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Apple Computer Inc.

On October 23, 2001, Apple invited the tech press down to its Cupertino headquarters, unveiled the iPod, and sent each editor home with their very own.

They might as well have gifted them with vials of crack.

The addiction may have started slowly - by the end of 2003, only 381,000 had been sold - but the iPod jones soon wrapped its seductive tentacles around the medulla oblongata of the popular psyche. In 2004, Apple sold 4.4 million iPods; in 2005, they sold 22.5 million; in 2006, 39.4 million. Then, on January 9, 2007, Apple Computer Inc. acknowledged the obvious and dropped the word "Computer" from their name.

The company that for years had wrapped up each an every one of its press releases with a paragraph that began, "Apple ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s" had become a consumer electronics giant.

In addition to the online iTunes Store that feeds them all, Apple produces three consumer electronics lines. The aforementioned top dog, the iPod; the foot-in-the-door, maybe-destined-for-greatness-but-maybe-not Apple TV; and the latest hotness and rising star, the iPhone.

Oh, and that press-release wrap-up paragraph now has a new line appended to it: "Apple is also spearheading the digital media revolution."

iPod: Today's iPod line divides and conquers its target market. First, you've got bling with or without a display (iPod nano, $149-$199; iPod shuffle, $49-$69), the vault (iPod classic, $249), and the iGame iBoy iGPS iWi-Fi iPhone-without-a-phone (iPod touch, $229-$399). The ones with displays all play videos and stills. The one without a display is cheaper than dirt.

Microsoft's Zune never had a prayer.

iPods

iPods

Not that the iPods are perfect, it's just that what they do, they do very well. Their sound is excellent (even through Apple's substandard earbuds), their displays are crisp, media navigation is straightforward even if their clickwheels can be a bit touchy, and their integration with the media mega-mall that's the iTunes Store is seamless.

Of the quartet, the most interesting is the iPod touch, which appears to be either a transition product until the iPhone grabs more market share, or the iPod of choice for game and on-the-go video lovers who already have Blackberries. And if the relatively small capacity of the iPod touch (or the iPhone, for that matter) gives you pause, remember that Apple recently filed a patent for metadata-transfer technology that will allow iPod and iPhone users to manage, access, and play all the media stored on their home Mac or PC on a file-by-file basis over wired, Wi-Fi, and mobile-phone connections.

And to answer one recurrent gripe: No, they don't have FM radios. So pipe down and download Terry Gross's podcasts over iTunes.

iPod shuffle: B

iPod nano: A

iPod classic: A-

iPod touch: B

Apple TV: The 2.0 version of Apple TV that was rolled out this January 15th suffers from one major obstacle: the reputation of Apple TV 1.0. That first iteration of Apple's set-top box for widescreen TV deserved the enormous yawn that it received when it appeared one year earlier. The 2.0 software upgrade is an enormous improvement - but, we hasten to ad, it's no TiVo.

Unlike its boring older brother, Apple TV 2.0 can download and rent video content directly over the Web - your Mac doesn't need to get involved as it did for version 1.0. Apple TV 1.0 was limited to 480p. Now, 2.0 hardware-upconverts 720p to 1080p for surprisingly decent image quality. No, it's not as good as Blu-Ray quality, but there are many good reasons why Blu-Ray may never catch on, not the least of which being that direct download either through services such as the iTunes Store of cable-company video-on-demand is just so damn convenient.

Still, Blu-Ray (and, for that matter, plain ol' DVDs) can and do offer bonus content rarely found in digital downloads or VoD. What's more, services like NetFlix offer insanely large libraries, multiple viewing options, and liberal play-and-return periods.

Apple TV 2.0's upconversion to 1080p is smart, since native 1080p downloads are either brutally compressed, resulting in heinous image quality, or so tediously long that you could film Transporter 3 in as long as it took to download it in full 1080p. To our eyes, Apple TV 2.0 H.264-based compression is superior to that of HD cable's VoD (cf. "You pays your money and you makes your choice," above).

On last nicety: Apple TV is a brilliant vodcast-surfer. There's a whole world of smart, well-produced amateur (whatever that means anymore) video out there, and the iTunes Store and Apple TV make wasting an entire evening sampling it a couch-bound pleasure.

If the Apple TV 2.0 could only record shows - but, hey, that'd put a dent in Apple's revenue stream, so what do you expect?

iApple TV 2.0: B+

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