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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Musical Change of Pace

Once in a while, as I've mentioned before, I enjoy exchanging the crunching guitars and double kick drum action that typically fills my ears for something a bit less hectic, musically speaking. A few artists, some new and some old, have been filling more space on my iPod as I branch out and let my ears recover.

Following the release of Adele's debut album "19" in 2008, the British soul powerhouse started earning praise. The album won her 2 Grammy Awards including Best New Artist. Her second album "21" kicks of with "Rolling In The Deep", the song that got everyone talking about her with its haunting buildup and message of empowerment for anyone amidst a breakup. Her music caught the eye of a friend of mine and it wasn't long before I gave in. After seeing a mashup of two of Adele's songs, "Someone Like You" and "Rumor Has It" on the TV show Glee, I knew I had to give her album a try. The contrast between "Rolling In The Deep" and "Someone Like You" brilliantly bookends the album as the first and last tracks. Her strength in the opening track, a bit of a "tell off", is stripped away in "Someone Like You", a vulnerable take on the relationship that inspired much of the material on the album. A stripped down cover of "Lovesong" by The Cure is a welcome surprise, and "Turning Tables" and "Rumor Has It" are other highlights on the album.

Vocal problems caused Adele to cancel two planned tours in October 2011, and she underwent laser microsurgery in early November. She has already written seven songs for her next album which she intends to write, record, produce and master all on her own and says she wants it to be acoustic and piano-led, as much of "21" is. Her performance at Royal Albert Hall is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and CD formats, and according to reviews is a very intimate performance filled with very colorful banter from the singer. The setlist covers songs from both albums as well as a few covers.

Another current artist I've favored recently is Lady Antebellum. The title track from their second album, "Need You Now", is instantly catchy and probably the song that most will know them for. Their latest album "Own The Night" is an excellent followup, which kicks off with the title track followed by the album's first single "Just A Kiss". I think my wife has already worn a groove in the CD after only a week.

A recent release from an artist whose popularity peaked in the 80's caught my attention and after giving a listen, I'd categorize Christopher Cross's 2011 album "Doctor Faith" as a "return to form" or "rebirth". Chris' 1980 self-titled debut album swept the Grammy Awards that year, and his hit "Sailing" is one of my favorite songs of all-time. That album has several great songs and a few guest spots, including Don Henley, Michael McDonald and guitarist Eric Johnson. Chris brought McDonald and Johnson back for "Doctor Faith", so in that sense he's come full circle back to the beginning and the tone of the album mirrors that concept.

While there is certainly no shortage of great music from my favorite Rock bands, and even new releases already planned for 2012, I'm still on the lookout for new music and these artists and albums have found their way in.

What new artists or albums have your attention lately?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

There's An App For That!

Since its introduction in 2007 the iPhone has set the standard for the future of mobile communication, and its design and functionality have become the template for all competitors to follow. The use of applications (known as Apps) has transformed cell phones into handheld computers capable of far more than making calls. The phrase "there's an app for that" became popular in its reference to the nearly limitless variety of applications available which allow users to interact with Social Media, follow sports, news and weather, scan barcodes, check gas prices, even use your phone as a credit card (coming soon).

At the height of its popularity, the iPhone met its match with the arrival of the Android OS which can run on an impressive selection of devices, unlike Apple's iOS for which the iPhone is the only option to cell phone users. The staying power of the iPhone comes from the continued evolution of its design along with a very user friendly interface with intuitive features. However, Android phones are becoming more popular in recent times thanks to the restrictive nature of Apple's OS which allows for very little customization. Android users have full control of the layout and operation of their device, a strategy that has led to a steady climb in sales for Android-based phones.

While Apple was basking in popularity, Android developers have been working tirelessly to catch up with the momentum, and they are within close range with nearly 400,000 Apps available now and an estimated 580,000 apps available by the end of 2011. The iTunes App Store is estimated to have 500,000+ apps based on figures from Apple insiders. Apple does have the jump on the number of Apps downloaded with more than 18 billion (compared to 7 billion from the Android Market) but with the current variety of phones running Android, and its increasing popularity, that gap will also close rapidly.

Since the recent release of the 5th generation of iPhone, the 4S, along with a plethora of Android-based phones, manufacturers of Droid phones are no longer in competition with the iPhone but rather going head to head in a competition of hardware specifications. This is where the average user gets completely lost in a sea of unfamiliar techie lingo and those in the business drool over the latest and greatest hardware. A few of the most discussed hardware features are battery life, screen size, screen resolution and processor speed. For me, this is the point where phones are not longer being sold as talking devices, but as handheld computers.

Believe it or not, there are still some people who buy cell phones for mobile talking and couldn't care less about Apps or texting or Internet browsing. For the rest of us, things like battery life and browsing speed play a significant role in which phone we buy, and right now the variety of phones is so vast that consumers are more confused than ever when it comes to which phone is the right choice for their intended use.

Speaking from personal experience, and as someone who does a lot of research before making any electronics purchases, I've changed my mind several times while hunting for my next phone, since I am currently looking for a replacement for my 3rd generation iPhone, the 3G. The iPhone has been good for me although I've noticed a steady decline in performance over the past few months, and it doesn't help that I've played with a few of the more powerful Android devices lately. Once I learned of the opportunities for tweaking the Android OS, I knew my days as an iPhone user were numbered, and trust me I've been counting the days until I'm eligible for an upgrade. Regarding screen size, I was hooked on the Samsung Infuse which boasts a stunning 4.5" Super Amoled Plus screen with vivid colors and crisp images. Shortly after, they released the Galaxy S2 which was immediately labeled an "iPhone killer" for its impressive specs and features and for its widely applauded performance. The Galaxy screen size is merely .2 inches smaller but the internal goodies more than compensate. Much to the disappointment of the millions of new Galaxy S2 owners, Samsung also released a revised version they call "Skyrocket" with the same screen as the Infuse, a faster processor and 4G LTE capability, although LTE coverage is very limited right now. For those unfamiliar with LTE, it stands for Long Term Evolution and is a standard for data speeds over the network. Coverage with 4G LTE speeds is only in a handful of states in the U.S. so for those outside of the LTE coverage area, there is basically no benefit to owning the Skyrocket unless an additional .2 inches of screen size is absolutely crucial to your experience. You can see how easily it is to become confused regarding which set of features and specs is right for you, and will keep you happy for the next two years for those on contract plans.

There's so much information out there that only technology insiders will understand, so the best advice I can give would be to go to a store like Best Buy or Radio Shack, whose employees are very knowledgeable about the different phones and do not work on commission so their advice is based solely on what they know about the pros/cons and what feedback they've received about the phones they've sold. It took me a while to decide on a phone, mostly because the new iPhone 4S is very attractive, and with the Siri Virtual Assistant (who is quite sassy) it's a solid device. However, being a bit of a geek and watching all of the comparisons I've learned what works best for me and the "tweak factor" on Android phones is enough to convince me to at least give them a try. I'll be posting a full review with screenshots of my new Samsung Galaxy S2, stay tuned!

One small observation I have to make, which is what inspired me to write about the current cell phone market, is how cell phones are the perfect example of how we've become enslaved to the Internet and technology. I've written about the negative impact of technology before, mostly referring to kids and video games, but the cell phone (which was invented to allow people to stay in touch easier) takes it even further. An example of this would be the iPhone's reputation for poor battery life, and no complaints refer to talk time because apparently cell phones are being purchased for anything but talking. If Alexander Graham Bell were around to see texting, he'd send out a mass text that read "WTF".