All posts in Tech / Reviews

  • What would you buy first?

    A few bloggers have been following Ben Brooks‘ lead by posting the software they would buy first if we had our time again. I don’t use a huge set of apps every day, but I’m pretty committed to the ones I do and keen to promote whenever the opportunity arises. Here’s my list:

    What’s yours?

  • A week away with the MacBook Air 11″

    Over a month has passed since I wrote my first impressions of the MacBook Air 11″ and I’ve been asked by several readers for an update on how I’ve been getting along with the Air. Well I can tell you all now: I still love it, with some caveats.

    I recently returned from a week’s holiday in Italy. Of course, when you run a small business (Applingua Ltd), it’s never really a holiday. I had an open mind before I went about how the Air would perform. On the one hand it’s ultraportable, easy to pack and has no problem running any of the software I use on a daily basis (Safari, SubEthaEdit, iTunes, etc). On the other, I was concerned about the 11″ screen compared to my usual 24″ LCD. Could I cope doing proper daily tasks on this screen?

    At the airport

    We all know the MacBook Air is the lightest Mac you can buy. I suppose I didn’t really grasp just how light until I was on my way through the airport and onboard the plane. The Air is truly amazing in this respect, on several occasions I just forgot I had in in my bag (unfortunately one of those occasions was at security when they rather impatiently informed me that I was supposed to take my laptop out). Getting it out in Starbucks just felt natural too. Slip it out of your messenger bag and it powers on in around 10 seconds.

    Flying with a budget airline is rarely a great comfort experience, but the small footprint of the Air meant I could angle the screen to a position that felt comfortable. My old 13″ MacBook would hit the seat in front of me, several degrees into the neck ache zone. I watched a film, did a little paperwork and the battery held up well. The Air left the house at 100%, 30mins use at the airport, 1.5hrs use in-flight ending up at about 57%.

    Oops, where’s that window gone?

    During the first weekend away, I’ll admit to not working much. Checking emails, watching a few films, browsing news websites and catching up with Hacker News is as good as doing these tasks on much more expensive machines. The built-in SSD makes the machine flash through basic tasks at least creating an illusion of an extremely fast machine. I couldn’t recommend this machine more for these sorts of tasks.

    By day three I had received an email from a client and had to get to work. I opened my usual array of around 6 applications and got to work. It wasn’t long before my original worry dawned on me: 11 inches is a small screen. Bear with me. My job often requires me to check app localizations comparing text to a few PDFs I have created. I like to divide my screen up so that both Preview is open and the application I’m working in. This allows me to look back and forth to complete work a lot more efficiently than using Command-Tab. Unfortunately this is no way possible on the MacBook Air.

    Some of you will be reading this and wondering what did he expect? Often you don’t really assess your needs until you have used a device properly over a longer period of time. Except this isn’t really a need, it’s more a preference. A way I prefer to work, rather than a way I have to work. I quickly decided that I should just change the way I work when using the Air.

    I can’t deny that there was a niggling feeling in the back of my head saying I should have opted for a 13″ MacBook Air. It has, after all, the same resolution as the basic 15″ MacBook Pro. Since being back, I popped into my local Apple Store to check out the 13″ Air. The 15″ MacBook Pro. And the 17″ MacBook Pro. Shock horror, not one of the MacBooks, Airs or MacBook Pros except for the 17″ could do comfortably what I wanted to achieve. The high-res 15″ and 17″ MacBook Pros are obviously also suited to people with better eyes than me. Not nice.

    It dawned on me that the way I work has evolved because I am a greedy desktop user with a high-res 24″ screen. I can’t say I would want to work 24/7 on the MacBook Air 11″, but at the same time I’m not sure I’d want to work fulltime on anything less than a 1920 x 1080 screen. No laptop can really satisfy me. Yes I am excluding the 17″ in the term laptop.

    Flash, bang, stutter

    Throughout the week speed wasn’t really a problem. There were absolutely no hold ups in my usual file management, compressing, email checking, iTunes-listening, movie watching. I would be lying however if I said there weren’t one or two times when the Air stuttered a little.

    The MacBook Air does not ship with Adobe’s Flash installed. This is because it drains battery, or so we are told. While I’m sure that’s also a reason, I couldn’t help but notice a warm MacBook Air after several hours use and several open applications did stutter a little on a YouTube video or two. Nothing major, but held up a Finder window opening by two or three seconds.

    Compiling an app also took a little longer than even my 4 year old desktop Mac (both have SSDs). I appreciate however that this isn’t a common task for a lot of you.

    Emails yes, compiling maybe

    So to ask me, would I buy the most basic MacBook Air 11″ again? I would probably answer with Yes, but with caveats. If you’re a word-processing, movie watching, iTunes listening user this is a perfect device: light, fast to boot and open apps, beautifully designed and ultimately the most lifestyle fitting Mac you will ever own.

    If you’re a home office worker and this will be your only Mac, then I would say think about it. If your job just involves the usual word processing and number crunching apps (Office, iWork, etc) then it’s probably fine. Think about an external monitor and maybe choosing the 4GB version.

    If you’re a pro user I think you already know the answer to this. The Air couldn’t be your only machine. Compiling, rendering, whatever tickles your fancy will take a lot longer on this machine than on one of the new Sandy Bridge MacBook Pros. As a second Mac, I can very highly recommend it.

    My question to you: how do you really use your Mac? Think about it. There’s a difference between theory (“I would like to do some video rendering one day”) and reality (“I just surf Engadget and MacRumors all day”). Then decide if the MacBook Air 11″ is right for you.

    [UPDATE: 27/11/2011] You may be interested in reading my First Impressions of the MacBook Air 13″ (2011)

  • First Impressions: Magic Trackpad

    In what appears to be a series of reviews of 6 month old hardware, I continue my previous post with a first impressions review of the Apple Magic Trackpad. Once again, spaghetti western approach.

    The Good

    • Beautifully simple. There’s nothing “extra”. It is just a trackpad. And it looks great for it
    • Multi-touch gestures. I bought the trackpad after getting used to using a trackpad again to swipe through pictures, to zoom and pinch, to clear screen up or to exposé down. The gestures are so natural, it’s how input devices should always have been

    The Bad

    • Without enabling ‘tap to click’, it’s difficult to use the trackpad on the arm of your sofa. Perhaps interesting if you are using one with a Mac Mini TV setup
    • I keep grabbing the device like a mouse. This is a case of stupid-user syndrome, but it’s weird to operate within a space, rather than over a space

    The Ugly

    • There is nothing ugly about this device. 24 hours with it has been bliss.

    One thing of interest for many people is the battery. Of course I haven’t had opportunity to test the battery life yet, but from my experience of Apple Bluetooth devices, there’s a reason why Apple sell a battery charger. My advice? I think I’ve found the perfect pointing device that exceeds just pointing. If you want to purchase, support the site by clicking here.

    Comments? Questions?

  • In for an iPad, out with a MacBook Air

    The iPad 2. Who isn’t talking about it? When Apple announced an update to its hugely successful tablet I can’t deny getting excited. The iPad 1 was nice, but it wasn’t quite right for me. After testing it at home I found it slightly too bulky and, like many, wasn’t willing to invest in a first generation product. There is no denying that surfing on the iPad is second to none. It just feels right, as if the internet with all her content was made to be touched.

    If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just scroll through any news item on an iPad or swipe through Boston.com’s The Big Picture. You will be sold.

    When the iPad 2 was announced I decided I would buy one to compliment my four year old MacBook, which has a broken screen. At the moment I need to be in my office if I want to surf the internet. No quick cinema time look ups, no idle browsing when TV gets boring. No separation between work and play.

    So two nights ago I set my alarm to wake up at 1am, the time at which online sales went live on Apple’s website. The plan was to order one should I not be able to get one in store. After several failed attempts (Apple’s website couldn’t take the strain, even at 1am) I managed to order a Black 32GB iPad. It was the middle of the night and I was feeling woozy.

    Morning came and I made my way into Cardiff. At 11am the queue already stretched to 30 people. I spoke to one or two guys asking how long they’d been there and whether they thought it would be ok if I were to come back several hours later. After all, it was a whole 6 hours before launch. They were in the queue already so naturally thought it was wise I joined the back and waited. It was at that very moment something clicked. After several weeks of being caught up in the hullabaloo, I decided the iPad was not for me.

    I’ve been a Mac user / Apple fan since, well, before my first iBook in 1999. Over the years I have witnessed Apple fanaticism reaching almost ridiculous heights. We now have a culture where any new product, even a new mouse, requires bouncer-guarded lines outside Apple Stores worldwide. Even my mum admitted on Friday “I’ve read so much about the iPad I feel like I need one. I need to join that line.” I have never lined up for anything in my life, certainly not for 6 hours. The giant PR machine surrounding Apple had never gotten to me before, it wasn’t going to start now.

    So what actually clicked? I suddenly realised I didn’t have an iPad yesterday, nor the week before, or the week before that. Living without an iPad before my online order arrives wouldn’t kill me. In fact, staying in a line for 6 hours may finish me off sooner. But it wasn’t just that. I realised an iPad would be a waste of money for me.

    My main setup problem at the moment is I don’t have a laptop. I’m an occasional traveller (few weeks here and there at house in Italy, ~ 3 x 4 day breaks visiting friends) but I do need a machine I can work on when away from my desk. I don’t use particularly powerful tools, Safari, TextMate, Espresso. I am also a stickler for portability after nearly destroying my back lugging my Macbook to university for four years.

    The MacBook Air fits the bill exactly. It isn’t much bigger than an iPad, I can use it for the internet around the house, returning to my older Macbook + 24″ for work. The times I’m abroad and have to work, I can. I store everything on Dropbox so there’s never that painful syncing process akin to the iPad. The MacBook Air on one hand is a handy, ultra-portable suitable for low-power tasks, perhaps making it more of an iPad big brother than a totally different device. Where it does show its maturity is when you have to do some work on it, you have the full range of Mac OS applications you are used to and a keyboard you are comfortable using.

    It just wasn’t logical for me to go the iPad route only to have to buy another laptop at some point down the road. I felt buying an iPad would probably be underused in several months time when I have to upgrade my MacBook.

    Most importantly the MacBook Air 11″ doesn’t cost the earth. In fact, I ordered a refurb in store for £739 inc. VAT. As a business purchase, I’m only paying £615 ex. VAT compared to the £400 ex. VAT I was going to spend on an iPad 32GB. What’s more, should this old MacBook ever die, I can now consider an iMac rather than always having to opt for MacBooks.

    There are iPad 2s still available to buy in Cardiff today. Go get one if you it’s right for you.

  • Essential Software: 1Password

    1Password

    When Adrian of Jetplane Journal first told me about Agile Web Solution’s 1Password my immediate thought was ‘not another password manager’ coupled with a ratber rude rolling of eyes. Memories of hours spent entering passwords into shareware wallet software and the riling senility of browser password managers came flooding to mind. We won’t even talk about Mac OS’s own Keychain. I was silly to reject 1Password that day but that is indeed what I did every day for the next year.

    My problem with password managers has always been integration. There’s always been that balance between secure passwords and portability. Long, hashed keys are good, but what’s the point if you can’t remember them when out and about. I need a password manager to be both seamless and ubiquitous, in my browser, on my iPhone, on my spare $99 Android phone I’ll take to Thailand (should I ever get to go there…). Until now, an app that fits the bill hasn’t been so easy to find and I imagine synchronisation has always been the main issue.

    Well, Adrian was persistent. Eventually sending me a free license Agile were offering during a recent promotion. I just couldn’t refuse.

    1Password gets round these fundamental issues. It’s available on Mac, Windows, iOS and Android. There are browser plug ins for every major browser and I can also run the standalone app to store tonnes of useful information I want to keep secure. Thanks to Dropbox your saved 1Password library file gets synced across all devices seamlessly. If I do ever get to that Tiger sanctuary in Thailand and feel the need to instantly post pictures to Facebook in some back-room internet cafe (don’t pretend you haven’t got FB friends that do this), I can look up my password instantly on my iPhone.

    1Password LoginsSo how does it work? During install you add an extension to your browser. Every time you log into a website, 1Password pops up asking whether you want to save the log in information. My first impressions were again filled with doubt, as this window is very similar to the occasional save password alert that pops up every so often in your browser. After visiting several sites in my first day I quickly realised that 1Password wasn’t just more consistent at asking whether to save a password, it was doing so 100% of the time. While saving the login you get to tag the details or rename the entry. I have several accounts for certain sites such as Amazon and PayPal so naming one “PayPal – Private” and “PayPal – Applingua” seemed sensible.

    The real test came when visiting these sites later. Would it remember the right information? I can report that with almost 100% accuracy, one click on 1Password’s Chrome extension pops up with the right log in. On those sites where I have more than one account, I can choose which and 1Password will fill in the login and submit too. It’s so seamless it’s hard to imagine why this hasn’t been bought and used by Microsoft / Apple.

    In addition to site information you can also enter the standalone app and add credit cards, passport info, social security numbers, pretty much anything. When you get to the checkout of a site you click the 1Password extension and it autofills your credit card information. In my experience, this works fully around 70% of the time, but at least half of the information is filled in nearly 100% of the time with just the expiry date perhaps to correct. Well I have to say I am more than pleasantly surprised. After several months, I just couldn’t do without 1Password.

    I’m not alone with my praise. The developers must gush when they read their iOS app reviews, “Congratulations to the app developers. This does them so much credit,” and “This is a must buy!”. Or MacUpdate‘s user reviews with over 86 likes on “Pretty much awesome. This is one of the must-have apps” and “I’ve found few apps that are as fantastic and simple as 1Password, by far the best password saver i’ve used”. I don’t think the Jury is still out there on 1Password. I think they’ve already come back in the room and delivered their verdict.

    It isn’t all perfect. There are some sites for which I have several duplicate entries, simply because there are often several different routes to login. Overly complicated SSL logins sometimes produce dynamic form URLs, but I’d sooner blame the web designer who chose a non standard form label attribute than 1Password’s own ability. Then there’s the not-so-great Chrome extension – Safari / Firefoxs iteration is far superior and much less clunky. Again, that may be due to the way Chrome handles extensions rather than Agile’s willingness to create a good experience.

    It’s at a point now that if my 1Password library were to get corrupted in some way I would have to spend literally hours resetting passwords and finding old credit cards, passports and driving license information from my highly disorganized paper organiser. 1Passwords saves me time. Saves me rummaging for my old wallet in my winter coat. Saves my passwords, my passport number, my driving license and my tax information. There is no doubt if you had my master password, you would have me. That, however, I will never share…

  • Searching by location on Twitter

    Twitter users can search for others using Twitter’s own search portal. Within 10 minutes I had found 20 people with similar interests in my home town. The perfect recipe to start a TweetUp in the near future…

    To search for Twitter users by location, start by going to search.twitter.com. Here, enter the following keywords (note: no spaces after colon):

    Near:TownName Within:5km “Search Term

    For example, I made the following search:

    Near:Cardiff Within:20km “HTML5”

    This gave me a list of people talking about HTML5 within 20Km of Cardiff. You can be flexible too. Instead of using a town name, you can use GPS coordinates and if you are more imperial minded, you can use miles instead of kilometers, by using the suffix ‘mi’.

     

    Pretty nifty, heh?