Category: Tech Explained

Maxing out your iCloud back-up/storage already? Here's a tip.

Apple’s iCloud is possibly the best thing to happen to smartphones since the touch-screen. Not only does it seamlessly synchronize your data between all of your iOS devices, it does the same thing for your Mac or PC – and – it acts as a tether-free way to backup the contents of your iPhone.

When I recently switched from my iOS 5 equipped iPhone 4 to the loaner iPhone 4S I started using last week, I used the iCloud restore feature to port all of my settings and apps. The result was astounding. After the restore, which by the way was completely done over Wi-Fi – no tethering to a computer or iTunes – my 4S looked like a complete clone of my 4, right down to the wallpaper for my lock and home screens. The only thing I had to do was re-enter my Wi-Fi passwords.

But I digress…

One thing I noticed about this process was, while the backup and restore via iCloud was impressive, my backup size was really big. In fact, I had already come close to using up all of the free 5GB that Apple allots to all iOS 5 Apple IDs. If I only had the one device, that might not be the end of the world. But the iPhone is just one of three iOS devices I use under my Apple ID and there’s simply no way I was going to be able to back the other two up without needing some more room.

But it turns out there’s a simple way to drastically reduce the size of your iPhone backup.

When you go into your iCloud settings, and check out the options for Backup and Storage, you’ll see that each and every app on your device can be set to have its data backed up, or not. Including the Camera Roll. That’s key, because if you’re like most iPhone users and you make regular use of the awesome camera on these phones, you probably have plenty of photos and videos.

When I checked mine, it was sitting at 4.4 GB!

No wonder I was almost out of room. So I turned it off.

Huh? Yep, I turned it off and saved myself nearly all of the storage space I had been sucking up. I know what you’re thinking, but my photos are *still* backed up.

Here’s why: The PhotoStream feature on iOS 5, when turned on, automatically keeps a copy of the last 1,000 photos you’ve taken, regardless of which device you used, on a 30-day rolling period. And those photos do NOT count toward your Backup and Storage capacity. It’s free storage from Apple, and it’s even better than using your iCloud storage space. PhotoStream sends your photos to your computer which is ultimately where you want them anyway.

There’s only one caveat. If you take a lot of video on your iPhone or iPod Touch, you’ll need to remember to back these up manually, since PhotoStream doesn’t backup your videos – only your photos.

One last thought if you’re thinking that backing up your Camera Roll is something you want to keep doing: your iCloud storage space isn’t the only area that is impacted.

When your phone is locked and plugged into power and connected to Wi-Fi, it will automatically backup your data. For most people, that means overnight while you’re sleeping at home.

Consider that even a backup of 2GB can consume a good chunk of your bandwidth cap, it’s well worth keeping your backups as small as possible.

Make sure you check the full list of apps that are backing up to iCloud – most use virtually no room, but some can be hefty. Check out those Songify and Kindle items in the image above. Only 70Mb between them, but I have very few books or songs in there. It could go much higher.

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MobileMe users: Your iOS 5 (iCloud) upgrade could be tricky

I’ve never been a MobileMe user. So when I upgraded to iOS 5 the other day, I happily went along with the instructions on how to create a free account and never gave the experience another thought.

But that was decidedly not the case for one of our mobile developers here at Sympatico.ca. Chris Tsang has been a MobileMe guy for, well, a *really* long time. But this loyalty to Apple’s much-criticized product nearly had him tearing his hair out when he upgraded to iOS 5.

Let his experience be a cautionary tale (and a darn good explanation of what *not* to do) for all you MobileMe folks out there, especially if you want to use iCloud…

 

After downloading the ios 5 update, my iphone 4 was ready for me to setup.  You’ll get to a screen that asks you for your Apple ID. If you previously had a mobileme account you need to make sure that you enter in your mobileme email instead of your AppleID used for iTunes purchases. If you enter in your AppleID you’ll find that you won’t be able to use icloud services with your precious mobileme email. If you go to iCloud settings and attempt to slide email to on, it will ask you if you want to create a free .me account which won’t make sense because you already have one.

To fix this, I had to erase all content and settings and start over.  Once I got to the Apple ID screen again, enter your mobileme email address and then continue with the setup.  Once you are finished with the setup you will see notice another unpleasant surprise in that you will notice that all of your apps are now missing.  Don’t freak out just yet. You aren’t done yet.

The next step is to go to Settings>Store and then tap on your Apple ID at the bottom. Sign out and then sign back in with the account that you use for store purchases (your Apple ID that you have been using).  Once you have done that you need to sync with iTunes once more and all your apps will come back.

This is actually an important step to transition from mobileme to icloud. In fact, if you don’t follow this process, you won’t be able to complete the iCloud setup on your Mac.

After doing all this you will be able to get access to all your previously purchased apps again and use the new iCloud services.

 

Got all that?

Thanks Chris!

Why Thunderbolt (Light Peak) changes everything

The new Thunderbolt port as seen on Apple's new MacBook Pro. Image courtesy of Apple.

The new Thunderbolt port as seen on Apple's new MacBook Pro. Image courtesy of Apple.

Have you ever looked at the back of your desktop or the sides (and back) of your laptop and wondered why there are so many ports? Multiple USB ports, VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, two flavours of FireWire (IEEE 1394 and the newer 800 standard), eSATA and on some models you’ll find DisplayPort and Express Card slots too. Regardless of their shape, name or quantity, in the end, they all do the same thing: allow your computer to talk to external devices or networks.

The computer I’m writing this post from has a grand total of 10 such I/O interfaces and until today this abundance of connection options was something I took a sort of pride in. After all, the more and varied ports on a PC, the more and varied devices you can connect to.

Today however, all of that changes.

The Thunderbolt icon. Image courtesy of Apple.

The Thunderbolt icon. Image courtesy of Apple.

Imagine a world where a single, small port on the side of your laptop is all you will ever need to connect to any peripheral or network – including external monitors. Now imagine that this port allows your computer to swap data with those connected devices at a staggering 10 Gbps (that’s 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and fast enough to transfer a feature-length full HD movie in 30 seconds) and that it can pass along up to 10 watts of power to those devices so they need not rely on additional power supplies. Truly plug and play. Now stop imagining.

This new port exists (exclusively for now on Apple’s new MacBook Pros) and is called Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt is actually the consumer name chosen by Apple and Intel for a technology that the two companies partnered on known as “Light Peak.” Not that Light Peak is a bad name, but Apple has a spectacular record for finding catchy names for new or existing technologies (consider FireWire, MagSafe and FaceTime just to name a few) so Thunderbolt it is. They’ve even designed a clever little lightning bolt icon to stamp on Thunderbolt ports and cables.

The Mini DisplayPort found on older MacBooks - identical in shape to the new Thunderbolt port.

What makes Thunderbolt unique (other than its groundbreaking speed) is that it was designed from the ground-up to be display-friendly. While it’s true that you can attach external displays to USB ports, this has always been a bit of kludge – a clever workaround that forces USB to do something it was never intended to do. Thunderbolt on the other hand, includes both DisplayPort and HDMI technologies within its architecture. In fact, take a close look at the Thunderbolt port (top of this page). Now look at the current Mini Display Ports (image above). Yep, they’re the same shape. This means that existing Mini Display Port cables can snap right into Thunderbolt ports, no adapters required.

The other clever thing about Thunderbolt is that it can be daisy-chained. Apple has always been a big backer of daisy-chain technologies, first with SCSI, then with FireWire – and now Thunderbolt keeps that ability alive. In essence, this means if every Thunderbolt-compatible device had two ports, you could string them all together (up to 6 in total), one after the other, and plug the device that was closest to your PC (the monitor perhaps?) into a single Thunderbolt port on your computer. Voila – instant access to all of your devices and only one cable to keep organized. Sounds very Apple doesn’t it?

Is this the end of USB?

Not likely. At least, not in the near-term. The fact is, almost every single peripheral on the market today was built using USB, so it will be several years before people no longer need USB ports on their computers. And so far, no USB-to-Thunderbolt adapter has been announced (though that’s probably in the works as we speak). Where USB will be most greatly impacted is the development of USB as a future standard. USB 3.0 was only recently released and since then we have seen precious few peripherals with the new port and finding a PC that ships with a USB 3.0 port is very difficult indeed. My guess is that Thunderbolt will effectively kill any future investment in USB 3.0 making it a lame-duck technology.

And what of eSATA?

Since eSATA’s core benefit is higher transfer speeds when compared to USB 2.0, I have a feeling it too will eventually sunset in the face of Thunderbolt’s blistering speed and 10-watt power supply (it’s very hard to find bus-powered eSATA hard drives).

Cost benefits?

It might be a little naive of me to think so, but I’m hoping that the architectural simplicity that Thunderbolt creates will eventually result in lower costs for PC manufacturers. It just makes sense that a single port is cheaper to produce than 10. Whether this turns out to be the case and whether manufacturers end up passing along these savings to consumers is tough to call, but competition being what it is, I remain optimistic!

Consumers are confused about netbooks

Ok, so the child is actually holding a DVD player. But a netbook is nearly the same size.

Ok, so the child is actually holding a DVD player. But a netbook is nearly the same size.

Since Asus started the netbook craze a little over two years ago with their diminutive Eee PC, the netbook category has exploded. Nearly ever major PC brand (with the notable exception of Apple) has one, and prices have continued to drop as features and screen sizes have grown.

It’s no surprise that these little machines have become a hit: most models offer Windows XP, a 9″ or larger screen, built-in Wi-Fi, webcam, media card reader and a power-sipping processor that can last 5 hours or more on a a 3-cell battery. Higher-end models offer Solid State Drives, Bluetooth and multi-touch functionality. All this, starting at around $300.

There’s no doubt, netbooks offer superb value and portability for the money. So why then are a whopping 30% of all netbook purchases returned to the retailer where they were sold? The number comes from a recent Yankee Group report which concludes that consumers just aren’t well enough informed about the performance characteristics of netbooks before they buy.

Surprisingly, these consumers are not walking in to their local big box electronics retailer on a whim, and buying the first PC they see under $400. The same report claims that “consumers typically make a buying decision about a particular brand after hours, days or weeks of research—long before they ever walk into a store to purchase an item.”

If consumers are doing such due diligence yet are still unsatisfied with their purchase, it means that PC manufacturers, and all of us in the media, are doing a poor job educating buyers about netbooks before they even begin their research into which model is right for them.

The way to correct this apparent confusion is to start with some defintions that are meaningful to the average consumer. What is a netbook and what are the real differences between netbooks and their look-alike, but larger cousins, the laptops (or notebooks)?

Intel, the maker of the chips that are used in the vast majority of netbooks and notebooks, coined the term and has used it ever since to describe ultra-portable PCs that use their Atom processor. If we go with that as a starting point, any portable PC equipped with an Atom processor is a netbook, whereas any other CPU will make it a notebook.

But why does the processor matter? Aren’t size, weight, feature set etc. all important factors in identifying netbooks? Yes and no. While it’s true that most netbooks are small, with screen sizes never larger than 12″, and thin (often 1.5″ 1.5 cm thick) and light (some even as light as 2 lbs), it’s also true that they are no match for a notebook in the brains department.

And regardless how small and cheap a PC may be, if it can’t run all the software you could normally run (in the way that you normally run it) it’s not a notebook.

Well that sounds pretty clear: Atom processor = netbook, anything else = notebook. Right? Well…

It turns out that while Intel feels the netbook label is all about the CPU, other experts and some manufacturers disagree.

Sony just announced a machine they say is the world’s lightest laptop: the Vaio X.

And if the price is anything to go on, I’d have to agree. At $1300 it had better not be a netbook. But guess which processor is under the hood of this baby? Yup. An Intel Atom.

CNET, as recently as August of this year, argued that we should do away with the moniker altogether, claiming that “Netbooks are nothing more than smaller, cheaper notebooks,” and that “the distinction between the two can now be considered little more than marketing speak.” 

The same article doesn’t mention anything about the difference in processing power between the two categories, which is a shame, because it can really make a difference. How much depends on the CPU comparison, but Tom’s Hardware benchmarked the Atom against a fairly slow Celeron chip, and the Atom did not fare well. The Celeron was 35% faster, across the board. Remember the Vaio X? Still wondering about that $1300 price tag? Me too.

That sounds like a real knock against the Atom, but when you consider that the Atom consumes far less power than the Celeron, things begin to make sense, and it brings us back to the reason why netbooks are appealing despite their lack of processing power:  Their tiny size, and super-efficient internal components means that though they aren’t workhorses, they can go much longer without plugging in to a wall.

What consumers should remember is that while the line is blurring between netbooks and notebooks, there are some real differences in terms of performance. Want a super-portable PC that can give you quick and easy net access from a Wi-Fi hotspot so you can check your mail, surf the web, watch some videos and stay up-to-date on Facebook? Want to go up to a whole day without a recharge? Get a netbook.

But if you need a portable PC that can mutli-task, edit video, play 3D games, run Photoshop and do it all without grinding to a halt, you want a notebook.