Apple's Mac mini - ready for the big time?
By Adam TURNER
Is the Mac mini finally ready to be a high-def media centre?
Most people would probably laugh at such a question - either because they're an Apple-lover who thinks it's long been ready, or they're an Apple-hater who never wants Cupertino to get a stranglehold on their lounge room. I fall somewhere in between - I'm a keen Apple user but I don't actually worship the products or their maker.
Blu-ray aside, the Mac mini's Achilles' Heel is the lack of MPEG-2 hardware acceleration, forcing it to decode high-def TV broadcasts in software rather than leveraging the GPU for hardware acceleration. Don't blame the hardware, or TV tuning software such as elgato's EyeTV. Blame MacOS for not making this feature available to third-party apps. Steve Jobs would prefer you buy all your content from the iTunes store, content which does get the benefit of hardware acceleration. If you're happy to play by those rules, you should probably save your money and just buy an Apple TV.
I've tested the last few Mac minis, paying close attention to how they handle high-def MPEG-2 TV broadcasts when plugged into my 46-inch 1080p Sony Bravia. With each processor speed bump the HDTV picture has improved, but always looked a little soft and pixelated compared to the picture from my TiVo and my Windows 7 Media Centre, which leverages MPEG-2 hardware acceleration.
The latest Mac mini sports a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, accompanied by 2GB of 1067MHz DDR3 RAM. I took the Little Mac that Could for a spin on one of my Sydney Morning Herald blogs this week, and was quite pleased with the results. It offers the best HDTV picture I've seen from a Mac mini yet. Even high-def sport such as AFL looks very good, but if you've an eye for detail you'll still pick that it's coming from a computer rather than a dedicated AV device.
Videophiles will never be completely happy with the Mac mini's lack of MPEG-2 hardware acceleration. Yet for most people I think Apple's little Mac mini is finally up to the job, especially if your television comes in at under 37 inches.
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iPhone 4 multi-tasking - friend or foe?
By Adam TURNER
Will the iPhone's new-found multi-tasking skills be a killer feature, or just a battery killer?
I've been playing with an iPhone 4 this week and it certainly puts my old iPhone 3G to shame. It's interesting how iPhone OS updates always run like a dog on old iPhones for a while, until Apple manages to get the bugs sorted out. You'd almost think old phones were deliberately turned to mush for a while to "encourage" people to upgrade to a new iPhone. Right now my old iPhone 2G running 3.x is a lot more responsive than my iPhone 3G running 4.0.1. The plan is working, as I'm seriously considering an upgrade.
Conspiracy theories aside, one of the biggest usability changes when moving to the iPhone 4 is dealing with multi-tasking. Apple doesn't want you to worry your pretty little head about such things, just shut up and keep buying stuff from the iTunes store. But if you dare ask questions of the man behind the curtain, the answers can be a little confusing.
In day to day use, you shouldn't need to pay too much attention to multi-tasking. If you double-press the home button to call up the task manager, all is not as it seems. Even monitoring apps such as iStat can produce confusing results.
Many apps that appear to run in the background on the iPhone 4 are actually hibernated and stored in RAM, where they don't chew up CPU cycles or battery life. Call on these apps and they quickly wake from their slumber exactly as you left them - like a lazy security guard working night shift - giving the impression they were always running. It's a clever sleight of hand on Apple's part.
There is however a limited set of applications - such as background audio and sat-nav - which really do keep running in the background. If you're not careful, sat-nav apps can keep running after you're finished with them and quickly drain your battery. Worse yet, it's likely to happen when you're away from home and most need your smartphone to be up and running.
Having to worry about things like background apps is foreign to iPhone owners who are used to lording it over other smartphone users for their complicated devices. I expect iPhone 4 owners will learn the hard way that multi-tasking can be both a blessing and a curse.
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The Golden Rules of writing tech "Round-Ups"
By Adam TURNER
Reviewing a dozen of anything at the same time is generally a nightmare.
Tech journos might get to play with cool toys, but mostly the life of a product reviewer is far less glamorous than it might seem. Testing one product can be tricky enough, but testing a bunch of them can drive you mad - especially when you're dealing with bleeding edge technology.
In ten years of tech reviewing, the last five as a freelancer, I've learned a few things about group product tests (also known as a "Round-Up"). As I settled in this week to run a group test of Android smartphones, I started to post a few words of warning on Twitter, using the hashtag #ShitIveLearnedTheHardWay. Colleagues soon jumped in with their pearls of wisdom. Our musings quickly grew into quite a long list of advice which I thought people might find of interest. I know it would have helped me along my way when I was first starting out.
Round-Up Rule 1: Group tests are more trouble than they're worth, that's why editors outsource them
Round-Up Rule 2: Know when to say no to a group test commission, and which editors are good to work with
Round-Up Rule 3: @David_Neiger Don't test heavy or bulky products (eg. printers, large screen TVs) unless you love your physio
Round-Up Rule 4: Read the brief carefully & plan ahead. Reread brief as you go - aloud if necessary
Round-Up Rule 5: Allow at least week for all gear to arrive, despite promises from vendors/PR/couriers
Round-Up Rule 6: Pay mbe.com.au to deal with couriers, to avoid #PunchCourierInTheFace (the @alexkidman clause)
Round-Up Rule 6a: @alexkidman At least 1 product will be sent to the publication rather than you. The heaviest one (Freelancer sub-clause)
Round-Up Rule 6b: @David_Neiger Products sent to the publication will disappear from the planet only to re-emerge after deadline
Round-Up Rule 6c: Stuff sent to mag will disappear forever, or be stolen in transit (with @coaten)
Round-Up Rule 7: If one in a million are DOA, you'll get that one
Round-Up Rule 8: @alexkidman Expect cables and other important stuff to be missing
Round-Up Rule 9: Expect gear to turn up with only US power plugs
Round-Up Rule 10: Clear a dedicated work space ie. not the kitchen table
Round-Up Rule 11: Allow extra time, clear yr schedule & don't leave complicated stuff til last
Round-Up Rule 12: Photograph the contents of every box before you start
Round-Up Rule 13: Get right tools for job - don't be afraid to spend $$ on gear that makes life easier
Round-Up Rule 14: Cheap powerboards r like dodgy mates - keep plenty around but don't rely on them
Round-Up Rule 15: Take lots of notes, including logins & passwords - and keep notes forever
Round-Up Rule 15a: @alexkidman If someone else set the password, try "Password" and "VendorName" first.
Round-Up Rule 16: NEVER assume you know everything, plus don't take the vendor/PR's word on anything
Round-Up Rule 17: Network-locked gear is a pain in the arse
Round-Up Rule 17a: @neerav Demand SIMs for every phone
Round-Up Rule 18: Battery tests are a pain - be methodical and double-check b4 walking away for 24 hrs
Round-Up Rule 19: Don't get cocky - if it all seems too easy, you've probably missed something important
Round-Up Rule 20: If y'r gettin friend to help, hope they don't have bad reaction to meds & need hospital- slows u down #TrueStory
Round-Up Rule 21: Feature tables are a pain in the arse and take longer than you think
Round-Up Rule 22: @alexkidman High Res product photos will take 4x longer to source than most product tests actually take
Round-Up Rule 22b: Good product photography is harder than it looks, don't do it unless you know your shit
Round-Up Rule 23: When u start seeing compression artifacts & 3D crosstalk whilst driving to shops, y'r in "the zone"
Round-Up Rule 24: You always go through that moment of panic when all seems lost - learn to deal with it
Round-Up Rule 25: @David_Neiger No matter what you do, one or more vendors will end up screaming to the editor
Round-Up Rule 26: @David_Neiger Vendors have no clue where products are - you'll be asked to return gear already sent or never received
Round-Up Rule 27: @David_Neiger The return satchel supplied by a PR will never be big enough to fit the product #itstrue
Round-Up Rule 28: @alexkidman At least 3 new replacement products will come out the day your story goes live. Learn to love it.
Round-Up Rule 29: Don't get sucked into Twitter when you should be working
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Games will rescue 3DTV
By Adam TURNER
Forget movies and sport, it's gaming that will drive 3DTV sales.
Right now I've got Panasonic's flagship 3DTV in my lounge room - the 50-inch Viera TH-P50VT20A. This plasma giant is hooked up to a Panasonic Blu-ray player, TiVo and PlayStation 3. A few days of testing have confirmed my initial impressions of 3D - it's only worth donning those sexy glasses in order to play games.
When it comes to the World Cup in 3D on the TiVo, or watching 3D movies on the Blu-ray player, the 3D effects are at best a novelty and at worst a distraction. The hassle of wearing the glasses only adds to the feeling that 3D is more trouble than it's worth. It's not until you fire up a few 3D games on the PlayStation 3 that you start to see the real value of 3D.
My theory is that you need something engaging and interactive to distract you from the glasses. Turn on Spain vs Netherlands and the 3D effects only seem to get in the way and distract you from the action. They don't actually add anything to the experience. The same goes for most movies I've seen in 3D, perhaps with the exception of Avatar. Now switch from the football over to WipEout HD or MotorStorm: Pacific Rift on the PS3 and the 3D effects actually enhance the gaming experience. Soon you forget about the uncomfortable glasses, while any imperfections in the 3D effects don't bother you because the game is a virtual environment anyway - it's not supposed to look "real".
When it comes to movies and sport, I still think 3D is an expensive novelty. If I owned this television, the only time I'd bother breaking out the glasses is to play 3D games.
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What's so hard about a Season Pass?
By Adam TURNER
Why do most PVRs, such as Telstra's T-Box, offer half-arsed Season Pass features?
A Season Pass lets you program your Personal Video Recorder to automatically record your favourite shows each week. The best PVRs check the schedule for changes, rather than blindly recording the same time slot. I'd say the Season Pass is probably the most critical feature of any PVR.
When it comes to off-the-shelf PVRs, TiVo sets the bar pretty high with regard to Season Passes. The reason why is that a TiVo lets you specify how many episodes to keep, so the hard drive doesn't fill up. If it's a show you want to hang on to, you can tell the TiVo to keep every episode until you manually delete them.
Most other PVRs lack an auto-delete option, so your hard drive fills up unless you remember to do a manual cull every week or so. You generally don't realise the hard drive is full until it's too late and you've missed your favourite show or, worse yet, missed your better-half's favourite show.
Telstra's new T-Box PVR goes to the other extreme, with a hard-wired auto-delete feature that you can't edit. The T-Box only holds about 100 hours of SD or 30 hours of HD recordings. When it's full, it just starts deleting old recordings. There's no way to nominate which shows to keep. There's no way to tell it that you want to keep as many episodes of Glee as possible, while deleting Letterman each night to make way for another episode. There's no way to tell it you want to keep the World Cup final for a few weeks, but not keep every stage of the Tour de France.
UPDATE: After testing the T-Box for a few days, I spent 30 minutes on the phone with Telstra's T-Box expert yesterday to ensure I understood its advanced features. What I wrote above (now struck out) is EXACTLY what I was told over the phone. After reading this post, Telstra's PR team rang to say I'm wrong - the auto-delete options are related to rented movies. That's NOT what I was told on the phone. Obviously such a feature is difficult to test in day or two, so I was stupid enough to think that Telstra might fking understand its own product.
Now I'm told the T-Box's PVR function does NOT include an auto-delete feature. It just keeps filling up, like most other half-arsed PVRs. It warns you when you hit 90 percent capacity, which means you've got room for roughly another three hours of HD content. If it hits 100 percent, it just stops recording shows until you manually delete something. So the T-Box is still a piece of crap, it's just crap in the same way as most other so-called PVRs. Save your money and get a TiVo or Foxtel iQ2.
You can manually copy recordings you want to keep across to a USB device. Recordings archived to USB can only be viewed on the T-Box, not other devices.
The T-Box looks impressive at first glance but, if you've got a house full of TV watchers, Telstra's new PVR looks like it could put a serious dint in your WAF.
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