Updating… 100%

It’s been a while! 5 months to be exact. A lot has been happening in this time, which is one of the reasons why I haven’t posted anything in so long. So, I figured I should do an update post to bring everything up to speed. First of all, it’s been now 5+ months since I ordered a try-on of these Warby Parker Felton glasses and I still haven’t decided if I want to buy them or not. I like them but I have a usable pair, so I’m kind of waiting until they break to get new ones. But mine are 5 years old already. Maybe it’s time to buy a pair of glasses even if the old ones aren’t broken yet. I’m easily the most indecisive person on the planet.

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EDUCATION – after 7 years of work, my PhD is finally, officially complete and since May 10th, I have the degree to prove it! It was a lot of hard work, studying, research and overall becoming an academic professional, but it feels good to have finally achieved this level. There’s also something to say about being the first Doctor in the family. Lots of sweat, tears, stress, joy, but mostly stress. Either way, it’s done, moving on. It’s now time to focus on enjoying teaching and working on my research articles whenever time allows. Obligatory degree shot:

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And bonus shot of the actual graduation day. Extra points for Bryan and I being able to graduate and walk together. Not many married couples get to do that.

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WORK – I’ve been working at the current institution for one year on a single-term contract. Graduating from the PhD certainly helped as it facilitated my getting a new position with a more stable 3-year renewable contract. That means Bryan and I get much more security laborally/financially and we can now start thinking about buying a house. Also, there’s extra cool points for being able to teach my courses but refer to myself as Dr. Xabier Granja in the syllabus!

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LIFE – May/June/July were busy months. First we went to San Francisco for a wedding. Then we embarked to Spain for a couple weeks, where we were joined by most of our Chicago friends for what I call Wedding Part 2. To clarify, Bryan and I got married last year but since it was too difficult to get all our families together (and it seemed fairer to do an everybody-or-nobody kind of deal) we just celebrated with our closest friends, which I refer to as Wedding Part 1. So, exactly 1 year and 1 day later, we did Part 2 in Spain: if Part 1 was the ceremony in Chicago, Part 2 was the after-party in a wonderful bar on the top of a cliff that oversees a northern Spanish beach. About 40 people attended between family and friends, most of which won’t be able to make it to the American reception with 90 friends/family this August 14 in Chicago, which we’ll call Wedding Part 3. None of it makes sense… but somehow it all makes sense. All I can tell you is that it would certainly be cheaper to do 1 event on 1 day and 1 set of people, but although we certainly don’t get 3 weddings for the price of one, we do get 3 times the memories. As a bonus, here’s a shot from El Peñón in Sopelana, Spain:

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TECHNOLOGY – finally, I’m abandoning WP. This surely comes as a surprise, but allow me to explain. 5 months ago I mentioned my purchase of a Nexus 4, my initial trial of Android 4.0. I loved the hardware, despised the software. Then, while I was too busy enjoying WP8.1 and dictating texts, reminders and calendar appointments to Cortana, this happened:

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Suddenly, and without warning, Google finally found its design chops with L/5.0/Lollipop. The difference is striking: Android went from horrible to beautiful, from bland to colorful. Google established an excellent design philosophy, actually thought about what they were doing and found inspiration in the material properties of layers and light. The videos at google.com/design are inspiring, but most of all this is thoughtful, elegant design just like I’ve always felt Windows Phone was. The problem is that WP had the design but not the platform; and now Google has the platform and the design. This, paired to the fact that Microsoft is scaling back on mobile hardware/software and that several apps that are important to me were actually eliminated from the store by their publishers, were the last nails on my WP obsession. Good design is worthless if it ceases to be functional. What’s more, just 2 years ago WP offered the best bang for buck with great phones for around $100. Nothing on Android could touch the fluidity, experience, design and affordability of a Lumia 620 or a 520.

In the following 24 months though, something happened: Microsoft stopped trying, probably too busy fixing the mess created with Windows 8 (not a bad decision considering how wonderful Windows 10 has turned out to be). The software ceased to have any new features since 8.1 and Cortana. There are many unacceptable stagnant, easy to fix software oversights: for example, the Battery Saver feature doesn’t auto-setup to kick in at 20%. Once you manually set it up, it won’t actually disable battery saver when you charge the phone next. What? This is a perfect example of how Microsoft has ignored software development on its own platform. Hardware doesn’t fare much better: low-end Lumia phones, once great bargains, started to be cheap. Not affordable, good deals. Just cheap. Cheap screen, cheap build, cheap CPU, inexcusable 512MB RAM in a 1GB world (justified by how well optimized the software was… which is true, but still not an excuse in 2014/2015). I had defended Windows Phones for years as better value when compared to Android, but now this is no longer the case and I’m glad to see Anandtech agrees with me:

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And this is, in a nutshell, what happened. Microsoft stalled when they could absolutely not afford to do so as the 3rd ecosystem, while Google saw what Microsoft had been doing excellently in 2012 with low end phones and struck back: thus the creation of the Moto G and later, more impressively, the Moto E. I’m mostly interested in the latter: I’m a firm believer that the 1st gen of anything should always be skipped, it’s never worth your money. 2nd gen usually shows you what something can become and may even be great, 3rd gen is where things start rocking the market. Indeed, the 1st Moto E was disruptive but could safely be ignored as it sacrificed too much (ergonomics, screen, camera, CPU). 2nd gen Moto E? An impressive second take, one that you can easily evaluate yourselves comparing the innards. After my – granted, wonderful – hardware experience with the Lumia 635, which is cheap as chips, I’ve had a revelation: I don’t need a $400 phone. I don’t need a $300 phone. I could benefit from but don’t necessarily need a $200 phone. The Moto E 2nd gen LTE sells for $99 on Amazon right now and has mostly the same hardware as the lower end Moto G that costs $80 more dollars (SD410, 1GB RAM, IPS screen). So I bought one, because the value in the 2nd gen Moto E is unbeatable. Here’s a proud shot for posterity:

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The value in this device is so great, actually, that I’m considering just buying Moto E’s every year, provided the upgraded models are worth the money and conserve the value. Think that sounds crazy? Now remember there’s millions of people that upgrade their iPhone every year: I can buy 6 Moto Es for the price of 1 iPhone. Annual upgrade cycle doesn’t sound so crazy in the context of the Moto E value (also it’s a great excuse to renew my mom and dad’s phones at a regular interval instead of the potatoes they’re using at the moment).

Finally, laptops. Earlier in the spring I sold my Surface 2. Why? Because Microsoft announced they were effectively abandoning the RT platform and moving onto Windows 10 on a full x86-64 architecture. Knowing this, I was lucky enough to sell it on eBay and recover %80 of the money I originally spent on it. Since then, I have been using Bryan’s old MacBook Air and the experience hasn’t been pretty. It’s not that getting used to the OS X ecosystem was challenging per se, instead… well, a picture is worth a thousand words:

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Nope, that’s not an artistic wallpaper. That’s a heavily crashed LCD, and yup. That’s what I’ve been using for the past half year. Why? Because 10nm Intel Skylake CPUs are coming in October and they’re a pretty big deal, so I didn’t want to waste $700 before better hardware came along (let’s face it: 14nm Broadwell are kind of a joke and not much better than the previous Ivy Bridge. There’s a reason Broadwell is only going to have a 6 month market life, artificially extended to 9 months so Intel doesn’t lose millions in already produced chips). It is perhaps surprising that it hasn’t really been that bad to use this MacBook, now on Windows 10, in such a state. I mostly use the laptop for work, where I just plug it in to a 24″ monitor in my office. When I bring it to classes to take attendance, there’s a nice 40% of the lower-left screen area that’s crack free, so I can fit an Excel window there momentarily. It’s only been a real annoyance when traveling, since this laptop and my phone are really the only mobile devices I have at my disposal. What’s more, upon starting the Fall semester I’ll be getting an iPad 2 for faculty through the University, so the main pain point of this MacBook is removed; so much so that I’m even considering not getting a new laptop and keep using this. But I know I shouldn’t. I should own a normal working laptop. So I’ll probably buy one. And the front runner in that race is:

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Asus UX305. Thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air. Same aluminum build. 9h of battery life. 1080p IPS screen (better than the current MacBook Air). 8GB RAM (what the what?) and 256GB SSD (again, w00t??). Free upgrade to Windows 10 (or by the time I buy it, it’ll probably ship with Windows 10 already). I admit it’s been really hard to not spend the miserly $699 that Asus asks for this machine, but I’m still waiting mostly because I hope/expect Asus will release a Skylake version of this laptop this fall. Maybe even cram in a biometric camera for Windows Hello. We’ll see, but this is the strongest contender by far.

And that’s it for now! Hopefully it won’t take me months to post something here again, but between teaching 5 courses, working on publishing an article and doing other research as a Faculty Fellow, it is likely my schedule will get complicated again. Even so, I should be pretty excited about that new laptop that I hope I won’t be able to avoid writing another post.

Until then.

Found one!

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And its name is Lumia 635. The 735 was the real contender, the one I really wanted, but not at the $300+ price it released, that’s an insult. You may remember what I had to say about it a few months ago about its pros and cons:

635: Cheap. Non-unibody. Health tracking. LTE. VS Bad camera. No front camera. No ambient light sensor. Low-res screen.

So, why did I end up choosing this phone? Simple: the price dropped to a ridiculous $68 on December 20th and at that price, it was too good a bargain to pass. At this point a fully functioning modern smartphone for $68 wasn’t cheap, it was a steal and I’ve been enjoying it for the past 2 months. The non-unibody factor turned up to be no problem at all: this phone is crazy thin and light, whereas my 920 unibody was fat and heavy. The health tracking? Works beautifully and reminds me how little I walk everyday. The LTE is just as fast as it was on my 920. The 512MB RAM certainly isn’t as good as 1GB, but the phone works quite fast and feels speedy – similar to my 920 actually. I’m sure it’d be a bit more responsive with 1GB, but it’s not slow or feels sluggish by any means.

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The negatives get a bit more annoying, mainly the camera. It’s crap, period. It takes passable pictures, but they’re all bad honestly (coming from the 920) and only salvageable for social network posting after I’ve done a quick edit on Photoshop express, even pictures taken in daylight are dull. At least having a bad camera on my phone has rekindled my use of my Sony NEX 5N, so there’s some gain to be had here. Not having a front camera isn’t a problem %99 of the time – I’m not one to take selfies, but hey there’s always those couple times when you want to get a small group shot and it’s just easier seeing the screen… no biggie though. I can turn the phone around to use the main camera and the Lumia selfie app will beep (like crazy) to indicate we’re in the picture. Not perfect, but kinda works. For $68, I’ll put up with it. The lack of ambient sensor is something I thought would really annoy me… not so, honestly. I keep the screen at medium and it’s totally fine 90% of the day. When it’s bright and sunny outside, I switch it to High (I keep the setting on the action center so it’s easy to get to). What’s an improvement, actually, is in bed at night: my 920 turned the brightness down but it was always a bit too bright to be comfortable. With the 635 I can actually specify how low I want the Low level to be (or the mid, or the high) so I turned it real low and its now a pleasure to use in a pitch dark room, or on a car ride at night.

Talking about the screen – it’s beautiful. Sure, it’s no longer 768p like the 920 and that shows, I’m not going to lie: it’s fuzzier and less detailed. It’s also not going at 60hz like the 920’s screen. But hey, it’s still an IPS panel with ClearBlack, contrast is great and the color are actually better than what I was seeing on the 920. Well, at least they look better, deeper and richer to me. Don’t take my word for it, let’s compare (*Note: some shots show heavy fringing on the 635 – this is because the camera is picking up the pixel pattern and since it can resolve the detail it shows that distortion, but that’s not visible at all in real life):

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Side by side, the 920 looks better overall, but remember: I paid $250 for the 920 refurbished (which was already cheap) whereas the 635 cost $68, new. Locked to T-Mobile, sure, but just last week I called and they got my phone unlocked with no problem at all, so I’ll be able to use it when my husband and I fly to Spain this summer – and eventually give this phone to my mom for good while I’ll renew to a Windows 10 phone. So, essentially, it’s a liberated phone for $68. Beat that value, iPhone/any-Android-ever. I was never a huge fan of the original matte white case T-Mobile included so I spent $6 and got this blue case on eBay.

So there you have it: a good phone for anybody who just wants a nice, decent smartphone for normal use. It’s a stopgap for me as I really want a better camera and an AMOLED screen once Windows 10 phones are released, but it’s a perfectly fine phone that, for the price, is an amazing value.

Don’t trust the sensationalist pundits, Windows 8 is really easy to use

Lately I’ve started to get quite bothered by the swirls of false press around the net. Many have fun picking on the big guy, which has traditionally been Microsoft – what they don’t realize is that Microsoft is no longer the big guy, but one of three players quite equally balanced in the market.

Windows 8 is a great departure from the old Windows: this may sounds scary, but your fear will go away when you understand that it means a move away from complexity, away from viruses, away from poor accessibility. The new design language allows you to focus on the task at hand, with no distractions, for you to get done what you  need to get done. Since the presentation change is quite noticeable, certain videos have started to pop up in the net showing how horrifically difficult using Windows 8 is. The inherent problem with these videos is that the subjects where thrown into Windows 8 with absolutely no indication of how the system has changed. Remember the first showings of initial cinema movies? People ran out of the room in horror thinking that the train they saw on the screen was about to squash them. Then they learned how the new cinematic systems worked, understood the context, and those problems were virtually gone forever, becoming general common knowledge.

Windows 8 is the equivalent to those cinematographers: new, innovative, breaking at the time. Windows 8 is new, it’s innovative, it’s breaking. As such, one cannot expect to  throw somebody into the new environment and have them magically understand and master it, which is why all these videos criticizing the difficulty of the new operating system are complete and utter hogwash.

This is how my Start Screen looks like, as of this morning:

There are 3 main pointers anybody should know and understand before transitioning to Windows 8, three facts that will allow you to understand the new environment and knowing which will save you from running in horror from that incoming “train”. Here they are:

1) Think of your PC as a very powerful, versatile, capable Smartphone. In the new PCs, everything is an app. Think of your desktop now as one more app, with the exception that instead of focusing on offering just one service, it can contain many other classic-style programs (the old, traditional ones you’re used to).

2) Since you’re PC works like a Smartphone, forget about closing programs. You don’t need to: the system takes care of that for you and closes apps when necessary. If you want to exit the app you’re in, you no longer need to find a tiny X at the top of the screen and click it: just hit the Windows button on your keyboard and voila, you’re back in the Start Screen (this is the same behavior as a Home button on a Smartphone).

3) Finally, screen edges are now important. If you use a touch device, the Windows 8 30-second tutorial explains this well: swipe inwards from the screen edges to reveal more options. When using a mouse on a traditional tesktop, screen corners allow these extra funtions: the top left corner will show you the apps that are open for you to switch to them rapidly. The bottom left corner will show you the Start screen (you can click there instead of hitting the Windows key on your keyboard):

Similarly, the top and bottom right corners reveal a bar with further options, should you need the more advanced features they offer:

There you have it, that’s your Windows 8 1-2-3, easy as pie. The desktop is just one more app; no need to close apps but just hit the Windows key to exit an app; remember/use the edge/corner menus. That’s it! Once one knows those 3 initial pointers, the problems people have with Windows 8 disappear: you just learned the basics. It’s not hard at all… actually, it’s incredibly easy and simple: arguably the most logical Windows version to date. What sense did it make in Windows 7 and prior versions to go to the Start menu in order to click turn off? Start to turn off? Illogical. In Windows 8, do what your gut tells you: simply push the on/off button. Duh.

As always though, the best thing you can do after knowing the 3 Windows 8 basics is go to a tech store and try it for yourself. I’ve been using Windows 8 for more than a year now (since the early builds Developer Preview, Consumer Preview and Release Preview were made available to testers) and I can guarantee, in my own experience, it took less than 1 week to fully get used to the new environment. Don’t trust the sensationalist tech pundits – learn the basics and see for yourself how easy to use Windows 8 really is.

How to make your MacBook ultrafast for $90 (for non tech-savvy people)

I can’t make your MacBook thinner or lighter, but I can show you how to make it insanely fast for a mere $90 instead of $1200 for a new MacBook Air.

1. Get one of these SSDs. Best money you have EVER spent, guaranteed.

2. Flip around your macbook, with a dime/quarter coin, open turn that thing around to open the battery slot.

3. Open sesame! Remove the battery.

4. See that L-shaped metal bar? There’s 3 screws in this thing – they’re TINY. Remove the screws: you need to have a decent toolbox. Even then it took some effort – Apple really knows how to make it difficult for DYI projects.

5. Metal bar out! These are the guts of your MacBook. Careful now – discharge your body’s static electricity by touching metal frequently (not on your Mac, on some other non-painted metallic surface). It’s just for the safety of your mac, you don’t want to fry any pieces.

6. Enter your awesome new SSD. SSDs are faster than HDDs because they’re not mechanic spinners looking for sectors: it’s flash memory, AKA instant read operation. I wholeheartedly recommend Intel drives, ALWAYS. They’re much better than the competition. This guys is worse than the one I suggested at the beginning – it’s a 3 year old 80gb x25-M SSD that still manages to kick any HDD’s butt (literally, it’s hundreds of times faster).

7. OK, so metal bar removed. See that plastic around the HDD? Pull it out – don’t break it!

8. Now pull back and take the HDD out.

9. Look at that! An old Fujitsu custom-made for Apple. These don’t even exist anymore 🙂

10. See how the old and new drives have the same connector? This is called SATA. It doesn’t matter if it’s SATA 1, 2 or 3. They just get faster, but they’re backwards compatible (so you can use a SATA3 drive on a SATA2 computer, you will just be limited to SATA2 speeds – which are really fast anyway)

11. Again, leave it to Apple to make DYI a living hell. The HDD has a metallic protective layer (to avoid electricity naughtiness). Not even I had the appropriate mini-star tool for these little guys… no matter, long pliers did the trick. It was more difficult and annoying than getting them loose with the appropriate tool, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

12. That said, it’s not like I don’t have enough tools. Stop being a tool, Apple – make DYI users’ lives easier please.

13. Metallic protector is out! Now put it in your new SSD and screw the little guys in again – a pain in the neck if you do it with pliers like I did, but it can be done.

14. Put the SSD back in place, push it in – carefully, but at the end it will resist (since you need to put the connector in). When it’s almost entirely in, then you can push worry-free, until it goes in completely.

15. Screw the metal bar once again. Put the battery in. You’re done! Now you need to install OS X and there’s a few tricks you need to know.

16. Boot from whatever OS X media you have – I had a DVD, put the mac on and press the OPTION key until this screen shows up (I don’t know how to do it if you don’t have a DVD, figure it out or just burn your OS X media to a DVD).

17. Before installing, you gotta format your SSD. Go to disk utility.

18. Select your drive, go to Erase. Make sure you format as Extended Journaled.

29. Go to First Aid, Verify disk. It doesn’t hurt.

20. Now we’re good! Click continue.

21. Oops! Maybe not. We need to partition the SSD as GUID table. No worries. Back to Disk Utility.

22. Click on the SSD drive, not the partition (the upper option, basically). Now you can see it says Partition among the menu options

23. Go there, name your disk however you want, go down to options, select GUID partition table.

24. Apply changes! Wait for the formatting to be done – a few seconds. Close and go back to installer.

25. Now we’re good! Click install.

26. Sadly, as fast as the SSD is, the DVD sucks. Those 28 mins? Yeah right, try 48 instead. DVDs are the worst. When you’re done, just update OS X and install your programs as you normally would. Done! A lightning fast MacBook that’s as fast as the latest MacBook Air – though much fatter/heavier – and it cost you just $90. You now have a speedy MacBook that boots in about 20 seconds and executes everything quite fast. Congrats!