Netflix on the iPad

One of my favorite apps for the iPad is Netflix's streaming service. I started out watching tons of documentaries. I really enjoyed two recent ones: Beer Wars and The Union

Beer Wars is an inside look at the world of microbreweries and how it's nearly impossible for them to sell at major stores thanks to the near monopoly held by Bud, Coors, and Miller. The Union is yet another "pot should be legalized" movie, but it's better than any I've seen before, with a long slow exploration of all the angles of the "why is pot illegal?" that doesn't fall for cheap tricks or emotional pleas and comes off as an intelligent run-down of how crazy the US laws are around pot and how they got to be that way.

Eventually, I found I didn't always have 90 minutes to sit around watching films and I eventually found the streaming TV shows listing at Netflix. It's really fantastic to have all three seasons of Arrested Development just a click away, or any number of TV shows I've never watched when they were first broadcast.

I thought my favorite app for the iPad would be Air Video, but that requires me to seek out shows and movies, download them, then stream. Netflix has surprisingly become my go-to app for relaxing and enjoying video on the iPad. It's a bit buggy and crashes whenever I finish an episode, but other than that, it's pretty great.

Streaming iPhone video

M7 Air Video is an amazing app I have wished for but never thought I’d see actually happen, given the App Store’s dodgy rules about approving applications like this.

The other day I had a bit of insomnia, noticed my phone on my nightstand and wondered to myself if there was any hack, any way I could somehow stream videos from my desktop computer downstairs (both downloaded video and iTunes movies/shows). I was just thinking about trying out some media server apps to see if I could make it work when I saw this pop up on Lifehacker today. I’ve downloaded, installed, and gotten this app to work wonderfully. You can even jump ahead to different parts of a streaming movie and it’ll render in just a few seconds.

It’s a pretty handy app if you use one desktop computer as a “base” for a media center with other devices (like AppleTV, iPhone, etc) talking to it. Plus, you don’t have to take up any space on your iPhone (and I guess iPad eventually) with the movie itself, as it is just streamed in real time. 

I haven’t tested remote access outside my network, but if I could stream a new show from home to an iPhone sitting in my hotel room while traveling, I would say we’re truly living in the future now.

My recommended kid games

It started out innocuously. We were waiting for a table at a restaurant, my daughter was about two years old and fidgeting. I checked the App Store on my iPhone for a kid genre, found a fake phone game, and let her go to town on it. It saved the day and bought us 20 min of quiet time. Since then I've downloaded a lot of games and educational apps for my daughter (who is now four and a half) and I've been meaning to write up the ones I think are worth a few bucks and have stood the test of time, and here they are.

Kid games screen

This is my "Kid Games" screen of my iPhone that I go to when I find myself somewhere with my daughter and we're both bored. This happens sporadically in doctors offices, in lines while running errands, and most often at a restaurant. I'll quickly recap each one here with an appropriate age range after.

Fairy Trails — Augmented Reality for Kids! If you have a newer iPhone 3GS, this is a game that initializes the camera and you pan around the room, clicking the screen when you see a fairy fly by. It's pretty simple and kind of silly but can entertain kids for longer than you think (3-5 years).

Brushes — fairly advanced drawing tools than can trip up younger users (by them accidentally zooming out or in), but for general drawing works pretty good (3-12+ years).

iPlayPhone — the first kid game I downloaded. Mostly just a noisemaker for the youngest to mash on without messing up your phone (6mo-2 years)

Ballonimals — Pretty fun virtual ballon animal game from IDEO. You blow in the mic to make an animal, tap it to make it dance, then explode it by over-inflating. Good fun (2-6 years)

DinoMixer — It's a mix and match game of dinosaurs, with about a dozen different animals in three parts plus different foregrounds and backgrounds. Fun and a good learning experience (3-10 years)

TicTacToe — there are about 100 different TicTacToe apps in the App Store but this one allows for WiFi play, which I've done with my daughter using another iPod Touch. Good times (3-10 years)

ZenGarden — a really great simple "drawing" app where there is no color or brushes to choose from, you just push a line in the sand, and shake for a new blank canvas. Perfect for young artists (1-4 years)

Heat Pad — much the same as ZenGarden, you just drag a finger across and colors change, this one is a fake "heat map" based on how long your finger stays in place. Gets old kind of quick, I've found (1-4 years)

Cute Math — A nice basic number identification, counting, and eventually basic addition/subtraction app. (2-6 years)

LunchBox/WhenIGrowUp — Both THUP games come from a developer that is a member of MetaFilter where I heard of them. Great pre-school games, one is basic number and color identifier, the other is basically dressing up a monkey. My daughter loves both. (2-6 years)

AnimalMatch — My daughter loves Memory card-matching games and this one offers flexible grids of different sizes/difficulty. There was a time she wanted to play this for hours (2-6 years)

Let's Color — A Curious George/PBS app, this is just a paint-bucket coloring book style app. If your child is a fan of the show, they will like it (2-4 years)

DoodleBuddy — Amazing drawing app that is free(!) in the App Store, and is perfectly between something full-featured like Brushes and simpler apps. It even offers collaborate WiFi drawing between iPhones/iPods as well. It's worth $5 even though the basic version is free (3-10 years)

Pickin Time — Fun simple reaction-time game where you click on fruits/veggies as fast as you can. Works well when competing among several people to see who gets the highest score but game gets old quick (3-10+ years)

I've tried dozens more and deleted them all when my daughter grew out of them or no longer found them interesting. These have stood the test of time and lasted several months to several years, and most are just a buck or so.

Though I wouldn't suggest using these to ignore your kid or thinking that you just have to have them around all the time (crayons and paper are usually a bigger hit than an iPhone) these apps have come in handy when there's been dead time to fill and nothing to play with.

Imaginary iPad conversations with critics over the last week

Screen shot 2010-02-04 at 9.01.11 AMBut you can't program on it! It's locked down. I'd never be a programmer if this was my first computer.

There are thousands of programmers working in the world of gaming, making tomorrow's next big console hit. Heck, most every web professional knows at least one old buddy working at EA or doing texture mapping at Blizzard. 

What does a new xbox360 do these days besides simply play a disk you paid $60 for? Sure it's got some networking but doesn't come with a keyboard and you can't see the source code for any games, but you know what? The industry seems to be healthy and doing fine, and those kids that grew up playing black-box consoles with no root access still decided they wanted to make new games and found the tools and job to make that possible.

It doesn't support Flash!

A lot of ink has been spilled on this one and it baffles me. Aside from the rare times I waste some time with flash games, this is really no big deal. In 2.5 years using an iPhone, I've learned that missing out on content thanks to being in flash is a rare event and usually only found on badly designed restaurant websites (where I end up getting the info from Google instead) or advertising. I've never been stuck somewhere due to flash blocking my way to information, plus thanks to sites like YouTube, Flickr, and Vimeo adoptiong HTML5, I can even view web video directly in my iPhone. The iPad will be just fine without Flash.

The app store and OS are too closed, you can't run any program you want on it!

My first thought when seeing web browsing in the iPad demo was delight that this was more of an appliance than a computer and that it could just plain Get Shit Done. 

I have a Mac Pro as my main machine at home but I travel occasionally with a MacBook Air. I pull out the Air once every couple weeks and realize I have a whole other computer I have to manage, with multiple Software Updates to download and install, programs to keep in sync with my desktop, and applications I need to download and install to match my desktop work environment. It's a hassle that adds time to packing and preparing for trips and often I wish the Air worked more like an iPhone where everything was in sync all the time and I could just pluck it off and shelf, and head to the airport.

Also, have you ever used an unlocked iPhone? There are good reasons why closed systems like the App Store work. Unlock your iPhone for a few days and find that battery life turns to absolute shit, programs randomly crash and lock up your phone and are generally unreliable after you load more than 3 or 4, and finding new apps on the unlocked app directories is all about needles in haystacks. In the end, I gave up on unlocked iPhones when I installed a display theme that bricked my phone. Let me repeat: changing the appearance using a springboard replacement app made my phone inoperable and had to be fully restored from scratch. I began to appreciate controlled closed programming environments after that.

No support for multitasking!

Again, I have to refer to my 2.5 years on an iPhone where I've found this a problem only once or twice, where I needed to switch from an app to the web to look up info, went back to the app only to find it reset itself and lost my state. Among the tens of thousands of times I've launched and used applications on my iPhone, I've only run into this a handful of times and managed to figure workarounds out anyway. This is not a problem, especially for the kind of simple email/web/etc apps run on the iPhone/iPad.

So far, the iPad looks like the ultimate device to have on a plane (no pesky keyboard to get in the way of cramped coach seat spaces + 10hr battery life while watching movies?!), it's the ultimate web surfing device to use on the couch and around the house, it'll make toddler games with my four year old even better than an iPod Touch/iPhone, and it'll be great to have in the kitchen to look up recipes without the huge footprint of a laptop (while also being easier to read than a phone). I'm planning to get one (wifi only) and looking forward to how it'll work when traveling versus a laptop. I suspect it will be a laptop replacement for travel in almost all circumstances (photo/video editing is about the only away-from-home use case I'd need a laptop for).

Four weeks with a Droid (and two weeks with an unlocked Nexus One)

Gadget pile
In response to my first few frustrating hours with a Droid, my friend Gina asked if I'd post my thoughts four weeks on, instead of first impressions which can often be deceiving (but amusing — I encourage others to do it sometime even if half your blog entry ends up bemoaning the difficult packaging to get to the item). Now that I've learned the ins and outs and gotten to kick the tires on Android, the Droid, and a Nexus One, I feel like there is a lot to say about it, especially in comparison to my years on an iPhone and previous to that, a Blackberry.

I'm much less frustrated by Android and the devices it runs on, after tweaking things and getting to know it better. There are a lot of similarities to the iPhone, many places I think it even excels over the iPhone, and quite a few areas that can be improved. In no particular order:

The Good

– Though I didn't like it at first, I've grown to like the desktop metaphor for the Android home screen. Simple shortcuts to just the apps or views of apps that you use the most, it's a great timesaver and once tweaked to my liking, I found I only hit the applications button once every couple days because all the key things are on my desktop.

– The Android 2.1 OS in the Nexus One is brilliant looking and the desktop and apps views are much nicer looking that earlier releases. It's a shame they don't deploy those equally to all Android devices.

– The software keyboard is on par with the iPhone's, though I miss the hidden hold-drag shortcuts (on an iPhone you could hit the 123 button, hold it, and slide over to that one number you needed, when released the keyboard would bounce back to alpha). I love the suggested words showing up above the keypad and I've found it to be a huge timesaver, guessing correctly for what I'm typing over half the time and saving valuable keystrokes.

– The hardware keyboard on the Droid is too small and largely useless to me. The auto-correct and suggested words go away on my Droid when you pop out the slide-out keyboard, even though I type just as many if not more mistakes than the software keyboard. It adds quite a bit of thickness and weight to the Droid, both of which I'd prefer to go without.

– The way Android and Google Chrome on the desktop integrate the search bar and the web address bar into a single UI feature (when every other browser separates them) is pure genius. On my Android phones, I don't even have to recall the full URL of anything, just remember a keyword or two that I know will end up at that site. On the Android, I get location awareness with a phone number, map, and link to driving directions in the Navigation app.

– The Google Navigation app is simply incredible. I bought a TomTom GPS unit for my wife's car a couple years ago and liked it enough to get the TomTom app on my iPhone for driving directions when I travel and rent a car, but I've found the TomTom iPhone app is difficult to input addresses to and has minimal integration with the iPhone's address book (it requires me to confirm every aspect of stored addresses). The Google Navigate app can be launched from addresses found in the Android browser, offers several views of your trip, and it's remarkably easy to enable or disable the voice prompts when driving (every other app and unit buries that several menus deep). It's a pleasure to use and I carry my Droid in my car even though I already have a factory installed navigation system in it.

– Gmail and Google Voice are also killer apps for Android. For people addicted to scanning and archiving items out of their Gmail inbox, the Gmail client is a pleasure. Google Voice is incredible and sorely missed from the iPhone and the stupid iTunes App Store policies that barred it from entry. Google Voice gives you the same sense of freedom and control over your daily interruptions that a DVR attached to a TV does — once you've experienced it you can never go back.

– The Android ecosystem doesn't require a computer at all. At first I found this slightly frustrating as it takes some tweaking to get music on or off the device, or get movies playing back smoothly, but over time I've come to appreciate this and enjoy it. Having to dock my iPhone to a computer (and wait for it to backup and transfer files when I just want to go out the door with a new podcast on it) is a regular hassle and I can tell the Android OS was designed for people that may very well not even own a desktop or laptop computer. The phone itself is almost as powerful as a laptop. I haven't played with podcasting apps much on Android, but I imagine it must be as easy as it is to update apps and download music from Amazon.

– The form factor of the Nexus One is amazing. Super thin and light, with a huge bright screen. Being that I don't have a SIM card in it, its first charge ran for a week with occasional use over wifi. My Droid feels blocky, heavy, chunky, and barely holds a charge for a 24hr day of use. 

– Verizon on the Droid is a much better phone service than AT&T on the iPhone. I know, totally obvious, but the difference is so great that I'm paying for a second cellphone because AT&T has gotten so bad in the last few months. I live outside of Portland, Oregon, and while 3G and phone service works great in my small town of few iPhone users, the moment I go near the city of Portland I get dropped calls galore and 3G data issues. I've taken to calling friends back on the Verizon Droid often enough that having a backup phone on another network is a necessity.

– I missed multi-touch the first time I used Android, but after a day or two I got used to double-tapping to zoom in apps and dragging with one finger to accomplish the same thing. It probably sucks for games to not have multitouch, but it's fine in apps.

– The notifications bar with pull-down alerts is great for finding out a bunch of information coming from a variety of your apps at once. I wish the iPhone had something like that.

– Being able to "return" any app in the Android Market within 24hrs for a full refund is fantastic.

– Having all your apps, desktop wallpapers, etc. saved on the server side somewhere at Google is a pretty amazing thing. After I popped onto the Nexus One for the first time and inputted my Google details, the phone picked up most of my preferences from my Droid phone. This will make switching phones in the future from one Android device to another much smoother.

– It's clear Android is going to be a popular phone operating system available on pretty much every carrier in the US. Overall, I'd say it's about 80-90% of the way to the kind of experience you get with an iPhone with several things I feel it does better than an iPhone.

Areas for improvement

– The iPhone came from the iPod world so it's an incredible media playback device and the Droid and Nexus One feel like multimedia is just an add-on that isn't central to the device. There's no iTunes to sync with Android (I tried doubletwist and it was buggy) so you either have to buy music directly from the Amazon MP3 store (which I actually prefer to the iTunes store for music even on my Mac desktop due to cheaper songs and no DRM) or you have to navigate mounted USB folders in the file system by hand, which is a chore at best. It took a bit of reading forums and blog posts to figure out the correct Handbrake settings to get a movie to playback smoothly on either Android device, and I had to make a directory called "Video" in the right place and download a playback app from the Android Marketplace to even watch it. The Nexus One has a bigger, brighter screen than any iPhone or iPod I've used so you'd think they'd make media more a focus given the great hardware.

– The Android Market for Apps is good but feels like it could be a lot better. There doesn't seem to be nearly as much curation as the iPhone App Store for making you aware of the best of the best (I had to rely on twitter and blog posts to figure out what to try out). The reviews are listed by the last three reviews first, even if they are a frustrated user (iPhone App Store lists highest rated first, right?) so the reviews are choppy (lots of either 1-star I HATE IT or 5-star AMAZING reviews). There is no "Update all apps" single button to push which gets tiresome as your Android device tells you every few days you need to update four apps by clicking over and over and over.

– The iPhone has only one button, Android has four along the bottom. iPhone puts it on developers to code up their own navigation buttons and labels, while Android just gives developers hooks to those four hardware buttons. The problem? There's no consistency and a distinct lack of labeling on Android. On an iPhone, developers have to create "back" buttons and they get to label them as well so you always know where you're going to end up if you push it (like "Inbox" or "back to twitter"). On Android it's a blind button without a label and sometimes when you hit the back button in a web browser you go back a page and sometimes you jump back to an application that launched the web browser. Sometimes the back button lets you go backward in an app and many times you get the haptic buzz telling you THERE IS NO BACK BUTTON and you're stuck on that screen. I've played with an Eris Android phone as well and the big surprise there was the four hardware buttons aren't even in the same order as my other two Android devices. That seems insane to me.

– Google's internal teams sometimes slap existing features into their apps or they change key features of public apps with little warning (like Google Reader suddenly making the Share button public ages ago). Android is a phone, and every phone needs an address book, right? Google decided to slap my Gmail contacts into the phone and call that the same as an address book, which was a surprise to me. My Gmail contacts are mostly people I email often (including tech support questions to my many websites) and the Venn Diagram of people I email a lot and people I call a lot are vastly different things. I didn't have phone numbers stored in my Gmail contacts for longtime friends I would like to call from the device, so essentially the moment I logged into Google I had a phone with hundreds of people I barely know over email that I would never need to call plus I didn't even have phone numbers for the few I did want to call. If I want to morph this into a usable address book, I have to delete a lot of people and add a lot of data to my contacts, but that might affect how Gmail works on my desktop browser. If I delete someone does that mean their new emails to me might show up as unknown spam? I don't know.

– The iPhone has a lot of "hidden" features. Stuff like holding down keys on the virtual keyboard giving you new options, and screenshots by touching two buttons at once, but the amount of what I'd classify as "hidden" features in Android feels much longer. Every button has a separate long-hold state that offers up menus and options you can't find unless you know to click. The web browser doesn't show you how many windows are open like Mobile Safari. I never know how many apps are even open and running aside from the reports in the upper taskbar. I didn't know silent mode could be accessed from holding the top button for a long time. Every day there's a new hidden feature I'm accidentally stumbling upon to the point the phone feels like a linux command line or a wiki with its own cryptic syntax you have to learn slowly to the point of memorizing lots of keystrokes.

– The trackball on the Nexus One is next to useless. It's much faster for me to point and tap something I want on the screen than scroll through every option with a trackball. It's easy to ignore though.

Like I said, overall, I'm happier with the Android OS, and I'm in love with the Nexus One hardware. The moment the Verizon branded Nexus One goes on sale, I'll pick one up and try to unload my blocky Droid. Despite some issues I have with the iTunes App Store, I do love almost everything about the iPhone for its intuitive interface, great gaming, fantastic multimedia playback, and overall utility, but Android is definitely going to give it a run for its money and I look forward to both platforms innovating. At this point, I feel like each platform has enough strengths that I've become the kind of weirdo that carries two phones around, using the best of both worlds depending on usage.

End to end problems

I know it's a cliché for mac users to bitch about Windows, but I'm giving an old PC of mine to a friend and after wiping it clean and setting everything up, I can't believe how hostile the process is to the user. Every aspect of it is tainted, because someone, somewhere can make a buck at each stage of the process. There's Microsoft, nagging you for updates and virus protection and 30-day demos. There are applications themselves trying to install toolbars and upsell you to the paid pro version. There are download websites trying to trick you into also installing a "registry cleaner" as if you'd need one. Then there are all the pre-installed apps on the HP box, where half of the Start menu items seem to be "special offers" for online services, games, and software suites. I feel like I've run through an obstacle course for the past three hours trying to avoid every trap door that surrounded me.

There's something to be said about Apple's end-to-end control from the smallest bits of hardware all the way to the operating system, including installed applications and out-of-box experience. At least they know new customers aren't going to be harrassed for hours after spending hundreds-to-thousands on a computer.

I'm trying to imagine if I just came home from Best Buy with this HP computer, how insulted I'd feel by the process and how I'd think I just wasted my time and money.

1st gen iPhone battery life issues: it’s the apps?

I’ve had my original iPhone for over a year now, and I’ve had a pretty stable use pattern. I charge the phone often (every time I’m in a car (daily) and every other night attached to my computer) and rarely see the battery dip below maximum. For usage, I typcially use it for about 15 minutes of internet stuff in the morning, I’ll use it for about 10 minutes or so around lunch, and I’ll often go out for 60-90 minutes of daily exercise time using it as a music player. I probably make an average of only 3-5 calls on it a week, so it’s mostly an internet device to me, acting in place of a laptop whenever I’m outside of my house.

In the week since the launch of the 2.0 OS, I’ve loaded my iPhone up with about a dozen apps, but mostly I’ve just tested them out or played with them for five minutes and haven’t launched them a second time. The one app I surprisingly use (surprising because I’m not normally into games and not into cards/gambling at all) is the Texas Hold ’em game. I’ve probably played it an hour a day since I got the iPhone 2.0 OS.

What I’ve noticed so far is that if I play a few hands in the game, then hit the sleep button at the top to throw the phone in my pocket or put it on a table to be ignored, when I come back my battery will be down to a half or less. It happened the other night when I played the game before bed. I woke up to a nearly dead iPhone on my nightstand.

It’s weird because I’ve never “exited” or “quit” iPhone’s native apps before and I’ve never had battery life issues. I often just hit the sleep button when I’m reading email or in the camera app, and the battery will be fine hours later. Yesterday I noticed I played some poker, hit the sleep button, went away for one hour, and my battery was half drained.

I know it’s a pain that Apple screens all the apps and I bet 3G and GPS are power drains on the new iPhone, but I have a feeling even the well-vetted apps are causing a lot of power consumption that wasn’t happening in the past.

I’ll concede this is just a hunch and I may be wrong, but after a year of a constantly full battery under mild use, the only changes I’ve made in the past week were using one new app, and my battery is now getting drained much faster.

Will MobileScrobbler work in the new iPhone SDK?

mobilescrobbler Here’s something I’ve been wondering about. Ever since Apple released the roadmap of iPhone development and the SDK details, they mentioned that third-party apps can’t run in the background. After avoiding it for months, I finally did the jailbreak on my iPhone last month because I realized I listened to music/podcasts constantly on the device, and none of that data was reaching my last.fm account. I opened up my iPhone to third-party apps just to get MobileScrobbler running, and it works great.

But it does the magic in the background (even over EDGE, which I optionally allowed). You play songs as normal, and every so often a tiny ping goes out to last.fm, logging the music played. I imagine that won’t be possible with the official SDK but I haven’t seen anyone mention this app specifically.

So mac/iPhone nerds: will I have to keep a jailbroken out-of-date iPhone to keep using MobileScrobbler come June when the new iPhone stuff is released?

Keynote Index Fund

A few months ago I was thinking about Apple’s rise in value after the iPhone and how Steve Jobs does a great keynote every year, and naturally I thought “I wonder if there’s a way to make money off quick investments around the keynotes?” Then I thought “What if you did this every year, for just a day or two of investment?”

I ran the numbers and here they are, on this new 1-page website: Keynote Index Fund