Logitech MX Master Review

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Despite multi-touch screens, voice interaction, and science fiction’s promise of gestural operating environments, the primary ways we interact with computers are still through the firmly established keyboard and mouse. I’ve tested dozens of keyboards to finally find a couple I can claim to truly love, but the same level of passion has always eluded me when it came to mice. So when Logitech boldly proclaimed that they revolutionized the nearly fifty-year-old peripheral with the MX Master, I was in.

Let’s start with some highlights:

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Blade Runner Sequel

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Popular Mechanics recently asked me (along with six other science fiction authors) to write up what we wanted to see in the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. Here’s what I had to say:

In my mind, Blade Runner is a self-contained story that (once “The Final Cut” was released) hasn’t exactly been begging for a sequel, prequel, or a reboot. But it is also a movie that teases us with brief glimpses down so many dim and intriguing passages that further illuminating a few of them could easily be the work of at least one new movie.

Blade Runner’s world-building is so rich that it poses far more questions than it ever manages to answer. What is life like on these off-world colonies? Where are they? In orbit? On the moon? On Mars? Presumably synthetic animals arose in response to widespread extinction, but how did that technology come to be used on humans, and why didn’t we just build far less troublesome, titanium-boned and silicone-skinned robots? And I assume the best blade runners burn themselves out because they unconsciously can’t shake the feeling that they’re killing fellow human beings, but such a moral dilemma—retiring synthetics that, in some ways, seem more human in their vulnerability than real humans—feels like very fertile territory to me.

Rather than just continuing a story, sequels might choose to explore the same universe but from a different perspective. We’ve seen how replicants try to blend in with humans in our world, so it might be interesting to see what happens when a team of investigators ends up on an off-world colony where synthetics have taken over, and must therefore pass themselves off as replicants. What can humans learn about themselves when their lives depend on embracing—and even becoming—the very things they fear and hate most?

In terms of cinematography and tone, a new Blade Runner has to show a great deal of deference to its predecessor. I love how the Voight-Kampff test is administered by a big, clunky machine which, inexplicably, contains bellows rising and falling in the foreground. And I love the prolific use of cathode-ray and vacuum-tube displays which, at the time, must have seemed pretty fancy, but help to preserve a wonderful, retro-futuristic, cyber-noir backdrop that I hope isn’t entirely abandoned in favor of multi-touch sheets of glass and holograms.

An Air-powered Balloon Car

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First, we did the classic egg drop project. Then we created our own private phone line. And now for our most recent elementary school project: an air-powered balloon car.

The rules were as follows:

  • The car had to be 100% air-powered.
  • It could compete in the categories of speed, distance, or just aesthetics. (We went for distance.)
  • The vehicle had to use wheels, and the wheels had to be made out of objects that were not intended to be wheels. (My daughter instantly decided we were going to use CDs—a curious and quaint technology to today’s 5th-grader.)

This is how we built it:

  • The body is conical floral foam from a craft store.
  • The axles are wooden skewers from the grocery store.
  • The wheel bearings are six straws shoved through the hole in the CD—five around the parameter, and one through the center.
  • Plastic twist ties ensure the wheels don’t come off.
  • Thrust is provided by a balloon attached to a straw, then threaded through a hole I drilled in the body.

So how did it do? Unfortunately, we didn’t win. The car performs really well on the right surface (once it gets going, it coasts a very long way), but if the surface isn’t right, or if you don’t have enough room (it has a tendency to curve), performance suffers. Here are a few lessons we learned that you might want to take into consideration if building your own air-powered car:

  • I found it really difficult to get the axles straight. The foam wanted to guide the skewers off-center as I pushed them through, and any misalignment costs you dearly both in friction and in the car’s ability to hold a straight line.
  • If I were starting over, I’d try to find plastic axles rather than wooden. Cheap wooden skewers splinter easily and generate much more friction than a smooth plastic surface would.
  • The CDs were really difficult to work with. My daughter was insistent that we use CDs as wheels (actually, these are DVD-Rs), but they tend to dig into soft surfaces and slip on hard surfaces that are too smooth. You might consider wheels that are a little broader so that they have larger contact patches. (The wheels are the one place you want a little friction.)
  • If you really want to win, find the most minimalistic body you possibly can (toilet paper tube, for instance), some extremely light and basic wheels (foam balls, perhaps, since they’re grippy and should provide excellent contact on any surface), and just tape the biggest balloon to it that you possibly can. If it only has to last a single race (plus a few trials), building something elegant and robust will cost you dearly in weight. Keep is simple, minimal, and most important of all, lightweight.

But if you want to build something that I think strikes a good balance between robustness, elegance, and performance—something that teaches the basic principles of Newtonian physics—this guide is a good place to start.

Introducing Equinox (the sequel to Containment)

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Equinox is available starting today.

My first novel, Containment, is no longer just Containment. It is now the first book in the “Children of Occam” series. And the second book, Equinox, launches today (not coincidentally, just before the spring equinox).

I took my time in writing a follow-up to Containment (publishing a second novel, Kingmaker, in the meantime) until I was confident that I knew what readers wanted to see in a sequel. Without giving anything away, this is what they will get:

  • A much broader perspective on the Containment universe. Equinox pulls away from V1 and thoroughly explores the different worlds introduced in the first book.
  • A continuation of the plot. Equinox picks up exactly where Containment leaves off. (Then goes far beyond.)
  • A little less technical detail. Although there is still plenty of new and exotic science and technology in Equinox, I spend a little less time describing how it works, and a lot more time inside the heads of characters.
  • Much more of everything. At 575 pages, Equinox is almost twice the length of Containment. The stories of all the characters from Containment are thoroughly explored, as are the lives of several new characters.

I really love Containment, and I wouldn’t have released a sequel that I wasn’t completely happy with. I put a huge amount of time and effort into Equinox, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed the writing.

The New MacBook’s Lack of Ports is Actually a Feature

new_macbooksNot being much of a tablet fan, I prefer to sit at the kitchen table or on the couch with a laptop. But both of my laptops—a 15″ MacBook Pro, and a 2015 Razer Blade—are so thoroughly connected to peripherals at this point (external monitors, speakers, USB audio interfaces, mechanical keyboards, an Oculus Rift, etc.) that I find I often don’t feel like going through the trouble of liberating them. But that wasn’t always the case. Before I got the Razer Blade, my personal machine was a MacBook Air, and I made it a point to almost never connect it to anything so that it was always ready to be taken anywhere I needed it.

The new MacBooks are obviously optimized for portability which, in my experience, is not all that compatible with a myriad of ports and cables. But a computer that encourages the use of wireless peripherals is a laptop that will almost always be within reach.

If you need to edit images, mix audio, encode video, play games, or compile a massive code base—and if you need to do so while in the field—then the new MacBook is obviously not for you (personally, I’d recommend a new 13″ MacBook Pro Retina). But if you already have either a desktop, or even a high-end laptop that you treat as a desktop, you might find an ultra-portable laptop that’s always ready to be opened, packed, or passed to a friend to be surprisingly practical.

I also think Apple occasionally creates products whose primary purpose is to force the future’s hand. I have one of the very first MacBook Pros with a Retina display, and at the time I got it back in 2012, I really didn’t think it was ready for widespread adoption. But three years later, I wouldn’t even consider buying a laptop without a high-density display—Mac or PC. Something tells me that in another three years, cables will be much less acceptable than they are today, and not without a sense of irony, we will look back on the new MacBook as one of the harbingers of a far more convenient paradigm of computing.

Nexus 6 Impressions

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I’m intentionally avoiding the term “review” because there are already plenty of exhaustive analyses of the Nexus 6 out there (for my two favorites, see MKBHD and The Verge). Instead, I’m just going to cover a handful of elements — both good and bad — that really stood out for me as someone who has owned and actively used every single Nexus and iOS device to date.

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Yes, the T-Mobile iPhone 6 from Apple Works on Verizon

iphone_6_on_verizonI’ll get right to the point: the T-Mobile iPhone 6 (and 6 Plus) from Apple (not from a T-Mobile store) works fine on the Verizon network. Just eject the T-Mobile SIM that comes with it, insert your Verizon SIM, and boot. The T-Mobile iPhone from Apple appears to be entirely global, and fully carrier-unlocked, which makes it the best choice for those of us who like to buy phones outside of contracts.

I made this discovery after trying (and failing) for several weeks to buy a new iPhone 6 without a contract — something all parties involved make as difficult as possible. You can’t order a Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint version without a contract; you can’t reserve one online and go into a store to pick it up; Apple won’t sell you a SIM-less, carrier-unlocked iPhone for the first few months after launch; and stores like Best Buy charge you $100 over retail if you want to pay the unsubsidized price (at least the one near my house).

But I eventually gathered enough information (and certainly plenty of misinformation) from enough stores and online sources to feel fairly confident that the unsubsidized T-Mobile iPhone 6 was not only carrier unlocked, but that it would work perfectly fine on Verizon’s CDMA and LTE networks. So I decided to take a chance and order one online.

And it works. I now have an iPhone 6 on Verizon, and a 2014 Moto X on AT&T, which makes me far more connected than anyone possibly needs to be, but allows me to indulge my phone fetish to the greatest extent possible.

Yes, an intervention is probably not far off.

A Watch Enthusiast’s Review of the Samsung Gear Live with Android Wear

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Update (12/10/2014): I’ve tried several more Android Wear devices, and both the hardware and the software is getting better. Android Wear has fixed some of the issues I complain about below, and the LG G Watch R and Sony Smartwatch 3 are actually pretty decent devices. (Most people like the Moto 360, but I think a round display should really be round.) All smart watches are still a very long way from being actual watches (as opposed to devices strapped to your wrist), but I’m glad to see how quickly the industry is iterating.

Most of the reviews I’ve seen of the new Android Wear smartwatches have been from device early adopters as opposed to true watch enthusiasts, so I figured I’d provide the perspective of someone who is decidedly both. I’ve always been a gadget fanatic (I keep the latest iPhone and best Android devices on me at all times—as of today, that’s the 5s and the HTC One M8), and as the founder of Watch Report (which I started in 2005, and finally sold last year), I’ve owned and/or reviewed hundreds of watches from Casio to Rolex. Additionally, over the years, I’ve kept a very close eye on the category of smartwatches from MSN Spot watches like the Tissot Hight-T (the best of its long-extinct class), to the Abacus Wrist PDA (never remotely practical, but undeniably fun), to more modern interpretations like the Pebble.

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Another Attempt at Tablets

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I’ve owned a lot of tablets. I’ve had iPads and Android devices, tablets with seven and ten inch screens, and devices with WiFi and LTE radios. I’ve probably had at least a dozen different tablets spanning almost every possible configuration, but there’s one thing all of them had in common: none of them were able to hold my interest.

No matter how hard I try—and how much I love the idea of tablets—I just don’t have any use for them. I put up with the limitations of my phone because it’s always with me and always connected, and I put up with the bulk of my laptop because it’s powerful enough for just about everything I need a computer to do. But tablets, for me, sit in this awkward space in-between where they’re too limited to be all that useful (at least for the things I do most often) and too big to be easily portable.

Refusing to give up, however, I’ve developed a new theory: maybe I’m simply not using tablets correctly. If I find them too big to replace my phone, that means I’m not trying to use them for anything beyond what my phone can already do. And if I find them too limited to replace my laptop, that means I’m trying to do things that are better left to a fully capable computer. Perhaps what I should be doing are only those things that a tablet can do better than any other device.

To test my theory, I bought a brand new iPad Air, but rather than resorting it with an image from one of my many former iPads, I’m only going to install apps that are better on tablets than on any other device. That means no email, no calendar, no office applications, and no social networking. No Evernote, no weather apps, no navigation, and no restaurant finders. Basically, anything that I can do more conveniently on my phone or more fluidly on my laptop, I simply won’t even attempt on my new tablet.

In an attempt to make my iPad more useful, I’m going to intentionally limit it.

Admittedly, this approach probably won’t leave as many applications as I’d like. Even four years after the launch of the iPad, I think we’re still a long ways away from really figuring out and implementing the best multi-touch surface experiences. But I’ll start with apps for drawing, watching video, and reading (books, magazines, and news), and maybe a game or two. Maybe I’ll try Garage Band, or another music synthesis application. I’ll probably give a lot of different apps a try, but the moment I start feeling more frustrated by the limitations of the device than empowered by its unique capabilities, I’ll uninstall it and move on.

Let me know if you have ideas for apps I should try. It should be very interesting to see, after a month or two, which are left.

An Underappreciated Factor in the Decline of PC Sales: Solid-state Drives

hard_drive_backupAs soon as I started using SSDs, I suspected they would eventually have an impact on PC sales. I expressed as much in an email to the Daily Tech News Podcast which elicited a good discussion. If you’d rather just read the message, here you go:

While catching up on episodes, your recent discussion of the continued decline of PC sales brought to mind a theory of mine: I think one of the reasons PC sales might be declining are SSDs.

It used to be that when computers started to feel old, people would open up their weekly Best Buy insert, go over to Dell.com, or start lamenting the expense of Macs. But what is it that makes computers feel old? Usually CPU contention, excessive swapping due to lack of RAM, and the aging of mechanical hard drives.

CPUs are plenty fast now, obscene amounts of RAM are cheap, and mechanical disks are being replaced with SSDs that don’t have most of the mechanical disadvantages of magnetic storage platters. In fact, you can take almost any computer built within the last five to seven years, and as long as it either has an SSD, or you put an SSD in it, it’s still a very usable machine. (Several of my old laptops are still in service thanks to fewer moving parts.)

Of course there are many reasons for the fate of the PC (more of our disposable income going to phones and tablets, increasing use of web applications, lack of innovation in the PC space, etc.), but I think one contributing factor is that SSDs are keeping computers from feeling “old” as quickly as they used to.

What do you think? Solid theory?

(Hard drive icon courtesy of Joe Harrison.)