Glenn's Junk Chest

An assortment of Glenn's writings, photography, gaming resources, flash movies, and other creative output.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Apple: 10 Burning Questions about the iPhone

Update: I've updated some of the answers as of 3/14/08

The just-announced iPhone looks very very cool. So cool, in fact, that if you'd told me all the features before the announcement, I would have called you a damn liar. This post may not make sense if you aren't already familiar with the baseline, so you might want to check out the link to see Apple's multimedia presentation on what the phone will do.

The Apple iPhone
That said, the announcement (and my subsequent reading) has left me with some questions. None of these are necessarily make-or-break deals, but I'd dearly love to know the answers.

1. Is the storage space expandable?

It comes with either 4 or 8GB, but that's not much when you're talking about full length movies and tv shows. There's a slot on the side, can you put some sort of memory card in there to expand its storage?

Answer: The iPhone does not have memory expansion, which means the video-playing capabilities are a little dubious, especially if you have a lot of music you want to keep on the device as well. I'd say to figure the 8GB model as a must if video storage is in the plans. That will let you get 2 or 3 full length movies on there at any one time. More if you skimp on either quality or other data.

Update: However, if you have wifi, and the wherewithal, you can compress a movie in MP4 so that you can play it in the web browser. I've compressed a good chunk of my library in this way, so I can watch movies on the road from my home server.

2. Can you access the unix command line?

One of the very cool things about OS X is that when you need to, you can fire up the terminal and access the basic unix command line. The new phone "runs OS X" but that's only an advantage if it offers the same sort of accessibility that makes OS X what it is.

Answer: Not yet. Someone has hacked shell access using the port on the bottom, but that's a far cry from command line access on the device itself.

Update: Yes, if you hack it. The hack, called "jailbreaking" has improved to the point where you can get true shell access. However, it does involve either a fair amount of work to keep up to date, or a commitment to not updating to the latest firmware at every chance. Apple's upcoming official solution for third party apps will doubtlessly not include shell access.

3. Does it support ssh?

A device that allows me to make a ssh (secure shell) connection to a server at my office is easily worth half again as much as one that doesn't.

Answer: Kind of. There's no way to do it on the device itself, but, since it supports a pretty powerful web-broswer with SSL, you could connect to a secure web service that provided a terminal window. It's clunky, but doable. I still hope for a real ssh client to be added at some point.

Update: Yes, if you hack it you can install a true ssh client, and it works quite well. I imagine that there will be an decent ssh client that runs in the 2.0 firmware as well.

4. Does it support video to an external TV?

One of the super cool things about the current video iPod is that with an inexpensive cable, you can hook it up to a TV and use it as the source for watching a movie or show. I'd hate to lose that capability.

Answer: This is not possible with any existing iPod peripherals or cables. I'm still not sure whether this means that the capability is truly gone, or if it just requires a new peripheral of some sort.

Update: Yep, it just required new cabling, which is now available. However, you do have to watch out for GSM interference on the audio from the cell phone. Putting it in airplane mode will solve this if you're doing a presentation or the like.

5. Does it support the iTunes music store?

If you can use the device itself to buy music from the store, and then transfer that music later to your other devices, that would be pretty nifty. If you could use the store to buy games, movies, and tv shows as well, even better. (but see question 9.)

Answer: No. However, this capability could easily come as a software update. The presumed problem here is AT&T's desire not to have their limited EDGE network bandwidth taken up by this kind of traffic. This might be a feature that waits until a G3 version of the iPhone hits the shelves.

Update: They added this capability in a firmware update (1.1.1), and the addressed the bandwidth concern by making it something that only works over wifi, not over the cell network.

6. Is it compatible with the games already released for the G5 iPod?

I own three of these. Admittedly, they're not expensive, but I like them, and it would be really nice if I could bring them along, and one more reason to make this my portable device of choice.

Answer: No. Doubtlessly there will be games for it eventually, but there were none at launch. There are now some games that can be played in the Safari web browser, but none of them are especially grand.

7. Does it support Adobe Flash in the browser?

Sure, it's Safari in name, and looks like a pretty good browser, but a browser that doesn't support Adobe Flash is essentially crippled on today's web. Lots of video sites rely on it, many web games rely on it, heck, even some web comics now depend on it. What degree of Flash is supported? (For that matter, how well will it work with web 2.0 apps?)

Answer: Actually, this isn't turning out too badly. The answer is still no, but A) web 2.0 support is decent. and B) Flash is rumored to be coming as a future update. Wait and see, I guess.

Update: Still not too bad, but it doesn't look like flash is coming.

8. How open will it be to third party developers?

This is a biggie. One of the nice things about many of the palm and windows-based smartphones is the ability to install applications written by independent developers. From useful utilities to entertaining games, this ability is nearly crucial, but Apple won't even talk about what kind of processor the device has yet, so it seems like it's not exactly approaching the development community with the most open of arms.

Answer: No. Apple is calling it a "Closed Platform". Steve Jobs told the New York Times: "These are devices that need to work, and you can't do that if you load any software on them." Which is obviously bullshit, since I put stuff on my PDA, my computer, and my PSP, and all of them continued working just fine. Jobs told MSNBC: "Cingular doesn't want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up.", which is, I suspect, closer to the truth. The deal-with-the-devil AT&T exclusive probably required some compromising, and crippling the device so that user apps couldn't be installed was probably one of those compromises. This may be simply to proctect AT&T's various fee-based markets. I wouldn't use SMS messaging at all if I could install an AIM chat client, for instance. I hope this position changes, or that (at least) it allows for widgets and/or Adobe flash programs. Even decent support for HTML or Web 2.0 apps running from local memory would be better than nothing, here. (Web apps so far only run from the web, not from local storage.)

Update: Well, Jobs relented, and the SDK for writing applications is now available. Full application support is coming in June with the 2.0 firmware. While there are some caveats, I think it will address this point quite nicely.

9. What will the monthly service cost?

This is a pretty big deal. With the capabilities of the device, you're going to want unlimited (or nigh unlimited) data transfer. What kind of a monthly pricetag is that going to amount to? Especially important because of the two year contract.

Answer: $60 for 450 minutes with unlimited data. Not too bad, actually.

10. Does it support easy net access for my MacBook via Bluetooth?

One of the grails of cell phones for me has been the transparent ability to set it up next to my laptop and get my laptop online through the phone's access to the net. This has, historically, been way more difficult that it should be. This phone seems to have all the pieces, but I've seen that before.

Answer: Nope. I'm guessing that AT&T didn't want this because they charge a lot more for data plans that allow "tethered" access of this sort. I've crafted a way to write an email on my laptop and send it using the iPhone, which takes part of the burden of this restriction away. Would be nice to see this capability added.

Update: It is possible to do this with a hacked iphone now, but it's against AT&Ts terms of service, so is probably not a good idea if you want to keep your cell phone plan.

Bonus Q: Will I be able/want to get one?

Despite my initial skepticism about some of the devices limitations, the fact turned out to be that I needed a phone. With that as a baseline need, and the surprisingly reasonable monthly rate, I decided to spring for it. Its email capabilities are really what I needed in way of data, and it's phone features are just what the doctor ordered. The rest of the built in capabilities vary from cool to great, and that makes it a pretty good phone for me. I'm still hoping to see some of the shortcomings fixed, either by new versions of the device or by software improvements. Time will tell.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Fun: The Sci-Fi/Fantasy Book Meme

One of the blogs I occassionally read (Chronicles of Bean) recently posted a copy of the Science Fiction Book Club list most significant SF novels between 1953-2006. I thought I'd take a break from pondering HDTV and participate.

The meme part of this works like so: Bold the ones you have read, strike through the ones you read and hated, italicize those you started but never finished and put a * next to the ones you love.

I'm doubtlessly way late to the meme party, but I couldn't resist such a tasty list of books.

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien*
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
3. Dune, Frank Herbert
4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
6. Neuromancer, William Gibson
7. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.*
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey*
22. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card*
23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson*
24. The Forever War, Joe "Robot Jox" Haldeman
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
27. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin*
31. Little, Big, John Crowley
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39. Ringworld, Larry Niven
40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson*
44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer*

A few interesting observations. My favorite books in the whole world are the first two books in the Harper Hall trilogy. They didn't make the list, but Dragonflight, set in the same world, did. My second and third favorites, The Chronicals of Thomas Covenant and Snow Crash, made the list at #23 and #43.

I quibble with #48 being on the list at all. I've read it, and it seemed way too derivative of #1 on the list to be seriously considered of significance. It's a fun read, and later books in the series are much more original, but still...

#4, and #20 almost earned strikeouts. I took a lot of valuable stuff away from the first, but didn't exactly think it was a fun read, and #20 was brutally difficult for me to get through. I kept thinking it was about to start making sense, and then I'd lose the thread.

I haven't read #28, but I did read a graphic novel based on it.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see how highly a Canticle for Leibowitz rated. It's a great book.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

20 Good Things: 3 - Samsung 46" Widescreen Slim DLP HDTV

Specifically, the HL-S4676S model.

As many of you probably already known, We recently took the plunge and decided to purchase an HDTV. Knowing what I knew about video, I had some specific expectations going into the experience, some of which were validated, others of which... weren't. If you're interested in the ins-and-outs of the current state of HDTV, read on. If not, I'll simply say that the model I name above is a very very good compromise on all of the possible pros and cons.

For those who want to know more, here's the skinny. HDTV is the new standard broadcast model. In the next few years, all of the existing NTSC broadcasts will cease, and people with old sets (who don't have cable or satellite or whatnot) will need to buy a new tuner in order to continue to receive broadcast television. The old broadcast standard employs a system of sending images that works like this: Every 60th of a second, one half of the image is sent as a series of horiztonal lines. On the odd 60ths, the odd lines of the image are sent, and on the even 60ths, the even lines are sent, to be slotted into the empty spaces between the odd lines. This alternating between even and odd lines is called "interlacing". The end result is an image with an effective resolution of about 720x480, and an effective framerate of about 30fps. Toward the end of the SDTV (Standard Definition TV) era, certain sets have become capable of dealing with images that weren't interlaced but rather were "progressive" with all the lines coming in a batch that started at the top and worked down to the bottom. When you see a "progressive scan dvd player" it means it is capable of outputing in that new format.

HDTV starts with this and goes up, but they give everything names:
480i - 720x480 30fps interlaced video, as above.
480p - 720x480 30fps progressive video, like what a progressive scan dvd player can output.
720p - 1280x720 30fps progressive video.
1080i - 1920x1080 30fps interlaced video.
1080p* - 1920x1080 30fps progressive video. (The grail of this quest)

(*1080p is not part of the upcoming broadcast standard, and sets aren't required to display it, but it obviously represents the best possible display in this space.)

But of course the format of the data is only part of the equation here. While the HDTV specification has slowly crept into more and more sets, other market forces conspire to add confusion. Heres the high-level list:

1) Video hardware - There's DLP (and many other variants on rear-projection), CRT (glass tubes), LCD (like a laptop screen), Plasma, and finally there's front-projectors of at least two kinds.

2) Gaming consoles - The Nintendo Wii will only do 480p, the Xbox360 renders many things at a maximum of 720p, but outputs them at 1080i through upsampling. The PS3 handles certain video improperly on 1080i-only sets.

3) Inputs - There are four ways to get HDTV-resolution content into a set. Component, DVI, broadcast, and HDMI connectors. There are also legacy needs for s-video and composite video. Finally, audio signals come in two channel and multi-channel formats, and some of those are digital formats while other are analog formats.

4) Most broadcast channels (in Madison, at least) are at 1080i, but some are at 720p, and some legacy content is at 480p or even 480i.

5) Older PVRs (like Tivo) work at 480i.

6) DVDs are usually encoded at 480p, but non-progressive DVD players can only work at 480i.

7) The screen is a different shape. Old TV was 4:3 (4 units wide by 3 units high), but HDTVs are all 16:9. New DVDs are encoded with this aspect in mind (16x9 enhanced) but old DVDs especially from 20th century fox and Disney, often weren't. Broadcast TV is an almost indecipherable mashup of widescreen, non-widescreen, 16x9 and 4x3 content. Even DVDs that encoded properly for 16:9 sets often have 4x3 content for the extras.

8) Cable and satellite services you already have are probably 480i. You may be able to get a lot of that content in HD instead, but you'll probably need to pay more per month, and you'll need new equipment up front.

9) If you're going to be dealing with a mix of input resolutions (and judging by issues 8, 6, 5, 4 and 2 we are going to have to) it's important to consider which resolutions the set can display natively, and how it deals with content that it can't display except by scaling it.


So, with all this to consider, how did I decide to get the Samsung?

Having decided to purchase a set, I decided to concentrate my initial attention on the first issue, which kind of TV technology to invest in.

...To be continued...