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Shock and awe

Written by Alex Kidman Monday, 10 May 2010 18:20

It was a dark and stormy night.

Well, it wasn't really that stormy. But it was dark, what with it being night. If you've been around as long as I have, you tend to pick up on cues like that. In any case, it was an unexceptional Friday night, and for the first time that week I was sat down in front of ye olde idiot's lantern, catching up on a number of serials of which I am a fan.

Jack Bauer's a hard man to kill, but that's not the point of this column. Although he is rather a specialist at unbelievable things — in his case plot points and general survivability — so perhaps it was apt that I was watching 24 at the time.

Anyway, while I was busy getting my brain gently soaked in increasingly ridiculous plot points, Apple was releasing pricing info for the iPad. On a Friday night. Aren't people meant to be out partying on Friday nights, and not issuing press releases? Yeah, I know, I wasn't out partying, but see my earlier comment about having been around for a while for clarification on that point.

I already know that the iPad isn't genuinely "magical" — although I do think it's nice — but would the pricing be, as Apple had stated so vehemently, "unbelievable"?

Nah.

Chances are pretty high by now that you do know the local pricing, but just in case you've stumbled here while missing the iPad news, the WiFi-only iPad will cost you $629 (16GB), $759 (32GB) or $879 (64GB), while the 3G- and GPS-equipped version costs $799 (16GB), $928 (32GB) or $1049 (64GB).

What is a bit unbelievable there is that we're getting remarkably close pricing to the US, at least on this spin of Apple's magical wheel of price fixing. All it would take would be a very minor currency fluctuation and the iPad would actually be cheaper here than the US. I wrote about this at length, covering why GST is an important consideration, at PC Authority earlier this week if you want to cover the not-terribly-complex mathematics of the argument.

What was really unbelievable was still to come this past weekend, when Telstra released its pricing for iPad Micro SIMs. I'd opined previously that the odds of pay as you go pricing were slim, and the odds of it being actually affordable were even more anorexic.

Turns out, I was wrong.

Telstra's opening offer gives users 1GB for $20 with a 30-day expiry period. Up that to any combination above $30 and you basically pay $10 per GB, but that 30-day expiry sticks like glue. Sure, that's not ideal, but since when was Telstra the affordable choice?

Optus's offer was even better, at least on paper. The same $20 would buy you 2GB of usage, no strings attached. Well, except maybe one. Optus 3G network in metropolitan areas is 2100MHz, but outside it it's 900MHz, which is exactly what the iPad doesn't use.

As I'm writing this, Vodafone/Three is yet to release plan details. Having been boldly wrong on the prepaid data pricing previously, I don't think I'll be going out on too much of a limb to suggest that Voda's deal will closely mirror Optus's, or maybe undercut it just a little. It seems unlikely that Vodafone would declare that its hoity-toity data doesn't play in the cheap kids' playground and would cost $50 per month for 200MB. At least, not if it plans on having any iPad customers, anyway.

I'd say Telstra's in the commanding chair for this one, at least as far as coverage goes. My own iPhone usage suggests that 1GB of data should be more than enough, too. Your usage may vary.

I was discussing this point on Twitter earlier in the week, and an ex-colleague of mine who now hails from Singapore commented that $20 for 1GB of 3G data isn't that great a deal. To a certain extent he's utterly right. From his perspective, he's paying (by his own estimates) around $45 per month for 12GB of data usage plus included calls in Singapore. Suddenly, Telstra's "generous" deal doesn't seem so good, now does it?

There are always differences between markets in terms of provisions and competition. It wasn't all that long ago at all that 1GB of 3G data in Australia would cost you hundreds of dollars, even on a cap. If you went over your limit by 1GB, you'd need to be ready to mortgage the family home a couple of times to pay the bill. Those times are, it seems, behind us — and not a moment too soon.

It did get me thinking about relative value for the iPad specifically, though. I knew that Australian iPad sale prices were fairly competitive, but what about data pricing?

Picking two English-speaking markets for comparison makes for some interesting reading. Let's take Telstra's 1GB/$20 deal as the baseline.

In the US, the sole iPad carrier is AT&T. There's no direct $A20 plan after currency conversion, but the entry-level $US14.99 plan is close enough. At market rates as I write this, that'd cost you $A16.57 plus conversion fees, which is close enough to $A20 for my purposes.

That $A16.57 would only buy you 250MB of data on a network that has more than its share of criticism for poor coverage. Admittedly, if you could stretch your budget a little — $US29.99  ($A33.15) would buy you "unlimited" data, but both of those plans aren't genuinely pay as you go. The data allowance only lasts 30 days, but they automatically renew unless you cancel them. It's the Claytons contract iPad, in other words.

What about over the pond in the UK? Well, aside from getting genuinely stiffed on iPad pricing upfront compared to the US (the UK 16GB iPad costs the equivalent of $A703, for example), the market there does look a little bit more recognisable. As in Australia, there are three main telcos offering up Micro SIMs with a variety of plans. A baffling variety of plans, actually.

O2 will sell you data by the day (£2 for 500MB), or month (£10 for 1GB, £15 for 3GB). Orange will sell you data by the day (£2 for 200MB), by the week (£7 for 1GB) or by the month (£15 for 3GB, £25 for 10GB). Vodafone doesn't sell in anything less than month increments in old blighty, offering up 250MB for £10 or 5GB for £25.

Clearly there are some companies in the UK that aren't that interested in price matching. In any case, taking the cost of 1GB of data from O2, with the same 30-day expiry, you hit a figure of $A16.40, which is marginally cheaper but not by much. It's the only carrier doing that kind of matching, however. Orange's 1GB plan is even cheaper at $A12.30, but that's got a seven-day expiry period. What are you going to do with an iPad to burn through a gigabyte of data in seven days?

In the end, that's the genuinely unbelievable thing about the iPad. Not that the price of the unit itself is that spectacular, as Apple had more or less painted itself into a corner in relation to US prices. Australian consumers aren't backwards in coming forwards to parallel import — perfectly legally, it should be noted — if local pricing is hitched too high, after all.

But getting the local Telcos — and especially Telstra — to deliver some surprisingly good and genuinely competitive 3G data pricing? Now that is unbelievable.

Discuss this post with me in MacTheForum!

 

Touch Me

Written by Alex Kidman Friday, 30 April 2010 00:03

A lot of the Apple rumours going around the traps at the moment relate to the iPhone OS. And why not? It's making Apple enough money that the size of Steve Jobs' offshore money bin recently caused seismic shifts leading to the explosions of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

Or that's the rumour I've heard, anyway.

Anyway, so the rumours go, all sorts of features of iPhone OS are going to leak over into Mac OS X 10.7. For the purposes of making sure I don't get the name right this time, I'm going to suggest that 10.7 will be called "LOLcat". I'm sure that will be wrong. But you owe me a beer if it's not.

In any case, some of the rumours circling are at least a little bit LOL-worthy, especially the one that states that Apple will open up an OS X "App Store", and anything that runs on LOLcat will need Apple approval. I can't exactly see that happening in a sane universe, and I can't even see a huge benefit to Apple in doing so, given the backlash that would ensue.

One of the other features of iPhone OS that I have seen endlessly rumoured is the inclusion of touch support within OS X. Touch is one of those holy-grail-type applications that tech types have drooled over for decades now, with varying degrees of success. If you've ever struggled to use one of those information screens in big shopping centres, you'll know what I mean.

Apple has a product suite that does touch very well in the iPod touch, iPhone and iPad. V ery well, it should be noted, for a set series of functions — not all of which would translate well to OS X. Selection is OK, but typing is a bit of a chore. It's workable, and I've trained my fingers well enough for iPhone/iPod touch typing, but larger screen typing on the iPad is another story altogether.

When I originally sat down to write this column, I was going to compare the touch capabilities of an iPad to those of the multi-touch tappable mouse on the Core i7 MacBook. I started out typing the column on the iPad. Here's my completely untouched, uncorrected iPad work:

"I had reason to ponder that this week Sm I starte d testing two new Apple products this weaken. First, an iPad 64GB WiFi, and then a core i7 !ackbook.

Just for the heck of it, I thought I'd test this thesis by typing up nor half on the iPad and one half on the MacBook. I would eve left tit like that to show the differences in quality, but if younhVdmt worked out by now that the first half so far has been on iPad (sans corrections) then you're really not paying attention.

I touch type, and for e iPhone t)-5/ worked out ok, But my speedy approach to typing just plain doesn't suit the iPad all that

Well n

Over to the Macbook I think, just so this column becomes vaguely legible."

It's not very good, is it? Although the internet being what it is, the mention of a "left tit" might bring in a whole lot more traffic to this article. Hello there. This isn't what you're looking for. Sorry.

Admittedly, I am a touch typist and I did type all of that at a speed approaching the kind of speed I'd normally type on a keyboard. Yes, the iPad does support Bluetooth keyboards and it would be conceivable to pair one up for faster typing duties, but then you'd be carrying around two gadgets and worrying about the battery endurance on both of them. It would also be rather contrary to Apple's design goals in terms of simple interfaces. Remember, this is the company that stuck for years to single-button mice design goals (while supporting multi-button mice) on the grounds that it led to simpler user experiences.

As an aside, thinking back to my introductory paragraph, if ever there's a word you don't want to type into an iPad, it's Eyjafjallajökull. Hang on for a second while I try that one.

"Eyjafjakllajyojukl"

Not quite accurate, although I'd be willing to bet a fair proportion of the audience would have just as much luck pronouncing the iPad version. At least it didn't try to autocorrect it.

What do you think? Are touch interfaces the inevitable way of the future for everything?

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!

   

iPad iPad iPad, Oi Oi Oi?

Written by Alex Kidman Thursday, 15 April 2010 15:05

So, as you may have noticed, a couple of weeks back the WiFi only version of the iPad launched in the United States. Actually, if you were even remotely interested, it was rather hard to ignore, with what can't really be covered by the simple term "blanket coverage". Perhaps "Doona on a king-sized bed" coverage would fit better, but then that doesn't slot neatly into a newspaper or web site headline.

Now that the iPad is in the hands of consumers and reviewers, we know all sorts of interesting things about it, including some tips and tweaks. There's the suggestion (for those who must) that jailbreaking will be possible. There's demonstrations of how well the pixel doubling efforts of specific iPhone apps work on the iPad. There's methods for getting multiple calendars to work on the iPad. If you're into full-frontal nudity, there are dedicated, chip-by-chip teardowns of the iPad available. And yes, because we all really had to know, after some light modifications, it will indeed blend.

Actually, comedy aside, the really remarkable thing about the blending video is that if you watch it as the screen breaks, the keyboard is still visible. Ergo, that's one tough tablet.

So we know everything about the iPad, right ?

Nope. While I know several people who made trips to the US personally, returning with shiny new WiFi iPads firmly grasped, and a few who have paid large sums of money for express shipping of an iPad, there's still no sign of pricing information for actual Australian iPads.

All we do know is not much of everything.

That's because Apple's statement on local iPad availability doesn't say a whole lot of anything. Here's the original release in its entirety:

"iPad Wi-Fi + 3G models will be available in Australia in late April. Pricing will be announced at the time of availability."

And after last night's revelation that Apple sold more than a few iPads in the US — such a shock — and it would be delaying the release until "late May" things didn't get any better, even if we can pre-order on May 10th. In one of life's little ironies, when I initially penned this column, I included the following rather prophetic statement:

"Hopefully it's not using ‘late’ in the sense of ‘dead’, and there's an announcement in the wings heralding its late October release date due to ‘unprecedented overseas demand’. I'd better stop writing that press release for Apple right now, before I give them any other ideas."

Just in case I do have wonderful prophetic powers to change Apple's business strategy, I'm going to come out and say it right now: Free iPads for all Australians.

Hey, it can't hurt to try, right?

Still, we don't know much. Will May 10 be when we can pre-order WiFi units? 3G units? Will the telcos having pricing in place by then? It's certainly possible to extrapolate out from the $US499 (16GB) $US599 (32GB) and $US699 (64GB) prices to rough Australian pricing for the WiFi-only models that are already on sale, but for the more interesting 3G models, it's much less clear. Carriers I've spoken to won't say much more on the record other than that they're "discussing the iPad with Apple vigorously", or words pretty much to that effect. The use of Micro-SIM cards means that the iPad represents an entirely new revenue stream for the carriers. Call me cynical, but I don't know that we'll see any kind of "all you can eat" pricing á la what AT&T's going to offer in the States.

There are ways to bypass the whole issue of 3G access with a portable WiFi router such as those offered by Internode, Virgin Mobile, Edimax or Netcomm, although you'll still be paying 3G data rates. Again, I'm speculating, but I suspect that we won't see any brave and bold new iPad-only data pricing at all, but just "more of the same" kind of pricing. To make matters worse, my inbuilt scepticism suggests that the pricing we'll see (irrespective of the buy or contract price of an iPad) will mirror the data costs of a mobile phone rather than a mobile modem, even though the iPad's much more of a data device than the iPhone.

What do you think? Are you panting expectantly to get your hands on an iPad, and is price irrelevant?

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!

   

From iPhoto to Aperture

Written by clinton1550 Tuesday, 06 April 2010 21:22

It used to be easy to see the difference between iPhoto and Aperture. iPhoto was the simple, consumer-oriented one that was less powerful but had a nicer interface, while Aperture was the powerful professional one that was a bit intimidating to use. So the choice was simple. Now, it's less so.

A few years ago, I downloaded the 30-day free trial of Aperture 1.0. I didn’t know much about Aperture, other than it was Apple’s own professional photo-management application and that it was supposed to be very good. I was quite happy using iPhoto but I thought I’d try Aperture, just for the fun of it.

I’m certain that I only used about ten seconds of that 30-day trial. I opened Aperture up, found the interface to be a bit daunting and promptly closed it. My intention was to sit down one weekend and really get to know the interface but I never got around to that. I let the trial expire.

Less than a year later, Apple released Aperture 2. Again, I intended to download the trial and give it a whirl — especially seeing "interface improvements" among the marquee features — but I never got around to it. When Apple released iPhoto ’09 with Faces and Places a year after that, I couldn't see a reason to bother with Aperture anymore.

Apple updated Aperture to 3.0 in February and one feature immediately caught my eye: Places. Earlier in the year, I wrote an article about what features I would like in the next version of iPhoto, and Places was one of the areas that I thought needed significant improvement. It seems that an executive at Apple read that article and decided to upsell me to Aperture.

Places in Aperture 3 solves all the problems I had with Places in iPhoto. Aperture 3’s Places has a split-screen system: photos on the bottom, Google Maps up top. Geotagging images is far from clumsy: just drag and drop a photo onto the map. You can even import GPX tracks into Aperture for display and geotagging photos.

So, with renewed interest in Aperture, I downloaded the free trial and bought the full version a week later. I’m pleased I bought Aperture 3 but it hasn’t been smooth sailing all the way.

I had a few problems just downloading the trial version. On the morning that Apple updated Aperture, I requested a trial license with my .Mac account. The license hadn’t turned up by late afternoon so I requested another, this time with my Gmail account. The Gmail license turned up immediately, the .Mac license turned up two days later — so I’m glad I didn’t wait. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had trouble getting a license from Apple. I talked to a few people on Twitter who had the same problem.

Once I downloaded and installed Aperture 3, I imported 5000 photos from my iPhoto Library to play around with. The import took less then an hour and was pretty straightforward. I spent whatever free time I had over the next few days mucking about in Aperture. I put a slideshow together, made a book, played around with Faces and Places. It wasn’t long before I decided that I would buy a boxed copy on the weekend.

Once I had a boxed copy, the next step was to transfer my entire iPhoto Library over to Aperture. Moving 33,000 photos taking up 100GB was a monumental task — a monumental task that I’ve had to perform three times.

The first transfer was done on a 320GB FireWire 800 drive. I thought that the transfer would be faster if both my iPhoto Library and my new Aperture Library were on the same drive. So I cleared some space, moved my iPhoto Library to the drive and created an Aperture Library right along side it. All I had to do was select the “Import iPhoto Library…” option from Aperture’s File menu and leave it going overnight.

I woke up the next morning to find that the import had driven my Mac mini to the brink of insanity. First, it wouldn’t accept any mouse input — no tracking, no clicking — but the keyboard worked just fine. Then I couldn’t get any keyboard input — I couldn’t click with my mouse but I could track. A bit later on my Mac mini started accepting some keyboard commands. I lost the menu bar, the Dock sort of worked, I couldn’t switch applications — there wasn’t much that I could do.

I eventually managed to open Activity Monitor to find out what was going on. CPU usage was fine, RAM seemed to be fine but I discovered that I was rapidly running out of space on the FireWire drive, I had 3GB left and Aperture was still importing. I couldn’t get into the Finder to move files off the drive so I ended up using my PowerBook to SSH into my Mac mini and mv a heap of folders to another drive.

The emergency move worked. I freed up 30GB of space, but my Mac mini was still exhibiting some very strange behaviour.

I’d like to take a moment to praise Mac OS X for being so stable. It was running out of resources but it ploughed on, I didn’t get a Kernel Panic, nothing actually crashed and Aperture finished the import. A quick restart later and everything was back to normal.

I later found out that many other users had been reporting similar problems when importing an iPhoto Library into Aperture. Turns out that a bug in Faces was causing Aperture to hoard tons of Virtual Memory, choking OS X of resources. The bug was fixed in the Aperture 3.0.1 update which was released less than a week later.

Once the 3.0.1 update was out, I decided that I should re-import my iPhoto Library. Although the first import was a success, there were a few things missing — Aperture didn’t get to finish the final processing phase of the import. This time, I moved my iPhoto Library to a separate FireWire 800 drive and gave Aperture the entire 320GB drive all to itself. The second import went much more smoothly. It took about the same amount of time and the processing phase finished just as it should. However, Aperture got stuck on Places lookup — so when looking at photos on the map, Aperture didn’t know the names of the places.

Apple released Aperture 3.0.2 a few weeks later, which fixed a number of issues including problems that occurred while importing iPhoto Libraries. So I thought I should import my Library for a third time and, yes, third time lucky. The third import was a complete success, everything worked exactly as it should, I am satisfied with my new Library and I’m never going to do that again. As I said, it is a monumental task.

Unfortunately, my Aperture woes didn’t stop at importing photos. I also had trouble with Faces. When naming people in Faces, Aperture would interpret the letter "s" as an “m”, the letter “g” as an “o” and “t” as “p”. It took five tries to get each letter right. This bug was finally fixed in 3.0.2, so I'm glad I don't have to put up with that anymore.

But there is still one thing about Faces that needs fixing: the performance.

Faces beachballs like you wouldn't believe. I type a letter to name someone, beachball. I finish typing someone's name and hit return, beachball. I click on a photo, beachball. I try to confirm faces, beachball. Beachball, beachball, beachball. Honestly, I've never seen an Apple application perform this badly. I did a very unscientific test comparing the performance of Faces in Aperture to Faces in iPhoto. I could name the same number of faces significantly more quickly in iPhoto than I could in Aperture. I don’t know why Aperture is so slow — maybe it’s doing something extra in the background — but I’ve given up on Faces. It’s too slow to be bothered with.

I’m really pleased that I bought Aperture 3. Switching from iPhoto to Aperture was pretty rough at the start but I feel the move has been worth it. There’s a huge amount of power hidden inside Aperture, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it can do. There’s still a lot left to learn so I better get back to it.

Between keywords, labels, star ratings, folders, albums and Projects, I’m a little spoilt for choice as far as organisational tools in Aperture are concerned. If you have any suggestions, let me know on MacTheForum.

   

Amazon can't lose

Written by Alex Kidman Thursday, 01 April 2010 01:29

In just a few short days, the iPad goes on sale in the USA. Some keen Aussie Apple fans are making the trek to pick one up early, and those with slightly less disposable income are awaiting the exact details of what "late April" actually means in terms of a local release date (latest rumour suggests the 24th, but, well, pinches of salt leap to mind).

The iPad is touted to be many things, but one of the key features of the platform is its ability to enable electronic publishing — whether that's the latest Stephanie Meyer insult to the humble noun or the Sydney Morning Herald. In that guise, it takes on a number of other e-reader devices, none more prominent than Amazon's Kindle e-reader.

The battle lines, it would seem, are drawn, and there can be only one winner.

OK, that's hyperbole, but go with me here. I suspect the winner will be Amazon.

Not that Amazon winning means that Apple loses; quite the reverse. Apple can still "win", in that it will sell lots and lots of iPads. If the initial sales figures are to be believed, it's already pre-sold a bucketload, although initial sales figures aren't always a good indicator of future sales performance.

That thought came to me when I was checking out Amazon's Kindle for Mac client. It's a neat enough piece of software if you already have a Kindle account, which I do owing to reviewing the initially-available Kindle late last year. It's good for displaying books and, naturally enough, there are hooks to take you (via your browser) to Amazon's Kindle store. There's also an iPhone/iPod touch application that does pretty much the same thing.

Amazon's got a lot of capacity to absorb losses (or even only partial victories) due to its widespread e-commerce stance. To describe Amazon simply as a bookseller would be to miss the point. Amazon also sells DVDs, CDs … heck, it's even possible to buy barbecue sauce via Amazon.com, although getting it shipped to Australia might be a little challenging!

Amazon's positioned itself everywhere, and nowhere is that more evident than with the Kindle, which has client applications everywhere. It seems highly unlikely that the iPhone Kindle client won't run on the iPad — it is after all, mostly text we're talking about here — and I'd hazard the guess that Amazon's programming team has an iPad client ready to go. Whether Apple would approve it is anybody's guess. The point is, you buy a Kindle book or magazine, and you can read it on your iPhone, on your iPad, on your Mac, on a PC and on a Kindle.

Buy an iPad book, and you can read it on ... an iPad.

There's no clear path for iPhone/iPod touch users to buy or read books just yet, and I doubt Apple would scupper early iPad sales by introducing that feature particularly quickly, although I'd love to be proved wrong there.

I don't own either a Kindle or an iPad yet. That's partly down to my own budgetary issues, and partly because I'm fence-sitting. Certainly, the iPad's feature set dwarfs that of the Kindle, and the pricing for the entry level model is a solid kick in the teeth for the larger Kindle DX. Looking at the bigger picture, however, I could solidly envisage buying an iPad and then filling it with Kindle books. Apple doesn't exactly lose under that scenario, but it doesn't win as many of my dollars as it could.

Discuss this post in MacTheForum!