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Apr 26 2011   2:53AM GMT

Me & Apple – From a UK Perspective [Updated 27/05/2011]

Michelle Laverick Michelle Laverick Profile: Michelle Laverick

About a year ago I made the switch from being a WindowsPC guy to AppleGuy. It wasn’t a Road to Damascus conversion. I basically had enough free money to go all in with Apple, and I frankly I was bored with the Windows world, and just fancied the change. It was a bit like I was bored with wearing my staple black jeans and decided to wear chinos for change… Don’t consider myself a fanboy of any technology – and automatically distrust anyone who has that glazed look over their eyes like they have just come back from being lobotomized by religious cult…

Anyway, I want to share with my readership some of my experiences about using Apple Technology. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Perhaps your considering the “switch” (no its not as intrusive as the sex change, not that I can speak from personal experience), and I think you might appreciate a honest appraisal.

First let me start with a run-down of the Apple Kit I’ve got:

  1. 1xMBP 15inch, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard-drive
  2. 1x24in LED Cinema Screen
  3. 1xBluetooth Keyboard and “Magic” mouse
  4. 1xIPhone4
  5. 1x2GB IPOD Shuffle
  6. 1xIPAD2
  7. 1xAppleTV
  8. 2xApple Remote Control units
  9. More connectors & cables than I no what to do with!

I think I got pretty much everything they offer except I haven’t bought an iMAC.

Let start with the easy stuff – what’s good. I pretty much love the MBP. Occasionally, you have to use a Windows PC to remind yourself of this fact after about year of use because you forget what it was like before. For example I don’t miss the endless fan noise you get from most Windows laptops even when they doing bog all. With that said, I’m doing some CPU media encoding on the MBP as I type and its making a bit of noise.

One thing I would say is that I find the Apple “hourglass” (aka Circle of Death) hangs around on screen longer after a year, and boot up is noticeable longer after year. The cause of this unclear, but I think this is just that general – the longer you have something the more stuff you have accrue in the start-up options. A general audit of what’s in my start-up options might help, it’s just I’m too lazy to do so. A friend of mine used TimeMachine to clone his original disk to a disk with a SDD component which he swears by. I trust this chap a lot, but I’m feel reluctant to fork out the money for what is essentially more of an irritation than serious problem.

I’m currently on the Microsoft Orifice 2008 edition. I still wouldn’t be tempted by the Apple office suite or OpenOrifice – but I would say that MacOffice 2008 pretty much sucks – and as I speak once again as the sync between Entourage and iCAL and my other Apple devices (iphone/ipad) is broken. This isn’t the first time. The rumour is that Mac Orfice 2010 is much better – but they would say that wouldn’t they… I feel reluctant to folk out more money for office suite that still use the same way as I have done since Office 4.2. If I stick will Apple, I will do what I did when I was a Windows guy – leave upgrading to new versions until the laptop I have dies or is about to die…

The 24″ Cinema Screen is great. In fact I like it so much I’m considering getting another at cheaper 2nd price from Ebay, and setting it up with a multi-monitor device from CinemaDuo.

[Yes, that’s right I’ve got more money than common-sense which is a frequently the case with Apple users!].

One downside of the “Cinema” screen is that it cannot be plugged into the AppleTV. The AppleTV only supports a HDMI interface. Personally, I find this disappointing. AFAIK there’s no way of fixing that problem. Unless Apple bring yet another connector cable to add to my bundle of others!!!  That all quite bizzare especially since the LED Cinema Screen cost me more than an 40 inch Plasma TV….

The BlueTooth Keyboard and Magic Mouse are great too – although I did wince at the idea of £50 mouse! At the time I was sitting on a bit of windfall from selling my blog – so I thought I wouldn’t think about the money, and just spoil myself. One thing I would say about the mouse, is that it is surprising more battery hungry than the keyboard. To the degree that I invested in some cheapo AA battery recharger so I can rotate them when they become low. .One of my favourite past-times is spotting outrageously gouging accessories on Apple.com website, and chortling at the muppets who might by them. Like you really need a
Miniot iWood Walnut Case with Dock for your iPhone at £99. What hoot! And don’t get started on the D&G and Burberry branded gear….

The Iphone4 replaced an aging HP IPAQ Windows Mobile – at the time the IPAQ was state of the art – with on of the 1st touch screen, GPS, GRPS and Wifi receivers. The Iphone replaced all that functionality added 32GB of storage – and it was bought both to replace my old phone, but also to replace an IPOD I left on the plane last year. I really like the iPhone have no compliants, although I wish it had more storage capacity. As music lover its full to the brim with my music, and I’ve stopped sync’ing music videos to it for lack of space. My 160GB IPOD was never more than 40GB full. One day Apple might bring out a 64GB iPhone and I think that would make the device perfect for me.

The 2GB IPOD Shuffle was a birthday present, and it was bought for use at the gym. Before I lost my IPOD I was taking it to the gym, and I’m afraid it got dropped more than once. Fortunately, I was able to get it repaired, and then I left it on a plane. So the 2GB shuffle was more than enough to give me music for my work out, and is small enough & rebust enough for my daily trip to the sweat house…

So far so good. Then things started to go a bit wonky.

I recently bought an IPAD2, and lobed in the AppleTV as well. There’s a couple of usage cases for me having the IPAD. The main one is for “Sofa Browsing” when me and my partner want to casually surf the web when looking at holidays, or checking trivial questions whilst watching TV. I saves one of us having to crank up a laptop – and it was always me having to reach for the MBP because it comes up quicker, than my partners Windows7 laptop. For this purpose it serves very well, and whilst I was away in the US last week – my partner and step-daughter got a long just fine. My partner has recently discovered “Angry Birds” and that makes her happy too. It means I can lie in bed an watch the BBC iPlayer too. So despite the recent talk of BYOPC and how tablets are changing the business world – for me the IPAD is domestic/retail device – for the moment…

My other usage case was to use the IPAD to get watch media, via the AppleTV. That’s when things started to go a bit pear shaped. Firstly, the IPAD’s video support is pretty limited. Whilst you can get the BBC IPlayer on it – you cannot download to the iPAD TV shows from the Beeb whereas you can with the “Desktop” version. Having bought the 64GB IPAD, with 25GB of free space this is a limitation. It means I can’t as UK Citzen legitimately download TV shows at home, for watching when I’m on a plane.

Addionally, The BBC Iplayer app doesn’t have a button to show its screen to the AppleTV.

However, both the BBC New24 and CineXplayer applications have the button to send to AppleTV option. I wish this was consistent – for example why not have an Send to AppleTV option in Safari so I can browse the web through my TV…

Above: AppleTV option in CineXplayer (DivX client for the iPAD) – works very well, but I’ve found the AppleTV option a bit 50:50…

Below: AppleTV option is available both the iPAD/iPhone version of BBC New24. Sadly, the BBC Iplayer doesn’t have this option – so your back to using cables to connect the iPAD to the BigTelly. Also, the BBC New24 Application doesn’t work outside of the UK for video – but it does work fine for reading news stories…

If your looking for further inconsistencies in support. Its possible to get the BBC iPlayer on the iPhone. In contrast to the iPAD edition it does have the option to switch to the AppleTV.

Above: Screen grab from the BBC iPlayer on the iPhone…

UPDATE: Since writing this post things have got worse not better. I recently had an AppleTV update that appears to have broken this functionality. So the only video I can reliably get from the AppleTV is one that is the format native to the iPAD, and appears in the “movies” application.

That means if we want to watch iPlayer via the IPAD thru the TV you need either “VGA Connector” or “HDMI Connector” both of which each cost nearly £20. OUCH. [More about Apple connectors later…]. The other thing that’s worth mentioning is current 3G restriction surrounding the iPAD and the BBC iPlayer application. If your on a Apple MBP with a 3G dongle, you can browse the iPlayer on the BBC site with impunity, the connection is treated like any ordinary WiFi connection. However, on the iPAD the BBC iPlayer behaves differently. If your on 3G connection you won’t be able to view the iPlayer, until you connect to your domestic WiFi. This happens regardless of the fact that you might have paid for an all-you-can-eat bundle on the iPAD, or have masses of available downloads per month. I assume such restrictions are there to “protect” the consumer from going over the monthly data allowance and getting hammered by the 3G provider. Such restrictions make having a MiFi unit even more sensible… I wondering whether there is something about my 3G SIM from Orange which is causing these messages to appear – perhaps because it is a “pay-as-you-go” SIM which doesn’t qualify for this kind of usage.

It gets worse. There’s no Adobe Flash or Microsoft SilverLight support for the iPAD. If you on a fully blown MBP there are plug-ins for both of these video formats. Both ITV and SkyTV Player use these formats [UPDATE: Since writing this post Channel4 has released a 4OD Application for the IPAD] . So you cannot take advantage of any these “catch-up” services to watch video on-demand from your IPAD. There’s not whole lot of consistency from the BBC about this by the way – so for example – you can download and install a BBC News24 app for the iPhone/iPAD which allows you to watch their rolling news service free of charge. The App supports sending screen/audio to the AppleTV… but the BBC iPlayer does not support this feature. I’m sure the apps are probably managed by totally seperate business units in the Beeb, and I think the Beeb has a different “ethos” which separates its “public broadcast service” role from that of its other function of providing entertainment for the masses…

[The less said about SkyTV additional £6 for MobileTV ON TOP of you existing Sky Package the better – especially when BBC with FreeView delivers the same service as part of standard license fee].

So because of these limitations I think if your MAC user who wants to watch video via your TV. You better of with a MBP and cable OR MBP and AppleTV. With a MBP at least you get support for the video formats. This is what I was doing before I bought the IPAD2. For those who have the IPAD our best bet is simply waiting for the TV Channels (BBC, ITV, CH4, Sky) to eventually roll applications for the IPAD which offer greater functionality. It’s not so much criticism of the IPAD, so more the fact that support for the device isn’t as good as it should be. Steve Jobs wrote a very interesting open-letter explaining the lack of Flash support on apple.com. It’s great technical explanation, sadly its totally lost on my partner and step-daughter. What they see is £600 device that cannot play Flash videos or Silverlight. For IPAD users its a question of either waiting for Jobs to have second thoughts (that’s highly unlikely) or waiting for the IPAD to become so popular the TV people feel its is worth their while to support it fully…

From my own day-to-day usage I have found the lack of Flash support an irritation. That means I am forced to switch to another device simply to function. So for example – Google StreetView does not work on the IPAD, and neither does TalkShoe (which I use listen into the VMware Communities Podcast). To some respects its worth having terminal services box or virtual desktop enabled – merely to make these applications work. If you think about that – the lack of Flash support is making me use Windows on a Apple device. Think about that for second, Steve…

The AppleTV fairs even worse in this usage case.

Now, there is some nice functionality here. The ability to browse thru photos either on the MBP Library or iPhone is neat. And if you are watching some YouTube on the Iphone or iPAD you can quickly and effortless show it on the big screen without the need for mucking about with cables. But, apart from that its limited device in my opinion.

[Showing YouTube content on 40 inch plasma really shows up the degraded quality of most Youtube content..]

Firstly, its not really open to customization – so although there’s an “Internet” menu with presets for YouTube & Flicker, its not open to adding additional media outlets such as the BBC iPlayer. There is movies section where you can BUY on-demand movies – but I think they are pricey. For example it being Easter, my girlfriend fancied seeing “Easter Parade” with Judy Garland & Fred Astaire. The movie was £3.99 to watch. I think this is quite expensive, given that a regular store probably has it at that price on DVD.

Secondly, you can also share out your iTunes library on the MBP and via the AppleTV browse your photos, videos and music. This is quite nice, but it does mean leaving the MBP switched on, and on the network to do this. Part of me wishes the AppleTV had storage – and could synch its libraries to the MBP so the laptop could be “offline”. I’m investigating shifting my iTune library to a OMEGA NAS which is always on the network way of doing this – the added benefit being my iTunes would protected by the NAS inbuilt RAID. In short the AppleTV seems like a way of selling movies to people. It feels less like away of getting Apple devices on big screen which is what I understood it to be. It’s limited to small set of application that support remote display to the AppleTV. So for example even Apple’s own “Keynote” application (used to do PowerPoint presentations from the IPAD) doesn’t have an AppleTV to do this remotely to large TV screen…

So what kind of work arounds am I looking at. I’ve tried using MP4 videos – these import into iTunes, and then from the AppleTV playing them back that way. This works well, and quality is good. However, they come with two major downsides. They are big (2GB per movie depending on length) and they are often encoded in such format that they cannot be sync’d to the IPAD for play back in the bedroom or on a plane. Of course they could be re-encoded – but give the time to download, reencoded and sync’d the IPAD this seems excessively convoluted. Remember I’m supposed to be enjoying my media on any device, anywhere, at any time. I’m running test using Handbrake to covert an MP4 file to the format suitable of the IPAD. I think its been running for more than an hour….

Work seems to be working well at the moment is an application called CineXPlayer. It plays DIVX files on the iPAD and comes with the button to switch the IPAD to AppleTV. The nice thing is that DIVX files are much smaller than the MP4, there’s no need for conversion – and you can play back via the AppleTV. I’m sure there are other AVI/DIVX players for the iPhone & iPAD but this one seems pretty good, and has simple UI in iRunes to “import” them.

What would I like to see as an application that downloads DIVX/AVI files, and auto-magically imports them into iTumes, with a player that allows for AppleTV support. Then I would feel I would be getting more out of my AppleTV purchase than I am right now.

[Important Note: I’ve fond CineXPlayer to occasionally hang on switching to AppleTV. So its far from perfect. I’ve emailed them to find out if this an known issue OR its something to do with the file format…]

The other thing I would like to see is bolt ons to AppleTV to allow for BBC iPlayer, ITV, Channel4, SkyPlayer support. Perhaps Apple could negotiate region specific support for such bolt ons. Perhaps the TV folks want to choke this development off, as they see it as threat to their “core” business. All I see is there’s content I could consume legitimately, but the system doesn’t allow me to do so. I guess what I’m trying to construct is an InternetTV solutions which uses free content as much as possible. In my heart I would love to cancel my Sky+ subscription – but given the limits of the AppleTV I think I’m more likely to go to FreeSat or to competitor like Virgin (incidentally, Virgin’s media box allows viewing of BBC Iplayer thru your big telly unlike the Sky+ or SkyHD services).

So if I was starting all again with Apple what would I do… I would have probably bought everything but the iPAD. Instead of the 15″ MBP I would have probably bought the smaller 13″. I would use this work on planes/cattle-class, as well as catch-up TV using the iPlayers “desktop” edition. There would be Flash/SilverLight support on the 13″ MBP so I would have more freedom to view content when online.  I probably would have stuck with just VGA cable going to the TV from the MBP when we wanted to see something on the Big Screen.

So if like me you’ve been mugged, and bought an AppleTV. You have two choices – return it within the 16-day quibble free option, or hack it to get more functionality out of it. Just like the iPAD and iPhone, the AppleTV can be jailbroken – and heavily customized. I’ve been wary of jailbreaking Apple devices, but because the AppleTV is so limited – I think its more worthwhile. A good place to get started is here:http://www.appletvhacks.net/

The other thing to check out are some AppleTV/AirPlay enabled applications you get for the iPAD/iPhone that will allow you to get great value out of your AppleTV. Here’s some choice examples:

Web Browser for Apple TV – Something you should be able to do natively. Browse the web, and have it presented on the AppleTV, after GoogleTV does that. This is an iPhone application (not iPAD) so when used with the IPAD its blown up with the 2x resolution button. The application is fine, but I found my TV truncated the text the end of the screen – something that happens to ordinary TV programs on my telly. I think that’s to do with my widescreen settings

Air Video

This installs a small application to your iPAD/iPhone, and comes with media service application that installs to either Mac or Windows. Once installed to the PC/MAC you can share out folders of videos in many different formats. If the iPAD/iPhone cannot play them natively, it will convert them on the fly for you. I was able to put some .DIVX movies onto my home IOMEGA NAS, and then add this a folder on my MacBookPro – and then add the share to the iPAD using the application. This allows me to stream videos on my home Wifi network to the iPAD or iPhone. The application also comes with the option to show the movie on the AppleTV. I tested this application and found it to work reliably. It does take a short wait for the video to buffer up – but apart from that it did successfully send the video to the AppleTV. Of course, the downside of this – is that you do have to have the MBP/PC running for it to work. But this does save me having to connect the MBP/PC to the TV via cables, and I via my movie library from the comfort of the iPAD/iPhone – and if I wish send it to the AppleTV for viewing on the large screen. The other advantage is being able to keep the videos off the iPAD/MBP and have them stored on NAS device on the network. The application on the iPAD/iPhone also comes with the ability to stream videos through the internet (secured with the PIN), which offers the possibility of play back via WiFi at another location or from 3G connection. The application comes with settings to degrade the steaming quality based on bandwidth. All in all a VERY powerful application all for £2.99!

Above:  The core AirVideo application for the iPAD. Natively playing a .DIVX file of “Four Lions” (a black comedy about four bungling UK based Al Queda guys…). Application comes with the option to show on AppleTV. You might want a high quality file for HDMI TV I found .AVI files to be somewhat “grainy” on the big telly.

Below:
UI for the “AirVideo Server” on a MBP. Graphics show “tray icon” in the top bar of a MBP as well, as the core application itself.

 

FireCores ATV Flash – Allows you to watch all kinds of video formats via AppleTV. This sounds to be very like AirVideo. Its pricer and adds UI changes to the AppleTV itself which I believe means a jailbreak. That’s not the case with AirVideo which is application that doesn’t require a jailbreak. It looks like FireCores application requires a “server” component just like AirVideos does…

And Finally. The IPAD remote and Apple Connectors.

The IPAD remote is pretty cute device.

By accident I ended up with two of them. One I bought not realising that the second would come with the AppleTV. For what they are they pretty good. I can use the remote with the AppleTV and MBP. It doubles as media controller, but also can be used to drive PowerPoint presentations from the MBP. So if I carry on taking the MBP away with me for events, it might mean the end of me carrying widget to drive powerpoints. It’s slim design makes it less of burden. The downside is that it cannot control remotely the IPAD or iPhone because neither has IR receiver on them. That’s a bit of disappointment. It means you cannot plug your iPhone or IPAD directly to the TV using one of Apples many, many, many expensive connectors and remotely control it.

If you do have either an iPhone or IPAD would heartily recommend downloading the Apple Remote application – which allows you to control an MBP or AppleTV via your iPhone or IPAD. It makes the physical Apple Remote device more or less redundant. You might even ask why bother with the physical remote. Well, you get one free with AppleTV anyway – but the main reason might be that you don’t want you family needing access to the IPAD or iPhone just to remotely control the AppleTV.

Apple Connectors – phew there’s lot of them isn’t there?  I have 4 all together – of three different types.

  

I bought:

  • 2x Mini-DV Port VGA connectors for the MBP – one for home and one for the travel bag. An absolute essential if you doing PowerPoints on the road
  • 1x iPhone/IPAD connector to VGA – just to see what it was like. Works fine with the IPAD, couldn’t the iPhone to work with it at all…
  • 1x iPhone/IPAD connector to HDMI – just to see if the quality was good, and also as alternative to AppleTV.

That’s £40 in MBP to VGA connectors alone. Bear in mind that most Windows laptops have a built in VGA connector that ships as part of the purchase, and many Windows laptops now have a built-in HDMI connector.

There’s some complexity to explain here. Firstly, the IPAD>VGA connector seems to take up the full screen on my 40″ plasma. The IPAD>HDMI appears to give a much small window size. No amount of messing about with the TV settings or the IPAD seems to change this. If I watch a movie either natively or via CineXplayer – movies do go into full screen with the HDMI connector, but the main IPAD background screen remains much smaller and does not fill the screen. That means using the TV to browse the web is pretty much a waste of time… Beside which who wants to sit with an iPAD on the lap about 2 feet away from 42″ plasma? Not me!

Of course there’s no compatibility between these many and varied connectors each costing £20 a throw. So the MBP and IPAD/IPHONE each have their own style of connector. That’s understandable given the iPhone/IPAD slim-line profile. I guess what irks me is these connectors are pricey. If your the forgetful type like me – you might be tempted to buy more than one of them. One for home and one for you travel bag. As I don’t know if I will be taking the MBP or IPAD me on trips – that could mean having 4 VGA connectors – 2xVGA connectors for MBP/iPAD at home, and 2xVGA connection in my travel bag. Together with HDMI connector that failed to live up to my expectations…

Conclusions:

Over the next two weeks I’m going away on trip to the US. I’m going to leave the MBP at home, and work just with the IPAD. To see whether it can cut the mustard as laptop replacement. I’ve recently bought KeyNote for the IPAD and “imported” the PowerPoint’s that I will be using went I present at the Charlotte, NC Regional VMUG event.

I wouldn’t recommend AppleTV it simply lacks the functionality to make it a worth while purchase. I have one now – and I hope there are updates that extend its functionality. But if it stays where it is I wouldn’t be upgrading or replacing it. In fact its so limited I’m seriously considering jailbreaking the AppleTV to increase its functionality, and thus justifying the purchase. That’s something I’ve shyed away from with the iPAD and iPhone. I take it as mark of the limitations of technology that drives people into jailbreaking their devices…

If you think the IPAD will make a good media platform for viewing videos. Think again. It’s lack of media support and stringent encoding requirements limits your options. If you do buy one for this usage case – you will have to hope the TV vendors support will improve – and be careful what formats you download and synch with the IPAD in case they won’t open or play at all.

If you like Apple’s products I think you would be better of with a smaller 13″ MBP for use on the plane, and VGA connections for projectors and TVs – together with an audio connection for TV at home… You will just have to get off your fat lazy butt to browse your media on the laptop or buy £20 remote for the MBP.

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