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Sunday, October 24, 2010

3 things I like about the new MacBook Air

MacBook Air
This week, Steve Jobs introduced a refresh of the MacBook Air laptop computers from Apple. These new portables are now the lightest computers that Apple offers across its venerable Mac line.

I already own the previous version of the MacBook Air. I had bought it in March, so that I could not only bring it on my holiday then, but also use it for a few presentations at work and BarCamp Singapore. What led me to buy this MacBook Air, which I named "Aironaut, was its light weight. From personal experience, I know that even portable computers can be backbreaking, once you add in the weight of the power adapter.

The new MacBook Air is just as light as the previous versions, weighing in at just about 40 grammes less for the 13-inch version. But there are a few other things that I like about this new version, namely:
  1. Two USB ports
  2. Flash-based internal disk
  3. Thumb drive-based software reinstall disk
1. Two USB ports
When it came to connecting devices, I believe that the MacBook Air had a "wireless" principle. That meant wireless networking (it requires an adapter to connect an Ethernet cable) and wireless accessories, like a wireless mouse. So one USB port has generally been sufficient for me when connecting an external disk.

Having said that, "one USB port good, two USB ports better". When backing up some disks recently, I found out just how limiting one USB port can be. In the end, I had to obtain a USB hub, so that I could back up everything easily.

I still think that there is a wireless principle for the MacBook Air, especially as more peripherals have wireless capabilities, e.g. printers, hard disks, etc. But for the short-term, the new MacBook Air's two USB ports definitely makes connecting peripherals so much more convenient.

2. Flash-based internal disk
When I was buying Aironaut, I was very tempted to get the version with its solid state drive (SSD), i.e. a flash disk. The traditional hard disk still has its uses and sturdiness, but a flash disk is so much sexier, quieter, and less prone to mechanical failure, especially when moving the computer while the disk is busy.

Unfortunately, the cost of the MacBook Air with the SSD exceeded my budget, and so I had to settle for the one with the usual hard disk. The new MacBook Airs don't give you that choice. Instead, you choose whether you want a lot of disk space, or even lots more disk space, and all in flash disk goodness.

Naysayers might say that a flash disk is not "persisitent". What this means is that, due to the nature of flash disks, if there's no power for a very long time, the flash disk could essentially be wiped clean. Besides not really knowing for sure what "a very long time" actually means, the other thing is that, as a computer, it should have power quite consistently. At most, it may not be used for a few days, but that shouldn't be "a very long time". So in my opinion, this argument is moot.

Besides the display, the internal disk is the other big consumer of power. A flash disk uses less power than a mechanical hard disk, so I'm sure that's one reason why Apple can boast a 30-day standby time on a full battery charge.

And yes, I was wowed when Steve Jobs boasted about the 30-day standby time. That's unheard of in the computer industry for laptops.

3. Thumb drive-based software reinstall disk
This is huge. I've always known that the computer industry would eventually have to move away from optical disks (CDs, DVDs) for software installation to thumb drives. As the cost of thumb drives plummeted while their storage space increased, it was only a question of time as to when the switch would occur.

And now, Apple has led the way with the MacBook Air. Again, this medium makes sense for the MacBook Air due to its lack of an optical disk drive. My Aironaut's software reinstall comes on DVDs. I had never needed to use them until one day, when I needed to get QuickTime 7 out of them. I had to make use of the "Remote Disc" feature, where the MacBook Air can use the optical disk drive of another computer, but it was just not an ideal setup.

A thumb drive makes so much more sense, not only in terms of not needing to hunt down an optical disc-equipped computer, but also the amount of software that can be stored in it. My Aironaut needs two DVDs, but the new MacBook Air only has one thumb drive. No more swapping of discs, no more needless wondering about which disc contains the software I want.

Computer users who are used to swapping discs when installing software are going to appreciate this convenience, once all of the other software publishers move to thumb drives or other flash memory-based storage, like SD cards (oh look, the MacBook Air has a built-in SD card reader!).

So those are my three reasons for why I like the new MacBook Air:
  1. One extra USB port
  2. Flash-based internal disk
  3. Thumb drive to reinstall Apple software
But since I had bought Aironaut only about half a year ago, I'm not going to upgrade just yet. Maybe I'll wait for another MacBook Air refresh.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dell Home - evening of revelry and entertainment

Thanks to XPR, I was invited to an event by Dell, teasingly called "An evening of revelry and entertainment". I thought that it'd be a time of fun and games, especially since it was held in an apartment at a prestigious condominium, Scotts Highpark, near the Newton MRT station.

It turned out to be more like a regular ol' house party, except that it was hosted by Dell Asia Pacific and there were several Dell and Alienware laptops placed in the rooms. Since it was held at 7pm (I arrived fashionably late at 7:30pm), my tummy was rumbling, so I headed straight for the buffet.

While eating, I wandered around the four-room apartment (one big hall/dining area and three bedrooms) to survey what was available. The house had clearly been decked out to showcase how Dell's computers fit with the needs and wants of every member of the modern family.

  • In "Bree's Kitchen", there was also a touchscreen computer, Inspiron One, that had an Excel spreadsheet of the family budget and a browser window showing Recipes.com.
  • "Michael's Room" was decked out to be the typical male gamer's room, with high-end Alienware desktop and laptop computers.
  • The next one was "Bernadette's Room", where the "daughter" lounged on her bed with a Dell laptop and she commented (no doubt through a script) on how she liked the colour and feel of her Inspiron laptop.
  • Finally, there was "Dennis' Study", where the man of the house was with his Inspiron One touchscreen desktop, browsing the stock market and other websites.
Finally, there were three Dell laptops and three Alienware laptops in the hall for attendees to play with. There was also a big flatscreen hung on the other end of the hall. When I arrived, it had a message about being ready to use with an "Intel Wireless Connect" device. About an hour-and-a-half later, it still had the same message. Clearly, this was supposed to be a demonstration that no one had figured out to, well, demonstrate.

So I did. Only one Inspiron 15R in the hall had Intel Wireless Connect. I pressed a button in the program, and -- voila! -- whatever was on the laptop's screen was now shown on the TV as well. I played a few videos, and that's when people started to realize what was going on, and the PR folks jumped in to explain the setup. I casually walked away to let others be wowed.

While the screen sharing was supposed to be real-time, I noticed that the TV would display about a half-second after what was on the laptop. I guess that's as close to real-time as is possible, given the state of today's wireless communications. But video playback was definitely smooth on both screens with no jerkiness. I think that's more of a credit to Intel's software rather than the Dell Inspiron laptop.

The Dell Inspiron laptop itself was like any other modern Windows 7-based laptop in the market. Big and bright screen, full-size keyboard, the usual connectors, built-in camera. It weighed in at about 3kg, which I've now discovered is a pain to pick up with one hand. I'm too used to the lightweight of my MacBook Air.

I did notice, though, that there was a slight static electricity discharge around the keyboard. The last time I noticed this was with an old Apple laptop that was plugged into the wall. Which meant that either the Dell's power adapter wasn't correctly designed for Singapore's voltage, or the Inspiron's casing is not well grounded. From this, I would recommend that the user ground himself at all times. Or herself, as in "Bernadette's" case.

As for the Inspiron One touchscreen desktop, I initially found it fun to use, but the novelty wore off soon enough. As Steve Jobs had said recently in his introduction to the new MacBook Air, having your arm raised in front of you all the time to touch a screen is painful and weary. It didn't help that typing or even things like mouse dragging were difficult. "Dennis" himself had constant difficulty trying to expand the on-screen handwriting interface. As a result of forearm muscle ache at needing to hold my hand straight in front, I quickly lost interest in the Inspiron One.

On the other hand, I must say that the handwriting interface was very accurate! This was in spite of my and others' scrawls. Dell or Microsoft just needs to get it to interpret the writing faster, so that the user can write faster too.

Not being a gamer myself, I didn't care much about the Alienware laptops' prowess. But at nearly 5kg, I don't think they can rightfully be called "portable" computers! More like "back breaking".

At the end of the day, Dell's computers are still Windows 7-based computers, and there's nothing in them that sets them apart from the other Windows 7-based computers. While it was fun to play with some new laptops, I wouldn't be switching from a Mac anytime soon.

Also, as mentioned, I've now really come to appreciate the lightness of my MacBook Air. Dell probably has similar lightweight laptops, but none were showcased that night. And I definitely will not be getting any insanely heavy Alienware laptops!

As for touchscreen desktops, I'll continue to treat them as a novelty. Steve Jobs was right -- humans are designed to touch surfaces in a downward motion, not straight ahead.

I stayed at the apartment till about 10pm. After the lucky draw at about 8:30pm, there was nothing much else going on. By 9:30pm, the models were off duty too. Everyone was just chatting and socializing. I don't know if there was much "revelry" or "entertainment", but as for me, it was time to leave.

I still wonder how Dell got the apartment though. It was definitely swanky! A pleasant place to be at for a person who would probably never be able to live in something like it.

Finally, few suggestion for XPR:
  • Please hire Asian models! We're in Singapore, not some Western colony! I dare say that the waitresses, in their maid uniform, were far cuter than the plastic-looking "Bernadette".
  • If your lucky draw is based solely on those who had dropped in namecards, please also allow for people without namecards to drop in a name label into the bowl. As I had not submitted a namecard, I lost interest in the lucky draw proceedings and went off to play with a computer instead.
  • Please reply when your invited guest responds to you. Don't leave them hanging, wondering if the email got through to you.
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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Launch of Windows Phone 7 in Singapore

Windows Phone 7
Microsoft unleashed its answer to Apple's smartphone leader, iPhone, with its Windows Phone 7 platform. This is supposedly a significant upgrade from the previous Windows Mobile platforms and represents Microsoft's last chance to catch up with Apple.

Thanks to the folks from WeberShandwick, I was invited to the Windows Phone 7 launch at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road. This event was a rather fancy shindig, attended by supposed luminaries in whatever industry they hail from. Sorry, you may be important people, but I certainly didn't recognize anyone. Though I met an old buddy there.

Doors were open at 7pm, but the event started at 8pm proper. After drinks and finger food, we were ushered into a darkened room and told to step within a lighted area. The show started with the MC welcoming us, then a few words of introduction from Microsoft Singapore's managing director, Jessica Tan.

This was followed by a brief introduction by Celeste Chong of Butter Factory and Loh Lik Peng of Hotel 1929 to talk about their apps in the Windows Phone Marketplace. No demos, unfortunately, so we had to imagine what their apps were like.

Matthew Hardman, Windows Client Business Group Lead, then came on stage to talk about a few key features of Windows Phone 7. Again, there was no real-time demo, not even a video, so the audience had to make do with the static images while Hardman rattled on. This was very disappointing, because Microsoft had a great big screen on stage, but failed to capitalize on it.

And then, the phones had their moment to shine as six models trotted out, posing with the phones from Dell, LG, HTC and Samsung. Someone should have taught the models to keep the phone screens on, because the phones didn't look picture-worthy with their black screens.

We were told to stand in the lighted box, because behind the black curtains surrounding us were the four exhibition areas: photos, gaming/entertainment, marketplace and office mobility (at a mock-up cafe). After the show was over, we were invited to experience Windows Phone 7's capabilities at these areas.

This turned out to be a letdown, from a first-hand experience point-of-view because... there was limited first-hand experience! Instead of having several phones available for the hundreds of attendees to play with, there were probably only about 15 in total in the room. And this included the few that were either already in the models' hands or handled by the Microsoft staff. I counted only four phones that were affixed to the exhibition areas for attendees to use. And, of course, these were hogged constantly.

So I had to settle for a verbal demonstration by Microsoft staff, as they played with the phones and showed us how easy it was to use. Yeah, I took their phones a few times to get my hands on them. But it felt quite pressuring to fiddle with a phone while someone constantly kept a close eye on me.

The few times that I did use one of the Windows Phone 7 phones, I had mixed feelings about the platform. The homescreen looked useful with its flashing tiles that let you know what's going on, e.g. friend updates on Facebook/Twitter, app updates, etc. Typing seemed easy enough, even though the touchscreen keys are smaller than the iPhone's, as did swiping/scrolling.

But the interface took a lot of getting used to. It wasn't something that I picked up intuitively. For example, the many small icons in the camera were for everything except taking a picture. I guess we're spoiled by the iPhone having its big shutter button on screen, so many times, I and my friend would accidentally find ourselves back at the homescreen or doing a Bing search.

That's another thing that irritated me. Each app had its small icon buttons at the bottom, even for common things like SMS and the contact list. But these icons somehow didn't look descriptive enough, nor were they easy to press due to their small size.

I was not the only one who thought that the Windows Phone 7 interface had a steep learning curve. Even a demo lady wearing a Microsoft polo T-shirt admitted to it! Haha, I appreciate such open honesty from those who've eaten their own dog food!

I was told that Windows Phone 7 will work with a Mac through an upcoming Zune Desktop Client. With the name "Zune" and memories of that failed Microsoft music player, I don't know if I have as much faith in it as I do with Apple's trusty iSync/Address Book/iCal combo.

I was also informed that, at least for the Dell phone, a full battery charge could last from about 7am to 10pm with constant web surfing, presumably with 3G or Wifi. That's not even a day's full use, quite like the iPhone.

As my old buddy had commented, Apple has nothing to worry from Windows Phone 7. The iPhone, with its iOS, is light years ahead, though the homescreen could be improved. Instead, Google should be the one shaking in its knees. Android still has a rather geeky interface, so ordinary folks would likely find issues with it. As he said, Android is like Linux -- it's powerful but would never work on a computer for laymen. But Windows Phone 7 looks sexy enough to challenge Android head-on, even in spite of its flaws.

Finally, a few suggestions for WeberShandwick:
  • Please provide a map in your invitation. Not everyone knows where the glitzy hotspots are. It doesn't help that GoThere didn't recognize "72-13 Theatre".
  • Stop giving out paper materials. Be environmentally friendly -- and practical! -- by putting your materials in a thumb drive. Not only can you also include high-resolution pictures (and thus saving us media folks from typing a complicated SkyDrive URL), but we can also re-use the thumbdrives for other personal purposes. And if you or your client brands the thumbdrives, hey, that's free advertising for you!
  • Provide better indication at the reception counter, so that we know which person we're supposed to register with. Or at least make sure the person whom we replied to is at the counter. If bloggers are considered as media, please let the bloggers know too.
  • Please hire Asian models. We're in Singapore, for chrissake! There are lots of gorgeous local girls who are not as plastic. In fact, I thought that the sole Asian model was the most natural and relaxed of the lot.
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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Apple TV - no longer a global player

Apple TV
Less than 24 hours ago, Steve Jobs introduced the new iteration of Apple's hobby, the Apple TV. At one-quarter the size of the original and jet black in colour, it is Apple's latest attempt to gain some traction in the living room the way it has with computing and mobile phones.

The Apple TV continues to do what it does best: play films and videos in high definition through a regular television set. As before, it gets its content from a connected computer, usually wirelessly. And you can still watch videos from YouTube or browse photographs through Flickr.

But I think Apple has taken a huge step back in taking the Apple TV global. Instead, this new version of Apple's media player is now focused on the U.S. market. The new Apple TV lets you stream TV shows from U.S. broadcasters, ABC and Fox. It lets you watch Netflix films, which is only available in the U.S.

Of course, the Apple TV has always been quite U.S.-centric, with its legal limitation of showing only movies and TV shows that you had purchased through the iTunes Store (though I suppose for non-U.S. iTunes Stores' purchases, you could also watch them on Apple TV).

But with this new version, Apple is further restricting its reach. And it has done it in a huge way by removing the hard disk drive. This is the first Apple TV to lack a hard disk drive. This is because the device is designed to stream videos either through the iTunes Store or via a connected computer. Nothing is stored in the Apple TV, so there's no need for an expansive data storage medium. (Of course, I'm sure there is some storage, probably as flash memory, to store things like the operating system and a buffer for streaming, but it probably measures in megabytes or the low gigabytes, with limited free space for "other" use.)

Many Apple TV end users have taken advantage of the hard disk to "hack" their beloved media players to support other file formats, or for other non-entertainment purposes. Outside of the U.S., hacking allows owners to transfer their non-U.S. videos into the Apple TV to watch on their television sets. This opens up a whole new opportunity to make fuller use of the grey box for TV entertainment. Not to mention for storing favourite films in the device, removing the need to stream from a switched-on computer.

Also, not only has Apple removed the hard disk, it has also changed the USB port to the mini USB version. That means thumb drives, which have been the primary delivery tool for the initial step in hacking the Apple TV, are negated from use with this new device. Again, limiting hacking ability means limiting playback options.

So, without a hard disk drive, without a standard USB port that thumb drives can use, these lead to a restriction on hacking ability. And the Apple TV is reduced to being what it was originally conceived to be: a dumb box that lets you playback U.S. films and TV shows (primarily).

I'm glad I have my big grey Apple TV. People still wonder why I have it. But it works great in playing my iTunes shows. And after hacking it, it also functions perfectly in playing all other kinds of videos. Plus the opening jingle is just... grand.

Which makes the Apple TV a lot more valuable to me as an entertainment device. As for the new Apple TV, with its U.S.-centric restriction? It means nothing to me. Absolutely nada. Zero value. And I suspect that I'm not the only non-U.S. Apple fan who feels that way too.

Related entries:

Sunday, July 04, 2010

HTML5 media tracking - proof-of-concept with Google Analytics

HTML5 introduces new video and audio tags to allow you to embed multimedia content in your website. These content -- collectively called "media" -- can be played natively within HTML5-compatible web browsers, i.e. without any plug-ins, like Flash. Apple has been making a lot of noise about HTML5's capabilities, and some folks are warming up to the idea.

If you're a marketer or just interested in knowing how well your website is being used, then you'd also want to know whether your website visitors are using your HTML5-based videos or audio files.

To achieve web analytics tracking for HTML5 media, I've written a script that, for now, sends tracking information to Google Analytics. Take a look at my HTML5 media tracking proof-of-concept here. While crude, it works well in showcasing my tracking code's capabilities.

I've tested my proof-of-concept in Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera on my Mac. All of these browsers send the tracking information successfully.

I'm currently working on fine-tuning the code and adding Omniture tracking as well. As with most of my programming work, this HTML5 media tracking is open source under the GNU Public Licence version 3, so anyone can use and modify it.

Try out my HTML5 media tracking proof-of-concept and let me know your comments about it!

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Review: MacBook Air

I've been the owner of a MacBook Air for about two months now. I originally got it because I was going on an overseas trip and wanted some computing power on the move without breaking my back. Also, because not long after that, I was presenting at BarCamp Singapore and, again, wanted a computer that wouldn't weigh me down.

After that, I had used it intermittently, until my main computer, iMac G5 "Onomatopoeia", died. Now, my as-yet-unnamed MacBook Air is my main computer, giving me a chance to really get to know it better. My MacBook Air uses the latest version of Mac OS X, version 10.6 "Snow Leopard". Since the software is no different from any other Mac's, I'll just talk about the hardware.

And what a glorious piece of hardware this is! As the name implies, this laptop is featherweight, compared to most other laptops or even netbooks. It is so light that I can balance it on one hand! Which actually comes in handy when I'm overworking the CPU and the bottom gets too hot to be placed comfortably on my lap.

Its ultra-slim aluminum casing looks and feels fragile, but it's also surprisingly sturdy. When opened, I can grip it at one corner to carry the whole device. That's actually quite good because it means that I can be as rough with it as a normal laptop, without worrying about damaging the shell. (Of course, I don't intend to be hard on it anyway!)

People talk about the iPad's incredible slimness. Through my MacBook Air, I can see where and how Apple perfected creating a lightweight but tough shell.

My MacBook Air is the 13" version, so the keyboard takes up half the space, with the palm rests and huge trackpad taking up the other half. That's more than enough space for comfortable typing. This being a laptop, though, I miss some of the extra keys found on a full-sized keyboard, like the number pad. I also miss having a mouse, though I'm getting used to the multi-tap gestures for the trackpad.

I don't use a mouse because I hold on to this principle: it's a laptop, it's meant to be portable, a mouse will just drag me down. Yes, maybe it's misguided, but that's how I think. And anyway, I don't have a Bluetooth-enabled mouse. Which means that if I wanted to use a mouse, I'd have to connect it to the lone USB port.

That's a major drawback of the MacBook Air. It only has one USB port. I now find myself having to mentally "schedule" which devices to connect when needed, especially external hard disks. It doesn't help that I also need to charge my phone and iPod nano through it.

And if I need to use an Ethernet cable for networking, yup, it connects via an Ethernet-USB adapter to the USB port. Fortunately, we live in a wireless world, which is what the MacBook Air was clearly designed for.

Another aspect that surprised me when I first opened the laptop was the frame around the screen. It's wider than I had expected, making the brightly-lit screen seem smaller than it should. I don't know if it's for the screen's protection or the need to accommodate the screen's electronics, but it was quite a letdown.

But overall, it's been a pleasure to use the MacBook Air. Its light weight is definitely a huge plus factor. If not for its crippled feature set, I would heartily recommend this to anyone who's looking for a laptop. Having said that, if you don't want to strain your back to carry a laptop, then the MacBook Air might be just what the chiropractor ordered.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Ode to my phone battery

This isn't an Apple-specific entry, but it would probably be all too familiar with iPhone users.

Sung to the tune of "Killing Me Softly" by... ah, pick your favourite R&B singer.

Playing a game on the small screen
Surfing the web with 3G
Killing my battery with phone apps
Killing it quickly
Depleting
Giving the power co.
My money
When I recharge my
Battery
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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hack your Apple TV 3.0.1

Apple TV
About half a year ago, I was forced to upgrade my Apple TV to version 2.4 because I had accidentally pressed the "Upgrade now" button. A week ago, history repeated itself, and I found myself being forced to upgrade to version 3.0.1 of Apple TV. I had resisted the urge for a long time because I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to hack this new version of the firmware, which would limit my TV watching enjoyment.

As it turned out, I didn't have to worry too much about it. Over at Mocca's "Techie Monster" tribe, I've provided my steps on how to "Hack your Apple TV 3.0.1". As luck would have it, I had nothing to fear, and now my Apple TV 3 is happily hacked, and so can yours!

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

January 27 is coming, is Apple ready?

Apple January 27 media event invitation
It's not easy being Apple these days. It's on top of the world in music with the iPod and mobile communications with its iPhone. Its Macintosh line of computers has been on a steady upswing.

And everyone's raving about a tablet computer that no one can confirm.

It's quite safe to say that Steve Jobs won't be able -- or allowed! -- to do anything wrong on January 27 during its media event, with the slogan "Come see our latest creation".

Over at Mocca's "Techie Monster" tribe, I jotted down some thoughts about Apple's huge task for the event on "January 27 is coming, is Apple ready?". I hope that Apple -- and its fans -- will be ready for whatever Steve Jobs unveils.

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