Sorry Dell, I Sent The XPS 13 Back To You

February 23rd, 2015 at 9:55 pm

Dell-XPS-13-Welcome-Mail

This was not an easy decision, but I sent the XPS 13 back to Dell for a refund. I won’t be repetitive – all my reasons are in this previous blog post. The bottom line was that I felt it had too many compromises for a product cost over $1900. When I splash out that much money, I want to feel like my purchase is an improvement in all the important ways. That reasoning is why I bought, then returned both a Nikon D7100 and a Nikon D600. Both cameras had a lot going for them, but ultimately were not a full upgrade from my well-use D300. I had to wait for the D750 before the true successor was found.

The point being that when I’m upgrading a cornerstone of my technological world, I have high standards and will wait for the right product. The XPS 13 was so close in most ways; I may revisit a Core i5/256 GB PCIe SSD version late in the year after Windows 10 launches. Maybe Windows 10 will bring with it some battery life gains, and Dell will have a few months to mature their drivers. Back to my HP Envy Spectre 14 for now, though that may be short-lived as I have my eye on something else…something quite different from the XPS 13, but something that may tick the most important boxes (but not all of them).

Side note: the photo above is of a really cool owner’s welcome booklet that Dell sends you after you buy the XPS 13. It was customized with the model of my laptop, and even the service tag and specs of the product. It welcomed me to the Dell family, and was a nice touch. It felt personal and welcoming. Nice job whomever at Dell is responsible for it!

CCleaner Enhancer: Storage Reclamation on Steroids

February 21st, 2015 at 7:03 pm

Any self-respecting geek knows all about CCleaner, a handy (and free!) tool for reclaiming gigabytes of hard drive storage space. I use it all the time, and it’s great. What I didn’t know about until recently though was an add-on called CCEnhancer. Created by a third party, this tool expands the list of apps that can be purged by CCleaner. I wasn’t sure what it would find, as I don’t install many apps on my systems, but I was surprised to see it find an additional 1.2 GB or so of  files – I hardly use Quicktime, who knew it was chewing up 400 MB of storage? And Windows was keeping 811 MB of memory dumps – what on earth for?

CCleaner-Enhanced

The Pros and Cons List for the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook 2015

February 18th, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Dell XPS 13 (2015 Edition)

Sometimes the best way to make a rational decision is to weigh the pros and cons. I typically trust my gut and make fairly quick, but reasonably informed, decisions. Every so often I feel torn and need to take a step back to think about the best option. I’m also not above admitting I made an error in judgement. So here’s how I’m looking at the Dell XPS 13. I hope this list helps your purchasing decision on the XPS 13! Read the rest of this entry »

Dell XPS 13 SD Card Slot Sticks Out

February 4th, 2015 at 8:00 am

How much does an SD card stick out of the SD card slot on the 2015 Dell XPS 13? This much:

Dell-XPS13-SD-card-slot-smaller

I’d have liked to have seen the card be completely flush – with my HP Envy Spectre 14 I leave a 128 GB SD card in the slot for extra storage – but given the small size of the XPS 13, I’m not very surprised by this. It’s similar to what Apple did with the Macbook Air. I wonder if one of these would fit in the Dell XPS 13? I’m just glad Dell put an SD card slot in there, unlike the other OEMs who think a microSD card slot is somehow good enough. It’s not, at least for us photographers…

First Thoughts on the Dell XPS 13 (2015 Edition)

February 3rd, 2015 at 10:31 pm

I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts on my new Dell XPS 13, but haven’t quite gotten around to it. What I did do tonight was type up a long comment that I posted over on PC World’s review of the XPS 13 (by none other than the legendary Gordon Mah Ung). Another fantastic review is by Lisa Gade of MobileTechReview (the photo below is courtesy of her review).

dell_xps13_2015_lead

My comment/mini-review is below:

***

I now own the Dell XPS 13 – the top-end Core i7 QHD+ model with the 512 GB SSD. It’s quite a machine – Dell did an impressive job with the build quality and the overall package is impressive. It’s expensive though to get that top-end model. The 512 GB SSD upgrade alone was $300. Ouch! I’m ticked that Dell doesn’t allow us to truly customize what we want – I wanted the 1080p display but couldn’t get the 512 GB SSD without also getting the QHD+ display. Why does Apple offer more customization now than Dell? That’s just wrong.

Four main things irk me now:

1) The fact that the M.2 SSD isn’t PCIe and Dell told you they’re planning on releasing a version of the laptop that uses PCIe. What the hell? I just got this thing a few days ago, and it’s already going to be replaced by something newer? Is Dell taking PR lessons from Osborne?

2) Windows 8.1 is still a mess in high DPI mode. Well, to be fair, the OS itself isn’t too awful with the DPI scaling set to 250%, but apps are a mess. Blurry text in TweetDeck. Weird scaling and overlap of UI elements in all sorts of other apps. A magnifying glass in Lightroom the size of a grain of sand. It’s frustrating realizing I have to wait for Windows 10 to supposedly make this all better. Microsoft really wasn’t ready for laptops with screens quite this high-res…they should have been deprecating APIs and forcing developers to code for high-res displays, or found some way to auto-fix the issue.

3) The battery life is nowhere near what Dell claims. I’m used to OEMs being dishonest about real-world battery life, but we’re talking a 50% difference here. I’d say real-world usage of my XPS 13 in productivity and Lightroom (zero gaming) is about 6-7 hours. Good, but not great. And Dell announced great.

4) With all the rumours of Intel releasing Skylake this year, it feels like when Windows 10 comes out there will be a whole new generation of laptops, giving Broadwell U laptops a shelf life of maybe 6-8 months. There’s always something better around the corner, but the delays in Broadwell and the noise that Intel is already making about Skylake makes me concerned Broadwell U will be jumped over very quickly.

All in all,  there’s a LOT to love here, but given that I only buy new laptops about every three years, I’m not sure this is the right one at the right time.

UFC Fight Pass is the Worst/Best Video Streaming Service There Is

January 21st, 2015 at 6:00 pm

UFC-Fight-Pass

Imagine with me for a moment if you were a Netflix subscriber, except it worked like this:

…there was no history of what you’d ever watched
…you couldn’t pause watching on one device and resume on the other
…there was no ability to tag content you wanted to watch for later
…there was no binge-watching, even when it made sense* (see more below)
…it was all presented in 720p instead of 1080p (and an iffy bit-rate that sometimes makes for blocky-looking video if there’s a lot of action)
…if you left the iPad app while your video was paused, it would reset to the app home screen instead of resuming, thus losing your place
…if you resume your laptop from sleep, playback won’t resume without a page refresh (thus losing your place in the videos because there’s no history)
…there were no keyboard shortcuts to pause, play, skip back, etc.
…it was $12 more per year if you paid monthly
…sometimes when you skip back while watching on a Roku, it would turn on the closed captions
…if you were watching a TV series, the commercials weren’t cut out, instead replaced with a static image for a several minute duration, like this, repeated over and over again throughout the event:

UFC-TV-commercial-break

I’ve just described UFC Fight Pass, a video streaming service launched in early 2014. Yet for all those cons, there are some great pros:

…it has a huge back catalog of content, perfect for catching up on what you missed
…there’s exclusive content only for Fight Pass subscribers
…if it’s aired anywhere on the planet under the UFC banner, odds are it will be available (though there are some blacked-out events)
…on browser-based playback it has a great timeline view that allows you to jump to specific parts of the event (walk-in, Tale of the Tape, knockouts, etc.)
…it’s available across a wide variety of platforms (Android, iOS, Roku, desktop)
…you’re getting to watch events that usually cost $60 (though a few months later)

*Binge Watching Where It Makes Sense: On the most recent Ultimate Fighter TV series, the winner fought on live TV and was given the belt on December 12th, 2014. Yet the UFC didn’t add the final episode of the season until January 9th…why not put them all up before the live TV event? It saps interest in watching the TV show when you know who has the belt already.

I’ve been a subscriber to UFC Fight Pass for several months now, and I’m fairly happy with the service now that I know all the rough edges I describe above. The inability to pause and resume from a previously watched point is the most painful – it makes it hard to watch an event in short sittings, forcing you to hunker down and watch everything at once. I also have to keep a list in Evernote of which events I’ve watched to keep it all straight.

The other main negative is how long it takes for UFC main cards to become available – as of Jan 18th, the newest UFC available is 178, which aired on September 27th. That’s almost four months of exclusivity, which, while I get the importance of protecting the juicy pay-per-view window, four months seems like an excessive amount of time. I’d guess the vast majority of PPV orders come within 30 days of the event and they drop off rapidly after that. If the UFC wants to keep Fight Pass subscribers happy, they should offer up the fights on day 31.

I’ll keep paying for UFC Fight Pass for now, but I hope the UFC improves the experience, gets rid of the pain points above, and makes it worth the $120 they’re charging per year for it.

How To Speed Up Lightroom JPEG Export by 32%

January 20th, 2015 at 6:00 pm

It all started with one of my customary tweet rants:

adobe-jpeg-export-slow-tweet

I was pointed to a great article written a couple of years ago that involved some great testing and tips for optimizing the JPEG output from Lightroom 2.x (thanks to @MarkusTyphoon for the tip). The main discovery is that Lightroom simply does not fully take advantage of multi-core and multi-threaded CPUs for JPEG exporting. This wasn’t news to me, but the detailed level of testing was impressive, as was the solution for a work-around: use simultaneous export processes.

lightroom-export-selections

I decided to replicate the tests on my own laptop; these files are ~25 MB Nikon D750 raw files being chewed on by an aging Core i7-2667 at 2.4 Ghz on battery power. Here’s what I discovered:

  • Exporting 38 images as a single export batch took 529 seconds
  • Exporting 38 images in three simultaneous batches (14 + 14 + 10 images) took 402 seconds
  • I saw Lightroom CPU usage shoot up from the norm of bouncing between 45% and 85% to lock in around 90% to 98% and stay that high:

lightroom-cpu-usage-three-batch-export

The net result? Exporting the images using multiple processes shaved 32% off the rendering time. That’s huge!

How to do this? Select your first image, then hold the shift key and click on an image 1/3rd of the way through your set. Press CONTROL+SHIFT+E to bring up the export window and start the first JPEG export. Repeat this process three more times with the remaining images, and you should see Lightroom processing three export jobs:

lightroom-three-batch-process-exports

32% faster exports is a significant time saving, especially if you’re exporting a set with several hundred images (which pros do regularly). I’ll likely repeat these tests when I move to a 6-core system later this year (Haswell-E? Broadwell? Skylake? Too many choices!). With more physical cores, there may be an opportunity for more time savings if there are more than three export processes going on simultaneously.

Now if only Lightroom 6 would do something useful like take advantage of GPU acceleration and not feel so damn sluggish all the time…

Google Nexus 7 Device Not Found Error: The Fix

January 18th, 2015 at 2:46 pm

The fix for the “Device Not Found” error? Disconnect your Nexus 7. Install the Google USB device drivers (unzip, then right-click on android_winusb.inf and select Install). Wait for the install to complete, and connect your Nexus 7. That should do that trick!

Then you can install this minimal ADB/Fastboot tool and one of the software images directly from Google. Remember to put it into bootloader mode by turning it off, then pressing and holding volume-up while pressing the power button. Then you connect the cable and run the re-flashing commands located on the Google page above. This is how I got my 2012-era Nexus 7 back to Android 4.4.4 after how terrible it performs on 5.0.2.

The back story:

When I first installed Android Jellybean 5.0 on my original Nexus 7, I was excited and impressed that Google was supporting this 2012-era hardware with the latest and greatest version of Android. That’s what buying a Nexus device is all about, right? After a few weeks though, my excitement turned to frustration as it became clear the device was incredibly sluggish. It plays a very specific role in our household: it sits in a dock 24/7 and is used for music streaming to a Logitech Bluetooth receiver that’s hooked up to a whole-home amp. Playing music isn’t a hard task. You’d think for this one thing the Nexus 7 would work, right?

Not a chance. With a fresh from-scratch flash of Android 5.02, using Google Play Music was still painful. It would lock up while playing a song and become non-responsive. It was a disaster. What possessed Google to approve the release of this software for the 2012 Nexus 7? It clearly can’t handle it properly.  I’ve read all sorts of theories why – from poor NAND flash and storage controllers to limitations of the GPU – but the bottom line from my perspective is that Google made a grave error in inflicting this software on owners of the 2012-era Nexus 7. They should have released the software to let enthusiasts fiddle with it, and the hardcore users can decide if they wanted it, but spared the rest of us.

The good news is that because Google offers up older software images, and allows easy down-grades, I’ve put Android 4.4.4 on there and it’s back to working great. HTC and other OEMs should emulate what Google is doing here.

Now I’m stuck with a device that’s constantly prompting me to upgrade – one touch will trigger the “softwarepocalypse” – and there’s no easy way to stop the notifications other than rotting the device and installing a configuration tool.

Dell XPS 13 2015 Edition: You Shall Be Mine!

January 15th, 2015 at 6:00 pm

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA/ photo courtesy of Slashgear /

I’m tremendously excited what Dell has done with the new XPS 13, announced at CES 2015 recently. Talk about some amazing hardware design! It’s been a few years since I owned a Dell laptop – my last one was a Dell Vostro V13, which was a decent laptop for day to day work with a nice design, but ultimately had a very ho-hum screen, was underpowered, and had fairly poor battery life.

For the past three years, I’ve been using an HP Envy 14 Spectre – an audacious, premium design from HP that sadly was a one-off and not the first of a new line. Sure, they’ve carried the ENVY name forward, but none of them have been Spectres or been premium. The Envy 14 Spectre was, and is, a fast machine with a great design. The overall weight though makes it a hassle for travel, and the battery life isn’t anything to write home about. I was particularly frustrated when, after ordering if the first week it came out, within a month of getting it Intel had announced new chips – HP decided to release this new product at the end of a chip cycle from Intel. This was right after I’d moved to the USA, and I frankly wasn’t in the loop on Intel’s roadmap. It’s still a fast laptop for most things, but I’d have preferred to wait and get the newer generation of chip from Intel, all things being equal.

The new Dell XPS 13 comes with a Broadwell-U chip. I’d initially been excited about the Core M chips and the idea of a fanless design, but once I saw how performance-limited they were, I decided I needed to go for a Broadwell-U chip. Here’s what’s funny though: Broadwell was supposed to ship in products last year, and all the rumours point to Intel releasing Skylake midway this year. Skylake is a new chip design and promises significant advances over Broadwell…so by ordering this Dell XPS 13, am I setting myself up for another scenario where mere months after I get a new product there’s already a new chipset? Could be. At least this time I know about it! Hopefully if Skylake products won’t ship until Q3/Q4, I won’t feel bad about snagging a Broadwell-U based system…as long as it rocks, that’s all I care about.

Dell used to be the king of customization, but I find it ironic and sad that now that seems to be more Apple’s game: I can order a Macbook Air with a Core i5 or i7 CPU, 4 GB or 8 GB of RAM, and a choice of 256 GB or 512 GB SSD. Dell has a few configs, but if you want a 512 GB SSD, there’s only ONE config: the Core i7, 8 GB of RAM, and the QHD+ touchscreen display. I’d have been perfectly happy with the 1920 x 1080p non-touch display as that unit gets better battery life…somehow Dell decided not to let people pick that option. I’m feeling very iffy about Window 8.1’s ability to handle a resolution that high. I’ve never liked how the Windows UI looks with high-dpi settings turned on, so I’m a bit concerned how well this display is going to work with my apps (and eyes).

After wasting two days playing telephone tag with Dell – their practice of needing to call you on the phone to verify your order is as old-fashioned and quaint as it is wasteful and inefficient – my laptop is finally in pre-production. I expect to have it in my hands by February 6th…can’t wait!

Unlisted YouTube Videos Do Work Properly on Twitter

January 14th, 2015 at 9:23 pm

Earlier today I needed an answer to a simple question: if you posted a YouTube link to an unlisted video on Twitter, would it embed the video properly in the feed and work exactly like a public video? Surprisingly, I couldn’t find the answer despite several searches. So I performed a quick experiment, first uploading a video of my son to my personal YouTube account and marking it as unlisted:

youtube-unlisted2

Then I took the YouTube link and posted it to Twitter. The video embedded in the timeline just as you’d expect:

youtube-unlisted

So there you go: post your unlisted videos on Twitter and they’ll work just like you want them to.