Embracing the iLife: iPad, apps, Apple TV, and all that jazz

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iPad, iTunes, Macintosh, Windows
April 20th, 2012 • 4:19 pm

This article is not about me. I am a long-time Mac user and the “iLife” has been part of my life for many years now, even though I’ve never fully embraced it, either due to technical limitations (limited bandwidth) or because of a lack of need or interest. I have several Macintosh computers, several iPods, an iPad, and a number of Apple software products, but I also have lots of products by other companies, which means that I am only a part-time iLifer.

I also am much more of a nerd than the average Apple product user and tend to develop my own custom solutions long before Apple comes up with something “for the rest of us,” even if these solutions require more work and are less foolproof than Apple’s ready-made solutions.

Earlier this month, however, my wife and I went on vacation to stay with her sister in Austin, Texas for eight days. I managed to convince my sister-in-law to switch to a Mac computer many years ago, but my brother-in-law is still a Windows PC user and currently owns a Dell laptop with Windows 8. He is now retired, but still does a fair amount of work, and also does quite a bit of reading online. In particular, he is a New York Times subscriber and reads many articles online every day.

During our stay, the conversation inevitably touched on technology-related topics. (Although he’s not a techie himself, he used to be a senior strategist for Bell Canada and remains particularly aware of telecommunication issues.) After hearing me discuss Apple products in general and the iPad in particular, on a bit of whim, he decided to purchase one, nominally for his wife, my sister-in-law, although the idea was that it would be a “shared” product for the household. Obviously he wanted to take advantage of my presence for a week to set this up and iron out any kinks that might be encountered along the way.

They also had some long-standing issues with the wireless network for their condo, which I immediately decided I would try and do something about. The problem affected not his Dell laptop, but my sister-in-law’s three-year-old MacBook Pro, which occasionally lost its wireless connection to the router altogether (a cheap Linksys router), even though she never changed the laptop’s location in the condo. She said that it never used to do that, but that the problem started after her husband’s tech support people “changed something” in the network configuration to fix a problem with the printer.

For the iPad itself, my brother-in-law left the aesthetic choices to her, and she opted for a white iPad with a blue cover. He didn’t feel he would need a large amount of storage, so he opted for a 16 GB model. Since both he and his wife have digital cameras, I also suggested the camera connection kit, so that they would be able to transfer pictures directly from their cameras onto the iPad.

There are two Apple stores in Austin and the first one we visited was the usual busy hive. Still, since there wasn’t much convincing to do, we soon managed to get a hold of a salesperson. The first disappointment was that they had no white iPads in stock, either in the 16 GB model or in the 32 GB model. The salesperson thought that they would get more soon, so we decided to wait for a couple of days.

A couple of days later, my brother-in-law phoned the store and, after having to wait on hold for about 15 min before a live person came on the line, he was told that they still didn’t have 16 GB or 32 GB white iPads in stock, which was rather disappointing. He then called the other Apple Store in Austin and was told that they had no 16 GB white iPads, but had some 32 GB models, so he decided to compromise and get the model with more storage, even though he didn’t feel he really needed it. We also got the blue cover and the camera connection kit.

Once we got home and started using the iPad, I immediately noticed that there were some significant issues with the wireless signal. Even though the condo was not very big, the office with the cable modem and the wireless router was at one end and the living room and patio at the other end. I had my own first-generation iPad with me and also noticed signal fluctuations on mine, although they were apparently not as dramatic as on the new white iPad.

It soon became clear that, in the living room at least, the white iPad was regularly losing its connection to the network altogether. We did a number of tests with the speedtest.net web site and got rather unpredictable results. I started to worry about a hardware flaw such as the one described in this recent post on 9to5mac.

However, further testing also revealed that my own iPad was getting less-than-optimal results. While the signal bars seemed to indicate that my iPad was getting a stronger signal in the same location, in actual fact I was also occasionally losing the connection altogether, so it looked to me like the difference between the two iPads might be more of an apparent one due to a different algorithm for the computation of the wi-fi signal level in the status bar at the top, rather than an actual difference in the signal and in the hardware itself.

It is quite possible that there is still something of a difference between the first-generation iPad and the latest models in terms of wi-fi reception, but it looks to me like both of them, possibly due to limitations of the form factor itself, suffer from worse wi-fi reception than laptops. (At home, where I use my iPad most often, I long ago gave up on relying on a single wi-fi router for my wireless network and have a setup with one AirPort Extreme and two AirPort Express routers, used in a WDS configuration, so that I never have to deal with weak signals.)

So the next step for me was to seriously try and fix their wireless network problems in their condo. The problem was that, for various reasons, they didn’t have all their account information readily available, and no one knew what the admin password to access the router’s configuration was, so I was going to have to reset the router altogether. I made sure I did this at a time where I would be able to contact the cable company’s tech support, just in case.

After resetting everything and recreating a WPA2 network from scratch, I was soon able to determine that the problem with my sister-in-law’s laptop losing its connection was fixed. The cable modem setup was DHCP-based and not PPPoE-based, so I didn’t actually need any login information to get access to the Internet. And her signal was four solid bars at all times. Reconfiguring her husband’s Dell laptop for the new wireless network was a bit more of a challenge, because of course, like all versions of Windows, Windows 8 sucks and requires convoluted trips to various control panels, and also a reboot just to make things work (even though it does not tell you so). But I got it to work eventually.

Unfortunately, the router reset did not improve the situation for the iPads. We still managed to use the new iPad and configure it, but there was clearly a problem with wi-fi reception that would need to be addressed. I was eventually able to convince my brother-in-law to forget about the cheap Linksys router and replace it with a combination of an AirPort Extreme in his office and an AirPort Express in the living room.

When we got to the Apple Store to get those, there was a stack of Apple TV boxes right next to the routers. Since we had talked about that device, my brother-in-law decided to get an Apple TV as well and thus fully embraced the “iLife” according to Apple.

We got home and I proceeded to set things up. Even after all the years, I still find setting up wireless networks infuriating, because of the Catch-22 situation with wireless routers not showing up in AirPort Utility until they are properly configured, and needing AirPort Utility to configure them in the first place. Maybe it’s possible to do everything wirelessly just the same, but I simply don’t have the patience required to wait and see if routers are eventually going to show up in AirPort Utility even though they have a blinking amber light. So I usually try to find an Ethernet cable and a laptop, and that’s what I did here.

Of course, one additional problem that can further complicate things is the Internet connection itself. In this case, it was a cable modem, and it obviously didn’t like my change of router, because I could get nothing but a self-assigned IP address. I could not get access to the Internet, so I had to get on the phone with the cable company. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait for long, and the tech support representative didn’t give me any grief about the cable company not supporting third-party routers, blah blah blah.

He insisted that I didn’t need anything specific settings, but suggested that a specific power sequence (cable modem first, then the AirPort Extreme) might help. And sure enough, it fixed the problem. I like the way that they tell you that no specific settings are required, but only mention in passing that a specific power sequence might help, as if it was just an optional thing, when in actual fact it is very much needed to get things to work properly! And just how the average user is supposed to figure this out by himself, I just don’t know.

As for the AirPort Express, I didn’t go for the full-blown manual WDS configuration, and simply chose the default option for “extending” the AirPort Extreme’s network with the AirPort Express. Eventually, everything worked fine, and I had a much stronger wi-fi signal in the living room, where both iPads worked fine without ever losing their connection. The network even extended all the way to the patio, which was never a problem for the Dell laptop (with a pure plastic enclosure), but was definitely a problem for the iPads. The signal was not very strong on the iPads, but it worked.

So that was the wi-fi network problem solved for all the devices. But it was not the end of our headaches.

The first difficulty I encountered on the new iPad itself was with the mail account configuration. It turned out that my brother-in-law actually had a Microsoft Exchange account on a server run by his son’s company in Ontario. This worked fine on his Dell laptop, of course (which was probably configured by the tech support people he deals with), but proved to be a challenge on the iPad.

See, the iPad does support Exchange accounts, but apparently only some specific flavours of it, probably the most common ones. And I soon discovered that my brother-in-law’s Exchange account was hosted on a machine running Exchange “SBS 2008” (as in Small Business Server 2008), which, as far as I can tell, is not supported out of the box by iOS 5. I figured that I might have to try and get in touch with the people running that server to see what could be done (if anything), which might prove to be quite an ordeal.

Fortunately, through a combination of impatience, online sleuthing and intuition, I managed to find out by myself that I could create a VPN from the iPad to the SBS 2008 machine, which worked, and then once the VPN was created, I was able to add the Exchange mail account without any further difficulty!

Stranger still, once this was done, I found that I could disconnect the VPN and still get the the Exchange mail account to work just fine in the Mail app on the iPad. And it was a good thing too, because the VPN had a pretty dramatic impact on network speeds. When it was on, speedtest.net indicated that I was getting something like 600 Kbps — whereas my brother-in-law’s cable connection was normally in the 6 to 12 Mbps range!

Once I got this Exchange account working, all his contacts were automatically imported, but of course since the iPad was going to be shared by him and his wife I had to find some way to organize things so that they would both have access to their contacts. I eventually decided to create a group in Address Book on her MacBook Pro and copy all the cards to it, then synchronize that group only with the iPad via iTunes. I named the group after her, and this way she had access to her contacts on the iPad. (Of course, this group won’t be updated in the future, but it’ll do. There is no easy way to do all this when a single-user device like the iPad is shared by more than one user.)

For bookmarks, I ended up exporting them as an HTML file from Firefox on his Dell laptop and sending the file to his email account. Since he only had about 40 bookmarks that were important to him, I just went through them with him manually on the iPad and added them to a folder bearing his name in Safari‘s bookmarks.

I did a similar thing with my sister-in-law’s bookmarks on the MacBook Pro, since, as far as I could tell, there was no way to “synchronize” bookmarks only without creating all kinds of synchronization issues in iTunes. Again, like many users, she only has a relatively small list of important bookmarks, so that was not too much of a problem.

I also showed them both how to add more bookmarks to their own folder of bookmarks in Safari on the iPad. They seemed to find the process relatively straightforward and intuitive.

The next major issue that we encountered on the iPad was with the App Store and the Apple ID. My brother-in-law did not have an Apple ID yet, so I proceeded to create one using his email address. But when it came time to specifying a payment option, I thought we had to use a credit card. Since he only had an American debit card, but two Canadian credit cards (they are Canadians and live part of the year in Austin and part of the year in Canada), I used one of his Canadian credit cards.

That was obviously a big mistake, because it turned his Apple ID account into what seemed to be a half-American, half-Canadian account. After that, when I tried to purchase stuff from the App Store, it would complain that I couldn’t buy it because I had a Canadian account, but there was no way that I could find of switching from the US store to the Canadian store on the iPad itself! When eventually I somehow managed to open the Canadian store instead of the American one, it still wouldn’t let me buy certain things. I cannot remember the exact details, but it was obviously very confused.

I tried to go to the appleid.apple.com web site to fix the problem, but try as I might, I could not find any option to change the nationality of the account on that site, which is more than ironic considering that this is the site that Apple refers you to when you encounter Apple ID issues!

Eventually, I lost patience and removed his Apple ID altogether. I used his wife’s Apple ID instead, which was already registered with the Canadian store with a Canadian credit card, and so was a fully Canadian account that at least let us buy anything we wanted from the Canadian store.

But when we set up the Apple TV, we encountered the problem again. On the Apple TV, as far as I can tell, you cannot choose the country. You are in the US with a US Apple TV, so you get access to the US store and that’s it. So we couldn’t buy anything! We tried with his Apple ID, and it was complaining about it being Canadian again.

I thought about creating a new Apple ID from scratch for him, but I couldn’t really do that, because he only has one email account and I didn’t want to add more complexity to his setup by forcing him to manage a separate email account with Gmail or some other service.

I then found that you could actually use an American debit card for the iTunes/App Store, so I switched both his billing address and payment options to the Austin address and his American debit card. But it didn’t help! Somehow, even though I had now entered an American debit card and an American address, the iTunes Store still thought that he was Canadian and we couldn’t purchase anything on the Apple TV.

I tried phoning Apple, but twice I was rejected because my issue was not with the hardware we’d just bought (the iPad and the Apple TV), but with the iTunes Store. And apparently when you want help for iTunes Store-related issues, there is no phone-based option, even if you’ve just bought new hardware that requires the iTunes Store. You have to go through the Express Lane web site, which means that you have no option but to submit a request and wait for an email reply, which can take 24 hours or more. (By that time, we were getting close to the end of our vacation, so we now had time constraints.)

Fortunately, I submitted my request in the afternoon and got a reply around 10 pm on the same day. The reply indicated that the only way to fix the country of an Apple ID is… through iTunes. While Apple refers you to appleid.apple.com for Apple ID-related issues, in fact some of them can only be fixed through the iTunes software itself and not on the web.

Anyway, I did manage to change countries, and after that his Apple ID worked fine and we were able to purchase American content on the Apple TV.

Our troubles didn’t end there, however.

First, one of the first things I wanted to do to show off the iPad and its capabilities was to get the New York Times on it for him. I downloaded the free New York Times for iPad app from the App Store, but quickly found that it was a complete piece of crap. Even though we had correctly entered his subscription information, half of the time, when we tried to view an article with the app, the article would appear on a darker background and then a white, empty rectangle would show up on top of it and hide half of the text, with no visible option to get rid of it! I suspected it wass some kind of popup advertising, but it was obviously buggy.

I searched the troubleshooting pages and found that, once you install the NYT app, there is a New York Times section in the Settings app. But you know that an app is a piece of crap when the only setting in that section is an option to… reset the app! We tried that once, and it fixed the white rectangle for a while, but then the problem came back, and we just gave up on it. Fortunately, my brother-in-law is not as impatient and frustrated by buggy software as I am and decided that he could live with reading the New York Times on his iPad via the paper’s web site in Safari, rather than using a separate app. I found him quite tolerant! If it had been me and I had found that the app for my favorite daily that I wanted to read on my brand new iPad didn’t work, I would have been mightily pissed off!

More generally, I couldn’t help but feel that this buggy New York Times app was somehow contributing to giving a negative image of the iPad itself. That’s the danger with a successful platform that supports all kinds of third-party software: users are not necessarily able to tell whether problems are due to Apple itself or to the third-party app developer, and it can give a negative impression. It’s to my brother-in-law’s credit that he didn’t let this problem with the app for his favorite newspaper impact his overall appreciation of his new iPad.

We were more successful with other apps, such as the ones for The Economist and The New Yorker, even though we did encounter a number of application crashes during our first 24-48 hours of using the device, which again does not give a very good impression of the machine as a whole. I certainly don’t remember experiencing nearly as many crashes in my first months of using my first-generation iPad. I guess it’s the price you pay for success and additional complexity. It’s still somewhat disappointing, because crashes are “inexplicable” from a user interface point of view. The reaction is, “What happened here?” All you can say is, “It looks like the app crashed. Try again.”

Fortunately, trying again can be done relatively quickly on the iPad, and a touch-based interface is inherently more error-prone than a mouse-based or keyboard-based interface, because touch gestures are so imprecise. So I found that there is a natural tolerance, in new users such as my brother-in-law and his wife, for things that don’t necessarily work right the first time you try them. Even if they don’t necessarily know that an application has crashed, they instinctively know just to try again. It’s only if it crashes repeatedly or otherwise exhibits behaviours that cannot be fixed, such as the white rectangle in the New York Times app above, that there is a real issue and it becomes quite frustrating.

Then we had more problems with the Apple TV. I purchased a couple of shows to show my sister-in-law. The first thing she wanted to try was Downton Abbey, which she had not seen. Unfortunately, as soon as we started playing it, we saw that there was a major problem, which was that the picture as skipping or “stuttering” all the time.

I was unable to reproduce the problem with movie trailers, or even with another movie title that we purchased, so it appeared to be an issue specific to this particular show, which was just our luck! I did some research online and could only find one lonely Apple user on the Apple Discussions forum asking about the same problem and not getting any answers.

It was very frustrating! My sister-in-law had purchased the entire first season and was really looking forward to it. This was not definitely the first impression I wanted the Apple TV to give her…

On the very morning before our departure, during breakfast, I decided to try a couple more things, because I am a troubleshooter and I like to shoot trouble. And I definitely do not like to leave things unfinished!

Again, through a combination of sleuthing and intuition, I discovered that the TV itself to which the Apple TV was connected via HDMI, a Sony Bravia, had a series of settings under “Video” for each HDMI input. And one of these settings had a name starting with “Cine-” (I cannot remember the full name), which appeared to have to do with frame rates and synchronization for various video signals. The setting was on “Auto.” I changed it to “Off” for the HDMI input to which the Apple TV was connected and tried playing the Downton Abbey show again. And it worked! It was now playing smoothly, without any video hiccups.

Finally, there was one more problem that I had to fix before I left, which was that the remote for the Apple TV kept launching Front Row on my sister-in-law’s MacBook Pro (which is still running Leopard) everytime we pressed the button on the remote, even though it was not pointing in the direction of the laptop, which was unfortunately located on a desk in the same room as the TV.

I had to do yet more research to find that the way to prevent this from happening was to go to the “Security” preference pane on Leopard, which has a setting for ignoring infrared signals altogether.

Phew! It really is unbelievable to me that we ended up encountering so many issues in the process of setting up this new iPad and this new Apple TV. I simply cannot imagine how my brother-in-law would have been able to make such purchases and set things up by himself, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to easily help him out over the phone from Nova Scotia, even with screen sharing via iChat! It was definitely a good thing that he made these purchases while I was there, but I had to actually spend several hours of my vacation time troubleshooting various technical issues that would have been enough to make many users simply give up altogether.

Granted, some of these issues were due to specific circumstances, such as the use of an Exchange mail account hosted on an SBS 2008 server or the fact that they spend half of the year in Texas and half of it in Canada. But still, this experience leads me to think that the market for technical support services of various kinds will not dry up any time soon!

Today, a couple of weeks later, everything seems to be fine, and my sister-in-law tells me that she’s already purchased and watched the entire two seasons of Downton Abbey! So I guess they have been able to embrace the iLife after all, even though it took more than a little work to get it all up and running.

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