March 12, 2011

Pump Up The Volume

I think what confused me was that before Apple made the change to using the hardware switch for mute on the iPad, if you turned the volume all the way down, everything went silent. After the change, that is no longer the case; you need to engage the mute switch to silence everything.

I expected the functionality to be like before, but it's not. Now I understand. Still weird, though.

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iPad2 Musings

A few notes about my new iPad2. I love it and there is no way you could pry it out of my cold, dead hands, though I am surprised at a few shortcomings.

- The Smart Cover is really cool, but also adds bulk and weight that makes it hard to hold. In addition, the metal attaching strip digs into your hand. Finally, the magnet on the opposite edge, that holds it against the device, isn't that strong, so the cover is always peeling away from the back while I'm holding it. That means I have to pay more attention to how I hold it in order for it to not be uncomfortable. At least it's easy to detach and reattach, so when it gets bothersome, I just yank it off. God, that's so cool.

- Smart Cover aside, the feel and thickness is much improved. It may not be that much lighter (1.3 vs 1.5 lbs.) but the changes to the shape at the edges makes it feel much more like one of those tablets from Star Trek. It still feels sturdy, just thinner and not as bulky.

- The new speaker "grille" makes it harder to accidentally muffle the speaker while holding the device. Even with my hand fully covering it, I could barely perceive a difference in volume. Compare that with the original where holding the device in one particular orientation virtually guaranteed muting.

- Maybe this isn't something unique to the iPad2 (I didn't update my original iPad to 4.3), but when i set the pref to make the hardware switch be an orientation lock, there is now no way to mute the sounds on the device. Even turning the volume all the way down doesn't help. Sure, music and videos are silent, but the UI sounds like typing on the keyboard or locking the device are still audible. Lame.

- Everything feels so smooth, there is virtually no jank anywhere in the UI. The extra RAM helps, I'm sure. It really is a pleasure to use because every action and reaction feels instantaneous, even more so than previous hardware.

- Strangely, when I first synced, about half of my apps decided they didn't want to come over to the new device. I had to go and manually check them and then drag them back to their previous locations. I didn't seem to lose any data, but it was still annoying, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to which apps didn't make the cut.

- Another compliant related to "device-switching", when you have samples in your iBooks library, they don't get backed up or transferred to your new device. Samples on Amazon get transferred, why won't iBooks do the same?

- Battery life seems fine to me, no real surprise there.

- I should probably devote an entire blog entry to GarageBand, but I wanted to say something while I was on a roll. Even on the original iPad, it's awesome. Buy it now. The level of innovation, polish, coolness, and fun is only surpassed by its $5 price tag. Plus it has a multi-track recorder, something that's a $15 add-on to some music apps, and dedicated apps sell for as high as $40 -- for an iPad app! The "smart instruments" are great, even if you can play the instrument already. In fact, is almost better if you can because you get an amazing amount of control over something you would expect to be dumbed down for a novice. I was impressed.

I'm sure I'll have more comments as I use it even more.

(written on my iPad2 with iA Writer)

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February 25, 2011

Pen(ultimate) and Paper

After struggling with Penultimate for several months, wishing...no, willing it to work for me, I'm on the verge of going to a bookstore and buying a Moleskine notebook. The paper kind. With lines.

I feel this is the only real failing of my iPad, and it saddens me greatly. It's not really the iPad's fault at all. Software developers just haven't yet made the correct mix of usability and performance. As I've chronicled (at length) before, the apps with great usability have sucky writing and the ones with good writing have a sucky interface. I'm sick of it. I just want something to work.

My OCD paralyzes me when I stare at an empty page, but I have a similar paralysis when about to write in Penultimate. Will it drop my strokes, trying to implement its (sub-optimal) wrist protection? Or will the protection just fail outright and scribble all over the bottom of the page? Judging by the forums, I'm not alone in my frustration, but the reviews are all glowing on the AppStore. I don't get it. It makes me feel even more broken than I already am. The result is that I don't want to write in it, and that's even worse, because I need to write things down for work.

Now I guess I get to buy a notebook. I'm sick of spiral bound books. The pages and cover always seem to rip long before I'm finished with it. I'm sick of composition books; I'm not in 8th grade creative writing class. I want something sophisticated, yet functional. Apparently that costs almost $20 a book. And yes, that drives me every other kind of crazy.

Of course, the first step in purchasing something is finding it in a store and handing someone money in trade. This turns out to be harder than you might expect for one of these books. They don't sell them everywhere, mostly in Borders and Barnes&Nobles. Still sounds easy, two huge chains with lots of stock and tons of stores? I tried the first Borders, they didn't have any notebooks with lines in the size I wanted. I went to another bookstore, they had closed. Doors shut, paper over the windows. I tried the Borders at the airport, same deal with no lines. I walked around Chelsea in Manhattan looking for a B&N, and guess what? Closed. I have one more store to try on Monday, but I'm not holding my breathe. Yes, I can buy one on Amazon, for $9 no less, but I want to hold it in my hands before I buy it. I want the instant gratification for this purchase, to feel if this is really what I want before I put the money down. This, it seems, is simply not to be.

This whole endeavor is full of fail. Fancy, luscious, supple, overpriced notebook fail. With lines.

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Vindicated

Remember that blog post I wrote recently about scrolling on the desktop with a trackpad? Seems like Apple has listened to me.

Now why won't The Daily developers listen to me and make their app background-aware? I mean, it's not that hard. Even if it was, thinking it's not important to get right, even on the third revision, shows they either don't use their own app, or don't care, or both.

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January 22, 2011

Back-seat Surfer

With the recent addition of a GoogleTV to my system, I've been thinking a lot about what problem this actually solves. Why would people want to integrate the web with their television viewing?

When watching tv, Jo and I always have at least one internet-connected device close at hand. Whether it's an iPhone, iPad, netbook, or MacBook, the interwebs are always within reach. That's a good thing, because we are always looking things up as we watch: "What else has she been in?" "How much does that cost on Amazon?" "What was the name of that show/song/movie/group?" "Weren't they just in rehab?" You get the idea.

So wouldn't a device that could seach at the press of a button, right on your television, be perfect? The main issue, which I believe none of the designers of these devices has thought about, and certainly haven't addressed, is that while everybody wants to surf on the tv, nobody wants to watch someone *else* surf on the tv. Think about how much you like a back-seat driver. With one person driving the remote, that's exactly what you get. It's painful to watch, and painful to listen to. It's painful for everyone in the room, and it ruins the experience.

What I really want is the ability (like on the new hit drama Hawaii 5-0) to look up the information on one device and then when I've found it, send it to a common screen. Whether it's a cool flick of the wrist or a simple "send to" button, the result is what you want to share -- not the process.

Solve this and you've got yourself a winner, in my eyes. Then again, maybe my googleTV already has this feature. Too bad there's no manual, so I won't ever know.

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January 8, 2011

Sliding backwards

There has been a lot of chatter in the past few days as apps from iOS have made their way onto Mac os x with the debut of the app store. A lot has been said about the iOS-ification of the Mac and how it's leading to the downfall of civilization as we know it. Honestly, I don't have a problem with it. Well-designed apps are well-designed apps, and those that aren't, well, aren't. If it's well-designed I'll use it.

One thing that has struck me is something very subtle, something that has nothing at all to do with the appearance or the animations: scrolling. All my macs have trackpads, magic or otherwise, so I don't often use a mouse or a scroll wheel. Everything is accomplished with a flick or a swipe or two or three fingers sliding across a smooth surface.

On the Mac, sliding down with two fingers scrolls down. We are all used to this (even my mother, I think). However, on iOS, sliding down with a finger scrolls *up* -- the opposite direction. We are all used to this as well. It's natural on an iOS device, because it's direct-manipulation. To do anything else would feel wrong.

So why am I bothering to bring this up at all? As more Mac apps (Reeder, Twitter, etc) begin to look stunningly like their iOS counterparts (iOS scrollbars and all), something feels wrong as you use them for a while. That something is scrolling. If it looks like iOS, my brain expects direct manipulation scrolling (since my finger is simply gliding over glass, it can't really tell the difference). However, on the Mac, that's not at all what you get. The result is this weird feeling that the world is backwards, as if the laws of physics are somehow jumbled.

I don't know what can be done about this really, I just wanted to point it out.

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January 1, 2011

Daytum

I've started playing with Daytum because I saw they recently added a new iPhone interface. Yes, I am a sucker for these things. This should be no surprise by now.

Basically, Daytum is a way to log, organize, and share your everyday data, such as the number of sodas that you drink, what you eat for lunch, how many miles you run, how many books you read, or the number of times you blog. There's no limitation to what you use it for, it's totally open-ended.

Well, except you have to come up with stuff to organize. The site doesn't really do a very good job of providing examples. They do, however, show you what everyone else is organizing, and that's another interesting angle of the service. If you use it for free, you have no privacy controls. Everything is public, and may be shared on their homepage to everyone passing by. For $4/mo, you can subscribe and get privacy controls, as well as other features, but I'm not sure how many people are actually doing that.

Alas, there is no iPad-optimized interface, though their mobile site works in a pinch. I'm also a little disappointed there is no Chrome extension. Seems like something they would want to add. I think I would use it more if I could access it from anywhere in my browser.

I'm curious to see if this can help me at all, as again I'm not really sure what I'd want to track, or more importantly, what I'd want to track that I wouldn't mind the entire interwebs seeing. Most of the things I would normally track (such as my workouts, or my study habits for Japanese) are already tracked in other, more specialized, apps. I guess the only way to know for sure is to try it out.

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December 23, 2010

Sync

I noticed that CulturedCode finally put up a blog about their sync story for Things. The gist of it is "sync is hard, we underestimated it." I'm glad to see they're owning up to it, but I'm a little surprised. Every one of their competitors has had something shipping, or in beta, for a long time now. Even if they didn't have the server infrastructure, they could have leveraged MobileMe, like OmniGroup did, in the short term. Instead, they came up with a generic solution, but what do they need that for? Seems like a massive case of over-engineering.

We'll soon know more details, as they claim they're going to be more forthcoming with their updates. I sure hope so, they owe their users that much. That said, they still haven't said when the feature will be available.

I think this comment sums up my feelings: "Judging by the comments here (and elsewhere), in the amount of time that has been spent trying to build a perfect, scalable sync framework, they’ve hemorrhaged a vast portion of their customer base to other apps."

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I Just Want To Write

I've been struggling lately to find a note-taking app that doesn't have some major deficiency. As you can tell from my past posts, I'm aching to replace my paper composition books with my iPad, but everything I try has some fatal flaw that makes it less than suitable for my needs.

I first want to make something clear: my handwriting is actually pretty good. It's not like I'm trying to spin straw into gold. When writing on paper, I have no problem at all with writing cleanly. My Newton always recognized my handwriting. However, even with a stylus, note apps seem to want to make me feel like I should get a D- in handwriting.

Here is a rundown of the apps I have purchased and use (in no particular order):

Penultimate

If my recent app-store review isn't telling, I'm not too happy with Penultimate despite its glowing reviews. The lack of any zoom is both good and bad. Without it, the page feels like writing on a real notebook. However, with a smaller writing area than a notebook, it doesn't work in practice.
Pros: silky smooth writing, simple UI, beautiful look and feel, feels most like a real notebook.
Cons: makes my writing look like chicken scratch, sometimes drops strokes, wrist protection only half-works, can barely fit anything on a page, can't highlight. I could go on...
(A CocoaBox employee on the forums responded to my complaints about the wrist protection and said they are rebuilding it from the ground up.)

Notes Plus

I think if it worked perfectly, this would be my choice for general note taking, as it seems to blend the UI goodness of Penultimate with the advanced writing capabilities of NTHD. Alas, it doesn't.
Pros: clean ui, ability to draw shapes and add typed text, zoom mode.
Cons: very janky when writing, lots of flashing, performance problems while writing at even a moderate pace.
(I've contacted the author and showed him videos I made of the jank and he thinks he knows how to fix some cases, but I've yet to see any updates.)

Note Taker HD

I keep coming back to this because the writing "just works", even if the UI is spectacularly bad.
Pros: perfectly-executed zoom mode, ability to annotate PDFs, great performance.
Cons: the over-complicated UI needs a complete overhaul.

I want to like Penultimate for its UI and smoothness, but I can't get more than five words per line of something that, if I squint, barely resembles my handwriting (this doesn't seem to be a problem for anyone else on the app store or their forums). I want to like NotesPlus, but its performance issues are too great to ignore (hopefully fixes are coming). I have a hard time getting around NTHD because of its backwards and inconsistent UI, but alas, when I get down to writing, its the only one that really works.

I don't think I'm asking for too much here.

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November 22, 2010

Evernote

While investigating note taking apps, many of the comments also discussed solutions for archiving the notes once taken. This led into my discovery of Evernote, which has free ipad and desktop apps, as well as a web interface. I signed up for a free account and decided to give the various apps a whirl.

The first thing I noticed while playing with the ipad version was how limited it was. You can't tag items, create new tags, or even new notebooks. I guess it's useful for retrieving information, not for creating or organizing it. That seems like a major drawback, as I'm generally not at my desk when I need to enter something. I also can't create anything but text notes. I can't create checklists at all, and editing a bulleted list from the iPad is restricted to appending plain text to the note. Again, limiting for no reason.

In another oversight, there is no simple way to install the web clipper into mobile Safari, even though it's just a Javascript bookmarklet. The only way is to install is to drag and drop it on my bookmark bar, something I clearly can't do on the iPad. I also can't long-press and copy the URL because of the way they have it coded. If only they bothered to try it, they would see how hard it was to use.

I figured all these problems would be alleviated with the desktop version. Yes, and no. While I was free to create and organize to my heart's content (as well as integrate with my web browser for collection), the interface is clunky, buggy, and just not very pleasant to use. I was easily able to create a new tag, but applying it was rather unintuitive. It took me several tries to get it to work. I also found a bug where the tag had the correct name, but when applied to a note it displayed as "new tag".

The biggest problem I have is that I really can't figure out what to do with it. I can store some personal notes in it, but I really can't use it for work as I can't trust uploading confidential info to a third-party. So what do I use it for?

I did clip a hotel reservation confirmation from my browser, which I imagine will come in handy when I get to my destination. Then again, so would having it in my Gmail inbox. Now it's just one more site in the cloud to forget where I put my stuff. And, if and when I do find it, I won't be able to organize the note so that I can find it again - unless I'm on my desktop.

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November 21, 2010

Penultimate Isn't That Ultimate

Here is the text of the review I wrote for Penultimate, which I figured I'd try after seeing all the good reviews and the very nice user interface.

My overall impression is that I'm disappointed with Penultimate, especially compared to other offerings. Here are my main complaints:

- even with the "thin" pen, the pen is still too thick. While the strokes are very smooth, it renders my handwriting into stylized chicken scratch.
- I can only get about five words on a line, which is less than a normal wide-ruled composition book. With NoteTaker HD, I get about fourteen or fifteen words per line. You also don't get any margins, so you get even less room than a paper notebook. I don't understand how people can use this as a serious tool. I'm always running out of space!
- the wrist protector works most of the time, but I still end up with lots of stray marks at the bottom of the page by the time I'm done. I have to pause to erase the lines and dots when I get near the bottom.
- no way to add pages in the middle or delete pages.
- each notebook can only have a single paper type.
- all pens are fully opaque so you can't highlight anything without crossing it out.
- while writing is mostly smooth, it often loses entire strokes, leaving me with half-formed letters or missing crossed t's.

The user interface is very clean and well thought-out, which is why I can give it some leeway, and why I really want to like it. However, I can barely get enough written on a page to make it worthwhile. This isn't for serious note takers.

(As an aside, I finally broke down and bought iA's Writer, which helped author this post. I really like it.)

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