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Review iPad Air 2: slimmer, faster, better – it’s all true.

Best iPad? Best tablet! Ever.
Best iPad? Best tablet! Ever.

At just 6.1mm thick, it’s hard to believe a device this slim can do anything, but it’s packed with high-tech, Apple-developed goodness and a remarkable new chip.

Speeds and timings — Startup time is not such a useful test any more, since iDevices keep apps running in a sort of memory, and that can slow start-up time, but in these examples I quit everything with the double-click of the Home button trick and swiping all the app panels upwards (just threw that in there to make sure everyone actually knows this is how you really quit apps – pressing the Home button once just hides apps, it doesn’t quit them). The two iPhones have the same CPU, as do the two minis.
Start-up from completely off
iPhone 6 — 23.05 seconds
iPad mini 2 — 26.72 seconds
iPhone 6 Plus — 30.61 seconds
iPad Air 2 — 31.99 seconds
iPad mini 3 — 37 seconds

Geek bench 3 does a better measure, and also uses criteria that are as meaningful for other platforms, so genuine cross-device performance can be indicated.
When the iPhone 6 models arrived with their A8 CPUs, they were clocked as being quick compared to the 5’s A7:
Model                                                        Single Core Multi-Core
iPhone 5 16GB 1.3GHz A6, 1016MB RAM: 717—1304
iPhone 5s 64GB 1.28GHz A7 1000MB RAM: 1395—2497
iPhone 6 128GB 1.38GHz A8 988MB RAM: 1631—2925
iPhone 6 Plus 218GB 1.37GHz A8 976MB RAM: 1618—2901
But iPad Air 2 (but not the new mini 3, unfortunately) has an even more powerful chip: the A8X. That presents the fastest ever CPU in an iDevice, and in fact in tests it beats all the other tablets too, for example LaptopMag, also using Geekbench 3, clocked the iPad Air 2 notched 4,547: over 1.5X higher than the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 (2,776 with its ‘octa-core Exynos CPU’) and more than 1000 higher than the Tegra K1-powered Nvidia Shield Tablet (3437).

iPhone 4, by the way (in my test back then in 2010): just 378! My own Geekbench 3 score of an iPad Air 2 was confirms LaptopMag’s figure: 4549. The single-core speed was 1812, a couple of hundred above iPhone 6: only just over 11% better – but the multi-core score is almost 57% better – quite dramatic. This A8X chip is 64-bit (of course – Apple’s are still the only smartphones and tablets that are 64-bit) and has an extraordinary 3 billion transistors on it. It’s also three-core, and the Air 2 has 2GB RAM – a real advantage.

Blue is single-core, green is multi
Blue is single-core, green is multi

Apple reckons this puts it into the desktop computer class and … that’s actually true: I Geekbenched a new iMac in mid 2007 that only showed half that score, at 2877! A 2010 MacBook Pro 13-inch running an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU at 2.66GHz (it had one processor and two cores) was under the iPad Air 2 figure at 3963 – lots of people are still happily using this level of power on their desks.

New retina display for the Air 2 has three layers fused into one, it's thinner, has more vivid colours and greater contrast and a new antireflective coating, giving iPad Air 2 the least reflective
The new retina display for the Air 2 has three layers fused into one, it’s thinner, has more vivid colours and greater contrast and a new antireflective coating

In real use on the Air 2, your drawing programs no longer show any perceptible lag then you use your finger or a stylus to draw lines and curves, which is a boon. Games really pop, thanks to the very-high-definition screen which has an impressive brightness and viewing angle compared to the last model. Its anti-glare quality actually puts it in a better class than the Sapphire surface Apple was rumoured to be considering as a touch-surface on something smart. Movies also look sensational: airline monitors are miles behind in quality and you’ll get a far better experience loading a new Retina iPad up with some movies and watching them on long plane rides, not to mention way better audio quality and comfort. Spec-wise, it’s 9.7 inches diagonally, with 2048×1536 pixels total resolution (3,145,728 total pixels).
Apple claims the graphics in the Air 2 is a full 2.5 times faster, with wireless twice as fast. Apple also claims 10 hours battery life, apparently because the M8 motion co-processor takes the measuring overhead away from the A8X. There are five censors for the M8 to monitor, after all: gyroscope, barometer, compass, GPS and accelerometer. That takes quite a load off the A8X. Apple’s figures are all on the Apple site, of course.

Other advances and changes — the camera is better than Air 1’s, giving you a level of use and quality more like the iPhone 6s’. I still laugh when I see people shooting pictures and videos on large iPads, but if that’s you, sorry – and at least you going to get better results now. Both new models have Touch ID, and you can enter more than one print, so you’re not limiting it to one person’s use. One thing that’s missing is the Mute switch, sacrificed to help slim the device. You can achieve the same from Control Center anyway, I guess, but it’s going to take a second or two longer.
I don’t get to compare this to other tablets, because A I don’t want to use them, and B I don’t have the resources, but Macworld UK has done so, and makes the point that although Android smartphones can draw from an excellent range of apps, there’s a “lack of productivity apps optimised for tablet in the Android world”. Macworld UK has a sister publication called PC Advisor which gets to test other devices, so they get to compare. Macworld also found the iPad Air 2 beat everything else in hardware, too. It’s just faster. It’s also almost 2mm slimmer than the Nexus 9, even though the Air 2’s display is slightly bigger, although the iPad Air 2 weighs a few grams more. Design and build is rated the same – if you like or need comparos, this is a good read.

Conclusion — for serious work or serious entertainment, this new iPad is in a class of its own. It’s both staggering and impressive that something this slim can be so powerful. Apple has done it again.

What’s great — Fast, slim, powerful, gorgeous display
What’s not — Er … well, it’s not cheap, but it’s a very similar in price to any competitor’s tablet that even comes close. So no worries on the price front. I’m not impressed with the new gold colour though. There’s probably a market for this, but to me it’s just tacky.
Buying advice: unbeatable — If you are serious about your iPad, this is the must-buy model. But don’t bother with the 16GB, you’ll fill it in no time flat.

iPad Air 2, RRP $729 (16GB wifi), $899 (64GB wifi) $1049 (128GB wifi); wifi/cellular 16GB $749, 64GB $1099 and 128GB $1249.

Note — I’ve not noticed the ‘0% interest for 6 months’ deal on the Apple NZ online store before. 

Next: iPad mini 3: a decent mini iPad if you want a mini, but well behind the iPad Air 2 in specs and barely a step up from the 2.

Review Borderlands the Pre Sequel — it’s a Pre-Boot!

A witty and amusing reinvention of the franchise, complete with Australian accents and humour
A witty and amusing reinvention of the franchise, complete with Australian accents and humour

Giving a reboot to the Borderlands series of games, this Australian (2K Games) retooling develops the story of Handsome Jack, the villain of Borderlands 2. If you know Borderlands, it’s a first-person shooter done in a kind of tech-cartoony style set in a sic-fi environment. You solve a series of (seemingly endless) quests gaining different guns and abilities as you go, which you really need since the quests get harder and harder.

Handsome Jack with his handy wrist-guns can actually be helpful this time around
Handsome Jack with his handy wrist-guns can actually be helpful this time around

This new game, released October 14th, fills in the backstory of Jack as an employee of Hyperion trying to re-gain control of its space station Helios from a military operation known as the Lost Legion. You’re helping him.

The amount of guns available is famously excessive. It’s part of the delight of the game – you’re always looking for that elusive, more powerful, more exciting, more accurate and more destructive piece. Attributes you pick up also change the way guns, grenades and other things react, so you have to check everywhere and loot at every opportunity.
The mouthy characters in the Pre Sequel are funny and entertaining in their own right. You go from little town (on a moon of a planet somewhere) to hamlet to metropolis talking to robots, other humans and also to various things … you can trade in your booty for things you actually want, collect money and various other valuable objects (like moonstones – of course) every time you enter a new territory. You;ll need cash for buying better stuff and to pay for your rebirth every time you get wasted. when you demolish someone they drop money, ammo, weapons and other handy items – all can aid you in your quests.
When I got this version of the game, I thought I’d just play it a bit to get the hang of it as I’d previously deleted the one before. Borderlands 2 was destroying my productivity. Four hours later … so, hate to say, this one’s easily as immersive and hard to stop playing once you’ve succumbed to booting it up.

PC? Yes and no — Politically correct: not at all. Some of the characters are kinda sexy, although there’s no actual sex. Just innuendo and suggestion. There’s even Lilith, but she’s too busy dancing in a bar, on first sight (apart form the intro) to tell you much.
But yes, it’s also popular on PC, and other gaming platforms.
This version of the franchise is even more irreverent than the others thanks to those Aussie coders. In-game characters are downright rude as well as funny and often speak in broad Australian (or should I say ‘Austrayan’) accents. They speak Strine – one character (Peepat) even starts spinning yarns quoting scenarios from famous Australian Bush Poetry. A lot of them swear like Aussies, too. There’s an age restriction on this game, and apart from the innuendo and violence, it’s due the language: “There’s a vault hunter at the bloody door!” etc, signs tell you to ‘Piz Off!’ (sic) etc. If you don’t mind that sort of thing, it’s pretty entertaining.

A lot of the conventions are familiar — things that glow with green lights, for example, open for loot or to discover things. Doors don’t … unless there’s a little green light by the handle –a rare occurrence, but be vigilant. Head-shots still count for quicker kills, and you get bonus points and attributes for achievements, some of which are tailored to this game (like shooting things accurately while you are in the air).

Moxi is back, left, and also appears in a new guise, right
Moxi is back, left, and also appears in a new guise, right

As with the other Borderlands games, I prefer a sniper rifle for outside and switch to something short-range and sprayable. This is needed for those nasty surprises (of which there are legions) that almost inevitably appear when you go into a structure.
But I’m not a fan of pistols or shotguns – I have used them if there’s nothing else, and shotguns are quite good against flying things once they get close. Each to their own. I gather if you’re young with faster twitch reflexes than mine, you’d like these sorts of weapons.
Around pretty much every corner or up some stairs, prepare to be engaged by something new, or by some familiar trouble. It pays to constantly stop, when somewhere safe, and check through your inventory in case you’ve picked up a better weapon, grenade or mod. Anything substandard, flog off at the vending machines, where you also sometimes find better weapons, shields and meds.

Moon Buggy transport – but it's weaponised
Moon Buggy transport – but it’s weaponised

There are new twists, too — this plays out on a moon, so often you’re outside monitoring your oxygen as you go, as an added distraction while various things try and kill you. You need to look for oxygen vents to fill up (just stand over them) and oxygen cylinders often appear when you destroy things. Suck them up, too.
The vehicles are based on the Apollo Moon Buggy (weaponised, of course) and it has its own oxygen supply, or enter a building and all’s good. But the moonscape also means you do these great low-gravity leaps which is cool fun. There’s a whole new class of weapons (like the freezing Cryo) and when you bound into the air – I mean, atmosphere – you can ‘butt-slam’ people by crashing down on them. Mm-hmm. See what I mean about irreverence? But it’s surprisingly satisfying.

A Star Wars reference or, more accurately, The Fifth Element's Star Wars' joke revisited
A Star Wars reference or, more accurately, The Fifth Element’s Star Wars’ joke revisited

Sense of fun — This game is infused with it. Humour, great touches like when you blow people up in low gravity they go flying into the air and dangle there and lots of clever touches.
There are also loads of hidden places to explore and some lead to some very cool gaming/sci-fi history Easter Eggs. You can find a Super Mario level, Buzz Lightyear appears (or something much like him), and references to movies like 2001 A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and even to the band Daft Punk. And there are even more – this thing is riddled with ’em. Check out this link and go exploring!

Conclusion — Genuinely fun time waster. Set aside hours. No, that’s wrong – set aside days.

What’s great — Cheeky, funny characterisations. Excellent music and soundtrack – I think it’s the best soundtrack of the Borderlands games so far, in fact.
What’s not — Fairly CPU intensive game, so make sure your Mac has what it takes before you buy. My MacBook Pro is pretty well-specced and has 16GB RAM but the fans always spin up on playing title, as did so with Borderlands 2.

Borderlands the Pre Sequel, US$59.99 (about NZ$77), by 2K Games and the original developer, Gearbox, with the Mac port handled very expertly by Aspyre – it’s available on Steam and in the Mac App store, and/or buy directly from this link.

Mac games renaissance — There has been a surge of Mac Games in the last year or so, and many are first rate. Since SSD Macs are so fast and graphics cards have improved so much (the Retina iMac must be a stonkin’ game engine) it’s well worth looking at some others. For example:
Borderlands 2
Borderlands 2 Complete
Borderlands 2 GOTY
Borderlands 2 Season Pass
BioShock Infinite
BioShock Infinite Complete
BioShock Infinite Season Pass
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Call of Duty: Black Ops
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
Civilization IV
Civilization IV Complete
Civilization V
Civilization V Complete
Civilization V: Brave New World
Civilization V: Gods & Kings
Civilization: Beyond Earth (new)
RollerCoaster Tycoon 3: Platinum
SimCity 4: Deluxe Edition
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic


Review Logitech Bluetooth Multi-device Keyboard k480

A single keyboard promises text entry for three your devices
A single keyboard promises text entry for three your devices

iPads and even iPhones are OK for banging out a few lines (aka ‘word processing’), sure, but if you seriously want to bash out some words, a real keyboard is the only answer. Unfortunately, it’s an expensive solution if you require one for each device – Mac, iPad, iPhone. That’s the issue the k480 tries to address, with its switchable Bluetooth pairings. It works for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android, so either device combo you have is catered to: press ‘PC’ at top right of the keyboard for Windows/Android and ‘i’ Mac/iOS. So it won’t work for you if your device menagerie of choice is a mixed platform one.

If you are using the k480 with a Mac, you’ll notice the Start, Alt and Ctrl keys have ‘opt’ and ‘cmd’ (Option and Command) under those words in grey. There are single-purpose Control and Function modifier keys, too (marked ‘ctrl’ and ‘fn’).

It might be a strange colour combo but somehow it looks pretty slick to me
Black and pale green might seem a strange colour combo but somehow it looks pretty slick to me

The keyboard is ’80s retro-futurist in white with rounded-edge keys, or in black with an almost flouro yellowy-green slot above the number keys. It looks like it should be on the set of UFO or Space 1999. It is relatively thick top to bottom (about 20mm at the thickest, top edge and 16mm on the spacebar side).

In the groove - you can probably fit two devices at once
In the groove – you can probably fit two devices at once

This thickness allows a mobile device to sit in a slot along the top as a kind of de facto laptop. You can fit in an iPad mini, portrait, along with the smaller iPhone 6 (even when it’s in an Apple case) alongside each other. I found the angle and space for comfortable typing about right, which explains the physical size of the keyboard. To pair it with a Mac, turn it on underneath (two AAA batteries are preinstalled under a panel on the underside) and hold in the ‘i’ key for three seconds so that the little blue LED to the right of the ‘i’ key blinks (three seconds) and then you can pair it the usual way via System Preferences>Bluetooth.

The keyboard appears in the Device list and click ‘Pair’. Whatever that number is on the number dial at top left, switching that to another changes the connection – in other words, it disconnects the Mac.

The three-position device selector works well
The three-position device selector works well

To connect it to something else, change the number on the three-position dial, open Settings on the iDevice, tap Bluetooth, hold that keyboard’s right-top button in for three seconds, it appears as ‘Keyboard’ in the Bluetooth list and choose it to pair. From then on, choose the right number and that device is connected, the others aren’t.

For the Mac, the keyboard feels feels a bit weird, kinda ‘buttony’, as if you are really pressing buttons instead of depressing keyboard keys. It’s funny that when you flip the switch to the iPhone pairing then type on the keyboard it feels totally different, because you are no longer typing on virtual keys on glass, you’re typing on real keys nice and far apart, which is quite liberating. So in an odd way, it feels better for iDevices than it does for a Mac.

Conclusion — What seems great for iDevices seems a bit clunky for a Mac, compared to an Apple keyboard anyway, but it will suit those more used to a Windows keyboard layout. However, the switchable aspect works a charm and it might be the device you’ve been craving for your digital life, since it’s not too pricey.

What’s great  — Easy to pair, easy to switch, liberating having a keyboard work with two or even three iDevices, so you could also get one keyboard and pair it with three people’s devices, assigning them each a number. Then let the fighting over who has the keyboard begin!

What’s not — Doesn’t actually feel that great to type on.At least it’s not expensive.

Logitech Bluetooth Multi-device Keyboard k480, NZ$79.70

System — Bluetooth wireless computers or mobile devices which support external keyboards (HID profile), including Mac OS X, PCs running Windows 7, 8 or later or Chrome OS; iPad/iPhone iOS 5 or later and Android devices with Android 3.2 or later. Internet connection (for optional software download).

Available from — Electronics retailers. More info from Logitech.

Review — IK Multimedia iRig Mic HD

IK Multimedia's new HD mic comes with everything you need for better quality recordings
IK Multimedia’s new HD mic comes with everything you need for better quality recordings

Have you ever wanted a good quality hand-held mic you could plug into your iPad/iPhone or Mac? IK Multimedia in Italy now has the answer. The new digital condenser iRig Mic HD microphone plugs directly into the digital input on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Mac (or PC) via included 1.5m Lightning or USB (for Mac) cables.

The mic features a 24-bit A/D converter with a 44.1-48 kHz sampling rate, all neatly tucked away inside, and the shaft of the mic has a gain control with a multi-colour LED indicator. The HD ships with a vinyl carry bag, comes with a mic clip, an adapter so the clip can be used with either of the most common mic stands, has two cables included (Lightning and USB), and a plastic locking grommet (above, in the main picture, at left) you place on the cable near the mic end, plug the cable into the mic, slide it down and screw into place around the mount to lock the cable in place – it’s a neat solution.
A 30-pin cable available for older iPads/iPhones is available separately, by the way.

IK makes apps too — iDevice amp profiles, guitarist stompbox apps etc – there are free IK apps that go along with your purchase: iRig Recorder, VocaLive and AmpliTube in iOS and Mac (or PC) versions. You get the mic in your typical muso-black or, as an exclusive to the Apple Store, in silver.
It’s a well-built, solid-feeling microphone. It’s not particularly weighty but it doesn’t feel cheap.
There’s a circular gain control on the mic shaft itself, which is the only thing I really dislike about it, as it can be difficult to turn with its odd design unless you press your finger or thumb-tip into it. Presumably this makes it hard to knock out of position by mistake when you are holding it. An LED is on the other side of the gain control so you can’t immediately see the results of the changes in gain if you are staring at the dial, but if you have the mic, say, angled to your mouth and your thumb pressed into the gain on the underside of the shaft, you can (if clumsily) change the gain and see the result on the light, since it’s blue to show ‘on’, goes green at sound input, shades into orange when it’s peaking and red for clip.

The changing LED means you can spot peaks even across the room and away from your recording app
The changing LED means you can spot peaks even across the room and away from your recording app

What’s the point? Quality, first of all. The internal iPhone mic might be fine for phone calls and voice memos, but iPhones and iPads support better quality sound than that, as you will know if you use it to listen to music. Many games also push the sonic boundaries a bit. Out of the box, the Mic HD plugs straight into later iDevices via the included Lightning connector, and works with anything that would normally use the internal microphone, including Voice Memo. Even on this the iRig is noticeably better, capturing a much rounder, deeper and lower midrange and bass. I tested it with voice and with a particularly good acoustic guitar, and listened to the result through my Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones.
The iRig HD is the kind of mic you typically hold in the hand and talk into, but thanks to a gain control on the shaft you can crank it up for ambient sounds, say to accompany video that would go alongside some serious filming. This makes it potentially useful for field recordings.
And yes, since you wondered – the new iPhones have wonderful filming capabilities, so you can plug in the mic and film away and capture very good quality audio. I tested this by recording walking down the hall of my house to the radio, and then repeated with the iRig Mic HD plugged in. I noticed two things: the internal iPhone 6 mic picked up way more ambient noise, ‘hearing’ the radio in the room I was heading to from the outset, whereas the iRig didn’t pick up the radio till much later. You can, of course, hold the mic a lot further way to refine what it captures, since it comes with two 1.5 metre cables. The iRig virtually failed to detect my footfalls on the wooden floor as I walked whereas with the iPhone mic, they boomed: the HD is distinctly directional by comparison.
Secondly, the iRig Mic HD sound quality is considerably superior, with more detail and much better midrange and bass.

Audio — Sound goes through a built-in, high definition preamp and then a 24-bit A/D converter. Recordings of up to 48 kHz are supported.

Apps — Of course, IK Multimedia is famous for its apps (if you buy these, btw, get on the IK mailing list as there are so many specials so often, you can save a bomb buying when you’re told of them). VocaLive let’s you import songs, strip the vocals off them and sing along to replace them. I couldn’t try this as it said I needed songs in .wav format … wtf? Who has those on iDevices? So scratch that one.
I had a lot more luck with EZVoice. This is a voice recorder specifically, with effects (Reverb is free when you register, which you can do in-app by simply scanning the QR Code on the  card included with the mic’s documentation) but the others will cost you $1.29 each for: Tune, Morph, Choir, EQ, Filter, Level, Chorus and Delay. However, all the Presets seem to work already with the free EZ Voice app and there are loads, so have fun with those before you splash out – they include settings like Glam, King, Shadow and Space Alien.
When you tap the Record red circle you get an on-screen 1-2-3-4 count and then you’re off. Next to the Record button you have FX (effects) and Song, which is where your saved recordings go. You can share them straight to SoundCloud, into iTunes or via email. Also, you can tap Edit at top right to delete songs, scrub through them and change the volume with the bottom 0-100 slider. It’s simple, but effective, and if you tap the Plus sign at top left, this does actually import songs from your iTunes library.

Compared to another mic — Another test I ran was versus my standard recording mic, a Beyer Dynamic M 500 N(C) (XLR connector) low impedance hypercardioid ribbon microphone in a traditional handheld form-factor, with a sensitivity (so this website  says) of between 1977 (0.9 mV/Pa) and about 1984 (1.2 mV/Pa). I’ve actually had this mic since 1984; the model was first released in 1969. Ribbon mics are, apparently, known for sharp detail and warm, accurate sound reproduction. I’ve always liked the sound of my M 500, but I’ve sometimes found it frustrating that it was so quiet. I possibly like the sound as these mics are known for good bass reproduction (I used to be a bass player). These Beyers are still sought-after and can enjoy a new lease of life these days if they’ve been modded by one Stephen Sank, by the by, and that’s something that would have solved my reservations with this one over the years.

The resulting audio sounds more immediate on the iRig HD, and softer and rounder on the Beyer. Quality wise, I’d just use them for different things – I couldn’t really hear lesser quality on either, although dispute its quietness I could overload the Beyer quicker. (The Beyer was plugged into my MacBook Pro via an Alesis tw-track digital audio interface.)

The Apple Store has an exclusive silver model
The Apple Store has an exclusive silver model

Conclusion — The iRig HD does a good, if unspecialised, job. It’s definitely a huge step up from the built-in iPhone/iPad mic and its handy for quick, good quality Mac recordings too. Its primary uses would be recording interviews, voice-overs and field recordings. It may lack the finesse of a studio condenser microphone, but it’s more durable for use out and about, and it’s a very handy addition to any recordist’s repertoire; for interviewing; field recordings for video; home recordings.

What’s great —
• Handheld form factor
• Usability for both iOS and Mac is excellent
• It’s great that two cables (Lightning and USB) are supplied and that you can change it at the mic end (many Condensers come with the cable integral to the body of the mic. Once that frays, you have to replace the mic as well).

What’s not —
• The gain control isn’t exactly easy to use, and it’s in a strange position in relation to the LED.
• The free apps are interesting rather than indispensable and it’s a bit of a process, with authorisation codes etc, to download them.

IK Multimedia iRig Mic HD NZ RRP $229.95

System — The IK Multimedia iRig HD Handheld Digital Condenser Microphone for OS X and iOS has a stated frequency response of 40 to 18,000 Hz and a maximum SPL of 134 dB. From the frequency response you can see it’s more aimed at voice, guitar etc rather than high-pitched acoustic instruments, cymbals etc.

More info — IK Multimedia (Italy), available in New Zealand (physically) at RockShop, and online at Mighty Ape, Rubber Monkey and the Apple Store.

Review iPhone 6 — 4: video

iPhone 6 shot with the 6 Plus (the 8MP Plus did a better job than my 12MP Canon compact, for some reason.)
iPhone 6 shot with the 6 Plus (the 8MP Plus did a better job than my 12MP Canon compact, for some reason.)

Finally, how do the new iPhones do in video? One of the new features is a really fast refocus. This is thanks to what Apple calls ‘Focus Pixels’ which are sensitive to distinct angles of incoming light, and work together to determine the focus direction and how far to move the iSight lens.

Exposure — The same exposure controls you can use in photos exist for video. You can lighten or darken a photo or video on your viewfinder by up to four f-stops in either direction by tapping on the screen, then sliding your finger up and down to the right of the yellow focus/exposure area that appears.

Optical image stabilisation — Unlike the 6, the bigger iPhone 6 Plus has optical image stabilisation. It uses the A8 chip, the gyroscope, and the new M8 motion coprocessor to measure motion data and provide precise side-to-side lens movement to compensate for hand shake in low light. The 6’s new iSight camera also takes both long- and short-exposure images, which also helps reduce subject motion. That means on a pan-sweep, where you start filming and change the viewpoint of the iPhone Plus results in pretty smooth video, almost as if you have a steadycam, as you can see in the linked videos. (Note these all got sampled down to 720P when uploaded to Vimeo.) The videos were shot from the same point and light conditions within a 20-minute time frame. You can see that the iPhone 5 doesn’t refocus on the shed on the right, whereas the other two do.

iPhone 5 pan video

iPhone 6 video

iPhone 6 Plus

6 Appeal part 1 ~ Review iPhone 6 and 6 Plus

They're bigger all right! (left – ranges form Apple's iPhone online Store compare page)
They’re bigger all right! (left – images from Apple’s iPhone online Store comparo page)

I’ve had the luxury of some time with both iPhone 6 models, and they’re both very slick devices.

The first and most obvious consideration is size. Even the iPhone 6 is considerably bigger than the 5, but the fact it’s so light and thin means it slips into a pocket very easily and you quickly forget it’s a ‘bigger’ device. Thickness has been honed down: 6.9mm for iPhone 6 and 7.1mm for iPhone 6 Plus. The 5s were all 7.6mm thick, so even the Plus feels impressively slim in the hand.

Size matters

You can get a 6 Plus in your jeans pocket – but you probably shouldn't
You can get a 6 Plus in your jeans pocket – but you probably shouldn’t

But whereas the iPhone 6 quickly just feels like your new iPhone, the 6 Plus is just big. You can – just – put it in your jeans pocket, but then you can’t really sit down. You certainly can’t hurry anywhere with it there – running is not possible. For a bag or a lab-coat pocket, no problem, but I tend to put my iPhone in a jacket or jeans pocket, myself. Some jackets handle the big Plus, almost no denim pants will, safely, unless you’re a giant or you have different to normally-place big enough pockets.
BigI was sceptical the Plus would even be comfortable to hold like a telephone – to the side of your face, I mean (right) – and I started to understand why I see people these days walking along chatting at their phone held out in front of them. Actually, though, the 6 Plus is so light, it’s not a problem to hold it like a phone to your face, although if you have particularly small hands it might be. It’s certainly not heavy-feeling.
But bigger screens pose usability problems which Apple has tried to address. One is that the top-right Sleep button has been moved down onto the left side, near the top. You can still reach it with a digit while holding either phone in one hand. Another thing is that – for right-handed use, anyway – a double-tap (not click) on the Home button drops the screen into range of a right-thumb-sweep. Double-tap it again (or click the Home button once) to go back to full-screen. To further facilitate this thumb-sweep, the edges of the glass all around are fared into the case so there’s no hard edge. (This does add to the slightly slippery character of the iPhone 6s, though. They really need cases.) To suit the new slimmer designs, the volume and sleep buttons have been elongated.
I should reiterate that to the hand, both these new phones feel strong, beautifully engineered and very pleasing. (By the way, Apple sold ten million iPhone 6s in a few days, and there were nine complaints about bent phones. The odds are pretty steep that you’ll bend your iPhone, but seriously, if you put a Plus in your back pocket and sit on it, of course you can bend it.)

Pixel bonanza — What the new sizes means in terms of use is more pixels. Many more pixels – the iPhone 6 has over a million and the Plus, over 2 million. More specifically, the iPhone 6’s 4.7-inch display holds 1334×750 (total 1,000,500 pixels) and the considerably larger 6 Plus has the 5.5-inch display. That shows 1920×1080, or a staggering 2,073,600 pixels. The result is a 38% bigger iPhone 6 display, and 88% bigger (compared to the 5) for the Plus.

There has been a steady rise in iPhone screen sizes: 
iPhone 4 — 3.5-inch display — 960×640 — 614400 total pixels
iPhone 5 — 4-inch display — 1136×640 — 727040 total pixels
iPhone 6 —  4.7-inch display — 1334×750 — 1,000,500 total pixels
iPhone 6 Plus 5.5-inch display — 1920×1080 —  2,073,600 pixels
(Inch measurements are diagonal)

Better picture — A new display features in both, and the blacks are really black now. This makes everything look super crisp and clear, including games, movies and images. More impressive is the viewing angle – it’s extreme. Two people watching a movie on a 6 Plus, say on a plane, is now eminently doable, and besides, it’s dramatically superior to any display currently on commercial airliners.

Processing prowess — They almost need their own video cards, you’d think, with screens that are so much bigger. But these are 64-bit computing machines after all – I don’t believe any other smartphone has reached this processing plateau. The others are all still just 32-bit. This level of chip development has a processing payoff that Apple has cannily been benefitting from: the new A8 CPU in the 6s is the second generation of this architecture, and results in smooth action sequences since the CPU never has to step down to conserve battery power. There isn’t an actual GPU, of course, but the A8 includes an Apple-designed image signal processor component that enables advanced camera and video features.

What to do with all these pixels? It’s definitely a better viewing experience whichever way you look at it (ha ha), but if you just want ‘big’ due to eye problems of one sort or another – bigger icons, bigger text all round – you can use the new iPhones in Display Zoom mode. Although I need glasses myself these days, I would be hard pressed to use this option, simply because I perceive this as a waste of those excellent tiny high-definition pixels. For the same reason, I always run my Mac monitors on the maximum possible resolutions. But if you need it, it’s an excellent accessibility feature.

Another benefit of the larger screen is that the iPhone 6 Plus has a horizontal mode in some apps – for example, Mail gives you a more Mac-like two-column view, which would be a boon to those using this heavily as an email communications device, and Messages does the same.

Motion — The 6s also have the M8 motion co-processor is mostly beneficial to health apps, of which there aren’t many yet, but it’s a market that’s set to increase dramatically. The M8 continuously measures motion data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, compass and the new barometer, which senses air pressure, providing relative elevation. (I live at 24 metres above sea level – netter check that global warming chart but I think I’m pretty safe.)

If you add a bodily few parameters (height, weight, body mass etc) into the Health app, you will start to get the benefit of this, and more so when more apps using the HealthKit API come onto the market.

Short Takes
Pluses — Awesome, deep, crips and clear screens. More finer pixels. They’re bigger, but well-engineered. New 64-bit CPUs. Benefits to come with the Health tech.
Reservations — Slippery. The big Plus is too big for me, even though I think Apple did a terrific job of making this work.

This is part 1. Part 2 will concentrate on the cameras … and wow! 

More info — Apple Inc.

Review: Printworks page layout software for Mac

Printworks: surprisingly able with some interesting features to boot
Printworks: surprisingly able with some interesting features to boot (click this image for a larger view)

Recently I wiped my Mac and put everything I needed back on, in attempts to free up space, and to get rid of loads of apps and other little things I’d installed for one reason or another, but long-term didn’t really use. I do this every year or so, as a sort of spring cleaning, since everything is backed up via Time Machine.

But it left me with a conundrum: reinstall Adobe CS 6 or not, or even go to the online subscription versions of the new 2014 Adobe titles? I only really used InDesign and Photoshop nowadays, and Photoshop has been barely necessary lately as all I really do is prepare images for online, and I can even do that with Preview (although I have tried other alternatives, none of them offer a single crop-resize-resample function which would be awesome). Illustrator I did occasionally use, mainly for its gorgeous graphs, but I’ve let Apple’s Numbers take over that function as I think they look even better, and it’s easier to use.

InDesign, though, I have been using every month for several years now to create MagBytes. Not that I was completely sold on it, although I have used it for many years (in the magazine industry before that). I find the interface clunky, it still doesn’t look fab with a Retina display, link-management is difficult and several operations are unintuitive and even stupid, like not being able to set a drop shadow that stays in the dialogue. You have to type your preferred settings every bloody time … But I am used to it, so I can work fast enough, and since the MagBytes newsletter needs links to look at apps and online features, it’s relatively easy to set up hyperlinks that survive into PDFs (just not to manage those links afterwards).

PDF is another strength of InDesign: I suppose it’s because Adobe invented the PDF format, but you can set careful parameters that result in good-looking, linked-up PDFs that are still small enough to be easily emailed and downloaded.

Anyway, before I made up my decision, I tried out Pages but the inability to add pages to a spread was just too difficult to get my head around (you now can, thankfully, from the last update, from the Insert menu). But the PDFs that resulted were 3-4 times bigger than those generated by InDesign. I even looked at iBooks Author, but it doesn’t really suit the desired PDF filetype at the end (although it’s fantastic for creating interactive iBooks).

Issue 55 of MagBytes was attempted in Publisher Lite
Issue 55 of MagBytes was attempted in Publisher Lite

So I actually created an entire MagBytes (#55) in a third-party app called PageMeUp, and it looked … OK, I guess, but it would only maintain links that I copied over along with text – I couldn’t create links on the fly as I developed the magazine file.

Another app I looked at was Printworks, and although I must point out immediately that, likewise, it’s not possible to select some text and create a hyperlink, it has some really intriguing features.

First and foremost would be its pretty incredible graphics library, but let’s start at the beginning – like many of Apple’s apps, Printworks starts with a templates’ chooser, and one of the things I liked straight away is the set of blank ones (landscape, gatefold, tri-fold, z-fold etc, 14 in total) along with the graphics-rich ones we have come to expect.
The graphics-laden examples are numerous – Brochures, Flyers, Catalogs [sic], Newsletters, Menus, Letterheads and Fax Covers, Calendars, Certificates and Posters under Desktop Publishing, then there are Blank, Music, Photo and Videos for Discs and Media, under Business Cards there’s Blank, Horizontal and Vertical, there are three Labels categories, three for envelopes and two for cards then the My Templates section you can populate yourself. Every category had at least 7 templates and many have many more (Brochures has 32) – there’s way more choice than Pages. In all there are over a thousand templates ready to go.

Layers, tools
Printworks also supports layers. A layout starts on a foreground layer with a layer behind that. On the background you set guides etc that, once you’re working on the layer above, stay untouched if you want to guide-up an individual page (swap between layers, and add new ones, under ‘Foreground’ at top left). You can also hide and show layers for trying different layouts.

But there’s also a Master page (under Content Pages) at top right, for guiding-up and otherwise setting master pages. Guides can be locked and you can Delete All when you’ve changed your mind (nothing worse than killing them one by one).

At the top left in the toolbar you can switch from Pointer, for moving things around, the Text tool (which supports Text Box, Circular Text and Vertical Text – click-and-hold on the Text icon to see the options), the shape tool (Rectangle, Circle and Spline for pen-like vector drawings with click-and-drag operation as in Illustrator and Photoshop) and there’s even a freehand drawing tool beside that. Any drawn shapes, circles and rectangles can be stroked and filled from the inspector on the right, and there are linear and radial gradients to choose from.

Select the text tool, click and drag out on the page and start typing, or paste copied text into it. I prefer being able to place where text goes – in PageMeUp, when you clicked the Text tool a text box just materialised in the middle of the page – this is how the new Preview, in Yosemite, works by the way, when you want to add text or a shape). Like InDesign, a red Plus box lets you know there’s more text in the text box that you can see. Drag it bigger, or click on the Plus and click somewhere else to link to another box, column etc. Text can be edited for spelling (double-click on a word) or you can change all attributes of it by clicking on it once and selecting a new face, flush-style etc from the inspector, which affects all the text in the box (the same as InDesign, Illustrator etc).

Another nice feature is comprehensive Styles that are easy to use. These are accessed from the Styles button at top centre. There are defaults in there, or choose Edit Styles to add or modify your own, or select some text on the page, change its parameters until you are happy, and select Add from Selection. Nice. When you edit the styles, there is control for manipulating space between characters and between lines vertically, but not the kind of fine kerning control and other typeface and flow options you find in InDesign.

An Object Cause Wrap is another essential feature for those doing layouts. Drag an object over text, then select the button and from the four options. You can also add space around it.

Heading Editor
Heading Editor

A slightly odd feature is the Heading editor – the text isn’t editable until you double-click it, then you can edit it in a dialogue box. I assume that means the headline on the page is an object rather than text, but I’m not sure. It does give you extra creative power (drop shadow, opacity) you wouldn’t normally require of text. It also lets you fill the letters with images, supplied and from your own librarywhich can be pretty cool. Why have these options for normal body text? It’s unlikely you’d ever need it.

Graphics libraries
Printworks ships with over 1000 examples of clipart, much of which is excellent in quality (but don’t drag it too big on the page). This can be expanded to over 40,000 with an additional purchase from belightsoft.com (be great to be able to do this on the fly from within Printworks). You have to go to the link.

But that’ll set you back $59.95– you can browse the images online, luckily, before you shell out. It’s still a lot cheaper than continually buying stock images.

There’s also ‘Printworks with Extras’ where you get it all, with all he extra images, as a bundle for NZ$76.12.

Belight’s approach to graphics is very sensible: if you drag a corner handle of a graphic, it resizes proportionally only, but you can grab centre side, top and bottom handles to squish or stretch. Click joust outside a corner handle and you can swing it to rotate on the fly – handy.

It’s obvious this company (I think it’s in a former Soviet country) knows its graphics chops, going by the other apps they have for sale online and in the App Store – photo editors, 3D designers, font sets etc. In Printworks, there’s a camera icon above the graphics library on the left and this accesses your iPhoto collection, which is very Apple-like. Double-click any image and you get an Inspector window with image effects including Colour Controls, Exposure, Posterise and many more so you can work on them right in Printworks. An additional 100+masks are available for these from the Inspector on the right. And there are Smart Objects: loads of shapes including arrows, starbursts, hexagons etc, which you can edit by stroke, colour, add drop shadows to … you can even import images inside shapes so they mask them immediately. And everything can be made instantly transparent thanks to an Opacity slider near the bottom of the Inspector on the right.

You can drag out and position borders, but also stroke any placed image by selecting it, clicking Stroke in the Inspector on the right, and adding the weight, colour and other attributes directly.

Click the eye icon at top right any time to see what the printed version would look like (makes guides etc invisible).

All important, but there are only three image qualities for PDFs – 300dpi, 600 or 150. You can’t customise beyond those (I usually 254dpi for Retina displays) but ‘workflows’ are available for emailing (which compresses it further), add to iBooks etc. The other options are TIFF, JPEG and EPS (these will bitmap the typefaces, unlike PDF).

Page management
A button that looks like a book, nearer the centre on the left, lets you add and navigate between pages. This is easy to use, once you know it’s there, and an eminently practical arrangement that deals with one of the major frustrations of most entry-level page layout programs including, even, Apple’s Pages which only adds a page when you over-type on the existing one.

Apart from not being able to select some text and add a hyperlink – essential for my own needs – I got a couple of crashes, but I was running a non-standard Mac OS on my MacBook Pro. The free update to take it to 1.0.1 made it much more stable on my machine. If I could only add links … All the templates are in Portrait mode and MagBytes is landscape, with the pages readable subsequently below, since it’s designed for landscape monitors and iPad held that way. So you can re-orient the page in the Inspector on the right, but then you have to manually move everything to fit (above).
As for the clipart, I hopefully assume Belight has permission for the shots of the British Royal Family etc.

A surprisingly able layout program with some sophisticated features, particularly for working with images. It’s very easy to use once you watch the included 20 minutes or so of instructional videos that serve well to demystify and explain everything. If you didn’t need to jump all the way up to a pro package like InDesign but Pages wasn’t cutting it for your layout leads, Printworks is a real contender with some very nice touches.

Printworks NZ$38.99 in the Mac App Store (free trial available – it may be worth visiting the site for the free Rails train simulator app, and more of interest). I noticed the price on the Belight site was $49.95 …

MacBook Air EFI update reissued, InDesign 2014, Ember & Shazam for Mac

Shazam is now available for Mac, free
Shazam is now available for Mac, free

Apple reissues MacBook Air EFI update after resolving install, crashing bug — Apple just rereleased a recent MacBook Air EFI update targeting sleep-from-wake problems after a flawed initial rollout caused some machines to crash unexpectedly. Noting the change from the original build it replaces, Apple’s EFI firmware update is labeled version 2.9.1 and looks to fix sleep-from-wake issues seen by owners of mid-2011 MacBook Air models.
Apple’s MacBook Air EFI Firmware Update 2.9.1 is available now as a 4.3MB download.

InDesign CC 2014 — InDesign’s new ePub tools opens the digital book market to a giant new group of authors, and improvements to often-used features in InDesign will ease the workflow of a large number of design…  See Macworld’s review.

Ember for Mac gains ‘hugely-requested’ screen recording feature — Popular web clipper and digital scrapbooking app Ember was updated today with a killer new feature – the ability to make a video recording of your screen. No longer limited by only static images, Ember now allows you to capture your screen as you demo webpages, click through a presentation or showcase an app.

Apple activates in-house content delivery network, begins migrating content downloads — Following months of rumours, Apple appears to be in the early stages of launching its own in-house content delivery network, the latest in a series of steps taken by the company in recent years to reduce its reliance on third-party infrastructure vendors to deliver content to customers.

Shazam lands on the Mac with new menu bar utility — Shazam is now available on the Mac, landing in the Mac App Store (free) as menu bar app. Announced today, the new utility identifies music and TV playing in your surrounding environment, notifying you when it has made a match.