iPad, Nexus, Kindle Fire – which tablet should I buy?

Compare the ipad, nexus and kindle fire tablets

What a crazy time to be shopping for a tablet computer. There are so many, many choices. Which tablet should you buy? I have some advice — and please give me your intelligent feedback in the comments section below — on the biggest sellers, all of which I have personally used: Apple’s iPad line, Google’s Nexus family and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD offerings.

Unlike past years, the competition at the beginning of 2013 is hotter than ever, making a decision more complicated than ever. To to simplify, let’s review three basic factors and then I’ll have some advice at the end.

budget | content | uses


How much do you have spend for a new tablet? If you want to hit that magic $199 price point or less, it’s between Amazon’s 7″ Kindle Fire HD and Google’s 7″ Nexus. If you can go up to the $300 to $400 range, you can reach the 10″ Nexus, the 9″ Kindle Fire and the 8″ iPad mini. Heading to $500 and over, you reach the full 10″ iPad.

Adding a mobile broadband radio, which you may want if you plan to travel a lot with your tablet, costs more:

+$100 to the minimum Nexus 7 (also doubles your memory) = $299

+$200 to the entry level 9″ Kindle Fire HD (and more memory) = $499

+$130 to iPad mini = $459

+$130 to the big iPad = $629

(The Nexus 10 and 7″ Kindle Fire HD aren’t sold with built in mobile broadband)


A lot of people will tell you that the easy way to decide on a tablet is to review your so-called ecosystem, or the existing collection of digital music, books, movies and TV shows along with any premium apps you have bought. Just stick with your ecosystem, they say. But I think it’s not nearly so simple anymore. Ecosystems matter less than ever.

First, for music, the vendor is all but irrelevant. Music files now a days are no longer locked to any company’s devices with digital rights management, or DRM, software and can be easily (and legally) trafficked among the brands. The new cloud services, Apple’s iTunes Match, Amazon’s Cloud Music Player and Google Music, all keep track of your songs and let you download them onto multiple computers and devices. And how important is owning all your music? At least in my house, the kids today are far more interested in using subscription music services like Spotify and Rdio, which work great on all the devices, too.

Next come ebooks, which sadly do still carry DRM locks. But even here, for most users, ebooks can travel onto many kinds of devices. That’s because the two leading sellers, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, provide software to read their ebooks for all the different platforms. I’m a Kindle fan and I’ve read my ebooks on devices not just from Amazon but also from Apple, Google and BlackBerry. Google offers ebook software for Android and the iPad but Apple sticks just to iOS (for what it’s worth, I think that’s reason enough to avoid them completely).

Apps are an in-between case. Many are free or cost just 99 cents, so the lost investment of switching platforms is pretty small. Remember just a few years ago when switching, say, from Windows to the Mac meant spending hundreds of dollars just to restore a few key apps like Microsoft Office. In tablet world, this so-called “applications barrier to entry” is almost non-existent.

And many of the most popular apps are available on all three platforms. Amazon has the most limited supply and Apple tends to have the best new apps. But if you’re wondering, it’s pretty easy to see which apps you may be able to keep if you switch platforms by checking the web stores of Google and Amazon.

There is still one area where you might have serious investments locked to one ecosystem: movies and television shows. Apple’s iTunes store has been around for a decade and I know we’re not atypical with our vast holdings of hard-to-transfer iTunes videos. Likewise, movies and shows bought from Google won’t play on the iPad or Kindle. Amazon has built an app to let you watch its videos on the iPad, though not yet on Google’s Android devices (you can watch via the web site on the Nexus if you are willing to install Adobe Flash software).

Like music, however, video is an also an area where the ownership model is slipping away. Do you watch most of your shows on Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go or some other subscription service app? Those apps are offered on all three platforms.

A final consideration is Amazon’s amazing deals for anyone subscribing to its $79/year free shipping service known as Prime. If you pay for Prime you get access to a ton of movies and TV shows for free. That can save a lot of money in the future in addition to any savings by buying a Kindle Fire now.

So take a survey. Ignoring music, do you have tons of video and possibly ebooks that you bought from Apple for your iPhone or iPod touch? And is it the kind of stuff you want to come back to and watch or read over and over again? That could be a lot of lost value if you switch tablets just to save a little on the upfront cost. On the other hand, Amazon’s ebooks and video can play on the iPad (and sort of on the Nexus) and you get all the free stuff if you subscribe to Prime. Google’s ebooks but not video play on the iPad.

There’s also the rest of our digital life’s ecosystem to consider. For file storage and syncing, calendars, contacts and email, some people are deeply embedded in Apple’s iCloud. Others are all Google, all the time. What do they say about Harry Potter and Voldemort? Neither can live while the other survives? Apple-istas will do best sticking with the iPad. iCloud doesn’t do Android. Google-ites? In the past, I have found syncing Google data to iOS devices to be a huge pain and subject to major limitations, but I should point out for more experienced users, Google has made the process easier recently, as explained by TheVerge. Nexus devices, obviously were made for it. You can also sync your Google account with the Amazon Kindle Fire’s calendar, email and contacts apps but, again, nothing for iCloud.


What are you actually doing with your tablet? When I reviewed the very first Kindle Fire, I said it was a good deal because it could do most of what you wanted to do on an iPad for less than half the price. And that’s still true today. If you want a tablet for mostly web surfing, reading ebooks, watching video, playing the occasional game and doing light email, the Kindle Fire HD line is hard to beat. Amazon has a smaller but more cultivated app store than Google and lags far behind Apple. But the actual hardware devices are pretty nifty, with really good screens, and at a bargain price. They also have the most innovative child control software by far.

Are you going to be doing “real” work or using your tablet as a laptop replacement? In this case, the Kindle Fires are a lot less appealing. They don’t play as well with other platforms. The iPad has plenty of software for writing, making presentations, editing photos and all that plus it benefits from the widest choices of keyboards. The Nexus works really well if your work is often via Google Docs and other Google services.

What about sharing a device or and handing one of these tablets off to your kids? The iPad stinks for sharing, absolutely stinks. Signing in and out of email accounts, iCloud accounts and the like is inconvenient and apps and movies and what not can’t be shared between iTunes store accounts. Given how annoying it already is to move and arrange apps just the way you want them on iOS, having other people move your cheese is no fun either. The Nexus is much better in this area — a recent software update added true multiple user accounts. And the Nexus is smart, storing only one copy of an app or other content that appears in more than one user’s account.

Amazon’s child control feature, called Freetime, brings sort of, kind of the notion of multiple user accounts to the Kindle Fire. It does offer by far the best and smartest child controls of any tablet if a kid is the primary user. The iPad child control screen is a nightmare.

And how much traveling will you be doing? While it’s possible to use the wifi hot spot feature on your phone to connect your tablet, it’s so quick and convenient to have built-in mobile broadband. It’s not free, typically adding about $20 a month to your cell phone bill, or $10 if you have a family plan on AT&T or Verizon. There’s nothing like the feeling of flicking on your tablet and getting right to work without having to mess with wifi sign ons or other devices to get connected.

bottom line

If you’ve considered all the the issues above, you may have already come to a realization about which tablet to buy. People deeply invested in either the entertainment or business-y ecosystems of Apple or Google probably have the most obvious answers. If not, I would suggest that for the most budget-minded, for those planning to use their tablet mostly at home and for more for entertainment purposes, the Kindle Fire HDs are a great bargain. The savings come not just in the lower price but also with all the free content you can access from Amazon.

If you are looking to get some business done, it’s time to spend a bit more for the iPad, which not only has a far more robust and diverse selection of apps but also a better selection of accessories like keyboards, cases and other add-ons (blood pressure monitor anyone?). The Nexus line is second best here by a fair margin but totally workable and far better in the realm of Gmail, Google calendar and voice and all that.

As far as whether to go for 7″ to 8″ screens or the larger screens, think again about your budget and your usage. Small screens are cheaper and work best on-the-go. They’re also good for reading. Try holding a full size iPad in one hand for more than a few minutes – forget it. I don’t love the screen resolution of the iPad mini — both the 7″ Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 are much sharper. But after a short time using a lower resolution screen, it seems not many people can even tell the difference, so I wouldn’t get too hung up on that one spec.

By the way, if you can’t even decide whether to get a tablet versus a laptop or e-ink electronic book reader, I have looked at that question as well.

Finally, serious Lightroom photo syncing on the iPad – no iPhoto required

Old workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from my camera to my iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad and export to a folder on my hard drive. Drag said folder into iPhoto. Make newly imported photos into a new iPhoto album. Hook up iPad for sync via iTunes. Place check mark on new album in iTunes iPad photo syncing tab. Wait.

New workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from camera to iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad, drag to Photosmith publishing service, hit sync.

What a great program, though it does cost $20. What I’ve just described, using the app to send pictures or albums right from Lightroom onto your iPad, is worth more than $20 to me. You also have to install a free Lightroom plugin on your computer to make to all work.

But the other side of the app is for doing field work on photos using just your iPad, which I have not done much in the past but may get more into. Using Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, you can import photos right off your camera into the Photosmith app, rate them, tag them, flag them for deletion etc. You can also directly upload them to a couple of services such as Facebook, Flickr and Dropbox. Then just get near your Mac, open up Lightroom and sync back to your computer. Sweet.

photosmith app screen shot

Annoying limits I’ve encountered so far?

You can’t sync iPad screenshots back to Lightroom. That’s because the iPad makes them in the PNG format which Lightroom doesn’t support. But a fix is coming.

It seems like you can’t use the iPad app to re-arrange photos imported from Lightroom among your collections or make them into a new collection and have the changes sync back to Lightroom. Only new photos imported directly from a camera to the iPad (or taken with the iPad, god have mercy on your soul) sync back to Lightroom.


Using iTunes Match to get rid of DRM-protected music

Want to finally get rid of those low quality, DRM infested music tracks you bought from iTunes back before DRM free tracks arrived? Now you can.

When the iTunes Store first opened for business back in 2003, all the music tracks were locked up with a digital rights management (or DRM) scheme called “Fairplay” to prevent sharing. If you bought a track from the store, you could only play on it one of five authorized computers or via iPods that you had synced with one of those five. But not only could the songs not be shared with friends, you also couldn’t play the music you had just legally acquired on many other legal devices you might purchase, like a Sonos wireless speaker or almost all other non-Apple MP3 players. While DRM did nothing to discourage piracy, it harrassed, hindered and harried paying customers.

Eventually, the music industry saw the light, thanks in part to Apple agreeing to a huge price hike, and stopped requiring DRM encumbrances. That was a great move but it left a lot of us with collections filled with previously legally purchased music that still had the DRM lockdown. Apple graciously offered to upgrade such tracks to a higher quality, DRM-free version for 30 cents a pop. But the iTunes Plus upgrade service, as it was called, was a disastrous mess.

So I have long had a smart playlist I set up in iTunes to list all my music tracks that still had DRM. And, even after spending a small fortune on iTunes Plus, the list still had several hundred tracks remaining. Well, they were remaining until just the other day when Apple opened its cloud-based iTunes Match service as an extension to its regular iCloud music service. For $25 a year, iTunes Match lets you upload any tracks to iCloud which you owned but had not purchased from iTunes to share among all your registered computers and devices.

There is also another, less-publicized side benefit. Tracks downloaded from iCloud are DRM-free and recorded at the high-quality rate of 256 kilobits per second. This means that if iTunes match matched your leftover DRM-locked, lower quality music, you can finally get out of jail free. Here’s how:

1. Make a smart playlist where “Kind” contains the phrase “Protected AAC audio file” and the “bit rate” is “128 kbps.”

2. Everything that appears on this smart playlist is the old, locked up kind of music track. IMPORTANT: On the view of this list, right click at the top on the categories of stuff where it says Name, Time, Artist etc and add two more categories: “iCloud Download” and “iCloud Status.”

3. Run the “Update iTunes Match” on your library. It’s under the Store menu in iTunes.

4. Now you can start the laborious process of deleting these crummy DRM tracks and getting back better and freer tracks.

5. I started by sorting the list by artist. Then find all the tracks on the smart list that have an iCloud status of “Matched” or “Purchased.” THIS TRICK WILL NOT WORK ON TRACKS WITH A STATUS OF “UPLOADED” OR “ERROR.”

6. Unfortunately, you can’t delete tracks directly from the smart playlist. You have to identify each track on the smart list and then go back to your whole music library on iTunes and find it again. If you are paranoid, click command-I after selecting each track in the main music library to make sure it is indeed DRM locked, visible on the “Kind” line as “Protected AAC audio file.” Delete the track if so. DO NOT CHECK THE BOX THAT SAYS “ALSO DELETE THIS SONG FROM iCLOUD” — do not, not, not check that box. On the next dialogue box that comes up, click that you want to throw away the file in the trash.

7. Now that you have deleted the old DRM-ed file, the song should still be listed in iTunes but with a download from the cloud icon:

Click on the iCloud icon and a fresh new copy of the track will be downloaded from Apple’s servers, one that is DRM-free and 256 kbps. Sweet!

There are all kinds of tracks of that can’t be re-downloaded using this trick, unfortunately. In my library of 5,000 odd songs, I am still stuck with 25 that are low-quality, DRM-locked versions. Most are special versions of songs that the iTunes store no longer carries like an acoustic version of U2’s “Stuck in a Moment.” Some are from albums that are no longer sold for download, like Prince’s “Musicology.” Seven are tracks from the original, self-published release of Nellie McKay’s album “Pretty Little Head” that were excluded when Sony re-released the album later.

In some cases, though, the songs iTunes Match couldn’t quite match were just duplicates of songs I’d long ago upgraded via iTunes Plus. A little library clean up is in order in these cases. For example, a duplicate version of Matchbox 20’s song “3AM” was hanging around as the older DRM-locked file because it was listed as “3 AM” (note the extra space). I just deleted the duplicate from both my library and iCloud.

And that’s it! Good luck cleaning up your library.

Using an iPhone 4S without iTunes – ever!

For reasons that shall be dealt with later, I’m the owner of a new iPhone 4S. Having had more than my fill of iTunes annoyances, delays and freezes, I’m trying to go without ever syncing my new iPhone to my Mac. In the first few days, it’s mostly gone smoothly.


I’m using both Apple’s iCloud (converted from MobileMe) and Google’s various web services right now. Since I’ve been on an Android phone for almost a year, my Apple contacts and calendar are a bit dated around the edges compared to my Google stuff. It’s sort of a bake-off and if the phone works well with Google services, I’ll probably phase out the iCloud.

Adding iCloud was easy and everything appeared quickly. To get the best of all possible experiences with Google, I’m following the advice from some support boards to use the iPhone’s default Google settings for Gmail and Google calendar and an Exchange account pointing to Google servers for contacts. Directions for the Exchange bit are here. That also seems to have worked without a hitch.

Inside my contacts app, I can choose any of the groups set up in my iCloud contacts lists (which mostly originate from the Address Book program on my main Mac) or my Google contacts. I cannot access different groups I’ve set up in my Google contacts, but I can’t do that on my Android phone either. On the iPhone’s phone favorites screen, I can select any number or email from any of those many lists. Very handy and smooth so far.

Previously purchased music and apps

As soon as I activated my new phone and signed in with my iTunes identity, the iTunes store app had a tab for previously purchased music and TV shows. I could download any of the thousands of tracks or shows I’d bought from Apple over the years. Very spiffy. Of course, music purchased elsewhere was nowhere to be found and there’s no Amazon Music Player app for the iPhone that I could find. If I agree to pony up another $25/year, Apple will shortly solve this problem with “iTunes Match.”

Apps were a bit trickier. There was no tab in the App Store app and for a few minutes I was stumped. It’s not intuitive but previously purchased apps appeared under the Updates tab. They seem to be listed in the order in which you first downloaded them — the most recently purchased app is at the top, the oldest stuff is at the bottom — with no sorting choices. Annoyingly, selecting any app for installing on the phone took me off the purchased apps screen, out of the App Store app and out to the iPhone’s home screen where the app was being installed. I had to double-click the home button and hit the App Store icon to jump back.

I haven’t previously backed up app data to iCloud from any iOS device so the apps all arrived in a virginal state. It took a good couple of hours to sign in and set up all the apps. Thank god for 1Password (which, not coincidentally, was among the freshly downloaded apps that needed to be reset).

Files and documents

It’s actually pretty easy to get access to any document I need on my phone using Dropbox. Some day this may be doable with iCloud. But so far iCloud is only syncing documents from one iOS device’s versions of Apple’s office suite apps, Pages, Keynote and Numbers to another iOS device’s versions. That’s the iOS versions — not the desktop versions.

Another key app for on-the-go documents is Evernote, my reliable digital shoe box that stores copies of notes, web pages and other kinds of files and makes them auto-magically available on all manner of devices and computers.


Well, I may be screwed. Apple’s previously purchased download policy doesn’t apply to movies. I can watch some flicks streamed via a Netflix or HBO app, but that’s not an optimal solution. And it leaves the movies we’ve previously purchased in iTunes out. The iPhone has wifi syncing with iTunes but that’s still iTunes syncing, not to mention it requires an initial USB sync. Yuck.

So, overall, it’s been a pretty smooth experience being PC free with a new iPhone 4S. So many apps and services are built for the cloud and do their own syncing that I may not need iTunes at all.

The iPad as digital library and other lessons of the first year

Well, we’ve been very satisfied iPad owners for just over a year now so it’s a good time to look back and review. My intention is to dig a lot deeper than the usual gadget reviews and give a sense of what it’s like to have an iPad day in and day out for a year. The list is aimed at people who might be considering buying an iPad more so than people who already have one. And all of the points apply equally to the original iPad and the iPad 2. So, without further adieu, here are 10 things we’ve learned.

1. The iPad is the perfect digital library of the 21st Century. In the last century, people had rooms they’d call a library filled with physical objects. Look around and spot something of interest, grab it down off the shelf, put it back in place. Now we have it in digital form and the iPad, with its multi-touch screen, allows those same familiar physical interactions. Photos, emails, books, recipes, movies, maps, songs, web pages. You want to have it with you and easily accessible so you keep it on your iPad.

2. Corollary of #1: Get the most memory you can afford, preferably the 64 GB version. Of course, it’s more convenient to have all your stuff with you when you want it. But the flip side is also important: it’s an annoying waste of time trying to hone your vast digital song collection or photo library from your computer to fit onto your iPad. The more places you can check the “sync everything” box, the better. And syncing itself a slow train to bummersvile.

3. The iPad is not great for working on standard office software tasks like word processing and spreadsheets. The on-screen keyboard experience is okay, not great, but the processes to select text and move the cursor around are just plain bad. Moving documents back and forth from the iPad to another computer is also extremely treacherous because iPad apps have the nasty habit of eliminating or mangling formatting. Printing is also complicated or impossible, particularly when you’re on the road.

4. The iPad doesn’t like to sync and you find yourself syncing less and less. The original iPod connected over a firewire port that was super speedy. But Apple eliminated firewire syncing years ago and the iPad is stuck in the slow lane known as USB 2.0. Hopefully, Apple’s new super-fast Thunderbolt port will quickly make its way to the iPad. In the meantime, prepare to get a cup of coffee while your iPad backs up all its data, loads app updates and transfer your photos, songs and videos each time it syncs.

5. Battery life is insane. You will find yourself charging less and less.

6. The iPad is very personal, it’s not very multi-personal. There’s no way to set up individual accounts for different people on an iPad, which gets to be a drag after while when the device is being shared around the family. I’m not as taken with background pictures of puppies as my daughters, I don’t want 15 games on my first home screen like my son and I want to read my Gmail, not my wife’s, when I use the mail app. Still, the iPad is too fun and too huge not to share.

7. The iPad is less delicate than a laptop. We take ours into the kitchen when we’re making a recipe, for example, and just wipe off the occasional spill.

8. Great for multi-day trips, not great for out for the day tripping. The iPad is lighter and smaller than a laptop, sure, but it is not nearly light enough yet. It’s great to use sitting down but not in one hand and it doesn’t fit in a pocket so it can be a burden to carry around. And it’s too flashy and expensive to use in some places, like the subway.

9. The speaker should be much better. When you have the perfect, self-contained travel computer, it should be able to play music in your hotel room without add-on speakers.

10. We love the app store and installing new apps is simple. But the process of moving apps around, organizing them on multiple home screens and deleting the occasional dud are not intuitive or easy.

Review: BitBop offers dream of great video on Android someday

Have I mentioned there are a dearth of options for watching TV shows and movies on Android devices? Yeah? Well, while we wait for the possible arrival of Netflix and Hulu Plus for Android, I’m just trying out a new offering called BitBop on my T-Mobile Nexus S.

It’s very early days yet but it has potential to be pretty good. The interface is snappy and simple and it’s the first widely available Android video service I know of that lets you download shows to your phone for viewing offline (you can also stream while online). Unfortunately, the content and pricing leave BitBop in the dust compared with the offerings on the iPhone from iTunes, Netflix and several others.

In a world of fragmentation, one of the first cool thing about BitBop is that works on lots of Android phones — 30 so far including many popular models like the Galaxy S, HTC Droid Incredible and my personal fave, the Nexus S. It also works on some Blackberries.

You can’t load the app through the Google Market, sadly. You have to check the “unknown sources” box in the applications section of your settings. But thanks to the Amazon appstore, we’ve already probably all done that by now. After you sign up on the web site and create an account (credit card required), BitBop send you a text message with a link to download the app. Install and you’re ready to go.

Once you fire the app up, there’s a simply interface for finding shows. Movies aren’t available yet. If you’re connected online via wifi or 3G, you can watch the shows streamed or download to your phone for later offline viewing. Here’s what the opening screen looks like:

But there are at least two huge problems with BitBop. First, as of right now on March 25, 2011, the content is incredibly spotty. There are 168 TV shows and 0 — that’s zero — movies available. Even for the TV shows listed, most have only one or two episodes available. Maybe that’s not even spotty, just crappy.

And the selection is bizarre. For The Office, the only episode available to watch is from February 24 and it says it will expire on April 15. I hope they add some more episodes by then! Other shows, like Sponge Bob Square Pants, don’t even have full episodes, just short snippets, snackable comedy bites, I guess. For example, you can watch 2 minutes of Betty White at Comedy Central’s roast of William Shatner (After saying hi to George Takei, she quips: “We all think Shatner’s nuts, but George take has actually seen them”).

The other downer is the price: $10 a month after an initial free 7-day trial. That’s more than an online subscription to Netflix with only one-billionth as much content (though you do get the download option that Netflix doesn’t offer) and hard to justify against Apple’s pay only when you watch pricing. It also appears that the $10 won’t even include movies, once they finally arrive. Movie rentals will be $1 to $5, according to the web site. The pricing seems way out of line.

So, we end where we started. TV and movie options on Android stink. But like Meg Ryan says in the movie You’ve Got Mail when asked if she’s fallen in love: No but there’s the dream of someone else.

Getting iTunes to sync standard def videos to your iPad

We’re big fans of the recent PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey and bought the high-definition version from iTunes to watch on the big TV that is connected to our Mac mini media server. But when my wife asked me to load the series onto her iPad recently, I ran into an annoying syncing problem based on iTunes’s default treatment of the iPad.

iTunes wants to sync the space-wasting high-definition version of any movie or TV show you own in HD onto the iPad despite the device’s less than high-def 1024 X 768 pixel screen. This was happening even though we also have the standard-def version. iTunes just ignored it. So I couldn’t manage to fit all 7 Downton Abbey episodes (iTunes only sold the British-aired 7 episode version even in the US) with the other music and apps and so on that live on the wife’s iPad.

Messing around with iTunes, I couldn’t find any option or setting until I re-plugged in her iPad. Low and behold, in iTunes, on the “Summary” tab for the iPad, scroll down to the list of setting and there’s a check box for “Prefer standard definition videos.”so if you want iTunes to sync standard definition video to your iPad by default, click it and go.

The future of Apple computing isn’t all led by Apple

There’s a great video up on Macworld’s site of a conversation between four highly knowledgeable Mac pundits about the “future of the Mac.” The participants were Daringfireball’s John Gruber and Tidbits’ Adam Engst along with Jason Snell and Dan Moren from Macworld. The discussion was interesting and worth the 48 minutes or so of my time, but I was struck by one kind of shocking oversight or blind spot demonstrated by all four panelists. In looking to the future of the Mac, there was hardly any mention of any products, services or software besides Apple’s. I think Dropbox may have been the only non-Apple company mentioned in a forward-looking way.

That’s a real shame because while Apple has led the personal computing revolution for pretty much the last decade, whether it be via Mac OS X, the iMac, the MacBook, the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad etc, there have been plenty of important developments from others and plenty of misfires from Apple. And Apple is far too smart to ignore what others are doing well. The future of the Mac will most likely involve a fruitful and innovative mash-up of the best ideas both from within and without Apple.

Start, at the top, with Google. Clearly the future of the Mac is going to be more cloud-based. Apple has built a huge and mysterious server farm in North Carolina, principal purpose TBA. The newest MacBook Airs are also clearly intended to be more cloud-connected. But Apple is not a pioneer in cloud services — the opposite in fact. There’s no Apple cloud video or music services yet and its MobileMe offering is so overpriced and lacking as to be a joke to even many of the Mac faithful like me.

I’ve been a paying MobileMe subscriber for many, many years. In the beginning, I used web hosting, web-based email, web bookmarks list, syncing of data across multiple Macs and even paid for extra space to use for cloud backup and file sharing. In the past few years, though, competitors have surpassed MobileMe in nearly every area and I find the only thing I really need it for anymore is automatic syncing of my Mac address book. Gmail is the best web mail, Firefox syncs my bookmarks, Dropbox and Mozy do cloud-based file storage and backup and Bluehost and WordPress do my web sites. If Google improved its Contacts service, which needs a HUGE amount of improvement, I might not rely on MobileMe for anything anymore at all.

A second area of focus for future computing developments will come from cloud-based entertainment. For a while, Apple seemed to be almost purposely ignoring the potential. The second-gen Apple TV finally seems to be a recognition that streaming video is the best option for many scenarios but Netflix, Amazon, Xbox, Tivo and others have been here for a while. Streaming music from Spotify, Rhapsody, Napster and others also beats iTunes in some ways. I love the model popularized by services like Amazon’s Kindle and its online video store, where the company maintains all your content in the cloud for download to your various devices whenever and where ever you want. And it’s galactically simpler than maintaining an iTunes server in your home. Don’t even get me started on the mess Apple made of our various iTunes libraries with the iTunes Plus upgrade program. Blech!

In the Amazon model, if I want to read a new book on my Kindle on the train to work, I buy it and download it there. Later in bed, I have my iPad and I download it there. A few weeks later, I need to quote a passage at work so I fire up the Kindle for Mac program and access it there. I wish iTunes worked the same way for all the zillions of dollars I have spent on movies, TV shows, music and, now, apps.

Finally, not all hardware innovation arises out of Cupertino’s labs. As I blogged about yesterday, I think the new Motorola Atrix 4G smartphone is the first step towards a promising converged computing future. The Atrix has a speedy dual core processor, up to 48 GB of storage and fourth-generation mobile connectivity (I know, I know, AT&T’s 4th gen network is kind of bogus, but roll with me). Its HDMI port is capable of outputting high-definition video. A notebook shell dock turns the Atrix into a laptop and a media dock and wireless remote connect it to a TV.

(Update 2/3/11 – oops, Motorola seems to be way overpricing the laptop dock)

Once upon a time, laptops were so underpowered and expensive relative to desktop computers, few people could really function with just a laptop. But Moore’s law and all that has brought us such ultra-powerful laptops that it’s now the norm. Personally, I rely on my 13″ MacBook Pro Mac PowerBook as my sole machine (with external storage and the fantabulous Apple LED Cinema Display as my dock at home). In a few more years, with super-powered smart phones, proliferating docking options and cloud-based storage and services, the Atrix model will predominate. Peter Rojas’s great proposal to standardize docking interfaces also makes a lot of sense in this future.

And just as a final aside on the Macworld panel, I think the future of desktop computing will not be the iOS “every app in full screen” model, which the panel seemed to think was a real possibility. Lots of research has been done showing people are more productive using larger screens and multiple screens to keep more of their work in front of their eyes. Right now, I have MarsEdit open to write this post, two browser windows for finding links and background material and a Skitch window for grabbing screenshots. If I had to hit control-tab or something every time I wanted to remember what i had just read or to see the web page I needed to reference in this blog post, I think I’d go batty.

I found it a little condescending the way the panel seemed to assume the most important or most common user of the future would be the your-65-year-old-mom type. In fact, if anything, I think younger generations are more comfortable with all things computer-y, even the wild and crazy practices of having multiple windows open on-screen and having files stored in a “documents” folder.

NB This essay was inspired in part by that kitschy, trashy 1990s television show Time Trax. You remember, the one with the future cop who traveled back to 1993 with a super-computer-powered credit card.

Your thoughts, arguments and corrections, as always, welcomed in the comments.

How to get rid of iTunes ugly new blue icon

The most recent versions of Apple’s overstuffed iTunes app made an almost universally hated change by switching to a boring, blue icon. I was among the masses who wanted to figure out a way to switch the iTunes icon to something better.

It’s not as easy as it used to be to swap icons. There are programs you can download to ease the move but here’s a simple way to switch the entire package of icons that are built into iTunes without too many complications. It does involve mucking with the app’s package contents so if that sounds too complicated to you, please skip this post.

First, you need to go online and find some better iTunes icons that are packaged together in a file with the extension icns. That’s not hard. I started at this article on TwisterMc called “32 iTunes Replacement Icons.” There are a billion alternatives out there. Not everything you’ll find is packaged in the easy-to-use icns format. I ended up using icon artist Kevin Andersson‘s green set (he also did a blue set). You can see his whole deal here.

Once you’ve downloaded the replacement set of icons, in the finder navigate to the Applications folder, right-click on iTunes and choose “show package contents.” This then reveals the many, many files that collectively make up the iTunes program. Navigate down to the folder called Resources.

Before we can make changes to the components, we need to change the permissions on this file. So right-click on the Resources folder and choose “Get info” from the menu. Click on the lock at the bottom right of the Get info box, enter your password and then switch the permissions at the bottom of the box for everyone from “Read only” to “Read & Write.”

Now, for safekeeping you should make a copy of the existing iTunes.icns file and/or rename to something like oldiTunes.icns. Then just drag in the new iTunes.icns file that you downloaded above. Close everything and navigate back to the Applications folder where the new icon should be proudly on display (it actually took a few seconds for the new icon to show up on my system — your mileage may vary). I also switched the permissions back to “Write only” when I was finished.

Why can’t anyone compare iTunes store video to Android’s offerings?

The other day, Josh Topolsky at Engadget published a lengthy and detailed review of the new Samsung Nexus S smartphone which runs the very latest version of Google’s Android operating system. The 3,300 word review seemingly runs through every feature, includes a dozen or more pictures and generally appears to be the most thorough run down of the hardware and software imaginable.

But nowhere, not in one single place, in the whole review, did Topolsky mention watching TV shows and movies on the phone. Venture capitalist and blogger Bijan Sabet, who’s a pretty big Android fan, has also been blogging about his experiences with the S and, again, nothing about commercial video (I even asked in the comments). The Christian Science Monitor even did this nifty round-up with links to a bunch of reviews and you can click through all you want but still find out nothing about video purchases.

It’s actually become a huge problem in the product reviewing blogosphere — seemingly no one can tell you anything about purchasing, downloading and watching commercial video programming on Android devices. Ben Brooks wrote a loooong review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab and, again, no video mention¹. I mean, isn’t it a core use of tablets to watch movies and stuff? Come on, world o’ gadget reviewers!

It’s not because there isn’t any. A friend has the new HTC EVO Android phone operating on Sprint’s 4th generation mobile broadband network. It has some sort of Sprint video application that lists dozens of movies and TV shows (there’s some guidance on this Sprint TV web page). I’d have to say it’s an ugly mess with some channels operating on a schedule and others “on demand.” Some basic set of channels is included but others are packaged in tiers just like the bad old cable box at home. As far as I could tell all the content was streamed — no Internet signal, no video.

On the Apple side of the fence, of course, it’s trivial to assess what video programming is available for Apple’s iPhone/iPod/iPad universe — just go and look. The iTunes store has a dazzling array of movies and TV shows. Prices are pretty standardized and content is available for rental or purchase. It’s silly to even discuss in detail. Recently, I wanted to catch up on the BBC/PBS modern-day series of Sherlock Holmes. It’s on iTunes in standard or high-def. Bing. Gift the PBS series from a few years ago, On the road again: Spain, to a friend? Bam. Rent Ed Burn’s new movie, Nice Guy Johnny, to watch on an iPad? Bada-bing.

So what about Android? Can you rent movies for any or all Android devices? Or is it a carrier by carrier questions? Where’s the comparison of what they offer? Are you dependent on some third-party sources like Netflix? Without more and better reviews, it’s very hard to make the decision to abandon the Apple mobile world.


¹I emailed Ben and he replied “Depends on the carrier, though there may be apps that can do it – I didn’t investigate that. I also don’t have the device any longer to check.”