OS X Lion Problems

I recently upgraded my Mac mini to OS X Lion (from Snow Leopard) and discovered two very annoying problems that were not present in Snow Leopard. Both stem from the fact that I have a two-monitor setup: a regular computer monitor connected to the display port as my primary display, and a television connected to the HDMI port as my secondary display.

The first problem I encountered was when I tried to select HDMI as the audio source. I couldn’t. I tried to select it in the Sound panel of the System Preferences, but it kept reverting back to “headphones” as the output (“headphones” means anything plugged into the headphone jack—in my case it’s desktop speakers). After some Google searching that lead nowhere, I decided to unplug the speakers to see what happened and low and behold, I was able to select HDMI for audio output. After further searching, I discovered that Apple considers this a feature and not a bug. This Apple support article says this behavior was added “to mimic the mutually exclusive speaker behavior of iMac and Apple display products that use Mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt,” whatever the heck that means. Their only “solution” is to unplug the speakers from the back of the Mac mini every time you want to use HDMI for sound. What a pain (and a bunch of wear and tear on the headphone jack).

The second problem is that apps will not display full screen in a secondary monitor. If you attempt to set them to full screen, they will jump to the primary monitor. I used to be able to play video full screen on the television while working (or surfing the Web or whatever) on my main monitor; I can no longer do that. I can view video in the secondary monitor in a window, but then I’m stuck with the window title and status bars, and the video is never as big as it could be.

The HDMI sound issue is an inconvenience, but the full screen video issue is ridiculously bad. A quick Google search turns up a ton of forum posts about this (even in Apple’s own support forums) by people who are scratching their heads at best and outraged at worst. Lion was released almost a year ago, and Apple shows no signs of wanting to address this issue. Shame on them.

I Got an iPad

I love my iPhone and I’ve wanted a tablet for some time. The iPad was an obvious choice but I was put off by the high price tag.

I looked into a couple of lower-cost alternatives to the iPad. I tried the Amazon Kindle Fire last year but wound up returning it. I really liked the form factor and great price, but it was clunky compared to my iPhone and you’re stuck with Amazon’s anemic App Store if you want to add new apps.

I also looked at Sony’s Tablet S, which I was very impressed with. It has a unique “folded magazine” shape and was very pleasant to hold; even though it’s about the same weight as the iPad 2 it felt lighter. It also has a higher resolution screen than the iPad 2 and lets you add external storage in the form of an SD card which no Apple iOS product does.

While I was pondering my non-Apple tablet choices, Apple announced their new iPad. The big selling point is a remarkable 2048-by-1536 pixel screen—double that of the previous iPad and unmatched by any other tablet on the market today. One of the things I wanted to use a tablet for was reading, and thoughts of looking at text on an astronomically high pixel-per-inch-count display was too much to resist. Yes the Sony tablet was less expensive, but I reasoned that the cost would be offset by the fact that I had already invested in dozens of apps on my iPhone that could be installed on my iPad for free, where as if I bought the Sony tablet I’d be starting from scratch, thereby effectively increasing the start up cost of ownership. (Yes, I’m very good at talking myself into splurgy electronics purchases when I want to be.) So I bought one. White. 64 GB. Wi-fi only.

It’s been three weeks now, and I LOVE my iPad. It’s at least 1,000 times better than my iPhone for surfing the Web, making music, gaming, watching video, and for reading any block of text that’s longer than a phone number. No you can’t slip it in your pocket like an iPhone, but the new iPad has a higher resolution screen than my 24″ desktop computer monitor and you can take it with you to the bathroom. That is awesome.

There are some disappointments that I can live with but just can’t seem to get used to. It’s heavy, the edges are just slightly sharp, and I just can’t seem to find a way to hold it comfortably for long periods of time. The speaker is terrible; it’s tiny, located on the bottom, and projects the sound backwards away from you. And there’s only one speaker; this is a premium multimedia device, couldn’t they add a second, stereo speaker? The screen, as amazing as it is, is very glossy, and you spend too much time trying to find just the right angle to view the screen without nearby light sources masking the display. There’s also no GPS; you don’t get a GPS unless you buy one of the even more costly cellular-enabled models, and I didn’t want to do that.

Problems aside, I am now as hooked on my iPad as I have been to my iPhone.

iPhone Compass Interference Problem

I have an iPhone 3GS. I’m not sure why but the compass stopped working. (Maybe because the phone is a couple of years old, has some cracks in the case, and has seen heavy use.) When I’d start the compass (or any app that used the compass) I’d get a message about interference and an instruction to swirl the phone around in a figure 8.

I tried the using the compass away from all electronics or other metal objects that might cause interference and swirled it around in a figure 8 until my arm was about to fall off. Nothing got it working. Finally after some Google-assisted research someone suggested moving a magnet near the phone.

I had trepidations about putting a magnet near a sensitive electronic device (magnets can erase hard drives), but I figured what the heck, let’s try it.

I grabbed a flat refrigerator magnet, fired up the compass app, slowly moved the magnet close to the right side of the case, and when it got about 1/8″ from the side of the case, BINGO—the interference message disappeared and the compass was working again! No problems with the phone that I can tell, and the compass is pointing in the right direction.

Now I can finally try that SkyView app I bought the other day.

iPhone iOS 4 iDisappointment

Apple released their latest iPhone operating system upgrade yesterday, dubbed iOS 4. Naturally I upgraded my 3Gs at the earliest possible moment. Although I was excited about the significant new features, I’m disappointed after actually having used them.

Folders
iOS 4 lets you organize your application icons into folders. You can put all your photography-related apps in one folder, all your music-related apps in another, etc. This is theoretically a big convenience for people with a lot of apps, as you can access related groups of apps quickly without having to swipe through a multitude of separate screens.

The problem is that once you have several folders on one screen, you can’t really tell them apart. Previously each app had a unique icon and it was easy to tell what each one was—the Clock app looked like a clock, the Notes app looked like a notepad, etc. But the folder icons are black squares checkered with minuscule icons of the apps inside the folder, and at a glance it’s impossible to tell which folder contains what. The only practical way to do this is to read the tiny description type below each folder, but this is difficult to do quickly unless you’re sitting perfectly still and have reasonably good eyesight. I wind up hovering my index finger over the screen, waving it back and forth like an idiot looking for the right folder.

I suppose in time I will have memorized what each folder contains and where it is. In the mean time I wish Apple would let me assign an icon to a folder so I can tell what it is just by looking.

Mail
The upgraded mail app adds semi-sophisticated features like a “universal inbox” (where you can read all of the messages from your various accounts in one place) and Gmail-style message threading. But it still won’t it let me do simple things like arrange the order in which the mail accounts appear or have a different signature for each mail account.

My biggest gripe about the iPhone Mail app is that you’re stuck with it. Because it’s considered a “core feature,” Apple doesn’t allow third-party e-mail applications. I can’t see how it could possibly be a bad thing to give people the option for upgraded e-mail handling, but oh well.

Wallpaper
Now you can have a photo or graphic as a background for your home screen. Why would anybody want this? All it does is clutter things up and make that tiny text beneath the folders even harder to read. And once you set your wallpaper to a photo you can’t change it back to plain black, unless you stand in a dark closet, take a photo of the blackness, and set that as your wallpaper.

Multitasking
Apple says iOS 4 enables multitasking for “all apps.” This is not true.

The new iOS features a “tray” at the bottom of the screen, accessed by double-clicking the Home button. Anytime you start an app, its icon gets added to the tray. Open the tray, then tap the icon to switch to that app. But unless an app is specifically written to take advantage of multitasking, tapping its tray icon is exactly the same as starting it anew. No multitasking here.

For apps that are written to take advantage of multitasking, once you start them they sit in the tray, running, until you specifically go in and stop them. This is a potential battery-killing disaster, especially when running power-hungry apps like GPS navigators.

To stop a multitasking app from running, you have to “kill” it. Herein lies the problem I have with iOS 4 multitasking: It’s not particularly easy to kill running apps. Remember, every app you start gets added to the tray, whether it is multitasking-enabled or not; there could be dozens of apps in the tray. The tray displays only four icons at a time, and you have to swipe repeatedly to scroll through all the icons. Once you find the app you want to kill, you have to hold your finger down on the app’s icon for several seconds until a little “minus” sign appears, then tap the minus sign to kill the app.

There is no way that I know of to kill all the apps at once (not even restarting the phone does this), and no way to prevent an app from going to the tray. So if your battery is dying and you’re not sure which app is doing it, you have to start the tray, hold down your finger on an icon to bring up the minus sign, then keep tapping the minus sign over and over for every app until they’re all killed. Grrr….

iPhone FaceTime Hype

I saw the promo video for Apple’s forthcoming iPhone 4 today. One of the new features they’re touting is FaceTime, a video conferencing application made possible by the iPhone 4’s front-facing camera. I have to say I’m a little dumbfounded at the hype they’re spinning into this “new” feature.

Way back in 2006 I lived in Japan and owned a Sony SO702i, a tiny cell phone with both forward- and rear-facing cameras. (Here is a Japanese-language Web page with some nice pictures of the phone.) Apple says they’re “bringing video calling to the world,” but my little Sony had virtually the exact same video conferencing features as the new iPhone. In fact, the Sony had a feature that made it significantly better than iPhone’s FaceTime: It could video conference over the cellular network. The iPhone only does it via WiFi.

When talking about the video conferencing features of the iPhone 4, one narrator in the Apple video says, “the very first time I had a FaceTime call I was blown away,” and another exclaims, “I can’t believe this is real, this is actually happening.” Have these people never heard of webcams?

This all reminds me of another hyped-up product, the Dyson Airblade. Dyson claims to have invented new technology that drys your hands faster than conventional air dryers by shooting tiny jets of air at your wet hands when you insert them into the machine. I’m not clear how they can claim to have invented this type of hand dryer; I used a nearly identical device the first time I visited Japan in 1994.

new

The Truth About Olive Garden Mints

Anyone that has been to Olive Garden likely knows about those complimentary little mints that come at the end of the meal along with the check. For many people, myself included, these wafers are small chocolate-mint slices of heaven.

While many people know that they are made by Andes (the Andes logo is stamped right on top of the mint), most erroneously assume these are the same Andes mints you can buy at the local supermarket. The top result in a Google search for “Olive Garden mints” is this page; everyone answering the question of where to find them suggests Walmart or a grocery store. Unfortunately, all of these people are incorrect. As a true after-dinner mint connoisseur, I am here to set the record straight: Olive Garden mints are not for sale.

Andes makes several varieties of their after-dinner mints; the ones commonly available at retail outlets are the Crème de Menthe type. If you look closely at these, you’ll see they have two layers of chocolate with a mint layer sandwiched in the middle. The Olive Garden mints have a single layer of chocolate at the bottom, and a layer of mint on the top. (The top mint layer accounts for about 2/3 of the candy’s height, making them the same size as the Crème de Menthe variety).

The two types of mints are obviously different in appearance, and because of the varying chocolate-to-mint ratio, different in taste. To my palate the Crème de Menthe variety have more of a “bite” to them. I’m not sure what kind of chocolate Andes uses in their mints, but I tend to think it’s more on the bitter side, like dark chocolate. The Olive Garden mints have a smoother taste, which I prefer—slightly sweeter and more minty.

For those that prefer the Olive Garden mints there is good news: Andes makes a variety called Mint Parfait, which has two layers of mint and a layer of chocolate in the middle. The chocolate-to-mint ratio is the same as the Olive Garden mints, and the taste is almost identical. (Because the Olive Garden mints’ chocolate layer is fully exposed, the chocolate taste may be more prominent as it can directly contact your taste buds when you put the mint in your mouth.) The only problem is that the Mint Parfait variety is difficult to find. My local grocery store had them for a short time around Christmas. They sold out quickly. You can buy them online;  however, they tend to be expensive, you can usually only find them in bulk quantities, and if you buy them in summer they could melt during shipment.

The image below illustrates the difference between the various types of mints:

On the left is Crème de Menthe, in the middle is Mint Parfait, and the Olive Garden mint is on the far right.

I wrote to Olive Garden asking them if their mints were available for purchase. Here is the answer I received:

We are honored by the compliment you have given us in asking if our mints are available for purchase.  Unfortunately, our Olive Garden mints are not for sale.  Often we have agreements with our vendors for exclusivity. It is our way of keeping Olive Garden unique and exciting for our guests each time they visit. We trust that you will understand.

Based on my Web research, most people either can’t tell the difference between the various types of Andes mints, or simply don’t care. The rest of us can be seen at Olive Garden, courteously asking the waitress for extra mints with the check.

Amazon.com Short Links

Usually an Amazon.com product page has an excruciatingly long address (or “URL” as it’s technically called). For example, this links to The Da Vinci Code:

Not too long ago, Amazon.com created a way to shorten their links significantly, making it much easier to include them in e-mails (where a very long link can be “word wrapped” and fail to work) or blog posts. Amazon.com refers to these as “Permalinks.” The shorter links look like this:

http://amzn.com/1400079179

The first part is Amazon.com’s domain name with a few vowels missing, and the second part is the ISBN number of the item in question (if the item is not a book, the ASIN or “Amazon Standard Identification Number” will be substituted).

While you can create these links yourself by substituting the appropriate ISBN or ASIN number, the easier way is to navigate to the product page you wish to link to, then click the “Share with Friends” link located right side of the page (just below the “Add to Shopping Cart” button). A window will pop up with the Pemalink, which you can copy and paste where you need it.

I Got an iPhone

iPhone ScreenI was never really a big fan of cell phones. They are quite costly, you have to deal with cell phone salespeople (one step away from used car salesmen in my opinion), and when it comes down to it I don’t like talking on the phone all that much.

After much deliberation I decided to cancel my old cell phone service and get an iPhone. A couple of things led me to this decision: First, cost-wise it made sense. I need a backup Internet connection for business purposes and was paying AT&T ~$60/month for cellular Internet plus ~$50 a month to Verizon for cellphone service; the iPhone costs ~$70 a month and replaces both of those. Second was the convenience of a device small enough to fit in my pocket yet having capability equivalent to a small computer.

After using it for several days I have to say the iPhone is nothing short of phenomenal. There have been three times in my life where I was completely blown away by a piece of technology; the first was my first personal computer (the Radio Shack TRS-80), the second was when I experienced the first Macintosh computer (with its revolutionary mouse and graphical user interface), and the third is this iPhone. This is one electronic device that lives up to and exceeds its hype.

The iPhone’s interface is unsurpassed in usability and ease-of-use. This is truly one of the few very sophisticated electronic devices that a non-computer person can pick up and use (and I have several non-computer friends that have iPhones as proof of that), but is still capable enough for a power-user like me.

The iPhone has been reviewed to death, but let me just make a few personal-experience comments, good and bad:

  • The Web browser: I’ve tried Web-browsing features on other cell phones and the experience they offer is so limited it’s almost worthless. The iPhone’s Web browser does it all. There hasn’t been a page I’ve tried that doesn’t look and function like it’s supposed to, including complex Web server control panels and even Amazon.com. It doesn’t support Flash (the website animation software), but since I find most Flash-based websites and advertising banners annoying it’s not something I miss.
  • The keyboard: My previous phone had a flip-out “thumb” keyboard. I never thought the iPhone’s touch-screen keyboard would be usable for anything but slow pecking, but I was completely wrong. It’s much easier to “thumb type” with than the physical keyboard of my previous cellphone, and although it’s more prone to errors the iPhone’s software generally does a great job of figuring out what I meant to type and making corrections in real time. The result is that I’m typing about twice as fast with better accuracy vs. my old cell phone.
  • GPS: The iPhone comes with a ton of great goodies right out of the box, and one of my favorites is the built-in GPS that interfaces with Google Maps. Here’s a typical example of how I use it: The other day I was in an unfamiliar area and needed to find a pet store. I started the Maps application on iPhone and it instantly located my position via GPS and gave me a zoom-able street map of my local area. I hit the search button, typed “pet store,” and got several “pins” dropped on the map of nearby locations that matched my search. Touching a pin brings up a small flag telling me the name of the store at that location, and touching the flag brings up a page with contact information for that store. I touched the phone number and called the store to find out when they closed, then touched the “directions” button and got turn-by-turn directions to that store with the route highlighted on the map. Amazing.
  • Apps: While the iPhone surpasses any other phone I’ve come across right out of the box, the number of add-on applications (or “apps”) is truly amazing. There are literally tens of thousands of applications you can download to extend the capability of your phone, from utilities to games to musical instruments, and many are free or available for only a dollar to two. Here’s one example: I had a dozen or so of those store “club cards” clogging up both my wallet and key chain. I discovered an app called CardStar which lets you store all of those club cards electronically on your phone. You just enter your card’s ID number, and when you select that card in the future CardStar generates a bar code which the store can scan. No need to carry all those plastic cards around anymore, and I am no longer reluctant to sign up for new cards. And CardStar is free!
  • The battery: The battery life is often bemoaned in reviews, but I think it’s fine. The problem is that if you’re constantly using your phone—and as capable as the iPhone is you likely will be—it runs out the battery in a few hours. The thing is, the iPhone battery lasts longer than either of my two laptops batteries, and the iPhone is much smaller and doing the same work a laptop would. The main issue I have with the iPhone battery is that it is internal and therefor not changeable. A car charger is a must (a good, inexpensive car charger I found is the Griffin PowerJolt SE).
  • Picture messages: Here’s one of the few scratch-my-head disappointments I had with the iPhone. While you can send text messages to other phones, you cannot send picture messages (technically referred to as Multimedia Messaging Service or MMS). This is a capability I’ve had on other phones for years now. The iPhone sort of makes up for it with its excellent e-mail app and the ability to attach pictures to e-mail, but why they’ve left out on a feature which is included on much lesser phones is baffling. NOTE: As of this writing AT&T is adding MMS capability to iPhones and is supposed to be available September 25.
  • Configurability: While the ability to add apps makes this the most configurable cellphone ever, there are some configuration options that are surprisingly not available. One is the lack of ability to import sounds for use in events like new e-mail and text-message notifications; you are stuck with a limited number of built-in sounds. You can import your own ringtones, but even then there is a roundabout trick to doing it (which I’ll blog about at some point in the near future), and the ringtones can only be used for a limited number of non-phone-ringing events (like the alarm clock sound).
  • AT&T: One of the notable aspects of the iPhone is that if you want an iPhone and live in the USA you must use AT&T as your carrier. (There are illicit ways to hack the iPhone to allow it to use other carriers, but I’m not willing to do that.) My experience with AT&T thus far has been mostly positive. I often find that inside buildings the signal is not strong enough for data (like Web surfing and e-mail), but all things considered I find it acceptable and am willing to live with occasional patchy reception. AT&T has a reputation for problems, but as I said my experience has been positive.
  • It’s an iPod too: While other phones have music playback functionality seemingly added as an afterthought, the iPhone is the best iPod you can get. It’s probably a little too bulky to use on a jogging track (not something that bothers me), but in most music-playing/video-watching situations the iPhone is fabulous.

If I didn’t have one of the new models of the iPhone (the 3Gs to be exact) I’d have more to complain about. Only recently did the iPhone add features commonly found on other phones like voice dialing and video recording. Cut-and-paste is another recently-added feature that I could not have lived without. However, the new iPhones have nearly everything I could ever want and more, and for the first time in my life I feel like I’m finally getting my money’s worth out of my cell phone bill.

Haagen-Dazs Green Tea: Take Two

In a previous post I talked about my excitement to discover that Haazen-Dazs had released a green tea ice cream in the USA, and my subsequent disillusionment when I discovered the contents were not the same as the Japanese version.

I have continued to eat—and enjoy—my stash of green tea ice cream. I am disappointed it’s not the same as the Japanese version, but I still maintain that it’s the best mainstream green tea ice cream you can buy in the USA. Apparently I’m not the only one that thinks that way, because Haagen-Dazs has decided to make it a permanent addition to their lineup—no more “Limited Edition” on the package.

American Airlines: Thumbs Up

I recently flew round trip from Las Vegas to Tokyo. I chose American Airlines because they had the lowest fare. I had a bit of trepidation because I’d never flown American internationally (and only a few times domestically, none of which I can remember). However, despite a couple of delays the travel was an overall positive experience.

I liked flying American because:

  • Flying a single airline meant not having to deal with transferring baggage at Los Angeles. On the return flight I did have to claim my baggage in Los Angeles because I had to go through customs; however, there was a “recheck” kiosk just outside customs minimizing the hassle.
  • In Los Angeles, American’s domestic and international flights leave from the same terminal. This meant I didn’t have to hike over to the Tom Bradley International Terminal. In fact, it was only about a 5 minute walk from one gate to the other.
  • American uses Boeing 777s. I prefer these over 747s for a couple of reasons: 1) They are smaller, which means less time deplaning. 2) Each seat has its own video screen, and you can individually select what movie you want to watch.
  • I was treated well by American’s employees.

The only glitches were a couple of delays. On my outbound leg from Los Angeles to Tokyo, the plane had an avionics problem which took 1.5 hours to fix. On my return leg from Los Angeles to Las Vegas there had been a sick passenger and the carpet in the aircraft needed to be steam cleaned. To American’s credit, rather than make us wait an inordinate amount of time they put us on a different aircraft. However, it still took about an hour to make the switch. I consider both of these glitches bad luck and not the fault of American Airlines.

Overall it was a very positive experience, and I saved about $250 over my first-choice airline, Japan Airlines. Next time American will be my first-choice airline.

American Airlines Boeing 777