• Newsletter Issue #836

    December 7th, 2015


    The other day, I read an article about DirecTV’s plans to add 4K content in 2016. This isn’t the satellite provider’s first foray into 4K, though. They had a deal with Samsung some time back that made such fare exclusive to that company’s TV sets. Whether done out of desperation, or the result of a wrongheaded marketing plan, it’s good to know that the new scheme will not restrict the brand of 4K sets that will be compatible.

    The report also indicated that DirecTV could handle up to 50 channels of the higher resolution content with the existing satellite structure. But the largest satellite provider, recently taken over by AT&T, is not alone. Dish Network is working on its own 4K solution, a set-top box called 4K Joey. It hasn’t been released yet, but the first suggestion I’d make is to change that dumb name. Although it was first announced last January at the Consumer Electronics Show, there’s no release date yet.

    In fact, I checked with Dish’s sales to see if they could provide an answer. After some double-talk response, I got them to admit, “I do not have an available date on when it will come out.” They kept trying to push their current Hopper system on me, even as I told them, each time, I would wait. So it may well be that Dish, despite claiming to have the first 4K cable/satellite set-top box, may not beat DirecTV after all. We’ll see.

    As of now, the latest Amazon Fire TV and Roku 4 streamers support 4K, but there’s not a whole lot of content from which to choose. Apple TV is stuck in 1080p mode. Still, with prices coming down, you may want to consider an Ultra HD/4K TV next time you’re in the market, though I wouldn’t rush to be an early adopter if you get a sweet deal on a regular HD model. Advanced color and high dynamic range features, which really make 4K come into its own, are only available on the more expensive gear, at least so far.

    In any case, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented Josh Centers, editor for TidBITS, and author of “Take Control of Apple TV” and other titles, who talked about his new 4K TV, a 49-inch VIZIO M-Series LCD, and we discussed the practical limitations of the Ultra HD format, particularly the lack of 4K programming. The discussion moved to Apple TV, his ongoing experiences with the Apple Watch, and an update on his conclusion about whether he would buy one if he didn’t need it for his job. There was also a brief discussion on the prospects for an Apple Car.

    You also heard from John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer, who talked about the iPad Pro, and why Apple is doing something that could “accidentally torpedo” the product. He also focused on the difficulties in finding the right keyboard — he doesn’t like Apple’s Smart Keyboard (you’ll read about my conclusion shortly) — and his initial experiences. The discussion turned to the “do as you’re told” approach to using an iPhone, and beating Apple at its “game of relentless change.” John was also asked about the ongoing prospects for an Apple Car.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Joshua Cutchin, author of “A Trojan Feast: The Food and Drink Offerings of Aliens, Faeries, and Sasquatch. Says the publisher: “Accept food from faeries, and you’ll never escape their realm, according to European folklore. Accept food from Sasquatch and you will forever be trapped in the spirit world, according to indigenous North American tales. And today, abductees—at least those who have returned—often report being offered strange beverages from their captors. Are these similarities mere coincidence, or is something more at play?” Joshua is an author and musician.


    As most of you know, I haven’t exactly warmed up to the iPad. A key reason is that it’s large and ungainly for just checking email when in bed. I can just as well use the iPhone for that, though I agree that writing long messages isn’t its strong suit. When it comes to productivity, I am a radio broadcaster, and the tools that I require to record and edit shows are best done on a Mac.

    Indeed, there is no way to properly capture audio from Skype on the iPad that I know about. Or at least when I last checked the App Store. The reason is that Apple’s sandboxing scheme doesn’t support the ability to capture audio from another app. Such shortcomings need to be fixed, particularly if there’s hope to expand the iPad’s productivity capabilities. Sure, the Mac App Store doesn’t support it either, but I can at least download such apps directly from a publisher’s site.

    Apple certainly has had some difficulty making the proper case for the iPad, at least expanding beyond consuming music and movies, playing games, and managing email. Yes, you can get an accessory keyboard, which makes it easier to actually write longer form material, but the ones I’ve tried tend to be ungainly and prone to decreasing the accuracy of your typing. Well at least for me.

    I’ll let you know about Apple’s latest solution later in this column.

    In contrast, Barbara adopted her iPad and only lets it out of her sight when she’s otherwise occupied. As an animal advocate, she spends lots of time answering emails, hanging around on Face-book, and looking at sites that cater to similar interests. Her vision isn’t perfect. She had corneal transplants six years ago and, of late, has suffered from cloudy vision in her left eye. So she prefers a 9.7-inch display to the 4-inch display on her iPhone 5c.

    When Apple announced the iPad Pro, the arrival of the 12.9-inch version had already become a hit on the rumor sites, so very little about it came as a surprise. Specs are more in line with traditional note-books, with 4GB of RAM, the A9x dual-core processor (with a 12-core GPU) clocks in at roughly 2.25 GHz according to a Geekbench 3 test I ran on it. Apple claims that its performance exceeds the top 80% of the note-books sold this year, but I’m sure cheap PC models are the prime targets.

    To put this in perspective, my 17-inch MacBook Pro, circa 2010, scores 2274 in the single-core test and 4767 multi-core. In contrast, the iPad Pro scores 3197 single-core and 5487 multi-core. Believe you me, I had reason to pause for a moment over those numbers. The new tablet’s results may be closer to some 2013 and 2014 Mac note-books, but that’s no mean achievement, and A-series processor development may take it closer to more current and powerful Intel hardware in the next year or so.

    However, graphics benchmarks appear to shine. Still, I do not buy the possibility that Apple plans to move the Mac platform to ARM-based hardware anytime soon — or ever.

    The basics of the iPad Pro are well known. It’s 12.9-inch display has a screen resolution of 2732-by-2048 pixels, equivalent to 264 ppi. That’s Retina class. It has Touch ID support for security and Apple Pay, and up 10 hours of battery life; it’s nine hours with the cellular version. It sports four speakers, one at each corner, and they are programmed to optimize performance for both vertical and horizontal use. I’ll get to the audio quality in a moment.

    You might expect such a gadget to be a heavy beast, and it is compared to a weight of less than one pound on the iPad Air 2. The big brother, or sister, weighs 1.57 pounds, and a tiny bit more if you get the cellular version.

    Prices for the iPad Pro range from $799 for the entry-level 32GB version up to $1,079 for a cellular version with 128GB of storage. This may seem steep, until you begin to price out the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, with which it is being compared.

    The Smart Keyboard, embedded in a foldable cover that is reminiscent of Microsoft’s tablet-PC combo, is $169. But integrated keyboards are nothing new for iPads, as most of you know, so this is a false comparison.

    There’s one more accessory, and Apple decision to offer it is controversial, particularly since Steve Jobs once said the need for a stylus is a symptom of poor design. But the $99 Apple Pencil is meant for the sort of precision fine — and thick — drawing that you cannot do with your fingers. It’s useful for such mundane tasks as jotting notes, or, depending on how the app and the input device are used, a variety of elaborate illustrations that were formerly the province of pen and paper.

    Unfortunately, Apple Pencil doesn’t work on the “lesser” iPads. But I got to thinking it would be great for Barbara to write notes. She still uses a regular note pad and pen to prepare shopping lists, although she uses email for everything else. In fact, when she’s in another part of our little home, she’ll often email me rather than shout to get my attention. Just speaking loudly makes our bichon, Teddy Bear, bark incessantly to get my attention.

    (Please note that our email provider, PolarisMail, is located in Canada, so it’s quite a round trip to reach someone located a mere 20 feet away.)

    That takes us to the review samples Apple provided in their iPad Pro “care package.”  In addition to a loaded gold iPad Pro, the Smart Keyboard and the Apple Pencil, they included a white Silicone Case, and a white Smart Cover. I opted to stick with the Smart Keyboard for my initial usability tests.

    Unpacking everything was typical Apple. I was a bit concerned with the Apple Pencil, however. The cover at the top of the unit contains a lightning plug, designed to connect to your iPad Pro for pairing on first insertion and charging. You can also use a traditional lighting cable with a special adapter included in the box. That, and the supplied extra tip are easily lost, so I opted to keep them in the box for safer storage.

    I set the unit up using Barbara’s iPad backup, so it would offer the same apps and settings. Before getting to the keyboard, I worked on the Apple Pencil in Notes, just to see if my wife could get accustomed to it. Because of a slight circulatory disorder, she prefers thick pens, so the thinner Apple Pencil might be a bit difficult for her to use flexibly, but she pronounced it acceptable after a brief exposure. I had no problems with it, and I caution you I am not an artist, so I’ll only use it for testing.

    Once setting the stylus aside, I worked with the Smart Keyboard for a while. It attaches magnetically to left side of the iPad Pro via a newly designed Smart Connector, thus freeing it of the need for Bluetooth pairing. It operates as a traditional Smart Cover, restricted to the top and sides and not the rear. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine if that secure enough.

    Setting it up to function in faux note-book mode, however, is a bit tricky until you get used to the routine. You have to fold the thing just right for the keyboard to lay flat, to allow you to place the display into a slot just above the keys. Now after reading last week’s piece about reconsidering the Magic Keyboard, you might wonder how I’d react to the Smart Keyboard. For me, it’s not so smart, and I understand that’s an obvious pun. The keys are laid out in the same fashion as the desktop keyboard, and are full-sized, but feel is nonexistent. Travel is also almost non-existent, similar to the MacBook Pro, but it feels stiff. I had to pay extra attention to the spacebar to avoid having words flow together.

    Maybe I’ll get used to it, and it’s certainly faster and more accurate than a touch keyboard, but I hoped for more. I’ve also been reading reviews of third-party keyboards, but the solution is not yet at hand. I thought Apple would do better, and maybe, on extended typing, it’ll loosen up. I understand why The Mac Observer’s John Martellaro wasn’t too impressed with it either.

    So far, it doesn’t seem as if Apple is doing a lot to exploit the superior power and larger display of the iPad Pro. True, Apple’s apps appear appropriately scaled up. The touch keyboard has a traditional row of numbers, thus making it easier for typing. In landscape mode, it’s similar in layout and size to a physical keyboard, which also helps. But otherwise it might seem ungainly if you’re accustomed to “regular sized” iPads.

    Over time, third-party apps will no doubt appear to exploit the display size and the sheer computing power, which puts it right in the middle of the Mac universe. But the star of the show is the Apple Pencil. Artists will love it, since it feels so real. Mrs. Steinberg will love it too once she gets used to writing her shopping lists in Notes, though that’s an expensive way to go digital.

    Otherwise the iPad Pro is pretty fast and fluid, and boot times are much less than the regular iPad. As far as that quartet of speakers is concerned, it produces a big, bright sound all right, loud enough for a regular-sized room. But there isn’t much bass to speak of. The Bass Booster EQ settings for Music help somewhat, but I hoped for better.

    In any case, I’ll be watching the development of the iPad Pro carefully. It has the potential to really move the platform forward over time, especially if customers can see its potential, and app developers can help you realize that potential.


    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

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