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iPad, what is it good for?

By now, if you dont know what an iPad is, you have been living under a rock. If you are thinking of getting one or you already have one, you may still be wondering what it is good for and why you should or should not buy one.

Please note this is my experience with an iPad 1. Since writing this, the iPad 2 is out, marginally thinner and lighter with a (not great) camera, it is also a bit faster with dual core processor but functionality is pretty much the same.

Here is my take on it after 4 months with an iPad. It has a place, but exactly what that place is is still a bit of a mystery. If you have a specific use in mind, it may be exactly what you need but if you dont have a use in mind, you may struggle to use it as anything but an expensive toy. There are plenty of other technical and non-technical iPad reviews out there, read around. Go to an Apple store and play with one but dont believe everything the “Genius’s” tell you. I started with IOS 3 but now have the latest IOS 4.3

iPad Good bits:

  • It is very quick to start, you can be online or reading email with your ipad in a fraction of the time of waiting for a desktop or laptop to start.
  • Long battery life (days instead of hours)
  • Quite well built, it is pretty robust and sturdy.
  • Out of the box, its email and internet is pretty good and ready to go.
  • Convenient easy email via 3G from pretty much anywhere
  • Built in GPS (on 3G model) *
  • My 3 year old can use it (perhaps not always a good thing).
  • On screen keyboard is very good

iPad not so good bits:

  • You need iTunes to do anything with it.
  • You need to buy a lot to make it even remotely useful, there is precious little good free software.
  • *Built in GPS not as accurate and reliable as I had hoped (when I needed it to be, ie I was relaying coordinates to marine rescue to come and get us after breaking down in a boat and it put us 1 nautical mile away from our actual position). It seems better on land with more mobile phone towers available to assist the satellites
  • The aluminium casing scratches incredibly easily (invisible shield a necessity, not a luxury), especially when it gets turned on a table with something hard like a salt or sugar crystal underneath.
  • It gets covered in fingerprints (again, get an Invisible Shield)
  • It is heavy (ok 730 grams is not particularly heavy but its weight means it is not useful for some things you would expect it to be good for)

Email: Email on the iPad is good and if you are looking for an email device with a decent screen, an iPad should be high on your list of suitable devices. Adding 3G means it goes anywhere and while it is not as small and convenient as a phone, it is not massive and will slip into bags and backpacks easily. Functionality is pretty much the same as an iPhone and integration with POP, IMAP, MS Exchange or GMail is simple and reliable.

Web: Web on the iPad is pretty good. I dont miss the lack of Flash, I hate Flash websites anyway. It is quick and easy, useful in the car when trying to find a phone number or address at the lights and there are rarely any compromises with the touch screen.

eBook reader: The iPad basically sucks for this. There are plenty of free books available and the usability is fine but the screen is not great to read on and your eyes get tired. The glossy screen reflects too much light and it is just too heavy. After holding it like a book for a while, your wrists and fingers ache.

Movie player: Out of the box, the iPad sucks for this too. Unless it is in iTunes, it doesnt play anything. I dont have anything in iTunes. VLC is available for free for the iPad but after a recent update it is too unstable to use (locks up every 5-10 mins). I bought CineXPlayer and have been pretty happy with it, it plays pretty much anything and is good for offline viewing. Unfortunately the only way to transfer files to it is via iTunes. I have since found a few limitations with CineXPlayer and have also installed “Azul” to play media that CineXPlayer can’t play (especially when playing HD). For media at home, I bought the Plex app for iPad which streams any content from my Mac mini Home Theatre PC (HTPC) over the wireless, and it does it very well. The Plex app can control the HTPC and any media played on the iPad can be transferred to the TV while playing. A Touchpad remote app allows me to control the Mac Mini as well although a lack of screen sharing makes it a bit less useful. The weight is also an issue, try holding it for two hours to watch a movie. The screen rotation lock is also no longer a physical switch, double click the button to find it. Needed for reading or watching movies in bed or it goes all over the place.

Business Software: The “Genius” at the Apple store told me that “Numbers” was the spreadsheet app required and that it was fully compatible with MS Excel spreadsheets. Rubbish, Numbers is basically useless unless you want to view simple one page spreadsheets. “Pages” is marginally better as a document editor but dont think you can ditch the laptop and use these apps, you just can’t. VPN connectivity is not great, especially with newer SSL VPN connectivity (could not get the Junos Pulse VPN client to work), there are some reasonably functional Remote Desktop clients available (I use one from Wyse) but they are no replacement for a laptop. Printing support is limited to 6 HP printers with “airPrint”. I experimented with a number of WebDAV clients to improve access to file shares with some success but the success was largely one way, I could open some things but trying to save them back to the network was painful. The best app for getting remote documents is the Dropbox iPad app which is how I now get pdf’s onto my iPad from my Windows laptop (without iTunes). The MS Powerpoint functionality is also poor, you may struggle to use it as a presentation device.

Games: the iPad is very good for games, there are lots around, some good, some not so good. The kids love it, and some of the games are very addictive, dont install “Angry Birds” unless you have plenty of spare time. There are lots of educational games available as well and many easy to use online games that are also good.

Photo’s: It is nice to show photos but they have to be sync’ed with iTunes and if you have large amounts, they may need a bit of work to be sorted in some form of usable navigation.

Overall, if you have some spare cash and want a nice toy, go for it. If you want it as a business tool and think it will replace your laptop, it wont. Get a netbook instead if you need light portability. There are definitely some good uses for it (all of which have custom development required) such as restaurant menus but these are neither free nor cheap. Personally I am looking forward to the Android Honeycomb tablets getting a foot in the door, lets see what the developers can do with an open platform. Not sure if I will buy one though, I dont really “need” a pure tablet form factor and really dont need two of them (although it would stop the kids fighting over one device….)

Posted in: Hardware
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Mac Mini Home Theatre PC

I have been installing some basic Home Theatre PC (HTPC) systems for clients so decided that I needed to do my own properly. My original Home Theatre “PC” was a “play anything” Phillips DVD player. It had a USB port that served us well but it was not the easiest to use. I had to provide extra power to the hard drive plugged into the USB port which meant the drive never turned off. It ran extremely hot in a closed cupboard and failed a few times before I decided to start again.

I spent a great deal of time looking at Home Theatre PC options for home. I initially decided that a Windows 7 Media Centre PC would suit my needs. I looked into making an ultra small form factor Media Centre PC to manage my significant (and growing) media library. The system initially had to handle any video media format (as well as audio although we didnt plan to use it for music), be easy to navigate and manage High Definition TV at full HD (1920×1080) via HDMI. It also had to be either cheap or re-use as many components that I already had as possible (such as an HD TV Tuner card). However, I ran into issues with SWMBO (She who must be obeyed) who had some specific design requirements (it has to be out of sight or look good). Out of site was going to be extremely difficult.

Late 2009 Mac MiniAfter failing to find anything that I considered suitable for a Home Theatre PC in parts (primarily a case and motherboard), I began to experiment with the late 2009/early 2010 Intel Mac Mini. I already had one my desk and thought it would make a suitable Home Theatre PC. A lack of TV tuner options (USB only) meant I had to drop TV as an integrated option. I had a Topfield PVR with USB out so I can copy and re-encode saved digital TV to the Mac Mini anyway. The Mac Mini is a great form factor for a Home Theatre PC, it is tiny, unobtrusive, has optical digital out, is very efficient. It also has an internal Infra Red receiver and (now) has native HDMI out. Its biggest downfall is a lack of Blu-Ray (the internal drive is DVD only).

I have my Mac Mini connected to the TV now and it is operating as a Home Theatre PC. It does not have an internal TV tuner (nor the ability to add one) and I do not have a USB or network tuner so it is not doing TV. It just plays downloaded and saved content from a 6TB QNAP NAS. I tried installing Windows 7 with Bootcamp to compare the two. Windows 7 is using Media Center, the Mac is using Plex. I tried using the built-in Mac app “Front Row” but it only really works with iTunes media and was not suitable for our needs. Plex was a little slow sometimes and had a habit of freezing up about once per week but is much nicer to use than Media Center. Windows 7 on the Mac Mini is a little sluggish (probably due to the 5400rpm HDD). The latest versions of Plex are completely stable and after a full rebuild (with faster hard drive, upgrade to 4GB RAM and no extra apps), it is now my permanent choice. The wireless connection was not reliable for HD streaming (even when connecting with 802.11n at 144mbps) so I had to install gigabit ethernet to speed it up. The full HD resolution did not display correctly on my TV until OSX 10.6.4 (a widely reported “overscan” issue). I bought a 1.8m mini-displayport male to HDMI male cable from Hong Kong to elegantly clean up the mini DVI to DVI then DVI to HDMI then HDMI cable mess. Six weeks after buying my Mac Mini, they released a new model with an HDMI port (Not happy). I have not connected the digital optical out from the Mac Mini so any downloaded content only plays in Stereo which is fine for most downloaded content.

The Mac Remote resembles an aluminium tongue depresser, it is too small and thin but is sturdy and it works, albeit in a fairly limited way. Plex has been designed for use with the Mac Remote and most functionality is fine. Plex remote for the iPad is a nice addition. It can act as a remote control for the Plex system on the TV or can stream media directly to the iPad (the latest Plex has a server and client component). Plex works best with strict file names and filing conventions as it tries to match media to an online database and download meta-data for it (images, information etc). This feature still needs some work but it is getting there. Any downloaded files usually need to be renamed (eg show\season X\show S0xE0x.avi) to give them the best chance of being properly indexed. My preferred renaming app is a Windows apps called “The Renamer” and since my downloads and NAS sorting happen on a Windows PC, I have not bothered trying to find a Mac equivalent.

There is no way I could build a similar spec PC in a case anywhere near as neat and compact for close to the price of the Mac Mini. That said, a custom PC would have an internal TV tuner card, plenty of hard drive space and native HDMI output. There are some nice and funky HTPC cases for PC’s if you want to make it a feature but if space and design are restricted, the Mac Mini is ideal and with Plex being both high quality software and free, it is my HTPC system of choice. My 5 year old daughter has no problems using it either.

Posted in: Free Software, Hardware


Apple make the only other mainstream desktop alternative to Windows (although Linux on the desktop is starting to make some inroads).

As an IT consultant, I have two Windows machines (Win 7 and XP), a Core 2 Duo Mac Mini with Snow Leopard and an Ubuntu Lucid machine as well as a VMWare machine with Windows, Linux and an Openfiler servers on it. I have also just picked up a 3 year old core duo macbook from a client after a hard drive failure, he didnt want it back.

For the end user, it is purely a personal preference issue. Ignoring the awesome efforts of the Apple marketing department to convince you otherwise, either Windows or Mac will do what you need. There is nothing that you can do on a Mac that cannot be done on Windows and vice-versa. If you use Windows at work and need to work from home, especially if you have some specific work requirements (an a work IT department that can offer some assistance if needed), moving to a Mac at home can make things a bit harder between locations.

You will pay anything from a little more to a lot more for the equivalent Mac system but you will get a very solid and stable desktop. It will also be prettier. Personally I really dislike the feel of the Mac keyboards, both the desktop and laptop ones but as I mentioned earlier, it is a personal preference issue, they work but I use a Microsoft keyboard and mouse with mine. You will have to spend extra to upgrade the warranty if you want a 3 year warranty on the hardware (recommended for business use) where proper business grade Windows desktops and latops should come with 3 years already (not all of them). Mac’s are, by design, more secure than Windows PC’s but (regardless of what the Apple marketing department says again), they are not immune to online threats. Failure to take similar precautions on a Mac that you need to take on a PC is not good idea, especially with the prevalence of cross platform vulnerablities such as some recent examples in Java, Javascript and PDF’s.

There tends to be more software available for the Windows platform, especially open source and free software. Mac users tend to pay for more extras more often. That said, a lot of the usual free software I use on Windows is also available for the Mac (Filezilla, Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, The Gimp, VLC). The Plex media centre application is exceptional, it is clean and it works but doesnt support TV. Macs can be a bit less upgradable than the equivalent PC’s in certain configurations and they are not as easy to work on (try replacing the optical drive in a Macbook compared to a Dell Latitude and you will see what I mean. How to videos to open a Mac Mini include, credit cards, fish lifters and pizza cutters). That said, the hardware is reasonably high quality and matched to and tested with the Mac operating system (which is Unix based) so you should not have to search for drivers or run into too many compatibility issues. You can run Windows via Bootcamp or virtualisation if you need to. One big thing though, Macs and PC’s share many common components such as hard drives, RAM, CPU’s etc. Dont assume that your Mac is infallible, they die too, quite regularly I might add. Apple have made it easy to back up your Mac for a reason!

I dont yet think that Mac are fully business ready. Sure they will do most things but when I am looking for a suitable business platform, onsite support is vital. I dont want to have to take a warranty claim to a shop. Interraction with Windows domains is pretty good but still not completely smooth, Exchange email does not have full functionality on the Mac and many small to medium businesses run Windows domain based networks. Being locked into proprietary hardware configurations is also not ideal. Any business rolling out large numbers of machines will shop around for the best deal. With the hardware locked to Apple only, this is not possible with Macs compared to the myriad PC options.

One other issue you may face with Mac is the Mini Displayport. While Displayport and Mini Displayport are open standards (Apple helped fund Displayport development and have preferred the mini Displayport for their hardware), hardware support from third party vendors is still pretty weak. While this is fine if you want to spend a LOT on a decent large Mac Monitor, use of other screens is a little harder. You need to either spend an extra $45 AUD for a DVI or VGA adapter (a Mac one), or find a monitor with Displayport and use a Mini Displayport to Displayport adapter (not common yet) to use them natively. High end Dell screens support Displayport and Dell and HP business grade laptops and projectors have the full size Displayport options but unless you simply must have the (very beautiful and very expensive) Mac screens on your PC, few Windows users are going to pay the massive premium considering you can buy five 24″ 1920×1080 screens for less than the price of one 24″ 1920×1200 Mac screen.

The size of updates is significant. I recently had my Mac Mini notify me that some updates were ready. I was expecting a 100MB or so update, especially since my Mac was straight from the shop, you can imagine my surprise when 1.3GB of updates was required to bring my machine up to date. I thought the Windows Vista/Windows 2008 Server combined SP2 patch was excessive at just under 500MB. The bulk of this update was a minor version update for OSX from 10.6.2 to 10.6.3. Make sure you have decent internet speed and data available or turn off automatic updates!

VLC – Audio and Video player

No user can be without VLC, the Video Lan Client, an open source free media player (yes, completely free).

Unlike pretty much any other media player, VLC can play almost any audio or video format (yes even Real, Quicktime and Flash FLV) straight away including DVD’s without requiring third party or commercial codec’s (to read various non-standard compression formats). Its interface is not quite as slick as the latest Windows Media Player, PowerDVD, Plex or iTunes but it is not trying to be, it just works. It will happily play direct from disc or file as well as digital streaming media (including DVB-T television). It can play VOB files (from ripped DVD’s), as well as the newer high definition formats such as M2TS and MKV files.

A useful side effect of installing VLC is the installation of an MPEG2 codec which will then allow Windows Media Player to play DVD’s.

Unfortunately the version for the iPad (still free) is not as stable as the version for normal PC’s. I have found that it crashes (locks up) quite regularly (every 6-8 minutes), far to often to be a useful media player when offline. Development for the iPad may not continue due to the iTunes store licencing requirements conflicting with the Open source GNU licence VLC is developed under.

It is available for Windows, Mac and Linux from

Posted in: Free Software