iPod Touch 1.1.4 Update: Early Adopters Beware

27 February 2008

It wouldn’t surprise me if later Touch buyers who got the software upgrade (mail, maps, etc.) included do not encounter this extremely irritating issue.

When 1.1.3 came out, I updated and found that it had wiped out my software upgrade. There were holes in my home page where the icons used to be. It puzzled me why this would happen, considering that I bought the upgrade. I thought each new update would contain these features. I managed to get the iTunes Store to give me a new download.

I’ve just applied the new 1.1.4 update and it happened again! I’m really mad about this. This is not how it should be. I’ve asked the iTunes Store for another download again.

So bear this in mind if your in the same boat. Personally, I use the mail feature to monitor work email, so it was pretty inconvenient timing.

iPod Touch 1.1.4 with Software Update

Update: That’s weird. Now my software upgrade is back. I didn’t do anything except invoke a sync. Perhaps that was needed. It didn’t get fixed this way last time.

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QuickTime Player 7.4 & MPEG1 Video

25 February 2008

Here’s a quick tip that I was pleased to discover. QuickTime Player has, for as long as I can remember, never been able to export the audio from an MPEG1 video file. It can play it fine but if you convert to something else such as iPod, you got a video without audio.

I used to have to use MPEG Streamclip to rip MPEG1 to iPod as it handled the audio properly. Last night, for the hell of it, I tried it with the latest QuickTime Player (7.4.1) and lo and behold, Apple has finally fixed it and I have my video + audio iPod track! Very nice, even though it’s taken many years to come to this.


Fun with Apple TV Upgrading

21 February 2008

My recent upgrade experience with Apple TV was fraught with problems. I may be in the minority, in fact, I hope I am.

The download and installation went fine. I then settled back to enjoy the new features. It kept locking up (failing to register button presses) at many places in the interface. Internet content (thumbnails, previews, trailers) was slow to download, but I’ve got a 24Mbit/ps connection and it shouldn’t be that slow. It restarted itself about 4 times. I eventually worked out that it would most often crash when being synced. On at least one occasion I wasn’t doing anything when this happened, but it seems that doing any internet activity while iTunes continually tries to jump in and sync gave it a lot of problems. Letting it start to sync then stopping it in iTunes made iTunes stop trying for an extended time and I was able to do some browsing.

The iTunes Store looked good, but I wasn’t able to buy anything! I kept getting the error message “The iTunes Store could not be contacted.” This is despite being able to buy content with my two Macs and the iPod Touch. I rang Apple on this and was put through to the hardware department (I couldn’t decide if it was a hardware or iTunes Store issue). They couldn’t help because it was outside its 90-day phone support period! I was pretty annoyed about this. This is an unusual situation–isn’t 2.0 essentially a new device, even though the hardware isn’t new? That’s how I saw it.

As a possible solution, I restored it to factory settings. I didn’t realise that this meant version 1.0! Think about that–it means that 1.0 is still living on the drive, with the software update taking up additional room. I completely expected 2.0 to overwrite 1.0. I guess this means that if you wanted to roll back to whatever version came with it, you could restore and achieve this same effect.

So I had to download the 2.0 again and install it again. Luckily, it hasn’t crashed since the second installation. I let it sync everything first before using it so that it wouldn’t get interrupted. Syncing still causes glitches. If I start playing a video and iTunes decides to check at that point to see if it needs syncing, the video will choke. Doesn’t happen all the time, but iTunes sure is a spanner in the works. I really wish Apple would now pour their attention into the performance of the hardware. When the swoosh of the main menu giving way to a sub menu halts midway, then jerkily completes the animation, or repeated button pressing to simply move the cursor results in no response, it’s a bad experience.

It’s clear that Apple is getting more serious about Apple TV, with this major update, HD content and rentals, so I’m confident that these issues can be addressed and my beloved device won’t fade into obscurity. It’s our responsibility as Apple TV owners to continue to give Apple feedback so they know what isn’t working. Don’t forget to give them some praise sometimes.

Update: It’s been a lot better since the restore. Hasn’t crashed. It does choke near the beginning of every second or third video I play, which it never did before, even with the same files. The video sticks and the remote becomes unresponsive, like it’s trying to catch up. Perhaps it’s a buffering situation. Anyway, I can backtrack a few seconds when it comes alive again and view the choked section. I can hardly ring up Apple and tell them that my ripped DVD tracks aren’t playing properly!


Music Video: Why Can’t Artists Get it Right?

20 February 2008

Time for one of my infrequent rants.

Why is it that artists (or their technical people) constantly make a hash of music videos? Case in point: the independent, Karmacoda. They’ve just released a new video on their website. I downloaded the iPod-ready version and it looked funny. The native aspect ratio of the video, 16:9, had been squashed horizontally into 4:3 and was between QVGA (320 x 240) and the iPod standard VGA (640 x 480). The slightly larger version (“for computer”) looked correct (heads not squashed) but even it was 3:2. Here’s the real kicker in this case: it was shot in HD. That means the trouble and expense of 720 or 1080, which should look amazing, has been squandered on a lousy postage stamp. A prior music video, also shot in HD, was made available on DVD, which I bought. I knew it was going to be NTSC (480 pixels vertical), but was unpleasantly surprised to find that it was 4:3 letterboxed. This just should not be. It’s not hard to make anamorphic video these days. Again, the quality of HD was wasted on this 720 x 400 video (after cropping).

My frustration with Karmacoda stems from the poor responses to emails I sent. The first, after I received the DVD, was extensive and contained a breakdown of the technical issues with the DVD and the free version and offered solutions. I also said that I would like to buy a HD version from their site. The response was a mere acknowledgement that I had sent something. I tried again after getting this new video. Same thing. I’m giving valuable feedback and advice. As they are an independent band, I expected a meaningful two-way conversation with the artists themselves but seemed to have been screened by a manager.

It’s not just independents at fault. Prior to the release of Daft Punk’s Alive 2007, I downloaded a teaser trailer in VGA resolution, H.264 video, AAC audio. Looked quite good. When the album arrived, the enhanced CD included a music video. The specs? QVGA, MPEG 1 muxed. What is EMI thinking? When will record companies wake up and start providing iPod-ready video on enhanced CDs? Nobody is going to want to put the CD in a computer to watch the video.

So why aren’t they done right in the first place? A possible solution is to make the video available on iTunes–after all, they’re giving it away for free on their site, and we know that free often doesn’t mean quality. If they package it for sale, the consumer can be assured of a certain level of quality.

Music video is being denigrated by ignorance or unwillingness to produce a good product. In the past, it’s been used solely as promotional material, where marginal quality would be a non-issue. It’s only been since the iTunes Store started selling them as a product in their own right that quality should be something that artists are aware of.

Am I alone in thinking this?


My Take on Apple TV, Take Two

17 February 2008

What a huge upgrade this is! A completely free, brand-new piece of hardware! This is a round-up of little things I’ve noticed that aren’t particularly highlighted elsewhere.

Show Everything or Only Synced Content

Remember how you could connect to another iTunes library and see all that content instead of just what was synced to the Apple TV? You can still do that, but if you uncheck this option, you will see the entire contents of the syncing iTunes library:

iTunes Apple TV Sync All Checkbox

It’s like you’ve suddenly expanded the storage of your Apple TV way beyond the confines of the built-in hard drive. You see everything, but some of it is synced and some is not. This is seamless to the user. If you specify automatic syncing, iTunes will sync as much of the content as it can, then stream the rest.

This is a fantastic feature for 40Gb users and it is really cool to see everything, but personally, I still like the concept of Apple TV only storing a subset, specifically, the next few episodes of TV shows in sequence or unplayed podcasts.

TV Show Display Tweaks

Seasons of a particular show are now separated by a small line of text and episode names are prefixed by their number in sequence:

Apple TV TV Shows Menu with Season Dividers

AirTunes

I think this is a killer feature despite its low-key appearance. It instantly solves the problem of not being able to sync Audible audiobooks to the Apple TV. What’s cooler than Airport Express is the ability to start and stop the content. It’s like getting an Airport Express for free, with more functionality. This feature is so cool it alone warrants a stampede to upgrade.

Select the Apple TV as a speaker output in iTunes, begin playing and after a few seconds, the audio file appears in the Now Playing screen with accompanying artwork, just like local content.

iPhoto Event Support

Apple TV joins the iPod and iPhone in adding support for iPhoto events. You can select a number of events to sync, in addition to all the older options:

iTunes Apple TV Photos iPhoto Events Menu

Here is how it looks on screen:

Apple TV My Photos Menu

Parental Controls

This now matches iTunes. I like seeing international support for country-specific ratings:

Apple TV Parental Controls

Bugs

My Apple TV remembered my Australian iTunes Store setting, but when I go into the TV Shows submenu, the first option is Favorites, which only applies to the iTunes Store and we don’t have TV shows in our store. Bug or unwitting reveal of upcoming launch of TV shows on the Australian store? Also, in Parental Controls, I can’t select a TV rating. The only option is “No”, even though Australia does use TV ratings.

The interface hung a number of times but this could be due to iTunes constantly trying to sync while I was exploring. Now that this process is complete I’m hoping it works better. I’m also starting to suspect that my modem is not providing the speed it should be, so if Apple TV is choking on a slow connection, it could also be a reason why it locks up.

I was unable to buy any music item from the store since I installed on Wednesday, 13 Feb. I’ll be ringing Apple on this one.

Enhancement Requests

The continued lack of support for movies in albums makes the movies menu unwieldy, as you get all of them in alphabetical sequence. Apple still seems to maintain the idea that movies are discrete files that would never appear with related material such as trailers, out-takes, etc. Here I’ve got two movies both named Accident. One is a US Get a Mac ad, the other is the UK version:

Apple TV Movies Menu

I have compiled each region’s ads into albums. These should appear in the Movies menu as albums do in Music.

Summary

Go and get your update. It’s not often that you get a brand-new piece of hardware for free via a software update.


iTunes 7.6 Subtleties

7 February 2008

Focussed on movie rentals as it may be, 7.6 introduces some subtle bug fixes and welcome behavioural changes, some of which we’ve been asking for for some time.

Bug Fixes

As long as I can remember, iTunes by default used the constant bitrate (CBR) method of encoding, resulting in neat bitrate values such as 128 and 256. The last version of QuickTime was updated to include further bitrate encoding methods. iTunes then dropped the ball and users noticed that their rips now all had varying bitrates, plus or minus the value specified. Apparently iTunes wasn’t told to continue using CBR and started using one of the newer methods. This has now been fixed. Rerip your CDs and your bitrates will be neat again.

Enhancements

Podcasts Option Menu

Something that hasn’t made sense for a long time has now been addressed. Until now you could not sync a number of “least recent new” added podcasts, only “most recent”. This has now been added and it makes things a lot easier. For example, if I download a lot of podcast episodes at once (as is common when I discover a podcast), they would rapidly fill my 4Gb Nano, which is my main podcast iPod. The solution was to uncheck a number of episodes. With “Only sync checked songs” and “Sync unplayed episodes” set, this made it manageable. It adds work, however, as you have remember to check newer episodes as older played episodes come off the iPod. Now I can leave them all checked and by syncing only the 3 episodes least recently added, I avoid filling my iPod prematurely and don’t have to think about it. This is a very welcome change.

You have both the option for “unplayed” and “new”, which seems a little redundant. “Unplayed” means that whether or not a podcast has been started, it does not have a play count higher than 0. “New” means that a podcast has never been started. I guess if you only wanted podcasts that you’ve never played, not including unfinished ones, this would be a usable distinction.

TV Shows Option Menu

Similarly, TV shows now have a new “least recent unwatched” option which finally resolves the stupidity of buying a whole season of a TV show but only being able to sync a certain number of “most recent unwatched” episodes. The focus here is still very much on the basis of only watching an episode once. If you are happy with that, then this solves it right here for you, but if you like to cycle through your episodes, you should resort to my TV Rotation Technique.

Blackadder Series

TV Shows in Album view are now subdivided into seasons, each marked by the album art for the first episode in a season. If you scan the box art for individual DVD sets like myself, this feature vindicates this approach. Looks nicer.

You can now manually manage iPhones and iPod Touches, if you wish. Still not available as drives on the desktop, however.

To Be Addressed

Apple TV does not support these new sync options but it is reasonable to expect that the imminent update will address this.

Unfortunately, you still can’t make a smart playlist select items by Show, as covered in this post. Hopefully this will come. The inclusion of the elusive “least recent new” feature above, at least for podcasts, is very heartening.

I wasn’t expecting anything more than rental support (by the way, this Australian is gnashing his teeth at this being US-only, although it’s not a surprise), so I’m happy that Apple squeezed in some further refinements.