2014 New York International Auto Show

  • Audi A3 TDI sedan
    Audi A3 TDI sedan
  • Chevy Silverado 1500 High Country 4x4
    Chevy Silverado 1500 High Country 4x4
  • All-new Chevy Colorado
    All-new Chevy Colorado
  • Acura TLX
    Acura TLX
  • Ford Mustang 50th Anniversary Edition
    Ford Mustang 50th Anniversary Edition
  • Maserati GranTurismo
    Maserati GranTurismo
  • Lexus LS 460 F Sport
    Lexus LS 460 F Sport
  • New Fiat-inspired Jeep Renegade
    New Fiat-inspired Jeep Renegade
  • Porsche Macan
    Porsche Macan
  • Jaguar C-X17
    Jaguar C-X17
  • Cadillac ATS Coupe
    Cadillac ATS Coupe
  • Lexus RC 350
    Lexus RC 350
  • Bentley Motors display
    Bentley Motors display
  • Stars of Transformers 4: Age of Extinction
    Stars of Transformers 4: Age of Extinction
  • Jeep Cherokee descending 18-ft, 35 degree decline.
    Jeep Cherokee descending 18-ft, 35 degree decline.

Life seems to be getting ever busier lately, to the point that Saturday and Sunday have largely become makeup days for whatever work didn’t happen during the week.  But ever so often, it’s good to take a break from the routine and do something fun.  So this weekend I made my annual pilgrimage to the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s far west side.  This is my experience.

Getting There
My trip to the New York International Auto Show always begins in perhaps the most ironic way possible.  I leave my apartment in southern Connecticut on foot, walking to the train station.  Once on the train platform, I swipe my credit card at a kiosk in exchange for a $29.50 off-peak, round-trip ticket to Grand Central Terminal.  The train usually arrives almost precisely on schedule, not hampered by weather in April.  Once at Grand Central, I walk out the doors toward Vanderbilt Avenue and grab a cab over to the Javits Center, typically arriving just as the doors open to the public.

On Site
While you can purchase tickets via the web in advance, I’ve never seen a long line for purchasing them upon arrival.  There was literally no line at a credit card kiosk, where I purchased one adult ticket for $15.00.  From there, I walked through security, consisting of a fairly painless process, after which I presented my ticket for admittance.  Once inside, I try to get a quick feel for the place, knowing that I’ll be back around to take a second look at everything eventually.

Favorite Car(s)
So let’s cut to the chase.  Every year I pick one or more vehicles that I wouldn’t mind having; typically something new to the scene.  This year I’m picking two, based on environment or purpose of use.  I’m not suggesting that I could necessarily afford either of these vehicles, but they aren’t priced out in the stratosphere like some of the more exotic cars there.  So here goes.

Favorite Red State Vehicle
If I were currently living in what some would describe as the Land of the Free – interior US states with a lower population density, excluding Illinois – I’d love to drive the 2014 Chevy Silverado 1500 High Country 4×4, exhibited on the Javits floor in White Diamond Tricoat paint.  The perforated brown saddle leather interior of this crew cab is remarkably comfortable, and doesn’t try too hard like some pickups adorned in a Western motif.  Thankfully the Silverado High Country on display didn’t include the optional sunroof, which I took issue with on other vehicles sharing the same chassis.  (We’ll talk about that later.)  The only thing standing between this 2014 Chevy Silverado High Country and perfection is the fact that Chevy doesn’t offer it in the purer Summit White paint available on their other trucks.  That, and the window sticker of $53,860.00, which puts in the same neighborhood as the aggressively capable Ford Raptor.

Favorite Blue State Vehicle
These days I live so close to the East Coast that the water next to my building goes in and out with the tide.  I park in one parking garage at home, and another at work.  And in this setting, I’ve become a fan of just-big-enough small sedans.  As long as there are seating positions where my 6’ 5” self and an occasional front-seat passenger are comfortable, I don’t otherwise care how small the overall car is or whether there’s enough room in back for anything larger than a laptop bag.  So, when Audi announced that an A3 sedan was coming to America, they got my attention.  And it turns out they brought the perfect one to the show.

The Audi A3 TDI sedan in Glacier White Metallic with Titanium Gray interior and 18” 10-spoke wheels really is an extraordinarily attractive small sedan, inside and out.  The car’s new enough that I’m not finding the turbodiesel version on audiusa.com just yet.  It’s safe to assume that the A3 TDI will use a variant of the same engine that powers diesel versions of the Volkswagen Golf, Jetta, and Passat.  After playing with the driver’s seat adjustment, I found a seating position in the A3 sedan where I could see myself remaining comfortable for extended periods of time.  The interior of Audi’s A3 sedan is tasteful and relatively clutter-free.

Audi’s A3 sedan seems well-positioned to compete with the similarly-sized Mercedes CLA250, Lexus IS 250 and Acura ILX, with gas mileage from the diesel variant likely to edge out all but the hybrid version of the Acura ILX, and then perhaps only in city driving.  There was no price tag on the A3 TDI sedan at the auto show, but of all the cars there, this is really the one that I’d most like to integrate with my current lifestyle down the road.

Other New Stuff
Of course the New York International Auto Show is an opportunity to see the first public examples of several new cars every year.  This year, for instance, Acura introduced their new TLX sedan, which replaces both their outgoing TSX and TL sedans, thereby filling the gap between Acura’s baby ILX and large RLX.  Combining the old TSX and TL into one car is a bit of a challenge, as the two covered a fair amount of ground in both sizing and pricing.  It’s my understanding that the new TLX maintains roughly the wheelbase and interior dimensions of the larger of the two cars it replaces, while giving up four inches of overhang to compromise on exterior dimensions.  Acura includes the engine options of both former cars: a 2.4 liter inline-four and a 3.5 liter V6, mated to new 8 and 9-speed transmissions respectively.  While show attendees couldn’t sit in the TLX this year, it seems well-positioned to serve as Acura’s mid-sized sedan for several years to come.

The Soliloquy slideshow at the top of this article also includes the Ford Mustang 50th Anniversary Edition, the new Porsche Macan and Jaguar C-X17 SUVs, the Lexus RC 350 and Cadillac ATS coupes and the Fiat-inspired Jeep Renegade.  Unfortunately, in the case of the Renegade, the only thing they appear to be rebelling against is Jeep’s legacy of off-road prowess.

GM’s Large SUVs
This year we get to see GM’s refreshed SUV lineup that shares the same platform as last year’s all-new Silverado and Sierra pickups.  Every sample of the Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, GMC Yukon and Yukon XL and Cadillac Escalade there were well equipped, and it showed.  A black Chevy Suburban LTZ on display stickered north of $70,000.  With a pricetag like that, these vehicles may well be the exclusive domain of doctors, lawyers and well-paid executives, and not the Midwestern families that historically drove them.  I also have a major bone to pick with GM on the basic design.  Every large SUV there was equipped with a sunroof that opens below the roofline, subtracting space from the interior headroom of the vehicle.  In each case, I found myself having to make significant adjustment to the drivers seat to avoid hitting my head on the artificially low roof.  One might feel like they should be able to hop into a Tahoe or Escalade without having to lower the seat significantly from the default position.  Needless to say, I’d advise full-grown men to steer clear of the $995 power sunroof option.  Given the significant expense of these vehicles, and the fact that a brand new Yukon burst into flames while on a test drive in Anaheim recently, it may be wise to avoid these vehicles altogether.  At least for this year.

Let’s Talk Tech
Not long ago, it felt like many vendors at the New York Auto Show were trying to use technology for technology’s sake in their displays.  In 2012, every car had to have an iPad-powered display sign in front in order to pass muster.  These days, the sales professionals still tote iPads, of course.  And some of the vendors still have electronic, interactive displays out in front of their cars.  But just as many are comfortable with traditional static signage that conveys the appropriate information.  And while social media was certainly still mentioned, it didn’t feel central to any major displays, such as Audi’s 2013 use of a giant Tagboard.  If only automakers understood this lesson inside the cars.

The Mercedes S-Class isn’t the only new vehicle with a mostly or fully-digital dash, containing digital representations of traditional analog gauges.  While digitally depicted gauges can sometimes look OK when driving, as soon as you shut off the car, they look like nothing at all.  Just as I’d rather have a mechanical automatic watch than some digital smartwatch with fake hands, I’d rather have a traditional speedometer and tachometer on my auto dashboard.  And I’m going to be particularly unhappy if digital gauges move down-market and get implemented with noticeably less attention to detail, a la, the Cadillac ELR.  If this makes me an old fogey in my late 30s, I’m OK with it.

While my day started out at a relatively crisp 39 degrees Fahrenheit, by mid afternoon New York was at 66 degrees under a mostly sunny sky.  As I left the Javits Center, I again hailed a cab on 11th Avenue for the ride back to Grand Central.  My taxi was a yellow Toyota Camry with all the windows fully down, offering a steady dose of what passes for fresh air in Midtown.  Ironically, considering I’d spent the day at the auto show, my afternoon taxi driver reminded me why I’d never actually want to own a car in New York.  He used every scrap of pavement not currently occupied, disregarding lane markers and stop lights in order to get one or two cars ahead of where he might have otherwise been.  He was driving binary: full gas, followed by full brakes.  At one point, a non-descript black Ford Taurus tried to pull out in traffic.  My taxi driver denied it as he raced past, at which point the Taurus flashed on red and blue lights.  But it came to nothing, and I arrived at Grand Central in literally the fastest time possible.  The subsequent train ride east had none of the same excitement.

Final Thoughts
The New York International Auto Show is always a fun way to spend a day.  One doesn’t have to love everything about the current state of the auto industry in order to find plenty to see and learn.  With so much there, everyone’s experience is sure to be different.  I was fortunate to take a break from the routine and make the visit.  This year’s show runs through Sunday, April 27th.  Tickets are $15 for adults, and $5 for children under 12.  For more information, visit autoshowny.com.

Happy Thanksgiving

Approaching Chicago Via The Dan Ryan Expressway

Approaching Chicago Via The Dan Ryan Expressway

Some consider travel a hassle.  For me, getting there is half the fun and maybe more.  I’d travel literally all the time if my economic or employment circumstances allowed it.  So I count myself fortunate to have been able to get away for the week of Thanksgiving again this year.  For $10, plus 32,500 Delta SkyMiles, I was able to fly from my home airport in Connecticut to one Midwestern city, and return from another at the end of the week.  And while spending time with family, I was able to do a number of things that could be of at least mild interest to a tech-geek like myself.  I’ll try to focus on those things here.

Caterpillar Visitors Center
Early in the week, I found myself among a party of six at the new Caterpillar Visitors Center in downtown Peoria, Illinois.  The tour starts in a movie theater built into the bed of a life-size replica of Caterpillar’s largest dump truck, the 797F.  The real truck weighs 1,375,000 pounds and probably has a price tag to match, making it impractical to place the genuine article in a museum setting.  Caterpillar does have several pieces of actual current and past equipment on display as well.  The kids among us weren’t the only ones who enjoyed climbing on these machines.

John Hancock Observatory
Following a minivan ride to Chicago, I found myself at the 94th-floor John Hancock Observatory on the north side of downtown.  The weather was bright and clear, allowing some of the best views of Chicagoland.  I noticed that I had decent cellular reception up here this time.  When I lived in Chicago during the late 90s and twice again during the early and mid 2000s, I recall cellular service up at the top being spotty at best.

We walked down Michigan Avenue as far as the Chicago River and the relatively new Trump International Hotel & Tower® Chicago.  While now the second-tallest building in town, somehow I hadn’t noticed it on any prior visits.  In fact, I still remember it as the location of the Sun-Times building.  I guess I’m getting older.

LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Chicago
Later the same day, we headed out I-90W past O’Hare, before turning south to Schaumburg to visit LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Chicago.  This destination was strictly for my niece and nephews, and in fact, adults must be accompanied by kids in order to gain admittance.  Of course I remember playing with LEGOs when I was a kid, including what were then called Expert Builder sets, now know as LEGO Technic.  Were it not for my youngest relatives, however, I probably wouldn’t be aware of the extent to which LEGOs have exploded in popularity in recent years.  They have series to match several of the recent big-budget movies, such as Star Wars.  Speaking of Star Wars, LEGOLAND® Discovery Center Chicago has life-sized replicas of R2-D2 and Darth Vader built from LEGOs, and smaller but very detailed scenes from Naboo and Tatooine.  The center also has several 3D movies, a ride and a playhouse for the kids.

PC Repair
I imagine that very few professionals of any type can go back home without their expertise being called upon at least once, regardless of discipline.  I spent my Friday afternoon trying to get a working computer running Windows XP with an M-AUDIO Delta 44 sound card, my dad’s preferred combination for working with software-defined ham radio.  His daily-use PC that we hand-assembled together in 2009 would no longer power on, so I began working on loading up an even older Dell Dimension 2400 circa 2004.  If you’ve installed Windows XP recently, you know how long it takes to download all the Windows Critical Updates, even over a robust Internet connection.  And Frontier DSL is anything but robust in farming country.  The day ended late with no guarantee of success, but he’s had some luck with some subsequent steps since.

The Return
The journey back was largely uneventful, at least until I ran into holiday traffic on the drive back from Bradley International Airport.  My good ole Garmin GPS called out, “Severe traffic ahead; recalculating,” and sent me on a route where I was able to mostly maintain the speed limit right to my front door.  You’ve gotta love that.

And now, as I relax today prior to resuming work tomorrow, I realize that I’ve certainly got a lot to be grateful for this holiday season.  Here’s hoping that you do as well.  Happy Thanksgiving.

2013 NYIAS in Review

Easter Sunday may have been a day of quiet reverence or respectful celebration for many millions of people.  With perhaps a tinge of guilt, I spent the day at an altar of an altogether different sort.  The 2013 New York International Auto Show opened to the public last weekend at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.  It runs through today.  Like many here in the Northeast, I made the trip to Midtown Manhattan on Sunday to see all that the auto industry has to offer.

Personal Favorites
Every year I pick a favorite car.  Last year it was the all-new 2013 Ford Fusion that looks like a family sedan designed by Jaguar or Aston Martin.  The year before it was the 2012 Range Rover Evoque Coupe.  This year it’s a little more complicated.  No one car sold me instantly or wholeheartedly.  There was no love at first sight.  So I’ll share my thoughts on a few, and then include a slideshow near the end.

Favorite Interior
My favorite vehicle interior is that of the all-new, full-sized Range Rover in Autobiography trim level with the Rear Executive Class seating option.  Now I typically try to avoid paying too much attention to vehicles costing in the neighborhood of $130,995.  I’m fairly sure that I’d never buy one even if I could.  But I’m also a sucker for a fixed, rear-seat center console, the likes of which only occasionally appear in the most expensive sedans on earth.  I don’t know why a fixed rear console appeals to me, but it does.  Big time.  And this Range Rover has one.  I love it despite the fact that it limits rear seating rear capacity to two, and further reduces curb-side egress to only one of the rear-seat passengers.  Obviously I’m not going to find myself chauffeured around in one of these Range Rovers any time soon, and I’m almost certainly better off for it.

Favorite Relatively Affordable Vehicle
I went to New York expecting to dislike the 2014 Jeep Cherokee.  When I first saw spy photos of it months ago, I wrongly assumed that it was replacing the current, very attractive Jeep Grand Cherokee.  And I wasn’t thrilled with what I was seeing.  I wasn’t very happy with Jeep’s official photos either when they became available, though I was assured that it looked better in person.  And thankfully, it does.

It turns out that the new Cherokee is a just-big-enough, just-capable-enough, all-terrain SUV, provided that you opt for the Trailhawk configuration, 271 horsepower 3.2L V6 engine and Trailer Tow Group.  Otherwise it’s just a Grocery Getter.  The abundance of black plastic on the 2014 Cherokee in all trim levels leaves me thinking that black paint is the only appropriate color choice at this time.  I’d expect body-color trim to arrive at some point in the future, making the Cherokee more attractive in other colors.  Somehow I could see myself driving one of these in the snowy but densely-packed Northeast.

Favorite Technology Item
Audi builds great looking cars, though I worry that their long-term upkeep may bankrupt anyone not comfortably ensconced in the Top One Percent™.  They also brought my favorite thing to New York that was not a car.  Audi teamed up with Tagboard to feed their electronic signage with social media updates throughout the week.  Those who Tweeted or similarly mentioned hashtags #Audi and #NYIAS might see their post on the 30-foot screen in Audi’s booth.  I’d love to see some metrics behind Audi’s social media outreach during the show as a result of their partnership with Tagboard.

The 2014 Silverado / Sierra
I happen to drive one of the best-selling vehicles sold in the United States, the current-generation, full-sized Chevy Silverado pickup.  Think of my choice as a throwback to my rural Indiana childhood.  My Silverado, in 4×4 Z71 trim, is capable, confidence-inspiring, and good looking too.  The new 2014 Silverado and its GMC Sierra stablemate are at least two of those three adjectives, with the looks being somewhat subjective.

To my eye, the all-new 2014 Silverado looks ever so slightly more squared off, masculine and purpose-built.  And that’s great.  For a truck.  But sooner or later, GM will have to release a new Tahoe, Avalanche, Suburban, Yukon and Escalade on this chassis too.  The current Tahoe and siblings look absolutely gorgeous in my opinion.  They look at home anywhere from the construction site to the country club, and at a kids’ soccer field in between.  I fear that a Tahoe or Suburban based on the new Silverado design will only look appropriate in black with S.W.A.T. team members riding the foot rails on both sides.  Now there’s a market for that, just as there’s a market for movies featuring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.  It just happens to be a slightly narrower niche than the pool of potential buyers for the current Tahoe, et al.  I hope that GM proves me wrong with a full-size SUV holding broad appeal.

And now for some random pictures taken using an iPad…

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The New York International Auto Show, and similar auto shows in other major cities, are always a little bit overwhelming.  Sensory overload, and all that.  At the same time, it’s a whole lot of fun.  And there’s almost always a technology tie-in too.  For instance, I heard a salesman describing the aforementioned 2014 Silverado as, “like having a Nexus or an iPad on the dash.”  He was speaking figuratively, of course, about GM’s feature-rich touchscreen console with 4G LTE connectivity.

Now my day at the show ends sooner or later, and it’s time to go home.  Which in my case, ironically, doesn’t involve getting behind the wheel at all.  The train took me from Midtown back to my little city in Connecticut, and practically right to my front door.  At least I’d have a reason to drive the next day.

The 2013 New York International Auto Show runs through 7:00 PM this evening at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

Meanwhile, I’ll be working on a real tech post for next week.

New York Auto Show

I’m a fan of cars.  A car fanatic, if you will.  Not in the mechanic sense, forever tinkering under the hood.  Instead I’m more the Top Gear-watching, Motor Trend-subscribing kind of car fanatic.  Every year I go to the closest major auto show.  For my twenties and early thirties, that meant a yearly drive to Detroit for the North American International Auto Show.  But now I’m in southwest Connecticut.  And the closest major auto show is the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan.  So that’s where I went on Saturday.

Getting There
Unlike some other auto shows, the New York International Auto Show is most easily accessible to those outside the city by train rather than by automobile.  My morning began as I climbed aboard the Metro North New Haven Line at 7:35 AM, bound for Grand Central Terminal.  This early on a Saturday, the train car will fill to no more than one quarter full during the length of the run.  I’ve got the seat to myself as I listen to Adele on the white earbuds from my iPhone 4.  And I look out the window.

Soon I’m rolling through Bridgeport, CT, where I see what appear to be several abandoned factories or warehouses, likely having sat idle for decades now as the US continues to deindustrialize.  And while I’m on my way to a rich city to see a convention center full of the latest shiny automobiles, I worry for a moment that those abandoned buildings in Bridgeport may serve as a metaphor for America.  It’s not all doom and gloom, of course.  The official jobless numbers have continued to come down throughout President Obama’s first term, leaving some of his critics to suggest that he hasn’t turned the economy around fast enough.

And soon I’m moving on, taking the time to dash off an e-mail from my iPhone as I’m reminded in Stamford of an old CIO that I used to work for.  She left Chicago to do a stint in Stamford before heading out west.  Having grown up in the generation before ever-present e-mail, I pause for a moment to reflect on the convenience.  This, despite the fact that I now receive several hundred messages a day that are generally the bane of my existence.  Soon that too is behind me.

I arrive at the Javits Center just in time for the auto show to open.  I pass quickly through security and purchase my $15 ticket from an automated kiosk without waiting in line.  And then I walk on in.  About the first thing I see is a white Lamborghini, followed closely by a $1.7 million Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport in white with a black hood.  This is not to be confused, of course, with the $2.7 million Bugatti Veyron Super Sport.

Lamborghini and Bugatti

White Cars
My friends are well aware that I’m a fan of white cars and that my personal vehicle is white.  This aesthetic preference was born out of science, as I observed that darker paints fade faster in the sun and keep cars hotter inside during the summer.  Also – and I have no data to back this up – it’s been my experience that a well-maintained but non-ostentatious white vehicle seems to be largely invisible to the Highway Patrol.  This auto show proved to be a bonanza for people who share my preference.  Infiniti, in particular, had more than half of their cars on display in white, and frankly I could have gone around snapping photos of white cars all day.

Favorite Car
Every year I pick a personal favorite.  More often than not I pick something that I could conceivably afford as my next car, or imagine myself affording without first imagining a Powerball jackpot win.  This year I identified my favorite car fifteen minutes into the show.  No, it wasn’t the Veyron.  In fact, it was the 2013 Ford Fusion!  My iPhone photos definitely don’t do it justice, so I recommend visiting Ford.

2013 Ford Fusion

The previous Fusion (2006-12) was a largely forgettable car from a styling perspective, that frankly never measured up to the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry as far as I’m concerned.  There was nothing wrong with it, as, say, a weekend rental car, but I couldn’t imagine plunking down years of car payments for the privilege of owning one.  All that has changed with the 2013 Fusion.

The new Fusion is longer, wider and taller than the outgoing model, with styling that is a complete departure from its predecessor.  It feels like a large car standing next to it.  Larger than the original Taurus that I remember from the 80s.  And the styling is – to my eye – fantastic.  (Again, don’t judge it from my iPhone photos.)  I saw one Tweet that described it as a smooshed Maserati (in a good way).  Personally, I feel like it’s not hard to imagine it as a smaller sibling to the current Jaguar XJ.  At any rate, I could easily see myself buying the 2013 Fusion were I not so satisfied with my current 2010-model-year vehicle.

Last Year’s Favorite
This year I finally got to sit in my last year’s favorite, the Range Rover Evoque Coupe (in white).  With my 6′ 4”+ size, I wondered whether I’d fit under the Evoque’s sloping roof line.  The good news is that I fit just fine, especially with the extra headroom provided by the panoramic roof.  The bad news is that I’m unlikely to ever buy a vehicle that starts at $43,995 in today’s dollars and can go way up from there.  Range Rover also brought a concept Evoque Convertible out this year that looks pretty great with the roof down.

Range Rover Evoque

Quick Mentions
Always curious about fit, I find that I can sit in the driver’s seat of the diminutive Fiat 500 with no issues.  In fact, I don’t even need to move the seat quite all the way back.  The manual shifter feels smooth when cycling through the gears while parked.  Of course I’d want to go for the Abarth edition.

Believe it or not, the Kia Optima SXL in snow white pearl with white leather interior was my second-favorite car of the show.  The vehicle looked and felt good inside and out.  At $34,900 as configured, however, I’d have a hard time with the Kia nameplate and the pre-conceived notions that come with it.

The cute little Hyundai Veloster that everyone reports as stylish but woefully underpowered has a turbo variant coming out for 2013.  Good for them.  I hope that the paint job on the display model doesn’t make it to production.  It was a silver that seemed to have no clear coat on top, as if it were painted using spray-cans.  Curiously, I saw one other car on display that seemed to suffer from the same malady: a bluish BMW M3.  I hope that this isn’t some dastardly new trend in paint that I’m just seeing for the first time.

Perhaps the coolest part of my day was the Camp Jeep ride-along out in front of the Javits Center.  I was a front-seat passenger in a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited as we traversed thirty-degree sideways inclines, drove over significant obstacles, and climbed and descended a hill that felt as steep as a standard staircase.  If the open-topped Wrangler Unlimited doesn’t sell itself on a sunny day like this, certainly it does after powering up a steep summit and then automatically managing the descent on the way down.  If I ever move to a warm climate, I’m seriously considering one of these.

If you’ve never been to a car show, you’ll no doubt be shocked to learn that sometimes attractive young women are used to promote cars to male buyers. Who’d have thought!? Anyway, I felt that it was only polite that I give these ladies introducing various cars my full attention. In light of the fact that most recent Dodge vehicles look like they’ve been bathed in testosterone, perhaps it’s no surprise that Dodge – and the Chrysler booth next door – had the most consistently attractive female spokesmodels at the show on Saturday. It was almost distracting. Seriously. Good job, Dodge.

Robert with the Dodge Model

Souvenir photo provided by Dodge.

As this is a tech blog, we’ve got to focus on technology at least briefly.  Not surprisingly, many of the static information signs next to individual cars have been replaced by computers or iPads this year.  The electronic displays were pervasive enough that Subaru – who just displayed their cars’ window stickers – felt by comparison as if they were a relic of a bygone era.  iPads and similar tablets were in the hands of many of the car representatives working the show as well.  And, for the first time ever, I actually saw a guy using an iPad to snap photos in place of a regular camera or camera-phone.  Yes, he looked awkward.  At the same time, he probably should have sold ad space on the back of that iPad.

Jaguar on iPad

Not Tired
Now in the past I’ve worn myself out when suddenly spending a day on my feet at one of these conventions, as my usual routine involves spending my days in front of the computer.  But having walked farther than Connecticut is long since mid-March, I found myself not tired at all this time around.  It never occurred to me that routine exercise would make a car show more enjoyable, but apparently it does.

Homeward Bound
I arrived back at Grand Central on foot just in time to catch a jam-packed 4:07 train back toward New Haven.  This time around, every seat was full and a few stragglers were left standing.  I cranked up some Lupe Fiasco on my white earbuds for the ride home, thinking about words I never said.  All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable day of seeing the latest that the auto industry has to offer.

The 2012 New York International Auto Show is open to the public through Sunday, April 15th.

Which iPhone?

A friend sent me the following question a couple weeks ago: “We’re on the verge of jumping from dumb phones … to the iPhone.  I know there’s plenty of marketing hype and consumer comparison sites out there talking about the pros/cons of various phone platforms. … Should I wait for the iPhone 4 to come down in price? Should I go with the easy $50 opportunity to get a iPhone 3GS?”

As is the case in most areas where we have choices, the answer of course is, “It depends.”  This is especially true in the world of cell phones, where we have a lot of choices and they’re continually evolving.

Smart vs. Phone
While it’s easy to focus on the ‘smart’ portion of a smartphone – the applications – I tend to focus first on the original purpose: making phone calls.  Making reliable phone calls requires two things: decent cellular coverage and a well-functioning handset.  Of course cellular coverage varies widely based on your proximity to the nearest antenna, topography, and physical barriers such as dense walls.  It’s also been my experience that two different handsets in the same location on the same network can deliver noticeably different results.  So, we have to choose the network that’s best for our location and needs, as well as a reliable handset that uses the network effectively.

The Network(s)
Here in the United States, there is a long list of cellular carriers, however there are really only four that could be considered nation-wide networks: AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile.  Most of the rest are mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) running on top of one of the aforementioned networks.  Depending on where you are or where you plan to travel, even some of the big four may be unavailable.

Where I grew up in Indiana, T-Mobile is non-existent.  I saw my brother-in-law make a call on Sprint’s network while outside once, though he’d never get a connection indoors.  AT&T can work OK indoors, but is somewhat handset-specific, with older 2G (EDGE) phones working better than newer 3G ones.  And Verizon Wireless can be crystal clear indoors and out, depending on the device.  Your locale may or may not similarly limit your choice of cellular networks to just one or two.

Can you hear me now?
You may have heard that as a blanket rule, Verizon Wireless has the superior network in the United States.  It’s used by General Motors for their OnStar services, for example.  However, Verizon isn’t always better, nor are they better with every handset.  I have an interior office at work in southwest Connecticut, where my company-issued Verizon BlackBerry is unreliable to the point that I’d rather never use it.  Conversely, I’ve used a Nokia N8 on AT&T for up to 20 minutes on a single call from my office without issue.  At the risk of thoroughly confusing the situation, I’ve also seen a person struggle to maintain calls from my office on an iPhone 3 on AT&T while my boss recently switched to an iPhone 4 on Verizon that worked fine in one test call that I made a couple of weeks ago.  It can start to feel like you have to discover a magic combination of network and cell phone that work together in your setting.  It always helps to solicit feedback from nearby peers as to what they’re currently using and whether or not they’re satisfied with it.

There’s one other important distinction between cellular providers.  AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM technology similar to, though at slightly different frequencies, as most other countries throughout the world.  AT&T likes to say that you can “Stay connected while traveling to more than 220 countries and on more than 140 cruise ships, and access email and the Internet in more than 195 countries.”  Verizon Wireless and Sprint use CDMA technology, effectively limiting your use to the North America and a much smaller set of other countries.  While both Verizon and Sprint offer some dual-mode phones that will roam on GSM when outside of a CDMA country, the current iPhone 4 offered by Verizon is not one of them.  If European travel is in your future, an iPhone on AT&T will work on your trip while the phone from Verizon becomes a paperweight.  This may not be the case with future editions.

[Less than 24 hours after posting this, I’m reading a rumor that the iPhone 4S may support both CDMA and GSM networks in a single device.]

Enhancing Your Local Signal
If you’re interested in using a cellular network that generally has good coverage but happens to have poor coverage inside your home, three of the big four carriers now offer reasonably-priced femtocells.  Think of a femtocell as your own personal cellular repeater in your living room, that leverages your broadband Internet connection to backhaul phone calls to your carrier’s network.  These devices are marketed under various names such as the AT&T 3G MicroCell, the Verizon Wireless Network Extender and the Sprint AIRAVE.  I just deployed an AT&T 3G MicroCell at home over the Memorial Day weekend, and one of my IT peers is looking into the Verizon Wireless Network Extender for several of our offices.

Another Reception Technique
We all likely heard of ‘antennagate’ in the wake of Apple’s iPhone 4 release.  This referred to a phenomenon where the iPhone’s signal strength would fall off – sometimes dramatically – when the phone was held in the hand in a particular way.  Apple’s response was to reprogram the algorithm behind the signal strength display and to hand out free ‘bumpers’ to encase the phone’s metal antenna band in an insulating layer.  Steve Jobs also noted, correctly, that the iPhone isn’t the only phone that loses signal strength when held in the hand.

Plantronics Discovery 925 Bluetooth EarpieceI typically fire up a Plantronics Discovery 925 bluetooth earpiece when I’m making calls from a fringe reception area.  This allows me to leave my phone lying down, sometimes near a window, while walking around carrying on a conversation.  My phone’s limited reception in that particular area isn’t further degraded by my holding it.

iPhone 3GS vs 4
Transitioning into an iPhone discussion, the original question asked whether a $49 iPhone 3GS with 8 GB of flash memory was worth considering as an alternative to the $199 iPhone 4 with 16 GB.  We should note that the iPhone 3GS is offered only by AT&T, so that will have to be your network of choice if you are to make this selection.  Rather than limit our thinking to the initial cost of acquiring the phone, let’s consider the total 2-year cost between the two.  A hypothetical 2-year contract from AT&T featuring 450 rollover minutes, 2 GB of data per month and unlimited text messaging is going to cost $89.99 /month plus taxes and fees.  Adding together the cost of the initial phone, a one-time activation fee of $36.00, and two years of service, that iPhone 3GS will cost you $2,244.76  (plus tax) while the iPhone 4 will cost $2394.76.  That’s a distinction of 6.2 % over the life of the contract.  For my money, I’d pay the extra 6.2% for the latest phone with twice as much flash memory.

iPhone 4, AT&T, Verizon, White, Black
As noted previously, the iPhone 4 is of course available via AT&T or Verizon Wireless.  If you’ve already made a decision about which network is right for you, then you’ve still got a few remaining choices.  Do you want 16 GB of flash memory, or 32 GB for an extra $100.  (That’s only another 4% over the life of our earlier hypothetical 2-year contract.)  Do you want a black phone or the recently-release white version, which will put you in a relatively exclusive club for at least the next few weeks?

Android Alternative?
So far we’ve conveniently ignored the largest-selling smartphone platform of all – Google’s Android OS – which accounted for 36% of all smartphone sales in Q1 2011 according to Gartner.  By contrast, Apple’s iOS platform accounted for 16.8% of smartphone sales in Q1, behind 2nd-place Nokia.  As someone who regularly uses Linux at home, one might expect that I’d lean toward Android, which uses a Linux kernel.  On the contrary, I feel like Android is fairly fragmented at this time, with no consistent operating system updates or security patches from one handset and carrier to the next.  On the other hand, users who prefer the maximum flexibility may be well advised to look at Android.

One Opinion
White iPhone 4When I began answering my friends question, I stated, “It depends.”  It’s probably fitting to end with what I’d choose, were I making the choice today.  In relative civilization here in the East, I’d probably start by picking AT&T for the simple fact that all of their higher-end phones will roam globally.  While I’m far from affluent when compared to some in Connecticut, I’m also single.  A plane ticket for one from, say, New York to London, could conceivably be well within my means at some point during the life of the phone contract.  It doesn’t hurt to dream, nor to keep my passport current.

Next, I’d go with the iPhone 4 for it’s broad ecosystem of apps on a consistent, well supported platform.  I’d go with a white one, not because my vehicle and furniture are all white, but due to a particular idiosyncrasy within my personality.  When a large enough crowd runs in one direction, I sometimes want to run the other.  While strictly a cosmetic difference, going white is about the only way to be different with an iPhone at the moment.  [Photo courtesy of Apple.]

Finally, I’d go with the 16 GB model versus the 32, as I still want to use my phone as a phone and not run the battery down while watching feature-length movies.

[Update: On June 14th I put my money where my mouth is and purchased this exact phone.  So far, so good.]

Now It’s Your Turn
Given the many options and personal motivations behind selecting a phone, I’d expect each of us to reach a slightly different conclusion.  Thankfully we’ve got some compelling options to choose from.

Back Home Again

To borrow from an old jazz standard dating to 1917, I was recently Back home again in Indiana as I  began writing this.  While this post is perhaps seemingly self-indulgent, it’s also for Denise, our good-humored IT Project Manager, and the rest of my peers at the office.

Just after noon a week ago Thursday, I arrived at the Indianapolis International Airport, having changed planes an hour earlier in Detroit.  I quickly picked up my checked bag, which, incidentally, I’d checked for free thanks to my American Express Delta SkyMiles card.  Up one escalator and down another, I was at National Car Rental, where I picked up a silver Chevy Malibu with only 185 miles on the odometer.  Within twenty minutes of deplaning, I was on the road.  I’m going to have to fly on Thursdays more often.

I drove east from the airport through Indianapolis and beyond via I70, which bisects the state horizontally.  Seventy miles after leaving the airport, I arrived at what remains of the family farm.  For the next 72 hours, I was back home.

Old Farmhouse

The core of the original farmhouse at the left above was built around the time of America’s Civil War.  There’s a framed photo on the wall of my great-great-grandparents with a date on the back, though I don’t recall the exact year from memory now.  This is the first time that I recall seeing only one grain silo instead of the usual three at the right, though I feel like one was added during my childhood.  The last remaining silo will be taken down before I’m likely to return again.

Newer House

Situated diagonally across the road from the old farmhouse is the newer house where my sister and I grew up.  It was here that I stayed while visiting.  I noticed several times throughout the stay that the only sound I could hear was birds chirping.  The grass was just beginning to grow for the Spring, and my mom mowed it for the second time while I was there.

Out back

Both houses are surrounded by farmland as is typical of the area.  While this setting might look unusual to those who have spent their life in urban congestion, it’s important to remember that an acre of land out here typically sells for less than you’d rent an apartment for just one month in Manhattan.  This is a world away from the East Coast.

Getting Down to Business
Now this is a tech blog of course, and the purpose of my trip was actually technical in nature.  My dad uses two computers in his combined business / hobby of ham radio.  The first is a Lenovo ThinkCentre PC running Ubuntu Linux, which he uses for e-mail, web surfing, and most other activities related to his business.  This system is about as stable and impervious to viruses and other support issues as he’s likely to find.  Dad’s second PC is a diminutive Mini-ITX sized, Intel Atom-based PC that he and I put together from components and which runs Windows XP.  He uses this system to perform the computing aspects of software-defined ham radio.  And as is often the case with Windows machines after awhile, this one needed help.

The little Mini-ITX PC had issues both hardware and software related.  The CPU fan had died, and the system was going into a thermal shutdown mode with extended use.  Dad had resorted to firing it up when he needed it, and shutting it down immediately afterward.  The system also had a Windows virus that I was unable to clean reliably in the limited time available on my last visit, but which dad was willing to live with for awhile.  So I’d come prepared to deal with both issues.

Dad and I began by swapping out both the CPU and case fans in a matter of minutes using new Scythe 40x40x10mm fans that were a direct replacement for the originals.  In the days that followed, this proved to completely resolve the thermal shutdown problems and the hardware has been solid since while running around the clock.  After replacing the fans, I got started on the slightly more complicated software side of things.

Software Work Begins With Backup
Knowing that dad relies on this Windows machine extensively to test and validate new ham radio kits that he’s assembled for customers, I wanted to guarantee that I could get back to a working configuration regardless of what I encountered in the next two days.  I’d make two different types of backups before doing anything else.

I began by creating an image of the PC’s internal hard drive as-is by booting from a Clonezilla CD and writing an image copy to a portable USB external hard drive.  If need be, I could always return to exactly where I started by restoring this image.  This is a technique that I use frequently at work, though less so recently with virtualization.

Next, I wanted a copy of the individual files so that I could later scan for viruses and selectively restore data independent of any executables.  For this, I simply booted the PC from a Linux live CD, connected my USB hard drive again, and copied the entire contents of the internal hard drive to a directory on the external one.  Now I was ready to begin cleaning up the machine.

Software Reloaded
Before I re-installed Windows XP from scratch, I wanted to be certain that there was no boot sector virus in place that would survive a regular re-format.  Typically I use DBAN to wipe a disk clean before re-installing an operating system.  Dad’s machine wouldn’t play well with DBAN, so I resorted to clearing the existing partitions and partition table using the Linux utility GParted from the same Linux live CD that I’d used to copy files earlier.

Installing Windows XP was a breeze, as I’d done it roughly 100 times previously.  Immediately following the basic installation, I took these additional steps:

  • Copied the i386 directory from the source CD to the hard drive and adjusted the SourcePath variables in the registry as appropriate.
  • Downloaded and installed the various system drivers from Intel’s web site.
  • Installed all available Windows Critical Updates.
  • Installed antivirus software, in this case Microsoft’s free Security Essentials.
  • Turned on the Windows Firewall.
  • Unbound File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks from the network adapter.
  • Removed well-known, default Windows accounts such as Administrator and Guest.
  • Scanned the backed-up data files for viruses, and then copied them back to the system.
  • Re-installed dad’s software, which in this case included circuit board layout software, ham radio software and related drivers.

While it sounds simple enough, I spent a portion of Thursday afternoon, the majority of Friday, and a portion of Saturday ensuring that everything was configured properly and working to dad’s satisfaction.  As I post this summary a week later, he hasn’t reported any problems with the PC, nor any missing applications or files.  I count that a success.

Back to Reality
I returned to my apartment in southwestern Connecticut on Sunday night at 10:15 PM, just in time to turn on the TV and discover that President Obama would be making an announcement shortly regarding an operation in the Middle East.  I’d soon learn with the rest of the world that Osama bin Laden was no longer with us.