Today, Apple unveiled what will no doubt be its bread-and-butter products for the all-important holiday season and into 2013: an all-new iPhone 5 and revamped versions of the iPod nano and iPod Touch.
Thanks to the many leaked photos and generally accurate rumours, the iPhone 5 introduced by Phil Schiller and Tim Cook was almost exactly what we were expecting: A thinner, lighter, faster, taller and LTE-enabled smartphone. About the only feature that didn’t make it from rumour-mill to reality was the inclusion of NFC (Near Field Communication) which would have enabled the contactless-payment scheme that is currently being pursued by Google and others. For an explanation on why Apple left this and wireless charging out, see this interview with Phil Schiller.
In typical Apple fashion, the new iPhone has given potential buyers just enough to feel that it’s a worthy upgrade over devices that are now two generations old, yet not so much innovation that iPhone 4S owners will be left weeping over their now-obsolete cellphone. I call it the “leap-frog” approach to Apple’s product marketing and so far, it has held true for every new version of the iPhone.
But many argue that especially in today’s super-heated competitive market, “just enough” just isn’t enough. Samsung, Nokia, HTC and others have all made enormous leaps of their own, with many bringing features to the smartphone game that eclipse what Apple has offered. The big question is: Can the iPhone 5 compete against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S III, Nokia Lumia 920 and HTC One X?
My take on this is unchanged from yesterday. While Apple’s Android and Windows 8 Mobile-based competitors are giving consumers more choice than ever, Apple’s formula is still rock-solid. If you are an existing Apple iPhone user – and millions of you are – the iPhone 5 is a logical and satisfying upgrade. Here’s why:
- You get a larger screen without needing to carry a device that feels chunkier. Thanks to Apple’s decision to preserve the iPhone 4’s width, while shrinking the thickness down to an impressively thin 7.6mm, the iPhone 5 will look and behave like a larger phone without feeling like one
- With LTE on-board, the iPhone 5 is now just as fast – perhaps even faster – than any other 4G/LTE handset on the market
- Improvements to the two cameras means that the iPhone 5 maintains its position as arguably the best mobile phone for taking photos and video
- None of these improvements will hurt battery life. In fact, if you have an older iPhone, it might be a bit better
- Improvements to the primary CPU – now an A6 chip – will make the iPhone 5 feel downright zippy
- Price: Starting at $199 for the 16GB model (on contract) means that it costs no more to get a brand new iPhone than it did two or even three years ago if it’s time to renew.
If you aren’t already an iPhone user, these features make a good argument for becoming one. But not an airtight argument. As Reuters has pointed out, the iPhone 5 is impressive in many ways, yet lacks a “wow” factor. Unlike the iPhone 4 with its dazzling Retina display, or the 4S, which brought Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant” Siri to life, the latest iPhone is an attempt to prove that if you take an already successful phone and optimize every aspect of it, you have a compelling new product. For some, that attempt may seem lacking.
Meanwhile, if you feel that bigger is better when it comes to screen size, there are several Android-based models that offer larger views of your content, the web, etc. They may not have a higher resolution than the iPhone, but sometimes there’s no substitute for square inches. Likewise, if you think a smartphone ought to come with a stylus for taking notes, interacting with the screen and getting finer control for tasks like painting/drawing, the Samsung Galaxy Note which appeared earlier this year, is still a great choice.
In addition to the iPhone 5, Apple also updated two of their iPod models. New for 2012 are the iPod Touch, which benefits from many hand-me down iPhone technologies such as a larger screen, thinner body, better cameras and a faster chip, while the biggest surprise of the day went to the new iPod nano which has actually gone up in size.
Apparently the diminutive square design of the previous nano didn’t work out as well as Apple had hoped, and proving once again that they’re prepared to get rid of something that isn’t working, they have re-imagined the nano as a larger, multi-touch device that once again has the ability to play video – a feature that was dropped in the last generation. Also new to the nano is Bluetooth – something that fitness-addicts have been begging for in order to free themselves from the inevitable tangle that results from working out with wired earbuds.
Yet while Blutooth is great for the gym, so was the built-in clip that the older generation included, but that feature has been axed, sending future iPod nano owners back to third-party accessories if they want to keep their music players within easy reach.
I think the decision to reformulate the iPod nano is a good one. They’ve given the popular media player some great new (er, old) features. But best of all is the price: unchanged at $149, which by the way, is for a 16GB model – the only memory option now for the nano.
And while I’m equally excited to see the iPod Touch pick up some very welcome improvements – especially the camera, which now has an LED flash and 5MP sensor – the price point is a big disappointment. Gone are the 8GB and 16GB options and gone too is the $199 entry-point price. Instead, the cheapest redesigned iPod Touch now starts at a heart-stopping $299 for 32GB.
Yes, they did drop the price on the older, 4th gen iPod Touch 16GB to $199, and yes, the new model gets Siri (the first WiFi-only device to do so) but that’s cold-comfort for those who have been waiting for a new iPod Touch redesign.
$299 is simply too high a price for a product that has become the go-to alternative to portable game systems like the Nintendo DSi/3DS or Sony PS Vita, both of which sell for less than the new iPod Touch. Even $249 would have been easier to swallow.
I would have preferred that Apple have discontinued the older iPod Touch completely, and offer up a 16GB (new) iPod Touch for $199 rather than this two-model, two-price points strategy.
Okay readers, that’s my take. What do you make of all of the Apple hoopla from today’s event? Excited for the new gadgets or feeling a little let down?
If you’re a music junkie, now is a great time to be alive. Not only is it easier than ever to find and buy new music, it’s completely portable. Through devices like iPods, iPhones and other digital media players, your tunes can go wherever you go.
There has been one tricky exception to this digital revolution, and that’s in-home audio.
Yes, you can buy some great docks that let you plug in your i-device or other gadget and get the tunes going in at least one room. But if you’ve got your entire library on your computer, it seems silly to rely on your portable player’s limited memory, plus docks attached to the sounds systems in each room. Thankfully there are two great alternatives if you want to have whole-home control over your music without having to resort to ridiculously expensive professionally installed systems.
A little while ago, Apple started experimenting with transmitting music around Wi-Fi and wired networks from their iTunes software. They called it “AirTunes.” As the name implies, with just iTunes running on your computer, and a compatible AirTunes device like Apple’s AirPort Express, you could be listening to your iTunes collection anywhere you could plug in an ethernet cable or be in range of your Wi-Fi network.
Over time, Apple renamed the feature to “AirPlay” since it became capable of images and videos as well as audio. AirPlay is now an ecosystem unto itself, and many manufacturers are creating audio systems with AirPlay technology baked right in, so no additional hardware like the AirPort Express is needed. The AirPlay component is automatically detected by iTunes.
Currently the limitations on AirPlay are: You can’t stream more than one song to multiple AirPlay speakers from iTunes (they must all play the same song or none at all) and, iTunes itself is the only source of AirPlay audio from your Mac or PC. To access your iTunes library, your computer must remain on, with iTunes running the whole time. You can however, use an i-device like an iPhone or iPad to create a second stream of audio to your AirPlay speakers, but only one. Multiple speakers can only be accessed from iTunes on a computer.
Finally, because AirPlay runs over regular Wi-Fi, if you have other devices that are fighting for Wi-Fi bandwidth, you could experience some interruptions to your music streaming.
Long before Apple started its AirTunes/AirPlay ecosystem, a small company called Sonos was busy creating their own proprietary standard for wireless home audio. They call that standard “SonosNet” and it is effectively a separate WiFi network that runs parallel to your home’s existing network, but because all of the bandwidth is dedicated to streaming Sonos audio, interruptions are avoided. Plus, every Sonos component you add, effectively extends the size of this network, making it more robust.
The Sonos system is made up of two types of components: The software controller (which can run as an App on your smartphone, iPod Touch or tablet) and the hardware player (there are three different kinds of players: All-in-one speakers, amplified players and non-amplified players). You may also need a Sonos bridge device if your home router is located too far from any of the hardware players and running an ethernet cord to the nearest one isn’t practical.
Other than the dedicated wireless network, benefits include: No need to leave your computer turned on if you store your music on a networked-hard drive. Sonos doesn’t need the iTunes software, but it can still access and play all of your iTunes music, as long as the songs are DRM-free. Sonos can play more than one song to more than hardware player. The software controller gives you the ability to group and ungroup players as you see fit. Want one song in every room simultaneously? No problem. Want a different song in each room? It can do that too. The system can also be configured to split a stereo signal between two different hardware players, so that one acts as the left speaker while the other acts as the right.
Limitations on Sonos at the moment are: Sonos is purely for audio. There are no hardware players that connect to your TV or other display devices for showing movies and images. Sonos doesn’t play nicely with AirPlay, unless you buy an AirPort Express and mate it to one of your hardware players, but this is a bit tricky and not every hardware player supports it. There is no way to stream music wirelessly from your smartphone or tablet to a Sonos player, however you can buy special docks that let you use your iPhone or other device as a source of music for the whole SonosNet network. The disadvantage being that if you use that same device to control your Sonos system, you won’t be able to walk around the house with it. Sonos makes two different all-in-one speaker hardware players: the PLAY:3 ($329) and the PLAY:5 ($449).
One of the simplest ways to enjoy a Sonos system is to buy their Sonos PLAY:3 all-in-one speaker system ($329). Using the PLAY:3 wirelessly means you’ll also need the Sonos Bridge ($59). The PLAY:3 is a small, self-contained stereo speaker cabinet which comes in two colours: black and white. Other than an ethernet port on the back, and some small volume buttons on the top surface, the PLAY:3 is as minimalist as it gets. Even the power transformer is contained inside the PLAY:3’s cabinet, leaving only the power cord exposed.
Many people have noted that Sonos takes their design inspirations from Apple and that is very clear in the PLAY:3’s overall look and feel. You can rest the speaker flat, in a landscape orientation, or you stand it on one end to fit into narrower locations. The cabinet has small rubber feet for both options. The speaker’s volume can be controlled either from the software controller, or the physical buttons on the cabinet.
Set-up of the PLAY:3 couldn’t be easier: Simply install the Sonos software on your computer, power on the bridge and the PLAY:3 and follow the on-screen instructions.
As Sonos’s entry hardware player, the PLAY:3 lacks some of the options found in the rest of the Sonos line-up, specifically: there is no auxiliary audio jack and indeed no jacks of any kind other than ethernet. This means that they PLAY:3 is strictly for playing Sonos audio sources and can’t be used as an AirPlay speaker nor can it send its audio to a secondary device like a sub-woofer. There is also no way to power the PLAY:3 down when not in use – it is always on. A somewhat hidden but handy feature is that you can plug any ethernet device into the back of the PLAY:3 and get internet connectivity through the SonosNet wireless network.
One of the earliest companies to join the Apple AirPlay bandwagon is Pioneer. The Japanese company with a long history of making consumer audio products, has embraced AirPlay in almost its whole range of home theatre receivers, and this summer they are debuting their first stand-alone all-in-one AirPlay speaker systems.
There are three models to choose from: the XW-SMA1 ($329), A3 ($429) and A4 ($429) – available in the coming weeks. The A1 and A3 are acoustically identical, the only difference being that the A3 has a built-in rechargeable battery and is somewhat splash-proof for outdoor use. The A4 is a higher-end unit which is more comparable to the Sonos PLAY:5.
For my comparison, I tested an A3.
The SMA1/3’s cabinet (only available in black) is sleek and glossy, without any physical buttons. Along the bottom of the unit are several LED indicators to signal power, network and input status while on the other side are touch-sensitive buttons areas for power, input and volume up/down.
Around the back, you’ll find ethernet, USB, AC in and an auxiliary mini-jack. There is also a small button for activating the speaker’s network set-up functions and a stubby antenna near the top which can be raised and lowered on a rotating cuff to improve Wi-Fi reception.
The SMA1/3 is taller but shallower than the PLAY:3, and it weighs 2 lbs more than the Sonos. Unlike the PLAY:3, the SMA1/3’s power supply is an ugly brick which you’ll need to tuck away so it can’t be seen.
In terms of music streaming options, the SMA1/3 is a virtual Swiss Army knife. Much like the PLAY:3, it can be connected to your network via ethernet or Wi-Fi. Once on the network it will recognized as an AirPlay speaker by iTunes and any iOS device you have. But beyond that, the SMA1/3 is also recognized as a DLNA 1.5 compatible player, which means you can stream music to it from other devices such as your PC, even when not using iTunes.
The SMA1/3 also boasts the ability to handle direct-streaming from certain devices. If you have an i-Device, you can set-up the speaker with Wi-Fi Direct, bypassing the need for a full Wi-Fi network. While this is similar to Bluetooth streaming, it is much more flexible – the Wi-Fi range is much farther than Bluetooth. Similarly, if you have an HTC One smartphone, you can use HTC Connect to establish a direct stream from your phone to the SMA1/3.
Finally, you have two wired options. The first is via the USB port. Connect your iPhone or iPod/iPod Touch using your existing dock cable and you can play music directly. As a bonus, the SMA1/3 will also charge your device. Alternatively, you can use any other portable media player (even an analogue one like a Sony Walkman Cassette player!) via the AUX in mini-jack port.
The SMA1/3 also comes with a dedicated credit-card sized infrared remote to control power, volume, play/pause, next/prev track and input mode from across the room, though in practice this isn’t needed if you’re using AirPlay to control the action via an i-Device.
If you opt for the SMA 3, you get a 5-hour battery and a degree of weather protection for outdoor use.
Each of the networking options offered by the Pioneer unit worked well, and I was especially impressed by the unit’s ability to pull my home Wi-Fi setting from my iPhone when I connected it via USB – that’s a neat trick which I haven’t seen before and it dramatically reduces the hassle of networking a device like this.
So, How Do They Sound?
When it comes right down to it, regardless of the features, you’re buying a speaker system so it had better sound good.
Before I proceed, let me point out that I am not a professional audio reviewer. I have, however tried the SMA1/3 and the PLAY:3 side-by-side using identical tracks and sources as well as some differing material.
The Pioneer and the Sonos are designed to provide what is, in the opinion of their engineers, the best sound characteristics at all volume levels. Some tweaking can be had using the Sonos’s adjustable treble, bass and loudness controls. Strangely, even though the Pioneer lists “Sound Effect (EQ, DRC, Loudness)” on its feature sheet, I was unable to find any way to control these settings. Update: Pioneer has confirmed that while these features are part of the SMA’s audio design, they are turned “on” by default and cannot be adjusted by end-users.
The good news is, they both sound great. The SMA1/3 and the PLAY:3 go for clarity over power with the SMA1/3 excelling at delivering crisp, bright highs. But there is a definite winner in this contest and that title goes to the Sonos PLAY:3. I suspect the reason is the PLAY:3’s speaker profile. Sonos has employed 3 separate Class D amplifiers, one for each of the speaker’s three drivers (1 tweeter, 2-mid-range). It also employs a bass radiator – a passive system for reproducing low-end sounds. The result is a fuller, richer sound than the Pioneer unit offers. It can be heard across all genres of music, but I was especially aware of it when playing jazz – the PLAY:3 let me feel more of bass thrumming than the SMA1/3.
Though Pioneer doesn’t get as specific as Sonos as to the design of their speaker, on the surface at least, they seem close enough: 2 Mid-range, 1 Tweeter and a Bass Reflex Port. Perhaps Sonos’s use of dedicated amps, plus their choice of the bass radiator over the bass reflex is enough to make the difference.
There’s no question that Pioneer targeted the Sonos PLAY:3 in designing the SMA1/3. The size, shape and functionality all closely mirror what Sonos has done. For the most part, this approach is a success, particularly where the Pioneer fills in the feature gaps left by the Sonos. In terms of versatility, you get a bigger bang for your buck with the Pioneer. But Sonos has the edge when it comes to overall sound quality. So which to choose?
To figure this out, you need to determine your priorities. If you want to buy a single unit that will complement your existing sound set-up at home and you’re not looking to build out a dedicated network of audio components, or if you’re a student or someone who lives in a small 1 or two bedroom apartment, the Pioneer SMA1/3 is a great choice. You get plenty of versatility and compatibility and while it doesn’t sound quite as good as the Sonos, you might well feel the extras offset this difference. And I should reiterate – the Pioneer does sound very good. We’re not talking about night and day here. If I hadn’t played the two units side by side, I would have no reason to criticize.
If, on the other hand, you want a dedicated and expandable wireless home audio system that can grow as you grow, the Sonos is the preferred choice. It lacks the Pioneers multiple source options, but its fuller sound works better in big rooms.
Whichever you go with, you’ll be enjoying the leading edge of wireless audio – easily the best thing to happen to music since the first CD was ripped to a PC.
I’ve got some bad news for folks who are expecting the next iPhone – widely predicted to be launching next month – to be a total ground-up redesign of the iconic smartphone. It won’t be.
But I’ve also got some good news: It doesn’t need to be.
Take a look at these photos pulled together by Chinese repair shop iLab. They tell a story of an iPhone that is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Surprised? Don’t be. This, for the foreseeable future is going to be Apple’s approach to their existing products.
Here’s why I think Apple will be “doubling down” – to employ an over-used expression – on their established formulas instead of ushering in completely new devices.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it
The first iPhone was a surprise. Not just to the industry but to Apple as well. They knew they had created something that was different and unique, but the degree to which consumers started rabidly buying up the iPhone was a shock – even the iPod, Apple’s most successful product in terms of sales, had never enjoyed this degree of enthusiasm.
After that, the course was set. Apple’s belief in the power of an all-touchscreen device and the versatility of downloadable apps had been vindicated by consumer demand. From here on in, the challenge was to find ways to improve on that formula, without disrupting what had become the hallmarks of iPhone’s design language.
Faster chips, better screens, a sleeker case design, better software, improved cameras… each and every part of the iPhone has undergone incremental improvements while maintaining an experience that would be as familiar to an owner of a first generation device as it would to someone whose first iPhone was the 4S.
Especially when you consider that a) the iPhone 4 and 4S have been ridiculously successful despite being identical on the outside, and b) nearly every Android phone on the market is simply a variation on Apple’s design, what would compel Apple to rethink their most profitable product along dramatically different new lines?
Just Enough To Make You Want One
These photos have already garnered criticism amongst Apple die-hards. They feel the design isn’t revolutionary enough, given how similar it looks to the current iPhone. But by now, these people should know that Apple prefers to tweak successful designs instead of reinventing them. Here’s how the next iPhone will offer up improvements over the current model:
– Slightly bigger screen. Apple already has one of the best mobile screens on the planet, so the trick will be to give it more real-estate without compromising the measurements of the phone itself which Apple spent a great deal of time and money developing. You’ll notice that the home button now has a little less breathing room above and below it, and the FaceTime camera has been relocated above the ear-piece speaker grille from its current side-car location. These changes, plus a slight lengthening of the phone’s body itself could yield a small but nonetheless noticeable increase in overall screen real estate. The current size is 3.5″ diagonal. A new iPhone could hit 3.9-4.0″ with the re-jigged design.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Apple manages to bump the specs of the screen too. Better contrast, better brightness, better off-angle viewing? All likely. It doesn’t take a lot to make a screen better when compared to an earlier model. When Apple released the iPad 2, they didn’t even mention that the screen was better than the first iPad – yet to anyone looking at it, it was obvious that they had made some improvements.
– 4G LTE. 4G, or LTE (Long Term Evolution) is the latest standard in high-speed data connectivity for mobile phones. Where supported by carriers, it enabled speeds of up to 150Mbps which is significant leap over the previous 3G standard. As such, this one is the most obvious feature for the next iPhone. The new iPad already has it, and given the increasingly wide-spread availability of the new high-speed wireless standard, it’s time for the iPhone to get the new technology too.
– Bigger, longer-lasting battery. Increasing the size of the case doesn’t just allow for a bigger screen, it means a bigger space for the battery too. And if the next iPhone is going to have LTE, it will need a bigger battery. LTE is fairly power-hungry technology and presumably Apple doesn’t want battery life to suffer. So while the next iPhone may last longer between charges if you restrict it to 3G, running LTE will probably result in the same life you’re used to now.
– NFC. NFC or Near Field Communication is a relatively new technology which lets devices communicate with one another over very short distances, without using WiFi or Bluetooth. In mobile phones, NFC can be used to let people “tap to share” (e.g. photos or web links) or “tap to connect” (instead of needing to configure a Bluetooth speaker – just tap it), but the biggest feature of NFC is its ability to enable mobile wallet applications. This is how you can pay for purchases using nothing but your smartphone at retailers that can accept NFC payments. NFC on the next iPhone might be a long-shot, especially given that the technology has so far been very slow to be adopted at retail in North America. However, it is progressing and there’s no question that if Apple wants to play in the digital wallet space as they undoubtedly do, NFC is pretty much mandatory.
– Smaller, possibly mag-safe-based dock connector. There have been far too may rumours pointing to this: The new iPhone will absolutely have a new, smaller dock connector. Yes, that will mean that all existing docks and accessories will now require adapters in order to work with the next iPhone, but the 30-pin dock connector is now 10 years old and wireless technologies like Bluetooth and AirPlay have made it largely unnecessary for anything other than charging. A smaller connector also means they can now move the audio-jack to the bottom of the phone.
– Audio jack on the bottom. Why does this even matter? Well, for folks who never use the jack, it doesn’t matter at all. But those who do will have noticed that it is kind of inconvenient to stick your iPhone in your pocket with the bottom of the phone facing down. Not only do you have to flip the phone around when you pull it out, but it’s much harder to reach for the home button quickly. And given the importance Apple has placed on Siri, being able to grab that home button when you’re on the go is definitely a benefit.
– A little thinner. The newest Android phones from HTC and Samsung have put an emphasis on ever thinner dimensions. The next iPhone will lose a few millimetres too. Take a close look at the photos above. They clearly show that the metal sides (which double as the phone’s antennas) will be bevelled and the front and back surfaces will sit flush to the edge. The current design is 9.3mm thick, with at least a millimetre or two of front and back surface extending beyond the metal rim. The new iPhone could easily come in at 7mm or less. Given that the world record holder, the Oppo Finder comes in at an anorexic 6.65mm, 7mm seems realistic for a new iPhone.
– Another spec bump on the processor, possibly to quad-core, and more memory. This will be mostly to keep pace with the rest of the industry and because faster chips means more powerful applications – the life-blood of the iPhone post-sale revenue.
Am I convinced that these photos are 100% what the new iPhone will look like? No. There are a few details that don’t seem right:
– The power/wake button at the top looks like it has almost no height to it at all, which would make it difficult to press.
– In picture 6, it looks as though the front face of the phone starts flush with the metal sides at the top of the phone but then progressively ramps away from the sides as it meets the bottom edge. That definitely seems out of place. It may be that the folks who assembled this mockup didn’t fit the pieces together quite right.
– There are visible seams where the top and bottom pieces of the phone meet the back plate. Given that Apple went to great lengths to make the current design nearly seamless, I can’t imagine they would now be ok with seams. But this could easily be a pre-production mockup, with the final product getting a much smoother finish.
– There is a strange, small hole sitting between the LED light and the rear camera lens. It could be a mic, and I’d place bets that’s what it is, but why is it there? The current design doesn’t employ such a visible mic so it’s hard to imagine why the new design calls for it to be so prominent.
These reservations aside, I think we are looking at the next iPhone. It’s a design that is in keeping with Apple doing what they do best: Give owners of an iPhone 4 or older model a strong reason to upgrade once they’re free of their contract, while not making people who just bought an iPhone 4S feel like they’re the proud owners of obsolete technology. This iterative, evolutionary approach to their product development can be seen across Apple’s line of devices and the next iPhone will follow this model.
Now, in case you’re sitting there feeling glum that Apple won’t be surprising and delighting you with a new, magical and revolutionary product come the fall, don’t fret just yet.
There’s still plenty of reason to think that Apple will finally make good on its much-rumoured move into the HDTV space, plus we keep getting hints of a new, smaller iPad model. This may yet shape up to be one of Apple’s most interesting years.
Only in a world where one company has established a reputation not only for ground-breaking gadgets, but also the ads that promote them, can we legitimately write a tech post about Apple’s new ads.
These aren’t just the latest ads promoting the new iPad or iCloud or the new MacBook Pro. Those ads have a very Apple-esque feel and are precisely what we’ve come to expect from Apple’s agency ever since they put the wonderful Mac vs. PC campaign to bed a few years ago.
The ads I’m referring to are the brand-new “Genius” ads just launched in the U.S. and man do they ever live up to Apple’s once heavily promoted motto “Think Different.”
As the name suggests, these ads centre around the Apple Genius – the guy or gal at the back of every Apple store, clad in a blue t-shirt and sporting a distinctive silver doodad on a lanyard around their neck. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that these “geniuses” are the people you go to when you have an Apple-related question, no matter how big or small.
Perhaps in an attempt to talk to those of us who have indeed been living under rocks, Apple’s new campaign tries to impart a personality to the otherwise nameless geniuses that staff their stores. But does it work?
It’s hard to say. The campaign has kicked off with three new spots. The ads are funny, but not in the laugh-out-loud way that Mac vs. PC tended to be. The actor cast as the Genius is likeable – you can almost see the briefing to the casting director: “Find us Matthew Broderick.” Watching all three spots you can clearly catch glimpses of the famous actor from his roles in 1980s era classics Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, War Games and LadyHawke.
And yet, you kind of get the feeling that the ads are trying too hard. Ken Segall, in his Observatory blog describes the campaign as “[…]something Best Buy would do. Maybe even Dell. Between the writing, casting, directing and production, this campaign has a very “local” feel to it. It doesn’t have the feel of quality that has defined previous Apple advertising.”
Readers, what do you think? Has Apple kept up its reputation for top-notch advertising, or is this latest campaign a mistake the company should quietly (but quickly) walk away from?
Update, August 7: Apparently Apple has pulled the Genius TV ads. Though their agency, TBWA/Media/Arts Lab claims the plan was always to give the ads a short run, clearly the overwhelming negative perception surrounding the spots was a big influence on their decision.
Before we dig into some of the new features in Apple’s latest update to Mac OS X, I just want to call out what has to be either the biggest coincidence in the launch of a new tech product, or a very cleverly timed piece of PR genius:
On Sunday, as reported by ABC and the Daily Mail Online, a woman in California called police 911 services in a state of deep worry over what she believed to be a mountain lion that had supposedly crept into her neighbour’s yard and then fallen asleep or perhaps died, while lying on the neighbour’s patio table.
Looking at the photo below, you can understand her concern – the animal looks like the real deal.
Turns out it was real, or at least was once a real live mountain lion. But the animal sitting in the neighbour’s yard was a stuffed animal placed there by the neighbour to intentionally prank his wife when she looked out the window.
Oddly, though the event happened on Sunday, it wasn’t reported until today – coinciding with the mountain lion story you’re hear to read. Coincidence?
Okay, now that’s out of the way…
Apple’s OS X Mountain Lion seems like a bargain when you consider that for just twenty bucks, you can upgrade from either Lion or Snow Leopard and get over 200 improvements including:
- iCloud integration, for easy set up of your Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Messages, Reminders and Notes, and keeping everything, including iWork documents, up to date across all your devices;
- the all new Messages app, which replaces iChat and brings iMessage to the Mac, so you can send messages to anyone with an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or another Mac;
- Notification Center, which streamlines the presentation of notifications and provides easy access to alerts from Mail, Calendar, Messages, Reminders, system updates and third party apps;
- System-wide Sharing, to make it easy to share links, photos, videos and other files quickly without having to switch to another app, and you just need to sign in once to use third-party services like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Vimeo;
- Facebook integration, so you can post photos, links and comments with locations right from your apps, automatically add your Facebook friends to your Contacts, and even update your Facebook status from within Notification Center;
- Dictation, which allows you to dictate text anywhere you can type, whether you’re using an app from Apple or a third party developer;
- AirPlay Mirroring, an easy way to wirelessly send an up-to-1080p secure stream of what’s on your Mac to an HDTV using Apple TV, or send audio to a receiver or speakers that use AirPlay; and
- Game Center, which brings the popular social gaming network from iOS to the Mac so you can enjoy live, multiplayer games with friends whether they’re on a Mac, iPhone, iPad or iPod touch.
I’m especially keen to try out AirPlay mirroring – this has been one of those features that was notable for its absence from previous releases of the operating system as it is now standard on nearly all iOS devices. Being able to send any kind of content from a Mac to an Apple TV (and thus your HDTV) is very handy.
If you’re curious to learn more about Mountain Lion before deciding to take the plunge yourself, check out these helpful reviews:
While you’re at it, you may want to revisit the minimum system specs for OS X.
So readers, are there any Mountain Lion features you’re excited about? Drop us a line in the comments, and let us know – especially once you’ve had a chance to try it out. (Or if you’ve had any of your own close encounters with convincing stuffed animals)
Unless you’ve been sticking with the same CD collection you’ve owned since the 90s, or you’re one of the hardcore vinyl-collecting crowd, odds are good that most of your music is now sitting in MP3 or AAC format on your PC, MP3 player or smartphone. And while each of these devices are great for organizing your tunes and listening to them privately, they lack the group-listening vibe afforded by our stereos, boomboxes and home theatre systems. Fortunately, there’s never been a better time to widen your music’s horizons. Here are three ways you can get into the wireless streaming game so that you can enjoy your music wherever you are in your home and on any existing audio device.
1. RIM BlackBerry Music Gateway ($50)This tiny black module is the absolute cheapest and easiest way to get your digital music to flow through the speakers of your choice. As long as your music is stored on a smartphone or other device that is Bluetooth 2.0 (A2DP) compatible, you can pair it to the Music Gateway and then connect the Gateway to your home stereo using the included mini-jack audio cable. The Gateway needs power but you can use the same Micro-USB cable and AC adapter that you use to recharge your phone. The music is controlled straight from your smartphone. Bonus: If you own an NFC-equipped BlackBerry such as the new Bold 9900, you can skip the Bluetooth pairing process by simply tapping the phone to the Gateway – voila! Instant streaming. Keep in mind however, that Bluetooth streaming isn’t as flexible as Wi-Fi. Bluetooth typically maxes out at 10 m (30 feet) whereas Wi-Fi can often extend up to 300 feet, particularly when used outside.
2. Apple Airport Express Base Station ($99)The Airport Express might just be Apple’s best kept secret. This all-white unit, which is about the size and shape of a deck of cards is deceptively simple: A plug for AC power, an ethernet port, USB port and an analog/optical mini-jack. But the list of things it can do is impressive. Most relevant to this discussion is that it can turn any stereo system into a Wi-Fi (or wired) receiver for your iTunes music whether you keep that collection on your Mac, PC or iOS device. Apple’s AirPlay technology which recognizes the AirPort Express on your home network, treats the Base Station as a set of speakers that you can “push” your music to from your iTunes software.
Want to stream your music to multiple stereos? Simply add more AirPort Express Base Stations. Each one can be labeled according to whatever makes sense e.g. “Living Room”, “Kitchen” etc. and if you’re streaming from a PC or Mac, you can have them all receiving the music simultaneously. Each AirPort Express can be muted or volume-controlled from your computer, but it’s way cooler to do it remotely using your iOS device with Apple’s free “Remote” app. Want to stream from your iOS device instead? Again, each AirPort Express will show up as AirPlay devices in any app that supports AirPlay e.g. CBC’s Music app. The AirPort Express has some other cool features up its sleeve beyond music streaming: it can repeat the Wi-Fi signal from an Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station, giving your Wi-Fi greater reach; it can act as stand-alone wireless router when connected to your DSL/Cable modem via ethernet or if you’re in a hotel room with only wired internet access and finally it can act as a print server when a printer is connected to the USB port – now everyone on your network can print to the same printer.
3. Sonos Play:3 ($329) plus Sonos Bridge ($60) Long before Apple started to hype their AirPlay technology, Sonos was inventing the gold standard for wireless home audio. The company has been refining their very successful formula for years now and they’re still the company to beat when it comes to liberating your music. Every Sonos system starts with their $60 Bridge. It doesn’t look like much and it only does one thing: create the SonosNet proprietary wireless network, and allow Sonos devices to access online sources of content. From there however, Sonos users have unparalleled choice. You can buy Sonos Connect receivers that connect directly to your stereos or other powered speakers. Or, you can buy a more powerful Connect Amp which as the name implies, houses an amplifier so you can attach virtually any pair of bookshelf speakers. Or, if you want a more portable solution, their Play:3 and Play:5 speaker systems are all-in-one sound systems combining a wireless receiver, amp and speakers. N.B.: You don’t actually need to buy the Bridge as long as you’re ok with positioning the Play:3 in a location where you can wire it to your router with ethernet cable. In this situation, the Play:3 can create the SonosNet network and act as the Bridge on behalf of the other Sonos devices in your home.
While more expensive than Apple’s AirPlay scenario, Sonos offers more options too: Each Sonos unit can be individually controlled even letting you choose to stream the same or different music sources to each device. You can also access far more content – in addition to your iTunes collection, you can access subscription services like XM radio, Slacker, LastFM and others. Another plus is that if you keep all of your music on a Network Attached Storage device (NAS) you don’t need your computer to be constantly on to get to your music. Sonos can access it directly. Finally, some Sonos devices can be used as AirPlay devices, as long as you buy an AirPort Express and your Sonos component has line-in support (N.B.: The Play:3 is NOT equipped with line-in). Once connected and configured, the AirPort Express that is connected to your Sonos device will show up as an AirPlay speaker on your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.
The entire Sonos network of gear can be controlled from any Android or iOS device through the free downloadable app. Sonos used to make a dedicated controller, but apparently the market for these dried up once people began buying app-driven gadgets. No surprise – you can pick up an 8GB iPod Touch for less than the Sonos controller and you can play Angry Birds!
On first blush, when I read the rumour that the next iPhone would be dropping the ubiquitous 30-pin dock connector, the skeptic in me cried “No way!”
Apple has been a rarity in the consumer electronics industry in the sense that they alone have created a multi-billion dollar market for accessories designed exclusively for use with Apple products. Obviously, the sheer number of products that Apple has sold is a big reason why companies big and small have gotten into the i-accessory game, but there’s a subtler, more powerful reason: consistency.
Ever since the advent of the third-generation iPod, Apple has employed the same 30-pin Dock Connector on every single i-device with the exception of the iPod Shuffle. There are hundreds of millions of i-gadgets in use all around the world, and while their technical capabilities vary depending on the model, that same 30-pin connector is on all of them.
How many other product categories in consumer tech or elsewhere can offer that level of compatibility?
So you can see why any suggestion that Apple might be ready to step away from such an overwhelmingly entrenched standard – one that they have the exclusive rights to – would be greeted with a fair degree of dubious eye-brow raising.
But the notion isn’t completely laughable. In fact, it might make sense.
First, let’s consider the fact that Apple has prided itself on being able to predict the demise of a technology often well before consumers are willing to relinquish it. The first iMac famously debuted with no floppy drive. It was the first mainstream machine to do so. The optical drive was read-only and the only way to get data out of the iMac was to transmit it using the Internet or via an attached USB-device (keep in mind, super-cheap USB thumb drives were essentially non-existent back then). It wasn’t long before other PC makers were stripping out the floppy from their designs, never to be seen again.
Apple’s next big ditch: you guessed it – the optical drive itself which they made an optional accessory on the stunningly thin and light MacBook Air. Again, much like with the iMac, Apple proved prescient and the MacBook Air has become the laptop after which the “Ultrabook” line of Windows machines has been modelled.
Second, let’s take a look at what that 30-pin connector actually does for i-Devices:
- Sync data
- Pass through audio and/or video content (which is simply a specific form of data syncing)
All of these functions are handy, yet none require the 30-pin connector per-se. USB connectors, be they mini-USB or the now-standard micro-USB are just as capable of handling these duties and do so on the myriad smartphones that Apple does not make. Micro-USB can even handle high-definition 1080p output via a newer technology known as MHL (Mobile High-Defintion Link). And thanks to iCloud, you never need to physically connect an i-Device to a Mac or PC in order to sync data. Even iOS updates are now done “over-the-air.” There is virtually no reason, other than to maintain consistency of design, why Apple *needs* to keep the dock connector.
If Apple chose to abandon the 30-pin dock for the the industry-standard Micro-USB (which is unlikely – they will probably create a smaller dock connector), they would certainly please a segment of their customers who would prefer to carry a single, cheap and easily replaced power cord – but what about that massive eco-system of accessories like speaker docks and alarms clocks whose numbers are now to great to count? Would they have to issue all-new designs just for the iPhone 5 (or “The New iPhone” as I suspect Apple will call it)? Yes and no.
In the past two years, Apple has been making a bit of a fuss over a wireless audio and video standard they call “AirPlay.” AirPlay lets you effortlessly stream audio or video from your Mac or PC’s iTunes software to any AirPlay-equipped gadget on your home Wi-Fi or wired network. Apple TV is a great example of this. Not only can you stream hi-def movies from iTunes to your TV via AirPlay, you can stream any music or video from your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch in the same way, so long as the app you’re using has been AirPlay-enabled.
AirPlay has seen a lot of support amongst the top brands in the electronics space. Pioneer, Denon, Sonos, JBL, B&W, iHome and Klipsch – just to name a few – have all introduced AirPlay-compatible products and that number is guaranteed to grow. Why? Because AirPlay is the new, wireless dock-connector at least as far as bullet number three from the list above is concerned. It’s a new standard and is already supported by nearly every Wi-Fi equipped product Apple sells.
I know – that’s all well and good for new products – they obviously don’t need a dock connector for audio and video, but what about those older products? The ones that are still carrying around a seemingly obsolete dock? Well here’s where we take an even longer drive down the speculative highway…
I think Apple could easily create an AirPlay Dock Adapter, which would snap into any speaker dock and give it AirPlay connectivity. Assuming that the adapter could draw power from from the dock in the same way that an iPod or iPhone could draw power for recharging, nothing else would be needed. Given how inexpensive Wi-Fi radios have become, I’m guessing that Apple could sell these for $50, turn a very handsome profit, and give millions of older speakers etc., a new lease on life.
I’m not the first one to think this is a good idea – at least one enterprising fellow is trying to get some movement on this notion – assuming Apple doesn’t beat him to the punch!
So readers, what do you make of these prognostications? Would you freak out if Apple dropped the dock from the new iPhone?
Speculation that Apple might release a smaller version of their category-dominating iPad has been swirling for years. After all, nearly every one of Apple’s competitors have released sub-10″ models and while they haven’t achieved anywhere near the iPad’s success, they have been selling. The belief was that Apple would want to address the emerging threat from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, both of whom released $200 7-inch tablets last year. New, lower pricing on the BlackBerry PlayBook was giving RIM’s embattled tablet some new life too.
But two factors argued against an iPad-mini: First, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed that the Amazon/B&N products hadn’t dampened people’s enthusiasm for the iPad at all – a fact that was illustrated by the very strong opening sales numbers for the new 3rd generation iPad. Second, when Steve Jobs was reporting on the success of the original iPad, he claimed that the new crop of 7″ tablets would be “dead on arrival.” He hated them: ““7-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with the iPad.” Apple had spent a lot of R&D on coming up with the size and shape of both the iPad and the iPhone, and there was a growing sense that the company wasn’t going to abandon those formulas in favour of a me-too strategy.
Things, however, inevitably change.
Steve Jobs, the man who was known as much for his stubbornness as for his visionary role in the industry, is now silent and any influence he still wields at Apple is mostly cultural in nature. For the next few years, it’s a good bet that Apple will follow the course he laid out. But he can no longer shout-down ideas he doesn’t like and that means Apple is a different company when it comes to new product development.
While Tim Cook and his management team continue to adjust to an Apple sans-Steve, they must also grapple with another situation: despite Apple integrating iBooks into iOS and even developing an authoring platform for publishers to create rich and dynamic textbooks for the iPad, iBooks has so far failed to become Apple’s next iTunes.
This has got to be a sore point for the company. With very few exceptions, most notably their anaemic Ping social network built into iTunes, Apple’s product offerings tend to do very well with consumers. So why has iBooks foundered? A simple explanation would be that Amazon and B&N (and Kobo here in Canada) are too strong, too entrenched and too good at e-books. Apple has always succeeded by bringing something new to the game, or finding a simplification to a process or gadget that was overly complex (even when others didn’t realize how complex they were). But Amazon’s e-book experience is nearly perfect from the point of view of selection, simplicity and price.
That’s one explanation. The other possibility is that the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, for all their magic when it comes to creating mobile experiences that people love, are second-rate e-book reading devices. Even with its extraordinary Retina display, the new iPad is too big, too heavy and much like every other tablet, is backlit – which increases eye-strain for many users. If you were to take a poll amongst people who own both an iPad and an e-ink reader like the Kindle, and ask them which they prefer for reading books, I suspect the answer would be the Kindle – and overwhelmingly so. I’m one of those people and I only reach for my iPad or iPhone when my Kindle isn’t handy.
Which brings us back to why rumours of an iPad mini simply won’t die. When you take the e-books landscape into consideration and then throw in this week’s revelation that Apple has placed a large order for 7.85″ touch-screens, suddenly the speculation becomes plausible. When you further consider that the loudest voice at Apple in opposition to a small tablet is no longer calling the shots, an iPad mini starts to sound like certainty – with only the launch date remaining to be debated.
Obviously no one can confirm that an iPad mini is coming. Nonetheless, here are some observations on what such a product could feature:
- Roughly 7″ Retina display. The retina-level pixel density is key, especially if Apple hopes to make a bigger dent in e-reading.
- Front and rear cameras, but with specs to match the new iPad, not the iPhone 4S.
- 4G LTE as the cellular option.
- Between 6 and 14 oz (168 and 392 grams): the lower amount is the weight of Amazon’s Kindle, whereas the higher amount is the Kindle Fire. It’s probably unrealistic for an LCD-based tablet to ever come in at 6 oz, but Apple should definitely aim to beat the Fire which by all accounts is a twin to RIM’s PlayBook.
- Thin design – with a smaller screen, the battery can be shrunk as well. It may only lose a few millimetres but it will be the thinnest iPad yet.
- A5 processor from the iPad 2. Keeping an iPad mini as cheap to build as possible will critical for Apple if they’re going up against $200 tablets. The newer A5X chip from the new iPad would offer better graphics performance, but unless the Retina display on the mini requires it, it’s not a must-have.
- Starting price: The new iPad is $519, the iPad 2 is $419. So the logical price for an iPad mini is $319 (all prices in $US for simplicity). That’s still way more than a Kindle Fire, but it would be the cheapest iPad to-date. And though it would likely squeeze Apple’s margins to a new low, if the device succeeds in kicking Apple’s iBooks into high gear, they could easily justify the price.
You’ll notice that I’ve omitted any new technology from the specs list. That’s because I don’t think Apple has to offer anything new in order for an iPad mini to be a roaring success. The current feature set of new iPad isn’t the best in the tablet world (still no SD card slots or USB ports, no HDMI out, no replaceable batteries, no quad-core CPU). Doesn’t matter. Even without these features, the iPad outsells the tablets that have them by a ridiculous amount. An iPad mini doesn’t need them either.
An iPad mini really only needs to do one thing: Give everyone who was thinking of buying a Kindle, Kindle Fire, Nook or PlayBook (or any other 7″ tablet) a reason to stop, take a deep breath, and then buy Apple’s product instead.
There’s only one possible down-side for Apple: cannibalization of iPad sales. A worst-case scenario for Apple would be if all (or many) prospective iPad buyers decided to buy minis instead. Going from a high-margin model to a lower-margin model would hurt the company a lot. But if Tim Cook was correct (that Kindle Fires an the other small/cheap tablets haven’t hurt iPad sales), and if an iPad mini successfully attracts people who would have otherwise bought those devices, Apple could expand their reach significantly rather than water it down. There was some speculation that when Apple launched the Mac Mini it would have a chilling effect on sales of iMacs. After all, why buy an expensive all-in-one when you could have the same computer running on the monitor and keyboard/mouse you already own? It never happened. Sales of both Mac Minis and iMacs grew after the Mac Mini launched.
So Sync reader, what do you think of a smaller, cheaper iPad? Is it just the tablet you’ve been waiting for, or simply another i-device that you’ll take a pass on?
The new iPad is already on sale. In Australia, that is. And while the enthusiasm for the product was lessened by the fact that the Aussie’s 4G network isn’t quite ready to play with the iPad, people still lined up for the latest “magical and revolutionary” device from Apple.
In fact, if pre-order numbers are to be believed, this may well be the most successful iPad ever. But before you get all carried away by the hype, check out our own Marc Saltzman‘s video review of the new iPad. He’s had a week to play with it and here’s what he thinks…
Now, if you’re still wondering if this device is worth the $519 entry price, we’ve taken the liberty of rounding up some of the web’s leading reviewers so you can take a survey of the various opinions (spoiler alert: it’s all about the display)
The Wall Street Journal (Walt Mossberg)
It has the most spectacular display I have ever seen in a mobile device. The company squeezed four times the pixels into the same physical space as on the iPad 2 and claims the new iPad’s screen has a million more pixels than an HDTV. All I know is that text is much sharper, and photos look richer.
The Verge (Joshua Topolsky)
Yes, this display is outrageous. It’s stunning. It’s incredible. I’m not being hyperbolic or exaggerative when I say it is easily the most beautiful computer display I have ever looked at.
TechCrunch (MG Siegler)
What we have is a 9.7-inch slab of aluminum and glass that when illuminated, becomes an absolutely stunning display of light and color.
New York Times (David Pogue)
If you’re in the market for a tablet, here’s the bright side: For the same price as before, you can now get an updated iPad that’s still better-looking, better integrated and more consistently designed than any of its rivals.
CNET (Donald Bell)
The iPad’s new screen is a stunner. That’s really all you need to know about the new iPad
If you’ve been waiting to buy an iPad, Apple had some good news for you today: their new model – which now simply goes by the handle “new iPad” (think New Beetle) – packs a bunch of upgrades over the previous two models without any bump in price. Yes, it looks like the iPad’s reign as king of the tablets will continue for the foreseeable future, even if there is nothing bleeding edge on offer. It’s – wait for it – “resolutionary” according to the Apple.com website homepage.
Here’s what was announced:
iPad 3rd generation ($519/$619/$719 CAD for 16/32/64GB WiFi only – add $120 per model for 3G/4G) Available March 16
- Retina display
- A5X quad-core GPU
- iSight Camera in the Rear: 5MP, backside illuminated, 1080p video recording, Image stabilization
- Voice dictation, but no Siri
- 4G LTE, backward compatible with dual-band HSPA+
- Personal Hotspot feature added
- 10 hours of battery life, 9 if on a 4G LTE connection
- 9.4mm thin, weighing 1.4lbs
From an exterior point of view, the new iPad is nearly indistinguishable from the iPad 2.
The New iPad (yup, that’s the official name) will be supported by all three major carriers (Bell, TELUS, Rogers) for those who want to grab the 4G LTE version.
We’re a little surprised that Apple chose not to give the new iPad the same photo capabilities as the iPhone 4S, which has an 8MP rear camera, and that the front-facing FaceTime camera remains the same as the previous model instead of being upgraded to the FaceTime HD standard that adorns all new iMacs.
In case you’re wondering, yes you can now pick up older iPad 2’s for $100 less than they were selling for yesterday. Apple will continue to make these.
Apple also treated us to an unexpected surprise: A version of the company’s extremely popular photo software for the iMac, iPhoto – built for the iPad. It has a suite of touch-based editing tools but perhaps the coolest feature is the ability to ‘beam’ photos between devices – presumably between iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches and iMacs. $4.99 is the price in the App store and you can download it today. GarageBand, iMovie and iWork apps have all been updated for the new iPad.
Also announced was an update to the Apple TV set-top box:
Apple TV (3rd Generation) $99 USD, $109 CAD, available March 16
- 1080p streaming
- new UI with cleaner look and feel
Finally, today marks the release iOS 5.1, which mostly sports some minor enhancements such as Siri support for Japanese consumers. Also, iTunes in the cloud now has movie support.