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Wednesday 9 June 2010

iPhone 4

Whether you love or loathe Steve Jobs and Apple, there can be no denying that his WWDC keynote on Monday signalled a generational shift in smartphone technology. The iPhone 4 unveiling marked the end of two years of lacklustre updates that allowed competitors, such as Google's Android, to close the gap, then finally surpass the once mighty iPhone. Like all things Apple, the keynote was slick to the point of perfection, unashamedly self-congratulatory and, I suspect, very uncomfortable to watch for anyone who has recently poured a large amount of money, or entered into a lengthy contract, in return for an Android "superphone".

Of course, I count myself among that group - having recently bought a Google Nexus 1 - and while I did suffer from a mild fanboy twinge of jealousy, my overriding feeling at the end of it was a peculiar sense of admiration. I don't like many of Apple's business practices, but when it comes to iterating technology (in many cases, old technology) and presenting it in a way that is utterly desirable to geeks like me, you'd be hard pushed to claim they were anything other than masters of their field.

Take the much vaunted "... and one more thing": Facetime. This technology has been readily accessible on phones since 2005, back at the dawn of 3G networks. I remember it was just as vaunted back when 3 launched their first phones. It was futuristic, compelling, useful, and utterly, utterly ignored. I think I've owned three phones since 2005 with front facing cameras and not once have I made a video call. The fact that phones have generally omitted the front facing camera in recent years is testament to how entirely overlooked the technology has become. For some reason, people just didn't want to make video calls. I don't know why.

Then along comes Facetime. It isn't revolutionary. It isn't new. It isn't even something that people want. But somehow, with a veneer of Apple polish, it becomes desirable. Now, I'm a hard hearted old cynic, but even I found myself oddly compelled by the launch video for Facetime, apparently directed by Sam Mendes. The way they present it, the way they SELL it, it suddenly seems like something that might actually be worth having - road warrior dads can see their babies crawl for the first time; battle hardened Afghan squadies can watch as Mary-Sue back home gets her first ultrasound; teen sweethearts can finally give up "sexting" and flash their bits to each other in glorious VGA technicolor. It's manipulative, it's cynical, it is, I suppose, nauseating; but it is also compelling in a way that no other company has managed to achieve - it sells the feature as a human advance, rather than a technological advance. Suddenly it's a future that I want to be a part of.

Against my better judgement, I find myself suspecting that video calling may finally come of age... Of course, this comes with a proviso - in it's current incarnation, Facetime is virtually useless, since it is limited to iPhone 4s over wifi. If anything is going to kill an idea from the offset, limits like this will be it. A glimmer of hope comes from Apple claiming the technology will be "open", but whether this means "open" in the sense that I'll be able to video-call an iPhone user from an HTC Evo remains to be seen. I hope it does.

The second not-really-an-innovation to impress was the Retina display. On the face of it, this is nothing more than a natural progression in resolution. We saw it with the jump from G1-generation phones to Droid-generation phones, and indeed that leap was bigger than the leap from Droid-generation to iPhone 4-generation. But once again, Apple appears to have hit on a - dare I say - magical sweet spot. The genius of it is that their 960x640 display is squeezed into a 3.5 screen such that resulting number of dots per inch is so high that your eye is unable to see individual pixels. In essence, you may as well be looking at a printed magazine page than an electronic display. On top of this, they appear to have closed the gap between the glass screen and the display beneath so that the image itself appears to be rendered on the front of the phone, rather than floating a millimetre beneath.

Hyperbole aside, hands-on reports from WWDC report that the screen is just as gorgeous as Apple boast. While the Nexus 1 screen remains lovely to look at, I have a feeling that it will be something of a red-haired stepchild when held against an iPhone 4 - remind me not to do this. It might, I suspect, also make the once-revolutionary iPad display look somewhat wanting - how quickly obsolescence sets in eh?

Finally, battery life. Okay, this is the elephant in the room with modern smart phones, especially Android phones. There is no doubt in my mind that smart phone technology is a game changer - whether it's Apple, or Android, or Palm, or whoever, the possession of always-on, ubiquitous data is life changing. It's hard to describe to someone who hasn't experienced it yet, but being able to tap into the internet 95% of the time you're out and about is a quiet revolution that makes you wonder what on earth we did for 200,000 years without it. But there's a downside - while functionally our phones are almost complete, our battery technology simply cannot cope.

Whatever your flavour of real smartphone, if you use it how your instincts would like you to use it - ie heavily - you will be out of battery within half a day, if that. And worse, phone manufacturers appear to be ploughing more functionality into handsets at the further expense of battery life - the Android powered Evo is apparently the worst for this.

Luckily, Apple appears to have cottoned onto this - if you believe their spiel - promising a 40% increase in battery life across most tasks, a good step in the right direction. It's tempting to dismiss this as manufacturer spin, but I chose to buy into it for one reason - the iPad battery life official estimates were, if anything, underestimates, with real-world use achieving longer use-times than those quoted in the marketing material. Since the iPhone 4 uses the same processor, I hope that this new handset has similar luck.

All in all, it's all very rosey over at Apple. With this iPhone upgrade, I have no doubt that this is head and shoulders the most powerful smartphone out there. Combine it with OS improvements like folders (welcome to 1985), multitasking (welcome to 1995) and threaded mail (welcome to 2004), and there is simply no Android handset to touch it.

So I'll be flogging my Nexus 1 and signing up to a Starbucks Lifetime Pass right? Well, no. The iPhone may be a major and welcome step forward, but it is not a revolution. There is nothing in it that Android won't be doing in six months time and there are things that Android is currently unquestionably doing better (browsing, tethering, widgets) even compared to the iPhone 4. On top of this, what you get with the iPhone 4 is what you'll have for at least the next year - probably the next two years, since the next iteration will be incremental. In this time, HTC will have churned out about 500,000 handsets of varying capability.

I have no doubt, however, that the iPhone 4 will sell like titcakes. It will do wonders for recovering some of the ground that Apple has lost in the smartphone market. But most importantly, it will drive innovation. And innovation is a wonderful thing.

Friday 4 June 2010

iVerdict (Initial)

Of course I got suckered into wanting to try it. It’s practically in my job description. The lemming-like draw of new technology pulled me in as certainly as if I’d been a big dumb ox on the end of a rope. Which may be more or less accurate. It had me there in PC World on Sunday, standing next to all the other meat-bags pawing the display setup of eight iPads.

Canterbury being a reasonably posh sort of area, it was replete with those with the fiscal means to make a purchase but who are also liable to produce comments like “yah, it’s terribly clever.” This being a combo PC World & Currys, I had a momentary inspiration to shut the yahoo’s head in a tumble dryer door – far more stylistic variety than a simple netbook-to-the-back-of-the-head, surely? – but driven beyond endurance, there I was, exiting the door pdq with a plain brown box under my arm. Hey I don’t care what chemicals were used in making the shit kicking battery man but I can tell you this packaging saves planets.

Of course, an iPad costs a couple of quid at the moment, so I also had the sort of look on my face which, when I’ve used the credit card in a certain way, reminds me of how our family dog used to look when it had buried unspecified food matters under a cushion on the sofa. Frankly, it’s lucky I didn’t have a tail to wag or I would have been leaving myself with bruises all over my legs as the missus welcomed me back in the house with a cheery “Sunday lunch is ready.” Anyway, I digress. The three day impression from a user of yer actual iPad follows;

I went for the mid-range 32gb wi-fi with no 3g as I have a laptop and see it as pretty unlikely I’ll be travelling with this. If I do, the places I go usually have wi-fi and I have a BT Openzone account. I really don’t think the form factor is a good surf-on-the-train-while-on-3g contender – resting it on a seat back in front or on closed legs on a train, I ain’t seeing.

Well, you say, it’s a big iPhone or more particularly an iTouch (i.e. without the phone for those of you reading in from unfamiliar places) innit? Well, yes it is Watson, but in fact it’s less than that. It is a big iTouch without a few handy favourites missing and some “ugh” moments. For instance, there’s no clock / multi-alarm app because some of the world’s reputedly most brilliant designers were flummoxed at making a representation of a time piece. Onna screen. That girl with the clown that used to greet your eager correspondent on the BBC test card had her shit more sorted than this lot. There’s a couple of other regular apps missing too. No doubt, these will all come in due course but since this thing was planned from before the iPhone according to Steve Jobs yesterday, it’s not as if time was really the issue was it?

Then there’s some genuinely ‘ugh’ moments when you cheerfully port your existing iPod / iTouch apps across to it. Actually, quick aside here - now listen, I know it’s not actually called an iTouch but an ‘iPod Touch’ but I know what I’m talking about and you know what I’m talking about and therefore in these straitened times, I’ve gone for the economically efficient term. What’s that you say – you feel there’s some points of debate that could be profitably be worked through on this issue? Certainly and but of course. Let’s go and discuss it over here. Have you seen my new tumble dryer by the way? Do have a closer look…

When you use an application from your iPrevious (other than if it has been specifically reworked to work at the iPad’s native resolution), it appears on screen at the same resolution as on your original little handheld machine and occupies not a lot of the much bigger screen. There is therefore a ‘2x’ button on screen in the lower right that simply doubles up the size of the image. It’s as horrible as you would expect. That nice little neat app on your iPast with its crisp fonts and pics now blows up to twice the size and suffers from jaggies and blurring. Now, again, with early adoption of new devices, to be fair one has to anticipate a couple of issues like this. If you’re going to see the first dog out of the traps at the new greyhound stadium, don’t be particularly surprised if some of the stands aren’t quite finished, you can’t get a decent burger until September and the rabbit’s head flies off half way 'round the fourth. But aesthetically, these legacy apps are between meh and pretty damn horrible to look at. Bottom line – get on with it, application people.

Talking of aesthetics, it has to be that way I guess, to hide electronics, but the bezel is really quite large compared to the proportions on an iThing. This can’t have made the designers happy when they value beauteous design so highly. “Bad bezel, man!” you can imagine them moan over a chocafrappamochalatte in their wing-backed chairs. Indeed it is a big assed bezel, even if for us more geographically challenged types here in blighty, “Big Assed Bezel” is a phenomenon more likely to be encountered in a swingers’ club in Wrothram. But hey ho, why are you looking at the edge of the thing anyway?

Applications – other; Very very familiar because they are for iOther and suffer from the 2x horribleness aforementioned. A saving grace is the particularly lovely and fantastically designed Xe The Elements which is just beautiful and shows what good design and the intuitive use of touchscreen could really do for this machine. Using this, I had several ‘Star Trek’ type moments when I genuinely felt I was using something amazing. It felt generationally different but maybe that’s novelty. Also using maps is a qualitatively different experience. There is something very lovely about using Google World by, again, the use of a touch screen interface that rests on your lap casually.

Books – the screen is lovely but e-ink ain’t gonna be troubled any time soon. The Sony Reader has no challenges here if you have one. The book store looks pretty sparsely populated right now and existing experience of course is weak for UK eStores in general. Fortunately, you can at least access a number of rival formats. I’m going to the States soon – I must stock up.

Movies – I bought the very cheap Air Video application which will stream movies from your home pc or mac over wifi, doing on-the-fly conversion on your (reasonably fast) home machine. An excellent app. The screen is lovely for movies and streaming a movie to watch with headphones plugged for kids / me when people are watching crap tv is excellent.

So some good apps, as well as the bad. When you boil it all down, there are two things that the iPad really currently excels at. One, the using touch as a method of control on a high rez, relatively big screen. It is a different level of experience from using an iPhone or Touch when you can work with things at this size. Maybe this will lose its novelty but I don’t think so – it’s just a better way of doing things for *certain* applications and for surfing. There is something basically very satisfying about being on a web page with a lot of links and reaching out and touching the one that you want to go to or whipping over maps and zooming in and out. Yes, you can do this on the iPhone etc but here, size really does matter and makes for a qualitatively different experience.

But more than that, and really for me this is the best thing about it; It is a sofa-surfer par excellence. I absolutely have no doubt that I will never again come home and log onto my pc to read my email / facebook or pull out my laptop to do the same when the iPad is around. The iPad is, of course, an instant boot and coming home and cuddling up on the sofa with James who is watching telly or reading and doing that is very pleasant. It’s a brilliant pick-up-and-surf type machine if the rest of the family is watching tv too. I wouldn’t want to do hours of surfing or typing on it, although the onscreen keyboard at this size really does allow multi-finger typing with a pretty low error rate. Weight, I was somewhat concerned with picking it up in the store but at home it’s no issue. Battery life also appears very good. There’s no heat from it at all and even though the machine is new, hours of surfing was putting a very slow drain on the battery. Screen gets smudgey with fingerprints of course but seems not as bad as on my iTouch and you shouldn’t be eating all them chips anyway. Apparently.

So for a quick pick up and insta-surf with a very satisfying interaction method, it really is good. And in that respect it has delivered the biggest benefit of them all – that fact that the lady wife now uses the iPad exclusively and does not go on my pc ever. At all. And *that*, I put it to you, is an inarguable piece of world class greatness worth the entry price alone.

Friday 21 May 2010

Re-containering And Transcoding video for android

If you’re a fan of downloading video from iPlayer unencumbered by nasty DRM this may be useful.

The high(ish) res files for iPhone can be downloaded by iPlayer Downloader or get_iplayer. But they are in a MOV container & unplayable on android devices. I’m yet to get my desire, but that didn’t stop me wanting a fix now :)

MP4Box will do the job, and here’s a batch file that will do the right stuff. It’ll work with multiple files passed on the command line too, so you should be good to add it to your SendTo menu.

@echo off
if %1f==f goto end
echo %1
for /f "delims=." %%a in (%1) do (
echo %%a
echo Extracting video to "%%a.h264" ...
"C:\Program Files\mp4box\MP4Box.exe" -raw 1 "%%a.mp4" -out "%%a.h264"
echo Extracting audio to "%%a.aac" ...
"C:\Program Files\mp4box\MP4Box.exe" -raw 2 "%%a.mp4" -out "%%a.aac"
echo Muxing "" ...
"C:\Program Files\mp4box\MP4Box.exe" -fps 25 -add "%%a.h264" -add "%%a.aac" -new ""
del "%%a.h264"
del "%%a.aac"
goto start


And should you need to transcode rather than re-container, our old friend Handbrake to the rescue. I've used these settings & had really good quality

@echo off
if %1f==f goto end
echo %1

for /f "delims=." %%a in (%1) do (
echo %%a

"C:\Program Files\HandBrake\HandBrakeCLI.exe" -i %1 -t 1 -o "%%a.mp4" -f mp4 -I -X 480 -e x264 -b 1000 -a 1 -E faac -6 dpl2 -R 48 -B 160 -D 0.0 -x level=30:bframes=0:cabac=0:ref=2:vbv-maxrate=768:vbv-bufsize=2000:me=umh:8x8dct=0:trellis=0:weightb=0:mixed-refs=0 -v 1


goto start

Friday 19 February 2010


I've been using Growl to get popup notifications from Pidgin for some time. (I use Pidgin as a replacement for the bloated Sametime at work.

Now, mIRC can do it's own toast popups, but the neat thing about Growl is that you can send notifications on to other computers running it. FWIW, Growl notifications also look a bit nicer than the mIRC ones.

If you bung this script* into your remote script editor in mIRC, it'll push any mIRC highlights to Growl.

on *:TEXT:$(* $+ $me $+ *):#: {
if ($highlight($1-)) {
run "E:\Program Files\Growl for Windows\growlnotify.exe" $qt(/t: $chan - $nick) /a:mIRC /n:"Notice" $qt($strip($1-))

Registering mIRC with growl is done by:

growlnotify /t:"title" /a:mIRC /r:"Highlight","Notice","Priv" "Some message"

Now, some kind bunny has written a Growl plugin for Windows Media Centre

So to get your mIRC highlights from the lair to the lounge, you just need to install that & push the Growl notifications there.

You metros can also forward notifications to your iPhones using Prowl

* Developed in #eed by me, spamming the bot :)

Sunday 14 February 2010

Amazon Kindle

It's not very often that you can evaluate a major purchase objectively. The very act of investing a couple of hundred quid in a single object tends to colour one's subsequent opinion of that object - almost as though your cash investment obligates you to love it. This is why we see the bizarre internet phenomenon of fanboism. Nothing stirs the blood worse than someone calling your hard-earned trinket a waste of money! I suffer from this myself to a certain extent, I suppose everyone does. So it was with some surprise that I found myself buying, and then subsequently hating, an Amazon Kindle.

I should give some background: last year I worked on a tough project. Really long hours, weekends, lots of pressure; but also lots of overtime pay. By about month five, I found myself resenting the time I lost, but also (amazingly) resenting the extra money I was getting in my wage slip. Almost as if the fiscal gain was an avatar for my stress. Of course, working resentfully on a Saturday morning and having a surplus of disposable income is a bad state of mind to browse Amazon in. Sure enough I found myself spending somewhat, shall we say, recklessly. A new TV. New speakers. A PS3 Slim. New phone. And, ultimately, an Amazon Kindle.

Now, I'd never expressed an interest in a Kindle before. Never even really knew much about them. But the announcement that Amazon were releasing an international version triggered some kind of lazy enthusiasm, and without giving it much thought at all, I ordered one. Didn't even really think about it till it arrived.

It was in this odd state of apathy that the Kindle and I began our strange relationship - a device I wasn't interested in, using a technology I had no previous opinion about, paid for with money that I wasn't really going to miss. A recipe for objectivity if ever there was one.

Okay, first thing - the Kindle is a lovely device. It might not seem like it from photos, and the QWERTY keyboard does like kind of clunky, but it is nonetheless attractive in a quirky kind of way. A bit like a sexy librarian - slim, trim and very pleasant to look at, but with a faint air of learning about it. The screen, e-ink as all good e-readers should be, is perfect to read on. It looks pretty much like paper (slightly greyer than outright white, but nice) and comes pre-printed with a quickstart instruction list - a list that some purchasers may find themselves looking for a loose corner to peel off so they can see the screen underneath, ahem.

It has built-in 3G and Amazon will thoughtfully pay for you to download books and (selected webpages) on a Sprint roaming tariff, no contract necessary. The wireless stuff is actually really cool and transparent. You can buy a book on the Amazon website on your computer and when you next pick up your Kindle it will be downloaded and ready to read. That said, as mentioned, Amazon will only let you view certain websites when not in the US - understandable given that they pay 35 cents per megabyte, but annoying given that they also won't let you download pictures for newspapers or magazines - text only in the UK unfortunately. A wifi option would have been nice.

Response is slow, as you'd expect with e-ink, but not massively so. You tend to notice the screen flash when you turn a page a lot at first, but soon get used to it. In fact, the flash of the screen seems to be exactly the same length of time it takes your eyes to go from bottom to top when starting a new page.

Apart from that, there's not a lot to say about it. It is a device that lets you buy and read books.

So why did I hate it? Well, learning to use an e-reader is a strange experience. It isn't like reading a physical book. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not a dead tree fetishist like many people seem to be. I have no great need to be surrounded by the smell of paper or experience the weight of a hefty 1000 page epic in my hands - books to me are great, but space filling and they need dusting, so I have no qualms about replacing them. My problem was that I couldn't see beyond the device to the story within.

When you first use it, it's like you're looking through a two hundred pound window, but you're only seeing the window frame and not the view outside. Your eyes are continually looking at the screen, you're constantly adjusting your fingers to sit better on the buttons, you check the battery life indicator, the wireless indicator and, if you're of a geek mentality, you have that new gadget lust that occupies your mind and blinds you to all else. This makes it very difficult to lose yourself in a book, which requires you to see beyond the medium and have the words take hold of your mind.

It also didn't help that my first book purchase was Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver - the first thousand page book in a trilogy of thousand page books - which I'm reliably informed by Gareth takes about 1500 pages to really get going.

If prospective Kindle owners take only one piece of advice from this blog, it should be this - for your first book, keep it short, keep it light, keep it something that you know you will enjoy.

I dragged out Quicksilver for the best part of two months, each page an effort to get to the bottom of and eventually found myself hating the device as much as I disliked the book. I was about ready to declare the e-reader revolution over, and go back to paper and then something strange happened. I gave up on Quicksilver and bought something completely different (Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan). This book was far more accessible, far easier to read and suddenly the Kindle disappeared from my line of sight and I could see only story!

With this revelation, I started to see the Kindle in a new light. I started to notice little things: like how easy it was to find my page when returning to a book, how useful it was to be able to search text or lookup words in the dictionary, how light the device was to hold, how much easier it made reading in a cold bed, how easy it was to throw in a bag and pull out on a train, how nice it was to be able to buy a book on a whim and save it to read later. The device suddenly opened up to me and I found myself reading more and more. I even take the thing in the bath now! And I have a queue of books I want to read for the first time in years and years.

So the story has a happy ending after all - three months I've had it, and I love it now. The Kindle, or something like the Kindle, is undoubtedly the future of reading, of that I'm convinced. But it's early days - I really hope they sort out the DRM nonsense before it gets to be like how MP3s were in 2005, and the technology is very primitive. I can't help but think I'll look back on my Kindle v2 in 5 years time and wonder what the hell I was thinking. But, for now, I'm happy to see beyond the device and enjoy that content.