Category Archives: Tech

Anything technology related that isn’t covered by one of the sub categories.

Mini-review: iPad 2012

Yesterday morning, when I woke up, I fully intended to not buy the new iPad. Based on what I had gleaned from the tech news community, it was heavier and thicker than the iPad 2 (which I already owned) and, despite more powerful graphics, was effectively the same speed when it came to my most common use: browsing the web.

But… as I was standing in the lineup at Timmy’s to get my morning coffee — reading RSS feeds on my phone, as usual — I saw a post that said “most stores will be open at 8am for potential iPad buyers”, and I thought, “Gee (or something like that), it’s 8:20 and there’s a Future Shop between here and my work! I might as well go look at them at least.”

As you have probably surmised, I went, I saw, I purchased. I’ll warn you now, if you are vacillating over buying the new one, don’t look. Seriously, don’t look!

For me, tablets are defined by exactly two things: their responsiveness and the quality of their screens. In the iPad’s case, the responsiveness is as good as ever (and I still believe that the compromises that the Apple team made to get there were the right answer), but the screen is something else entirely. I can honestly say that this is the highest quality display I have ever seen. The iPhone 4 may have higher pixel density, but the small form factor doesn’t do it justice. Looking at the iPad screen you get the same sense that you are looking at a printed page that you get from e-ink screens, but with beautiful, vibrant color. [Yes, I know it has more glare and isn’t outdoor readable — everything has trade-offs]. Text is absolutely gorgeous and reading is a joy. Scanning through photos leaves you thinking you’re looking through a 10″ window.

As to the rest, I can’t say I’ve seen a significant performance improvement overall (either from the improved graphics processor or increased system memory). It may stutter a little less, but not so I’ve noticed.

I will say the “back” camera is much improved. I’d include a picture here, but I’d have to reduce it in size, which would defeat the purpose. The front-facing camera is just as crappy as it was in the previous generation; I actually find it to be so bad that I’m not even happy using it for FaceTime. Oh well.

We’re now a 3 iPad family. Deb has my old one; the 3G will come in handy for her business travel. Her first gen one is now in the hands of Dennis. I’ll let you know the result of that toughness “road test”. 😉

Maker wannabee

I did do a couple of actual, for reals, hardware things while I was on vacation, which for anyone who knows me has got to be pretty surprising :-). The first was to put together a little Arduino (actually Freeduino) board:

I have vague plans to take this plus a DAC and produce a midi to CV converter, something like this.

The other project was more prosaic, but probably more useful: I replaced the lawn light outside GCW. Really, this was just removing the old bits, repainting the post, then putting in a new light sensor and headpiece. The result actually looks pretty good:


(click the link to see a closeup)

Anyway, nothing earthshaking there, but there’s nothing like a couple of successes to refuel your interest in making things again. Anybody want to help build an analog synthesizer?

How fast is fast enough?

Friday after work I picked up a new laptop. It’s one of the just released MacBook Pros with the “real” i7 processors (i.e. 4 cores, multi-threaded). In addition to an 8Gig memory upgrade, I had them replace the DVD drive with a 128Gig SSD to hold the core OS and applications. For the few times when I might still need a DVD burner, the old drive was placed in an external USB enclosure. I must say, being able to easily get these kinds of aftermarket mods done is one of the reasons why I shop at Carbon Computing rather than the Apple Store.

After playing with the new machine for a weekend, I can categorically state that it is everything I had hoped for. It boots from power on to desktop in < 20 seconds; apps start before the dock icon can complete its first bounce; WoW was above 80fps most of the time [low: 55fps; high: >150]; It’s awesome.

I actually had a spare copy of Windows 7 lying around that I never got time to install under Parallels on the old laptop. When I installed it on this one I could give it 2 dedicated processors and 3 Gig of RAM without even noticing any performance impact. Seriously, the machine appears to run as well with Parallels running as without.

But here’s the thing… The apps themselves don’t actually seem much faster. Even on my old laptop, for anything other than a hardcore developer task (like doing a full build of a product plus running the test suites), as often as not the rendering/processing power of the machine wasn’t the limiting factor. In this connected world we live in, if I’m waiting for something it’s usually a remote server, either on the internet or some network shared device, not my local machine.

In general, I believe we’re well past the point where machines needed to run at 100% to simply render the UI fast enough, with the one exception perhaps being gaming. Even there it seems that we’re reaching a point of diminishing returns: Is that extra bit of motion blur and depth of field processing really making the game more fun?

For the average person’s use case — reading mail, browsing the internet, editing files, and playing Farmville — an iPad 2 (with a BT keyboard) will be every bit as useful as my laptop. Heck, even a $300 netbook will do the job.

So is that it? Do we need machines to be faster? Not until we discover how to put the performance to some use more interesting than making the windows jiggle when you move them [yes, Linux I’m looking at you]. I’ve tried to think of possibilities here, but to me the most interesting directions appear to be data driven, again making the speed of your internet connection more interesting than your CPU. I guess we’ll see.

Good Service Alert

When Deb and I were in Halifax last Summer, I purchased a Kodak Playsport Zx3 video camera. It proved to be a perfectly capable little outdoor camera, with 1080p recording capability, image stabilization and a waterproof shell, all for $130. Not bad. Since then, I have also pressed it into service to record numerous family events, and except for a bit too much color noise in low light situations, it has worked well.

Unfortunately, about a week ago, it developed a dark spot in the image sensor as you can see from this still frame from a test movie I shot:

A spot on the frame

The weird thing about this is, if I pointed the camera at a bright light source and then back where it was originally, the spot would disappear and would stay gone even if I waited until the light level stabilized again. However, a minute or so after that point, the dark area would reappear.

Given that I only paid $130 for the camera, I figured it probably wouldn’t make sense to try to get it repaired — most camera places won’t even assess a camera repair for less than $75, let alone do the work — but just as I was about to toss it on my “junk tech toy” pile I remembered that I had actually spent the extra $20 for an extended warrantee for it. So, instead of junking it, I hunted around for the original receipt and then headed off to the local Staples.

Now, remember the Staples where I originally bought the camera was in Halifax, so I wasn’t confident that they were going to be able to do anything for me in any case, but as soon as I walked into the one in Barrhaven I was met by someone who listened to my explanation of the problem, took a quick look at my bill, and then simply handed me a new camera. They didn’t even make me hang around while they did the associated paperwork, but simply initialed my bill to indicate that an exchange had been made and then sent me on my way.

I must say first that the $20 was apparently money well spent, but more than that, I can honestly say that I have never had a better customer service experience. If only all stores dealt with customers this well! GJ, Staples. Thanks.

iPad 2 Wish List

Here’s what I’d like to see for the next iPad, along with any related, current rumours…

  1. Higher resolution display — the rumours say everything from “no change” (== 1024×768) to “retina display” (== 2048×1536). Retina display seems unlikely, but I would like something higher than we have now, at least when I’m reading books. Can we do 1280×1024 maybe?
  2. Cameras front and back — this is widely believed to be part of the story, but the current rumours are that the cameras will be low resolution (0.3Mp front; 1.0Mp rear). Honestly, if they put in something less than what’s in the iPhone, they’re idiots.
  3. Lighter — using the current iPad to read is equivalent to strength training. There are rumours of the next iPad having a carbon fibre back to reduce the weight. I’ll believe it when I see it.
  4. Faster — this would be both as a result of a faster processor, and because it would have more RAM. A big part of the experience for this device is browsing the web, but the iPad is not the best tablet for doing this any more; let’s fix that.

SlingPlayer for iPad — don’t buy it.

I have to say, when I finally got a chance to get the SlingPlayer Mobile app for my iPhone, I was quite upset to find that they were charging $30 for it — more than 5x the price of any other app I have purchased for that platform.

On top of that, after using it for a while, I can honestly say that it was not worth the price. The control scheme is unwieldy (to say the last); the actual interactions with the PVR are unresponsive to the point of being nearly useless; and the picture quality is poor (even with the latest 2.0 version).

Essentially, it’s a tech demo: I have never used it for anything other than explaining to people what is possible on the iPhone.

I’m an optimist though, so when the iPad version of SlingPlayer came out, I thought maybe they will have made use of the improved screen real estate and horsepower to provide a better experience, so I’ll just go to the App Store and… WHAT?!?!?! Another 30 dollars!!!!

Um… In a word, no.

Even for an iPad app, that price is off by (at least) a factor of two, and they simply haven’t demonstrated that they can deliver an experience that justifies that cost. Hey, SlingMedia, take a look at StreamToMe it’s one tenth the price and offers a streaming media experience (albeit a simpler one) that is significantly better than SlingPlayer.

“Back to the Mac”

Apparently, Apple has called a press conference for next week to discuss something Mac OS related.

Apple: Back to the Mac? October 20

It’s a mark of where we are that most of the buzz around this is:

  1. Will it be called “Lion”?
  2. Will it include FaceTime integration?

*sigh*.

My take: “Back to the Mac” sounds too much like “Back to my Mac” for it not to be cloud focused — particularly since they are just finishing up their massive new data center in NC. 😉

Brazil copyright law significantly better than Canada

I saw this link this morning, and I though I’d pass it on:

Brazil’s copyright law forbids using DRM to block fair use

To me, the critical point is that (as it says in the article title) they do not allow “digital locks” to block your fair use rights. Just so everyone is aware, this is not true for the new Canadian copyright law that is currently being introduced.

(I know this is the kind of thing that we tweet, in this modern age, but I wanted to keep the link around for future reference (and I still like the “link of the day” concept).)