Apple Smart Keyboard First Impressions

Having just received my Smart Keyboard for my iPad Pro 9,7″, I thought I’d write a little about it.

The first thing I was slightly apprehensive about was naturally how it would feel to type on it. The Apple tables in stores don’t really lend themselves to actually testing that aspect realistically. It turns out I worried unnecessarily: The cupped shape of the keys, along with the relatively large gap between them makes it very comfortable for me to type on the keyboard. Going from my Retina MacBook Pro or Magic Keyboard to the Smart Keyboard is almost completely seamless for me. It’s comfortable enough on a table, but what’s interesting is that thanks to its strong magnets, it actually works in my lap while half-lying in a couch too. At least as long as the iPad itself keeps its center of balance towards the rear support.

The keyboard itself supports almost all shortcuts and key combinations I’m used to from Apple’s computer keyboards except for those that require the use of the Fn key, which on the Smart Keyboard is replaced by a shortcut to switch between keyboard layouts.

As I am used to writing on a Swedish keyboard but often write technical documents in English, I soon encountered a situation that could have turned the Smart Keyboard into a dud for me:
How does it handle typing in one language while using the keyboard layout of another language? The autocorrect dictionary in iOS is tied to the chosen keyboard layout. Turns out Apple thought of that issue long before I did. When I did, I was very happy to see that under General Settings, there’s a button called Hardware keyboard. Thanks to it, it’s possible to turn off text autocorrection while using a physical keyboard while retaining the function when typing on-screen, where special characters are chosen visually anyway. This is one of those small things that makes me fond of Apple. This need of mine probably represents a pretty small percentage of Apple’s customers, but one of their developers thought of it and implemented a solution that makes switching from tablet mode to “almost laptop” mode completely seamless.

So are there any drawbacks to the Smart Keyboard?
Not a lot of them. One thing I noticed quickly is that the edit field on some forums doesn’t capture the cursor keys: Marking text using various combinations of Shift, Option, Command and the cursor keys is somewhat hit-or-miss across different sites on the web. In WordPress it works perfectly, but on the MacRumors forums touching any of the cursor keys while in the edit field scrolls to the bottom of the page. At this point I have no idea where the problem lies, but it’s a bit frustrating since selecting text is a chore using fingers on a touch screen.

All in all, and in my use case, the Smart Keyboard complements the iPad Pro perfectly, and I can definitely see myself leaving for an extended vacation without bringing my computer along largely thanks to it. Time will tell whether I’ll stay happy with this combination or if I’ll rather invest in an ultralight laptop the next time I have to replace my hardware.






Mac Mail and fonts

It’s time for a little mac-related rant, for one of the few things that disturb me when using my computer at work.

I immediately fell in love with Mac Mail: Lightweight and nimble, but at the same time offering a much more powerful experience than Outlook/Entourage, very much thanks to the speed and ease of use of the search function, which plays in a completely different league than the “Advanced Search” in Outlook 2007.

The only problem I have with it is so trivial that I was really surprised to see that it’s been a regularly re-occurring question on forums for several years, namely the little question of fonts.

My gut feeling is that a modern mail software should be more or less WYSIWYG. Most of today’s mail programs solve this by encoding the contents of mail using regular HTML tags. Mac Mail uses Rich Text Format instead, but that’s just a technicality – it should do the exact same thing as ThunderBird or Outlook, which is to have some kind of a header containing information for the reader’s rendering software to use font (or font family) x, in size n, etc, so that the reader gets a similar experience as the writer probably intended her to have.

In a corporate environment, this is even more important, since PR departments often define a graphical policy for the company to use, so that customers get a homogeneous impression of the company even if they have to deal with different employees.

Now, consider the following screendump and try to find the problem:

A mail sent from Mac Mail, received by Outlook and replied back to Mac Mail

Sorry for the size, but I really want the horribleness to stand out in all it’s gory.

If you’re slow on the uptake, don’t worry: I’ve described the problem in the actual screenshot, but to recap:

  • The mail was written in Mac Mail, using a font set by me according to company standards: Arial, 12pt.
  • The signature was explicitly set to “Always match my default message font” in Mail Preferences.
  • Upon reception in Outlook 2007, the recipient’s software obviously does not receive any kind of information about what font to use when rendering the email, but instead defaults to Times New Roman. This time the size is right, at 12 pt. I haven’t experimented enough to see if that’s just a coincidence, but judging from the character of the rest of this problem, it probably is.
  • The signature, however, is a different font, namely the font I chose when I created it: Calibri.  But the size is wrong. When I created the signature, I wanted it to be size 11; slightly smaller than the other text in my mail. But as stated above, I checked the box to make Mail adjust the font properties of the signature to match the rest of the mail.
  • It’s obviously not a general problem with Mac Mail’s ability to handle different fonts, though, since it obviously shows the message exactly as it was received by Outlook, and the replied text is rendered exactly as it was displayed in Outlook when I wrote it.

I’ve seen a number of different workaround tips, and these are my comments for them:

  • Write the entire mail, then select the entire text and manually set the font properties for it before sending it
    Yes, that’s a completely serious response on a Mac forum, along with a fanboi rant about how it’s really Outlook’s fault that Mac Mail doesn’t define fonts properly when creating the RTF information for the message, and that Microsoft should choose another default font in Word.
    The problem with this workaround is of course that it’s a lot of time down the drain if you write more than a couple of mails a day.
  • Create a custom signature using the font you want your message to use. Start the signature with an almost empty header, so that you can write your message inside the font definition tags for the signature.
    I understand this one. Also, it’s not a lot of work. But this is something I might have accepted from an obscure, non-supported, free (as in beer) software package for a Linux based system in 1996. Having the same kind of “solution” for the main communications package bundled with an Apple operating system in 2010? Yeah, right. And by the way, I’m still not sure if the font size is correctly transmitted with the message.
  • Use plain text for the messages
    This is actually the best solution of them all. Except for the little fact that plain text will be rendered as Courier New by Outlook, and where does that look professional in a corporate environment?
    Also, 1982 called and wants it’s ASCII table back – it’s needed on another BBS. What’s the next big thing in email? ANSI “graphics”? Don’t get me wrong, these de facto standards were great, but when there is a working way of solving the problem in a way that looks good regardless of the viewing software (yes, a text-only software might strip formatting tags it can’t render), then why oh why not simply fix such a simple thing that does so much (relatively speaking) for the credibility of a system in the corporate world?

I really want to continue using Mail. It’s a great program with great features, which does what I want to do as fast as I want it to. I’ve filed a bug report to Apple regarding this problem, as have, seemingly many others.

Follow this link to join the movement and file your own report on this bug – Mail is a good program, it just needs some fixing to be usable in a professional environment. With enough people complaining, we can become a bunch of complaining people.

MacBook Pro as a sysadmin tool

A MacBook ProSo, I got one of the new Arrandale MacBook Pros a few weeks ago, and I just realized I haven’t commented it yet.

I went with the base model; a 2.4 GHz Core i5 with the normal resolution glossy screen. This allowed me to get an Apple Wireless Keyboard, a Mighty Mouse, a Mini DisplayPort to DVI converter and Parallels Desktop 5 and still stay within the same budget as I would have used on a Lenovo T510 with a docking station, which was my plan B.

My work mostly consists of administrating our server farms, which means that most of my time is spent remote controlling machines anyway, using RDP, ssh and a Citrix connection in that order right now. I use the opensource Cord remote desktop tool, which provides me with functions Microsoft’s own MSTSC application doesn’t: an alphabetical list of servers, non-standard resolution to connect to servers without the dock or menu bar getting in the way, instant switching from full-screen to windowed mode, including scaling so the resolution is kept when going back to windowed mode, etc.

For my mail and productivity needs, I’m actually using Apple’s own tools; Mail and the iWork suite. The Snow Leopard version of Mail has no problem at all connecting to our Exchange 2007 server, and from what I’ve read, it should keep working just fine when we upgrade to Exchange 2010. It also is lightweight and lightning fast in all operations.

Parallels hasn’t actually seen much use on my computer yet. I’ve installed a Win7 and an XP client as a security measure, if I would encounter anything that needs the Microsoft environment, but I simply get everything done from OS X, and so I’ve had no real use for these virtual machines yet.

The glossy screen hasn’t been any problem in real life either. I’ve seen a lot of complaints on it, but I don’t know, maybe I’m simply not a gamut nazi. Everything looks good, and if I should get glares, I can simply change the angle of the screen, or move the computer a bit. It’s portable, you know. And for the first time for me, the laptop screen is brighter than my main screen at work, which means I can turn the brightness on the MBP down about three notches and use it comfortably as a secondary screen. Trying something similar with my old Lenovo T60 was extremely uncomfortable.

I’ve had three gripes with the machine as yet:
One drawback compared to a Microsoft based workstation has been using our SharePoint based Intranet system: It’s not possible to click-to-open and then automatically save documents to the SharePoint server even from Microsoft’s own programs, but instead the procedure is to check out, download, edit, save, upload and check in the document, which gets tedious after a while, so for this kind of work, I’ve started using Citrix.

The second drawback (which might just be a configuration problem), is that the default for a Citrix desktop connection seems to be to use all available desktop space and still not show the Start menu bar, so you have to resize the window before you can access it with the mouse, and also, I need to start it running the computer in single screen mode, or it will drag itself out on both screens no matter what.
UPDATE: This seems to be related to starting the Citrix client via Safari. It doesn’t do this when running Firefox.

The third problem was something I managed to solve: The Juniper SSL/VPN client we use at work isn’t compatible with Snow Leopard, and has to be hacked to work properly.
UPDATE: The version 6.5 client seems to fix this problem. Update your SSL/VPN server if you’re having this problem.

So to sum it all up, I’m a happy Mac-wielding camper. I won’t ever become a fanboi – I’m way too pragmatic for that (2016-10-17: OK, I admit, dammit, I did become one) – but for my laptop needs, the MacBook Pro is very close to being the ultimate solution. It’s snappy in a way that no Microsoft-based machine has ever felt to me since I moved away from DOS, and it’s instantly useful in a way that no GNU/Linux or Free-/Net-/OpenBSD distribution has managed yet.

Updated Macbook Pro series

MacBook Pro LineupAlright, so Apple released their new Macbook Pros, with update to the whole series.

The 13″ versions retain the Core 2 Duo processors even though they are approaching end of life. Why? Well, the Core ix series of processors contain built-in Intel GPUs. Problem is, they are limited enough to not support the 3D accelerated interface features of Mac OS X. On the other hand, there’s the combined problem of making room for separate video RAM on the mainboard, and Apples policy of nerfing their cheaper products to not interfere with their more expensive product lines. A more powerful 13″ MBP would probably interfere with sales of both the Air and the base 15″ MBP.

The 15″ MacBook Pro series gains Arrandale Core i5 and i7 processors and a slightly more powerful graphics adapter. New for this update, is that even the base model has dedicated graphics memory, and that switching between the integrated and the dedicated adapter is automatic and doesn’t require relogging into the system. The new series also have the option of a high-res display – not HDTV-style 1080p resolution, but a work-friendly, and, if you ask me, “good enough for most things” 1680×1050.

My thoughts on this?

Well, this hasn’t really scared me away; I wouldn’t exactly mind owning a base- or midrange 15″ with the hires screen. We’ll simply see what happens. Also, I really like the bump in battery time. A claimed “up to 10 hours” on the 13″ models and “up to 8 hours” on the bigger ones, means these machines are actually usable even when you don’t know if you can get hold of a power cord during the day.

iPhone/iPad OS 4

The most important bitching-point about the iPad seems to have resolved itself – and exactly for the reason I predicted when discussing the matter with techie friends.

The problem was, naturally, the lack of functional multitasking on a user-level.

The reason was, of course, that Apple is a company that puts user experience at the highest priority. They needed a new OS, new APIs to manage multiple processes while making sure background work didn’t make the important processes (namely the foreground process, the interface and the actual phone functions) seem sluggish.

This means that even though they came up with the function very late, compared to other smartphone operating systems, Apple seem to have gotten it right on the first try – while the others still haven’t caught up, despite years of chances to fix this feature.

Well, this was a positive thing, in my opinion; it shows that the guys at Infinite Loop are still prioritizing correctly, unlike most software makers. Even most of those I really want to like. Yeah, Linux/free software/open source people, I mean you!

I’m not sure what to think of the iAd feature yet, though. On one hand, it’s kind of good to have an API that (hopefully) limits how disturbing ads can get. On the other, I’m really not comfortable with that kind of thing – especially considering they surely aren’t going to accept ad blocking software in the app store anytime soon, and I still prefer some kind of privacy and personal integrity to the alternative…

Mac Mini getting even better as HTPC?

Apple Insider has an article on next-gen Mac Mini computers featuring an HDMI port instead of the current DVI. Since HDMI essentially is DVI + sound, the obvious application for this new version is in the living room, where, incidentally, I was planning to put a Mac Mini anyway. If this article is right, it might become just a little bit less messy/more professional-looking, with just one cable to the HDMI switch in the receiver, and thus single point input selection, instead of having to choose the correct input port on both the TV/projector and on the amp.

I’ve been thinking of setting up an HTPC since the time when AdvMame was actively developed (I think my first serious experiments were made when AdvMame was in version 0.97, which puts it in 2005), and when Plasma and LCD TVs were prohibitively expensive. My plan back then, was to output video at PAL or NTSC resolution from an ATI graphics card, via a VGA to SCART converter that essentially “combined” the horizontal and vertical sync signals in addition to providing the necessary connectors, and so send the resulting signal to my living room CRT TV. This would, was my plan, allow me to watch media files in their original resolution without scaling, and also play my favorite side-scrolling arcade games without the then-obligatory ripping and tearing that originates in differences in sync speeds between the original game system and the current screen you’d be viewing it on.

My current plan sticks to a slightly higher budget: Between my other hobbies and have-tos, I’m building a casual home theater. Nothing fancy as a dedicated room or anything like that, but a functional big-screen (by projector), nice-sounding (by a good amp-speaker combo), movie- and game system, with a Mac- or Linux based solution at the core. As of yet, I see no point in getting a current- or next-gen game console for this system, simply because I don’t usually play the kind of games that are available for the consoles.

Like all other of my hobby projects, this is subject to change, of course. We’ll see what happens in autumn when I’ll feel more like spending time on these kinds of indoors projects again.