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Retina display iPad, Beauty or a Beast?

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In the beginning I wanted an ebook reader that I could use to read textbooks. I like my Kindle but it’s too small a screen for textbooks and the Kindle DX is not sold in the UK. I wanted something more portable that a laptop and with a better screen resolution, so when the new iPad was announced I pre-ordered one on launch day.

The Good:
Whilst no longer the ‘game changer’ I experienced when I got a first generation iPod touch, the user interface is still very user friendly. I’m glad to report the high resolution retina display is great for reading textbooks in my north facing home office. Job done! As an added bonus Devon libraries have (finally) started an eBook lending scheme that works fine on iPads (but has a copyright protection scheme that doesn’t support my Kindle.)

I have lots of amazing apps and games loaded on the iPad, though little time to play hence most are almost never used. The ones that do see regular service include:

  • iBooks – Apple’s excellent app for reading eBooks, including PDFs
  • iAnnote PDF – for marking up PDFs as you are reading, great!
  • Noteshelf – keep ‘notebooks’ for what I (should) have been writing in my lab book (and actually wrote on scraps of paper that I lost)
  • AudioNote – take audio recordings and written notes in meetings that are synced so that you can touch words or doodles to jump to the corresponding part of the audio, how cool is that!
  • Dropbox – the easiest way of moving documents on and off the iPad
  • iSSH – a great terminal application that is also able to be an xterm
  • Parallels – if you are running Parallels on your laptop or desktop this gives you remote desktop access to your VMs and your Mac!
  • AppShopper – does a great job of telling you when the app you want is on special offer
  • Flipboard – is now my normal way of consuming content from Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin
  • Eyewitness – amazing photo of the day from the Guardian
  • BBC News – my news intake is now down to about 30 seconds a day, is that good or bad?

In general I love my iPad, but if I had to choose between that and my Android phone I suspect the iPad would loose, and it wouldn’t stand a chance against my Macbook Pro. This is partly because of the ways Apple has deliberately crippled the device.

The Bad:
Apple could have done something really cool to improve usability, such as create a data based filing system where you locate objects by tags. Instead the iPad has a traditional filing system, they simply try to hide it and that makes life difficult!

We all know about the iTunes store. It’s rather like parents only allowing children to play with soft cuddly toys they have decided are safe. As an adult I understand the motivation but feel they are being over-protective.

As a rule Apple doesn’t allow you to use programming languages on an iPad. I guess it’s rather like parents locking their children in the nursery to keep them safe. There are very limited exceptions and also  some excellent solutions for using the iPad as a remote terminal or display for a real computer.

The operating system is not truly multi-tasking. Despite all the ‘real estate’ provided by the Retina display you can only see one application at a time and being ‘out of sight’ seems to cause applications to stop or shut down. This becomes a pain when you want to flip between multiple applications, for example between a textbook and the application it is describing.

The memory is not expandable. You can get an add-on that will allow you to connect an SD card or USB device, but Apple try to restrict its use to photos and videos. In my case I tried to use iMovie to edit some
video footage of kitesurfing shot on a GoPro camera, just the kind of thing I would love to do with the iPad when on holiday. Unfortunately the first thing the software did was import the footage into my iPad and killed the last of the free space on the device. To add insult to injury it then took me a while to track down the clips and delete them! I have a 32G iPad so my advice to budding film makers is that they need to go for the 64G iPad (you might want to calculate the profit margin Apple make on that extra 32G of storage).  I’ve read that you can attach storage, via a powered hub if necessary, and then fake the camera file structure as a partial work-around.

There is no Java. To be fair the main sites I use that need Java also don’t work with Google’s implementation so this is not a big differentiator (but this could give Windows 8 RT another USP).

There is no flash. I know Apple’s concerns that this will breach security, but they could always have it switched off by default. It seems they also felt it was necessary to put their child in a straight jacket for it’s own protection. Unfortunately this makes a number of key websites unusable on my iPad, but fortunately I can still see them with my Android phone 🙂

There are no applications that offer sufficient compatibility with Microsoft Office to use the iPad when needing to work with Word, Powerpoint or Excel files. I’ve tried a number of solutions including Pages, Numbers and Keynote. They are adequate for producing rough drafts but my experience is you bounce such documents around multiple authors and reviewers and I find imported Office documents are typically made unusable by missing features. If Windows8 RT can deliver that as its USP it may not be too late for the tablet party!

The Ugly:
To get around the Bad requires jail-breaking! This may be ugly but oh the relief. Fortunately Absinthe made the process very easy. Obviously thereafter you need to take more responsibility for your own security so don’t forget to start by changing your root password.

There are a number of excellent utilities available to improve life with an iPad. For example swiping the top of my screen now gives me a drop down where I can easily toggle things like Airplane mode or Bluetooth. Yes I know I’ve always had that type of thing on my Android phone but you only really appreciate it when you no longer have it! Once you start using the iPad as a producer rather than a consumer you do need a real keyboard to be productive. I believe most bluetooth keyboards will work but use the little Apple keyboard which is great, but hard to balance on my lap when just doing idle browsing. Hence the reason I am so pleased to have a simple way of toggling bluetooth on the iPad (sad but true).

One little enhancement that demands special recognition is SwipeSelection, a little app that allows you to scroll, or select text, by dragging your finger across the virtual keyboard. A real improvement over Apple’s user interface. I hope Daniel Hooper has a patent for his clever idea 🙂

There is a great application called iFile if you need a graphical file manager for your iPad.

Once the iPad has been jailbroken there are several programming languages available. Python 2.5 seems to be installed by default but there is also Ruby and more exotic offerings such as Haskell (Hugs98).

A new application called Quasar gives you true multi-tasking with multiple windows. I can finally read a textbook at the same time as typing commands into a console window (and also have a music video streaming). The application is still not perfect, though v1.2 seems a lot less buggy than v1.1. It really sets the bar for what we should be expecting from Apple!

The iPad ban on programming languages means that whilst you can have nice editors like Textastic, and you can even get Vim, I had given up hope of ever getting emacs. Even after jail breaking I could find no reference to a successful installation until by chance I came across a description of installing emacs on an AppleTV.

http://imho.nu/iMHo/installing-emacs-on-apple-tv2/

Following their link I found an emacs port for the iPhone (there is also a LaTeX port!!!!!). See:

http://gamma-level.com/cydia/info

Once installed I was able to launch iSSH, connect to the local machine, and run emacs!!!!

Sadly I don’t yet have a solution for flash, ‘frash’ doesn’t work on my iPad and it is unlikely there will ever be a solution for Java.

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Written by zantine

July 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Tech

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China – the good, the bad and the ugly

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The Good
1. People are generally incredibly friendly and helpful
2. Amazing sights
3. Great transport links

The Bad
1. People are amazingly self-centred (a “me, me me” society!)
2. Arbitrary bureaucracy
3. Traffic congestion

The Ugly
1. Noise!
2. Litter
3. Spitting

Written by zantine

October 11, 2010 at 6:48 am

Posted in China, Travel

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Hong Kong fireworks

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Fireworks over Hong Kong harbour on the first of October celebrated China’s national day. A vast crowd watched from the embankment on the Kowloon side and later there was a long queue for the metro.

You can certainly feel the English legacy in Hong Kong. There is no spitting, less litter and cars even drive on the left. For the first time in five months we were able to cross a pedestrian crossing without fear for our lives! However the cost of living was about three times higher than across the boarder in mainland China.

Written by zantine

October 11, 2010 at 6:34 am

Posted in China, Travel

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Lijiang and Shuhe

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Charming cobbled streets, endless gift shops and Chinese style cafe culture. We are in Shuhe village which is like a mini reflection of Lijiang old town, itself the most popular tourist haunt in all Yunnan. The village is just 6km from Lijiang and can be reached on bike or using one of the constant stream of blue mini-buses. Sitting under an awning, listening to live music from a nearby bar, we seem far removed from mainstream China. The surrounding wood framed buildings have classical Chinese roofs, elegant proportions and pretty courtyards, unlike the typical concrete and white ceramic wall tiles of modern Chinese cities. Unfortunately a visit to the new part of Lijiang quickly reminds one that this casual charm is the exception rather than the rule in modern China.

Written by zantine

September 28, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Posted in China, Travel

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Tiger Leaping Gorge

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Leaving Dali we caught the local bus going towards Shangri-La. The old vehicle rattled it’s way along, with occasional stops and constantly overtaking on blind bends. After six hours it dropped us at the village of Qiaotou where we spent the night at Jane’s guest house; not that we met Jane, the ‘bloke’ who owns the guest house. There was heavy rain during the night but it had cleared by the morning so we set out on the high trail through Tiger Leaping Gorge. This is one of the classic treks in China, following the Jinsha river through one of the deepest gorges in the world. We stopped for lunch at the Naxi Family guest house then tackled the climb up ‘twenty four bends’. Whilst steep, this was less challenging than many blogs suggested and largely unaffected by the previous night’s rain. We had decided to take the trek gently so stopped overnight at the Tea Horse guest house that provided great views from its terrace. Our room also had a TV although the effect was rather spoilt by a lack of electricity until later. The next morning we trekked through the superb scenery of the middle gorge, finally reaching Tina’s Hostel in time for lunch. This is where the high path meets the low road. The latter is currently being upgraded to take hordes of tour buses but fortunately this is still work in progress. A further forty minutes on the still unpaved road brought us to Sean’s Guest House where we sat on the terrace, drinking beer and listening to the sound of the rapids. The next morning we walked down to the river. Rather than pay to visit Tiger Leaping Rock we explored the largely unused route down from Sean’s that came down close to the lower rapids. The path was somewhat overgrown and tricky to navigate but great fun. An hour and a half later we were back on the low road and with some fellow travellers we hired a minibus to take us out via the low road. This was an adventure in itself as the bumpy unmade road runs beside a sheer drop into the river. At one point the driver had to stop and do quick repairs when some of the protective casing was knocked into the transmission by an exceptionally hard impact. Finally we reached the site where a landslip was blocking the road and we had to transfer on foot to another minibus. After that we were on paved road back to Qiaotou where Jane’s gave us lunch and organised another minibus to go to Lijiang. All together a superb few days in a wonderful scenic spot that fully deserves its reputation. While the development of the low road will eventually bring many more tourists to this side of the gorge I hope the high trail can keep it’s unique character.

Written by zantine

September 26, 2010 at 5:36 am

Posted in China, Travel

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Dali – Moon Festival

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It’s the autumn equinox, marked in China by the ‘Moon Festival’. We are ‘chilling out’ in Dali, the old backpacker hangout in Yunan province. After seeing Guilin we worried that Dali would have lost its character, swamped by Irish theme pubs and burger joints. We needn’t have worried. While the place is awash with souvenir shops and good quality cafes it still exudes its own distinctive charm and there was no sign of a McDonald’s.

We are staying in a great hostel just outside the west gate. One novelty is that its internet connection has been set up to bypass some of the normal internet restrictions. This means that we have access to Facebook for the first time since arriving in China!

Written by zantine

September 20, 2010 at 4:13 pm

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Kunming – Stone Forest

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Relaxed Kunming made a great change after the brash commercialism of Guilin. Unfortunately traffic seems to be overwhelming the city. When we went to the ‘Stone Forest’ our local bus took over an hour to travel the few kilometers to the east bus station. Fortunately the remaining 75 km only took an hour and a half, although we first had to wait for the bus to fill with passengers.

The ‘Stone Forest’ is an amazing jumble of stone pillars, cracks and fissures formed by acidic errosion. Once we wandered beyond the majority of the Chinese tour groups we were able to enjoy the spectacle in relative tranquility. It was great fun threading along the paths that run up and down through gulleys and holes in the rock. As often happens some passing Chinese wanted their photo taken with the ‘wei guo ren’ (outsiders). A strange but amusing diversion!

Written by zantine

September 16, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Posted in China, Travel

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