Time to leave

Complaints about AT&T have been rampant since the iPhone launched, but I have been relatively happy with the service over the years. Even after the iPhone launched on Verizion, I’ve stuck with AT&T. AT&T’s 3G has faster data and allows simultaneous data and voice, which kept me away from Verizon despite the widely touted coverage advantages.

With the upcoming iPhone 5, the calculation changes. The new phone is almost certain to support LTE, and Verizon’s LTE coverage is far superior to AT&T’s. LTE on Verizon also allows use of data and voice at the same time. Furthermore, there’s the little issue of actually being able to make calls.

No cell provider is perfect, and dropped calls can be expected with any. However, AT&T has worsened significantly over the past year, at least in the Boston area. I routinely first find out about missed calls via the sudden appearance of voicemails, and there have been several instances over the past months where I’ve been unable to place calls.

Today, AT&T dropped the bomb that FaceTime over cellular, a signature feature of the upcoming iOS 6, will only be available for purchasers of their “Mobile Share” plans. This is not an isolated incident. AT&T was also one of the last carriers to support the mobile hotspot on the phone, and this too was accompanied by an extra charge (though eventually included extra data as part of the package).

I’ve had enough. The ETF is intimidating, but offset by the new user discount obtained by signing up with Verizon.

Safari 6 needs work

I have been using Safari for years. Often I try Chrome for a while, but always end up going to back to Safari. Usually the drivers are the ability to sync with iOS and the far-better native PDF viewing, as well as other little touches. Safari 6 initially seemed like a big step forward to me. I’ve noticed improved performance and one of the big advantages of Chrome, the single location/search field, has been ported over.

However, there are some significant rough edges. Many have complained of crashes, which I haven’t seen. However, I have had the following.

  • New pages will open, but not scroll
  • New sites fail to load, with the blue loading indicator getting stuck part way through
  • Content will get cut off, despite the fact that the page has the appropriate scroll height

Screen Shot 2012 08 02 at 12 13 35 PM

These problems go away when I quit Safari and relaunch which, thanks to the restore-windows functionality introduced in Lion, is not as big a deal as it once was.

While Safari 6 is not unusable, it’s the most buggy version I have ever used. I’m hoping for a bug fix release soon.

Using an external drive with Time Capsule

Use an External USB Hard Drive with a Time Capsule and Save $$$

You can plug any USB hard drive into a Time Capsule and expand the available disk space of the Time Capsule that way. This is then accessible as usual as a Network Attached Storage device for your Mac backups or whatever, and you can then even directly backup wirelessly to that external drive connected to the Time capsule using Time Machine.

I had no idea this was possible. All the more reason not to go for the 3GB Time Capsule instead of the 2GB model. Although in theory an Airport Extreme with an external drive should accomplish the same thing as a Time Capsule, in practice this appears to be less relaible and is not supported by Apple.

Retina

Steve Jobs is quoted as saying, after seeing a graphical user interface for the first time at Xerox, “within 10 minutes it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this someday.” While it’s arguable whether or not the retina display on the new MacBook Pro has the same impact as the graphical user interface, I had a similar reaction after using this computer. We have come to accept pixelated, slightly blurry text and imagines from computer screens, but it does not, should not be like this.

The retina iPad creates a similar effect, but for some reason it’s more striking with the the MacBook Pro, perhaps only because I’ve been more accustomed to seeing the non-retina version for longer, or perhaps because retina iOS images first appeared two years ago with the iPhone 4.

The MacBook Pro is an impressive laptop in many aspects, but it’s really the screen which has to be the driving force for buying it. Right now, it’s the only way to buy a retina Mac. The key question is when the rest of the line will go retina as well. iMacs would be the most impressive, but it’s hard to imagine that screens as large as 27 inches could expand to four times the pixel count without a significant cost difference at this point. The expectation is that we’ll see these machines next year. I think that’s possible, though possibly still optimistic.

The Airs seem like a logical target as well, but the current 13″ Air packed the old 15″ Pro’s 1440×900 screen into a smaller space. For the Airs to go retina without losing real estate, an even higher pixel density will be needed. In addition, it’s clear from using the Retina MBP that the GPU is struggling to keep up at times. The Airs lack a discrete GPU, so Intel has a significant amount of work to do with their integrated chipsets to make retina Airs a reality.

Lastly, it’s striking how bad apps that have not been updated for the retina display can look. While some of this is a just a contrast with the crisper surrounding images and text, it’s clear that low-resolution graphics actually look worse on the retina screen than they do on a standard screen. An update to Microsoft Office, where many people spend a good deal of time, is clearly needed. Even Apple’s own iWork apps are not retina-compliant, though I assume the delayed update is just waiting on Mountain Lion.

I don’t mean to overstate the downsides: the screen really is quite impressive. If I were buying a new computer today, I would accept the extra heft over my 11 inch Air in return for those extra pixels. The reality is, however, that there are still compromises with using this machine in the current environment.

Can’t Touch This

Galaxy Player 4.2 by Samsung Aims at iPod Touch, and Falls Just Short – NYTimes.com

In the end, the Player should hold special appeal for a significant customer niche: rebels. The technologically sophisticated. People who would enjoy the freedom of removable cards and batteries. Parents who might like that peculiar business about making phone calls through a cheaper phone. People who own recent Samsung televisions (the Player doubles as a remote control). Anyone with a dominant anti-Apple gene.

The iPod Touch has proved to be a popular successor to the iPod and, like it’s predecessor, it’s been difficult to copy. It’s a declining market, however. Despite Pogue’s enthusiasm for the no-contract device, it’s relative sales have been declining. People want connectivity everywhere.

I suspect the smaller, less expensive iPad rumored to be coming this fall will further chip away at the market for the iPod Touch.

WWDC as launchpad

Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) runs from June 11-15 this year. For the first 4 iPhones (original, 3G, 3GS, and 4), this developer-oriented conference also served as the launch event for new hardware. New hardware typically offers some new capabilities for software developers, potentially justifying its prominence at this event, but each phone was also accompanied by the release of a new version of iOS (originally iPhone OS). 2011 was a bit different – instead of a March event highlighting upcoming features of iOS 5, WWDC served as a preview event for the software, which was eventually released in the fall with the iPhone 4S.

This year looks like it will be different. While we won’t see the new iPhone at WWDC, we will likely see new Macs. The most exciting of these will be a new, slimmed-down MacBook Pro with a “retina” display, a high-resolution (I’m predicting 2880×1800) screen that, instead of adding more workspace, increases the sharpness of everything. It’s the kind of change that is hard to appreciate until you see it. In addition to the Pros, we’ll almost certainly see new MacBook Airs. My suspicion is that they won’t include the retina screen by default since the Air is more price-sensitive than the Pro, but it may be an option.

Of course, we’ll be seeing a preview, and almost certainly an initial developer release of iOS 6. No one knows for sure what it will include, but the general consensus is that it will replace the Google-based Maps app with an internally-developed system based on Apple’s various mapping acquisitions. Aside from 3D maps, I wouldn’t be surprised to see integrated turn-by-turn directions and traffic information. Aside from Maps, though, the rest is up in the air. Minor updates to the standard apps (e.g. Mail, Calendar) are a given. We might see better support for new business models such as paid upgrades or subscription-fee based apps. Other opportunities for improvement are 3rd party notification center widgets, more lock screen options, and more robust iCloud support throughout.

Mountain Lion has already been announced, and I suspect the release date will be announced at WWDC. What’s not clear is whether Mountain Lion itself is ready for release and whether the new hardware (including retina display) is dependent on it. Pre-release versions of ML have only recently become somewhat stable, and a WWDC release seems a bit aggressive. My bet is that the hardware won’t be held up by ML, and that a point-release of Lion could bridge the gap if needed.

Cards on the table: iPad HD

As pretty much everyone who cares knows by now, there will be an Apple event tomorrow that will introduce the new iPad. It’s prediction time. Here’s what I’m guessing we’ll see.

  • The new iPad will be called the iPad HD and, other than some minor tweaks to the shape of the back, will look essentially the same as the iPad 2 when turned off.
  • It will have a high-resolution, 2048×1536 screen.
  • It will have a faster processor. I’m betting this will be the quad-core A6 processor, but a faster dual-core processor (A5X) is also possible.
  • It will have better cameras and “FaceTime HD” will be touted as one the advantages.
  • A new Apple TV will be released. It will be basically the same as the old Apple TV, but will support 1080p video.
  • There will be new apps/features to highlight the strengths of the new iPad. This is most likely to include photo editing (e.g. Aperture).
  • It will have Bluetooth 4.0
  • The 3G models will be replaced by LTE models, at least in the US, for carriers that support LTE. FaceTime over LTE will be touted as one of the advantages.
  • We’ll also see the announcement of some major new iPad apps, most likely Microsoft Office.

Siri is a wildcard. I give it a 50% chance.

A new Apple TV

Sources: New Apple TV launching in March, near-immediate availability hinted for new iPads | 9to5Mac | Apple Intelligence.

The new Apple TV is rumored to include a faster processor, possibly a variation of the dual-core A5 chip. The dual-core A5 chip has been said to be required for the Apple TV to finally stream 1080p quality video, but Apple is also working on an “A5X” chip that is dual-core, which also includes an improved graphics engine. Those two components of the chip would likely delivery the smooth video playback that Apple would include in such a product. Other possibilities from the rumor-mill include a redesigned Bluetooth 4.0 remote control, and Siri support, but those are not rumors that we can independently confirm yet. This new Apple TV would make sense to launch with a new 1080P movie service from Apple’s iTunes Store.

There have been rumors for some time that Apple is planning a TV set, but it sounds like there’s a more imminent release of an updated Apple TV, the box that plugs into your regular TV. I’ve been a big fan of the current iteration – it’s great for streaming home movies to your TV, and there’s been a recent push to turn it into a mirrored display, reflecting what you see on your iPad (or soon, your Mac).

I’m not sure how much difference 1080p video will really make; just reducing the compression of existing video would probably make a bigger difference. That said, improved quality is always nice. I’m guessing there’s got to be something more than a slightly faster box with slightly improved video quality. Apps could be a game changer.

Six months in: 11 inch Air is the way to go

About six months ago, I needed to buy a new computer. I knew the MacBook Air was the right machine for me. Easily more portable than my heavy MacBook Pro, and powerful enough for just about anything. I struggled, however, over which model to buy: the 11-inch or the 13-inch. The 11-inch was clearly smaller and lighter, but I feared I would miss the increased screen real estate of the 13-inch. Those fears were misplaced. I went with the 11-inch and I love it. Compared to my wife’s 13-incher, it’s much easier to grab and go with one hand. As a result, I end up taking it with me much more often. The key is that the screen is quite wide due to the 16:9 aspect ratio (compared to the more typical 16:10 ratio of Macs past). While one might think that height is more important in this web-centric age, it’s actually width that is key for working with multiple windows simultaneously (e.g. a web page and a text file, or two text documents). The 11″ Air’s screen hits a sweet spot, and I have no trouble getting real work done on it. I should note, however, that when I’m at my desk, it’s hooked up to the massive 27″ Thunderbolt Display, so the calculus may be somewhat different for those who don’t plan to use an external monitor.

Despite that, I’m quite happy to work with this machine as a laptop alone. Do be sure to buy the model with 4 GB of RAM, as you can’t upgrade it later. I decided to stick with the standard 1.6 Ghz processor, however, given some complaints that the upgraded 1.8 Ghz model is prone to more heat generation and noise issues.

Steve

It’s been 3 weeks since Steve Jobs died. The response in the press has been much more substantial than I expected, partially fueled by the lead-up to and release of the Walter Isaacson biography. It’s no doubt, though, that the loss is felt most strongly by Apple fans. This is not because of any personal attachment to Steve. We didn’t know him, or really even what he was like. It is important what he represented.

The mid-90s were a tough time for Apple fans – the company was regularly referred to in the press as “beleaguered”, and the general perception was of a company in the last throes of a prolonged decline. Despite the gloomy atmosphere, there was still one event which could bring home: the annual Macworld Expo. Apple regularly announced major products at these conferences, and each year there was the hope that a killer product, something that could restore the company to its former glory, would emerge. It never did, though, and I often debated about jumping ship (ironically enough, the alternative platform I flirted most with was the NeXT).

When you’re a kid, it’s easy to get excited about an event like a birthday, or a holiday like Christmas. This year could bring a really cool new toy. As you get older, these events lose some of their luster, and serve more as a mere marker of the passing years. This is what Macworld Expos were beginning to feel like.

Then Steve returned and the Expos became exciting again. The new products were actually interesting. Before the rumor sites got so aggressive, we’d often have no idea what would be in store for us. Those of us excited by technology actually had new things to be excited about. It restored that childhood Christmas. When he was bearded and before his dramatic weight loss, Jobs even began to look a bit like Santa Claus. Eventually, the Expos gave way to more unpredictably timed Apple events, but in a way it was more exciting, because any week could bring Christmas.

There will certainly be more products from Apple. What’s less clear is whether that same magic will be there.

Who will show up next time? A new Santa, or just some guy in a Santa costume?