Monday, February 28, 2011

Viewsonic GTab - custom ROM

I tried the stock GTab for a while before breaking down and installing the TNT Lite custom ROM. TNT Lite is a variation of the stock Tap N Tap but with some important changes.

Installing the ROM is easy. The steps are exactly the same that I used to upgrade my phone to Android 2.2. You download and unzip a file, copy it to the Android device, reboot while holding the volume up key then use the volume, home, and back keys to navigate. I actually had to do this three times, once to install a backup utility, once for the current version of TNT Lite, and once for some patches.

The result of all of this is a faster device with some of the stock android apps restored. The most important of these are GMail and the Android Market (although by default you only get a  fraction of the available apps). The speed increase really shows up when watching Youtube. In Tap N Tap the sound and video stutter. With TNT it works beautifully.

TNT is not as polished as Tap N Tap but it works better. Tap N Tap's clock, news and weather apps are gone and the email app is a harsh black and white instead of wood-tone. All of my settings and passwords transferred over which was nice.

With TNT is is possible to view Hulu although there are some extra steps. You have to edit a library to change "AND" (for Android) to "WIN" (for Windows) and you have to remember to set the browser for "desktop" instead of "tablet".

I really got this tablet as an ereader. I don't want to be locked down to one vendor's format. Free reader apps are available from Amazon (Kindle), Barns and Noble (Nook) and Borders that support their formats. There are also readers available for public domain books. I have been using FBReader for those.

For now I am using the Kindle app. I have downloaded several public domain books and a few 99 cent ones. It is a good experience.

Over the years my eyesight has gotten worse. At the same time, publishers have reduced the type size in order to save on paper costs. The result is that text is about the same size on a paperback book as on my phone. On the tablet the text is much larger and well-lit so it is much easier to read. Kindle automatically synchronizes the devices so I can pull out my phone and read without losing my place (as long as the tablet is near a WiFi spot the next time I start reading with it).

Our public library supports loaning books in the EPub format. Kindle does not support this but the other readers do so I will have to check out that feature soon.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Viewsonic's Gtablet

I broke down and bought a tablet - the Viewsonic gtablet. There are several reasons for getting this device. High on the list is that I do not want to become part of the Apple revenue stream. This tablet is cheaper and much more open. It costs less than half of the new Xoom (without being subsidized by a data plan). It is comparable with the smaller Galaxy Tablet although that needs a two year data plan, also.

One important point - there is no data plan for this tablet because it does not support 3G or 4G. Your only wireless communication is over WiFi or Bluetooth. That is fine with me. If I really need to connect with something I can enable the WiFi hotspot in my phone and use that.

The next important point - the Out of the Box experience is awful. Viewsonic put an interface called Tap V Tap on top of Android. It is terrible. Even worse, I knew that there was an update that would improve things but it kept failing. In fact, everything failed. I couldn't set the clock or my city.

This turned out to be easy to fix. I rebooted and it settled down. A little while later it received the Over The Air update and applied it. Once it had been rebooted again it looked the same except for a shortcut to the "classic desktop". This looks like an Android tablet should. The other thing is still there and is now called the "Dashboard". I don't see much use for it.

There are improvements for Tap N Tap out there that are not hard for a someone technologically proficient to install. I just haven't gotten around to it. According to the reviews of it, it runs much faster with the custom ROMs. For now I am basing my review on the base version.

The final point that you should know is that Google does not allow 10" tablets into the Android Market. Viewsonic has a page of favorite software and a link to an alternative to the Android Market. Not everything is there but you can still find all of the main apps. The only thing I could not find is the media player Zimly which I use on my Droid Incredible. They also have a link to the beta release of Flash.

Everything I have installed seems to work fine. Winamp had no problem wirelessly syncing music and videos from my PC. The Kindle App downloaded the books I have on my phone. The browser is fine. I tried a few flash sites and everything worked (except Hulu and there is a work-around for that). The email app is better than the one on my phone. GMail is supported through the browser. The tablet also includes built-in support for Picasa.

I mainly wanted this as an eReader. There are multiple eReader apps available. They look really good on the tablet, especially in portrait mode.

The screen is 16:9 instead of 4:3 so it is better for watching movies. I've checked a couple of movies that I (legally) ripped from DVD and they played fine.

It is very open. You can attach it to your PC and it looks like an external drive. It also has a slot for an SD card and a full-sized USB port that will accept a thumb drive. Rooting it is simple and Viewsonic even includes links to the custom ROMS. In many ways this is the anti-iPad.

The screen has limited viewing angles which makes typing difficult, even with the extra-large keyboard.

I'm not convinced about the tablet metaphor for web-browsing. It is at least as easy to have my notebook on my lap as the tablet and I get to use a real keyboard that way. Also, some web sites have mouse-over events that don't work with a touchpad.

It works well as an eReader. It is heavy enough that you need to rest the bottom edge on something. Because of this a 7" tablet or a dedicated reader might be a better choice. On the other hand, dedicated readers lock you into a specific bookseller which is why I decided on a tablet.

Overall, I am quite happy with it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pricing the IPad

When Steve Jobs first announced the IPad the biggest gasp came when he gave the price. Everyone knew that he was going to announce a tablet and that it would be pretty much an oversized IPhone. Industry analysts expected it to go for upwards of $800. Instead the starting price was $500. Since then, most of the competition has either been in that ball park for a smaller tablet or in the $800 range for a similar tablet. Granted, the model of IPad most comparable with these more expensive tablets have similar price tags. That does not make up for the lack of a lower-price alternative. The Galaxy Tablet costs less but requires a two-year data plan.

Traditionally, Apple has some of the highest margins in the industry. How can they sell these tablets for so little?

There have been many suggestions - their low-cost Chinese production facilities, their vertical integration, their Apple Stores. Some of these suggestions have more merit than others.

First, it is possible to produce a tablet with similar specs for less. Viewsonic has a 10" tablet for less than $400.00. According to reviews, it runs Android 2.2 and has great battery life. It also has a slow, clunky interface that is so bad Staples stopped carrying it. Even if the implementation was bad, this proves that it can be done.

So why can Apple do it and no one else can?

I'm going to start by eliminating some of the factors others have given. Yes, Apple has extensive production facilities in China. So do others.

They operate their own retail stores. That means that they could run the stores on a break-even basis in order to keep the price down on the end product. They could but I don't think that they do. If they were cutting margins on the IPad then you would expect them to do the same on other products. They don't. Their computers are expensive.

 They have a tightly integrated product stack. They design everything in-house down to the CPU in their tablets. They do not have to pay licensing fees for the operating system. Again, I don't thing that this is what keeps down the IPad price. The argument still applies about everything else they make and why the rest of it is so expensive. They may not have to pay a licensing fee to Microsoft for the operating system but that does not make it free. They have to develop it themselves. That takes money.

So what is the answer? I think it is a two-part answer. First, the cost of making a device breaks down into three parts. There is the cost of the materials, the cost of the labor it takes to assemble it, and the cost of developing the device. This last is important.

Designing a new product is expensive. It is also a fixed cost. In order to make a profit, you project the minimum number of units you expect to sell then divide that into the development cost and add the resulting figure to the per-unit cost. That gives you your minimum price. You can play with this figure several different ways but the basics are still the same. This is also known as the break-even point - how many units do you have to sell at a particular price before breaking even?

Let's say that it costs $50 million to develop a new tablet. Apple is sure that they will sell more than 10 million units so they can add $5 to the unit price to pay for development. But a competitor does not have the Apple magic. They might only sell a half million units. That means that they have to add $50 to the unit price.

We saw this happen when the IPhone was first introduced. Apple was not sure how popular it would be so they really jacked up the price. It was immediately obvious that they had a hit so they dropped the price by $200 just a few weeks after the phone's introduction.

When Apple introduced the IPad they were sure that they would sell millions so they divided the development costs accordingly. The Galacy Tab has been a surprise hit and has sold over a million (the last I heard) but it could just as easily have flopped. That means that a much higher portion of the development costs went into each one.

That is probably a big factor in the tablet prices. Once a few successful competitors come out we will see prices drop.

There is another factor that is unique to Apple. For most manufacturers, the finished unit itself is the top of the chain. Once you sell it your revenue stream is finished. This is not true for the IPad.

The IPad is meant as a "media consumption device" and Apple set things up so that you pay for most of the media and they get a big cut. If you want to buy music or a video or a book, they are there to sell it to you. If you are paying a service like Rhapsody, then they also want a cut. If you use your IPad the way Apple wants then you are constantly paying for content and they are getting 30%. That means that they do not need their normal margins. They could sell it to you at cost and still make money.

That is a revenue stream that no one is able to match at present.

Friday, February 11, 2011


I do not normally like TV reality shows. They are formulaic and manipulative. I am making an exception for SyFY's Face-Off. This is a contest for make-up artists. All of the contestants are experienced professionals on a regional level. The judges are top of the field pros who have won Emmys and Oscars. Even the host who could have been cast on looks alone is the daughter of the guy who was in charge of make-up for Star Trek (TNG on). The challenges are reasonable, also. The contestants are given all of the resources they could ask for and up to three days for their challenges. The constraints they are operating under seem consistent with TV shows.

What I really like are the results. These are really talented people and their best work is better than a lot of what has actually been used on TV.

Being artists, the contestants are a mixed bag of personalities. Sometimes they get along. Sometimes they don't. Usually you can see the projects turn into train wrecks from the start. At its best you can see what goes into a really good special effects costume.