January 29, 2006
iTunes as video jukebox
Using iTunes to catalog video is working out pretty well; I'm beginning to build a video jukebox to go with the thousands of songs in the musical jukebox accessible through iTunes.
Network streaming is very good across a wired 100-megabit network, acceptable over 802.11g, and pretty pathetic over 802.11b. I've imported a bunch of old Apple commercials, various movie videos, and have started importing shows somebody in the family wants to keep after watching the EyeTV capture files. The iTunes interface is pretty good at navigating a lot of content quickly, and provides preview frames for videos to help distinguish similar movies.
There are a few rough edges, however, and I wonder if the day isn't coming when there are two paths into the iTunes Music Store, iTunes and “iVideo.”
Why? Inclusion of both video and audio content is feeling forced. I went to listen to my “recent additions” playlist off the G5, and iTunes keeps showing me (recently added) videos. I could rewrite my smart playlist to not include videos (and probably will), but there should be a simple way to choose one kind of content or the other, even (nay, especially) over the network. Right now I just want to listen to new songs, but to do that, I have to uncheck literally five-sixths of my “recent additions” playlist.
Playing videos back in iTunes is a decidedly inferior experience to, say, DVD Player. Besides the jumpy playback, there's also no clear way to fast forward or rewind. There is a hidden feature -- if you click on the tiny preview panel in iTunes, a full resizable window opens. That's an improvement.
Still better, Improved Movie Viewing in iTunes gives an AppleScript that will fire up local movies in QuickTime, giving a smoother full-screen experience with QuickTime Player's on-screen controls. Still, it's easy to imagine a better experience with a purpose-built video management and player program.
Apple ballyhooed the addition of parental controls for a variety of applications in Tiger and in iTunes starting with version 5, but it's really a pretty weak setup, with many of the weaknesses made clearer with the addition of TV shows to the content stream.
Problem 1: Only iTunes-purchased songs can be marked as “Explicit.” Believe it or not, I have some songs I would just as soon not share with my children, but I can't find a way to set the “Explicit” tag so they'll be locked out. Apple documents the “Explicit” tag for podcasters, but I don't see any way to set it on content that isn't coming from the Music Store.
Problem 2: Video content appears to be completely unrated. Leafing through the selection of TV shows available, there's not a single episode of “Desperate Housewives” that rates a parental advisory label, even though tonight's episode is rated TV-PG.
Once again, I have no way of setting local content so that my children can't see it. I created a streamable copy of “Office Space” on my G5 as an experiment; now it's visible on the network.
What I hope Apple will do: Update from the binary “explicit/okay” system to one that reflects the V-chip ratings or the MPAA ratings, on songs and videos. There are tracks and movies that I think are okay for my 10-year-old that aren't okay for my 4-year-old. Give users access to the rating system, so that users who have parental controls can't access content at MY option, not just Apple's.
January 14, 2006
iTunes 6.02: Now with video sharing
With all the attention on the new ministore presentation, no one seems to have noticed that iTunes 6.02 enables video-sharing to your local network. Whether it's intended for an upcoming home media appliance or not I don't know, but it brings videos up to par with music.
Neither Apple's main iTunes page nor its “Share & Stream” page mention this, and the Share & Stream page refers multiple times to “music sharing,” but it's definitely enabled, as the screenshot below demonstrates.
Once you've installed iTunes 6.02, that machine will publish a “Videos” playlist, visible to but not accessible by iTunes 6.01.
There's still some weirdness going on. I've upgraded to 6.02 on my wife's iMac, and I can't see two videos she bought with an earlier version of iTunes. From my daughter's partition on my G5, I can stream a music video she bought Thursday (probably with 6.02), but can't see two movies I converted to .m4v format after capturing them on my EyeTV, even though they show up as Videos in iTunes.
I'm experimenting now to see if I can figure out a way to make the older videos show up for sharing, and how to export EyeTV movies that can be shared. If you have any insight, please e-mail me.
Update: Blue Coconut, the application for downloading music from a networked playlist, works exactly the same with video files.
Update 1/19: Welcome Digg.com readers. I'm still looking for info on how iTunes decides which videos to display (I encoded a TV episode the other night, and get full audio, but only a still frame when I try to stream it). If you have any insights, please comment.
January 10, 2006
Bye, bye, PowerBook; hello, (gulp) MacBook Pro
So Apple managed to completely shroud much of what would be introduced today, and delivered higher-performance versions of the incredible iMac (formerly “iMac G5”) and PowerBook.
For some reason, Apple has chosen to set aside the “PowerBook”label, certainly one of the great brand names of all time, and has rechristened the Intel-driven portable line “MacBook Pro.” Steve Jobs said something about wanting the Mac name in their computer products, so it seems likely the consumer-level laptops, when introduced, will just be the “MacBook.” Somebody is bound to be manufacturing “PowerBook” stickers to cover the horrible name.
The MacBook Pro is an interesting hybrid. The sheet metal is very similar to the previous 15" PowerBook, but with a few notable changes. Most obviously, Apple has added a built-in iSight camera atop the display. The PC Card slot has been abandoned, replaced by the newer, smaller ExpressCard slot, for which I have seen exactly zero products. (Actually, there are 10.)
I'm also a little concerned that there was NO mention whatsoever of battery life. Intel's Centrinos have a good reputation on that, but this is a new processor. Presumably, if it was significantly better than the PowerBook, Steve would have mentioned it.
Strangest to me is the inclusion of a single FireWire port, limited to FireWire 400. One thing I was looking forward to in my next PowerBook was faster backups thanks to FireWire 800, but it's not to be, at least on the 15" model.
And why only a single form factor? If the existing 15" case could be re-engineered to take the new motherboard, and the iMac case could be re-engineered to take the new motherboard, why couldn't the 17" PowerBook case, or the 12" PowerBook, or the iBook? It looks like they're dipping a toe, to gauge how quickly people are going to migrate.
The iMac and the 15" PowerBook have been the meat-and-taters of Apple sales for years. The existing G4 and G5 models of each continue to be available -- no sudden influx of thousands of “refurbished” machines, no banishment from the Apple Store's front page. It looks to be, as with the first Power Macs and with OS X, another example of Apple soft-pedaling a transition, and taking it easy on its users.
January 09, 2006
Uncle Steve's medicine show
Not long to wait for the latest Apple keynote, and I'm as interested in what's coming down the pike as I've been since the 12" PowerBook intro.
(By the way, my PowerBook is off for repair with what appears to be a bad hard drive, so I'm going to be at least even on my AppleCare investment.)
The consensus rumor seems to be that the Mac mini and the iBook will be the first machines to get Intel chips, and that both will be introduced tomorrow. I can see an upgrade to the mini: they're not really sold primarily on their performance, and other rumors suggest the update will include new TV and streaming media features to justify more processing power.
The iBook, on the other hand, confuses me. Based on what we're hearing from developers, it seems like any current-model Centrino will offer battery life and performance meeting or exceeding the current PowerBooks. The favorite rumor seems to be a pairing of a dual-core Yonah processor and a 13.3" wide-screen LCD. Why not just put that chip in the PowerBook? O'Grady and others suggest Apple won't migrate that quickly because some of their professional applications, but I really liked a comment someone made in reply to one of the rumors. Remembering how the iPod rumors had suggested a "color iPod mini" which turned out to be the iPod nano, the commenter suggested that perhaps the 13.3" iBook might actually be the first new Intel-driven PowerBook, a “PowerBook nano.”
Creating a 13.3" PowerBook serves a number of purposes: miniature laptops are extremely popular among road warriors today, and the 12" PowerBook, world-beating when it was introduced, is now comparatively portly for a micro-laptop. Users of this sort of machine are less likely to use it for high-end pro applications; it's more like a messaging center and portable data archive. Also, they're less price-sensitive, which would let Apple maintain its margins a little more. And it maintains the natural order of things, with the PowerBook outperforming the iBook.
As a shareholder, I hope the rumors of an iBook at a significantly lower price ($599?) come true.
And Jason O'Grady's Apple plasma screen rumors? They seem way out there to me. If they come true, I think it's time to consider a future where Apple no longer sells computers, refocusing on consumer electronics, media, and software.