December 6th, 2011
It’s been a while since I did any kind of tech review, but this one needs to get out there. I’ve been meaning to do it for ages and just haven’t had the time. Well, I still don’t, but here I go anyway.
First, for anyone reading this who doesn’t know, The Omni Group is an Apple-only software shop that makes what I consider to be some of the best applications out there. OmniOutliner Pro and OmniGraffle Pro for the Mac are absolutely top-notch. In fact, OmniOutliner Pro for the Mac is one of may all-time favorite applications anywhere ever on any computer, right up there with MacWrite Pro back in the day. My hard drive is littered with probably a thousand OmniOutliner documents.
Now, I also love my iPad, and I put off getting one for a long time because Omni hadn’t released OmniOutliner for it. I did finally cave before the release, but I really missed having a top-notch outliner for the iPad.
So, with all that praise floating around, how is OmniOutliner for iPad (hereafter just “OO”)?
Unfortunately, my reaction to is is mixed. While it’s certainly the best dedicated outliner I’ve seen for the iPad, that’s not saying to terribly much, though CarbonFin Outliner is pretty decent. The fundamental problem is that OO doesn’t live up to the Mac version. This is slightly odd for Omni, since the iPad version of OmniFocus is actually far superior to the Mac version, and OmniGraffle is quite comparable on both platforms.
Omni certainly got a lot of things right on the iPad version of Outliner. It generally looks good, it’s responsive, it’s packed with features like full multi-column support, has a good set of starter templates, etc. Omni obviously put a lot of work into it.
But, unfortunately, they didn’t get it all right, and this is where I get into the mixed feelings part. Let me describe what I think are the most major flaws:
The Document Manager
Unfortunately, OO uses the same kind of document manager as Apple’s productivity apps like Pages and Keynote. Unfortunately, it’s not very good. It’s fine when you have only a few documents, but it doesn’t scale very well. As I noted above, I use OO all the time on my desktop, and I want to do that on my iPad as well. Unfortunately it just doesn’t scale. If you have even 30 documents, it becomes very cumbersome to manage. There are no folders and no search facilities, just view by modification date or file name. This is a pretty major stumbling block, and while it is one shared by numerous other iPad apps, i feel it more with OO than with any other app, since I tend to generate lots of outlines. (This is my preferred way to take notes in meetings, for example.) GoodReader is an example of an application that does this much better. No, GoodReader’s document manager isn’t pretty, but it scales a heck of a lot better.
This is also a really important thing for me, to be able to share outlines between my iPad and my Mac(s). OO is pretty bad at this as well. First, it doesn’t support DropBox, which is a shame, only WebDAV and iDisk. (And iDisk is going away anyway. More on that in a bit.) iDisk support isn’t very good, though some of this isn’t Omni’s fault—iDisk has always been a dog for me. The real problem, however, is that it doesn’t actually synchronize at all. It will make a copy of something on iDisk, and you can save a copy of a document to iDisk, but those are only copies. It doesn’t sync. This means I constantly have to check and re-check to see whether the most recent version of any particular document is on iDisk or on the iPad. Again, GoodReader has this problem solved reasonably cleanly, storing a link to the document on the sever and supporting a “sync” button that figures out who’s newer and syncs it.
Now, I would guess that in the future Omni will support iCloud and this will get somewhat better—if you can use iCloud. Unfortunately, for work I still need some old applications that only run under Rosetta, so I can’t upgrade to Lion yet, so I can’t use iCloud. (Also, some of my favorite Mac software isn’t Lion-ready yet, which is a separate rant for another time.)
Another other big problem is that there are number of very annoying incompatibilities between the iPad and the Mac that OO simply does not handle well. For example, I find that to look right on the iPad, I need documents zoomed in to about 125%. Unfortunately, when you open that document back up on the Mac, it remains zoomed in at 125%, and there is no way to change the zoom level on the Mac version of OO. Argh! (Actually, I’ve figured out a way to deal with the problem, which qualifies as a horrible hack: If you open the raw XML of the OO document on the Mac with a text editor like BBEdit, you can actually find the setting buried in the XML and change it back to 100%. Not fun.) There are also problems going the other way. If the document on the Mac side is in a font that doesn’t exist on the iPad, it obviously can’t use that font—but then it throws away all font information in the whole document. All the bold, italics, size changes, etc. are wiped out when you open it on the iPad. Look, I understand that Gil Sans (or whatever) doesn’t exist on the iPad, but it’s not like bold doesn’t exist. Why is that information lost?
Missing Functionality/Feature Requests
This might be getting a little nitipicky, but I really like being able to attach audio to my outlines, which is something that is available on the Mac side. As I mentioned, I like to use OO as my note-taking app in meetings, and it would be GREAT to be able to record audio snippets as annotations. I guess this is more of a feature request than missing functionality.
The other thing I desperately want is the ability to print. Amazingly, there are times when I want to be able to have hardcopy, and as far as I can tell, there’s no easy way to do this from OO. It can be done, badly, by exporting the outline to some other app that does know how to print, but again, this is a pain and the results often aren’t quite what I want.
My Other UI Gripe
The last thing on my list is another user interface gripe (the document manager being the first one). One of the most important features of an outliner, from my point of view, is use as a hierarchical checklist. Fortunately, OO supports this, but its support for this is pretty awful from a UI standpoint. Fundamentally, where you want the checkboxes to be is on the left side with the start of each line of text, and you want those checkboxes to indent as the text indents. This is exactly what the Mac version does, and what every even half-decent outliner I’ve seen anywhere else does (including CarbonFin Outliner on the iPad/iPhone). Unfortunately, OO for iPad treats the checkboxes not as a property of each row, but as an entirely separate column, and this column is rendered on the right, away from the leading edge of the text. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, a truly awful bit of UI. Usually Omni is really good about UI stuff (one of the reasons I’m normally such a fan), so this seems very out of character.
Now, despite all those things, I still use OO for iPad fairly regularly. In fact, I even generated the outline for this review on it! It’s still a good iPad app, and it’s still a fairly early release, so I’m optimistic that some of these will be addressed in future updates, though I have concerns about how soon such things will be available given that OO for Mac has been at version 3 since early 2005(!). OmniOutliner for iPad does fall short in some key areas that prevent me from using in the way I would like to use it. Most of those issues are ironically enough that OO for iPad is difficult to use with the Mac version of OmniOutliner. If your planned use of OO for iPad is as a standalone, then I’d rate it higher. But using it with the Mac version is frustrating and klunky, not things I generally associate with Omni Group products.
November 16th, 2010
About six months ago in this space, I noted my possibly surprising lack of intention to get an iPad. I own pretty much every other Apple gizmo possible (now including both generations of Apple TV—at least they’re hooked up to different TVs), so why not an iPad? My reasoning was that the 2nd generation is likely to have better screen resolution, which is particularly important for reading.
No, Apple didn’t release a high-res iPad, but I went in anyway. So, what happened? Well, some discretionary money at work had to be spent by the end of the calendar year (which, frankly, I’d rather carry over for next year and spend on travel; technically, my employer actually owns the iPad) and I have some travel coming up for which I’d really like to have a computer, but I don’t want to lug my full laptop package. The last trip I tried that on I just brought my hackintoshed netbook with me, but I have to say, I actively dislike that machine for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to) the crappy small screen, the vile trackpad, the crummy keyboard, and the weak battery life. Also, my wife really wants an iPad for Christmas and, being the good Apple zealot that I am, I didn’t want to go into supporting that experiment without some experience first.
So I’ve had an iPad for about a week now—what do I think?
First, yes, in a lot of ways it’s really a big iPod Touch. But while a lot of people mean that as a criticism, I don’t see it that way at all. I’ve been using an iPhone for a couple years now and so everything feels familiar. Plus, there is something highly significant about the “big” part. Having a larger screen than a phone makes a qualitative difference—it’s not just more, it’s something different. The iPhone is a fantastic mobile computer, but it’s still a phone. The iPad feels like a “real” computer. It’s not quite a replacement for my 15″ MacBook, but then neither is a crappy netbook. But it’s definitely better than the netbook for the tasks that I actually did on that machine, things like email and web browsing. And it’s definitely better for leisurely movie watching. I strongly suspect that Jobs is right and 7” isn’t really big enough for a really good tablet. If anything I think the iPad could be a smidge bigger, actually, without trouble, maybe 10.5” on the diagonal rather than 9.7”. The soft keyboard, which I actually don’t mind, wouldn’t be hurt by being a smidge bigger, but it would really suck for it to be any smaller.
That said, I’m eagerly awaiting the release of iOS 4.2. Not so much for the multitasking (which I appreciate, but is WAY overblown as a concern for end users; mostly I care in order to have an IM client running while I do other things, and that’s pretty frivolous), but because one of the apps I need to have for the iPad is waiting for 4.2. That’d be OmniOutliner. I feel like I think in hierarchies and I certainly organize by them, and I have probably thousands of OO documents on my hard disk. OmniGroup has said that the iPad version won’t be released until after 4.2 comes out, and so I wait with bated breath. This is my primary note-taking and organization app, so I feel slightly crippled in meetings without it.
So far, I’ve been pretty impressed with the software available for the iPad. I cannot for the life of me figure out why Apple didn’t include the iPhone “Clock” application with the iPad, but otherwise so far, so good. The iWork suite seems pretty good on the iPad though there are still some things I cannot quite grok in places (e.g., how do you edit master slides in Keynote?) and it’s great that lots of my favorite iPhone apps already have iPad versions, often the same version for no extra cost. It’s also nice to see other desktop Mac favorites showing up on the iPad, though usually for extra money. Special shout out to BareBones for the iPad version of Yojimbo, which is excellent, though it’d be even better if it supported iDisk sync. (Note to BBSW: I would pay good money for an iPad version of TextWrangler or BBEdit, too. I’d be willing to beta test!) And there are some other little bits of cool that are just too good to resist, like DisplayPad.
There are some weaknesses, too, of course. One of my current peeves on the software end is that you cannot install fonts on the iPad, which hoses many of my Keynote presentations. It’d also be nice if there was somewhat better feature parity between desktop and iPad versions of the iWork suite, again, particularly Keynote. That Facebook doesn’t have an iPad-native client is shocking, though if it sucks as much as the iPhone client, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. (Unfortunately, Mobile Safari doesn’t do chat in Facebook. I don’t care, but my wife does.) I actually expected there to be more difficulty in getting documents off and on the iPad, but most (though not all; I’m especially looking at you, MacJournal) apps support either Dropbox or iDisk and going through “the cloud” (I hate that term) isn’t too bad, really. Sidebar: Apple, get your freakin’ act together and either buy Dropbox or make iDisk as good. iDisk is an embarrassment compared to Dropbox. End sidebar, though actually that’d be a good tweet.
On the hardware end, the form factor is fantastic. The first time I held one I initially thought it might be a bit too heavy to hold while reading, but that hasn’t been a problem so far. The Apple case that props up one side of it is also terrific, though it’d be nice if it came in colors other than black. The battery life is truly excellent, as advertised. The biggest thing I’d like to see still is, of course, a higher screen resolution. I’ve gotten very used to the iPhone’s kick-ass display, and while I don’t expect 300+ ppi, I’d still really rather have 200+. I can see why people would want a camera, but I don’t see the lack of one as a big weakness.
Overall, I’m quite impressed, particularly for a 1.0 Apple product. For $500 it’s amazing. Maybe not so amazing at $830 for max storage and 3G, but if you don’t really need the 3G and aren’t a spacehog, I think it’s pretty remarkable for a company well-known for being expensive.
Anybody got a recommendation for a small travel Bluetooth keyboard? I’m not sure I really need it but if there’s a good cheap one, it might be worth a look…
September 1st, 2010
Because this’ll be too long for a tweet…
I don’t really care that much about iPods since I own an iPhone 4 already. Bummer to see the Classic go, though, as it’s nice to actually have enough storage space for all your music. I keep one in the car for this reason.
New versions of iOS look good. HDR photos are interesting, we’ll see how that actually plays out.
• Streaming only. WTF? One of the things I dislike about my current AppleTV is that my computer has to be on and awake for people in the house to watch movies that we already own. Solved with aTV Flash and an external hard disk, but I suspect it’ll be a while before the new Apple TV is hacked to match that, if at all.
• Same stupid-simple remote.
• No apps? Apple just released a device that cannot connect to the App Store revenue stream? Really? Weird.
• Support for 30fps 720p. You know, like what a Flip or even an iPhone 4 produce, that a current Apple TV cannot play.
• 99 cent TV show rentals. Top Gear in HD, right? Right?
• Unit price. Even with the obvious flaws, for $100 I might get one anyway.
And then there’s the unknowns created by this. For instance, the status of the Apple TV I currently own is now in question. Will Apple continue to support it? Do I get Netflix on it now? 99-cent shows? Some information on this would be nice, and while this is not the thing you expect to hear in a keynote, I would like to know this stuff.
Next unknown: what’s actually running on the new Apple TV? Is it iOS or MacOS? I’m pretty sure my existing AppleTV run MacOS underneath. If the new one runs iOS, where are the apps? If not, will it still be as dog-slow as the current one?
June 21st, 2010
I don’t own an iPad, nor am I likely to get one… at least, not yet.
Now, for some people that’s not saying anything, but many people who know me are more than a little surprised by this. I like tech toys, I like Apple toys in particular, and they aren’t prohibitively expensive. Also, I travel a fair amount, and travel seems like one of the better applications for an iPad. So why, I’ve been asked numerous times, don’t I have one?
The primary reason is that I don’t need one… OK, I can’t type that with a straight face. “Needing one” has never been a criterion for me. I’ll wipe the smirk off my face and try again.
The primary reason is that it’s a first-generation Apple product. I didn’t buy a first-generation iPod; I waited for the 3rd generation when the software got better and it supported AAC encoding (which was, at the time, much better at 128 kbps than MP3 encoders). I didn’t get a first-generation iPhone; I waited until the iPhone 3G, precisely for the 3G and third-party applications. (Note that I also skipped the 3GS, though I am, of course, getting an iPhone 4, as previously mentioned.)
So, by extension, what am I waiting for on the iPad? What feature is it lacking that prevents me from buying it?
There are a few things that I expect the 2nd generation iPad to have that I’d really like to see. For one, iOS 4 for the iPad would be really nice. But that’s just software. If I bought an iPad now, I’d have that when it shipped.
It’s not applications, as there are already some cool apps. However, what I would like to see before I commit is better integration between desktop and iPad applications. I’d like syncing a Pages or Keynote document between my iPad and my Mac to be a little more seamless. Note that Dropbox would be perfectly acceptable for this. (Incidentally, I’m with John Gruber on this—why hasn’t Apple bought this yet? Dropbox rocks!) But again, that’s just software, presumably. I could get an iPad now and it would just get better when this happened.
So it must be hardware. What in the hardware do I think will be there in future iPads that isn’t there yet?
Two words: Screen resolution.
The iPad is not huge, but it’s good-sized; the screen is 9.7” on the diagonal. However, the screen is a mere 1024 x 768 pixels, which is just over 130 pixels per inch. Frankly, when Steve announced this number up on the keynote stage, I was flabbergasted. I was really surprised that Apple would go with this.
Now, for lots of applications, that’s plenty. A typical ripped DVD (done with anamorphic scaling) produces a video file that’s something on the order of 850 x 360 pixels, so it’s plenty dense for movies. So, what’s the stumbling point?
Reading. As Apple’s own ads for the iPhone 4 note, the human eye can discriminate right around 300 pixels per inch. More than that makes very little difference, but up to that, your eye can still see the pixels. This is not a big deal for watching movies and standard applications, but for really serious reading, this matters—rather a lot, too, in terms of things like reading rate and eye strain.
So, what I’m hoping is that the second-generation iPad has a display that’s inspired by the iPhone 4. I realize that it might be prohibitively expensive to produce a 300+ ppi display at 9.7” size (the iPhone’s is only 3.5”). That’s fine—I’d settle for a split of the difference, around 230 ppi. I think that’d be high-res enough to make it actually tolerable as an e-reader.
I guess a camera would be nice, but mostly videoconferencing sucks anyway, so I don’t really care that much. Lack of one certainly wouldn’t prevent me from buying a future iPad, but I think enough people want this that it’s highly likely in the next revision anyway. (See also the front-facing camera in the iPhone 4.)
So, when Apple releases an iPad with 230+ ppi, then I’ll buy one. Hopefully by then the software will have caught up, too.
June 15th, 2010
Obviously, I like Apple stuff, and I have for a long time. I even used to work there, some 20 years ago. However, unlike some tech pundits who shall remain nameless, I don’t think Apple should be given a free pass when they screw up.
Well, right now, Apple is screwing up, and doing so badly. Today is June 15th, the day that pre-orders for the iPhone 4 were supposedly going to start. I say “supposedly” because while the online Apple store is configured to take orders, it is not actually able to do so, at least not for me.
Bloggers and tweeters are already blaming AT&T for the snafu, but I have a hard time believing this is entirely the fault of AT&T. Actually, it cannot be entirely the fault of AT&T, because if AT&T can’t handle it, Apple should have known that and done something about it in advance.
However, despite that, and despite the fact that AT&T may indeed be overloaded, Apple is doing a terrible job of dealing with the situation, because as far as I can tell, they are doing exactly nothing about it. There are no warning messages on the store Web site, not even a “we apologize for the delays and difficulties some customers are having.” There’s nothing. There’s just a store Web site that randomly dies, and because the process is multi-step (and presumably not all the steps directly involve AT&T), there are many different points along the way where it can die.
Here are the steps after you click “pre-order” on the model you want:
1) Note what kind of customer you are (e.g., returning AT&T iPhone customer)
2) Provide your AT&T information (i.e., phone number, billing zip code)
3) Confirm or change rate plans (this may actually be multiple steps as well)
4) Add to cart
I don’t know what step 5 is, because I’ve never gotten that far. Dying after step 2 seems to be the place where blame might mostly be laid at the feet of AT&T, since that’s where the site says that it’s getting information from AT&T.
However, I’ve had it die after all four steps. Sometimes it says “Your session expired,” even though I’ve never left it idle for more than 10 seconds. Sometimes it literally says “Oops, there’s an error” with no explanation. Or “Your request couldn’t be processed” also with no explanation. This, from the company that prides itself on the user experience?
Give me a break.
Look, Apple, if you cannot actually provide the service, shut it down. It’s not for lack of trying, I’ve been at it for hours. (Fortunately, I’ve had other work to do while doing it, since it requires only infrequent user interaction—mostly just waining for the site to generate the next error message.) It’s especially annoying when Apple has clearly already handled the AT&T front end and the process dies when adding the final order to the shopping cart. That one cannot be laid at the feet of AT&T.
I think the problem at Apple is attitude. @gruber reflected this attitude well in his tweet: “Remember when that one Android phone was so popular that the carrier was overloaded attempting to process preorders?” Yep, everything is fine as long as customers are flocking to us with their money. If we’re making money, we must be doing it right! Ugh, by this logic, Microsoft did everything right in the 1990s, because they made truckloads of money then. Hey, if everything is rosy for the stockholders, everything must be great, right?
Except it isn’t, at least for the customer. What this fiasco says is “we’re not professional enough to handle our business.” Not that everybody always is, of course, but Apple’s corporate image is one of responding to the user. Apple needs to better understand what it can and cannot do. Apple didn’t try this with the last iPhone I bought, the 3G. You had to go to an Apple store on launch day and wait in line for hours. This was annoying, sure, but it wasn’t like Apple was trying to provide a service and failing, which is exactly what Apple is currently doing with pre-orders. Stevie told us all on the keynote stage that we could pre-order on June 15th. We can’t. It’s certainly OK for the Apple suckups to call Microsoft or Google out onto the carpet when they break their promises, but Apple somehow gets a free pass?
I mean, sure, ultimately, this will just be a blip on Apple’s record. Millions of people will (eventually) get their iPhone 4s, and they’ll be great and sleek and cool, and the Apple fanboy press will be abuzz with love for them, and Apple will make buckets of money, so it will all be great in the end, so who cares?
Well, maybe, but I’m worried. Apple is starting to be accused of turning into the company it used to call the Evil Empire, Microsoft. This is exactly the kind of anti-customer stance that plays into that perception. Is this really just a blip, or it it another step down a dark path? I hope it’s a blip, but I fear it’s a step. Time will tell.
Finally, as I noted in the title, this is a great commercial for Android. Even, or perhaps especially, if this is somehow all blamed on AT&T. Google execs must be drooling. “Look at what a crappy customer experience you get with AT&T. You know there are Android phones on Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile, right?” Somehow I’m betting this is not the message Apple wants to be sending, but I’m sure there are plenty of people hearing it loud and clear right now.
Look, I want to spend my money on an iPhone. More importantly, I want to do it when Apple said I would be able to do it. It shouldn’t be this hard… apparently, Apple neither needs nor wants my money. Or, more likely, they don’t give a crap because they know they’ll get it anyway. It’s a Joan Jett moment, Apple—I hate myself for loving you. Or something like that.
December 21st, 2009
So, @guzdial was asking about Apple TV on Twitter, and I cannot answer his last post in the length of a tweet, so I’m doing it here instead. He asked:
“can I easily share iTunes content from around the home network on it? I’d like share movies and TV on HD. What’s the downside?”
OK, so first: I didn’t really intend to buy an Apple TV. I needed a new A/V receiver, and the model I decided I wanted was a Denon, and for the warranty to be valid, you have to buy from an authorized Denon dealer, which means no discounts. The dealers work around this by throwing in free stuff, and the best “free stuff” offer at the time was a 40 Gb Apple TV. Since it’s just not possible for me to have too many Apple-branded gizmos, I figured “why not?” I’ve commented previously on a couple aspects of in this blog in the past, but I wanted to take on this question directly.
Now that I have one, I cannot for the life of me imagine not having one, or having something with the same kind of functionality. It’s like going from CDs to an iPod; it’s great to be able to have your whole music/movies/TV library all right there. It’s particularly fantastic with kids, since if they touch a disc it’ll never find its way back to a case later on, and they can choose a movie by the cover art even if they can’t read the movie title (not a problem anymore, though, as my 5-year-old is now reading really well). Anyway, once you get one, you simply cannot go back. I love having all the media on my computer available on my home theater in a fairly seamless way.
However, I also hate it. Why? Because it’s the redheaded stepchild of Apple’s lineup; Apple clearly doesn’t devote much attention to this product. It’s a great thing to have but it’s so frustrating because of what it can’t do and what it doesn’t do well—and it wouldn’t be that hard for it to do these things.
The first problem is that it has really weak HD capability. It doesn’t handle 1080p at all, and it only handles 720p up to 24 fps. This is a pain mostly because typical modern HD camcorders that shoot 720p generally shoot at 30 fps. This means you cannot watch your digital home movies directly on your Apple TV unless you either scale them down or downsample the frame rate. This is so mind-bogglingly stupid that it’s hard to imagine that a responsible adult made this decision. “Let’s sell a digital media product that can’t handle one of the major user-generated media formats.” OK, in fairness to Apple, the Apple TV predates the widespread availability of things like the Flip HD. However, Apple still hasn’t addressed the problem either. I believe this is a hardware limitation in the graphics chipset, but seriously, I would actually buy a new unit if it solved this problem. (For the record, ClipStart now handles this issue pretty well as it has an “Export to Apple TV” option. It’s still stupid that such a thing is necessary, though.)
The second problem is storage. 40 GB just isn’t very much. I know the new ones come with a minimum of 160 GB, but that’s not really very much, either. The most frustrating part is that there’s a USB port on the Apple TV. Why Apple won’t let customers attach their own USB drive to give the thing adequate storage is I simply cannot figure out. This means that my desktop computer has to be on all the time in order to serve media to the Apple TV. So, for instance, when I go out of town for work, I have to leave my computer on with me logged in while I’m away so that my iTunes library can be seen by the Apple TV. That’s stupid. If I could just attach an external USB drive, that would be so much more sensible.
Third is reliability and dealing with lack of same. I don’t get how this is such a problem; I run OS X as my primary OS on all my machines and I run all kinds of other weird things and they rarely crash. The Apple TV, on the other hand, crashes a lot. The problem is amplified by the fact that it’s such a pain to reset. There’s no power switch of any kind, so you have to get behind it and physically unplug it in order to reset it. This means you can’t really keep it in a cabinet or anything like that easily. (You probably wouldn’t want to anyway as the Apple TV also throws off a lot of heat.) Either the software reliability needs to be vastly improved, or they need to provide an easier way to reboot it.
Fourth is the UI. In many ways the UI is good—it’s very simple to set up and the kids can understand it and find what they want—but in other ways it’s not so great. Having thousands of songs and many moves doesn’t scale well to the very simple but very dumb Apple remote. Now, the “Remote” iPhone app is great, but I don’t always have my phone handy, whereas I always have a remote handy. Since it’s a Logitech Harmony remote, it could make use of many buttons, but of course the Apple TV software doesn’t support smarter remotes. Grr. The UI did improve some with the most recent software update, but it’s still not all it could be.
I cannot comment on how easy it is to connect multiple Macs to it, since we never do this. My understanding is that it’ll only sync with one iTunes library, but can stream from several. Streaming is fine, since we mostly stream since the internal storage on the thing is so tiny in the first place. I will note that we’re not streaming over wireless, however, as our house is relatively new and all wired with Cat5, so we stream over ethernet.
Would I get one again? Yes, we all love the functionality. If our current unit failed, we would replace it immediately. It’s definitely a nice thing to have. But it has so much more potential… and I don’t even care about being a DVR or playing blu-ray or anything, which many people seem to want. I have other devices for those things. I just want it to be better at what it does do, and that doesn’t seem to be too much to ask for.
July 28th, 2009
OK, so in my last confession I noted that Excel is my spreadsheet of choice. I should note, however, that there is one thing I absolutely do not use Excel for: graphing. My work is technical enough that I regularly need to make graphs. Frankly, Excel sucks for this. Excel’s defaults are awful. Here’s an exercise for the reader: make a bar graph using Excel’s defaults, and print it on a monochrome printer. You get gray bars on a lined gray background, making it visually impossible to differentiate anything. Nice job, Microsoft! (Now, you might argue that nobody uses monochrome anymore, but that’s not true; most journals in my field still print in monochrome, so they only take monochrome figures.) Furthermore, Excel handles the size of graphs in bizarre ways. If I know I want the x-axis to be 4 inches long, I guess you can get there in Excel, but woe to you if you try to simply resize the window—the graph resizes as well. Bleah.
This is another domain in which there used to be a great solution, and now there’s not. The best old-school graphing program for my money was Cricket Graph. Unfortunately, that died a long time ago. The closest thing to that, and what I have used for years now, is DeltaGraph. DeltaGraph is generally pretty good, though there are times when some of the features are better-hidden than they should be. A lot of operations require double-clicking on bits that aren’t immediately obvious, and you have to be pretty precise because double-clicking a few pixels away can give you the wrong dialog box; for example, you can end up with the dialog for grid lines and tick marks when you wanted the dialog for the axis title and units. On the other hand, DeltaGraph does a great job handling fussy bits of the graphs, like error bars. Graphs like this one, where the error bars are different for every graphed point, are actually handled quite well in DeltaGraph:
My only real gripe with DeltaGraph is that it’s getting a bit long in the tooth. It hasn’t been updated in some time and while it runs in OS X, it still feels like an OS 9 application in a lot of ways. Plus it’s gotten buggy and now generates more random crashes than it should. I’m starting to think that it’s been abandoned by its developers and so I’m now keeping an eye open for a new graphing program.
OmniGraphSketcher looks promising, but it doesn’t handle error bars well and so I can’t really go that way yet. Apple’s Numbers and Keynote have the same problem (that is, they also don’t handle error bars well). SPSS is a nightmare when it comes to graphs. Programs like ChartSmith and Aabel look like they might be OK, but they’re bloody expensive.
So, while DeltaGraph is hanging in there so far, I’m “in the market,” as it were. Suggestions welcome…
July 14th, 2009
For some people I am exactly the wrong person to ask about this. I am not artistically gifted; if anything, I’m one of those people who has trouble drawing a straight line even with a ruler. So what suits me here may not suit you, particularly if you’re artistically inclined. For me, doing drawing and diagrams on a computer is a godsend, because that’s the only way something even remotely reasonable can possibly be generated.
To wit: I don’t use Adobe Illustrator as anything other than a way to give a quick edit to something in a PDF file. Illustrator, for me, is like giving a huge load of fireworks to a 9-year-old. It might be fun and something pretty could happen, but mostly it’s just really dangerous for everybody. It’s like going after a fly with a bazooka, etc., you get the analogy.
For me, Illustrator is too general-purpose. Most of the drawing and diagrams that I do are flowchart-like system diagrams and stuff like room layouts. I don’t freehand draw, I put arrows in between labelled objects. My tool of choice for this kind of thing is OmniGraffle Pro, despite the goofy name—WTF is a graffle, anyway?
I think of OmniGraffle as a diagramming tool which also happens to support some more general-purpose drawing. While it has some foibles, it is generally an excellent piece of software which not just lets me do what I want, but helps me do what I want, because in this domain, assistance is much appreciated.
Years ago I used to use Inspiration as both my outliner and my diagramming program, but Inspiration, while it runs in OS X, really hasn’t kept up with the times.
The bad news is that OmniGraffle isn’t cheap. The Pro version retails for $200 ($120 academic), which is not trivial for software that isn’t, for me, an everyday piece of software. However, when I really need a flowchart or something similar, I really need one, and OmniGraffle is the way to go for me.
I’ve looked at other programs like LineForm and Intaglio and while they seem like nice drawing programs, they aren’t really diagramming tools, and I need a diagramming tool. LineForm is sold explicitly as an Illustrator competitor, and while certainly a lot less expensive than Illustrator, it’s $100. (Considering that academic bundles that include Illustrator can be had for only a few hundred, that’s not much of a savings.) Intaglio is somewhat less full-featured and slightly cheaper ($90). Intaglio does have one particularly cool feature for those of us who have been around for a while: it can open ClarisDraw files. I wasn’t a big user of ClarisDraw but that may be a big deal to the few folks out there who were. So, if you’re in the market for a moderately cheap but decent drawing (but not really diagramming) program, though, those seem like good things to look into.
I guess the other tool to discuss here is Zengobi’s Curio. Curio is a funky but likeable program but it’s very hard to describe. It’s sort a graphic information management tool, and it includes drawing tools and outlining and a whole bunch of other stuff all in one package. While I do occasionally use Curio, I don’t use it as my primary diagramming tool because it just isn’t as good at diagrams as OminGraffle. Curio’s name will come up again (and could have already as a presentation program, because it’ll do that, too) because it has features that touch on many other areas.
July 7th, 2009
I don’t do a lot of serious work with spreadsheets. Most of my data either ends up getting dealt with in stats packages or if it’s something requiring anything custom, I’ll write a program of my own to deal with it. I use spreadsheets mostly for things like grade rosters, when I do my taxes, and for non-mission-critical work like fantasy football rankings.
I own three spreadsheets: Apple’s Numbers, Microsoft’s Excel, and Mariner Calc. Those of you who follow along here are probably expecting another round of Microsoft-bashing, so perhaps this will be a surprise, but I don’t think there’s any real contest here: Excel is clearly the champ here.
Before I get into this, another historical note: my favorite Mac spreadsheet used to be Informix Wingz, which was then later rebranded as Claris Resolve. Powerful functions, great graphics, and a macro language which was actually parseable by humans (based on HyperTalk, how cool is that?). This was software that was way, way ahead of its time in 1989—no current spreadsheet is nearly as good. Progress is, unfortunately, not always forward.
This is a battle of attrition: I don’t really like Excel all that much, but the other two are just not ready for prime time. Mariner Calc is OK, but it lacks the statistical functions that I need (like z-, t-, F- and chi square distributions), I’ve found more than one error in calculations (I’ve reported them and Mariner claims that they’re fixed, but who knows if there are more?), and the UI just doesn’t make it. For example, when you’re in a cell, the row and column indicators don’t change to indicate where you are in the spreadsheet, like so:
Not really that big a deal when you’re in C5, but when you’re in K39 it’s often useful to know, visually, what row and column you’re in—like in every other spreadsheet I’ve ever used. I requested this feature ages ago, but Mariner never did anything with it. This is just a dumb UI fail, a “please don’t buy our product” signal from the developers.
Now, Numbers. Numbers is an interesting effort from Apple, an attempt to kind of change the paradigm for spreadsheets. Instead of the “sheet” being the basic unit, the “table” is the central unit, and each sheet can have multiple tables—and of course each document can have multiple sheets. This is kind of interesting and there are certainly advantages to doing things this way, but it does add a lot of clutter if you just want one single very large table (and no others) because there’s all this screen real estate devoted to managing multiple tables in a sheet that you won’t need. OTOH, there are some cool things that this enables, as multiple separate tables on a single page can be useful, particularly for things that have to be printed out. So, there are things about Numbers that I like, but there are just as many that I hate. Here are the two things I hate the most:
• Exporting from a Numbers document is incredibly cumbersome. This is important, because lots of other apps like simple and dumb, but also highly portable, you-know-everything-will-be-able-to-read-it-in-10-years formats like tab-delimited text. First of all, Numbers doesn’t even support tab-delimited text. WTF? It supports CSV, but I hate CSV because CSV files aren’t as human-readable, and commas are crappy delimiters because lots of data has commas in it one way or another. Second, Numbers handles multiple sheets/tables incredibly stupidly: you can only export the entire document, every single sheet and table, or nothing. You can’t just export the part you want. Mind-numbing.
• Sorting is stupid. Numbers won’t let you sort only a part of a table; again, it’s all-or-nothing. (Technically, this isn’t quite true; it’s possible to sort only some rows, but when you do, it still sorts all columns for those rows. Ugh.) This just defies any reasonable logic whatsoever. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh. This completely defies my mental model for how a spreadsheet should work, and I can’t stand it. I don’t care how much of a “new paradigm” this thing is supposed to be, it should not completely break major chunks of previous knowledge about how spreadsheets work.
The other kind of stunning thing about Numbers is that there’s no way to edit a Numbers spreadsheet on an iPhone—at least, none that I’ve been able to find. The great irony is that there are many iPhone apps that will allow you to edit Excel spreadsheets on an iPhone, but not Numbers. (Double irony: Mariner’s Calc iPhone app will let you edit Excel sheets, but not Calc sheets. WTF?) Hey, Apple, fantastic job on platform integration there! (Side note: I like having small spreadsheets on my iPhone for small tasks, and usually all the editing I do is enter data onto them, but that’s enough that it’s useful.)
So, the winner—again, mostly by attrition—is Excel. I’m not thrilled with Excel, of course, as the launch time is hideously long and it has some UI quirks of its own, and of course is full of Microsoft bloat. However, Excel seems to do a better job of containing that bloat than the other Office apps and so it’s bearable. I think this is an area where a third-party really could compete with the big boys, but none has yet risen to the challenge.
June 30th, 2009
My App Store review, in blog form…
First and foremost, I love the price. Free with no adware, that’s perfect for a Twitter client. I’d pay a buck, maybe two at most, for a Twitter client. Five bucks is right out.
However, TweetDeck has some issues:
• It crashes… often. Usually on launch, and other times for no apparent reason. This should be the developer’s #1 priority.
• It misses tweets! If someone you follow does an @reply but tries to broadcast it using “.@,” TweetDeck still doesn’t show it.
• I know the hipsters all love the white-on-black color scheme, but I’d really like at least the option to go with the more traditional black-on-white. This is particularly problematic in really bright light conditions.
• Needs better support for #hashtags. Right now they don’t do anything.
• I’d like the option to launch a URL in Safari rather than in TweetDeck itself.
• No landscape mode for composing tweets.
It’s a good start for a 1.0 and could be great… certainly worth hanging onto for the price, though I’m going to keep an eye on TweetFlip…