Oct 132011
 

I would assume that most people out there realized that iOS 5 was released yesterday (Wednesday, October 13).  There are plenty of guides out there outlining the new hotness that comes with the update.  We have a couple referenced over in our forum.

What is your most favorite features so far?  I have really taken a liking to the new notification features.  It is pretty slick.  Now, I can see all of them that I missed or accidentally skipped as I unlocked my phone out of habit before reading the notification.

Find My Friends looks interesting, but I have not played with it yet.  Plus, my wife and I use 4square, so I am not sure it offers much more than that.

Jun 082011
 
icloud-what

The amount of rumors and speculation about what kind of iTunes cloud service Apple would make available was massive and started to rival new iPhone rumors.  Now that it’s been announced, there’s still a bit of confusion as to what iTunes in the Cloud is, what iTunes Match is, why it costs $25 a year and why would you want to buy it.  Let’s see if we can clear that up a little based on what we know today.

“iTunes in the Cloud” works today, see how to enable it here.  This allows you to do a few things.  One, it lets you go through all your previous iTunes purchases and re-download them on up to 10 devices, no additional charge.  For clarification sake, when Apple says “devices,” this means computers too — the idea behind iCloud is that a PC or Mac is just another “device” in the mix.  Secondly, if enabled, when you buy new music on *any* device or computer, it will automatically put that new music on *all* of your devices.  A simple concept that “just works.”  Third, and probably obvious although easy to overlook, is your iTunes purchases are automatically backed up in iCloud, so there is no risk of losing music files due to hard drive or device failure. Again, totally free, works today, even with purchases made years ago.  To re-download previous purchases on an iOS device, fire up the iTunes app and look for “Purchases” icon.  To do it on a desktop, start up iTunes (10.3 and up) on Mac or PC and again go to the “Purchases” section.

What happens to all the music you didn’t get from iTunes, say music ripped from CDs or purchased from Amazon or elsewhere?  This is where “iTunes Match” comes in.  iTunes Match will scan your library, find all the matches in the iTunes store for your existing music and make them available in iCloud.  This then allows you to download any of it to all of your devices, and automatically “upgrades” your music to the “iTunes Plus” version of 256 Kbps AAC — just like if you had bought it from iTunes in the first place.  In the event there is no match, it will have to upload the actual files from your library, which is the only time any uploading will happen.  The added side benefit is that your music collection, regardless of how it was attained or what sound quality it is, is now completely backed up in iCloud at high(er) quality.  Apple reminds us with over 18 million songs in the iTunes store, they like the odds of having most of your music available to be “matched.”  This provides a significant advantage over Amazon or Google’s solutions since you don’t have to upload your whole library, and also represents why Apple had to negotiate and pay out to the big music companies to offer this service.  That’s where the $25 a year price tag comes in.  The price is a flat fee, regardless of how much music you have.  They say whether you have 5,000 songs or 20,000 songs, it’s $25.  Also note, your music doesn’t count against the 5GB file space for iCloud  (while we’re at it, pictures, apps and books don’t count either).

Should you sign up for iTunes Match when it comes out this fall?  That will depend on your situation.  If you have one device and/or most of your purchases came from iTunes anyway, I don’t see it being worth the cost.  However, if you have many devices and a lot of songs from Amazon or CDs, it could be convenient to be able to grab any song from your iTunes in the Cloud library to put on any device on a whim.   Got a new iPhone?  Use iCloud on the device to load any music you want at will.  Setting up a new PC or Mac?  Same idea, your music library is available without have to transfer it to a thumb drive or external hard drive.  Lastly, let’s not forget the backup aspect of your entire music library is also worth considering.  Unlimited space for backing every piece of music you own?  Not a bad deal at $25 a year if you have a huge library, the price is low enough for many and with no restriction on size or amount of songs, the service compares well to similar solutions.

A few things to consider:

1) At this point, it doesn’t look like there is any streaming going on with your music, it seems to be a straight download of a music file.  While the initial offering of iCloud is solid, it’s probably safe to assume that Apple will only look to enhance it over time, so streaming and additional features may come in future revisions.  Some Apple patents circulating through various news sites have all but confirmed this.

2) To get to your music in iCloud, you have to use iTunes, there doesn’t appear to be any web app or third party application support available.  iTunes on the PC, Mac and iOS devices looks to be the only gateway to your music.  That could change over time, but I wouldn’t count on that.  Music from iTunes Match is DRM free (as indicated by a slide during Jobs’ presentation) so once downloaded, you’ll be able to use those files as you see fit.

3) It’s unclear if Apple will let you upload your non-iTunes music without paying for iTunes Match, basically using iCloud as a big “hard drive in the sky” as Jobs put it.

The good news is, iTunes Match for your non-iTunes purchases is the only part of iCloud that has any price tag on it, and if you’re happy with your current setup in terms of syncing, backing up and moving around music files obtained elsewhere, then this premium service is completely avoidable.

More details are available here:
http://www.apple.com/icloud/features/

Jun 072011
 
icloud

Apple’s WWDC keynote yesterday was so chock full of information, it’s taken some time to process what’s new and coming for both the Mac and for iOS devices.  One of the biggest pieces was the iCloud stuff, which parts have been made available starting yesterday.

iCloud auto syncing for apps, iTunes purchases and Books are available now if you want to sync items to/from multiple iOS devices.  Of course, if you only own an iPhone, there isn’t much to see here (see update below), although each of the store apps (iTunes, iBooks, App Store) now has a “Purchased” section, allowing you to review everything you’ve purchased and re-download it at no additional charge.  This already worked somewhat with the iBooks and App Store, although it was a little unclear if you would be double charged or not, and is new for the iTunes music store.  Now it’s in its own section, lets you re-download anything on any of your devices and you’ll never be double billed for the same content.

For those with more than one iOS device, here’s how to setup iCloud syncing today:

Go into your settings app on each of your iOS devices and go to the Store option.  Here you can turn on auto downloading of new items of purchases made on other devices (including free stuff).  There’s also an option to control whether this only happens on wifi or force it to happen on cellular data too.  So what exactly does this do for you?  Say you have an iPhone and an iPad.  You turn on auto downloading on your iPad.  You buy a new song on your iPhone, and it will automatically download to your iPad next time your iPad hits a wifi spot — no effort needed on your part (or does it over cellular if you turned that on.)  Same goes for books, and apps.  You may want to consider leaving the app auto download option off if you’re the type who likes to try out many free apps (an app hoarder) because you could end up cluttering your iPad (or iPhone) with lots of apps you may not want on both devices.  Books and music make better sense in most cases.  Also remember that iBooks syncs things like bookmarks, notes and your current page between devices too.

Why is this great?  It cuts out the step of having to resync the device you made your purchases on back to iTunes on your Mac or PC, then having to manually sync your other device(s) to iTunes just to get the new content.  Painful.  Now it’s automagic — the way it should be.

Of course, I’m looking forward to the additional iCloud components (photos, docs, iTunes Match) coming in the fall with iOS 5, but this will get you started today.  You can see more about iCloud here.

UPDATE:

Figures that right after I wrote this article, Apple released iTunes version 10.3 for Mac and PC, which enables the same three options above on the desktop.  So now, purchases will auto download to your iTunes library as well, without have to sync via cable.  Also added in 10.3 is the iBook store, previously only brows-able on iOS devices.

Note that “iTunes in the Cloud” is currently only available in the US due to licensing restrictions.

You can download the latest iTunes version via Apple software update or manually here.

May 272011
 
app-store-icon

EA has had great success with various sales on the Apple App Store, so it’s no surprise they’re doing another one over the Memorial Day holiday.  Dead Space for the iPad is very well done and both the iPhone and iPad versions were recently updated with a new survival mode along other new content.  Many of these games have free “lite” versions that you can try out before you buy.   Also not EA related, but the ever popular Infinity Blade is still half off at $2.99 and features new multiplayer modes.  That app is universal and is almost worth checking out for the graphics alone.

Here’s some of the highlights of EA’s latest sale:

iPad:

iPhone:

There’s definitely a bunch more I’m missing that might be slightly less appealing deals, so be sure to browse the EA section of the app store if you’ve been holding out for a sale on a specific title.

May 042011
 
Apple-logo

Apple made good on its promise to address the location tracking concerns of its users last week, as we discussed here.  This update claims only to do those things.

This update contains changes to the iOS crowd-sourced location database cache including

  • Reduces the size of the cache
  • No longer backs the cache up to iTunes
  • Deletes the cache entirely when Location Services is turned off

The update is available for all devices that can run iOS 4.

Hook up to iTunes and hit the update button.

Apr 272011
 
Apple-logo

Apple today posted a Q&A piece on their website, outlining exactly what location information the iPhone stores and how it is used.  The short version is that the iPhone maintains a cache of wifi hotspots and cell towers in the area to help better assist apps that use location services.   This allows your phone to find your location much faster than if it used GPS alone.   So even though the tracking is no where near as invasive and sinister as many media outlets have incorrectly reported, Apple will be making some changes in an update in the near future.  They will no longer store a backup of this cached data on your computer and fix the supposed bug that when you turn off location services, the location data cache will be permanently deleted.

Highlights:

Why is my iPhone logging my location?
The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested.

Can Apple locate me based on my geo-tagged Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?
No. This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form. Apple cannot identify the source of this data.

Why is Apple tracking the location of my iPhone?
Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.

Full Official Press Release here.

Apr 222011
 
money

Some good noteworthy deals worth passing along:

First off, you can get 25% off of orders over $19.99 at Direct2Drive when you use coupon code “bunny”.  While you’re at Direct2Drive, Crysis 2 is even a bit steeper discount at 30% off, today only.

Also, if you’re looking for a little iOS gaming, be sure to check out Dead Space HD for the iPad, as it’s on sale for the magical price of $0.99. This game has been optimized for the iPad 2 (although still compatible with the first iPad), so it’s a great game to show off what the new iPad can really do — it rivals and even surpasses the current gen of consoles. As a nice throw-in / cross-over, playing the iOS version of Dead Space will unlock some stuff in Dead Space 2, in case you needed additional incentives.

If you’d rather get the iPhone version, Dead Space for the iPhone is also $0.99 for a limited time.

Apr 152011
 
Camera+logo

Camera+ has been one of the top paid apps on the App Store for quite some time, briefly surpassing even the current flavor of Angry Birds.  Why, you may ask, would you want to actually buy a camera app when the iPhone has a perfectly functional app built in?  Well, the default app is pretty bare-bones, and at $0.99 currently, Camera+ makes a great argument to replace the default app or other free apps as your go-to camera option.

Unlocking the exposureThe camera interface has a lot of the features you have come to expect.  Tap to focus, a digital zoom slider, a flash control option for iPhone4 and the ability to flip to the front camera.  There is one addition to the flash options that is missing from Apple’s default.  Camera+ adds a “fill” option, which lets the flash work as an continuous fill light.
Another great feature added in the default picture taking mode is an ability to unlock the auto white balance.  To do this, you tap to focus and then use a second finger to unlock the white balance and then choose a different point in the frame to adjust the exposure.  This is great when shooting something that is in a shadow or in some other uneven lighting.  To also aid in better photo taking, your can turn on and off a grid overlay to help line up and straighten your shots better.

Don’t like the “Normal” picture taking mode?  There are 3 more modes to change to.  A “Stabilization” mode, which only snaps the photo when it senses your hand is the most stable, which is great to reduce blurry photos.  There is a timer mode, which is configurable from 5, 15, and 30seconds.  Lastly, there is a burst mode, which you just hold down the camera button and it will take pictures in rapid succession.

The Camera+ LightboxWhile all these added features are great, where Camera+ really shines is after you take your pictures.  By default, all your pictures are stored in the app’s “Lightbox.”  What this means is that your photos don’t clutter up your camera roll and gives you a chance to review and edit them before saving them to your camera roll and/or sharing them via social media.  If you’re like me, you snap a lot of photos, many of them not really worth keeping, easily creating an unruly mess in your camera roll if you’re not diligent in cleaning it out.  The lightbox avoids all this.  If you’d still rather save every snapped photo to your camera roll you can easily disable the lightbox.

Within the app’s lightbox, there are many powerful editing options available.  Camera+ touts the newly added “Clarify” option which seems to perform a bit of an auto brightness and auto levels function to your photos.  Most of the time it gets it right and results in brighter, more vibrant pictures removing washed out over exposures and adding more detail to shadow areas.  There are plenty of other adjustment modes which mainly alter the lighting in the photo to better match the conditions the photo was taken in.

Camera+ effectsOther editing features include “FX” which can give your photos different looks similar to those in Instagram or Hipstamatic.  Somehow, making photos look like they were taken 30 years ago on a crappy camera became popular, and Camera+ supports all sorts of similar effects, along with some unique ones like “toy camera” and “so emo.”  It’s worth noting that there is an extra “I love analog” FX pack that is an in-app purchase (also $0.99), but the base app includes so many effects, it’s hard to recommend spending anything additional unless you really, really want more old-school filters.  To round out the editing there are tools to rotate and crop your photos in addition to a selection of borders that can be added.  The good thing about all the photo editing tools is that you can import photos from your photo library into the app, so it doesn’t just work on photos taken within Camera+.  You can pull any photo from your existing camera roll or any other photos synced to your phone and edit it in Camera+.

Once your photos are looking the way you want them, Camera+ has a decent amount of sharing options.  You’re covered with direct sharing to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and email.  When sharing to Twitter, instead of using a service like Twitpic, Camera+ uses their own, url-shortened, socially optimized site: http://campl.us.  Comments can be posted, and the image details are displayed to let viewers know the settings used for the picture — all very similar to Instagram.  You can check out a sample image shared through Camera+ here.

For the magical price of $0.99, it’s hard not to recommend Camera+.  The amount of functionality this app has over the boring default camera app is easily worth that price.

Check out Camera+ in the App Store

Apr 042011
 
MLB_Ba1

Now that the baseball regular season is finally here, it’s time to take a look at all the ways you can consume as much MLB content as possible!

One great thing about the MLB is they make their content more accessible than any of the other professional sports in the US. Aside from watching directly on the MLB website, they have apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, PS3, Boxee, AppleTV, Roku, and probably your toaster oven. Only one other entertainment company comes to mind as being so widely available, and that’s Netflix. I find it refreshing that the MLB mostly gets it right, and I often find myself wishing the other pro sports would follow their lead. They don’t try to lock a customer into one source for watching or listening to games and reasonably price their content. This is in stark contrast to the NFL, which only provides access to all of their games through DirecTV at insanely high prices — not to mention having an exclusive video game deal which ensures that Madden will be the only NFL video game. Ever. Yes, I’m still bitter about the untimely death of the NFL 2k series.

MLB iPhone App

I have to admit, the MLB At Bat app for iPhone is one of my favorite apps. It was one the first apps I bought when I got my first iDevice, a second gen iPod Touch back in 2008. Through the years it has progressed and added more features. The app costs $15 and offers live game day audio for every game in every market, with both the home and away feeds. While it’s one of the more pricier apps I’ve bought, it’s great even for people who are only fans of one team, in that you can listen to the games anywhere, and provides a live game tracker that shows each pitch and the scoring. You’ll also get the latest news and highlight clips from every game, along with customized push notifications that can alert to game starts, end of game scores and highlights. As an added bonus, for the month of April, you get free access to MLB.TV in the app, which gives you live video of all games, however, the dreaded “blackout restrictions” apply, which means don’t expect to watch your local team on anything other than the actual TV channel that’s airing on. This year has a new feature, called “Live Look-ins” which provides a quick-look of a game where something interesting is going on like a late-inning rally. These live look-ins are blackout free, and are reminiscent of the NFL Red Zone channel. For full gameday video, anything outside your “market” is available. It’s worth noting that video quality is very good, even when viewing over a 3G connection. The app also has “check-in” abilities when you actually go to a game, which can sometimes offer special deals and other incentives.

MLB iPad AppTo go along with the iPhone app is a separate iPad app. When I say the MLB “mostly” gets it right, this is one area that is a bit disappointing. The iPad app is a separate app that also costs $15. It would have been nice to see it as universal app, even if they bumped the price to $20. The features are similar to that of the iPhone version, but with a different layout and accurate replicas of the real stadiums in their “Game Day” game trackers, using assets from Sony’s great MLB The Show game. If you’re a MLB.TV subscriber or a baseball junkie, you’re probably going to want both apps, but if you’re only interested in the game day audio, it’s probably best to stick with just the iPhone version.

I also had a chance to take a look at the free “apps” on Boxee, PS3 and AppleTV. These apps don’t do much aside from showing scores, unless you’re a MLB.TV subscriber. No gameday audio is available in a “lite” or free option. Being this is the first year I’ve subscribed to MLB.TV since I received it as gift subscription, I was excited to check out each option.

The PS3 version is definitely the most feature rich. Not only can you watch the games in HD, but you can rewind live games and zero in on highlights, as the video timeline is identified with markers and short descriptions of key plays like home runs, extra base hits, strikeouts, etc. While the interface is the nicest, I found the video and audio quality a bit problematic on the PS3. It frequently skips and stutters to the point where I didn’t want to use it, despite all the features it has that can’t be found elsewhere. It almost seemed as if the PS3 was struggling to keep up and acted like it was CPU stressed. Hopefully Sony and/or the MLB updates the app soon to fix those issues. Sony has a video tour of their MLB.TV app here — it’s very impressive.

MLB Apple TVIn checking out the AppleTV version, it’s not quite as robust as the PS3 version, but provided me with perfect HD quality, and timeline markers that indicate the start of each half inning, but no highlight markers. A very nice interface and a great way to watch the games, I can see this as my preferable way to watch MLB.TV on the big screen, at least until the PS3 version gets smoothed out. Lastly, I took a look at the Boxee app, which is probably the most stripped down, but provided perfect HD quality and worked well. After all, fancy features aside, watching the game in great quality is the most important aspect.

After opening weekend with an MLB.TV subscription, I’m enjoying it a lot. At a cost of $100 per year, it’s affordable when you compare it to other sport subscription and other entertainment options (i.e. Netflix is about $96 per year for a streaming-only sub). If you’re a fan of a team other than the local team or just enjoy watching games all over the country, then MLB.TV access is a must have. If all you enjoy is watching your local team and could care less about any other teams, consider the iPhone or equivalent smart phone app for the game day audio when you’re not at home and leave it at that. Being a bit of a baseball junkie and now having access to so many other games no matter where I am, I can definitely see myself being a regular MLB.TV subscriber.

Mar 312011
 

So with this week’s slightly unexpected launch of Amazon’s cloud storage and cloud music player, you’ve started to think about the possibilities and conveniences of a cloud stored music library.  It definitely has some worthwhile advantages:

  • Online/offsite backup of your music library
  • Easy access to your music anywhere
  • Save space on your phone by not storing a copy on device

It was probably less surprising that Amazon’s Cloud Player doesn’t really work with iOS devices.  There’s a workaround, described here, but it’s clunky at best.

Apple’s iTunes Locker / MobileMe revamp has been rumored to be coming for quite some time, but it’s yet to materialize.  Signs seem to point to it being caught in limbo as negotiations with the big music labels are holding it back, a step it seems Amazon chose to skip, much to the labels chagrin.  So while we wait for an Apple solution that may or may not come, what can an iPhone user turn to in the mean time?

It may surprise you that Apple already has rudimentary support for this type of cloud music storage.  Of course, this option requires a MobileMe subscription, which currently goes for $99 a year — there’s a 60 day free trial if you want to give it a test drive.  You get 20GB of storage, along with other features like email, calendar, contacts and a photo gallery.  The “iDisk” cloud storage works like many others and has the advantage of a universal iOS app.  An undocumented feature of the iDisk app is that it will stream music files from your iDisk, and even continues streaming music when in the background.  While it doesn’t load any meta data or album artwork and doesn’t seem to support playlists, it does actually work in a very basic way, today.  You can even share files using iDisk…but don’t tell the music labels that.

Dropbox works in a similar fashion to iDisk in the way it handles music, and offers 2GB for free, with a universal iOS app.

Of course, those are services that aren’t really optimized for streaming music.  That’s where long-time players mSpot and MP3Tunes come into play.  mSpot, in direct response to Amazon, recently announced they would be increasing their free account storage limit to 5GB.  This was a smart move by mSpot, since it has the advantage of being iOS compatible (through a universal app) right away.  With new found interest in cloud music storage being spurred on by Amazon, potential customers may look for more compatible options since being locked out by Amazon.  Also available is MP3tunes, which offers 2GB of storage for free and also has an iPhone app.  Each of these services has an application that you load on your PC or Mac, which monitors your music library and automatically uploads new tracks to your music locker, keeping your local and cloud libraries in sync.

All the services mentioned here have some sort of free or trial subscription so that you can test drive them to figure what best suits your needs. Who knows, they may even end up being better than an official Apple solution, whenever it arrives.