Last week in San Fransisco Apple held it’s annual ?¬?bergeekfest, the Macworld Conference and Expo. Macheads slobber and salivate for months leading up to this show, speculating about what new geeky goodness Steve Jobs will announce is about to hit the market (and consumer wallets) that year. Third party vendors who make Mac compatible hardware and software products also show off their newest innovations at the expo. Usually there is a dearth of new toys and gadgets, many of which are super high on the “tech envy” meter.
That’s all fine and well, but how many of these new toys are ready for the real world… that being the one outside the techie, geek and ‘early adopter’ realm? After reading up on what was the hottest buzz in the show last week, here are some of the new toys either already here or coming soon that might or might not be on my shortlist… and why:
The Macbook Air
This super-light, super-slim notebook computer was the worst kept secret of the show. Everyone knew it was coming, but Apple still had some surprises despite the spoilers. It is unbelievably thin and light, comes with either a traditional hard drive or a flash-based drive, has a flip open port with USB and mini-DVI monitor connectors and a full iSight camera. No DVD drive, but Apple has a slim add on for $99, or you can use special software to commandeer the DVD drive of a willing computer nearby over a wifi network. Using this wifi drive sharing, you can load software onto the Macbook Air just like it was connected to the notebook albeit limited to the speed of the wifi connection.
I guess I can understand the appeal of having such a thin, light notebook if you are a traveling businessman needing to do writing, e-mail, spreadsheets, internet and other basic computer work when on the road. Personally a few extra pounds in my shoulder bag is worth having an uncompromised, full service notebook like a MacBook Pro on hand. This notebook offers nothing you cannot already get for less money via a standard Macbook… ifn fact other than the light weight and thin form factor, the Macbook Air offers less in terms of flexibility, hard drive size and computing power than a MacBook. If your shoulder can’t handle a bag with a 7 lb notebook in it, then get up off your ass from in front of your monitor and go to the gym once or twice a week.
The appeal here is simply the portability and nothing else. If I spent ages on airplanes flying coach and didn’t need desktop level computing power and features, I would consider one as it is a little tight with a regular notebook (especially my monster 17″ Macbook Pro) in those seats… particularly when the passenger in the seat in front of you jams his seat back as far as possible from takeoff to touchdown, which for me is every single *$#@& time. Weirdly, the Macbook Air does one major disservice to the very road warriors it is catering to… it does not have a user replaceable battery. You can get the battery replaced via an Apple service center, but that means you cannot bring a second battery along on the really long roadtrips where AC access is limited.
This definitely is not for me.
Apple TV 2.0 and iTunes Movie Rentals
I blogged sometime back about the woefully deficient Apple TV, and why it was a rare poorly conceived product from Apple. In a nutshell, the inability to buy and download content directly from the Apple TV (you had to do that on your computer in iTunes and then go back to your couch to watch), no HDTV content and no ability to rent movies made it completely unattractive to me.
Apple apparently has learned from it’s mistakes and has released an updated Apple TV in conjunction with a revamped iTunes Store that fixes all the above issues.
First, you no longer need a computer with iTunes as your “server” for content purchasing and download. All you need is an internet connection either via wifi or ethernet to connect directly to Apple TV’s version of iTunes Store. Right from your couch, you can buy and download movies, TV show episodes, etc. and watch them as they download so there is only a little delay in starting (how much depends on your internet connection speed). The interface with the iTunes store is just like Apple’s “Front Row” software, so it is easy to navigate.
The ability to stand alone as a rental/content supplier is a major step in the right direction, but Apple also revamped the model for their iTunes store at the same time to address some of the other deficiencies. You now have the ability to rent a movie rather than having to buy it. Prices are still a little high at $3.99 for a recent release and $2.99 for a ‘library’ title, but that’s a lot better than paying $12.99 or $9.99 to “buy” the movie when you only really want to watch it once. You can also rent movies to watch on your iPhone and iPod Touch (sorry iPod video or classic users, you are SOL). This is a welcome change for iTunes, and I for one will be more likely to rent movies from iTunes when I’m going on a long plane flight for my iPhone, for example. Getting back to Apple TV, this is a good fit as a model for on demand content. However I am not too happy with the limitations placed on the renter of the content. For one, you have 30 days in which to watch the movie. I’m fine with that one. The part I don’t like is that once you begin watching the film, you only have 24 hours to watch it before it disappears from your content menu. You can watch it over and over if you want within those 24 hours, but once the 24 hours from the moment you start it is reached, you are no longer able to view it. That means if you start a movie on the plane and stop it when you are landing, you’d better find time to watch the rest in the next 24 hours or are out of luck. It would be smarter to just give you 30 days to watch is a much as you want, just like renting a DVD, or at least allow you to watch it once all the way through before it is unaccessible regardless if 24 hours has passed.
Finally, Apple is providing the option to choose a high definition version of a movie to download for an extra $1.00 for rental. Audio also can be as high as 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. Download speeds are going to be a big factor with this, considering a typical hi def movie is 15 to 20 GB in size. Considering Apple TV requires a hi def HDMI enabled TV to even work, it only makes sense they provide some HD content to go along with it. Download speeds are still too slow for most people to make hi def content a realistic option, but for those with a 7mbs DSL or cable connection it is usable.
The best part for early Apple TV owners is that all these features are part of a free software upgrade. No need to buy a new unit. At $229, it’s a reasonably priced movie and TV show rental machine. I am seriously considering getting one.
One of the surprises at Macworld was the introduction of a new Airport Extreme wifi router/base station with a built in hard drive called “Time Capsule“. Supporting the new wireless-N format, which boasts much faster speeds and a wider range that wireless-G, Time Capsule’s hard drive provides a wireless place for Leopard’s Time Machine backup program to use as it’s backup place one or multiple computers on your home network. You can also use the hard drive as a simple file server for common files to be stored and used across the network. It comes in a 500 GB and 1 TB capacity. This is a nice idea… Leopard automatically recognizes Time Capsule as a Time Machine drive and asks if you want to use it as such when you join the network. Multiple computers can use it automatically, as they just create their own Time Machine folder… however space will get filled up fast that way and how far back your Time Machine goes will depend a lot on now many computers use it.
I recently switched our home to an Airport Extreme network using Wireless-N and a two base station configuration where the main base station is in my studio with the DSL modem and my Mac hard wired into it, and the second base station as a range expander in the family room. This worked great, as not only are all the kid’s new iMacs sharing our DSL connection via wifi at wireless-N speeds, but our XBox 360, Wii and HD DVD player are hard wired to the Airport extreme via ethernet and also work on the new network.
I’d have considered Time Capsule had it been available at the time I update the network, but right now I have no need for it.
iPhone Update 1.1.3
Also announced and already implemented is a significant update for the iPhone and for the iPod touch that adds features and functionality to both.
On the iPhone side, there are several useful and cool features that are quite welcome.
The Maps program has become even more useful with some enhancements to it’s interface and the addition of a virtual GPS feature. The latter is something Maps was sorely missing, lmiting it’s usefulness on the fly when you had to know the exact address or location you were at in order to get directions to someplace else. Now the iPhone uses nearby cell towers and wifi hotspots that Google and Apple mapped out throughout the US to approximate your location within a mile or so. Very handy. You can use the new “pin drop” feature to drop a virtual pin in the map area an move it about to get your exact location as a start point for directions to wherever you are going. There is also now a map/satellite hybrid view that shows a satellite picture with street names superimposed on them.
Also new is the ability to rearrange your home screen icons, and create your own “web clip” icons that act as direct shortcuts to websites you frequent right from the home screen. That is useful if you often go to the web on your iPhone to check information, news, etc for whatever reason. I was disappointed to find that you cannot create a similar shortcut to a contact via e-mail or telephone. How easy would it be for Apple to allow you to create a one touch icon on the home page for calling someone or starting an e-mail to them? That seems to me the most basic of cell phone functionality.
SMS text messaging has also been enhanced with the ability to send the same message to multiple recipients and the ability to save SMS conversations.
Finally, the update allows you to watch rented movies on the iPhone as well as manually control content via drag and drop in iTunes just like you can with the iPod. The update is free and already available.
On the iPod Touch side, an available update adds some iPhone-like features like Mail, Stocks, Notes, and Weather, most of which only work when connected to a wifi network. the rub? It’ll cost you $20 for the software upgrade. Huh???
Okay, so this was actually a “Best of Show” in 2007, but the final version of Axiotron’s Modbook just started shipping this month, and it was on display at Macworld.
Basically this is a 13.3″ Macbook with the keyboard and screen removed, and a Cintiq-like screen using Wacom technology added. All the ports, functions and full OS X of the MacBook is still there, but with a tablet screen. Available in various configurations as far as ram, drive size and processor power, they start at $2290. The screen is a real Cintiq but only 512 levels of pressure sensitivity rather than the 1024 the true Cintiq boasts. No word on if it has tilt sensitivity or if a Cintiq pen works on it rather than the skinny Intuos style pen.
The new Cintiq 12x is supposed to be Wacom’s answer to portable Cintiq use, but it’s portability is questionable. It has a thick, heavy cable using both a USB and DVI port on the computer, and has a brick for a power supply making it impossible to use easily anywhere but in a place you can spread out and have some room. Use on the road or in a plane is nearly impossible.
This Modbook, however, operates on battery power or AC and is totally self contained. It even has a larger screen at 13.3″ as opposed to 12″. It’s twice the price of a Cintiq 12x, but it’s also it’s own computer, making it a cheaper alternative if you are in the market for a laptop as well. No keyboard is a pain, but there is a virtual keyboard you can use onscreen, and of course you can use either a USB or bluetooth keyboard and/or mouse. Even so, that definitely makes it harder to use as a main laptop, so there is a trade off. You also lose the handy Cintiq side buttons for shortcuts… then there is the lower pressure sensitivity. There are some fun features, though… they have a built in GPS so you can use it for navigation, and with a full DVD drive it makes or a great large sized DVD player when traveling.
I’d love to be able to test drive one of these. I think it might be just the thing for easy, portable Cintiq functionality. Maybe I’ll get a chance sometime soon.
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