Friday, December 7, 2012

. . . the need to maintain a good website for freelance writers.

The life of the typical freelance writer -- particularly writers who exist in the shadowy in-between world of traditional print and online publishing (a necessity these days as you have to go where the money is) -- tends to be a very predictable one in most respects.  

You may not know what you will be writing about from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour, but you do know where in the world you will be in physical terms with some easy predictability.  These days the lion's share of the work that the typical freelance writer does is centered around their personal computer, with assignments arriving via their email inbox and delivered in much the same fashion (unless the publication has an online form through which completed assignments are meant to be delivered.

One of the consequences of this new way of transacting business is the necessity for every writer to create and maintain a personal website or, at a minimum, a personal web page that serves as both an online identity and the focus for their work; it becomes the center of their business in other words.  

Editors these days expect to be able to access a wide variety of information on those pages or site, from instant contact data to writing samples, as well as biographical information that will provide a sense of who the writer is as well as what they do.  While most (if not all) of that information will never make it into print, the function that it serves is to give the editor a sense that they know who the person is that they are assigning work to or hiring,and that the writer is accessible to them so in that respect the form that a writer's page/site takes is pretty important, because it ends up being a virtual extension of a real person.

First impressions count for a lot -- my mother told me that and I believe it -- so the first impression that you make as a freelancer through your site should be an accurate reflection of who you are but it should also have enough character and oomph to catch the eye.  Obviously you cannot risk going over the top with it, but it should be memorable enough so that the positive impression that it makes on an editor lingers.

With that in mind you would think that every writer would take pains to be certain that their website provides an accurate reflection of who they are, and offers at least a minimal slice of their character and personality, right?  Well, no, not so much really.  In fact if you took the time to Google the search terms "+freelance writer +home page "+portfolio"  what you end up with is a long list of sites with predictable content but pretty much lack any sense of personal identity.  

The effort that you make in creating a site that represents the identity of the author is especially important for the freelance writer, and not just respective of the impression that it makes on editors who offer potential assignments, but perhaps even more important is the impression that you make on your readers -- after all the reason that you do what you do is for your readers, right?  Right!

The treatment that they give is more like a brochure than a personal statement, and these sites and pages appear to have been stamped out of preset designs rather than serving as examples of the creative spark that exists in each writer.  A very strange trend if you ask me, because I know a lot of freelancers and they are almost all, to a one, characters in their own right.

Addressing the reasons behind why these creative and capable writers who are otherwise interesting and even amusing people have come to the conclusion that they are better served by bland lists and tend to rely upon blog-style cookie-cutter designs -- formats that have about as much to do with the individual writer as the ticket stub for a train trip from Boston to New York -- and I confess that I am left quietly surprised by this trend.

While this is a subject for another post, on another day, before I get to the real subject of this post I wanted to share with you the results of several conversations that I had with different freelance writers whose sites pretty much mirror what I have just described, the gist of the conversation being opened with the question of how they chose the design that they chose...

"The appearance of the site really is not as important as the information it contains so as long as that information is easy to access and easy to read, what does it really matter?  It is not like an editor is going to form an impression of me from the design of the pages where I stick my portfolio," was one thoughtful reply.  "Maintaining that (website) is such a hassle.  I used to write a blog on it but I realized that nobody really cared, so now all I have to remember is to update my portfolio," was another.  Clearly they have the impression that their online presence is mostly wasted effort when it comes to what amounts to personal branding, and that is a shame, because when I looked at the other side of that coin the position was diametrically opposite...

"You can tell a lot about a writer from their home page," an editor for an online gaming entertainment site I was pitching a feature to said.  "In my experience the freelancers who take the time to create an interesting site for their work and themselves are the sort of writer who puts in 110% effort in the assignments that I give them, and besides that if you think about it, the fact that they take the time and put out the effort to create a site that reflects their personality and their skills is always a good thing," they observed.  "I can choose from a hundred freelancers for each piece I need written, so the ones who make a lasting impression on me are the ones I remember first."

It is probably a good thing that you cannot see facial expressions through webchat and IRC, because the writers I was talking to would likely have been shocked by my needing to carefully pick my jaw up off of the floor at their replies, and the editor would have taken note of the smug expression on my face caused by their confirming a reality that I had long suspected.  

The writers seem to be convinced that the image that they present to the world -- and what is much more important to my way of thinking to their readers and editors -- does not really matter or have an impact on how they are perceived by both groups, but I know -- I know -- that is not true.  Coming up with a good (and accurate) site design that helps to communicate who you are as writer is a very important step in creating your personal brand and in introducing you to the world, and especially new readers who are just discovering you.  Then there are editors -- don't forget the editors!

Once you have decided on that design and its elements and you start building your site, you should borrow a trick out of the playbook of web design pro's though, and immediately begin tweaking your site by paying attention to the way it is being used.  You get that information through the site stats that most hosting companies make available to you free of charge.  And that does not apply just to your website either -- you can use the stats from different elements of your site -- this blog is a prime example -- to see how it is being accessed, how it is being used, and perhaps even more significantly you can obtain a snapshot of the people who are visiting -- and reading -- your pages as well...

At least some effort towards improving the effectiveness of your website needs to be made on your part as its creator whose partial goal is to introduce your character and personality to both your readers and new editors who might throw you a bone in the form of a writing assignment.   It is not enough to make it and then wash your hands and say "I'm done!" you have to set small goals for yourself aimed at improving it and then do it!

Tweaking Your Site

If you happen to care about how your website looks, the impression that it makes on the average visitor, and how they use it, you already have some props and respect from me; I am convinced that the presence of your website or page is as important as good telephone manners and punctuation when it comes to making an impression on editors, and even more important for your relationship to your readers.  I am also convinced that the care that you take in design of your site/page and the information you put on it besides the required things like contact information and your portfolio are worthwhile and worth the effort.

The choices that I made for the recent redesign of my site were very personal and reflect both my character and personality -- actually the creative spark that set me in motion and resulted in that puzzling design came from a casual comment from an editor that I had pitched a piece to, and in the follow-up call they made some comments and observations that, though personal, set my imagination on the course that eventually took me to the design you can see on my home page.

They did not end up commissioning that piece -- they wanted a variation of it, which I was happy to accommodate -- but in the midst of that conversation they observed that they found me puzzling; they commented that they admired my pluck -- that my appearance and personal situation (I use a wheelchair to get around) would probably depress most people to the point that they would not be out there pitching feature pieces but rather would be depressed and hostile towards life.  They thought that my can-do positive attitude was admirable, and wondered what the secret was to my staying upbeat in a world of constant pain that is largely hostile towards people who cannot walk. 

"Drugs," I replied.  But they knew I was joking.  The truth is that just like every other life-altering situation, you have to make a choice; you either make the best of what you have or you give up.  It is incredibly easy to blame others for your disabilities and your inability to have the things you want or lead the life you want; it is a lot harder to take what you have and build upon it, and when you are physically handicapped I believe that making the choice to be emotionally compromised in the bargain is the surest path towards self-destruction and self-pity.

When you consider the alternatives -- lead a bitter and unfulfilled existence, don't get the things you want, make other people miserable, and in the end when you tally up everything you did not get done and all of the failures that your life presents, you still only have yourself to blame.  I would much rather try and fail then to not try at all, and besides that when you try and succeed the impediments that you overcame tend to make those successes all the sweeter as a consequence.  Now that directly impacts the entire issue of both an online and real-world presence for me, and probably in ways you have not considered.

I never conceal the fact that I am disabled (the politically correct phrase would be mobility challenged) but on the other hand it is usually not a good idea to make that the first thing an editor learns about you if they happen to be looking for someone to cover an event that requires travel to another city or country -- and I have and will continue to accept those types of assignments, because I firmly believe that the struggles associated with travel are my personal problem, and not something that I want to encourage the average editor to consider.  With that in mind you can probably see how my website and online presence is incredibly important to me -- and why tweaking it and making it more effective is worthwhile effort.

Despite the relative importance of that destination and presence online, very few writers appear to have even the slightest idea of how that resource is being accessed, and which pages receive return visits -- the sort of raw data that the people who create websites pay particular attention to since it allows them to fine-tune a website to improve its results and make it more effective.  Considering the fact that for most freelancers they are the web design and development department for their business, as well as the creative team, and the standards inspector, writer, editor, and chief bottle-washer.  We cannot be all of those things without forming an intimate attachment to what we create, but we can be all those things and still remain completely ignorant of the actual use of and impact that our sites have on the readers.  Heck, you don't even have to try to reach that level of ignorance, you just have to let it happen.

Knowing what the device and Operating System are for the people who are accessing your site can be as interesting and as important as knowing where in the world they are, what the percentages are for the nationality of your visitors (change that to readers) are for each piece, and when the stats cover your actual writing, features, news, reviews, and the like, this information morphs from statistics to valuable data that can help you sell your skills to editors from publications you have never even considered pitching to before.  When you discover you have a large reader base in Germany that you had no idea existed, that is new you can use!

Stats for Speaking Of...

When I first discovered the collection of stats that are available -- at the click of a link -- I was blown away.  There was all sorts of useful information to be had, in fact I will share a sampling of that with you now:

-- Visitor Percentages by Browser --
  • 17% -- Chrome
  • 46% -- Firefox
  • 21% -- Internet Explorer
  • 01% -- Mobile
  • 03% -- Opera
  • 08% -- Safari
-- Visitor Percentages by Operating System -- 
  • 01% -- Android
  • 06% -- iPad
  • 02% -- iPhone
  • 02% -- iPod
  • 03% -- Linux
  • 08% -- Macintosh
  • 03% -- Other / Unidentified
  • 72% -- Windows
-- Visitor Percentages by Country of Origin -- 
  • 01% -- Belgium
  • 10% -- Canada
  • 04% -- China
  • 06% -- Germany
  • 03% -- Mexico
  • 01% -- Poland
  • 03% -- South Africa
  • 27% -- United Kingdom
  • 42% -- United States
In addition to the above stats I can also learn what pages on my various sites refer the most traffic to this blog, as well as what other sites online (mostly my home page and Google) refer readers in, where they are coming from and what search terms that they are using that ends up bringing them to my site and this blog, which blog posts generate the most views and how often, what the daily traffic looks like, and a plethora of other information. 

On the hosting account for my website I can get the same information but in far greater detail, and in fact the stats system can be custom configured by me to allow me to drill down to specific information such as what the percentages are for each of the Microsoft OS's that are covered by the entry for "Windows" -- if you are curious and I was, I recently took a look at that information displaying the data as daily stats and learned that over the course of the past seven days the presence of Windows 8 is steadily increasing, which suggests that contrary to the rumors online, people are actually buying and upgrading to the new Windows.

A jaded -- or clever -- writer might take these stats and use them to tailor the contents of their site in order to narrow them to the most appealing information, so for example I might start writing blog entries whose subjects include the Firefox web browser on Windows 8 and examine Internet interests of people in the USA and United Kingdom, which would nicely hit the top percentage of users already visiting my sites.  Or I could do the same thing but change the focus of habits to people from Poland if my goal was to improve the traffic from that country.  You get the idea about how this information and these stats are actually useful for improving the site, right?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

. . . Upgrading your iPhone or iPad and Digital Grind

Steve Jobs (seated) and the flag that flew over Apple's Corporate HQ for many years -- Jobs used to tell his employees "It's better to be a Pirate than to join the Navy!"  Considering how Apple sometimes acquired tech and software that may very well be more a business philosophy for Jobs than a witty observation...

One element of my life as a writer is the Digital Grind Column, which I write for the Cape Cod Times, Business & Tech Section, and which appears in that newspaper every other Tuesday, covering a very broad assortment of information and subjects.  The most recent column (as I write this blog entry) is called "What to get your geek" and represents the annual gift suggestion column for the geeks in your life, and tends to include devices or products that I have recently learned about or have discovered that seem particularly appropriate. 

That neatly applies here because it is around this time of year that our focus in the paper tends to narrow in upon the holidays and tech, and it also relates to the subject of this entry here at Speaking Of because the primary subject -- the new iPhone as well as the new iPad and Tablet Computing, has a tenuous relationship that is pretty obvious if you think about it...

The recent release of the iPad Mini along with the very confusing release of the iPad III that has been variously presented as the iPad (rather than iPad III / iPad 3 which it should have been called) and the new iPhone 5, has resulted in a flurry of email from readers asking for a mix of clarification and additional information as well as my opinion on the two devices and whether or not they should upgrade.  This post is a general (and sometimes specific) response to that question, and is necessary due to the large volume of what are essentially email messages that are asking the same basic set of questions or are requesting the same information.

Normally I do not like the idea of writing a general reply like this, as I feel that it lacks the personal touch that a considered reply to an email retains.  After all, the reader went to the trouble of actually sitting down and thinking about their questions and then emailed them to me, the least that I could do is take the time to think about my reply and then send it to them, right?  Well, no, not so much really, since the questions are more of the general tech sort, as opposed to being personal for instance, so while it would not be right to create a post like this to offer an opinion on something personal, in this case it really is the exception to the rule...

To make this easier I am dividing the post into two logical sections: iPads and Tablet Computers, and iPhones.  Note that the former includes a lot of questions that relate to Windows 8 and the various aspects that relate to touch-computing and whether or not Windows 8 really was created for tablet and touch-based computing or not, and where the iPad fits into that issue, and whether the iPad Mini is really something new or simply a repackaging of something old.  Just to be clear.

Making the Decision to Upgrade Your Tech

A significant focus for the email that I have been receiving begins by dealing with the question of whether or not an upgrade is required.  When it comes to wireless phone and to a limited degree, tablet computing tech, that can be a foggy area, particularly when a significant measure of the PR effort that is expended by companies like Apple is oriented towards convincing consumers to upgrade for no other reason than the fact that a new model iPhone or iPad is available, and when that is the basic impetus behind the urge to upgrade your tech, well, logic rarely ever plays a role there!

With respect to the questions Do you need to upgrade?  and Is it time to upgrade?  my basic first choice for the answers tend to be other questions -- like Is your device not providing the level of service that you presently require?  Will replacing/upgrading your device provide visible benefits that you can feel and that are genuine?  The final question is perhaps the more significant one: Are you looking into upgrading your device because you saw the latest commercial from Apple that tells you that a new version of the tech is available and you should upgrade today?

While those questions are all well and good, the real question you should be asking yourself is whether or not the upgrade you are contemplating actually provides you with benefits that will have an impact on your use of the tech.  If the version of iPhone or iPad you presently own is the most recent one before this new one came out, you may not want to hear this, but upgrading really does not make a lot of sense.  Unless you simply need to have the latest and greatest -and- you can afford that sort of expense merely to own the most recent version.

A lot of times my advice on upgrades when the reader asking the question has an older version (or even a very older version) of the device is to ask them what feature in particular that is part of the new model that they feel is lacking in their old model, and what differences that will make in how they use their device?

Whether or not you should upgrade your iPhone or iPad often is not the real question anyway -- the real question is often the answer to Do you want to upgrade?  With the constant improvements that are provided to the kit via updates to iOS, unless your device literally lacks a specific capability that you want -- and yes, not having Siri capability is a legitimate reason to upgrade your old iPhone but maybe not to the most recent one, considering that the iPhone 4S very nicely makes use of Siri in the same fashion that the iPhone 5 does but at a mind-numbing difference in price, if Siri is behind your desire to upgrade, you may want to look at the expenses involved and use those as your personal upgrade barometer...  I am just saying.

So with those notions examined, let us take a look at the specific tech and its changes, improvements, differences, and other very important details shall we?

The iPad, Windows 8, and Touch Computing

Upgrading your iPad?  If you own the original iPad upgrading to the more capable current model makes a lot of sense, and in particular if you are going for a model with more memory, but the recent release of the iPad3 along with the even more recent release of the iPad Mini means you have a lot of options available to you that you would not have had a year ago.

Whether you choose to go for the newest model or not is going to largely be a question of what you have to spend, though even from Apple's own website there are some rather tasty deals on the iPad2 and in particular refurb deals on the higher capacity models with or without cellular hardware installed in them.  When I made the choice to upgrade I ended up going with a refurbished iPad 2 directly from Apple as it came with the standard Apple warranty and was a considerable step up in oomph from the original iPad.  

Going from the iPad 2 to the new iPad is not as obvious a leap though, since most of the improvements in speed and appearance are subtle enough so that the casual user is not really going to notice or detect them...  Now the iPad Mini, well, that is a horse of a different color entirely.

Ignoring for the moment that the Mini has considerably less screen real estate, its main selling point is that it is large enough to be useful, but small enough to easily fit in the average purse -- forget day pack since the full-sized iPad will conveniently and easily fit into one of those.  Full sized or Mini they both weigh next to nothing, so it is not a weight issue but a size issue -- and if you are getting the impression that I consider the Mini to be a downgrade from the standard-sized iPad, well I do!

I have been accused of considering the iPad Mini to be made for girls (I do) and my comments about it being sized for the average purse is not sarcasm!  While the full-sized iPad is not the perfect choice for a mobile tablet that allows its users to quickly surf the web, send and receive email, and play media entertainment when that person only carries a handbag (purse) the Mini is.  If I were a girl and I was considering a tablet device to do all of that, I would choose the Mini in a New York minute simply because that form is more convenient.   If size was not an issue though, I would go with the full-sized iPad because hey, size matters.

Microsoft's new Surface Tablet is cool, but it is not a computer.  Like the iPad it is a computing appliance, and anyone who looks at it as a full replacement for their notebook is likely to be very disappointed down the road a bit...

Windows 8?  Touch Computing?

The release of Windows 8 had nothing to do with the newest generation of touch-computing based tablets, no matter how closely related they appear to be. That new gen of touch-computing units was going to be released regardless of when Microsoft released Windows 8 -- and speaking of Windows 8 if you are still laboring under the impression that it is a touch-computing OS, you should take a few minutes to read the Digital Grind column on that subject and then read this blog entry and then this one.

Do I think you should buy a touchscreen tablet computer so that you can enjoy what Windows 8 has to offer?  Well, only if you want a touchscreen tablet computer to replace your current notebook computer, since Windows 8 really is not (or rather should not be) a factor in that process!  Seriously if that OS is your primary motivation, you should rethink the issue -- and read the column and the two blog entries.

What Tablet / Touch Screen Should I Buy?

That by far is the most frequently asked question that I am getting lately -- and the answer that I have been giving out is probably not the one that most of the people asking the question were expecting...

The first important distinction that needs to be made is that touchscreen computing is not new, though a significant percentage of my readers who are emailing me about it seem to think it is.  Tablets and touchscreen computing have been around for over 10 years!  The fact that the PC industry is now pushing that tech seriously has more to do with the fact that they are looking for a new trend to ride and a new direction to push the consumer of their products in that lets them sell another unit had a much bigger influence on this than anything else really.

Now when you consider that the natural advancements in CPU tech are such that you already find yourself almost forced to upgrade and replace your computer every two years anyway, these new lines of tablet and touchscreen computers when combined with Microsoft also discovering the cool factor in them and focusing a major way on it with their new OS really changes nothing...

Let me put this another way -- if you have never used a touchscreen computer or tablet, BEFORE you buy one, go down to Best Buy and play with the display units first.  Think about how cool that touchscreen will be for the 10% or so of the time you will be using that computer on trips in the car when you are a passenger (I sincerely hope you are not using it when you are the driver!) and on commutes, or when you are lounging on the floor of your living room and you want to read the IMDB entry for the movie you are about to watch/are watching...

Now think about the other 90% of the time when you need to write a long email, or paper, or report, or surf the web?  How about playing a game?  Will you really do all of that holding the computer in your hands?  Do you want to?

What do you think is easier -- the onscreen keyboard or a real one?  If the onscreen keyboard is so cool why do they sell detachable keyboards for those computers?

I have been using computers for most of my adult life, and I have used touchscreen and tablet computers in the past, but when I went shopping for a new notebook PC (with Windows 8 I should add) what I chose was a traditional one...  With a built-in keyboard.  And then I bought a wireless keyboard and mouse to use with it because I like the full-sized 101 QWERTY keyboard better and I abhor a touchpad!  I much prefer to use a mouse -- and when I am serious about working on my computer - such as now when I am writing this -- I also like to snack on Smart Food and eat the occasional pizza.  God help me if I needed to touch the screen right now because I would be leaving greasy finger smudges all over it!

While tablet and touchscreen computing is a novel idea, if you are an average computer user you will realize that not only is the keyboard your common interface to your PC, it is your preferred one.  Having tried upon more than one occasion to use the onscreen keyboard of a tablet computer to write a lengthy email reply, I know -- I know -- that I am much more productive and enter data much faster with a real, traditional keyboard.  I am just saying....

Besides that I already have a tablet computer to use for when I need that -- it is called an iPad.

BUT. . . 

If you really do want a tablet computer or a touchscreen computer, make sure it is really a computer.  What I mean by that is that if you are going to spend that sort of money on that sort of device, then please be sure that you get what you pay for -- starting with a hard drive rather than a miniscule amount of onboard Flash RAM..

Microsoft's new tablet is cool looking and slick, but it is not a computer, it is a computing appliance.  That's OK though, so says Microsoft, because consumers know that, right?  Well, no, not so much really.  The fact that it runs a version of Windows 8 is enough to fool a lot of people into thinking it is a computer akin to a notebook PC that you just happen to use like an iPad when, in reality, it is closer TO an iPad than it is a notebook PC!

If you really do need a computer you can carry with you and use for drawing, making diagrams, and other touch-based actions, make sure that it has a hard drive and is expandable.  Pay the extra cost for its proper docking station so you can use it like a regular computer, with keyboard and mouse and have access to a CD/DVD too, so that you when you need to install a new app or program that is less an exercise in network gymnastics and more like the process you already know well...

The iPhone

The question being asked is a simple one: Should I buy the new iPhone?

As the author of the Digital Grind Column for the Cape Cod Times' Business & Tech Section I am used to getting loads of email whenever a new tech product comes out, that is of wide interest to consumers (and my readers), but the volume of email that the iPhone 5 generated was unusual, and to put a point on it, the vast majority of that email consisted of variations on the theme of asking “Should I upgrade to the iPhone 5?”

The answer to that question for the most devoted Apple aficionados was not to be found from me, because they were not the people who were writing to me to ask it. 

Besides, for the serious Apple addicts the choice of whether to upgrade to the newest iPhone is not really a choice at all – they knew that they would be among the first in line at their local Apple Store to do it; and if they did not have a local Apple Store, well that's what paid sick days and the train to Boston or New York City are for, right?

No, the folks that sent me that question by email were largely regular Joe's – my neighbors, the guy who owns the fish store, and everyone who does not believe that there is no cost too high to have the newest Apple tech, and for them the question was a sincere and serious one. The issue at hand was not whether the newest phone would be cool to own, but rather what did it offer that made the expense and the hassle of upgrading worth it?

Announced for September 12th, the iPhone 5 features a larger screen, a lighter and slimmer frame, and a faster CPU and, for the first time, fully compatible 4G LTE wireless connectivity – but was all that a good reason to switch or upgrade? Most of my readers did not think so if the form of their questions and what they wanted to know are any indication (and they are).

While Apple knows when it has a good thing it seems that the people who make up the largest block of consumers in the country may not. Since I happen to be a member of that group – which I loosely define as people who have to go to work to pay their bills – like them I need to hear that this new iPhone is going to make my life significantly better before I commit to paying what amounts to a premium for it when it is compared to the other phones on the upgrade list for my wireless carrier.

According to pollster Kantar Worldpanel the first 24-hours of sales for the iPhone 5 pushed Apple back into the top spot for mobile phones, but the big surprise was not so much that the iPhone 5 served to re-establish Apple's position at the top, but rather that the majority of sales for the new iPhone came from existing customers. That begged the question: Did they know something that I did not?

Considering that industry experts were predicting that the largest individual group of measurable consumers expected to switch to or upgrade to the new iPhone was thought to be current Android owners (early polling data suggests that far from being a majority, the population of new iPhone 5 owners who switched from an Android mobile phone product weighs in at slightly less than 12%), the fact that the largest measurable group of consumers upgrading or switching to the iPhone 5 were, in fact, people who actually already owned an iPhone suggested that maybe they did... Or maybe not – it was a question that I needed to answer and that meant researching it and talking to people.

In the interests of full transparency you should be aware that I am an Apple iPhone user, that I owned an iPhone 3GS, and that in addition to my iPhone 3GS I own an iPad2 and there are other members of my family who own and use iPhones.  With that out of the way, please read on...

After spending a considerable amount of time reviewing the specifications for the iPhone 5, the apps that come with it, and the basic features of the newest version of iOS that are specific to the iPhone 5, I came to the following conclusions with respect to the advisability of upgrading your current iPhone to the new iPhone 5:

Comparing the current crop of iPhone

 If you consult the table below you will note that there are significant differences between the major model numbers and there are even significant differences between the minor numbers -- the table below addresses the most significant specification items but is not a comprehensive listing of specs, rather it is intended to address the major spec points that are likely to factor into the decision as to whether or not to upgrade.

Following the table are my considered upgrade recommendations with weight given to cost as well as convenience and capabilities...

iPhone Model

CPU & Speed




8h 3G
10h WiFi
8h 3G
8h 3G
10h WiFi
8h 3G
8h 3G
10h WiFi
8h 3G
$99.99 AT&T
8h 3G
10h WiFi
6h 3G
.99 AT&T
7h 3G
10h WiFi
6h 3G
5h 3G
9h WiFi
5h 3G
5h 3G
7h WiFi
5h 3G

From a practical point of view there are three basic recommendation groups -- seriously, I am not being funny here or joking, so take this for what it is: sound advice based upon considered logic.

Group I: People who have more money than they know what to do with.

If you fall into this group of consumer you already know you have more than enough money, and the decision to upgrade is more a matter of convenience for you than anything else.  That being the case, if you have an older iPhone and you want to upgrade, you may as well get the iPhone 5.

Group II: The rest of us.

The decision to upgrade for you is largely based upon the model of iPhone that you own now, so please find that in the listing below and read the comments.

  • iPhone 3G/3GS Owners
This used to be me -- last week I was an iPhone 3GS owner, but as of yesterday I am an iPhone 4S owner.  That's right, I said 4S.  Why did I end up choosing the 4S over the 5?  Partly money -- for me since I was upgrading from the 3GS to the 4S AT&T have me a heck of a deal that was way less than the minimum buy-in for the 5.  I suspect that at least part of the reason for that is that thanks to the iPhone 5 they have a lot of refurbished iPhone 4S units in stock, but hey, that worked out good for me!

I have used the iPhone 5 -- and when I mentally compare it to the 4S I do not feel like I am missing anything.  If you are a 3G/3GS owner and you are thinking about upgrading, check the deals page for upgrades on your service providers site and you may find that you, too, can get a really good deal on the 4S.

  • iPhone 4 Owners
The call for you is a bit trickier, mostly due to the fact that the cost to upgrade from the iPhone 4 to the 4S is $100 -- and for just $100 more you get the iPhone 5.  That being the case, I cannot make a convincing argument to go with the 4S.  So if you are thinking about upgrading or your phone has reached the point where you need to upgrade, it makes as much sense to upgrade to the iPhone 5 as it does the 4S (and maybe just a little more sense to go with the 5).

  • iPhone 4S Owners
If you have the desire to upgrade your iPhone for whatever the reason there really is only one direction you can go in, and that is the iPhone 5.  That being the case -- and before you make the decision to go for that upgrade -- take the time to take a really hard look at your present phone.  
If it is failing, on its last legs, has a cracked screen, those are all good and justifiable reasons to upgrade it, but if your phone still perfectly meets with your needs, why are you thinking about upgrading?  If your answer is "because I want to!" you don't really need my advice, do you?  If on the other hand your answer is more along the lines of wondering if you need to, well then the answer is no, you don't really need to upgrade.  The iPhone 4S is a great phone, still has massive potential and will very likely be able to run all the new apps that are coming out over the course of the next few years.

When you get to a point where there are apps you want to be able to run that the 4S cannot run, well then that is the time to start to think about an upgrade.  If it helps with your perspective any, when I made the decision to upgrade my iPhone 3GS I ended up choosing the iPhone 4S and not primarily due to the lower price, but because the 4S offered pretty much the same basic and most of the same advanced functions as the 5 but at a substantial discount.

 Group III: People who do not currently own an iPhone.

You belong in this group if you own a wireless phone that is not an iPhone and you have an active wireless phone service subscription.   The decision to upgrade to an iPhone is basically split into two groups -- smart phone owners and non-smart phone owners.

Initially you are probably going to find the iPhone to be a bit more expensive than the phone you used to use thanks to the data plan that is a mandatory element in the reality of joining the iClub.  On the other hand you now have a phone that empowers you and is the source for information and connects you to the rest of the world.

The camera on the newer versions is pretty slick -- and being able to shoot HD video of your sister's friend's pet Chihuahua  dancing to Psy's Gangnam Style is actually pretty cool even if your post to YouTube only got 17 views and you know each of them personally...  Heck, the fact that the process of posting that video to YouTube required you to push just ONE button is pretty darn cool in and of itself if you stop to think about it!

There is also the fact that the iPhone 5 (well also the 4/4S) has that whole Facetime thing going for it, which basically is the video chat that we have been promised since the original Star Trek aired in 1966, but we can hardly blame Gene Roddenberry or the cast (including Captain Kirk) for the slow rate at which the modern corporation has caught up with the changing face of technology, right?  Of course I am still waiting for the flying cars and transporters and a luxury holiday home on the moon, but thanks to the fact that the iPhone has both the to-be-expected camera on its outside as well as a less powerful but no less useful camera on its front, which is why the whole Facetime thing can work, and well, there you have it!

Another aspect of having the camera built into your iPhone is that you always have a camera and video cam with you pretty much wherever you have your iPhone with you -- and cool that.  If you are starting to realize that the iPhone is a feature-rich wireless phone that is also an entertainment center, camcorder, digital camera, and media player, you are starting to get the idea. 

Closing iUpgrade Recommendation Comments

No matter which group you fall into above, ultimately your decision is going to be split between two basic points - what the phone offers you compared to what you have now, and how much it will cost you.

What the phone offers you compared to what you have now: perhaps the greatest strength that the iPhone has (no matter which model you choose) is its very broad support by the game, app, and software studios of the world.  Even when a studio produces an app for Android chances are they also make a version for iPhone, and that being the case and especially when you are upgrading from a regular (I hesitate to use the words "dumb phone" but there you have it) or a smart phone from a different maker, when you make the switch to iPhone you are joining a group of people worldwide who are happily playing high quality games, using their phone to translate text, surf the web, email, make videos, take pictures, and use apps that do everything from keep an inventory of your personal library to counseling you on how many calories are in that mango smoothy.

In addition to doing all that great app stuff, the iPhone is innately equipped to provide you with a wide variety of entertainment options, from watching TV and movies, listening music, and thanks to the iPhone App from, listening to audio books (iTunes has that too mind you).  Your iPhone will tell you the time wherever in the world you happen to be, supports most of the world's wireless networks, and if the version you get has Siri on it, lets you talk to it and actually talks back!

The truth of the matter is that the iPhone really is not necessary but then not necessary does not mean the same thing as not useful -- it is incredibly useful!  In the end I am convinced that regardless of the version of iPhone that you ended up choosing as your upgrade path, you made a good decision.

The Downside to owning an iPhone is that your wireless phone has now morphed into a wireless phone that you use as an entertainment device.  What that means is that you end up using the battery time for activities other than talking on the phone, which more often than not means that you can easily find yourself wanting to make a phone call and not having the juice to do it.  It really sucks when that happens.

There are a bunch of companies that make special cases for the iPhone starting with the iPhone 4 that in addition to protecting your phone also have a second battery in them and that basically almost doubles the talk time -- which means almost doubles the play time.  Below are some links to their sites and personally I would seriously consider getting one of these if I were you:
The above links are just suggestions -- I do not endorse any of them -- but they should give you an idea of what to look for, and Google can do the rest for you.

 For Your Reading Pleasure: Some not-so-historical information about the iPhone

When Apple first released the iPhone to a public that was eagerly awaiting a smart phone that not only was actually smart, but helped to make sense of the seemingly incompatible fusion of the Internet and wireless phones, this was an event, a subject, and a consideration that often felt like it  was as inevitable as death and taxes but probably was not.  

The saga that is the iPhone can be neatly defined by its upgrade path, or the series of different "new tech" versions that were offered by the company, with its creative path technically based in the Apple campus in  Cupertino, California, or perhaps more accurately -- at that time -- largely residing in the brain of a human named Steve Jobs, and particularly in his Neocortex and Thalamus and to some extent the parts of the brain that play the role of the human hard drive (memory bank), but with him dead it is not really all that clear just where it resides at the moment.  

Bearing in mind that, like its arch-rival Microsoft, the new tech in Apple's products more often than not appears in them as a product of the co-opting and integration of new technology that was actually invented by other people who do not list the Apple Campus as their work address -- a good example of which is Siri, the voice-based assistant that is available under iOS in versions from the iPhone 4S and above; and it is OK if you did not know that she was not created by the brilliant minds at Apple...

According to the official press releases as well as certain web-based coverage and financial disclosures, Apple acquired Siri when it purchased Norway-based “Siri Inc.” which was the company that created and marketed the original voice-based personal assistant iPhone App called “Siri” – which if you are curious, in Norwegian translates to “beautiful victorious counselor” – paying a reported $200 million to acquire not just the company but its creative staff, which includes Siri's inventor, 44-year-old Norwegian Dag Kittlaus.

There were other aspects of the iPhone you may not be old enough to remember -- or maybe you are, who can say? -- like the fact that the iPhone has its roots in a media player called the iPod...  Do you remember the iPod?  Did you own one?  I remember feeling silly carrying an iPod and an iPhone at the same time since the iPhone was really just an iPod with a wireless phone built into it, but still at least part of the secret to the iPhone's success has to do with the fact that at the time that it was released, most mobile phones really sucked at playing audio and video files, and forget games unless your expectations in that area were satisfied by Brick Breaker and Pac-Man.

I could make a hundred full postings on examining why that is true, but suffice it to say that the most significant drawback that most wireless phones of the era -- even the so-called "Smart Phones" -- faced in terms of debilitation was the fact that they largely sucked at providing a pain-free way to enter data on them.  The iPhone did not suck because it had a nice touchscreen, and it was not shaped like a Smart Phone because it wasn't a Smart Phone, it was a media playing device, and what is more to the point, in a flash of brilliance -- call it an epiphany from the Gods -- someone at Apple realized that if they mated that oddly-shaped iPod thingy with a mobile phone what they had was, quite literally, something unlike everything else.  So they did.

Who came up with that idea is not clear, and in fact a suitable subject for debate and the cause for more than a few fistfights over at Apple, but what is clear is that the company has taken that original idea and turned it into a mini-empire in its own right.  Remember at the time the two "big" tech items in the Apple arsenal were the iPod and the Apple iTunes Online Music Store.  That from a company that in theory designs, builds, and sells computers.

Just for fits and giggles I am going to name some of Apple's products and you tell me if you remember them, OK?  And no cheating!
  • The Apple Lisa (and Lisa II)
  • The Apple QuickTake
  • The Power Macintosh 9500
  • The Apple Newton
  • The Apple eMate 300
  • The Apple Pippin Game Console
  • The Apple Cinema Display Connector
  • The Apple Pismo
  • The Apple iBook
If you recognized more than three of the above devices give yourself 10 points.  If you owned ANY of them, give yourself 100 points.  If you still own one of them and the device still works AND you know where it is, you win.

To get a historical sense for the iPhone and the path that it took to bring you the iPhone 5 and all that it can offer, let us take a look at the timeline of critical tech with absolutely free snarky comments provided by me at no cost to you!
  • iPod (23 October 01) 5/10GB Versions ($399 / $499)
  • iPod 2 (17 July 02) 10/20GB Versions ($399 / $499)
  • iPod 3 (28 April 2003) 10/15/30GB Versions ($299 / $399 / $499)
  • iPod Mini (6 January 2004) 4GB Version ($249)
  • iPod 4 (19 July 2004) 20/40GB Versions ($299 / $399)
  • iPod Shuffle (11 January 2005) 512MB / 1GB Versions ($99 / $149)
  • iPod Mini2 (23 February 2005) 6GB Version ($199)
  • iPod 5 (12 October 2005) 30/60GB Versions ($299 / $399)
  • iPod Shuffle2 (12 September 2006) 1GB Version ($119)
  • iPhone** (29 June 2007)
  • iPod Nano (5 September 2007) 1/2/4GB Versions ($149 / $199 / $249)
  • iPod 6 (5 September 2007) 80/160GB Versions ($249 / $349)
  • iPod Touch* (5 September 2007) 8/16/32GB Versions ($299 / $399 / $499)
  • iPhone 3G (11 July 2008) 8+/16GB Versions (Around $99 with 2+ Year Service Plan)
  • iPhone 3GS (19 June 2009) 16/32GB Versions (Around $199 with 2+ Year Service Plan)
  • iPhone 3GS (24 June 2010) 8GB Version (Free to $1 with 2+ Year Service Plan)
  • iPhone 4 GSM (24 June 2010) 16/32GB Versions (Around $199 with 2+ Year Service Plan)
  • iPhone 4 CDMA (10 February 2011) 16/32GB Versions (Depended on the Service Plan)
  • iPhone 4 (14 October 2011) 8GB Version ($99 with most Service Plans)
  • iPhone 4S (14 October 2011) 16GB Version ($149 with most Service Plans)
  • iPhone 4S (14 October 2011) 32/64GB Version (Wicked Expensive at first ++)
  • iPhone 5 GSM (23 September 2012) 16/32/64GB Models.
  • iPhone 5 CDMA (23 September 2012) 16/32/64GB Models.

Did you know that there are actually five significant types of official Apple Earbuds?

While all but the basic (Type 01) Earbuds include a control capsule built into the right earbug wire that allows the user to adjust the volume as well as have limited control over the music and video playback for their device,  the tech included a very rudimentary hands-free mode by including a microphone on the wire that allows for phone calls and voice control of certain devices.

Type 01: Apple Earbuds "Basic Design" (MSRP $34.99 / Average ARP: $6.99)
Type 02: Apple "Shuffle" Earbuds with Remote (MSRP $94.99 / Average ARP: $9.99)
Type 03: Apple Earbuds with Remote and Mic no volume controls (Average ARP: $29.99)
Type 04: Apple "Earphones" with Remote and Mic (Average ARP: $79.99)
Type 05: Apple "Earpods" Bass-enhanced design (Average ARP: $89.99)

The most recently designed set of Earbuds from Apple were created for the iPhone 5 (Type 05) and include remote, mic, and bass-enhanced and balanced "in-ear concert quality sound" which we are betting was not intended to help your brother sound like Pavarotti when you get a call from him -- your brother, not Luciano Pavarotti, who would probably sound like Pavarotti no matter what earbuds you were using, I am just saying...

* If you sit a first generation iPod Touch on a table top and sit an iPhone 4/4S on the same table and ask the average person to point out the cell phone from a distance of 6 feet they won't be able to tell which one is which.  Purists claim that the iPod Touch is the true epiphany link between the iPod and the iPhone.

** AKA iPhone 1 and iPhone 2G, the original iPhone was placed in the Smart Phone category by Apple and featured quad-band GSM cellular connectivity with GPRS and EDGE support for data transfer.  The operative edge that the iPhone had over other "Smart Phones" was its well-established touch-screen interface already familiar to the bazillions of iPod Touch users. 

+ Despite its designation as a "3G" device, the iPhone 3G was actually sported a 2.5G or "EDGE" connection (2.5G was a designation that was created by wireless service providers AT&T and Cingular to describe their hybrid EDGE-based cellular service, whereas 3G, which is short for "Third Generation," is a term commonly used to represent the 3rd generation of mobile telecommunications technology known as Tri-Band 3G.  While the iPhone 3G wasn't actually a fully 3G device, the iPhone 3GS was, sort of, but considering that most of the major cell service providers are shutting off 3G services and support in favor of newer and faster standards you have to wonder what all the hoohoo was about?

++ Initially announced to release in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, and the United States, due to a typo in one of the press releases the impression was given that the 32GB and 64GB versions of the new iPhone 4S would only be released in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, and the United States. 

The result of this misunderstanding / misprint was that auction pirates who were paying attention and who helped to hype this mistake were able to rake-in massive profits between the 14 October 2011 initial release date up until 16 December 2011, when the phone actually did release in Bahrain, Brazil, Croatia, Chile, India, Israel, Kuwait, Malaysia, Moldova, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, with the most profits being taken by auction sales online to India, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.  

Interestingly enough, there was a story about a small group of thieves who worked with a manager at a company called Hon Hai Precision Industry in Taiwan to divert iPhone 4S models that had failed some minor quality control tests or had cosmetic flaws or very minor display defects but were otherwise fully functional and sold them via online auctions mostly to buyers in the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates, reportedly making over a million dollars (US) before being busted.

 Wise Observations in Closing

This certainly did turn into a wall of text didn't it?  

This just goes to show that even a decision like upgrading an iPhone or iPad, or considering a touchscreen or tablet computer is still a complicated issue...  When it comes to making these sorts of decisions I am reminded of the old and wise observation that those who Sin in Haste, have the luxury to Repent at Leisure.  Making any decision that you have to live with for years to come deserves at least a little forethought, don't you agree?

Hopefully in spite of the wall of text you see before you I have at least answered some of your questions.  And as always, keep them coming.  And before I forget, I want to thank you for your email, and for reading the paper!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

. . . Windows 8 Stability

Every time a new version of Windows is introduced we lose something, and invariably there are some initial bugs that have to be worked out, but I was not expecting bugs in the basic apps that are included with the OS!

The first major bug that I have run into is File Explorer under the Windows 8 Desktop.  With the Start Button being missing, File Explorer ends up having a bit more go-to use than in the past, but what I discovered was that you have to wait until the system and Desktop are fully initialized prior to running apps -- including File Explorer -- or they will lock up and freeze on you.  If you leave File Explorer in its icon state in the task bar for too long, it will also lock up, becoming unusable, and what is worse, you can not kill it with a right-click close-program command!

Considering the fact that File Explorer is a native application for this OS that should not be happening, and even so it should have been immediately patched.  In addition to that, apps like Firefox also lock up if they are run too soon or you try to open more than one app at a time, which tells me that there is an issue with the file handlers in the OS -- something that Microsoft had better get very serious about patching very quickly if they want to keep users -- and early adopters -- happy.

Another area that I found to be overly difficult is the Virtual PC and Windows XP system that users of Windows 7 will be very familiar with...  The whole idea in Win7 for the Virtual PC was to permit users to continue to use the software from Windows XP that they had been using prior to the release of Win7 -- a good idea -- and in fact Microsoft went out of its way to see to it that adding the Virtual PC and Windows XP support to your copy of Win7 Business or Professional was a snap.  Not so with the Home Edition however, which required upgrading the license of your OS first.

Still getting WinXP apps -- and games -- to run under Win7 was trivial when compared to the same desire on Win8 -- which does NOT have that smooth and automatic configuration to add XP and a Virtual PC to the OS.  Oh, it can be done, but it requires the user jumping through a number of hoops, including installing a licensed copy of XP, which means that the average user is simply not going to be able to manage this.  Word of mouth on the hostility of Win8 to XP Apps is already circulating online, with the likely result being a reluctance of PC owners who still must use XP apps to upgrade at all.

While getting XP based apps and games to run under Windows 8 has been a major chore, getting apps and games for Win7 to run was no issue at all, so if you happen to not need legacy apps, you should be OK - but it is becoming increasingly obvious that the move to Windows 8 basically means abandoning all that came before Windows 7.

That is something for you to consider if you plan on upgrading.