Thursday, September 30, 2010

iOS Remote 2.0 - App Review

A few days ago, Apple refreshed its iOS Remote app in the App Store adding some new features that many people have been waiting for for quite some time.  These features include:

  • Support for the iPad.  After nearly 6 months since the iPad was released, the Remote app finally takes advantage of the iPad's large screen to display more information and content.
  • Support for the iPhone 4/iPod touch Retina display
  • Support for the New Apple TV
  • Support for Home Sharing (an iTunes feature that was released in iTunes 9)
  • Bug fixes (not sure what these are as I've never experienced any bugs with this app)
The release of the updated Remote app coincides with the shipping of the new generation Apple TV, which started yesterday.

What's the iOS Remote 2.0 App?
The Remote App is a must-have free app for anyone who has an iTunes library or an Apple TV.  The app allows you to control the music on your iTunes library or Apple TV from anywhere inside your house using your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad.  You can play music by selecting Artists, Playlists, or specific songs.  On your Apple TV, you can do that or play videos or TV shows or use as a gestures-based remote to the Apple TV over Wi-Fi (no list of sight required as with the infrared remote control).  You can also control the volume on on various devices separately (for more information on how to do all of this, see High-End Multi-Room Music Without the High-End Prices).

iPad Support
The new release of the Remote takes advantage of the iPad's large screen format to display additional information about the content of the media libraries the Remote is connecting to such as an iTunes library or an Apple TV.  As you can see from the screen shot below, the iPad's screen size has been put to good use.

Retina Display Support
The new Remote app has also been enhanced to look better on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch by using high resolution graphics in the application as well as using higher resolution cover art pictures, when available.

Home Sharing
Home Sharing was a highly touted feature in the iTunes 9 release.  Although I think the feature could've used some new enhancements in releases since then, it really has not changed much over the last year.  Support in the latest release of Remote makes it easier to access the libraries shared on the network with Home Sharing, but I don't believe it's worth much.

Additional New Features
Apple's release notes, as usual, lack any details about new enhancements or bug fixes.  However, it's very easy to notice that a few additional enhancements/changes took place with the upgrade to version 2.0:

New Icon
Obviously, not a huge deal, but the app's new icon has been updated slightly and resembles the new iTunes 10 icon.

Ability to Add/Edit Playlists
You can now add new playlists and edit existing playlists.  It's very easy to add a playlist to a remote library.  You simply click Playlists icon and select the New button on top to add a new playlist or Edit to edit existing playlists.

Note: It doesn't appear that you can manage on the Apple TV (1st Gen). This partially makes sense as the playlists you would be editing are synchronized with another iTunes library. If you need to add a playlist or edit an existing one, you can do so on the iTunes library that synchronizes with the Apple TV.

Genius Mixes
The Genius button on the bottom menu has been moved by default to the More icon and it now sports a new icon as well.  If it's a button that you use frequently, you can move it to the bottom menu by clicking the More icon and clicking the Edit button on the top right corner.  From there, you can drag the Genius icon to the bottom menu and it will automatically replace another icon (e.g. Search).

Overall, I'm pleased that Apple has finally updated the Remote app.  Better late than never.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Apple TV 1st Generation Price Drop on Amazon

For those of you who are still interested in getting an Apple TV with a built-in hard disk, Amazon is offering it NEW for $149.  That's a darn good deal considering that Apple was selling it for $229 immediately before they released the diskless version.

Why would you want to buy a 1st generation Apple TV for $149 instead of buying the 2nd generation for $99?  The answer is in the built-in storage.  The biggest difference between the 1st and 2nd gen models is that the 2nd gen model does not include storage (presumably, there's a small amount of storage, but you can't sync your music, pictures, or movies to it). 

As I'm waiting to receive my latest Apple TVs, I don't have any plans to get rid of my 1st gen Apple TV as it's a great "on the go" device.  We have all of our music (60GB), all the kids movies and shows (90GB), and some pictures (~10GB) sync'ed to it and can take it on the road without the need for an Internet connection or another device.  The new Apple TVs will not be as useful on the go.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Apple's High Dynamic Range (HDR) Is Promising (But Disappoints for Now)

High Dynamic Range (HDR) photos are created by combining 3 photos with different exposures to create an image with great intensity.  When this works well, the resulting photos display much more details than any of the single photos.  This process used to require sophisticated and expensive software, but with the release of iOS 4.1, Apple made this available to any iPhone 4 or iPod touch 4th gen user.  Just by taking any picture using an iPhone 4 or iPod touch 4th gen, iOS records the 3 photos with different exposures and creates the HDR photo automatically.  The user does not have to do a thing.  There's an option to "Keep Normal Photo" that can be turned on so you can have a photo created using the HDR process and a photo that uses the normal exposure (just as it would have been taken prior to upgrading to iOS 4.1).

Apple's implementation of High Dynamic Range (HDR) that was released with iOS 4.1 and currently works on the iPhone 4 is very exciting and has great promise.  However, the current implementation does not work well in all situations and for all pictures so you'd better make sure that you keep the original photo alongside the HDR photo, just in case the HDR version is useless.

On a trip earlier this week, I took about 80 pictures with my iPhone 4 with the "Keep Normal Photo" setting turned on so I can compare the normal exposure images with their HDR counterparts.   Of the 80 photos I took, about 60 photos turned out great and HDR performed as expected, creating amazing photos.  Overexposed or underexposed areas in the Normal photos showed well in the HDR versions. As you can see from Photo #1 below, the HDR version shows the background in great details where that background is completely washed out in the Normal version of the photo.

Photo#1: Normal Version

Photo #1: HDR Version

Where HDR fell short, it completely ruined the pictures and had I not had the "Keep Normal Photo" setting turned on, I would've lost those pictures altogether.  As you can see in Photo #2 below, the Normal looks decent, but the HDR version is blurry and the little girl's nose and eyes are shifted around.  Although the child may have moved a bit, that's no excuse for completely ruining the photo.

Photo #2: Normal Version

Photo #2: HDR Version

Here's another example where HDR ruined another photo.  Notice the children's shirts and head as they appear blurry under the HDR version, but perfectly fine with the Normal photo.

Photo #3: Normal Version

Photo #3: HDR Version

Bottom Line:  HDR is great, but might fall short with certain photos so make sure that the "Keep Normal Photo" setting is turned on so you can compare for yourself and decide whether to keep the enhanced HDR photo or the original Normal image for each of your photos.  To turn on this setting, go to Settings, Photos, and ensure that "Keep Normal Photo" is turned on.  Hopefully, Apple will fix this soon.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

iTunes AirPlay's Promise

One of the most intriguing and exciting new technologies that was introduced during Apple's media event last week is called AirPlay.  In a nutshell, AirPlay allows you to share your music, videos, and photos across multiple devices over Ethernet or Wi-Fi.

If you are familiar with AirPlay's predecessor, AirTunes, you'll you're probably very familiar with the concept (see High-End Multi-Room Music Without the High-End Prices).  With AirTunes, you had the ability to broadcast music that played on your iTunes library or your Apple TV to other speakers that were connected using Apple's AirPort Express.  AirPlay takes that to a whole new level. by supporting the transmission of additional data (e.g. information about the song playing such as the name of the song, artist, and album cover), video, and photos.  With the release of iOS 4.2, this will enable all of Apple's portable devices to stream such media directly to any AirPlay-enabled device, including the Apple TV.

A few of the exciting scenarios that are possible:

  • Music in every room.   Apple's AirPlay page already shows Denon, iHome, JBL, Bowers and Wilkins, and Marantz as AirPlay partners.  What this essentially means is that all these partners plan to have AirPlay-enabled devices from stand-alone speakers to high-end receivers.  iHome already announced an AirPlay speaker that will have operate using a rechargeable battery.  Put one of these speakers in each room of your house, select the AirPlay icon in Tunes and select the named speakers to pipe the music to each individual room.  Although you can already do this with AirPort Express devices and third-party speakers, the wires are ugly (the AirPort Express needs to be plugged in and the speakers usually need to be plugged with a wire between the two).  In addition, the AirPort Express alone costs $99.
  • Immediate access to iPhone/iPod touch content.  You're having a ball taking pictures and videos using your iPhone or iPod touch and are very excited sharing them with your family.  You walking into your living room, turn on the big screen TV with the new Apple TV connect to it, press a button on your mobile device and bam!  Your pictures and videos are displayed on the big screen.  No wires, no transferring hassles!
  • Watch on iPad/iPhone/iPod touch and Continue on Big Screen.  Although this scenario is not necessarily that practical, it's got the super cool factor.  You start watching a movie or a TV show on your iPad or another iOS device and with the push of a button, that show can be streamed to your big screen TV through the Apple TV.  Theoretically, you can pipe the show to multiple TVs at the same time and still have it shown on the iPad.
There are many other scenarios where this technology could get more interesting.  It all depends on how creative the device manufactures get.

Update (Sep 8, 2010):  If you are interested in iHome's rechargeable AirPlay speaker, you can sign up to get details on their website.  The site indicates availability for the holiday season.

Update #2 (Sep 9, 2010):  News reports indicates that Denon's awesome (but expensive) AVR-4311CI receiver will receive AirPlay support this fall through a firmware update.  The receiver's product sheet has already been updated to that effect.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

New Apple TV Announced: Initial Thoughts

During Apple's media even in San Francisco today, Steve Jobs announced a new release of the Apple TV that will be shipping later this month.  Based on the announcement, most of the rumors that have been swirling around over the last few weeks are true:

  • Price:  $99 (that's a great price for this device)
  • No disk, content is streamed from iTunes, your own PC/Mac, Netflix, YouTube or from an iPhone/iPad/iPod touch (with iOS 4.1, which will be released next week)
  • TV show rentals for $0.99 (from Fox and ABC to start with.  Others might follow, but at least I can watch Modern Family for $0.99)
  • Support for 720p HD (this is not ideal, but it's not bad)

Here's what did not make it:

  • Support for applications from the App store.  It us unknown at this point what OS the Apple TV will be running, but based on its size and previous rumors, it is likely to be running on iOS.  If that's the case, then someone will figure out how to jailbreak this thing to run apps on it in no time.  At least the Netflix app seems to be installed by default.
  • TV Show rentals for $0.99 from networks other than Fox and ABC
  • Name change.  The device is still called "Apple TV"

I would have to say that the biggest disappointment is the fact that no app support exists in this release.  The hope is that a future firmware update would make that possible or at least a jailbreak option.  In any case, I already placed my order for my Apple TVs and will post a review when I get my hands on them.

Finally, it's not yet clear what's going to happen to the first generation Apple TV users.  Have those devices reach their end of life with no additional updates or will Apple offer a software update to bring them to the current release?

Update #1 (9/3/2010):  According to a review of the new Apple TV on Ars Technica's website, Apple confirmed that owners of the first generation Apple TVs will not receive any software updates to support new features such as Netflix.

Update #2 (9/23/2010): Apple just charged my credit card for 2 Apple TVs, which means that shipment of the devices is imminent.

Update #3 (9/27/2010): Just received a notification from Apple that my 2 Apple TVs have shipped with an expected delivery date of 10/1, just missing their "September" release date.

Update #4 (9/28/2010):  I am very disappointed to report that the delivery date on the FedEx tracking page has been updated from an 10/1 delivery to an 10/5 delivery.  It appears that some moron at the warehouse missed the FedEx drop-off deadline so the Apple TVs did not make it out of China on-time, leading to several days of delay.