The Committed Podcast Talks Tips (and More)

The Committed Podcast Icon 1400x1400 01On this week’s The Committed podcast, Ian Schray, Rob Griffiths and I talk tips. We do a round table offering some of our favorite tips for working with OS X, iOS, iTunes and more.

We also discuss Nike+ fuel (because I recently bought a Nike+ Fuelband SE), Dropbox, the cloud, and many other things.

Listen to The Committed podcast, Episode 30: “Tips Extravaganza.”

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iTunes 11: See Aggregate iTunes Radio Listening History

iTunes002.pngIf you use iTunes Radio, you know that you can see a history of what you’ve listened to on a given station by clicking on the station’s icon. The iTunes window expands that icon to show this history, along with artists or songs you’ve added as favorites, and others that you don’t like.

But what if you’ve heard a song you like, but can’t remember which station it was on? There’s a way to view your aggregate iTunes Radio history for all stations.

Just click the Up Next icon, either in the iTunes LCD or in the iTunes Mini Player (the Up Next icon is surrounded by the red box in the screen shot to the left). A menu will unfold – like the Up Next menu – showing each station, and the last 100 tracks you’ve listened to, in reverse chronological order.

The menu also tells you which device you listened to during each session. So if you listen on different computers, and on iOS devices, you’ll be able to scan the list and see which device you listened to. This may help you find the track you’re looking for.

I note that I see a number of tracks marked Unknown Title. I assume that iTunes has simply lost track of those.

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The iTunes Guy Looks at Glitchy Tracks, Numbers Game, and Too-Large Libraries

itunesguy-thum-100004188-gallery.jpgYou know the one where you get a track from iTunes Match and it’s not perfect? How about the one where you’ve just got too much stuff in your iTunes library and it slows iTunes down to a crawl? Or that thing where there are numbers at the beginnings of track names and you’d really like to get rid of them? Well, read on to find out how to fix these problems.

Find out more in this week’s Macworld Ask the iTunes Guy column.

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iCloud Is Bloated

I’ve written recently about iCloud; about how it’s a black hole that swallows up your data and documents, and how Apple is stingy with storage. But when you think about it, iCloud is many different services, all wrapped into one. Perhaps there are too many. You often hear people complain that certain apps are bloated; perhaps iCloud is bloated too, and this bloat makes it hard to manage and use.

So what exactly is iCloud? Apple’s website shows the many things it does:

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  • Content everywhere: iCloud allows you to access purchases from Apple’s various stores – the iTunes Store, the iBooks Store, the App Store and the Mac App Store – on all your devices. You can buy items, download them on different devices, and have them automatically download to certain devices. And you can stream video content you’ve purchased – or rented – to Apple devices as well.
  • iTunes Match: match your iTunes library, and access your music from iTunes, or an iOS device, anywhere. In theory.
  • iCloud Photo Sharing: this is your Photo Stream. It shares photos from any of your devices to all of your other devices.
  • Find My iPhone, and Find My Mac: this lets you find an Apple device, whether it’s lost or stolen, or whether you simply can’t remember where you put your iPhone.
  • Find My Friends: this lets you keep track of where your friends are.
  • Apps and iCloud: iCloud allows apps to store files and data, making them accessible across devices. This includes files you create with, say, Pages or Numbers, but also data that certain apps can store for you. This uses Apple’s CoreData, which has proven to be complex and unreliable.
  • iWork for iCloud: this recent addition offers web-based versions of Apple’s iCloud apps, which show the same files you’ve created or edited on your Mac or iOS device.
  • Safari: iCloud saves bookmarks, and even lets you access open browser windows on different devices.
  • iCloud Keychain: sync your passwords and credit cards across devices.
  • Mail, Calendar and Contacts: this is the heart of iCloud, and the part of the service that has been around the longest. Email is accessible on all your devices – even non-Apple devices – and on the web; contacts and calendars sync across devices.
  • Backup and Storage: finally, you can back up iOS devices to iCloud, and store files there, from specific apps. This overlaps a bit with Apps and iCloud.

A reader recently posted a comment to one of my articles saying that “iCloud just works.” Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. As I mentioned above, iCloud swallows up your data and documents, only giving access to the specific app that created them. Document syncing can be wonky, and I’ve lost files, and have heard from many readers who have had that problem too. (Have a browse of Apple’s iCloud support forums to see some of the many problems.)

I’ve found that data often doesn’t sync in a timely manner, doesn’t update regularly, and sometimes doesn’t update at all. I’ve had problems with contacts, repeatedly, and have had to zero my contacts and re-add them all again.

As for email, it’s fine when it works, which is most of the time. Oh, except the fact that iCloud deletes certain emails when it sees keywords it doesn’t like; it doesn’t tell you, whether they’re emails you’ve sent, or ones sent to you.

Safari bookmarks sync most of the time, but I have to wait a while if I want to open a web page that I’m looking at on my Mac on a different device. iCloud tabs works, but it’s slow.

iTunes Match sort of works for many users, but I get plenty of emails from users who have problems. I often get errors when updating iTunes Match, and the way it works is inscrutable. Problems with iTunes Match are legion.

Apps that sync data with iCloud often have problems. Granted, this may be partly because of the apps themselves not working correctly with iCloud, but there are enough developers with iCloud troubleshooting pages to suggest that the problem is systemic. Some developers simply gave up trying to get iCloud to work. And, don’t forget, only apps sold in Apple’s stores can even use iCloud, limiting its use. The Verge has a long article about apps and developers who have had problems with iCloud, mentioning many who simply gave up.

And regarding storage; again, 5 GB is not a lot, considering that I’ve spent, well, thousands of dollars on Apple devices. I don’t keep a lot of email on my mail servers, and my iCloud email address is not my main account. But I know people who do, and their email eats up a good share of their 5 GB. But there’s not much I can do with that storage, other than back up my iOS devices and store files created with iCloud-compatible apps. I can’t put files there to share with other users, as I used to be able to do with the iDisk (which was part of MobileMe). Yes, I use Dropbox, but if Apple wants people to integrate iCloud into their lives, a file receptacle is essential.

Apple has never been successful with online services. From iTools to .Mac, from MobileMe to iCloud, there have always been problems. Apple has constantly rebranded these services, hoping that users would forget the previous problems, but it’s still a nightmare for many users.

Perhaps Apple is trying to do too much with iCloud. Perhaps they need to scale back the service, or not lump so many things together. I don’t know what the solution is, but I’d really like iCloud to just work.

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The Cloud Bursts its Bubble

The cloud has been in the news lately. Prices are starting to drop for a number of cloud services – those online, in-the-ether file repositories. Google and Amazon have both lowered their prices recently, by about 50% for Amazon, and 68% for Google.

But iCloud still only offers you 5 GB storage, no matter how many Apple devices you have, upgrades to iCloud are expensive, and Dropbox is holding back for now on reducing its prices.

I’ve got storage on several cloud servers:

  • Dropbox: I have 25 GB; the initial free 2 GB, plus another 23 GB I earned by referring people to Dropbox, by using their camera upload feature, and some other promotions.
  • Google Drive: I have 65 GB on Google Drive. There’s a free 15 GB, and I earned another 50 GB – good for two years – when I bought my Motorola Moto G smartphone.
  • Box: I’ve got 50 GB with Box, which came from a promotion the company ran a few months ago.
  • iCloud: I’ve got a measly 5 GB on iCloud, even though I own a Mac mini, a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, an iPad air, an iPad mini and an iPod touch. (I also have a few other iPods that can’t access the internet.) You’d think they’d give me a bit more to be able to back up all those iOS devices.

That’s a lot of space, and the only two I use regularly, for now, are Dropbox and iCloud. The former because I use it to collaborate with others, notably for my Take Control books, and the latter for apps, data and iOS backups.

But I’ve just added another cloud service, and this one is breaking all records for pricing. MediaFire has just released an iOS app, to go with its web-based and desktop service, and is running a promotion. MediaFire starts you off with a free 10 GB, and has two paid price plans. The 1 TB – yes, that’s 1,000 GB – plan is $5 a month, and the 100 TB plan is $50 a month. So, for $50 a year – you get a discount if you pay yearly – you get 1 terabyte of storage. Compared to iCloud, you’re getting 40 times as much storage for $10 more a year. Granted, it’s not baked into Apple’s apps, but the MediaFire desktop app works a lot like Dropbox, as does the iOS app.

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I’m tempted to grab the 1 TB plan, which is currently on sale half price: just $25 a year for now. I doubt I’d use all that space, though if I had enough upstream bandwidth, I’d use it to back up my music library. But it would be nice to know it’s there if I ever need it.

Cloud storage prices are going to continue to fall, and MediaFire has taken a bold step. They probably know that most users who take a 1 TB plan won’t use a lot of that space, but giving you that much for the price of a couple of movie tickets is impressive. It remains to be seen how reliable MediaFire is, but, for now, I like the way it looks.

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How It Works: Audio Compression

The term “compression” is often a source of confusion when discussing digital music. There are two kinds of compression. The first is the kind used to compress the size of files; this is data compression. There is lossy compression, using with MP3 and AAC files, and lossless compression, used with FLAC and Apple Lossless formats.

But the other kind of compression, dynamic range compression, is the much derided method of limiting the amount of dynamic range in music. The point of dynamic range compression is to make less of a difference between the quietest parts of a piece of music and the loudest parts. Most music is compressed as part of the recording and mastering process, because it does sound a lot better, and keeps you from blowing out your speakers. But over-compressing music makes it sound like crap.

The best way to understand dynamic compression is to look at a couple of audio waveforms. The screenshots below were made using Rogue Amoeba’s Fission audio editor.

Here’s a song which is free on iTunes today. I chose this one because, well, any free pop single is likely to be heavily compressed, and this example shows that I’m not wrong.

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You can see two things in this waveform. The first is that the song is almost universally loud; the waves show the loudness. The second thing to notice is that there is a lot of clipping; audio volume that hits the top of the available limit. This is bad. As Wikipedia says:

Music which is clipped experiences amplitude compression, whereby all notes begin to sound equally loud because loud notes are being clipped to the same output level as softer notes.

Excessive compression has led to what is known as the loudness wars. This is when record producers make their songs louder and louder so they stand out against other songs. Generally, the human brain perceives louder music to be better, so additional loudness can make a song more compelling. But, in the end, all this has done is made lots of loud, clipped songs.

Here’s an example of a song which is not compressed. This is Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here:

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You can see the difference in two places in this screenshot. In the overall timeline at the top of the window, you can see that the music has a shape; in the first screenshot of the free pop single, it’s just one long mass of sound. And in the actual waveform, you can see that there is modulation, and no clipping, in the Pink Floyd song.

The difference is that you may play your Pink Floyd song at a louder volume, in order to hear the quiet parts of the song, but the louder parts will be, well, loud. In the first song, the entire song is loud, and you’re likely to become fatigued more quickly after listening to music like that.

For good examples of audio that is not compressed – or only very slightly – watch a movie. In general, movie audio is not compressed; this is why the dialog is often too soft, but the special effects are too loud. This is why you often need to adjust the volume for movies with lots of explosions, otherwise your ears hurt. (You may have an AV receiver which has a dynamic range compression feature; if you’ve turned this on, you may not hear such large differences in volume.)

Dynamic range compression isn’t a bad thing; it’s just bad when it’s overdone, as is the case in much popular music today.

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iTunes High Resolution Conversion to WAV or AIFF Truncates Bit Depth

I spotted something surprising today, and if you buy and listen to high-resolution files with iTunes, you’ll want to know about this. Personally, I don’t believe the high-resolution music file stuff, but it’s up to you.

As you may know, you can play back high-resolution files in iTunes, if they are in Apple Lossless format. You can convert files to Apple Lossless from FLAC, AIFF or WAV with no loss in quality. You can do the WAV or AIFF conversion in iTunes, or, to convert FLAC files, you can use the free XLD.

But, if you use iTunes to later convert your Apple Lossless files to WAV or AIFF, you may be surprised: iTunes converts your 24-bit files to only 16 bits. Here’s an example: I took a 24-bit, 96 kHz file and converted it to WAV using iTunes. Here’s the original file:

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And here’s the WAV file:

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I’d always thought that iTunes was transparent in lossless encoding and decoding, but this is not the case. The same thing happens when converting to AIFF.

iTunes can play files at a bit depth of up to 24 bits, and with a sample rate of up to 352.8 kHz, assuming you have the hardware to handle that sample rate. But we forewarned that, if you plan to convert these lossless files back to AIFF or WAV, you’ll lose some of the high resolution. (To be fair, there is no reason to do so…)

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iTunes Smart Playlist: Lots of Live Dead

I’ve made a smart playlist to group all of my live Grateful Dead recordings (just official releases). This uses a nested smart playlist, with a number of conditions. The first is Artist is Grateful Dead, and then I nest a number of conditions, beginning with Album begins with 1, since all of the Dead’s concerts took place in the 20th century, and I name them with the date first, like this: 1974-05-14 – Missoula, MT – Dave’s Picks Vol. 9. Here’s what the smart playlist looks like:

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(To add nested conditions, press the Option key and click on the + button to the right of the first condition; when you hold down the Option key, that button becomes a … .)

For other live albums, I’ve just added their names; I could also do this more easily, by adding, say, “Live” to the Comments field of all these albums. But that means I’d need to remember to do this for each new release.

And here’s what I see when I view this smart playlist; this is in Grid view:

live-dead copy.png

That’s a lot of Grateful Dead!

By the way, if you want a full-size screenshot of the above picture, click here; it’s about 5 MB. You may need to click on the image to zoom to full size; I see I have to do that in Safari.

And how about a wallpaper? I’ve made a 2560×1440 graphic with a lot of my live Dead covers from iTunes. That’s the size of a 27″ Apple iMac, or Thunderbolt display. If you need other sizes, you’ll just have to make them yourself. Grab the wallpaper here (3.4 MB).

dead-wallpaper-small.png

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