Tag Archives: apple

Thirty years of mainly not the Mac

It’s Mac anniversary time: 30 years since the first Macintosh (with 128K RAM) in 1984 – January 24th according to Wikipedia; Apple’s beautiful timeline is rather sketchy when it comes to details like actual dates or specs.

My first personal computer though was a hand-me-down Commodore PET 4032 with only 32K of RAM, which pre-dated the Mac by about 4 years (though not by the time I got hold of it).

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The PET was fun because it was small enough that you could learn almost everything there was to know about it though a book called The PET Revealed that listed every address and what it did. I had a word processor called Wordcraft that was excellent, provided you could live with only having one page in memory at a time; a spreadsheet called VisiCalc that was even better; and a database that was so bad that I forget its name. You could also play Space Invaders using a character-based screen; the missiles were double-dagger (ǂ)characters.

The small company that I was a little involved with at the time migrated to Macs almost as soon as they were available so I had some contact with them early on. The defining moment in my personal computer history though was when I needed to buy a new machine for a college course. What would it be?

If all the choices had cost the same, I would have purchased a Mac. My second choice, since this was a machine for work, would have been a PC clone. Both were expensive enough that I did not seriously consider them.

Instead, I bought a Jackintosh, sorry an Atari ST, with a mono 640 x 200 monitor and a second disk drive. It had the GEM graphical user interface, 512K RAM, a Motorola 68000 CPU, and built-in MIDI ports making it popular with musicians.

The ST exceeded expectations. Despite being mainly perceived as a games machine, there were some excellent applications. I settled on Protext and later That’s Write for word processing, Signum for desktop publishing, Logistix for spreadsheets, Superbase for database, the wonderful Notator for messing around with MIDI and music notation, and did some programming with GFA Basic and HiSoft C.

If I had had a Mac or PC, I would have benefited from a wider choice of business applications, but lost out on the gaming side (which I could not entirely resist). The ST had some quirks but most things could be achieved, and the effort was illuminating in the sense of learning how computers and software tick.

Despite the Mac-like UI of the Atari ST, my sense was that most Atari owners migrated to the PC, partly perhaps for cost reasons, and partly because of the PC’s culture of “do anything you want” which was more like that of the ST. The PC’s strength in business also made it a better choice in some areas, like database work.

I was also doing increasing amounts of IT journalism, and moving from ST Format to PC Format to Personal Computer World kept me mainly in the PC camp.

For many years though I have found it important to keep up with the Mac, as well as using it for testing, and have had a series of machines. I now have my desktop set up so I can switch easily between PC and Mac. I enjoy visiting it from time to time but I am not tempted to live there. It is no more productive for me than a PC, and Microsoft Office works better on a PC in my experience (no surprise) which is a factor. I miss some favourite utilities like Live Writer, dBpoweramp, and Foobar 2000.

That said, I recognise the advantages of the Mac for many users, in terms of usability, design, and fewer annoyances than Windows. Developers benefit from a UNIX-like operating system that works better with open source tools. There is still a price premium, but not to the extent there was when I picked an Atari ST instead.

Happy Anniversary Apple.

Something Microsoft has never fixed: why Windows is slow to start up

One of the most common complaints I hear about Windows is that it is slow to start up. Everything is fine when a machine is new (especially if it is a clean install or purchased from a Microsoft store, and therefore free from foistware), but as time goes on it gets slower and slower. Even a fast PC with lots of RAM does not fix it. Slow boot is one of many factors behind the drift away from PCs to tablets, and to some extent Macs.

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As far as I can tell, the main reason PCs become slow to start is one that has been around since DOS days. Some may recall fussing about TSR – Terminate and Stay Resident – applications that would run at startup and stay in memory, possibly causing other applications to fail. Windows today is generally stable, but it is applications that run at startup that cause your PC to start slowly, as well as having some impact on performance later.

I install lots of software for testing so I suffer from this myself. This morning I took a look at what is slowing down my desktop PC. You can view them easily in Windows 8, in Task Manager – Startup tab. A few of the culprits:

  • Adobe: too much stuff, including Service Manager for Creative Suite, Creative Cloud connection, Acrobat utilities
  • Intel Desktop utilities – monitors motherboard sensors
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology – monitors on-board RAID
  • Sync applications including SkyDrive, Dropbox, SkyDrive Pro (Groove.exe)
  • Seagate Desktop, manage your Seagate NAS (network attached storage)
  • Google stuff: Google Music Manager, Google update, some Chrome updater
  • Plantronics headset updater
  • Realtek HD Audio Manager
  • Fitbit Connect client
  • SpotifyWebHelper
  • Microsoft Zune auto-launcher
  • Microsoft Lync, famously slow to start up and connect
  • Roccat Gaming mouse settings manager
  • Flexera “Common software manager” (InstallShield updater)

Many of these applications run in order to install a notification app – these are the things that run at bottom right, in the notification area of the taskbar. Some apps install their own schedulers, like the Seagate app which lets you schedule backup tasks. Some apps are there simply to check for updates and inform you of new versions.

You can speed up Windows startup by going through case by case and disabling startup items that you do not need. Here is a useful guide. It is an unsatisfactory business though. Users have no easy way to judge whether or not a specific app is doing an important or useful task. You might break something. When you next update the application, the startup app may reappear. It is a mess.

Microsoft should have addressed this problem aggressively, years ago. It did put great effort into making Windows boot faster, but never focussed on the harder task of bringing third-parties into line. A few points:

  • If Windows had a proper notification service, many of these apps would not need to exist. In Windows 8, it does, but that is little help since most applications need to support Windows 7 and even in many cases Windows XP.
  • The notification area should be reserved for high priority applications that need to make users aware of their status at all times. The network connection icon is a good case. Printer ink levels are a bad case, aside from reminding us of the iniquity of printer vendors selling tiny ink cartridges at profiteering prices. In all cases it should be easy to stop the notification app from running via a right-click preference. The Windows 7 idea of hiding the notification icons is counter-productive: it disguises the problem but does not fix it, therefore making it worse. I always set Windows to show all notifications.
  • Many tasks should be done on application startup, not on Windows startup. Then it is under the user’s control, and if the user never or rarely runs the application, no resources are grabbed. Why do I need to know about an update, if I am not running the application? Have the application check for updates each time it runs instead.
  • It is misguided to run a process on start-up in order to speed up the first launch of the application. It may not be needed.
  • If a background process is needed, such as for synchronisation services, why not use a Windows Service, which is designed for this?
  • Windows has a scheduler built in. It works. Why write your own?

Of course it is too late now for desktop Windows. Microsoft did rethink the matter for the “Metro” personality in Windows 8, which is one reason why Windows RT is such a pleasure to use. Apple does not allow apps to run on startup in iOS, though you can have apps respond to push notifications, and that strikes me as the best approach.

Update: I should mention a feature of Windows 8 called Fast Boot (I was reminded of this by a commenter – thanks Danny). Fast Boot does a hybrid shutdown and hibernation:

Essentially a Windows 8 shutdown consists of logging off all users and then hibernating.

This is almost another subject, though relevant. Microsoft has for years sought to address the problem of slow boot by designing Windows never to switch off. There are two basic approaches:

Sleep: the computer is still on, applications are in memory, but in a low power state with screen and hard drives off.

Hibernation: the computer writes the contents of its memory to disk storage, then powers off. On startup, it reads back the memory and resumes.

My own experience is that Sleep does not work reliably long-term. It sometimes works, but sooner or later it will fail to resume and you may lose data. Another issue on portables is that the “low-power state” is not as low power as it should be, and your battery drains. These factors have persuaded me to shut down rather than sleep.

My experience of hibernation is better, though not perfect. It usually works, but occasionally fails and again you lose data.

Fast boot is a clever solution that works for some, but it is a workaround that does not address the real issue which I have outlined above: third-party and Microsoft applications that insist on automatic start-up.

Make your iPhone a close-up or wide-angle camera with Olloclip

Here’s a gadget I came across at Mobile World Congress earlier this year. The Olloclip is a clip-on supplementary lens for the iPhone or iPod Touch, giving it three new modes: wide-angle, Fisheye, and Macro.

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In the box you get the reversible lens with covers for each end, an adapter clip for the slimmer iPod Touch, and a handy bag.

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The lens clips onto the corner of the iPhone, covering the on/off button. There are different models for the iPhone 4/4S and iPhone 5, which is a drawback. Every time you upgrade to a new iPhone, you will have to buy a new Olloclip, or do without it. You also lose use on the on/off button when the Olloclip is attached.

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Still, that is a small price to pay if you get amazing new photographic capabilities, and to some extent you do. I was particularly impressed by the macro mode. Here is my snap of a coin getting as close as I could quickly manage with the iPhone 4 alone:

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Snap on the Olloclip, and I can capture a world of detail that was previously unavailable.

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I also tried the wide-angle and fisheye modes, both of which work as advertised.

The twist here is that the Olloclip gives your iPhone camera features which your purpose-built compact camera may not have. If you want or need to take the kind of shots which the Olloclip enables, it is a great choice, spoilt a little by the inconvenience of clipping and unclipping the lens.

   

RØDE Mic: High quality recording with iPhone or iPad

Interested in high resolution recording with an iOS device? It may be worth checking out the RØDE iXY which for $199 gets you a pair of cardiod capsule microphones which attach to the docking port on your iPad or iPhone (note that you will be holding your device upside down though it hardly matters).

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Using the associated app you can record at 24-bit/96Khz – good enough to allow some further processing while retaining high quality.

Suggested uses are recording concerts, broadcasting, or attaching to a camera for video with superior sound (though it might be easier to use a conventional external microphone).

Currently I travel with a separate device for recording so something like this is interesting. On the other hand, the recorder I use is small and light, the batteries last for days, and I can plug in any external microphone or use the one built-in. Still, an advantage of the RØDE iXY approach is that you get to use a lovely colour app for recording, and have one less device to keep charged up on the road.

I am done with laptops

2012 was the year I lost interest in laptops. It happened in February, when I was in Seattle and purchased a Samsung Windows 7 Slate for the purpose of testing Windows 8.

This Slate has an Intel Core i5 CPU and is a flawed device. With Windows 7 it was particularly bad, since Windows 7 is not much fun for touch control. Windows 8 is much better, though now and again the screen will not respond to touch after being woken from sleep, and a cold reboot is needed.

That said, performance is fine, and the Slate has a couple of characteristics which I like. One is small size. It fits easily in almost any bag. In fact, I can put this Slate, an iPad and a Surface RT in a bag and they take up no more room that with a typical 15.6” laptop.

The second is convenience. If you are travelling, a laptop is an awkward and unsocial thing. I have come to dislike the clamshell design, which has to be unfolded before it will work, and positioned so that you can type on the keyboard and see the screen.

I do not pretend that desktop Windows has a great user interface for touch control, but I have become more adept at hitting small targets in the likes of Outlook. In addition, many tasks like browsing the web or viewing photos work fine in the touch-friendly “Metro” personality of Windows 8.

What about when you need to sit down and do some serious typing, coding, or intricate image manipulation? This is when I pull out a keyboard and mouse and get something similar to a laptop experience.

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The above shows my instant coffee-shop office, with wireless keyboard and mouse, and internet connection through mobile phone. Though I have abandoned the keyboard and mouse shown, preferring a Bluetooth set I picked up late last year which leaves does not require a free USB port.

I am not sure why I would ever want another laptop. When in the office, I prefer a PC under the desk to a laptop on the desk. A tablet, whether Windows, Android or iOS, works better for mobility, even if mobility means watching iPlayer in the living room rather than travelling around the world.

Nor do I like hybrid tablets with twisty screens and keyboards, which lose the simplicity and instant usability of the tablet concept. I make an exception for Microsoft’s Surface RT, particularly with the touch keyboard cover, which does not get in the way or take up significant space, but does form a usable keyboard and trackpad when needed. There will always be an advantage to using a physical keyboard, since even if you get on fine with a soft keyboard there is no escaping the large slice of screen it occupies. Well, until we can type with detected thought processes I guess.

I am told that an iPad with a Logitech Ultrathin keyboard is also a nice combination, though I have not tried this yet.

Review: Skullcandy Navigator, smart on-ear headphones with microphone and special controls for Apple devices

Skullcandy has released the Navigator on-ear headphones, using some of the same technology found in the over-ear Aviator though simplified and at a lower price. An inline microphone is included, with buttons to control call answer, play, pause and volume on iOS devices.

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The Navigator is a stylish device, with the glossy black finish on the outside of the ear cups nicely offset by sliver chrome trim and sliders. The cups fold inwards for storage and a silky drawstring bag is supplied. The cable is detachable, which is always a good thing since if you are are lucky the cable will detach when you trip over it rather than breaking internally, and if you are unlucky you can replace it.

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In the box you get a a guide to the “MIC3” button controls and a leaflet showing how to attach the cable, along with the headphones, bag and cable itself.

The soft inside of the ear pieces has a cutaway section showing the Skullcandy logo.

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While the designers no doubt thought this a nice touch, it looks like there is potential for the edges to lift or tear here, but only time will show whether this is a real concern.

Sound

The sound is decent but falls short of greatness, no more or less than you would expect at this price point. First impressions are good, with a smooth sound and adequate bass, but close listening revealed some compromises. The sound is a little recessed, with accentuated bass and slightly dulled treble, with the result that handclaps, for example, sound less real and natural than they should.

Listening to Sade’s By Your Side, with its strong rhythmic bass lines, is always revealing; it is on my list of difficult tracks. On an iPad this was disappointing, with the bass turning to mush and the treble detail getting lost too. Switching to a desktop PC and a dedicated headphone amplifier made a substantial improvement and the music became enjoyable, though still some distance from how it can sound with the best equipment.

Mirror in the Bathroom by the Beat (or English Beat) is a punchy and demanding track that is also good for revealing gear differences. The Navigators are claimed to have “punchy and powerful bass” but on this track they sounded too polite, losing too much of the rhythmic drive in the song, and again recessing the treble too much.

Adele’s Daydreamer sounded reasonable with forward vocals, though the Navigator loses some of the delicacy of the guitar picking and the sound is a little closed-in compared to better units.

The sound is unexceptional then; but good enough for casual use.

Having a microphone built in is great though. Plugged into Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet, this set made a great job of a Skype call with clear, solid sound at both ends of the call.

Controls

The Navigator’s inline microphone includes controls for use with iOS.

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The plus and minus buttons control the volume, while the central clicker is multi-function. One click is for play/pause, or to take a call if ringing. Two clicks in quick succession moves to the next track, and three clicks the previous track.

On the Surface RT the microphone worked fine, but the controls did nothing.

Comfort

Headphones are personal things and ideally you will try these before you buy. In general the design is good, with plenty of travel on the rails to which the ear pieces attach so that you can fit these headphones to the size of your head.

Unfortunately I found the clamping pressure too tight, though over time this may reduce a little. The result for me was that I could not wear these headphones comfortably for an extended period. This might not be the case for you; but I cannot agree with the “insanely comfortable” claim in the press release.

Conclusion

The design is beautiful, the inline microphone useful, and the sound is not too bad. Overall I rate these a reasonable but unexceptional purchase, but only if you can wear them without discomfort. If you prefer a slightly looser fit, these will not be for you.

The Skullcandy Navigator comes in three colours: Black, White or Royal Blue. It costs £84.99.

Apple looks mortal

This has been a bad week for technical journalism. Everything was going according to script; new iPhone announced on 12th September; not really much new but oh, the design, oh, the performance, oh, the small touches. Then those with early access to devices poured forth their reviews: “probably the most beautiful smartphone anyone has ever made,” said The Telegraph, while Walt Mossberg on the Wall Street Journal said that “Apple has taken an already great product and made it better.”

Mossberg did say that the new Maps app in the iPhone5 was “the biggest drawback” though the faults he found were, in retrospect, minor. He observes the lack of public transport information, and add that “while I found Apple’s maps accurate, they tend to default to a more zoomed-in view than Google’s, making them look emptier until you zoom out.”

When iOS 6 was rolled out generally this week though, the public had a different take on the subject. One factor was that they looked at the maps in their own location, whereas early reviewers tend to be located in major cities. The big issue is not the lack of public transport routing, though that is an issue, but the poor quality of the data. It is simply not of release quality. One small example. Birmingham Airport is a significant destination in the UK, but if I search for it here, I get mysteriously directed to Aldridge Airport, 20 miles north.

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Note: “Aldridge Airport” closed in the sixties and is “Now an open space used for football, dogwalking and the buzz of radio controlled aircraft.”

Birmingham airport itself seems missing.

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This search is no challenge for Google Maps.

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Maps are important on a mobile device, and this was an instance where the technical press, labouring as usual under short deadlines and the unrealistic challenge of perfectly encapsulating the qualities of a complex product with a few days of skimpy research and a few hundred words, let the public down.

More significantly, it is the biggest PR disaster for Apple that I can think of in recent years, certainly since the launch of the iPod in 2001, which was in a sense the beginning of Apple’s mobile adventure. When a tube station puts out a notice mocking Apple’s maps you know that this is a problem that everyone is talking about, not just the Twitterati.

Why has Apple done this? It is paying the price for escaping Google dependence, a real problem, but one that you would have thought could have been better addressed by licensing maps from Microsoft or Nokia, both of which have better maps; or by sticking with Google a little longer while putting its own effort out as an alpha preview while it fixes the data.

Apple will no doubt fix its maps and the decision to break with Google may eventually look good, but it is hard to see how it can fix them quickly.

The big reveal here is how Apple is prioritising its long-term industry strategy ahead of the interests of its users. Apple has done this before; but never with such obvious harm to usability.

It is still, no doubt, a beautiful phone, and the maps issue will be solved, if only by using Google’s web maps instead.

Apple looks mortal though, and the script is not playing back as planned. People who once would only have considered Apple will now be more aware that alternatives are in some respects better. The longer the maps issue continues, the more significant will be the effect.

Apple should withdraw its broken maps, go back to Google at least temporarily and reinstate the old maps app.

Farewell to the Squeezebox

It looks as if Logitech has discontinued the Squeezebox, a range of devices for playing music streamed from the free Logitech Media Server. Logitech also runs a streaming service on the internet, Mysqueezebox.com, which supports internet radio, Spotify integration and more.

The Squeezebox devices are no longer on sale on Logitech’s web site, and a press release announces the Logitech UE range. This includes wireless speakers which play music via Bluetooth, a Smart Radio that connects to internet streaming radio and other services, earphones and headphones.

But what of Squeezebox? Here is the nearest I can find to an official announcement:

We’ve just announced our new brand, Logitech UE, and with it merging the design/engineering capability of Logitech and the Squeezebox product with the music know how of Ultimate Ears. We are positioning this new brand to serve music lovers across a wide range of music listening device, and amongst them the Logitech® UE Smart Radio.

Important for you to know, The UE Smart Radio can play alongside your Logitech Squeezebox products, but will operate and be controlled separately and will no longer receive updates. The team is working hard on releasing in a few weeks an optional software update for existing Squeezebox Radio users. This update will allow Squeezebox Radios to upgrade to the new Logitech UE Smart Radio experience.

Rest assured that the Squeezebox platform you’ve been enjoying over the years will continue to provide you access to a rich world of music and we’ll continue to address any questions or troubleshooting on our Logitech.com support page.

The news is sad but not surprising. Logitech is struggling with declining revenue and losses, and there are various reasons why the Squeezebox system no longer looks strategic. It works alongside iTunes but does not fit all that well with Apple products, it has always been a little bit too techie, and the era of filling huge hard drives at home with your music is probably in decline, thanks to internet streaming. I have been meaning to post about the good results I get from Google Music on the Nexus tablet, and of course there is Spotify.

I still love Squeezebox. If you want the uncompromised quality of lossless audio combined with multi-room support, where each player can play something different, it is a fantastic and cost-effective system. The Squeezebox Touch, reviewed here, is appreciated by audiophiles for its high quality audio.

Squeezebox might still be a viable for a company like Slim Devices, the original creator of the system, but makes less sense for a mass market company like Logitech, which acquired Slim Devices in 2006.

My thanks to the Squeezebox team for transforming audio at home for me and thousands of others.

Update: if you are wondering what is the future for Logitech Media Server (LMS) see this thread which has comment from a Logitech engineer. There is a new media server called UE Music Library (UEML) which is simplified compared to LMS and has no player control: the UE Radio can simply select music from the library and play it. No random play in UEML. UE Radio will not play music from LMS as far as I can tell. LMS is not going to receive major updates but will be supported with maintenance fixes for the time being.