Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Having it all: Accessing files from the road

    


Reader Aiden Andrews is planning to venture out but would like some of his most important files available to him. He writes:
I’m planning to be away from my home office for a couple of weeks but will take my MacBook Pro and iPad with me so I can work while traveling. What’s the best way for me to best arrange things so I have access to my files and can share them between my computer and iPad?
With the prevalence of cloud storage and mobile devices lots of people are interested in the most efficient ways to share their work. There is no one right answer but I can sketch out some of your options.
The digital hub: If you’ve used a Mac for awhile you may recall Apple’s “digital hub” strategy. The idea is that the Mac operated in an octopudinal way, where you’d tether your various devices to it and manage all your stuff with your computer—no cloud necessary as everything you needed was on your computer.
There’s no crime in continuing to manage your stuff this way. Just copy all the files you could possibly need to your Mac. Should you need to put some of those files on your iPad, attach the Mac to your laptop with its syncing cable, launch iTunes, select the iPad in iTunes’ Source list, click the App tab in iTunes main window, move down to the File Sharing area, select the app you want to share files with (Pages, for example), and drag the compatible files you want to sync into the sharing area. They’ll be copied to the iPad and available from within the app you chose.
One of the attractions of iOS devices in this regard is that—unlike with other kinds of media—iTunes won’t throw a fit if you’ve jacked in an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch that a particular Mac isn’t synced with. Apple wisely allows “unknown” iOS devices to be plugged into any Mac for the purposes of file sharing.
Add files to your iPad within iTunes' File Sharing area
The shortcoming of the digital hub is that you’re stuck with whatever you’ve brought along with you. If you’ve forgotten a file or traipsed off on an outing with just your iPad in hand without syncing an important file to that device, you’re largely out of luck.
iCloud: If you’re running Mac OS X Mountain Lion on your Mac and iOS 6 on your iPad, you likely have an iCloud account. With iCloud’s document sharing it’s difficult to not share certain kinds of files to Apple’s cloud service as applications such as Pages, Numbers, Keynote, and TextEdit choose iCloud as their default location for saving files. As long as you have an Internet connection, any files you’ve created in these applications and saved to iCLoud will be available to your laptop and iPad provided that you have copies of the host applications on these devices.
The problem with iCloud storage is that it’s limited to a few Apple applications. If you have files of other types, iCloud is no help to you.
Online storage: For the greatest cloud flexibility you’ll look to services such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or SugarSync. With a Dropbox account you get 2GB of free storage plus 500MB of additional storage for everyone you refer to the service. Google Drive and SugarSync each offer 5GB of free storage. All three services allow you to purchase additional storage. They also all offer iOS apps for accessing your stored files.
Use Dropbox to access files stored in the cloud
While you can use those apps to get to your files stored in the ether, I’m a fan of the $5 GoodReader app. GoodReader can download and open many files stored on these services. And when it can’t, its handy Open In command lets you open files in an app that can deal with them—for example, you can open EPUB files in iBooks or move many kinds of image files to the Photos app. GoodReader is a must-have on all my iOS devices.
Back to your Mac: Fat lot of good an online storage service does you if you’ve neglected to upload the files you need to that service before you’ve taken off for the gentle slopes of Lower Slobenia. For this very reason I make sure that I can remotely reach my Mac.
Apple offers its Back To My Mac service that lets you view and control a remote Mac. In such a scenario you could then add the files you want to Dropbox, Google Drive, or SugarSync, or play it old-school and simply email the files you need to yourself. When Back To My Mac works it can be wonderful—particularly since it can use the Wake on Demand feature supported by latish-model AirPort Base Stations and Time Capsules running firmware 7.4.2 or later. Without going into great detail about Wake on Demand, this means that even if your Mac is asleep (but, on a laptop, with the lid open) you can wake it remotely and access your files. (Read the linked document to see how your Mac supports this feature.)
One difficulty is that Back To My Mac works best with one of these Apple routers and if you don’t have one (or find that Back To My Mac simply doesn’t work even with Apple’s hardware) you could be in the soup. In addition, you can’t use Back To My Mac from an iOS device.
Fortunately there are other ways to access your Mac. Because I’m a cheapskate and it works, I favor the free version of LogMeIn. You can use it to access a remote Mac from an iOS device as well as a computer. It works this way:
Register an account with LogMeIn and download the Mac server client to your home or office Mac. When you’re planning to be away, fire up that server and leave your Mac running. (You won’t be able to access it if the Mac is asleep.)
When you want to access your remote Mac from your laptop, point your web browser at the LogMeIn web site, log in, and, using the LogMeIn plug-in, log into your Mac.
Log into your rermote Mac from an iPad with LogMeIn
If you’re using an iOS device, download the free LogMeIn app. Launch the app, enter the email address and password associated with your LogMeIn account, and in a short time you should see your Mac’s screen. Use the recommended gestures to navigate around your Mac, locate your files, and place them somewhere you can retrieve them.
As you can see, there are many ways to attack this problem. I’d suggest using a combination of these techniques. Do so and you should never be without the files you need.

Building better reminders: Quick to-dos and audible alerts

    



Lion’s iCal and Mountain Lion’s Calendar applications have made creating events easier by way of the Create Quick Event feature, which allows you to use natural language such as “lunch with Dan tomorrow” to set up an event. But more convenient still is the ability to create an event or reminder from within any application with the press of a couple of keys. I’ll show you how to do both. Even better, I’ll describe how to enhance one of those methods to make it even more useful…and audible.

Create reminders quickly

Mountain Lion's to-do items no longer live in Calendar, having earned a spot in their own Reminders application. Yes, you can click Reminders in the Dock and then click the plus-sign (+) to make a new reminder. But with the help of an easy Automator workflow, you can keep your hands on the keyboard and make reminders using a keyboard shortcut. It works this way:
Launch Automator, and from the workflow chooser that appears, select Service. Click the Choose button. Configure the pop-up menus in the top portion of the window so that it reads Service receives no input in any application.
Select Calendar in the Library pane, and then drag the New Reminders Item entry that appears in the second column into the workflow area. Click the Options button, enable the Show this action when the workflow runs option, press Command-S to save the workflow, give the service a name such as Quick Reminder, and click the Save button.
A simple Automator workflow can help you create reminders without needing to open the Reminders app.
Move to the Finder, choose Finder > Services, and select your Quick Reminder service from the menu. A New Reminders Item window will appear. Here you can provide a title, add the reminder to a new or existing list, assign a priority, and assign a due date. Click Continue to create the reminder.
To assign a keyboard shortcut to the service, launch System Preferences, choose the Keyboard preference, and click the Keyboard Shortcuts tab in the resulting window. In that window, select the Services item and, at the bottom of the list on the right side, choose your Quick Reminder service. Click the add shortcut button and enter a shortcut—Command-Control-R, for example. When you next press that keyboard shortcut, a New Reminders Item window should appear regardless of which application you’re currently working in.
Use the Keyboard preferences pane to assign a shortcut to the service you created.

Make custom audio alerts

The one unfortunate gotcha in this workflow is that although the New Reminders Item allows you to enter a due date for the reminder, you can’t assign a time to it. And that means you might dismiss an alert that pops up hours before you intend to act on that reminder, resulting in your forgetting about it entirely. For this reason a reminder isn’t the best way to receive alerts for events that will happen at a specific time of day. Instead, you should use a calendar alert. But don't use just any calendar alert—use one that propels you out of the “Yeah, yeah, dismiss” mindset and moves you to immediate action.
Last year I discussed how to use Automator to quickly create a calendar event from outside iCal. This technique saves you the bother of opening your calendar program and running through the many steps usually required to create an event. Let's now enhance that workflow to make it more audibly interesting. Mountain Lion lets you choose to play a sound when you receive a Calendar notification, but you don’t have the option to use a custom sound. Are we going to stand for that? No we are not!
Get noisy: To create your custom calendar audio alerts, first you need to record the sound. Launch QuickTime Player (/Applications) and choose File > New Audio Recording. In the Audio Recording window that appears, click the red Record button. Shout “Hey! This is important!” into your Mac’s microphone, and then click the Stop button. Choose File > Export; in the window that appears, enter Important! as the file name. In the Format pop-up menu underneath, choose Audio Only. Choose the desktop as the location to save your file, and click the Export button. QuickTime will export a 256-kbps AAC file.
(If that seems like too much bother, feel free to use this file. Be sure to change its name to Important!)
Export your custom audio file from QuickTime so that you can use it.
Begin to build your workflow: Now it's time to make your workflow. Launch Automator, select Service from the workflow chooser, and then click Choose. Click the Calendar library, and drag New Calendar Events into the workflow area. Click the Options button and enable the Show this action when the workflow runs option.
Add audio with an AppleScript... You have two ways to add your audio alert to the workflow. First up, AppleScript: Open AppleScript Editor (/Applications/Utilities), and in the Untitled window that appears enter
do shell script "afplay /Users/yourusername/Desktop/Important!.m4a"
 where yourusername is, of course, the short name of your user account (“chris,” for example). Choose File > Export; in the sheet that appears, enter Important Alert as the file name, and from the File Format menu choose Application. Choose to save the file to the desktop, and click Save.
Add an AppleScript that invokes your custom audio to the workflow. 
In the New Calendar Events action, click the Alarm pop-up menu and choose Open file. Drag your Important Alert AppleScript application to the second pop-up menu (see the screenshot above). Save your workflow. If you like, assign a keyboard shortcut to it as explained previously.
...Or, create a system sound instead:  If you’d rather not mess around with AppleScript, you can add audio to your reminders another way, but this method also requires a few steps. Launch iTunes, and choose iTunes > Preferences. Select the General tab and then click the Import Settings button. In the Import Settings window that appears, choose AIFF Encoder from the Import Using pop-up menu, and click OK.
If you want to add your custom alert to your workflow in a different way, you need to export the audio in AIFF format. iTunes can do the job.
Now drag the audio file you created in QuickTime Player into iTunes. Select it and choose Advanced > Create AIFF Version. iTunes will make a copy of the file. Drag this copy from your iTunes library to the desktop. Click the file’s name and change its extension from .aif to .aiff. (This conversion from AAC to AIFF is necessary because the Mac will play only AIFF-encoded sound files as alerts.)
In the Finder, select Go > Go To Folder and type /System/Library/Sounds in the text field; click Go. Drag your Important!.aiff file into the Sounds folder that appears. In the resulting window, click Authenticate, enter an administrator’s username and password, and click OK. The file will be added.
Go back to the Automator workflow you began earlier. In the New Calendar Events action, choose Message with sound in the Alarm pop-up menu; in the pop-up menu to its right, select your Important! sound. Save the workflow.
Here's the workflow that uses a custom system sound. 
Assign a keyboard shortcut to this workflow as described earlier. Now, when you wish to create a calendar event with the Important! audio alert, just invoke the service with your keyboard shortcut. In the New Calendar Events window that appears, you’ll be prompted to enter the details for your event. When the alert for that event kicks in, you’ll hear your custom alert sound rather than just another beep, boop, or pop.

Hands on with iBooks Author 2.0

  


Originally released in early 2012, Apple’s education-themed ebook creation tool took bold steps as the first WYSIWYG program to export an ebook just as its author envisioned it. As I noted in my review of that software, however, the first version of iBooks Author was very much a 1.0 product, with strange omissions and odd workflows for users who didn’t want to build textbooks. Ten months later, an updated version—iBooks Author 2.0 (Mac App Store)—brings simplified tools, new templates, portrait-only options, and a better publishing workflow to the table. Naturally, I couldn't resist taking the updated program for a spin.

Not just for textbooks anymore

Though Apple’s software still clearly slants toward the education market, this second version of iBooks Author acknowledges that people might want to create other styles and types of books. The template chooser offers three new landscape templates: Photo Book, which emphasizes big images alongside text; Antique, reminiscent of an old storybook; and Cookbook, self-explanatory and nice for authors planning to publish or collect recipes.
Like iBooks Author's textbook templates, the new landscape templates are organized by chapter and section, and have a mandatory glossary, but the section headers look less like they belong in a textbook. (The new templates ditch the outline-style Section 1.1 and 1.1.1 section heads in favor of a simple Section 1.)

Portrait-only options (but no iPhone love)

In addition to the three new landscape templates, iBooks Author introduces portrait-only templates, which seem to be aimed toward Apple’s new iPad mini. Most of the new portrait-only templates skew away from the textbook design, instead targeting specific reading genres: Biography and Photo Book offer basic designs for those book types, while Gazette, Classic Text, and Charcoal take their cues from storybooks and picture books. Modern Basic is the lone new textbook-style template, and even it leans more toward minimalistic how-to than full-fledged instructional manual. In total, the program offers nine new templates (though you can always purchase additional templates from non-Apple vendors or create your own in-program).
iBooks Author 2.0 offers several portrait-only orientation choices.
Unlike landscape-oriented books, which show reflowed text in portrait orientation, the new portrait-only templates are fixed-format and thus have a fixed font size. This may explain why iBooks Author continues to bypass the iPhone and the iPod touch: Fixed-format book text can look outrageously small on the 4-inch screen of an iPhone 5 or iPod touch.
That said, if Apple's concern involves disappointing customers with small text, I'm confused as to why it allows publishers to sell iPhone versions of non-iBooks Author fixed-format ebooks on the iBookstore, rather than disallow anything but flowing text on its smallest devices. As it stands, iBooks Author is a segmented product—one that can only serve half of the iOS devices Apple makes—and that keeps it from being a truly compelling tool for the majority of iBookstore publishers.

Widgets, widgets, everywhere

The Pop-Over Widget lets you hide the pop-over behind text.
iBooks Author debuted with a decent number of interactive elements; in 2.0, Apple tacks on Pop-Over and Scrolling Sidebar options, adds support for LaTeX and MathML mathematical equations, and tweaks the Audio widget.
Add a Pop-Over widget to your book, and you get a blank image along with a pop-over bubble. You can’t manually choose where the pop-over appears; that placement depends on the location of the accompanying image. And the image is mandatory: You can’t turn a word in your text into a pop-over. (You can hide the image behind your text to get the same effect, but the process for doing so is incredibly clunky, and I don’t recommend it.)
Widgets let you add creative touches to your book.
The Scrolling Sidebar widget gives you a nice way to present extra content on a single page: It should be useful for elements such as tips and helpful notes within a how-to book; users will undoubtedly come up with other creative uses for it. One other neat thing: The Sidebar and Pop-Over widgets accept both images and text.
I couldn't test iBooks Author 2.0’s LaTeX and MathML integration thoroughly, as I have little experience with mathematical equation programs. If you're interested, however, Apple has a document on its website detailing the terms that iBooks Author’s new Equations prompt will recognize. Inserting an equation seems fairly simple: Go to the Insert menu, click Equation, and paste in your LaTeX or MathML code.
The new Equation feature lets you add and edit equations.
Users who like to embed audio in their books will appreciate the Audio widget’s new formatting options: In addition to the traditional play button, you can display a scrubber or disguise the audio button as an image.

Simplified publication options—sort of

As part of version 2, Apple says, iBooks Author supports an “improved publishing workflow, including automatic sample book creation and pre-publish checking.” Creating a sample book is definitely easier: You can export your project specifically as a sample from the Export menu, or you can go through the Publish option to create a sample from one of your chapters automatically. As for the rest of the program's improved publishing workflow, it still doesn’t do the most important thing: Publish your book. (You have to use iTunes Producer for that.)
You still have to export to iTunes Producer to publish your book.
Here’s what you can expect from the new Publish option: Instead of booting you immediately to iTunes Producer after compiling your file, iBooks Author routes you through a five-step process. The app performs a diagnostic check of your file to confirm that it’s properly compiled, and then it asks you to sign in with your iTunes Connect account. After that, you have the option of indicating whether the book you’re making is new or an updated version. Choose 'updated', and iBooks Author will pull up a full list of every title that you’ve published on the store—a pretty neat improvement. You can choose the appropriate title, add a version increment, create a sample book, and then export your book to iTunes Producer for final checks.
Publishing books in five steps.
The problems involved in updating existing books arise once you reach iTunes Producer. The app populates the record with only the information you can edit in this update (the title and the page count), instead of graying out metadata that you’ve already entered. This approach has the side-effect of inducing panic in nervous authors—Oh no! Did iTunes Producer lose all my data?—and it may lead users to (needlessly) add all of the missing information into the record, just to make sure that the unseen data doesn’t get overwritten with blank text. In addition, you have to reenter your territory information and pricing—not the most enjoyable task in the world. And strangely, iTunes Producer lacks a version field, so you can’t confirm that you are, in fact, uploading a new version.
Don't get me wrong: I love the idea of simplifying publication, but these changes seem to make the process more complicated.

Miscellaneous improvements

Among the other welcome additions to iBooks Author 2.0 are custom fonts, tapping objects to make them full-screen, and media optimization.
Custom fonts: iBooks Author can embed any TrueType or OpenType font (those with a .ttf or .otf extension) into any book that you choose, and the process is as simple as opening the Font Picker or the Text Inspector and selecting one. If you choose a font that doesn’t have a TrueType or OpenType version, you’ll get an error message informing you that, if you use the font, one of the iPad’s system fonts will automatically be substituted for it.
You can embed only TrueType or OpenType fonts.
Note: When you pick a compatible font, the program doesn’t police for copyright; so make sure before publication that you have the necessary rights to use the font in a book, lest you run into legal complications down the road.
Full-screen objects: Hidden away in the Widget Inspector is a checkbox for making objects full-screen when tapped. A few caveats: The object will expand only to the width of the screen, and you can’t pinch to zoom—that gesture will instead close the full-screen and return you to the book page.
Media optimization: iBooks Author 2.0 automatically converts your audio and video files to an acceptable format when you add them to your book. This happens in the background, though you can’t publish your book until it’s done.

Review: Striiv Play makes workouts more fun

  



A couple of months ago we reviewed Striiv’s pioneer product, the Striiv smart pedometer. This nifty little device is both a pedometer and a motivator—it includes various motivational tools, including a FarmVille-inspired game, to encourage people to walk, run, and take the stairs more often. Now the company is back with the second generation of its smart pedometer, just six months after its initial product debuted back in April.
Striiv’s second-generation product consists of the small Striiv Play smart pedometer alongside a free app, which can be used with the Striiv Play or by itself. The app is free and is currently available to all users running iOS 3.0 or later. The Striiv Play is available to app users who have an iOS device with built-in Bluetooth 4.0 (in other words, an iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, fifth-generation iPod touch, or iPad 3). The Striiv Play costs $70 and is available at Best Buy, Amazon.com, and Striiv.com.

Fitness level

Like the first-generation Striiv smart pedometer, the new Striiv Play (and its companion app) is appropriate for everyone – whether you’re a hardcore athlete, a casual mall-walker, or a blob who sits on the couch all day.

Best activities

The Striiv Play
Although the Striiv Play is appropriate for just about anyone, it’s really designed for casual users rather than athletes. The Striiv Play is primarily a pedometer, which means it’s not terribly useful for athletes who are looking for advanced tracking. Striiv has partnered with MyFitnessPal, which is a calorie-counting app that lets you input your daily calorie intake. The company has also included a weight tracking mini-app inside its app, so it’s a better choice for users who are looking to lose (or gain) weight. However, like the original Striiv smart pedometer, the Striiv Play is best for people who need a little encouragement to take the stairs instead of the escalator.

Design and features

Striiv Play app home screen
Getting started with the Striiv Play app/appcessory package is pretty straightforward. Before you run out and purchase the Striiv Play, you can first download the free app from Apple’s App Store. At the moment, the Striiv app is only available on iOS, though the company does have plans to roll out an Android version soon, and possibly a Windows Phone 8 version in the future.
The app tracks your steps, distance, calories burned, and how many minutes of activity you’ve performed in a given day. The app uses your device’s built-in accelerometer, as well as your device’s GPS, to determine your stride length during different types of exercises (walking, jogging, etc). Because iOS devices do not have built-in altimeters, the app cannot track your stair count without the help of the Striiv Play device.
The app’s home screen looks like the original Striiv’s home screen. At the top of the screen there’s a large colored bar with various statistics. The first bar shows how many steps you’ve taken, and you can swipe to the right or the left to see your stair count (if your device is paired with a Striiv Play device), distance walked, calories burned, and minutes of activity. Below each number statistic is a small bar that fills up as you achieve goals. For example, below the “Miles Walked” statistic, the bar fills up as you walk the distance of the Golden Gate Bridge (1.7 miles).
MyLand in Striiv Play
The app’s home screen also features mini-apps and challenges. The mini-apps include motivational tools, such as Striiv’s FarmVille-inspired MyLand mini-game, charts, trophies, weight tracking, tips, and a link to MyFitnessPal.
MyLand is perhaps one of the most popular mini-apps, and it’s not difficult to see why – it’s a game that combines FarmVille and fitness to encourage people to walk. In MyLand, your goal is to build up a magical island community using “energy,” which you can obtain by, well, walking with the app. As you walk, you earn energy points, which is the primary currency in MyLand for growing plants and building structures. Once a plant or structure is completed, it yields coins, which are MyLand’s secondary currency.
The app also features a Friends Leaderboard, which lets you compare your progress with your friends on Facebook. The original Striiv also had this feature, but it makes a lot more sense on the app. First of all, the app is free, which means your friends don’t have to run out and purchase a $100 device just to participate. Second, if you’re using an iPhone or an iPad, the app is almost constantly able to connect to the Internet and update in realtime.
Invite friends to Striiv Play
The app also has a challenges board on the home screen, which constantly updates with little challenges. Challenges can be anything from “Climb 15 stairs in 15 minutes,” to “Take 100 steps in 10 minutes.” Accepting a challenge usually costs energy points, but completing a challenge yields more energy points – so challenges are a great way to nab energy points quickly, if you want to advance in MyLand.
The app is pretty cool and it’s free. But there are a couple of problems with it: It can’t track stair count without the help of the Striiv Play device, and it also requires you to carry your phone or iOS device around with you at all times. If you’re looking for a slightly more advanced and convenient tracking system, that’s where the Striiv Play comes in.
The Striiv Play is a small, lightweight device that works with the Striiv app. The Striiv Play is oval-shaped with a plastic case, mirrored glass front, and a brushed metal clip on the back. The device has a small, simple screen that displays your statistics in bright blue characters. To wake up the device and see your stats, all you have to do is press the end of the device (the screen depresses) and you can cycle through your steps, stairs, distance, calories burned, minutes of activity, and time/battery life screens. If you press and hold the screen, you can also toggle Airplane Mode.
The Striiv Play is pretty convenient. It clips easily onto your clothing or bag, so you can still track your movement without having to carry your iOS device around with you. The device checks in periodically via Bluetooth 4.0 with your iOS device, but it will also work if you don’t have your iOS device within Bluetooth range. If, for example, you leave your phone at home and go for a run, the Striiv Play will track your movement and then just check-in with your phone when you get back.

The bottom line

Striiv Challenges help encourage you.
Striiv’s latest product doesn’t replace its original Striiv smart pedometer. As Striiv co-founder and CEO Dave Wang explained to me, the Striiv Play is really for people who have iPhones (and, soon, Android phones), while the Striiv smart pedometer is for people who don’t have smartphones.
There are definite positives and negatives to the Striiv Play app and appcessory combo. The app is great for social motivation; since it’s free, your friends can download it without any obstacles. And it’s constantly connected to the Internet. However, it looks like Striiv has gotten rid of one of the coolest features of its original Striiv smart pedometer, which is the charity tie-in. The original Striiv smart pedometer featured a Walkathon mini-app, which allowed you to “walk” for a cause. Causes included clean water, fighting polio, and saving the rainforest, and were made possible through a partnership with Global Giving.
The Walkathon mini-app was definitely one of my favorite features of the original Striiv, and it was one of the things that really made the device stand out, so it’s disappointing to see that it hasn’t been included in the second generation. However, Wang promises that the app will be updated with more mini-apps and games very soon, so perhaps we’ll see a Walkathon mini-app in the future.

Apple delays next iTunes release until November

  



Another year, another missed deadline. In 2011, Apple missed its October launch date for iTunes Match; this year, Apple’s missing an October launch for the next version of iTunes.
More like Oct-no-ber: The next version of iTunes won't surface until November.
“The new iTunes is taking longer than expected and we wanted to take a little extra time to get it right,” Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr told Macworld. “We look forward to releasing this new version of iTunes with its dramatically simpler and cleaner interface, and seamless integration with iCloud before the end of November.”
First shown off at the company’s event in September, the new iTunes features a radically redesigned and simplified interface, including a completely rethought Mini Player. It also focuses more heavily on the cloud; from any device, you can play music you’ve purchased with your iTunes account. Other new features include recommendations from the iTunes Store; preview history; and the Up Next feature, which lets you adjust what music is going to play next.
Apple originally announced the update to iTunes would be available by the end of October, but with some big changes this week, the company’s clearly looking to set expectations ahead of the month’s end.

What Apple's executive reshuffle means for the products you use

 


The executive shuffle Apple announced late Monday is the kind of drama that we in the tech press usually only get from watching Game of Thrones. But as interesting as it is from an inside-baseball perspective, it’s worth remembering that Apple’s focus is, as always, on products.
Who said what to whom and why so-and-so was shown the door makes for interesting scuttlebutt on tech websites, but that focus on office politics means very little to people who just want to have the best experience using their Mac, iPhone, or iPad. It’s far more important to consider what Monday’s maneuvers mean for the hardware, software, and services coming out of Cupertino.

Humans first

While Apple’s hardware in recent years has largely received rave reviews, the reaction has been more mixed for the company’s software interfaces. Even as Apple’s industrial design has veered more toward elegant combinations of aluminum and glass, the software user interfaces seem to have lost some of the consistency that was once their hallmark.
Apple
Jonathan Ive
With Monday’s announcement, the man responsible for much of Apple’s hardware design since 1996, senior vice president Jonathan Ive, is now in charge of human interface—design of both software and hardware—for the company as a whole.
It’s unclear what Ive, whose expertise is in industrial design, will bring to the software side of Apple. But as the late Steve Jobs once said “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Then again, the experience of using hardware doesn’t always translate directly to software interfaces, as we’ve seen from Apple’s often questionable fixation on skeuomorphic design—think the stitched leather on the OS X version of Calendar and, more egregiously, the iOS version of Find My Friends.
There are some suggestions that Ive is less infatuated with skeuomorphism than outgoing iOS head Scott Forstall, but it also doesn’t mean that every single Apple design choice the masses have questioned will be wiped away overnight. This is still a company that is not afraid of doing things its own way, whether users agree or not.
And keep in mind that, as with Jobs, Ive has his own missteps—while he famously designed the first iMac, he’s also credited (albeit after Jobs) with the design of that computer’s infamous “hockey puck” mouse.
Still, if Ive has shown anything over the past ten years, it’s that he values a marriage of form and function rather than simply emphasizing one or the other. He’s also incredibly detail-oriented—the asymmetric fan blades on the redesigned MacBook Pros come to mind.
Apple’s strength has always been about the intersection of hardware and software into one perfect widget, something that the company has ably accomplished with its iOS devices and most recent Macs, and it seems likely the company and its users will benefit from a unified approach to human interface.

Grand unified theory

With iOS chief Scott Forstall gone, his responsibilities have been scattered to the four winds. The bulk of them will be picked up by senior vice president Craig Federighi, who previously oversaw Mac OS X.
Apple
Craig Federighi
If Federighi is one of the less familiar names in Apple’s pantheon, that’s because he was only recently elevated to the company’s executive team. However, he’s played a crucial role in OS X for many years, and has effectively run the Mac software division since the departure of Bertrand Serlet last year.
Apple’s been more insistent in the past couple years that iOS and OS X are essentially two sides of the same coin. Beginning with the Back to the Mac event of 2010, Apple has worked to bring features from iOS to OS X, and that’s only intensified with Mountain Lion, which brought elements like iMessage, Game Center, and notifications to the Mac’s operating system. Expect that trend of sharing to continue moving forward.
It also might mean more releases of the two operating systems in concert. iOS 6 and Mountain Lion appeared in close proximity this year, and among the highlights of the two were features that either appeared on both (Mail VIPs, Facebook sharing) or capabilities that emphasized the connection between Apple’s mobile and desktop platforms (iCloud Tabs).
As with unifying its hardware and software experience, developing closer ties between its two major platforms is doubtlessly an important part of Apple’s strategy in the years ahead, and putting both under the aegis of a single executive can help insure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.

Service included

Services have never been Apple’s strong point. From the company’s eWorld online service of the 1990s to the last decade’s revolving door of Internet offerings—iTools, .Mac, MobileMe, iCloud—Cupertino has taken a lot of flack, much of it earned, for unreliability and missing features.
Apple
Eddy Cue
There are, however, bright spots in the mix, particularly the iTunes Store and its affiliated App Store and iBookstore. (It doesn’t hurt that they generate revenue at a healthy clip.) As such, it’s no surprise that Monday’s reshuffle saw two of Apple’s lately problematic service-based features, Siri and Maps, assigned to senior vice president of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cue. Cue’s no stranger to taking on damaged goods: He previously assumed control of both MobileMe and iAd after those services’ somewhat lackluster launches.
Like MobileMe and iAd, Siri and Maps have both suffered severe criticism after their respective launches. Apple’s virtual assistant was dinged for its unreliability in understanding people and its often limited capabilities; while the company has improved that somewhat in subsequent updates, such as iOS 6, many still see the feature as more of a novelty than anything else. (My colleague Lex Friedman would beg to differ.) The reaction to Apple’s redesigned Maps has been even more vociferous.
Cue has his work cut out for him in dealing with these two, but he’s probably the right person for the job. The major complaints for both Siri and Maps seem to be more focused on the service aspect than the software itself. In my own review of iOS 6, I found that the Maps app itself is well designed, with the failures residing mostly in the data that Apple had at its disposal.
Given Cue’s experience in dealing with services—and especially in arenas where Apple partners with other companies, such as publishers, music labels, studios, and so on—it seems likely that we can expect to see both Siri and Maps improve their capabilities going forward. CEO Tim Cook said in the company’s financial results call last week that Apple has already spent time and effort to bolster Maps, and that it won’t stop “until Maps lives up to our standards.”
Expect to see reliability at the top of the list as well. While iCloud still has mixed results in that department, the service’s integration with Apple devices and its non-existent price tag have made it hugely popular; Apple’s latest tally pegs iCloud at 200 million users.

Wires and waves

Nestled deep in Apple’s Monday announcement was this tantalizing nugget:
Bob Mansfield will lead a new group, Technologies, which combines all of Apple’s wireless teams across the company in one organization, fostering innovation in this area at an even higher level.
It’s unclear exactly what falls under the purview of Mansfield’s Technologies group, but the broader implications are clear: Wireless technology is perhaps the most key component of Apple devices going forward.
Apple
Bob Mansfield
This is hardly a surprise to anybody who has watched Apple for the last few years, as the company’s tendencies have leaned increasingly wireless. Look no further than the iPhone 5, which includes a staggering number of wireless technologies: GSM, EDGE, CDMA, EV-DO, HSPA, LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth. In fact, with the addition of Bluetooth to the revamped iPod nano, there’s hardly a recent Apple product that doesn’t include at least some form of wireless communication.
Add to that the development of multipurpose wired connectors like the company’s new Thunderbolt and Lightning ports, and it’s obvious that Apple’s goal is to reduce the number of cables and wires needed for its devices.
With wireless technologies playing such an important part, especially for iOS devices, it’s no surprise that Apple wants to devote more focus to them. The Technologies group will be able to develop and improve wireless across all of Apple’s product lines, perhaps easing the ways in which those devices talk to each other. Given the improvements we’ve already seen, it’s not hard to imagine a future where you needn’t plug your mobile device into anything at all.
And lest we forget the second part of Mansfield’s brief:
This organization will also include the semiconductor teams, who have ambitious plans for the future.
Semiconductors are, of course, the foundation of the processors and chips that run all of our devices. While Apple’s Mac lines still rely on processors provided by Intel, the company has been producing its own chips for its mobile devices since the original iPad. That and subsequent processors have resulted from Apple’s purchase of PA Semi, a small semiconductor company.
Having its semiconductor design in-house has given Apple an even deeper level of control over its products—at least, the mobile ones. And, going forward, it seems hard to believe that Apple will leave it at that. The Mac is still an important part of Cupertino’s strategy, and with all the custom work that Apple has been putting into its hardware design—the internals of the Retina MacBook Pros, for example, or the redesigned iMac—it’s not hard to imagine the company will want to eventually go that last nanometer and control the chips for its desktop and portable computers as well as its mobile devices.

Integrate to innovate

Looking over all the changes that Apple made to its executive team, there seems to be a pretty consistent throughline: This is all about integration. Integration of the various software platforms and teams, integration of the company’s key technologies across product lines, integration of online services, and integration of the hardware and software user experiences.
All this integration mirrors exactly what Apple has tried to do with its products for decades now: Take a bunch of disparate technology, software, hardware, services, and so on, and combine it into one perfect device. After Steve Jobs’s death, many described Apple the company as his most enduring “product.” This reorganization suggests that Cook has taken that to heart while simultaneously putting his own definitive stamp on it.

Display Menu brings back OS X's Displays menu

 



Last week, we reviewed QuickRes, a menu-bar utility for changing the resolution of—and accessing higher resolutions on—Retina-display MacBook Pros. But even if you aren't using a Retina display, you may have wanted something similar, because Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8) is missing a convenient feature found in older versions of OS X: the Displays menu extra.
Under Lion (OS X 10.7) and earlier, a simple click in the menu bar let you change screen resolutions and, if you had multiple displays, toggle display mirroring. Mountain Lion includes an option, in the Displays pane of System Preferences, to enable a Mirroring menu, but that menu is missing resolution options—and it appears only when multiple displays are connected.
I've been accessing resolution settings by pressing Option and either of my keyboard's Brightness keys—a shortcut that opens the Displays pane of System Preferences. But a more convenient approach can be found in Milch im Gemüsefach's free Display Menu (Mac App Store link).
Like the old Displays menu extra, clicking Display Menu shows you a list of all possible screen resolutions, including HiDPI modes (and, for some displays, refresh rates); choose one to switch to it. If you've got multiple displays, you can also toggle mirroring, which means you can disable Mountain Lion's own Mirroring menu-bar option.
Oddly, despite the implication of the Display Menu app icon (shown at the top of this review), your screen-resolution options aren't listed in the main menu, but rather in a sub-menu. Given that the main purpose of Display Menu is to access available screen resolutions, I'd like to see those resolutions listed directly in the menu. Also, the initial release of Display Menu does not fully support Retina displays—you'll want to stick with QuickRes if you have a Retina Mac. Finally, it would be great if the developer would add a Detect Displays option like the one in Lion's Displays menu extra. But if you just want your screen-resolution menu back, Display Menu delivers.

ScreenFlow 4 launches with new effects, workflow improvements

  



Telestream’s ScreenFlow—the much-lauded app for capturing videos of what's happening on your Mac's screen—has been upgraded. ScreenFlow 4, which launched last week, adds a bunch of new features for creating special effects and smoothing the screen-capture workflow.
Among the new features is the ability to nest clips, which lets you merge multiple elements into a single video clip; that clip can then be edited in a single action with filters and other video effects. The result is smoother, faster video production.
Other new features include closed captioning—either for the hearing impaired or for viewers who prefer a text accompaniment to their tutorials. There's also a new Chroma Key feature, which lets you replace a greenscreen background with the video or still image of your choice, giving you George Lucas-like powers over your creations.
The updated app includes a number of other new features as well, including a timer that enables you to limit the duration of your recording, along with other workflow aids. (Telestream has a video—naturally—showing the app in action.)
ScreenFlow 4 is available as a free trial or as a $99 purchase; users of previous versions of ScreenFlow can upgrade for $29. The app is compatible with Mac OS X 10.6.6 and later.

Google's Chrome Remote Desktop sheds beta tag, adds new features

 



Google’s Chrome Remote Desktop, a free browser add-on for Chrome is officially out of beta, and to celebrate, the search giant has added two new features to the service.
Chrome Remote Desktop provides exactly what it sounds like—the ability to gain full access to another desktop PC running Windows (Vista and above including Windows 8), OS X (OS X 10.6 and above), or Linux (including Chrome OS) operating systems via the Internet. Chrome Remote Desktop is not available on the Android oriOS versions of Google’s browser.
Mac and Windows users can grab essential files stuck on a PC back at home through Remote Desktop, and all three PC platforms can use the add-on to provide tech support for a family member or friend living far away.
As part of Chrome Remote Desktop’s official release, Google added the ability to copy and paste between two remotely connected computers; Windows users can now share audio in real time. It’s not clear if the audio feature will be coming to Mac and Linux users in the near future, but Google says it has more functionality planned for Remote Desktop.
The search giant peeled off Remote Desktop’s beta tag on this week after first introducing the feature in October 2011.

Getting started

If you’d like to give the service a try, install Chrome Remote Desktop from the Chrome Web Store on every computer you want to access remotely. Once it’s installed, you need to set up Chrome Remote Desktop by opening an empty tab and clicking on the Remote Desktop icon. You will then be asked to give Chrome the permissions it needs to access your desktop via the Internet. If you have multiple Google accounts, you will also be asked to tie all your personal Remote Desktop machines to one of those accounts.
Chrome Remote Desktop’s start screen
After you’ve clicked through the permissions, you’ll see the service’s default start screen with two options: Remote Assistance and My Computers (Mac and Windows only). Remote Assistance lets you start a screen sharing session by either accessing a friend or family member’s desktop or letting someone else access your desktop.
If you choose to share your desktop, you’ll be provided with a 12-digit access code to give to the person you’re sharing with. If you are accessing someone else’s desktop, the other person will have to give the access code to you.
My Computers lets you gain remote access to your personal machines for those times when you need to grab files from a PC at home or work. This feature may take a few minutes to set up; it requires you to set a PIN for each machine. Once the set-up is complete, you will see a list of all your computer’s names whenever you are signed in to Chrome from a PC. Don’t forget that remote access to personal machines is tied together through a single Google account. When connected, remote desktops will appear in a Chrome tab as if they were a Web page, and you also have the choice to view the remote desktop in full screen mode.
While Remote Desktop is sure to come in handy, keep in mind this service provides full access to a remote PC. You can use Chrome Remote Desktop to access and edit Control Panel settings on a Windows machine, install apps, and power down the PC remotely. That’s a lot of power to give to someone else, so choose your screen sharing partners wisely.

Review: Great Pumpkin delights but doesn't soar

  



I’ve loved It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown—the 1966 TV special—since I was a kid, and I always look forward to my yearly viewing. But even as a child, I didn’t yearn for repeats: once a year was enough. The program, and its December counterpart, A Charlie Brown Christmas, are both warm and cozy.
The It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown app for the iPhone and iPad is as cozy as the yearly TV special, with some nice features: optional narration, character voices, and background music from the original TV program. There are also a few animated sequences included.
It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown lets you create avatars, and while that’s somewhat fun, they don’t offer a lot of variation.
These are terrific, but other added features—dress-up avatars, simple games like bobbing for apples and carving your own pumpkin—add little to what’s already there. The app can also be more costly than the initial price tag indicates, as in-app purchases of coins ranging from $1 for 10 coins to $30 for 1,000 coins buy little more than some additional avatar options. The extra options hardly seemed that much fun, even for the youngest set.
While there’s a lot to like in this well-produced ebook app from Loud Crow, it’s also disappointing in some ways. It seems a bit overpriced, even without the coins. And for $10, you can buy the actual program—along with Lucy Must Be Traded, Charlie Brown and It’s Magic, Charlie Brown—from iTunes. For me, and for my young child who also read the book and has seen the special many times, there’s a charm to the TV special that simply isn’t captured in this app.

Opinion: The new iPad isn't so new after all

  


[Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from CIO.com. Visit CIO’s Macs in the Enterprise page.]
Only seven months ago, Apple execs appeared on stage in San Francisco to a roaring crowd giddy with anticipation. With great showmanship-or is it salesmanship?-Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the next big thing: the New iPad.
Apple faithful rushed to get one, standing in lines for hours and spending anywhere from $499 for a 16GB WiFi-only version to $829 for a 64GB WiFi-plus-cellular version. Three million New iPads were sold over the launch weekend. All tallied, Apple has sold 100 million iPads in two-and-a-half years.
Customer euphoria, however, didn’t last very long.
Last week, Apple unveiled the fourth-generation iPad with little fanfare, drowned out by the pricey iPad mini. The fourth-generation iPad boasts a faster chip and a “lightning” connector yet costs the same as the New iPad, which, we’re assuming, can now be called the third-generation iPad.
Third-generation iPad customers heard it loud and clear. They had paid for an iPad with only months of shiny shelf-life, whereas Apple normally trots out new iPads and iPhones once a year. A flash poll of 1,427 Apple consumers conducted by CouponCodes4u found that 41 percent had bought a third-generation iPad. Of those, 83 percent said they felt “cheated” by the announcement.
So why would Apple drop a fourth-generation iPad bombshell? The short answer: The iPad upgrade wasn’t big but a necessary one, both technically and strategically.
When Apple comes out with a new iPad, the company often discounts previous versions. But there’s no option to get the third-generation iPad at the Apple store; Apple discontinued the third-generation iPad last week. Officially, the fourth-generation iPad is called the “iPad with Retina display,” even though the third-generation iPad initially introduced Retina to the tablet.
Apple, of course, likely knew the third-generation iPad would be short-lived. In Apple’s second-quarter earnings call this year, shortly after unveiling the third-generation iPad, the company reported 2 million iPads in channel inventory, below the target range of four to six weeks.
“Part of the difference in [Apple’s] third-quarter sales, we believe, is that they were actually scaling back inventory on hand of the new product, so that they could prepare to launch the next product,” says analyst Rhoda Alexander at IHS iSuppli.
It’s as if the third-generation iPad never existed.
Technically, Apple needed to get to the fourth-generation iPad. The third-generation iPad powered the high-performance Retina display with an A5X processor, but the fourth-generation iPad does it better with a dual-core A6X processor and quad-core graphics.
“In retrospect, should Apple have waited for the A6 processor?” Alexander says. “They may have pushed it, which required the update at this point.”
But it’s hard to fault Apple, she adds. “They had spectacular sales in the first and second quarters of this year, just dominated the market, recaptured sales they had lost the previous year.”
Regarding disgruntled customers, Alexander expects Apple will take a customer service hit. But Apple can offset this by giving customers a deal, perhaps letting them trade in their third-generation iPad for credit towards a fourth-generation iPad or iPad mini.
“You can do this occasionally,” Alexander says. “If you do this repeatedly, you’ll have a problem. You’ll lose some of the value people place on the brand,” adding, “Apple can’t refresh the iPad in March because it would be unsettling to customers.”
All of this raises the question: When will be the next iPad update?
Strategically, the fourth-generation iPad coming on the heels of the third-generation iPad alters the upgrade cycle from the first of the year to the end of the year. “It’s a strong possibility,” says Alexander. “In the competitive tablet space, the fourth quarter has become the ‘it’ quarter for new tablet introductions.”
But this means that the next iPad won’t come out until next fall. Because the third-generation iPad and fourth-generation iPad are basically the same with the exception of a faster chip (and Lightning connector), the next iPad will be the first significant upgrade in 17 months.

Review: Barnes & Noble Nook HD wows with stellar display

  


Barnes & Noble isn't trying to do everything with the Nook HD. Instead, the company's 7-inch tablet focuses on doing what its Nooks have always done best: delivering the best reading experience you can get on any tablet today. By combining a high-resolution (243 pixels per inch) display with an attractive price and expandable storage, Barnes & Noble has positioned the Nook HD as a compelling tablet choice, especially if you plan to use it primarily for reading and Web surfing, though less so if you want to run the latest hot apps on it.
The Nook HD starts at $200 for the 8GB model, and the 16GB version retails for just $30 more. Though slightly pricier than the latest Amazon and Google tablet offerings, the 16GB Nook HD costs $100 less than Apple's iPad mini—a tablet that has a noticeably lower screen resolution. More important, unlike any of the other three tablets mentioned, the Nook HD has a MicroSD card slot, so you can easily add up to 64GB of storage if you need it. That feature gives the Nook a degree of flexibility that the others can't match.

All about the display

The Nook HD's display sets it apart from the rest of the 7-inch tablet pack: The stunning 1440-by-900-pixel display has the highest resolution of any 7-inch tablet, according to Barnes & Noble; by comparison, the resolution of the Google Nexus 7 tops out at 1280 by 800 pixels.
The Nook HD's display translates into a pixel density of 243 pixels per inch. That matches up well against the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HD (at 216 ppi each) and the iPad mini (at 163 ppi). The Nook's higher pixel density makes a big difference: Text looked universally smoother and sharper on the Nook HD, even when using the same fonts as the Kindle Fire HD and the Nexus 7. For example, when I read Game of Thrones, the Nook HD showed less pixelation in text displayed in Georgia typeface than did the Kindle Fire HD using the same font.
Images that I viewed on the Nook HD in the included Gallery app looked brilliant, with impressive color balance and crisp detail. Whites looked brighter than on (for instance) the Kindle Fire HD, though not quite as bright as on the Nexus 7; this aspect of the display is especially noticeable when you're looking at (or reading) ebooks.
As on earlier Nooks, Barnes & Noble uses optical bonding on the Nook HD's display: The screen and its glass cover are glued together, eliminating the air gap that typically exists between these two parts on other tablets. As a result, the Nook HD's screen has minimal glare and good screen contrast.

Sharp design

The Nook HD has a noticeably sleeker design and lighter weight than its predecessor: 0.69 pound versus 0.88 pound for the previous Nook Tablet. That puts its weight in the vicinity of the Apple iPad mini, and makes it a fair bit lighter than the Kindle Fire HD (0.86 pound) and the Nexus 7 (0.75 pound). The difference in weight might not sound like a big deal, but it becomes quite significant when you hold the tablet for long periods of time.
In my extensive use of the Nook HD, I found that that even over long stretches of use, the tablet felt well-balanced and comfortable to hold; I sometimes hated to put it down. Compared with the previous Nook Tablet, which was built like a tank—and felt like one, too—the Nook HD is a joy to use.
The Nook HD measures 5 inches wide and is 0.43 inch thick, which means that it's narrower and thinner than the Kindle Fire HD. The Google's Nexus 7 is narrower still, at 4.72 inches, but not appreciably so.
Barnes & Noble's new unit has four hardware buttons: a power button on the left edge, volume up/down controls on the right, and an 'n' button beneath the display that serves as a home button.
The Nook HD comes in two case-color options: a snowy white, and a smoky gray. The white Nook HD strives for Apple's white aesthetic; but I liked the gray version better, as the neutral gray coloring helped boost the on-screen contrast. My one complaint about the plastic bezel is that it looks and feels plasticky (which it is). But at least its matte finish doesn't attract fingerprints, as some plastic bezels do. The bezel is cleverly asymmetric: When held in portrait mode, it's narrower on the sides than at the top and bottom. This uncommon design choice works well in practice and makes better use of the available space.
The Nook HD feels first-rate, with a slightly indented soft-touch back that resembles the one on the Nook Simple Touch, and gives the tablet a convenient-to-hold grip

Missing features, beefy processor

The Nook HD's biggest shortcoming is its lack of front- and rear-facing cameras and a GPS capability. Barnes & Noble has its reasons for omitting these features, but anyone who has ever used maps or videoconferencing on a tablet knows how handy these features can be—and their absence may cause some consumers to drop the Nook HD from consideration as a general-use tablet. The Nook HD does provide Bluetooth connectivity, in addition to 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi.
The built-in dual stereo speakers are situated on the back of the tablet toward the bottom, and they're optimized for holding the tablet in portrait mode. Though my fingers usually didn't block the speakers, the longer I used the tablet, the more frequently I found myself inadvertently covering them. The on-board audio is better on this device than it was on previous Nook tablets, but if you want to fill a room with sound, you'll want an external speaker.
I was pleased with the sound quality produced by the built-in SRS TruMedia-enhanced speakers. It's hard to choose a winner in audio output between this device and the Kindle Fire HD, with its Dolby Digital Plus-enhanced audio: I found that the tablet I preferred changed from track to track. Loudness was better on Kindle Fire HD, but Barnes & Noble says that its first software update will adjust the Nook HD's loudness, so this qualitative difference may be addressed.
You'll be able to add HDMI output via a (yet-to be released) dongle that connects to the tablet's new 30-pin dock connector. The tablet outputs 1080p video, and the dongle has a full-size HDMI port, so you won't have to fuss with specialized cables.
A MicroSD card slot lets you add up to 64GB of storage to the Nook HD. Learning from its mistakes, Barnes & Noble now gives you full use of all the space on a memory card (that wasn't the case with the Nook Tablet).
The Nook HD comes with its own proprietary charger, which you'll need to juice up the tablet. You can use the well-designed 30-pin-to-USB connector to transfer data from your PC to the tablet; however, I was annoyed to discover that the cable wouldn't work with any other power adapter.
Inside, the Nook HD has a 1.3GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 processor and 1GB of RAM. We couldn't run our usual graphics tests on the tablet (GLBenchmark isn't available on the Nook Store), but the processor appears to handle games fairly well. For example, I compared Vector Unit's Riptide GP on the Nexus 7 to the same game on the Nook HD, the differences between the two were slight, though the Nexus 7 version (which is optimized for Tegra 3) predictably showed some enhanced graphics.

Software refinements

Like Amazon, Barnes & Noble brings its OS up to modern standards by building it on top of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. But as with the Amazon Kindle Fire, you'd never guess that the Nook HD has Android inside. Visually, the experience is entirely different—in a good way.
On the whole, the Nook 2.0 operating system, as found on the Nook HD, reflects a rethinking and reorganization of Nook content. But the changes aren't so jarring that current Nook users will feel lost.
The lock screen reflects the first major change: You can now add up to six different user profiles. That makes the Nook HD and the Google Nexus 7 (running Android 4.2) the only 7-inch tablets with bona fide user profiles. Nook's user profiles are segmented into adult and kid sections, and the tablet will recommend content for you based on your interests and (in the case of kids) age. You can even customize it so the profile is for a boy or a girl, and set it up so that the account can access only whitelisted content that's safe for children.
To enter the tablet, you pick your profile from among the ones floating around the unlock button, and drag it into the center. The tablet then opens your profile, and greets you by name on top. Want to change to a different profile? Tap at the top of the screen, select the profile, and you're in. You can password-protect each profile, and assign downloaded content to specific profiles (so your profile isn't littered with your kid's games, for instance).
Each profile calls up the apps, preferences, and email associated with that particular user. You can limit a profile's ability to shop for content or to access the Web, for example, which is perfect for when you want to hand the tablet over to a child.
The home screen has five available desktop spaces for organizing your content in. A recently accessed content carousel, sitting at the top of the screen, is easy to customize: If you don't want something to show, simply tap the icon and remove it from the screen.
The home screen remains highly customizable, complete with widgets and your own wallpaper or live wallpapers. You can also pin apps or content to the home screen for easy access, and you can add content with a simple long press on the home screen.
I did have trouble understanding a few aspects of the new navigation. The library, apps, Web, email, and shop icons at the bottom of the home screen were a bit faint, and some icons in the navigation were ambiguous. Everything was all learnable, but I occasionally had to tap around more than I expected.
Other aspects of navigation were smooth and simple. At the top of the screen, a pull-down shade—similar to the one on the Nexus 7—gives you access to settings such as the brightness control, Wi-Fi controls, airplane mode, and rotation lock. I wish that finding the precise amount of remaining battery life didn't require digging deeper into the settings, and I would have appreciated changes in brightness that were a bit more apparent, but the experience overall was very positive.
The built-in email, music player, and gallery apps have all received an overhaul since the previous Nook Tablet OS; these areas were obvious weaknesses in the past, and prevented the original Nook Tablet from feeling like a full-featured tablet. In contrast, the new music player is attractive and easy to use, the Gallery smoothly showed off my high-resolution pictures (albeit with a slight sharpening delay), and the email app was quite usable—with a vastly improved interface, and support for multiple profiles and accounts as well as for Microsoft Exchange. The keys on the software keyboard are still too small, but otherwise nothing limits the broad usefulness of the Nook HD as a tablet.
The sharp text vaults the Nook HD to the head of the class as an e-reader. It has two fewer font size options than Kindle Fire HD, but it offers line spacing and three additional background colors beyond what Amazon's tablet provides.

Content matters

Because the Nook HD's software is a custom Android build, you're locked into loading apps available from the Barnes & Noble store, rather than from Google Play. As a result, the tablet lacks both Google certification and the Google services that accompany certification (such as apps for Google Maps, YouTube, Google Books, Gmail, and Google Movies).
If all you want to do is read, browse the Web, handle email, or watch videos, however, none of that will matter. Even the app store for Nook seems better than I had expected. Barnes & Noble claims that it now has more than 10,000 apps in its app store, all of them vetted to run on the Nook HD's 7-inch display. By comparison, Amazon's similar-size app store contains a number of apps that will only work on phones.
Despite Barnes & Noble's qualifications process for apps, I encountered several apps that had unresolved problems. Some of the issues I stumbled on were attributable to Android compatibility oddities; others had to do with touch responsiveness. The company was quick to act on the issues I found, and says that it is working with its developers to encourage them to submit Android 4.0-compatible versions of their apps.
I ran into a few Nook OS crashes, but the device recovered after each hiccup, and Barnes & Noble will (I hope) address such software glitches soon. Barnes & Noble says that the software I tested was near-final; however, the company will issue an over-the-air firmware update on Thursday, November 1, when the tablet starts shipping.
The apps I found that were optimized for the high-definition screen looked gorgeous and ran well. Even a processor-intensive game like Riptide GP played smoothly, and Angry Birds Space HD never looked better.
Barnes & Noble now presents its magazine collections in high-definition, with a new navigation style that closely resembles the Semantic Zoom functionality in Windows 8. The company has also added catalogs to its repertoire. I liked the new feature that complements magazines and catalogs: I could digitally “snip” a page and add it to my own scrapbook for later viewing. That's the kind of thoughtful touch that separates the Nook HD from other tablets.
The Nook HD is the first tablet to offer native support for UltraViolet, Hollywood's standard that lets you download and share content that you've already bought on physical media. That feature wasn't available in the late-production software I tested; and because the store was still in the process of being digitally stocked at this writing, I was unable to gauge the selection.
However, I can say that the movies I tried played smoothly and looked terrific. You have the choice of renting a video (which you have 30 days to watch and 24 hours to finish) or purchasing content outright. Videos took longer to download than I would have liked, but that's in part because they arrived at full-HD 1080p resolution. That extra resolution is useful if you want to output video over HDMI to a TV. The good news is that you can start playing a movie once it's 20 percent downloaded.

Review: iBooks 3 is the best iBooks yet

  


iBooks 3 is the latest edition of Apple’s reading app for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Like all of its biggest competitors—Amazon’s Kindle app chief among them—iBooks is free. In choosing your preferred e-reading app, you’re basically choosing which ecosystem you’ll use for purchasing the ebooks themselves.
Kindle isn’t iBooks' only competitor, but it’s worth mentioning one stark difference between the Kindle platform and the iBooks platform: Both can sync your place when you read ebooks between different devices. With iBooks, the only currently compatible devices are iOS devices. With Kindle, there are Kindle desktop apps for the Mac and Windows PCs, and of course the hardware Kindle devices as well. If you’re already plugged into the Kindle ecosystem, I’ll say at the outset that as good as iBooks 3 is—and it is very good—there’s really not enough to motivate you to switch allegiances from Kindle to iBooks.
That said, cliché though it may sound, iBooks 3 is the best edition of the app to date. Significant and minor improvements alike make the app more satisfying a reading environment than ever before.
Surprisingly, one significant iBooks improvement is lifted from the Kindle app: The bookshelf in iBooks now lists all the books you own, even titles you haven’t downloaded to your device. That makes it quick and painless to download books you own on demand (provided your iOS device is online, of course). Books in the cloud are marked with a special icon on their covers.
Delete This Copy removes the book from your device but leaves the cover on your shelf; Delete removes the book entirely.
When you delete books from your bookshelf, the nomenclature in iBooks is uncharacteristically lousy. First, you’re not really deleting the books at all; you’re removing them. When you tap the thus-misnamed Delete button, its two sub-options are even less clear: Delete This Copy and Delete. The former removes the book from your device, but leaves its cover on your shelf (with the iCloud download icon now superimposed). The red Delete button removes the book from your shelf entirely—though you can still get it back again by going into the iBookstore’s Purchased tab.
Now’s as good a time as any to mention the iBookstore itself. Its selection size is steadily increasing; Apple now claims it has more than 1.5 million ebooks available. And the iBookstore wields one significant advantage over its competitors: You can access the ebook store from within iBooks, instead of being forced out into Safari. Third-party developers are prohibited from offering such behavior (unless they cut Apple in on the ebook sales, which isn’t financially viable).
The Scroll theme on the iPad leaves much to be desired.
Also new in iBooks 3 is the addition of a third theme called Scroll. Unlike Book (the skeuomorphic theme that places the text upon the virtual pages of a virtual hardcover) and Full Screen (which ditches the book to give more real estate to the text), Scroll doesn’t directly paginate your books for you to swipe through horizontally. Instead, it lays out the book vertically; you scroll through it like you would a lengthy email or webpage, no horizontal swipes required.
The Scroll theme is decidedly unpleasant on a full-sized iPad. The scrolling isn’t smooth; I encounter frequent stutters. The goal of any ebook app at its core should be to get the heck out of the way so that the reader forgets about the app and just gets immersed in the text. Scroll on the iPad constantly pulls me out of the book with its hiccups.
On my iPhone 5, however, Scroll performed noticeably better. And I’ve certainly tried vertically scrolling my ebooks (in both iBooks and Kindle) in the past; my muscle memory simply expects to perform that scrolling gesture when I’m reading on an iOS device for a long time. It’s now my default theme on the iPhone.
iBooks' new Scroll theme really shines on the iPhone.
(On the iPhone, you just get two themes: Book and Scroll. But—save for its page-turn animations—Book on the iPhone is pretty close to Full Screen on the iPad, in that there are no faux book pages drawn beneath the text.)
As always, and even in the Scroll theme, iBooks’s on-screen information display is better than its competition offers: You get omnipresent details on your current (virtual) page number, and how many of those virtual pages are left in the current chapter. If you don’t want that detail, you tap the screen and it fades away. I’m a big fan of quick access to the pages left in a chapter; I love knowing how far I am from a good stopping point. The Kindle app doesn’t offer that option.
Another new feature in iBooks 3 is its ability to share excerpts from the books you’re reading. You tap and drag to highlight the passage you’d like to share, and then tap again on the highlighted section. Then you tap the Sharing button (the boxed arrow) and choose to share through Mail, Messages, Twitter, or Facebook, or to copy the text to the clipboard.
Highlight and share your favorite passages.
It works fine—with one silly caveat. iBooks tries to include attribution information for the quotation, like the book’s title and author, and a copyright notice. In some contexts, like Twitter posts, that detail likely won’t fit, so the prepopulated tweet text gets arbitrarily truncated. It’s not a big deal, but it’s a bit sloppy.
One addition Macworld didn’t test is iBooks 3’s new support for more than 40 languages, including Koren, Chinese, and Japanese. It’s there if you need it. iBooks 3 also gains the option to download free updates to books you’ve purchased. That won’t apply to most books you buy, but it could come in handy should you own one that needs updating. We weren’t able to test that feature, either.
Other core iBooks features remain unchanged, but still impressive: It offers an excellent selection of crisp, superb fonts; it offers black-on-white, white-on-black, and sepia-toned text/background pairings; it has in-app brightness controls. Its in-book search is quick and accurate. And its support for ragged-right text (as opposed to the Kindle app’s unchangeable, awkward forced justification) is much appreciated.