The Many Modes of iTunes

“For the most part, try to create modeless features that allow people to do whatever they want when they want to in your application. Avoid using modes in your application because a mode typically restricts the operations that the user can perform while it is in effect….If an application uses modes, there must be a clear visual indicator of the current mode…” -Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines, Apple Computer 1995

This article was written with respect to iTunes version 11.2.2, 2014. Your version may vary. 

Don’t Mode Me In

Many users, especially novices, have trouble navigating the iTunes interface. I am often asked the question: “Where is that control or feature I saw in iTunes previously? I can’t find it.” These difficulties can be traced to the confusing number of modes iTunes has. iTunes started out years ago as a music player. It has since taken on many additional functions such as interface to the iTunes store, movie player and control center for iOS devices.

Understanding the way iTunes modes work will help you use the program, but will also reveal why it needs a complete overhaul. Let’s take a look at the iTunes interface.

Library Mode Bar annotated

iTunes has three major modes and at least 30 minor modes. Larry “Don’t Mode Me In” Tesler of the original Mac design team must be totally revolted by this. iTunes’ major modes are:

  • Library Mode – You are browsing content in your iTunes library on your own computer
  • iTunes Store – You are browsing content available for sale, rent or download from Apple
  • iDevice Mode – You are browsing and configuring an attached iOS device or iPod

Generally, important user interface functions are located at the upper left, like the home button on a web page. Bizarrely, iTunes puts these major mode controls way over on the right side of the window.

iTunes only allows a single window to be open, so these modes all operate to change the function of iTunes’ single main window. The controls available in each mode vary in an inconsistent manner, as we will see. The table below shows the major mode navigation available by default in iTunes. There are buttons in the upper left to change modes. However you cannot get directly from the iTunes Store to  your iDevice or vice versa, without first going through the Library. Weird.

 iTunes Mode Table

To read this table, find the mode you are currently in on the left. Then find the mode you want to be in at the top. The intersection shows you if that’s possible. For example, if you are in the iTunes Store, and you want to see your attached iPhone, well, you can’t get there from here. But, you can go from the Store to the Library, and then from the Library to the iPhone. Weird, huh? When the table says “Button”, there is an appropriate button at the upper right of the iTunes window.

With the number of modes in iTunes and the weird controls for accessing them, it’s a virtual certainty that most users have never even seen most modes. They may need or want something that those modes can do, but they have never found their way to it. If they do happen to stumble across something they like, they are unlikely to be able to find their way back to it later.

The Sidebar

The table above is strictly true only if you have not enabled iTunes’ sidebar. It is hidden by default. With the sidebar visible, you now have the ability to navigate directly from any mode to any other. This is reason enough for me to show the sidebar.

View/Show Sidebar
How to Show the Sidebar
The iTunes Sidebar
The iTunes Sidebar

But, when you show the Sidebar, the mode buttons on the upper right disappear. What?! Seriously?

Same Name, Different Things

Want to see something else weird? Supposed you want to review your iTunes store purchases. The sidebar offers a Purchased link under STORE. There is also a Purchased link under QUICK LINKS on the iTunes store home page. These two links lead to two very different modes. The sidebar link, despite being under the STORE heading, does not open the store, but leads to a playlist of all the media in your library that was previously purchased. The other Purchased link shows a list of things in the context of the iTunes store that you have purchased on any device. From there, you can download any of them that may not be in your library.

iTunes Purchased annotated

So, the Purchased links in the sidebar under STORE are actually playlists in your library, not in the store, but they are not listed under PLAYLISTS, but are listed under STORE. Everybody clear on that? Makes total sense.

 Similar Choices, Different Controls

When you are in your library, iTunes offers a choice of sub-modes: Music, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, etc. These choices are presented in a pop-up control on the upper left. The iTunes store has a nearly identical list, but how are they presented? As a series of buttons across the top of the screen. Why do these have to be different?

Music, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, iTunes U, Audiobooks, Books, Apps
Library Mode – Popup Menu
Music, Movies, TV Shows, App Store, Books, Podcasts, iTunes U
Store Mode – Row of Menu Buttons

Does nobody review this software before it is released?

Don’t Forget to Sync

If you are using iTunes to load music or videos onto your iGadget, arguably the most important control in iTunes is the Sync button. If you don’t Sync, none of your changes are applied, and you have accomplished nothing. This all-important button is in the lower-right corner of the iTunes window, where nothing else in iTunes ever appears. It’s all too easy to overlook.

Sync Button is Way Down Here
Sync Button is Way Down Here

 It’s Not Just You

I hate helping people with iTunes because I end up apologizing for how terrible it is. If you’re new to iTunes, at least now you know, it’s not just you — iTunes really is that weird. Maybe you’ll now have a better idea of what it does and how to get there.

P.S. Why, oh why does iTunes only have one window? If I could change only one thing, this would be it. I would like to have my library visible while shopping the iTunes store. Is it too much to ask?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nova Flash Review

 

This thing is very bright -- this is not the brightest setting. I did not add any pixie dust to this photo.
The Nova Flash in action. It’s very bright – this is not the brightest setting. I did not add any pixie dust to this photo.

I am a backer on Kickstarter for the $59 wireless Nova Flash from https://www.novaphotos.com/. The hardware recently shipped to backers, so I have had a chance to try it out.

Since I have been interested in off-camera flash in general, I backed and bought the Nova flash. The Nova brings the general advantages of off-camera flash to the iPhone and Android platforms. Off-camera flash improves your photos by moving the light source away from the lens. Your subject has more natural shadows and detail. Off-camera flash is at its best in portraits, where subjects lose that deer-in-the-headlights look and have more natural skin tones. An off-camera flash can also give your portraits a nice catch-light reflection in the eyes.

The Nova flash works with a dedicated Nova camera app which fires the flash using Bluetooth radio control.

The initial release of the Nova is oriented towards the iPhone, with a very basic camera app for the Android. I only tested with the Android version for this review.

Nova requires iOS 7 or Android 4.3 or greater. It requires that your hardware support Bluetooth 4.0 low energy. For this reason, the Nova requires newer iOS devices: iPhone 4S/5/5C/5S, iPad 3/4/Mini/Air or the iPod Touch 5G.  I tested on the Motorola Moto X, running Android 4.4.

 

Nova Flash and iPhone
The Nova flash next to an iPhone 4. The Nova requires a newer model for Bluetooth compatibility.

 

The Nova hardware is super simple. It’s a thin white plastic case with no user controls or buttons at all. It has a micro USB port which is used to charge the internal battery. It is extremely compact which should encourage you to take it along frequently. The translucent case allows the LED lights to shine through with a nice diffuse glow.

Nova App on Android taking a photo
Taking a photo with Nova

 

Below are before and after photos taken with the regular Android camera app, and with Nova.

 

Stock Android camera, no flash
Before: Stock Android camera, no flash

The face is underexposed without flash. I took another photo using the stock camera app, with the built-in flash, but it was a total disaster — shiny skin, closed eyes, really awful, trust me. Mercifully, I deleted it.

 

Nova App, Medium Flash Brightness
After: Nova App, Medium Flash Brightness

The Nova flash provided a nice fill-flash here and really made a much nicer photo.

Serious backlight problem
Before: Serious backlight problem
After: Backlighting somewhat overcome
After: Backlighting somewhat overcome by Nova Flash

The Nova acts more like a radio controlled LED flashlight than a traditional photo flash. When you take a picture, the flash comes on for a couple of seconds, during which time the photo is taken. So, you won’t be stopping any fast action with this flash. The long illumination time appears to allow the camera to adapt to the new lighting situation and take a properly exposed photo. The good thing about this is your subject has time to get over any blink reflex before the photo.

Nova Flash Summary

What’s Hot:

  • $59 price
  • Compact size, light weight
  • Bright enough to make a real difference

What’s Not:

  • Occasional trouble connecting via Bluetooth – restart App or turn Bluetooth on/off to recover
  • No indication of battery state. This would be a nice addition to the app.

Update: June 2016 Not Recommended

The Nova Flash just went on the trash heap of otherwise nice products condemned by a bad battery. Mine sat in the drawer for 6 months. When I was ready to use it again, it wouldn’t charge up or operate. The battery is not replaceable. Since the unit doesn’t have an off switch, the battery discharges drastically when not in use.  I can’t recommend getting this, since the same thing is virtually guaranteed to happen to every unit eventually.

 

HDCP Prevents Legit Viewing

“The main practical effect of HDCP has been to create one more way in which your electronics could fail to work properly with your TV.” -Edward Felten, Chief Technologist US Federal Trade Commission

It’s an appropriate coincidence. I’ve been having serious issues with HDMI cables and boxes in my family room TV setup, and today just happens to be International Day Against DRM. (Digital Rights Management)

A Quick Overview

HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is a set of interfaces for connecting video equipment. A single cable carries digital video and audio. HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) is the DRM (Digital-Rights Management ) scheme forced on consumers as part of consumer HDMI-capable equipment.


I recently purchased an AV Receiver which has HDMI inputs and outputs. I have been having a lot of issues keeping that working in my setup. Those issues may or  may not have anything to do with DRM or HDCP, although they certainly are not helping. (Update: Yes, they were DRM issues.)

I went to a simpler configuration where my Apple TV is directly feeding my TV set via HDMI. That ought to work, right? And it did work, until I tried to watch something. Then I saw this message:

This content requires HDCP for Playback
Displayed by Apple TV

I really don’t know what to do about this. I have tried cycling power to the Apple TV and to the TV. I am using the same HDMI cable that I have used previously. That cable works fine for non-protected content.

So, what content was I trying to watch that was so important that it needed to be  protected from unauthorized access? A trailer. I was trying to watch a trailer for a movie from a major studio. These studios are the very people behind the worst excesses of DRM. Ironic, isn’t it. The studios spend a lot of money trying to get trailers out to the public to promote their new movies. And I can’t watch them on my Apple TV because of their own DRM policies.

I want to emphasize that I was not at any point trying to circumvent copyright. I was simply trying to use my consumer electronics as designed.

Here is the fundamental problem with DRM. To the big-money copyright holders nothing is more important than their ownership rights. In the current DRM and copyright environment, no inconvenience or expense for the consumer is too great, as long as it protects the interests of the big studios.

Apple, this is a major usability fail. It’s a serious embarrassment for your product to ever produce a message like this. You need to push back hard on these guys and get this fixed.

Update 7 May 2014: After additional testing, the same Apple TV and HDMI cable was able to play protected content when connected to a different TV (a Samsung). When re-connected to the original Hitachi Ultravision, it again refused to play. This used to work on the Hitachi. Getting a new TV is not an acceptable solution to this problem.

Again, the same cable was used. I doubt any claims that a different cable will fix this problem, unless someone can show that some HDMI cables are not HDCP compliant. I do not believe this is the case. The general rule that cables cause a lot of problems still applies, but I believe if you have a bad cable, you will have other problems besides with HDCP.  In any case, I tried various cables with no improvement.

Apple should obviously be motivated to fix this, since customers won’t be buying any more content from the Apple store until this is fixed.

Update 10 May 2014: I called Hitachi, and they said it was an Apple problem. I expected finger-pointing and I got it. I specifically asked if there were any firmware updates for my TV set, and yes, there is one or more, and they may have to do with HDMI. Why didn’t Hitachi volunteer this fact before blaming Apple? Personally, I blame Hitachi, Apple, Intel (developer of HDCP), Denon and especially the MPAA. When you have these type of problems with the MPAA’s DRM crap that they forced down our throats, is the MPAA going to come to your house and fix your TV? Not likely.

I am working on getting this firmware installed. To do so, I need to buy a now-obscure and obsolete MMC memory card. (MMC cards are very similar to SD cards, but not quite compatible.)

Just today, I got a nice email from PBS announcing their streaming video service — it’s available on Apple TV, but I can’t watch it, because it uses DRM. PBS isn’t really all that “Public” is it?

This video shows what may become a popular solution for this problem: http://youtu.be/HIVi55T89PI  🙂

Update 20 May 2014: I got an MMC card, and updated the firmware on my TV. This did not make any difference. It was a long shot, since I didn’t have much information on what the firmware update was supposed to accomplish. I have now ordered an HDMI splitter, which is rumored to override, defeat or eliminate HDCP.

Update 22 May 2014: The problem appears to be solved! I bought an HDMI splitter. The reviews for this device indicated that many people found that it eliminates HDCP. I am not actually splitting the signal. I just inserted the splitter in-line between the Apple TV and the TV, and I could then watch any content from the Apple TV.

I then moved the splitter to be between the Denon AV receiver and the TV, with the Apple TV’s HDMI output going to the Denon. Again everything is fine. This is the configuration that had been working before the problem started, except for the addition of the splitter.

Lessons Learned

  • If you have a Denon AV receiver with the display going blank after a few seconds, that’s Denon’s way of saying you have an HDCP problem. At least the Apple TV provided an explicit message. When I called Denon about this problem, they didn’t even hint at DRM or HDCP as the issue — they just said my cables must be bad.
  • If you have any problems with HDCP, don’t expect any meaningful help from the manufacturers of your gear. They’ll just send you down an endless rabbit hole of trying different cables, plugging and unplugging things and doing factory resets, etc.
  • Run, don’t walk to get this splitter, or something similar that eliminates the problem. When you buy the splitter, don’t forget, you will need one more HDMI cable.
  • Once again, DRM is demonstrated to annoy the hell out of legitimate, paying customers, while proving to be a trivial barrier for determined content pirates. For the price of one Blu-ray movie, I obtained a device that eliminates DRM as an obstacle to copying content.

Wireless Emergency Alert System Flops Badly

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will soon. Your phone or someone’s near you will alarm loudly, and you will see an important-looking message.  This is the government-mandated Wireless Emergency Alert system in action.

This is an alert I received this morning on my android phone:

Amber Alert

A system like this depends on user acceptance to function properly. So far, the main reaction of users has been “How do I turn this off”? Why?

There are several serious problems with this particular alert and the system in general. First of all, the alert on Android is presented as a one-time modal dialog box. You have to press OK before you can do anything else. Most people will do that within seconds. On my phone, at least, once OK is pressed, the alert is gone. You have no way to retrieve or review it. How many people will remember the license plate number even a minute later? The only way I could capture the alert dialog was to take a picture of it with another phone. I  understand that on iOS, the alert remains visible in the notification center. Can anyone confirm that? Two points for Apple if so.

I have no confidence in a system where I cannot review past history. Alerts should remain reviewable for some time, even if they are cancelled, if they appeared on my phone once, I should be able to look at them again.

The second problem is that the alert does not say who sent it. My first question on seeing one of these for the first time was, what app generated this alert? I had installed some weather apps, maybe it was one of those. I was vaguely aware of the WEA system, but wasn’t sure if that was the source of the alert I was seeing. The question of who sent the alert also applies at the agency level. Did this come from the governor, the corner police station, who?

Problem number three, the alert doesn’t say what to do. What do I do if I see the missing pickup? The weather alert said to turn on the TV, I believe, which is a little more useful. I can’t check that though, because there is no way to recall past alerts.

The fourth problem, is there is no way to get more information. Any half-baked messaging app will let you click to see a photo or web page. How about some photos of the missing person, the vehicle and the suspect? How about a weather map of the tornado warning area? We get none of that.

Another, less serious, problem is that users are unfamiliar with these alerts. They have never seen them before. I would suggest that in the settings for WEA, there be a button for users to generate a demo alert, just on their own phone, so they can see what the alerts look and sound like.

Ask about these problems, and you will hear that there are technical limitations — the system only allows 90 characters of text. I must say, that’s a pretty bad design. What do you expect from a government design? It needs to be changed. Some high school students could make a better system than this in an afternoon.

WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert) Overview

WEA sends alerts through the cellular system. The alerts are sent only to phones and cell towers in the affected area. The system only operates on relatively new phones. On AT&T, the Apple models supported are the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, 5C and 5S.

The switches to turn off Amber Alerts and Emergency Alerts in iOS are in Settings/Notifications/Government Alerts. There is still the “Presidential Alert” which cannot be disabled.

I haven’t been able to determine for sure whether WEA alerts are supported on any model of iPad or not. They are not happening on mine which does have cellular.

Links

WEA Overview from CITA

A good blog post about problems with WEA

 

 

 

 

 

 

Create a Paragraph Without Submitting

On many web pages, when entering text, if you press enter or return, it submits the form. If you want to create a paragraph, but don’t want to submit yet, what do you do? You can press shift–return or option-Enter. (They seem to work the same on the Mac.) This will create a new paragraph, but not submit yet. One place that this helps is while entering a Facebook comment.

March 2014 Meeting Summary

2014 MacMAD Election results:

  • President – JR Staal
  • Vice President – Jamie Cox
  • Treasurer – Eric Emerick
  • Secretary – Dennis Crowley

Miscellaneous Notes:

  • iOS 7.1 is out and working well for folks
  • Microsoft One Note is now free on the app stores (Mac and iOS)
  • press fn key twice quickly to open dictation on Mavericks – uses on-line speech to text (and yes, my (older) USB keyboard has NO fn key.)

Dan Wadler presented on Free Software

He showed us some perhaps lesser-known Mac freeware. All links current as of March 2014.

www.macupdate.com – a good place to look for software if you don’t know what apps are out there

Libre Office – A free office suite including Word processor, Spreadsheet, Presentation, Drawing and Database applications.

Stellarium – Cross-platform Planetarium software – see the stars and planets from your location and time – with modules and plug-ins. Yes, there’s an exoplanets plug-in.

Celestia – Real-time 3D visualization of space

Tide Widget – tide forecasts for your location – in a Dashboard widget

Album Artwork Assistant – Helps find Cover Artwork for iTunes

VLC Media Player – plays video in a great variety of digital formats

MacTubes – Play and download YouTube videos

MacTracker – detailed specifications for everything Apple Computer ever made

The Unarchiver – quick and easy app to open many different archive file types: zip, Tar etc.

Free Browsers: Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Dolphin (iOS), Mercury (iOS), Omniweb

Free Cloud Storage sites: Dropbox, Copy and Box.

Calibre – eBook manager

Sophos – Free Antivirus. Also, ClamX AV free antivirus.

Chess Knight – not overly tough computer chess game

Free Password managers: KeePass and LastPass.

 

 

 

 

 

Mac and iOS Security Bug: GotoFail

Safari on both the Mac and iOS (iPhone and iPad) has a potentially serious security problem. This problem is especially worrisome for mobile devices that may be used on public WiFi. Apple has released updates for this problem, so go get them. You can test if your Safari browser is still vulnerable to this problem by visiting http://gotofail.com . If so, update your system.

February Meeting Summary

Club elections will be next month in March – round up the usual suspects.

Upcoming meeting topic suggestions mentioned

  • Web Design Tools
  • Synchronizing folders, drives and computers
  • Looking for guest presenters
  • Video Production

The Mac OS features Spaces and Exposé were combined into Mission Control in 10.8, Mountain Lion. These tools are all about managing your multiple desktops and open windows.

Products Mentioned in the Meeting

Dinner after the meeting was at Steak and Shake.

 

Free iCloud Beta Apps: Pages, Numbers & Keynote

iCloud Apps 2

iCloud On-Line Apps
iCloud On-Line Apps

You can use the Beta versions of Apple’s iCloud Apps, live on iCloud.com. These are available whether or not you have ever bought the corresponding iOS or Mac Apps, and whether or not you device came with them installed.

These seem adequate to me. Some features may be missing or hard to find, but for casual use, they seem to work fine. Pretty good for Beta versions.

Bluetooth Keyboard Controls Apple TV

Wireless Keyboard Controls Apple TV
Wireless Keyboard Controls Apple TV

I have been using a Bluetooth keyboard with my Apple TV 3. With recent (2013) updates of firmware for the Apple TV, the Bluetooth keyboard feature has now become useable. The keyboard is really great when you want to search for something. You can actually type instead of using the painfully slow on-screen keyboard.

I  have been using the Apple keyboard that came with my iMac. I don’t like it for computer use, so I’m using a USB keyboard on the computer, but this keyboard is an ideal remote control for the Apple TV. It’s fairly compact and fits on the sofa table. You don’t have to use an Apple keyboard. Any Bluetooth keyboard should work.

The keyboard mappings felt so natural, I guessed them the first time, but here they are:

  • Menu button = esc key
  • Select button = enter key or space bar
  • Arrow buttons = arrow keys

My Apple TV now seems to remember the keyboard pairing indefinitely. I have to wake up the keyboard maybe once a day with a tap of the power button. Range is at least 12-15 feet – if you’re sitting back further than that, you need a smaller TV. 🙂

One problem I ran into — I don’t think it was a keyboard problem per se, but I created an account on Crackle with a gobbledegook password. When I entered this password on Apple TV, it wouldn’t accept it. I eventually changed the password, and then it was accepted on the Apple TV. I don’t think this problem is  specific to Crackle, either. I suspect that the Apple TV software just filters certain characters. Some special characters are okay, but I’d watch out for ^ and ~ (caret and tilde), as those were in the rejected password.

 Update March 26: After Apple TV software update 6.1 was installed on my Apple TV, my Bluetooth keyboard stopped working. It also wouldn’t show up as available to pair. I restarted my Apple TV (Settings/General/Restart) and tried again, and I was able to get the keyboard to pair. You should also try just turning Bluetooth off and then back on, on the Apple TV. (Click where it says Bluetooth Searching…). Pairing has always been kind of finicky on the Apple TV.

The Bluetooth controls are under Settings/General/Bluetooth.

Update May 10, 2014: One cool thing about using the Bluetooth keyboard: it gives  your Apple TV an RF remote control that can work without direct line of sight. So, you can use your Apple TV even if it is concealed in a cabinet, or on the other side of a wall.