Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Custom iPhone Ringtones

A number of people have asked me how to create custom ring tones from .mp3 files etc. It is not difficult but a little obscure. The link below shows you how. It assumes that the audio (typically song) is already in the iTunes music library. If it is not drag the offending file into the "Music" tab to the left of the main window, it should be the top tab. If the audio file is not one iTunes recognises such as flac or ogg then you need to convert it first, but that is another story.

This URL describes the steps to acheive this. There are 17 steps but it is not as daunting as it first looks.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Turn by Turn on the iPhone

Revised 9th October 2009

The upgrade to 3.0 for the iPhone promised many things including turn by turn navigation. Of course there was absolutely no reason why turn by turn could not be done earlier and we may never know why Apple in their inimitable fashion disallowed turn by turn before now.

A while ago the iPhone Alley site ran an excellent article on the currently available turn by turn applications. The much anticipated TomTom app has now been released so the article is now a little dated.

For Australia so far there are three Mobile Maps, Navigon , and TomTom. This is not a comparitive review since I have not used the last two to provide a fair comparison, simply an overview of my impressions of Sygic Mobile Navigator.

The Mobile Maps app is produced by Sygic a company from The Slovac Republic that has been around for seven years. They originally produced navigation software for freight companies and branched into mobile devices in 2007 with the iPhone app being the latest in a series of releases.

The first thing to strike the user is the cost. At around AU$80 price is rather high for an iPhone app but it is much cheaper than the equivalent navigation device, so I suppose in those terms it is quite good value for money. At the time of editing this review Sygic were offing it for AU$60 for a limited time. Even so, at its full price it is cheaper that either Navigon or TomTom both of which are AU$100 and only has Australian maps whereas Sygic includes New Zealand as well. I contacted Sygic software and they said that the next map update is in 2010 and there would be a charge but the update cost is unknown. They said though that there should be a discount for existing users. All application updates though are free as with most other iPhone apps. With the new payment system in the iPhone OS 3.0 it will be easy for navigation software such as this to add these charges.

I tried to install it over WiFi but sadly, it was too slow, or I was too impatient. I cancelled the installation, re synced, and then triggered the download in iTunes by going to the Applications screen and selecting Check For Updates. The installation (no surprise here) was pretty painless otherwise. One of the joys of the iPhone system is the ease at which apps install. (PPC, eat your heart out.) I have since installed the updated app via wifi and it took about an hour and I had to keep the device powered and had to turn the screen saver off.

At first glance it was a huge disappointment, but I must hasten to add this dissapointment was short lived. One of the things you get used to with iPhone apps is the user friendly interfaces. Many developers go to great pains to make smooth and slick interfaces for their apps. The iPhone allows some vary nice user-friendly interfaces and to find an app, especially with such a high price, with such a kludgy interface seem almost pre-historic. Initially everything in Mobile Maps seems so esoteric and difficult to use. The application navigation (no pun intended) is complex and not particularly well thought out. The sleek touch screen facilities such as sideways swiping, pinch, on screen icons as all missing in preference for an almost Nokia like antiquated interface. Similarly the functions are not at all well laid out. It is as if they have taken the generic mobile device interface and plonked it onto the iPhone. Also the use of a custom keyboard rather than the standard iPhone keyboard makes typing more difficult. It provides more on screen keys whilst sacrificing ease of use. OK. That is it for my rant - on to the good stuff.

Once you get past the menus and get a little used to the way the interface works you get into the nuts and bolts and I have to say that my id pepped up when I started to use the app in anger. After reading some rather negative reviews my expectations were not high. The operation is excellent and the information on the maps is conveyed in a seamless and intelligent way, if somewhat cluttered. The interface does all make sense and taken in isolation, as a navigation app, works extremely well and is quite feature rich.

To enter in your route you have the choice of selecting a location using your contacts, a wizard interface, a map location, favourite, past location, point of interest, postcode , home location GPS position or City Centre. The map selection is quite interesting in that it opens a map and you can manually locate a point on the map. Handy when you are travelling to a country location for instance where an address is to the easiest selection. The address wizard works top down to select your location. It is a little disconcerting at first but once you get the idea it actually makes sense and is quite fast at entering an address. By top down I mean that it starts by having to select the country, then the city, then the street then the number. At each stage it does a look-up on the characters entered so that as the characters are typed it narrows the display list. Once your selection appears in the list just tap on the correct entry to select it. The contact list is new in this version and is a welcom addition but it is unforgiving to addresses that are not stored correctly. Street abbreviations cause it to fail as do incorrect field placements and incorrect suburbs. Most people have to go through their address book and expand abbreviations and make sure the address field formats are precicesly correct. If like me you have hundreds of addresses and they have been imported from other systems then you have a lot of work to do to make this feature useful.

All of the maps are pre-loaded so there is no waiting to download map data either initially or whilst you are on the road. Route calculation takes less than a second on my iPhone 3GS. The navigation map displays a 3D image of the route, turns, points of interest (POI) and major street names. Included in the points of interest are petrol stations, restaurants, and permenant speed cameras just to name a few. In the configuration you can turn on and off any of the types of points of interest. This is handy since with all points of interest on the screen can get quite cluttered. You would not want to be studying the screen in detail whilst driving. The current speed limit is displayed in a largish red circle on the top right. I have to say that it was not completely accurate in that the changes in speed limit did not always correspond with the signpost but it was pretty good at telling me that it was 50 kph when I turned into side streets. One of the nicest features of the navigation screen was the readability of the speed limit graphic. It was very easy to see and was clearly designed to be discerned at a glance. You can also turn on audible alerts for any type pf POI. This is handy for red light/speed cameras for instance. However, do not rely on it since the data can be out of date and if you are driving through unfamiliar teritory then it may not have all of the latest POI available.

Beneath the map the route information is displayed in a section at the bottom of the screen. This includes such things as speed, average speed, duration, Satellite signal strength, distance and current street and number. There are also zoom buttons, but the default mode will zoom the screen dynamically according to the speed. It automatically zooms out at corners as you slow down and zoom in on long straight sections. Another nice feature is a day and night mode. In day mode it shows a bright background with dark roads and night mode a dark background with light roads. The mode is selected automatically and is determined by your location and time of day. This can be turned off but is handy for reducing the glare from the device at night and making it easier to see during the day.

Once on the go you are literally told where to go. The voice is selectable and I chose UK English, US English had too much of an American drawl to me. There is no Australian English but the UK English voice is quite pleasant and almost neutral. The GPS is a little laggy, especially when there is no clear view of the sky. Ideally it should be placed on the dash both to allow the driver to occasionally glance at it without moving their eyes too far from the road and to proved good satellite coverage. The maps come from Whereis which is owned by Telstra so the map information is of a high standard. Also in the latest update are additional voices which text to speech (TTS) which announces the street names for you. To enable this be sure to select a voice with (TTS) next to it. These voices are a little more synthetic but are quite acceptable.

The overall impression of the navigation map is that it is not as pretty as some other software but it is functional and is very well thought out with some quite intelligent features.

There are some other features such as a simple map browser with selectable points of interest. Touching a point of interest will display its name, location and contact info. Very handy when trying to find a particular brand of petrol for instance but to be honest there are better apps for this and it is doubtful if this would get much use. It is primarily a navigation device and that is what it does best.

In conclusion it is quite a kludgy piece of software to use compared to your average iPhone app but once you get used to the interface and get over the fact that it is not pretty it is quite serviceable and does an excellent job of navigation. It is rather pricey compared to your average app but it is much cheaper than a dedicated navigation device and for what it is does just as good a job. Speaking of price my PPC software was $125 yearly subscription and had nowhere near the features of this app.

Wish List
  • Better interface. Use the iPhone interface APIs rather than the standard pre written interface features to make it more like a regular iPhone app. This would increase the useability of the app considerably. One of the strengths of the iPhone platform is its useability but this app breaks it.
  • In app sound level. The level of the voice is higher than music making it quite jarring when the verbal instructions play.
As a post script, before I get to the rating, I was initially going to give this app 3 stars but after actually using it I could not go below four stars. It does loose one star for the kludgy interface though. I would dearly love to see it updated to take advantage of some of the great iPhone interface functions.

My Rating 4 Stars.