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Oh, it’s that blessed time again- the beginning of (real, not kickball) football season. That wonderful end of summer where the sweltering heat of August almost imperceptibly shifts to the cooler air of September, heralding the return of America’s greatest sport.
The actual NFL season doesn’t begin for a couple more weeks, but the preseason is in full swing. Unlike some fans, I enjoy the preseason- seeing how vaunted draft picks play around a higher level of competition, what unheralded free agents or lower draft picks become gems, and a general indication of the condition of my favorite team. Due to my longtime cord cutter status I lack some of the outlets I used to rely on- ESPN and the NFL network in particular. I get good digital reception via antenna for local broadcasts of my hometown’s team, but I do like watching more than what the local channels have approval to bring me.
The internet provides some relief; my various feeds and some official websites provide some video and information, but it’s not quite the same. In a quest to get more content than the NFL Now app on my Apple TV can provide I opted for the NFL’s Preseason app in the iTunes App Store. The $20 subscription fee allows you to watch streaming of all preseason games- most live, some blackout (i.e. carried by ESPN) are watchable the next day. Games you’ve missed are readily available in two forms- the complete game as it aired, and a ‘compressed’ game with all breaks, huddle time, and other downtime removed leaving just the action (reducing the watching time to about 1/4 of the broadcast time).
The service has been remarkably good. Video quality is as good as I’ve seen via a streaming service (especially one covering a live sporting even with plenty of motion, hampering video compression efforts) and the app is well made, allowing easy switching between games and providing up to the date scores and warnings of when a team has reached scoring position (Red Zone alerts). The ability to check out older games after they’ve finished has been more enjoyable than I had originally thought it would be; should a game I missed be the topic of discussion at work or on sports radio I can easily catch up on what I missed in its entirety, no programming of a DVR needed. The only caveat has been that the NFL has apparently locked down AirPlay; I can’t push content from my iPad to my Apple TV for a better (larger screen and better sound) experience. 

All this brings me to one inescapable conclusion- the cord cutter’s dream is not only possible, it’s easily doable. Live sports can be provided to internet subscribers, losing no quality but gaining quite a bit of functionality. Think of the additional information the NFL (or any other sport) could offer via official viewing portals or apps; up to the minute stats, fantasy league information, and so on. I’d gladly pay for a Season Ticket-style subscription via the same sort of app I’m using for the NFL preseason. I’m unsure if it’s loyalty to traditional media or just money talking (I’m sure traditional outlets like Fox and ESPN can pony up serious cash to keep their monopoly on broadcasting rights of certain games) but it would be a great start for the NFL to expand their NFL Now app to provide all the content the NFL Network does. It chafed me greatly when non-cable or satellite providers lost the ability to watch Monday Night Football when it was absorbed by ESPN. 

Make this happen, sports leagues. We have access to MLB, MBA, and NHL season tickets via the Apple TV. It’s time for the NFL and NCAA to step up as well. I’ve seen that it’s not only possible, it can be outstanding. 

Even the most user friendly device will eventually have a learning curve as it evolves and improves. The iPhone’s ease of use is one of its attractions, but its interface isn’t completely transparent. Even long time users will pick up on a handy trick now and then. Case in point- I get a lot of texts during my workday; texting has long since replaced pagers in healthcare as the go-to method of simple communication. In the past I’ve had to swipe the unlock stripe to access the message and respond (if necessary) or prevent the second reminder chime. If there are multiple messages from different senders I’d have to go into Messages and select the conversation I wanted. There’s a quick and simple workaround though that I’m surprised I hadn’t picked up on yet- simply swipe the message you’d like to reply to instead of the unlock message at the bottom of the screen. Messages will open to the conversation you’ve swiped!

While there are plenty of handy tips articles and posts out there, I prefer to go to the primary source when possible. If you’d like some additional info and tips on the use of your iPhone 5s (although some tips apply to any iPhone) device here’s a handy page courtesy of Apple: https://www.apple.com/iphone-5s/tips/

Happy iOS-ing!

Timing is everything

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about my Apple purchases has been the overall high quality and durability of the devices. My original Mac Mini lasted several years until it was finally sold on eBay; still functioning as well that day as when I first plugged it into my TV as a media center. All of my iPhones have been sold when they were replaced with a  newer model, and I’m still running my several year old Time Capsule router. The ability to recoup money from the sale of older devices has offset the inability to modify or upgrade to the extent that I was able to with other devices. In days long past I could cannibalize various parts from my PC to be used in a newer build if I wasn’t satisfied with upgrading the processor, graphics card, or hard drive; now my still sound but older Macs and iOS devices find additional life with someone else and offset the price of the new device.

While this system has worked well for me, the other key to the plan has been timing. I opted to buy my current iPhone 5c out of pocket a couple of months ago when my iPhone 5 was stolen rather than spend my carrier upgrade discount and miss out on the iPhone 6 that’s about to be released. Who wouldn’t be disappointed in purchasing a new iPad or Mac only to discover that the newer/more powerful/more feature-packed/all around shiner product was coming out just a month later? Many Apple product releases have followed a routine product update schedule: the iPhone for one has been upgraded around September of every year like clockwork. The higher end devices like the Macbook and iMac haven’t  been upgraded so regularly. So what’s an Apple aficionado to do when they are ready to ante up for bigger and better?

Aside from keeping your finger on the pulse of Apple punditry, one of the best tools I’ve found has been MacRumor’s product upgrade guide. The guide offers an easy to navigate layout that provides valuable insight into the timing of your pending purchase. The guide covers three areas: iOS devices, Macs, and an ‘everything else’ category currently populated by the Apple TV and Apple Thunderbolt display. Each product is given a color coded purchase rating of buy now, caution, or don’t buy based on the length of time the product has been in its current model and various information available on product updates.

Those wanting more information can click on the product in question for a more detailed story of the device’s current status and factors that influenced the given grade. I’ve been considering upgrading my aging 2010 iMac (while it still runs well I covet the larger 27 inch screen and would love to have the faster boot times afforded by a hybrid SSD/HD Fusion drive) but have decided to delay the switch until later in the year in hopes that Yosemite might bring newer Broadwell-powered systems. Even if you’re not in the market for the newest and best knowledge of upcoming upgrades can be valuable. The release of a new model can signify a price drop in older models or less money from the sale of your current device.

Patience was never my strongest trait when it came to a new gadget, but making wise choices has always been paramount. Knowing when to buy can be almost as important as knowing what to buy; and a little patience can be worth a lot of cash.

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Let’s face it- we’ve been spoiled by empowerment. I can personally attest to the fact that my attention span is measured in seconds rather than minutes now thanks to the wealth of distraction my iOS devices afford me. Stuck in an elevator for a minute? No worries- check Facebook. Got to work a bit early? Hey- why not clean out your inbox? Downtime during lunch? Time to tear through a few more pages of Game of Thrones in iBooks. This doesn’t even touch on the siren song of gaming, other social media, the various forms of chat (including iMessage), all of the various forms of video entertainment, and so on. With Reddit alone I could probably waste a good portion of every day.

All of this ready entertainment/infotainment is heady stuff- even when I don’t really have the time to spare I’ve found ways of wringing a few moments out of a down time to shift back into an electronic world that is so much more engaging that the real one typically is. There’s the rub: when does this desire to communicate and be entertained run afoul of proper etiquette. I’m not one to criticize others for checking their phone while eating or during a social outing; I’m all too guilty of it myself. Like most ventures, it only strikes me as truly objectionable when it begins to infringe on others.

That’s not to say favoring your device over the actual humans around you isn’t rude. It’s no different from ignoring someone completely to converse with another. No, it’s not rudeness that drives me into a pseudo-murderous rage, it’s the rampant self-indulgence of personal electronics use that interferes with those around you.

Case in point: at a recent concert smartphone use was more than rampant, at times it was almost as blinding as the spotlights of the stage. The offenses were various; social networking, texting, gaming (if Words With Friends is more interesting than the concert maybe you should have reconsidered that ticket purchase), and the most egregious offense of all, piracy. Perhaps I’m just showing my age, but isn’t it both incredibly disrespectful AND overoptimistic of the capabilities of your handset to try to record video of a concert? The sound would be utterly distorted, the shaky video practically unwatchable, but the disregard for the performer would remain intact.

I understand the need to relay information and communicate at times with others. Maybe you were trying to meet up with friends. Maybe a teenager was checking in with a protective parent. These and other instances are understandable, but when the device stays in your hands for a half an hour while you furiously tap away it makes the user seem like an imbecile. Have smartphones become so integral to our daily lives that we can’t set them aside to experience something outside of that tiny screen? The concert I attended was a very good one, but the enjoyment was definitely hampered by the glare of so many tiny bright screens distracting from the performers.

As annoying as that may have been it pales in comparison to those that refuse to follow the advice of the PSA at movie theaters to keep their phones in their pockets. A live concert is a cacophonous event- lights, sound, kinetic energy; something that is to be experienced with more than one sense. While smartphones lit up around you can be distracting, it can’t being to compete with the annoyance of someone whipping out their device during a movie. It still amazes me how bright those little screens can be in a darkened theater. Again, I understand that there are exceptions to every rule, but etiquette is more than a pretty word. When I’ve needed to access my phone (I do chance a movie when on call for my hospital on occasion) I take it out of the theater out of consideration for both other moviegoers and the person trying to communicate with me (those digital speakers in a theater get pretty loud).

So by all means enjoy the fantastic devices we all seem to be sporting now. Smartphones are amazing devices; almost unthinkably powerful and versatile. To paraphrase Spider Man, with that great power comes a greater need for responsible use. It’s not enough to refrain from texting while driving (although it’s amazing how many times I still see that happening), you should be respectful for those that aren’t a part of your smartphone experience too.

We’re still waiting on the next wave of releases from the world’s electronica oligarchy, and most (like me) have become a bit spoiled in our expectations. Having a device that’s newer/faster/more powerful/longer battery life has become passé. We expect manufacturers to provide us with a bevy of improved product lines; it’s the new and shiny that everyone craves. 

Right now, the only category that’s still new-ish/still in its infancy is the wearables category. There have been some fumbling first steps with crowdsourced smart watches and such, recently topped by first efforts from big names like Samsung (and a stated strategic support from Google with Android Wear). To date none of the smart wearable products have been a true hit, and for good reason. Smart watches just don’t provide enough benefit to warrant being more than a curiosity; the smallish screens aren’t that much easier to access compared to taking your primary device out of a pocket, and don’t provide any real benefit over the handset they invariably link to. There are other issues as well- battery life has been hamstrung by the small form factor. There are some wearables that have been successful such as the fitness-dedicated devices, but these don’t really fit the parameters that we’ve been waiting on for the next epoch in personal electronics. 

Google has generated more than a bit of press with Google Glass, but the devices are prohibitively expensive (still north of $1500 US) and wearers have become a bit of a social pariah due to privacy concerns to the point that some establishments have banned them. 

Thus the continuation of my poor attitude on such devices. Unless a manufacturer can create a device that offers some real utility beyond being a smaller second screen of a handset I am extremely skeptical that the market will exist beyond being a curiosity. Apple has been strongly rumored to be developing a device with multiple (sometimes stated to be 10 or more) sensors that would focus on health and well being in a way that current wearables or handsets can’t. It’s an intriguing idea, but are there enough iOS users so interested in detailed tracking and analysis of their physical well being to make it a viable product, or does Apple have more in store that they’ve been able to keep secret? I’d wager on the latter considering how they’ve doubled down on keeping their upcoming products confidential. While there have been numerous sightings of alleged iPhone 6 parts, much of what was revealed in the recent WWDC had been a surprise to just about everyone. 

As usual, Apple won’t be the first to market should they release a smart wearable, but if/when they do I’d put my money on their product over existing devices. It wouldn’t be the first time they reinvented a market to the point of practically creating it. 

It’s a bit of a dead time for gadgetry right now. All of the major manufacturers have had their teaser expos, flaunting their latest goods and software to hungry consumers and hopeful developers. Apple has shown us a glimpse of their future pathway with the developer-centric WWDC (and gained a bit of punditry ire for not trotting out any hardware), and Google has tipped us off to their latest version of Android and a slight change in their strategic vision with the reintroduction of what was Google TV, a glimpse at their vision of wearables, and a not-so-veiled focus on reigning in the fragmentation of their mobile OS. Amazon has made their desire to be a major player known by releasing both a proprietary smartphone and an entertainment platform- the Fire TV. Samsung continues to be Samsung, frantically flinging every possible idea at a wall to see what sticks.
So in this quiet news time I was reflecting on just how spoiled we as consumers already are. Devices that could have been miraculous just a couple of years ago are now seen as almost antiquated; I’ve seen a few iPhone 4 and 4s recently that seem more dated than acid washed jeans. My 2010 iMac seems glacially slow booting up compared to my Macbook Retina’s solid state drive supported system.
In this same vein I came to the realization that my consumption habits have dramatically changed as well. I haven’t bought any physical media in years now, and discontinued even the Netflix DVD rentals in favor of streaming only (with no regrets so far). I used to be a voracious downloader of music (both legitimately and illegitimately) yet with the advent of Pandora that slowed considerably. I was a happy Pandora customer for about two years; the streaming service was more than affordable and it fit my needs for music perfectly. Their search algorithm did well initially, and after a little coaching via the don’t play this again/play more like this feature each “station” provided a perfect soundtrack to whatever mood I may have been in.
I had several friends that favored other streaming services like Spotify, but Pandora fit me well until recently. After a couple of years of heavy listening I had noticed that I had reached the boundaries of their library. Some stations had become stale, playing the same songs in roughly the same order. Granted, some of my favorite stations (Alan Parsons Project for example) was a bit of a narrow category, but their library had become a bit too narrow.
Then Apple decided to enter the fray with iTunes Radio. Initially I was a Pandora devotee; I would listen to the ad supported iTunes radio out of curiosity but Pandora was still my go-to source.
But then Pandora made a move that made me reconsider my devotion. Their $36 yearly subscription was done away with in favor of a $5 monthly charge (or $3.99 for existing customers). A small increase to be sure, but when I considered how stale my playlists had become it was time to see what competitors had to offer.
Going back to local storage wasn’t a viable option. While I had plenty of storage in my 32 gig iPhone, I didn’t relish having to rely on loading my handset with all the music I’d have (commercial free) access to. Secondly, what of new tunes? I had been introduced to a few new favorites via Pandora, and relying on what I already had in my considerably library may be entertaining but it wouldn’t provide me with any new interests.
I had signed up for a Google Music account earlier for streaming access to my library, but none of the iOS clients worked satisfactorily (and the web portal isn’t the best interface I’ve used either). After reading more about iTunes Match I decided to give Apple’s answer a try.
The service is twofold: first, they provide access to high quality iTunes version ( 256-Kbps AAC DRM-free) of all the tracks in your library that they can positively identify, regardless of where you obtained them. Should the version you have be inferior, you’re welcome to delete it and download a superior copy. If a positive match can’t be found iTunes will upload a version of the unrecognizable tracks so that you can access them when away from your physical library as well. While Apple does state there’s a limit of 25,000 songs that can be uploaded to iCloud (tracks purchased from iTunes don’t count) I have yet to find a track in my 150,000 song library I haven’t been able to access. YMMV.
Secondly, iTunes Match provides commercial-free access to iTunes radio. Pandora had a respectable library of about a million tracks, iTunes Radio dwarfs it at over 25 million tracks (and sports higher quality 256kbps tracks versus Pandora’s 196). It’s significantly cheaper as well: $25/year versus $3.99 (or higher) per month.
After settling in for a couple months I’m convinced I made the right choice. While iTunes Radio took a bit more coaxing (play this/don’t play that choices) the stations I have tend to be far broader given the same source band or song. The preset stations iTunes Radio provides have been welcome as well (particularly the Disney movie themed one), and they recently expanded to include ESPN radio and NPR as well.
I’ve enjoyed having a well designed interface to access my home library (nice for when you’d like to hear a specific song/album/artist) but my downloading has slowed to a trickle. I already own the vast majority of music that I have an emotional or sentimental attachment to, and most newer music tends to be a bit disposable- enjoyable, but with a short shelf life. I’m not alone in my change of habit, as music sales of streaming and all but vinyl media has plummeted.
The convenience of having access to an almost inconceivably huge music library that can be easily tailored to a specific mood or taste is just too compelling compared to the older business model of buying entire albums to enjoy music you may not be invested in over the long term. The impermanence of digital tracks has compounded this- in the past you could always sell unwanted CDs or LPs, and pick up other’s used albums at a discount if you could wait for them to be available.
So count me as a happy member of the growing crowd eschewing ownership of media (even if only partially). Whether it be video (in the case of cable cutting) or audio, the rapidly approaching future belongs to the subscription service.

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