Reviews

Firefox 4 Improves, but not Radically

In the epic battle among browsers, the latest flanking maneuver comes from the Mozilla Foundation, in the form of Firefox 4 for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. As with recent releases of Safari, Chrome, and others, most of the notable changes are foundational, where they support Firefox’s role as a platform for Web sites and applications. The changes are almost entirely welcome, and improve on the experience for existing Firefox users, though I doubt they’re significant enough to attract users of other browsers to switch.

iPad 2 is not Revolutionary, but It is Great

The iPad 2 is a solid, highly-progressive update and it’s only going to disappoint one kind of consumer: someone who was hoping that Apple would somehow completely redefine the greatest new tech product of 2010 in its second incarnation.

Naw. All of the 2011 iPad’s improvements and new features are answers to the question “What would the first iPad have been like if its engineers had been given another year to work on it?” They’d certainly have tried to make it faster and sleeker, and they’d have figured out how to stick a camera or two in there. Done, done, and done.

The iPad 2 is the same iPad. It’s just better in every conceivable way.

Ars Reviews the iPad 2: Big Performance gains in a Slimmer Package

Apple's original iPad has taken off to levels none of us anticipated when it was launched one year ago. Though it has very recently gotten some competition in the tablet space, the iPad still dominates the market and mindshare of new tablet buyers. After having sold 15 million units in nine months last year, Apple has now refined its design with the introduction of the iPad 2.

What, exactly, is new about the iPad 2 that differentiates it from the previous model? That's what we're here to tell you. We reviewed the 16GB WiFi-only iPad—same as the model we used for our original iPad review last year—and for aesthetic purposes, we chose black over white. (What can we say? We like a good visual screen pop.) So, on with the show.

Olympus PEN E-PL2

Pros - Ergonomically comfortable body with textured hand grip, recessed on/off button, mode dial, and control wheel, Improved 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko MSC zoom kit lens, In-body image stabilization, Manual exposure and art filters in movie controls, Accessory Port 2 for expanded functionality, Built-in wireless flash control

Cons - No built-in external mic jack—must buy accessory port adapter, Complex menu system, Limited to AVI movie format (Motion JPEG OpenDML)

Dragon Dictate 2.0 for Mac

Price: $199.99 (physical copy with USB microphone), $179.99 (digital download software only), $299 (physical copy with Bluetooth headset)

Wired: Easy set-up and configuration; speech recognition was impressive; plays nicely with Pages; nothing beats being able to work while leaning back in the comfy chair.

Tired: A tad on the expensive side; to get the full use of the software there are a whack of commands to learn; requires more than casual use to get the most out of it.

Witch 3.5.8

One of the biggest problems inherent to Mac OSX has been window management. If you have multiple apps and windows open across multiple Spaces, finding the right window can be just as infuriating as trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Enter the application Witch ($14), by Many Tricks, which attempts to simplify window switching in Mac OS X. Is it easy to use? Does it make managing windows more efficient? Let’s find out.

Pixelmator 1.6.2

Certain programs you hear about through user buzz, and Pixelmator has been on a lot of people's lips since it made its 1.0 debut. Since my work is about as demanding as it gets for photo and texture editing, I haven't had a chance to get out of Photoshop and see whether the hype is warranted or not, until now. Over the last couple weeks, I've spent some time with Pixelmator to find out what it's great at, what it's bad at, and who it's meant for. I also took some time to compare it to The GIMP and to Adobe's consumer-oriented Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Could I make the switch to Pixelmator for my work? Hell no. Could someone use it for high-quality image editing or Web design? Definitely. Let's delve in and see if it's right for your needs.

Review: The Verizon iPhone 4

For such an eagerly anticipated product, the Verizon-compatible version of the iPhone 4 is awfully unassuming. With a few minor variations, it looks, feels, and works just like the AT&T iPhone 4 that’s been available for the past seven months. Of course, if you’re a loyal Verizon Wireless customer (or an AT&T customer who’s been desperate to switch carriers), the only change that matters is the big one: the network itself.

That’s why the story of this new iPhone 4 is really three stories.

Olympus E-5

Pros - Fast autofocusing, Weather resistant body, In-body image stabilization, Dual card slots (CF and SD), Wireless flash control built-in, Level gauge, 100% field of view optical viewfinder

Cons - 12 MP sensor, Limited video options, Lackluster high ISO performance above 1600, Only 5 fps burst mode, No mode dial

Dropbox 1.0.10

One of the most popular bits of code around the Macworld offices is Dropbox. We’ve made videos about it, we’ve written about how to get more out of it, we’ve reviewed programs that take advantage of it, and we’ve even given it an Eddy award. But we’ve never reviewed Dropbox itself. So with Dropbox 1.0 for Mac officially released, it’s about time we did. And given that it’s free (more on that below), it’s about as good a candidate for Mac Gems as there is.

Put simply, Dropbox is an amazingly useful combination of a Web service and a Mac OS X program that work together to make your data accessible from anywhere and to keep it synchronized between your computers.

Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 Mobile Hotspot

Pros - Simple to use and configure, Solid 1 mbps 3G performance to a laptop

Cons - Only 3G in the face of the onrushing 4G behemoths, Annoying performance limitations with lower-power Wi-Fi devices like tablets and handhelds

Dragon Dictate 2.0 for Mac: the Ars Review

The software is usable, and if you want (or need) speech recognition on the Mac, we recommend it. But be aware of the limits here, and recognize that the Windows version remains the far superior alternative for those who have a choice.

Still, given the improvements that the new version brings, we remain optimists about voice recognition on the Mac. Dictate continues to get better, and this version is more robust than its predecessors (I noted only occasional crashes while testing). Recognition is phenomenal, and control is improving. Just know what you're getting—and what you need.

PDFpenPro 5

For those who need to dive into a PDF document and make changes, PDFpen Pro has many advanced features that make editing not only possible, but speedy. We recommend it as a much faster option than the Preview app bundled on every Mac and a much more affordable option than Acrobat Pro. It’s important to know a few of the interfaces and workflow issues, but they are not deal breakers.

Apple iLife '11 for Mac

CNET editors' rating: 4.0

The bottom line: iLife '11 is a welcome, and long-overdue update to Apple's suite of digital media applications. This year's version adds a handful of advanced features to iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand without making them more difficult to use. It's a shame iDVD and iWeb did not receive updates with this year's version, but with a slightly lower price for upgraders than in years past, iLife 11 still represents a good value to consumers looking for a set of tools for editing and sharing media.

At $49, and close to two years since the last major update, we can easily recommend picking up this up.

Lab report: MacBook Air Benchmark Results

There’s a lot to like in Apple’s latest version of the MacBook Air, such as the smaller size, longer battery life and faster flash storage. Still, I was disappointed that the new MacBook Air uses the aging Core 2 Duo processor. The new Air even takes what looks like a step backwards in processor speeds, going from the standard 1.83GHz and 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo processors in the previous models to a wince-inducing 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo in the standard 11-inch models ($999 with 64GB of flash storage, $1199 with 128GB of flash storage) and 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo processors in the standard 13-inch model ($1299 with 128GB of flash storage and $1599 with 256GB of flash storage).

Macworld Lab has all four standard configuration MacBook Air models, and our Speedmark 6.5 overall performance benchmark test suite shows impressive results for drive-intensive tests and much-improved 3D game performance. And surprisingly, despite slower clock speeds, processor performance also improved over previous versions of the MacBook Air. Looking at the Speedmark 6.5 results, three things stand out:

Flash storage is fast;
The flash-storage capacity did not affect performance;
The new MacBook Airs are faster than their predecessors.

Apple Mac Pro Xeon/2.66GHz (12 core)

Pros - Highly expandable, Up to 24 virtual processing cores available to applications that can use them

Cons - Many applications perform better with fewer-but-faster processors

FaceTime Alternatives – Yahoo Messenger and Tango

When the iPhone 4 launched, one of the big draws was mobile video calling. Labeled “FaceTime”, Apple introduced a new standard with its release, and FaceTime works quite well. Integrated with the phone contacts, it has never been easier to use a video phone.

However, FaceTime has its limitations that may make it a less than convenient choice. The biggest problem, which may not be Apple’s fault, is that FaceTime works only on Wifi, 3G is not supported. That means if you are out with your iPhone and find the need to video chat, you will either have to hunt down a WiFi hot spot or you will not be video chatting.

Enter the FaceTime options. There are now two apps in particular on the official AppStore that allows 3GS and iPhone 4 owners to video chat without the need for FaceTime. What’s more, they even work on 3G, which allows the user to strike up a call anywhere they have coverage. These two apps are Yahoo Messenger and Tango. So, how do they compare? Let’s take a look.

TotalFinder Review

Every year or two, a chorus of dissatisfaction swells over the default Mac OS X Finder. The underlying problem is that the Finder really hasn’t changed much since we were all sitting behind our shiny new Macs in 1984.

There are also several third party Finder replacements. PathFinder is my favorite. However, very few third party applications have had the moxy to fiddle with the Apple Finder. TotalFinder does.

TotalFinder is a new Finder enhancement available for Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. It brings several new tricks to the OS X Finder.

Ars reviews the Apple TV 2.0: Little, Black, Different

"Should I get an Apple TV?" Before September of 2010, that question was a lot less interesting than it is now. Apple has given its set-top box a second go, making numerous changes in hopes that the new, tiny, $99 version will eventually take the device past hobby status. The new and improved Apple TV offers commercial-free TV show rentals, Netflix streaming built-in, and AirPlay so that users can stream iOS content directly to their TVs—all without requiring users to jailbreak or install unsupported software.

However, the new Apple TV is also now severely limited when it comes to the content available from iTunes, and it still doesn't have (native) apps. Does the good balance out the bad? Who is the right audience for this thing anyway?

Apple TV

The completely revamped Apple TV -- a tiny black puck of a device priced at a staggering $99, and centered around a handful of completely new ideas (for the folks in Cupertino at least) about getting content onto your TV screen.

The first is a new rental system which allows you to nab brand new TV shows at $0.99 a rental, and HD movies for $4.99 a go (or $3.99 for older titles). And that includes new releases the same day DVDs hit shelves (or Netflix distribution centers). Speaking of Netflix, the new Apple TV also features the rental service's "Watch Instantly" as a wholly integrated component of its offerings, alongside a new function the company calls AirPlay which will allow you to "push" video and audio content from your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch with the tap of a button. On top of that, the new ATV streamlines sharing from your home computers or laptops, making getting content you own onto your TV dead simple.

So, has Apple finally solved the "second box" problem, or are they still struggling to turn this hobby into a real business?

Livescribe Echo Smartpen

Pros - Captures lecture or meeting audio and links it to your written notes, Notes can be shared as Flash, PDF, or AAC files

Cons - Smartpen is heavy and larger than typical pen, Some teachers may not want lectures recorded

Mophie Juice Pack Air vs. Mili PowerSpring 4 Review

If you're an iPhone owner then you've certainly heard of the Mophie Juice Pack. It's emerged as the external battery pack of choice for any iPhone owner needing more untethered power than Apple can provide from its non-removable batteries. But what about all those feisty upstarts? Can they compete in terms of design, functionality, and price? Let's find out. We put two iPhone 4 external battery pack cases -- the Mophie Juice Pack Air and Mili PowerSpring 4 -- head to head to see how they perform. Both promise to double the iPhone 4's 1420mAh li-poly battery life without adding too much bulk. And surely the 1600mAh capacity Mili outlasts the 1500mAh Mophie, right? You'd be surprised.

iPod touch Review

At Apple's last event, Steve Jobs called the iPod touch the company's "most popular iPod," and it's easy to understand why.

In just a few short years, the iPhone-with-no-phone has kept in lockstep with Cupertino's halo device, benefitting from the same kind of constant hardware and software updating that has helped turned the iPhone into an iconic gadget. The touch has been right alongside the iPhone's meteoric rise in popularity, becoming the go-to second-pocket slab for millions. There are good reasons, too. Apple boasts about gaming on the device -- claiming it beats out both Nintendo's and Sony's offerings in sales... combined.

While we can't concede that the device is a dedicated game console, it most definitely games. And it's still an iPod, an internet device, and a thousand other things thanks to Apple's vastly populous App Store. Now the player has once again reaped the rewards of iPhone updates, boasting a new Retina Display, the A4 CPU, two cameras which allow for FaceTime calling and 720p video recording, and all the new features of the company's latest mobile operating system, iOS 4.1.

But despite all of the plusses, we still have to ask: is the little do-everything box still worth the premium price tag? We took a deep dive on the latest model and have the verdict, so read on to find out.

iTunes 10

Pros - New social network for discovering music, HD TV show rentals, A few more customizable, useful interface options, Smarter album art list view, Noticeable performance improvements

Cons - Ping feels unfinished, Other headline features won't mature for some time, Senseless interface changes harm usability, Ringtone features removed

1Password 3

Pros: Strong password generation; stores credit card, personal details, notes and other information in an encrypted vault

Cons: Need 1Password access to unlock your accounts

Pixelmator

Pros - Incredible speed, Decent feature set, Attractive interface

Cons - No non-destructive editing, No file browser, No masking tools

Livescribe Echo: No Country for Old Pens

Ever since the first caveman scrawled on a wall with stone, people have been looking for a way to improve the writing process. This eons-long evolution has brought us to the Livescribe Echo—a pen that moves handwriting into the digital domain.

The Echo, which sells for $199 (8 gigabytes) or $169 (4 gigabytes), is the second generation of Livescribe's so-called smartpens. It writes like any other pen. When applied to special paper, however, it digitally captures a precise image of your handwritten notes, sketches, and doodles. It also has a sound recorder for meetings and lectures.

To save your handwritten pages, the Echo requires paper with a faint pattern of powder-blue dots—a technology developed by Anoto, a Livescribe partner. (The tiny camera below the nib uses those dots as reference points.) Livescribe offers on its site—and at retailers such as Best Buy - special notebooks and Moleskine-style bound journals, usually sold in two- and four-packs for between $8 and $25.

Sure, $199 is a lot for a pen—particularly one without a GPS to keep you from losing it. That said, it's a useful tool for doctors, executives, and academics (as well as college students) who still need to write things down.

Canon EOS Rebel T2i (EF-S 18-55mm IS Lens Kit)

Pros - Higher resolution and improved image quality over previous Rebels, Improved video mode with external mic capability, LCD with high resolution and new 3:2 dimensions, Excellent software bundle for both Mac and Windows users, Snappy 3.7 fps in burst mode

Cons - Relatively expensive for entry level camera kit, Light plastic feel is a turn off for some photographers

iMovie for the iPhone 4

...if you have your expectations regarding iMovie for the iPhone screwed on just so, you’ll find very little to argue with.

And how might those expectations fit comfortably? By accepting that, in most cases, iMovie for the iPhone isn’t going to replace the full-blown video editing application on your Mac. While you can produce and deliver polished movies with the mobile version of iMovie, it’s very much an on-the-go editor that’s necessarily limited to help you work faster on a small-screen device.