And, per an insightful e-mail in my inbox this morning, there's also the fact that these tech firms have a lot of clout in Washington, and are driving much of the conversation here, which in turn has quite a bit of impact on what laws do or don't get passed.

I just found out! It's dumber than I could have imagined. They have a wall mounted TV and the mounting structure is positioned so that it covers the place where the computer has to plug into the TV!

Well, mystery solved -- thanks for the update!

In five years, how will people look back at Apple's acquisition?

Ooh, so hard to say.

I think it's safe to say that the deal (if, I should be clear to say, the rumors are true) marked a major cultural moment at Apple that shows just how much Tim Cook's approach to the company differs from Steve Jobs's.

Looking at Jobs's record it's pretty hard to imagine that he would have ever made an acquisition like this -- though he also said no mini-tablets ever, so who knows.

In terms of how successful it will be? That's a much harder question to answer. Iovine and Dre are good additions to Apple on paper; if they do join the company, it'll be interesting to see how personalities mix.


What's the best episode in the show's history?

Well, according to IMDB The City on the Edge of Forever from The Original Series. I, personally, am more inclined to pick one of the Borg episodes from The Next Generation. 

And we have to go -- sorry we couldn't get to every question, but we look forward to chatting with you next week! 


In This Chat
Brian Fung
Andrea Peterson
Hayley Tsukayama
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