Monday, December 22, 2014

WARNING: Do NOT Get MasterPass

Right now is the "Wild West" of electronic purchases.  This is a time of great turmoil, massive insecurity, and as can be expected, a lot of snake oil salesman.  My bank debit card was part of the Home Depot hack, so I have a very strong interest in purchase security and mobile technology, so when I got a flyer from my credit union that I can sign up for MasterPass (and my constant questions about when will they support Apple Pay are constantly answered "no plans"), I was optimistically hopeful.

First, I called my credit union.  I asked them, it looks like MasterPass is only usable online, and not in stores, is that correct?  True.  So, that doesn't help me at all with my concerns - what I want is a solution where they have thought out the various ways in which people steal your payment information, and prevent them.  This is NOT it.

Then, I asked them the big one: when I make a purchase, does the merchant get my payment information (card number, expiration date, security code, and name)?  Or, do they get a unique transaction ID that can only be used once, and doesn't identify me?  They didn't know.  After about half an hour, going between on hold, and checking sources, he gave me the MasterPass Fraud number, 877-219-5053.

Interestingly enough, when I called them, even they didn't know the answers to these basic questions about how it works - they had to put me on hold, and find out.  That, to me, is an indication that I don't want to do business with them.  But, they did get me the answer.

Here's what MasterPass really is:
  • This is an e-Wallet software
  • It adds layers of security protocols, but no real security, on identifying who you are before you make the purchase.  But, that is not when identity theft occurs - it always occurs after you make the purchase.
  • Then, it transmits your card info to only online retailers.  So, it makes it easier to transmit your payment information - in fact, absolutely no different from how Safari web browser does it.  But, after your payment information is entered into the retailer's system, it can be hacked, and it is copied in however many retailer systems you used.  This is totally non-secure.
  • Yes, they do have this "appearance of security" feature, where you get a text message when someone wants to make a purchase, and you have to verify it.  But, first of all, this is only happening when they make a purchase using MasterPass, and not just using the plain card info.  Second of all, SMS is an inherently insecure system, inherently hackable, and it is so easy to clone phones and have the text messages reach multiple devices simultaneously - your phone, and a clone that a criminal made.  So now, all they have to do is cross-reference your payment information with your cell phone IMEI number, and voila - they have a very simple means of circumventing the appearance of security there.
In this day and age, it is very simple to research before you sign up for any new service.  I am frankly dismayed that this non-value-add thing is made available to dupe the American public that the banks and MasterCard is doing something.  Meanwhile, Apple Pay and the Federal law in October holding merchants liable for identity theft if they don't use EMV POS systems are the only things that are moving merchants and card issuers toward security.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Solid State, Hybrid, and Conventional Hard Drive Technology

Many "semi-geeks" are familiar with the term Solid State Drive, or SSD, because the technology has become common-place.  For those of you who want to understand it more, or who love the details like me, I'd like to lay it out for you, as well as the various options we have nowadays.

The Hard Disk Drive

Starting back near the beginning, when the "Hard Disk" was invented, the hard disk drive consisted of a hard metal platter coated with magnetic particles.  (Fun fact: a Hard Disk is a kind of persistent storage - when the power is turned off, the data stored on it persists until the next power-on.)  This spun around on its axis, and an arm moved back and forth with strong earth electro-magnets.  Electrical pulses then altered the magnetic substrate on the platter's surface to store data - by using the magnetic polarity it could set one of two states ("north" or "south" polarity).  Without a current through the magnet, the magnet passing over the surface "read" the surface by magnetic induction - presence of a North vs. South-facing magnetic field in that portion translated to a "1" or "0" in computer memory, and the data was transferred into powered (also called volatile) memory, or RAM.  The computer then conducted its computations on RAM.

Computers still work exactly the same today as all those decades ago, but let's think about the limitations of a hard disk as I describe above.  First, how small can you make a magnetic particle, so that you can cram more data in a smaller space?  There is a limit.  Second, how long does that stay charged to the polarity, and how susceptible is it to changing, thus producing a difference from what was stored?  Over time, that likelihood increases, and computers use various techniques to introduce redundancy.  That takes some overhead of using some of the storage for that redundancy.  If the slightest bit of dust gets onto the platter, it ruins the ability to read/write on it, so it is sealed in a vacuum chamber.

Solid State Drives

Now, Solid State drives store differently.  They are similar to RAM, in that they use transistors to store 0/1 values, but they are non-volatile (i.e. they don't need a constant supply of electricity to hold their values).  In this respect, they are the same as your Compact Flash, SD, USB sticks, or other flash memory, but with SSD the response speed is much faster than even hard drives.  With no moving parts, they last a lot longer, are more reliable, and of course are much more expensive to manufacture.  (Think about this: the arm holding the magnet used to read/write the data doesn't exist, so it doesn't have to move into place mechanically on a SSD drive before it can read/write the data.  Data is accessed directly via electrical routing through transistors and gates.)  SSD's are interchangeable with hard drives - that is, they have the same plugs and can hook into the same cables, in the same sizes and screw mounts as conventional hard drives.

Another benefit of SSD technology, is because it is electronic instead of electromechanical, it uses a lot less electricity and generates a lot less heat.  But the cost is a lot more, around $0.50 or more per Gigabyte, as compared to $0.05 per Gigabyte.  For some, the speed (massively faster) and energy savings is worth it.

Hybrid Drives

Enter 2 new categories.  The first, is a hybrid drive.  Many manufacturers make, in a single drive enclosure, a compound of both technologies.  They have special circuitry that determines files you use most often, and puts those on the SSD portion of the drive, while files you access less often are stored on the platters.  In theory, this will give you the best of both worlds.  Bigger capacity at a more reasonable price, with better performance than a Hard Disk Drive.

For relatively small files, this is great.  Think about what happens when a hybrid drive "changes its mind" about where it wants to store a file - it has to move it.  A very large file, such as a virtual disk file for a Virtual Machine, may not get accessed for a while - say for a week when you don't use the VM.  But then when you do, the access rate alters, and the drive "decides" to move it.  Then, the whole system slows down tremendously while it waits for the drive to respond - and it can't until it's done moving the large multi-gigabyte file.  In these scenarios, Hybrid Drives are not very good.

The nice thing here, is you are getting a single piece of hardware - a physical drive, but inside it is 2 disks, one SSD, and one a set of platters with read/write head on a physical arm.

Fusion Drive

Just like a Hybrid Drive, Apple has, since OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, supported a software-hybrid drive they call a Fusion Drive.  At the OS level, you create what looks to you like a single drive, but behind the scenes it is composed of 2 physical drives (like a storage array).  I don't know how well this performs in similar circumstances where large files change usage frequencies, and thus have to be moved from one disk to another.  However, I would venture to guess it is not any better, because now the file has to move across a bus external to the physical drives.


If you have a computer with a Hard Drive, and don't care too much about its performance (it is just fine with you), then stick where you are at.  But, if you want it to go faster, I would suggest this order of priorities:
  1. If money is no object, get an SSD with the same size or bigger than the one you have.  Go for broke, you will NOT be disappointed.
  2. If you can squeeze by with a smaller capacity to save some money, stay with a true SSD drive.  For performance, you will NOT be disappointed.
  3. If you are buying a new computer, and have a choice between SSD and Hard Disk, go for SSD.  The savings in time and energy are tremendous - you will get significantly better boot time, things will run massively faster, and your battery will last a lot longer.
  4. If you know you can't afford a full SSD with the capacity you need, and all you deal with are small files, then a Hybrid (or Mac Fusion) drive solution may work for you.  If you deal with large files that sometimes don't get accessed, but when they do, get accessed a lot, stay away from Hybrid.  A conventional Hard Disk will be faster.
  5. If you like my article or blog and consider how much it has helped your life, you can donate to my Imerman Family Technology Fund via PayPal at - we will use it to upgrade our systems, and teach our kids about the technology.
Thanks for reading my blog, and thanks for any donations!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I just got an Android tablet!

SP717 Product Page
Yes, you heard right, the Apple Fanboy got a Droid.  But this is not the droid I was looking for.  It was a freebie.  Why did I accept it?  I plan on using it for app development.  Granted, this is some off-brand, and granted it is a low-end item, but brace yourself, because I am going to review it.  Here goes.


SKYTEX.  This seems to be a company that has targeted the low-end market.  However, at $75 brand new, they have to compete with the Galaxy Tab and Kindle HD which, for a few dollars more, I am certain are much better quality.


While this SP727 review seems to ooh and ah over the unboxing, it is absolutely apparent to me they have never unboxed an Apple product.   The packaging is a very cheap material (cheap grade of paperboard, plastic, etc.), and the design of the internal packaging is an obvious mimic of Apple's packaging - but without the nice feel, and without anything more than the most basic slip of paper for documentation.

Model and Specs

SP717, 8GB RAM, n WiFi, 1.3 GHz Dual Core Processor.  This whole "Dual Core" is all over the box, all over everything - like it is some big deal to be hyped.  Again, I ask you - what does specs have to do with anything?  Who cares if it's dual core - it is slower than snail snot.  Its sluggish performance reminds me of the old iPhone 3G.  The 800x600 screen is pathetic, like a kid's toy (think LeapPad), and the response to capacitive resistance is really sucky, because it responds to any touch, not just your skin (like the iPad).  I am amazed at the huge border around the screen - everything about it screams "I am cheap" - except the price.  By the way, the screen in real life looks nowhere near as great as the picture above on their web site.  Yes, I am comparing the bottom of the barrel to top of the line, but hey.  You are reading on!

The camera - please!  2MP back-end, and VGA front camera.  These are 15-year-old cameras (or more) in a 2014 model.  Pathetic.  They probably got the lot from the supplier for free, because it freed up their warehouse space.  And 8GB RAM is seriously pathetic - no device nowadays should have less than 16, and I applaud Apple's 16/64 jump to the next level up, I expect 16 will be eliminated soon.  True, it has a MicroSD slot, so that alleviates the pain a bit.

Hey, it does have a mini HDMI out port, so that is one nice thing.

The device is quite thick compared to competitors, and feels very cheap and not sturdy at all.  The screen bezel is a sharp corner, and swiping fingers across it, it feels like cheap plastic.  I contacted support, and asked them if they offered any protection plan - they don't.  I wouldn't either, it would drive me out of business!

This comes with Android 4.2 JellyBean (June 27, 2012).  Do you remember that?  From over 2 years ago?  How do I upgrade it?  Answer from support:  I can't.  They aren't planning on coming out with one.  So apps, security, bug fixes - forget about it.  (Remember - fractured market, lots of device manufacturers, lots of versions out there - and mostly none of them ever ever EVER get updated.)  In this day and age, that's inexcusable.

Buttons -  there is such a thing as well-designed minimalist, and this is not it.  This is minimalism taken too far - there is one button - a power button.  All the others are soft buttons on screen, which responsiveness, touch-feel, and everything else make me cringe.  This is pretty hard to use.  At first power-up, it was OK (took a long time to boot), but after sitting on standby overnight, when I re-activated the tablet, it was freakishly slow, took forever to respond to touches, and when it did, it responded to all the touches at once.  Even after reboot, it is slow.

The charger I was frankly REALLY surprised is a proprietary, non-standard very small round jack (1.5mm?), with a HUGE transformer end that plugs into the outlet.  It is not designed for the modern user, for someone who has multiple devices plugged into an outlet or outlet strip.  It does use one of the standard small USB connectors, but only for data, not for charging.  The battery life seems to be pretty poor, as I had it off overnight, and the charge went from full to 66% (this was hard to tell - I had to go into Settings, then Battery to see the percentage, instead of trying to interpret the tiny little icon on screen, which seems to show more than 66% if I look at it).

Let's get into the Apps.  It has the Google Play store, and what?!?  What!?  There is a SkyTex App Store as well.  With "thousands" of apps in it.  (Yes, that's what it says in the manual.)  Hmm.  Anyhow, I was able to download some apps from Play, and let me say - pathetic!  The way it handles app updates, it is up to you to proactively download them.  And find out about them.  I can guarantee any non-geek will not even think to do it.  But then again, look at the OS, they aren't concerned about keeping you up to date.  Or secure.

I was able to easily enough connect e-mail and calendars, but then again, I am using Google accounts.  It should.

They do have a backup service - online on the cloud.  But, there is nowhere I can go to see its status, verify that it did backup, and I have no idea how to restore.  There appears to be no companion app on a computer to download and help manage it, to allow me to back up and restore.  I mean, who would keep this thing any longer than a year or so?

I took a look at the Google Voice app, and surprise - I was sorely disappointed.  It is much easier to use and much more feature rich on iOS than Android.  The LinkedIn Pulse app crashed a lot, was not very responsive, but otherwise behaved the same as iOS.

Overall, I found Android 4.2 to be not user friendly at all.  This tablet - I personally woudn't have paid for it, but if I were so inclined to get an Android, I wouldn't pay more than $50 for it brand new, taxes included.  It isn't even worth that.


I accept that this is a cheap (quality) tablet, an unknown brand, and an old version of Android OS.  However, this is typical of the Android market - a myriad of hardware, a myriad of manufacturers, and forked OS from old versions.

I also accept that this is a bottom-of-the-line model.  It seems like the lowest level of components available as "manufactured new" today was chosen.

However, my overall experience has left me not wanting to use this thing, for gaming, for the Internet, indeed for anything other than what I have to use it for.  Certainly I do not recommend Skytex brand products, and the overall insecurity of the Android platform makes it hard for me to recommend it as a user.  As a developer, the fractured market makes it difficult to target your app development efforts.  Do you go for 4.2, and not take advantage of anything new in the past few years?  Or do you need the newer features, and thus eliminate portions of your target market?  Or, do you simply give up, and author it as a web application, hoping they will go to it from their browser?  Then, you have the myriad of app stores to deal with for one "platform" - and indeed, the lack of thorough debugging, testing, and community involvement tools available.  Frankly, the costs of developing for Android are much higher than iOS, and the reward much smaller.