Apple and Education

Ibera - 4Apple held an education event last week at a ridiculously huge high school in Chicago. It was squarely aimed at what used to be one of their core (and most loyal) markets: K-12 schools in the United States. On this side of the pond, there have only been isolated areas where Apple gets a look-in. I used to be one of them, when I taught Media and Film Studies, but even then I didn’t have enough computers in the classroom for anything other than group work.

In these financially straitened times, Apple have been losing share to Google. Schools are starved of funds for ideological reasons, teacher salaries are rock bottom (also for ideological reasons), and Google offer both cheap computers (Chromebook) and a “free” suite of software that integrates with school systems.

Apple’s event introduced a new, cheaper iPad aimed at schools, which supports their (expensive) Pencil and has a suite of software aimed at school IT managers and teachers.

Now, if you take the iPad and consider what it can do, it’s great value. Whereas a Chromebook, like most cheap laptops, will fall apart within 3 years, an iPad will go on forever (as long as you don’t drop it). An iPad can be a still or video camera, and includes software to edit photos, create documents, and edit video or make music. Nothing in the Google suite of apps matches the quality of Apple’s software. Throw in the Pencil, and you can use the iPad across the curriculum. Which is not to mention the privacy concerns I’d have regarding Google and their “free” software.

It seems, however, that Apple has a problem when it comes to implementing class sets and multiple log-ins. Their user-switching tools are reportedly clunky. I don’t think, personally, that this is unique to Apple. I’ve watched students log into networked (PC) computers and (especially if it’s the first time they’ve used that particular machine), it can take a ridiculously long time. I’ve had students in my lessons who’d been issued with a laptop because of special needs, and they have sat waiting for it to log in for an entire lesson.

But if I was in charge of a budget and had the power to make things happen, would I buy iPads?

I don’t think I would. I’d replace suites of Windows PC and Chromebook computers with Apple in a heartbeat, but I’ve never been sold on the iPad.

Here’s the thing. A computer is only as good as its software, and while Apple’s software may be good (the best, even), here in the real world, teachers don’t have time to learn it. It’s not just budgets and salaries that are constrained, but time. You offer me a class set of brand new iPads (or even a one-iPad-per-child policy), and I’m going to shrug my shoulders. Those iPads are going to stay locked away, or in the students’ bags. Not only do I not have time to get to grips with the software I’d be using to assign work and set homework, but I don’t have time to design lessons and activities, or the inevitable administrative tasks that go along with setting class and homework.

We already get pointed towards online services that can be used for homework and resources. “It’ll save you time in marking,” they say. “It’s all marked automatically.” But it’s not just the marking time I don’t have. I don’t have the setting time, the thinking time, or the time to deal with the students who don’t do the assigned tasks (because, when a student doesn’t do the homework, you’re supposed to do something about it).

You think I’m whining. I teach seven different sets of students. Outside the extra time I choose to put in, I get 21 minutes per week, per class to plan lessons, set work, mark books, and do the admin for that class. Obviously, that’s impossible, so the extra time I put in is dedicated to those basic tasks.

So you can hand me the greatest IT tools in the world, the most amazing hardware and software, but I still don’t have time. It wouldn’t be so bad if the students themselves had any IT savvy, but it’s a rare student indeed who knows how to do anything beyond the basics. I spent 10 years teaching students how to use Page Setup and calling out, “You’ve got caps lock on,” when their log-in “wasn’t working.” These days, not being able to do something on a computer has replaced the dog as the the most common reason homework isn’t done. I’ve decided that life’s too short to watch any more people accidentally lose all the work they did in an hour, or not know how to resize an image. 

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How useful is the iPad really?

Really? A plastic bag?

Really? A plastic bag?

Note: This post was written all the way back in January of 2014 about my iPad 3rd generation. Since I bought mine there have been 3 other generations and the iPad Pro, so this is considerably out of date and shouldn’t be taken as a review of any current iPad. That said, I got rid of mine eventually and haven’t replaced it yet.

I’ve written about this topic previously here, and I’ve written about my experience with  magazines here.

We’ve all seen the ads. Surgeons with iPads in theatre. Filmmakers with iPads on mountain tops. Whole classes full of kids with iPads in lessons.

Every time I see those ads, I ask myself, really? Isn’t an iPad in an operating theatre a vector for hospital superbugs? How many fingers touch that iPad? How often does it get a clean? Do Apple even sell an iPad disinfectant? And a mountaintop? Really? You lugged that great big thing all the way up there, with its not-very-good camera, instead of, you know, a camera?

I’ve gone through stages with it. At first I was excited just to have it, obviously. I edited my first video on it, and was enthused by Avid Studio, which was acquired almost immediately by Pinnacle, and then by Corel. My contract isn’t up yet, and that software has had three owners. I no longer trust it. Some new owner may arbitrarily just withdraw it from sale, just to clean up the competition. So I don’t edit video on the iPad. I tried iPhoto, too, but (just as on the iPhone), I just didn’t get on with it.

Photos on the iPad ought to be a thing, but I grew so frustrated with them that I just gave up. Problem number one for me was that I bought a 16GB model, and 16GB, while fine for an iPhone is hopeless on an iPad, for some reason. Storage is so constrained that I can’t keep music on it long-term; or videos; or photos. I found that Photostream kept spawning copies of photos, and iPhoto did too, so that the iPad (and my Mac) started to fill up with duplicate, triplicate, copies of photos. So I just deleted them all, switched of Photostream (and… breathe) and mentally crossed photos off the list.

A snapshot. My “16 GB” model has “1.9 GB Available” and “11.3 GB Used” at this very moment. That’s 13.2 GB. Oh. So 3GB is taken up with system files. We’ll come to that towards the end. I temporarily have music on it, because I recently took it to France, where it functions as a jukebox with a Bluetooth speaker. So I could free up 3GB by removing the music (which is compressed when I synch to 128kbps in order to save space). Beneath that, the Kindle is occupying 1.5GB. This is a problem. I can leave some stuff in the cloud, true, but I also have some periodical issues relating to subscriptions that I have since cancelled. If I delete the files, I will not be able to download them again, because I cancelled my subscription. Welcome to the future, in which you own nothing.

(As to magazines, well, they’re enormous files, so you can’t keep them, which makes them less useful than printed magazines.)

Pages is a huge app. It takes up 377 MB, and Numbers takes up 370MB. Now, I have used Pages on the iPad, but I generally don’t use it to compose. I use it to read documents created on my Mac. I use it, quite a lot of the time, to look at recipes that I’ve copy-pasted. As for Numbers, I find it more or less unusable on the iPad, but again, I use it to read spreadsheets created on my Mac. This can be useful on parents’ evenings to look at student data. Or I could just take my laptop with me, which is what I did last time. Because it’s easier, frankly, than using the iPad. So I know there are easier ways to keep things like recipes, but I hate using things like Evernote, because you have to create yet another log-in, and give your details to yet another bunch of strangers who might sell themselves to Facebook or give everything to the NSA, or whatever. I don’t want to use the same passwords over and over, and I know I’d never remember anything different. And, yeah, there’s keychain, but trust it long-term? I don’t think so.

As a previous post detailed, I did attempt to use the iPad productively, and even bought a bluetooth keyboard, but I never use it. In fact, I’ve used the keyboard more often with my Mac, especially when my neck is hurting, and I want to put the laptop up higher.

Which leaves the iPad for browsing and reading. Is it better than a Kindle for that? I’ve never liked the typography on the Kindle. In fact, unless the price differential is outrageous, I prefer to read in iBooks on the iPad, because you can turn off text justification. Why the Kindle app doesn’t let you do this, I don’t know. I’ve gone down the route of electronic books in the past couple of years, mainly because we don’t have the space in the house for more books. Also because the quality of many printed books is awful these days (horrible paper, badly printed, badly bound). But here’s the thing. I really don’t like reading on the iPad. Too many accidental taps and swipes, because my hands get restless. It’s also too heavy. An iPad mini would be better, and I know the iPad Air is lighter, but my iPad (3) is a rock. I accidentally highlight text, I accidentally go forwards or backwards, sometimes loads of pages at once. It’s too bright at night, and hopeless in sunlight.

Which leaves browsing, and here’s another thing. I fucking hate Safari on the iPad. Take the Guardian site. It loads once, you go to tap a link, but, oh, it hadn’t finished loading, because now it’s loading the ads, and they’re reflowing the page. But you’ve already tapped. What have you tapped? Something you didn’t mean to. Go back. Wait for the page to load properly: once, twice, three times, reflowing, reflowing, and finally you can tap what you mean to tap. Twice, because the first tap does nothing. And then you wait for it to load again. A good feature, to have to double tap a link, but then when you’re reading an article, and you scroll down the page, sometimes you can’t avoid an embedded link, and what do you know? It immediately starts loading the page you accidentally tapped.

Sure, I’m a pathetic, clumsy, old git, and I’m all fingers and thumbs and tapping accidental links and scrolling clumsily. But I’m spending so much time rectifying mistakes that, 18 months into ownership, I just don’t like it.

As for the system, with its 3 GB of space, christ. I think iOS 7 probably works okay on the latest iPhones, but it has made my 18 month old iPad laggy, which is probably why web sites like the Guardian take so long to load. And, as I tweeted yesterday, that’s the problem with the tech industry. They do this to us over and over again.  New software follows new hardware, the software does more, gets more bloated, and suddenly we’ve gone from iMovie 2 to iMovie as it currently is: a bloated, useless, pile of steaming turd.

My final point, this. I’ve started to resent the iPad for what it has done to software I absolutely rely on – on my Mac. Keynote is shittier. Pages is shittier. Numbers is shittier. iMovie is even shittier. Every time Pages fails to format a fucking list properly, or doesn’t let me do something basic like change a font size by just selecting a preset from the menu, I hate the iPad more.

JBL Soundfly Air review

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In situ, with bottle of wine and delightfully filthy socket for scale. Yeah, but we don’t eat off the socket, right?

[UPDATE 7 Oct 2015: as people keep stumbling across this review, I have to add now that the Soundfly proved to be very flaky in long-term use, and an iOS update seemed to break it. It’s been sitting on a shelf ever since, as I can’t be bothered to faff around with it. I have moved on to a Pure Jongo T2, which I use exclusively with Bluetooth. Any form of wifi music streaming is just too much hassle.)

I’ve had a cheap plug-in iPhone/iPod speaker. It cost me around £26 in Asda, and it was alright, really. About the size of a radio, with a pair of 10cm speakers, it was a decent enough way of playing music and charging the device at the same time. With my iPhone 5, of course, I needed to use an adapter, and the big disadvantage with such a speaker is that your iPhone, if that’s what you’re using, is tethered to the speaker dock. It’s okay if you use an iPod with it, mine being a Nano, but control with the supplied remote was awkward (and impossible, once I’d dropped it in a sink full of water and it stopped working). I also dislike repeatedly using the Apple 30-pin connector – I really don’t think it’s a good design for constant plugging/unplugging. There’s a risk of damage to either the dock or the device. The one in my car is borked, and VW’s cost-to-replace is prohibitively expensive.

As to sound quality, that of course is a very subjective thing. For £26 you don’t expect much. It was alright, but I felt it tended to sound muddy and boomy down at the bottom   end, and much too boomy to play at louder volumes. On the other hand, spend 10x more and you can bet that the sound quality won’t be 10x better.

One of my key issues as a listener is that I most often want music in the kitchen when I’m working, and (rarely) want to still be able to hear as I move from room to room. Obviously the ideal solution for this kind of thing would be something like the Sonos system, which gives you a base unit and a range of satellite speakers. But that’s expensive, and my budget for home entertainment has to be rock bottom.

The problem with the cheap Asda speaker is that it sounds boomy at higher volumes. Shake-the-walls and disturb-the-neighbours boomy. And at lower volumes it becomes inaudible beneath the sound of kitchen appliances.

I’ve also had a cheap Bluetooth speaker. This one is much smaller, about the size of one of the smaller Jamboxes, but nowhere near as expensive. It cost around €49, but it doesn’t sound twice as good as the Asda speaker. In fact, it’s pretty useless for music altogether. It’s okay for speech/podcasts. There’s no low end to speak of, so it doesn’t boom at higher volumes. It distorts. Attempt to pump up the volume for music and it quickly sounds intolerably mushy. On the plus-side, the battery life of the speaker is pretty damn good.

Bluetooth connectivity means no cables, but it doesn’t give you much of an advantage over the tethered variety of speaker. The range of Bluetooth is fairly pathetic in my experience, and you quickly lose the connection at any distance over a couple of metres, when walls get in the way, or even the big sacks of water we call the human body. Although on paper Bluetooth has enough bandwidth for compressed audio, this particular speaker sounds a bit thin to my ears, which admittedly are not “golden”.

I’ve been wanting for a while to try an Airplay speaker, which would use the home wifi network to stream music from connected devices, without the range issues of Bluetooth.

Typically, even entry-level Airplay speakers cost more than Bluetooth. And so we get to the problem of price points. You’ve got the low end (£25-50); and then you’ve got the mid-range (£120-£300); and then you’ve got the high-end (£330–£1600). The range of prices extends at each price point, and the brands become more recognisable in terms of audio pedigree. At the top of the mid-range, you can get an entry-level Bose speaker. In the middle of the high end, you get brands like Marantz, B&W, and thence to silly money territory with Libratone or Bang and Olufsen.

My problem is that I can’t really justify going over £100 for listening to music in the kitchen. Marketing people like to put you in a box. For them, there is really no box between £50 and £120. So if you want to spend a little more than £50, you have to spend more than twice as much. That’s fucked up. I mean, we’re listening to 256kbps compressed audio files here. All you’re going to do by spending more money is reveal the limitations of the source, aren’t you? Combine that with the sound of the kettle and the electric mixer and the fan oven, and, well, at £300 you’re fucking kidding me. And, yes, I am looking at you with your £350 headphones listening to a 99p music track at 256kbps.

Anyway, I had £50 worth of vouchers and I sucked it up and bought a JBL Soundfly Air. It was reduced from £159 to £125. It’s somewhere between the ASDA speaker and the cheap Bluetooth speaker in size, and it offers 10 whole watts of music power. Looking at it, I reckon it’s worth around £75, but in marketing terms, £75 doesn’t exist. This is a few watts more than my Pure Evoke kitchen radio (single speaker model), but a lot less boomy. As with the Asda speaker, Pure give their radios a kind of “radiogram quality” with a bass boost which sounds like shit.

The odd thing about the Soundfly is that it plugs directly into a wall socket. Now, in a modern house with loads of sockets: wahey. In a 70s house with limited numbers of sockets, not so convenient, mainly because the Soundfly takes up a whole double socket because of its width. More on this in a moment.

Anyway, I have a socket in my kitchen that was home to my Pure radio and, given that I can stream radio from my Phone, iPad, or Mac, I decided to experiment with putting the Pure in a cupboard (for occasions when the broadband is flapping) and using the Soundfly as my kitchen radio and music player.

Set up was a bit of a pain, but you only have to do it once. You have to connect your phone to the Soundfly’s own wifi, load its IP configuration address in a browser, enter your own wifi network and password, and then click connect before reconnecting your phone to your own wifi again. It worked on the second try, and since then (touch wood) has been unproblematic.

It appears as an output option on your phone, or via iTunes on a Mac, and there’s a second or two of delay before the sound is audible.

Soundwise, it’s an improvement over both the Asda and the cheap Bluetooth speaker (as you’d hope). It’s crisp and clear and undistorted even at high volumes. It does in fact sound pretty loud, far too loud even with the kettle boiling and the mixer running etc. So that’s good. There’s not a whole lot of bottom end, but I’d rather that than the booming flubbiness of the Asda speaker or the Pure Evoke.

Airplay seems a lot less flaky than Bluetooth, and I like the fact that I can start listening to the radio on my phone in my bedroom in the morning, and then just flip it over to the Soundfly as I’m walking down the stairs. The Soundfly has a useful sleep mode, dropping off after 10 minutes of inactivity (no standby lights) but waking up within seconds when you connect to it.

As to the socket problem, I tried connecting it to a triple plug adapter, which worked quite well, the only problem being that the speakers were pointing at the wall rather than out into the house. It still sounded okay, with the sound reflecting from the wall, but I wasn’t sure if this would make sound travel to next door a bigger problem (my house being a semi). I had another sort of multi-plug adapter that also plugs directly into a socket, but this tended to fall out with the weight of the Soundfly on it.

It’s a shame that it’s not technically possible (without a Sonos-type base unit) to have more than one Soundfly. It would be an ideal solution for multi-room audio (without ridiculously high volumes) to have one of these in, say, two downstairs rooms, streaming music over the same wifi network. A couple of Sonos units (with one of them needing to be connected directly to the router via ethernet) would set you back around £500. And at that price – along with the sound of my fan oven, the buzz of the refrigerator, the Kitchen Aid mixer, the sizzling of the frying pan, and the kettle coming to the boil – you will hear the sound of me laughing in your face.

Apple won’t really make a watch, will they?

Mondaine Watch

Mondaine Watch (Photo credit: dchurbuck)

Listening to the latest Talk Show podcast this morning as I was making bread, I was enjoying the speculation about what Apple might announce next week. Many possibilities, from new iPads to Mavericks and 4k displays were discussed, and particularly interesting were Mr Gruber’s thoughts on iPod Nano and/or Apple iWatch.

I had one of those square Nanos, and did indeed get a watch strap for it. I wore it as a watch for over a year, until the wake button failed, and since then I’ve just used it for music in the car. You can’t actually use it as a regular iPod any more, because you can’t wake it up from sleep. It has struck me since then that any attempt to make a “smart watch” would have to deal with such everyday issues.

The other thing about it was, people were always really impressed, with the whole idea. Especially young people. Personally, I found it a bit disappointing, but I was the one living with it. I didn’t like having to push a button to see the time, and although it would wake to the clock some of the time, quite often, it wouldn’t. So you had to faff about to get the time on the screen. Which kind of defeated the object. Also, you couldn’t really use it as an iPod while it was on your wrist without looking like a twat. And, of course, eventually all those button pushes led to hardware failure.

Still, the idea clearly attracts people. But as Mr Gruber pointed out, for the watch thing to take off, you’ve got to be making something that looks more attractive and elegant. And you’ve got to decide whether you’re in the “fine jewellery” business or the “high tech gadget” business. I found the Nano as a watch to be unwieldy: too large, too thick, and too prone to slide on the strap I bought. I’m coming from a position, by the way, of basically hating almost all watch designs, give or take those from Braun and Mondaine. (In a similar way, I can usually dismiss 98% of all the shoes in a shoe shop, or 90% of shirts and 95% of socks in clothing retailers.)

For a so-called smart watch to work as a watch, it needs to display the time all the time. I need to be able to glance at my wrist, not push a button. It’s not 1976, and we’re not Texas Instuments (I used to have one of those). And it needs to have a battery that lasts longer than a day. Which means it can’t really have an always-on display. Or a cellular radio, or a wifi radio. Even low-power Bluetooth might be pushing it.

If I was in charge of Apple, I wouldn’t want to be releasing something that was (a) ugly, (b) didn’t work very well as a watch, or (c) needed to be charged every day. I’d be knocked out if they solved all those problems.

Popmusicology, Volumes 1 and 2

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After creating some iPad film study guides for my GCSE students using iBooks Author, I wanted to do another project just for fun.

I decided to repurpose some of the material I’d accrued in teaching my “Musicology” 6th Form enrichment course, which was a survey of popular music from its origins. I’d done a lot of research and created presentations with embedded audio and video. Rather than just embed the presentations into an iBook, I decided to create a book from scratch, with both graphical elements and embedded sound files. Because I wasn’t happy with the included Apple templates and didn’t have time to create my own, I downloaded a template from iBooksAuthorTemplates.

The first volume (Origins) appeared on the iBooks store a couple of weeks ago, but will hopefully start to make more sense now that Volume 2 (Boom!) has appeared. Both of them are free of charge, and require an iPad and iBooks.

Volume 1 is concerned with where popular music came from: the regional folk musics that existed in the United States prior to the invention of the phonograph, which started to blend together due to proximity (especially in the Southern states), and later due to new media such as the radio and the phonograph. It’s fair to say that the horrors of the South (slave plantations, the Civil War, Reconstruction) were instrumental in creating popular music as we know it. Poor white people living alongside slaves and (later) poor black people had a shared love of music.

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Popmusicology Volume 1: Origins (THE RED ONE) looks at the impact of new media (particularly radio), the ethnographic work of the Lomaxes, and has sections on the Blues, Jazz, and Country music. There are illustrative sound samples – either out of copyright, or limited to a 30-second length for illustrative purposes.

Volume 2 is concerned with what happened in the wake of Jazz. It was hard to decide upon an order. In the end I went for rock-soul-country, but it could have been in any sequence and made as much sense. There are longer books about the first rock record, but there’s a brief discussion of that and samples of the few of the main candidates. My conclusion is that the first rock record is a bit like a tree falling in a forest. What really matters is when were (most) people aware that there was this thing called rock? 

Popmusicology Volume 2: Boom! (THE YELLOW ONE) looks at the explosion in popular music across multiple genres in the 1950s. After the section on early rock, there’s another looking at how gospel and rhythm and blues turned into soul music. Finally, there’s a section on the horrors of the Nashville Sound in country and the reasons it came about.

So the next step is to write Volume 3, which will look at the 60s beat boom and the changes in the industry wrought by the new generation of artists who wrote their own songs. This will be the hardest volume to write for me, because there is so much to cover and yet I need to be aware of keeping the file size down to a reasonable level. The reason there are already two volumes is that it became clear that even with a 30-second limit on most of the samples, the file size soon balloons.

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Would be great if you download and enjoy the Popmusicology books (or any of the film studies ones), if you would leave some feedback.

My next project is an updated electronic version of my MA dissertation on typography – this will be on the Kindle store.

BBC Good Food Magazine on the iPad – review

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Since owning the iPad, I’ve been wondering if it’s really a thing I have a use for. I’ve been wondering the same thing about my iPhone. The thing(s) are in my hands almost constantly, but I do wonder if I really need them, and once I got over the initial shock of not having it in my hand, I wonder if I would miss them.

I mostly use the iPad to read on. I don’t like it for writing, prefer my laptop for creating presentations and planning lessons, and don’t use it for video or photo editing. Partly that’s because I foolishly bought the 16GB version of the iPad. This means you’re essentially buying a big iPod touch and not anything you might use as a laptop substitute. It’s not big enough to store lots of photos, music, or video files. I don’t like either iPhoto or iMovie on the iPad, though perhaps I’d feel differently if I hadn’t used these types of software on other platforms.

(That said, I don’t really like iMovie or iPhoto on my laptop anymore. I quite like Keynote on my laptop, and iBooks Author, but I’m increasingly out of love with Apple software.)

Anyway, I’m not a big game player, though my kids love the iPad for games. I haven’t used it much for watching iPlayer or similar, haven’t needed to, which leaves it as a glorified book reading device. Even for that, it’s a bit too heavy for comfortable reading.

I’m using it now, to type this, but with an Apple bluetooth keyboard that’s been sitting in a shoe box next to my bed, virtually unused, for months on end. I’m playing music through it, too, onto a little bluetooth speaker I bought at Xmas. But there’s not much music on it, apart from stuff that accidentally appears.

Which brings me, via the scenic route, to the BBC Good Food Magazine. I’ve looked at a few magazines on the iPad. Tap! was one, and my wife had a couple of French ones. The verdict was, as the French say, *bof*. Not as much pleasure to read as a real magazine, and not sufficiently different to make it a different kind of experience. Some people don’t really understand the problem of magazines on the iPad. Their first complaint is always that an electronic version of something shouldn’t cost as much as the print version. But this is to misunderstand how expensive a decent iPad version is to produce. A PDF version of the print thing is not what you want, but nor do you want something with too many bells and whistles. As I’ve been creating ebooks using iBooks Author, I’m all too aware that too much multimedia content leads to massive files, and no end user wants to wait half an hour for something they’re only vaguely interested in to start with. So an iPad version of something has to give you rich retina-resolution graphics, readable text, and a means of navigation that doesn’t involve too much faff to get where you want.

I think BBC Good Food has hit upon a good solution. It’s £1 cheaper than the print version, which I don’t personally think is sustainable, but we’ll see. You flick through the pages, seeing beautiful food photography. If you like the look of something, you tap a target and it flips the page round to show the ingredients and method. That on its own is pretty good. If you want to try the recipe, you can tap the shopping list button, and the ingredients are automatically added to a list. Keep going through the magazine and you can add more ingredients to your list, and then when you’re done you can email the list to yourself.

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They haven’t solved the duplicate item problem, but that’s not so hard to do. (I personally added the emailed items to my Quicky shopping list app on the iPhone, which sorted that easily.)

The Good Food Magazine app also has a useful “Cook” button, because they’ve clearly thought through the problem of reading a recipe from your iPad screen while you’re in the kitchen and are not at a comfortable reading distance. As you start, you can tap the Cook button and the text is zoomed to a bigger size so you can read the screen without bending down. It would be perfect if there was a voice command to get it to flip through to the next stage, for cases where you have gunk on your fingers.

Anyway, it’s the first magazine on the iPad I thought was actually an improvement on the print version, and is actually worth a subscription. Recommended.

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On the usefulness of the iPad

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So I’m typing this entry on my new Apple wireless keyboard, the first time I’ve tried to use it properly. For a start, I have to confess that this is the second time I’ve started this entry, because my WordPress app crashed after one paragraph and I lost everything I’d written so far. It was pithy.

This entry is about my experience as a fairly recent iPad owner and long-time user of Apple products. But I’ve never been an early adopter. I waited for the iPhone 4 before going down that route, and I waited for the third generation iPad before giving in to temptation. I want to write a completely honest assessment of my first couple of months of iPad ownership. I almost don’t know what I think about it, and this might help me decide.

The iPad itself is in front of me on this coffee table-cum-firepit. It’s in its Apple Smart Case, which you’re supposed to be able to use as a stand, except I don’t like either of its two angles, and it has a worrying tendency to fall over – hard – especially in its upright position. So it’s leaning back against two big books. I’m in what we laughingly call the conservatory – more of a cheap lean-to with a horrible plastic roof – and I can barely see the words appearing on the screen for the reflections in here.

That’s one thing, and it’s not a minor issue, is it? The screen, the reflections, how useable the iPad is in a variety of circumstances.

Let’s back up a bit though. I bought the 16GB WiFi+3G model, on a two-year contract on the Three network. Your mileage will obviously differ, but I’ve concluded (after talking to some of my students about their network coverage at our isolated rural school) that Three was the best bet for me, giving me the kind of network access at work (and at home) that I’ve just not got with Vodafone on my iPhone. I’m an idiot for choosing Vodafone, obviously, but they were and are the cheapest way to get an iPhone on contract.

For £25 a month and £159 up front I got this iPad. I’ve barely scratched the surface of my 16GB data allowance, for a variety of reasons. That’s been true of my pathetic 500MB allowance on the iPhone, too. This is mainly because I haven’t had anything other than the little circle for network coverage at work (in spite of the fact that we’ve got a phone mast in our playground) and of course I have WiFi at home. The only time I’ve used 3G has been in France, where it has cost me a small fortune. £2 a day last year for 25MB a day; this year, £3 a day to take my contract to France with me. So after three weeks in France, that was a £60+ addition to my normal bill. I don’t make calls and I barely use any of my text allowances. I’m a born Pay as You Go customer, but never have the upfront cash to go for it.

At work, the school network blocks anything useful (blogging, Twitter, YouTube), so I’m looking forward to being able to use such services for lesson planning and or lunchtime browsing. But I haven’t really been at work, yet, so haven’t started to use my data allowance. I was also hoping to use the iPad on 3G in France, but it turns out that as a non-voice customer I don’t get the option, other than to pay 70 pence per megabyte. Even restricted to 25MB per day, three weeks in France would have cost me nearly £370.

So the iPad came to France, but it wasn’t very useful for getting online. My in-laws don’t have internet at all, so I could only use WiFi at my brother-in-law’s house, which I called the Internet Café for the duration. When we went camping, the campsite WiFi was restricted to the office, and stupidly slow, so I barely used it. I relied on my iPhone therefore, and the iPad became nothing more than a games machine for the kids and an after-dark Kindle for me.

I hesitated about taking my original greyscale Kindle but I’m so glad I did, because I relied on it for all daylight hours reading, especially in the sunny Dordogne.

The iPad certainly kept the kids quiet in the back of the car on several long journeys. For that, it can’t be beat. They’ve had iPod Touch and Nintendo DS in the back before, but the iPad introduced a whole new level of peace and quiet.

Me, I used it a little bit for reading, and a little bit for photo editing (but not much, because I couldn’t really get photos from Photostream on the various slow WiFi networks I used, and I haven’t got a Camera Connection Kit). My daughter made a short horror movie on it, when we were exploring the house in Auxelles. My wife read some issues of French Elle magazine.

Since getting home, I’ve barely used it during the day. There’s this problem with not really being able to see the screen in sunlight or in a bright room. And the problem of the kids being on it all the time.

I haven’t yet discovered a killer app for the iPad. Filming and editing video on it (when you need to do a quick and dirty project) is certainly useful. But I’ll likely do that kind of thing once or twice a year. I’ve typed a couple of things on it, but it wasn’t all that easy compared to using a laptop. This, now, is hunched and uncomfortable, and I’m only here because I want to sit in this bright room and enjoy a sunny morning. Reading on it is okay, but it’s too heavy compared to a normal book or a Kindle, so I only do it at night, when reading on the Kindle becomes difficult because it lacks a backlight. I haven’t used it for music. The kids have used it for art, and for games, and for emailing their friends.

For them, it’s wonderful. But it’s yet to find a place in my heart, which surprises me. The main reason I bought it, if I’m honest, was because I wanted to be able to preview the iBook I’ve been working on. But that project is a bit stalled due to laziness and other things happening, so it’s not really serving its purpose. This keyboard is great, but the iPad itself is only scoring half marks for me so far.

I’ll follow this up when I’m back at work, to see if it becomes more useful then.

Avid Studio for iPad

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So I’ve had my iPad for a week or so now. One of the things I was looking forward to trying was iMovie, which while useable on the iPhone was a bit fiddly. Surely, I thought, the bigger screen and the retina resolution of the new iPad will make iMovie a pleasure to use?

Well, it turns out it’s still a bit fiddly. Not hard to use as such, but (for example) selecting just a bit of a clip is awkward. Trimming to the exact beginning or ending is not that easy. And you have to learn gestures and so on, which I guess will take time. That’s the key difference between tapping and keyboard shortcutting. I use a load of keyboard shortcuts in the desktop version of iMovie, and it’s frustrating not being able to do that.

Which brings me to Avid Studio. I saw it on the App Store and it struck me that the interface was (shock horror) actually better than Apple’s. I should add that the reason I thought it looked better was that it reminded me of the sorely missed and never forgotten original iMovie interface. The storyboard view. The linear timeline. The audio waveform that makes editing clips so much easier.

so I downloaded it. For just under £3 (around the same as iMovie) you get something very like original iMovie. This is high praise indeed, because I’m firmly of the belief that iMovie 2 was the best software ever made.

Your clips are in a bin at the top (just a square thumbnail for each). Tap once to bring it into the preview window, where you can easily set beginning and end points before touching and dragging down into the storyboard, where you can continue to trim if you want, using the waveform as a guide. You can also drag a whole clip down from the bin, and you can easily split a clip using the razor tool. (In iMovie, to split a clip you need to highlight then swipe down the playhead.)

I haven’t explored much further, but I’m happier editing with this than I am with iMovie, which I suspect will end up deleted. Avid Studio is less fiddly and I can work much faster and more effectively with it.

iPhoto, on the other hand, is more intelligible on the iPad.