Sam Davyson

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Getting Google Gears on Snow Leopard

30/09/09 - 21.38

Google Gears is not yet compatible with Snow Leopard it would seem. There has been a bug report for it for months. If you go to the Google Gears website you don’t see a message that tells you this however – you instead don’t really get any advice. This is a screen shot using Firefox.

Google Gears on Firefox - No Install Box

Google Gears on Firefox - No Install Box

Google Gears on Firefox - Install Box Shows

Google Gears on Firefox - Box Shows

How do you get to the second screenshot with the install box showing? All you need to do is add:

?platform=mac-firefox

to the URL. Or you can just click here. You can do a similar trick for Safari and download something but it does not install on Snow Leopard (will work on Leopard I’m told). The Firefox one however does work on Snow Leopard without a hitch.

September 30th, 2009 - 9.38 PM | No Comments »

Dropbox – “There’s an app for that” 29/09/09 - 23.23

Dropbox’s iPhone app has finally been approved and is available for download free on the app store. Seems good so far – it’s just a better viewer for your entire Dropbox. Also allows you to download files and sync photos straight from your iPhone to your Dropbox (videos if you own a 3GS).

UPDATE – This is incredible! I’m on my home WiFi network but even still using the Dropbox app as camera is very cool. From shooting the picture it takes about 10 seconds for it to appear on your computer screen. I’m considering using it as my main camera app.


Vodafone UK will also offer the iPhone 29/09/09 - 13.35

Vodafone will also be offering the iPhone in the UK – starting in early 2010. This means all three of the main networks (with T Mobile and Orange merging) will now be offering the iPhone. 3 is now the biggest network not to have a deal with Apple.

From The Telegraph:

“There will be a price war,” said Steven Hartley, analyst at technology research house Ovum. “Research shows that in every country where there is more than one operator selling it, it is cheaper. “It could be very disruptive, but it depends how Orange play it. If they get really aggressive O2 will have to respond and a full-on price war could start.”

My contract expires in February, and whilst I probably will not be getting a new iPhone until June – I look forward to the lowered prices then.


Spotify iPhone app and Spotify Premium

29/09/09 - 00.44

I signed up for Spotify premium as soon as the iPhone app was available. That was 3 weeks ago. Since then I’ve been closely evaluating the application on the iPhone and the premium (by which I mean ad-free) desktop player. I’m trying to gauge whether this is worth £10 a month.

IPHONE APPLICATION

There are numerous demo videos of the iPhone application online. Take a look at them to get a feel for the application. The official video is a good place to start. In general it works very similarly to the native iPod application. Spotify takes a little bit longer to load up, but once open it’s just as responsive as the iPod.

You can play tracks whenever you have WiFi/3G/EDGE connectivity and you can download tracks to play when you have no connectivity whenever you have WiFi connectivity. Offline tracks are on a playlist basis only. It takes about 10-15 seconds to download each track on my home internet connection. So a playlist the length of an average album will take less than 5 minutes to get on to your phone.

At first I thought that it would be good to have all my music in iTunes imported into playlists on Spotify so I’d have quick ways to get to music I liked. But then I realized this would put me back to where I had started with all the same songs on my iPhone. There is no such tool available anyway at this stage – but I think it would be a step backwards anyway. Playlists are easy enough to make on the desktop application to build up a collection of things you actually listen to (unlike around 70% of my iTunes library) without getting things cluttered with music you think you like but you actually don’t.

The main drawback of the application versus the native iPod is that you cannot play music in the background using the application. This isn’t Spotify’s fault – it’s Apple’s. They don’t allow background processes for third party applications at present, but one day maybe they will. The Android application, where background processes are allowed,  already allows playing music when the application isn’t open. So this is perhaps a bit annoying when you are listening to some music and you suddenly get a vibrate/ding indicating that you have got an email. The only way to look at it is to stop playing your music. I thought it was basically a show stopper when I first read about it, but actually it’s quite ok. A more one thing at a time approach which allows you to concentrate more on what you are doing.

The actual interface of the application isn’t completely ideal either. Typing on the iPhone is fine but it’s not the easiest of places to type. I don’t generally want to have to type the name of an artist to listen to them. Clearly you generally don’t have to as you have a playlist of each artist / collection of artists ready to play. But Spotify need to make this easier. I want to be able to click on an artists’ name and get the option to create a playlist of all of their songs. At the moment you can do this on the desktop application with albums but not with artists. Playlist creation and management on the iPhone itselt is downright clumsy. Here’s how you make a new playlist and populate it with songs you’d like to hear:

  1. Touch “Edit” on the Playlists screen.
  2. Touch the “+” symbol at the top right.
  3. Enter a name for the playlist.
  4. Touch “Create”.
  5. Search for Track 1 you want to add to the playlist.
  6. Touch the name of the track (it starts playing at this point).
  7. Touch on the album art.
  8. Touch “Add to playlist”
  9. You are presented with a list of all the playlists in your account and the one you’ve just created in step 4 is right at the bottom.
  10. Now repeat from step 5 until you’ve got all the songs you wanted on there.

The fact that you cannot start a playlist playing and then add more tracks to it without jumping to the new tracks immediately is annoying. It means you have to arrange your playlist in advance of listening. Now for entire albums this process is better and you can add the whole of an album to a playlist without having the song playing. But you can’t do this for individual tracks or for artists.

I think they need some sort of gesture – say a swipe over any track that will bring up a button (like the delete button that appears when you swipe an email in the Mail app) which allows you to add that track to the currently playing playlist. Without this you have to have everything prepared on the desktop really – unless you want to type the name of each artist you want to listen to. My present solution is to have a playlist for each of my favourite artists with all of their songs on. This makes all of my favourite songs just a few taps away without any typing.

The other thing that Spotify doesn’t have – and maybe will never have – is podcasts. This is essentially a non-issue in many ways. Spotify is about music which podcasts are not. This however does mean that I am not able to totally replace the iPod with the Spotify app just yet.

Now I’m aware that this section seems incredibly negative. I have been picking on the bits of the application that need improving. In general it is very impressive to be able to play any song in a couple of seconds on a device that fits in your pocket is a fantastic. Overall it is fairly well designed too. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the stuff I like:

  • Has indication of progress through the track at the bottom. The iPod has the volume control here – with the progress bar show/hiding as you touch the album artwork. Spotify reverse this and I think it makes much more sense.
  • Dragging the album art to skip tracks works really well. Much better than the coverflow nonsense.
  • Sync with the desktop application is incredibly quick. If you rearrange some tracks in a playlist tehn the change is updated in a few seconds on the iPhone / desktop. This isn’t true during the time you are downloading tracks to the Offline Playlists – changes are synced up afterwards.
  • Sound quality – fine for me, can’t fault it.
  • Speed of buffering – takes a few seconds if you are streaming a track. Not more than that.
  • Clear colour scheme indication of whether you are in online mode or not – the app is green when you are online and blue when you are not.

One issue I haven’t yet mentioned is battery life. I personally romp through the entire battery on the iPhone every day. It isn’t very good – probably the weakest part of the whole device, ironically the battery is used up so much because of its greatest strength – its malleability to preform so many tasks. Anyway, keeping to the point here – does the Spotify application use up much more battery life than the iPod? I’m not sure. I haven’t done any measurements on this and I’ve never noticed it drain particularly quickly when using it. However I’m nearly always listening to an Offline Playlist which wouldn’t really be expected to use much (if any) more power than the normal iPod. It hasn’t been a problem so far – lets leave it at that.

DESKTOP APPLICATION

The desktop application is identical to the free application except for two details. These are:

  • There are no advertisements (either on the screen or between songs).
  • You can stream music up to 320 kps (double the free version I think).

Personally I found the screen banners more irritating than the audio adverts. The way that they kept moving around the screen adding scroll bars to the panes of the program was very annoying, so I’m glad to be rid of them. The extra sound quality – I can’t really tell the difference – but the music sounds good.

If you haven’t tried the desktop application then really you must. Even the free version is a real breath of fresh air. It feels so lightweight and functional compared to iTunes or Windows Media Player and it plays most songs in an instant. I’d like to see a few things added though. Play counts would be nice, and as I mentioned when discussing the iPhone app better playlist management is essential.

I would also like to be able download playlists onto my computer like I can on my iPhone. Sometimes I don’t have an internet connection and I might want to be using my iPhone for something else (maybe the internet…) so it’d be good to be able to use Spotify on the laptop then.

The other key area where improvement is needed is comprehensiveness. Spotify have lots of tracks. But if they are not the ones you like then that is no good. Almost all of the bands I like are on Spotify and they’re adding more all the time. If Spotify is adopted in the mainstream it could become the place to be for artists. The coverage is good at the moment but if it is going to be your music player you want to check they have stuff you like before making the plunge.

PHILOSOPHY

The Spotify model is a subscription service. You are essentially renting the music while you are paying your subscription and at the end of it when you stop paying you are left with nothing. The bonus versus buying specific tracks or albums however is that you have a much wider library choice. You can flit between many different artists without paying any premium for your indecision.

To me – someone who’s semi-obsessed with having things backed up, Spotify also represents a real lift of burden. Subscribing to the service I can forget about the chores of owning digital music. I no longer have to have it consuming 15+ GB of my hard drive and I no longer need to look after it. I don’t have to back it up. And when I get a new computer I don’t need to do any transfers – my music is there as soon as I login to Spotify on any computer. These are big benefits in my eyes.

WRAP UP

Since joining Spotify early in 2009 I have discovered and grown to love numerous artists that I had never heard of before. When I went away at Easter I bought albums from two of these artists (around £7 each) so I could listen to the music on my iPhone while I was away. Now with the subscription that sort of payment is not necessary. I can take the artists I listen to on the desktop application with me wherever I go.

Now it’s definitely the case that I almost never spend more than £10 a month on music. So how can I suddenly justify this expenditure? Spotify legally gives access to more music than anyone could listen to in a lifetime. This freedom to “eat as much as you like” changes the way that you listen to music in a very positive way. This is equally true of the free version. But having the ubiquity with the lack of advertisements makes it “non-stop each as much as you like anywhere”. I think this is a personal thing, but to me I think this is a game changer. While Spotify should improve in terms of comprehensiveness, and the applications themselves, which I’m sure they’ll do, even as the service is today I believe for iPhone or Android device owners its worth looking into.

September 29th, 2009 - 12.44 AM | 1 Comment »

TeX equation editor added to Google Docs 28/09/09 - 22.29

A good basic equation editor has been added to Google Docs. It allows you to click on symbols in a palette to formulate expressions or to type the TeX code directly. It’s fairly decent – but doesn’t really compare to using LaTeX itself and even Microsoft Equation Editor (certainly the one in Office 2007) is superior. But still this is web based, and it is probably a feature that is in Microsoft’s online offering – which is launching early next year.


Sally’s Spa – Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it 28/09/09 - 17.56

This is actually a really fun game! Thanks to Touch Arcade reporting on its rise in popularity because of Megan Fox mentioning it on American TV.


Charlie Brooker on Mac vs. Windows 28/09/09 - 16.44

Charlie Brooker’s comments to me seem rather confused.

I know Windows is awful. Everyone knows Windows is awful. Windows is like the faint smell of piss in a subway: it’s there, and there’s nothing you can do about it. OK, OK: I know other operating systems are available. But their advocates seem even creepier, snootier and more insistent than Mac owners. The harder they try to convince me, the more I’m repelled.

I don’t think that Windows is awful. I don’t really know many people that do. I certainly don’t think that everyone thinks its awful. Most people I’d say are comfortable with Windows and find that it works well for them. Most people don’t separate Windows from the experience of using a computer – and if they’ve never used another operating system why should they. A computer is a keyboard and a  screen and on that screen is Windows.

The other issue here is you can’t really compare Macs to Windows directly. One describes a computer and operating system and the other is just an operating system. The key difference is that Apple make their own computers and Microsoft do not. If we let “PC” mean a computer running Windows and any reference of Mac means the physical computer whereas Mac OS X means the operating system it helps to maybe make discussions clearer.

I personally don’t think Mac OS X is particularly better than Windows, and specifically Windows 7 seems fairly attractive. I plan to get a copy. However I do think that the hardware that Apple makes is high end. I think there are parallels on the PC side from Sony and some other manufacturers but generally there are a lot of low end cheap PCs you can buy which give you a poor computer experience because of the hardware – nothing to do with the fact they’re running Windows.

I was also interested to note that Charlie makes no mention of iPods. Is this because he rather likes them?


Orange to offer iPhones in UK later in 2009 28/09/09 - 16.29

This November O2 UK’s exclusivity with Apple for selling the iPhone in the UK ends. Orange have today announced that they will be selling the iPhone before the end of 2009. Will this lead to some reduction in prices as the companies compete for customers? Possibly. But probably only for new signups.


Controversy over app to convert 0870/0845 numbers to cheap alternatives 25/09/09 - 23.22

There’s some questions being asked of O2’s position in the approval of the new 0870 app. It apparently took over 400 days to be approved and as the Telegraph reports here O2 didn’t want to app to appear due to loss of revenues. O2 are denying it on Twitter.


Integrating a link blog into a WordPress blog

25/09/09 - 16.38

I never fully got into using delicious for my links. I always preferred keeping my links on my own turf, so I’ve used browser bookmarks and more recently I created DavysoNub as my personal URL shortener and bookmarker. I never quite built up the UI enough there though. I think really I wanted something a bit more like Tumblr but fully self hosted.

Then when browsing Daring Fireball I realised that what I really wanted was what he running. He has blog posts interspersed with links with added commentary. The only different between the posts that are links and the “true” blog posts is that clicking on the title of one of the link posts takes you directly to the source rather than to the permalink page for the post. A star is provided to the right of the post title to further differentiate the entries and also to provide an actual permalink for the link and comment.

John Gruber uses Movable Type so I’m not sure how he achieves the effect he has. I however use WordPress so I knew I’d have to use a different work around anyway. After a bit of fiddling around I now have a similar system going on this blog. This is how I did it:

  • In the template of the blog where the title is posted I edited it to be conditional on a new custom variable. This variable will hold the address that the link posts will link to. To retrieve the custom variables you use this php snippet within the loop:

$custom_fields = get_post_custom();
$link = $custom_fields[‘Link_Post_URL’];
$url = $link[0];

  • Now use the contents of the $url variable to determine which sort of title to display. Something like this.

<? if($url=””) { ?>

// normal title with link to permalink for blog posts

<? } else { ?>

// link title for link posts
<A HREF=”<? echo $url; ?>”><?php the_title(); ?></A>
<? } ?>

  • Finally when you make a post – add a custom variable to it with the name Link_Post_URL to those that you want to  make link posts. After you’ve added it the first time there’ll be a drop down menu to make it easy to add it again.

Remember to try and differentiate posts in some way to explain to the readers how your posts differ. On this blog I’m using grey backgrounds for blog posts that are true blog posts and non-grey backgrounds where it’s just a link. I’m also omitting the comment link and second timestamp on the link posts.

Now all I need to do is to get this linked up with DavysoNub. I’ll see what I can do with that.

September 25th, 2009 - 4.38 PM | No Comments »