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Apple news

1404 words

The past weeks came with quite a bunch of Apple news, particularly in terms of new hardware. A fun thing about today’s computing environment is that you (or at least I and, thus, I suppose, the average user) can pretty much stop worrying about performance. And yet machines are becoming faster and faster.

The Mac mini was finally revamped and brought up to date. While I fail to have use for it, just for its tiny size I think its a neat little machine and quite a powerful one at that. It’s a machine that has always been noticeable for its small size and reasonably low power usage. And it’s a machine that always has been very Apple in the way it wierdly compromised. Say in favour of a small footprint over having a fast 3,5 hard drive which could boost its performance considerably (a point that may become moot once solid state drives become cheap enough to give us performance with a small footprint).

Another compromise is the price. Which I always considered to be too high and which essentially feels like a penalty for people who only need a small computer. The price became even worse after this update, partly because of exchange rate fluctuations and partly because they raised it), which may make the machine even less attractive. The only amazing thing about the machine is that - completely un-Apple-like they did something user friendly and added a USB port as well as finding a reasonable compromise between their own unproven mini DisplayPort connector and the more standard DVI connector by letting the Mac mini have both and even allowing dual screen usage that way.

What I keep finding sad is that the Mac mini misses so many opportunities. Why not let allow people to have versions without the optical drive (as a tiny server) or even without the hard drive (as a client machine in a lab)?

The iMacs apparently saw updates as well, but they seem to be unremarkable ones for performance only that raised the price for the entry level model beyond the magic €1000 mark. Which may be considered a shame. The Mac Pro was also updated, and possibly unqualified comments I read on the internet suggest that those improvements are quite remarkable performance-wise. Of course this still means that a completely overpriced desktop computer in an age where performance matters less and less has become quite a bit better, but it still seems nice that such extra power becomes available to the few people who need it and the masses who believe they need it. Wonderful.

Apparently there were updated Airport base stations as well that do funky stuff like running two networks in different bands at once. As I always failed to see the point about those, it’s hard to comment on that. My take is that Apple should focus mainly on compatibility with existing standards and only venture further once they got that sorted. Ah well.

There is also the 3rd geneation iPod shuffle. It looks very neat. And in the world of MBAs and advertising people it probably takes brass balls to sell a product which doesn’t even have a name printed on it and whose front is completely blank. That’s a nice minimal idea.

Which I also think is wrong as it violates the surprisingly good motto of ‘form follows function’. Here we lose function because Apple wanted a product that looks clean. The lack of buttons on the device means that you can’t even skip a song or change the volume unless you are using Apple’s special headphones.

This may be OK for gadget lovers who only buy an iPod to wear it on the outside of their clothes with the trademark white headphone wires clearly visible and who are happy to blow €75 on a toy that lets them present themselves like that. However, it sadly removes the iPod shuffle from the class of devices that can be considered music players and which you can hook up to the headphones that you enjoy wearing and listening to, that you can easily hook up to your stereo and that you can charge on a standard connector. All these points would be necessities in a great design. But Apple consider them superfluous. So it’s just a bit of bling.

Sad. Particularly because the whole iPod enterprise started by actually being non-bling and innovative.

And to me the big ‘Why’ appears to be the following: If Apple master the miniturisation of an MP3 player so well by now that they can shrink the electronics to such a small package and weight, why didn’t they use this to actually improve the whole music player concept? If they want to dongle the headphones with the player in a way like the new iPod shuffle does, why didn’t they just build them as a single part? At these sizes it seems feasible to just have a wire around your neck which contains the battery and electronics back there. One would even excuse the complete lack of a standard headphone connector or socket in such a device (and just expect a standard micro-USB socket for charging). That may be a tradeoff because it’s a self-contained device (like an iMac) but it’d come with so many advantages that it’d seem ‘worth it’.

The other interesting aspect about the new iPod shuffle is its Voice Over support. While I am not entirely convinced that it will improve the device that much in practice (in fact so many people seem to only listen in shuffle mode these days and not care at all about thinking about the music they listen to) it neatly implements an idea that I had a while ago (which thus must be great) of pre-rendering text to speech on the machine and copying the audio files to the iPod to be played back there for ‘fake’ speaking.

An interesting upside of this is that Apple now claim to be able to do text to speech in many different languages. A feature that Mac OS X lacks until this day despite its claims of being localised for more than a dozen of languages. Currently iTunes seems to download the relevant software only for users of 3rd generation iPod shuffles, but one hopes that this more comprehensive text-to-speech support makes it into the OS soon.

Finally iPhone OS 3 was introduced. Announcing things like finally adding copy and paste, note synchronisation as well as confirming the suspicion that the current iPod touch’s include Bluetooth sounds good to me. I suspect that making e-commerce options available throughout the OS will lead to more moronicity than good, as these things are prone to do; And that it may still be ‘too little’ in terms of multitasking and smooth interaction. At least my impression when using the iPod touch is that I always loathe having to switch applications because getting there invariably requires several steps and a wait while they are launching.

This still makes the iPod touch (and iPhone) a nice music player/phone with a web browser, but I remain unconvinced that the device is strong enough to do much more unless it integrates things more smoothly. [Insert anecdote about System 6 and Desk Accessories here…]

As usual, a new iPod meant an iTunes update as well, to version 8.1 this time. Probably there are some major new features in iTunes to support the new iPod shuffle’s voice menu features. And allegedly the speed of the application improved as well (hard to tell, it doesn’t feel particularly fast here and can still do with a revamp of its database and other features such as shared libraries which can be painfully slow to load over a wireless network).

They also improved the application by renaming ‘Party Shuffle’ to ‘iTunes DJ’ and adding an option to the iPod iTunes Remote that lets anybody request titles from the iTunes DJ. It’s a feature that strikes you as a very neat/cool/fun one at once. But a second thought makes you cringe at the thought of attending a party where such a DJing iTunes is set up and enough people carry iPhones to actually use it…

As usual they also improved their localisations of iTunes. Apparently doing things like replacing a Genitive Datei gleichen names with the somewhat dumber Datei mit gleichem Namen is the thing to do for iTunes’ audience these days.

March 20, 2009, 17:08

Tagged as apple, iphone, itunes, mac.

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