My iPad Goes Naked

iPad Smart Cover

iPad SmartCoverStephen Foskett has the iPad Smart Cover as #7 in his “Ten Terrible Apple Products” post. The timing coincided with my decision of the previous weekend that my iPad should go coverless. I’ve had a Smart Cover on my iPad 2 since I got it and kept the cover with the iPad 3 (aka iPad). I never really thought about it, but I was used to it. It was getting grungy and was having a harder time than usual holding up my iPad. I was planning a weekend trip to the Apple Store for a replacement.

Then as I was packing up for work I finally asked the obvious question. Why? I was packing the iPad, with Smart Cover attached into another sleeve for protection. The sleeve was needed because otherwise the Smart Cover would come off. Turning the iPad on, or worse, scratching it with the hinges. So that’s when I threw out the Smart Cover and started using just the sleeve.

The Smart Cover was never a very stable stand, it worked, but didn’t inspire confidence and would tip over in a slight breeze. So I long ago started using a generic tablet stand. Cheap enough to keep one at work and a couple at home. The stands themselves are less than five bucks although that typically doesn’t include shipping.They’re not really portable, but they’re light and will fit in a bag.

I have the iPad Suede Jacket from Waterfield Designs. I have the one sized for having the Smart Cover attached. It’s a tight fit and the Smart Cover would slide off trying to put it in the Jacket. So while it’s technically now too big, I like the extra space and easy in and out. It does mean being careful when carrying it so it doesn’t slip out.

The only reason I could come up with to keep the Smart Cover was to prop up the iPad when typing in the horizontal position. But that never really worked for me. The angle wasn’t right and there was to much “give” as the cover would flex a bit while typing. I won’t get a full case because I dock the iPad each night and I don’t want to fumble with the cover.

The Suede Jacket doesn’t have any padding, which isn’t a problem when it’s in my bag to and from work. So far it seems to keep the cover cleaner than the Smart Cover. No ribs from the cover at least. I do also have a SleeveCase, also from Waterfield Designs, that does have more padding so I can use it if I go out with just the iPad or want some extra protection for it. Thankfully the iPads have gotten smaller, this is the same case from my first iPad. It rarely gets used so it will probably last as long as I keep buying iPads.

I’ve never used a case on my iPhone and I’ve never regretted that. The iPad just seems to want a case or cover. Seems logical for some reason. Despite that, I’m getting used to having a naked iPad.

Cloud Music: Amazon and Google

Music Jukebox imageI recently wrote about my iTunes Match experience but despite being a long time user of the Apple ecosystem for music I also wanted to give Amazon’s and Google’s offerings a look. Amazon will allow an unlimited number of music files to be stored in their cloud music player, and Google will allow 20,000 to be stored. I have less than 20,000 songs so this makes the cost comparable – free. This compares to $25/year for iTunes Match.

Amazon Cloud Player

Of the two, I’m more likely to use Amazon Cloud Player since I’m a heavy Amazon user, being an Amazon Prime member and Kindle Fire owner. I have purchased about 600 songs from Amazon.

Things did not start off well with Amazon. I had long ago loaded my music to the Amazon Cloud Player, primarily as a backup. I hadn’t kept up with uploading new songs so I wanted to get current. To do this I had it scan my music again. It saw each song as new and wanted to upload it. I could see this for songs that may have been modified by iTunes Match, but it also saw the 600 Amazon purchases as new along with the CD rips I had uploaded long ago and were unchanged (these weren’t in iTunes so couldn’t have been touched by Match).

I decided to delete all my music and start over. Deleting the music was a pain as Amazon only did about 100 at a time (with considerable variation in this number), despite a message saying all had been deleted.

Unfortunately I still had a lot of duplicates after the upload. Since Match had replaced my MP3 files with M4a (iTunes formatted) files within iTunes. Since I scanned my MP3’s along with iTunes both were uploaded. I’m still trying to decide how I want to deal with this. As a backup destination I’d want both. But unless I want to hear every song on an album twice it does screw up playback. But this really isn’t the players fault unless your looking for it to identify songs, rather than files. This isn’t really an Amazon Player issue as long as it’s not expected to recognize actual songs or match meta data, but rather work simply off file names.

Things got better when I concentrated on playback. Amazon doesn’t have the concept of smart or genius playlists and I’m not one to manually create playlists so playback for me is strictly by album, artist or genre. I can do shuffle play but that’s about it.

The iOS app is nice, but suffers from the same limitations as the web player, no smart playlists. It can read in local playlists from iTunes but they are not refreshed when the iTunes playlist changes, they need to be re-imported. The first time I fired it up it needed to sync with the Amazon Cloud Player and performance suffered during this sync After this if was fine.

The iOS player did great over wi-fi, no complaints here. As I test I left the comfort of wi-fi and went for a drive were I’d use 3G, The first song that loaded after I was on 3G has serious stuttering problems at first. But once it got going it was fine. I went for a 60 mile drive, switching among many cell towers during the 60+ mile highway drive. There weren’t any problems or noticeable buffering during the drive.

The Kindle Fire was disappointing, to put it mildly. Despite using the same wi-fi network as the problem free iOS app, the Fire had serious performance problems. While iOS seemed to download basic information from the Cloud Player at initial startup, the Fire seemed to load from the Cloud every time I picked an artist or album causing frustrating delays while browsing. There were frequent messages that the player wasn’t responding and I was offered the option to kill it. I waited instead and eventually got a response. There were also frequent delays between songs while the player loaded the next song. Browsing while playing was unbearable.  I gave up on the Kindle Fire although I can’t help believing there must be some problem as it couldn’t possibly be this bad. I didn’t bother copying files locally since space is limited and I didn’t want to have to manage files on the device level.

Google Music (aka Google Play Music)

I’ve never bought music from Google. I do have a bias against Google. I don’t see them as a consumer focused company, unless there’s an algorithm that can manage those consumers. Android users would benefit the most from Google Music and I’m not an Android user so I expected my evaluation to be quick. There is an unofficial iOS app for Google Music, but I didn’t buy it so can’t comment.

I found Google easy enough to upload too, and they were the only service I tried that allowed me to throttle the upload bandwidth used. Google Music had the same problem as Amazon Cloud Player – it saw both the MP3 and M4a files of the same song as unique and uploaded both. They were grouped in the same album and given the same name since the meta data was the same.

Google provides a few more features than Amazon, Each song can be given a thumbs up or thumbs down as a rating. A playlists of thumbs up songs is automatically created. The also have an “instant mix” feature that will create a playlist based on an initial song you select. Google also as more social features, integrating with Google+. It’s no surprise these features revolve around song purchases.

Overall I liked Google Play Music’s web interface better than Amazon’s. They seem to have put more thought into it. Unfortunately there’s no official iOS support. Music can be played through Safari, but background play stops when the current song finishes. I haven’t tried any of the third party apps. Since the Play account is also my full Google Apps account I don’t want to put the password in any non-Google app or web page.

The Bottom Line

For better or worse I’m neck deep in the Apple ecosystem for playing music so this makes iTunes Match the best choice as my cloud music player, despite its flaws. If I wanted to leave Apple I’d pick Google provided they either came out with an official player or I wanted to create a music only Google account for a 3rd party iOS app.

But as a Music backup destination I’d prefer Amazon. I may upload music yet again. This time using the iTunes files as a source for the player, and uploading my MP3’s and lossless music as regular files, simply for backup purposes. These backups wouldn’t be counted as free music files since they aren’t supported cloud player files. I also need to consider if I really need the MP3’s. In addition to the .M4a iTunes fileI have the original CDs along with FLAC and Apple Lossless encodes should I ever need to re-encode them as MP3. But to be honest, this is more thought than I want to put into my music as this time. I’d rather just backup everything and continue to use iTunes for playing them.

How do you manage and play your music library? Thoughts on Amazon or Google cloud players?

Cloud Music: iTunes Match

iTunes Match Settings

iTunes Match SettingsIn the past I stored my music on Amazon cloud storage more as a backup than as a way to play it “from the cloud”. I purchased much of my music through Amazon and storing it was free (now all music stored there is free). Google also redid their cloud music offering and then there’s iTunes Match. I took a look at all three, this article gives my impression of iTunes Match.

I held off subscribing to iTunes Match until a couple months ago. Then my primary reason was to get the DRM off some old iTunes purchases, a secondary reason being to upgrade some lower quality songs. I never enabled Match on any iDevices until the past week.

iTunes Match PlaylistI started off with enabling it on my iPhone (it’s already enabled on my Mac Mini that has me entire music library). I was warned that it would replace my local music library. Since the local library was just a subset of my Mac Mini’s library I didn’t expect much change. I got a brief scare when my playlists disappeared, but they eventually came back. It looks like match did the right thing and kept the music that was already on the iPhone and marked the rest as being in the cloud. As the picture to the left shows, the first 3 songs are in the cloud while the last 4 are already on the iPhone.

There is no option to exclude unchecked songs, they are all available. I do have the option to only included checked items enabled in all my smart playlists created in iTunes, but this is ignored in Match on the iPhone.

Match will manage what songs are cached locally, using the songs already there as a starting point. I can also have it download all songs in a playlist, for an artist, or on an album (probably other criteria too, but those are the obvious ones) so they would be available when I’m offline or if I want to avoid using cell data. Cell data usage can also be turned off for iTunes Match to avoid eating up a data plan.

There was a noticeable delay in playing a cloud based song when it wasn’t in the queue. For example, when the first song in a playlist was cloud based. But once the songs were queued up it was seamless. Most of my usage was over my home wi-fi but I didn’t have any issues when I ventured off wireless. Admittedly, I didn’t use it much on 3G and most of that was in my house with wi-fi off for testing. The 3G performance will only be as good as the local network. I use Verizon which has been a solid performer for me locally.

I’m not a fan of the iTunes Music player interface on the iPad so I use Diner Jukebox instead. Diner Jukebox ad no problem playing songs using iTunes Match. I played songs that were local on the iPad and those in the cloud.

While I can’t create or edit smart playlists on my iDevice, the playlists are updated as songs move in and out of matching the criteria and these changes are synced across iTunes Match devices (as expected).

As someone who likes iTunes and the iPhone as a music player I find that iTunes Match enhances the experience. Anything that eliminates a reason to fire up iTunes simply to manage a device already starts out on the plus side. It does cost $25 a year which is a minus, but for this first year I got the added bonus of removing DRM from my older iTunes purchases. This was less than I would have paid under Apple’s old upgrade policy.

I would like the ability to create and edit smart playlists on my iPad. I suspect the iPhone screen size would make the UI for that too cumbersome but it should fit fine on the iPad. I don’t add or edit smart playlists much these days so this isn’t a big drawback for me. Since Amazon and Google don’t have a smart playlist concept for their players they probably won’t be much of a contender for iTunes Match. But I’ll be giving them a try.

The other interesting thing I encountered was that iTunes Match seemed to turn itself off in iTunes. My account says the computer is associated with iTunes match, but it’s not available in iTunes and I had to re-enable it. When it was added back it quickly saw it had all but 4 songs, which it uploaded. This was considerably less than when I first enabled iTunes Match. Now I could delete all those unchecked songs from iCloud to get them off my iDevices but I’m not sure I want to do that. While I could keep the physical files they’d be gone from iTunes and iCloud. Even though I don’t play them my packrate nature keeps me from clicking delete. I could create multiple libraries and I may eventually do that, but a first glance it seems like more effort than I’m willing to make.

Do you use iTunes Match as a cloud player? User another cloud player?

Moving FeedBurner Feed to New Account

I’ve been using FeedBurner from before the days Google owned it. When I converted it to a Google account I used my GMail account. I’ve been trying to consolidate everything to my Google Apps account and now it was time to move the FeedBurner feeds. This was a simple process and despite a warning that it could take up to 72 hours, I was done in minutes. (It took longer to write this article.)

You can only transfer between Google accounts, but I was able to transfer from a regular Google account to a Google Apps account.

  1. Log on to the existing FeedBurner account
  2. Click into the feed you want to transfer and select “Transfer Feed…”
    fb_transferfeed
  3. Enter the email address of the recipient then click the “Send Transfer Acceptance Request” button.
    fb_transfertoaddress
  4. Despite the warning that it can take up to 72 hours I received my email within moments. There’s a link to click in the email. When clicked you’re asked to accept or reject the transfer. I accepted and the feed was instantly in my new account.

This will be the first post since transferring the feed so we’ll see if it broke anything. [Update: It worked!]

[Update June 26th] I use FeedBurner to tweet when I have a new post. This broke when I moved the feed since the receiving Google account wasn’t authorized for Twitter. In FeedBurner I went to the Publicize tab, then the Socialize selection on the left. Then I just clicked the “Add a Twitter Account” button and authorized it. Then the Tweets started working again.

Blu-Ray Ripping & Viewing

videostreamI’ve been ripping my DVDs as a long time standard practice so I could pack them away in storage boxes and just play them from my Windows Home Server.  I’ve had a few Blu-rays but never spent the time figuring out what was needed to rip them. I have so few of them they don’t take much shelf space so I lacked the motivation to deal with them. I recently decided to give it a try and see how things went. I’m basically lazy and lacked any serious motivation to do this, so I’d be looking for the path of least resistance. It ended up being pretty easy to get working video files. It’s a bit more difficult to then view these files everywhere I wanted.

Software

I already have Slysoft’s AnyDVD HD and I use the Open Source Handbrake. Technically that’s all I need but it’s pretty messy figuring out which title’s I want. MakeMKV is frequently recommended so I looked at that.

MakeMKV is “free while in beta” and costs $50 for a permanent license key. The beta license key needs to be updated every month. The program author could decide to end the beta program at anytime and just go to a limited trial. (IMO this is more a trial software scheme than a beta program. The software seems fully baked.) The online help has the screenshots that show the screens so I won’t do my own screenshots. I did not test it on regular DVDs but according to the site there is no charge to open regular DVDs. MakeMKV is available for Windows, OS X and Linux, I used the Windows version.

I only encountered one title that MakeMKV couldn’t rip and I did go the AnyDVD route for that one.

MakeMKV is extremely easy to use. I just have it load the Blu-ray and select the largest title that it lists. (technically I deselect all the others since everything is selected by default). I also select all the English audio and the English forced subtitles. There isn’t any compression used to create the target file. They’re smaller simply because they only have the tracks needed. By default any title that’s less than two minutes in length is ignored. This is configurable and helps limit the title list to just the titles that may be of interest. If you want multiple titles they may not be in the same order as the disc menus list them (for example, TV show episodes). I found they were in the same order in most cases, but there were exceptions.

The only way I can play the MKVs directly is with VLC Media Player. So once I have the MKV file I use Handbrake to convert it to a more compatible format. I use the “High Profile” preset that is bundled with Handbrake. I find this setting to be compatible with all the devices I want to play them on, from iPad to TV. I’ll talk about it more later, but the resulting file is huge which brings problems of it’s own.

As far as time to do all this goes – I didn’t do any benchmarking and my process is to be ripping DVDs with MakeMKV and then put them in the Handbrake queue so both are going at the same time. MakeMKV is only going to go as fast as the Blu-ray drive can support and mine is fairly slow. It took me just over an hour to rip a full length feature. The Handbrake encoding takes much longer. With six cores kept busy it still takes about 5 hours to encode that movie so Handbrake is queued to overnight and runs until all the jobs are done. Handbrake settings can be tweaked to decrease the time but at the expense of either file size or quality.

Viewing the Files

There are still issues with the resulting file, mainly around file size.

To my surprise, my 3rd gen iPad is the most reliable and had the fewest problems, other than VLC on my computer. I was also able to stream some of the smaller, and lower bitrate, files from my Windows Home Server for viewing on my Gen 3 iPad (By “streaming”, I mean simply loading and playing the file across the network, there’s no special re-encoding or software.) I stream across an 802.11n network running on the 5Ghz band. There’s less interference from other wireless networks at 5Ghz since most hardware either only supports 2.4Ghz or defaults to 2.4 GHz. The initial load may buffer a bit and hesitate but after about 30 seconds it begins playing and has been solid straight through. Once I tried larger (higher bitrate) files I had some buffering problems. Copying to my iPad resulted in problem free playing.

The picture quality is great. But I don’t care what people say about resolution and distance making it equivalent to TV viewing. The experience is not the same, even if the math says it is.

My LG Blu-ray player was OK with some files but just would not play others. While I’m sure it’s files size or bitrate limited, I didn’t find a solid line that would be a problem if crossed.  I generally found this to be too aggravating to deal with due to all the issues. My Blu-ray player does have wireless 802.11N but only on the 2.4Ghz band. This did not result in a pleasant streaming experience, even for files that could be played.

I decided to pull out my old Roku player.  It’s an older Model 2100X but has a USB port and HDMI-out. Since USB thumb drives generally have FAT32 file systems with a 4 GB file size limit, I reformatted one of my USB external drives as NTFS so I could play larger files. I didn’t have any problems playing anything through the Roku player.  The largest file I had was approx. 15 GB and had an average bitrate of 21775kbps. This played fine using the Roku with the file on the attached USB drive.

My Conclusion

I had more Blu-ray discs than I thought, thanks to two Criterion Collection sets and a couple HBO series (Game of Thrones & Band of Brothers). But they fit fine on a small shelf next to my TV, making them easy to find. Thanks to some strange pricing and promotions Blu-ray’s may be cheaper than DVD,. so while my movie purchases are just a trickle, I may be buying a few.  For the Blu-rays I have, I want the quality. So re-encoding at a lower bitrate isn’t acceptable for me. So for now, the Roku with an external drive attached will be my solution.

If I decide I really do want my Blu-rays for streaming I’d probably go with ripping them as full ISO’s and then use software/devices capable of playing the ISOs. For the Blu-rays I have, I’m as likely to want the extras as the movie itself.

That said, the MakeMKV/Handbrake combo is a perfectly acceptable solution for turning Blu-rays into streaming media. Both are easy to set up (I used the pre-baked settings for both) even if it does take considerable time to chug through all the processing.

Linode Celebrates 9 Years with Discounts

Screenshot of Linode Uptime

Screenshot of Linode UptimeLinode is celebrating it’s 19th birthday with discounts for new and existing clients. Starting Tuesday June 9th at Noon EDT they’ll be giving discounts until they $250,000 in discounts/credits. See their blog for complete details. If you use this Linode link to sign up I’ll get a small kickback to help with my own hosting costs.

I’ve been on Linode for nearly tree years and highly recommend them for a unmanaged VPS server.

The OS Quest Trail Log #72: It’s Not All New Edition

Cog Railway EngineMay was a busy month on the quest. I  moved to a new web server and my Windows 7 desktop got a fresh new OS installation. But not everything was new. May is a big month for birthdays in my family, including my own. At 11, this month had the highest post count so far this year..

A comment got me interested (again) in using my Synology as a Time Machine backup destination. I’m still waiting to see how it handles some low disk situations. I found I couldn’t rush the testing. It appears Time Machine complains if it doesn’t have enough backup history and it runs out of space. It simply says to add disk. So I figure after running it a month I’ll start using up space again. I think it will work OK. I have had the occasional error that seems more like a regular time machine error than Synology specific. The next backup after the error has always worked.

I rebuilt my Windows 7 desktop early in the month. Things have been running nice and quick. I haven’t been installing software until I actually need it so there’s a lot less cruft on if.

I also went through a overall IT slimming down and reviewed what I was actually using. This was a good opportunity to clean up the “What I Use” pages on this site. I deleted the current “What I Use” sections and updated them with blog posts. The first was the iPad apps I use. There’s already been a change to that list (I updated the article). Mr. Reeder has replaced NetNewsWire as my RSS Reader on my iPad. Since I moved to a new web server it was a good time to document what I use for my web server. Then I wrapped up what I use within the house in Trail Log #71, which ran to about 2,000 words. (I need to cut back what I use even more.)

Web Server Move & Changes & Frustrations

I moved this site to a new web server this month. I’m still with Linode and it’s still a 512 MB VPS. But I switched to Debian 6 (“Squeeze”). I also made some configuration changes to Apache and PHP on the server. The biggest changes were the switch to MPM-Worker for Apache and mod_FCGID for PHP. Figuring out the configuration was a bit of a hassle but it’s been solid since the move.

As luck (or Murphy’s law) would dictate there were some problems with my Linode server and connectivity after the move. I’d been running the new VPS for about 6 weeks without having a problem. Then after the move there was a network issue for a couple hours during the evening of the 23rd. The server was fine, but inaccessible or experiencing timeouts. Then there was a planned software upgrade the evening of the 26th which required a reboot. While they weren’t specific it sounded like a security update, maybe to the Xen software. Then on Wednesday there was another reboot due to emergency maintenance.

To their credit Linode alerted me and had tickets open for the problems as quickly as my own alerting system (with 5 minute checks) alerted me. And when I logged on to the console there was a banner message telling me there was a known issue with my Linode and no need for me to reboot or take other action. They also explained the network issue (it was self-inflicted by a change) and they documented steps to prevent a re-occurrence. The server issue is resolved but no specific root cause yet.

Since things were going so well I decided to move ahead and try other new things. I started to dig into website performance strategies.  I added APC (Alternative PHP Cache) as an opcode cache. I also switched from WP-Supercache to W3 Total Cache since W3tc can use APC. I did some quick tests and found that W3tc and WPsc provided similar performance and features when using disk based page caching (make sense since they just create, not serve the static page). I like WP-Supercache a little better because it provides more visibility into what it’s doing. If I don’t use APC in conjunction with W3tc, or it provides minimal benefit, I may go back to WP-Supercache.

During the move I caused a self-inflicted Apache problem due to a syntax error in a logrotate file. I didn’t notice that until I saw that the logs were being rotated at the default settings, not my settings. That led me to continue squashing bugs and I went through the Apache error logs and start eliminating those frequent but inconsequential errors and warnings. I finally squashed Apache’s “file does not exist error” which had been filling the log but not affecting my site.

I just removed Google Analytics from my website, switching to the open source Piwik which I’ve been running for a few weeks.

I also removed the tweet and google+ buttons from each post. I never use them myself and I don’t know anyone who does. In my performance analysis they came up as being sub-optimal and targets for optimization. Now they have no impact on performance. Plus it’s creepy that those buttons can be used for tracking since I’m giving those companies carte blanche to put anything in the script that’s run from their server to display the button.

News That Interests Me

Comcast is rethinking there 250 GB data cap. The cynic in me says they’re looking for a way to collect more money from their customers. They wordsmith their press release too much, using words like “public internet”.  As for my own usage, the only times I ever bumped against the cap was when I refreshed my backups or was testing a new offsite backup service. In April I experimented and did almost all my “TV” watching through streaming video. Everything else was normal. I don’t have any kids and I don’t consider my TV/Movie viewing above normal. I hit 190MB of usage that month. The plans they’re testing seem reasonable, but I still don’t trust them. The data cap as a network management tool doesn’t hold water. I can go over the cap by only using my connection in the dead of night (and for backups that’s when I use it) and not affect their network. Or I can watch video during prime time when everyone else is, saturating their network, and stay well under the cap. Just admit that data cap is a way to get people who use their service more to pay more than people who use it less. This is especially true if their own Xfinity video on demand service, delivered over IP, doesn’t count against the data cap. No doubt that’s the reason they use the term “public internet”. Their Xfinity service never hits their definition of the “public internet”, even though it’s using the same infrastructure they use to provide ISP service.

When I read the headline that Google Chrome was “the most used browser” my initial reaction was “BS” before even reading the story. While the headline is catchy, trying to crown a winner is pointless. One analytics firm made the claim based websites that use their tracking code. While Microsoft is hardly unbiased, they rightly point out that Chrome pre-fetches web resources which may inflate stats. I don’t doubt the trend (Chrome up, IE down) but they’re not enough accuracy to justify the headline. As for The OS Quest in May (as reported by Piwik) – Google Chrome: 29%, Firefox: 28%, Safari: 24%, and IE: 16%. Looking at my stats it doesn’t appear Google Chrome’s numbers were affected by pre-fetching. I guess Google’s promotion of their browser on their search and other pages is paying off. In addition to being a nice browser. Google Chrome lost me as a regular user when they got rid of side tabs and I couldn’t find an add-in I liked to replace them. I liked Chrome, but I really want the side tabs. This happened at the same time Firefox made their browser more stable and able to handle the 35 tabs I currently have open without crashing or sucking up all the memory. So it was back to Firefox, despite their annoying upgrades.

June Plans

I’m still testing out different things on my Debian web server and will probably make a few more changes. My Mac Mini still has some disk performance issues so I’ll be looking at that and probably re-install everything like I did with my Windows 7 desktop. Then there’s Windows 8. It’s probably about time I install it to virtual machine and take a look. That should be enough to keep me busy.