Tag Archives: Apple

Back to my Mac, aka Lionification

There are simply so many things to write about lately, but the one which has finally prompted a post is this:

Lionificated

… yes, it’s a computer desktop. Exciting stuff, huh? 😛

Background

I’ve been a Mac user for a little over four years now. In fact, the journey has been more-or-less chronicled here on my blog since acquiring a MacBook Pro in 2007. I still have the same machine, and it is still in great condition, although I’ve been through several batteries. It has never seen a fresh install of the OS since it shipped (with OS X Tiger 10.4) – instead, it has been upgraded through Leopard and Snow Leopard (which I really liked on its debut).

Over time though, it has become less central to my computing experience. I moved from Windows to Ubuntu on my day-to-day work machine, and my computing life fragmented to include a netbook, smartphones, and most recently a tablet (which is yet another of those things I keep meaning to write about!). Main use cases for the Mac continue to be Keynote – by far the best presentation software available on any platform, in my opinion; Lightroom and iMovie; and iTunes, which is firmly embedded in my life as a sync source for my iPhone and for organising my music library. Even though the iTunes data itself was migrated off the now-comparatively-weedy 120Gb internal drive a couple of years ago, I’ve continued to struggle for a comfortable amount of available disk space, but I still use the Mac for all of those things and I can’t really think of a viable alternative, despite the cloudification of many of the other services I use and their associated data.

Pros and Cons

When Lion was announced and the features previewed last year, I really struggled to see anything compelling in the release. It was clear that it was the iOSification of the desktop OS. The early views of Mission Control looked cluttered and bloated (combine Dashboard, Spaces, and Expose? surely a mess?). I wasn’t a fan of the idea of the Launchpad, I didn’t have a multitouch trackpad, I like to be able to switch and recompose app windows on a GUI and not run things full-screen. My early experience of the Mac App Store wasn’t positive either, with many apps I’d previously purchased having to potentially be repurchased to get the benefits of autoupdate that the App Store could bring.

My early 2007 MacBook was just on the cusp of supported hardware for Lion (it scraped in by virtue of the Core 2 Duo processor; I bought a Magic Trackpad a little while ago to take advantage of gestures, although since it’s separate I still haven’t used it a great deal). I already mentioned my continual struggle for space on the hard drive, but knowing that Apple had actually managed to make the OS smaller in previous releases by getting rid of legacy cruft, it seemed like Lion might be worth a shot.

I spent the week before the release cleaning things up – removing any remaining Classic apps or PPC apps that relied on the now-defunct Rosetta (very few, mostly old camera drivers which were only included in their respective packages to support older machines at the time they shipped); running OnyX to clean out caches and logs; uninstalling anything I’d not used for a long time; cleaning down Library and Application Support folders associated with software I no longer use. Yes, a clean install would have got around this, but on the flipside I would have spent a lot of time putting things back the way they were and reinstalling software. Once I’d done the upgrade I was miffed to discover that the installation package had vanished, but I’m glad that the brilliant Don McAllister has found a way to recover it from the Mac App Store for future use!

So what do I think?

Well, the scrolling thing is interesting. I get the reason that so-called “natural” scrolling has been introduced to unify the touch interfaces across OS X and iOS, and I also realise that while I could switch it off, it’s not going to go away so I may as well get comfortable with the idea. It’s one of those brain-rewiring exercises, similar to the one I’ve been going through learning Unity on Ubuntu, and for the same reason – there’s little point in fighting the future once the decisions are made.

Now for two things I didn’t expect to like: Mission Control and full-screen apps. I really, really like them… I’ve always used a large number of Spaces to organise my workspace and I’m finding that Mission Control makes this even more intuitive. I can still quickly zoom out to have an overview and move things around, and if I’m using the Magic Trackpad the swiping to switch apps and spaces is nice too. There are a few apps that need work on their full-screen modes, notably Chrome, but that will come in time.

I’m not bothered by iCal or Address Book having strange faux-“natural” new looks, since I’ve migrated almost all of my use of those apps to Google anyway, for maximum interoperability across devices and platforms. On the rest of the visual aspects, I’m not sure I like the “zoom/pop” dialog boxes yet. The more rectangular buttons do seem more serious and polished than the older Aqua lozenge style, but it’s a shame to see a much more grey overall feeling across the UI.

Java is gone, as Apple said it would be, but the procedure to get it back was very smooth and simple, typing “java” in a command window started an Apple Update installation, with within a few moments it was all done.

Java on Lion
A couple of little niggles with some other apps. I also found myself resetting my Dock (which I’d been running in 2D with various folders docked as Stacks) to its default state by clearing down the associated .plist files and restarting it, to get it back to the way Lion comes out of the box / download.

The future

I mentioned a tablet and a variety of other lightweight devices, but I can’t see myself abandoning the PC device (in this case a laptop of some kind) just yet. As I mentioned in the discussion of scrolling, I’m firmly of the opinion that we need to adapt to new ways of interacting with technology, and I’ve got a range of devices to play with right now. However, I haven’t yet found a replacement for the keyboard / graphical desktop / pointing device combination that is as effective for creating content as a PC (be that Mac, Windows or Linux, with keyboard and mouse/trackpad/pointer). I can type quickly on a touchscreen smartphone or tablet now, but it’s still not as comfortable for creating text and laying out images as a graphical computer desktop of some kind. I can perform simple and basic image or video edits on a mobile device, but again for anything more extensive I find myself wanting to see more and have finer control than I get with a fat fingertip on a small touchscreen.

So all of that leads me to think ahead to a next device… not that I must have one at the moment, but still. I’ve increasingly fallen out of love with Apple over the past year or two as they have behaved in an increasingly anti-competitive manner over Android, the App Store, made silly restrictions locking out hardware replacement in new iMacs, etc. – but I can’t see myself escaping the ecosystem completely due to the quality of the software I’ve already mentioned, even though I’m not locking myself in to the entire Apple life end-to-end.

The new generation of MacBook Airs hit on Wednesday alongside Lion, and I’m reconsidering whether or not that would make an acceptable replacement for an older 15″ MBP. On paper, at the expense of a diagonal 2″ of screen real-estate, I would still get +1Gb RAM, potentially more storage (256Mb flash storage over 120Gb HDD), a CPU that’s clocked slower (1.7GHz vs 2.33GHz) but probably runs faster due to architectural improvements… it’s tempting… if I could be convinced that I’d get the performance I’d like in iMovie and Lightroom, and if I had the cash, then I might make that jump. I suspect that Lion and the Air make a great match.

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A 3GS hit-and-run

I hadn’t intended to spend any time at all talking specifically about the iPhone 3GS here on the blog, but following a comment by Per[1] I thought I’d jot down a few notes.

Firstly, given my previous comments about O2 and the upgrade issue… I should explain why I bothered. I got the 3.0 upgrade on the 3G when it came out last Wednesday, and liked what I found, particularly the option to install more than the 2.0 OS limit of 144 / 9 pages of apps. It’s now effectively unlimited, since even if you don’t have space on a home screen, you can search for the app using Spotlight. That’s nice. However, I was already hitting my space limit on the 16Gb 3G, so room to breathe was going to be handy. I also liked the improved navigation and possibility to get the TomTom kit in the future, and once I’d tried the camera in-store, I thought that was going to be a big deal as well (more on that, below). There was a small amount of peer pressure too, given our conversation on last week’s Dogear Nation.

In the end I opted to get a PAYG phone, swap in my contract SIM, and sell the old handset to Mazuma. If I’d waited to upgrade and then wanted the same handset I now have, I’d’ve ended up on another 18 (or 24) month contract with the same upgrade trap in June, and probably on a higher tariff to subsidise the cost of a new handset. This way my existing contract will run out in due course, I stay on the same tariff, and the handset doesn’t cost much more than it would have done come “upgrade” time in 3-6 months.

So what’s good? It’s very clearly nippier. Every operation is obviously faster and cleaner. I’m liking the camera and video recording (zoom would be nice, but variable focus and auto-adjusting exposure/white balance work for me). It was a great move to retain the 3G body and form factor – my Clarifi case still fits perfectly, and the macro lens seems to let me focus marginally closer still than the 3GS can manage on its own (it does a good job by itself, though). Amongst the sprinkling of other functions I like, not specific to the new model, are the landscape keyboard and the improved podcast playback features – did you know you can slide horizontally to scrub through a track, and slide down to scrub more finely? Neat.

The real revelation so far though, has been the screen. The new smudge / grease-resistant coating is a marvel. So far I’ve not fitted a screen protector, and although I’m loath to allow it to become physically scratched, the new screen feels and looks so much better and remains much, much cleaner. It’s just… almost magic.

In the “miss” column we have the voice control feature, which I’m not sure I’ll be using much; and shake-to-shuffle (is this actually supposed to work if the display is locked, by the way? seems not to do so for me, which makes it even more pointless). Oh, and battery life seems worse, but I suspect the compass and the notifications feature are contributing to that, as are the wider range of ways I’m actually using it. May have to think about a Mophie Juice Pack Air.

I used the video function in anger for the first time today, uploading one clip from the Hursley Tri-Department sports tournament directly to YouTube, and later grabbed a set of clips from the phone via iPhoto (yes, iPhoto manages video from the iPhone, go figure) and edited them together in iMovie. It’s not the best quality but probably still as good as my cheap USB camcorder – plus the screen and on-device editing features are nice additions. Rumours are that the chipset is capable of 720p video, but I doubt we’ll get to see that in the current generation of device. I’ve posted a bunch of sample photos to Flickr as well, if you are interested – the Blue Eyeball shot was taken at close quarters with the Clarifi.

Really nothing more to say here. There are more than enough people getting excited about the device and as I said, I hadn’t planned to write up any thoughts – blame that Danish guy 🙂

[1] just because I responded to audience pressure this time, don’t expect me to do it every time, m’kay? 🙂

TwtrCtr – Tracking Twitter followers with an iPhone

twtrctr logo I’ve already mentioned this on Twitter, but so far I haven’t had a chance to write about the culmination of my first “proper” efforts to create a mashup: TwtrCtr.

For those not obsessed with Twitter or their follower numbers, there’s an application you probably haven’t heard of called TwitterCounter. The site provides tools, graphs and APIs for charting the growth of a user’s Twitter followers. It’s interesting, and if you’re slightly obsessive about figures and have a belief that such things “matter”, then you might already spend time checking it and looking at the pretty graphs. It also provides an element of “prediction” based on historical growth trends, and does cool things like allowing users to compare themselves to others and watch the graphs intersect or overlap.

twittercounter website There’s just one issue – although it looks great on the desktop, the site isn’t laid out very well for mobile browsers like Mobile Safari on the iPhone. It also uses a Flash component to display the graph, and since there’s currently no Flash on the iPhone, you get a big blank box in the middle of the screen.

The nice part is that TwitterCounter has a simple REST API which enables a developer to get the raw data about a user’s follower numbers. If you use Twitter clients like Tweetdeck, then you’ll see this in action.

Based on my previous experience of using the iWebkit framework to build an iPhone-optimised web wrapper for the data from my Current Cost meter, I thought it might be interesting to play around with using iWebkit to display the TwitterCounter stats.

iWebkit is a simple HTML framework which provides a set of CSS classes to make your web pages look like native iPhone apps. There are other frameworks out there like iUI and webapp.net, but they depend a lot more on knowledge of AJAX and some more advanced / dynamic coding, whereas iWebkit is all about simplicity – if you know your HTML basics, it is pretty straightforward. As it happens, you can extend it very easily as well – in my case, I combined it with some PHP functions which call out to TwitterCounter and echo the numbers into a table on a web page.

Although I worked with PHP a lot a few years ago, I hadn’t really done much with the language recently. The first thing I did was to create a simple piece of code to call the TwitterCounter API and get back the data for a specific user; and then I displayed it in a web page. Once I’d done that, it was pretty easy to get the whole thing wrapped into two pages of iWebkit template code, and style it all appropriately.

twtrctr mark 1

Revision one of the interface and app ran off my home server, and didn’t look fantastic. My initial thought for a name was “TwitterCounter nano”, but I changed it after realising that it didn’t fit so well as a name on the iPhone home screen 🙂

In the screenshot on the left, you’ll also see that the first form I came up with was far from “iPhone native-looking”… the current version of iWebkit didn’t have form CSS classes, so I had to tweak things a little. I also found it was worth digging into the Apple Web Development Guidelines for the iPhone, which gave some hints about how to make some iPhone-specific tweaks like turning off auto-capitalisation for the text entry box (since most usernames are all in lowercase), and how to add a text hint, for example.

twtrctr mark 2 So, the second iteration of the UI looks a lot nicer. It’s also possible to hit the bookmark button in Safari and add the app as a shortcut on the iPhone home screen… (see the icon at the top of the post)… if you do that, and launch TwtrCtr from there, it will act as a full-screen iPhone app with no Safari controls, giving a much more native experience. The user can then navigate by using the controls in the header bar rather than the forward and back buttons provided by the browser.

I added an FAQ page, too, so if you want to know more about the app you can check that out directly on the site. In these days of heightened concern about Twitter security I also thought it would be a good idea to add a note on the front screen to point out that it doesn’t ask for anything more than a username, and it doesn’t log that anywhere, it just passes it on to the TwitterCounter API.

twtrctr display OK, that was a rather long explanation of the evolution of the first page! The important part is actually how the data is displayed. Once you’ve entered a valid Twitter username and hit “Get User Stats”, you get a single-page representation  of the TwitterCounter data for the given user.

The top 2 or three rows are links which will open the user’s profile page, homepage/URL (if one is set… otherwise that row doesn’t display), or display a simple graph / chart which is generated by the Google Chart API. The latter is something high on my list of enhancements, because it looks a little dull at the moment; also, I’m generating the Google Charts URL myself rather than using one of the PHP wrappers to the API, which would probably be a lot simpler.

Don’t look too closely for the rough edges… right now, it doesn’t actually make any effort deal with cases where a user doesn’t exist, or TwitterCounter or Twitter is down…. I know about those small issues 🙂

In a nutshell, then – that’s all it is. A mashup which allowed me to explore a bit more iPhone-specific web development, some PHP / REST / XML coding, and a bit of Google Charts stuff as well. I have to say that the TwitterCounter folks (Boris and Arjen in particular) have been brilliant and very helpful and supportive, despite their app having an issue with the Twitter API while I was in the middle of developing this mashup on top of their API! iWebkit is a lot of fun to play with, and very simple as well – I know the developers are working hard to add new features into that framework whilst keeping it simple and aiming it at “non-techies”.

Oh, and incidentally, although the stylesheets make it look like an iPhone app, it should work perfectly well in any desktop or mobile browser – it’s plain old HTML.

I’m not making any claims about how this might develop in the future, but I’ve got a couple of ideas for tweaks that I might make. In the meantime, if you’re an iPhone (or other mobile device) Twitter user, do take a look at http://andypiper.tv/twtrctr and see how it works for you. Let me know what you think, or any ideas for additions you might find useful! Feel free to follow me on Twitter and @ your suggestions and comments to me, too.

Update: TwtrCtr is now linked directly from the TwitterCounter home page! Follow the iPhone link in the page footer! 🙂

iPhones, iPods, headphones

Although Steve Jobs described the iPhone as the “best iPod [Apple] ever made” back in January 2007, I have to say I’m not sure.

I previously owned a 2nd generation nano, and loved it. Light, easy to use… OK the screen was tiny and the capacity was limited, but it did the job.

The iPhone has that nice big screen with video playback going for it, and now it also has the new (and very, very cool) Genius playlist feature. Just a small number of issues, then…

  1. No search? the 2G nano had search! Am I missing something?
  2. No ability to read the notes for podcasts. On the nano I could press the button to cycle through time / cover art / lyrics or info display, and on the iPhone I get lyrics or the “back” of the album cover. Nothing useful for podcasts.
  3. The time slider is way too difficult to control with a finger. On a longer podcast, say over an hour, skipping over a minute or two of the duration is almost impossible. The click wheel definitely wins there.
  4. Finally, and most annoyingly: no external skip / pause control. I have to take the phone out of my pocket, potentially unlock the screen, and then skip to the next track. Really not the best idea when travelling on the London Underground (“that’s right folks, I have a 3G iPhone, please mug me at the next station”).
    OK – time for a confession here. I never unpacked the iPhone headphones until last week. I didn’t realise that they have a mic on the wire with a click switch which gives the forward/back/pause control. Why? Because I’m so used to the poor audio quality of the Apple earbuds that I switched to Shure ones several months ago and I’ve been using them since. So it seems to me that what is needed is some kind of cable which can fit in between third-party headphones and the iPhone’s headphone socket with an external switch on them.

I think the iPhone is an awesome device, but for me, it just isn’t the best iPod I’ve ever had.