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The Life of P

Tag: apple

WinBook Pro

My laptop, Daedalus, a stalwart of the old Dell XPS Studio line, has lasted well for nearly six years. That realisation came as a surprise since I generally expect a machine to last me only three to four. In the interim I built a new desktop, JARVIS, but found I now lack the necessary time to diagnose and repair a custom rig like that when things go wrong. As a result, for a while now I have wanted to streamline down just to a laptop with a docking solution that made it easy to use with a full desk setup for long work or photo editing sessions and indie/less powerful games (since I now prefer to play most mainstream games on a large TV in the comfort of my living room). The problem is that consumer docks are still unusual and no one was really making the laptop I wanted.

So Daedalus’ successor, Helios (Deus Ex fans will recognise the progressing AI namesakes), took careful selection. The result, as a Buzzfeed headline would no doubt claim, might surprise you. It transpired that the ideal Windows laptop for me is actually an Apple MacBook Pro. It hit each of my requirements:

  • WinBook Pro13″ for portability;
  • SSD for the OS and total storage of at least 500GB;
  • 8GB RAM;
  • Graphics capability for indie games;
  • Ultra hi-res screen;
  • Slide-in dock — the third-party henge dock.

Some of you might reasonably treat this as a weird hoax, but it is important to understand the reasoning behind my general distaste for Apple products. It is not fanboyism, but a desire for interoperability and freedom. That is, when making any technology purchasing decision, I want a device that will work happily with everything else I own and that will not restrict my choices when later upgrading, because I want to be free to select the best product for my use. In general this rules out the “walled garden” of Apple products and particularly iOS. However, since their decision to switch to Intel architecture, Macs are essentially just PC hardware running different software. The introduction of Boot Camp with appropriate drivers for the hardware means Windows can not only be installed but it can be made the default operating system.

Breaking OutI had not been into an Apple store for several years and was impressed by the experience. After asking a few questions I was handed over to someone more knowledgeable about running Windows on Apple hardware and they already had it set up on a demo machine. Purchasing was slick and easy, running the transaction on a portable terminal with the laptop being delivered down to us while we chatted about software and potential pitfalls.

The only tricky part of the Boot Camp setup process was preparing a bootable Windows installation on a USB stick, since the MacBook Pro lacks an optical drive. Within a couple of hours I had Windows loaded up and ready to take over as the default OS, with OSX relegated to a minimal partition on the drive. Whilst Apple provides Windows drivers, it has little incentive to optimise them. As a result, better results can be received from component manufacturers or even third parties like the Trackpad++ project, which reinstates a host of customisable multitouch gesture controls on the generous trackpad. Another quirk is that the high-res screen requires Windows’ full 150% scaling to be readable, but when connected to a standard resolution monitor that becomes unwieldy. The easiest solution is to have a separate user account for use in docked mode and that also allows me to tweak the applications that launch on startup.

Desktop ModeThe hardware is exceptional as one would expect from Apple. The machined unibody chassis is sleek and incredibly thin, yet is surprisingly good at heat dissipation given that it runs extremely quiet in general use. The screen is stellar and input is as comfortable as the competition. The Apple keyboard layout  differs from Windows but SharpKeys offers an easy way to remap them to something more familiar (like reinstating a dedicated “delete” key or reordering Alt and Command/Winkey).

The metal Henge Dock is a big improvement on the original plastic design and the finish looks as though it could have shipped with the MacBook. It ships with all the necessary cables other than the power adapter (so you really need a second one for travelling since one will be fixed to the dock). Connecting and disconnecting the laptop is as easy as slotting it in the right way round, and a rubber insert protects it from scratches whilst providing a snug fit. The result looks like a ridiculously slim mini tower sitting on the desk. Most of the body is exposed to air which limits overheating and the MacBook’s rear vent is specifically designed to be exposed whether the lid is open or closed, so I have little concern about running it in “clamshell mode”. It was this docking option that really sold me on the MacBook in the first place and I find myself surprised both by how well it works and how few non-business options there are from PC manufacturers.

Passive Aggressive Housing

Those who lived with me at uni will recall my laptop tended towards the verbose, certainly for an inanimate object. Visitors’ responses varied between intrigued and irritated by its vocal notifications and instructions on what I was supposed to be doing. These days my tech is somewhat quieter but I remain firm in my plan one day to live in a house with which I can converse.

Yesterday Lev at work pointed out the following video. Ericsson has taken the concept of the Internet of Things (in which each individual device you own is independently Internet connected) and applied a social networking gloss in their vision of future. While anthropomorphising the communications between devices is probably a step too far, I’m rather perturbed by their passive aggressive house which appears to view its “mission” as manipulating its occupant into not communicating with other people. I can see my house ending up exactly like that.

What it does highlight is the inevitable interconnectedness of all devices in the future. This has always been something important to me, which Ben pointed out recently when responding to another visitor at a party who enquired incredulously whether I was controlling Windows on the TV through my phone. Ben explained, “you can assume any tech in Priyan’s flat talks to everything else, which,” he continued after a brief pause, “is why there isn’t anything from Apple.”

My objection to Apple is primarily that they stand firmly in the way of my vision of the future, in which every device can interact seamlessly and when one breaks I can replace it with the best available product, which will slot right into the existing ecosystem. Given that Apple (presumably) has little interest in manufacturing my fridge or microwave, will the tendency towards increasing interconnectivity force them to relax their restrictive nature? Or will they proceed on the assumption that market share will force others to make products specifically that support their devices?

Slate Expectations: Apple’s iPad

Apple were in an incredibly difficult position with the iPad. Everyone knew they were making one and no one would be happy unless it was revolutionary. As someone unconvinced by the tablet offerings at CES earlier this month (they have clear application in industry and healthcare, but I can’t yet see a consumer need), I was curious about what Apple was bringing to the table. What they have produced is a superb technology showcase, but it’s also exactly the tablet everyone expected. First off, some people are griping about the name. Trade mark issues left them in an uncomfortable position since they don’t actually own the letter “i” (whatever they may argue) so I’m okay with the iPad. Yes, it may sound a lot like Star Trek’s PADD, but that’s clearly the influence they were channeling with the whole device.

For the technophile there’s a lot to love here: a great-looking 9.7″ touchscreen that’s fantastic for photos, a large and seemingly responsive onscreen keyboad, a decent 1GHz Apple processor (although bear in mind the latest Snapdragon smartphones have a 1GHz processor too). The impressive number, however, was 10 hours of battery life. That’s big. Though I have to wonder just how far that falls in real-world use: wifi and 3G will both be a fair drain and there’s clearly no way it plays 10 hours of video.

The “unbelievable price” seemed slightly misleading by splitting apart the cost. Hitting as low as $499 for the basic model was certainly a welcome surprise that no one expected. In practical terms the “real” version is the 3G-toting one, else it’s not actually particularly portable (not to mention the fact 3G laptops are readily available). The US deal is $15 a month for a mere 250MB, which I would exceed with email and attached/linked video alone. So it’s $30 a month for unlimited access which seems reasonable. That means the year one cost is actually $1,089 (for the middle 32GB model), then $360 for each subsequent year. It’s not outrageous but it’s not a low barrier to entry for what they are marketing as a third device.

It technically works with existing iPhone apps but I don’t think people were particularly wowed. Even when expanded the interfaces looked clunky and odd. But new apps taking advantage of its size will certainly look great. I foresee a swift divergence in the app store between the iPhone and iPad and, with the install base of the former, I can see a lot of developers overlooking the latter as not cost effective. While Jobs nodded to the Amazon Kindle, I can’t quite see the iPad succeeding as an e-book reader, since the very reason they took off is that e-ink avoids eye strain. However until colour versions emerge (likely later this year) it could be ideal for magazine-style articles and the New York Times demo with embedded video was particularly impressive (even if it was just a glorified website).

The glaring omission for me is one I had not expected to see: nearly 10 inches of screen real estate and a 1GHz processor, but no evidence of multitasking. Palm’s webOS has a perfect implementation on a significantly smaller device, so how Apple didn’t feel the need to address this is at best startling and at worst unforgivable. If they are trying to create a new product between phones and laptops, it needs at least to be able to match the functionality of top end phones. Also strangely missing are flash-support — for a device supposedly offering fully portable web browsing that’s bizarre — and a camera, which is certainly non-essential but fullscreen Skyping while wandering/sitting around with one of these would be pretty damn cool. Again, features that top-end phones already have.

They will sell, of course. That hardcore Apple fans will be picking them up in 60-90 days isn’t even a question. However this needs much broader consumer appeal to be the “magical and revolutionary device” (seriously, as an actual slogan?) Jobs suggests. I’m sure interest will be high in the short term, not least because Apple has cued mainstream journalists with appropriate adjectives, but it’s going to take some serious marketing to build up momentum. Ultimately the first iPad is an interesting concept that flounders for the same reason as the netbooks it aims to replace: it tries its hand at a lot but, in attempting to fill a gap that doesn’t yet exist, it isn’t quite sure what role it serves. The result is that, like most notebooks, it’s just okay.

An Oscar a Day?

Apologies for the short downtime this morning due to problems with some behind-the-scenes upgrades. Typically the start of the year features several films that might legitimately be described as Oscar bait, the idea being that they will remain fresh in the Academy’s mind when it comes to that pesky system of actually selecting the winners. This year things have gotten a little ridiculous with virtually nothing of that callibre being released throughout the year as if everything has been saved until now. Is Hollywood’s memory really that short-term? The studios and distributors certainly seem to think so. This has caused a sudden flood of releases I’m keen to see, with the result that I’m quite likely to miss a few. In a vain bid to rectify the problem, this week has almost turned into an Oscar a day, with The Wrestler (last night), Frost/Nixon (tonight) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (maybe Friday) all down for viewings. The downside is at that rate I almost certainly won’t have time to write reviews for everything I would like to. We shall see.

Mostly today’s post is another catch-up with things I’ve been meaning to mention:

  • With its rapidly growing popularity, and celebrity users making the service mainstream, c|net gives a Twitter masterclass that discusses the full range of features. I’m endeavouring to make better use of it without it degrading into spam — Goldilocks tweeting: not to much and not too little…
  • Lifehacker advises on cheap upgrades to your Home Theatre setup.
  • Top 10 sights on on Google Street View.
  • MIR-12 is an ARG advertising campaign that got off to an impressive start with its supposedly leaked footage of a foiled assassination in Russia that many mistook for real (although given the news reporter in the video that’s slightly surprising). It’s getting underway now, and is thought to be for Activision’s upcoming Singularity.
  • GiantBomb highlighted a brilliant recent Videogame Classics trend of redesigning boxart in the style of classic books (think the abstract artwork of Penguine Classics). And it’s not restricted to gaming either, with classic films getting the treatment too.
  • Apple has made noises about the new Palm Pre and their intention to defend their IP rights, no doubt referring specifically to their recently acquired multitouch patent. However interesting articles from BNET and RCRWireless muse on whether this would be a wise move, and whether Apple’s patent will really stand up to close scrutiny. In particular they note Apple failed to mention prior art published by University of Delaware academics (now employed by Apple) which may invalidate their claims. This is not to mention the fact Palm has been in the mopile industry far longer, building up its own stack of patents, several of which the iPhone itself may infringe.
  • With February 14 rapidly approaching, nothing says “love” like a stylish Left4Dead Valentine’s Day card (scroll halfway down) for that special zombie/survivor in your life.

So Close, Apple

Cowon Q5WMy Cowon U2 mp3 player has served me excellently over the past several years and, while it still works perfectly, I have been looking to upgrade. This is partly due to its paltry 1GB of storage, and partly because the inclusion of both video playback and wifi web surfing on new high-end portable media players is very enticing. For the past year I have been eyeing up Cowon’s feature-packed Q5W. However it is not without its drawbacks: running Windows CE5 allows for office documents to be read, but also means the whole touch screen interface is somewhat sluggish; battery life is on the low side because of the hard drive; and the web browser is still a bit clunky.

iPod TouchAs a result I found myself seriously considering the iPod Touch (the first Apple device I have openly praised), particularly once the 2nd gen model wisely added an external volume control. My chief concern has always been the iTunes lock-in because I detest the bloated resource hog. A quick trial of the latest version did nothing to change my mind but, particularly after experiencing just how fast and responsive the Touch’s interface is, I was still torn. All that remained was to compare the sound quality, which meant loading my old player with a few of Apple’s sample songs and taking to an Apple store. Disappointingly, the iPod came nowhere near the 4-year-old Cowon. Its limited sound options essentially consisted of a volume control and a bunch of preset equalisers with a scarcely noticeable effect, all leaving the music sounding flat and lifeless with compression. In the end it turned out the choice was an easy one. Having come so close to winning me over, this really just serves to cement Apple’s recent devices and wonderful shiny gadgets that fail spectacularly at their chief function — the iPhone as a phone that can’t make calls or text, and the iPod Touch as a music player that can’t play music.

Let’s hope the promising looking Archos 5 does better…

Twittering

Twitter is one of those things that sounded quite interesting but didn’t really serve any purpose in my digital life. This three consecutive days stretch notwithstanding, I am aware that my posts have become somewhat erratic and your clamour for more regular updates has not gone unnoticed. Here twitter provides a compromise. In the sidebar you will now see a twitter section which allows for short and sweet updates with whatever I happen to be doing. It’s pretty self-explanatory and I will endeavour to keep that updated even when full posts are not possible. That way you can still read what I’m up to, and the eagle eyed will probably find it offers some insight as to what future posts may be about.

Google Reader has been my chosen feed reader for some time now, and they have recently added a new feature to share items with friends which show up separately in the interface. Currently I don’t really share many posts as you’ll see if you take a look at the P-2006 Shared News feed on our Feeds page. However if anyone else uses Google Reader and would like to make better use of this new feature to share interesting stuff, give me a shout.

Having been uncharacteristically positive about the iPod Touch (I wouldn’t buy one, but I would say it’s genuinely one of the best portable media players on the market), I do need to weigh in on the MacBook Air, the latest must-have for Apple fans, if only to redress the balance. It is stunningly thin, there is no question. Yet despite its high price this is the least powerful MacBook on the market. Now it’s certainly true that if you’re looking at an “ultraportable” power is presumably a lesser concern, but I would strongly question its portability in practice. You see, to make it so slim they had to remove the optical disc drive, replacing it with an external unit. So this lovely sleek machine cannot use CDs or DVDs unless you lug around an entire extra drive unit with you. For portability that surely must be a deal breaker. The end result is a laptop that resembles a size zero model: incredibly thin and there is a prettiness there, but somehow you can’t escape the fact it’s utterly useless.

"Luck is the residue of design."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2021 Priyan Meewella

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