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Last Updated: 10/02/2013 12:29:13 PM UTC

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12 Companies Recently Gone Bust or Struggling & Why

12 Companies Recently Gone Bust or Struggling & Why

Over the past decade or so, I've been witness to a number of technology companies hitting major roadblocks, while others have skyrocketed to new heights. What went wrong with those companies? And what product categories or competitors led to their demise or struggles? We take a look at some of the most notable ones, including both manufacturers and retailers.

BlackBerry: Most recently in the headlines, the Canadian company has finally reached a breaking point, with Fairfax Financial Holdings about to purchase it for $4.7 billion. Similar to Kodak's situation in the camera business, and Palm in the smartphone/PDA world, BlackBerry has simply been unable to keep up with innovation. At a time when the large touch screen was taking over, BlackBerry held firm with its physical QWERTY keyboard design. When smartphones were moving from the business side and into consumer's hands, BlackBerry was slow to target that market, and when it did with devices like the Pearl, it missed the mark when it came to intuitiveness, fun, and the growing trend toward apps. And as instant messaging continued to rise, and consumers praised Blackberry for its BBM service, the company refused to license it out, leaving the door wide open for competing, multi-platform services to swoop in. Before BlackBerry knew it, its share had dwindled while Apple, and new platform Google, managed to push it right out of the way.

Kodak: This may not necessarily have been a product of Kodak failing to innovate as much as it was a product of every Tom, Dick, and Harry getting into the imaging business once digital became mainstream. All of a sudden, players like Sony, HP, Casio, and the like were making cameras to compete with the market leader. Today's generation likely doesn't understand what a "Kodak moment" is anymore. And while many players have left the consumer digital camera market altogether (HP and Minolta, just to name a few), while other players surpassed Kodak in innovation (Nikon, Canon, Olympus), the entire market itself is seeing new competition from the likes of smartphone cameras today. Meanwhile, earlier this month, Kodak re-emerged from bankruptcy protection, which it filed for in January 2012, to serve business markets exclusively. The company sold a number of its patents to a group of tech companies that include some of the top-performers today, like Amazon.com, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Samsung.

Palm: It's a really sad story for the company that essentially invented the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), the device that eventually morphed into the smartphone as we know it today. The company simply failed to innovate during a time when competitors were rapidly developing new types of products and technologies in this space. Even HP couldn't manage to breathe new life into the brand. HP bought Palm for US$1.2 billion in 2010, creating the webOS platform that was to be used across dual-branded HP Palm devices, only to confirm plans to discontinue the platform a year later. The future of webOS and what was once Palm remains up in the air, as HP may still license the technology out. But Palm as the brand we once knew is long gone.

Coby: As a staple brand in the affordable electronics landscape, Coby hit a snag when some of its key categories, like portable DVD players and digital photo frames, were all but annihilated by devices like the tablet. Coby had gotten into the TV biz as well, but massive competition that saw high-end brands selling for ultra low prices, and squeezed margins, left Coby in trouble on that side as well. Last month, fears were realized as it was confirmed that all Coby assets were acquired by restructuring and investment firm Gordon Brothers Group. The future of the company remains uncertain.

Nokia: While the company is still in good shape, continuing to lead the market for mobile phones, especially in Europe, the recent acquisition of its handset business by Microsoft for US$7.2 billion has some folks puzzled. Indeed, it's an interesting move by Microsoft to help ramp up its presence in the growing smartphone market. And for Nokia, major mistakes in supporting the Symbian OS instead of Android, admitted by the company CEO Stephen Elop in an open letter to employees, left it teetering on the edge of extinction. Before the acquisition, Nokia recently shifted its support to Microsoft devices, making it the top maker of devices based on the Windows Phone OS. But will the move help Nokia maintain, and grow, its position? That's all now in Microsoft's hands.

Motorola: Another unfortunate story in the mobile world is Motorola, which in fact did invent the cellular phone, through Dr. Martin Cooper and his team of engineers that worked for the company back in 1973. And Motorola was on a positive track in the new smartphone landscape with the original RAZR phone, which launched to rave reviews. However, the company seemed to have lost its way, fading to the background as players like Samsung, LG, and HTC emerged as top providers in the Android space. Last year, Motorola's Mobility Division was acquired by Google. I had the chance to interview Dr. Cooper earlier this year, and asked his thoughts on Motorola's position and what went wrong. "Clearly, Motorola lost its way because when I was there, we were the leaders," he said. "The RAZR was probably the best-selling cell ever when it was released. The Board of Directors decided maybe that Chris Calvin wasn't good enough, so they brought in a guy named Ed Zander and in two years, he virtually destroyed the company." Whatever the reason, Motorola is clearly not the force in the touch screen smartphone world it was with the flip and brick phones back in the day.

Microsoft: A series of blunders have left Microsoft in flux. While the company is still a massive entity within the technology world, enjoying continued profitability, a series of recent blows have left many wondering whether it will be in the same dominant position for the next generation. The latest Windows operating system has not been as well received as would have hoped, plagued in part by dwindling PC sales overall. Meanwhile, Microsoft's performance in the smartphone business has arguably only been as good as it has been because of BlackBerry's dismal performance. At E3, Microsoft left show-goers angry when it announced restrictions on games for the new Xbox One console, only to reverse many of the announcements after the backlash. And the latest ad campaign attempting to knock the iPad over Windows-based tablets is laughable. Current CEO Steve Ballmer has confirmed that he'll head to retirement within a year. And now, it has been reported that a group of investors are pushing to oust Bill Gates as well, feeling his position as Chairman, and place in the decision-making process for a replacement CEO, may be stifling innovation for the company. What will Microsoft's future be?

Ritz Camera Centres: Call this another victim of the smartphone revolution. This iconic U.S. based photography retail chain filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, after an amazing 91 years in operation. The company operated 800 stores in 40 states under the Wolf Camera, Kits Cameras and Inkley's names. Clearly, once again, the bite smartphones took out of the entry level camera business, along with a maturing camera market, led to its demise.

Borders: After four decades in operation, Amazon, eBay, and the rise in e-readers and tablets seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for Borders Group, which filed by bankruptcy protection in 2011. Not surprisingly, the company cited the state of the economy, along with the "rapidly changing retailing environment for books and related products" as contributing factors. The plan was to close 30% of its 600+ stores. But ultimately, Borders was unable to emerge from the dark, and its trademarks and customer list were sold to competitor Barnes & Noble near the end of the year. Perhaps Borders didn't shift its focus when needed to things like e-readers, Blu-ray movies, and other products to offset declines in book sales. Here in Canada, Indigo for example, which operates Chapters book stores, now have a profitable business in children's toys and other gift knick knacks and products.

Circuit City: Despite its best efforts, this U.S. retailer was unable to compete with the likes of Best Buy, Target, and Walmart, and eventually went bust. Circuit City stores closed their doors in 2009, though the acquired The Source by Circuit City locations in Canada remained open, eventually rebranded as just The Source, and purchased by Bell. Interestingly, Circuit City was the second-largest consumer electronics retailer in the U.S., next to Best Buy, with 567 stores across the country. But Best Buy's dominance was just too much to handle. The brand was purchased by Systemax, Inc., and products continued to sell online for a short time. But late last year, the Website was merged with TigerDirect.

Blockbuster: A clear victim of the move toward downloadable and streaming movies (hello, Netflix, iTunes), not to mention the rise in movie piracy, Blockbuster was bought out by DISH Network in 2011 for US$320 million following its filing for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. in 2010. In 2004, at its peak, Blockbuster had an impressive 60,000 employees and upwards of 9,000 stores. Ever since the acquisition, however, DISH has been closing stores consistently, with just 350 locations left as at August 2013. In 2011, Blockbuster closed down all of its stores in Canada. Blockbuster failed to realize that consumers were moving rapidly away from the physical DVD rental business, and no amount of special offers, from extended return times, to loyalty programs, was going to change that. The Blockbuster model really had no hope of survival in today's world. Though maybe a store selling merchandise linked to Netflix exclusive series' like House of Cards, the new Arrested Development installments, and Orange is the New Black, might just be an option...

Sam The Record Man: It was a sad day in Canada in 2007 when iconic downtown Toronto retailer Sam the Record Man closed its doors. iTunes and illegally downloaded music contributed to the demise of the once destination location for music lovers. Meanwhile, the legacy remains as controversy arised this month over the fate of the iconic black vinyl record-shaped signs that used to sit above the store. Nearby Ryerson University agreed to refurbish it in 2008, but is now trying to back out of that deal. Whether the sign is fixed or not, the business model as it once was is certainly long gone.

It's interesting to note is that many of the struggles here can be pointed back to product categories that Apple has innovated in or, in some cases, created in the mainstream. The iPod all but killed the CD business. The smartphone and tablet, with the iPhone and iPad as leading options, dug deep into the computing, entry-level digital camera, digital photo frame, portable DVD player, and portable music player markets, cannibalizing many of the categories altogether, and leaving others just barely surviving. And iTunes led to legally downloadable music becoming the way of the future, thus cutting into CD sales, and contributing to the demise of iconic shops like Sam The Record Man, and a&B sound.

This isn't, of course, to place blame on Apple for the inability of these companies to be ahead of the trends. It's up to every company to make its own decisions and seal its own fate. It does, however, show Apple's role in many of the trends of the last decade that have drastically transformed once dominant business models.

Many of the product categories that used to thrive a decade ago have now been replaced by two main ones: the smartphone and the tablet. This goes for everything from music and photos, right up to networking, computing, and even home automation. It's not surprisingly that cutting down 10 profitable product categories to two, with only a clear few dominant players, spells trouble for the industry overall. But they have also opened up a wealth of other product categories and revenue streams to enjoy; from mobile applications, to innovative accessories and peripherals, and other enhanced devices to work in tandem with them.

It's important to note that those who wish to stay on board must be continually informed and innovate alongside the technology trends. Because waiting until after might just be too late.

Published: 10/02/2013 12:29:13 PM UTC By Christine Persaud

  Labels: company, business, smartphone, microsoft, stores, blackberry, camera, market, motorola, product, categories, kodak, digital, blockbuster, devices, players, world, products, music, circuit, platform, bankruptcy, position, iconic, brand, nokia, future, borders, group,

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10 Ways to Conserve iPhone Battery on iOS 7

10 Ways to Conserve iPhone Battery on iOS 7

If you're one of the many to have downloaded the new iOS 7 software on an iPhone, you by now have realized one of the major drawbacks: it eats battery life, especially with an older-model phone like the 4S, like nobody's business.

Just to give you an idea, even with an Otterbox Defender series battery case with iON technology on the phone, which we've previously confirmed essentially doubles the battery life, my iPhone is back to being depleted before the end of a full day. I can only imagine how bad the situation would be if I didn't have the case.

That said, there are small things you can do to conserve every ounce of battery life possible, and extend the power time of your phone.

Turn off Bluetooth: This has always been a good one for helping to conserve battery life on any device. With the new quick swipe up option to open the Control Centre, it's pretty quick and easy to turn on Bluetooth when you need it, and turn it off when you're done.

Turn off Wi-Fi: There's no need to have your phone continuously searching for a Wi-Fi network. When you want to find out, turn on the function. Or when you're at home, in the office, or in the local Starbucks, by all means, connect. But if you don't need Wi-Fi right this minute, turn it off. Again, it's easily accessed through swiping up from the bottom of the screen.

Adjust brightness: While the nice, bright colours of the icons on the new OS are pretty to look at, if you don't have vision problems, there's no need to keep the screen at its full brightness at all times. And once again, that nifty Control Centre menu provides instant access to adjusting brightness when needed through one flick of the finger.

Automatic app updates: It's one of the neat features of iOS 7, but one with a major tradeoff. If you let the app updates run in the background, it means not having to manually update each one as they come in. But it also means as the phone continually checks for updates, and updates apps that might not be essential to you, it's eating up valuable battery life. Chances are if you knew the latest version of LinkedIn was being updated when you only had 5% battery life left, you'd probably have waited to do it once you get home. To turn this off, go to Settings > iTunes & App Store, scroll down to Automatic Downloads and turn off Updates.

Background App Refresh: There's also a feature that will refresh app content in the background. And in the phone's menu itself it notes that turning this off may help preserve battery life. Go to Settings > General > Background App Refresh and you'll see a list of apps that are refreshing in the background. You can then turn off auto refresh for all, or just the ones that aren't essential to your daily usage. For example, I left Google Maps and Weather to auto refresh, but turned off everything else.

Turn off Location Services: This is a tough one with so much emphasis on social networking services like FourSquare and Facebook that are enhanced by allowing you to tag your location. And with Siri and navigation functions, location services are an important part of the iPhone experience. That said, you can ensure that only the apps that really need location services have that function turned on, and all others are in the off position. Settings > General > Privacy > Location Services, then turn it off for the apps that don't need it. Example, while my apps like the Uber taxi service and Kijiji need location services (in order to determine where I am to send a cab with the former, or to find listing close to me with the latter), there's no reason Location Services need to be on for my Shutterfly photo app or WebMD Baby.

Fetch E-Mail: Choose to manually fetch your e-mail versus having new messages pushed to you every 5, 10, or 15 minutes. With our mobile devices being connected to us 24/7, there's no reason to have messages pushed to you other than to look busy and important. When you have a moment, pull down on the menu to download new messages and see if there's anything important. You can do this every 10 seconds or every 20 minutes. The point is the frequency is up to you on-the-fly, and the constant pushing of e-mails is not draining your battery. Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > then choose to Fetch New Data and select Manually.

Reduce Motion: Many of you probably don't even know this parallax feature is there, but this feature provides slight motion on the screen. It's cool, but not essential. And chances are, you won't miss it. To turn this on, go to Settings > General > Accessibility, then turn on Reduce Motion.

Turn off the Screen When You Don't Need It: We tend to check our phones, then sit them down and let the screen fade to darkness on its own, based on the time we've set for it to do so. Make sure you set the fade to happen as quickly as possible, or tap the Power button at the top of the phone to turn the screen off when you're down. If an important message comes through, the notification will light up the screen again. Otherwise, there's no need to stare at your cool wallpaper for an extra 10-15 seconds if you don't need to.

Get a Backup Charger: When all other steps have been taken, it's still worthwhile to invest in a good portable backup charger or a charging case; and/or a car charger. Nowadays, those such accessories are more important than ever.

I had already taken some of these steps, and after implementing a few others, like turning off auto app refresh (bummer since I'm back to the tiny red number and having to manually update them daily) and being more selective about Location Services, I have noticed a slight improvement in battery life. However, it still doesn't rival other devices. And with backup chargers available for fairly decent prices, it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Published: 10/01/2013 10:07:27 AM UTC By Christine Persaud

Jimmy Kimmel Teaches a Lesson in Media Gullibility

Jimmy Kimmel Teaches a Lesson in Media Gullibility

Late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel's latest antics have the media abuzz after he already unknowingly had the media abuzz, teaching a valuable lesson in the effects of the online world, media gullibility, and the importance of verifying news sources.

It all started when a typical home-made video was posted to YouTube about a month ago, featuring a young girl attempting her own variation of the latest dance craze twerking, and ending with her falling backwards into a table, her leg caught on fire. It was entitled the "worst twerk fail ever." Whether it was fueled by the ongoing mentions of the word twerking in the media, or the controversial Miley Cyrus performance at the Video Music Awards recently, somehow, the video eventually went viral, reaching upwards of nine-million views. Not only that, but it was featured and discussed on many TV news programs, from Fox News, to CNN.

This isn't unusual. It seems every news outlet finds space and time to cover the latest funny cat video, or humorous video of a teen coming down from anesthetic after getting his wisdom teeth pulled, a stellar graduation speech, or a guy pranking his wife. It's today's culture. What makes this situation worth talking about is that, earlier this week, Kimmel confirmed on his show that the video was actually all a hoax, concocted by he and his team, and featuring a stuntwoman. They stealthily posted the video, just as any regular Joe would do, then, as Kimmel puts it, sat back and waited for the magic to happen. They did not make an effort to send the video out to any media outlets, Tweet it, or even link it in any way to the program's page. It seemed to originate from a regular gal named Caitlin. (As it turns out, the stuntwoman's name isn't even Caitlin.)

What's particularly funny about this situation is that it not only points to how today's culture works, but puts into question how much media today relies on unreliable online sources. Sure, this video was just about twerking. But imagine a Tweet, a Facebook update, or a "news" item from an unofficial source reporting on something far more serious, and media outlets picking it up like wildfire, taking it to be true, when it's actually a hoax. Of course I'm sure far more fact-checking and source verification goes into stories of a more serious nature. Mention of a "twerk fail" video is merely a humourous time-filler to lighten up a TV broadcast or add some fun to a news Website. There's no need to verify that the video isn't a farce. But should there be? If it's considered news content, where do we draw the line?

Regardless of your opinion on the matter, the fact Kimmel was able to fool so many for so long, and so easily, is as equally scary as it is funny.

It's also, by the way, a great lesson in public relations. Not only was Kimmel able to get plenty of online attention placed on his brand and show thanks to this prank, he was also able to get lots of inadvertent coverage on competing networks that were unknowingly featuring a video his show produced. Genius.

Here's the original YouTube video

Here's the explanation Kimmel offered on his show this past Monday night, along with the "unedited" version:

Published: 09/11/2013 09:30:11 AM UTC By Christine Persaud

Canadians: Is Verizon Just the Devil You Don't Know?

Canadians: Is Verizon Just the Devil You Don't Know?

If Verizon is serious about entering the Great White North, the Canadian Government certainly looks to be supporting the company, standing firm on its current foreign investment rules. Many consumers are eager to believe that any new player in the country is a good thing; we've been dominated by the Big Three for far too long. More competition equals better deals is the belief. But does it really?

First, let's look at the situation. In Canada, we have three main national wireless carriers: Bell, Rogers, and Telus. Bell and Telus, affectionately known as Belus, share networks, leading many to argue that we have two real competitors. Scattered about are several regional players added to the mix.

In 2008/2009, in came three new players that ambitiously hoped to shake things up by offering services across Canada, including affordable plans and no contracts. And they did make tiny waves, helping to improve some aspects of service and pricing in Canada. But Public Mobile, Mobilicity, and WIND Mobile, simply cannot compete with the Big Three. To say it's not a level playing field would be an understatement. It's the sad reality of the situation. However, U.S. carrier Verizon, which has four times the subscribers of all three national carriers combined, certainly can compete.

Conveniently for Verizon, foreign investment and wireless telecom rules were recently revamped in Canada in hopes of accommodating those new players (Public, Mobilicity, and WIND), and opening the floodgates in Canada to new competition. Some of the current rules include that any new company with less than 10% market share can be purchased by a foreign investor; an existing Canadian carrier cannot purchase one of the new carriers within the first five years of operation (year five would be 2014); and new entrants are open to bid on more spectrum blocks than the incumbents. It's clear these rules were made to help new carriers better compete. But it leaves the door wide open for Verizon to jump through those loopholes. It's like giving the 400-pound heavyweight an opportunity to fight the reigning champ while the latter is blindfolded, with his hands behind his back.

Let's make this clear: I'm not saying Verizon shouldn't enter Canada and that it wouldn't help the situation. What I am saying is that the incumbents do have a point. Rules are rules, but they were clearly meant for a reasonably-sized player to enter the market, and gain a small advantage to help it kick start business. It's almost laughable to think that Verizon needs a boost to get off its feet in Canada.

That said, Bell, Rogers, and Telus, have been reaping the benefits of dominating a market for far too long. Many would argue they've used the opportunity to take full advantage of the situation, hiking up prices, gouging customers with added fees, confusing us with pages and pages of fine print, and locking customers into three-year contracts. Any other "new" carrier that's entered the market has been nothing but a farce: Virgin, which is now 100% owned by Bell; Fido, a Rogers brand, and Koodo, a Telus partner, are just a few examples. Is Verizon's entrance a final revenge play for Canadians to say "screw with us for so many years and this is what you get!" It's ironic how the Big Three were in favour of adjusting foreign investment rules when they thought no company in its right mind would want to buy a Mobilicity or WIND anyway. (In fact, Telus attempted to buy the former, but that deal was quickly squashed by the Canadian government.)

It's clear through sentiments expressed on blogs and in online commentary that Canadians are fed up, and cheering on the Government to say "yes" to Verizon. Yet oddly enough, the Big Three have gone wild with a public campaign urging Canadians to keep the big bad wolf, Verizon out of Canada, and support our good ol' Canadian pride; the Canadian companies that have invested so much in the business. It's just unfair, they cry. (Funny enough, the Big Three laughed at WIND and Mobilicity years ago when they, too, cried that the current situation was "unfair.")

Whatever happens, Canadians need to heed one warning. While it seems ever likely that Verizon will find its way to Canada, understand that Verizon is a massive, multi-billion dollar company. While the company would represent fresh, new blood in Canada, it's not going to have the same fighting mentality as a WIND or Mobilicity that's entering the ring for the first time and passionately wants to make an impact in any way possible to get on the radar. Verizon is a corporation that wants to make money, and lots of it. And it sees Canada as a hot market to do so.

Don't' get me wrong: Verizon will come to play, and play hard. But it will do this on its terms. Even if the carrier comes to market with comparably-priced offerings rather than undercutting the Big Three, chances are that Bell, Rogers, and Telus will up their game in order to retain customers, and keep them from jumping to Verizon. And we'll all benefit from that.

But when all is said and done, and the initial hype dies down, Verizon may not be the angel here to save you. It could just become Canada's fourth carrier that's just like the rest. The devil you don't know.

Photo by "Ambro;" www.freedigitalphotos..net

Published: 08/13/2013 10:47:26 AM UTC By Christine Persaud

Message Received, but Denied A Reply

Message Received, but Denied A Reply

Years ago I used to dream of the day that technology would allow me to see that a text or online message I had sent to a person was received and read. However, the part I didn't dream about was the feeling one could have when a message, which needs a reply, is merely just read and left behind.

With Apple's iMessage and Facebook's Messages allowing a person to see if his message has been seen or not, the excuse of "sorry, I didn't see it," has become a far harder one to embrace from a sender's point of view. Sure, people get busy and stuff gets forgotten about, but damn, it can feel awful to get the digital cold shoulder.

After a few days the feeling of angst and frustration toward the negligent recipient passes, but there's still that little pestering voice that squabbles in a person's head wondering why the communication breakdown has taken place and how it can be rectified.

If it's a person that's seen every day, a quick conversation about it after the fact can calm the nerves. But, what if it's an acquaintance or friend that isn't seen as often?

Is it sensible to send yet another message to remind this person that being left hanging on a limb is a rather uncomfortable place to be? Is it not at all creepy to be more obvious about needing a response by, in the case of Facebook, posting a "check your Messages" reminder on the individual's wall? Determining the proper etiquette in the digital world is still a work in progress.

Sure, these ideas can rattle around between the ears, but they can prove challenging to follow through on. After all, appearing desperate in such scenarios is not a good look for anyone. Nor is being a pesterer that is so full of himself that he expects responses to be flipped back to him with much enthusiasm and graciousness, in an ultra-timely manner.

I recommend patience. Flipping out on someone over what really could just be a slip of mind or good intentions spoiled by a lack execution is no way to handle such scenarios if you want people ever responding to your messages again.

Of course, managing emotions in the digital era is a tricky ship to steer...we're all still learning. However, keeping both hands on the wheel and slowing down is a great start. We'll all get where we need to be eventually.

Photo by: Stuart Miles
www.freedigitalphotos.net

Published: 08/12/2013 04:27:15 PM UTC By Adam Grant

Are Discs Dead?

Are Discs Dead?

For over three years, Apple's iTunes store has been the world's largest music retailer. Now that Apple has announced an online radio service to compete with the likes of Pandora and Spotify, it raises the question: do we need physical music carriers like CD anymore? Or to put the question more succinctly, are discs dead?

From an audiophile point-of-view, the answer is "yes, no and maybe," with lots of "ands" and "buts." It's interesting to note that sales of both CDs and DVDs at HMV Canada have enjoyed modest growth this year. (Click here to read more.)

Convenience

There's no mystery about why customers are gravitating toward digital downloads and subscription services. It's all about convenience: the ability to buy music at the click of mouse and have it on your computer and/or mobile device in a minute or so; the ability to have a huge library of digital music at your fingertips, complete with meta-data that makes it easy to find a particular song or artist.

So it's not surprising that lots of people are abandoning their CD libraries altogether: ripping them to computer and transferring them to a mobile device, then disposing of the discs through garage sales or used record stores. Not only does this cut clutter, it makes listening a lot easier: no more scanning CD shelves for that album you haven't heard in a decade (but are in the mood for right now).

But ...

Squeeze Play

But this convenience can carry a cost in sound quality.

To minimize file sizes and bandwidth requirements, the iTunes store and all online subscription services all employ lossy compression coding schemes like AAC and MP3. Compressed files exploit psychoacoustic factors such as masking (a loud tone masking an adjacent quieter tone): if a sound isn't normally audible, there's no need to encode it. Lose it, and you can reduce file sizes and download times.

These formats are fine for casual listening through headphones or low-end computer speakers. But for serious listening using good phones or speakers, the effects of lossy compression are clear once you know what to listen for. With aggressive compression used for low bitrates (128kbps and below), you may hear a harsh metallic edge with some content; cavernous echo-y artifacts become audible as bitrate descends. At high bitrates (256kbps and above), artifacts aren't as obvious, but trained ears will notice a compromised portrayal of space and ambience.

Consequently, uncompressed or lossless formats are preferable for serious listening. With most music, the easiest way to (legitimately) obtain an uncompressed file is to buy the CD. Maybe you'll spin it on a CD player; maybe you'll rip onto a computer in an uncompressed format like WAV or AIFF. Or if you want to save space, you'll use a lossless format like FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) or Apple Lossless. Lossless formats yield lower file sizes and download times, but are fully reconstituted during playback.

There are online music stores that sell uncompressed CD-quality in FLAC format (easily converted to Apple Lossless using an inexpensive utility). But ...

CD-Quality Downloads

But selection at these sites pales in comparison to iTunes and Amazon's MP3 store, or what you can get on CD. Many of the online music stores offering CD-quality downloads specialize in specific genres, such as classical or world music. The biggest vendor of CD-quality downloads is HDTracks, which offers a broad variety of genres, from rock to folk to jazz to classical (but other sites have content that's not available on HDTracks). But ...

angelaHowever, selling digital files instead enables small labels to offer titles that are no longer available on disc. A case in point: I recently downloaded CD-resolution files in Apple Lossless Format of J.S. Bach's English and French Suites performed by ex-pat Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt. Those wonderful performances are no longer available on CD, but Hyperion Records continues to offer them as digital downloads. But ...

As I've discussed elsewhere, downloading the music that you've purchased from some of these sites can be a painful process. Frequently, their online storefronts leave a lot to be desired. As it stands, the easiest way to get CD-quality music is to go to a record store and buy the CD, or else order it online. But ...

High-Resolution Downloads

But you can do better than CD.

A growing number of online stores are high-resolution digital music files. Instead of sampling rate of 44.1kHz and resolution of 16 bits (the CD "Red Book" standard), they have sampling rates as high as 192kHz and resolution as high as 24 bits. My digital music setup supports PCM audio to 96kHz/24 bits. In my experience, 96/24 files created from a good master (instead of simply being upsampled from CD) can deliver amazing sound, with a subtly but audibly superior portrayal of time and space.

The only time I indulge in that obnoxious behaviour known as "showrooming" (going to a bricks-and-mortar store to find out about a product, but then shopping online) is when I'm shopping for CDs. If I'm tempted to buy a CD, but think a high-resolution version may be available, I'll take out my smartphone and surf to an online service like HDTracks to check. If an album I want is available as a 96/24 download, that's probably how I'll buy it. If not, I buy the CD from the bricks-and-mortar retailer, even if the price is higher than online, because the store has earned my business.

In other words, my behaviour isn't motivated by price, but by quality. For some music, high-resolution downloads offer the best sonic experience. But ...

High-Resolution Discs

Downloads aren't the only way to get high-resolution music. Over the past decade or so, I've amassed a 100-plus collection of Super Audio CDs. SACD is definitely a niche format, and has struggled to survive in its 14 years of existence. While the number of new titles continues to decline, several specialty labels still release music on SACD.

One attraction of SACD is the fact that many titles are available in 5.1-channel surround sound. Some audiophiles dismiss surround as a gimmick, at least for music. I don't. While it's possible to use the extra channels in a gimmicky manner (having instruments pop up in front, behind and beside you), that can be a very enjoyable guilty pleasure, say with the alarm clocks in the SACD surround mix of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

More often, especially with classical releases on SACD, the surround channels are used to add an extra degree of spatial realism, expanding the boundaries of your listening room to more convincingly create the sense of being in a large space like a cathedral or concert hall.

SACDs also contain a two-channel track; and even for two-channel stereo playback, the format offers real benefits. SACD stores music in a high-resolution format called Direct Stream Digital. DSD is a single-bit codec with very high sampling rate (2.8224MHz, 64 times higher than CD). Because of the very high sampling frequency, the noise that results from quantization errors inherent to single-bit encoding is far beyond the audible range, and can be removed by noise-shaping processing, while still maintaining very high audio bandwidth.

cd37

I've found the sonic advantages of SACD sufficiently compelling to buy music in that format rather than CD whenever possible. When I recently assembled a new hi-fi system after ripping my CD library, the question about these advantages resurfaced. Most SACDs also have a CD layer, so that they can be played on a standard CD player. Should I rip music from the CD layer of my SACDs onto my Mac Mini, and enjoy the convenience of having all this music accessible with a click of a mouse? Or should I hold onto the discs? The decision would have an impact on the components I would choose for my two-channel system.

Listen Up!

To make that decision, I conducted a couple of simple listening tests. I ripped the CD layer of a few favourite SACDs onto a Mac Mini, then played them through an Arcam rDAC connected to Arcam A38 amplifier and KEF LS50 speakers, and compared the sound with the SACD played on an Arcam CD37 CD/SACD player.

floydOn tracks as varied as Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine" and Handel's Opus 4 Organ Concertos played by the Academy of Ancient Music, the SACD layer sounded bit more refined, with less digital glare. It wasn't a big difference, and I'd be perfectly happy with the CD; but in all cases I preferred the SACD.

I also compared the CD and SACD players of several discs on the Arcam player. On a wonderful SACD of music by Philip Glass played by harpist Lavinia Meijer, the rich instrumental timbres came through well on both the CD and SACD players. But there was a difference in spatial presentation. With the CD layer, the music appeared from a plane between the speakers; with SACD it came from the entire front of the room, with greater width, depth and precision.

These experiments were enough to convince me to keep my SACDs, and build a system around the Arcam disc player and amplifier.

Not Dead Yet

So are discs dead? The world is certainly shifting from physical media to digital files, for lots of reasons, including convenience and choice. But I'll be buying discs for some time to come. I'm still buying CDs, because that's often the simplest way to get uncompressed versions of music I want in my collection. However, I'll opt for a high-resolution download when one is available. And when I can find them, I'm still buying SACDs.

 

Published: 08/08/2013 05:22:04 PM UTC By Gordon Brockhouse

U.S. Wireless Trade-in Plans May Not Be All They Seem

U.S. Wireless Trade-in Plans May Not Be All They Seem

The American wireless carriers have been introducing trade-in plans of late that are being looked at as the "new rage" stateside in offering customers a better deal. But are they all they're cracked up to be? Further research would indicate that the answer is a resounding "no."

With Verizon, the latest to join the foray, customers can trade in a smartphone for a new model after six months. But the old phone needs to be at least 50% paid off before doing so. Do the math, and it's easy to see that you can't pay off 50% of the purchase price of a phone after six months unless you're paying double what you'd normally be paying for that time period; perhaps even more.

Think of it this way: you buy a phone on a two-year contract, it means the outright purchase price of the phone is going to be subsidized over those 24 months. Let's say the phone costs $700, but you pay $400 on a two-year term. This means you "owe" $16.67 each month to make up the $300 difference. Should you decide to switch to a new device after six months, you've only effectively paid $100.02 of what you owe for the phone. This means you still owe another $200 to make up the difference. Half the price of the phone would be $350, which means you'd actually have to pay another $250 for the phone to make that 50% to upgrade "early." This means you've actually overpaid for the phone when all is said and done, just so you could get rid of it early. AND you don't get to keep it. Huh? Unless I'm missing something here, it doesn't make much sense.

With Verizon's program, called Edge, you would get a device like an iPhone 5, for nothing outright. But the monthly cost for the phone would be based on a full price of the device, not the subsidized, two-year contract price. That means you're paying toward the $600 phone price, not the $200 two-year contract price. Bottom line: in the end, you're still paying more, and don't get to re-sell the device when you're done since you don't really own it.

AT&T's similar plan is called Next. With that one, you don't pay any upfront fee for the phone either, but again, the cost of the device (the full cost, that is) is spread out over 20 equal monthly payments. So with an iPhone 5, for example, that would be over $30 tacked on to each monthly service bill to make up the $600 purchase price. If you decide to upgrade after a year, you can, and the monthly additional payments will cease after you hand in the old device. But you've already paid about $360 toward a phone that, if you want to upgrade, you don't get to keep. If you bought the iPhone 5 from AT&T on a two-year contract, it would cost you $200. The monthly service plan fees would not be any different, and the device would be yours to keep once you're ready for a new one. Which means you've essentially paid another $160 for the right to get a new phone. Seems pretty steep if you ask me.

Consider that you might not even want a new phone after six months or even a year. What happens then? Many who were banking on an iPhone 5S launch earlier this year were disappointed that one hasn't seen the light of day yet. The iPhone 5 launched almost a year ago. If you had purchased such a plan at that time, and hadn't seen a worthwhile upgrade yet, you'd have grossly overpaid for the phone while others who signed on for two-years paid a third of what you did for the same device.

If you do upgrade, great. You have this fancy, new phone, for which you're going to be paying monthly once again. And what happens if you decide you like it and want to keep it for a full two years? Again, you've paid toward the full purchase price for it when you could have paid a fraction of that in the first place through a subsidized contract. Essentially, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

It seems the details of these plans have been made in such a way to confuse customers into thinking they're getting a great deal, and significant savings, when in actuality, they're not. Has the U.S. taken tips from the Canadian wireless market?

Aside from the confusion, potential deception, and inflated pricing these "deals" may result in, the very idea of the trade-in seems illogical. It essentially means consumers are renting phones instead of buying them. While customers do like to update their smartphones more often then ever these days, the age of phones being tucked away in desk drawers for years on end aren't really here anymore. "Old" mobiles are often still very new, and given to family members (grandma, grandpa, perhaps), friends, kids, or even resold on sites like eBay, Craigslist, or Kijiji for a good value.

So what would make sense? How about two-year contracts where customers can upgrade after six months to a new device by paying the subsidized price for that device, and perhaps signing on for an additional year, two-year, or even six-months of service? One can change the service side of his plan at any time, as long as he locks in for a longer duration from the carrier. So why not be able to change devices under the same terms? The carrier is guaranteed the customer's business via a contract, and the customer is happy because he can use the device he wants. It's a win-win. And the old phone will likely go to another paying customer who's going to use a service plan that brings even more revenue to the carrier.

My advice to U.S. wireless customers: don't buy into these trade-ins. Chances are, you can wait an extra year for the hottest new device. If you can't, find someone to buy your old one from you, and put the money toward an early upgrade of the one you want. Consider that us folks to the north have been chained to our devices for 36 months for a long, long time. While lengthy contracts are limiting to customers, contracts in and of themselves aren't all that bad. And paying less upfront for a device, then never having to fork over another penny for it again because the carrier knows you'll be paying a monthly service fee for a specified period of time, is a far better deal in this writer's eyes then paying monthly for a phone you don't get to keep, may get rid of early, and could get for far cheaper in the first place if you kept it.

As for Canadians, if you see carriers north of the border pick up any such trade-in programs here, or if Verizon does enter the market and brings these trade-ins with it, don't buy ‘em. There's just no logical way they could be worth the big bucks.

Thoughts?

Published: 07/29/2013 11:20:35 AM UTC By Christine Persaud