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MacTheBlog

iOS 4 — what is it good for?

Written by Alex Kidman Tuesday, 22 June 2010 09:43

6:30am. I wake up, somewhat weary. Rather coincidentally, random shuffle on my iPhone throws up the following lyrics:

"Wake up in the morning, and I raise my weary head/Got an old coat for a pillow, and the earth was last night's bed"

Well, that would explain why my back hurts. I can only hope that the upgrade to iOS 4 doesn't involve being shot down in a blaze of glory. It would give me an excuse to upgrade to an iPhone 4, but I'd have to wait at least a month for that.

What does seem to be being shot down is my broadband allowance. The update is 378.0MB. I'm not sure why iTunes needs to tell me about the .0 of a megabyte it's not downloading. Perhaps it's meant to make me feel better. I'm just hopeful that as my ISP doesn't count iTunes song downloads against my cap, perhaps OS upgrades will be free as well.

Anyone considering the jump should also bear in mind that you'll probably double that figure in App updates alone as well, even if some of them are just noted as "working" under iOS 4 anyway.

The next ten minutes pass in a blur of coffee and toast-making, as well as discovering that one of the fuses for the lights has popped. You probably don't need to know that, but it's ever so slightly more interesting than telling you to stare at a download screen for ten minutes.

While the download processes, I'm left pondering the fate of the early adopter. iOS 4 marks a breaking point, as anyone who grey-imported an original model iPhone, or legitimately purchased a first-generation iPod touch (I'm in that camp) will be left twisting in the wind on iOS (as it's now known) 3. I do wonder what that does to the security of iOS 3 devices. I'm not stupid enough to think that there aren't security holes, but hopeful that the ongoing install base will be small enough to mean that it's not worthwhile for the bad folk to warrant chasing it. It's a worthwhile bet that iOS 4 has something of a target on its back.

I'm somewhat surprised when, at 7:10am, the update is finished, and iTunes politely informs me that my iPhone is restarting. For whatever reason, a nearby connected iPad starts syncing again. Perhaps it's pining for iOS 4. Not for you, flatty! Not yet, anyway.

It's at this point that my only-just-processing-the-coffee brain remembers that the bulk of my iTunes music resides on a NAS and not locally, and that if the iOS 4 update involves re-synchronising all my music, it's going to throw up all sorts of interesting errors. It might be something of a quiet morning as a result.

My first interesting quirk comes not long after. iTunes tells me that the iPhone Sync is complete. The iPhone itself begs to differ. Do I unplug it, or leave it be? A five-minute wait seems sensible, and thankfully the two devices finally agree that things are in fact in sync with each other.

So, first impressions, then.

For a product that's designed to be "easy to use" and from a company that prides itself on ease of use, there's sweet bugger-all in the way of an introductory tutorial. Where's the slickly-produced video to walk me through all of iOS 4's new features, Apple? At first glance, all I spot is the background photo now being the backdrop (which I don't mind, but could be a lot worse depending on your backdrop photo) and the multi-tasking bar that pops up with a double tap. Nothing is multi-tasking right now, but that's to be expected for a newly-restarted phone.

Ah. Apple's support pages will have something, right?

Wrong. There's a single link for the new features of iOS 4 depending on phone model, but clicking on it reveals this rather unhelpful message:

"アップルのサポートシステムの定期的なアップグレード作業のため、現在サポートサイトの一部がご利用いただけません。ご迷惑をおかけして申し訳ありません"

OK, OK, the English version is above it, informing me that "Due to a scheduled upgrade of Apple's support systems, some features of the website are currently unavailable. We apologize for any inconvenience." I still reckon the Kanji is about as helpful.

Yes, that's right, the Apple Support Store is down. I wonder what new non-products Apple's brewing up now, and more importantly, where can the T-shirt be purchased?

It takes a couple of Google searches on related pages to figure out folder creation —not much more than drag-and-dropping icons on each other, which works reasonably well. I could see it being something of a chore if I had to do some app sorting on the fly if my finger stops in the wrong place, but hopefully that'll be a somewhat rare occurrence. It also gives me a single useful folder for hiding the preinstalled Apps that I never use. Why yes, Stocks and Weather, I'm looking right at you.

It's also somewhat easier to do all the folder creation at the iTunes end on my iMac, but again, that's no great shock. I've got to qualify that with "somewhat", as the icons have this habit of doing an annoying swap-positions dance with each other rather than forming folders. It takes a good dozen swipes to drop iTunes (the App) into my music folder.

The default folder naming strategy is to grab the product category as the folder name, which makes my brain wonder what happens if you create two folders from the same category apps. The answer is that you can seemingly have any number of identically-named folders on the same page, which is a little confusing. I'm either going to have to get organised, or be prepared to squint really hard at even tinier icons.

Then it's time for my organising gene to kick in. When I start, I've got nine pages of applications on my iPhone. When I finish, it's down to three — although half a dozen of my folders are just called "Games", and I'll need some more solid organising time to make sense of my folders. In the context of how I use most common applications it doesn't matter that much, because I tend to find them via Spotlight search. Then again, the limit of 12 applications per folder introduces a new problem. You can put 12 apps into each folder, but tiny icons for only the first nine will actually show up, which means applications 10-12 will hide even more than they used to on pages eight and nine.

I'm also totally sick of icons bouncing to accommodate each other, rather than dropping neatly into their folders. iOS 4 won't nest folders or merge them as far as I can find. They just do the bouncy dance around each other any time I try. I can live with that. It does mean I'll have to do some solid organising of my Apps, and hope and pray that my App database never becomes corrupted. I wouldn't want to have to create all these folders twice.

Many of the other new consumer-facing features are small tweaks here and there. The camera zooms, but it's still a digital zoom, and frankly unless I'm using it for some kind of low-grade, highly grainy surveillance work, I'd rather take the full shot and blow it up in Photoshop. iBooks is on the iPhone! Celebrate! Go wild! Go crazy ... and "buy" free books, as I discussed last week. Universal mail inbox functions, but it's still missing the most vital feature for a phone based email client — namely the ability to mark all messages read with a simple swipe or click of an icon. Frankly, I'd trade the universal inbox and folders for that feature alone. Are you listening, Apple?

What do you think? Is iOS4 everything you hoped it would be? Did it kill your iPhone, scramble your Apps or destroy your photos?

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!

 

A little light reading

Written by Alex Kidman Monday, 14 June 2010 09:06

Apparently — if Apple is to be believed — "Reading is a joy on iPad".

Now, I'm a big proponent of reading. I read every day, but then that's hardly shocking for a working journalist ... although I have had some suspicions about certain current affairs "journalists" and sports "journalists" for some time. 

I read for work, I read for pleasure, I read to my kids — did you know that my cat likes to hide in boxes? — and I have been known, when bored, to sit in the doctor's waiting room reading the posters regarding medical procedures. Just because I'm bored. As a result, you could say that I'm something of a reader. Also that I know more about pap smears than is technically necessary, but I'm getting off track here.

Anyway, back to reading being a joy on the iPad. That's Apple's claim, and what I'd like to know, as an avid reader, is when exactly that's going to start? The tense would seem to suggest that reading euphoria is happening right now, but that clearly isn't the case.

I'm not fussed, by the way, by the fact that the iPad uses an LCD screen. Shift the brightness down a touch, as full whack is rather garish, and I find it no harder to read than any e-ink product. I don't read much of anything in ten-hour stretches if I can help it, so the battery life isn't the problem, either.

It's the selection of books.

Let's start with Apple's own store, shall we? iBooks in Australia, as it stands at the time of writing, is one big fat joke.

Nothing more, nothing less. The joke, by the way, is on us.

There's no point whatsoever in having a big shiny book-selling interface, and exactly zero books to sell on it. I'm fully aware that books are available via iBooks. It's just that they're all public domain, Project Gutenberg titles. Every single one. Admittedly, Apple scores small points here for not charging for them the way that Amazon will try to do with an international Kindle. But still, I could grab the exact same texts and import them via iTunes any time I felt like it. That's not a bookstore, and as could typically be expected, there's no public timeline on when actual sale books will become available locally. Yes, it would be feasible to pick up a US iTunes store account and then pay some dodgy online iTunes voucher merchant for US iTunes credit to buy actual books, but then I'd be flying in the face of Apple's user agreement and potentially risking all the content I'm paying for, as well as feasibly supporting criminal enterprises selling iTunes vouchers off the back of stolen credit cards. I'd rather keep it legal, thanks.

There are alternatives on the iPad for the book-obsessed that do offer up actual books for actual money. Amazon's Kindle, for example. That application opens up with a nice enough backdrop of someone reading under a tree like they do in all the best movie establishing shots, but clicking on the "Shop In Kindle Store" icon ... opens up Safari. You've then got to sign in, sort out your purchases — which cost more because you're an Australian — and then relaunch the application in order to actually download your purchases. As Yoda might say, Simple This Is Not.

What's really strange here is that my current pick of the best e-reading software on the iPad, Stanza, is owned lock stock and barrel by Amazon, and includes purchasing and store-browsing options from within the application — but not for Kindle books. Just as I'd like to see Apple actually sell some books, it'd be nice if Amazon could work out just what its hive mind actually wants to do.

Borders also offer up an ebook application with inbuilt store, focused around its Kobo e-reading device. The Kobo device itself is fundamentally a cheaper Kindle without the inbuilt wireless, and for its $199 asking price, if all you wanted was an e-reader, it would suffice. Borders isn't that interested in hardware sales, however, and for that reason the Kobo offering extends to PC/Mac and iPhone/iPod and iPad with a universal application. Browsing is a little slow, but all the prices are listed clearly in Australian dollars and Kobo supports synchronising your library to any and all devices that you'd like. I'm on to a winner, here, surely?

Nope.

The problem here is that the Borders iPad and iPhone applications don't handle all the Kobo's files properly. This didn't happen with every book I purchased, but when it did, it made them near unreadable. As an example, I picked up a copy of Danny Wallace And The Centre Of The Universe, a book which rather surprisingly reveals the centre of the universe to be in Idaho. It's an enjoyable enough humorous read on the Kobo or indeed on my iMac.

On the iPhone or iPad, it's a mess.

Borders appThis screenshot displays the problem nicely. For whatever reason, the App interprets the same ePub files with a slight offset on every page. It's rather like someone has grabbed a physical copy and jammed it too tightly into a photocopier, leaving the margin of one page spilling onto another. Now that I think of it, it's kind of funny having this kind of spill in an application called Borders. Funny-sad, however, not really funny in the internet-accepted LOL sense.

So what's a book loving iPad owner to do? Aside from the obviously illicit avenues — which I won't point you to, as I make my living from copyright, same as other authors — all I can do is wait and fume.

What do you think? Are eBooks a vital part of the iPad experience anyway?

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!

   

MacBook vs iPad: Let Battle Commence

Written by Alex Kidman Monday, 07 June 2010 11:40

It's been a couple of weeks now since I picked up an iPad at Apple's Bondi Junction store. It's probably the only time I'll ever set foot in that particular arboreally-assigned retail outlet, but anyone who watched my trek there might have figured that out by now. This also means I've had a couple of weeks to work out what I'm actually going to use an iPad for.

Now, admittedly, I'm in a somewhat rarefied category, in that I can use the iPad as a straight business tool simply by writing about it — including this column, which I'm typing out on that same iPad, for what that's worth.

The most frequent criticism I've hit about the iPad (beyond that whole "it's a really big iPod touch" — well, yes, but that brings with it a whole host of possibilities, folks) is that you'd almost always be better off with a netbook or notebook instead. So I thought I'd put that to the test.

This being a Mac-centric publication, I can't test it against a Mac netbook, because (legitimately speaking) there's no such thing. I'm well aware of the whole Hackintosh scene, and I'll even admit I've mucked about with hardware to make that happen. It's a bit like climbing Mount Everest, in that I did it over one Christmas period because it was right there, but the result was a sub-par netbook that clearly ran better under Windows XP. Make of that what you will.

Oh, and I didn't actually climb Mount Everest. But I suspect you knew that.

What I do have to put up against the iPad, however, is a MacBook, albeit one that's aging a little disgracefully. A 2006 Core 2 Duo Macbook with 3.1GB of RAM in it, to be precise. Up against it, I'm pitting a first-generation 64GB WiFi+3G iPad with a couple of accessories.

First, where does the MacBook beat the iPad?

Optical disc reading. I can show the iPad as many DVDs as I can lift (which is quite a few) but it'll never do much than reflect the covers back at me. No amount of wobbling the cover around will make me think I'm watching a movie.

FireWire, Ethernet and USB built in. Yes, again, I could buy the USB Camera connection kit, but that's a dongle that has to be carried separately.

Removable battery. Although for a new MacBook, that's no longer true.

Tabbed multitasking. For now. iPhone OS 4.0 will shorten this gap, although it's not absolute multitasking. More on that shortly.

Bigger screen. Which is OK for the aforementioned DVD watching, I suppose.

Sitting flat on my lap with the screen in an easy to view position. Fixable with accessories for the iPad, but the MacBook does it straight out of the box.

That would seem to be something of a slam dunk for the MacBook, were it not for the areas where the iPad outclasses the MacBook:

Instant on. That might not seem like much, but with the iPad (if I don't set a security code), it's a swipe of the finger and I'm into working, or playing, or what have you. If I've closed the MacBook while on, it will think for a few seconds, then light up the screen, then bring up some (but not always all) the icons ... then wait a bit longer ... then start thinking about WiFi ... then kick up the fan ... then make the DVD drive chunk for no adequately-explained reason ... and then let me start working. Add a good 30-90 seconds to that whole palaver if I've actually switched it off.

Battery life. No great shock here. I don't think anyone would expect a four-year-old laptop with plenty of metaphorical miles on the clock to have much battery life at all. With WiFi or 3G running, I'll maybe get a couple of hours out of it if I'm careful. Whereas my tests while out and about with the iPad have yet to exhaust it below the 60 percent battery mark, even on a heavy load.

Choice of screen orientation. This again has surprised me, but it works. On a train, there's no way I can open up the MacBook without a fair bit of elbow room around me. Pop the iPad into portrait orientation, and I could even try reading it standing up.

Software. No, really. Yes, I know there are thousands of OS X programs out there, but even after four years, I've really only got around 20-30 actual applications on the MacBook that see regular use. Whereas the iPad's got the full whack of everything I've downloaded for the iPhone, plus its own apps. That started at around the 300 App mark, and I'm cutting down the erroneous applications as I spot them. That happens when you do a roundup of Binary iPhone Clocks, none of which I actually needed.

Lack of multitasking. No, really. Again, not something I would have picked as an upside, but in hindsight I can see how it works and helps. When I can multitask, I can multi-procrastinate. Not a word, strictly speaking, but it should be. A clean white iPad Pages screen just stares at me — as this one has done — and demands to be filled. Filled pages equals happy editors, and happy editors are more likely to pay me — or at least that's the theory.

(Nag nag nag — MJCP)

Light weight. Yes, I know, the standard iPad refrain is that "it's so heavy". Compared to a feather, or a single sheet of paper, or an iPhone, yes. Compared to a MacBook? The iPad might as well not be there.

That might seem to indicate a tie. There's an obvious counterpoint to this, in that a new MacBook might beat out the iPad on battery life and, given Apple's rather competitive pricing on MacBooks, there's not much between the top-end iPad and an entry-level MacBook, especially if you add in a few peripherals such as the keyboard dock or a decent case or screen protector.

That becomes a case of suiting it to your circumstances. My office is already home to a very nice recent-model iMac that handles my heavy Mac lifting for me, and the iPad is rapidly taking over the other around the house and out and about tasks. So for round one, at least, the iPad's taking it on a close judge's decision.

What do you think? Is the iPad just a big iPod Touch, or can it be a productivity tool?

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!

   

What does it take to get an App approved?

Written by Alex Kidman Thursday, 20 May 2010 23:39

The modern gold rush, it seems, is in App development. Everyone's jumping on the App Store bandwagon, and it seems I can't go a week without one company or another launching a new app store for a given device. They're all trying to get in on the rich seam of gold that Apple's mined with the iTunes App Store. And the way for us ordinary folk to glean off a few choice nuggets is to develop Apps ourselves.

For me, this does present a few key problems. First, I can't actually code. But, so I'm told, iPhone/iPod/iPad development is "easy" and "any idiot could do it". I certainly qualify on one of those scores — I'll leave it up to you to work out which it is. Right at this moment, I can't say that I've got a particularly original idea for an App, but that hasn't held anyone back.

What has held a lot of App developers back, however, is Apple.

Take, for example, Mobigame. You may not have heard of Mobigame, a company (arguably) most famous for a game called Edge. You may have been able to buy Edge from the App store over the past year, but generally only if you were fast. It's available as I type this (here's a link) but might not be by the time you read this. By my count, it's been removed from the App Store at least four times so far.

Is it violent? Does it depict acts likely to incite racial tension, destabilise governments, expose youngsters to the facts of life or show that unfortunate (alleged) incident with Steve Jobs, the toasting fork and the family of ducklings?

No, none of those things. Edge — the game itself — is best described as a Marble Madness derivative featuring cubes. Hence the name "Edge" you see. I rather like it, for what that's worth.

Edge screenshot

Now Edge — the name of the game — is a contested issue. I've got to tread a little carefully here, as it's an issue that's contested at a legal level, and I've no real passion to get sued any time soon. The short, even-I-can-understand-it-version of events is that a chap called Tim Langdell reckons (by whatever means) that he's got a trademark on the word "Edge" as it pertains to video games. And, it seems, a number of other things from videogame magazines to flash drives to baseball caps. The Edge trademark is the subject of a protracted legal battle (because you can never have a short legal battle) with (at first) Mobigame and (later) Electronic Arts, due to EA putting out a game called "Mirror's Edge". The Wikipedia article on Edge Games provides some background and, if you've got an afternoon to spare, an interesting rebuttal to just about everything Langdell's done can be found here.

Anyway, when Edge first hit the App store in May last year, Langdell contacted Apple regarding trademark infringement, and Edge (the game) was pulled. Sucks a bit if you're a developer, but I guess Apple does have to respect actual trademarks. Where it gets a bit dodgier, in my not-legal-advice-just-shooting-the-breeze opinion is that Mobigame wanted to shift the name to "Edgy", and Langdell (after discussions with Mobigame) apparently went and registered "Edgy" as well.

Statements about the relative freshness of undisclosed items in certain Scandinavian regions come to mind here, but again, I have no particular desire to go toe-to-toe with any lawyers any time soon.

(Which reminds me. Apple Lawyerbots? That whole comment about Steve Jobs and the ducklings? Not serious. I'm sure it's never happened.)

Where I do think it's interesting from a consumer and developer point of view is that it shows the level of power that any developer creating applications places directly into Apple's hands. I've seen no shortage of Apps that much more deliberately flout either copyright or trademark go through the App store without so much as a glance. The rules should have some flexibility to an extent but, at the same time, shouldn't there be a solid base that all developers can at least work from?

I mean, some of the things that do get released are equally baffling. Take, for example, Trucker's Delight. It's based off a crude and deliberately offensive YouTube video. Here's a link, but be warned — it's not safe for work, rather (to put it mildly) misogynistic and almost completely tasteless. In other words, the kind of thing the internet loves.

And now there's an iPhone game of it. This isn't a review — I'm not quite willing to plunk down $3.99 of my hard earned on it right now — but just an observation. How is it that a game featuring an entirely non-violent cube can have such trouble getting a firm place in the App Store, and a game featuring a violent, crude, lecherous and deliberately offensive trucker can make it in?

Makes you think that Mobigame, the developer of Edge, should talk to the folks who developed Trucker's Delight, right? I mean, those developers must know exactly how to present an App so that anything goes, right?

Let me check who that was. I could be doing Mobigame a service by putting it in touch with folks who can get something really controversial up on iTunes.

Checking the iTunes store, I find that Truckers Delight was developed by ...

Mobigame

Perhaps it's playing a deliberate game of chicken with Apple, waiting to see which game will be yanked from the App store first?

What do you think? Should App development and deployment on iTunes be open slather? Should the rules be more obvious, or just better implemented?

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!

   

The perils of printing

Monday, 17 May 2010 12:50

It would be fair to say that I rather like Mac OS X. It does what I want it to do, and (most of the time) when I want it to do it. It's still software, and still capable of being fallible, just as any software. There are some unique factors that I think make it great value, but equally there are a number of issues that seem to conspire to annoy me.

Printing would be close to the top of that list. To say I've had a bit of a rocky road with printing under OS X would be something of an understatement. Several years ago (and in the interests of full disclosure), I won a Lexmark x342n laser printer as a door prize. A nice door prize, to be sure, and at a physical level it's served me well. I wish I could say the same for the software that runs it, which has run hot and cold, on and off, for years.  I was somewhat mentally resolved that printing and I were never going to get on under OS X, until last week.

I was testing an HP Printer for CNET — in this case the HP Officejet Pro 8000.  My normal testing for this involves printing via Windows, and with an eye to testing, I popped in the supplied driver CD. It started installing, and then it stopped. Rather hard. It turns out that for whatever reason, the supplied CD didn't support Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit, and suggested I "upgrade" to Windows Vista instead.

Perhaps somebody at HP has a sense of humour.

I'm nothing if not rather dogged, so I headed to HP's web site to see if a Windows 7-compatible driver was ava il able. It was, but I was still left a little surprised — if only because the driver download was a whopping 234MB.

This is for a printer. Not a multifunction device — there's no fax, scanning, media card reading or optional coffee maker on the side of this thing. It prints, and that's all. All except for eating up 234MB of download allowance and taking a good forty-five minutes to download from HP's curiously slow download servers. All up, getting the OfficeJet Pro 8000 to work under Windows 7 ate up about two hours of my time.

(Just in case you're worrying that you've accidentally clicked onto Windows7TheBlog.com, this is where I switch back to your regular programming.)

Later the same day, I had a colour page on my Mac to print, and the Officejet 8000 was still set up. It's a network printer, and my curiosity (or perhaps my stubborn streak) was piqued. I figured I may as well try to find it with Bonjour first, and then worry about slow HP driver servers later. Bonjour picked it up within 30 seconds, installed drivers within twenty seconds, and a page was being processed within a minute of thinking about it.

Perhaps that's why I like Mac OS X. Two hours setup time versus one minute? I know which I'd pick.

Discuss this post with me in MacTheForum!