Tuesday, July 14, 2020
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Simplenote and Notational Velocity: slick-sync text notes

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I love applications that synchronise over as many platforms as possible. As bare minimum, I look for sync across Macs and iPhone/iPad and it has to be sync via the cloud rather than local wifi1. Favourite apps that do this well are OmniFocus (which I sync via MobileMe), MacJournal (MobileMe), Evernote (proprietary) and Dropbox (proprietary). Frankly, an application that doesn’t support data synchronisation is practically useless. Bento, which I otherwise adore, is a big culprit here. Even the iPhone app has to be synchronised over a local wifi and there is no sync between Macs.

Quick notes, either entered on the iPhone or on the Mac, are essential sync material because you never know when you’ll need them. I can make notes in OmniFocus, but the entry process can be a long-winded (it is, after all, a powerful application for managing tasks and projects). And OF is relatively slow to start if you want instant access to a note. Evernote is reasonably quick for text entry, but the problem with Evernote is that it is just too convenient. I end up stuffing it with PDF files, images and all sorts of other files with the result that it isn’t the quickest application for opening and searching. And the Evernote iPhone application is particularly slow and downloads only what is needed at any particular time. If your iPhone is out of wifi or 3G range you have a problem.

5144203-4776890-thumbnailSo I was fascinated to hear the enthusiasm in a Mac Power Users podcast for Simplenote, a free iPhone app that does just what it says–simple, quick text notes. No fancy formatting, just simple text. And I was even more interested to hear that the Simplenote website offers synchronisation with a number of Mac desktop applications including Notational Velocity and JustNotes. There’s also a Dashboard widget called DashNote. I’ve tried both the desktop applications and Simplenote on the iPhone. All stay in sync perfectly. Both Notational Velocity and JustNotes attempt to do the same thing and both do it well. JustNotes is marginally prettier and reminds me of Apple’s Notes, but Notational Velocity has a very minimalist and straightforward presentation that I really like. Absolutely no colour, no icons, no frippery.  There are keystokes for all the editing you’ll need and it works without a mouse. This is something to sit on the desktop for quick note taking and you can be sure that all your ideas will be in your pocket when you leave home or office. This combination of Simplenote and Notational Velocity is perfect and, what’s more, it’s free. Simplenote has premium versions with added features for a few dollars (from $3.99 to suppress ads) while National Velocity is open source and, I presume, donations would be welcome.

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1 Honourable exception to universal cloud syncing is the excellent 1Password. While the 1Password data file, the Agile Keychain, syncs perfectly across all your Macs via Dropbox, the iPhone sync is still manual via network wifi. Both computer and iPhone must be present on the same network and talking to one another.  I know the reason for this is security: you don't want all your passwords and bank details being bandied around some internet cafe. In time, I suspect, Agile Web Solutions, the masters of 1Password, will think of a way of achieving cloud sync, perhaps with a secure proprietary server.

Selling your iPhone: Apple’s device brings top cash

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It was no surprise to read that Apple’s iPhone brings top price when selling or recycling. Recycling website SellMyMobile.com reports that owners of a 32GB iPhone 3GS can expect just over £300 back when it comes time to sell. Even a 16GB 3G model will pull in over £200. The rest of the pack is trailing, with the glitzy Vertu Signature (the one you find in jewellery stores and costing thousands) struggling at £197. Apple products may be expensive to buy, but the real cost of ownership is less than many assume. A MacBook will fetch a hefty proportion of its new price when it’s time for an eBay listing and the same goes for all models in the range. You may spend a thousand pounds but you’ll be surprised to find £500 or even £600 coming back into PayPal at the end of ownership. It’s always a nice contribution to the next Mac in line. 

E-book readers: Doomed or what?

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You only have to look around you in cafes and on public transport to see that real books, not e-books, are the norm. Despite all the frenzied activity and the dozens, if not hundreds, of look-alike e-ink readers, it is still unusual to see someone with a Kindle or a Sony in their hands. But I believe this is changing gradually and the change is accelerating. By the end of the year reading of electronic books will be commonplace.

Manufacturers are thrashing around in all directions and producing weird and wonderful variations on the e-ink theme. We have double, hinged screens to simulate a paper book (why?) and additional colour, backlit screens for doing the things you cannot do on the current e-ink technology. In short, the market lacks focus and, all the while, the new iPad is hovering above like some dark cloud and it hasn't yet hit the shelves.

Devin Coldewey's comprehensive review of the e-book market in CrunchGear today contains a few surprises and is a must-read for anyone interested in the genre. While Devin concludes that he will stick with real books for the time being, I am already a committed e-book reader and don't see a time when I will return to buying books. And after two years of struggling with e-ink, I am now firmly committed to back-lit technology as found on the iPhone and iPad. Synchronisation of bookmarks across devices (e-book reader, smartphone, desktop or laptop) is now a must-have feature. Kindle offers this; Apple will surely offer it. So, for my money, all the rest are out in the cold. 

One thing no one seems to consider, and this is as much a problem with the iPad as it is with all existing e-ink readers, is that you cannot put them in your pocket (unless, of course, you have voluminous pockets). So if you want to read while out and about you are more or less obliged to carry a bag. You can often stuff a small paperback into a coat pocket or you can happily carry a book in your hand because it doesn't get damaged if you drop it. 

All e-readers need a carrying bag and this is precisely why synchronisation over the net is absolutely essential. If I don't want to carry a bag, I can continue reading on a device that is always in my pocket: my iPhone. And, as I've said many times, the iPhone itself is a very respectable e-reader. Anyone wishing to put their toe in the e-book market is recommended to start with a free iPhone app and see how it goes. Nothing lost if you don't like it.

Interestingly, yesterday Sony asked me to complete a questionnaire on the future of e-books. One of the questions was whether synchronisation across platforms (citing the iPhone in particular) was important to me. Darn right. Could it be that Sony is considering entering the market with synchronisation facilities and an iPhone application? If they don't want to be sidelined and lose their existing market share this seems to be inevitable.

iPad choice: to 3G or not to 3G

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Mercifully, here in the UK we have an extra few weeks to make up our minds on whether to go for the basic wifi iPad or the more expensive 3G model. Friends in the USA report they have already placed their orders and are prepared to wait for the 3G model. I have very mixed views and all my doubts centre on that non-standard micro SIM that Apple have chosen to use in the iPad. The physically smaller iPhone still uses the larger, standard SIM card. But I suppose we can expect the micro model to be present on this year’s 4G iPhone when it arrives in the Summer.

The problem is that I want to be able to use my existing data subscription with both the iPad and my MacBook Pro. I wouldn’t mind swapping a SIM card around because, most of the time, it would stay in the iPad. Currently, as regular readers will know, I use a Novatel MiFi unit which means I can create a mini wifi network for up to five devices. At the moment, I’m minded to stick with the MiFi and with my £15-per-month 3GB Vodafone subscription.

Presumably, over the next twelve months, these micro SIMs will become more popular and it is highly likely that mini-routers such as the MiFi will soon become available with the smaller slot. In the future, therefore, I can see sense in having a 3G-equipped iPad for those occasions when I am travelling without the MacBook Pro and don’t even want the extra weight of the MiFi.

For the moment, therefore, the sensible decision is to buy the cheaper wifi pad and reserve judgement on the 3G model until the second generation model arrives in mid-2011. 

Mac hardware updates: Brakes are off the rumour mills

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Features_mbp_graphics20090608After a few weeks of quiet and no news, the brakes came off the rumour mill this morning as several sites talked up the imminent announcement of revised Mac Pro and MacBook Pro models. One site said that Apple Stores worldwide were off-line Friday morning, usually a sure indicator that something is afoot, but by the time I’d typed in the URL the store was back to normal. Same old stuff.

The story goes that updates for the MacBook Pro are now well overdue and, according to pundits, the Mac Pro is definitely a candidate for revision in the very near future. Talk is of i5 and i7 processors in the laptop range for the first time and even more wondrous updates for the Mac Pro. Of course, March is often the month for such announcements but there is no doubt that Apple is giving priority at the moment to the iPad launch. So it could be that hardware updates will be put on the back burner for the time being. 

I have a vested interest here. Cash is waiting for a shiny new 13in MacBook Pro. I desperately need to get my hands on one for the summer travelling season but I’m not about to part with the cash until the next update, however long I have to wait. I have my 15in Pro (late 2008) and I've been happy with it except in terms of size and weight.  Some years ago I made the mistake of buying a 17in model and that was a real monster. Even the 15incher is more than I want to heft around airports. At the time I bought the current laptop the new unibody aluminium 13in model hadn't been announced, but I wish I'd waited.

Waiting does no harm. It extends the anticipation and makes the eventual arrival of the box that bit more exciting. But I've been waiting such a long time and that cash is burning a hole in my pocket. Maybe next week. Apple?

27,000 ebooks in Apps Store: are they just clutter?

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Jason Kincaid of TechCrunch points out this week that no fewer than 27,000 apps in the iTunes AppsStore are books or book readers. Many of them are classics, in multiple editions, and most of them offer a reading experience far inferior to the leading multi-book apps such as Kindle for iPhone and Stanza. I’ve never really understood why these one-book apps should be so popular, but clearly people buy them or they wouldn't be there.

The market is evolving and attention is moving to well-designed apps that provide access to an on-line bookstore. The Kindle store is excellent, as I have mentioned repeatedly, and iBookstore from Apple is likely to be just as good, if not better. Where that leaves all these thousands of uncoordinated single-book apps I am not sure. Jason suggests a cull might be in the offing once Apple move into books in a big way. He rightly points out that iPad owners will be confused. They will have a choice between the iBookstore and the Apps Store and it’s quite likely that they will search the App Store and download a book thinking that it can be read on the iPad's iBooks application.

It will be preferable, I think, if the App Store can be restricted to book reader applications (such as iBooks, Kindle or Stanza) which can access book stores and provide a big choice of material. I really don't see the need for one-book applications that clutter the home screens and offer no expansion.

iPhone: over-complicated time-zone support?

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Photo Am I the only user who finds the setting of time zones on the iPhone to be confusing? In common with many owners, I regularly move between time zones. On my MacBook Pro I have time zone set to automatic and all I need to remember is to manually change the time-zone support in iCal. On the phone, the zone changes are manual and are buried in Settings app. The general time zone is in General/Date & Time but it’s necessary to type in the city rather than select from a list or, ideally, select from a few personal common destinations.

But it’s the time zone support for calendars that always gets me. One week after returning from Athens I looked at my iPhone calendar today and realised all the appointments were two hours out (why I hadn’t noticed before, I don’t know). So I have to go to Settings and choose Mail, Contacts, Calendars and then, hidden away at the bottom of the long list, is Time Zone Support. Again, I have to type in London to replace Athens.

I can understand that many people might want to leave iCal fixed to their home time zone so appointments are viewed with the correct times, but I always prefer to change over. With appointments in several time zones it is desirable not to have errors and misunderstandings creeping in. This applies particularly to plane departure times which are always designated in the local time zone.

It would be a useful enhancement to the iPhone OS if we could have the ability to link the two settings when required: that way, changing the time zone in Date & Time would also adjust the calendar settings. Personally, I would also value an automatic time-zone change for both general and calendar settings.

Whatever happens, I think there is room for improvement in the next edition of iPhone OS.

ebook Typos: Random House withdraw books for checking

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Following my complaints about typos and howlers in the Alexander Kent series of naval history novels, publishers Random House have now withdrawn the titles from sale while they review the text and fix the errors. This, say say, should take a few days.

In a full response, Random House say that mine is the first complaint they have received about the Kent series, but they welcome the feedback: “It is of the utmost importance for us to get this feedback so we can ensure that our customers have the best possible ebook experience. We really want to avoid a situation where some customers have a bad experience that puts them off ebooks in general.”

“As you are aware,’ they continue, “the entire publishing industry is rapidly expanding the list of titles available as ebooks and many thousands of titles have been made available and, although we do have QA procedures in place it is inevitable some errors may creep in, especially with older titles than need to be scanned.”

I welcome the response and I hope that my highlighting of the problem will cause all publishers to ensure that their scanned offerings are thoroughly proofread (by a human being, if possible) before they are released to the buying public. The good thing is that people who have bought error-riddled books are in a good position to ask for a new download of the corrected versions when they appear. With the Kindle Store, where Amazon retain control of the material, I suspect such upgrades will happen automatically. With other reader systems, such as the Sony Reader, it will be necessary for the user to initiate the download of the corrected version.

April 3: Apple stock bounces on iPad expectations

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Just the announcement of April 3 for US iPad deliveries caused a near-5% bounce in Apple's share price to an all-time. This is against a backdrop of sniping from naysayers who are still maintaining the device will not be a success. What, I wonder, will happen when the iPad proves to be the major success I believe it will be?

We also read research today that potential ereader buyers are planning to defect to the iPad in droves. I am convinced that once readers have tried a backlit screen they will drop e-ink as a viable alternative. As I have repeatedly mentioned, even the iPhone with its small screen provides a better reading experience than the likes of the Kindle and the Sony.

Blog posted here.

Gazelle: A new idea in selling your old stuff

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Listening to Leo Laporte's MacBreak Weekly podcast today, I was introduced to Gazelle. It solves a problem for all technophiles: what to do with the all the old stuff–such as that iPhone 3G when you've upgraded to a shiny new 3GS. Gazelle is a sort of shopping site in reverse. You fill your box with all your unwanted tech items and they give you a purchase price. Obviously you have to choose the right specification and answer some questions on condition, but it's a much simpler way of selling than the hassle of eBay. I've been an eBay fan for some years and have turned most of my old gadgets, including quite a few MacBooks, into welcome cash. But there is no doubt that preparing the ad, taking photos and watching auctions takes time and dedication.

With Gazelle you get an instant valuation and you simply send off your box of goodies and receive payment. The system relies on your honesty in describing condition, of course, but the same applies to any sale.

I asked Gazelle when they will be opening in the UK and, not surprisingly, they are currently concentrating on consolidating and expanding the US operation. They point out that anyone in the UK can sell their items through the US website but the seller would have to bear the international shipping charges. This may suit some sellers, if only to cut down the hassle, but there are some potential pitfalls. Perhaps the main one is price. Secondhand prices in the UK are generally higher simply because new prices are higher. And, of course, list priced here include VAT at 17.5%. There are also compatibility problems between the two countries. Presumably Gazelle resell in their domestic market and, for instance, a MacBook Pro with a UK keyboard would not be popular there.

The good thing is that we can look forward to something happening in the UK–either an extension of Gazelle or a local company with a similar offering.