Tuesday, July 7, 2009

New MBP offers top display quality, but some beg to differ

Color accuracy, display evenness and grayscale viewing are all noted as excellent; the only sore spots are viewing angle and the grating lack of matte screen options for anything but the 17" top model. He notes that TechRestore may begin offering matte-screen replacements for the smaller units soon, for those who can't tolerate the glossy glare.

Not everyone is satisfied with the MBP screens, however. Designer Louie Mantia of the Iconfactory has a bone to pick with the screen quality of his new 13" unit; it's sporting a 6-bit display, which has been an issue with color-sensitive professionals for years now. To add insult to injury, the Apple store sold Louie the wrong DisplayPort adapter for his external display, and nobody at Apple HQ is willing to give him an answer on whether or not an 8-bit panel is even an option (hint: it's not, sorry about that). One could argue, as he does, that a 'Pro' machine ought to have a professional-quality panel... but that campaign's not likely to get much traction in the halls of Cupertino.

Cruising with the AT&T Navigator

GPS has come a long way, and AT&T has released their subscription based Navigator [App Store] for the iPhone. It requires OS version 3.0. It is fee based, and will set you back US$9.95 a month on your AT&T bill. It is loaded with features, and has voice guided turn by turn directions. It also offers:

  • Automatic rerouting
  • Updated maps with no additional charge
  • Real time traffic updates
  • Fuel Price searches and navigation to those locations
  • Point of interest searches in all the usual categories like ATM machines, hospitals, restaurants, airports

The map gives you a 3D view from a position just above and behind your vehicle. On the setup page you can chose flat maps if your prefer. I found the maps easy to read but would have preferred a landscape view instead of portrait (there is no option to change the orientation). I saw a little lag when driving, but generally the response was fast.

The app really needs a 3G connection. It works on the EDGE network, but was slow to load graphics. If you are somewhere where you have neither you are out of luck. No maps are contained on the app and nothing is cached. In essence, the app is only as good as the AT&T network, and if you do a lot of driving where the network is weak or absent, you'll be navigating on your own.

I found the voice very hard to hear. This is a limitation of the iPhone speaker. It just wasn't designed to be played at a loud volume. On the highway, with road noise, good luck hearing that warning to turn. Of course, the directions are on the map, but the whole purpose of voice instructions is to keep you from looking at the map.

Other features are a high altitude view of your entire trip from beginning to end, a list of your turns on a scrollable page, directions to the nearest AT&T WiFi hotspots (nice), and the ability to set your default navigation method like shortest, fastest, traffic optimized, prefer highways or streets, or pedestrian routing if you're not driving.

I found the voice alerts were too frequent. Frankly, the app is a blabbermouth, and it kept reminding me of a faraway turn too often for my taste. It would be nice to be able to set just how aggressive the voice warnings are.

The big question for most iPhone users will be whether to wait for other nav apps to appear. TomTom is imminent, as is an app from Navigon. They both download the maps to your phone, so you are not dependent on the AT&T network. You only need GPS, and that signal is everywhere. You could also buy an inexpensive dedicated unit; on the low end that will cost about the same as a year of the AT&T subscription, and will certainly have a better speaker. Of course, there will be fees to update the maps, but in my experience you can use a GPS for years without doing that. Points of interest change, but the iPhone provides other sources like Google for up to date info.

I also think it is a bloody shame that the AT&T app has no access to your address book. Apple has walled that data off from 3rd party apps, (Update: Apple provides the ability, the Navigator app hasn't implemented it) and it is just senseless to have you type everything in again. You can copy and paste the data, but it is a needless pain. The AT&T app has this access when it runs on other phones like the Blackberry.

In summary, the app works, and is feature laden. I'm not sure it is the best option for in-car navigation, and you might want to wait for other solutions to appear. Of course, you can always get the AT&T app and cancel. It's a month-by-month charge.

So how is it like to drive with this app? My colleague Steven Sande did just that, and his report will follow soon.

Road Tested: AT&T Navigator for iPhone

Like my colleague Mel Martin, I've had a serious GPS jones for quite a while. When I was in much better shape, I rode the local trails on a mountain bike with a Garmin eTrex Summit. It didn't have any maps, nor did I really need any for what I was doing. My next GPS receiver was a Garmin GPSmap 60cs that I used for geocaching. It had a nice color screen and some limited maps, but really didn't do a very good job of helping me find my way around town.

The third GPS unit was another Garmin, and in this case it was my first real "navigator." I still have it; it's the Garmin nüvi 660, which is an awesome little unit that can help you find your way around the US or Europe (depending on the model you purchase), act as an MP3 player, or even work as a fairly serviceable hands-free unit for Bluetooth phones.

It's best capability, of course, is as a navigator. In this post, I'm going to compare the AT&T Navigator app [App Store] and service with the nüvi, and give you my take on how this free app works. Mel already filled you in on some of the details in his earlier post; we agreed that I'd give you the road test perspective.

I received a test account from AT&T last week while I was in Houston, TX teaching a class. Since I don't know my way around Houston and I had a rental car, it was the perfect opportunity to give the app a try. Of course, I tend to be a bit wary of software that I've never used before, so I decided to bring my nüvi with me just in case things didn't work as planned.

Like any automobile GPS receiver, the AT&T Navigator app has you accept a disclaimer before you can actually use it. This disclaimer comes up every time you start the app; my nüvi does the same annoying thing every time I power it up. Once you've accepted the disclaimer, you're presented with a very simple user interface.

There are four primary buttons to push; Drive To, Search, Maps & Traffic, and Tools & Extras. Tapping Drive To gives you six more buttons -- My Favorites, where you can access places you've tagged as favorites (like home!); Recent Places, which lists recent addresses that you've entered into the unit; Address, which allows you to enter a street address; Business, which provides a search of businesses near your current location; Airport, which provides the nearest airports; and Intersection, where you can enter two street names in a city to get directions to an intersection.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mel's disappointment that you can't pull addresses from your Contacts. That is an issue that should be rectified immediately. However, even if you synchronize your contacts with an "old" Garmin nüvi like mine you can't scroll through a list of friends or business associates and pull up their address. If AT&T and Telenav can add that feature, it will be one more nail in the coffin of single-tasker GPS navigators for cars.

Entering addresses into the unit is amazingly simple. I found it easier to use than the Garmin, since a list of nearby cities shows up as soon as you type the first letter of the city name. The Garmin will often wait until the full city name or at least three or four letters are typed in to come up with a short list of cities. In addition, the Garmin requires you to enter the street number first, then the street name -- AT&T Navigator lets you type in the full address or, even better, paste it in. While visiting Houston, fellow TUAW blogger Aron Trimble and his wife invited me to join them for dinner at a barbecue restaurant. I had the address in an email from Aron, so using iPhone OS 3.0's copy and paste feature, I copied the street address and pasted it right into the street address slot.

For local businesses, things are even easier. Just tap on the Search button, pick from a category, and the closest businesses of that category are instantly listed. Tapping on a listing gives you a Drive To button that provides turn-by-turn direction, and there is a phone number you can dial with one tap. Any of the businesses can be added to your favorites list with one tap as well. You can even rate the businesses or view the list by the most popular.

For my road test, I had a nice Ford Mustang that I was able to get at a subcompact rate. I had the Garmin unit mounted on the windshield, while the iPhone 3GS was plugged into the console power outlet. Here's where things got interesting -- the iPhone was always able to get my current location faster than the Garmin. There's a reason for that. The iPhone 3G and 3GS both use A-GPS (assisted GPS), which uses triangulation from known locations of nearby cell towers to get a fast fix on your approximate location.

In one test, I was leaving a covered parking garage. The iPhone had my location within ten seconds of leaving the garage, while I waited almost three minutes for the Garmin to come to its senses. Chalk one up for the iPhone!

[Other dashboard GPS vendors like TomTom allow users to download weekly ephemerides 'fast fix' updates, which improve the acquisition performance of their units and allow for a position lock within a few seconds. –Ed.]

Both the Garmin and the AT&T Navigator were equally talky when giving directions. In fact, they usually decided to speak up at the same time, and were usually saying almost the same thing. The AT&T Navigator did have one phrase that was unique to it; "Checking route for traffic." I was hoping that the phrase meant that the app was going to automatically route me around traffic jams. That obviously didn't happen, as I found myself stuck in some of Houston's infamous traffic jams.

The app receives up-to-the-minute traffic updates, and tapping on the Summary screen when you're in the Map mode displays a button for a Traffic Summary. The traffic summary shows where highways are showing slowdowns and will let you choose to find a new route around jams. If you tap on the "Minimize All Delays" button or preset the Route Type preference to "Traffic Optimized," AT&T Navigator attempts to find a faster route. I wish I had known that when I was cruising at a whopping 2 MPH on I-610!

In tests in Houston and Denver, I found that AT&T Navigator and the Garmin nüvi gave identical directions. Both had issues with the Texas on-ramps, which are more like a set of 65 mph frontage roads on either side of the freeways. I found that I actually preferred the onscreen display on the iPhone, since it shows a large yellow arrow showing which way to turn.

The big concern with the AT&T Navigator app, which Mel also mentioned, is that the iPhone's speaker simply isn't loud enough to be clearly heard and understood while driving in most cars. The upcoming TomTom turn-by-turn navigation app will come with hardware in the form of a windshield-mounted dock that will charge your iPhone, provide "enhanced GPS performance" and "clear voice instructions." I'm hoping that means that it has an amplified speaker in it so that you can actually hear the iPhone.

What I ended up doing was using the Belkin Mini-Stereo Cable for iPhone that I always carry with me to plug the iPhone into the car's MP3 input jack. This provided a way to get a loud, booming surround-sound voice giving me directions. Unfortunately, it makes it impossible for me to listen to my favorite local radio stations at the same time.

Mel also brought up the point that the app, which costs $9.99/month, might be more expensive than just buying a dedicated GPS navigator. True, but if you want traffic information for a GPS navigator, you're going to need to purchase a monthly subscription anyway. For Garmin units, this runs anywhere from $50 annually (Navteq) to $9.95 per month (XM Traffic). With my Garmin nüvi, I buy map updates on an annual basis that cost about $60.

On several occasions, the app seemed to get confused about where I was and it would suddenly start telling me to make a u-turn or do something else drastic. I chalk this up to having the unit sitting on the car console rather than on the windshield. When someone comes up with a combo speaker/windshield mount for the iPhone, I'd like to give it a try to see if the app maintains accuracy all the time.

In conclusion, I found the AT&T Navigator app to be accurate, fast, helpful, and full-powered. If you don't currently own a car GPS unit and you do own an iPhone 3G or 3GS, you might want to consider signing up for the service and installing the free app on your device. If you can hold out for the TomTom unit, it might be a more worthy successor to standalone car navigators. Whatever I end up using in the future, it's going to be nice to carry one less device with me on road trips.

FinalPrice shopping app released

For those of you who still frequent brick and mortar stores, Jimmi Rehman has released the new FinalPrice 1.0 shopping app for the iPhone/iPod Touch at 99 cents. It requires 3.0 software to run.

This app is a useful one-trick-pony. If you find a sale, the idea is to have your iPhone figure out how much something will cost after the item is discounted and after adding your local tax.

The calculations are solid but I had some trouble with the interface. Tapping the info button didn't work well at first. I had to tap it a number of times using various amounts of pressure for it to be recognized. The other buttons are not as unresponsive, but it still takes a number of taps for any of them to be recognized.

The info screen tells you to enter the original price and then tap the check mark to the right. When you do, the full amount gets displayed on the top green window. Next, enter the sales tax and click the check box to the left. After a few tries, when the click was accepted, a picker with discount percentages in five percent increments is displayed and you can choose the discount percent. Lastly, click on the 'What's the Final Price' button and your calculated price is displayed in the top window.

This is a very useful app and for those who like to peruse shopping malls, which doesn't include me, I can see a good deal of value here. Along with the Amazon app, (previously reviewed) you'll be carrying a nice toolbox to check prices and find out if you are getting a deal or not.

I just wish the buttons were more responsive.

What apps do you take shopping? As an iPhone newbie I would like to know, and I'm sure so would many of our readers looking for another way to simplify their shopping trips.

Dunkin' Run lets you live in the future, Dunkin' Donuts style

Ever wanted to order a bunch of coffee and doughnuts along with your friends online, and then go and pick them up in the store? There is, in fact, an app for that. Dunkin' Donuts has released Dunkin' Run (iTunes link), an app that not only connects you and your friends together (through a strange love of pastries and java), but will allow you to set up an order and then go straight to the store and pick it up.

Sound unnecessary and lame? Maybe -- though it is free, even if it's adware as adware can possibly get. And apparently the app is really badly designed, not to mention that we do feel a little dirty telling you about it: you should probably eat something a little healthier, like a banana or even an (wait for it) apple.

But let's not forget where we started out here -- back in the day, we dreamed of ordering coffee on our iPhone, and now that day has basically come. Unfortunately, the best parts of the dream haven't yet materialized -- Dunkin' Runs only lets you tally up orders among your friends, not actually deliver them to the store. For that, you've still got to show the cashier your iPhone screen, and/or read them off the order. But it is a step closer to the dream. If companies are going to make apps that are actually useful for us, they have to start with apps like this, no? And if nothing else, it's an app that will tell you where Dunkin' Donuts is -- that's all I use my Bank of America app for anyway.

Friday Favorite Triple Pack: Alarm Clock 2, Apptrap, and TimeMachineEditor

They are all one-trick-ponies, take up little space, are free for the downloading, and Apple should buy them up for Snow Leopard.

Alarm Clock 2
, currently up to version 2.4.5, sits nicely on your menubar ready to awaken you with your favorite song, or remind you that your dinner is ready to come out of the oven. You can set an alarm to use any song from your iTunes library, or if no song is chosen, it will just beep at you.

It has an Easy Wake option that slowly brings up the volume of your chosen song over an adjustable period of up to two minutes. As any good alarm clock, it comes with a snooze feature, which is also adjustable. I use it mostly as a kitchen timer that keeps me out of the kitchen. Multiple alarms can be set of course, and if you happen to have an Apple remote lying around, pushing the pause button will tell an alarm to 'snooze'. Since downloading it, I can't think of a day that that I haven't used it at least once

Apptrap is a preference pane that allows you to delete applications more completely than dragging to the trash and emptying. Trashing the normal way usually leaves support files in your library folder that will never go away and do nothing more useful than take up space.

With Apptrap installed, whenever you drag an application to the trash and try and empty the trash, you are presented with a window showing you the file and all support files that go along with the application, allowing you to trash them all together in one stroke. There are no settings, options or anything else to worry about. Just install it and forget it. The next time you delete an application, it will be there for you.

Note that AppTrap is open source but is no longer being actively maintained; the developer is looking for someone to pick up the project. If you want a commercially supported uninstall tool, you can check out the $12.95US AppZapper or the highly-recommended and multicapable file organizer Hazel for $21.95. Mat also wrote up a helpful Mac 101 on uninstaller tools last year.

TimeMachineEditor stops Time Machine from backing up every hour. On my network, with four Macs backing up to Time Machine, hourly, the network slows down to a crawl. This is especially annoying since my information isn't critical enough to be backed that frequently. TimeMachineEditor allows you to set exactly when Time Machine will run.

You can set backups for hourly intervals, like every 12 hours, or set up calendar backups which allow you to backup daily, weekly or monthly at any time you set. The hourly calendar interval is new to version 2.1. I have my Macs backup once a day during the wee hours with each Mac staggered by an hour or so to keep the network hit to a minimum.

application sharing for the iPhone simulator

Last week, TUAW showed you how to sign iPhone applications for informal developer-to-developer distribution. That approach lets you share applications between members of the iPhone developer program by using your signing credentials to authorize the application for use on your development units. iPhone applications compiled for the Intel-based simulator can also be shared between developers. And, since the free developer program offers access to the simulator, the apps can be distributed even more widely than with the re-signing approach.
Simulator testing does not offer the full suite of device-specific capabilities. You cannot simulate the onboard camera or retrieve proper accelerometer feedback. The simulator does not vibrate or provide general multitouch input. (You can pinch, but that's about it.)
The strength of simulator-based distribution is that it lets you send out applications for early testing and feedback. Sim-only tests strengthen the preliminary design process; this approach helps solicit feedback on user interface and general program layout before the main development push gets underway.
Simulator-based apps are easy to transfer and easy to use, cutting out a layer of overhead that's needed for when you go to a full ad-hoc beta.
To distribute a simulator application, go to the Library/Application Support/iPhone Simulator/User/Applications/ folder in your home directory. There you'll find the application sandbox folders that are currently installed for your simulator. Each folder is named with a unique id (i.e. 56E66CE5...DC028F) that does not reflect the folder's contents.
You'll have to peek inside to determine which folder is which.The folder contains the application, and three sandbox directories: tmp, Library, and Documents.
To share a simulator folder compiled for 2.2.1 and earlier, you must zip up both the folder with the application and the .sb (sandbox) file that shares the same name as the folder. 3.0 and later applications do not use a .sb file. Just zip up and share the folder.
Install the shared app by decompressing its sandbox folder (and, for 2.x, its .sb file). The recipient must have installed the iPhone SDK. Drop it into the simulator's Applications folder on another machine and launch the simulator. The app should appear in the simulator, ready for testing.

Pocket Universe ups the astronomy app ante

When the fireworks stop and the smoke clears, it would be a great weekend to look at our beautiful summer skies. Pocket Universe [App Store] is a US$2.99 app that has been updated to make star finding easier for those that have a new iPhone 3GS.

The app uses the position sensors and the compass to orient your phone to match the real sky. As you turn or tilt the phone, the sky map changes to give you a very accurate picture of where you are pointing, with lots of labels and links to more information. This is one of the first examples of an augmented reality app to hit the platform since the introduction of the 3GS.

If you have an older iPhone or iPod touch running OS 3.0, you can tilt the phone to match where the real sky is, but you'll have to manually set the direction you're facing.

This changes everything for the novice astronomer. I tried the feature and it worked really well, even though I was near a large metal building. As I turned my phone the display of the sky changed very rapidly to keep up with my movement.

Other nice features from the last version are intact. You can tap the 'locate' button to find any object that is above the horizon. Select it and it centers on the map. Tap a pop-up for more info and you get a quick summary of the object. In the new version of the app a further tap gets you a Wikipedia entry.

You also get a list of meteor showers, lunar phases and a very nice 'tonight's sky' feature that tells you right away what's up and worth seeing.

Some things I'd like to see improved: The app could support finger-pointing to an object to identify it in addition to going to the locate menu, and the Virtual Sky feature is buried in an options menu. I'd like to see an onscreen button to turn it on and off.

The 3GS features are similar to a Celestron product called the Sky Scout that is a dedicated astronomical instrument. The Sky Scout has a lot more information, and audio tours of the skies, but it costs $200.00. If you're really serious about the stars and planets I'd give it a look.

Meanwhile, another favorite astronomy app, Distant Suns [App Store] has been updated recently, and is now on sale for US$3.99. It has added features to the wonderful tour guides and now includes more information about the objects displayed, including travel time at light speed to the planets. It also includes some breathtaking images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

This is the International Year of Astronomy, so it's a great time to get outdoors and look up. It's fun to do, and the iPhone apps really make it a more compelling and educational experience.

Rolando 2 out now on the App Store

Just in case you haven't yet heard, ngmoco has released Rolando 2 out into the App Store for the premium price of $9.99. The game's subtitled Quest for the Golden Orchid (in this one, you're rescuing a relic rather than a prince), and though it's not cheap by App Store standards, but on the other hand, it's as quality a game as you'll find on the iPhone. We were big fans of the first one, and the second one ups the ante with a brand new 3D look (though still the same great 2D gameplay), and lots more types of Rolandos to roll and jump and fly and drive around the more than 45 new levels. It's fair to say that if you liked the first one, you'll love this one, and if you've never tried rolling a Rolando around, this is a perfect opportunity to start.

There, unfortunately, no lite version of the second game yet, but there is a version of the first one to try, and there are lots of movies to watch over on ngmoco's site, so you can probably get the idea from there. If you're interested in gaming on the iPhone at all, Rolando's on the short list no matter what your tastes are.

iPod touch, nano might get cameras

Ah, the loose lips on those 3rd party case manufacturers. This time we're seeing what looks like an iPod case with a hole cut out for... yes, a camera. Macrumors has a few juicy shots of both nano and touch-sized iPod cases with said holes. These match up with sketches reported by iLounge back in May and rumored by HardMac before then.

Personally I think it's brilliant and logical to add a camera to the nano and I doubt a touch with video would scuttle many iPhone sales. More importantly, the touch is likely to get the same "upgrade" treatment the 3GS did: oleophobic screen and speed boost. Adding a camera just turns the touch into what people wanted anyway: pretty much an all-in-one device.

Apple Stores will replace broken iPhone displays

Apple's service options for iPhones have improved since 2007. Back then, long-term repairs meant traveling to an Apple Store and paying the $29US fee for a loaner. Later that month, Apple released the Apple Care Protection Plan for iPhone. Among other things, this plan extends technical support to two years from the date of iPhone purchase, and extends hardware coverage to two years from the same time period.

This week, Apple announced that a specific repair, screen replacement, can be performed at Apple Store Genius Bars while the customer waits. The service is free if your phone is under warranty, otherwise it will cost you $199. Yikes. Of course, "Under Warranty" refers to the date purchased as well as other factors like liquid damage* or jailbreaking.

Here's hoping you won't need this service (hold on tight or buy a case), and if you do, you aren't 200 miles from the nearest Apple Store like yours truly.

Speaking of repairs, we've seen iPhones and iPod touches survive some serious knocks, like a run-in with a pickup truck.

*Note that Apple will let iPhone owners swap their liquid-damaged iPhones for replacements, provided that it succumbed to an out-of-warranty encounter with liquid.This post was about screen repair specifically.

Get Astraware Solitaire and some free fireworks

Solitaire features a dozen different games, including the classics Klondike, Free Cell, Canfield, and Pyramid. As with most of Astraware's games, the 12 solitaire games are nicely animated, easy to play, and hard to master. The game is currently on sale for just US$0.99, so grab it before it goes up to the normal price of US$4.99.

I personally love playing solitaire as a way to pass time on planes and while waiting for meetings to start. After installing Astraware Solitaire on my iPhone 3GS, I erased four other solitaire games that just didn't match up to the quality and variety of play. The new Trophy Deck feature will keep you playing for weeks, trying to collect all of the cards by achieving goals.

Since it's Independence Day here in the U.S., you might also want to download Handmark's free fireworks app, featuring patriotic backdrops, festive fireworks, and music.

Driving along in my automobile, with an iPhone or iPod

Taking a holiday drive with the music blaring is a very American thing to do, but getting your iPod or iPhone to take part has often caused a world of confusion and crude jury-rigged solutions.

Apple has reported that 90% of all current cars are iPod/iPhone enabled, but I have never met anyone who bought one of those cars, so this short article will give you an overview of what's left for the rest of us.

There have been many ideas slung around on how to best integrate your car stereo with an iPod or iPhone. Some time ago we covered a 'complete solution to iPhone car integration. The solutions provided in the referenced iLounge article tells of many combinations of power adapters, FM transmitters, Bluetooth earpieces etc. But that's not the best way.

There is a much more elegant (if expensive) way of doing it, and I would like to scratch the surface on that topic.
I am currently using a Vais Technology SoundLinQ 2 in my Lexus 400h. Instead of plugging into a cigarette lighter, using the tape or CD deck or using any form of FM transmission (which I have never heard working perfectly), the VAIS unit avoids all of that by hard wiring a connection between the head unit and the iPod or iPhone.

In my case the unit I bought was specific for the model of my car and the Lexus navigation system. It allows me to listen to playlists and switch tracks from buttons on the steering wheel, while descriptive text appears on the radio. It doesn't handle Bluetooth, since Bluetooth and phone pairing were already built into the Navigation system. It also allows me to hook up video to the Navigation screen, but I found no use for that. The result is that you are left with no messy wires or connections, just plug in the iPod or iPhone and it works quite elegantly.

Vaistech mostly handles foreign cars, but a company named Peripheral Electronics makes versions for most domestic cars as well. Crutchfield has published a iPod Car Stereo Adapter Shopping Guide which can provide a bit of help, but it was written in 2004, so it's of limited value.

Using these, the your Apple device is no longer a foreigner to your sound system, but an integral part, giving you all the functionality that should have been there in the first place when you bought the car.

You should note that these devices are pricey. Depending on what you need they can cost anywhere from about $125 to over $400, but I see it as a one-time charge that will amortize its price well over time. It's also, by some measures, a bargain. I found out, when I bought my car, that Lexus would add iPod functionality with less utility for $1500! When I told them the information I had found on a cheaper solution, the salesman's eyes lit up and everyone wanted the URL.

Installation of these devices is not too challenging. My friend who knows car stereos reports that on a scale from one to ten, installation is a 5 if you know nothing about cars and a 2 if you do. Yes it's a bit of a pain out front, but once it's done, it's done.

The sound quality you get from a direct wire is hands down the best you can get from your device and your audio system, which is a wonderful thing compared to the FM transmitter solution (dicey at best depending upon your location).

But there is a problem: New iPhones will not charge their batteries when plugged in. This is something my iPod Classic 80 GB did with no trouble at all. Apple changed the electric specifications from 12VDC in previous models to 5VDC in current models including the iPhone 3GS. Not good.

But there is a solution, tipped to us by Earl Newton. Peripheral makes a simple four foot cable that changes voltage from 12VDC to 5VDC allowing charging of new devices and bringing back the functionality that was removed by Apple. The cord looks like a 30-pin dock extension with a male on one end and a female on the other. Add it to the existing iPod dock connector, hide the new wiring and along with having an integrated iPod or iPhone, you can charge anything. Right up until Apple changes the specifications again.

If you would like the best possible sound and the most integrated functionality with your existing car sound system, this is the only way to go. If you have the cash.

If you have even more cash, you can get your head unit replaced. But if you have a really good head, or one with a navigation system and want to replace it with something in kind, you will need far deeper pockets that any solution mentioned here.

Have you tried anything like this, or have you found a better solution? Tell us about it.

iPhone 3GS ranked #1 in cellphone sales in Japan... for now.

TG Daily (via Fortune) is reporting that Japanese market research company BCN's latest rankings of cellphone sales in Japan are showing that Apple's smartphone is the the current market leader in that country.

I did a quick check at BCN this afternoon while writing this post, and the iPhone 3GS 32GB is listed in first place in sales (see screenshot at right), with the iPhone 3GS 16GB in second place. The 3GS was just introduced in Japan on June 26th, and the sales figures are from the week of June 22 - 28. BCN's source of data includes point-of-sale information from many of Japan's largest electronics retailers, including Amazon Japan, Eiden, Bic Camera, K's Denki, and Best Denki.

Akky Akimoto at Asiajin is providing some perspective on the numbers. It's not unusual for a new phone to jump to the top of the list as it is released. As he notes, the Sony Network Walkman was #1 in the BCN ranking of music players at one time in 2005, but for the complete year, Apple iPod had a 60% share of the Japanese market.

White iPhone discoloration: Not just heat

Last week, several readers were pointing out stories of white iPhones that had taken on a yellowish hue. It was assumed that heat was the issue. Keen to tempt fate, I played Star Defense [App Store link] for 30 minutes straight last night with my iPhone resting on my bed. It warmed up pretty good, but stayed white.

Earlier today, frenchiPhone.com reported that the issue is most likely the combination of a hot iPhone and a certain case, though they did not specify which one. Additionally, they state that cleaning the effected area with a cloth and some rubbing alcohol will remove the stain. We haven't tried this, so we can't confirm that it works/won't damage your phone.

Our best advice, based on the limited information we have, is to remove your white iPhone from its case if you're going to be doing someting intensive for a long time, like play StarDefense, run a GPS app, etc.

I probably don't have to tell you this, but just in case ... do not apply stain stick to your iPhone.

Removing duplicates from your iPhoto library

While I'm frequently called upon by friends and family to assist in cleaning up their iTunes duplicates, I was recently asked by a friend to help clean up duplicates of a different sort: an iPhoto library. At first glance, I knew this was going to be a tough job: duplicates were littered throughout my friend's library, and there was no visible pattern to it.

So, rather than manually sifting through what was, at the time, a 10GB iPhoto library -- which would've tested the limits and accuracy of my eyes, as well as taking me through my AARP years to complete -- I decided to think different -- 'cause that's what us Mac users do. After doing some research, I stumbled upon Brattoo Propaganda's Duplicate Annihilator (link). The end result was a 10GB iPhoto library trimmed down to 6GB.

Using a host of algorithms, Duplicate Annihilator scans your entire iPhoto library (or selected photos) to detect for duplicates. By default, it does this by comparing the photos' MD5 checksum; however, the photos' CRC32, Exif, file name, and photo dimension information can be enabled for comparison as well.

After finding duplicates, Duplicate Annihilator can perform a host of actions. One is to add a comment to the photos' "description" field. And it can do this to originals as well as duplicates. While users can choose to replace existing content in the field, the safer method is to append to the field, rather than replace it. So, say you have a picture with "Mary getting Carl Weathers' autograph" in the description field, the duplicate of it would have "Mary getting Carl Weathers' autograph-duplicate" instead.

And then there's the Popeil Showtime Rotisserie oven option, which allows for a "just set it and forget it" means of ridding yourself of duplicates: you can move duplicates directly to the trash. In addition you can also set Duplicate Annihilator to empty your trash. That's right, in just several installments, your duplicates will be completely gone. But, unless you're the daring type, you really shouldn't select this option.

As in most situations like this, user discretion is advised. In other words, backup your library before doing anything of this sort (you'll find it in ~/Username/Pictures). Because, as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. And this being the case, permanently deleting pictures may result in several thousand unwanted words hurled your way.

Duplicate Annihilator is shareware and is available for $7.95.

Sirius XM app soars even without Howard Stern

Sirius XM it released June 18th has become the top free download in the Music Category on iTunes.

It has been grabbed more than 1 million times either by Sirius XM subscribers or people who did not have Sirius hardware and simply wanted to pay the US$13.00 a month fee for access to the 120 plus channels available.

"Reaching more than 1 million downloads so quickly is a strong testament to our world-class programming and SIRIUS XM's instant brand recognition," said Scott Greenstein, President and Chief Content Officer of SIRIUS XM Radio. "Our goal is to give people access to the best audio entertainment wherever they go with what we think is the best music and audio entertainment application available on the App Store."

The numbers are impressive but the subscribers still can't listen to Howard Stern who is one of the big draws to the satellite broadcaster. Sirius really hasn't had any substantive comment about omitting Stern, but the issue appears to be Stern himself, who wants more money to be offered on cellular devices. On his daily show in June he said "It was a rights thing, a contractual rights thing, It was a rights issue and a whole entanglement thing. So, we're not on it. Maybe one day we will be."

Although the app is a very popular download, it has very negative reviews at the App Store. As of this morning more than 38,000 reviewers gave it one star, more than twice all the other ratings combined.

Manage your iPhone's clipboard with Snippets

The cut, copy, and paste features (finally) included in version 3.0 of the iPhone OS greatly improve the productivity of the iDevices. However, there is room for improvement. Enter Erich Bratton with his clipboard manager app, Snippets, available now in the iTunes App Store [iTunes link].

Snippets offers a way to organize bits of text that can be accessed quickly to paste into emails, text messages, notes, and other places. The clips can be categorized into a number of pre-determined or user-created folders as well. To help get new users comfortable, the app comes with a variety of canned responses and other text pieces, some of which are hysterical.

The real power of Snippets lies in the ability to paste or create text in the app for later use. Think of it as boilerplates for your iPhone. If you find yourself writing similar things over and over, simply create an entry in Snippets. When you need to write that same text next time, visit the Snippets app first, view the desired text block (which automatically copies it to the clipboard), and then paste it into whatever app you'd like. It really couldn't be much simpler.

The canned responses included with Snippets are worth its price of $.99 alone, in this blogger's opinion. But even if you are wittier than I and appreciate original pieces of text, Snippets is a great app with a very easy-to-use interface that I plan to use again and again. In fact, I might just start using it to write some generic paragraphs that I can use in every review. What a time-saver!

WWDC Demo: Ow My Balls!

Yeah, so did you see Idiocracy? While I'm convinced it's merely a documentary sent to us from a future Mike Judge, warning us of the dangers of Brawndo and poor math education, one of the takeaway phrases from the movie has made its way into an iPhone app. Yes, Martha, you can say "balls" on the App Store. While tasteful slideshow apps like Minipops are rejected without so much as a "get bent," somehow Ow My Balls! became the first app on the store to use "balls" in this sense. Apple: always on the cutting edge.

Anyway, I wound up trying Ow My Balls! (iTunes link) on the plane back from San Francisco, and guess what? It really is strangely addictive. Not like Fieldrunners-grade addiction, mind you, but it's a low level thing that makes you play for a much longer time than you'd ever think you'd be playing. Is it worth $.99? Yeah, if you're into this sort of thing.

The game mechanic is simple: kick the guy off a ledge (in the aforementioned nether regions), tap him to "fart" and make him stay in the air longer. You have small goals like hitting every target and getting maximum rackage by hitting more stuff on the way down. That's really about it, but as I said, it's more fun than you'd imagine. My only problem: I can't find the very last object to run into. Ow, my finger!

iPhone vs. Pre: The best air-travel companion

I'm by no means a frequent flyer, but I'm preparing for a trip to Vegas to get hitched in just about week. I'm loading up my iPhone with applications to make my vacation a little easier, like Flight Tracker and TripIt. Even with all these apps, I was left wondering if my iPhone would really be the perfect air-travel companion (other than my wonderful fiancée, of course).

Fortunately, Ars Technica was there to put some of my fears to bed, putting the Pre up for battle against the iPhone as the ultimate travel companion. Thankfully for me, the iPhone ends up as the clear winner. The article notes the wide availability of iPhone charging accessories if you happen to be short on battery with your charger stashed away in your checked baggage, as well as the huge number of apps available in the App Store to aid in your travel or supply time-wasting entertainment for long layovers or flights. It also notes the iPhone's battery-saving options (like Airplane Mode, turning off WiFi/Bluetooth, screen brightness, etc.) as extremely valuable when you're traveling and don't have immediate access to a charger.

PS3 Media Server transcodes and remuxes in real time

For a while now I've been using MediaLink ($20) from Nullsoft to stream video from my Mac to my PS3, but last evening I discovered that I had some MKV (Matroska container) files that I wanted to stream but which the PS3 doesn't natively support. Naturally I assumed I'd have to convert the files and Googling around did turn up a method for doing so using QuickTime Pro. Even beyond the need for QuickTime Pro, however, it is also a somewhat time-consuming process. That's when I ran across a brilliant piece of open-source software called PS3 Media Server.

PS3 Media Server is a cross-platform Java application (and, unfortunately, it looks like it), which not only streams video from your Mac to your PS3, but also utilizes the open source Mplayer/FFmpeg backend packages to transcode / remux media in real time. What this means is nothing short of remarkable: you no longer have to convert supported media (MKV/FLV/OGM/AVI) ahead of time for playback on the PS3. I was able to stream a 720p MKV file without a hiccup (though I do have both my Mac and PS3 connected to the router via ethernet cable). Being impressed at the performance I decided to try it with a 1080p movie trailer I had downloaded from Apple and after a brief blip about 10 seconds in it streamed beautifully as well. (Note that both of these files were already H.264, which the PS3 does natively support, so I believe the PS3 Media server was only remuxing and not actually transcoding.)

PS3 Media Server is a free download over at Google Code (donations requested). There's also a Mac-specific beta (pictured above) that offers more features (including iTunes and iPhoto library support). Overall I'm shocked by how well it has worked with what I've thrown its way (which is admittedly limited). Highly recommended.