Friday, November 25, 2011

Google Music

Google has launched its cloud-based service for music streaming. You can download their free Music Manager software (I used version to your computer, then use a (free) Google account to upload your computer's existing library of music to their servers, up to 20,000 songs.

With Internet access, you can then play your songs from a browser on a computer, on selected Android devices (which likely provide the best experience), or from a browser on an iOS 4 or higher device:

Under iOS 5.0.1, I use Safari, which worked best in my testing, and I bookmarked the site in Safari's Reading List, to be shared across any iOS device having my Apple ID.  Using Camera Roll on a 4th generation iPod, which includes the possibility of playing video (which includes an audio component, which would naturally compete), stops music that is playing.  Some other apps like Mail, which don't have native, primary audio components, could be used without interrupting the music.

I tried two browsers I rarely use, Late Browser Mobile (1.0) and Sleipnir Mobile (1.4.8), to see if they might be repurposed as music-playing apps.  They were apparently limited to playing a single song once (continuous play would not work), and unlike Safari, they stopped playing music as soon as you tried to switch to another app (with a double press of the Home button).

With no Passcode set on an iOS device, you can set Auto-Lock to never, which is optimal for using Google Music.

However, if you have a Passcode set on your iPod, the Auto-Lock can be set for at most 5 minutes, severely limiting your options for using Google Music. The maximum analogous iPad option is 15 minutes.

Apparently, Safari must be open in the foreground and the iPod active (i.e., not in sleep mode) for much or all of the time that you are using Google Music in order to play multiple tracks continuously. If the iPod goes to sleep mode, it still loads the next track, but you must wake the iPod to play the track.

If you want to replay the same track continuously, Safari need not be in the foreground, and the track will keep playing even if the iPod goes into sleep mode. Perhaps only folks like me, who years ago recorded the same song continuously on both sides of a cassette tape to play on auto-reverse tape decks, can really enjoy Google Music on an iPod (A version of 茉莉花, plus The Art of Noise's Moments in Love from The Best of the Art of Noise, inspired me to make such tapes.).

I had previously ripped my CDs at 320 kbps (highest quality) onto my PC, primarily for use with my Microsoft Zune. The Zune provided a very helpful introduction to podcasts and mp3 usage, but I use it less and less over time. The ripping process for those CDs was long and laborious. Not particularly needing music on my iPod, I never felt like repeating it for PC iTunes, or cared enough to look into how to make those mp3 files usable in PC iTunes (particularly if such required making another copy of each song for PC iTunes). Google's Music Manager allows me to leverage my existing mp3 library with a bulk upload operation for use with my iOS devices.  With my slow Internet access, it took me about two weeks (mostly overnight) to upload around 3200 songs and podcasts.

If you lost all the media (e.g., iOS device, personal computer, CDs) on which you have your music collection (e.g., because of a natural disaster), your Google Music backup should still be available.  The rules (as of 12/5/11, anyway) allow you to download 320 kbps mp3 files of your music:  I load only some of my songs onto my iPod, but upload all of them to Google Music as a remote backup, and for occasional web browser listening.

The iPod speaker can be fairly tinny sounding, but I am not a serious connoisseur of audio quality. I generally don't like wearing earbuds, so any time I can reasonably listen to stuff without them is good with me.

My slow Internet access could be a significant factor for some of the following symptoms which I experienced on an iPod or on an iPad:
  • There is a delay before each streamed track begins.
  • A track might not initially start playing.  Hitting pause and/or play sometimes starts it playing.
  • A track might abruptly stop playing.  Sometimes it will restart by itself.
  • When playing multiple tracks, a track might abruptly stop playing, and the next track might start.
  • If you switch from playing one track to playing another (in my experience, switching between tracks of different artists), the album artwork display may get updated before the streamed track, such that hitting play for the second track actually plays the first track. Hitting pause, then play, corrected that.
When I checked, Google Music was offering some freebies (you must provide a valid credit card, though), so I grabbed Cheap Trick's I Want You to Want Me, Five for Fighting's Superman (It's not Easy), and Men At Work's Who Can It Be Now?, all of which I've liked for some time. The Dave Matthews Band's Live On Lakeside album was also free, so I thought I'd give that a whirl as well.

Even with better wireless Internet access than I normally have, it's really seemed like if you want to hear one song play all the way through on an iPod, you have a decent but not 100% guaranteed shot at that, and your chances get worse if you want more than that. Google Music is okay with me since I rarely have a particular need to listen to music on my iPod, but it may not be worth the effort for many folks. (Soon after writing this blog entry, I was obliged to get a new iPod, one whose port actually worked normally. I quickly enough discovered how nice it was to listen to music stored locally on the iPod, and Google Music became rather less significant to my iPod use.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Differing functionality of in-ear headphones (earbuds)

Regarding iPod audio playback capabilities, I have primarily used earbuds for listening to podcasts, and almost never for music. Only now have I actually looked more closely at the capabilities of several different earbuds. I will comment only lightly on the Voice Control functionality, at least until such time as I actually start using that.

The earbuds included with the 3rd generation iPod have a remote microphone and controls for:

  • Volume (+/-)
  • Pause/Play (press the depressed area between + and - once)
  • Next Track (press that depressed area twice)
  • Previous Track (press that depressed area thrice)
  • Voice Control (press and hold that depressed area)

The Next/Previous Track options allow you to move between consecutive (previously downloaded) episodes of a podcast series.

Voice Control for podcasts appears to have no particular utility. Most of the options that glide by on the screen are for music (e.g., play album, shuffle, etc.), although iOS devices with a camera can invoke FaceTime as well.

I recently upgraded to a 4th generation iPod (a blog entry is forthcoming). Its earbuds lack the remote microphone and controls (the lack of a 3rd white band on the jack is an indicator of this); those are available on the iPod itself, although they are less convenient to use. This is the first iPod to have a built-in microphone. Volume can be controlled by the iPod's physical volume buttons. iOS 5 added the ability to press the Home button twice to access Pause/Play, Next track and Previous Track buttons on the touchscreen.

The model of Skullcandy Smokin' Buds earbuds that came with my 4th generation iPod duplicate the functionality of 3rd generation iPod earbuds, except for Volume.

Kindle app can download free English(-English), French-French, and Spanish-Spanish dictionaries

The free Amazon Kindle app can download free English(-English), French-French, and Spanish-Spanish dictionaries.  While the intention was clearly to enhance the reading experience, you can open the Kindle app, select a word, then click on Full Definition to make general use of any of your downloaded dictionaries as an e-book itself.

The Kindle app is apparently aware of the primary language associated with an e-book; it's likely mandatory, or at least highly advisable, that producers of e-books include that piece of information.  If you select a word and have previously downloaded the dictionary matching the e-book's primary language, the Kindle app will show the definition in a pop-up window.  It will offer you the chance to download the dictionary if such doesn't exist on your device; click on the i in a circle icon to select from the different dictionaries.

From Amazon, I downloaded the free Voyage au Centre de la Terre (Journey to the Center of the Earth) as a French language e-book when writing this entry.  Perhaps I will even attempt to read it some day (I loved that Saturday morning cartoon), but it can at least serve as an e-book through which to get directly to the French-French dictionary.

I had used my usual Pitman's Commercial Spanish Grammar to select a Spanish word when writing this entry, but that e-book's primary language is actually English.  My Spanish being far less complete than my French, I would need to select some basic Spanish e-book to sustain even a glimmer of a chance that I might someday read it, although any Spanish language e-book would serve to get directly to the Spanish-Spanish dictionary.

As of 11/24/11, the other language dictionaries are:
  • Deutsch
  • English (UK)
  • Italiano
  • Português

Friday, November 18, 2011

Crash landing on iOS 5.0.1

I had not been planning to upgrade my 3rd generation iPod from iOS 4.3.5 to iOS 5, having been happy with its capabilities as is.  I had also learned of, and/or experienced, a number of problems associated with iOS 5.  Typically, iOS 5 either broke an existing app, or an app's functionality worsened when the developers updated it to accommodate iOS 5.

I've mentioned on multiple occasions how my iPod has a hardware port problem. Aligning its cord properly to charge can take a few minutes of fiddling, and properly aligning it for a PC iTunes connection is even more demanding.  In those delicate alignment attempts, "Charging is not supported with this accessory" is a message I've periodically seen for more than two months.  That message came up again yesterday as I was trying to get it to charge, and when I tried to lower the brightness...bam, it was totally hosed.  The screen displayed only the iTunes icon and a picture of a USB cord, as shows up when you activate a pre-iOS 5 iPod, which requires a wired connection to Mac/PC iTunes.

After several hours of work, including numerous error messages and laborious re-seating of the cable at multiple junctures, my iPod is now at iOS 5.0.1.  I mistakenly thought that I would be able to restore from my less than two week old PC iTunes backup and remain on iOS 4.3.5.  However, it seems that PC iTunes only allows loading of the most recent iOS version that works for your device -- not unreasonable.  At least I was able to get back my 102 apps from PC iTunes in a single operation.

Backing up to iCloud should reduce my cable alignment problems to only recharging the iPod, since I should be able to restore over wireless from now on.

I was surprised to discover there was no way to mass-reload my hundreds of French language instruction podcasts, but I have started rebuilding my collection manually.  (2/9/11:  Actually, I could have used PC iTunes to copy over all that I had previously synced.)

I was also surprised that my small number of not-particularly-important photos did not come back.  I have seen a few web articles suggesting ways to get them back, and I may yet pursue that.  If I do, I will try to report the result here later.

The Traditional Chinese handwriting recognition seems tangibly slower, both on a 3rd generation and on a 4th generation iPod, than it was on a 3rd generation iPod running iOS 4.3.5.
(12/2/14: When only a single app [Notespark, as a device-local-only scratchpad] is in RAM, the speed of recognition is quite good, possibly similar to the speed under iOS 4.3.5. I'm surprised that I didn't think of testing this approach previously. Of course, it's inconvenient to eject all the other apps from RAM, but in some cases it's worth doing; when I'm done handwriting the Chinese text, I can Select All and copy it elsewhere as desired.)

As I worked to recreate groups of apps and reassemble my desired first Home Screen ("springboard"), I seem to have moved some app icons so quickly that the iOS became confused.  For a while the icons of some random apps (no more than one per screen, I think) became invisible, although their titles remained visible.  With all the icons jiggling and me swiping screens left to right and right to left, the app which was invisible would sometimes change (i.e., an invisible one would become visible, but a different app on the same screen would become invisible instead).  I found it was possible to drag an invisible app onto a visible one to create a group, but not vice versa.  That invisibility problem eventually cleared up, so everything is visible now.

Although Apple tried to disallow moving the new Newsstand app into a folder and off of the first Home Screen, folks have found out how to do that.  I moved it into a folder with Messages and Reminders, two other new apps for which I have no particular need, then moved the folder off the first Home Screen.  A Google search for "ios 5 move newsstand to folder" should find assorted pages with the technique, which does require a certain quickness of action.

Below is a list of some of the functionality which I wanted to recover, and commentary on what was involved.  I tend not to give my location to apps to use, normally entering that manually when I want (e.g., in The Weather Channel app).

  1. Calendar (iOS 5.0.1):  I use a Google account for Calendar, so it was simple to add that account to the iPod.  Although the Day and Month views showed my events, the List view was empty at first, so I feared I would have to create another calendar from scratch (ugh) to restore that functionality.  However, the next day the List view showed events normally.
  2. Contacts (iOS 5.0.1):  I use a Google account for Contacts, so again, it was simple to add that account to the iPod.
  3. Notespark (1.3.2):  All my data is already on Metaspark's webserver, so all I had to do was login and tweak a few settings (e.g., font size, etc.), and I was back to pre-crash functionality.
  4. iCED (3.2.3):  I had previously made a Murage account and it was straightforward to download my paid Add-ons again.  I made a few tweaks to settings (e.g., maximize History).
  5. tChess Pro (1.7.1):  Much like Notespark, I just had to tweak a few settings to get it to look and behave the way I like it.  I normally e-mail myself the pgn of individual games that I play through using tChess Pro, so I can easily reload those.  I have also kept files on my PC of pgn collections of games, which I can similarly e-mail myself to reload.  (This is one of my most-used apps, so a blog entry on it should eventually appear.)
  6. Opera Mini (6.0.1 - pointedly not the latest version, which is 6.5.1, which for now I'm holding off on upgrading to):  Initially I started recreating my Speed Dial locations manually, and had 8 of the total 9 set up -- I didn't know the 9th one's URL.  Then I used Opera Link to restore my (generally-rarely-changed) bookmarks from the last time I saved them, and it loaded the missing 9th Speed Dial location.  Apparently I wasted my time loading the first 8 manually.
  7. Safari (iOS 5.0.1):  I was pleased to discover that Apple was apparently already saving bookmarks, so they all came back automatically.  I still prefer Opera Mini, though.  I tend to use Safari only when Opera Mini can't do the job.
    After first writing this Safari blurb, I checked out Safari's new Reader feature, which can render some web pages in a more readable way (hiding ads, too!). In my limited testing, Wikipedia article pages work well with Reader (though not so well), as does this eminently readable article about iOS 5 improvements, which is what led me to really test the new Reader and Reading List features. This wiki article about "Kindle Myths and Partial Truths" (some content of which is relevant to iOS devices using the Kindle app) has part of its content cut off on the sides in the Reader view.  I have observed that an advertisement embedded within a column of text on a web page can render Reader results incomplete (on one occasion, none of the article text actually came through in Reader).
    To compensate for the small screen of the iPod, I have long used Opera Mini's Single column view to transform the elements on a web page, including the font(s), into a presentation I find easier to read. Reader fulfills the same function with more polish, but can transform far fewer web pages than Opera Mini.  Without these transformations, text can sometimes be difficult to read without "spreading" pages with your fingers (to enlarge the image), after which you might additionally still need to move the display back and forth to see different parts of the whole text.
    Reading List saves bookmarks to iCloud and shares them in Safari across iOS devices (and Macs, supposedly, too, but I have a PC). The Reading List bookmarks didn't show on my other iOS device in either "direction", initially, and multiple web pages, some from as recently as October 2011, suggested that it didn't work. Perhaps from iOS 5 this syncing was fixed in 5.0.1, because eventually the same Reading List bookmarks showed up on both my iPod and iPad.
    Reading List's syncing seems to be forced among iOS devices sharing an Apple ID. Opera Link's similar syncing of bookmarks is optional, and can be done manually or automatically among Opera Mini instances within which you have logged into Opera Link.
  8. Kindle (2.8.5):  Login, all my books were under Archived, and it was simple to download 15 of them into Home.  (2 were expired library loans.)  Select a word in any book, then download the dictionary to make it available going forward regardless of Internet access.
  9. iBooks (iOS 5.0.1):  Login, go to Store, Purchased, and download each of the 14 (all freebies) again.  Maybe I was doing something in a non-optimal way, but it seemed to be an extremely clunky and user-hostile interface.  I could only download the top 3 books, then had to Swipe to the right to be able to Hide each of them in turn so that I could access the next 3 lower books on the screen.  I had to repeat that procedure to get through all 14.
  10. The Weather Channel (4.1.1):  Add my location to Favorites under Bookmarks and get rid of whatever is already there.
  11. Dropbox (1.4.6):  Login, mark as Favorites the documents I want saved locally so they're available without wireless Internet access.  Set Local Storage to maximum reasonable for device's capacity.
  12. OverDrive (2.3.3):  Although the iPod didn't need an Adobe ID to authorize usage under iOS 4, it requires one under iOS 5.  Download my usual Pitman's Commercial Spanish Grammar to confirm download of public domain ebooks, then test other types (e.g., Adobe ePub from the library) as desired.  (I wrote in another blog entry about how to view Kindle books on library websites using an iPod.)
I am updating this entry with additional items and comments, and am also revising earlier entries accordingly, as time permits.

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I had read Sonny Hung's My Apple Newton (PDA) blog, which he introduces as:
This blog records my Apple Newton experiences, as well as comparisons with other PDAs, Smartphones and Mobile Devices. It is also a repository for storing complex set up procedures for future reference.
I thought I might enjoy doing something similar for the iPod since I found it to be an extremely useful PDA.  Based on the web searches that brought people here, this blog may have been helpful to some other folks, but in any case, it has certainly proven useful to me after this crash.  Given how my iPod seems to be living on borrowed time, my blog will likely serve me well again similarly in the future.