Jun 262011

I know that bucket list is an overused term these days, but I did not know what else to call it.

I have been fortunate enough to be able to take decent vacations in the last 5-7 or so.  My wife and I have gotten in a bit of a rut though between Walt Disney World and cruising.  So, I am rethinking our vacation strategies.  We have been taking approximately two moderate type vacations per year. I am thinking towards one “staycation” and one big vacation.

Both my wife and I have spent some time (before we met) in Western Europe.  I was fortunate to spend a semester in England and was able to visit Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, and Italy.  That was 15 years ago.  Getting old stinks. So, here is my list of things I would like to see.  Some may be more realistic than others at this time in my life both in cost and time.

  • Galapagos Islands – Thinking of taking a Celebrity cruise on the Xpedition.  It is a 100 passenger cruise ship.  It is all inclusive.  Considering our last cruise ship had 6200 passengers, it would be quite a change.
  • Machu Pichu – It is possible to wrap this in with a Galapagos Islands tour.  However, that may be too much for me at this time.  I would also like to see some of the lesser known ancient cities that are away from the tourists.
  • The Great Pyramids and cruise the Nile – I think that this one will have to wait with the unrest in the Middle East currently.
  • The Great Wall of China – I would also try to tie in a cruise down the Yangtze river.
  • River cruise through Europe – I would love to do a barge, but that is way out of my price range.  I would like to see part of Eastern Europe and Germany.
  • Grand Canyon – I have flown over it and visited some minor canyons as well as Monument Valley.  I would really love to white water raft it.
  • New Zealand – The Lord of the Rings movies really showcased some beautiful scenery.
  • The French Polynesian – Whether it is a small cruise ship or just doing a little island hopping, I do not think it matters.
  • Angkor Wat – Looks pretty amazing.  I would try to tie this in with other Eastern items such as Thailand.
  • India and the Taj Mahal – It would be pretty hard to go to India and not see the Taj Mahal while there.
  • The Panama Canal – This one is relatively easy to do.  I am just fascinated by the idea of the engineering of it.

So what say you?  What is on your list to see and do? What else should I add?

Ultimately, I am a bargain shopper.  So, I will go where I can get a great deal.  However, I am certainly expanding my horizons in the future.  Of course, if I win the lottery than I will hit all of the above plus more.

Jun 082011

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:

Apr 152011

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