Let There Be Light

Posted on October 31st, 2012 in Technology | 1 Comment »

The website Kickstarter has been coming in for a bit of a, well, kicking recently.

On its face, it seems like a marvellous idea. Launched in 2009, it’s a crowd-sourcing platform, initially focused on creative or artistic enterprises but increasingly with a heavy gadget and especially iOS bias. In case you don’t know, here’s how it works.

I am an inventor, artist or other creative individual and I have thought of a thing. Ideally, I’ve reality-checked it, prototyped it, got it to the point where I can explain it, demonstrate it or pitch it. If I knew that there were 10,000 people out there who would all pay $50 to buy one, or come and see it, or download it, then I would know that the income would be there to justify a full production run, or staging it, or producing it. But I don’t have the funds right now to start that process, making me somewhat stuck.

Enter Kickstarter. You describe your project and set levels at which people can invest. Back the project for $50 and when it’s ready, you’ll get one, or a ticket, or a download. If I get enough people promising their money by the deadline, then credit cards are charged and I get the cash to start making my dream a reality (after Kickstarter gets its cut) and then pretty soon you should get what you’ve paid for. If not enough people invest, then nobody pays anything and I’ve done some pretty useful market-testing which may be enough to convince me to abandon the project.

I’ve got at least one really excellent product through Kickstarter – my Zooka Wireless Speaker bar which connects to my iOS device (see?) by Bluetooth and amplifies my music or video soundtracks. But I’ve also got carried away once-or-twice. “Wow, shooting 360 degree video on an iPhone – that is so cool. Here’s $40!” (Six months later) “Why has somebody sent me this useless piece of plastic in the post? What? Shooting 360 degree video on my iPhone? When would I ever want to do that?”

But that’s not the worst problem with Kickstarter, not the problem which has forced the site to substantially change its rules recently. With my Zooka, I plunked down my money and some months later, I received the speaker bar I wanted in the mail. Just like shopping on Amazon, if Amazon’s warehouse was on Mars.

But Kickstarter is not a shop. You aren’t buying a product, you are investing in an idea that might eventually turn into a product, but equally might all go up in smoke.

Kickstarter’s biggest success in terms of funding to date has probably been the Pebble. This smart watch with an e-ink display pairs with your iPhone, so with your phone in your pocket you can see who is calling you, get calendar alerts, see email messages and so on. It launched in April 2012 with a funding target of $100,000 and has actually raised over $10m, but despite an estimated ship-date of September 2012, so far no-one has actually got their $99 watch yet. And they may never.

So, in September, when I saw the Kickstarter campaign for the LIFX WiFi LED light bulb I was excited but also cautious. When we bought our new flat, we had all the wiring and lighting redone. We had hoped to get dimmable bulbs everywhere, but of course, we also often wanted one bulb operated by two switches and (apparently) you can’t have two dimmer switches operating one bulb or the fight each other and then your house burns down (or something). So we have several lights which are operated by one dimmer and one (or more) on-off switch. Workable, but not ideal.

The LIFX bulb solves this problem at a stroke. These LED bulbs can each be set at any brightness – and any colour!! – and you control them from your iPhone. Neat, huh? Of course, they’re expensive – around £50 each, and for our whole flat we’d probably need at least eight, maybe more.

So, after some discussion, I theorised as follows. Committing to buying eight bulbs now means that by the time they eventually show up (supposedly around March 2013), I may have less enthusiasm for the project, or have found another solution. In that time, various problems may or may not come up – the bulbs may be dim, or unreliable, or the software flaky or who know what. WiFi LED light bulbs may end up being a “thing”, they may go mainstream or they may not. If they do, then in time the price will come down and the technology will improve. If not, I’ve bought a lemon.

Shortly after I decided not to invest, LIFX was one of a number of Kickstarter projects identified as being particularly likely to be problematic in articles such as this one from Reuters. Now Kickstarter has substantially changed the rules making it harder for pure “vapourware” products to swallow up large sums of other people’s money as they evaporate away.

Having mentally shelved the WiFi LED light bulb project, I was most startled when all over my favourite blogs and websites two days ago I saw an announcement from Philips that they had an essentially identical product called Hue which would be available exclusively through the Apple Store the next day.

The price is basically the same – £50 per bulb, £179 for the “starter kit” containing three bulbs and the “bridge” which connects them to your home WiFi network (the LIFX version doesn’t need the separate bridge which is neater and tidier, but may make initial configuration more fiddly). The bulbs are sleeker without the heat-dissipating fins which make the LIFX bulbs look a little odd, but they’re only available with Edison Screw E27 fittings, so if you have bayonet or downlight fittings, you need an adaptor. But crucially, you can go into the Apple Store and pick them up right now, today and put them in your home (but not buy them online, yet, for some reason). [UPDATE: You can now buy them on-line.]

So I stopped off at Ryness to buy some B22-E27 adaptors and then took myself to Regent Street, walking out of the Apple Store minutes later with a very handsomely presented box. Installation couldn’t have been much easier. Like WPS WiFi systems, the bridge has a physical button on it, so you connect it to your router with the cable provided and then push the button to connect it to your iPhone. Instantly I had full control over all three bulbs.

The software is a little clunky at present (LIFX’s software looks more fully-featured, but of course it doesn’t actually exist yet, so…). In particular, it is very focused on using colour from images to create lighting effects (or “scenes”) which is surely a niche application. Nonetheless, after a bit of messing around, I was able to create some suitable presets, such as a dim warm glow in the bedroom for going to sleep, or a nice bright clean light for reading in the living room. I was even able to create a single button to simultaneously dim the light in the TV room, and turn the light next-door off (for fear of it casting a reflection on the TV screen). Three bulbs is not of course enough, but as a proof-of-concept, I’m sold. We’ll give it a few more days to see how we get on and then stick a few more in.

If you turn a bulb off at the wall, you can’t then turn it back on again with the app – you’ve cut power to the WiFi electronics – but if you then turn it back on again, it returns with a standard warm glow and near maximum brightness, which means it’s always possible to override the tech if need be. A good solution.

Are they remotely worth the price though? Well, being LED bulbs they should last around 15 years. An old-fashioned incandescent light bulb, costing maybe £1.50, will last about six months. So you can easily spend £40 over a 15 year span. Of course, who knows if WiFi will even exist in 2027, but at least I’m not going to be chucking my £50 bulb in the bin this time next year. They’re also energy-efficient, drawing less than 9 watts of power, while creating the equivalent light of a 50w incandescent bulb.

For completeness, a Halogen bulb will last twice as long as an incandescent bulb but might cost twice as much. An LED bulb without the WiFi-ness will cost around £25-£30 and will presumably last as long as the Hue bulbs do.

iPad Accessory Round-up

Posted on August 31st, 2011 in Technology | No Comments »

As long-term readers may recall (oh, the delusion!), my primary “use case” for my iPad is entertainment on long journeys – videos, ebooks, games (music is more convenient on my iPhone). The longer the journey, the harder it is to manage two key elements, especially where video is concerned: having a long enough battery and having enough choice.

Let’s take choice first. Depending on what kind of iPad you’ve bought, you’ll have 16Gb, 32Gb or 64Gb of storage. Once you’ve installed a few apps, a few ebooks and a few videos, you may find that even 64Gb is gobbled up quite quickly. As a f’rinstance, as each Doctor Who DVD comes out, I rip it in an iPad-friendly resolution (with commentary and trivia text turned on, naturally) and stick it in iTunes to watch at a later date. I’ve got about half-a-dozen I have yet to watch and a new one comes out almost every month. Sometimes more than one, if it’s a boxed set. Each one takes up around 1.5Gb. Add some iTunes movies, some other DVD-rips and pretty soon I’m looking for external storage. Other (lesser) tablets let you plug SD cards or even USB sticks straight in but the iPad is pickier, sad to say.

When I bought my iPad I had the foresight to get the Camera Connection Kit to go along with it. This dongle plugs into the dock connector and then accepts a USB connection to a camera or an SD Card. Images and crucially videos can then be copied off the card for viewing on the iPad. Copied off, notice, so there needs to be room (but existing videos in your library can be deleted to make room).

However, the source and the files need to look exactly like they’ve come off a camera. This means a folder structure something like this DCIM » 100DICAM and then giving every file an 8.3 filename. So your copy of Casablanca needs to be renamed CASABLAN.M4V, or on a really bad day DCM_0001.M4V. Worse, this filename is not visible when you inspect the SD card from within the Photos app – all you have to go on is thumbnail, often black. And folder structures are ignored. Still, it’s a cheap solution, especially if you have some SD cards lying around, and once you’ve copied the right file over, watching from within the Photos app is fine, if a little weird – why can’t I copy it to my media library? Better still, why isn’t the “Open With” option available so I can open a video file in any format using an app like AVPlayerHD.

Other options exist. For a while, I was considering an AirStash. This is a wireless transmitter for the contents of an SD Card which works with a companion iPad app. It’s not expensive, only $100, but hard to get in the UK without the help of Bundlebox and crucially the battery only lasts five hours without a recharge (and you can’t transmit from it while it’s recharging).

In the end, I wound up getting a 320Gb Hyperdrive for $200 which has turned out to share many of the same limitations as the Camera Connection Kit option, but thankfully not all. It’s a kludge of the Camera Connection Kit software, “fooling” the iPad into thinking that it’s importing files from a camera and although it again denies you access to filenames, and tends to provide only black thumbnails, you can have folders and sub-folders on the disk and navigate through them, so I’ve just put each file in a folder which identifies it. I copied my iTunes movie folder on to it, and most movies were already in an appropriately-named folder which saves time. With TV series box-sets, it was a bit more laborious. I had to create a folder called Breaking Bad S2, and then 13 sub-folders, each called Breaking Bad 2.x, each with one episode in. Sounds tedious, but actually it only took a minute or two. When plugged in to a laptop, the Hyperdrive behaves like any other USB drive. Plugged into the iPad with a mini-USB lead, via the Camera Connection Kit – take note, it takes 4-5 minutes to copy a whole movie over, then you can unplug the drive and watch your movie through the Photos app (and delete it when you’re finished to make room if you wish).

Just before I entered my credit card details, I had a quick tour of the site and spotted this little beauty – the Hyperjuice Stand. Now, it’s true I already have a navy blue Smart Cover to prop my iPad up, but that doesn’t stop this being a really, really clever idea. It’s a rubberised stand, lightweight, but just heavy enough to securely hold the iPad in place (360g), at a near vertical angle for watching movies or a flatter angle for typing – but the space inside is filled with battery! 11,000mA of battery which will keep an iPad going for around 16 hours! For only $130 it’s an absolute steal, and because it’s got a standard USB port on it, you can use it to charge or power a great many other devices besides iPads. It charges via a mini-USB connection too, so you can use the same AC adapter as your iPhone, or charge it off your laptop if that’s more convenient.

Having watched my choice of videos, secure in the knowledge that my battery will never run out, and arrived at my destination, I don’t want now to revert to a regular laptop. However, as lovely as the iPad is, it’s hard to type anything as long as, say, this blog post on the on-screen keyboard. So my other purchase was this handsome Aluminium Keyboard Buddy Case, only $49. It pairs quickly with the iPad via Bluetooth and the battery life is very good. Typing is certainly easier than without a physical keyboard, although the keys don’t have quite as much travel as I would ideally like – however it doesn’t really work as a case. I can fold my SmartCover out of the way, but even with it removed altogether, the iPad and the supposed case never snap together securely, they just sort of lie together. I tend to carry them separately in my Troop Brown Canvas Bag.

What toys have you bought for your iPad?

The whole family

Update #2: iPad

Posted on April 2nd, 2011 in Technology | No Comments »

So, Steve brought us the iPad 2, and my cycle of responses to new technology repeated itself. My first thought, on watching the keynote (on my original iPad, on a plane to South Africa) was that I’d dodged a bullet. By foolishly (but necessarily) buying the orginal model months before the new version was announced I risked almost instant obsolescence. However, the new model struck me as only a bit better than the old model, albeit with a very snazzy magnetic “SmartCover”.

The tipping point for me came when I discovered that iMovie, Apple’s video-editing software, would not run on the old iPad. Having struggled mightily with various versions of Windows Movie Maker over the years, I was eagerly anticipating becoming Tablet B deMille, but this was not to be unless I upgraded. Then, Apple went and cut the price, despite the VAT hike, and so it was all over. My first-generation iPad is currently on eBay, and I have a slim new iPad 2 with a navy blue leather Smart Cover which I always have with me.

And it’s the size and shape and weight which has turned out to be the killer app for me. Despite loving having with me on my trips to Australia, South Africa and the West Midlands, the old iPad in its case was that bit too clunky, chunky and bulky for me to be able just to toss it in my bag and forget it’s there. The new one slips into the side pocket of my briefcase and I can be editing a document, writing a blog post, drawing a diagram or reading an email in ten seconds flat. It’s a little marvel and I love it.

Why I bought an iPad – and you shouldn’t

Posted on January 19th, 2011 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

So I bought an iPad. I seem to be going through the following three phases with new technologies, to the irritation of my friends who ask me for advice about these things.

Phase one: anticipation. “Have you heard about X? It looks really interesting.”
Phase two: dismissal. “I’m not planning on buying X, for the following reasons.”
Phase three: purchase. “I’ve just got myself an X.”

In the wake of, at the very least, Palm Pilots, the iPhone and Blu-ray, the Apple iPad followed the same rather predictable pattern. On its first release, I was fascinated by the unveiling of this “breakthrough”, “magical” device. The leverage which Apple was able to achieve by releasing a tablet computer which on launch day was able to run hundreds of thousands of apps specifically designed for the touch interface I thought was staggering. But as clever as the idea was, as slick as the implementation was, and as desirable an object as it was, I really couldn’t think of where it could fit in to my existing lifestyle.

I’m a slave to my iPhone 4. It contains my calendar (shared via Google with my work colleagues and across several computers), it’s the only camera I’ve used in years, I check my email on it with neurotic frequency, I read books and newspapers on it, I walk around London staring at the map, and travel on the tube listening to podcasts and audiobooks on it, I’ve got three stars on every level on Angry Birds and I’ve achieved all the achievements on Plants vs Zombies. It also make phone calls. Given that I’ve already shelled out for this device, which slips into my jacket pocket and which I always have on me, why would I want an iPad?

Well, I’ve also watched a number of movies and TV shows on my iPhone, typically on long train journeys. With the iPhone 4’s super-duper high-resolution “retina” screen, this isn’t too bad at all. But it’s not exactly ideal, even if you find a comfortable place to sit and a convenient way of propping the phone up. Even while promising my friends I wouldn’t be buying an iPad, I mentioned that if I was habitually making long plane or train journeys, I might reconsider. Well, I’m flying to Brisbane at the beginning of February, and then to Moscow almost as soon as I get back. I recently took the train to Birmingham and back and Stockport and back on consecutive days, and I may have to revisit both locations – Birmingham maybe quite frequently. What clinched it was seeing a 64Gb 3G model going on eBay for the about price of the regular wi-fi only model (not quite sure how this was achieved, but I didn’t get a box of used pinball machine parts for my money, so I assume it was all perfectly legal). Okay, I thought, I’ll get it now, load it up with games, movies and TV shows for these long journeys and if I get back from Moscow and find it’s gathering dust in a drawer, I can sell it and I should get back at least as much as I paid for it.

Why am I even thinking about selling my new toy? Because only an idiot would buy a new iPad in January. The original iPad was announced on 27 January 2010 and was available for sale (in the US) on 3 April. At their recent quarterly earnings call, Apple confirmed what we all knew already – that an iPad 2 of some kind is in the works. With a regular pattern now established of iPhones announced in June and iPods announced in September, Apple is sticking to an annual product cycle. So the new iPad will likely be announced in a matter of weeks, if not days, and will be available in a couple of months. If you’re considering buying an iPad – wait!

What might such an iPad 2 bring with it, to tempt me away from my new toy? I imagine there’ll be a be at least two out of the following four: a speed bump, a slimmer design, a longer battery life and an increased capacity at the top end. None of these is much of a dealbreaker for me. It’s fast enough and slim enough, the battery life is stunning and 64Gb is spacious compared to my 32Gb iPhone 4 (and I’ve kept all the audio on the iPhone and put all the video on my iPad which effectively balances the load).

A front-facing camera seems likely, as Apple continues to push FaceTime, although I regard a rear-facing camera as less likely and certainly less useful. Who the hell is going to try and take holiday snaps with an iPad, or use it as a barcode scanner? Fucksake. The Internet is also all a-flurry with reports of an iPad case which seems to include extras slot for an SD card, or a USB device or an extra dock connector. I don’t really care about any of these.

I’m chiefly using my iPad to consume video – on trains or in bed – and so I care most about how this kind of content looks and sounds. Let’s take sound first. The iPhone has two identical-looking grilles at the bottom edge. To the confusion of some users, one is a mic and one is a speaker. Try covering one with your thumb while playing music to see which is which. The iPad has a similarly-positioned speaker. Holding the device with the home button at the bottom, the single speaker is on the bottom edge, towards the right. This is fine if watching video in portrait mode (which almost nobody does), but in the more usual landscape orientation, with the button at the left (which is how my Jack Spade case prefers things) all the sound comes out from the left. I’d dearly love stereo speakers, one on each side. Of course, if I were watching video in portrait mode, I’d want the speakers to be in the long sides instead of the short sides, so we’d actually need four speakers, triggered by the accelerometer. As far as I know, no such innovation is planned. Bah!

Now let’s talk about the screen. What made the iPhone 4 a must-purchase for me, more than anything else, was the astonishing screen. The original iPhone, and the first two revisions had a screen resolution of 320 x 480. Given the size of the screen, this works out as around 163ppi (pixels-per-inch) which was relatively high for 2007. The iPad has a resolution of 1024 x 768 (so it’s a little squarer than the iPhone screen) with a pixel-density of 132ppi. Given that one typically holds a larger screen further away, the iPad screen tends to look as good if not better than the iPhone screen, and obviously feels more spacious, having more physical room and more pixels.

“Native” iPad apps obviously tend to take up the whole screen, but apps originally designed for the iPhone sit in an iPhone-sized oblong in the middle of the screen, unless or until you tap a little 2x button in the corner of the screen, whereupon the iPad doubles all the pixels, so you get a 960 x 640 oblong taking up most of the 1024 x 768 space available, but all looking rather blocky. The iPhone 4, released after the iPad blows all of this out of the water. It already runs at double the resolution of previous incarnations, with older apps looking blocky (but no worse than on the old models) and newer apps written to take advantage of the whole 960 x 640 space, with its eye-watering 326ppi.

Amazingly, even after the recent software update, bringing to the iPad iOS 4 features such as multitasking, unified inbox, folders and so on, full-resolution iPhone 4 apps still run at the old resolution on the iPad, which is a horrible and pointless compromise. I can only hope that this will be corrected before iOS 5 comes out, presumably in June or July. The eye-popping screen of the iPhone 4, and the convenience for developers of a screen resolution exactly double (or half) that of another model has led many pundits to the conclusion that the iPad 2 will also come with an upgraded display – 2048 x 1536 which would work out to 260ppi.

But it’s not pixel-density which is going to be the issue here. 2048 x 1536 is over three million pixels, which is a staggering amount. All MacBooks sport 1280 x 800 pixels (about a million pixels). The 21.5” iMac has a 1920 x 1080 screen (about two million pixels). Only the very top-end 27” iMac has more pixels, and then only just – 2560 x 1440 which is about three and a half million pixels. Those who imagine that a 2048 x 1536 screen will be found on the iPad 2 are imagining that – without sacrificing battery life, speed and all-important responsiveness – about the same number of pixels found on the 27” screen of a top-end $1700 desktop will be found on the 10” screen of a $500 tablet. Some very significant breakthroughs in processor speed and efficiency will be required to bring this to pass.

And if it did – what would we use it for? All of Apple’s “HD” content on iTunes is 720p – 1280 x 720 pixels. This doesn’t quite fit onto the iPad, but video content scaled down generally looks okay. On the proposed iPad megascreen, 720p content floats around the middle or is stretched out to fit – and scaling up makes content look blocky. True HD is 1080p or 1920 x 1080 pixels. Today, that only really means Blu-ray. Remember, no iTunes content is currently available at this resolution – the file sizes would be much bigger for only a small visible increase in picture quality. And yet even images at this size would have to be scaled up, or float around in the middle of the 2048 x 1536 screen.

Given all the foregoing, I don’t think a 2048 x 1536 iPad is likely. I can’t rule it out, of course. No-one expected a 326ppi resolution from the iPhone 4, and Apple is certainly prepared to push the envelope. If they do it, I’ll probably upgrade. If not, I’ll probably stay put or even sell my existing model. So far, my assumptions have been pretty much correct. For watching video, it’s great (and if, like me, you have a big networked hard-drive with lots of video content on it, then the Air Video app is a must). I do use it and prefer it to the iPhone to read Kindle books, or The Times newspaper (there’s no Guardian iPad app yet), or flip through RSS feeds (I like Reeder). Given the choice, I’ll use the iPad to check my email or look at my calendar. But when, as today, I go for a meeting without it, I’m perfectly happy to do all those things on my iPhone.

Meet me back here when the iPad 2 is announced…