Kindle Fire HD8 Review

Background: I recently found myself wanting to replace my iPad Mini 2. It’s around four years old and starting to become sluggish enough to be frustrating. Given the incredibly low price of Amazon tablets on Prime Day, I decided to take a risk and try out the Kindle Fire HD 8. Below are my impressions after using it for a couple of weeks.

The Good

The Price. Being prime day, I was able to get the tablet for $50. Throw in a 64gb SD card plus a cover and altogether the total was around $80, which is the normal selling price of the tablet. Even if it weren’t on sale, you have to consider that to replace my old iPad with the current equivalent it was going to cost me $300, and that is without expanded storage or any accessories. Right away I’m feeling good about this purchase because of the low initial investment.

The Support. Amazon has now retired the “Mayday” feature, but they still have excellent support built right in. I was having a minor issue where custom playlists were not showing up in Amazon Music. You simply go to the Help app and from there you’re able to request assistance by either email or phone under the “Contact Us” section. The representative contacts you, so you don’t have to wait on hold, and helps you with whatever issue you may have. I’ll admit that at first it sounded like a very low-level call center tech, but nonetheless he was able to resolve my issue quickly. This seems like a great feature for the not-so-tech-savvy folks you may want to gift this to.

The integration. One of the reasons I was willing to take a risk on a Kindle tablet is that we’ve become pretty big users of the Amazon ecosystem. I listen to Amazon music frequently. My family watches Amazon Video. And of course we do a ton of shopping on Amazon (who needs Walmart parking lots, am I right?). Being an Amazon product, all of these are first class citizens on the Kindle Fire. Not to mention Alexa, who is quickly becoming like a family friend around our house.

The Hardware/Performance. For $50, there is respectable hardware in this device. The screen is crisp and clear, the apps run well (mostly), and moving around the tablet is smooth (mostly). More on the mostlies in a moment. Also, coming from a completely closed-off iPad, having the option to expand storage with an SD card was a very welcome feature.

The Bad

The Apps (or lack thereof). Number one, chief issue with Amazon tablets is the lack of apps. There’s just no way to spin it. You won’t find any of the Google products you likely rely on, like Youtube. Microsoft ones are hit and miss (Outlook but no OneNote). There are many popular ones that are present, like Facebook, but easily twice as many that aren’t. You can mitigate this by installing the Google Play Store, or using sites like APKMirror. But, (a) this requires a higher technical skillset than many users are comfortable with and (b) it potentially opens you up to vulnerabilities by bypassing the Amazon app store (you have to enable the installation of apps from unknown sources). Where you fall on the techy spectrum and your views on convenience vs customization will affect how much of an issue this is for you. I found it workable but annoying.

The Operating System. Amazon’s Fire OS is really just a modified version of Android, and it’s a complete mess. Forgive me if I sound biased coming from a mostly iOS background, but stepping into Android feels convoluted and disjointed. Don’t get me wrong, there are things about it that I grew to like. But overall I still prefer iOS by far. This is not only because of the greater consistency and aesthetic appeal, but also for security and privacy reasons. Being Android at its heart, Fire OS is victim to all the same issues Android has (ie I’ve never had to install antivirus on a tablet before). I do, however, feel that privacy is more in the users’ hands with the Fire tablets than those completely pre-stocked with Google’s apps and framework.

The Interface. Jumping off of the OS point, the custom interface of Fire OS leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, it would actually be much better if they just left it at stock Android instead of adding their own customization. I realize that much of the intent is to focus you in on Amazon content. (That is, after all, why these are so cheap. They want it to be a gateway to Amazon services.) I would argue, however, that their confusing interface actually makes this more difficult. Want to watch something on Prime Video? You go to the Video tab, right? Wrong. That tab will advertise videos to you, but it doesn’t list your watchlist, etc. I found it much easier to simply go to the actual Prime Video app, which felt more full-featured and more readily presented what I was looking for. In fact, I moved it and everything possible to the Home page so that I could avoid flipping through the various tabs. They aren’t at all customizable, and after a short time became something I avoided completely. Part Android/part Fire OS issue, I always felt like there were multiple ways of accessing similar things and rarely clear rules as to which should be used. On a less important note, there are a litany of small UI issues that are more preference than anything else (ie I still don’t know how to copy/paste correctly).

The Performance. Before I comment on this, let me remind you that this is a $50 tablet. That being said, if you’ve used tablets of a higher caliber then there is a certain level of responsiveness you’ve become accustomed to, even without realizing it. I had rosy eyes going into this experience due to price, Amazon integration, and some of the other points mentioned above. This area was the smelling salts, as it were, that awoke me to reality. Remember how I said “mostly” in the good performance section? When you first turn on the device things are very smooth, surprisingly so in fact. However, as you begin to install apps and put it through its paces that experience quickly withers. It doesn’t become unusable, but noticeably less smooth. My biggest irritation was when exiting apps back to the Home screen. There would be a delay in the icons appearing on the screen. This may sound like a small deal when you read through this, but think about how many times you perform that action throughout the course of using a tablet. Overall this leads to a noticeable amount of lag that is consistently presented to you. Also, in many apps there was a surprising amount of choppiness. One of the reasons I wanted something newer was so that games and such would perform better. However, when I went back and compared the Fire HD 8 to my 4-year-old iPad mini, it was actually performing worse. Hearthstone had run, albeit not perfectly, on my iPad but was almost unusable on the Kindle. Even simpler games like Candy Crush were annoyingly laggy on the Kindle but ran smoothly on the older iPad. Not what you’re looking for in a new device experience.

Conclusions

So, what does all of this mean? Do I think the Kindle Fire HD 8 is a good tablet? Yes. Do I think it’s one for me? No. In fact, I’ve gone back to using my iPad Mini. I’ll likely save up and buy a newer Mini to replace it. Why? Mostly ecosystem, experience, and apps. If you’ve used a tablet that performs well then using a laggy one feels like going backwards. Also, on iOS I have access to the ecosystem that all my other devices use as well as a rich app store. Whether you’re invested in either the Apple or Google ecosystems, you’re going to struggle adjusting to Amazon’s app selection.

That being sad, this doesn’t mean the Kindle isn’t a great device for others. I think it would be a fantastic device for someone who (a) is buying a tablet for the first time and doesn’t have any previous expectations and investments into other ecosystems or (b) simply wants to consume Amazon services. It’s also great if you want something cheap to get beat up. Full disclosure, we have two of the cheaper Kindle Fire 7 tablets that my kids use. For simple children’s games, etc, they’re just right. I’ll likely save this one for when one of theirs dies and let it be a nice upgrade for them.

Could I make the Kindle Fire work? Yes, but I prefer the iPad. And sometimes preference is all it comes down to.

Windows Server Core Jumpstart

Recently I’ve been looking into the potential that Windows Server Core holds for our environment. Like most eager new Core users, I imagine, I jumped in with grand visions of spinning up a VM quickly and being off to the races administering it from my desktop. The reality wasn’t quite the same, as I ran into a chicken and egg situation wondering how I could set up the machine when I could not yet connect to it. To complicate the issue, I couldn’t find a concise list of information on exactly what is needed to simply make the machine available so that I could begin to work with it.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled the following information in hopes of saving others the same headache. There’s nothing earth shattering here, but hopefully it will allow people to get started with Server Core quickly so that they can move on to more important things, like how the server will actually be used.

Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions. Hope it’s a help to you.

  • Ports to request from your firewall team.
    •  TCP
      • 5985, 5986 (WinRM)
      • 445 (SMB) –This is up to you. I wanted to be able to move files to/from the server.
      • 135
  • Local firewall rules to allow remote administration.
    • Enable Remote Management groups
      (Note: If you enable “Remote Service Management” on the host first, then you can do the others via PowerShell remoting. This can be helpful since copy/paste in things like VMWare console doesn’t always work.)

Default outbound traffic to allow

Enable Ping (optional)

  • Remote management tools
    • Add the remote computer to Server Manager (available on Windows desktop and server versions).
      • Once added, you can easily launch Computer Management and PowerShell for that specific machine by right-clicking it.
    • Connect via PowerShell remoting.

      • Cross-domain PowerShell Remoting (ie Dev or Test domains)
        • If remoting isn’t enabled on your local machine, enable it.
        • Add machines to the TrustedHosts list. (Depending on your setup, you might have to substitute IP addresses for the machine names in -Value.)

          Verify with:
        • Use PSSession to connect
      • IIS management (run on remote machine)
        • Set HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\WebManagement\Server\EnableRemoteManagement to 1.
          (This can be achieved using the local regedit tool and connecting it to the remote machine.)
        • Restart the WMSVC service.
        • Connect from local IIS Manager for Remote Administration with the local administrator credentials of the remote machine.
      • You can either use sconfig or the following remote PowerShell commands to allow Remote Desktop. (This is especially helpful for quickly getting to sconfig and other commands that do not operate properly with remote PowerShell.)
  • Common configuration tasks
    • The utility “sconfig” can be used for most setup items.
    • For a more speedy and scriptable setup, below are some common configurations via PowerShell.
      • Change date\time
      • Change computer name
      • Add to the domain

         

 

Giving Yourself Permission To Lose

One of the most profound turning points in my life was the moment that I gave myself the permission to lose. Please do not confuse this with apathy or a lack of ambition. It’s more of an upfront decision to roll with the punches, coupled with a focused vision on what is worth pursuing. Let me explain.

By nature (or maybe nurture) I am a very task-oriented person. I’m also a bit of a perfectionist. I want to be the best in every area of my life be it work, ministry, family, or simply recreation. I can’t simply play a video game, I have to be able to play it on a competitive level. I can’t just work in my area of expertise, I feel the need to develop a comprehensive understanding of all technology. I also want to be able to play instruments, fluently speak other languages, read a long list of books, etc, etc, etc. Being task-oriented, I cannot start one of these and just let it go. I have to finish it or it weighs on my mind. I also cannot stop everything else in life for that one task, so I spin up tasks in multiple areas. All of this combined, over time, becomes a huge drain on my mental and physical energy. Not only that, I begin to feel like a failure in each of these areas when I fall short of expertise in all of them. At this point you’re probably feeling stressed just from reading this. Imagine waking up and feeling the burden to accomplish all these tasks while still feeling the sting of not accomplishing them the day before. Living that way just isn’t sustainable.

Then one day I was praying during my devotional time and the thought occurred to me, what if I choose to lose? I’m not a quitter, so the idea of giving up on anything was repulsive. However, as I thought about it I began to realize that by pursuing this laundry list of interests I was already leading myself to failure in those things that matter most to me. Just as our parents always told us, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. We are all dealt a finite amount of time and energy. By choosing to involve myself in everything I’d taken away the option to truly invest myself in anything. It occurred to me that in order to win the right battles, sometimes you have to lose the wrong ones.

From that point I began to ask myself what I was really after in life, and I started to set aside those things that didn’t contribute toward those goals. This has lead to a laser focus in my life that I did not have before. At work I focused on strengthening my skill in database technology. To do that I had to let myself lose in the areas of Linux, programming, web development, and others. I don’t need to be a leading expert in every technical field to do my job well and have a fulfilling career. I also decided to lay off on video games and learning the guitar so that I could focus on learning Spanish. Ministry to the Hispanic community is a driving passion in my life and it became clear to me that these other hobbies were eating up the time and mental energy that I needed to devote to Spanish and Bible study.

I want to be careful not to portray the wrong idea. I’m all for challenging yourself in new areas and having diverse interests. It’s all too easy to get into a rut, which leads to other issues. There will be a day when I pick up the guitar again or study programming in C#, but today is not that day. If I master Spanish and therefore complete a critical piece of a primary goal, then I’ll move on to music. The point is to be aware of what you’re going after in life and to make sure you’re not sabotaging those goals by splitting yourself in too many directions at once.

There is another facet of giving yourself permission to lose that has more to do with humility. Sometimes we become overly aggressive/competitive in our desire to be the best. Or, even worse, we don’t even jump in because we’re too afraid that we’ll do badly. Giving yourself permission to lose up front frees you to both enter the activity and enjoy honing your skill in it, regardless of what the people around you do. Decide up front that even if you look like an idiot you’re going to do it anyway. And once you move past there and begin to develop some skill (and you will), do it in humility. Make your goal to be the best you can, not better than others. And help develop others along the way, even if that means they become better than you.

Get out there in life, stay focused on what is important, and enjoy giving it 100%. Set yourself up to win in what’s important by giving yourself permission to lose.

Unlocking Liberty

This week a US judge asked Apple Inc. to help them unlock the iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino shooters. The CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, has resisted this order citing risk to his customers and implications that extend past the case itself. Since then, notable people have stood up in defense of each side. On the one hand some say that not unlocking the phone is helping terrorists. The other side says that this sets a dangerous precedent, and that the FBI is just using one case to open the door for unlocking any device they want in the future. I don’t claim to be an expert on security, government, or terrorism. However, there are a few things I’d like ‘we the people’ to keep in mind as this discussion unfolds.

  1. The government does not have a good track record of using their abilities in a limited scope. Recall if you will the Patriot Act. Many people were okay with it initially because of its promise to aide in stopping the terrorist threat. However, years later we know that it’s been used to access innocent citizens’ information on disturbing levels and has been active past the time it was intended for. I want to hope that our government would not use device access methods maliciously, but I don’t think any of us are naïve enough to rule out the possibility.
  2. It’s unnecessary to force Apple’s hand. If any organization in the world should be able to crack an iPhone it’s the FBI. They have some of the best tech minds in the country, one of the most technically developed countries in the world, at their disposal. Aside from that, there are independent hackers available for hire. John McAfee , creator of McAfee antivirus, recently volunteered to do this for free. That would allow us to access the data without setting a legal precedent that allows the government to force companies into unlocking customers’ devices.
  3. We’re slipping into a dangerous mindset where anything is acceptable if there is a remote possibility of catching terrorists. Not that we shouldn’t be vigilant about tracking terrorists and securing the country, but at what point are we doing ourselves more harm than good? If we continue down the trail of sacrificing liberty for security then we’ve already accomplished the terrorists’ goals for them. They will have defeated the American spirit and caused us to relinquish ourselves to servitude. Not servitude to an oppressive regime they placed on us, but one we created ourselves, driven by our fear of them. Also, on a more conspiratorial note, we can’t assume that ill-intentioned individuals or organizations wouldn’t use that fear as a carrot to drive us farther and farther down a path that releases liberty and gives them power. The use of terrorism seems increasingly like the wars of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. Is it Eurasia or Eastasia that we’re fighting now? I can never keep track.

In summary, there will be innumerable situations through the years where the question of security vs liberty will be raised. Don’t be quick to assume that everything marketed as anti-terrorism is pro-American, and when in doubt err on the side of liberty.

The Price of Free

When looking at which tech toys to use it’s easy to differentiate by the upfront cost. An iPad, for example, can be twice the price of some of its competitors. This can certainly be prohibitive, no matter the quality of the device. I very much enjoy my Macbook Pro, but I would not be using one if work had not provided it for me. For many people it’s just not feasible to pay such a large cash amount upfront, and understandably so.

But is the monetary cost of the device itself the only consideration? Maybe we should be asking how or why other companies offer theirs for less. For the purpose of this article I’m going to pick on Google simply because they are the largest company utilizing a competing model. They are certainly not the only ones but have arguably been the most successful at it. The model I’m speaking of is that of advertising. Every time you go to their website Google displays tiny advertisements that other companies have paid large amounts of money to have placed there. But we all know that the most effective advertising is targeted advertising, getting exactly the right ad to exactly the right person. This is where the rest of Google’s services come in. By providing a litany of well-built, completely free services Google invites thousands of users to connect to their systems. While doing this, they gain mountains of data about you, your interests, your social circle, and their interests. This allows them to create increasingly personalized advertisements for you and cash in with companies who want you to see those advertisements.

Bringing it back to the devices, when you purchase an Android tablet or phone the cash price is usually going to be lower up front. However, it is geared toward Google services (rightly so). Most people will use the built-in apps provided by Google and, in doing so, send large amounts of data about themselves to Google over time. This can be in the form of email (Gmail), IM’s (Hangouts), Movies/Music/TV (Play Store), location data (Google Maps), etc. It’s likely few if any of us realize the extent of the data that we send them. It’s all built on the foundation of advertising so it all works toward fueling that end. On the flip side, companies like Apple have a more traditional business model. You pay a price for a product. Yes the monetary cost is higher, but it’s the entire cost up front. They do utilize cloud services and have you input your data to use various features. But the data is collected in order to allow you to use those services, not to assist advertisers.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t like Google is hiding anything. They offer a free service or low-cost device and in return they get to use your data to target ads towards you. It’s all laid out from the start in their user agreements. The problem is that none of us really read those things. We just click through the agreement in a rush to see what cool features are in store for us. So, the takeaway here is just to be mindful. Nothing in this world is free, especially when it is made by a for-profit company. If you have privacy concerns then take a step back and evaluate what information you’re giving over for the services you use. If you’re happy with the return you get from those services and the more relevant advertisements that result from your data being used, then please continue to happily use their services and products. Just never assume that the only cost of your device was the cash value.

Disclaimer: This post was written using Google Chrome on an Apple Macbook Pro.

Web Hosting Tools

Over the last year or so I’ve been getting more into web hosting for myself and friends. Below are the solutions I’ve chosen to use and I would recommend them to anyone.

  • Name.com: This is the site I’m using both to register my domain and to host the site. They are easy to use, affordable, and have great tools along with instruction on how to use them.
  • WordPress: If you’re like me, you enjoy using the web and would like to harness the power of today’s innovations but don’t have the programming skills (or time) to write it from scratch. Enter WordPress. Sign up for a hosting solution (such as Name.com mentioned above), install WordPress, and your site is ready to go. From there it only requires simple gui-based configuration to customize your site and start taking advantage of the online world. Plus, there are tons of free WordPress plugins that will enhance the capabilities of your site for free.
  • MailChimp: If you’re in need of a newsletter signup utility look no further. MailChimp will easily integrate with WordPress to have you signing up subscribers in no time.

Windows 8 Evaluation

My opinion of Windows 8 after using it for a bit:
  1. I think it will work well for personal machines. I’m going back to Windows 7 on my work laptop. In our case the apps we use just aren’t compatible enough with it yet and the interface doesn’t yield itself to higher work efficiency.
  2. Evaluate very carefully whether or not the software that is essential to you will work. Windows 8 is a big technology jump so you need to use the compatibility wizard and be sure. Don’t assume that if it works with Windows 7 it will be fine.
  3. All of the benefits remain. It is super fast, even more so than 7. It’s a fresh approach to interacting with a PC and I think that the majority of users will enjoy it as they get used to it.

What to expect when you’re expecting… to change cell carriers.

I recently decided to go back to Verizon from using Straight Talk. When we had our son we cut back on our expenses a lot and are only just now sorting out how much of that is truly necessary. Anyway, we decided to go back to the smart phone world and to do so on a network we knew was reliable, Verizon.

People had warned me ahead of time that moving your number from a prepaid carrier can be difficult. We did as much research ahead of time as possible and moved forward confidently. My wife was certain she wanted an iPhone, and their prices dropped on Apple’s website first so we ordered it from there. You can choose all of the options for your new Verizon plan from there and everything so it all seemed very streamlined. The problem is, when we received the phone it could not activate. Something became stuck in the process of porting the number. I spent a large portion of a weekend on the phone with Verizon support. They were able to port the number over but it became stuck in their system, which they said could take 7-9 more days to resolve. We were exasperated at this point, so we just went into the Verizon store on Monday and said forget it, we don’t even care if we lose the old number. Their response to us? Can’t touch it. You ordered the phone through Apple so we can’t work with it. We ended up buying two completely different phones and returning the first to Apple. We also both got new numbers instead of having Verizon port our old ones over.

Eventually we were able to run blissfully through fields with new iPhones and everything worked great, but it was a painful process to get there. Below are my tips on how to avoid this.

  1. Order your phone either through the actual Verizon store or off of their website. According to the guy I talked to they cannot work with any other devices if you bring them in, not even from their resalers in the same area.
  2. If you’re going to order the phone off of Apple.com or another site instead of the Verizon one, opt to get a new number. The guy I talked to said this is always how they do transfers. They get the phone up and running with a temporary number and then port over your old one.
  3. Instead of bringing your old number over to the new carrier at all, make it a flexible virtual number by transferring it to Google Voice. This is what we did with my number. I can now point it at any device, including my new cell phone. I can even tell the service to ring the house phone or my wife’s if I don’t answer. There are a wide range of features and there is only a $20 one-time fee for transferring a current number.
  4. No matter what option you choose for porting an old number over, DO NOT touch the old service until EVERYTHING is up and running. This causes bad things to happen. Just let it sit completely alone. Don’t even have your old phone on. The systems don’t play nicely together otherwise.

I hope you can avoid my pain and suffering. In the end, having known a few simple things would have probably made the process go flawlessly.