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MacTheBlog

4S camera no longer a shot in the dark

Written by Chris Oaten Sunday, 13 November 2011 18:13

Having recently entered a contract with Telstra for a 24-month plan with an iPhone 4, the 4S's features are of no real consequence to me, or so I thought. However, having now shot some video on a 4S, the temptation to pursue an upgrade is a good deal stronger. More about that in a moment.

The iPhone 4S release sure caused a stir, didn't it? I found it a bit of a laugh, actually. Some of the reporting was the worst I've yet read. Can anyone tell me how one "fails to live up to rumours"? How is that done, exactly?

Here's a rumour. Let's call it Rumour X. And it's been picked up by some media outlet, let's say Spews Limited, and presented as a "likely new feature" according to an expert insider who knows someone who works at Apple but can't, of course, reveal their name. So it could be anybody. Or nobody. When the 4S is released and the "new feature" isn't there, then according to Spews Limited maths, it just don't add up. Thus, Apple failed to live up to rumours.

Is that how the logic goes? Could someone help me out?

Another of my favourites was "New iPhone 5 is only half what you expected". Let's break that one down. It's not an iPhone 5. And, er ... no, hang on, that's it. The fact the people who made it call it an iPhone 4S should be a reasonable indication it's not an iPhone 5. Mind-boggling stuff.

(As a matter of disclosure, I was one of those who reported on the 3G when it was released in Australia. I was working for a newspaper at the time and the editor informed me there was a page three in it. That's the penultimate big deal in newspaper reporting. That's the editor saying he thinks it's big news — but not so big that it would knock the Pope dying off the front page. For a tech reporter, back then, page three was your call to the major league.

Fair enough, too, because the iPhone's first Australian release was a big deal. It would be the device that changed the smartphone landscape, that would get people to take notice of what a pocket-sized, phone-enabled computer could do for them. So, you might imagine, the report was a bit on the breathless side. Combined with a fancy layout with diagrams and a breakout, it was quite a splash.

I'm a little embarrassed now about how I wrote that piece. I remember the editor walking past on the day of publication, saying: "Well done, mate, you stopped just short of gushing, which is just how I wanted it".

I was also taken down a peg the next day by a critic writing for Crikey, who placed the importance of the iPhone's release in stark relief by pointing out the newspaper ran a story on page 17 about a murder on the north side of town. Page 17. Apple device trumps local murder, by 14 pages. I still think there's something disturbing about that.

But the point I'm trying to make here is that while my iPhone report had a bit of fanboy flavour about it, I can proudly tell you that its contents were based entirely on what actually did happen.)

When the iPad 2 came out, it so happened that I was trying some Android tablets: Motorola's Xoom, Samsung's Galaxy, and Acer's Iconia. I didn't care much for the Android OS, certainly not on a tablet, but what I really liked about each of those tablets was the camera. The camera on each of them really blew the iPad 2 away and I decided there and then I would wait until iPad 3.

It was a comfort, therefore, to see the quality of camera Apple has put into the 4S. If at least its equal is not in the iPad 3, I may well go postal. Although, given some of the decisions that have come out of Cupertino of late — yes, Final Cut Pro X, I'm looking at you — one could be forgiven for thinking that any crazy stuff could happen.

In any case, the video capability of the 4S is a very welcome improvement. Coupled with iMovie or a third-party video editor such as Splice, the 4S is now a viable consideration for vloggers who value mobility and accessibility over the features and multi-stepped workflows that go with shooting with a "real" video camera. I believe that with an iPhone 4S you could maintain a series of high-qaulity video snapshots of a holiday, cover a news event, or shoot a how-to video. Pretty much most simple video tasks. And do it with panache.

On the down side, there's no zoom in the 4S's camera, so if you are going to cover a news event, remember what famed war photographer Robert Capa said: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough". Also bear in mind that getting close enough can kill you, so use some judgment on that one.

How good is the video quality of the 4S? Better than an iPhone 4 camera? Pfft ... yeah. Better than a Flip HD? Yep (just). Better than a Nokia N9? Yep. Better than a DSLR — such as, say, a Canon 5D MkII? Now, there's an interesting comparison.

A video went up not long after the 4S was released comparing it to the Canon 5D MkII — the camera that started the DSLR video phenomenon. It compared some very average scenes — and by average I mean scenes that didn't really test the resolving power and clarity of the 4S's lens and sensor combination — shot on a 4S and a 5D MkII and presented a comparison that was very favourable for the 4S. However, what it didn't show was the 4S's negatives.

The 4S may be able to adjust exposure to suit a darker scene but at the same time it can't allow for control over colour temperature changes, so if you shoot some ducks in full light and then some ducks floating into a shady part of a pond, you get a clip from the shady shot that's cool and bluish. Put the warm, full-sun clips next to the bluish clips and they look ugly. The touch focus is pretty good but will hunt for the subject in high-contrast lighting. Also, it's too easy to slip your finger over the lens.

The jelly effect is still there, too. This is the distortion that happens to the geometry of the image when you jerk the camera suddenly. Avoid handheld shooting to minimise this effect.

With all that said, the 4S can produce some very satisfying video if you shoot within its limitations. And it's much smaller thatn an EOS 5D MkII.

In all the discussion about what the iPhone 4S is not, cannot to and does not deliver, not to mention what the number on the box isn't, some things were overlooked. Not the least of which was what it can do as a still and video camera — something actually worth reading. Some of the media outlets reporting on the device's lamentable lack of being called "iPhone 5" actually wanted you to pay for the privilege of reading it.

Like that's going to happen.

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What's Apple's iPad 2 game?

Written by Alex Kidman Friday, 25 March 2011 11:08

Earlier this week, I rather gloomily predicted that with the iPad 2 enjoying robust sales in the US, coupled with the fact that we still didn't have anything resembling launch prices to speak of, that we might be staring down the barrel of a delay to the on-sale date.

It's true — sort of — that I was wrong about that. Why, according to the press release that Apple put out very late on Tuesday night, iPad 2 would be available to order online Friday at 1am, and then to buy at retail stores from 5pm. Which is a little odd and quirky, but then this is Apple we're talking about.

I could say that I waited up until 1am to order an iPad 2, but that would be something called a "lie". I actually slept in until the hearty hour of 4am instead. At 4am, I checked my Twitter feed, only to read a bunch of rather angry tweets. Checking the Apple Store, I quickly saw why. iPad 2 was indeed available to pre-order, but by pre-order, Apple actually meant "When we ship it to you in 2-3 weeks".

A quick ethical disclaimer: I had to get up at 4am anyway as a Canon conference I'm attending had a event scheduled to start at 5am. I didn't get up at 4am for the purpose of iPad 2 price checking. Just so you know.

The thought did strike me that it was 4am, and perhaps sales had been very brisk indeed, but checking with MacTheMag's esteemed hairy editor, this wasn't the case. By his clock (and rapidly page-refreshing hand), iPad 2 "sales" had started at 12:45am. So somebody jumped the gun a little — but, moreover, there was always a 2-3 week wait to deal with. He did look especially thrilled later in the day when he got the shipping notice for his iPad 2 Smart Cover, which (fingers crossed) should arrive several weeks before the actual hardware. I expect he'll be able to make it into a little hat or something in the meantime.

Fashionable headwear aside, why would Apple do that kind of scheduling? Why would you schedule online sales for 1am Australian time, and then retail sales for 5pm later that same day?

Does it benefit consumers? No, not really. Anyone who stayed up late will undoubtedly be disappointed that they weren't able to order something for delivery today. It was reasonable for consumers to assume that the early ordering time was to ensure that couriers might be able to start shipping things today; not so much that Apple might have an extra three weeks of interest on their money and they be left waiting. If Apple knew it wouldn't have stock to even begin to satisfy customer demand, then why not start pre-ordering either days before, or even at the same 5pm "on sale" time?

Moving on to the actual retail sales launch, which is yet to happen as I write this, the 5pm retail sales time isn't that convenient for most consumers either. Especially as it appears that Apple isn't planning to open stores late to cover those folks already out in queues. Perhaps that's to cover for the actual stock numbers on hand, which may sell out quickly.

So what's it all for?

In a word, hype. If it's clear to everybody waking up on the Friday morning that the only way to get the iPad 2 is to go and start queuing right now, then the queues will be bigger. Bigger queues equals more hype, equals larger eventual iPad 2 sales. It also means that any competing tablet products get fewer column inches or TV spots.

It also strikes my (admittedly cynical) little mind that it's a great way to manage iPad 2 shortages. When the original iPad launched, we were promised one date only to see it whisked away due to larger than anticipated US sales. This time around, I suspect Apple were keen not to repeat that experience, although the fact that we had to wait until near the last minute just for pricing details suggests that not everything was nailed down all that early in the piece.

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Five reasons to get excited about the iPad (and five reasons not to)

Written by Alex Kidman Saturday, 05 March 2011 23:20

OK, so the owl was a bit off base. Bloody owl.

As predicted, Apple announced the successor to the iPad a few days ago — the not-so-excitingly-named iPad 2. The specifications for the device are, by now, rather widely known, but are there real reasons to get excited about it?

Five reasons to get excited

Faster performance This has to be the key selling point of the iPad 2. The original iPad has its moments of lag, and the promise of the dual-core A5 processor is that it’ll reduce that lag significantly. The extent to which that’s true remains to be seen, but the promise is there.

Inbuilt cameras for FaceTime and video The single most widely-tipped feature did make it into the final unit, and it does add some flexibility to what you can do with the iPad, including large screen video chat via FaceTime. It’ll be interesting to see if Apple approves a Skype update to include video calling.

iMovie The companion to the camera? iMovie for iPad. At least from the videos Apple’s provided this looks slick, but it’ll be interesting to see how well it handles complex video encodes, and whether it’ll allow you to import video from other sources.

Thinner, lighter If you thought the original iPad was too heavy for long term use, it isn’t any more. It’s also somewhat thinner for easier holding.

Smart Covers Apple’s original iPad case was a "love it or loathe it" proposition with a propensity to scuff and a difficult to remove body. The new iPad Smart Covers couldn’t be easier to remove, and the ability to work as a multi-capable stand is a big plus. A slight concern here is that it's not doing that much to protect the back of your iPad 2 from scratches.

Five reasons for apathy

It’s not actually smaller Yes, it’s thinner and lighter, but the same basic dimensions are still in play. There was plenty of criticism of Apple’s decision not to opt for a 7-inch iPad model based around the fact that a 10-inch screen is still a fair chunk of metal and glass to hold in your hands. Or, in other words, if you found it hard to hold for a long period of time, it’s still going to be a tricky-but-not-impossible proposition.

No change in screen resolution Here Apple’s starting to be outclassed by the competition. Undoubtedly, bringing Retina Display-like resolution to the iPad would be an expensive proposition, but this is still last year’s technology. Equally, there’s no stated change in the way that the iPad handles its resolution-doubling for older iPhone/iPod Touch applications.

Apple’s Upgrade Mania writ clear Apple wants you to upgrade each and every year, and in most cases it’s provided good reasons to do so with new features tied into the hardware. The iPad 2 (and more specifically iOS 4.3) indicate that it's willing to do this with software as well. The Hotspot feature that lets you tether an iPad 2 to your iPhone? It’s iPhone 4 only, despite the fact that WiFi Hotspot has been one of the killer applications for jailbroken iPhone 3/3GS owners for years now. The hardware’s clearly capable — but Apple doesn’t want you to have it.

Upgrade path for existing iPad owners not that compelling If you don’t own an iPad currently but you’re interested, you’d be mad to rush out and buy anything but the cheapest (original version) iPad today — even Apple’s discounted it down to $449, although entertainingly a refurbished model from Apple’s online store still costs $539. But if you’re an existing iPad owner, you’ve already got access to the vast majority of what the iPad 2 can offer, cameras notwithstanding. US pricing is in line with the previous models, which strongly suggests we’ll see the sequel for around the same price we saw the original, and your existing iPad is still less than a year old.

A 10-inch camera is a big camera The inclusion of dual cameras is nice, but the practical reality might be a little less compelling. Taking a FaceTime call on the train will involve everyone else on the train being able to see your call in high definition. Shooting a video of your kids in the park will involve holding up a large screen in order to shoot. Compared to even shooting video with an iPhone, this seems like a bulky solution that promises more than a few dropped iPads.

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Apple announces details of iPad 2: Exclusive!

Written by Alex Kidman Wednesday, 23 February 2011 19:37

Gotcha going, didn’t I?

Heart racing? Finally (finally, for a second time, as a certain Mr D. Johnson might say), the details on the new iPad, here and exclusive to MacTheMag!

Except that, as that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach might just be informing you right about ... now ... I don’t have any such details at all. I don’t know what the details of the iPad 2 are, or when it’ll launch, or what colours and/or flavours it will come in. Although, more on that shortly. I’ll just pause for a second to duck the rancid tomatoes that are no doubt heading my way. Please, please, remove them from the cans before throwing.

This week, the web’s been ablaze with what’s not a great deal more than speculation about the launch date for the next generation iPad model. “Apple to launch iPad2 on March 2” reads one headline. “Apple iPad 2 Launch Coming March 2, Report Says” reads another. “Apple likely to launch iPad 2 in March” from another. “Exclusive: Apple iPad 2 Event Set for March 2” elsewhere again. So, depending on whom you choose to believe, it’s either definitely launching, launching because somebody “says” it is, “likely” to launch, or “exclusively, definitely, positively (maybe)” launching. Which is it?

(Note: I’m not linking to those sites right now because they’re all just designed to generate clicks and eyeballs without so much as a shred of proffered “proof” at all. Most of them seem to be feeding off a single original report, although there’s a few out there that place the blame with Reuters.)

It could all be true. That is always possible. But it’s equally true that many of the same outlets were sure that there’d be some kind of launch event in January, to combat the hype coming out of CES for all the Android tablets. Then it was definite that we’d see an announcement from Apple in February, because, well, it was more than twelve months since the announcement of the original iPad, and Apple always updates its products on a twelve month cycle, regular as clockwork.

Except, you know, when it doesn't. Which just so happens to be all the time.

But speaking of Apple, I’m sure that Tim Cook and pals love all this media attention. Apple’s said exactly squat about the existence of a second-generation iPad. Nothing. Still, that hasn’t stopped the speculation, guesswork, half-truths and flat out fabrications from becoming headlines all on their own. If the guesswork is right, then Apple’s got itself some pre-launch hype for absolutely no work at all. If the guesswork is wrong, the sites involved look foolish and, hey, Apple’s got itself some pre-launch hype for absolutely no work at all. If it’s half right, then the sites involved can state that they “knew all along” which bits were definite, and Apple’s got itself some pre-launch hype for absolutely no work at all.

Pre-launch hype, it should be noted, that also takes away from the hype for any number of Android 3.0 tablets due shortly. I don’t know anything solid about the iPad 2, but I do know that Apple would be rather happy if you forgot that alternate tablet options exist at all. And that’s an exclusive bit of knowledge, revealed here for the very first time!

But I did promise you iPad 2 specifications, right? Well, thanks to a small metal owl on my verandah which has, by methods unbeknownst to me, become possessed by the spirit of renowned psychic The Amazing Criswell, I can reveal the exact details of the iPad 2 here, and right now. The owl’s been whispering in my ear and, while the iPad (first generation) auto-correct might have changed some of the notes I frantically scribbled, I’m quite sure this is what Apple will reveal for the iPad 2.

It’ll run on two A5 processors with a solar panel on the back that draws not only sunlight but also the blacklight used to hide the existence of fairies from the general public, giving it a running time of approximately 10,000 hours between recharges. The screen display will be holographic behind not one but seven layers of silicate photo-phosphorous-cyabromide plasticate, allowing it to measure in at only 0.07 of a micron thick, except for the dock connector. It will be available in purple or black, and have a distinct cinnamon tang. On command, it will also produce Froot Loops, but you’ll have to provide your own milk.

Now, if any of those details are in any way even slightly correct, don’t forget, I’m a genius. If they’re ever so slightly wide of the mark? Blame the stupid owl.

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Is Apple's cutting edge getting blunt?

Written by Alex Kidman Tuesday, 15 February 2011 00:49

Like practically every other tech related journalist (and an assorted crowd of retailers, analysts and “interested parties”), I attended Intel’s local launch of its second generation Core processors, heralded in by Intel’s vice president and general manager of the PC Client Group, Schmuel “Mooly” Eden.

(As an aside, I tweeted during the presentation that Mooly had borrowed a little from Steve Jobs’ clothing style, given he was dressed in jeans and a black top. The beret was his own style — and as a presenter, Mooly’s got a lot of style — and the effect, whether it’s Jobs or Eden, is the same. It’s comfortable, it’s casual, and it removes the heavy business layer that a suit adds to proceedings.)

The new “Sandy Bridge” (it’s the codename, don’t blame me) Core processors are interesting little beasts, at least from Intel’s figures, backed up by a number of reviews online I’ve seen so far. Intel reckons that the top of the line Core i7 processors in the Sandy Bridge family outpace the previous top of the line units by a healthy 69 percent in Excel calculations, and 62 percent in slideshow creation. Those are Windows figures, to be sure, and undoubtedly they’re handpicked by Intel to show a best case scenario, but still, given that most processor launches involve figures that typically hover around ten percent improvement, getting six to nearly seven times that much is impressive.

It gets better, according to Mooly’s speech, if you’ve got a three year old system, where the gains in processing performance are in the region of 800 percent. Not a typo. Eight hundred percent. Again, there’s a slight grain of salt there, in that Intel’s no doubt cherry picked the best performance figures it could massage into being, but the independent tests do suggest that the new processors are something special.

Intel’s launch was backed up by numerous partners from within the PC sphere; I spotted units from Dell, Fujitsu, Acer, MSI, Toshiba and plenty of others. I even spotted systems I’ve reviewed myself recently where the only difference in the system I reviewed and the new unit was a Sandy Bridge processor at the core.

Guess who wasn’t present?

Yup, Apple. The closest one came to an Apple was the fruit juice being served at the bar, and even that was orange.

To be fair, I’ve only ever seen Apple at a single Intel processor launch, not long after the transition from PowerPC to Intel was announced, and even back then, the main thing that Apple representatives had to say was pretty much “We’re on Intel now!”.

At the launch, as I typed in my notes, I was on Intel now too. I was using a review MacBook Air 11” model, a system that in many ways is cutting edge. It’s entirely SSD based. It boots up almost embarrassingly quickly. It’s got an excellent operating system on board. The battery life is great. It’s even slender enough that with sufficient force, you could use its edge for actual cutting, although that’s perhaps stretching things a little far. In any case, it’s a review unit, and I suspect that Apple would look dimly on me returning a laptop with one edge slightly encrusted with cheddar.

There’s one aspect where the MacBook Air isn’t all that cutting edge, however, and it’s in the processor used. It’s an ultra low voltage Core 2 Duo that’s rapidly racing towards three years old, which puts it perilously close to that 800 percent category Mooly referenced in his launch speech. Sure, the Air isn’t pitched as the ultimate performance machine, but the same is true across much of the rest of the MacBook line. Apple is, as always, remaining mum on the issue of when new models will hit the store shelves, but the chances seem slim that they’ll be first to market with the new processors.

I asked Mooly (on the urgings of a certain hairy MacTheMag editor, who for complex technical reasons was unable to ask himself) what of the new features (which include anti-theft technology, video transcoding, improved integrated graphics, improved turbo boosting for individual cores and a DRM layer called “Intel Insider”) were Windows specific, and which could be implemented by other parties, including Apple. He addressed the Apple part of the question first, replying that, and I quote:

“Apple can and will do what Apple wants to do.”

Ain’t that the truth. So, how about it Apple? Any chance of some cutting edge processing to go along with the cutting edge designs?

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