Elegy for the iPod, the device that transformed Apple

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413440_g1-100358886-large.jpgIn my latest Macworld article, I look back at the history of the iPod, but also the history of the portable music player. As the iPod’s sales are decreasing, new devices are replacing it: iPhones, iPads, and even, perhaps, the mythical iWatch.

I hold a small metal device in my hands and twirl my finger on a circular controller, navigating the menus on my iPod classic. I haven’t done this in a long time. I have a full range of iPod models, and this one, bought back in 2008, doesn’t get much use any more. That click-wheel controller was never a great idea—it’s clunky and inefficient—but it’s emblematic of the early iPod line, before tapping on a tactile screen became the norm.

In a way, there’s something nostalgic about listening to music on a device that does little more than play music. (Yes, it can play videos and display photos, but with its tiny display, I’ve never used it for either of those things.) It reminds me of the early days of the iPod, when music listeners marveled at the ability to store so much music on a pocket-sized device, to listen to any of it with a few spins of the click-wheel, to play music in shuffle mode instead of one CD at a time.

The story of the iPod is, in many ways, the story of Apple’s comeback.

Read the rest of the article on the Macworld website.

App Review: Overcast, a New Podcast Player for iOS

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As a podcaster, and a podcast listener, it’s important that I have an easy-to-use app for managing, downloading and listening to podcasts. iTunes used to work for me, but with the changes that Apple made to iTunes 11, and the quirky Podcasts app for iOS, I’ve pretty much given up on using that solution. The two didn’t sync reliably, lost podcast episodes I wanted to keep, and was simply confusing. (What I’d been doing until recently was download podcast episodes to iTunes, and sync them to the Podcasts app, with no syncing of subscriptions or listening position. This is essentially the way it used to work pre-iTunes 11.)

Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, has just released a new podcast app for iOS called Overcast. This free app – with a $5 in-app purchased to unlock extra features, is an excellent choice for listening to podcasts on an iPhone or iPod touch. However, if you still want to listen on your Mac, and save episodes of podcasts, you might not want to use this. I’ve used Instacast in the past, which has the advantage of having a Mac version as well, and which syncs with the iOS app, but there are a couple of features in Overcast that have won me over. This said, I’ll still be downloading some podcasts to iTunes, and listening to them with the Podcasts app on iOS, because I do want to save episodes of some of my favorite podcasts. So Overcast works well for me as an app to listen to many of the podcasts I like, but it’s not a perfect solution.

When you start using Overcast, you have to set up an account with the app’s server. This lets you sync your podcast subscriptions, and even access them on a website, via a rudimentary player. But you don’t get podcasts directly, and you depend on that server working. This is good and bad; if the server’s down, you won’t get access to any new episodes.

2014-07-21 10.52.59.pngOvercast’s main screen presents all your podcasts, and playlists, in a scrolling window. The first section is Playlists. You can create one playlist with the free version, and multiple playlists with the upgrade. Playlists are good if you want to simply show all the episodes on your iOS device, or group specific playlists.

You cannot, however, create a new, empty playlist and add episodes to it. (Well, you can, by excluding all podcasts in the playlist’s settings, then adding individual episodes; this is an annoying hack, because each time you subscribe to a new podcast, you have to exclude it from this playlist.) I’d like to see a sort of Up Next playlist, so I can pick a few episodes I want to listen to during the day without messing around too much. You can re-order podcasts in a playlist, if you wish.

Podcasts are those podcasts with unplayed episodes, and a third section, further down, is Played Podcasts; this is a bit confusing, and the terminology could be better, but that groups podcast where there are no unplayed episodes. Note that Overcast does not support video podcasts. I don’t subscribe to any, but if you do, Overcast may not be for you.

2014-07-21 10.55.49.pngTap a podcast to view it, and you’ll see its episodes. There is Unplayed, All and Settings. In the latter tab, you choose to subscribe or not (which means that episodes download automatically), and you can choose how many episodes to save. In the All tab, you can scroll through the podcast’s episodes and tap any you want to download. An Unplayed is, as you’d expect, those episodes you haven’t yet listened to. When you finish listening to a podcast, Overcast deletes it automatically. In general, this is a good idea, but if you do want to listen to one again, you’ll have to re-download it; you can set the app to save any played episodes.

Downloads are only available on Wi-Fi, unless you check a setting to download over cellular data; this is a feature only available in the upgraded version. And you can’t stream episodes; Marco Arment has said he might be adding that in the future. This isn’t a big deal for me; I prefer downloading the ones I want, then being able to see a list of the episodes I have, rather than picking from a list to stream. But for many people, this could be a deal-breaker.

Some comments on the interface. I find the design a bit sketchy. It’s clean and matches a certain style, but it’s not high on the usability scale. The fonts for non-downloaded episodes are gray and hard to read, so if you want to check out an episode to see if you want to download it, this can be hard to do if you’re outdoors. There’s a lot of wasted space: the gray bars separating the sections could be slimmer, and there’s no reason to have the name of each playlist take up the same vertical space as each podcast. When you view a playlist, the episode names are truncated, making it hard to see what they are. This is particularly troublesome if you have a podcast whose episodes start with the title of the podcast itself. And the animated “audio wave” thingy that displays on the play screen is just useless. (You can see it above the play controls in the first screenshot below.)

Below, two screenshots show what you see when playing an episode. To the left, I’ve scrolled up on the podcast’s icon; it shrinks and displays show notes, with clickable links. To the right, you can see the Effects screen, which is the feature that has won me over. This lets you speed up podcasts, without the sort of Alvin and the Chipmunks sound that most podcast apps give you. The Smart Speed setting cuts out bits of silence, helping you save a bit more time when listening to podcasts, and Voice Boost equalizes the podcasts for vocal frequencies, making them clearer. Altogether, I find this the best playback of any podcast app I’ve used.

2014-07-21 10.56.08.png     2014-07-21 10.56.11.png

Overcast has become my daily podcast app, but the lack of a Mac version means that I’ll still download some podcasts in iTunes. As I said above, you can use something like Instacast, but for episodes I want to keep, I find it more practical to have them in my iTunes library. However, if Overcast could play podcasts that I’ve synced to Apple’s Podcasts app, that would solve the problem of playback. Since third-party music player apps can do this, podcast apps should be able to as well. I’d also like to see an iPad version, but I understand that one is in the works.

If you want a podcast app for your iPhone or iPod touch, check out Overcast. You can try it for free, which is great, and the $5 in-app purchase is worth it for the effects alone.

Amazon Announces Kindle Unlimited, $10 Monthly Access to More than 600,000 Books

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Safari001.pngAmazon today announced Kindle Unlimited, a $10 per month all-you-can-read subscription to Kindle e-books. Amazon touts “unlimited access to over 600,000 titles and thousands of audiobooks on any device for just $9.99 a month.”

I alluded to this a few days ago, when Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited webpage was prematurely leaked. I’m not sure what the value of this type of service is. As I pointed out in my article, more than 600,000 books does not mean that you will always find books that you want to read. Amazon highlights a number of books that are available via Kindle Unlimited. These include the Hunger Games series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Harry Potter books. Amazon also shows a number of popular novels and non-fiction books, and lets you browse what’s available. But they don’t offer any books from the big five publishers, so those books that are highlighted are part of a small selection of popular titles.

Taking a quick look at the Literature & Fiction category, I noticed that certain subcategories are very well represented: Action & Adventure (25,121), Erotica (34,703), Horror (19,312), and Short Stories (28,614). The Romance genre contains 35,571 titles, and Mystery, Thriller & Suspense has a whopping 46,293 titles. Let us not forget Science Fiction & Fantasy, which reaches the astounding number of 50,245 titles. These are genres where self-published books tend to lurk. And the genres I cited just above make up, together, more than 300,000 titles, or about half of what’s available from Kindle Unlimited.

What is more interesting about Kindle Unlimited is the access to audiobooks. However, there are currently only 1,704 titles available, which is a very small number. Amazon calls these “books with narration,” rather than audiobooks, which makes me wonder if these are indeed audiobooks, or just books that allow you to use the text-to-speech feature on a Kindle or other device.

Kindle Unlimited is only available in the US for now, so I won’t be able to try it out. I’m very interested to see how well this works; as I pointed out in my article the other day, given the amount that I read, this could be useful for me.

AAC: Apple’s Preferred Audio Codec

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It seems that almost every day I read something about people not wanting to rip their music in AAC (the default format for iTunes and the iPod) because “it’s a proprietary format”, or “because it is owned by Apple.” I see this in forums and blog comments from people who seem to have a fair understanding of technical issues. Yet these thoughts are caused by confusion, a lack of information, and, perhaps, a tricky abbreviation.

Some people think AAC stands for Apple Audio Codec; it doesn’t, its real name is Advanced Audio Coding. It’s true that Apple was the first major hardware or software manufacturer to champion AAC over MP3, but this format is simply a part of the MPEG-4 standard, and is owned by a consortium of companies. Like MP3, this format is available to all for licensing, and there are even open-source encoders and decoders for AAC. This page on Wikipedia goes into detail about this audio format.

AAC is used for the DVD-Audio format, and HE-AAC is used with digital terrestrial television. Most hardware and software players support AAC, and the format offers many advantages: better quality at equivalent bit rates, meaning you can rip your music in smaller files; multi-channel capabilities; higher resolution audio, with sampling rates up to 96 kHz; and much more.

So why are some people afraid of using AAC? The proprietary claim is simply one of ignorance. AAC is here to stay; it’s not Apple’s audio format, and most devices and software support it. If you still think that AAC is “owned by Apple,” think again.

Oh, and that Apple Lossless, or ALAC, format? Apple did create it, but it’s now open source. So you don’t have to worry about using that either.

The Committed Podcast Looks at Tim Cook’s Apple

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The Committed Podcast Icon 1400x1400 01On this week’s episode of The Committed podcast, Ian Schray, Rob Griffiths and I discuss Tim Cook’s Apple. How has Apple changed since Steve Jobs has gone? What is Tim Cook doing to prepare Apple for the future?

We also deal with some technical problems, discuss customer service, Apple and IBM, and we take a brief look at Marco Arment’s new podcast app, Overcast.

And my pick of the week is The Durutti Column’s new release, Chronicle XL, the first album from Vini Reilly in several years. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Listen to The Committed, Episode 42: Cook’s Apple.

Amazon Considering Kindle Unlimited: One-Price Access to 600,000 Books

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I’m a book person. I have thousands of books in my home, and read at least one or two a week. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good library near home, so I buy a lot of books. I look carefully for the lowest prices, buying sometimes from Amazon, sometimes from third-party sellers on Amazon, and sometimes used.

I also buy ebooks, for books that I know I won’t want to read again, but, also, since when I recently moved from France to the UK, and realized how many books I had (and culled half of them), I vowed to not let my book collection grow so large again.

Ebooks aren’t great, but they are fine for certain types of books: fast-read novels, non-fiction that I won’t read more than once, and books where I’m unlikely to read footnotes. I buy Kindle books rather than iBooks, because the Kindle is a better reading device than the iPad or iPhone, and, if I buy Kindle books, I can read them on any platform. I like reading outdoors, and I can’t do that on my iPad, but I can read on my Kindle in the sun. If I want to read on my iPad, I can do that with the Kindle app. Win-win.

So, the (unsurprising) disclosure that Amazon is testing a Kindle Unlimited service interests me as a reader. But before getting out the credit card and signing up, it’s worth considering what kinds of books you can get from a service like this.

A few months ago, I tried out Scribd, which offers a similar service. My experience was not very positive. Services like this only get books from a limited number of publishers, plus nearly every self-published book on the planet. Nothing against self-publishing, but lots of that stuff is simply dreadful. If Amazon offers such a service, it will certainly have similar content. Out of there 600,000-odd books, it’s likely that the vast majority will just not be any good.

Amazon has a feature of its Amazon Prime service called the Kindle Lending Library. There are, here in the UK, “over 500,000 Kindle titles to borrow for free.” Alas, I’ve not come across any when searching for books I want to read. So I fear that Kindle Unlimited would be similar.

I’m not the kind of person who will only choose books to read from what’s available from a service like that. Could you imagine only watching movies on Netflix because you’ve paid for a subscription? Kindle Unlimited will only be interesting if it includes lots of books from major publishers. I can imagine that new releases wouldn’t be included, and that’s fine, but if it’s only small publishers and self-published books, it’s not worth it.

As an author, however, I’m less interested in a service like this, and given the types of books I write, I wouldn’t allow them to be on a one-price-per-month service. But that will be the subject of a future article…

iWant: AirPlay Streaming from iOS Devices to Macs

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AirPlay is very cool. You can stream from a Mac to various devices, such as an Apple TV, or to standalone AirPlay-compatible speakers. You can stream from an iOS device to an Apple TV or to standalone AirPlay speakers. But one thing I’d like, which currently isn’t possible, is to stream from an iOS device to a Mac.

The reason for this is, in my case, to play podcasts that are on an app on my iPhone, and not on my Mac, through my Mac and its speakers. There could be many other uses, such as playing someone’s music on your Mac when they’re visiting, or to view an iPad screen on a Mac while playing a game. You can do both of these to an Apple TV, so it shouldn’t be hard to do them to a Mac as well.

I wouldn’t use this feature a lot, but trying out Marco Arment’s new Overcast podcast app, with its great smart speed and voice boost features, I realized that, when I listen to podcasts in my office, I’d rather use that app than iTunes. So I’d like to just stream them to my Mac. The alternative is to connect an AirPort Express to my stereo, but that’s expensive for just streaming occasionally.

But you may even want to stream something from one Mac to another; again, since you can do this to an Apple TV, it should be trivial to do it on a Mac.

Update: I was reminded by a few friends that there are third-party apps that can act as AirPlay receivers on a Mac. I have one, X-Mirage, which I got in an app bundle, but never used. I’ll try it out.

Is iTunes About to Start Selling Hi-Res Music, or Is a Record Label Confused?

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I came across a curious announcement from Warner Classics this morning. They say that they will be releasing some music in high definition on iTunes. Talking about some remastered albums by Herbert van Karajan, they say:

This treasure trove has been painstakingly remastered at London’s Abbey Road Studios in 24-bit/96kHz from the original tapes, available for the first time as digital, high-definition releases via iTunes.

Two possibilities. The first is that the iTunes Store will start selling music in high-resolution, 24-bit 96 kHz. The other is that Warner Classics is simply confused, or is trying to pull one over on music consumers. They talk about these albums being “remastered at London’s Abbey Road Studios in 24-bit/96kHz from the original tapes,” which is generally the case for recordings that are remastered from analog these days. But I think they assume that, if the remastering was done at 24/96, then the resulting files on the iTunes Store will also be at 24/96.

If it were true that the iTunes Store were to start selling high-resolution files, this wouldn’t leak in a now day-old news release from a record label, but would be announced with a fair amount of fanfare by Apple. So my money is on a record label that either doesn’t understand, and are just talking about Mastered for iTunes tracks, which use high-resolution masters, or that is trying to confuse consumers to make them think that they’re getting high-resolution music from iTunes.

For now, none of these albums are available on the iTunes Store, so we’ll have to wait and see.