iTunes Radio – a nice new feature – and info about skipping songs

Tech tip: rating – complete novice.

One of the new features of the latest iTunes 11.1 – and also found in the iOS 7 upgrade for iPhones and iPads – is iTunes Radio. It’s a streaming music feature that lets you play unlimited songs for free in genres (stations) you can select from – or you can create your own stations based on artist, song or song type. The basic features are at http://www.apple.com/itunes/itunes-radio/.

I think anybody who likes music would enjoy trying it. I assume it works on Windows iTunes as well.

Note: This feature is only available to people with U.S. iTunes accounts. Hint: It doesn’t matter where you physically are – what matters is where your iTunes account is located.

My initial impression was “cool!” Then I got frustrated because I wanted to skip songs that weren’t interesting to me. I really don’t want to hear “This is just another silly love song.”

The problem, though, was that after skipping a few songs I was stuck. It wouldn’t let me skip any more. After that, every time I returned to the station I had to listen to the rest of the last song or I couldn’t go on. It was like being stuck in some sort of song purgatory. I was wondering, “If their purpose is to sell me songs I like, why don’t they let me freely skip over the songs I don’t like?”

Anyway, after some research I realized the rationalization for it, and what the actual limitations are, and it isn’t as bad as I thought. In fact, understanding and working through the limits makes the feature seem very reasonable and fun.

  1. You can skip again after an hour. The limit is 6 song skips per hour per station.
  2. You can always create a similar station and get 6 more skips per hour.
  3. The reason has to do with royalties. Apparently Apple has to pay some kind of royalty whenever a song is played, even if the listener skips and goes on to the next song in the middle.

Understanding how and why it works makes it seem not so bad and, in fact, interesting. Today, while working (yes, I actually did some work today too) I found myself listening to a lot more music than I usually do, outside my somewhat limited collection. It’s a fun feature.

If you have a computer or device that’s compatible I recommend trying it. Your musical horizons will be expanded. For free.

Short review of iOS 7 – the good (some nice new features), the bad (the new Calendar app) and some hints to get going

Overall

Despite my initial complaints and apprehensions about the appearance, I find I actually sort of like iOS 7 on my iPhone 5 and iPad 2 – except for the new Calendar app, which is really awful (see below for more on that, and a recommended alternative app).

But basically iOS 7 seems nice to me. There are some convenient improvements to the main apps, like Mail (some smart mailboxes),  Safari (a improved tabbed view), Photos (some nice, automatic organization), new Siri voices and features, improved multitasking, and some other new features as well. A more complete list is here.

I still don’t see the reason to redo all the colors and icons and aesthetics, but it’s not bad getting used to. It seems the whole web is moving more towards these lighter, simpler, flatter icons and user interfaces. Perhaps as time has passed, people more “just know” what to do, and so overly-heavy visual cues are becoming less important. After playing with it, it does feel lighter and more modern.

Two hints

  1. The contrast of the icons labels is reduced in iOS 7. If that bothers you (depending on your background image), you can go into  Settings > Accessibility and turn on bold text. That does help.
  2. A security hint! There are important improvements to Find My iPad and Find My iPhone which make it even more worthwhile to use, to protect your important data in case your device gets lost or stolen. To get maximum protection, you need to turn password lock on. Many people (perhaps most people, including me) never did this before because it seemed like a nuisance to have to enter the 4-digit PIN every time I unlocked my screen. But there is a setting in the password lock so you don’t have to do it every time. You can specify how much time has to pass before you have to re-enter the PIN. I set mine for an hour to see how that goes. You can set it for up to 4 hours. For the extra security it seems worthwhile.

Easy upgrading

Many sites have recommendations on tedious and elaborate precautions to take before upgrading. I really think the following is safe and sufficient enough for a quick upgrade:

  1. Connect your device to your computer and do a complete encrypted manual backup via iTunes. This allows a simple restore of everything, including passwords, automatically after the upgrade. If you don’t have a computer, and you are running iOS 6, just make sure you have a backup in iCloud first and then do the upgrade.
  2. If you haven’t been prompted already, check for the software upgrade inside iTunes and just do it.

Your device will be upgraded, everything will be restored to where it was, and you just need to go through a few simple settings pages on your iPhone or iPad. It’s simple.

The awful new iOS 7 Calendar

On the downside, I do want to mention the problems with the new default iOS 7 Calendar app, particularly on the iPhone.

  1. The worst problem is that the month view now takes up the entire screen. In iOS 6 on the iPhone, the bottom half of the screen conveniently shows the selected date’s events. In iOS 7, if you are in month view, you can no longer see at-a-glance what today’s events are without touching the date. It’s a waste of space and forces the user to “do more stuff” to get the same work done.
  2. This one just plain buggy. If you click on a date with an event, apparently it’s supposed to auto-scroll to the event time so you can actually see it. But many times that doesn’t happen, so you don’t see the events even if you touch the event date! You have to scroll up and down to find it. Very sloppy.
  3. In the single date view, there is a horizontal, scrolling list of dates at the top of the screen to slide through. But there are no indicators of which dates have events! There’s plenty of room there to include the event indicator dots, but Apple left them out. So in order to see where your other events are you have to (a) go back up to the month view; (b) click on a date with an event indicator; (c) then get back to the single date view; (d) then scroll the time until the event comes into view. In iOS 6 you could do all this at-a-glance, or just by touching each date in month view.

The iOS 7 Calendar app on the iPhone is a huge usability step backwards I think.

Fortunately there is an alternative! A really nice one too – the free Sunrise” Calendar app for the iPhone. The developer is responsive, and says they are planning an iPad version too. If you are using Google Calendars (and why not – Google Calendars are more compatible across more devices than the iCloud Calendar) then Sunrise is really nice, and syncs quicker than the iOS Calendar app.

If you want to switch to using Google Calendars it’s extremely easy to move your iCloud Calendar events over and then just turn them off to avoid seeing duplicates. You can continue to use Google Calendars in your iOS Calendar app if you prefer.

Sunrise is 500 times better than the standard iOS 6 Calendar app (it syncs instantly for one thing, while there is a noticeable lag with the standard app) and 1,000 times better than the awful new iOS 7 Calendar. It’s a great example of what the iOS 7 Calendar could have been. It has a clean, modern design, and a very thoughtful use of space that actually provides more info (even the weather) at your fingertips, rather than less, which is what the iOS 7 Calendar does.

It accomplishes the same “scrolling through months” that the iOS 7 Calendar app does, without having to do multiple touches to see the events. You have to try it. It’s very clever.  It’s also free.

Conclusion

If you have a compatible device, go for it.

More speaker quality comparisons between the Nexus 7 (2013), iPhone 5 and iPad 2

Well, I wasted more time just now listening to the same track over and over again on my Nexus 7 and my iPhone 5, and even on my iPad 2: Linda Ronstadt’s “Sentimental Reasons”. She has a good, clear voice and a good range, so it’s easy to tell “which is best” – or so I thought. I’ve also been having a side-conversation with Chris, the developer of iSyncr and RocketPlayer for the Nexus 7, and have been testing RocketPlayer’s quality on the Nexus 7 as well.

Side-note: I feel sort of dumb spending so much time on this since (1) I am by no means an audiophile or music expert and (2) listening to music on any of my devices is not something I spend that much time doing. Usually I listen on my iMac at the end of the day, while relaxing with my java sparrows. Nevertheless…

Anyway, it’s just not clear to me anymore (no pun intended). I listened via the Google Play Music version that gets “pinned” on my Nexus 7 (wherever that file is – I have no idea, so can’t check the file size or bitrate info), RocketPlayer (the 256 bitrate AAC file I transferred directly to the Nexus with Android File Transfer) and on my iPhone 5 and iPad 2, via the standard iOS Music app.

It’s not obvious to me whether Google’s Play Music or RocketPlayer sounds best in this case on the Nexus 7. But I swear the sound is “clearer” and the dynamic range (the highs and lows of pitch) is “greater” coming out of the iPhone 5 speakers than the Nexus 7 speakers.

I went back and forth a dozen times at the same point in the song, and when I switch back to the iPhone 5 Ronstadt’s voice comes through clear as a bell, while it just doesn’t seem as clear, or full of dynamic range when it comes out of the Nexus 7 speakers, in either app. It’s maybe subjective, but if I had to choose one of the speakers I’d say the iPhone 5 sounds better between the two.

Meanwhile the iPad 2 blows them both away in quality. I honestly don’t see how anybody can say the Nexus 7 speakers sound better than the iPad 2′s speaker. There’s just no comparison, in my opinion.

Yet between the Nexus 7 and the iPhone 5, I’m no longer sure which is technically “better”. While the sound is undeniably “clearer” on the iPhone 5, I’m no longer sure the “quality is better.” The more I listen, the more I hear intangible defects in the speaker I wasn’t noticing before, such as “tinniness” problem I was complaining about on the Nexus 7.

I suspect that the iPhone 5 is maybe “covering up” the defect for novices like me with a larger volume and throwing in more bass, or something like that, by default.  But the iPad 2 is clearly better overall than either the Nexus 7 or the iPhone 5.

Still, if you’re not doing side-by-side comparisons like I was, probably any of the speakers will suffice for casual listening.

For getting the bottom of which speaker is actually better, it might be best to compare the same YouTube video of music on both devices using the Google YouTube player. Not sure anymore.

doug

iPad or Nexus 7 – which has the best user interface? I choose the Nexus 7 as the winner..

As a long time Mac, iPhone and iPad user, one of my biggest questions was this – which device offers the best user experience, the best UI, the best OS?

After using my new Nexus 7 for over a week now, I really have to say that the winner is the Nexus 7 running Android 4.3.

I am surprised to admit this, being a long time iOS user. But the Android UI is just friendlier and easier to use on the Nexus 7.

Of course there are things which users of one OS just prefer, and some things are conceptually different between the Nexus and iPad, so I’m sure other iPad users might disagree with me. But in addition to being the more open and customizable system, there really are some objective UI advantages to Android 4.3 on the Nexus 7 over iOS 6 on the iPad or iPhone.

One major difference for me are the three soft buttons on the Nexus (which rotate with the screen) for

(1) Go back,
(2) Go to the home screen and
(3) Go to recent apps (multitasking).

On the iPad you have one fixed hardware button which accomplishes both (2) and (3). Though it doesn’t do (3) nearly as well as the Nexus.

Pressing the recent apps button gives you easy multitasking access to your recent apps with previews of what’s going on in them. It’s easier to jump between apps than with the double-click of the hardware iPhone/iPad home button. And it’s easier to slide away apps. This is a feature iOS 7 will be basically stealing from Android. But I still prefer the soft button. I’ve had problems with my hardware home button on all three iPhones I owned, and the access is easier and more reliable with this dedicated soft button. And as I mentioned, the soft buttons rotate with the device, while the iPhone/iPad button is fixed.

The back button is especially useful and the iPad has nothing equivalent. It provides a consistent UI that works throughout Android settings and apps. It’s a convenient way to go back to where you were, and keep going back as needed. Surprisingly, there just is no consistent, similar feature in iOS on the iPad/iPhone. In iOS, different apps have different ways of getting back to where you were. This is just clearly easier and more unified on Nexus 7.  I can’t emphasize enough how useful the back button is. It works in all the settings and apps. For example, in the FaceBook app it is so much easier to go back to where you were from comments and notifications than it is on the iPad. Think about it. You can go from a notification to a comment and back to the notifications, etc. It’s much easier than the iOS version. And the key point is that it works the same way in all the apps and settings. It’s a reassuring, always available time-saver.

Now let’s talk about sharing. There are many many more sharing options in Android in most apps, probably due to the more open nature of the system. And the settings are easier to find, because they tend to be in consistent places, with consistent symbols indicating sharing and settings. When I go from my Nexus to my iPad I immediately feel more “confined” in what I can share.

Then we come to downloads and attachments. This is a huge one – and possible a show-stopper for Android users considering an iOS device. The Nexus has a “downloads” area, where you can save just about any kind of document. And you can share the documents lots of ways, including by email. The iPad and iPhone only have built-in features to share photos this way. In iOS, apps are “sandboxed” to specifically prevent this basic kind of file system access you are so used to on your computer.

For example, on the iPad there is no standard way of mailing a PDF file! I can’t tell you how annoying and limiting that feels. It greatly reduces iOS use as a productivity tool. But with the Nexus 7 you can easily attach just about any kind of document to emails – and share in other ways as well. This is such a major feature that I am truly surprised it was not implemented on iPads. In Apple forums, I’ve read of work-arounds using 3rd party tools and jumping through a dozen hoops to get something like a PDF file emailed. On the Nexus 7 you can just do it.

The Nexus 7 also automatically updates apps in the background, which doesn’t happen in iOS6. In iOS6 you have to go into the App Store and request the updates. This, however, is another thing that iOS7 will be “borrowing” from Android 4.3.

Keyboard input is also much better on the Nexus. On the iPad you have two ways to input text – by pressing letters one-by-one on the soft keyboard, or using Siri for dictation. On the Nexus 7 the keyboard supports one additional fantastic feature – the “gesture keyboard” (also known as the Swype keyboard). Using the gesture feature you just drag your finger around on the keyboard, basically getting near the keys you would normally touch one-by-one to spell a word and it just knows what you are trying to spell. It is much faster than doing a  “tap tap tap” of each letter separately. And it’s eerily accurate.

Siri dictation, however, is considerably better than Android 4.3 dictation – particularly when it comes to punctuation and things like new lines and new paragraphs. There is almost no documentation on Android voice-to-text dictation. Even Google tech support doesn’t seem to know all the voice-to-text commands. Getting new paragraphs to work is especially hard – though if you get used to it it will work. If voice-to-text dictation is a make or break deal for you, I would say the iPad with Siri is a better bet. Google support even wrote to apologize saying it is “a work in progress.” Voice search in Google works great though.

There are other “details” which might make a person choose an iPad over a Nexus. Some things are superior on the iPad. For example, iOS along with iTunes on your Mac provides a 100% complete backup and restore option which just is not matched on the Nexus. The backup and restore features on the Nexus more closely approximate an iCloud backup of “just the most important data,” but isn’t as complete or unified as an iCloud backup. It’s not as bad as I originally thought though, and it looks like restoring after a factory-settings reset or switch to a new device wouldn’t take that long. But it definitely wouldn’t be as complete as restoring from a full backup of your iPad done via iTunes on your computer.

Even taking all of the above into account, I am finding Android 4.3 on the Nexus 7 a better, easier-to-use, more flexible, more fun and more productive system than iOS on the iPad. And I still haven’t done much customizing yet.

As I said, I am surprised to find I feel this way. But I really like the Nexus 7. And I like the direction Android is going.

I like my iPad very much too. But I think Android 4.3 has gotten more advanced at this point and iOS is playing a certain amount of catch up.

But before switching when you make your next device purchase, remember that what you are used to is also extremely important. If you are used to one UI and certain things don’t work the way you are used to, it could be a frustrating experience for some people. Being used to something and having it work well enough for you is always a consideration.