Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for January, 2013

The Theoretical iPad Mini With Retina Display

This is a biggie, which is odd, considering it’s a rumour regarding a physically small component of one product called “Mini”, and another that’s just a hobby.

Two days ago, Engadget discovered FCC documents which show a slightly smaller version of the Apple TV dubbed “3,2”. The current Apple TV carries the “3,1” internal moniker, which means that this is a small revision. Aside from the slightly smaller case, Brian Klug of Anandtech believes that this is a (relatively) low-output test platform for a die-shrunk version of the kludgey A5X chip found in the third-generation iPad.

Marco Arment is on fire lately. Not only is he smacking Microsoft around, but he’s predicting Apple processor upgrades. Again. He doesn’t think the A5X would be a good match for a product with such a small thermal envelope as the Apple TV:

That would certainly be an odd fit for my theories — the A5X is pretty terrible at everything except being the only option that could drive a Retina iPad screen with reasonable GPU performance in early 2012. That’s the last design I’d expect to be used in any new products, especially something as small, cheap, and low-powered as an Apple TV.

Just yesterday, however, Arment changed his mind:

I couldn’t believe that Apple would use the iPad 3’s A5X in anything again since it was huge, hot, power-inefficient, and too slow for CPU-bound operations on Retina iPad pixel volume. […]

It’s obvious, in retrospect, what this is probably for: the Retina iPad Mini.

Smart theory, and I’d put money on it (not money; just, like, ten bucks). A low-volume product to test drive a new processor which is the bare minimum for running a 2,048 × 1,536 display.

But Stephen Hackett isn’t buying this rumour, for the same reason I’ve long pondered:

So, unless a die-shrunk A5X is drastically different than the A6X when it comes to power consumption, could Apple put it in an iPad mini and not make the iPad mini way thicker?

That’s going to be a tight squeeze. A smaller process would create a chip with lower power consumption, but by how much is a good question. According to Anandtech, the battery life of the iPad 2,4 (the one with the 32 nm A5 chip) is about 16% better than the 45 nm iPad 2. In a spitballing sort of way, that means that the battery in a Retina iPad Mini could be 16% smaller (35.7 watt-hours) to get comparable battery life to the Retina iPad. Of course, that estimation is based on a different chip and doesn’t factor in other hardware differences (IGZO?).

Hackett also mentions the big marketing question:

Would Apple ship the iPad mini with a noticeably higher PPI than its flagship tablet? How could it spin that on stage or in a press release?

This is something I’ve wondered as well. I think that the Retina brand offers Apple a way to sell products with different pixel densities in a simple way. They’ll put the pixel density on the spec page, of course, but to say that each has a “Retina display” is an elegant way to market them.

How Long

Great track from How to Destroy Angels, and an appropriately depressing video by Shynola. The full-length album is out in March, and I’ll be preordering it.

Why I Don’t Stream My Music: A Somewhat Specific Set of Qualifications

Long-time readers of Wired magazine will recognize (with some sentimentality) their “wired/tired/expired” lists at the beginning of each issue. Happily, they ressurected the format for their year-end list. But — judging by the number of “expired” things I like and use — it’s a bittersweet reunion. I am perpetually the person who jumps on trends and ideas as they hit their close. Take their classification of music services, for example:

Wired Streaming Music

Tired Cloud-based Storage

Expired iTunes

My beloved iTunes collection is “expired”? And it’s out-hipped by some upstart streaming services like Spotify and Rdio? Geddafuggouttahere.

I’ve mentioned previously that I don’t see these services as replacements for a local library. I still think that’s true; however, I, admittedly, have somewhat specific requirements. Spotify and Rdio probably work really well for people who see music as a transient background interest. But I’m difficult and picky, and music is extremely important to me.

My moderate-sized library is largely encoded (via iTunes LAME) as V0 MP3s. It’s a high-quality variable bitrate format, which usually sounds as good as 320 kbps MP3 files, but with a siginificant reduction in the file size, especially important when spread across the entire library. I feel it’s the optimal balance between file size and quality, especially since there isn’t an iPhone or iPod which holds over 300 GB of music. A few important albums are encoded as Apple lossless files as well, and music from the iTunes Store is obviously in a 256 kbps AAC format.

My music is sent through a Bang & Olufsen Beomaster 2400 amplifier, to a set of bookshelf speakers. It’s not the simplest setup in the world, nor is it the highest quality one, but it makes a huge difference in the quality of the sound that reaches my ear.

Contrast that to Rdio, for example, which encodes their library largely as MP3s with a bitrate of 192 kbps.1 That’s not bad, but it’s noticeably worse on songs with punchier basslines or jangly trebles. Cymbal crashes, in particular, betray the heavy compression artifacts of that format.

Spotify chooses the inferior2 Ogg Vorbis format to stream their files. By default, those files use a 160 kbps bitrate, but premium users can opt to use a 320 kbps stream instead. The latter is a good option to have, and sounds very good. But 160 kbps is simply too low. Compare, for example, the bass line and high-hat hits on Parliament’s “Night of the Thumpasorus People” between Spotify and iTunes. The latter is noticeably better-defined than the former. You can run a similar comparison yourself with Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” or Rage Against the Machine’s “Take the Power Back”.

There are other issues besides audio quality to retain a local library of music, which may or may not apply to you. Spotify isn’t even available in Canada (let’s keep my account there between you, me, and my friends list on the service). Rdio is available in my country, but vast swathes of their library are only available in short, low-quality3 previews, including albums from artists like Led Zeppelin and Nine Inch Nails.

There are some albums that won’t ever be available at all on these services, too. Phish, John Mayer, and Nine Inch Nails fans will miss their live concert bootlegs if they rely on a streaming service. And rare early pressings, such as the Robert Ludwig-mastered version of “Led Zeppelin II”, will only be found on enthusiast and collector websites unless one is willing to shell out nearly a hundred dollars for a copy.

Finally, relying on a streaming service puts you at the whim of your internet connection, their server status, and their licensing deals. If you own your library, you can add whatever you want to it, back it up, and use it anywhere.

Rdio and Spotify have their place, but it isn’t a primary one. It supplements a local library in a meaningful way. When I hear about a new artist or album, I’ll check it out on either service first. But I won’t gamble with leaving my future enjoyment of that album in their hands.


  1. They don’t admit to this bitrate publically, but some snooping in Web Inspector shows that the site streams a file called full-192.mp3 which, yes, has a bitrate of 192 kbps. ↩︎

  2. Despite the clamoring of many in the open source community, MP3 files simply sound better at higher bitrates. While Vorbis has native metadata support and multichannel audio (and sounds broadly equivalent to MP3s at lower bitrates), the fact of the matter is that high bitrate MP3 files are superior to high bitrate Vorbis files in terms of audio quality, file size, and player compatibility. ↩︎

  3. A piddling 96 kbps MP3 file. ↩︎

A Snark Peek at Camera+ 4

Of all the apps on my iPhone, Camera+ still has the best changelog notes. Their blog is full of the same tongue-in-cheek snark:

The first thing you’ll notice is that we’ve killed-off the viewfinder. The viewfinder is an antiquated concept and we’re trying to get with the times here.

The second thing you’ll notice is that the shutter button has also been retired. It just doesn’t get any simpler. But how do you actually take photos? Our innovative shake to shoot system is the answer to that. We’re still tweaking this as pics are coming out a bit blurry, but that’s a minor detail compared to the elegance of the feature.

SurfacePad for iPhone

You know those flip covers that Samsung puts on their phones as of late? I’ve long wanted one for my iPhone, and Twelve South has released a product with a similar style built for the two most recent generations of iPhone. This looks really, really slick.

Not Quite as Advertised

Marco Arment, on the news that the “64 GB” Microsoft Surface Pro will have just 23 GB of free space:

If your computer’s “1 TB” hard drive has 50 GB of preinstalled software and unusable space, you still have 95% of its space for user storage, which is hard to complain about. But advertising a “64 GB” Surface Pro that only has 35% of its space available to the user is a very different story.

A solid proposal for a law to correct this, too.

Comments

In 1936, Walter Benjamin published “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. It’s a moderate-length essay on a variety of subjects related to the practice of art as its production techniques have evolved. The following is still relevant today, in the age of internet comments:

With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers – at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character.

What’s the Point of Office 2013?

Peter Bright of Ars Technica on Office 2013:

What I cannot fathom, however, is why Office 2013 exists. Or rather, why it exists in its current form. Just what Microsoft has been doing in that two and a half years, I couldn’t tell you, because Office 2013 doesn’t feel like it’s had two and a half years of work on it.

Tim Anderson of The Register expressed a similar sentiment:

I have been using Office 2013 since its first public preview. It works as well as ever, but for an individual user there is little that is compelling versus Office 2010 other than working a bit better on a Windows 8 tablet.

People are already figuring out how to work better without Office. They don’t need another reason for people not to buy the suite, but they’ve managed to provide just that.

Why on Earth Did BlackBerry Hire Alicia Keys?

I take issue with this part of Russell Brandom’s editorial for The Verge:

The core problem is that most tech companies aren’t cool. They don’t even know what cool is. At best, they make things that are cool, but even that was never BlackBerry’s strong suit. Its most successful products grew out of business needs, not an aura of hipness. But because the iPhone was briefly cool, BlackBerry feels like it needs to be cool too, so it throws a bunch of money at a celebrity and hopes that having Alicia Keys come on stage will help them seem like rock stars instead of the awkward cover band they really are. Apple does this too — most recently with the Foo Fighters — although they were good enough not to give them an official title.

I don’t disagree that Apple brings musicians out for publicity reasons. But the implication here is that the Foo Fighters are shills for Apple in the same way that Alicia Keys is shilling for BlackBerry, which is simply incorrect. Since they’re the people behind iTunes and the iPod, Apple has long had performers at their events. The event at which the Foos appeared was essentially two events in one, and they filled the traditional musical slot for the iPod event.

However, this is a truly salient point, and the reason I’m linking to this:

For the most part, people know it’s an empty gesture, but the very idea underscores how little faith BlackBerry expects from their actual creative team. If you already loved the work BlackBerry was doing, you wouldn’t be thrilled to have a parachuting celebrity join the team.

Precisely. The difference between the musicians’ appearances at Apple events and Alicia Keys’ appearance at today’s BlackBerry event is that the latter is actively promoting the products of the company. At Apple’s events, the musician typically — with one exception — makes a brief remark about how cool the new iPods are, then launches into a short set. That’s a big difference, and shows a lack of confidence on BlackBerry’s part.

Peak Mac?

Dan Frommer:

If Steve Jobs was right — PCs are trucks, tablets are cars — then it might be hard for the Mac to ever grow the same way that it did before, especially now that the iPad has become such a big hit. This is a good thing for Apple, where the iPad now generates twice the revenue that the Mac does — just not a good thing for the Mac chart.

Amazon CFO Tom Szkutak Takes the Fifth

John Koetsier of VentureBeat:

I mean, I’m aware that companies want to release only the information that puts them in the best possible light. And I’m aware that companies don’t want to release information that will be of competitive value rival firms. But as a public company, it’d be nice to see a little more openness from the largest online retailer in the Americas.

I simply don’t understand the disparity in the post-earnings share price performance of Apple and Amazon. Amazon hasn’t shown any respect for their shareholders by hiding this information.

XXYYXX

Valerie Tiu of ION Magazine interviewed Marcel Everett, better known as XXYYXX — one of my favourite new acts from the past year:

“At first, it’s really strange to get used to because I’m just a kid you know, making random noises. But people catch on and it’s really nice. I’m grateful for it, it’s my dream come true.”

Amazon’s Earnings

Larry Dignan of ZDNet:

Amazon’s big fourth quarter wasn’t big enough relative to expectations. The e-commerce giant also delivered a first quarter outlook that disappointed.

The company reported fourth quarter earnings of $97 million, or 21 cents a share, on revenue of $21.27 billion, up 22 percent from a year ago. Wall Street analysts were expecting earnings of 28 cents a share on revenue of $22.26 billion.

That’s a 30% difference between the expected earnings per share and the actual. For comparison, Apple delivered earnings per share of $13.81, while Wall Street was expecting $13.45 per share, a difference of nearly 3% in Apple’s favour.

Similarly, the difference between Amazon’s expected and actual revenue, per above, was about 5%. Compare that against a difference of 0.4% for Apple’s expected and actual.

Apple’s stock tanked by 10%. Amazon’s is currently up in after-hours trading by 9%.

Announcing the App.net File API

Dalton Caldwell:

Imagine a world in which your social data (e.g. messages, photos, videos) was easier to work with. For instance, imagine you could try out a new photo sharing service without having to move all of your photos and social graph.

In this world, your photos are held in a data store controlled by you. If you want to try out a new service, you can seamlessly login and choose to give permission to that service, and the photos that you have granted access to would be immediately available.

This is one benefit of an “unbundled” social service. Unbundling gives the user power to pick the software that best suits their needs, rather than being forced to use the software made by the company that manages their data.

This is a really big step for what has, to date, been a paid Twitter competitor. Now, App.net competes with iCloud and Dropbox. The name suddenly makes sense.

Jon Mitchell of ReadWriteWeb speculates that this feature could drop the price of the Twitter-esque aspects of App.net to free:

By providing the 10 GB of cloud storage to paid accounts, App.net makes a new tier of pricing possible that could allow social-only accounts to be free. Suddenly, App.net would be just like Twitter, only with a thriving ecosystem of client apps, the possibility of upgrading to a powerful, cloud-backed service, and no ads whatsoever.

This is a smart move by Caldwell and the rest of the App.net folks.

Apple Updates iOS to 6.1

The release of iOS that seemed perpetually in beta (it was first released to developers in November) has been released to the general public. Apple mentions that 6.1 enables LTE on dozens of new carriers, and that there are some improvements to Siri. But what Apple doesn’t mention — and the reason this is an excellent update — is that 6.1 includes some big improvements to searching in MapKit (and, consequently, in Maps). Searching for “coffee” used to return places with “coffee” in the name; it now shows local coffee shops, regardless of their name. Search was my single biggest complaint with the new Apple-designed Maps, but it looks like it’s largely been fixed (in my area, at least).

Whither Link Posts?

Shawn Blanc:

The fact of the matter is: there’s no right or wrong here. Lopp, Bowler, Brooks, and so many others out there have spent time evaluating what they want to focus on. And so I thought I’d share briefly about why I personally am keeping my link posts here.

Like Lopp and Bowler, many people are migrating to Twitter as their outlet to share links. And while I think Twitter and App.net are great places for that, I personally like the idea of sharing most of the links I come across via my site.

“I know,” I thought, “I’ll link to this discourse on linked posts, in a bout of poetic justice.” But this is, truthfully, a great explanation of the reasons why I enjoy linking to posts I think you will find engaging, thoughtful, insightful, or interesting.