Tagged: iTunes

3 Wireless ways to get your music anywhere in your home

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.

RIM's BlackBerry Music Gateway

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.

Apple AirPort Express Base Station

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.

AirPlay shows you the available speakers on your network. Click for larger.

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.

The Sonos Bridge

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.

The Sonos Play:3

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!

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Apple debuts 'new iPad,' Apple TV update

 

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

The new user interface for Apple TV. Available today as a free download for existing Apple TV 2nd Gen. owners.

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.

 

 

 

 

YouTube launches movie rentals in Canada

Known simply as YouTube Movies, the service which launched in the U.S. earlier this year, is now ready for a Canadian audience.

Similar to other online rental options such as iTunes, YouTube Movies lets viewers choose from an ever-increasing catalog of titles ranging from new releases such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and Battle Los Angeles to older favourites like Superman II and Roxanne.

Pricing for the rentals, which will be viewable for 24 to 48 hours (depending on the title), will start at $3.99 for older releases while the most current titles will cost $4.99. The rental period begins the first time you hit play.

YouTube, which will be competing with established powerhouse Netflix, has no plans at the moment to offer a subscription price plan for unlimited viewing.

Another challenge for YouTube Movies is a lack of integration with popular home entertainment devices like Sony’s PS3, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Nintendo’s Wii, all of which have embedded Netflix options to let users watch movies on their big screen TVs.

At launch, the only way to get YouTube Movies on your TV is to connect your computer to it, preferably with an HDMI cable. Auxiliary devices like D-Link’s Boxee Box and others that offer full web access might provide another alternative.

But viewers may be fine sticking with their PCs or small screen devices like iPads: for the moment, all YouTube Movie titles are in standard definition – roughly the same quality as a regular DVD.

The Canadian version of YouTube Movies will offer many more Canadian productions than its U.S. counterpart: Google has established partnerships with several distribution companies such as Alliance Films in order to differentiate themselves in the market while also making it less likely that CRTC will want to regulate them over a lack of Can Con as some journalists have suggested might happen to the nascent online video space.

To rent movies from YouTube, simply sign-up for a Google account (if you are already a Gmail user or are registered with one of their other products you can use that account) and provide the company with payment information in the form of a credit card.

iOS5, iCloud and OS X Lion to be unveiled at Apple WWDC

Confirming months of speculation, Apple has announced that it will be debuting its “iCloud” service along with the next releases of iOS and Mac OS at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference next Monday, June 6, in California.

Also confirmed is that Steve Jobs will be delivering the keynote for the conference. Jobs has been on a greatly reduced work regimen lately as he focuses on his health.

While Apple isn’t saying anything about iCloud other than to reference it as Apple’s “upcoming cloud services offering,” the consensus is that it will offer some sort of music locker service tied to the company’s wildly popular iTunes product.

It could also feature access to TV shows and movies, which would put Apple and Google on a closer competitive footing than they have ever been before. Google announced it’s own cloud-based services earlier this month, promising access to music and movies on any internet-connected device.

Update: Well it seems Apple just can’t contain its excitement around new products. Instead of waiting for the WWDC – mere days away – the company has chosen to release the iPhone/iPod Touch versions of the iWork suite of apps today. Keynote, Pages and Numbers are the three apps that comprise the iWork suite and are all now compatible with the smaller-screen iDevices.

Given that WWDC is primarily focused on iOS and MacOS, you would think this update of the iWork apps might have made ideal fodder for Steve Jobs’ keynote speech. This advance release suggests that he will have a substantial amount to say on the larger operating systems and iCloud, and likely felt that this announcement would make the presentation too long.

Apple releases iOS 4.3 early

Surprise! If you’ve been anxiously waiting for Friday to get your hands on iOS 4.3, your wait is over. You can get the update via iTunes right now for all of your i-devices.

There had been some rumours that the update would only be available if you upgraded iTunes to the latest version (10.2) but I just tried on 10.1.2 and it seems to work fine.

Why bother with iOS 4.3? Well as we mentioned in our roundup of Apple’s iPad 2 announcement, there are a few compelling reasons:

  • Faster web browsing
  • Improved home sharing
  • AirPlay improvements: Photos get all slideshow options, audio and video can be done from all apps and websites too.
  • Personal hotspot for iPhone 4 users
  • Lock switch can be customized: rotation lock or mute function
  • New PhotoBooth software for camera-equipped devices
  • FaceTime now supports the iPad 2, iPhone 4, iPod Touch and any Mac with an isight/facetime camera

Apple revolutionizes the subscription model (and ticks off publishers)

image courtesy of AppleOne of the many strokes of brilliance that Apple has brought to market in the past few years is the App Store. It’s the central shopping mall for the applications that power the most popular devices on the planet, namely: the iPhone, the iPod Touch and the iPad. They key to its genius is the same thing that makes almost all of Apple’s products immensely popular – its simplicity. Browse, tap, confirm, you’re done.

It’s so simple and easy to use that developers have fallen all over themselves creating new apps for the Store to the tune of over 350,000 apps last time I checked. 60,000 of these are specifically for the iPad – a device that hasn’t been on the market a full year yet.

Today, Apple took what many perceived as the next logical step and rolled out a new subscription platform that runs on the same account system as iTunes/App Store, enabling users for the first time to subscribe to content directly within an app. And just like the App Store itself, the process is simple. According to the press release that Apple issued “customers can easily subscribe with once-click right in the app.”

For i-device users this means that subscription content which once required the download of an app, and then a sometimes long and frustrating sign-up process on a third-part website can now be bought and paid for without ever leaving the app itself. Better yet – at least for customers – the decision to share your personal info with the publisher is entirely yours.

Clearly the vast majority of apps that have pursued an advertising-driven model so far will continue to do so, but many – especially big publications – will want to leverage this new revenue stream. That is if they can stomach Apple’s rules.

See, Apple hasn’t just created a new subscription service, they are obligating their publishers to use it. Here’s how it breaks down:

– If you are a publisher seeking to charge a subscription for any content that you deliver to an i-device via a downloaded app, you must use the Subscription service

– You can charge whatever you like for the content, on whatever basis you like e.g. daily, weekly, monthly etc.

– If your customers signs up inside your app (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t they?), Apple gets 30% of the revenue, whatever amount that happens to be.

– If your customer signs up outside of the app (something Apple allows) you can keep 100% of the revenue

– But, in case you were thinking that you could offer people a discount for signing up outside the app (say $10 in-app, $7 outside the app), Apple saw you coming a mile away. Under the rules, you must ensure that the in-app offer is at least as cheap as any out-of-app offer or cheaper.  You didn’t think Apple was going to give up their cut that easily did you?

These rules push the glass half-empty/half-full analogy to the breaking point. On the one hand, having a subscription service as easy to use as this should prompt many more people to pay for content in the same way that iTunes facilitated the transition from CD sales to legitimate digital downloads of music. When something is easy, people tend to like it and use it. Content creators should be excited by the idea that Apple is not only taking the headache out of managing a subscription billing system, but giving them easy access to millions of potential customers. Customers should be thrilled that they can not only subscribe with a click, er, tap, but manage those subscriptions as easily as they manage any other aspect of their account with Apple.

On the other hand, a company like Netflix, which has built their entire business model around the $8/month subscription fee, will have to give some serious thought to the viability of an app-based delivery model now that $2.40 of that fee will be going to Apple. Come to think of it, Apple ships their popular Apple TV product with Netflix embedded… ah well that’s probably a whole other kettle of fish.

Add to that the fact that customers will effectively be “invisible” to publishers because of the optional submission of personal info in the subscription process and suddenly the decision to get on-board with Apple’s game plan is far from simple.

My guess is that smaller publishers will happily latch on to this system: it’s easy, it’s turn-key for them and it represents a way to get paid for their content in a way that ad-revenue might never be capable of doing. Big publishers however, might decide to abandon the app model altogether in favour of developing robust and mobile-friendly HTML5 sites where they can maintain complete control over the subscription process and keep all of the revenue. If they can make their sign-up process as easy as Apple’s, people might just ante up. The up-side of this strategy is that their content is automatically compatible with Android devices, an increasingly large share of the mobile market.

What is perhaps even more interesting about this announcement is the bigger picture for Apple. You may know that they are likely going to include NFC (near-field communications) in the next iPhone and that this represents the start of a brand new mobile payments system that could make credit and debit cards obsolete. Perhaps this subscription service is merely the opening volley in a long-term and massive payments strategy on Apple’s part. PayPal, Visa and big financial institutions: it’s time to get nervous.

Time for comments. If you’re an i-device user, do you think this new system will make you more likely to pay for content on your device? If you’re a publisher, what do you think of Apple’s my-way-or-the-highway policy?

Update, Feb 16, 12:12 p.m. Google is stepping up with a competing subscription system which may well prove to be the Android to Apple’s iOS in the pay-for-content space. Dubbed “One Pass”, their model is web-based, built on the Google Checkout architecture and promises to be easy for both customer and publisher. I smell a battle-royal brewing!

Update, Feb 16, 4:59 p.m.: Reactions to Apple’s plans are beginning to materialize. The TechCrunch team are so far the most vocal: MG Siegler seems comfortable with it. Jason Kincaid is decidedly uneasy, while Michael Arrington claims Apple is going to put all music streaming apps out of business.

Update, Feb 21, 2:48 p.m.: In what may turn out to be the first of many official reactions to Apple’s announcement from companies that now find themselves in an awkward position, Readability has written an Open Letter to Apple. In the blog post, the company accuses Apple of being greedy – a sentiment echoed by MG Siegler over at TechCrunch. For our part, we’ve been reaching out to Apple for several days now, trying to get some clarification on exactly how this new system will be applied to new and existing apps. So far, no response, but that could be because the company is shifting into high gear for an anticipated product announcement, or they are being guarded in what they say to the press now that U.S. and E.U. regulators have taken an interest in Apple’s plans. We’ll update this post once we hear more.

Hands-on with Apple's AirPlay

airplay-the-good-and-the-badOf all the features that launched with last week’s iOS update to 4.2, the one I was most eagerly anticipating was AirPlay.

In case you haven’t been following along, AirPlay is the ability to wirelessly stream audio and video from a device like an iPad to your 2nd generation Apple TV. It’s essentially and enhancement on the existing AirTunes feature that already let you stream audio from iTunes to an AirPort Express router so that you could pipe your tunes directly into a connected receiver. AirPlay takes that framework and expands it to include video.

The system is dead-easy. Just make sure that your i-device and your Apple TV are on the same wireless network. Then choose your app: iPod for video or music, the Photos app for, well, photos and the YouTube app for, uh, you get the idea. Once your media is playing or your photo is displayed, simply tap the little rectangle pierced with a upwards-pointing triangle icon and choose “Apple TV” from the list that pops up.

When using the AirPlay menu from the native YouTube app on an iPhone, you get the option to stream video and audio to an Apple TV. (click for larger image)

When using the AirPlay menu from the native YouTube app on an iPhone, you get the option to stream video and audio to an Apple TV. (click for larger image)

The result is nothing short of spectacular. I tried AirPlay using my iPad as the source device and played back a high-quality version of How To Train Your Dragon. For the techies out there, the file specs are: 1280×544  in .m4v, @155kbps with 5.1 Dolby. In short, it’s a file that has been optimized for Apple TV. Once I had selected Apple TV from the AirPlay list, the movie started playing on my plasma TV within 2 seconds.

I didn’t watch the whole movie but I did let it run for several minutes during which there was no observable glitch in audio or video. Both were perfect. In fact, the video compared so well to the HD version we had rented via Bell TV’s on-demand service, I couldn’t tell the difference.

Sounds great right? Yes – it really does exactly what is promises. But (you knew there had to be one…) I’m extremely disappointed by the lack of AirPlay video support for 3rd party apps.

That’s right. As of right now, the *only* apps that can send video wirelessly via AirPlay to the Apple TV is the Video app on the iPad (iPod app on the iPhone/iPod Touch) and Apple’s own YouTube and Photos apps.

When using the AirPlay menu on an iPhone inside a 3rd party video app such as VLC Player, you only get the option to stream the audio to the Apple TV - note the little speaker icons instead of monitor icons. (Click for larger image)

When using the AirPlay menu on an iPhone inside a 3rd party video app such as VLC Player, you only get the option to stream the audio to the Apple TV - note the little speaker icons instead of monitor icons. (Click for larger image)

While 3rd party video apps such as the excellent VLC Media Player, CineXPlayer or even YouTube inside of Safari can stream the audio portion of their program to the Apple TV, none can stream video.

Here’s why this stinks: Apple TV is, out-of-the-box, able to stream any content that iTunes can play on your PC. It also has it’s own YouTube app. Lastly, it can present photos from your PC if you enable iTunes to stream that content too.

So what exactly has AirPlay done to extend Apple TV’s capabilities? Nothing. Well, almost nothing.

If you have content on your iPad or iPhone that you don’t have on your Mac/PC, then I suppose it’s handy to be able to stream that content to the Apple TV without the need of a middle-man device. But let’s think about this: If you bought an Apple TV, it’s fair to assume that you were already using your computer as your primary media repository and you were okay with managing that media via iTunes. Now I’m not suggesting that you would *never* use just your i-device to download new content – thereby skipping the iTunes-PC step, but I’m guessing it will be rare.

I real promise that AirPlay held for me, and I suspect many other Apple TV owners, was the ability to use all of the 3rd party apps that have popped up in the App Store that support all of the media file types that iTunes (and thus Apple TV) don’t support.

I was frustrated by Apple’s decision to limit Apple TV to just a few video formats when they announced the product, but I immediately thought “okay, no problem, Apple doesn’t want to support other formats, I can deal with that since it looks like AirPlay will enable other companies to take on that burden through 3rd party app development.” With AirPlay being limited to just Apple’s trio of native apps, what would have been an otherwise perfect compromise between what Apple was willing to do and what consumers wanted, is now almost superfluous. A neat trick of engineering that will rarely be used or needed.

For the sake of being optimistic, I hope that this limitation with AirPlay is merely temporary while 3rd party apps are updated by their developers to be compatible with the new feature… but I’m not very convinced this will happen. Some other blogs have pointed out that 3rd party video *was* working in the beta of 4.2 but was subsequently disabled in the final release. Apple, what say you to this?

Update: Apple got back to us rather sooner than we thought, or at least, MacRumours thinks Steve Jobs has gotten back to us. In an email reply reportedly sent to one of their site’s readers, who asked about Safari YouTube and 3rd party support, the iCEO himself said he “hopes to add these features to AirPlay in 2011.” I don’t know if we can bank on one as-yet unvalidated email, but here’s hoping!

Okay, your turn: Have you used AirPlay yet? If so, do you think it’s a feature you’ll be using on a regular basis? Let us know.