Click on the slide!

Features galore, but needs work

Chris Oaten can't recommend it yet

Presets aren't for everyone, but let's be honest — they are for most of us.

Click on the slide!

4S camera no longer a shot in the dark

Chris Oaten looks at the big picture

In all the reportage about what the iPhone 4S isn't, you may have overlooked readng about what it is —…

Click on the slide!

1996: the year of the comeback

MJCP pits Steve against his idols

The mid-1990s saw some very big blasts from the past. Some worked out better than others.

Frontpage Slideshow (version 2.0.0) - Copyright © 2006-2008 by JoomlaWorks


iPad on the move

Wednesday, 14 July 2010 03:40

The question of whether to buy a 3G iPad or the regular WiFi one is a rather tricky thing to balance. On the one hand, Apple charges a frankly ludicrous markup for the addition of 3G and GPS. Really. Yes, there's more engineering involved, and a few more chips, but nowhere in the build of materials to justify the $A170 price gap you're left looking at once you reach the register.

On the other hand, 3G (not to mention GPS) can be rather handy stuff. In my continuing quest to work out what the iPad's actually good for, I spent some time this week testing 3G Micro SIMs on my iPad.

Now, I'm sure some of you will be wondering why I'm not with the times. After all, the week the iPad came out, there were plenty of test results for all the major carriers. It's been done, surely?

Well ... yes and no.

Yes, there were tests done by some quite reputable journalists, some of them very good friends of mine. But in almost every case (and most of those that I'm aware of) they were fairly localised tests, mostly centred around Sydney usage. To let you in on a small-scale secret, a large proportion of the tests you see for any given product are likely to have been conducted in Sydney, simply because that's where a large proportion of the country's tech media is based, for better or worse. I'm amongst that number.

Micro SIM tests like that are OK for relative figures within the Sydney market, and to be fair, most of the test results I saw were scrupulously clear in stating where they'd tested for their results. If you live in Sydney, that's fine. But what if you don't?

Moreover, what if you want to use that shiny new iPad on the road?

Well, if the Road Runner cartoon I've just watched is any indication, your iPad will get blown up, then fall down a cliff before forming a perfect circle of dust. An anvil may or may not then fall upon it, depending on your choice of wacky scheme. Needless to say, this will void your AppleCare warranty.

On a more serious note, I took the opportunity of a road trip from Sydney to Adelaide to test as many iPad Micro SIMs as I could get my hands on in three separate locations. Three Micro SIMs, to be precise. One from Telstra, one from Vodafone and one from Three. Which might technically only count as 2.5 Micro SIMs, what with Vodafone owning the Three brand entirely. You might notice that Optus, the other big player, is missing from my figures. I invited Optus to supply a Micro SIM, but it never got back to me.

A quick word on setting up Micro SIMs. Presuming you've gone through whatever hell your provider(s) place on activating the Micro SIM accounts, all you should need to do (or all I had to do) was an initial sync with each Micro SIM inserted with iTunes. iTunes happily informed me that it was grabbing my carrier details, after which each Micro SIM worked just fine. I could swap them, and after a brief pause they'd identify the correct carrier and "just work". Checking the settings page showed up the correct APN details for each connected Micro SIM, so you shouldn't hit billing problems. I say shouldn't, because with mobile broadband and telcos, anything is possible.

Anyway, my first set of figures came direct and live to you from the world famous, highly exciting ... dining table at my home in Sydney's Northern Suburbs. Speedtest's App was run three times and averaged to get each download figure.

From my Sydney home, there wasn't much to separate any of the contenders. Telstra won a narrow victory with a download rate of 2589Kbps. Not that far behind (but a little cheaper to run), Vodafone managed 2247Kbps, while Three took the back of the pack figure of a still respectable 2123Kbps. Given the vagaries of mobile broadband, in actual usage you might not see that much variance at all between these three services if you happened to live on my dining table. I should probably point out right now that the location in question isn't for rent.

Anyway, to keep things level, my next testing regime was performed at a relative's house in the fine city of Wagga Wagga, again on the kitchen table. Good, repeatable, accurate testing involves eliminating as many variables as possible, after all.

That Telstra's country performance was better than the rest probably won't come as news to any country-based readers. The margins, however, were a little higher than I might have reasonably expected. Telstra bested its Sydney figures (perhaps the cell towers were less crowded, or perhaps I just got lucky) with an average download score of 3117Kbps. Three actually refused to connect, which is no great surprise as the company simply doesn't sell or advertise outside of metropolitan areas. Vodafone did connect (for the trivia fans, Wagga Wagga was amongst the first areas to which Vodafone extended its regional 3G network a couple of years ago), but I'd have to say that "connect" was putting it mildly. Vodafone's average was extremely easy to calculate, as it scored the exact same Speedtest score each time.

That score was 3.

Not Mbps. 3Kbps. The difference in signal when swapping out a Telstra Micro SIM and popping in a Vodafone one was a tad over a thousand times. That kind of speed difference you will notice, and is almost certainly a casualty of the iPad's 3G support for 850MHz - which Telstra's NextG uses - and not 900Mhz, which is what Vodafone and Optus use in regional areas.

So I headed further west.

One quick in-car observation, in stark contrast to my in-flight observation of the week before. On a flight with no Wi-Fi and no 3G, I barely dented the iPad's battery life. With 3G enabled and running all day, although the Pad itself was only in direct use for maybe four hours between two drivers (not while driving, I hasten to add), it quickly spiralled down the battery life, ending up at 23% after eleven hours away from a charger, and even that only by selectively switching 3G off. There's little point in areas where even Telstra admits it doesn't have signal.

Having headed further west, I found myself with an iPad on a kitchen bench in Glenelg, one of Adelaide's nicer suburbs. I'm rather fond of Adelaide (it's technically my ancestral home), and outside the wilds of regional Australia, it seems the Micro SIMs were rather fond of it too. Telstra again took the line honours with an average Speedtest score of 4313Kbps, and Vodafone redeemed its woeful Wagga scores with an average of 3092. The same couldn't quite be said of Three, which limped in with a score of just 391Kbps.

So what's the practical upshot of all this testing? In reality, I suspect most 3G iPads won't travel all that far all that often. I know mine won't, despite the thousands of kilometres it's racked up in just the past fortnight. If you do travel, though, Telstra remains a very solid bet for widespread coverage. If you don't, Vodafone might save you a few dollars - especially if you're close to a capital city centre. Three's pricing is so close, but its speeds so poor that it's not worth thinking about. As for Optus, who can tell?

What do you think? What kinds of speeds can you get from your Micro SIM?

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!


Pardon my rant, but ...

Written by Chris Oaten Tuesday, 06 July 2010 11:04

My previous blog prompted a response in MacTheForum from reader ColinC, who said he’d forgotten about printing. I think a lot of us have. And it kind of worries me. Here’s why.

Do you remember the joy of discovering your parents’ lives when they were young? This happened on that day they pulled out a shoebox full of little square prints made with their Box Brownie. Perhaps you saw yourself for the first time as a two year-old? It was great, wasn’t it? Your folks shared stories about their escapades as youngsters and you realised, perhaps for the first time, that they weren’t all that different to yourself. Had it not been for the welcome responsibilities of raising a family, those guys with the parent tags might be as crazy and carefree and full of wanderlust just like you are. Rebels, perhaps, who shocked their parents with the same ferocity that you do.

I remember this day. It was an epiphany. I suspect many older readers will likely remember such a day. I fear that those who grew up with digital photography never will. This fear prompted a rant in response to ColinC, and for those of you who missed it, I’m going to share it again here. Here goes, with some extra bits.

Printing isn't the challenge it used to be (or as much fun) when it involved stinky chemicals and fumbling about in the dark, but it is still rewarding to see a beautiful print of a great image. It’s also great to have family snaps in frames, up on the wall or on a shelf where you can see them every day. Or in an album. I think it’s vitally important we don’t abandon the practice and I worry that a lot of people are, quite without intention, neglecting the value of the printed image.

Sure, we have the cloud. We have places to share photos. We can show our pics to a global audience. But will those same pics be tangible in 30 years' time? Internet sharing is great, but impermanent when measured in decades.

I think we face the possibility of a future without photo albums. A future in which a whole generation forgot to print anything. No shoeboxes lurking in the attic full of memories. All our photos lost either through negligence from not renewing storage media, carelessness through forg etting to back up, or worse — stupid privacy laws, in which a generation of parents were rendered impotent by zealous sporting officials preventing them from taking snaps of their kids on the field of play because, you know, kids playing sport is pornographic. And, due to the habit of assuming everyone is a pornographer, nobody gets to capture memories. Unless they're accredited. And paid a fee.

I simply cannot come to grips with the notion of not being allowed to take a photo of my own child competing in a sport or performing on stage. I’ve had sporting officials tell me not to take photos because minors may have their privacy compromised. I’ve told them there’s no law in Heaven or Earth that will stop me from taking a snap of my kid and if they want to involve the police they are welcome to do so.

So far, no police have been involved, as long as I promise not to take photos of other kids. It’s a hollow promise. Soccer, for instance, is not a solo sport. Of course, it’s not difficult to approach a coach or other school official and explain what you’re doing and offer some pics for the school web site or yearbook. I’m not trying to encourage civil disobedience. Yet on more than one occasion, even with the green light from officials, some idiot in fear of repercussions has stepped in to prevent me from shooting.

As a matter of disclosure, I’ve also derived income from junior sports photography, shooting in conjunction with my daughter, so I’ve played this game on the offensive and the defensive, if you get my drift.

Anyway. We embraced digital photography with open arms. And so we should have. Film-based shooting was environmental vandalism. The carbon footprint generated by the film manufacture and processing industries was massive. Add to it the footprint of the transport industry and, well ... you get the picture. Pun intended.

But in the process of moving to digital and because of the ease of sharing images electronically, we have to some degree — either through abandonment of the long-held value of a printed image or through the fear and loathing that prevents us from taking photos we will come to cherish — managed to enslave ourselves to our computers and iPads and iPhones and digital photo frames and the internet.

So I implore you on two counts:

First, have a sound back-up plan for your photos, and don’t forget that storage media will fail. Some media will take longer than others, but they will fail. So remember to monitor media and recover your images to fresh media as required.

Second, start printing. Not everything, of course. It’s too expensive. But every now and then, take a look through your photos and pick out the keepers. I’m not talking about the prize-winners. I’m talking about the snaps. The ones that one day your children and grandchildren will pick out of a shoebox and hold in awe and realise that, once upon a time, you were young and cool and hip and fun and funky and ... well ... not who they thought you were.

Discuss this with me in MacTheForum!


Adventures in (not) buying a (not) iPhone 4

Saturday, 03 July 2010 12:33


iPhone 4. It was right there. Gleaming, pristine, in its box. Almost begging me to buy it. Steve Jobs was even there, enticing me in to purchase. What more could I want?

Well, as it turns out, quite a bit. Most specifically, I'd like to be assured that the iPhone 4 I was looking at was actually genuine. I wasn't staring at this iPhone 4 in an actual Apple store — although there was a big storefront just a block away proclaiming itself to be an "Apple Shop". As far as I can tell, though, it was selling fashion clothing, not fashionable computers. 

One interesting side-benefit of my recent trip though Hong Kong was the chance at night to check out Hong Kong's high tech markets. They're certainly bright and shiny enough, with huge neon advertisements at every conceivable viewing angle. Even looking down is no escape, as they're reflected in unusual ways in the puddles beneath your feet. It's rather like being trapped inside a massive flashing banner advertisement with no particular way out.

Red iPhone 4 SignThe Apple Shop down the road might just be a fashion house, but one store did promise iPhone 4. Not in a subtle way — with a bright red(incorrectly capitalised) "Apple iPhone 4" street sign no less, and Steve Jobs as the store greeter. OK, you might not believe me on that one, but he was there, greeting me as I came in the front door.

At least, I think he was greeting me. It was a little hard to tell, what with the photocopied screen grab of his iPhone 4 keynote being semi-obscured by Cantonese. I think it said "Come in!" or perhaps "Magical And Revolutionary", but it equally could have said "Only the finest fakes produced here" or for that matter "Ask about our complimentary massage special on level one" for all I know. It's that kind of district, after all, where "massage" parlours share level space with mobile phone shops and a curious shop that only sells Monchichi merchandise. For whatever reason, that's the most popular shop on the block at  11pm on a Tuesday night. I'm not going to judge that, or even pretend to understand it.

Steve Jobs iphone sign

There are a number of more obvious fakes around me, including Telstra-branded HTC Desires and an awful lot of 2G iPhones. That's apparently because the vast majority of the fake phones are GSM-only, and if you're going to trick someone, you're probably better off not trying to convince them that they're 3G when they're not. The fact that, in a line of three of them, the Apple printing on the back is in different positions on every single phone is something of a giveaway, however.

Fake iPhone 4Needless to say, I didn't bite on this particular Apple, if only because of the quoted price. The asking rate for an it's-almost-certainly-fake-iPhone 4 in Hong Kong last week was a hefty $16,800. That might put local iPhone pricing into sharp perspective, were it not for the fact that those were Hong Kong dollars. Converted to Australian currency, that's around $2500. Something tells me there's a lot of bartering room there, but that's still a shocking premium even for a genuine smartphone. For a fake, it's about $2450 more than I'd like to pay.

It strikes me that it actually must be tough to sell a genuine iPhone around here. Apparently one member of the group of journalists I'm travelling with did buy an iPhone 4, probably not from this store. I didn't, although there's a perverse part of me that could have purchased a sufficiently cheap fake, if only to compare to the genuine thing once Apple releases it locally.

The fact that we don't have local pricing or even a confirmed release date in Australia is something of a worry for those keen on the iPhone 4. I'm still somewhat undecided, with a perfectly functional 3GS sitting next to me as I type.

What's clear though, is that both fakes and real iPhone 4 models are available internationally, and perhaps not in quite as much of a shortage as one might expect. As we all wait, the hype is likely to rise and those who want a phone may be tempted to purchase one from overseas. Apart from the obvious risk of simply being posted a brick in the mail (or nothing at all) the prevalence of obvious fakes in Hong Kong certainly means that there will be fakes on sale at tempting prices — and super-inflated ones if my experience is anything to go by.

I'm certainly going to wait for the official release. Not because I want to "toe the party line", but more simply to ensure that I get something that actually works the way I'd expect it to.

(Editor's note: many thanks to the delivery guy from North Ryde Chinese Kitchen for the translations. I recommend the satay beef 02 9878 1466 — MJCP)

What do you think? Are you excited enough about iPhone 4 to be willing to import or buy yourself overseas?

gt;Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!



Wednesday, 30 June 2010 09:43

One of the big claims of the iPad is that it's portable. Perhaps not as portable as the iPhone, unless you've got particularly large pants, but still portable. I decided to put that to the test this week by using it (or attempting to use it) on an international economy flight from Sydney to Hong Kong.

That's right — I'm a sucker for punishment.

In the interests of full disclosure: I was heading to Hong Kong as a guest of HP to attend a printer launch, and they paid for my plane ticket. Doesn't mean I'm on the HP payroll, but transparency is a good thing, unless you like walking around the house naked.

Anyway, the equipment I used for testing with was pretty simple: an iPad, the iPad keyboard dock, and a PADACS Canto iPad case. The Canto case was to allow me to use the iPad in landscape view, seat space permitting, while the keyboard dock was to allow me to get some work done during the daytime flight. That included writing this blog entry, because if you're going to be on a plane for nine hours during the day, you may as well get something done. If you're reading this, I presumably survived — or at least my water-logged zombie remembered to file this before lurching off in search of tasty, tasty brains.

Pre-flight checklist

The first observation came way before I even got on the plane, when I tried to get power. I was lucky in that (thanks to the heavy flying efforts of my journalist brother) I could access the Qantas first-class lounge, which has plenty of power sockets. It's sometimes a bit embarrassing hunting around airports for power otherwise. However, the first problem struck when he plugged his laptop in while sitting on a couch, and I realised that the power cord for the iPad is hopelessly short for this kind of task. I wonder if anyone makes a really long iPhone sync cable?

For the trip I'd fully charged the iPad. It's nine hours flying to Hong Kong, and given the limitations of flying (no devices for the first/last 45 minutes of the flight, give or take a bit), that should be enough in theory. One thing I was particularly keen to see was how well the iPad and keyboard would fit against a standard economy seat. Rather better than my knees would, I suspected.

The plane! The plane! (and the pain! the pain!)

Having boarded, I took my seat. Not out of the plane, or anything. That would be silly, not to mention a touch on the cold side.

First observation: If you want to work on a plane in economy, request (and get) a window seat. Other seats have tray tables, of course, but if you have to stop for folks clambering over you, you're not going to get all that much done. Exit row seats should be good for that, and naturally if you can afford business you're not going to have that problem at all. If you can afford first class, I'm pre-emptively jealous.

As I predicted, there wasn't much to be done about seating in economy, and one of the first challenges involved getting the iPad and keyboard out of my bag. I'm rather thankful that I chose to stow my bag under the seat in front of me rather than in the overhead baggage lockers. And at least for a little while, the person in front of me didn't pop their seat back.

For a while, anyway. I was concerned that when they did, there would be a genuine risk of the tray table cleaving me neatly in half.

On the plus side, the passengers to the side of me declared the iPad to be “cool”. Make of that what you will. I'm not often referred to as “cool”. Perhaps the iPad will rub off on me over time.

The keyboard dock provided enough stability for me to type comfortably, although again being in an economy seat I could seriously have used a bit more elbow room.

Predictably, the seat in front of me was eventually reclined. The seat going back in front of me didn't cut me in half, but it did threaten to snap the iPad itself, thanks to it being in portrait mode — a casualty of using the keyboard dock. It is possible to type that cramped-back — just — but it involves positions my wrists really didn't like much after only a couple of minutes. Portrait mode is far more comfortable for typing, but naturally my typing speed and accuracy dropped markedly. Predictably, the second I did this, the seat in front of me popped up again. I decided it wasn't worth risking it bouncing up and down all flight, though.

iPad vs in-seat entertainmentIn entertainment terms things have improved for most carriers, and it's true I had a limited selection of entertainment options on the screen in the headrest in front of me. The iPad does better though, ploughing through a couple of episodes of Doctor Who and a movie or two to while the time away.

What genuinely surprised me was how well the battery held up. By the end of the flight, I hadn't used the iPad for the entire time, and admittedly there was no Wi-Fi or 3G connectivity happening. Between take-off and landing, and a couple of meals, I probably lost a clear ninety minutes where it just wasn't possible to use it. Still, after seven to eight hours of usage, the battery counter still reported a very healthy 56% charge remaining. Given that, with a bit of clever usage and perhaps some sleep (although I rarely sleep on planes), I reckon it just might be possible to do the punishing Sydney to London trip on a single iPad charge.

Anyone want to pay for my ticket to engage in this vital research? Don't all rush at once ...

Discuss this with me at MacTheForum!


My iOS 4 update experience

Written by clinton1550 Friday, 25 June 2010 20:06

Early on Tuesday morning, Apple released the iOS 4 update for iPhone and iPod touch users. I got up slightly less early on Tuesday morning, excited at the prospect of playing around with the few iOS 4 features afforded to us iPhone 3G owners. However, my excitement didn’t last long as my experience updating to iOS 4 quickly became one of pain, frustration and misery.

My experience updating to iOS 4 started the night before with some preparation. Up until Monday night, I had two iTunes Libraries. One — which lived on my Mac mini — contained apps, videos and podcasts; the other — which lived on my PowerBook G4 — contained all of my music and nothing else. Up until Monday night, my iPhone was synced with my Mac mini’s library, which meant it had apps, videos and podcasts but no music. I’ve wanted to merge the two libraries for some time so that I could have all my media on my iPhone.

I rather foolishly decided that the night before the release of iOS 4 was the best time to make the move.

Why did I think the night before the release of iOS 4 was the best time to merge my libraries? Earlier in the week, I heard that the iPod app had a few enhancements that I was keen to try out, Playlist Folder support in particular. Naturally, I needed some music and playlists on my iPhone so I thought I would sync all my music and playlists.

Why did I have two iTunes libraries in the first place? I’ll leave that for another time. But, why was it foolish? With the help of Home Sharing, I quickly transferred the media that I wanted from my Mac mini to my PowerBook, so all I had to do was sync my iPhone and I was ready for iOS 4.

What I didn’t take into account was syncing over 2000 songs to my iPhone — plus re-syncing all my apps, videos and podcasts — would take a long time. I started syncing at about quarter past eight and didn’t finish until sometime after midnight. No big deal really, but the full folly of my decision didn’t sink in until the next morning.

I woke up at 7:00 on Tuesday morning, rolled over to my PowerBook on the bedside table — with iPhone still attached — and attempted to click the "Update" button in iTunes while only being able to see unfocused blobs of colour. I was successful, and after clicking through several dialog boxes and waiting a few minutes, iOS 4 had been downloaded and began installing.

It was about this time that I realised I had made a mistake the night before. During the install process, I quickly became concerned that my iPhone was not updating, but restoring. I later found out that it was supposed to do this but at the time I was under the impression that I had clicked the wrong button.

I hadn’t clicked the wrong button. Clicking the “Update” button to install iOS 4 triggers a full backup, erase and restore process, presumably so Apple has fewer support calls from iPhone and iPod touch users complaining about things not working properly. While this strategy suits Apple and some of the more paranoid among us, it was most inconvenient for people like me, especially me as I would have to go through the entire four-hour sync that I had gone through the night befor

I didn’t have four hours to spend re-syncing my iPhone, so instead of letting iTunes restore my iPhone, I tried to cancel the restore and change the sync settings in order to get myself up and running a lot quicker. Cancelling the restore didn't go smoothly, as I accidentally clicked the wrong button when iTunes asked if I really wanted to stop restoring my iPhone. iTunes wouldn't allow me to cancel the restore a second time, so I restarted my iPhone. Once my iPhone had restarted and reappeared in the iTunes source list, I changed the sync settings to only sync one playlist with 25 songs, one episode of Top Gear, one podcast and a selection of my most-used apps.

With the new settings, I expected my iPhone to be ready to use in about 15 minutes. It ended up being a lot longer than that because iTunes decided that it didn't want to sync the 25 songs I told it to — it wanted to sync 375 songs instead. No matter what I did, iTunes still wanted to sync those 375 songs. I stopped and started the sync several times, to no avail. When I unchecked all my music except for the 25 songs I wanted, iTunes complained that it couldn't find the songs it was looking for.

I cannot truly convey my frustration at this point, but I was prepared to throw my iPhone in a bin. I was prepared to throw my iPhone 3G into a bin, never retrieve it and never buy a replacement. I was prepared to give up on the iPhone forever. Instead, I punched my PowerBook's trackpad and force-restarted both my PowerBook and my iPhone.

One restart later and I decided to give my iPhone a last chance to redeem itself. This time, when iTunes started syncing, it informed me that it was trying to restore my iPhone from a corrupt backup. Restarting my iPhone during the restore process probably didn't do it any good and the corrupt backup was the cause of all the trouble. I deleted the backup and the sync went ahead without any problems. The 25 songs were successfully synced along with the videos and apps.

Finally, after two hours of wrestling with iTunes, I had my iPhone in a usable state. A lot of my lousy experience was my fault. Before updating I thought it would be a fantastic idea to sync all my media to my iPhone. I didn't anticipate any problems because previous iOS updates have been pretty straightforward. I don't recall last year's 3.0 update requiring a full backup, erase and restore. I also don't recall Apple warning me that iOS 4 would require a full backup, erase and restore.

Then again I didn't read any of those dialog boxes I hastily clicked through before downloading iOS 4. Maybe it was mentioned in there somewhere, maybe it wasn't.

I can see why Apple decided that a full backup, erase and restore was the best way to install iOS 4. For many years, the best way to install Mac OS X was to backup your data completely to an external drive, erase your startup disk and perform a clean install. This ensures you don't run into any compatibility problems with the new OS.

Remember the Blue Screens of Death many users got when upgrading to Leopard a few years ago? Those were caused by Unsanity's haxies, unsupported modifications to OS X that provided — to some — welcome enhancements to their computer.

Perhaps the full backup, erase and restore strategy employed by Apple had something to do with jailbroken iPhones. Remember when Apple "bricked" jailbroken iPhones with an early OS update? Perhaps Apple wanted to avoid the support calls and bad press that came with "bricking" iPhones.

I don't know the real reason for Apple's decision but I do know that it complicated the iOS 4 update for some people — some more than others and especially me.

So what have I learnt? I've learnt that if I want to rush into these things, I need to do some real preparation. Next year, I'll erase my iPhone myself and set it up with the bare minimum of stuff to try out new features. Then when Apple erases my iPhone, the restore process won't be such a pain.

How did your iOS upgrade go? Any problems?

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!