MacBook Air 11.6″. Some real world usage notes

MacBook Air profile

Hey folks. So I picked up one of Apple’s new MacBook Air notebooks. I had been wanting a more portable computer than my trusty tote-able 2008 MacBook Pro and the new 11.6″ form factor was mighty tempting. I did spring for the BTO 4GB RAM upgrade, but I opted to stick with the stock 64GB hard drive.

My first impressions are, like a lot of other reviewers, that despite its relatively slow clock speed the machine is fairly snappy and capable of doing more than just writing and web surfing. Yes, you can do real work on this thing. You just might have to have some patience during certain tasks.

After using it for about a day, installing programs, copying files (WIFI only) and running some usage tests I’ve come to two principle conclusions:

  • For CPU-intensive computational tasks, the 11.6 model is a bit of a laggard (blame the slow CPU)
  • But for usage involving many open applications and background tasks, the thing flies (thank the SSD)

Some Numbers

No usage summary would be complete without a few benchmarks, so I put together a suite of tasks to compare the performance with the other Macs in my house. The contenders:

  • 2010 MacBook Air 1.4Ghz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 64GB SSD
  • 2008 MacBook Pro 2.4Ghz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 200GB HD (5400 RPM)
  • (some tests only) 2006 iMac 1.83Ghz Core Duo, 2GB RAM

The tests included start up time, video encoding, misc usage tasks and working a Parallels 5 virtual machine to do some geospatial analysis.

The Tests

Start up time

  • Winner: MacBook Air, by a lot
  • It was more than thirty seconds difference so I stopped counting. I could probably start the Air up twice before the Pro even reached the login screen.
Parallels 5: Boot identical virtual machines:
  • MacBook Pro faster by ~3sec
Parallels 5: Launch ArcMap 9.3 GIS software inside VM:
  • MacBook Air faster by ~15 sec.
  • I did this one twice and the result was the same both times.
Parallels 5: Suspend VM:
  • Tie: virtually no difference
Parallels 5: Wake VM:
  • MacBook Air by 1 sec
Parallels 5: ArcMap: Spatial Autocorrelation analysis
  • Spatial Autocorrelation analysis is a computationally expensive process of searching for clusters of similar values inside geographic data. This task was run on a feature set of 3700 observations.
  • MacBook Pro by 59 sec
Parallels 5: ArcMap: High/Low Cluster analysis:
  • High/Low Cluster analysis is similar to Spatial Autocorrelation analysis. This task was run on the same feature set.
  • MacBook Pro by 60 sec
Parallels 5: Reboot of VM:
  • MacBook Pro by ~2 sec
Launching Safari with Parallels and Aperture open:
  • MacBook Air by ~25 sec
Wake VM with Safari and Aperture open
  • MacBook Air by ~10sec
Create a Par2 set from 110 MB of files:
  • MacBook Pro by ~10sec
Python script (time to task completion):
  • I’ve written a Python script that loads, parses and analyzes my iTunes XML file (~56 MB).
  • MacBook Pro: 40.5 sec
  • MacBook Air: 64.0 sec
  • iMac: 59.8 sec
Handbrake CLI video encoding
  • Convert a 1.7GB HD-Photo JPEG .MOV from my digital camera to a 900kbps mp4 using ffmpeg
  • MacBook Pro: 74 fps (fan kicked on)
  • MacBook Air: 47 fps (no fan)
  • iMac: 43 fps

Subjective Analysis

From the numbers we can clearly see that the faster processor in the 2-year-old MacBook Pro makes a big difference when crunching numbers. In all the CPU tests, the Pro performed the task in about 66% of the time as the Air. The real surprise (and disappointment) is where the Air barely keeps up with a 5-year-old iMac using an older chip architecture in the Python and Handbrake tests. (Though I suppose it shows that a 1.4 C2D can do the work of a 1.8 CD, which I’m sure helps with heat and power consumption).

One thing to note though, is that despite all the intense processor usage, the Air barely got warm. During the video encode test, while Handbrake was doing its best to max out both cores, the Macbook Pro’s fan kicked on to full speed after about 1 minute. The Air on the other hand stayed cool and quiet the entire time. This bottom comfort is something my lap and legs are sure to appreciate.

But what the Air lacks in raw power, it makes up for in responsiveness. It’s hardly possible to get it to hiccup, even when running tasks in the background. I was able to use Aperture to edit some RAW photos without any significant slowdown while copying 6 gigs of files to the Air. Kernel_task was chugging away at ~50% usage in Activity Monitor without any noticeable effect on the overall system performance.

And this is where productivity gains will be made with the Air. In all the tests above, the processes running were the only active applications and that’s rarely how I work. I often have multiple browser windows open and Mail and who know what other apps going simultaneously. Look at the Safari launch test. With both Aperture and Parallels open, the Air launched Safari almost instantaneously while on the Pro it bounced in the Dock for 25 seconds. Similarly, Parallels’ disk-based performance (waking the VM) slowed significantly when other programs were open competing for resources. If the Air can keep the dreaded beach ball from the showing itself, then I will be a happy, less frustrated Mac user.

AirTunes returns to casa tunequest

airport express by Jared C. Benedict (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Apple_airport_express.jpg)

After more than two years offline, the sweet sounds of AirTunes once again bless the tunequest abode. AirTunes, of course, is the technology that allows wireless music streaming from iTunes to Apple’s Airport Express wireless router.

A few years ago, shortly after the Airport Express was introduced, I picked one up for my apartment when I first moved to Atlanta. I was fortunate that my DSL modem hookup and stereo system sat near each other: the proximity made it simple to share my Internet among my computers as well as play my iTunes library from the office on the other end of the building. But when I later bought a house and moved out of that apartment, the stereo and Internet turned out to not be so conveniently located.

The Airport Express was repurposed exclusively for networking, leaving the stereo woefully underused (for some reason, iPods never quite sounded right with it). And so it remained, collecting dust until yesterday.

After putting off the purchase for quite some time, I bought a new wireless router to take over the networking duties (a Netgear Rangemax WPN824v2), and for nearly half price thanks to “Black Friday” deals. Set up of the new device was rather straightforward. Though not as elegant as the Airport solution, the Netgear offers a handful more features that are suited to a dedicated router, such as site blocking and dynamic DNS services.

Needless to say, after making sure the network was up and running, the Express found a new home under the stereo system. A quick reset and some relatively quick reconfiguration (the AX couldn’t “see” the Netgear network, so I had to manually type its name), and I am once again able to seamlessly play my iTunes library in the living room and entertain the whole house if I want to.

Color me bliss.

airtunes multiple speakers

One thing that has changed with AirTunes since I last used it is the ability to stream to multiple locations simultaneously. Until iTunes 6.0.2 (01/2006), streaming was limited to one destination, either the computer or a single Express. Since then however, it is possible to play music from the desktop as well as up to six Airport Expresses on the same network (depending on network conditions) at the same time. I find that very cool as I can be working in the office, pick up my PowerBook and move to the den and not have any interruption in the music.

With OS X Leopard’s Screen Sharing/VNC, I can quickly and easily control iTunes from my PowerBook as though I were sitting at my iMac. Plus, Party Shuffle suddenly got a lot more useful.

Music Store Showdown: iTunes vs Amazon vs eMusic

So Amazon recently threw its hat into the thunderdome of online digital music sales. The store’s big brand name and huge retail operation instantly make it one of the top tier marts for digital music. As Amazon MP3 is seen primarily as a challenger to the iTunes Store’s throne, I originally wanted to do a compare and contrast with that gorilla, but later thought that unfair to eMusic, who consistently claims to be the second largest online store on the net. The iTunes Store has more than enough going for it that an equilibrium will eventually be met with whatever competition comes its way. eMusic, however, might be quite vulnerable to Amazon’s might and muscle.

music Store Showdown

But just how does that muscle shape up?

I took a look at Amazon MP3, trying to gauge its place on the market and judge its strengths and weaknesses compared to its more established rivals. Each service was evaluated using the following criteria:

  • Format & Quality
  • Selection
  • Search & Ease of Use
  • Pricing
  • Artwork and Tagging
  • Free Stuff

Format & Quality

Amazon MP3

As the store’s name suggests, Amazon MP3 provides music in the MP3 format. MP3 is incompatible with any type of rights management and the most notable claim of AMZMP3 is the freedom of the file format it is willing to sell. MP3s, of course, work on virtually all portable devices. Amazon MP3’s also pitches its files as being high quality. The site claims to supply a very healthy bitate of 256kbps for its downloads, but the files I’ve purchased have averaged 214 (VBR) kbps. Though they sound fine to my ears, it is less than the site advertises.

Getting info on the file tells me that it was encoded using LAME 3.97.

eMusic

Like Amazon, eMusic provides free and open MP3 files and has been doing so since 2003. The MP3s are encoded around 192kbps (VBR) using LAME 3.92. The music sounds great.

The iTunes Store

The iTunes Store has been the spearhead in the adoption of the AAC format, selling AAC encoded files since the store’s 2003 inception. AAC is billed as a successor to MP3 and is particularly noted for sounding better at lower bitrates. At the time of this writing, the iTunes Store is providing two flavors of AAC. The standard encoding is 128kbps, which to its credit sounds pretty good. The store benefits from having the songs encoded from the original master recordings, rather than being ripped from a CD. Throughout much of the store’s history, however, Apple has been forced by its contracts with record labels to include the much-criticized and oft-despised rights management, FairPlay, on all song downloads. Most of the songs it sell come packaged this way.

Recently though, the store has made moves to free its music from those restrictions. The iTunes Plus service sells songs with no DRM attached and doubles the bitrate to 256kbps. There’s a lot of debate about the merits of AAC vs MP3 at higher bitrates, so the benefit of the increase may not be that significant, but surely, it can’t hurt. Currently, about 1/3 of the store’s inventory is offered via iTunes Plus.

Winner: 3-way tie (with edge to Amazon and eMusic). The files supplied by each store, while not lossless, sound quite adequate for the majority of listening applications and music systems. iTunes loses a couple points for the continued existence of FairPlay, but the way things are trending, it probably won’t be around for much longer.

Update 28 March 2009: Apple has announced that by April 2009, 100% of its music content will be DRM-free. It that comes to pass, then there really will be little to debate about format choice. All three stores will be using files that are compatible with a large number and wide range of players and hardware.

Selection

Each store likes to boast about its large catalogue. iTunes is by far the largest with about six million songs to choose from. eMusic and Amazon both claim to offer more than two million songs each (Playlistmag says eMusic has 2.7 million UPDATE 11/7: Macworld reports that eMusic now stores 3 million songs in its catalogue, while Amazon’s complete list shows 2,479,112 at the time of this writing). Impressive numbers all around, but catalogue size doesn’t mean squat if it doesn’t have the songs you’re looking for. So, I went through the music libraries of three people and randomly choose 20 songs from each. I then looked for those songs on all three services, giving one point for songs on the album I was searching for or half a point for the song in another context (soundtrack, compilation, greatest hits, etc).

Here are the results:

The iTunes Store is easily the champion in this contest, besting its two rivals combined. Of the 60 songs searched, iTunes scored 46 points, Amazon finished with 20 and eMusic ranked in with 14.5. Within those results, there were only 2 instances where either AMZMP3 or eMusic had a song that iTunes did not and 5 instances where eMusic provided a song that Amazon did not. In total, there were 10 songs that none of the stores carried in their inventory.

But besides the run-of-the-mill catalogue, each store has its selectional perks.

iTunes offers tons of exclusive content, such as its iTunes Originals series, celebrity playlists or the AOL Sessions series.

eMusic has an extensive selection of “eMusic Only” releases, many of them full live concerts. The site also hosts the world’s largest collection of DRM-free music, which eMusic notes come from 20,000+ independent labels. However, the iTunes Store and Amazon are both gaining in that respect. What you won’t find, however, is any of the majors, which is a bit ironic considering that Universal used to own the place.

In contrast to eMusic and iTunes, Amazon MP3 is lacking in the exclusives department. There’s no “Amazon Presents…” or the like, just search-and-download. In a notable coup, however, AMZMP3 is the first and only store to offer digital downloads of Radiohead’s albums (plus one single for the completeists out there). Though the band’s label, EMI, also participates in Apple’s iTunes Plus program, Radiohead only wants to sell complete albums, which violate Apple’s policy to offer track-only purchases. Thus, OK Computer at Amazon, but not at iTunes. Update 3 June 2008: Radiohead’s complete catalog is now also available DRM-free from iTunes.

Winner: Each store offers a reason to shop there, but at the end of the day, it’s the iTunes Store that will most likely be selling what you’re looking to buy.

Search & Ease of Use

iTunes

In typical Apple fashion, the iTunes Store screams ease of use.

The storefront is built into the iTunes desktop app, making for one stop shopping. Apple has gone to great lengths to integrate the offline library management functions of the program with the online sales environment. The ubiquitous “iTunes Store” arrows and the “Minibrowser” might be a little intrusive, but those can be turned off.

Once in the store, finding songs/albums/artists is trivial; just type it into the search bar, though most of the time you have to sort through movies/tv shows/podcasts/etc in the results. The store does a pretty good job of segregating the various types of media. iTunes falters when it comes to the exploratory level. In the four years since its launch, I’ve never found it all that comfortable or appealing to browse the place for an extended period of time.

Like almost all online shoppes, the iTunes Store allows users to leave feedback, ratings and comments about albums. It also provides rudimentary recommendations in the form of “People who bought X also bought Y.” Users can also contribute to the store via iMixes, compilations put together by individuals and submitted to the store. However, the presentation is pretty sparse and there’s minimal “social aspects” to them, i.e. you can see what another person has rated or look at their iMixes, but you can’t “befriend” them or interact or see recommendations based on tastes you might have in common.

Once purchased, songs download straight into your library. It’s seamless. But be sure to make a backup of everything you buy. Apple only allows you to download the song one time, though if a catastrophic event wipes out your collection, the store does permit an unpublicized one-time re-download of your purchase history.

Some songs, usually determined by length, are not available as a single download, but must be purchased as part of an album. That can be a drag when you just want the one song.

eMusic

eMusic’s storefront is HTML-based. The store can be accessed and songs downloaded from any web browser. Recently though, the company released eMusic Remote as a way to integrate the online store with the desktop. The app runs on Mac/Win/Lin and is based on the Mozilla browser. Think: iTunes-Store-inside-Firefox. eMusic Remote provides an easy way to navigate the store and manage downloads, which can automatically be added to your iTunes library, should you so desire.

The site’s search feature could use some vast improvements. Often, the results it returns are far too many, especially for simple queries, and they don’t seem to be prioritized and are not sub-sortable. Sometimes, I find it easier to do a Google site search instead: site:emusic.com.

Previewing music comes in the form of downloadable m4u playlist files, which can be opened by iTunes or Quicktime Player. The process can be tedious for single tracks, but is really quite nice for checking out complete albums. Though, I’d rather they switched to Flash-based, in-browser previewing. UPDATE 04/17/08: Hooray! eMusic recently switched to an in-browser sample preview system. It greatly improves the ability to get a taste for a song/band/album before deciding to buy.

In contrast to iTunes, eMusic’s social aspects are more robust. While similar in theory to what iTunes does, the execution is better. Each album’s page shows any reviews that members have written; that’s not special. But, where iTunes says “People who bought X also bought Y,” eMusic is more specific, giving recommendations based on what a handful of particular fans also enjoy. These make great springboards for further exploration.

Also, an album’s page shows which users’ ‘playlists’ it appears on. Akin to iMixes, a user playlist can be whatever the author wants it to be. A playlist can be as simple as someone’s public bookmarks, or as indepth and voluminous as “80+ Reasons Why Japan Rules,” much like Amazon’s Listmania.

One of the best music discovery tools I’ve run across on any platform is eMusic’s Neighbors screen. It shows fellow music fans with similar tastes. Hover over a shared artist and get recommendations based on that artist. On my current screen, based on my interest in Mogwai, I have five neighbors telling me to check out Cat Power, Of Montreal, and eight other artists. Using this tool, I’ve found a number of new and interesting bands based on my intersections with my musical neighbors.

eMusic, unlike iTunes, offers no restrictions on the number of times you can download a purchase. Hard drive melt? Just log into your history a grab it again. Also, unlike iTunes, eMusic has no restriction on songs based on length. There are no “album only” purchases. Every song, even a 30 minute opus, is available as a single purchase.

emusic neighbors
eMusic Neighbors screen

Amazon MP3

AMZMP3, like eMusic, is browser-based with both direct download for singles and a desktop app for grabbing albums. The company knows how to run a web store, and its expertise shows. If results are available, a search will return a list of artists, albums and song that match. Songs can be previewed immediately via a nifty on-page Flash-based system, or more details on the album can found on the album’s page, which integrates the feedback, reviews and ratings from the physical CD’s entry in the vast AMZ database.

Likewise, if MP3s are available, the option to buy them appear on the actual physical CD’s page. A useful gimmick that doesn’t seem to be in place though is, “Buy a CD, download MP3 immediately” type bundles. I suspect that would result in a fair amount of up-selling.

Getting the actual music files is straightforward enough. For single songs, click the “Buy MP3” button, confirm payment and a single MP3 will be all yours for the downloadin’. Whole albums require the Amazon MP3 Downloader program. When purchasing an album, a reference file is downloaded to the desktop. That reference file tells the Downloader which album to retrieve. Then the music begins to flow. When finished, the app will auto add to iTunes if requested. The process requires a couple extra steps, but it works.

Like iTunes, some music at AMZMP3 is album only, though it’s hard to know what or why. Those Radiohead albums for example, no individual songs can be purchased. The length of the song isn’t necessarily a factor. There are some 17 and 18 minute-long Mogwai tracks available separately, while at least one 11 minute Sonic Youth song is album only. Adding to the confusion is the store’s somewhat perplexing price structure.

Overall though, the site is still considered to be “public beta,” so we can guess that it will improve with time.

Winner: Each services is pretty much on par with the others on the ease-of-use front. None have a particularly show-stopping difficulty. iTunes gets points for the all-in-one solution, while Amazon is a known quantity that now extends to MP3 sales. eMusic’s search can be challenging, but its re-download policy and music discovery tools make it very appealing to the adventurous.

Pricing

The iTunes Store charges a flat $0.99 per song for individual tracks. Albums cost the sum of all songs, or $9.99, whichever is lower. It’s the same way throughout the store; there are no variations.

Unlike iTunes, Amazon charges a variable price for downloads. At launch, Amazon’s typical price per song is $0.89, though some are $0.99. Most complete albums run $4.95 to $9.99, though I’ve not figured out how those prices are computed. Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves is 11 songs at $0.99 each or $7.97 for the whole album, a difference of $2.92. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is currently $8.99 for all 26 songs ($0.35 vs $0.99 a piece), whereas Dark Side of the Moon has some songs for $0.89, others for $0.99, or $7.99 for the album, a difference of only $0.62. It doesn’t make much sense, but in some cases, you might find a better deal than the iTunes Store.

eMusic’s business model is different than the pay-per-track services of Amazon and iTunes. Similar to the Netflix model, subscribers pay for a membership plan to access a certain number of downloads per 30-day cycle, rather than paying for songs individually. In my case, I pay $14.95 for 50 downloads every thirty days. If I download all 50 songs, I end up spending just $0.30 per song. There are more extensive bulk plans that will bring the price down to $0.25 per song. Also, the length of the song doesn’t matter; a 30 minute epic track costs just one download credit, as does a 30 second interlude.

Maximizing the value of one’s subscription requires diligence however. It’s never happened to me personally, but if one forgets or is too busy to retrieve their current downloads, well then, they get squat for their $15. In my case, the worst I’ve ever done is have 6 credits left at the end of the cycle. I’m usually plagued by the *other* subscription conundrum: Wanting a 10-song album, with only four credits until the next refresh. Most of the time, I solve this dilemma by grabbing the first four songs, bookmarking the album in my “save for later” area, then return first thing after the refresh (I have an iCal reminder tell me when it’s time). Alternately, I find eMusic to be an inexpensive way of exploring classical music.

Winner: On price alone, eMusic wins, provided you take full advantage of your subscription. With the $14.95 plan, you’ll be on par with iTunes as long as you download at least 15 songs per cycle. At this time, Amazon is also undercutting iTunes on price. This could change after the honeymoon period, as more popular songs might be priced higher than $0.99, but for now, iTunes is the loser on the money factor.

Artwork and Tagging

Songs from all three stores come with comprehensive ID3 tags, providing song name, artists, album, genre, etc. AMZMP3 provides high-quality album art embedded in the file, while iTunes supplies it in a separate sidecar file. eMusic will download a jpeg along with the MP3s, but it must be manually added to the files. eMusic’s jpeg however is a pitifully small 150 x 150 pixels. so I either use iTunes to retrieve the album cover or search for better art using sloth radio. UPDATE: 4 Dec 2008: However, a recent redesign of the site does provide high-quality album art in the browser. It must still be manually added to the music files, but at least it’s right there when you download an album.

Winner: Slight edge to Amazon for embedding the art, slight knock to eMusic for making me work to find better art.

Free Stuff

The iTunes Store provides free content across its entire product line, from TV episodes to movie clips to sample audiobook chapters and of course, music, not a day goes by without some kind of freebie posted and available for consumption. Most notable is the Single of the Week, which changes every Tuesday. There are entire websites devoted to tracking the latest zero cost offerings at the store.

Likewise, eMusic also offers free downloads. You don’t even need to be a customer to snag them. eMusic offers two types of freebies. One, the Daily Download is updated every day. Other, long term free tracks are kept in their own part of the site. At the time of this writing, there are roughly 70 tracks up for the taking. Since eMusic caters to those outside the mainstream, most of the free tracks are from the relatively obscure, so if you’re looking to explore a bit, here’s a chance to do so without spending a cent.

I’ve not found much zero cost music at AMZMP3. There’s certainly no breakout section saying “Free Downloads Here.” However, the list of every available MP3, sorted by price, reveals a total of 36 songs available free of charge. The store is young, so who knows what kind of free stuff is planned for it.

Winner: Each store has something to give away, but eMusic gains an edge by not even requiring an account to download it. iTunes has a lot of variety, plus the entire podcast directory and iTunes U, so mucho bonus points there. Amazon lags at a distant third.

::

In terms of service, the stores are fairly evenly matched. Some foibles here and there, but, hey, nobody’s perfect. Amazon is a worthy contender and an appealling place to look when you just have to have a song right now. eMusic pretty much rules for those who enjoy exploring off the beaten path. But if you want to be absolutely sure to find the songs you’re looking for, iTunes can’t be beat. You just might have to pay a premium for the convenience and hope it’s not poisoned with DRM.

Personally, I find each to be a fine service and I see no reason to exclude any of them from my music-buying arsenal. In fact, I look forward to using Amazon a little more. And maybe, just maybe, the pressure will drive those other two companies to improve their digital music services.

Note: In the interest of disclosure, you should be aware that tunequest acts as an affiliate for two of the stores mentioned in this article. They send me a pittance whenever I send them a customer. However, that relationship in no way changes my opinion of each company. The fact is that I would not have chosen to become affiliated were I not already impressed with the services in the first place. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.

iTunes Store fact check: The Largest Selection?

via iLounge.

Apple today announced the expansion of its DRM-free iTunes Plus catalogue. The press release claims that the iTunes Store now offers the largest selection of non-rights-managed tracks in the world, with “more than two million” available.

I welcome news of the expansion, as well as the accompanying drop in price to $0.99 a track, but I have to question that superlative claim.

Apple doesn’t say how many more than two million the selection is. 2.1? 2.5? If it were larger than that, I’d expect Apple to claim “nearly three million songs.”

It’s worth pointing out though that emusic also claims to have offer more than two million songs, all in un-DRM-able MP3 format. Playlistmag goes so far as to say that emusic offers 2.7 million songs for download, from more than 20,000 labels.

So the question is, who really has the world’s largest non-DRM music download catalogue?

no, the answer is not bittorrent

Managing a Two iPod workflow is just too difficult

(or, Initial Thoughts on the iPod Touch)

iPods shuffle nano video classic and touch

Weeeee… new toys from Apple! iPods iPods iPods, including shuffles in drab new colors (gimme orange), a new iPod NanoVideo (aka iPod Squat), an all-metal iPod Classic (the form we all know and love––now up to 160GB!) and a phoneless iPhone (aka iPod Touch).

Upon the availing of the line up this afternoon, I was immediately torn. In my mind, the iPod brand is essentially “a bajillion songs in your freakin’ pocket––more songs than you could ever practically listen to but who cares because it’s a bajillion songs! In your pocket!!” and the upgraded 160GB model is encoding a lot of digital saliva in tunequestland. The iPod has finally caught up to the point where I could realize the dream of fitting my entire library (all bajillion songs of it) onto a single portable device and that sounds like a lot of fun.

But Apple had to go ahead and simultaneously release that little portable wi-fi web browsing internet communication device, didn’t they? More than anything since the iPhone was announced in January, the prospect of in-your-pocket internet has been very appealing. But of course, I already have a phone that does everything I need a phone to do, so I wasn’t (and still am not) about to plunk down for the device. At the time I thought that if Apple wanted to unbundle the phone from the package, great, I’d look at it then.

And Apple has done just that with the iPod Touch and that is the source of my quandary.

The storage capacity of the iPod Touch’s models is 8GB and 16GB, a major step down from what I’m used to. While I did fine for years with a 15GB model, I’ve gotten accustomed to lugging around roughly 40-50 gigs of music, podcasts, audiobooks, courses from iTunes U, videos, photos and data at any given time. The thought of having to cram all that back to 16GB or gasp!, 8GB, is anathema to my idea of what an iPod is.

Then a thought occurred to me…

I’m still quite happy with my 80GB 5.5G model. I’ve had it for almost a year and the only major disappointment I have with it is my recently discovered long audiobook problem. I’ve been especially surprised by the durability of its screen. It’s not had any kind of protector and there’s nary a sign of a scratch or mark. While the idea of a 160GB iPod Classic is a very compelling dream, I’m more than happy to continue using my existing hardware as my workhorse iPod.

But… what if I were to simply use an iPod Touch almost exclusively as an internet device, saving most of the traditional iPod functions for my 80GB? That would be the ticket.

And for a moment, with the Reality Distortion Field set to maximum capacity, I seriously considered that option. Then I quickly came to my senses. I’ve tried managing multiple iPods for different purposes and it’s just too much effort. For a while, I tried to divvy up music and spoken audio (podcasts, books, etc) between two devices and invariably, I’d find that I didn’t have the one I wanted at the moment I wanted it. Then there was the hassle of keeping them both synced, updated and charged. Before too long, I abandoned that idea. Besides, when one device can do most or all of what you want it to, there’s really not much point to segregating the duties.

And the more I think about it, the less certain I become that I’d actually find a significant use for an iPod Touch. My multimedia needs are already handled by my 80GB and the vast majority of my wi-fi usage is done in my house, where there are four computers I have access to. Furthermore, based on the images at apple.com, I don’t see icons for some of the traditional “Extras” provided on the iPod’s interface, like Games and Notes (though I wouldn’t imagine that they’ve actual been removed). And where’s the note taking program to make use of that famous multi-touch interface? Other than for novelty, I can’t really see myself getting one, that is, until the storage is increased. Though that might change if it turns out the the Touch has inherited the iPhone’s PDF-reading capabilities. I’ve been wanting to make those portable documents truly portable.

But for now, the bottom line: I’m happy with what I got.

Of course, for me, this all a moot discussion unless iTunes 7.4 fixes 7.3’s horrible sorting problems, which, at first glance it doesn’t.

::

PS- Did anyone else notice that Music and iTunes are separate selectors on the Touch? I realize that using the term “iTunes” is Apple’s way of differentiating pre-loaded music from on-the-go purchasing, but it strikes me that that this could be a subtle shift in the iTunes branding away from the “your personal jukebox” function and toward the store aspects. If you look at Apple’s various iTunes pages, you’ll see that the money-making features are more prominently displayed.

iTunes 7.3 Sorting Problems: Fallout Central

Part of the iTunes Sorting Debacle Series

  1. iTunes 7.4.2: No Change in Sorting behavior
  2. iTunes 7.3 Sorting Problems: Fallout Central
  3. iTunes’ totally effed up sorting

Apple has really screwed up with the new sorting behaviors introduced in iTunes 7.3 and it’s making a lot of people seriously unhappy. And, honestly, I’ve NEVER been mad at Apple for anything in my 25+ years of history with the company (annoyed at times, but never mad), but the more I think about this the more pissed I get. For those just joining the story, Apple released version 7.3 to accompany the launch of the iPhone. Included in that release was a new, completely arbitrary rule set for sorting Artist, Album, Composer, Genre, etc tags.

Quoting myself:

Starting with version 7.3, numbers and other non-alphabetic characters are sorted to the bottom of the list. My default view now shows Aalborg Symphony Orchestra at the top. 2pac now begins after the Zs and iTunes suddenly doesn’t even know how to handle artists whose names begin with punctuation. It starts !!! after songs that don’t have anything entered into their Artist or Album tags!

*snip*

iTunes now ignores the non-alphabetic leading characters and sorts based on the first letter or number it finds in the name. The program now treats fields that are all punctuation as if they are blank, as if they have nothing typed in at all. And guess what else? It passes that behavior to the iPod.

At first, it seemed that the issue was a bug, but as revisions came out, it became clear that this new behavior was intentional. Indeed, an Apple support document created July 11, 2007, explains the new scheme as if everything is hunky-dory. The odd thing about this is that there is no rational explanation for it. Before 7.3, iTunes used case-insensitive ACSII as its basis. It’s a decades old standard that all electronic devices use.

Symbols > Numbers > Letters. That’s the order the entire Western world has been using for all of modern memory. Look on any computer’s desktop and that’s how you’ll see files arranged. Hell, even the 131-years-old Dewey Decimal System sorts numbers before letters. Perhaps more bizarrely though, is that this behavior only appears to affect the first character in the music tags. Playlists and second character sorting (unless the whole field is made of punctuation) still seem to use the ASCII method. Say whaa? If you’re going to screw up a standard, you might as well be consistent with your screwery.

Seriously, this abrupt abandoning of established convention brings Apple closer to Microsoft’s behavior regarding standards. Could you imagine if, on a whim, Apple suddenly changed the way Safari renders web pages to its own specifications, rather than W3C standards, perhaps in order to accommodate the iPhone? That’s how bad this is.

So far, the suggested workaround is to use the Apply Sort Field command to manually restore normal sorting, a process that is cumbersome, tedious, counter-intuitive and shouldn’t even be necessary. In my case, I’d have to apply it to 150-200 albums and gobs of composers and I’m not about to waste my time doing so. Alternately, you can downgrade to iTunes 7.2.

I am not alone in my ire. Others in the passionate-about-iTunes community are equally upset at this development. Here’s some choice reactions from several threads around the net.

Code Monkey at iLounge forums:

It’s not just a “strange” decision, but a downright moronic one. First off, anybody bright enough to use a computer knows that symbols and numbers sort before alphabetical characters. Second off, what was the whole point of introducing the ability to customize sorting in 7.2 if they were just going to turn around and bork it with 7.3?

GadgetGuru72 on the Apple Discussion boards:

Thanks. I am familiar with all the suggested workarounds.

However, I shouldn’t have to use a “workaround” to get a “1” or a “?” to sort before the letter “a” any more than I should have to use a “workaround” to get the letter “a” to sort before the letter “b.”

Amen to that.

Andrew Wiggins in the comments to another iLounge article:

I’m extremely irritated that the numbers vs. letters order has changed. This has messed up with my established order for albums that I was very pleased with.

Comment at engadget: (sic)

WHAT ON EARTH, HOW ANNOYING

they have changed the Digit order, when you sort column be accending, so all those people who had there music sorted by Artist with bands like +44, 65 Days of Static and 30 seconds to Mars ect… will now find that in that mode they are liseted at the bottom after your XY and Z’s (if you have any) Thats just annoying, why the change?

The rampaging horde at Digg:

The sorting in iTunes 7.3 is totaly screwed. Apparently numbers now come after letters.

This was by far the most annoying thing in the update. Brackets and parentheses are ignored in sorting, too!

WTF are they thinking?

well, I did notice that the sorting on the iPod is the same way. Numbers come after letters.

In any case, stupid.

The numbers after letters thing is what really gets me. It’s completely f’ed my entire library.

Comment at Neowin forums:

I really dislike what they did to the artist ordering. That alone makes me want to downgrade

Comment at MacRumors forums:

The 7.3 update is what caused the error in sorting (numbers and symbols after z.) I was hoping the 7.3.1 update would fix it, but it sounds like it doesn’t.

Quote:
Originally Posted by ryry919 View Post
not sure if anyone else has noticed this, but when I opened iTunes back up after the update I noticed that all of my artists that are a # (IE: 311, 3 Doors Down) are all now at the end of the iTunes artist sort rather than being at the top, before the A’s like it used to be.

anyone know of a way to change this back? is there anything like how you can either view you contacts in address book for first, last or last, first? just wondering.

I downgraded my iTunes to 7.2 for the time being.

Someone’s LiveJournal

Dear $deity why? Why would they do that?

Everybody knows its punctuation->[0-9]->[Aa-Zz], anything else is heresy!

And so on. I’ll add more as I run across them.

For now, the only way to get “standards compliant” sorting back is to downgrade to iTunes 7.2. I’ve done this already and until I see a version that restores standard procedure (or at the very least offers the option of using either scheme), I will not be upgrading to any future version of the software. That basically means I’ll never buy an iPhone or any other product that requires a subsequent version of iTunes. I’ll probably save myself some money that way. If you don’t have an iPhone, I suggest that you do the same. Download for Mac. Download for Windows.

In the meantime, though Apple’s traditionally not very responsive to customer feature complaints, it never hurts to try: http://www.apple.com/feedback/itunesapp.html

iTunes’ totally effed up sorting

Part of the iTunes Sorting Debacle Series

  1. iTunes 7.4.2: No Change in Sorting behavior
  2. iTunes 7.3 Sorting Problems: Fallout Central
  3. iTunes’ totally effed up sorting

…and managed to sully my iPod too. And the more I think about it, the more pissed off I get. What Apple has done defies all standard convention, is completely arbitrary and makes ab-so-lute-ly zero sense whatsoever.

Allow me to go on.

I had put off updating my iTunes to 7.3.2 until a couple days ago. With all the time and energy I invest into pruning and perfecting my library (it’s like bonsai really), I usually give the early adopters in the Mac community enough time to warn me of any critical errors or whether the new update is going to irreparably damage or otherwise soil my files. It’s just common sense.

So, having read no reports of exploding iPods or iTunes-induced electrocutions, I figured it was time for the latest and greatest. At the very least, I could get the app to stop bugging me about the update every time I launched it.

The update process went smoothly enough, like a Dove chocolate bar, and I was quickly back to makin’ playlists and retrieving album art. It took me about a day, however, to realize something was… awry.

The default view of the Music tab had changed. As a matter of course, I keep it set to Album by Year, which in effect sorts by artist then sub-sorts the albums by the year they were released. Before the latest update, that meant that the band !!! was listed first, followed by +/- then into the numbers. It was logical: standard convention dictates that that’s the way alphanumerical sorting is done in English.

Far be it for Apple to let any convention go unchallenged…


neatly organized ipod composers
Neatly organized iPod composers.

scrambled ipod composers
A scrambled mess.

Starting with version 7.3, numbers and other non-alphabetic characters are sorted to the bottom of the list. My default view now shows Aalborg Symphony Orchestra at the top. 2pac now begins after the Zs and iTunes suddenly doesn’t even know how to handle artists whose names begin with punctuation. It starts !!! after songs that don’t have anything entered into their Artist or Album tags!

On one hand though, I do have to give iTunes some credit. When sorting numbers, the program is smart enough to know that, numerically, 101 Strings comes after 50 Cent.

I’m not averse to change in general, and though somewhat inconvenient, these new sorting behaviors aren’t a fundamental flaw. I can deal with it. Update 8/28: I take that back. This IS a fundamental flaw and it needs to be fixed. There’s no excusing it. However, the real travesty here is how iTunes now treats the Composer tag. In this case, it looks like Apple specifically set out to destroy my Composer tag scheme, the one where cover songs have the original artist surrounded by [brackets]. The purpose of that is to separate cover tunes from actual composers when browsing Composers on the iPod.

Well, guess what? iTunes now ignores the non-alphabetic leading characters and sorts based on the first letter or number it finds in the name. And guess what else? The program now treats fields that are all punctuation as if they are blank, as if they don’t have any characters at all. It passes that behavior to the iPod. Now when browsing by Composers, the list I’m presented with is a jumbled mess. I’ve got [Fleetwood Mac] sittin’ next to Edvard Greig and [Ted Nugent] holding hands with Tchaikovsky, which is the exact situation I was trying to avoid in the first place!

And that’s not even mentioning my workaround for remix albums, where I list the song’s originator in (parentheses).

So, thanks Apple for fixing something that wasn’t broken.

So, the 5G iPod has a problem with Audiobooks…

Not all audiobooks, mind you, just homemade ones; downloads from the iTunes Store and Audible seem to work fine. The story goes like this…

My carpool ended a couple weeks ago, as my riding buddy resigned to take another job. I’m going to miss the amity, conversation and, of course, the gas and mileage savings, but my solo commute will now give me the opportunity to invest more time into audiobooks and other spoken audio, passing the dreadful Atlanta Interstates somewhat more productively. I’ve started with Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. It’s a fascinating adventure story about literature, philosophy, old secrets and the legacy of the Knights Templar told with compelling intellectual prose.

I first read the book eleven years ago when I was in high school and it inspired my to write a paper on the Templars, which brought me into contact with a strange world of the paranoid and the occult. Since then, I’ve noticed in modern books and movies, how mythical versions of the Templars, like Atlantis, are often brought up as keepers of ancient secrets, power and wealth that even today’s advanced civilization can’t understand.

Plus, a good portion of the book takes place in Paris, where I happened to be at the time I was reading it. At one point, I finished a paragraph and decided to immediately visit the location that had been described. That was pretty cool. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, between the publishing of the book in 1988 and my visit in 1996, the actual Foucault’s Pendulum was moved from the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers to the Panthéon, so I never did get to see it.

That’s great and all, but what does it have to do with the iPod?

Well, having decided to re-read/listen to the book, I promptly stitched together the nineteen audio parts into a bookmarkable AAC (m4b), which iTunes and the iPod treat as an audiobook. I started listening to it on the ride to work, getting about 30 minutes into the story. Once at the office, I switched to music, then when the day was over, switched back to the book for the ride home.

As expected, the book picked up where it had left off, continuing the story. All was well for about a minute, then the book suddenly stopped, returning to the iPod’s main menu. When I restarted the book, it began playing from the beginning, having lost the bookmark. Annoying to say the least. I noticed the next I synced up that the file’s play count had increased by one, as though the iPod thought it had played to the end.

This was not the first time this had happened; I had previously encountered this problem with a bookmarkable AAC audiobook of Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, but at the time, I chalked it up to an error in the file. But this second occurrence indicated that something else might have been afoot. The behavior occurs anytime a homemade M4B file is interrupted, whether by playing another song/podcast/audiobook/video, syncing the iPod with iTunes, or if the iPod is asleep for long enough that it turns itself off and requires a reboot. The problem doesn’t occur if the audiobook is simply paused and restarted.

So I set about trying to find a solution to this irksome problem.

A quick trip to Google turned up a thread on the forums at Audiobook Builder’s website. Audiobook Builder stitches together many files to create (build), you guessed it, one long audiobook, which is great for books spread across multiple CDs. ABB happened to be the program I used to create my Pendulum M4B file, so it looked like a good place to start (though I’m not implying that Audiobook Builder was at fault; my Assault on Reason files were similarly deficient and those were stitched together with the Join Together AppleScript).

The direction of that discussion leaned toward the mix of the file, specifically if it were mono, was the culprit. Sure enough my files had been encoded as mono. (Quick aside: Files encoded in mono aren’t any smaller than a stereo counterpart at the same bitrate. However, you can use a lower bitrate and maintain the quality of the sound with mono). Thinking I had the case solved, I converted the files to stereo, synced up the iPod and continued with the story.

For about a minute.

The thing quit again. Clearly the channels were not the issue. Without any further leads, I set about trying to eliminate variables. I tried a higher bitrate. I tried a lower bitrate. I removed the album art/book cover. I took all the chapter markers out. I removed all ID3 tags until all that was left was a bare bones AAC file. Then, just when it looked like that might work, it failed again.

The last recourse was to segment the file into shorter pieces. Rather than one 24 hour file, I have ten 2-2.5 hour files. Yeah, that’s fewer than the nineteen files I started with, but it’s not as elegant as a single long one. But it works, so despite my frustration that the bug exists, I can finish my story without the constant scrubbing to a lost place mark.

I love my iPod, but *sigh*

::

PS

Another workaround I thought of is to use join the pieces into one long MP3 file. Then, after adding it to the iTunes Library, get info on it, marvel at the incredible length of the file, and select “Remember Playback Position” in the Options panel. That will emulate the bookmarking feature, but you won’t be able to play it slower of faster like a bona fide M4B Audiobook.

Pioneer DVR-107D DVD burner + Max = Perfect encoding solution

Recently, I’ve taken to re-encoding some of my favorite CDs, mostly ones that I originally encoded long ago, some as far back as 1999. Hard drive space was at a premium at the time, so I traded acceptable losses in quality for a smaller storage footprint. When the music is coming from a beige G3’s internal speaker, 112 kbps and 320 kbps mp3s sound basically the same.

But as I’ve gotten older and I’ve been able to afford audio equipment with higher fidelity, the flaws in those original files have become ever more noticeable.

Since hard drive space isn’t much of a problem these days, I’m endeavoring to upgrade all those ancient files to modern quality standards. As I run across those sub-par album rips during my daily listening routine, I’m replacing them with 256 kbps VBR AAC files or Apple Lossless (if they are deserving of the extra attention to detail).

Max Icon

And so was this situation that occurred last week when listening to Velocity Girl’s ¡Simpatico!, one of my all-time favorite albums. The music sounded “off” and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to create a new encoding for a long time. I grabbed the disc off the shelf, fired up Max, the handiest freeware audio converter/ripper/encoder available for Mac OS X, and set it to work.

But it did not take long for an anticipated problem to rear its head. The seventh song on the disc, Rubble, has had a pretty nasty scratch for I don’t know how long, a scratch that marred the original file years ago. As I feared, the encoding process stalled, so I canceled it. I’ve known my iMac’s built-in Matshita UJ-846 drive to be problematic with flaky discs, frequently getting hung up on them, so I pulled out my external Pioneer DVR-107D and hooked it up via Firewire.

The DVR107D was one of the first DVD burners available for less than $100 and I got one to use with my G4 iMac, which couldn’t even read DVDs, much less write them. I crammed the drive into an old LaCie case I had and, let me tell you, this thing has performed like a champ for the entirety of my ownership. It has read every disc I’ve put into it. And recently, it allowed me to consolidate some old, and I mean old, CD-Rs onto DVD when the built-in drive balked at them.

So I slipped my CD into the Pioneer and resumed my encoding task. No hang-ups whatsoever. But the thing that blew me away, and I have Max to thank for this, was that when I listened to the new song, all traces of the disc damage were gone.

It turns out that Max leverages the power of an obscure CD audio extraction tool called cdparanoia which uses “high-level error-correction” to resuscitate heavily flawed discs, and completely compensate for scratches on CDs.

Combined with Pioneer’s hardware, Max turns out perfectly encoded songs. Just give it a listen. The following are from multiple encodings excerpted from the damaged section of Rubble from my Velocity Girl CD:

This first sample was encoded to 128kbps AAC/M4A by iTunes 4.7 using the built-in CD drive on the iMac G4 I owned two years ago. The glitches on the disc is quite prominent:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

This file, however, is golden. It was encoded to Apple Lossless by Max using the Pioneer DVR-107D. Pristine; nary a hint of trouble:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Frankly, I’m amazed by the results. Max + Pioneer makes for a seriously perfect encoding solution.

The DVR-107D shipped as the standard optical drive in some (but not all) of the PowerMac G5 towers, so you may already have one. If not, at the time of this writing, Other World Computing has its descendant, the DVR-112D for less than $50.

Even if you don’t have access to the drive itself, download Max. It’ll go a long way toward creating higher-quality files.

::

PS: Google Docs, which I use to store drafts for this site and other correspondences, now works with the new Safari 3 beta from Apple. This post was written using the combo and it’s nice to have my familiar Mac OS Services, integration and text and keyboard handling at my disposal.