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Apple Updates

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Today was a bit of Apple showtime, which presented new iMacs with new keyboards, updated Mac minis and new iApps along with .mac announcement. Quite a lot of change in fact. Though nothing hell-freezingly spectacular.

iMac

As much as Apple’s PR engine rambles about new materials and how aluminium and glass are great, the iMac update mainly looks like a careful next step in developing the machine further. It’s nice (in a somewhat irrelevant way) that it can be a bit thinner now. And a small speed bump here or FireWire 800 port there may be welcome additions for some. Although I doubt that any of these are really important. How many people will really notice the difference?

The big difference is of course the design change. Making the machine look more ‘professional’ by having more metal and shinyness on it. I definitely know people who’ll appreciate the metal look. And I quite like how they made the bottom of the screen’s frame rounded. Yet, I find this a rather straightforward and risk-less update as it’s quite agreeable and middle of the road. If Dell hat a tiny bit of taste, they’d do the same.

And while Apple subtly hints that aluminium and glass can be easily recycled, thus hoping for more green karma, I’d prefer waiting for an analysis by people with no interest in Apple’s financial well-doing to see whether this presents a real ecological advantage over the previous model. I am curious to see how much standby power this version of the iMac uses. Previous models are said to be quite piggish in their energy consumption even when turned off.

Personally I quite liked the white design (particularly in its original more angular incarnation) because it was so light and clean. It also made the machine stand out. The new one is more common in that respect.

Final point: Judging from Apple’s photos, the DVD drive is at the very back of the machine. I suspect that will make inserting a disc without seeing the slot feel unnecessarily uncomfortable.

Mac mini

I don’t particularly care for the Mac mini and I never thought they were a particularly good deal. Especially since the Intel price bump they saw. But having their innards in a current state probably is a good thing for the people who have use for the mini.

Keyboard

It had been rumoured for a while that Apple will introduce a new keyboard. I had dismissed those photos because the thing looked quite ugly. But the rumours were true after all. And from what I could see on Apple’s web site, the keyboard isn’t particularly impressive. It’s quite thin, all right. But what’s the point of that after showing off for a few seconds? Particularly if that thinnish look doesn’t really go with the look of the computer it’s attached to?

And judging from the photos on Apple’s site, a number of other things are strange/surprising/idiotic about the keyboard as well. The Option key seems to have lost its symbol. Having the word ‘option’ spelled out may be handy for phone-call support (although my mum could deal just fine with looking for the key that says ‘alt’ so far) but I wonder how it will be recognised as the key corresponding to keyboard equivalents that are listed with menu items. The same issue for keyboard equivalents holds for the shift key. And I guess to a lesser extent for a tab/delete/return/enter.

Likewise, the Command key lost its Apple symbol. Indeed – brave new world! – the keyboard seems to be an Apple device on which you will not see an Apple logo during normal usage. This is less critical than the Option key change but people will have to adjust.

First photos suggest that the actual look of the keyboards may vary from what is seen on Apple’s web site, depending on the keyboard’s localisation, weather conditions and whatnot.

The keyboard also features laptop style F1-F2000 keys above the actual keyboard. A number of them have extra symbols printed on them. For adjusting the volume, the screen brightness, controlling music or activating the Dashboard. And, frankly, I think not only are certain of these icons rather ugly but their placement is just silly. Shouldn’t Apple try to match the placement they have on their laptop or other external keyboards? If only to avoid confusion of long-term users or people who use an external keyboard with their laptop at home? Obviously Apple thought otherwise.

And they thought so much otherwise that they put the symbols for sound adjustment on the F7 through F12 keys. Thus giving you the benefit of completely unused F13 through F19 keys which I’m sure some emacs user will appreciate. And also making it much harder to blindly hit the key for ejecting a CD on the external keyboard. Whoever designed this must have tried to give people the worst of both worlds.

Other silly things: the symbol on the delete key just is too dark. There is a fn key now, presumably, to switch the behaviour of the F-keys between their special functions and normal F-key behaviour. How having such a modifier key in the position of the Help key can be considered as usable will most likely remain a mystery.

But the bottom line is different I guess. If you have a keyboard that kicks ass because it feels good and lets you type more quickly and with less errors, it’s pretty much irrelevant what the thing looks like. It’s not like there were eyes on your fingertips. But how likely will it be that such an ultra thin keyboard will actually have an extraordinarily good ‘touch’? Unlikely I think. And from my experience with the MacBook keyboard, the little bars between the keys make it unnecessarily hard to press two adjacent modifier keys with a single finger and thus wouldn’t be a feature you expect on a great keyboard.

In short, Apple had two great ideas for keyboards so far: Keyboards that are actually small (like those which they shipped until the mid 1990s or possibly the first iMac keyboard). While these didn’t have the greatest touch, they didn’t take up a lot of space and were very lap compatible. The other great thing was of course the legendary Extended . It may have been the size and weight of an aircraft carrier, but it had an excellent touch to it and was a joy to type (I’m still hoping to snipe a USB-to-ADB adaptor to use one :). The new keyboard looks like it will excel neither in being small and handy nor that it will have a great touch.

Final point: I think the different radii of the keyboard’s rounded corners and those of the keycaps really look like ass when seen next to each other at the escape key for example.

iLife

The long overdue iLife update was announced as well. It sounds like they put a lot of work into iMovie which may be nice. But which – with a single film ever made – I could care more about. In addition iPhoto has gotten significant revisions as well. And those sound quite good. Real world tests will show whether these improvements will actually kick iPhoto from its sluggish memory hog throne in practice. But at least it looks like an effort has been made to streamline iPhoto usage.

iPhoto will sort photos by the occasion they were taken at. And it looks like it’ll probably make a reasonable guess at first but still let you change things if necessary. That’s good. And having collections like that rather than the fully blown photo library with its thousands of thumbnails hopefully helps to keep iPhoto’s memory usage in more reasonable regions.

I also think the photo publishing options look quite good on the web site. But I presume this programming effort can be used by .mac users only and will not be available for publishing to your own site.

.mac

I’m not a big fan of Apple’s .mac service. For two reasons. The first is that it’s just not a very compelling offer. Paying a hundred monetary units per year for a tiny bit of storage space along with a so-so e-mail service and a few more gimmicks isn’t exactly a good deal. But that’s not really a problem if you don’t buy the service. The bigger problem is Apple’s tendency to litter their operating system and applications with .mac stuff.

You buy iLife and you’ll get a fair share of features which can only be (comfortably) used if you also happen to pay for the .mac service every year. And the same is true for Mac OS X which will not even let you sync the address books of two of your computers which stand next to each other unless you pay for Apple’s service. I.e. Apple specifically leaves features out of their software just to make .mac look attractive.

It looks like Apple at least make an effort to update the storage capacity and bandwidth allotment on the .mac service for subscribers now. Which makes things a bit more attractive and may even make .mac a reasonable deal if you actually use all the storage and bandwidth. Without the usual web server toys like scripts, databases, .htaccess files or your own domain names, I doubt that .mac will ever become a real option for people who already have their own site.

So while .mac may just have become a bit better, it’s still crap. I want the features which are artificially exlusive for .mac pay-tards to be available for me as well without having to pay another yearly Apple tax. Having to buy a new computer every year to stay within warranty is expensive enough…

iWork

And finally iWork will be updated as well. Not that I have actually used its applications so far, because I don’t exactly need them. Sure, Keynote looks neat. And Pages may be a reasonable compromise for those cases where TEX won’t do the trick and a ‘pro’ layout application would be overkill. But what I really missed so far was a spreadsheet. For that reason I am using AppleWorks to this day for the few spreadsheet computations I need to do. And that works reasonably well.

With iWork finally gaining its spreadsheet application Numbers, the package looks much more interesting to me. But, coming to think about it, AppleWorks still does the job just fine. It’s just looking a bit old. Like you would expect an early 1990s piece of software that has been submitted to a questionable redesign and Carbonisation to look.

Tricky situation! I guess I’ll wait what people say about Numbers first (and by that I mean people who actually use it rather than those writing for magazines) and decide then. The description and demos Apple give on their site focus so extremely on the glossy bits, ‘smartness’, questionable ‘templates’ and diagrams with wooden textures that I’m put off a bit and started to doubt that the application will actually be good enough…

August 8, 2007, 0:09

Tagged as hardware, software.

Comments

Comment by Carl: User icon

Keyboards vary a lot between countries. The old UK keyboard showed a symbol for alt/option, but the US one wrote out “alt option.” On the whole, I don’t mind the new function key uses, but I actually sort of wish that Apple would just take the “F#” labels off them all, declare that the keys are only to be used non-modal system state changes, and be done with it. It’s quite clear that Jobs hates the F-keys, and so has banned their use in applications. They should just go ahead and go all out on that front by stripping them of any other labels but the particular icon set of the moment.

August 12, 2007, 6:25

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