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More of the Same: the iPhone 5 review

Posted by steve on Oct 21, 2012 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, New Zealand, Reviews

The Web site of Telecom, one of the two cellphone networks in New Zealand offering Apple’s new iPhone 5, advertises the device as “the thinnest, lightest iPhone yet.” Could this really be the best they could manage to say about the latest release of the most successful smartphone in the short history of smartphones? I had to find out.

My iPhone 5 arrived yesterday. I wanted so badly to be impressed by it; I remember well — it was only five years ago, after all — the excitement that surrounded the unveiling, and eventually the release, of the original iPhone. I remember bringing mine home from the [Apple Store where I used to work, in Tampa's International Plaza; the unwrapping, the anticipation as I opened the box to reveal the elegant packaging — the entire process was almost sacramental.

The iPhone 5 Apple NZ sent me to review arrived by courier yesterday. The packaging, I noted, is still as elegant as ever, even if the contents of the box are a little light compared to the original's — I suppose Apple have realised they can still sell incomprehensible quantities of iPhones without giving away free docks, and so that particular extra has been missing since the first iPhone was replaced by the iPhone 3G. And now Tim Cook has said that Apple have no plans even to offer an iPhone 5 dock for sale.

One look at the device suggests a possible reason. It's big. Well, it's tall. Placed next to my iPhone 4S, it looks quite noticeably longer; it also manages to look narrower, despite having the same width. Perhaps mounting this new device vertically simply doesn't look right; perhaps its height leaves it unstable. At any rate, its appearance is something of a departure from its predecessor's. From the front, it is quite similar, dimensions notwithstanding, but from the side the differences start to show up. The metal bezel that surrounds the iPhone 4 and 4S models has been, at least in the black model Apple sent me, coated with black powder; there have been reports of iPhone 5s looking scuffed and with powder missing out of the box, but my sample has no such flaws, and looks, and feels in the hand, rather elegant. The iPhone 4S's glass back is replaced with an aluminium back, again quite stylishly powder-coated, with two black glass strips, one at the top and another at the bottom, to provide radio transparency for the iPhone 5's antennae; it is, after all, easy to forget that this thing is, among other things, a telephone.

Apple's new Lightning connector

Apple's new Lightning connector

Next out of the box is the dock connector, and here again is a major change. Since 2003 and the third generation of iPod, a proprietary 30-pin dock connector has become not merely standard across Apple’s range of iDevices, but also across an entire universe of third-party accessories. Apple’s decision, then, to abandon this established, indeed entrenched, technology in favour of a new eight-pin connector they call Lightning has upset a large number of people who have plenty invested in docking stations, speaker solutions and cradles that use the old-style connector. Quite why Apple have chosen to jetison the 30-pin connector isn’t entirely clear; it was entirely functional, although, presumably, many of the pins on the connector were not being used. The new Lightning connector is surprisingly small, comparable in width to a micro-USB plug, but rather thinner and flatter. Its primary benefit to the end-user, apparently, is reversibility — apparently, users of 30-pin connectors were having enormous difficulty figuring out which way round their connectors mated with their iPhones, despite there being a little icon on the front side, and so Apple have kindly redesigned the connector so it can be inserted either way round.

But, and let’s be really honest here, there was no pressing need to make this change. Other than enlarging the iPhone’s speaker — it is a little, but not massively, louder than the 4S’s — and allowing the headphone jack to be relocated to the bottom of the device (of which change more later), there is no noticeable functional change, for better or worse, that results from this change.

There is, of course, a major change for Apple. Anyone who has already bought a speaker system, or a dock, or even a charging cable, for an existing iPhone and who hopes to use this kit with their new iPhone 5 will either have to buy an adaptor from Apple (useful for chargers, perhaps; less useful, presumably, for cradle-type devices), or replace said kit, at which point, the Lightning connector being proprietary, Apple will be scoring a licensing fee. A possible own-goal for Apple, this one, and not a move that appears to have much meaningful end-user advantage.

Also changed, as has been mentioned, is the location of the headphone jack, now at the bottom of the phone. I have yet to see an explanation of this change, beyond a justification for making the dock connector smaller; this seems to be as gratuitous a change as has been made in this updating. Having the headphone jack in the top of the phone made sense, to me at least — when my iPhone is in my shirt pocket, its usual out-and-about home, I can plug in a headset and still have the phone right-way-up in my pocket, and when an alert calls for my attention, reading the display is quite easy. Similarly, when I’m driving, my iPhone sits in a cupholder, with an audio-out connection to my car stereo coming out of the top of the phone. The relocation of the audio jack to the bottom of the phone now means that the iPhone sits inverted in the holder, which isn’t quite as convenient as I’d like.

So let’s turn the thing on, and see how it works. Well, it’s an iPhone. All the traditional iPhone features I’ve come to expect from my previous iPhones are present and correct. The screen, of course, is the first major difference, and it looks good. The colours are richer, more saturated, than even they were on the iPhone 4S’s screen, a screen that, still, looks very, very good. But the major draw is the size of the screen. Apple have extended it vertically, enough to add an extra row of app icons on the iOS home screen. This is, well, nice, but is it entirely necessary? I don’t know that it makes that much difference to my user experience that I can see an extra email in a list, or that I can read a little bit more of an ebook before I have to turn a page. Watching video is a more significant detail — the screen’s proportions now match HD video, and videos can be viewed full-screen, without letterboxing.

Unfortunately, letterboxing is precisely what happens when an app’s developer hasn’t caught up with the new hardware. Many apps have already been updated to take advantage of the larger screen, but there are plenty, such as TomTom’s rather excellent GPS software, or Skype’s official iPhone client, that still think they’re running on a 4S; the iPhone 5 simply displays these apps in the centre of the screen, with black bars above and below. The black bars are black enough that it’s not always easy to see that this is, in fact, the case; at any rate, the App Store app is reporting updates to apps at a fair rate, and many of these updates include references to the larger screen in their release notes.

The larger hardware, for me at least, is quite comfortable to use. I tend to use my iPhone two-handed, supporting the thing in my left hand while operating it with the fingers of my right; for me, then, there is no significant difference between this iPhone and the last.

By the time I had charged and synced the phone, the weather had cleared up, and so I went outside for a play with the camera. The cameras on the iPhone 4 and 4S have been very well-received, and Apple have wisely refrained from tampering with the 4S’s camera; the iPhone 5 sports the same camera as the 4S. I took a couple of photos of my wife’s cat, holding my own iPhone 4S in one hand and Apple’s loaner 5 in the other, for, quite literally, a side-by-side comparison. On the iPhones’ screens, the iPhone 5′s images were noticeably richer, but when I imported photos from both devices into iPhoto on my laptop and compared them, there was little to no appreciable difference. The iPhone 4S’s camera was very good; the iPhone 5′s camera, essentially identical, is, not surprisingly, every bit as good. Video, similarly, is comparable in quality, with the addition of somewhat improved stabilisation.

Oliver The Cat, taken with my iPhone 4S

Oliver The Cat, taken with my iPhone 4S

Oliver The Cat, shot with an iPhone 5 camera

Oliver The Cat, shot with an iPhone 5 camera

The more perceptive and insightful readers will have noticed that, so far, I have avoided any reference of Long-Term Evolution, or LTE — that’s 4G, to its friends, the absurdly-fast cellular-data connectivity protocol that Apple have finally incorporated into the iPhone 5. Or so I’m told. I have, sadly, no way of confirming this. I have, as I tell anyone who’ll listen, the enormous good fortune to live in New Zealand, but paradise is not perfect. As I have whinged about at length previously (I am a pom, after all), internet connectivity in New Zealand is, well, not all it might be, and LTE is no exception. Neither Telecom nor Vodafone, the Apple’s two resale partners and the two main cellphone networks in NZ, nor indeed 2 Degrees, their only rival, have, or have plans to build, a 4G network in New Zealand, and so fast networking remains a feature only available to those users who happen to live in markets — the USA, the UK, even Australia! — that happen to have 4G connectivity.

Instead, I tested connectivity speeds by both WiFi and 3G, again through a side-by-side comparison, and found that the two editions of iPhone load Web pages at almost identical speeds, either phone occasionally being faster or slower, slightly, than the other. British users, and Americans, and Kiwis who happen to find themselves on the wrong side of the Tasman, will, I’m sure, have a great time enjoying their astonishingly fast (apparently) 4G-enabled iPhone 5s, but many of us can only imagine, only dream, of such an experience, and here Apple have something of a marketing quandary. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, Telecom are flogging this new iPhone on the strength of its dimensions because, in the New Zealand market at least, it lacks any truly compelling new features, its standout upgrade being redundant here. Apple’s NZ Web site talks in terms of size, and design, but ultimately has to fudge its copy, talking about connecting to fast networks “the world over,” without actually, explicitly, referring to 4G or LTE.

At the end of all this testing, there was one more thing to look at. My iPhone 4S has, for all its many wonderfulnesses, had one serious weakness — its battery life. This, also, has been the subject of a good, long whinge , and I was hopeful that the iPhone 5 might have the solution. So far today, with reasonable, but not excessive, usage, it reports 6 hours and 14 minutes of use since last full charge, a figure I question — when I factor in three hours in the car driving to, from and around Auckland, during which I was listening to the radio, and a half-hour when the phone was turned off while I was in a radio studio, I’ve not even been awake that long today! But at mid-afternoon, the battery has 28% of its capacity remaining. I have WiFe enabled at home, and location services are on for some, but not all, apps, but Bluetooth is off. This is only my second day using the iPhone 5, but I remain unconvinced of Apple’s claims of “battery life to spare.”

If I sound rather negative in this review, then maybe I should find something I can unreservedly endorse about the iPhone 5. There is one outstanding enhancement that I can whole-heartedly praise, and that’s the new EarPods. They are, at least in my ears, quite considerably more comfortable than previous iPhone and iPod earbuds — I’ve had them in for the last couple of thousand words, and I hardly notice their presence. Their sound, too, is a quite marked improvement on what we’ve come to expect. While they’re not quite up to the quality of my favourite Sony studio monitor headphones, they do reproduce a degree of detail and range that I have never heard — I have never even expected — from iPhone earbuds. As we speak, I’m listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Stupid Girl,” from the 1966 album Aftermath, and I’m hearing details of Brian Jones’ acoustic guitar in my right ear that I don’t remember hearing before. The EarPods come in their own little plastic carrying case inside the iPhone 5′s box, although I suspect that few users will have the patience to wrap them careful back into the case after each use. The case is also the retail packaging for the EarPods; yes, the most attractive and appealing part of the new iPhone isn’t even part of the iPhone, but an accessory that can be bought separately for US$29.

I’ll be sending my iPhone 5 back to Apple — they want it back, sadly — in a couple of weeks. I’ll miss it — it’s always fun to have the latest, shiniest kit — but I doubt that I’ll find anything lacking when I go back to my own iPhone 4S. If I didn’t have another year left on my Vodafone NZ service contract, I might consider upgrading, but I simply don’t find enough in this new release to make it a compelling upgrade at this stage. It’s a very, very good smartphone, of course, but it offers nothing, at least to a Kiwi user, that warrants the major outlay of funds that it would require. Were I in the market for a new smartphone, I don’t know I could beat this one, but I simply don’t see enough in it to warrant a discretionary upgrade.

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1

The S stands for…same? The iPhone 4S review

Posted by steve on Jan 9, 2012 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, international, New Zealand, Reviews

The iPhone 4S was never going to be an easy piece of kit to review. Rarely has there been a more anticipated, and then more disparaged, hardware release from Apple. The original iPhone, unveiled five years ago today by Steve Jobs in a presentation now hailed as his finest on-stage hour, spoken of as though it were a sacrament and not a trade announcement, was Apple’s response to years of pleas from the company’s devotees (odd, really, to think of a company — a business, a for-profit entity — having devotees, but there you go…), and was hailed as little short of miraculous when it was finally handed down from on high. By way of contrast, the Motorola ROKR was pointlessness embodied in silicon — a device longed for by nobody, and loved by fewer; I’m simply not willing to do the research, but I strongly suspect that even the Zune, Microsoft’s turd-brown adventure in futility, sold better than the ROKR. Even Steve Jobs struggled to find anything beyond “It’s really nice.”

My new iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

My new iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

The iPhone 4S, on the other hand, threatened to be little more than a small-to-medium-sized bucketful of meh. The iPhone 4, its immediate predecessor, was an almost obnoxiously successful device, and so the Apple rumour mill (an actual mill, by the way — when it’s not cranking out rumours, it grinds the flour that goes into the artisanal breads used for the unicorn-burger sandwiches upon which senior Apple executives lunch), obviously, decided that it had to be replaced. And it had to be replaced by an iPhone 5. For reasons that were never even remotely apparent, there was something frankly totemic about the number 5. The new iPhone simply had to be the iPhone 5. What, exactly, the iPhone 5 would be, or do, or look like, was secondary. Features? 5. Appearance? 5. Spec? 5. So long as the new phone had the magic digit in its name, it could be a rotary-dial device with a ten-foot spiral cord coming out of the kitchen wall.

And so, on October 4th, Tim Cook announced the iPhone 4S. It would have any number of very, very impressive features. The new camera, for example, would have an eight-megapixel resolution, up from the previous model’s five, with a five-element lens instead of four. The processor would be a dual-core A5 chip, not a single-core A4. Bluetooth would be the new, exciting version 4.0, not the 2.1+EDR of the iPhone 4. And, of course, there would be Siri, the little person inside the phone.

But it wasn’t an iPhone 5. The magic number was simply nowhere to be seen. 4S? What did the S stand for? Since the 4S looked all but identical to the 4 (the giveaway, by the way, is the absence, on the 4S, of a black line by the headphone jack), how could a fanboy show off his new toy? What, after all, is the sense in paying hundreds of upgrade dollars if your new gadget doesn’t scream “I’m new, I’m expensive and my owner is, ipso facto, better than you?” The iPhone 4S is an upgrade to the iPhone 4 — a compelling and persuasive upgrade, to be sure, but an upgrade, not a new model.

There was, as was repeatedly pointed out during the fallout from Apple’s failure to deliver something called the iPhone 5, a precedent to this naming scheme. The third iteration of the iPhone, the 3GS, looked essentially identical to its predecessor, the 3G, and nobody, at the time, used the 3GS as evidence that the world was about to come to an end. But the iPhone 4S, not being the iPhone 5, was destined to fail, apparently — and promptly turned out to be one of the fastest-selling smartphones in the admittedly rather short history of the class.

So I bought one. Apple released the 4S on 11th November last year, and I picked mine up that morning from the Vodafone shop in Papakura. I was ready for a new phone — I had considered an iPhone 4 until I discovered the contract-breaking fee Vodafone wanted from me for upgrading, and my 3GS was starting to show its age slightly. Despite the disappointing plans available in New Zealand, I signed up for a 24-month contract and took my new toy home.

I like the design. I was never overly enamoured of the styling of the 3G/3GS models, which always felt, to my sensibilities, just a little plasticky. There is clearly a reason why Apple decided to retain the 4′s design for the 4S — it looks right. It doesn’t always feel that right, mind — it’s a thoroughly beautiful device, but it feels rather thin in the hand, and so, while I very much like the look of the thing, it feels better in the rather natty case my daughter bought for me.

The screen, of course, is stunning. It is bright, and sharp, and clear, and lovely. It features the 960×640-pixel resolution of the iPhone 4, double the resolution of earlier models and so utterly crisp that, living up to its “retina” tag, it renders images and, in particular, text so smoothly and clearly that individual pixels are simply invisible. Combined with the faster dual-core A5 processor, it offers a graphical experience unlike anything else Apple sell.

Venus flytrap — iPhone 4S camera closeup | Steve's Techblog

Venus flytrap — iPhone 4S camera closeup | Steve's TechBlog

The camera does the screen justice. Photos taken on the iPhone 4s’s rear-facing camera are consistently of a high standard, with the possible exception of lower-light photos, in which graininess starts to become a little more visible. But increasingly the iPhone’s camera, once dismissed as an afterthought bolted on to the original iPhone, has now become a realistic alternative to a separate point-and-shoot.

The real fun of the iPhone 4S starts when you fire up Siri. Once all the silly games like telling your phone to beam you up (“WiFi or 3G?”) or to close the pod-bay doors (“Really? Again?”) are out of the way, actually using voice activation suddenly becomes something more than just a gimmick. The iPhone has supported voice commands for years, but only with Siri has this become meaningly useful. I’ve always been leery of claims of voice recognition on computers — it tends to work tolerably if you’re a TV news anchorman from Nebraska, or possibly a continuity announcer on Radio 4, but my northern vowels have always confounded such systems. But I’ve been extensively impressed with Siri. With rare exceptions, it understands not only the words I say (it’s clearly been watching Coronation Street), but also the meaning behind them, and so simple tasks like sending my wife a text message (“Tell my wife that…” is all the syntax I need) or setting a reminder (“Remind me to…”) become part of what I’m doing rather than something that requires me to stop what I’m doing, mess with my phone, and then carry on.

Siri on the iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

Siri on the iPhone 4S — Oh, will the hilarity never end?

Siri’s anthropomorphising of the iPhone raises an interesting philosophicolinguistic question. My wife, being American, uses the American English setting for Siri, and so her phone answers her using an American woman’s voice. I, having had the enormous good fortune to have been born in the northwest of England, use the tautologically- and somewhat meaninglessly-named British English setting, and so my iPhone talks to me with the voice of a bloke from the home counties of England. (There is a third English option, Australian English; the default setting for an iPhone 4S bought in New Zealand is British. Of course.) So is Siri a he or a she? Such are the things that keep a technopundit awake at night.

So all is right with the iPhone 4S, then? Well, no. There is a flaw, a very major flaw, with the phone. Its battery life is, frankly, dreadful. And this is odd, since even better battery life than the iPhone 4 was touted by Tim Cook as one of the 4S’s big selling points. But I struggle to get a single day of moderate usage out of mine. I’ve had it replaced once (and that was a struggle), and my replacement phone isn’t a massive amount better. I’ve never managed the 7 hours of video, or 8 hours of talk time, that Apple advertise; I certainly don’t see the “truly better battery life” advertised on the Vodafone website. Apple’s release of iOS5.0.1 (featuring both interCaps and multiple decimal points) was supposed to address this issue, but, on my phone at least, hasn’t. A complete restore to factory defaults improved battery life somewhat, but neither completely alleviated the problem nor actually allowed me to use the features I paid for on my new iPhone — hardly a success on either count, then.

But I’ll stick with my iPhone 4S. I’m happy with it. There will be an iPhone 5 released one day, I’m sure. But until then, the iPhone 4S, despite its lack of the magic number 5, is a strong update to an inordinately successful product.

Rating: ★★★★★

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3

Making power while the sun shines

Posted by steve on Aug 26, 2011 in Hardware, international, network, New Zealand, Personal

Tech, let us not forget, is not simply limited to Apple and the internet. You could be forgiven, to be fair, from reading this blog, for thinking that the world of technology begins in Cupertino and ends with the ‘net. But my most recent tech project is possibly the most spectacularly techie I’ve ever done. And it has no specifically Apple element in it, although it does involve the Web.

As has been documented quite extensively elsewhere, I moved a couple of years ago to New Zealand, where I find life to be, in so very many ways, a thoroughly pleasant experience. One of the few entries, however, in the debit column is the cost of living, and one of the most significant aspects of this headache is the price of electricity. While I’d never wish to return to living in Florida, among the few aspects of life there that I miss is the low, low cost of electricity.

As I said, we’re not going back, and so we — the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe and I — decided that we needed to find a way of reducing our monthly spend on electricity. Back there, a unit — a  kilowatt-hour or KWh — cost, typically, around 8¢. Here, it’s more like 23¢. This does not, of course, please us, particularly when we were paying for electricity to heat our home. But what does please us is the abundance of sunlight that streams down on New Zealand much of the year, and so we have, finally, commissioned our very own solar-power installation.

The system is fairly straightforward. On our north-facing roof (this being the southern hemisphere), we have sixteen 190-watt solar panels. What this means, then, is that when the sun shines, and especially when the sun shines directly on the panels, we can expect to see up to 3KW of electricity being generated. Of course, we don’t expect to be getting that much power constantly, and, of course, we only get peak output when the sun is high in the sky, but we’re still optimistic that we’ll see plenty of power being generated.

The panels feed a 3KW grid-tied inverter, which takes the DC output from the photovoltaic panels and converts it to AC. This is essential for two rather critical reasons. Firstly, our home is, like most homes, an AC installation, full of appliances that are designed to take a 240V AC input. Secondly, and this is a rather cool and groovy consideration, the national grid in New Zealand is also a 240V AC system.

The practical upshot is simple. During the day, when our panels are generating a stream of as much as 3KW of power, whatever we need is used to power the house. Any surplus is sent off to the grid. When the sun either goes down or hides behind a cloud or two, then any shortfall is supplied by the grid. Meridian Energy, our new power supplier, will give us 23¢ for each unit we sell them — the same price they charge us for electricity they generate. In effect, we’re using the grid as our battery, storing any surplus we crank out during the day so that we can then use it back up at night.

So far we’ve had the system running for three days, and we’ve liked what we’ve seen. It’s late winter, or, if today is any measure, very early spring in northern New Zealand. We’ve bought about fifteen units from the grid, generated a dozen, and of that dozen sold five back. In other words, we’ve used, in total, about 22 units today, but only actually paid for ten. That’s a positive step; when the months and months of golden sunshine that characterise a New Zealand summer roll around, we expect to be, on a daily basis, net exporters, and, if we’ve done our calculations right, we expect that, over a year, what we buy from the grid should be, within a significant figure or two, pretty much what we sell back.

And let’s not forget the Web aspect. The inverter that converts our solar array’s DC output to an appliance-and-grid-friendly AC also contains a monitoring system and a web server, which, as soon as it was up and running, I patched into my own home server system, so it can be monitored worldwide. My very own personal power station is now online at threelionstech.com:81 — take a look at how much electricity we’re not paying for!

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2

A Mightier Mouse

Posted by steve on Dec 30, 2009 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, Reviews

In a weird, but not entirely surprising, moment of synchronicity, my wife and I bought each other the same present for Christmas this year — we each got the other a new mouse. This being Christmas, of course, though, we didn’t simply nip down Dick Smith’s and pick up a quick Logitech point-and-click doohickey — no, it was Christmas, and so, to make things a little more special, we each got a Magic Mouse.

Apple have been trying to get the mouse right ever since they first brought it to the market. The first was a horrible, blocky affair, a brick of pale-turd-brown plastic with a slightly less pale turd-brown button on the top. Since then it has become curvier, then — and this, surely, marked the utter nadir of mousely design — perfectly round and exactly one-and-one-eighth inches too short to use with any real degree of comfort. Oddly, though, because it was part of the iMac package, it did prompt plenty of strangely gushing comment, including remarks in MacWorld that watching the two-coloured ball rotate as the mouse was moved was “hypnotic” and “mesmerising;” clearly MacWorld’s editorial staff back at the turn of the millennium didn’t get out all that much.

Apple’s next mouse was a much more successful design for one particular reason — it used laser tracking instead of a ball. Suddenly mousing became much more accurate. But it was still a one-button mouse, and this was the cause of much consternation to many users, who simply could not understand why Apple refused, so totally obstinately (a quality surely not attributable to Steve Jobs?), to incorporate a second button. Right-clicking, it seemed, was PC thing to do; right-clicking was of the Devil.

But then came the Mighty Mouse, and this was a decent piece of kit, but it did lead to much wailing and rending of garments, since it, finally, included the heresy of a second button. Actually, it included no such thing — there was still only one button, but the software that read the mouse was sufficiently sophisticated to sense where the click was being applied, and so Apple, as obstinate as ever, managed to produce a two-button mouse with only one button. In fact, this being Apple, there were, in fact, four buttons, real and virtual. But the pinch gesture that constituted the fourth button was far from inspired; simply picking the mouse up was often enough to trigger Exposé or Dashboard. And the actual, physical second button, the scroll nipple, added two-dimensional scrolling, which was a wonderful innovation, but the nipple itself would routinely gum up and become, effectively, useless; a mouse that would scroll up, but not down, was neither uncommon nor helpful.

Apple's new Magic Mouse

Apple's new Magic Mouse

Apple tried again this year. The Magic Mouse was released in October, but I didn’t get mine until December (I did write to Apple asking for a review sample for Steve’s TechBlog; I’m still waiting for my reply). Their latest attempt returns to absolute minimalism; there is, it would appear, no physical button at all. The device is, basically, a gently humped surface that sits, cordless, on my desk, all gleaming i-white. That’s it — no cable, since this mouse is only available in Bluetooth, and no nipple, since the surface is the mouse. Just like the Mighty Mouse before it, the Magic Mouse has only one clicking surface, only one physical button, but again the software detects where the click happened.

But other things are missing. The scroll nipple, mercifully, has gone. Scrolling is achieved simply by flicking a finger along the length of the mouse’s surface; with the correct software update installed (it requires Mac OS X 10.6.2, of which more later), you get what Apple are calling “momentum scrolling,” a feature that will be familiar to iPhone and iTouch users — flick a window and it keeps scrolling, slowing down in what seems quite a natural manner once you take your finger off the mouse. It works — surprisingly well. A solid-state solution, then, to the moving-part problem of the nipple. But the nipple also was the third button, and, without it, there is no third button — or, indeed, the fourth squeeze-the-sides button. I wasn’t in the habit of using those two buttons on my old Mighty Mouse, so I doubt that I will miss them, but I have read a handful of rather unhappy reviews and comments bemoaning the loss of this button, claiming that all “serious” users (clearly I’m just a frivolous, trivial user; oh, well) use, indeed need, that third button. I remain unconvinced.

There are, incidentally, third-party solutions to this shocking problem. I’ve been playing today with a little piece of software called MagicPrefs; it extends the Magic Mouse’s vocabulary of taps, clicks and gestures to really explore the multi-touch capabilities of the device, since basically it’s a mouse with a multi-touch surface bolted to the top of it. Frankly, I find it overkill. I’ve configured two extra things — a three-fingered click opens Dashboard, and a three-fingered tap triggers Exposé. But that’s all — anything else and I find windows hiding and zooming and flying across my desktop as though possessed. Not good.

But what does it feel like in the hand? Well, it’s not the hockey puck of days gone by. It’s about as broad and as long as the Mighty, but about half the height, which means that if you’re used to having your hand rest on top of your mouse, you’re in for a little bit of a surprise. It feels not uncomfortable so much as unfamiliar; I’ve had mine less than twelve hours, so I can’t say for sure yet, but I suspect that I will get used to it very soon. I do have decently large hands, mind, and I find that my wrist sits firmly on my desk while my fingers manipulate the thing.

And it is easy enough to manipulate. The wireless Mighty Mouse was a heavy thing — it was a clunky deadweight to drag around the surface of a desk. The new Magic Mouse feels about as heavy as a corded Mighty Mouse — an entirely comfortable weight, even with batteries installed (and full credit to Apple for including the requisite pair of AAAs in the box). On my desk, at least, the two black plastic rails on the underside of the mouse grip the surface of the desk quite decently, so that the two-fingered side-to-side swipe that is the only out-of-the-box Apple-offered multi-touch gesture causes no problems; the mouse doesn’t slip around when I swipe, although a different desk surface might give different results. The click of the mouse is much more positive than the click of the Mighty Mouse; the pressure required to click it is definitely a bit higher, as is the travel of the click, and there is a more noticeable da-dit sound as the button goes up and down.

Aesthetically, of course, it’s enormously pleasing — plain white, with only a ghostly-grey Apple at the tail of the mouse to show which way round it should sit — I have been dense enough once already today to try to use it back-t0-front, which works surprisingly badly. The packaging is typically Apple, too — a clear perspex box contains the mouse, which sits on a small white plastic tray which, I suppose, one could use as a stand or a home for the thing when it’s not in use on the desktop.

Overall, then, a pretty solid upgrade to the Apple mouse line. It was expensive — NZ$119 — but Christmas gave me and the missus a great opportunity to treat ourselves (well, each other, really — we didn’t actually plan things that way; we’re not quite that sad), and so far I think I’m pleased with my new mouse’s magic.

Apple’s Magic Mouse Rating: ★★★★½

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2

The sincerest form of flattery

Posted by steve on Oct 20, 2009 in Hardware, News, Personal, Reviews

Among their fanboys at least, Apple are particularly lauded for their innovation, for their uncanny ability to create new and creative solutions and ideas, the newly-announced Magic Mouse being a case in point — it’s still a mouse, still does the usual point-and-click stuff that any old mouse should be able to accomplish, but at the same time, it’s also a multi-touch surface capable of all manner of gesturey goodness.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I happened across this latest bit of Apple brilliance. Yes, Apple have suddenly realised that their Mac mini is the ideal machine to use as a headless server if you’re not quite willing to fork over the monstrous sums required for an Xserve.

The idea, of course, is simplicity itself. The Mac mini is a perfectly capable computing engine, but one that, out of the box, lacks the human-interface bits and bobs that would be required to make it a fully-configured end-user machine, but which are entirely unnecessary for a server. Brilliant.

In fact, so brilliant is the idea that I’m glad I thought of it myself. In fact, not only did I think of it myself, I even wrote about it, back in January of this year.

I’m torn. On the one hand, I should be indignant that my brilliance, my sheer genius, my thinking-different-ness, has been appropriated by The Other Steve. But on the other, imitation is, as they say, the sincerest form of flattery, and, magnanimous creature that I undeniably am, I’m willing to sit back and enjoy the fact that this latest [ahem] innovation has driven Apple’s share price up a healthy additional nine dollars.

Of course, now that I’m in New Zealand, I find myself less than impressed by Apple’s stock going up; gains in APPL are barely offsetting the nosedive of the US dollar against real currencies such as the kiwi dollar. But still, maybe I’ll make enough to buy me a new Magic Mouse.

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0

That which we call a rose

Posted by steve on Jul 19, 2009 in Hardware

Apple, for the longest time, suffered from a rather Byzantine naming system for their computers. Take Powerbooks for example — my first was a 1400, which was released after the 5300, but, if I remember correctly, before the 3500. There was precious little logic to these numbers; the only thing that really signified very much was the fourth digit, which indicated a Power PC processor (oh, heady days). With the return of Real Steve Jobs, Apple nomenclature swung the opposite way, with all of Apple’s laptop range subsumed under just two names, Powerbook and iBook, regardless of details.

But possibly the worst naming scheme Apple have devised lately has been that of the iPhone. The original device was simply the iPhone — that was all. It was unique, monolithic, singular. Then, a year later, the second iPhone was announced, and it was, quite illogically, named the iPhone 3G. Those who knew (and cared) about such things knew that this name referred to the network on which the new phones functioned, but nevertheless the name was less than intuitive. Where was the second-generation iPhone? Oh, wait, that would be the 3G.

We dealt with this oddness until this summer, when the third edition of the iPhone was announced. That, you will recall, was the iPhone that followed the 3G, which was the second generation of iPhone. So what was it to be called? Well, the 3G S, of course. Not the 4g, since it was only the third generation of iPhone. And not the 3.5G, even though that was the network the new iPhone theoretically supported, and even though that would be represent a logical consistency with the previous naming idea.

And so we’re back to the old crazinesses of Apple naming. And, by the scariest of coincidences, Steve Jobs seems to be letting go of control of the company again. Can’t wait for my iNewton…

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0

On being assimilated

Posted by steve on Jul 19, 2009 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, Personal

When Real Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, two years and a half ago, I knew I needed (not wanted; I needed) one. When Steve again walked the stage of the WWDC, last year, and told us of the goodness of the iPhone 3G, I was convinced to the degree that I queued up for nearly six hours (yes, I know…) outside Tampa’s Apple Store to secure a brace for myself and the missus.

And so, when this year’s iteration was to be unveiled, I dutifully chewed my fingernails in anticipation of spiffy new features. But they failed, almost entirely, to materialise. A compass? Meh. A better battery? About bloody time. An oleophobic screen? Be still, be still, my beating heart. All in all, I was utterly, comprehensively and thoroughly whelmed. Not overwhelmed, mark you, but whelmed — here was an iPhone that failed to set my young heart aflame.

Had my life continued down the path I’d been anticipating a year ago, I would have been somewhat torn — it was a new iPhone, and I knew I’d want it, but there wasn’t quite enough in the new release to justify the many more hundreds of dollars it would inevitably cost. But fate, as it has a habit of doing, intervened, and I recently decamped to New Zealand, a move that rather changed things. Around the time that the latest iPhone was released in New Zealand, I found myself looking to sign up for an antipodean cellphone, and so on Friday I found myself making for my local Vodafone shop. I bought one (I’ll get another for the lovely and talented when she arrives next month), and brought it home to start playing with. And here’s what I discovered.

Superficially, it’s all but identical to the iPhone 3G. The lettering on the back is glossy, rather than the matte of the last edition, but otherwise, you’d be hard pushed to know that you’re holding a 3G S (a somewhat less than brilliant naming system). The same glossy plastic forms the back, the same shiny metal covers the external switches. So what is new?

Well, there is the speed. Apparently, the internal circuitry of the new iPhone supports the much-vaunted 3.5G network that AT&T (of whom more later) will, sooner or later, be rolling out. But said technology has yet to trouble New Zealand either, and so I have no way of testing this new feature. But overall, the device does seem that little nippier. Applications do seem to open a little more quickly, and animation and graphics feel a tad more fluid. This is, of course, a highly subjective impression; it might be simply down to the fact that I’m chuffed with my new toy.

Most of the features of the new phone are also to be found in iPhone OS version 3, which I installed on my old 3G iPhone the day it was released. Cut, copy and paste have finally been implemented, finally putting an end to complainers who likened their absence to the Dark Ages. Oddly, though, I’ve not actually used any of these features yet — I can only assume that I’ve become so thoroughly used to using my iPhone without them that, now that they’ve finally arrived, I simply forget that they’re there. The new landscape keyboard that, again, people have been clamouring for as though its absence were a scourge against humanity is a little disappointing — I tried it and, frankly, found that I much preferred typing on the regular portrait-orientation keyboard. The keys felt more comfortably spaced that way.

The compass has proven to be a bit of a one-day wonder. It’s ever so impressive that Apple have managed to shoehorn a magnetometer into this device, but, frankly, what is the point? I appreciate the integration with Google Maps — having a map face in the same direction that I’m facing is clever, but hardly earth-shattering.

Voice activation has been added, one more of those catch-up features that Apple pretty much had to add. I confess to being impressed with its accuracy — my experience with American voice-recognition software is that it is hobbled by its assumption that everyone who ever uses it must be from the American midwest, and my Coronation Street vowels routinely confound such systems, but my iPhone makes a decent fist of decoding me. I’m still not sure how much I’ll use it, but it’s certainly an interesting novelty.

The iPhone 3G S’s new camera is the most visible hardware enhancement. I’ve long wondered why cellphones have to have cameras; I’ve finally come to the conclusion that as soon as one company added the feature, every other manufacturer had to, even though the two concepts have relatively little connection. I don’t, after all, insist that my toaster has a microphone, or that my dog is Bluetooth-enabled. But mobile phones, it has been decreed, will henceforth have cameras. And still cameras are no longer enough — they must now be video-capable. Much has been made of the quality or otherwise of the camera in the iPhone 3G S; most of it is pretty fair. It’s a phone, not a bloody Hasselblad medium-format camera, so I really don’t quite know what people expect. It takes pictures, and they’re perfectly functional. And it also takes highly serviceable video. I don’t see Martin Scorcese throwing away his Panaflex kit just yet, but if you want to make a lasting record of little Suzy turning her first cartwheel, you could do a fair bit worse. The integration with the rest of the OS is useful, though — on-phone trimming followed by the ability to email the video is rather convenient. I still don’t see cameras as a core feature of a phone, though, so I’m yet to be convinced that this is an area that Apple really need to be spending too much time.

The feature I’m most impressed with so far, though, is the oleophobic coating on the screen. In the days before we knew of the iPhone, I was highly sceptical of the idea of a touch-screen iPod. Surely, I would find myself thinking, my greasy fingers would smear across the screen and render it barely watchable. And, much as I enjoyed using my original iPhone, I found my prediction disappointingly correct. With last year’s iPhone 3G, I took to using a screen-protector sheet, but somehow it felt wrong, almost as though I was putting a barrier between myself and my toy. The 3G S’s screen, though, simply does not need a protector. I bought, as I mentioned my phone on Friday morning, and on Friday evening, as is customary, I found myself in the Warkworth RSA with Neil and Alex, who took a modicum of polite interest in my new gadget. I mentioned the screen; Neil reached across the table, took a hot, freshly-fried chip, and smeared it across the surface of the phone. “There, it looks pretty greasy now!” I liberated my iPhone from his Welsh clutches, gave it a quick wipe across my All Blacks rugby shirt, and handed it back to him. Spotless.

I’ve had my iPhone 3G S for barely a weekend. So far I’m less incrementally impressed than I was this time last year with my iPhone 3G, but then, I was less blown away with it than I was with my original iPhone a year earlier. Apple will have to pull something quite spectacular out this time next year if they hope to make even more money out of me; in the meantime, I’m enjoying being wired wirelessly again. I guess I’m powerless to resist a new iPhone. Resistance, clearly, is futile.

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7

Size isn’t everything.

Posted by steve on Jan 22, 2009 in Hardware, Software

Most companies manage to go years — their entire existences even — without ever producing an utterly iconic product. Apple, however, have cranked them out with an almost indecent frequency; pretty much anything beginning with “i” has proven to be noteworthy, with the -Phone and -Pod being positively paradigm-shifting. 

And thus have Apple created a rod for their own corporate back. 

For most companies, it’s the absence of a market-defining product that represents business as usual. But for Apple, there’s a very real expectation that anything they create should be so utterly earth-shattering that even as-yet-undiscovered tribes in the highlands of Papua New Guinea will know about it within three, or at the very most four, days. 

Pity, then, the poor Mac mini, the red-headed stepchild of the Apple product range. When commentators gush over Apple’s creations, the mini sees very little love. Which is sad, really, because the mini’s a cracking little machine. I bought my mini a year or so ago; I put the rebate Apple sent me for buying two rather overpriced first-generation iPhones toward it, and set it to work in what would seem to me to be the obvious, but rather overlooked, role. 

The first thing I did with my new mini was install Mac OS X Server on it. Prior to that, my iMac had been doing double duty as my main “work” (I, at least, like to think of what I do as work; my lovely wife occasionally expresses doubts) computer and as my server; while OS X Server can be used as a regular desktop OS, I always had it in mind that a dedicated server would make more sense. Before the iMac, it was an old PowerBook on which my daughter played Club Penguin until she dropped it on the floor, forever crippling the T key and putting a significant dent in the side; and before that, an eMac of sainted memory. 

But, when, finally, last year I had a little discretionary tech cash, I invested in what Apple really ought to consider rebranding the iServe — the home-office answer to the XServe. It could be to the rack-mounted server behemoth what the iMac is to the Mac Pro — a bonsai server. 

My mini’s been running like a champ for well over a year now. It runs, as I’ve said, Leopard server, and it currently hosts eight or nine domains, dishing up websites and email with barely a second thought from me. Installation was a snap — it’s a Mac, after all, and, say what you will about Apple, at least they make the trains run on time. No, wait, that was Benito Mussolini. No, at least things work well together — there’s no denying that they’re among the great corporate control freaks of this world, but the payoff for us is that things work consistently. As long as your hardware meets the software’s basic requirements, you’re all set. 

And let’s not forget, the mini isn’t half as hobbled as folk like to paint it. Its big weakness, its lack of a decent graphics card, is absolutely no handicap to a server — my mini has no monitor (or keyboard, or mouse, or anything else, for that matter, except an ethernet cable to hook it into my office intranet) connected, and it’s not a machine I’ll be trying to run Doom on any time soon. It’s just the Anne Boleyn of my network, headlessly chugging away. 

My mini treats me just fine. I don’t use it as a work machine; instead, it doles out web pages (such as this one, or this one, or this one, or, indeed, the very page you’re reading right now), delivers emails, serves files and hosts FileMaker Pro databases around the InterWeb. It’s not perfect; I’m sure that one day, when my Internet Empire finally approaches SkyNet dimensions, it might be time to scale up to an actual, grown-up XServe, but I’m hoping that by then I’ll have a team of lackeys who’ll be making those decisions for me while I sip cocktails and enjoy the ministrations of teams of professional sycophants, and I’ll not have to become personally embroiled in such considerations. In the meantime, about the only thing I miss out on is the ability to monitor my server using the programme named, with all of Apple’s typical ingenuity and creativity, Server Monitor (you just know someone scored a corner office for coming up with that name. Not that I’m in any way resentful. Or bitter. No, not at all. Of course not. It just seems that way when I cry bitter tears of jealousy…). I don’t know what temperature my server’s cores are running at, but every time I open a new browser window, I see one of my hosted sites’ home pages, and I know that my trusted mini is serving still.

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0

Time to write about Time Machine

Posted by steve on Jan 21, 2009 in Hardware, Personal

One of the most highly touted features of Mac OS X 1
0.5 Leopard was Time Machine, but when the OS was first offered, it was clear that Time Machine was an imperfect technology. Many users reported frustration, more than a little bit tinged with irony, when they discovered that hard discs connected to Airport base stations — seemingly an ideal solution — didn’t actually work with Time Machine. 

Apple’s solution was the Time Capsule. In a somewhat bitterly ironic echo of the irony of the problem we’ve just recalled, Time Capsule was, at its core, an Airport base station with a hard disc. But onward. I toyed with the idea of buying one, but was put off by the price tag. But then the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe’s PowerMac G5 started to make somewhat disconcerting noises, and for a brief, slightly trouser-soiling moment, we thought her primary hard disc, the one with all her working files on, had finally decided to curl up its electronic toes. 

That’s when I nipped over to the Apple Store in Tampa, where I once wore the black T-shirt of the Mac Specialist, and bought a one-terabyte Time Capsule. And began to back up religiously. Or at least automatically. Both our Macs now back up every hour. And last September, I found myself writing this post to the Tidbits mailing list:

I feel moved to share a personal experience with the assembled masses. On Monday evening, as I sat at my computer — a first-generation Intel iMac — wrapping up the day’s work, I was dismayed to witness the latest in what was becoming a disturbingly frequent chain of kernel panics.

I pushed the restart button, and waited. My screens remained grey; instead of the satisfying whirrs and clicks of a well-running computer, I heard a quite disconcerting series of “tok” sounds coming from behind my main monitor.

But wait — what’s this? Why the utter absence of panic? Why the lack of dread, why no puckering, no clenching of the bowels? The answer is simple. I own — and use — a Time Machine.

I went down to CompUSA (the least pleasant aspect of the entire process) yesterday morning, and bought a new 500GB internal hard disc. I came home and stripped down my iMac, and slipped the bugger in. Restarted from my Leopard DVD, reformatted my new half-terabyte, and installed my system. Fired up Time Machine, and there it was — 167GB of data, just waiting to be restored. I restored. I’m happy.

I’ve helped clients who’ve lost data before. But I’ve never lost a hard disc myself. I can barely believe how glad I am that I have a Time Machine. One of the most valuable devices I’ve ever hooked up to my network, without a doubt — my rump was well and truly hauled out of the fire yesterday.

I have little or no doubt that there will be discussions shortly about the value of off-site backup, and I have even less doubt about the validity of such strategies. Right now, though, all I know is that my Time Machine is worth *every* penny….

I was already convinced of the value and utility of the thing, but that episode simply cemented my belief that it was a very valuable device. I’ve been finding again this week how useful it is. I have, as has been mentioned elsepost, that I have a multitude of hard discs attached to the iMac that is my main work computer. In an attempt to rationalise them and re-organise them a little, I started moving files earlier this week. Of course, fool that I am, I allowed myself to get distracted, and ended up deleting, of all things, all of the applications I’d downloaded for my iPhone. So when next I synced (sanc?) my phone, all of my apps promptly removed themselves. Oops. But no worry, for I have a Time Capsule. Ten minutes later, they were all back on my phone. 

I realise that this article must make me sound quite sadly and pathetically fanboyish, but so be it. I’ll be the first to admit that the Time Capsule is anything but perfect — for some reason, attempting to back up my Mac Mini server causes the little thing to crash and require a restart — but right now I’m of the opinion that it’s about the most critical component of my network.

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0

Taking stock

Posted by admin on Jan 13, 2009 in Hardware, Personal, Software

Since this blog is quite heavily slanted toward technology, I thought I’d get the ball rolling by making up an inventory, taking stock so to speak, of the gadgets that I use to help me run my life. 
My laptop
A MacBook Pro , of course. I’ve had it for about nearly two years now, which means it’s a relic, verging on a fossil, by computer standards, but it serves me well. It’s in great shape, despite having been toted around the world in a backpack, most recently to Australia and New Zealand.

My desktop computer

An iMac. It’s another old computer, this time nearly three years old. But it’s a trooper. It’s one of the original Intel iMacs, and it’s my main work machine. I’ve replaced the hard disk, after the old one went south (and how grateful was I that my Time Capsule
was there to save my hide?), and I’ve connected about half a dozen external hard discs, adding a couple of terabytes of additional storage, as well as a second DVD burner and — and this is my favourite bit — a second monitor.

My phone

And, not entirely shockingly, it’s an iPhone. I don’t know I should even bother writing anything here — there’s been plenty of electrons spilt over the last year and a half about the iPhone, much of it by more incisive and wittier writers than I. 

But I like my iPhone. It’s as cool and groovy a gadget as any I’ve owned. And while that’s a pretty obvious remark, it represents a huger leap up from its predecessor (in this case, a Motorola RAZR (what a vile and loathsome name that is)) than was the case with any other piece of kit I think I’ve ever had.

My server

A surprisingly tiny fellow, my Mac Mini, sitting on my desk between a semi-active Airport base station and a Seagate hard disc, is a low-profile workhorse. It’s connected to my network by ethernet, and to the wall by a power strip, but otherwise it’s all alone. No keyboard, no mouse, not even a monitor. But this headless server is the hub of my online empire, the nerve centre if you will (or, quite frankly, even if you won’t) of nearly everything I do online. It hosts this site, as well as my photography site, the blog that plots my escape plans and a side project that I might even get off the ground one day.

My software

Not technically gadgetry per se, but the programmes, systems and applications I run provide so much functionality that they might as well be. My computers, of course, run Mac OS X Leopard, with my server, obviously, operating under the server edition — a quite remarkably flexible and powerful piece of ‘ware, if you ask me. 

That’s the bulk of what I use on a daily basis. With these few devices, and the bits and bobs that I have plugged in or connected to them, I keep myself connected and run a couple of modestly successful businesses. Doesn’t take much, does it?

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